The most unlikely teams to appear in an NFL conference championship game
Posted 13 hours ago | By Sam Robinson
This year, the Titans became one of the more unlikely teams to venture to a conference championship game. But they have some notable company. Here are the teams that surprised the football world most in reaching the postseason’s penultimate round.
1 of 20 20. 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
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The Steelers secured Bill Cowher’s only Super Bowl title by winning their final four regular-season games to make a tough AFC field at 11-5. They may have beaten the Bengals without Carson Palmer’s ACL tear, but that did make Cincinnati’s task nearly impossible. The 14-2 Colts were 8.5-point divisional-round favorites. But Pittsburgh’s No. 3-ranked defense shredded Indianapolis’ offensive line for five sacks, leading to an 18-point Steeler lead. Ben Roethlisberger’s tackle rescuing Jerome Bettis, who had fumbled and Mike Vanderjagt’s final NFL kick misfiring badly ensured the upset.
2 of 20 19. 1996 Carolina Panthers
1996 Carolina Panthers
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At 12-4, the Panthers launched one of the best second seasons in any sport. Free agent linebackers Sam Mills, Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon, along with ex-49ers starting cornerback Eric Davis, led the second-year franchise to the NFC West title. All made the Pro Bowl and carried the No. 2-ranked defense into a playoff bye. But the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys were still 4.5-point favorites in Charlotte. Michael Irvin broke his collarbone on the game’s second play, and the Panthers intercepted Troy Aikman three times in a 26-17 win that booked them a trip to Lambeau Field where they lost to the Packers in the NFC championship.
3 of 20 18. 2014 Indianapolis Colts
2014 Indianapolis Colts
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Andrew Luck’s breakout came when the prodigious quarterback threw 40 touchdown passes in a season that peaked with a divisional-round upset in Denver. Saddled with Trent Richardson as his leading rusher after GM Ryan Grigson traded a first-round pick for the uninspiring back, Luck led the Colts to a somewhat forgettable 11-5 season. But after a first-round win over the Bengals, the Colts made headlines with a 24-13 divisional-round win against a Broncos team favored by seven points. Indianapolis’ 19th-ranked defense stifled an injured Peyton Manning. Unfortunately, this upset gave the world two years of Deflategate.
4 of 20 17. 2011 New York Giants
2011 New York Giants
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A 38-35 midseason loss to the Packers showed this team’s capabilities, but the Giants still underachieved and needed a Cowboys December collapse to merely make the postseason. But after injuries shelved Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Ahmad Bradshaw during part of the regular season, the three helped the 9-7 Giants go on an all-time run. Their 24-2 wild-card rout over the Falcons is forgotten because of what happened next: a 37-20 shocker over the 15-1 Packers in Hakeem Nicks’ finest hour . Nicks, Eli Manning, Victor Cruz and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s NASCAR package then fueled Big Blue to a Super Bowl title.
5 of 20 16. 1979 Los Angeles Rams
1979 Los Angeles Rams
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Although the Rams were a 1970s playoff mainstay, their ’79 team floundered in a nine-win season that included the loss of quarterback Pat Haden. They entered the playoffs as champions of a long-mediocre NFC West and were 8.5-point underdogs against the defending NFC champion Cowboys, who’d beaten them by a combined 57-6 in their previous two meetings. But Vince Ferragamo’s three touchdown passes — the third a go-ahead 50-yarder to Billy Waddy — eliminated Dallas, ending Roger Staubach’s career. Lacking a top-10 offense or defense, the Rams still shut out the Buccaneers on the road to Super Bowl XIV.
6 of 20 15. 1985 New England Patriots
1985 New England Patriots
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These Patriots became the first road wild-card team to reach a Super Bowl, but they were not exactly a fluke. Riding Pro Bowl seasons from running back Craig James and Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett (16.5 sacks), New England finished 11-5. After a midseason injury, Tony Eason returned to lead the Patriots to a 26-14 win over the Jets — the Pats’ first playoff win since 1963. They then intercepted Raiders QB Marc Wilson three times in a Round 2 upset. While a disastrous Raiders miscue gave the Pats a late lead, they proved their legitimacy by forcing six Dolphins turnovers in the AFC championship game.
7 of 20 14. 2012 Baltimore Ravens
2012 Baltimore Ravens
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This team’s first encounter with Peyton Manning’s initial Bronco squad ended in a December blowout loss. The Ravens had lost three straight and that month fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. After a Round 1 win over the Colts, the 10-6 AFC North champs were nine-point underdogs in Denver. Despite failing to contain Joe Flacco, the Broncos had the Ravens in near-Hail Mary mode in the final minute. But Flacco’s fling to Jacoby Jones forced overtime, and Justin Tucker’s game-winner sent the Ravens to Foxborough and eventually Super Bowl XLVII. Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes and no picks that postseason.
8 of 20 13. 2010 New York Jets
2010 New York Jets
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The Jets’ second straight sojourn to the AFC title game involved road wins over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Rex Ryan’s second Gang Green edition ranked sixth in DVOA and featured one of the league’s best defenses. But after losing 45-3 in a December Foxborough game, the Jets looked to be January pretenders. Revis Island was near its apex, however, and after the Jets crept past the Colts, they smothered Brady in the teams’ Round 2 rubber match. Mark Sanchez threw three touchdown passes and helped the 9.5-point underdogs to three double-digit leads in the “Can’t wait!” game. The Jets would go on to lose to Pittsburgh in the AFC championship.
9 of 20 12. 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars
2017 Jacksonville Jaguars
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This season briefly absolved the Jaguars bypassing Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson to stick with Blake Bortles, but in the Jags’ defense, they were probably a correctly officiated Myles Jack fumble-six from Super Bowl LII. Jacksonville (10-6) snapped a six-season skid of 10-loss seasons but set playoff football back years with a 10-3 Round 1 win over Buffalo. That game ended with 87 Bortles passing yards. The Jags’ six-Pro Bowler defense protected Bortles and helped upend the 13-3 Steelers twice — the divisional-round game ending Pittsburgh’s “Killer B’s” run. Jacksonville’s blueprint, however, did not last.
10 of 20 11. 2019 Tennessee Titans
2019 Tennessee Titans
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Rampaging past nemeses with 1986 Mike Tyson- (or 2017 John Wick)-level success, Derrick Henry has led the Titans’ transformation from 8-7 wild-card hopeful to January giant killer. Tennessee has also gone from a 2-4 team that endured a shutout loss in Denver to one that may have ended the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady run before hijacking Lamar Jackson’s coronation. Since benching Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill, the Titans are 9-3. No team without a bye has made a Super Bowl in seven years, but Henry’s 577 rushing yards since Week 17 should instill fear in a Chiefs team that has yet to contain him. (Henry ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns in Tennessee’s win over K.C. in Week 10.)
11 of 2010. 1978 Houston Oilers
1978 Houston Oilers
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The first of the Oilers teams that met the Steelers for the AFC title entered the playoffs at 10-6 but with a minus-15 point differential. Bum Phillips’ squad housed Hall of Famers Earl Campbell, Elvin Bethea and Robert Brazile but ranked 14th on offense and 16th defensively. The Oilers were 6.5-point underdogs in Miami in Round 1 and six-point dogs to topple the Patriots in Round 2. But these Pats, who held the single-season rushing record for 41 years, fell behind, 24-0. Dan Pastorini threw three second-quarter TD passes, one a 71-yarder to a tightrope-walking Ken Burrough, en route to Pittsburgh.
12 of 209. 2009 New York Jets
2009 New York Jets
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The first year of the Rex Ryan-Mark Sanchez partnership produced a 9-7 record but two playoff upsets. Behind Darrelle Revis’ best season, the Jets defense led the league in points allowed and overcame Sanchez’s 12-20 TD-INT ratio. Thomas Jones rushed for 1,402 yards during the regular season but took a backseat to rookie Shonn Greene, who ignited for 263 yards and two TDs in the Jets’ road wins over the Bengals and Chargers. The Bolts were nine-point favorites but could not beat a Jets team that received 100 passing yards from Sanchez. The top-seeded Colts ended this run a week later.
13 of 20 8. 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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The Buccaneers from 1976-78 won seven games, so it proved interesting when John McKay’s team beat his five-year rebuild plan by a year. Buoyed by a No. 1-ranked defense built around Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs went 10-6 and won the NFC Central after a 3-0 win over the Chiefs in a Week 16 rainstorm. Second-year quarterback Doug Williams completed 42 percent of his passes that season, but he (and Ricky Bell’s 38-carry, 142-yard, two-TD day) led the 4.5-point underdog Bucs to a 24-17 divisional-round win over the Eagles. They then lost, 9-0, to the Rams and did not return to Round 3 until 1999.
14 of 20 7. 1987 Minnesota Vikings
1987 Minnesota Vikings
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The Vikings’ 8-7 record deceives a bit, because Minnesota’s scabs went 0-3 during the players’ strike. But this season produced a still-shocking playoff upset. The Vikings used both Wade Wilson and Tommy Kramer extensively post-strike, but Wilson took over during a 44-10 first-round demolition of the 12-3 Saints. But the Vikings’ 36-24 upset of a 49ers team that ranked first on offense and defense remains an all-timer. Wilson and Anthony Carter hooked up 10 times for 227 yards, and the Vikings sacked Joe Montana four times before Bill Walsh yanked him for Steve Young. Eventual champion Washington barely staved off Minnesota in the NFC championship.
15 of 206. 1984 Pittsburgh Steelers
1984 Pittsburgh Steelers
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Gifted a cakewalk during a brutal AFC Central year , the Steelers went just 9-7 and lost to six non-playoff teams. They also represented the only blemish on the 18-1 49ers’ resume. This marked the first full season without Terry Bradshaw, but Mark Malone helped John Stallworth to his finest statistical season (1,395 yards) to go along with Mike Merriweather’s 15 sacks. The Steelers were 4.5-point underdogs against the 13-3 Broncos in Round 2, but Malone outplayed second-year QB John Elway in a 24-17 win. Pittsburgh could not derail Dan Marino’s record-smashing march the following week.
16 of 20 5. 2008 Arizona Cardinals
2008 Arizona Cardinals
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Larry Fitzgerald altered this team’s legacy, because this was a 9-7 team that won six games against NFC West competition in perhaps the worst era an NFL division’s experienced. Matt Cassel’s Patriots blew out the Cardinals, 47-7, in December, and Arizona’s defense ranked 28th that season. But the Cards moved into the NFC championship round because of Fitz’s 267 yards and two TDs in wins over the Falcons and Panthers, the latter a 33-13 stunner. It didn’t hurt that Jake Delhomme threw five interceptions in a game Carolina entered as a 10-point favorite. The Cards rode that momentum to Super Bowl XLIII.
17 of 204. 1979 Houston Oilers
1979 Houston Oilers
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Aside from the Steelers, the 1979 season’s penultimate round featured odd entrants. The Oilers were better than their ’78 team, going 11-5 and deploying MVP Earl Campbell. But after a Round 1 win over the Broncos, the Oilers faced the Air Coryell Chargers without Campbell or Dan Pastorini. Linebacker Vernon Perry’s NFL-record four-INT day bailed out Houston. Dan Fouts threw five picks against an Oilers defense that may well have deciphered the high-flying Bolts’ signals. Backup Oilers QB Gifford Nielsen’s third-quarter TD pass to Mike Renfro clinched an unlikely trip back to Pittsburgh — a game in which Renfro also played a key role.
18 of 20 3. 1983 Seattle Seahawks
1983 Seattle Seahawks
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The first playoff berth in Seahawks history occurred in their eighth season and came with the team shuttling between QBs Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg. Chuck Knox eventually settled on Krieg, but “Ground Chuck” made rookie running back Curt Warner his centerpiece. Seattle went 9-7 and struggled to get defensive stops, but its 24th-ranked defense halted the Broncos in a 31-7 wild-card romp, setting up a Round 2 trip to Miami. Eight-point favorites, the Dolphins committed five turnovers -— including two on kick-return fumbles — in a 27-20 loss. Though the Seahawks swept the Raiders in the regular season, their third meeting, in the AFC championship, went L.A.’s way.
19 of 202. 1995 Indianapolis Colts
1995 Indianapolis Colts
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A 9-7 team, the Colts became de facto AFC West champions in the playoffs. Losing Marshall Faulk early in a wild-card game in San Diego, Indianapolis turned to rookie Zack Crockett. The backup blitzed the Chargers for 147 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-20 upset win. The 13-3 Chiefs were nine-point favorites the following week. Without Faulk and carrying a middling defense, the Colts upset the Chiefs, 10-7. Although this game is remembered for Lin Elliott’s three missed field goals, the Colts picked off Steve Bono three times. A near-Hail Mary put the Colts inches from stealing a Super Bowl berth a week later.
20 of 201. 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars
1996 Jacksonville Jaguars
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A second-year franchise, the Jaguars began their season 3-6. But in a transcendent year for NFL expansion teams, they nevertheless voyaged to the AFC championship game. The Jags only reached the playoffs because Hall of Famer Morten Andersen missed a 31-yard field goal in Week 17, but they then upset the Bills (8.5-point favorites) in Round 1. After ending Jim Kelly’s career, the Jaguars ousted a 13-3 Broncos team favored by 12.5. The AFC’s top seed could not contain Mark Brunell or Natrone Means, allowing the Jags to join the Panthers in the league’s weirdest conference championship weekend.