If you’re a fan of NFL history, you can probably name some of the best Super Bowl champions, like the 1978 Steelers, the 1984 49ers, the 1985 Bears, or the 1993 Cowboys.
Looking back at all the Super Bowl winners, there were many that weren’t supposed to walk away with the Lombardi trophy. They were supposed to lose to a better team or even miss the playoffs that year. Here are the top five most improbable Super Bowl runs:
5 – 1967 Green Bay Packers
Nearing the end of their dominance of the 1960’s, the Packers appeared to be an aging team that just didn’t have enough gas in the tank for another title run. Bart Starr had his worst season of the decade. Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung were gone. Everyone was getting a little older and other teams were getting better.
Their first playoff game that year was against the 11-1-2 Los Angeles Rams, a team that had beaten Green Bay just a few weeks earlier. They had the “Fearsome Foursome” with Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen and they looked like a serious threat to not only dethrone Green Bay, but to win the Super Bowl.
But it would be the Packers who played like champions that day, beating the Rams 28-7 and advancing to the NFL Championship Game, which would later be known as the famous Ice Bowl.
Although Dallas was 9-5, many believed that the Cowboys were finally ready to take that step and get Tom Landry a championship. They appeared to have more talent and after thrashing Cleveland in the Conference Championship game (the playoffs were a little different back then) 52-14, it appeared Green Bay’s days of winning were over.
On December 31st, 1967, the temperature fell to -15 degrees and a -36 degree wind chill. Though the Cowboys had superior speed, it would mean nothing on a sheet of ice. The Packers overcame a late Dallas touchdown with one of the greatest drives in NFL history, capturing their 3rd consecutive NFL Championship, and moved onto the Super Bowl, where they beat maybe the best AFL team in its short history, the 1967 Oakland Raiders.
It was an amazing run and perhaps of the five championships they won, this one may have meant the most to Coach Lombardi, who retired at the conclusion of the season.
4 – 1981 San Francisco 49ers
On paper, the 1981 49ers did not look like a good team. Unlike the 1967 Packers, they did not have a championship team the year before, two years before, or in fact, ever in their history. Instead, they were basement dwellers just two seasons before. Their quarterback was unproven, they had no great running game to boast of, and they had three rookies in their defensive backfield. Yet, this team overcame all the odds and the two best teams in the NFL that year en route to the first championship in 49ers history.
After compiling an unlikely 13-3 record, it was assumed that they would fold in the playoffs, especially against “America’s Team”. Their first game was against the New York Giants, who themselves were on the rise and had overcome a lot to make the playoffs that year. This was the 49ers first playoff game since 1972 and they did not disappoint, defeating the Giants 38-24.
The following week would prove to be much more difficult. Facing the 12-4 Cowboys, most of the country believed this was the end of the road for the 49ers, and when tight end Doug Cosbie came down with a touchdown to put Dallas up 27-21 with only a few minutes left, I’m sure even some on the 49ers had to be doubting whether or not they could overcome their predicament.
They had to go 89 yards against the Cowboys and as Dwight Clark put it, “nobody drives 89 yards to beat Dallas. This is when Dallas is great.”
Head coach Bill Walsh saw the Cowboys were in Nickel defense, so instead of passing, he went to the run game. After a couple first downs by journeyman Lenvil Elliot, a reverse to Freddie Solomon, and a couple pass completions, the 49ers were in position to win the game. On third down, it would be Joe Montana finding Dwight Clark in the back of the endzone for what is simply known as “The Catch”.
They had beaten Dallas. Now it was onto the Super Bowl to face another team that, on paper, they probably shouldn’t have beat, the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals had League MVP Ken Anderson at quarterback, bruising fullback Pete Johnson, and a receiver squad of Cris Collinsworth, Isaac Curtis, and tight end Dan Ross.
But it would be the 49ers defense who forced 6 turnovers and had one of the greatest goal line stands in NFL history, which would prove to be the difference in San Francisco’s 26-21 win in Super Bowl XVI, capping off a Cinderella season and paving the way for a dynasty.
3 – 1997 Denver Broncos
Thirteen straight Super Bowl wins by the NFC. Four Super Bowl losses in franchise history. These are the two stats that resonated with John Elway and the Denver Broncos during the 1997 season.
After the 1996 Divisional Playoff loss to Jacksonville, one of the most shocking upsets ever, the Broncos knew they had an uphill climb to get to the Super Bowl. They finished 12-4, but because of two defeats to Kansas City and Pittsburgh, they were a Wild Card team.
They were able to avenge their 1996 playoff loss by crushing Jacksonville in the Wild Card game, but had to go to Kansas City the next week, where they had lost just a few weeks before.
It was a defensive game and it came down to a final drive where Denver’s defense had to keep the Chiefs out of the endzone. They were able to knock down the final pass and survive the difficulty of playing Arrowhead Stadium, winning the game 14-10.
The next week would be no easier. Pittsburgh had beaten Denver earlier that year and it seemed this was going to be another trip to the Super Bowl for the Steelers. However, it would be Denver that would make all the big plays when it mattered. They intercepted Kordell Stewart 3 times. Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe would keep the chains moving late in the game as the Broncos outlasted the Steelers in a 24-21 nail-biter.
Denver had reached the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989. They were underdogs against the Packers, as they were the defending champions and had the League MVP Brett Favre on their side. Despite the fact that anyone who watched Denver that year knew they could play with the Packers, it still seemed unlikely that the Broncos would be able to overcome all the history and the 13 game AFC losing streak in the Super Bowl.
The Broncos went down 7-0 but showed they belonged by forcing two turnovers and jumping out to a 17-7 lead, despite losing Terrell Davis to a migraine in the first quarter. But Davis came back and Denver was able to maintain a 7 point lead for most of the game, despite many times where it looked like the Packers would eventually take over the game.
On the final drive, most viewers likely believed Favre would lead the Packers to a game-tying score and force overtime where the NFC would find a way to prevail. But the Broncos would end the drive by knocking down a Brett Favre pass on 4th and 6.
What a playoff run it was. Four games. Two difficult road victories and a Super Bowl win for the ages.
#2 – 1980 Oakland Raiders
When the Wild Card was introduced to the playoffs in 1978, most figured the game might be interesting, but the better teams would always advance to the Super Bowl. The Raiders defied this in 1980 and finished an amazing playoff run.
Their first test was against the 11-5 Houston Oilers who featured Earl Campbell, coming off his best year with over 1,900 yards rushing. The game was expected to be close with the Oilers probably finding a way to win, but the Raiders trounced them 27-7.
Up next were the Cleveland Browns who were also 11-5, but had quarterback Brian Sipe who was the League MVP. The Browns had won 8 games by 7 points or less and got the nickname “The Cardiac Kids” because each week, it seemed like they would find another improbable way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
In a hard fought game in the freezing cold, the Raiders were nursing a 14-12 lead late in the game and Sipe was driving the Browns. But instead of setting up for the game-winning field goal from the 13 yard line, the Browns tried to put the ball in the endzone on a play called “Red Right 88”, which would be intercepted by safety Mike Davis.
The next week, the Raiders would travel to San Diego to face the best of the “Air Coryell” Chargers. While quarterback Dan Fouts looked unstoppable in 1980, it would be the Raiders’ Jim Plunkett that would have one of the best games of his career going 14 of 18 for 261 yards and 2 touchdowns, and running for another score.
The Chargers famed offense was slowed due to a physical defense which forced two interceptions. The Raiders were moving onto the Super Bowl and only the Eagles stood in their way.
The Eagles were 12-4 and looked like perhaps the best team in the league after winning 11 of their first 12 games, including a 10-7 win over the Raiders in Week 12.
But this Super Bowl would be anything but close. After jumping out to a 14-0 lead, the Raiders were able to tee off on quarterback Ron Jaworski. It would be linebacker Rod Martin who would get a Super Bowl record three interception. They had become the first team to win four playoff games to get a championship.
#1 – 2007 and 2011 New York Giants
You could argue that numbers 1 and 2 of this list should be the 2007 and 2011 Giants, but what would be the fun in that?
But the truth is, we have not seen a Super Bowl run that comes even close to as improbable as these two Giants teams.
The 2007 team was 10-6 but looked more like a 6-10 team most of the year. The turning point may have been Coach Tom Coughlin’s decision to play all-out against the Patriots in Week 17, when they could have just rested for the playoffs. Instead, they played as hard as they could and made it a game for most of the game. Despite not winning the game, it set the tone for the playoffs. They knew they could play with anyone.
Their first game was a road win at Tampa Bay. Tampa jumped out to a 7-0 lead but the Giants dominated the rest of the game winning 24-14.
The next was against the 13-3 Cowboys, who were the number one seed in the NFC. Leading 21-17 late in the game, it appeared the Cowboys would pull the game out, but the Giants were able to intercept Romo in the endzone and run out the clock.
In the NFC Championship game at Green Bay, the temperature was bout 10 degrees and the conditions were miserable. The Giants controlled much of the game and kept Brett Favre from breaking the game open. After four lead changes, the Packers were able to tie the game at 20 in the 4th quarter and the Giants would have two opportunities to win the game, but kicker Lawrence Tynes missed field goals each time.
The game went to overtime and seemed like Green Bay would be able to march down the frozen field and at least kick the game winner. But it would be cornerback Corey Webster that would come up with an ill-advised Brett Favre pass to set up a potential winning field goal. Giants quarterback Eli Manning could only drive the Giants to the Packer 30, setting up a long field goal for the man who had missed on his last two tries. This time, the kick was good and the Giants were in the Super Bowl against the undefeated Patriots.
This was supposed to be the coronation of the greatest season in NFL history. The Patriots were 18-0 and looked invincible. Despite the Giants leading 10-7 late in the game, Tom Brady would find a way to score, finding Randy Moss in the endzone for a 14-10 lead with a couple minutes left.
On a long third down, it seeemed like this was the end. The defense had Manning wrapped up, but he somehow escaped and heaved the ball as far as he could for the most unlikely catch ever to David Tyree. The helmet catch. Manning would hit Plaxico Burress in the endzone for a 17-14 lead with about a minute left and the defense would do the rest.
It was the most improbable victory and Super Bowl run ever.
Even more amazing was that four years later, they did it again. They were 8-7 heading to Dallas for the right to go to the playoffs. After winning there and dispatching Atlanta in the Wild Card round, it was onto Green Bay to face the 15-1 Packers with League MVP Aaron Rodgers.
The Giants didn’t bat an eye and dominated the game 37-20 and headed to San Francisco for another hard-fought NFC Championship game.
Despite the defensive struggle, the Giants were able to recover a fumble by 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams in overtime to set up the game winning score. They had again reached the Super Bowl against the Patriots. This time it would be Mario Manningham with an amazing catch to set up the winning score, leaving the rest to the defense.
Two seasons, two improbable runs, and two Super Bowl wins.
I’m not sure we’ll ever see anything like that ever again.
(honorable mentions: 2001 Patriots, 2012 Ravens, 2010 Packers, 2006 Colts, and 2005 Steelers)