Posted: Friday December 10, 2004 11:09AM; Updated: Friday December 10, 2004 11:09AM
Jim Fassel's playoff guarantee turned into a surprise appearance in the Super Bowl.
Four weeks to go in the NFL's regular season, and this is when the fun starts. Everybody loves a playoff race. Everybody knows the scenarios backwards and forwards. Everybody can talk tiebreakers.
This year, like most every other season, somebody will come out of nowhere in the final month and make a late, mad dash to the playoffs (No. 6 seed in the NFC, we're looking in your direction). And if the frantic run is memorable enough, we'll add that team to our mental list of the squads that put together some of the NFL's greatest playoff-race drives.
Here are five of our favorites from the 1970 merger on. Every one of these teams looked dead in the water at some point in their playoff-bound season, and every one of them got hot when it mattered most, finding a way to live another day:
1. 1970 Cincinnati Bengals -- The legendary Paul Brown was head coach. The on-his-way-to-legendary-status Bill Walsh was the quarterbacks/receivers coach. On the roster were future Bengals head coaches Sam Wyche and Bruce Coslet, and longtime NFL assistant Chip Myers. But that's not what the 1970 Bengals are known for. Playing in just its third season of existence, Cincinnati made history as the youngest expansion team (at the time) to ever make the playoffs. And the Bengals did it in dramatic fashion.
After opening the season with a home win against Oakland, the Bengals stumbled to six consecutive losses, looking all the world like the same team that had gone 7-20-1 in its only two seasons of AFL play. But then something clicked, and Cincinnati won its final seven games, to finish 8-6 and atop the new four-team AFC Central.
The Bengals, in that torrid stretch, averaged just under 30 points per game, and the icing on the cake was the team that Cincinnati beat out for the division title by one game: Their hated cross-state rival Cleveland Browns, the franchise with whom Paul Brown had made his Hall of Fame name, but then fired him after the 1962 season. Alas, the Bengals magic ended in the playoffs, as Cincinnati lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Colts 17-0 in the AFC's divisional round.
2. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers -- The Steelers won the Super Bowl at the end of the 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979 seasons. But it was the 1976 team that put together the most dominating run in franchise history. The facts are fairly well known: The Steelers started 1-4, as quarterback Terry Bradshaw went out in Week 5 at Cleveland with a neck injury. Enter rookie quarterback Mike Kruczek, who until a kid named Ben Roethlisberger upstaged him this season, held the record for consecutive victories to start his career (six).
Kruczek, however, was the ultimate care-taker quarterback. He didn't throw a touchdown pass in his six-game winning streak. He didn't have to. Pittsburgh won with its defense and its running game, finally pulling out of last place in Week 9. The Steelers ended the regular season with nine consecutive victories to finish 10-4 and win the AFC Central for the fourth time in five years. But it was how they got there that's so memorable.
In those nine games, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense held its opponents to six points or less eight times, with a staggering five shutouts, including three in a row. All told, the Steelers gave up just 28 points in those nine games (3.1 per game), and reeled off 22 consecutive shutout quarters at one point. Pittsburgh allowed only two touchdowns in that span, both in a 32-16 win over Houston. It was Pittsburgh's most recent nine-game winning streak, until this year's squad pulled off the feat.
The Steelers' roll continued in the first round of the playoffs, as they routed Baltimore 40-14. But Pittsburgh also lost both of its 1,000-yard running backs in that game -- Franco Harris (ribs) and Rocky Bleier (foot) -- and lost the following week at Oakland in the AFC title game.
3. 2000 New York Giants -- Jim Fassel in the role of Joe "Willie'' Namath. That's what you remember about the 2000 Giants. In mid-November of his fourth season as head coach, Fassel boldly "guaranteed'' that his guys would make the playoffs -- and then they went out and did it. It was either confidence on his part, or a desperate gamble with the season slipping away. A bit of bravado, or the last gasp of a head coach who knew his job security was in question.
Whatever the motivation, it turned into a stroke of genius, as the Giants rallied behind their gutsy coach to not only make the playoffs, but reach their first Super Bowl in 10 seasons. The backdrop was this: New York was 7-4 and coming off consecutive home losses to St. Louis and Detroit, defeats that had dropped it out of their season-long first-place standing. Stuck in traffic after the game, Fassel hatched an idea.
Knowing that the vultures were circling in the New York press, Fassel went on the offensive, issuing his "guarantee'' that the Giants would make the playoffs. "Get off my coaches' backs,'' Fassel said in a rambling statement to the media. "Get off the players' backs. I'm responsible for the whole thing. If you've got the cross hairs, if you've got the laser, you can put it right on my chest. This team is going to the playoffs.''
Responding to the challenge, the Giants closed out the regular season with five consecutive wins to finish 11-5 and earn their first NFC East title since 1997. Then they beat Philadelphia and Minnesota in the playoffs -- both at Giants Stadium -- to make it seven victories in a row. But that's where the Namath analogy falls apart, because unlike the 1968 Jets, Fassel's Giants couldn't finish the job by beating Baltimore in the Super Bowl. The Ravens ran away with the game, 34-7, prompting Fassel the next day to predict that New York wouldn't need another 10 years to get back to the Super Bowl.
4. 1992 San Diego Chargers -- You think this year's edition of the Chargers -- streaking to a 9-3 first-place showing in the AFC West after finishing an NFL-worst 4-12 in 2003 -- are a surprising bunch? Been done before and even better. In 1991, the Chargers also finished 4-12, firing Dan Henning as their head coach after the season. Hired was the all-business Bobby Ross, fresh off leading Georgia Tech to a share of the national championship.
But while Marty Schottenheimer's Bolts dug themselves out of a 1-2 hole this season, winning eight of their past nine, Ross had a far deeper crater to contend with in his first season on the job. San Diego lost its first four games, by an average score of about 24-7. Suffice to say there was little reason to start printing playoff tickets as Week 5 arrived, especially given that the Chargers hadn't been to the postseason in 10 years, since the strike-shortened 1982 season.
But something fell into place for San Diego and new quarterback Stan Humphries, and the Chargers' Leslie O'Neal-led defense came on like gangbusters. San Diego won 11 of its final 12 games, besting 10-6 Kansas City for the AFC title by one game, an outcome that didn't appear too likely when the Chiefs started their season 3-1. San Diego remains the only NFL team to ever open a season with four losses and still make the playoffs. And the Chargers actually clinched a postseason berth with a week to spare, improving to 10-5 with 36-14 win at the Los Angeles Raiders.
San Diego made it 11 of 12 in the first round of the playoffs, beating the visiting Chiefs 17-0. But the Chargers' magic carpet ride ended resoundingly the following week, with a 31-0 divisional-round loss at Miami.
5. 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars -- A little perspective for you: Before the Jaguars started the winning streak that would carry them to the playoffs in 1996, they owned eight wins in franchise history. Four of them came in their inaugural season of 1995, when they finished 4-12, and four of them came in the first 11 games of 1996, in which they were 4-7 and seemingly going nowhere.
But from that point on, the Jaguars caught fire, winning seven games in a row to almost double their franchise victory total. The first five of those consecutive wins came in the regular season, giving them a 9-7 record, a wild-card berth, and the No. 5 seed in the AFC. The next two victories were in the playoffs, as the Jaguars went on the road to stun both Buffalo and Denver by identical 30-27 scores. Only in the AFC Championship did the Jaguars wake up and realize where they were, falling to the Bill Parcells-led New England Patriots, 20-6.
With some impressive mojo working for them, the Jaguars late that season were the masters of the close win. All seven of Jacksonville's consecutive victories were by seven points or less, with five of them by three points or less. But you can't say any of it was a fluke. The Jaguars were a team on the come, and their strong finish in 1996 was just the beginning. They went on to make the playoffs in each of the next three seasons as well, capping their four-year run with a 14-2 record and another losing trip to the AFC Championship in 1999.
Jacksonville and Carolina both made their respective conference title games in 1996, the fastest playoff trips ever for expansion teams. They set the bar impossibly high for the two expansion franchises that have come since. Cleveland has been to the postseason just once in six years, and third-year Houston is still seeking its first playoff trip.