Ranking the 10 best NFL Playoff runs of all-time

New York Giants 2011
Mike Morbeck, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

We all know that Super Bowl winners have a special place in the history books, but what about the best NFL playoff runs in NFL history?

Shouldn’t the teams that pulled off one of the greatest NFL postseason runs further separate themselves from the pack? We’re talking about the teams that both shocked and amazed us on their way to winning the Super Bowl. But who are those teams that made one of the best NFL playoff runs we’ve ever seen?

Best NFL Playoff runs of all-time

When we talk about the top NFL playoff runs of all time, we mean the teams that nobody thought would win. Teams that were underdogs along the way and frequently counted out but found a way to get the job done.

It’s others doubting you that tends to make for the best NFL playoff runs. It also helps to win in spectacular or convincing fashion once people doubted you, although it’s not a prerequisite. 

As usual, we had to be a little subjective with our ranking of the top NFL playoff runs of all time. After all, how do you compare teams that made unlikely postseason runs to the teams that were utterly dominant or the teams found a way to win close games in spectacular fashion?

It was a lot to think about, but we somehow managed to come up with the 10 best NFL playoff runs ever seen.

10. 2000 Ravens

In just their fifth season since moving to Baltimore, the Ravens had never been to the playoffs before the 2000 season.

They also had to get there the hard way as a 12-4 Wild Card team. But they won two of their three playoff games on the road behind a dominant defense and then crushed the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV 34-7.


9. 1980 Raiders

It’s worth noting that the Raiders played this season amidst rumblings that the team would soon leave Oakland, creating an unpleasant backdrop.

They also had to overcome a 2-3 start to the season, which left them playing catch up. But the Raiders got their act together in time for the playoffs, surviving a freezing game in Cleveland and knocking off the Chargers on the road in the AFC Championship Game before taking down the Eagles 27-10 despite being underdogs in the Super Bowl.

With that, they became the first team to start the season 2-3 but win the Super Bowl.

8. 2011 Giants

We’ll see more from the Giants later, but in the meantime, people forget out magic the 2011 G-Men were in the postseason.

At one point, they were just 6-6 after losing four games in a row. However, the Giants got it together down the stretch and won the NFC East at 9-7.

Even then, they didn’t look like a Super Bowl team. But the G-Men won convincingly at Lambeau Field and won an overtime thriller against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Of course, they also had to take on the Patriots in the Super Bowl but managed to overcome a 17-9 deficit to win 21-17.

7. 1968 Jets

In terms of the best NFL playoff runs ever, the Jets only played two postseason games this year. However, they overcame a fourth-quarter deficit in the AFL Championship Game. They were also 19.5-point underdogs against the Colts in Super Bowl III.

Famously, Joe Namath guaranteed victory in the face of those long odds and the Jets delivered what remains the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.

6. 1981 49ers

Obviously, nobody should be surprised at San Francisco winning a Super Bowl with Joe Montana. But the 49ers were just 6-10 the previous year, and that was after back-to-back 2-14 campaigns.

At the start of the season, they weren’t on anybody’s Super Bowl radar. That didn’t change after a 1-2 start to the season. But the 49ers only lost one more game for the rest of the season.

Yet even after going 13-3, the 49ers had their backs against the wall in the playoffs. They needed “The Catch” from Dwight Clark to win the NFC Championship Game and then required late-game heroics from Montana to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.

5. 2005 Steelers

In 2005, the Steelers joined the exclusive list of teams that won three road games to get to the Super Bowl. Of course, if you rewind to when Pittsburgh was 7-5 with a month left in the regular season, the Steelers looked nothing like a Super Bowl contender.

But they responded to a three-game losing streak by winning four in a row to close out the regular season and then three road games in the playoffs.

They completed the job with a 21-10 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, adding another Super Bowl trophy to the trophy case.

4. 1999 Rams

While we know this team as the “Greatest Show on Turf,” this was a championship run nobody could have predicted.

The Rams were just 4-12 the previous year and then lost starting quarterback Trent Green during the preseason. The only thing anybody knew about Kurt Warner is that he played in the Arena Football League. However, we know that the Rams shocked the world by going 13-3 and winning the Super Bowl in a stunning turnaround

3. 2001 Patriots

Since they’ve been perennial favorites for most of the 21st century, they haven’t been involved in many of the best NFL playoff runs. But New England’s first Super Bowl win of the century falls into that category.

Keep in mind that Drew Bledsoe was hurt in Week 2, forcing a sixth-round nobody named Tom Brady to take over at quarterback.

The Pats would end up starting the year 1-3 before Brady was able to rally the Pats for an 11-5 record.

While they got a bye in the playoffs, New England still had to survive an overtime game with the Raiders and win the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh before a slim 20-17 Super Bowl win over the Rams. Considering the 1-3 start and the fact that Brady was a nobody at the time, this was surely an incredible playoff run by the Pats.

2. 1997 Broncos

For what it’s worth, the 1997 Broncos finished 12-4 during the regular season, so they weren’t some mediocre Wild Card team that barely snuck into the playoffs.

However, they did have to settle for second place in the AFC West, making their playoff path challenging. With the pressure of this potentially being John Elway’s last chance to win a Super Bowl, the Broncos knocked off the Chiefs and Steelers on the road in the playoffs, winning in two of the toughest road environments the NFL has ever had, especially during the postseason.

Denver was also an 11-point underdog in the Super Bowl against the Packers, who were aiming for their second straight title. But it was the Broncos who bucked the odds, finally getting a Super Bowl win for Elway in what turned out to be their first of two in a row.

1. 2007 Giants

If they had 1,000 tries, the 2007 Giants could never replicate what they did.

For starters, they became just the third team to reach the Super Bowl after winning three road playoff games. Naturally, they beat the two top seeds in the NFC, both of whom they lost to by double-digit points during the regular season.

Those factors alone make New York’s run something special and one of the most improbable and best NFL playoff runs.

But throw in the fact that they beat the previously unbeaten Patriots in the Super Bowl. It certainly looked like destiny for Tom Brady and the Patriots to finish the season undefeated, especially since they got to face a 10-6 Wild Card team in the Super Bowl.

But the Giants managed to spoil their perfect season, even winning in unlikely fashion thanks to David Tyree’s one-in-a-million catch that helped to set up the game-winning score in the Super Bowl.

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About Bryan Zarpentine 237 Articles
Bryan Zarpentine is a freelance writer and editor with most of his work focusing on the world of sports. He is a 2008 graduate of Syracuse University and still resides in upstate New York.

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