As the 2016 NFL season came to a close, we learned a few things. First, the teams that would officially make the playoffs were set. Second, we learned the draft order among the teams that will not be playing in the postseason. All is not lost for the teams that were eliminated from playoff contention, however, as things are already looking up for next year. Some have even gone out of their way to predict a Super Bowl victory for next season. But how often do teams actually miss the playoffs and then make it all the way to the Super Bowl the following year? We have 15 instances of it happening since 1980, not counting the 2016 Atlanta Falcons.
15. 1981 Cincinnati Bengals
In 1980, the Cincinnati Bengals finished 6-10 and quarterback Ken Anderson started 12 games with a 66.9 passer rating. They missed the playoffs and landed the 10th pick in the draft, which they used on disappointing receiver David Verser. While the Bengals also had won three of their final four games in 1980, it’s never smart to make the Bengals your pick. In this instance, that momentum led into 1981 when they’d put together a 12-4 record. Anderson improved to a 98.4 passer rating, throwing 29 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions, and the Bengals took off all the way to the Super Bowl. Of course, they’d end up losing to the San Francisco 49ers, but it’s a great story anyway.
14. 1981 San Francisco 49ers
Speaking of the ’81 49ers, they also sat out the playoffs the year prior. In 1980, Bill Walsh’s team started 3-0, then finished the year 3-10 to end at 6-10 and out of the postseason. They drafted future Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, and put together an outstanding 13-3 season the next year. Led by superstar quarterback Joe Montana in his first full season as a starter, San Francisco went all the way to the Super Bowl and beat the Bengals, 26-21.
13. 1986 Denver Broncos
It feels like the ’86 Denver Broncos shouldn’t even count, but technically they do meet the requirements to be on this list. In 1985, the Broncos finished the season with an 11-5 record that saw them finish in second-place in the AFC West, which ended up not being good enough for a playoff spot due to tiebreakers. The following year they finished with the exact same 11-5 record, but this time they won their division and beat the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns to advance to the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, who beat the Broncos 39-20.
12. 1988 Cincinnati Bengals
In 1987, the Cincinnati Bengals finished the season 4-11 and earned the No. 5 overall pick in the draft. They used that pick to take safety Rickey Dixon, who played six unremarkable seasons in the NFL. Even worse, the Bengals took Dixon just ahead of Tim Brown, Sterling Sharpe, and Michael Irvin. Even still, Cincinnati was able to rebound and go 12-4 in 1988, heading to the Super Bowl with yet another match-up against the San Francisco 49ers — and they’d lose, yet again.
11. 1994 San Diego Chargers
The 1993 San Diego Chargers finished 8-8, not good enough to get a high draft pick, but also not good enough to make the playoffs. A great season from second-year running back Natrone Means in 1994 helped the Chargers improve their offense and their regular season record, finishing 11-5 and winning the AFC West division. San Diego inched past both the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, advancing to the Super Bowl to take on the San Francisco 49ers, who would win the game in a big blowout, 49-26.
10. 1996 New England Patriots
The 1995 New England Patriots, led by head coach Bill Parcells and 23-year-old quarterback Drew Bledsoe, started the season 1-5. Things looked ugly, but the team improved, finishing out 5-5 and ending with a 6-10 record. They missed the playoffs, of course, and used their top draft pick on talented wide receiver Terry Glenn. Bledsoe and Glenn both had good seasons in 1996, leading the Pats to an 11-5 record and all the way to the Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately for New England, this time it was Brett Favre’s turn to win one.
9. 1998 Atlanta Falcons
The 1997 Atlanta Falcons finished the season 7-9 and out of the playoffs, with an offense that ranked in the bottom half of the league in most categories. But in ’98, Atlanta got stellar seasons from quarterback Chris Chandler and running back Jamal Anderson, helping them vault to near the top of the NFL in offense and landing them a slick 14-2 regular season record. The Falcons “Dirty Birded” their way past the 49ers and Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs, before running into the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Denver won the game, 34-19, for their second consecutive Super Bowl victory.
8. 1999 Tennessee Titans
After the 1996 season, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee and became the Tennessee Oilers. In 1998, they completed their third consecutive 8-8 season under head coach Jeff Fisher, and the franchise decided that a rebrand was necessary. They became the Tennessee Titans, and with the new name came better performance from the team on the field. The ’99 Titans went 13-3 and won three playoff games, sending them to the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams, where they’d come up just a yard shy at the end.
7. 1999 St. Louis Rams
Those ’99 Rams were also a team that hadn’t made the playoffs the year before. They were 4-12 and went about revamping their roster in the offseason. They added quarterback Trent Green and running back Marshall Faulk, while drafting rookie wide receiver Torry Holt to pair with Isaac Bruce. But the big change for the Rams came when Green sustained an injury and backup QB Kurt Warner was thrust into the mix. Warner came out of nowhere to have a great season (the first of a long career) and lead the Rams to a 13-3 record. St. Louis beat the Titans, 23-16, to win the Super Bowl.
6. 2000 Baltimore Ravens
The 1999 Baltimore Ravens were a middle of the pack offensive team and a decent defensive team that went 8-8 — sitting out during the playoffs. The Ravens drafted running back Jamal Lewis in the first round of the draft, and he proved to be big in Baltimore making a push toward the playoffs in 2000. The Ravens went 12-4 the next year, developing one of the greatest defenses in the history of the NFL, and rolling the competition en route to a Super Bowl victory.
5. 2001 New England Patriots
In 2000, the New England Patriots went 5-11 under new head coach Bill Belichick. Bledsoe was still the quarterback, but he was fairly mediocre with a 77.3 passer rating and 17 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. In points scored, the Patriots ranked 25th in the NFL. But the next season, after starting 0-2 under Bledsoe, the Pats went to second-year player and sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady. The 24-year-old led the team to an 11-3 record (11-5 overall) and helped vault them into the Super Bowl, where they beat the Rams 20-17.
4. 2003 Carolina Panthers
After the Carolina Panthers went 1-15 in 2001, the team hired John Fox to be their new head coach and lead them to glory. They didn’t make the playoffs yet again in 2002, but improved by six victories to a 7-9 record. The next season, the Panthers added quarterback Jake Delhomme and running back Stephen Davis and improved yet again, this time to 11-5. That was good enough to finish first in the NFC South and to win three playoff games, going into the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. Carolina lost a tough one, 32-29, to the Pats.
3. 2008 Arizona Cardinals
The 2008 Arizona Cardinals are another team that feel a little odd being placed on the list. They were 5-11 under Dennis Green in 2006, but improved to 8-8 under first-year head coach Ken Wisenhunt after Kurt Warner was allowed to take over for disappointing quarterback Matt Leinart. They still missed the playoffs, but made it with a 9-7 record the next year after winning a weak NFC West. Arizona took out the Falcons, Panthers, and Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs, but then lost the Super Bowl to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-23.
2. 2009 New Orleans Saints
In 2006, the New Orleans Saints popped up with a 10-6 season and a trip to the NFC Championship under the new leadership of head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. But the Saints would have two more mediocre seasons, missing the playoffs the next two years, before going back to the playoffs in 2009. The ’09 Saints started the season 13-0 before losing their final three games of the season to finish 13-3. That didn’t stop them from blowing out the Cardinals, beating the Minnesota Vikings in overtime in the NFC Championship, and downing the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl.
1. 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers
After winning the Super Bowl in ’08, the Steelers had an off year in 2009 — they went 9-7, finishing third in the AFC North and missing the playoffs. A big part of that was star safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith being limited to five games each. The next season, Polamalu was able to stay healthy and the defense rebounded to be ranked No. 1 in the NFL. The Steelers finished the 2010 regular season 12-4, beating the rival Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets before being upended by the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl.
All stats and information courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.