2011 Indianapolis Colts
2-14, fourth place in AFC South
This was the most conveniently terrible Colts team of all time. With Peyton Manning sidelined indefinitely after undergoing neck surgeries, Indy followed up nine consecutive double-digit-win campaigns by redefining inept on-field clownishness. I reveled in it as the combination of Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins oversaw an “attack” that squeezed out a mere 15.2 points per tilt, 28th worst in football, as the Colts opened 0-13. Zooming toward the first overall pick, Orlovsky nearly messed the entire thing up by throwing for 82 yards and a score in a 27-13 win over the Titans. One week later, Danny O put the tank job in jeopardy with a 244-yard outburst packed inside a 19-16 win over the Texans. Luckily, the Colts collapsed in Week 17, finishing tied with St. Louis at 2-14 for the worst record in football. The tie-breaker went to Indy and Andrew Luck became a Colt three months later. Too close for comfort, though, Mr. Orlovsky.
1994 Cleveland Browns
12-6, lost in Divisional Round
It’s been slim pickings since Y2K for this self-confessed Browns fan. I still wonder what might have been for a feisty mid-90s Cleveland roster with Bill Belichick at coach and Ozzie Newsome in the front office had the team not scandalously darted to Baltimore. Maybe a spicy blending of what the Patriots and Ravens have churned out over the past two decades? We’ll never know, but Belichick’s ’94 Browns were a hit, armed with a white-knuckle defense that gave up a league-low 12.8 points per game. The offense endured its struggles with Vinny Testaverde throwing 16 touchdowns and 18 picks on the year while leaning on Leroy Hoard and Eric Metcalf out of the backfield. The Browns surged to 9-3 and produced a somewhat shocking nationally televised win over the Cowboys in Week 15. A bitter loss to the Steelers in Week 16 prevented Cleveland from winning the AFC Central, but glory arrived on New Year’s Day 1995 when Belichick’s Browns topped Bill Parcells and his Drew Bledsoe-led Patriots, 20-13, in the Wild Card Round. Vinny and the boys were crushed by the Steelers the following week and, one season later, Cleveland fans were dropped into total darkness when owner Art Modell announced he was moving the storied franchise to Baltimore. The Browns have not won a playoff game since.
1995 San Diego Chargers
9-8, lost in Wild Card Round
Talk about a Super Bowl hangover. One season after their glory run ended in calamity against Steve Young and the Niners, the Bolts looked lost for good after a three-game November skid left the team on life support at 4-7. Quarterback Stan Humphries and friends caught fire from there, ripping off victories over the Raiders, Browns, Cardinals, Colts and Giants to finish 9-7 and zoom into the playoffs as one of the decade’s great comeback tales. Dudes like Natrone Means, Ronnie Harmon and Alfred Pupunu fueled the offense while all-world linebacker Junior Seau operated as a rainmaker from wire to wire. I loved watching Bobby Ross go through every possible emotion on the sideline, but the coach’s luck ran out in the Wild Card Round when the feel-good Chargers ran into an even bigger Cinderella story: Jim Harbaugh’s Colts, an upstart collection of mostly no-namers who nearly upset the Steelers two weeks later in the AFC title game.
2001 New England Patriots
14-5, winners of Super Bowl XXXVI
There was a time in human history when Tom Brady was a fill-in starter at quarterback, Belichick was still seen as a questionable hire by Robert Kraft and the Patriots were nothing special. Coming off a rough 5-11 debut campaign in 2000, Belichick felt like hot-seat material in Year 2 when New England opened 1-3. Still milquetoast at 5-5, Brady and crew ripped off six straight wins to take the AFC East at 11-5. Two weeks later, Earth became intimately familiar with the Tuck Rule as New England dispatched a beside-themselves Oakland team in flurry-filled Foxborough.
One week later in the AFC title game against Pittsburgh, Patriots fans still sore about Drew Bledsoe’s injury-turned-benching had one final golden moment when the veteran replaced a banged-up TB12 with 1:40 left in the first half. Bledsoe was electric in hitting his first two passes before whipping a touchdown dart to David Patten to put New England up 14-3 at intermission. The Patriots never looked back, knocking off Pittsburgh 24-17 before pulling off a titanic Super Bowl upset over Kurt Warner and the Rams. Seen by many today as the Evil Empire, that wasn’t the vibe when this plucky, surprise roster pulled off the improbable.
1990 New York Giants
16-3, winners of Super Bowl XXV
The final run for Bill Parcells with the Giants. Belichick, too, who would leave the G-Men to become Cleveland’s coach after a drama-drenched 20-19 Super Bowl win over Buffalo. I’ve written previously about the fascinating NFC title game topping of San Francisco that catapulted the Giants onto the big stage. The Super Bowl played out in surreal fashion with Operation Desert Storm launching 10 days prior. For many, the game itself — opening with Whitney Houston’s pristine national anthem — was a break from 24/7 tracking of CNN, although Al Michaels repeatedly cut away for news briefings from ABC anchor Peter Jennings. Super Bowl XXV was many things: the first of its kind without a turnover; a black-and-blue, smothering defensive grudge match; and forever remembered for Scott Norwood’s 47-yard game-winning field goal try for Buffalo flittering wide right. What grabs me, though, is the improbable scenario of Giants backup passer Jeff Hostetler throwing for more yards than Jim Kelly. Turns out this brand of wizardry is not exclusive to Nick Foles and his cadre of Philly Special architects.