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The most notable late-season rallies in NFL history

The most notable late-season rallies in NFL history

With the NFL’s stretch run approaching, several teams are looking to rebound after shaky starts to reach the playoffs. Here are the most notable squads to complete in-season turnarounds that ended in postseason berths. 


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The only team to go from 1-6 to the playoffs did so with a higher degree of difficulty. The Bengals rallied back to qualify for a four-team field, and they laid a foundation for an offense made famous in another city. After starting QB Greg Cook suffered what became a career-ending injury, the Bengals remodeled their offense around less talented Virgil Carter. Assistant Bill Walsh used Carter’s short-range accuracy to build what became known as the West Coast Offense. Cincinnati won its final eight, going 7-4 with Carter, with help from a defense housing future stars in linebacker Bill Bergey and corners Lemar Parrish and Ken Riley. The Bengals lost to the eventual champion Colts in Round 1.


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1975 Baltimore Colts

1975 Baltimore Colts

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Ted Marchibroda led two Colts recoveries, two decades apart. His first came after the team, which began the 1970s as a Super Bowl champion, regressed to a last-place outfit by 1974. The Colts hired Marchibroda in ’75, and after a 1-4 start, they began a run that lasted for three seasons. Prized prospect Bert Jones emerged as a high-ceiling quarterback, and dual-threat back Lydell Mitchell broke out for 1,737 scrimmage yards and a career-high 17 TDs. The Colts, who also saw “Sack Pack” D-linemen Fred Cook and John Dutton combine for 33.5 sacks, won all but two of their final nine by two scores. Baltimore lost to Pittsburgh in the first round.


1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

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In their three-peat bid, the Steelers faced a frontloaded schedule and faltered, going 1-4 behind losses to the playoff-bound Raiders, Vikings and Patriots. The Steelers’ slate lightened up in mid-October, and the Steel Curtain submitted the greatest extended stretch of defense in modern NFL history. The Steelers won nine straight. During the streak, Pittsburgh pitched five shutouts and allowed just two total TDs. Seven Steeler defenders made the Pro Bowl. This dominance carried through to another blowout of Baltimore in Round 1, but 1,000-1,000 duo Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier’s absences doomed the Steelers in an AFC title game loss to the Raiders.


1977 Chicago Bears

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The Vikings’ lengthy run atop the NFC Central decreased the probability of a Bears playoff berth in the final year of the four-team bracket. Walter Payton changed the equation. After Chicago started 3-5, its iconic running back — en route to MVP honors — carried an otherwise-limited team to six straight wins and the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1963. The Bears’ defense ranked 19th; their passing offense was 21st. Setting an NFL carries record (339), Payton rampaged for 1,852 rushing yards. This included a then-record 275 to lift the Bears over the Vikings, despite the third-year back’s flu bout. Eventual champion Dallas ended this streak in Round 1.


1980 Minnesota Vikings

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From Vince Lombardi’s Packers exit to Mike Ditka‘s Chicago return, the Vikings faced scant NFC Central opposition. Their 3-5 start in 1980, however, opened the door for the Lions, who started 5-1. Minnesota, which turned to Tommy Kramer after Fran Tarkenton’s 1979 retirement, won five of its next six. This included a 34-0 rout of Detroit. But the Browns were on the cusp of keeping the Lions alive. A Kramer-to-Ahmad Rashad Hail Mary provided a necessary miracle at Metropolitan Stadium. The Vikings (9-7) won the division for the 11th time in 13 years. Bud Grant’s team could not deter the eventual NFC champion Eagles in the divisional round.


1981 New York Jets

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Following a sobering 1970s, the Jets went 4-12 under Walt Michaels in 1980. They started 0-3 in ’81 and then tied the Dolphins in Week 5. But New York completed the first rally from 0-3 to the playoffs by winning nine of its final 11. The driver of this 10-5-1 season: the New York Sack Exchange. Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko led the group, and their 20-20 season is unmatched in sack history. Klecko (20.5 sacks) lost Defensive Player of the Year acclaim to rookie Lawrence Taylor. Both led the NFL to make sacks official in ’82. After playing through broken ribs to get the Jets to the wild-card game, Richard Todd threw four INTs in a loss to the Bills


1983 Detroit Lions

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Four teams finished with eight or nine wins in an NFC Central division mired in mediocrity between Tarkenton’s exit and the Bears’ mid-1980s defensive surge. The Lions managed to win this division for the first time, doing so despite a 1-4 start. Billy Sims missed time during that slow intro but returned to rip off his third 1,000-yard rushing season — in his final year before a career-ending injury. Also buoyed by a No. 2-ranked defense, featuring 26.5 sacks between Doug English and William Gay, the Lions went 9-7. QB issues doomed a potential coronation. Backup Gary Danielson threw five INTs in a 23-21 divisional-round loss in San Francisco


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1989 Pittsburgh Steelers

1989 Pittsburgh Steelers

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Outscored 92-10 in their first two games, the Steelers were 4-6 in mid-November. Below average on offense and defense, Pittsburgh went 1-5 in the AFC Central, being swept by Houston and Cincinnati. In a season in which the NFC housed seven 10-win teams to the AFC’s one, the Steelers rallying to 9-7 was enough to make the playoffs as the No. 5 seed — in the final year of the five-team bracket. Rod Woodson was this team’s lone Pro Bowler. A Gary Anderson 50-yard game-winner elevated the Steelers past the Oilers in the wild-card game, and the overachieving team held a fourth-quarter lead on AFC champion Denver in a one-point Round 2 loss.


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1992 San Diego Chargers

1992 San Diego Chargers

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Since the 1970 merger, 154 teams have started 0-4. These Chargers remain the only one to make the playoffs. But the Bolts not only persevered, they stormed back to 11-5. A November loss in Kansas City prevented a 12-game win streak. The Chargers did ride a last-place schedule featuring no wins over a playoff-bound team, but they shut out the Chiefs to book a divisional-round appearance. Leslie O’Neal and standout rookie Chris Mims combined for 27 sacks, and WR1 Anthony Miller made the third of his five Pro Bowls. While the 17-game season and 14-team fields make it easier for modern teams to pull this off, these Bolts remain solo here.


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1993 Houston Oilers

1993 Houston Oilers

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Fresh off their NFL-record 32-point collapse against the Bills, the Oilers started 1-4. Turmoil engulfed this team, with the most visible example coming when offensive and defensive coordinators Kevin Gilbride and Buddy Ryan fought on the sideline during a game the team won 24-0. On the field, the Oilers were locked in, winning 11 straight to win the AFC Central. Their Run and Shoot offense’s last hurrah involved 1,000-yard rusher Gary Brown, and the team boasted a top-five offense and defense. Still, another early playoff exit — against Joe Montana‘s Chiefs — occurred. This one ended the Warren Moon era after 10 years. 


1994 New England Patriots

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Two years after a 2-14 season, the Patriots made a surprise playoff run. The second year of the Bill Parcells-Drew Bledsoe era featured a 3-6 start, but the young quarterback — with a heavy assist from All-Pro tight end Ben Coates — brought the rebuild to the playoff stage by leading the Pats to seven straight victories and a wild-card spot. One of those wins came over the eventual AFC champion Chargers, and another involved a 20-point comeback. Bledsoe’s 70 attempts in New England’s 26-20 win over Minnesota remain a single-game record. The Parcells-Bill Belichick wild-card reunion, however, went the Browns’ way.


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1995 Detroit Lions

1995 Detroit Lions


Wayne Fontes cooled down a few hot seats in Detroit, lasting eight seasons. He escaped the guillotine in 1995 after the Lions battled back from 0-3 and 3-6. Detroit’s electric offense reeled off seven straight wins to earn a wild-card berth. Scott Mitchell is not exactly revered in Detroit, but the scrutinized QB fed Herman Moore and Brett Perriman to the point they combined for over 3,100 yards. Moore broke the NFL’s reception record, with 123, a year after Cris Carter did so. Barry Sanders: also good. The Lions won four games over playoff opposition, but ex-Detroit starter Rodney Peete bettered Mitchell in an Eagles wild-card romp.


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1995 San Diego Chargers

1995 San Diego Chargers

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Three years after becoming the first 0-4 team to qualify for the playoffs, the Chargers became the first to start 4-7 and get in. Coming off its lone Super Bowl bid, San Diego could not match its previous form. But the Bolts won their final five games. That was sufficient to secure the AFC’s No. 4 seed. The Chargers still needed to erase a 14-point Giants lead in Week 17 to qualify. They did so without QB Stan Humphries, injured in a strange game — when Giants fans spent the day hurling snowballs at players and coaches. Although the Bolts beat the Colts with Marshall Faulk in December, his backup (Zack Crockett) ran wild in Indy’s wild-card revenge.


1996 Jacksonville Jaguars

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This rally altered the AFC, ended one Hall of Fame QB’s career and nearly another’s. In their second season, the Jaguars began 4-7. Mark Brunell and Co., however, followed the 1995 Bolts’ lead by winning their final five games to make the playoffs. It took a strange 30-yard missed game-winner from Hall of Famer Morten Andersen in Week 17 to give the Jags the AFC’s No. 6 seed. Once in, Jacksonville upset Buffalo — in Jim Kelly’s final game — and stunned top-seeded Denver in a tour de force Brunell game that caused John Elway to consider retirement. The Jags and their fellow NFL sophomores, the Panthers, each finished one game shy of Super Bowl XXXI.


1998 Buffalo Bills

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The Bills changed their post-Kelly QB plan multiple times. These Bills started 0-3 behind Rob Johnson, for whom Buffalo had traded a first-round pick. In Year 1 of a multiyear battle, Johnson lost his job to Doug Flutie. The Bills took off, with the CFL legend leading a five-game win streak — one that featured a Flutie game-winning bootleg to beat the Jaguars. Flutie and the final holdovers from the Bills’ Super Bowl years rolled to 10-6. Eric Moulds supplanted Andre Reed as Flutie’s top target, and he shredded the Dolphins for 240 yards in the playoffs. A Miami strip-sack stalled Flutie’s magical resurgence. Buffalo’s next playoff loss: a bit worse.


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2002 New York Jets

2002 New York Jets

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The only team to shut out Peyton Manning in the playoffs started 2-5. After a two-year apprenticeship, Chad Pennington replaced Vinny Testaverde, helping the Jets go 9-7. ( “You play to win the game” happened with the Jets at 2-5; Herm Edwards’ oft-replayed speech did make an impact.) Blessed with the fleeting Laveranues Coles-Santana Moss duo, Pennington outplayed fellow 2000 draftee Tom Brady in Foxborough to put the Jets and replicated the effort to rout the Packers, en route to the AFC East crown. The Jets then blasted the Colts, 41-0, with Pennington outplaying Manning. The Raiders ended this spree, but this nucleus enjoyed more 2000s success.


2002 Tennessee Titans

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Both the Raiders’ 2002 playoff opponents hovered off the contender radar early in the year. These Titans started 1-4, but they steered a turnaround that ended in a playoff bye. Tennessee won 10 of its next 11 to go 11-5. Among the slow-starting sect, this is the modern era’s premier effort. The Titans swept the Colts, won two more games over playoff-bound opposition, and vanquished the Steelers in a divisional-round shootout. Steve McNair was at the peak of his powers at this point, but this team had one Pro Bowler (D-end Kevin Carter). Tennessee’s run ended on the Super Bowl XXXVII precipice in Oakland, but this resurgence does not receive enough credit.


2004 Green Bay Packers

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Months prior to the Packers selecting heir-apparent Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre threw 30 TD passes and guided a top-five offense — with the help of Donald Driver and blossoming youngster Javon Walker. Green Bay re-emerged after a 1-4 start to go 10-6 and win the NFC North, sweeping Minnesota on the way. The Packers beat the Vikings 34-31 twice in the regular season. Both games featured Ryan Longwell game-winners, but these Packers were shaky defensively. Their legacy ended up being the Randy Moss fake-moon game — a 31-17 first-round loss to the 8-8 Vikes. The Favre retirement watch accelerated in the years that followed.


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2008 San Diego Chargers

2008 San Diego Chargers

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Another late-season Chargers rally produced an unmatched finish. The Bolts became the first 4-8 team to vault to the playoffs, winning their final four. It took a strange set of events to make this happen. An onside kick caromed off Dwayne Bowe’s arms in Week 15, allowing Philip Rivers to complete a comeback in Kansas City. And the Broncos became the only team to blow a three-game division lead with three to play, setting up NBC’s Week 17 flex game. San Diego breezed to a 52-21 win, and Darren Sproles helped them ride that momentum into the playoffs. The 8-8 Bolts hosted the 12-4 Colts, and Sproles’ 328 all-purpose yards ousted a scorching Indy team. 


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2009 New York Jets

2009 New York Jets

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These Jets used the next Bolts edition — a 14-2 team — as a springboard to a late-season explosion. After starting 3-0, Rex Ryan’s first Jet team crashed to 4-6. The aerially limited team, in Mark Sanchez’s rookie year, crept to 9-7 and ventured to the AFC title game. Riding perhaps this century’s finest cornerback season, Revis Island’s emergence, the Jets ranked first defensively. Thomas Jones also surpassed 1,400 rushing yards at age 31. The Jets upset the Bengals and Chargers in the playoffs, sealing the latter win with Shonn Greene’s 53-yard TD run. The Jets, who replicated this run in 2010, held a halftime lead on the Colts in the AFC title game. 


2011 Denver Broncos

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Maybe the oddest late-season rally occurred 10 years ago. Going from scrutinized first-rounder to a division champ’s centerpiece to a discarded trade chip, Tim Tebow was at the center of the NFL universe in 2011. After replacing Kyle Orton, who had the Broncos at 1-4, Tebow reeled off a series of unlikely victories — while completing 46% of his passes — to move the Broncos to 8-8. A frisky defense and Matt Prater enabled Tebow’s comebacks, but the Broncos lost their final three and backed into the playoffs. Tebow responded with a 316-yard game (feat. heavy Demaryius Thomas contributions) to stun the Steelers in Round 1. He was a Jet two months later.


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2013 San Diego Chargers

2013 San Diego Chargers

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The kings of the December surprise struck again. These Bolts started 5-7 but extended their season to the divisional round. On-brand Charger underachievement gave way to a five-game win streak. It produced a road upset of the AFC champion Broncos and a Week 17 overtime win over Chiefs backups to secure the AFC’s No. 6 seed. Philip Rivers earned Comeback Player of the Year acclaim despite not being injured the year prior, and the Bolts trounced the Bengals in the wild-card round. Rivers and Keenan Allen had a battered Broncos defense on the ropes in Round 2, but this season turned into an outlier in a disappointing decade.


2015 Kansas City Chiefs

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Andy Reid’s third Chiefs season started poorly, with Kansas City starting 1-5 and losing star running back Jamaal Charles to a second ACL tear. Alex Smith and Co. then became the second 1-5 team to make the playoffs, mounting a 10-game run that extended to 11 after a shutout win over the Texans in the wild-card round. Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West filled in for Charles, and Travis Kelce completed the first in his line of Pro Bowl seasons. All-Pro Eric Berry and Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters led a top-three defense, but injuries piled up by the time the Chiefs ran into the Patriots in Round 2. 


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2016 Green Bay Packers

2016 Green Bay Packers

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This Green Bay edition stood 4-6 after blowout losses to mediocre Tennessee and Washington squads. Aaron Rodgers led a flawed Packers roster to eight straight wins and into the NFC championship game. Green Bay boasted neither a reliable defense nor a productive run game, with rushing leader Ty Montgomery at 457 yards. Rodgers made it work, peppering Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams with targets (26 combined TDs). While the NFC North’s struggles helped the Pack’s effort, Rodgers outdueled the No. 1-seeded Cowboys — after a game-saving dime to rental tight end Jared Cook — to reach his third NFC championship game. 


2018 Indianapolis Colts

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The 2018 season saw a few turnarounds shape its playoff field — none more surprising than the Colts’. The rebuilding team started 1-5 but saw an era overlap key a quality run. In what became his final season, Andrew Luck rebounded from the shoulder injury that cost him 2017 to lead the non-Patrick Mahomes world with 39 TD passes. A loaded Indy draft class featuring All-Pros Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard joined the Comeback Player of the Year to lead the team to 10-6. This all came after the Josh McDaniels about-face fiasco. Second choice Frank Reich stepped in and guided Indianapolis to the divisional round.


2018 Houston Texans

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This season’s AFC South featured two resurgent teams. While the Colts’ bounce-back effort included a comfy wild-card win in Houston, the Texans resurfaced from 0-3 to win 11 games. Deshaun Watson’s return from an ACL tear keyed a Texans rebound, which also featured J.J. Watt’s fifth first-team All-Pro slate. The Watt-Jadeveon Clowney finale led to the Texans ranking fourth defensively. After their poor start, the Texans won nine straight — including a Week 4 Colts tilt in which Reich’s refusal to play for a tie led to a Texans OT win. 


2018 Philadelphia Eagles

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The Eagles’ defense of their Super Bowl LII championship did not go as planned. They were 4-6 in mid-November and did not see Carson Wentz approach the level he hit during his would-be MVP season. Another Wentz injury, however, opened the door to Nick Foles salvaging this. The Eagles won five of their final six — with wins over the Texans and an upset over the eventual NFC champion Rams — behind Foles, injecting more uncertainty into their Wentz situation. A Foles-to- Golden Tate strike gave Philly a win in the “Double Doink” game, and the Saints had a difficult time fending off the Eagles in the divisional round. 


2020 Washington Football Team

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While this can be classified as a rally by default, this Washington team (7-9) did make some history by winning a putrid NFC East. This is the only team to start 3-7 and make the playoffs. (Somehow, the Chargers’ myriad recovery efforts never covered this ground.) Washington did, thanks partially to Alex Smith, who completed one of the NFL’s defining injury comebacks. A D-line housing five first-round picks bolstered Washington’s limited offense, and the Eagles’ scrutinized decision to yank Jalen Hurts in Week 17 gave their rivals the division title. Washington has been unable to build on that surprise playoff berth in 2021.

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.

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