The playoffs are where dreams are either made or dashed.
In the NFL, second-best is failure and only lifting that Vince Lombardi trophy at the end of the Super Bowl will do.
Going into the divisional round of the 2017-18 playoffs – live on Sky Sports this weekend – just three of the eight teams involved have done that. But all have had their successes, and failures, in the postseason before.
Here, we take a look at each team’s best and worst moments…
New England Patriots
Best: Super Bowl LI win
Any one of New England’s five Super Bowl wins could potentially lay claim to this title, particularly their fourth, when beating the Seattle Seahawks in 2015 courtesy of a Malcolm Butler interception off the last play of the game. Surely such late drama couldn’t be topped? Wrong!
The Patriots returned to the big game two years later and pulled off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, coming back from 28-3 down in the third quarter to ultimately beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime. Owner Robert Kraft even said it himself, when accepting the Vince Lombardi trophy, this is unequivocally the sweetest!
Worst: Super Bowl XLII loss
The Patriots had the chance to create even more NFL history in the 2007 season by becoming the first team to go a 16-game season and the playoffs undefeated, but up stepped the New York Giants and a certain David Tyree in the Super Bowl to spoil the party!
New York, the No 5 seed in the NFC, were a massive 12-point underdog going into the game, but thanks to a fearsome set of pass-rushers in Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, they kept New England’s explosive offense in check and had a chance to win the game with a TD in the final two minutes.
Eventual Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning led the team down the field, thanks in large part to that catch from Tyree. On third down, still in their own half, Manning somehow avoided the Patriots pass rush, throwing the ball up in the air more in hope than expectation, with Tyree able to bring it down with help from his helmet. The drive stayed alive and eventually ended with a game-winning TD from Manning to Plaxico Burress to break New England hearts.
Best: The Immaculate Reception
With the Steelers trailing the Oakland Raiders 7-6 in the final moments of the 1972-73 AFC divisional round, Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a last-ditch pass to John Fuqua. The ball was deflected by Raiders safety Jack Tatum, fortuitously into the hands on fullback Franco Harris, who ran in for the game-winning touchdown.
Controversy swirled, with many believing the ball touched only Fuqua or the ground before Harris caught it, either of which would have resulted in an incomplete pass by the rules at the time. But, the TD stood, gifting the Steelers their first ever postseason victory, and though they’d lose the AFC Championship game against the undefeated Miami Dolphins the following week, the team would go on to win four Super Bowls over the next six years.
Worst: Super Bowl XXX loss
Pittsburgh had been used to winning Super Bowls. They had never lost one, claiming four, going into this meeting with the Dallas Cowboys in 1996. This was Pittsburgh’s first loss, hurting even more due to it coming at the hands of the Cowboys, who edged ahead of them with five Vince Lombardi trophies.
Unfancied going into the game against the Dallas dynasty of the 1990s, the Steelers were actually in with a shot, clawing their way back into the game, trailing only by three after scoring 10 unanswered fourth-quarter points. They had the ball, with the chance to take the lead, only for quarterback Neil O’Donnell to throw a second interception of the game to eventual MVP Larry Brown.
Best: Win in Mile High
In only their second year of existence, the fact that the Jaguars even made the playoffs in the 1996 season was an achievement in itself, let alone that they then earned their first postseason win at the first attempt – a Wild Card Weekend triumph over the Buffalo Bills.
They weren’t done yet. Jacksonville travelled to Denver in the Divisional Round, to take on the No 1 seed Broncos, owners of an NFL-best 13-3 record. Things went according to the script early on, as Denver scored two touchdowns and stopped the Jaguars from earning a single first down.
But, Jacksonville ultimately overcame a 12-point deficit to win 30-27, scoring on six consecutive possessions and racking up 443 yards of total offense. Quarterback Mark Brunell had the best postseason performance of his career, throwing for 245 yards and two TDs, while running back Natrone Means had 140 yards on the ground and one score.
Worst: Jags miss Super Bowl
The Jaguars would soon learn how it felt to be humbled as a No 1 seed, when losing 33-14 to the Tennessee Titans – for the third time that year – in their only ever AFC Championship Game appearance, in 1999-2000.
The Jaguars were coming in fresh from a 62-7 hammering of the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round, in Dan Marino’s last ever game in the NFL. But, the Titans, riding high from their own Music City Miracle (more on that in a minute…) on Wild Card Weekend, comfortably saw off their divisional rivals to reach the Super Bowl.
Best: Music City Miracle
Buffalo fans won’t appreciate another reminder of this incredible playoff moment, one which began their 17-year long playoff drought, before it was finally ended this year.
With only 16 seconds remaining in the game, Bills kicker Steve Christie made a 41-yard field goal to put Buffalo in the lead, 16-15. But, the game was far from over! Somehow the Titans defied the odds, with Frank Wycheck throwing a lateral pass across the field to Kevin Dyson on the ensuing kick-off, who then raced away for the 75-yard game-winning TD.
Worst: Super Bowl XXXIV loss
Later that same playoff run, the Titans were stopped on the one-yard line to lose the Super Bowl to the St Louis Rams and the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’.
The Titans trailed 16-0 midway through the third quarter, but fought their way back into the game through two Eddie George touchdown runs. They were then behind by seven when taking the ball over with one minute and 48 seconds left on the clock and proceeded to drive 78 yards down the field.
The Titans had the ball on the Rams 10-yard line with six seconds to go. A touchdown would tie the game. Quarterback Steve McNair threw a completed pass to Kevin Dyson, only for the receiver to be wrapped up short of the goal line (just!) thanks to an incredible last-gasp saving tackle by St Louis linebacker Mike Jones.
Best: Championship curse broken
After three straight NFC Championship losses – to the Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers – the Eagles finally reached the Super Bowl for only the second time in their history, with a win over the Atlanta Falcons in 2005.
The Eagles held only a slender 14-10 lead over Atlanta in freezing cold conditions, and a swirling wind, in Philadelphia, but proceeded to dominate the second half, forcing Atlanta to punt on every possession except two which resulted in an interception and a turnover on downs. Oft-maligned quarterback Donavan McNabb threw for 180 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for 32 yards.
Worst: Super Bowl XXXIX loss
Two weeks later, when facing a New England outfit chasing their third Super Bowl title in four years, Philadelphia’s lowest playoff moment would arrive quickly off the back of their best.
The unfancied Eagles were competitive. McNabb had 357 yards passing – though, with three interceptions thrown in. Terrell Owens had an incredible game, catching nine passes from his quarterback for 122 yards, despite defying doctors orders by playing on an injured ankle containing two screws and a metal plate.
But, trailing by 10 with only five minutes and 40 seconds left in the game, Philadelphia somewhat inexplicably opted against a ‘no huddle offense’ and though they drove 79 yards down the field for a touchdown to pull to within three points of the Pats, they took too much time off the clock. After a failed onside kick attempt, the Eagles wouldn’t get the ball back until the final 46 seconds of the game. The third of McNabb’s pass attempts was picked off and the Eagles were done.
Best: Carter breaks record!
In the midst of their 1980s dynasty, the San Francisco 49ers were famously felled by the Vikings in the 1987-88 divisional round meeting, as Anthony Carter set the all-time record for most receiving yards in a playoff game, with 227.
The Vikings had finished the strike-shortened 1987 season with an 8-7 record, while the 49ers were an NFL-best 13-2, owning the league’s No 1 offense and defense. But, in one of the greatest upsets in playoff history, the Vikings scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter to stretch out in front – San Francisco even benched future Hall of Famer QB Joe Montana for Steve Young in a desperate attempt to spark their offense. But Minnesota held on for a famous 36-24 win.
Worst: 1998 missed opportunity
Take your pick. For example, you could pick out any one of their four Super Bowl losses – tied with the Bills for the most in NFL history without ever winning it. There’s also kicker Blair Walsh’s 27-yard field goal miss with 22 seconds remaining in the 10-9 Wild Card defeat to Seattle two years ago.
But, more painful than any of the above was Minnesota’s missed year, in 1998. The Vikings and their explosive offense – with rookie star receiver Randy Moss at the heart – set a then-NFL record of 556 points in the season, never scoring fewer than 24 in a game. Confidently heading into the playoffs with a 15-1 record, they then breezed past the Arizona Cardinals 41-21 in the divisional round before famously coming unstuck against Atlanta in the NFC Championship, losing 30-27 to a Morten Andersen field goal in overtime.
New Orleans Saints
Best: Super Bowl XLIV win
Along with the Patriots and Steelers, the Saints are the only other team left in the playoffs to have won the Super Bowl – though only once, beating the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts in 2010.
The key moment in their victory came with the kind of gutsy call we’ve come to expect from head coach Sean Payton. Down 10-6 at half-time, New Orleans surprised the Colts with an onside kick to start the second half, one they successfully recovered.
It led to their first touchdown of the game – Drew Brees’ 16-yard TD pass to Pierre Thomas – and their first lead. Brees would end up completing 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns, being named the Super Bowl MVP, after what ultimately proved to be a fairly comfortable 31-17 win.
Worst: Bountygate scandal
The Saints, founded in 1967, actually had to wait 20 years for a first playoff appearance and 34 for a first victory. But, arguably, their worst playoff moment came in that same season they won the Super Bowl, with what would ultimately come to be known as Bountygate.
In their NFC Championship win over the Vikings, the Saints were accused of paying out bonuses, or ‘bounties’, for injuring opposing team players, though none of the hits in the game in question were actually penalised or deemed illegal by the in-game officials.
In the 2010 offseason, an anonymous player tipped NFL officials that the Saints had targeted Vikings QB Brett Favre as part of a bounty program administered by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. After a drawn out investigation, in March 2012 the NFL revealed it had indeed found irrefutable evidence of a bounty program in place. Williams was suspended indefinitely, though this would be overturned the following year, and head coach Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season.
Best: Win in Green Bay
The 1998-99 NFC Championship win over Minnesota would be up there, but we’ve instead gone for the history-making exploits of the Michael Vick-led Falcons, In his first year as a starter in the NFL, Vick took Atlanta into the playoffs and to Green Bay, where they handed the Packers their first ever home playoff loss, on Wild Card Weekend.
Prior to that bitterly cold night in January, Green Bay had won all 13 of their playoff contests at Lambeau Field. But, the Falcons offense ran all over them – 192 yards, split largely between Vick and lead running back Warrick Dunn – while the defense bullied the Packers into three fumbles and Brett Favre into two interceptions in a comfortable 27-7 win.
Worst: Super Bowl XLII loss
It can only be last year’s Super Bowl, and the devastating loss that they are so desperately looking to correct with this season’s run.
Atlanta and their NFL-best offense were 28-3 up over the Patriots late in the third quarter, courtesy of two Matt Ryan TDs, one rushing from Devonta Freeman and Robert Alford’s 82-yard pick six. But, the Falcons then imploded, conceding 31 unanswered points to suffer the greatest comeback defeat in Super Bowl history, losing in the first overtime in the season’s showpiece game.
Watch the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, live on Sky Sports, starting with Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles, on Saturday from 9pm, live on Sky Sports Action.