From the 1906 Cubs to the 2007 Patriots and the 2015–16 Warriors, we rank the most epic postseason collapses in American sports history.
Memo to major league teams gunning for a championship: At all costs, avoid setting the alltime regular season record for wins in your sport.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defeat of the 73-win Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals Sunday night, all four of North America’s major sports share an unlikely bond: the teams that hold the record for most regular-season victories have won zero championships.
Be it this year’s Warriors, the 1906 Chicago Cubs and 2001 Seattle Mariners, the 1996 Detroit Red Wings or the 2007 New England Patriots, the record for wins brought glory that truly was fleeting.
What are the most devastating postseason failures for teams with sterling regular season credentials?
Here are the “top” 15.
It is one thing for a record-breaking NBA team to lose in the NBA Finals. Losing in the first round is a far worse kick in the gut. One season after falling in the 2006 NBA Finals to the Miami Heat, the Mavericks appeared poised for a championship run. Led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki (24.6 points per game), the Mavericks topped the NBA with a 67–15 record, six wins better than the next best team. But in the playoffs’ opening round, Dallas fell to 42–40 Golden State, the one Western Conference team that was kryptonite to the Mavs. The Warriors defeated Dallas in all three of their regular-season meetings and captured the playoff series 4–2. Stephen Jackson provided the firepower for Golden State in the clinching Game 6, scoring 33 points on 7-for-8 shooting from three-point range while Nowitzki only managed eight points on 2-for-13 shooting. Never has an NBA team with so many wins left the playoffs so early.
Because of how poorly the Panthers’ season ended, football fans may forget how dominant the Panthers played as they rolled into Super Bowl 50. Behind quarterback Cam Newton, the league’s MVP, Carolina scored 20 or more points in its 15 regular season wins, averaged a league-leading 31.2 points for the regular season and defeated playoff foes Seattle and Arizona by a combined 80–39. The Super Bowl, however, was another story. Despite outgaining the Denver Broncos 315–194 and holding a 21–11 edge in first downs, Carolina committed four turnovers and more than 100 yards of penalties. In Peyton Manning’s final game, Denver prevailed 24–10, making the Panthers the first 17–1 team to reach a Super Bowl and lose it.
Boston’s single-season record for wins belongs not to any team from the Bill Russell or Larry Bird eras but the 68–14 Celtics of ’72–73. Led by MVP Dave Cowens, and frontcourt mates John Havlicek and Paul Silas, Boston dashed through the regular season. They averaged nearly 113 points per game thanks to an up-tempo offense that took nearly 104 shots per game. Come the playoffs, however, Boston appeared worn out. It needed six games to dispatch the 46-win Atlanta Hawks before falling to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Havlicek’s shoulder injury in Game 3 limited the Celtics’ offense, and the Knicks became the first team to win a Game 7 on the floor of the Boston Garden.
Best team never to reach the Super Bowl? A strong case could be made for the ’98 Vikings, an offensive juggernaut that went 15–1 and set a then-NFL record with 556 points scored. Quarterback Randall Cunningham and sensational rookie wide receiver Randy Moss helped boost Minnesota’s point differential to 16.2 per game, one of the best of the Super Bowl era. The Vikes blew out Arizona 41–21 in the divisional round and held a 20–7 lead over the Atlanta Falcons late in the first half of the NFC title game. However, an Atlanta TD with 59 seconds left, set up by a Cunningham fumble deep in Minnesota territory, cut the halftime edge to 20–14. Gary Anderson, who hadn’t missed a field goal all season, was wide on a 38-yard attempt with two minutes to play, giving the Falcons life. Chris Chandler’s 16-yard TD pass to Terance Mathis tied the game in the final minute, and Morten Andersen’s 38-yard field goal in overtime gave Atlanta a 30–27 win and its first berth in the Super Bowl.
More than a few baseball historians consider Connie Mack’s A’s of 1929–31 superior to the 1926–28 New York Yankees. After winning the World Series in 1929 and ‘30, the ’31 team appeared to be Mack’s best. Featuring Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons, plus Lefty Grove, the American League’s first MVP winner, Philadelphia won a franchise record 107 games and were poised to become the first team to win three straight World Series. The Gashouse Gang St. Louis Cardinals had other ideas. Pepper Martin’s .500 batting average and five RBIs paced the Cards’ offense while Burleigh Grimes led the pitching staff that limited the A’s to a combined .220 batting average. Grimes won two games, including Game 7. It was the end of an era in Philadelphia. Mack sold most of his top players, and the A’s wouldn’t visit the postseason again for 40 years, this time as the Oakland Athletics in 1971. Yet the Athletics’ five championships remain the most won by any Philadelphia professional franchise.
The 1977 movie Slap Shot praised the virtues of “old-time hockey,” particularly 1930s Boston defenseman Eddie Shore, a four-time MVP, seven-time first team All-Star and also a perennial leader in penalty minutes. Shore and his Bruins teammates were outstanding in 1929–30, going 38–5–1 for a winning percentage of .875, still an NHL record. Cooney Wieland averaged nearly a goal a game with his 43 scores, and Boston quickly disposed of the Montreal Maroons in the first round of the playoffs. In the Stanley Cup Final, however, a team that had not lost two straight games all season fell to the Montreal Canadiens two games to none in the best-of-three series.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Indians baseball meant plenty of wins and huge attendance. The world champion 1948 Indians became the first major league team to average more than 30,000 fans as a record 2,620,627 Tribe watchers passing through the turnstiles at Cleveland Stadium. After surpassing 90 wins every season between 1950–53, the Indians exploded in ’54, winning an American League record 111 games, one better than the legendary 1927 Yankees. Future Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn each registered 23 wins and 35-year-old Bob Feller was still sharp with a 13–3 mark. Larry Doby’s 32 homers and 126 RBIs topped the American League. Cleveland was a heavy favorite World Series over the New York Giants. However, Willie Mays’s spectacular over-the-head catch and Dusty Rhodes’s pop-fly pinch-hit home run that traveled all of 251 feet gave the Giants a 5–2 win in Game 1. The Indians never recovered, batting only .190 for the Series and losing in four straight. Cleveland’s next World Series was 41 years away.
After reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 29 years during the lockout-shortened 1995 season, the Red Wings expected big things in 1995–96. And they delivered, winning an NHL record 62 games and leading the league in fewest goals allowed. Sergei Fedorov topped the Wings with 39 goals while Steve Yzerman and Vyacheslav Kozlov each scored 36. The team’s first Stanley Cup crown since 1955 seemed within reach. But Detroit was extended in its first two playoff series by a pair of sub-.500 teams. The Wings needed six games to dispose of the Winnipeg Jets and seven to outlast the St. Louis Blues with Game 7 decided on Yzerman’s goal in double overtime. Detroit was a tired team in the Western Conference finals, dropping the first two games on home ice to the Colorado Avalanche and losing the series in six games. But the Wings had learned a few lessons. They won the ’97 and ‘98 Stanley Cups and helped reaffirm Detroit reputation as “Hockeytown.”
Led by MVP and Rookie of the Year Ichiro Suzuki and the potent bats of Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez and Mike Cameron, the Mariners blew through the regular season. They won at least two-thirds of their games every month, batted .288 as a team and enjoyed a run differential of plus-300. A six-game winning streak at season’s end tied the Chicago Cubs’ 95-year-old single-season major league record of 116 wins. However, a season finale defeat to the last-place Texas Rangers before a disappointed crowd at Safeco Field appeared to halt the ballclub’s momentum. Seattle barely survived a best-of-five divisional series with the Cleveland Indians and then quickly fell to the New York Yankees, 4–1, in the ALCS. Yankees pitchers held the Mariners to a .211 average with Martinez and Cameron both batting under .200.
Other than the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, no Windy City team piled up more championships in one decade than the Bears of the 1940s, the original “Monsters of the Midway.” They won four NFL titles between 1940–46, usually under the leadership of coach George Halas and quarterback Sid Luckman. But the greatest Bears team might have been a team that didn’t win a title. The 1942 squad completed the regular season 11–0 and enjoyed a point differential of 26.9 per game, a record that has never been threatened. ProFootballReference.com gives the Bears an SRS rating of 21.2, the highest in league history. Yet in the ’42 NFL title game vs. Washington, a team the Bears had slaughtered 73–0 just two years earlier, Chicago turned the ball over four times and was stunned 14–6, one of the greatest upsets in league history. Chicago won the NFL crown over Washington in 1943, meaning had the Bears taken care of business in ’42, they would have been the only NFL team to win four straight championships.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 1970, the franchise’s, first in 31 years, the Bruins toyed with the NHL the following season. With center Phil Esposito scoring a record 76 goals and defenseman Bobby Orr registering a league-leading 102 assists, Boston was playing a tier above the rest of the NHL. The Bruins’ 399 goals set an NHL single-season record, more than 100 better than the next team that season, and their goal differential was an astonishing 2.46 per game. Boston roared to a 57–14–7 record, good for 121 points, 12 points clear of the next best team. The league’s top four scorers were all Bruins: Esposito, Orr, Johnny Bucyk and Ken Hodge. Orr, whose 139 points remains an NHL record for defensemen, won both the Norris Trophy as best blue liner and the Hart Trophy as MVP. A second straight Stanley Cup seemed a certainty. The Bruins opened the playoffs smartly, beating the Montreal Canadiens 3–1 in Game 1 of the first round and leading 5–1 in Game 2. But behind rookie goaltender Ken Dryden, Les Canadiens rallied for a 7–5 victory and took three of the next five games, including Game 7 at the Boston Garden, for a stunning series victory.
There is a reason the Colts were a 17.5-point favorite over the New York Jets in Super Bowl III: They were terrific, especially on defense. Featuring defensive end Bubba Smith and middle linebacker Mike Curtis, Baltimore’s defense owned the field, allowing a league-low 10 points per game and helping to build a point differential of more than 18 points per game. The Colts finished the regular season 13–1, losing only to the Cleveland Browns. Baltimore more than atoned for that defeat in the NFL title game, demolishing the Browns 34–0 and setting up what appeared to be a titanic mismatch in the Super Bowl. But behind Joe Namath’s pinpoint passing, Matt Snell’s 121 yards rushing a defense that forced five turnovers, the Jets stunned the Colts 16–7, one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports. The only Colt to come out on top from this catastrophe was a young assistant coach whose calm composure during a job interview a few days later greatly impressed his future team. That team was the Pittsburgh Steelers, that coach was Chuck Noll and together they produced four Super Bowl champions during the 1970s.
Yes, the Cubs were once a dynasty, baseball’s first of the modern era. Between 1904 and ‘11 they won more than 90 games every season, going past 100 in four of those years. The high-water mark was 1906. The Cubs finished 20 games ahead of the defending world champion New York Giants by registering a Major League record 116 victories in only 152 games, a .763 winning percentage that equates to 123 wins over a 162-game season. The Cubs topped the National League in runs scored and fewest allowed for a run differential of 2.13, the best of the dead-ball era. Led by 26-game winner Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown, the team ERA was 1.75. But in the only all-Chicago World Series, the White Sox quieted the Cubs’ bats and won in six games. However, the Cubs did bounce back, winning the Series in 1907 and again in ’08—but none since.
Before closing the book on this season’s Warriors, it’s wise to remember how good they were for more than 90% of their schedule. Their 73 victories set an NBA single-season record and they featured the other-worldly marksmanship of unanimous MVP Stephen Curry, who shattered the NBA record for three-point field goals with 402—that’s one season, not a career. Fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson’s 276 three-pointers were the third best in league history. Golden State was gritty, going 7–1 in overtime games (including the playoffs) and 14–4 in games decided by five points or fewer. But it was that fourth close defeat, 93–89 to the Cavaliers of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, which probably removed these Warriors from consideration as basketball’s greatest team. Yes, Golden State won 73 games but it was also the first team to blow a 3–1 lead in the NBA Finals.
Until the final game, the 2007 Patriots were the supreme NFL machine. They are the only team to complete a 16–0 regular season. Quarterback Tom Brady threw 50 TD passes and the team scored 589 points, both NFL records at the time. Randy Moss’s 23 TD pass receptions remain the league mark. New England’s 19.62 point differential is the best of the Super Bowl era as is their ProFootballReference.com SRS rating of 20.1. Unlike the ’72 Dolphins, who faced no playoff teams during their 14–0 regular season, the ’07 Patriots met five, beating them by an average of two touchdowns. But a closer look shows the Pats were more mortal during the second half of the season. They barely survived upset bids by the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens in the 11th and 12th games and needed two fourth-quarter TDs to hold off the New York Giants, 38–35, in the regular-season finale. New England’s 21–12 AFC title game win over the San Diego Chargers was far from convincing. Still, the Patriots were 14-point favorites in their rematch with the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The Giants knew better. They held New England to season lows in yards and points in pulling off a stunning 17-14 upset. Eli Manning threw the winning TD pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds to play, costing the Patriots an undefeated season and its date with history.