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The greatest AFC wild-card teams in NFL playoff history
Champions, or just "postseason champions?" How much does the regular season mean en route to a league championship?
The first five months of 2011 have exemplified the underdog mentality from lower playoff seeds. The Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV as a sixth seed after needing the Detroit Lions to win their first road game in three seasons—just to qualify. The Memphis Grizzlies crept into the postseason as an eighth seed and enjoyed a first-round upset of the San Antonio Spurs.They're currently enjoying a 2-1 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference semifinals.
Winning and even competing for league championships when teams didn't win their division seems a bit illogical and diminishes some of the importance of the regular season. These four AFC wild-card teams peaked at the right time and recovered after disappointing starts.
The Pittsburgh Steelers hadn't won a league championship since Super Bowl XIV in 1980. The Steelers lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship after a 15-1 regular season in 2004-2005. They weren't expected to do much as a sixth seed the following season.
The Steelers had some great fortune in their playoff run. Carson Palmer(notes) was injured early in the first quarter of their wild-card contest. Jerome Bettis had an uncharacteristic goal-line fumble where Ben Roethlisberger(notes) was the final line of defense. The Steelers had to hold off a 15-point fourth quarter from the Indianapolis Colts and a blundered field goal en route to the AFC Championship.
The Steelers had an easy time with the Denver Broncos before facing the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Roethlisberger went 9/21 with two interceptions in one of the worst performances by any Super Bowl winning QB. However, Antwaan Randle El's(notes) 43-yard touchdown pass led the Steelers in a 21-10 victory. This would be their first of three championship appearances in six seasons.
Irony: The New England Patriots completed what many believed was the NFL's biggest playoff upset when they defeated the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. They'd get upset by the New York Giants a few seasons later in their bid for 19-0. Similarly, the Steelers were the only #6 seed to win a Super Bowl before they lost to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
The Baltimore Ravens finished behind the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Central for the fourth seed. The Titans dreams of finishing what they started in 1999-2000 were shattered during the fourth quarter of their divisional game with the Ravens. At 10-10, Anthony Mitchell had a 90-yard blocked field-goal return that resulted in a 10-point swing. Ray Lewis's(notes) 50-yard interception return sealed the 24-10 victory. The loss was devastating for Titan enthusiasts as the Titans outgained the Ravens 317-134.
The Ravens won each of their playoff games by 13 points or more, including a 34-7 Super Bowl victory over the Giants. The Ravens defense is often compared with the 1985 Chicago Bears as the greatest in NFL history. They finished the season with an 11-game winning streak. Trent Dilfer is probably the least prestigious quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
The 1996-1997 Denver Broncos were a Super Bowl favorite before their 41-6 regular-season loss to the Packers sent their season in a tailspin. The Broncos were 12-1 heading into that game. The Packers would ride the momentum to a Super Bowl XXXI victory while the Broncos suffered an early playoff exit.
The Broncos got their revenge in 1997-1998. They were a fourth seed which upset the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead in the divisional round. They'd be pitted against the Packers in their quest for back-to-back Super Bowls. John Elway was determined that this Super Bowl wouldn't end like the 1980s campaigns had.
The Packers had no solution for Terrell Davis, who ran for 157 yards and three touchdowns. Davis scored a late touchdown that gave the Broncos a 31-24 lead. Brett Favre's(notes) final drive stalled inside the Broncos 40, giving Elway his first of two Super Bowls before retirement.
The 1980-1981 Oakland Raiders cost themselves a chance at the AFC West championship with a 1-3 start to the regular season. They recovered by obtaining the fourth seed after a 10-2 finish heading into the postseason.
The Raiders won the rubber match over the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship, 34-27. The Raiders completed their championship run after defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, 27-10. The Raiders were the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl. Tom Flores was also the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl.
Super Bowl representatives from AFC Wild-card teams
1999-2000 Tennessee Titans
1992-1993 Buffalo Bills
1985-1986 New England Patriots
Joshua Huffman grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula as a Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs enthusiast. His favorite Packer moments include Super Bowl XXXI, XLV, and Al Harris's(notes) interception return following Matt Hasselbeck's(notes) "We're gonna score" comments. As a Packers and Cubs fan, he suffered through Steve Bartman and "4th & 26" in a span of three months.
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