The NFL playoffs can produce thrilling victories but also some truly crushing losses. How do some recent ones stack up with the classics? Here are the most agonizing losses in the Super Bowl era, with more weight being given to outcomes that had a significant effect on teams' championship windows.
Though unlikely to beat the Buccaneers in Round 2, the Giants losing in San Francisco has standalone appeal. The 49ers erased a 24-point deficit and led 39-38 with 1:05 left, but the Giants moved into position for a game-winning field goal. Unfortunately, late snapper addition Trey Junkin's final NFL snap was off, nixing a Matt Bryant 40-yard try. However, holder Matt Allen lofted a pass for reported-eligible lineman Rich Seubert, whom 49ers linebacker Chike Okeafor tackled with the ball in the air. Flags flew for ineligible man downfield, not pass interference, prompting an NFL letter of apology.
The last of the Steel Curtain teams won all three of its playoff games by double digits and capped off a 12-4 season with the Super Bowl XIV title. But Pittsburgh caught a break against Houston when officials ruled a Dan Pastorini-to-Mike Renfro touchdown pass as incomplete. This made Oilers assistant Wade Phillips rather upset, with instant replay still seven years away. Instead of a 17-all tie, Houston kicked a field goal. The Steelers won 27-13, so it is debatable if the wild-card Oilers had enough to topple a dynasty. But this was the closest they came to a Super Bowl.
The Falcons produced two 13-3 teams in a three-year span. This one would have been a Super Bowl favorite. With Matt Ryan throwing for nearly 400 yards and Julio Jones going for 182 and two scores, Atlanta amassed a 17-0 lead. The 49ers erased that in the fourth quarter, but the Falcons responded with a time-consuming, 70-yard drive into the red zone. Said march ended via a NaVorro Bowman pass breakup, which involved steady Bowman contact on Roddy White. No flag emerged, and the 49ers won 28-24. Atlanta's drive took so long (7:10) that it pinned hopes on that fourth-down play. This Falcons core was mostly gone by Super Bowl LI.
New England went 11-3 in 1976, beating the Steelers and Raiders in consecutive September weeks. In a divisional-round rematch with the 13-1 Raiders, Chuck Fairbanks' team led 21-17 late in the fourth quarter but saw a controversial roughing-the-passer call — on a third-and-18 Ken Stabler incompletion — bail out the Raiders. Following Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton's penalty, Oakland scored a go-ahead touchdown. Instead of the Patriots then hosting the Franco Harris-less Steelers in the AFC title game, the Raiders cruised to the Super Bowl XI crown. The Pats did not win a playoff game until 1985.
The Chiefs have endured two decades' worth of January torture at Arrowhead Stadium (1-7 since 1995 in home playoff games). Dee Ford's neutral-zone infraction denied them a win over this century's superpower and a trip to their first Super Bowl in 49 years. The Patriots received multiple officiating breaks on a key fourth-quarter drive, but the Chiefs defense (and the overtime coin toss) cost a red-hot Patrick Mahomes dearly in the 37-31 loss. Since-fired Bob Sutton's group yielded 13 Pats third-down conversions. Kansas City will probably be back, but this was a prime chance.
The Saints' recent loss caused legislators to weigh in, but their previous elimination sequence was nearly as shocking. Marcus Williams' blunder on the Minneapolis Miracle denied the Saints a chance to be favorites in the NFC title game. The Vikings' 29-24 win doubles as one of the most improbable escapes in playoff history. Three Drew Brees TD passes led the No. 3-seeded Saints back from a 17-0 deficit. He certainly would have had a better chance to pilot a win over the Eagles than Keenum, and these Saints would have been live underdogs in Super Bowl LII.
The defending champion Cowboys won two Super Bowls in the 1970s, but their Steelers rematch became the era's highest-stakes game. A Cowboys conquest would have evened the big-stage series and made them the first to win three Super Bowls. Jackie Smith's drop in the final game of a Hall of Fame career became the defining moment, but the Steelers also scored after a Randy White fumble on a second-half kickoff and benefited from a pass interference flag that created a new rule. Nevertheless, two dagger Steeler TDs sealed a 35-31 win. This game immortalized that Pittsburgh run more than any other.
The first of the Chiefs' brutal Arrowhead Stadium letdowns came in a 10-7 loss to a 9-7 Colts team. These Chiefs went 13-3, rode the NFL's No. 1 defense to the AFC's No. 1 seed and were the front-runners to face the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX. But against the Colts, 1995 Pro Bowler Steve Bono threw three interceptions. This game, though, is known more for Lin Elliott's three missed field goals. Two of those came from inside 40 yards. The final try, a game-tying bid from 42, sailed wide left with 42 seconds remaining. It took the Chiefs 23 years to again win a home playoff game.
The Patriots resurfaced with two 2010s titles, giving them five. But this dynasty does not have a champion in the greatest-team-ever discussion; the Giants denied the Pats a lockdown case in these debates. New York held New England's relentless attack to just 274 yards, its pass rush dropping Tom Brady five times. The Giants' 83-yard, game-winning drive featured a (not-so-easy) dropped INT, a fourth-down conversion and probably the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Eli Manning, David Tyree and Co. stopped a 19-0 season in the biggest rich-man's-problem loss in NFL history.
The Chargers have endured some rough January slipups. Air Coryell's teams failed to reach a Super Bowl, but this loss was the low point. San Diego had New England in trouble, holding an eight-point lead and intercepting Tom Brady for a third time midway through the fourth quarter. But Marlon McCree fumbled the ball back to the Patriots, who scored a game-tying touchdown on that possession. Rookie Stephen Gostkowski's go-ahead field goal was enough, after Nate Kaeding's 50-yard, final-seconds try misfired in the 24-21 defeat. The Bolts' 14-2 season ended with Marty Schottenheimer's firing.
The Titans' lone Super Bowl berth came after a miraculous win over the Bills and road victories in Indianapolis and Jacksonville. Despite being a wild-card team, the 1999 Titans were 13-3 and rallied from a 16-0 deficit to match the Rams in the fourth quarter. Denard Walker blanketed Isaac Bruce on his go-ahead touchdown but did not adjust to Kurt Warner's underthrown pass. Rams linebacker Mike Jones' legendary tackle denied Kevin Dyson a game-tying score, subduing Steve McNair's final-drive heroics in a 23-16 St. Louis win.
Some of the Patriots' other all-action Super Bowls overshadow this one, but January 2004's Tom Brady-Jake Delhomme duel produced one of the most explosive quarters in NFL history. The 11-5 Panthers and 14-2 Pats combined to score 37 fourth-stanza points. Both Delhomme and Brady threw three touchdown passes. After the last of these, a Delhomme-to-Ricky Proehl strike with 1:08 left, the Patriots caught a break. Panthers kicker John Kasay's illegal procedure penalty shortened the Pats' final drive, setting up Adam Vinatieri's second Super Bowl game-winner in a 32-29 classic.
This team had the misfortune of losing the most uncomfortable game in NFL history, and real-life scars linger. Unprepared for Green Bay's coldest New Year's Eve, the Cowboys still erased a 14-point deficit to take a three-point, fourth-quarter lead in the "Ice Bowl." Bart Starr's drive and iconic quarterback sneak gave the Packers a second straight NFL championship game win over the Cowboys. The Don Meredith-led team would have been heavy favorites to beat the Raiders in Super Bowl II, which the Packers won going away. Only a few of these Cowboys were on the Super Bowl-winning 1971 team.
Tennessee's springboard to Super Bowl XXXIV doubled as a death knell for Buffalo's best era. Based on Rob Johnson's performance in a meaningless Week 17 win, the Bills gave the free-agent bust the start over two-year starter Doug Flutie. Johnson did play fairly well a week later, and Steve Christie's field goal had the 11-5 Bills on an upset precipice. But Wade Phillips' team elected against a squib kick, and you've probably seen the result. After the 22-16 loss, the Bills released Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas. Buffalo did not make the playoffs again until 2017.
Viking fans surely do not feel sorry for the Saints' recent ending after a bitter defeat nine years earlier. A 13-3 Vikings team blew out the Cowboys in the divisional round but committed five turnovers in New Orleans, the last of which was the final stinging Brett Favre playoff interception — one that denied a game-winning field-goal try in regulation. The Saints won the overtime toss, under the old OT format, and two generous calls — one preserving a fourth-down conversion — moved them into field-goal range in a 31-28 win. Minnesota has lost four straight NFC title games since 1987.
The Broncos made two Super Bowls with Peyton Manning; a historic coverage gaffe denied them a chance at another championship. Denver's No. 4-ranked defense struggled that day but had the Ravens needing to go 70 yards in 41 seconds with no timeouts. Rahim Moore and Tony Carter, however, allowed Jacoby Jones to creep behind them for a game-tying touchdown. John Fox then instructed Manning, equipped with two timeouts and 30 seconds, to kneel and play for overtime. That did not end up working out. The Ravens won 38-35 in double OT and parlayed this escape to their second Super Bowl title.
After their uneventful win over the Patriots in the AFC title game, the Ravens' Harbaugh Bowl triumph unfolded strangely. Following the blackout that stopped the game for 34 minutes, Colin Kaepernick and Co. nearly zoomed back from a 22-point deficit. The 49ers' game-winning drive attempt either ended with one of the greatest goal-line stands in NFL history or Jimmy Smith holding Michael Crabtree on fourth-and-goal. Jim Harbaugh believed the latter occurred. A penalty there could have given the 49ers a sixth title; instead, it marked the worst of some vicious Harbaugh-era endings.
The Jets' AFL-legitimizing, 16-7 win over the Colts doubles as the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, with Baltimore 18-point favorites. Some Colts have said the joy of the Super Bowl V victory did not make up for this disaster. Don Shula's team went 13-1 and allowed 10.3 points per game. The Colts steamrolled the Vikings and Browns in the NFL playoffs but committed five turnovers (three on Earl Morrall interceptions) in Miami, helping Joe Namath to permanent fame. Led by former Colts coach Weeb Ewbank, the Jets did not yield points until late in the fourth quarter.
Between Super Bowls II and XI, the Raiders lost six AFL or AFC championship games. Yet the most memorable Oakland setback came in its opening-round 1972 game, a 13-7 loss. Ken Stabler's go-ahead touchdown run is lost to history because of what still may be the NFL's most iconic play. Franco Harris' 60-yard "Immaculate Reception" brought controversy, with a 15-minute officials' conference ensuing. But Raiders safety Jack Tatum almost certainly touched the ball, making the play legal. This nevertheless keyed a bitter 1970s rivalry. Oakland bounced back but could not match Pittsburgh's '70s success.
While the #DezCaughtIt game stirred debate, the Packers still would have had four-plus minutes to answer. Green Bay's exit was far worse, marking the first of two straight Packers seasons to end with Aaron Rodgers receiving no overtime snaps. This one — a 28-22 Seahawks conquest — featured a blown 16-0 lead, Mike McCarthy conservatism, a Seattle fake-field goal TD and Brandon Bostick's botched onside kick recovery. It denied the Packers a shot at a Super Bowl title and deprived the sports world of a Rodgers-Tom Brady matchup. The Packers have not enjoyed this kind of opportunity since.
In both Bengals Super Bowl seasons, they possessed an elite offense piloted by that year's MVP quarterback. Each time, the assistant coach the Bengals didn't promote bested them. Two of Bill Walsh's three titles went through Cincinnati. In 1988, Boomer Esiason led a no-huddle attack to two two-score playoff wins and gave the Bengals a late-fourth-quarter lead on the 49ers. A dropped interception allowed San Francisco its first touchdown, and Cincy's middling defense could not stop Joe Montana on the famous 92-yard game-winning drive. The 20-16 loss doomed the Bengals, they of one playoff win since.
From 1987-93, the Oilers were the only team to appear in every NFL playoff bracket. They failed to reach an AFC championship game. While their 1992 team was probably not a title contender, blowing an NFL-record, 32-point lead cannot be overlooked. Amid a stretch of eight straight Pro Bowls, Warren Moon threw four first-half TD passes en route to a 35-3 Houston lead. A Bills team without Jim Kelly and, in the second half, Thurman Thomas rallied back for a 41-38 win and trekked to another Super Bowl. The Oilers blew a lead in the '93 divisional round, too, beginning their path to Tennessee.
An intergalactic offense paired with 1998's No. 6 defense gave the Vikings a prime bid at a long-elusive title. The 15-1 team stopped a Falcons fourth-down attempt and voyaged to a game-sealing field-goal try. Gary Anderson (an astounding 106-for-106 on field goals and PATs that year coming into a 38-yard try) missed said kick, keeping Minnesota's lead at seven. The 14-2 Falcons capitalized with a game-tying touchdown, and two Viking OT possessions ended in punts. Morton Andersen's game-winning make gave Atlanta a 30-27 win. Vikings fans have witnessed plenty; this might have been their worst day.
While not an impressive regular-season team — 9-7, 21st DVOA, No. 28-ranked defense — the only Cardinals Super Bowl squad received arguably the greatest playoff showing from a wideout in NFL history. Larry Fitzgerald sizzled for 30 catches, 546 yards and seven TDs — the last of which giving Arizona a late Super Bowl lead. The Cards coming this close to a championship would sting regardless. But Santonio Holmes potentially getting one foot down on his game-winner makes it worse, though the Steelers could have scored on third or fourth down had Holmes' catch been overturned. It ended by far Arizona's best shot.
Twenty-five years after a call cost the Patriots a divisional-round win in Oakland, the "Tuck Rule" burned the Raiders. New England's dynasty may still have emerged, but without this since-scrapped rule, it would have been delayed. Charles Woodson's sack-strip being overturned reignited the hosts, and Adam Vinatieri tied the game with maybe NFL's greatest field goal. The Pats (3-0 on playoff overtime coin tosses) sliced through the gutted Raiders to win 16-13. Oakland soon traded Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay. The Gruden revenge Super Bowl preceded the worst stretch in Raider history and another relocation.
Had the Seahawks not emphatically secured the Super Bowl XLVIII title, this may be the most painful sequence in NFL history. Seattle overthinking its game-winning play and not giving Marshawn Lynch (24 carries, 102 yards, TD) a goal-line carry altered the franchise's timeline (and the Patriots'). This 28-24 defeat, with a less healthy version of Seattle's stacked 2013 team, was the beginning of the end of that nucleus' heyday. Malcolm Butler's INT denied the Seahawks, who blew a 10-point, second-half lead, back-to-back titles and invited doubt and distrust into the building.
"The Drive" and "The Fumble" are intertwined; the sequel generated considerably more agony, largely because of the original. Down 18 in the third quarter, the Browns rode Earnest Byner back to tie the Broncos, who responded with a Sammy Winder touchdown. For painful NFL plays, it doesn't get worse than Byner (187 yards from scrimmage, two TDs) fumbling on a potential game-tying score. Rebounding from John Elway's 98-yard sojourn to get back to this round, the resilient Browns would have carried momentum into overtime but lost 38-33. Cleveland's Super Bowl window closed via a Denver blowout in the 1989 AFC title game.
While the subsequent Super Bowls invited more mockery, this one serves as the lasting image of an unbelievable run. Buffalo lost by a combined 65 points in their following ultimate-game defeats, adding to the sting of Scott Norwood's 47-yard miss in the only Super Bowl the Bills could have won. They beat the Giants on the road in 1990 and got to face backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler in Tampa. But the Giants offense logged 40-plus minutes of action, minimizing Thurman Thomas' 190 yards from scrimmage. "Wide right" still might be the most agonizing moment in Super Bowl history.
A mistake so significant it directly determined a Super Bowl entrant is new territory. The Rams' 26-23 victory ignited an all-time sports controversy. Compounding the Saints' justified vitriol: Their championship window is closing, being tied to a 40-year-old quarterback. This was Drew Brees' best chance at a Super Bowl since 2009. While the Saints bungled red-zone trips, they did enough to win. To make matters worse, officials may have missed a Rams pass interference on Brees' overtime INT, too. The Minnesota debacle and the titanic no-call may be the legacy for a Saints nucleus that deserved better.
But...it wasn't this bad. The sequence of events required to make the Patriots' 25-point comeback possible remains mind-boggling. The Falcons held that infamous lead with 2:12 left in the third quarter. They had multiple chances at a collapse-preventing field goal. Jake Matthews' holding penalties knocked the Falcons out of range on two drives, and Kyle Shanahan's reluctance to run the clock aided the 34-28 disaster/miracle. For nearly three quarters, no team dominated the Patriots on this stage more than these Falcons. Like the Seahawks catastrophe, the outcome changed the losing team's trajectory — and NFL history.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.