When it comes to the worst loss suffered by a team, there's not just one deciding factor. Occasionally, a blowout will determine the game a team's fans talk about with the most regret, but more often than not, it's the close ones that stick to your soul in all the wrong ways. As part of NFL Worst Week, here are our picks for the worst gut-punch loss for every AFC franchise (and here are the worst losses for every NFC franchise).
Buffalo Bills: Jan. 27, 1991, Super Bowl XXV—Giants 20, Bills 19
This was the first of four straight Super Bowls the Bills lost in the early 1990s, and the only one of the four that was remotely close. The Bills came in as the favorite to win, with their flashy "K-Gun" no-huddle offense. But the Giants, coached by Bill Parcells and quarterbacked by backup Jeff Hostetler, had the perfect strategy to stop Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed: keep them off the field. Big Blue held the ball for over 40 minutes in the game, and there was a point on either end of the half where the Bills didn't get the ball for more than a full hour on the clock. The Bills were sloppy on defense, especially on third down, but they did hold a 19–17 lead in the fourth quarter that was then eliminated by Matt Bahr's 21-yard field goal.
And when it came time for Bills kicker Scott Norwood to win the game with four seconds left... well, we all know what happened. A 47-yard field goal attempt went wide right, sending the Bills on their way to an ignominious streak. This was the most painful of their Super Bowl losses, because it's the one they really should have won.
Miami Dolphins: Jan. 15, 2000, AFC divisional round—Jaguars 62, Dolphins 7
When the Dolphins hired Jimmy Johnson to be their head coach in 1996, they hoped the coach could build a team that could win multiple Super Bowls—exactly what he did with the Cowboys. Miami never finished higher than 10–6 in four years under Johnson, winning just two playoff games. And it was this loss to the Jaguars—marking the end of Johnson's tenure and Dan Marino's final game—that was the most agonizing.
Miami was hopeful after beating the Seahawks in the wild-card round, but the Dolphins ran into an unexpected buzzsaw against the Jaguars, who handed them the second-worst postseason loss in NFL history, behind only the 73–0 thrashing the Bears handed to the Redskins in 1940. The Jaguars were up 41–7 at the half, and never hit the brakes. Marino was on the bench early in the third quarter, and the Dolphins amassed just 131 total yards on offense.
New England Patriots: Feb. 3, 2008, Super Bowl XLII—Giants 17, Patriots 14
This wasn't supposed to be a game. It was supposed to be a coronation. The Patriots were coming into the Super Bowl with an 18–0 record, and had been beating the daylights out of nearly every team they faced through the 2007 season. But the Giants, who held New England to a close win in the regular-season finale, dialed up an excellent game plan that had multiple defensive linemen putting pressure on Tom Brady right in his face, and the team that set the single-season scoring mark was held to two touchdowns. When David Tyree made his famed helmet catch, the outcome seemed to be ordained from on high. In truth, the team that won out-coached the team that lost, which is always a threat to happen, no matter how great one of those teams or coaches may be.
New York Jets: No. 27, 1994, Dan Marino's Fake Spike—Dolphins 28, Jets 24
The Jets were 6–5 to start Pete Carroll's first season as an NFL head coach, but things were about to go downhill very quickly. Carroll's team welcomed the Dolphins to Giants Stadium in Week 13, and got out to a 17–0 lead in the third quarter. But Miami stormed back with Dan Marino's four touchdown passes to Mark Ingram. One of those four was a fake spike that the Jets thought Marino was taking to stop the clock with 22 seconds left. Instead, he threw a game-winning eight-yard touchdown pass to Ingram. It was backup quarterback Bernie Kosar who came up with the idea, and the befuddled Jets never won a game the rest of the season. Carroll was fired at the end of the season, to be replaced by... Rich Kotite. Ouch.
The Ravens had this one in hand—twice. They opened the game with a 14-point lead over the Patriots, who scratched back to tie the game before the half. Then, Baltimore extended its lead to 28–14 in the third quarter, and that's when all hell broke loose. With 9:33 left in the third quarter, New England went with a weird formation: TE Michael Hoomanawanui at left tackle and RB Shane Vereen as an ineligible receiver in the right slot. At the snap, Hoomanawanui ran up the left seam, while Vereen backed off into the backfield. Baltimore's defense was torn between wondering what Vereen was doing and covering Rob Gronkowski, who was on the right side of the formation, opposite Hoomanawanui. Tom Brady hit Hoomanawanui for a 16-yard gain, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh was not amused.
Harbaugh was even less amused five plays later, when Vereen was officially declared ineligible before the play, and Hoomanawanui was wide open for another big gain in a similar formation—14 yards this time. The Patriots got back in the game with a Tom Brady five-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, and then, receiver Julian Edelman tied it again with this 51-yard pass to Danny Amendola.
Harbaugh said after the game that the ineligible player strategies weren't fair, because his defense should have the opportunity to ID the men they need to cover. But as Brady pointed out, this kind of trickery happens on special teams all the time. In any case, it set the Ravens on their heels, and with 5:13 left in the game, Brady hit Brandon LaFell with the winning touchdown pass.
Cincinnati Bengals: Jan. 22, 1989, Super Bowl XXIII—49ers 20, Bengals 16
Bengals coach Sam Wyche was Bill Walsh's offensive assistant in San Francisco before Paul Brown tapped him to become the Bengals' head coach in 1985. And between Wyche's inventive mind and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's zone blitz schemes, the Bengals were game to win this thing. But fortune was against them from the start. Wyche had to bench running back Stanley Wilson the night before the game due to drug issues, and defensive lineman Tim Krumrie suffered one of the most garish broken legs in NFL history early in the contest. The Bengals didn't score an offensive touchdown in the game, but went up 13–6 in the third quarter on the wings of Stanford Jennings's 93-yard kickoff return. Then, after a Joe Montana-to-Jerry Rice touchdown tied the game, Cincinnati kicker Jim Breech put the Bengals back on top with fewer than four minutes left.
And as Wyche has said so many times since, that was too much time to give Walsh and Montana, who carved Cincinnati's defense up on a masterful 92-yard drive. Wyche knew it was coming, as he'd coached Montana long enough to know his capabilities. It seemed fated that this gut-punch for the Bengals would go Montana's way.
Cleveland Browns: Jan. 17, 1988, AFC championship—Broncos 38, Browns 33
The first of three AFC teams on our list coached by Marty Schottenheimer. Denver got past the Browns in the AFC championship game a year earlier thanks to John Elway's famous drive. In the 1987 rematch, Denver jumped out to a 21–3 lead, but Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar threw three touchdown passes to bring his team back. One of those scoring throws was to running back Earnest Byner, and Byner also rushed for a four-yard touchdown in the third quarter. However, with the Browns driving late in the game, down 38–31, Byner fumbled the ball at the Denver two-yard line, stripped by Denver defensive back Jeremiah Castille. The Broncos recovered and gave the Browns an intentional safety to essentially end the game.
"Earnest never saw Castille coming," Schottenheimer later told ESPN. "Earnest was the reason we were still in the game at that point. He had several heroic runs and catches over the course of the second half that allowed us to have a chance to tie the game at 38. All of these heroics, unfortunately, were overshadowed by a single draw play from the eight-yard-line."
It's a shame, too, because Byner was a great player who rushed for more than 8,000 yards in his career, and eventually got a Super Bowl ring with the 1991 Redskins. But that's the play for which he'll always be remembered—the biggest gut-punch for a franchise that has had more than its share.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Jan. 23, 2005, AFC championship—Patriots 41, Steelers 27
The best regular-season Steelers team was the 2004 version—it lost just one game before the playoffs, rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger looked like a future star, and the team beat both the Patriots and Eagles (the eventual Super Bowl teams) in the regular season. But Roethlisberger, who threw 11 picks in the regular season, threw three in this championship game, and the Patriots went on to their second Super Bowl win in three years.
Houston Texans: Jan. 15, 2012, AFC divisional round—Ravens 20, Texans 13
The Texans' first-ever playoff season included this game, which they could have won under different circumstances. The problem was that their two top quarterbacks, Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, were out with injuries, so head coach Gary Kubiak had to put things in the hands of third-string quarterback T.J. Yates. Still, with the Ravens falling all over themselves, the Texans would have had an opportunity to win but for Yates's three interceptions—the final one thrown to Ed Reed at the Baltimore four-yard line with fewer than three minutes left in the game.
"To come out and play the way this team has played, I think it's just remarkable," team owner Bob McNair said after the game. "Where would New England have been if [Tom] Brady wasn't playing, and if Wes Welker wasn't playing, and if their best defensive player wasn't playing? Go down the list of any of these teams and ask where they would be—and they wouldn't be in the playoffs. And this team was in the playoffs."
Yes, they were. And with a better quarterback, who knows what might have happened?
Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts: Jan. 12, 1969, Super Bowl III—Jets 16, Colts 7
The 1968 Baltimore Colts, coached by Don Shula, had one of the best defenses of all time and lost just one game in the regular season. Quarterback Earl Morrall was the NFL's Most Valuable Player, and given the ways in which the Packers beat the Chiefs and Raiders in the first two Super Bowls, nearly everyone expected Baltimore to put a serious smack-down on the Jets in Super Bowl III, especially after Joe Namath guaranteed victory in the week leading up to the game. It was not to be. The Jets defense, headed by defensive line coach Buddy Ryan, played a masterful game, and Morrall threw three interceptions. The Jets controlled the ball with tough running from Matt Snell, who picked up 121 yards on 30 carries and should have been the game's MVP instead of Namath. The Jets' win, one of the biggest upsets in sports history, brought a sense of equality and parity to the AFL-NFL merger, but it sure didn't do anything for the Colts. Even when they won Super Bowl V two seasons later, the players on both teams said that the stink of the previous championship loss would never go away.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Jan. 12, 2008, AFC divisional round—Patriots 31, Jaguars 20
Outside of the Giants, who played them close in the regular season and beat them in Super Bowl XLII, the 2007 Patriots may have found their most serious challenge in the divisional round of their 18–1 season when they faced the Jaguars. Jacksonville kept the game close until the third quarter, when Tom Brady faked that a snap went directly to running back Kevin Faulk and instead threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker for the go-ahead score. Brady was at his most efficient, completing 26 of 28 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns on short passes while the Jags put half their defense on Randy Moss. That was the last time the Jaguars made the postseason.
Tennessee Titans: Jan. 30, 2000, Super Bowl XXXIV—Rams 23, Titans 16
Until Russell Wilson's ill-fated pass at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, this was the game that ended with the biggest gut-punch in Super Bowl history. The Rams scored the first nine points of this game, but led by quarterback Steve McNair, the Titans fought their way back and had a 16-16 tie with 1:54 left in the game. That's when Kurt Warner hit Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard touchdown for what became the deciding score, but Tennessee sure made the Rams worry about their win. On the game's final drive, McNair took the game into his own hands, quite literally, handling the ball on every play on a drive that started at the Titans' 10-yard line. McNair's running and passing had the Rams on their heels until the last play, when he hit Kevin Dyson for a nine-yard reception. Problem was, the game clock was out of time, and the Titans made that play from their own 10-yard line. Rams linebacker Mike Jones stopped Tennessee one agonizing yard short of a chance at the only Super Bowl to go into overtime.
Now, that's a gut-punch.
Denver Broncos: Jan. 4, 1997, AFC divisional round—Jaguars 30, Broncos 27
John Elway was the losing quarterback in three Super Bowls earlier in his career, and he actually had his most productive seasons a few years after Denver's championship chances dried up for a while. Things started to look up in 1995, when owner Pat Bowlen hired Mike Shanahan, Elway's old offensive coordinator, as the new head coach. The Broncos went 8–8 in 1995, but jumped up to 13-3 in 1996. With one of the best overall teams in the NFL, it looked like Elway might get another shot at the Super Bowl.
But in what turned out to be perhaps his most agonizing postseason defeat, Elway and the Broncos were stunned by the Jaguars—a second-year expansion team—after starting with a 12–0 lead. Jaguars QB Mark Brunell proved to be a lot like Elway had been in earlier years, an accurate passer who could outrun pressure, and the Broncos couldn't measure up. Denver won two Super Bowls in the next two seasons, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that this loss was such a psychological hit.
Kansas City Chiefs: Jan. 7, 1996, AFC divisional round—Colts 10, Chiefs 7
Marty Schottenheimer Gut-Punch Game #2. The 13–3 Chiefs looked to be the AFC's best team, and they started their postseason against a Colts team that was without Marshall Faulk and Tony Siragusa. The problem was a frozen field at Arrowhead Stadium that prevented kicker Lin Elliot from making any of the three field goals he attempted, which proved to be more than the difference. Quarterback Steve Bono threw three picks before he was benched for Rich Gannon, and Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh was a relatively unspectacular player who simply didn't make mistakes.
Amazingly, this was the first of two Chiefs teams under Schottenheimer's leadership that went 13–3 in the regular season and blew a tire in the divisional round—the 1997 team collapsed late in the game against the Broncos. And yet, neither of these losses (nor the two Browns losses mentioned earlier) was Schottenheimer's most agonizing postseason blunder...
Oakland Raiders: Dec. 23, 1972, AFC divisional round—Steelers 13, Raiders 7
The Raiders of the late 1960s and early 1970s were the AFL's and AFC's version of the Cowboys: the team that was always great but could never quite win the mythical big one. The 1972 Steelers were just happy to be in the first playoff game in a 40-year history that featured far more failures than successes. The Raiders had a 7–6 lead with time running out in this divisional playoff in Pittsburgh when Terry Bradshaw threw a pass to running back John Fuqua over the middle of the field. The pass either hit Fuqua or Raiders safety Jack Tatum—nobody is really sure—and fell into the hands of Franco Harris, who ran the ball in for a 60-yard touchdown.
The question was, who touched the ball last? If it was Fuqua, the catch was not a catch. If it was Tatum, or Fuqua and Tatum consecutively, it was.
After the play, referee Fred Swearingen got on the phone with Art McNally, the league's head of officiating. Depending on who you ask, Swearingen was either trying to confirm the catch call with McNally, or asking how many policemen would be able to escort his crew off the field if he ruled based on what really happened. To this day, it's a mystery, and it's the one game Raiders head coach John Madden will never get over.
San Diego Chargers: Jan. 14, 2007, AFC divisional round—Patriots 24, Chargers 21
This is the third gut-punch loss for Marty Schottenheimer. This was the best team he ever had—the 2006 Chargers won 14 games, their two losses were by a total of six points, and RB LaDainian Tomlinson set the NFL record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 28. The Chargers sent nine players to the Pro Bowl, and their progress through the playoffs seemed to be a fait accompli. San Diego put up a 14–3 lead late in the first half of this game, but the Patriots, as has been their wont through the Belichick era, found ways to win. In this case, it was the simple matter of standing out of the way and letting the Chargers shoot themselves in their collective foot, over and over. Schottenheimer's team turned the ball over just 15 times in the regular season, but did so four times against the Pats. The real killer came when Tom Brady threw an interception to Chargers defensive back Marlon McCree, who tried to run the ball instead of going down. He fumbled, and the Patriots recovered.
Schottenheimer was roundly criticized for several play calls in the game, and between that and his longtime feud with general manager A.J. Smith, he became the only head coach in NFL history to go 14–2 and lose his job.