Rank an NFL team’s best postseason in franchise history.
For the New Orleans Saints, that’s easy: 2009, the one that ended in a Super Bowl victory.
For the New England Patriots, was 2018 better than 2001? Why talk about either when there was 2016 and the 28-3 comeback against the Atlanta Falcons?
Winning the Super Bowl is the best playoff run.
What about postseason runs that were just fun, even if the team didn’t win it all?
For this list, Super Bowl-winning playoff runs are excluded. Just because it ended in heartbreak doesn’t mean you have to be stay sad. Be thankful that it happened. In keeping with that theme, the specifics of how the playoff runs ended will be minimized to help remember the good times.
Here is a list at each team’s playoff run in the Super Bowl era that was the most fun, even if it didn’t conclude with hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Arizona Cardinals — 2008
The Cardinals won the NFC West with a 9-7 record, and showed they were worthy to be in the playoffs. Arizona defended home turf against the Falcons 30-24 in the wild-card, and then upset the No. 2 Carolina Panthers 33-13 in the divisional round. Arizona beat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in the NFC Championship Game. The magical run was all thanks to 37-year-old Kurt Warner, who proved that he still had something to offer and wasn’t going out to pasture just yet.
Atlanta Falcons — 2016
The Falcons had the league MVP in Matt Ryan and a first-round bye. However, their path to the Super Bowl became clearer after they dispatched the Seattle Seahawks 36-20 in the divisional round. The Green Bay Packers upset the No. 1 Dallas Cowboys, which meant Atlanta would host the NFC Championship Game. The Falcons slaughtered the Packers 44-21.
Baltimore Ravens — 2008
The Ravens, led by rookie Joe Flacco the entire season, won their last two games to clinch the final playoff spot with an 11-5 record. The Ravens upset the wildcat Miami Dolphins 27-9 in the wild-card. However, their best work was the next week in the AFC divisional when they edged the No. 1 Tennessee Titans 13-10 with a Matt Stover field goal.
Buffalo Bills — 1992
Where else can you get one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history and two road upsets, one of which included beating Dan Marino?
No one really asks why Frank Reich was starting in the AFC wild-card in the first place. The week prior at the Astrodome, the Houston Oilers smoked the Bills 27-3 and knocked out Jim Kelly in the process. So, the 35-3 third quarter lead should be properly contextualized as a 62-6 beatdown over the past six and a half periods.
Reich pulled off the comeback 41-38, and the Bills were out of Orchard Park. Kelly remained sideline, but the Bills melted the Steelers 24-3 in the divisional.
In the AFC Championship Game at then-Joe Robbie Stadium, Kelly returned and Buffalo upset their AFC East rivals 29-10 to leave Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins behind as the Bills cruised to the Super Bowl for the third straight year.
Carolina Panthers — 2003
The Panthers drilled the Dallas Cowboys in their blue jerseys, which is a rite of passage for Carolina to have good fortune in the postseason. In the divisional round, Jake Delhomme and the Panthers went to double overtime to vanquish the No. 1 St. Louis Rams 29-3. Carolina continued their march with a 14-3 domination of the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.
Chicago Bears — 2006
The Bears were the best team in the NFC; they locked up home-field advantage for the first time since 1988. The road to the Super Bowl went through Soldier Field.
Chicago had a little bit of trouble with the Seattle Seahawks, who needed overtime to dispatch the NFC West club 27-24. In the NFC Championship Game, the Bears had their way with the New Orleans Saints 39-14.
Cincinnati Bengals — 2021
There may be some recency bias, but think about it.
The Bengals secured their first playoff since 1990 in the wild-card against the Las Vegas Raiders. Cincinnati could have bowed out in the divisional at the Tennessee Titans, and it still would have been a productive postseason run just because of the playoff win drought.
Not only did the Bengals beat the No. 1 Titans, but Joe Burrow took nine sacks, didn’t throw a touchdown, and had 15 seconds to get kicker Evan McPherson in position to kick a 52-yard, game-winning field goal.
To top it off, the Bengals put a governor on the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense in the AFC Championship Game, and went on to punch their ticket to SoFi Stadium with a 27-24.
Cleveland Browns — 1986
Using the criteria for this list, it is difficult to find a playoff run for the Browns that fits.
The best would have to be 1986. Cleveland beat the New York Jets 23-20 in double overtime the week prior. Cleveland overcame a 20-10 fourth quarter deficit to score 13 unanswered points. It was a grueling affair, but the Browns seemed to be relentless.
In the AFC Championship Game, Cleveland had the Denver Broncos right where they wanted them: backed up at their own 2-yard line with 5:43 to go in the game, Browns leading 20-13 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
Dallas Cowboys — 1975
Anytime a playoff run includes a “game with a name,” it has to be a memorable journey. The Cowboys started off with the “Hail Mary” against the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round. Dallas then became the first wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl with a 37-7 thrashing of the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game.
Denver Broncos — 1986
Picking right up where the Browns’ playoff run left off, the Broncos’ John Elway led the offense on a 98-yard touchdown drive to tie the game 20-20. Denver scored the winning field goal in overtime to go to the Super Bowl.
In the divisional round the previous week, the Broncos setup their shown with the Browns by beating the New England Patriots 22-17 at Mile High Stadium.
Detroit Lions — 1991
Much like the Cleveland Browns, finding a playoff run to fit the list is tricky.
However, ’91 should do. The Lions demolished the Dallas Cowboys 38-6 in the divisional round with Barry Sanders having one of the best highlights of his career on a 47-yard scamper. Erik Kramer played the part of a clutch quarterback going 29-of-38 for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Mel Jenkins recorded a pick-six, and Chris Spielman also had an interception.
Washington would face Detroit in the NFC Championship Game the next week. Washington hasn’t been back to a conference title game since.
Green Bay Packers — 1995
Green Bay had its typical wild-card win with a 37-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, the team that drafted and traded Brett Favre. Same as the past two seasons, the Packers were facing the defending Super Bowl champions in the divisional round on the road.
The Packers actually upset the San Francisco 49ers 27-17, and Green Bay went on to face the Dallas Cowboys the next week in the NFC Championship Game. There was a sense Green Bay was finally starting to tap into its potential with Mike Holmgren on the sidelines and Favre under center.
Houston Texans — 2011
It doesn’t get better than the first time. Even though the Texans haven’t been able to get beyond the divisional round, they have had some spectacular playoff runs.
The next week in the AFC divisional, with rookie T.J. Yates under center, the Texans barely lost to the Baltimore Ravens 20-13.
Indianapolis Colts — 1995
It is puzzling to pick a season wherein Peyton Manning wasn’t the starter, but the ’95 Colts had a fascinating run with Jim Harbaugh that postseason.
The Colts made it out of the wild-card round with a 35-20 beating of the defending AFC champion San Diego Chargers. Then, Indianapolis knocked off the No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs to reach the AFC Championship Game.
Indianapolis gave the Pittsburgh Steelers the best they had, and had a decent shot at a third consecutive upset. With five seconds left from the Steelers’ 29-yard line, Harbaugh threw a Hail Mary that receiver Aaron Bailey couldn’t corral. From start to finish, the Colts were exciting.
Jacksonville Jaguars — 1996
The Jaguars were only in their second year in the NFL. Expansion teams were supposed to be terrible for at least a decade before having any postseason success.
Jacksonville overcame a 27-20 fourth quarter deficit to edge the Buffalo Bills 30-27 at then-Rich Stadium. The Cinderella postseason continued for the Jaguars as they also posted a 30-27 score on the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium.
If the Jaguars could have beaten the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and the Carolina Panthers were able to upset the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, Super Bowl XXXI would have been between two teams with not even a total of five seasons experience between the two of them.
Kansas City Chiefs — 1993
The Chiefs had a thrilling wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers wherein Joe Montana led Kansas City to a fourth quarter comeback. In overtime, Nick Lowery kicked the game-winning, 32-yard field goal.
Kansas City had another spectacular comeback the next week in the divisional playoffs. The Houston Oilers led 13-7 in the fourth quarter at Astrodome, yet Montana threw two touchdowns and Marcus Allen rushed for another as Kansas City prevailed 28-20. The Chiefs would play in technically their first AFC Championship Game since the 1970 merger. It would be the first time since Kansas City’s 1969 Super Bowl season the Chiefs had made it into pro football’s final four.
Las Vegas Raiders — 1974
Anytime it is a “game with a name,” it has to make for a momentous playoff run, even if that run was short.
In the 1974 AFC divisional, the Miami Dolphins led the Oakland Raiders 26-21 with a little under 35 seconds left to play. The Raiders had no timeouts with the ball at Miami’s 8-yard line.
Ken Stabler dropped back and couldn’t find any viable targets due to the Dolphins’ coverage. Defensive end Vern Den Herder had Stabler in his grasp, dragging him down, and “Snake” tossed the ball toward the left side of the end zone. Running back Clarence Davis fought three Dolphins and made sure to catch the ball amid a sea of hands.
The media anticipated the winner of the game to be a shoo-in for Super Bowl IX given the recent success of both franchises. The AFC Championship Game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had yet to win a Super Bowl, was just a formality.
Los Angeles Chargers — 1994
The Chargers completed a fourth quarter comeback against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round. The 22-21 victory was the last time legendary coach Don Shula would coach in the divisional round. The Chargers pulled off the upset in the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium with a 17-13 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Los Angeles Rams — 1979
The Rams back-doored their way into the NFC West title at 9-7 and were supposed to be mincemeat for the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round. Instead quarterback Vince Ferragamo, who filled in for an injured Pat Haden, led the Rams past the Cowboys 21-19 at Texas Stadium. Los Angeles blanked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-0 the next week to win the NFC Championship Game and reach their first Super Bowl.
Miami Dolphins — 1984
The Dolphins got the best of the 1983 quarterback class with Dan Marino — at least through the first two seasons. Miami finished 14-2 and rolled over the Seattle Seahawks 31-10 in the divisional round, and defended home turf at the Orange Bowl with a 45-28 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Super Bowl XIX was thought to be one of many Big Game appearances for the Dolphins’ young stud under center.
Minnesota Vikings — 1969
Bud Grant earned coach of the year honors as the Vikings finished with a 12-2 record. They edged the Los Angeles Rams 23-20 in the conference playoffs, and then dismantled the Cleveland Browns to win the last ever NFL Championship Game, 27-7. 1969 was the final year before the merger with the AFL, and the Vikings were facing that league’s final champion, the Kansas City Chiefs, in Super Bowl IV.
New England Patriots — 1985
The Patriots weren’t even supposed to get as far as they did, but New England proved themselves to be road warriors throughout the AFC playoffs.
In the wild-card round, the Patriots dusted the New York Jets 26-14. However, the Pats weren’t finished with the upsets as they edged the Los Angeles Raiders 27-20 in the divisional round.
Their best win was undermining the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game. New England convincingly secured their Super Bowl berth with a 31-14 win over Dan Marino and the Dolphins.
New Orleans Saints — 2006
The Saints were rising out of the nadir of their existence as the club played all of their “home” games away from New Orleans in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina. A week NFC allowed them to secure a first-round bye with a 10-6 record, and the Saints put it to good use.
In the divisional round, New Orleans wouldn’t let the Philadelphia Eagles spoil a return to the Superdome for postseason play. The Saints overcame a 21-13 third quarter deficit to outlast the Eagles 27-24 and punch their ticket to their first NFC Championship Game. Sean Payton and Drew Brees didn’t just bring football back to the Big Easy; they set the tone that it was a new era entirely in New Orleans.
New York Giants — 2000
The Giants were 7-4, but coach Jim Fassel pushed all his chips into the center of the table as New York finished 12-4 and secured the No. 1 seed. The Giants brushed off the Philadelphia Eagles 20-10 in the divisional round. New York had no problem with the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game as they avenged their wild-card loss from 1997 with a 41-0 obliteration.
New York Jets — 2010
With a great team like the New England Patriots in the Jets’ division, the margin of error in the regular season was razor thin. Think your 11-5 record is good enough? It isn’t because the Patriots finished 14-2.
Wild-card territory wasn’t unfamiliar to the Rex Ryan era Jets. They got their biggest lift early with Nick Folk hitting a 32-yard walkoff field goal to upset Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, 17-16.
In the divisional round, the Jets didn’t look like the same team the Patriots embarrassed six weeks earlier on Monday Night Football at Gillette Stadium. New York jumped out to a 14-3 halftime lead, and frustrated Tom Brady with five sacks and an interception. Mark Sanchez may have thrown for just 194 yards, but he did have three touchdowns and a 127.3 passer rating. The Jets qualified for their second straight AFC Championship Game, and the 28-21 win in New England was delectable.
Philadelphia Eagles — 1980
Four words why this may be the Eagles’ greatest playoff run no matter which way you slice it: beat the Dallas Cowboys.
It wasn’t just that the Eagles had more points at the end of the game; it was how Philly punched their ticket to Super Bowl XV. The Cowboys had to wear their unlucky blue jerseys to Veterans Stadium and take the beatings of a 12-degree day on artificial turf. It may have been a bad day for passing as Ron Jaworski went 9-of-29 for 91 yards and two interceptions, but Danny White would have to live with the notion of “can’t win the big one.” The Cowboys and their perceived brand of finesse, intellectual football got its comeuppance.
Pittsburgh Steelers — 1972
If the postseason run included a “game with a name,” it had to be special.
Arguably the most memorable bout with a nickname is the 1972 AFC divisional between the Oakland Raiders and the Steelers. Running back Franco Harris caught a deflected pass and scored a 42-yard touchdown to lead Pittsburgh past the Raiders 13-7 for the franchise’s first ever postseason victory.
Even though Pittsburgh wasn’t as blessed the next week against the undefeated Miami Dolphins, the win over Oakland was tangible proof of a turnaround under Chuck Noll.
Seattle Seahawks — 2005
Seattle was finally hitting its stride in the Mike Holmgren era. Despite qualifying for the postseason in his first season as coach in 1999, the Seahawks missed the playoffs the next three seasons, and then were wild-card exits in the two seasons thereafter.
With a 13-3 finish and home-field throughout the NFC playoffs, Seattle held off Washington 20-10 before smacking around the Carolina Panthers 34-14 to qualify for their first Super Bowl in team history.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — 1979
The Bucs lost 26 games in a row to start their franchise, but by the end of their fourth season in existence, they were in the playoffs.
The Philadelphia Eagles were starting to come into their own under Dick Vermeil, but Tampa Bay had endured an inordinate amount of suffering to get to this point. The Buccaneers led 17-7 at halftime, and cruised to a 24-17 victory. Doug Williams, their first-round pick from a year ago out of Grambling State, completed seven passes on 15 attempts for 132 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
If somehow the Bucs could have scored a touchdown and a field goal — or maybe kicked four field goals — against the Los Angeles Rams the next week, they could have met the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV.
Tennessee Titans — 1999
The Titans started off their playoff run with a “name with a game” as they pulled off the Music City Miracle against the Buffalo Bills.
Tennessee proved in the divisional round they weren’t simply lucky as they pounded Peyton Manning in his first ever playoff game. The Titans upset the Indianapolis Colts 19-16 for a showdown with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game.
Jacksonville was riding high after embarrassing Dan Marino and Jimmy Johnson 62-7 the week prior against the Miami Dolphins. However, the only team to beat the 14-2 Jaguars all season were the Titans, and they did so in the NFL’s final four, 33-14, to reach Super Bowl XXXIV.
Washington Commanders — 1972
No one was more incendiary to the Dallas-Washington rivalry than coach George Allen, who couldn’t stand the Cowboys. Legend has it he wouldn’t use defensive end Dallas Hickman’s first name at all, and if he did, he would say “Dulles,” like the nearby international airport.
It was finally Washington’s turn. After beating the Green Bay Packers 16-3 in the divisional round, Washington hosted Dallas at RFK Stadium in the NFC Championship Game. After a scoreless first quarter, the home side held a slide edge with a 10-3 score at halftime.
However, Washington handed out capital punishment in the second half. Charley Taylor caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from Billy Kilmer, and Curt Knight hit three field goals to crush the Cowboys 26-3, sending Washington to its first Super Bowl in franchise history.