There are few things in the NFL – and possibly life – more glorious than watching a team you dislike tanking its first playoff game. All that accomplishment and struggle and hope snuffed out in one merciless swoop. A truly agonizing playoff failure can change the way an entire season is viewed by its fans. Did a team win 14 games yet lose the first postseason game? Yeah, the fan base will never wish to speak of that season again.
So as an exercise on a slow Tuesday, let’s examine the 10 most entertaining one-and-done playoff losses in the past two decades. If you think this is list subjective, congrats, you’re right. It’s very subjective. As such, you should bear in mind, this isn’t necessarily the biggest playoff upsets of the last 20 years. It’s the most amusing and/or hilarious ones.
Onward! To basking in the misery of others!
The recent championship Giants teams (sorry, 2013 Giants) followed a similar path: getting hot after squeaking into the playoffs then defeating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. After playing inconsistent in the 2007 regular season then somehow making a historic run to a Super Bowl title, the Giants were a different team in 2008. Instead of suffering a championship hangover, they seemed to be riding the momentum of their unlikely title and basically dominated most of the 2008 regular season. New York jumped out to a 11-1 start and finished with homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. At the time, it seemed like there was little resistance to them claiming the NFC for a second straight season. I mean, the Panthers were the other team with a bye. Then New York’s hated rivals came into the Meadowlands in January and instantly wrecked their shit.
This would likely be higher on the list if Denver didn’t go on to win the next two Super Bowls. Of course, it’s also entirely possible that the Jaguars prevented a three-peat by the chop-blocking, salary-cap-finagling assholes that were the ’90s Broncos. Jacksonville’s recent ineptitude has made it easier to appreciate their feat. Because back then, it was kind of annoying if were a fan of an established franchise to see a third-year expansion team do so well. “They haven’t paid their dues!” Well, they are now.
It’s tempting to say that losing in the Wild Card game to Arizona was the end of Dallas’ run as a dynasty, but it wasn’t. The dynasty had long been over by that point anyway. It’s also tempting to suggest it was the end of that Cowboys era run of relevance, but they made the playoffs (albeit at 8-8 the following season. It was after 1999 that Dallas would wander through years of irrelevance and Quincy Carter. Still, it was amazing to see the core of those Cowboys Super Bowl teams lose at home in the playoffs to the Cardinals. The Cardinals! If Arizona were a good team now, it would still seem odd and Arizona has been to the Super Bowl in the last decade. So try to recall how bizarre it was to see the franchise get its first postseason victory in 41 years in Dallas back when people still took Dallas seriously*.
*I mean, as seriously as you can take any team coached by Chan Gailey
New Orleans was the defending Super Bowl champions and the Seahawks, at 7-9, were the first division champions in the history of the league to have a losing record. The Saints finished the season four games ahead of the Saints. Their biggest mistake was being in the same division as the 13-3 Falcons, the no. 1 seed that year in the NFC. This Wild Card game may not have been the biggest upset ever as the vulnerabilities in the Saints defense were well known before that game, but it didn’t make the result any less hilarious.
Extending the Ray Lewis deer antler farewell tour may have been an unfortunate consequence of the latest of the Great Peyton Manning Postseason Meltdowns and that’s too bad. It does help that Baltimore’s improbable upset of the Broncos in the divisional round last year was also the most exciting and entertaining game of the season. That helps the conflicting emotions go down easier.
Kansas City could easily have three entries in this top ten list. That’s the beauty of employing Marty Schottenheimer as head coach for a decade. By far, the most agonizing of those playoff implosions for Chiefs fans (and amusing for everyone else) was the 10-7 loss to the upstart Colts in the 1995 playoffs, during which Lin Elliott, in the final game of his career, missed three field goals inside 45 yards. By the way, you really should see the subtitle on Marty’s autobiography. It’s a treasure.
Again, not a particularly huge upset. In fact, the Cowboys and Seahawks both finished 9-7 that season and, obviously since the game was in Seattle, the Seahawks were the higher seed. Still, it was the beginning of the Romo Choker Narrative. That narrative, while frequently entertaining, can sometimes be tedious and overly simplistic when you get moments like last week with the Broncos-Cowboys game. While there has been much Romobyl since, it may never again reach this colossal level of derp.
No matter how many championships the Steelers have won, they’ll always have the stain of being the franchise that lost in the postseason to Tim Tebow, who has not started a game at quarterback since and might very well be done in the NFL for good. It also helps that this is still the last Steelers playoff game. Yes, yes, yinzers can argue that their team was ravaged by injuries at the time and that it sucked that their 12-4 team had to travel to an 8-8 Denver team because of playoff structure. You’ll find that “haha, you still lost to Tebow” is a fine rebuttal to such claims.
Popular lore remembers the Jerome Bettis goal line fumble and the Mike Vanderjagt field goal miss at the end. Of course, it should have never come to that. A Peyton Manning pass was intercepted by Troy Polamalu late in the 4th quarter, which would have iced the game, but the Pete Morelli made one of those classic inane “football move” rulings (that the NFL later apologized for) to keep the game going. The ending as it happened was certainly better for drama, but the Steelers dominated the Colts the entire game. Fun to remember as the Colts started that season 13-0 and were thought to be unbeatable for most of the 2005 season. Something to keep in mind during this latest awesome Peyton Manning start.
It’s no 18-1, but it’s the most fantastic Patriots loss outside of Super Bowl XLII. I’d argue it’s even better than the second Super Bowl they lost to the Giants, as it was validation for a shit-talking coach against the hallowed Patriot Way. Also worth remembering that no one gave the Jets a chance after New England had crushed them 45-3 five weeks earlier. And that coming into the game, Tom Brady hadn’t thrown an interception in 340 attempts before burying an overthrown screen pass into the chest of David Harris.
Honorable mentions: ’97 Chiefs, 2000 Titans, ’03 Rams, ’03 Chiefs, ’05 Bears, ’06 Chargers, ’06 Ravens, ’07 Cowboys, ’07 Colts, ’08 Panthers, ’10 Falcons, ’11 Packers