Top 5 Most Unlikely NFL Playoff Runs Since 1992: A Brief History Of Very Long Odds

Ronald Martinez

Teams with only four or five wins in eleven games face long odds to make make the playoffs. But it has been done before. In fact, over the last 20 years, 15 teams have made that most improbable of turnarounds and made the playoffs despite having 5 wins or less after 11 games.

After 11 games, the Cowboys, Redskins, Saints and Dolphins are all 5-6. Since the league moved to the current playoff format in 1992 only 12 of 89 (13%) teams with five wins after 11 games made playoffs. Those are long odds.

Seven teams currently have four wins after 11 games (Rams, Cardinals, Bills, Lions, Jets, Chargers, Titans) and the Eagles could potentially make it eight teams tonight. Since 1992, only three teams out of 95 (3%) made the playoffs with just four wins after 11 games. Those are extremely long odds.

This inevitably leads fans of teams with four or five wins to one of two mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive conclusions:

1. "So you're saying there's a chance we can still make the playoffs? Go [insert team of choice]!"

2. "When's the draft?"

Regardless of which school of thought you belong to, the list below contains a summary of the most unlikely playoff runs since 1992. Whether you take this as a sign that there may still be hope or whether you take it as a sure sign that the season is over is entirely up to you.

5. New England Patriots (1994): There used to be a time when the franchise known as the Patriots were just another ho-hum team from the Northeast that had fans with strange accents and that had been to the Super Bowl only once (and lost) in its 35-year existence. That didn't change in 1994, but in Bill Parcells' second year as a head coach, the Patriots recovered from a 5-6 start to finish the season 10-6 on the strength of an extraordinary defensive performance that allowed an average of only 11.2 points per game over its last five games. Alas, they gave up 20 points to the Browns and lost the wildcard game that year.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (2006 & 2008): Led by a quarterback who did not have a firm grasp of overtime rules in the NFL, the 5-6 Eagles from 2006 and the 5-5-1 team from 2008 went on stretch runs that gave them a 10-6 and 9-6-1 record respectively.

3. Detroit Lions (1994, 1995, 1997): The Lions are the only team to make the playoffs three times after starting 5-6. They finished the season 4-1 in '94 and '97 to make the playoffs with a 9-7 record, and won out in '95 to finish 10-6, but unfortunately for Lions fans, all three teams lost in the first round of the playoffs. It's no coincidence that Barry Sanders led the league in rushing in all three of those years, but it wasn't enough for a franchise that simply had too many holes.

2. San Diego Chargers (1995 & 2008): The Chargers are the uncrowned kings of the unlikely playoff run. Twice, in 1995 and 2008, the Chargers came back from a 4-7 start to make the playoffs. And while they won out in 1995 to finish at 9-7 and make the playoffs on a wild card, the 2008 team managed get into the playoffs with an 8-8 record, making them the first and only team in NFL history to win its division without once being over .500 during the season.

1. QB Mark Brunell (1996 & 2005): If the Chargers are the uncrowned kings of the unlikely playoff run, then Mark Brunell is the God Emperor of the late playoff run. In 1996 Mark Brunell helped the Jacksonville Jaguars climb out of a 4-7 hole by winning the last five games of the season (four by three points or less) and make the playoffs. The Jaguars won the wildcard and divisional game by three points each as well before losing to the Patriots in the Conference Championships. Nine years later, Brunell would help engineer a similar feat in Washington: After a 5-6 start to the 2005 season, Brunell propelled the Redskins to a 5-0 stretch run and a 10-6 record that gave them a wildcard spot in the playoffs.

Here's the full list of of teams who've made that most improbable of turnarounds after 11 games by making the playoffs despite having 5 wins or less after 11 games:

Team Season Record after 11 Games Final Record
W L T W L
Minnesota Vikings 1993 5 6 0 9 7
Detroit Lions 1994 5 6 0 9 7
New England Patriots 1994 5 6 0 10 6
Detroit Lions 1995 5 6 0 10 6
San Diego Chargers 1995 4 7 0 9 7
Jacksonville Jaguars 1996 4 7 0 9 7
Detroit Lions 1997 5 6 0 9 7
St. Louis Rams 2004 5 6 0 8 8
Washington Redskins 2005 5 6 0 10 6
Philadelphia Eagles 2006 5 6 0 10 6
Washington Redskins 2007 5 6 0 9 7
Philadelphia Eagles 2008 5 5 1 9 6
San Diego Chargers 2008 4 7 0 8 8
New York Jets 2009 5 6 0 9 7
Seattle Seahawks 2010 5 6 0 7 9

If you had to pick one team for another such improbable turnaround this season, which one would it be? And keep in mind, all those 5-6 and 4-7 teams are where they are for a reason: for the most part, they're simply not very good.

Up next: A brief history of the biggest meltdowns down the stretch after 11 games, including a team that had the best record in the league at 9-2 after 11 games but lost its five remaining games and failed to make the playoffs.

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