For some teams, Week 17 of the NFL season is a time to rest players and get ready for the playoffs. But for others, postseason hopes ride on one final game. This season, seven playoff spots are up for grabs in the final week, the most in at least 30 years.
That means there are several bad teams that can play spoiler on Sunday and wreck a playoff hopeful’s season.
The appeal of being a potential season wrecker isn’t lost on players.
“That would be great because we get to spoil somebody’s playoff hopes,” said Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson. “Like, ‘Ah-ha.'”
There is plenty of (heartbreaking) precedent for bad teams ruining playoff dreams on the final week of the season. Here’s a look at the teams with the worst winning percentages to pull off playoff-spoiling upsets since the NFL switched to a 17-week season in 1990.
1990: Cowboys lose to 4-11 Falcons
The game: Falcons 26, Cowboys 7 on Dec. 30, 1990.
What happened: Dallas was 7-8 going into the game and had no business being a playoff team. Even with that losing record, though, the Cowboys had a chance to make the postseason if they could beat the hapless Falcons. But Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman was out with an injury and Babe Laufenberg started in his place. Without the future Hall of Famer, the Cowboys’ offense was completely inept, managing just 151 total yards and no points through three quarters. Deion Sanders, then with Atlanta, had a pick-six against the team he’d eventually play for later in the decade.
The fallout: Things worked out pretty well for the Cowboys, who won three Super Bowls in the 1990s. The Falcons made the playoffs in 1991, their only winning season under coach Jerry Glanville.
2000: Lions lose to 4-11 Bears
The game: Bears 23, Lions 20 on Dec. 24, 2000.
What happened: Detroit, 9-6 entering the game, was a double-digit favorite against the last-place Bears. The Lions held a slim lead in the fourth quarter, which should have been enough to push them over the line. Instead, their fate turned after Bears cornerback R.W. McQuarters had a pick-six off Detroit backup quarterback Stoney Case and left the Lions chasing the game. The Bears pulled off the upset with a 54-yard field goal by Paul Edinger with two seconds left.
The fallout: The Lions sputtered for the rest of the decade and didn’t make the playoffs until 2011.
The game: Cardinals 18, Vikings 17 on Dec. 28, 2003.
What happened: The Vikings, who were 9-6 going into the game, discovered the most heartbreaking way to miss the playoffs. Nate Poole caught a 28-yard TD pass from Josh McCown as time expired to give the Cardinals an improbable upset win. Let’s look at how ridiculous this finish actually was. First, the Cardinals scored on a fourth-and-2 pass with 1:54 left to make it a one-possession game. Then Arizona recovered the onside kick, took advantage of a defensive pass interference penalty and connected on the touchdown pass at the end of regulation. The Green Bay Packers ended up winning the NFC North.
The fallout: Because of the win, the Cardinals lost the top pick in the 2004 NFL draft, which ended up being quarterback Eli Manning. Arizona drafted receiver Larry Fitzgerald instead. Poole’s touchdown catch against the Vikings was the final one of his career. He was later given a key to the city of Green Bay.
The game: Browns 22, Bengals 14 on Dec. 28, 2003.
What happened: With two games left in the season, Cincinnati was poised to make its first playoff appearance since 1990. The Bengals were 8-6 heading into the final two games of the season under first-year coach Marvin Lewis. Leave it to the Browns to ruin things for their fellow Ohio team. With a chance at the postseason still on the line even after losing to the Rams in Week 16, Cincinnati couldn’t stop Cleveland backup running back Lee Suggs, who rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns.
The fallout: The game didn’t have a major impact on either side. Cincinnati ended its playoff drought in 2005, and the Browns continued to struggle the next season. Cleveland coach Butch Davis resigned 11 games into the 2004 season.
The game: Raiders 31, Buccaneers 24 on Dec. 28, 2008.
What happened: This was supposed to be the Kiffin Bowl — Oakland coach Lane (yes, that Lane) against his father, Monte, who was Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator. However, that changed once Lane was fired four games into the season. The elder Kiffin couldn’t stop an Oakland offense led by quarterback JaMarcus Russell in what was a complete Buccaneers collapse. The Raiders scored 17 unanswered points to pull off the upset. Tampa Bay was leading the AFC South before losing its last four games and finishing the season 9-7.
The fallout: Bucs coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen were fired at the end of the season. It started a 12-year playoff drought that ended this past Saturday when the Bucs clinched a berth in the 2020 postseason.
The game: Chiefs 44, Broncos 24 on Jan. 3, 2010.
What happened: The Broncos started the 2009 season with six straight wins under first-year coach Josh McDaniels. But by the end of the season, Denver was in a complete tailspin. The sputtering 8-7 squad faced a hapless Chiefs team on a five-game losing streak. But Kansas City ran all over the Broncos and scored 17 unanswered points to pull off the win. Jamaal Charles rushed for 259 yards, which is still a franchise record. Because of the loss, Denver joined the 1978 Washington team and the 2003 Vikings as the only teams since the 1970 merger to miss the postseason after a 6-0 start, according to research by The Associated Press.
The fallout: A win and a playoff berth could have helped solidify McDaniels’ standing as a head coach. Instead, it set the table for a disastrous 2010 season that resulted in his firing after 12 games. He was dismissed after another loss to the Chiefs.
The game: Browns 23, Jaguars 17 on Jan. 3, 2010.
What happened: The Jaguars (7-8), who lost three straight going into their final game of the 2009 season, needed to win and have four other teams lose to reach the playoffs. The Jaguars couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain against the Browns, who managed only 300 total yards and had a quarterback, Derek Anderson, who was 7-of-11 passing for 86 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. Chalk it up as another reason quarterback stats are irrelevant.
The fallout: Browns coach Eric Mangini entered the game on the ropes despite being on a three-game winning streak. He made it to his second season, but he was fired the day after Cleveland’s 2010 season finale.