The ones that got away
That should have been us. Every NFL fan base knows the feeling that a brutal playoff loss can leave when a season of promise ends with a thud. Seahawks fans will never forget blowing a Super Bowl victory at the 1-yard line, while Browns fans never want to hear about "The Drive" or "The Fumble" again for the rest of eternity. Oh, and don't mention "28-3" to Falcons fans or "Wide Right" to Bills fans. Sore spots, trust us.
With the NFL playoffs kicking off this weekend, we thought it would be fun to look back at the ones that got away for all 32 NFL teams. The dropped TD catches, the missed FGs, the blown calls or the baffling choke jobs that killed a shot at football immortality. It was hard to pin down just one for certain franchises -- we see you, Bills, Broncos, Packers and Eagles -- while finding a playoff loss that qualifies as crushing for the Jags or the Texans wasn't easy. That said, all of these losses left a mark on their fan bases.Credit: Getty Images
Arizona Cardinals: Super Bowl XLIII
Date: Feb. 1, 2009
Kurt Warner was the Super Bowl MVP and the Cardinals, who hadn't won a franchise title since 1947, were world champions. The front-page headlines had all but been written after Warner hit Larry Fitzgerald in stride for a 64-yard touchdown with 2:37 remaining to go ahead 23-20.
But giving Ben Roethlisberger more than two minutes to win a football game is never a good idea. Big Ben led a furious late drive down to the Cardinals' 6-yard line, then threaded a needle to Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone over three Cardinals defenders for the dagger. Roethlisberger thought it was a sure pick when it left his hand, and Cardinals fans still aren't convinced that Holmes got both feet down in bounds. It sure looks like his right foot got hung up on his left cleat and never touched.Credit: USATSI
Atlanta Falcons: Super Bowl LI
Date: February 5, 2017
The greatest comeback in Super Bowl history or the choke of all chokes? If you're a Falcons fan, it's the latter. What else is there to say about blowing a 28-3 third-quarter lead in the Super Bowl? Other teams have gagged on the NFL's biggest stage, sure, but the Falcons made history -- in the worst kind of way.Credit: USATSI
Baltimore Ravens: 2011 AFC Championship
Date: January 22, 2012
Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff. Mention those two names in any Baltimore sports bar and you're sure to get a reaction.
The Ravens have won two Super Bowls, but it's the one they should've gone to that still gnaws at their fans. Evans dropped the game-winning touchdown in the corner of the end zone with 22 seconds left and then Cundiff pushed wide what would've been the game-tying field goal. Evans never played another down in the NFL after the Ravens released him that offseason. And Cundiff never kicked in another playoff game, getting released as well and then playing in parts of four more NFL seasons with the Redskins, Browns and Bills.Credit: Getty Images
Buffalo Bills: Super Bowl XXV
Date: January 27, 1991
The Bills' four straight Super Bowl losses are the Niagara Falls of NFL fan misery, but it's the first one that stings the most. The only thing NFL fans remember about this Super Bowl is that Whitney Houston belted out the greatest rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" ever witnessed and Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal with 8 seconds to go that let the Giants escape with a 20-19 win. The Bills kept going back to the big game, but they never got as close again.
Dishonorable mention: The Music City MiracleCredit: Rob Brown, NFL
Carolina Panthers: Super Bowl 50
Date: February 4, 2016
So much for Superman. The Broncos made NFL MVP Cam Newton look like Clark Kent, sacking him six times and forcing two critical fumbles. Even worse than Newton walking out of his postgame press conference after giving only a few short one-word answers was the replay of him not diving for the second fumble he lost late in the game. He took a beating in the press and from Panthers fans who were less-than thrilled to see a dream 15-1 season end in such humbling fashion.
Dishonorable mention: Super Bowl XXXVIIICredit: USATSI
Chicago Bears: 2010 NFC Championship
Date: January 23, 2011
It's the game that made Bears fans hate Jay Cutler for life. Did Smokin' Jay quit on his team? Bears fans sure think so, MCL sprain be damned. They lit up Twitter after Cutler refused to re-enter the game in the second half. The only thing worse than watching Cutler sulk on the sideline was watching the hated Packers win the Super Bowl two weeks later. Also terrible: Brian Urlacher getting ankle tackled by Aaron Rodgers on an interception return and Mike Martz calling for an end-around on third down on the Bears' final drive.Credit: Getty Images
Cincinnati Bengals: Super Bowl XXIII
Date: January 22, 1989
CBS Sports' own John Breech likes to point out that if the Bengals had won Super Bowl XXIII, his father, Jim Breech, would have likely been named Super Bowl MVP. And he's got a point: Jim scored 10 of the Bengals' 16 points in the game and the only points he didn't score came on a kickoff return for a touchdown. Instead of a kicker winning MVP in a Super Bowl, however, Jerry Rice got the honor, and Jim Breech can blame Joe Montana -- and maybe John Candy -- for that. With just three minutes left and 92 yards to go, Montana famously spotted Candy in the stands, then led the Niners on one of the greatest drives in NFL history. It culminated with a TD strike to John Taylor with 34 seconds left, giving the Niners a 20-16 win. The Bengals haven't been back to a Super Bowl since.
Dishonorable mention: 2015 AFC wild-card meltdown to the SteelersCredit: Getty Images
Cleveland Browns: 1986 AFC Championship
Date: January 11, 1987
John Elway has the unique distinction of being universally hated in two AFC cities: Baltimore and Cleveland. He famously forced a trade from Baltimore following the 1983 NFL Draft, which sent the beloved Colts on a course to Indianapolis. Four seasons later, he delivered on the promise that made him the most-hyped QB prospect in two decades by ripping Cleveland's heart out on a cold, windy day at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Down seven with five minutes to go, Elway led a rag-tag group of Broncos on a 15-play, 98-yard drive right into the heart of the Dawg Pound. A laser to Mark Jackson in the end zone forced overtime and the Broncos kicked a field goal to escape with a win. Browns fans still haven't gotten over it.
Dishonorable mention: "The Fumble" in the 1987 AFC ChampionshipCredit: Getty Images
Dallas Cowboys: 2014 NFC divisional playoff
Date: January 11, 2015
It's the great unsolved mystery for NFL players, coaches and fans: What exactly is a catch? Example 1A in the debate: Dez Bryant's overturned catch in the 2014 NFC divisional playoff against the Packers. The replay has become the NFL's version of the Zapruder film, and to this day, #dezcaughtit remains a popular social media meme. "Everywhere I go, I still hear it 'til this day: It was a catch," Bryant told ESPN this season.
Except the NFL ruled it wasn't, saying Bryant didn't complete the process of the catch because he lost control when he hit the ground. Whatever that means. Cowboys fans still steam at the mention of Dean Blandino, the NFL's former head of officiating, and remain convinced they got robbed in plain sight on national TV.Credit: USATSI
Denver Broncos: 2012 AFC divisional playoff
Date: January 12, 2013
Ravens fans refer to it as "The Mile High Miracle." Broncos fans, whose list of crushing playoff losses is about a mile long, would probably go with another "M" word: Meltdown. How else to explain Denver safety Rahim Moore letting Jacoby Jones slip past him with under a minute left in regulation for a game-tying 70-yard TD pass from Joe Flacco?
All but dead, the Ravens rallied to win in double OT, with a crushing Peyton Manning pick setting up Justin Tucker's game-winning 47-yard field goal. The Ravens would go on to win the Super Bowl while the 13-3 Broncos were left to stew about a sure win that somehow vanished into the thin Mile High air on a frigid night in Denver.
Dishonorable mention: 1996 AFC divisional playoff.loss to the JaguarsCredit: Getty Images
Detroit Lions: 2014 wild card playoff
Date: January 4, 2015
Being a fan of the Lions is soul-crushing, period. Detroit is the only NFL team of the four to never make a Super Bowl to have played in every Super Bowl season. They also haven't won a playoff game since George H.W. Bush was president, though any fan from Motown will tell you that the streak should have been snapped in the 2014 playoffs if referee Pete Morelli didn't rob them blind.
Leading 20-17 with eight minutes to go, Matthew Stafford was driving the Lions downfield for more points when, on third-and-1 from the Cowboys' 46, he threw to Brandon Pettigrew off play-action. Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens got to Pettigrew clearly before the ball did, however, and refs called an obvious pass interference penalty. Then, after conferring for what felt like forever, Morelli picked up the flag. Even more controversial: his announcement was not caught on the TV broadcast. The Lions then opted to punt on fourth down and Sam Martin shanked the kick for 10 yards. The Cowboys went on to win the game, and Lions fans are still steamed. If there's a silver lining, it's that the Cowboys lost a week later in Green Bay on Dez Bryant's controversial non-catch.Credit: Getty Images
Green Bay Packers: 2003 NFC divisional playoff
Date: January 11, 2004
The Packers specialize in crushing playoff losses. Just ask a Cheesehead. But of all the baffling late-game collapses, "Fourth-and-26" is the most egregious. It's the Mona Lisa of meltdowns. Why did Packers linebacker Nick Barnett, who was responsible for shallow coverage of Freddy Mitchell, bite on the tight end? Why did Darren Sharper, partially responsible for deep coverage of Mitchell, play for the pick rather than preventing any catch in front of the marker? Why did Brett Favre throw a pick in OT after the Eagles kicked the game-tying field goal? OK, you know why -- Brett Favre throws stupid picks. Still, why, why, why? Packers fans still want answers -- but they'll never get them.
Dishonorable mention: 2014 NFC Championship, 2013 NFC wild card playoff, 2007 NFC Championship, Super Bowl XXXIICredit: Getty Images
Houston Texans: 2015 AFC wild card playoff
Date: January 9, 2016
For a franchise that has only played 16 NFL seasons, the Texans don't have a lot of playoff history. And, no, the Oilers blowing a 32-point lead in the 1992 AFC wild card playoffs -- the largest postseason comeback in NFL history -- doesn't count, since the Oilers became the Titans. So we're left with the playoff debacle that made Texans owner Bob McNair so mad, he hauled off and gave Brock Osweiler a $72 million deal in the offseason just to be done with Brian Hoyer. Hoyer, of course, threw four interceptions in a 30-0 loss to the Chiefs, giving Kansas City its first playoff win in 22 seasons.Credit: USATSI
Indianapolis Colts: Super Bowl XLIV
Date: February 7, 2010
The Colts were on the losing end of one of the greatest Super Bowl upsets of all-time, but that Super Bowl III loss came when the team was in Baltimore. For Indianapolis fans, there were plenty of crushing playoff exits following stellar regular seasons during the Peyton Manning era -- just ask Jim Irsay -- but getting ambushed by the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV has to be No. 1.
Up 10-6 at the half, the Colts got caught sleeping on a Saints' onside kick to start the third quarter … and things spiraled out of control from there. Tracey Porter's 74-yard interception return for a touchdown off a wobbly Manning pass sent the French Quarter into a frenzy -- and led to renewed questioning about why Peyton got the yips when it mattered most.Credit: Getty Images
Jacksonville Jaguars: 1999 AFC Championship
Date: January 23, 2000
The kids probably don't know this, but the Jaguars used to be legit. The expansion franchise nearly made the Super Bowl in just its second season and made the playoffs every season from 1996-1999. The 1999 Jaguars were the best team in franchise history, finishing the regular season 14-2 and clinching the AFC's No. 1 seed.
After sending Dan Marino into retirement with a 62-7 shellacking of the Dolphins in the divisional round, Jacksonville hosted the hated Titans in the AFC Championship. But a Super Bowl berth was not to be. After controlling the first half and leading 14-10 at intermission, the Jaguars unraveled in the second half. Tennessee's Derek Mason returned a kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown and Steve McNair ran for 91 yards and two TDs on nine carries in a 33-14 Titans win. The Jaguars wouldn't make it back to the playoffs for another six years and their playoff berth this season is their first in 10 years.Credit: Getty Images
Kansas City Chiefs: 1995 AFC divisional playoff
Date: January 7, 1996
Home-field advantage? Yeah, right. Don't count out the Titans at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday in the wild-card round because, as Chiefs fans know, being favored at home hasn't worked out too well in the past. Kansas City is just 2-6 in its last eight home playoff games, and any loyal Chiefs fan knows the worst of those collapses by name: "The Lin Elliott Game," "The No Punt Game," "The Elvis Grbac Game -- a.k.a. The Vaseline Game," "The Christmas Day Game," and last season's "The Field Goal Game." So which one is the worst? In a recent poll done by the Kansas City Star, the "Lin Elliott Game" is out front. Elliott, of course, missed three field goals against the Colts in the 1995 playoffs and the top-seeded Chiefs lost in a stunner, 10-7. Elliott never kicked in another NFL game and Chiefs fans have never forgiven him.
Dishonorable mention: 1998 AFC divisional playoff, 1971 AFC divisional playoffCredit: Getty Images
Los Angeles Rams: Super Bowl XXXVI
Date: February 3, 2002
What did the Patriots know? Did they film the Rams' Friday walkthrough before pulling off one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets in history? The NFL denied that such a video ever existed in the "Spygate" tapes and the Boston Herald had to apologize for its report that the practice was taped, though a Patriots video assistant said he was present for the Rams practice and shared information with then-Patriots assistant Brian Daboll.
Either way, Rams fans -- at least the few left in St. Louis -- and Marshall Faulk remain convinced that the The Greatest Show on Turf was robbed of a second Super Bowl ring because the Pats cheated.
"Am I over the loss? Yeah, I'm over the loss. But I'll never be over being cheated out of the Super Bowl. That's a different story," Faulk said.Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images
Los Angeles Chargers: 2006 AFC divisional round playoff
Date: January 14, 2007
Poor Marty Schottenheimer. The guy was on the wrong side of more crushing playoff losses than any coach in NFL history, so it seems kind of fitting that this is the one that sent him into retirement. Doesn't mean it's not cruel. How's this for Martyball? The top-seeded, 14-2 Chargers, with NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, had a 95-percent win probability with seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter -- and still blew it.
The defining play of the game? On a fourth-down conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady threw his third interception, but Patriots wideout Troy Brown stripped the ball from Marlon McCree and the Pats recovered. Schottenheimer unsuccessfully challenged the play and lost a timeout. Four plays later, Brady threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Reche Caldwell to tie the game, and Stephen Gostkowski booted the game-winning field goal with a minute to go. A month later, the Chargers canned Schottenheimer, ending his 21-year coaching career.Credit: Getty Images
Miami Dolphins: 1981 AFC divisional playoff
Date: January 2, 1982
Dan Marino's final game, a 62-7 depantsing by the Jaguars in the AFC divisional round, must have felt like a three-hour tonsillectomy with no anesthesia for Dolphins fans. But the thrilling overtime loss in the 1981 divisional playoffs to the Chargers was more brutal. Everybody remembers the game because of the Kellen Winslow photo of him being helped off the field by his teammates. And there's one reason why: The Chargers won "The Epic in Miami." The Dolphins lost it, 41-38, despite storming back from a 24-0 first-quarter deficit, which is why Dolphins fans refer to it as "The Miracle That Died."
Dishonorable mention: 1999 AFC divisional playoffCredit: Getty Images
Minnesota Vikings: 1998 NFC Championship
Date: January 17, 1999
NFL Films made a movie about the 1998 Vikings called "America's Game: The Missing Rings." It's sad. It's just all of the Vikings greats on that 15-1 team -- Cris Carter, John Randle, Randy Moss -- talking about how they blew a shot at Super Bowl glory after putting together the most prolific offensive season the NFL had ever seen.
Thing is, those rings aren't missing. They're on the hands of the 1998 Broncos, who went back-to-back as Super Bowl champions after dominating the same "Dirty Birds" that stunned the Vikings in the Metrodome. The Vikings vs. the Broncos would've been a helluva Super Bowl, sure. But Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the entire season when it mattered most and the Vikings choked up the game-tying Falcons TD en route to becoming the first 15-1 team to not make the Super Bowl. Vikings fans still won't shut up about it.
Honorable mention: 2010 NFC Championship GameCredit: Getty Images
New England Patriots: Super Bowl XLII
Date: February 3, 2008
The Patriots Went 19-0 -- in Nicaragua. That's where Reebok shipped the Super Bowl championship shirts and hats that had been made for the NFL's second perfect season after David Tyree caught a prayer on the side of his helmet and Plaxico Burress caught a late TD from Eli Manning to seal the Patriots' fate as the greatest team to never win it all. The Patriots, of course, own the trademarks to "19-0" and "Perfect Season" but "18-1" just doesn't have the same ring to it.Credit: Getty Images
New Orleans Saints: 2010 NFC wild-card playoff
Date: January 8, 2011
The Onion actually had the best headline on this game: "New Orleans Saints Lose First-Round Bye" … That pretty much sums up what happened in Seattle when the defending Super Bowl champs showed up to play the 7-9 Seahawks -- winners of the NFC Worst -- and got demolished by a "Beast Quake." Marshawn Lynch broke nine tackles -- yes, nine -- on his 67-yard game-winning TD run in the fourth quarter that got Seahawks fans so excited, their jumping registered on a nearby seismograph.Credit: Getty Images
New York Giants: 1997 NFC wild-card playoff
Date: December 27, 1997
Did that really just happen? That's what Giants fans were left to wonder after Big Blue blew a 19-3 halftime lead to the Vikings -- supposedly a dome team -- on a cold, wet day at the Meadowlands. The only thing the Giants did well in the second half was fight with each other and turn the ball over. The crushing blow came when the Vikings, out of options and time, converted an onside kick that typically sure-handed Chris Calloway couldn't handle. ''No excuse,'' he told the New York Times after the loss. ''I should have had the ball.'' Randall Cunningham then hit Cris Carter for 21 yards, and one Giants' pass interference penalty later, the Vikes booted the game-winning field goal. Hands-down the most deflating Giants' playoff loss ever.Credit: Getty Images
New York Jets: 1998 AFC Championship
It ain't easy being green. From the "Butt Fumble" to Dan Marino's fake spike TD pass, the Jets have been butt of plenty of jokes over the years -- and haven't been back to an NFL title game since Joe Namath famously guaranteed a win in Super Bowl III. But, man, were they close in Bill Parcells' second season. Keyshawn Johnson got a ring with the Bucs a few years later, but says the 1998 AFC Championship still haunts him as the one that got away. "I still get sick at times thinking about what if," he told the Star-Ledger.
For good reason. Gang Green shut out the prolific Broncos attack in the first half to lead, 3-0, then blocked a Tom Rouen punt to open the third quarter to go up 10-0. The defending champs were on the ropes. But Denver answered with a quick touchdown, then a swirling wind snagged the ensuing kickoff and the Broncos recovered on the Jets' 20. The script was flipped. The Jets, in all, coughed up six turnovers and gave up 23 unanswered points as the Broncos rolled into Super Bowl XXXIII where they smashed the Dirty Birds.
Dishonorable mention: 2005 AFC divisional playoff (aka the Doug Brien Game)Credit: Getty Images
Oakland Raiders: 2001 AFC divisional playoff
Date: January 9, 2002
It's a fumble! Wait, what? Raiders fans still don't want to hear about how Tom Brady's arm was moving forward. Ditto for Charles Woodson. You want to talk about alternative NFL history? If the Raiders win the infamous Tuck Rule Game, is Tom Brady's legacy vastly different? Does Jon Gruden win a Super Bowl with the Raiders, not the Bucs? Heck, maybe even a couple of Super Bowls? Instead, the Patriots kept the ball, and you know the rest.Credit: Getty Images
Philadelphia Eagles: 2002 NFC Championship
Date: January 19, 2003
Pick a playoff loss, any playoff loss, during the Donovan McNabb era and Eagles fans start to feel sick. Three staight NFC Championship flops. The Super Bowl against the Patriots where McNabb coughed up the game -- literally -- in the fourth quarter. But the final game ever played at Veteran's Stadium is just the worst.
In case you forgot: The Eagles had easily defeated the Bucs in the playoffs the previous two years. The Bucs were also 1-21 all-time in games played under 40 degrees. 1-21! So much for a gimme. The only thing worse for Eagles fans than watching the Bucs leave the Vet with a win was watching them win the Super Bowl two weeks later.
Dishonorable mention: 2003 NFC Championship, Super Bowl XXXIXCredit: Getty Images
Pittsburgh Steelers: 2011 AFC wild-card playoff
Date: January 8, 2012
Watching Neil O'Donnell throw two perfect passes to Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX was crushing for loyal Steelers fans, but the Steelers weren't supposed to win that Super Bowl anyway. But losing a playoff game to a team quarterbacked by Tim Tebow? Unforgivable. The only thing worse was having to hear Tebow disciples drone on about how Tebow wasn't getting a fair shake during failed stints with the Jets, the Patriots and then the Eagles. But he won a playoff game! Yeah, thanks for that, Steelers.
Dishonorable mention: Super Bowl XXXCredit: Getty Images
San Francisco 49ers: Super Bowl XLVII
Date: February 3, 2013
One thing smug 49ers fans loved to lord over other NFL fans was that they'd never lost a Super Bowl in five appearances. That is, until Michael Crabtree couldn't haul in Colin Kaepernick's last-gasp pass on fourth down in one of the weirdest Super Bowls ever. Lights out, San Francisco. If the 49ers win the Harbaugh Bowl, would Jim Harbaugh still be the coach in San Francisco? Would Jim Tomsula, owner of the NFL's greatest mustache, never get to be a head coach? Would Colin Kaepernick still be in the NFL? Would Joe Flacco still be the Ravens quarterback? All good questions, but we're left with what really happened: The 49ers finally lost the big game.Credit: Getty Images
Seattle Seahawks: Super Bowl XLIX
Date: February 1, 2015
One friggin' yard. Marshawn Lynch picks that up in his sleep. Just one simple handoff and the Seahawks were going to be world champs again, sending the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots to their third straight Super Bowl loss. Instead, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell made the worst play call in the history of football and Malcolm Butler stepped in front of Russell Wilson's pass to Ricardo Lockette for the interception. Richard Sherman and the 12s are never getting over it.
Dishonorable mention: Super Bowl XLCredit: Getty Images
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 1999 NFC Championship
Date: January 23, 2000
The Bucs defense held The Greatest Show on Turf to just five points for nearly 50 minutes of football but couldn't stop Ricky Proehl from hauling in a wobbly pass from Kurt Warner with 10:28 to go to continue the Rams' storybook run to the Super Bowl. It was just the Rams year. Tampa would have to wait three years to get another crack at the Super Bowl, and would do it without Tony Dungy, who should get a ring for the Super Bowl that Jon Gruden won.Credit: Getty Images
Tennessee Titans: Super Bowl XXXIV
Date: January 30, 2000
The Houston Oilers blew the biggest playoff lead in NFL history, but Tennessee fans don't really care about that. They do shudder at the memory of Kevin Dyson stretching for the goal line but falling just a yard short of scoring a tying touchdown to send the Super Bowl to its first overtime. One side note: Tom Hanks' character in "Castaway" doesn't remember any of this. He was on that Pacific island with Wilson when the Titans came to Tennessee and made their only run to a Super Bowl. Probably for the better.Credit: Getty Images
Washington Redskins: 2012 NFC wild-card playoff
Date: January 6, 2013
Robert Griffin III was like Luke Skywalker to long-suffering Redskins fans: their first sign of legitimate hope during the dark reign of Daniel Snyder. But that light went out the moment RG3's knee buckled in the crappy turf at FedEx Field. Griffin was out of Washington three seasons later and hasn't played in the NFL since an injury-riddled stint with the woeful Browns in 2016.Credit: Getty Images