The 7 Most Surprising NFL Playoff Runs Since 2000

The 7 Most Surprising NFL Playoff Runs Since 2000
David KenyonFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 27, 2024

The 7 Most Surprising NFL Playoff Runs Since 2000

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    Eli Manning

    Eli ManningRob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images

    Top-seeded teams usually reign supreme in the NFL playoffs. Every few years, however, an underdog rules the postseason.

    Since this millennium began, we’ve seen a couple of sixth-seeded teams—then the final qualifier of a conference—put together a stunning championship run. We’ve watched the New York Giants somehow manage to dethrone the New England Patriots. Twice.

    But no worries, Tom Brady fans, inclusion here is not always a negative for the greatest quarterback of all time.

    While the list is subjective, context is considered along with a team’s playoff seed, road games and Super Bowl opponent. Preference is given to franchises that won a title.

2001 New England Patriots

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    Tom Brady

    Tom BradyPhoto by John Biever/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

    Thanks to hindsight, we remember the 2001 season as the beginning of Tom Brady’s ascent with the New England Patriots.

    In the moment, nobody had that vision.

    Brady replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 and never relinquished the starting job. However, he wasn’t exactly lighting up box scores with a modest 6.9 yards per pass attempt.

    New England landed the AFC’s No. 2 seed yet entered the playoffs with minor expectations. Right away, the Patriots needed a controversial reversal—the “Tuck Rule Game”—to survive the Oakland Raiders in the divisional round and stay alive in the postseason.

    But the Pats then swiped two victories as double-digit underdogs. They clipped the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship and stunned the high-scoring St. Louis Rams for a shocking win in Super Bowl XXXVI.

2005 Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Hines Ward

    Hines WardPhoto by Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

    Given that the Pittsburgh Steelers had posted a 15-1 record one year earlier, they arrived to the 2005 season as a respected team. After all, second-year QB Ben Roethlisberger had assumed control of the offense.

    However, the Steelers ended up holding the sixth seed in the AFC and faced a road-filled path to the Super Bowl.

    They made it happen anyway.

    Pittsburgh picked off the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals before upsetting Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. As a 3.5-point underdog in the AFC Championship, the Steelers hammered the Denver Broncos 34-17 to eliminate all three of the AFC’s top-seeded teams.

    To punctuate the epic run, Pittsburgh defeated the Seattle Seahawks—the NFC’s best team—in Super Bowl XL.

2007 New York Giants

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    David Tyree

    David TyreePhoto by John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

    On one sideline, Super Bowl XLII featured Brady and the unbeaten Patriots. They’d put together a 16-0 regular season, added a pair of playoff wins and sat on the brink of incredible NFL history.

    And on the other, you had the New York Giants—a group that stumbled down the stretch. They raced out to a 6-2 record but finished 10-6 behind a turnover-prone offense, losing to New England in the regular-season finale while tumbling to the No. 5 seed in the NFC.

    So, naturally, the Giants assembled a stellar postseason.

    They won three straight games as a road underdog—taking down the top-seeded, rival Dallas Cowboys and the second-seeded Green Bay Packers—to open as a 12.5-point underdog opposite the Pats.

    David Tyree’s helmet catch set up Eli Manning’s game-winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in the final minute of regulation. New York ruined a perfect season with a 17-14 triumph.

2010 Green Bay Packers

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    Aaron Rodgers

    Aaron RodgersTom Hauck/Getty Images

    Postseason letdowns became a theme of Aaron Rodgers’ tenure with the Green Bay Packers, so the juxtaposition of his lone Super Bowl victory is especially fascinating.

    In short: They were fortunate to even make the 2010 playoffs.

    Green Bay finished with a 10-6 record and in a three-way deadlock for the NFC’s final wild-card berth. It took a fourth tiebreaker to separate the Packers from the Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    In the postseason, the Packers won road contests over the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears. They capped the season with a 31-25 win against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV despite three significant first-half injuries thinning the roster.

    Rodgers led Green Bay to the playoffs in nine more seasons but never made the Super Bowl again.

2011 New York Giants

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    Mario Manningham

    Mario ManninghamPhoto by Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

    One of the reasons Rodgers never returned to the Big Game? Oh, these pesky 2011 Giants.

    New York notched a minus-six point differential in the regular season yet stood atop a weak NFC East at 9-7. Sure, the Giants had home-field advantage and trounced the Atlanta Falcons to open the playoffs, but top-seeded Green Bay—which boasted a 15-1 record—would be next.

    Thanks to four takeaways, the G-Men pulled off a 37-20 stunner at Lambeau. They parlayed that upset into a 20-17 overtime road win against the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship.

    Once again, the Patriots awaited.

    Once again, the Giants knocked off New England.

    Eli Manning conjured up a second round of heroics, launching a perfect 38-yard pass to Mario Manningham that sparked Ahmad Bradshaw’s last-minute touchdown in a 21-17 win.

2017 Philadelphia Eagles

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    Chris Long

    Chris LongPhoto by Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

    Late in the regular season, a knee injury sidelined potential MVP-winning quarterback Carson Wentz. That, in theory, should have ruined the Eagles’ hopes of a Super Bowl run.

    Instead, it unleashed the underdog craze of 2017.

    Philly secured the NFC’s top seed but managed little respect. The sixth-seeded Falcons closed as a 2.5-point favorite in the divisional round, but the Eagles squeezed out a 15-10 victory. The second-seeded Minnesota Vikings headed to the Linc as a three-point favorite, but Philly defended its home field in a commanding 38-7 blowout.

    As you can imagine, the Super Bowl was no different. Brady and the Patriots held a 4.5-point edge on the Nick Foles-led Eagles.

    Foles responded with a career-defining performance, throwing for 373 yards and three touchdowns—including a late 11-yard winner to Zach Ertz—and catching a fourth score on a memorable trick play.

2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Tom Brady

    Tom BradyPhoto by Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

    In fairness, Brady’s presence lessens the surprise factor. Tampa Bay, nevertheless, faced a difficult path to hang a banner in 2020.

    The Buccaneers recovered from a 7-5 start but entered the playoffs as a wild-card team in a difficult NFC.

    After winning on the road as expected over Washington, Tampa traveled to New Orleans to face the Saints—who already had a pair of double-digit victories over the Bucs. The defense snatched three interceptions on Drew Brees and sparked a 30-20 upset of the Saints.

    Top-seeded Green Bay hosted the NFC Championship, but two enormous mistakes on either side of halftime doomed the Packers while sending the Bucs to a 31-26 triumph.

    As a relentless pass rush silenced the Kansas City Chiefs in a 31-9 Super Bowl LV victory, Brady solidified his legacy with a seventh ring.

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