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Top 10 Cinderella Seasons in NFL History

There is almost nothing more exhilarating in sports than watching your favourite team become the nation’s darling. Granted, watching two titans collide in an epic clash has its own unique charm, but the feeling of watching a David-esque team slay Goliath cannot be matched. This is the true beauty of sports and specifically the NFL: that on any given Sunday, any team has a shot at victory. That no matter the raw talent on one side of the ball, sheer grit and determination on the other side can match and overcome anything.

We all know the story of Cinderella, which comes from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale that dates back to the early 19th century. In the sporting context however, the first usage of the term was 1939, when one reporter referred to the Lubbock High School Football Team as the “Cinderella Kids”.

According to the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia, a decade later, the term Cinderella “attained widespread circulation in 1950 when the City College of New York improbably became the first and only school to win both postseason basketball championships: the NIT and NCAA tournaments. Not coincidentally, Disney’s animated classic premiered in February of that year. It was not a happily-ever after story for CCNY, however. In later years, seven players from that 1949-50 team, including the entire starting five, pleaded guilty to point-shaving charges during their college careers.”

Perhaps it’s fitting that the original Cinderella story ended on a sour note, since not all Cinderella stories end with glory and fame, though most don’t conclude with criminal charges.

Side note: I would have included the 2001 Patriots, but I’m with Ray Lewis that the Tuck Rule is still an unforgivable mistake in my book. That championship will always have an asterisk next to it.

10 Arizona Cardinals, 2008-09

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The Cardinals slogan for their 2008 campaign was “Shock the World!” and they certainly did just that, upsetting Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia in the NFC playoffs before eventually losing to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Arizona finished the season at 9-7, which was enough to win the lowly NFC West and host a playoff game for the first time since 1947.

After knocking off the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons in Glendale, the Cardinals traveled to meet the heavily favoured Carolina Panthers, who went undefeated at home that season, finishing with a 12-4 record. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were winless in five trips to the East Coast, though they smashed Carolina 33-13. They intercepted Jake Delhomme five times, as Delhomme's career took a nosedive with this game. Finally, they defeated the Eagles in a 32-25 thriller in the NFC Championship. The Cardinals became just the second team in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl after finishing the season with just nine wins. Though they would eventually lose to the Steelers on a last-minute touchdown by Santonio Holmes, Kurt Warner and crew captured the nation’s hearts that winter.

9 Carolina Panthers, 2003-04

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Carolina would lose to the Patriots on a last second field goal in the Super Bowl, but the Panthers of ’03 took the NFC by storm. After defeating the Dallas Cowboys 29-10 at home, Carolina traveled to St. Louis to play the vaunted Rams. The game went into double overtime and on the first play of the sixth quarter, Steve Smith scampered 69 yards on an epic touchdown catch and run. Carolina then traveled to Philadelphia to face the Eagles who were playing in their third consecutive NFC Championship game. Carolina handed Philly their third straight championship loss, defeating the Eagles 14-3 in a defensive showdown that saw Panthers’ rookie cornerback Ricky Manning snag a stunning three interceptions.

8 Los Angeles Rams 1979-80

AP Photo/Vernon Biever

The now-defunct Los Angeles Rams won their seventh consecutive NFC West division title in 1979 and went to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history that year, eventually losing 31-19 to the dynastic Pittsburgh Steelers. In the divisional round, the Rams squeaked by the Cowboys in Dallas in a thrilling 21-19 victory. The Rams defense then put on a clinic in Tampa Bay, shutting out the Buccaneers 9-0 in one of the most impressive defensive performances in NFL playoff history.

7 Oakland Raiders, 1980-81

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The Raiders season appeared to have come to a premature ending in Week 5 when their starting QB Dan Pastorini shattered his leg against the rival Chiefs. Head coach Tom Flores was forced to go with backup QB Jim Plunkett, who proceeded to throw five interceptions that day and the Raiders fell to 2-3. Fending off calls to bench Plunkett, Flores stuck with the inexperienced QB through the rest of the season and the Raiders would go on to become the first wildcard team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl, knocking off the heavily-favoured Eagles in Super Bowl XV.

6 Kansas City Chiefs, 1969-70

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When you lose your starting quarterback, your team’s Super Bowl chances go up in smoke. When you lose the backup, you just hope your team can win another game. In 1969, the Chiefs lost both Len Dawson and second-stringer Jacky Lee to injury and had to ride with Mike Livingston for a large part of the season. Livingston, with the help of a smothering Chiefs’ defense, rattled off five consecutive wins and Dawson returned just in time for the playoffs. Kansas City would go on to take out the Jets and Raiders in the AFL and move on to Super Bowl IV, where they would knock out the favoured Vikings of the NFL and gain further credibility for the much-maligned AFL.

5 San Diego Chargers, 1994-95

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After finishing with a mediocre 8-8 record in 1993, the Chargers were expected to improve the following season, but were certainly not considered legitimate contenders by any stretch. That year, they won the AFC West, posting an impressive 11-5 record. In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Chargers pulled off an exhilarating 22-21 victory over the Miami Dolphins and then went on to beat the Steelers 17-13 in the AFC Championship game.

Eventually, their in-state rivals from San Francisco would dash any hopes of further glory and soundly knocked off the Chargers in the Super Bowl. Steve Young threw for a Super Bowl record six touchdowns in San Francisco's 49-26 victory, but that doesn't take anything away from the Chargers' surprising run. Today, the 1994 squad is remembered for their remarkable run, but also unfortunately for the untimely deaths of eight players from that year’s team, all of who died before the age of 45.

4 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2005-06

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After going 15-1 in 2004 but losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship, Steelers Nation had high hopes for the team in 2005. As the sixth seed in the AFC, the Steelers would never play within the cozy confines of Heinz Field that postseason, though that didn’t slow them down. In the first round, the Steelers would travel to Cincinnati to face their division rival and escaped with a 31-17 victory. Next up was a visit to Indianapolis to take down the Colts in a 21-18 thriller. In the AFC Championship, the Steelers traveled to the Mile-High City to take on the Broncos, doubling them up 34-17.

Finally, at that year’s Super Bowl, Pittsburgh would take down the high-flying Seahawks and claim their fifth championship, becoming the second team ever to win three straight road playoff games and the first team since the 1970 merger to win a Super Bowl without playing a single home game.

3 New York Jets, 1968-69

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2 St. Louis Rams, 1999-00

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While they emerged as favourites as the season went on, going into the 1999 season, the Rams were expected to be the same old Rams. The St. Louis Rams finished 4-12 in 1998 and expectations for improvement plummeted when starting QB Trent Green was injured during the preseason. However, the Rams of ’99 would become “the greatest show on turf” and one of the most memorable teams in league history.

While the Rams offence became the stuff of legend, their defense should not be ignored. Wide receiver Torry Holt argued that he didn’t think, "… They talk[ed] about our defense enough. We were the No. 1 offense in the National Football League, but our defense was top five in the NFL. But they were so overshadowed by what we were doing offensively and the speed and the points that we were generating, the energy that we created.” Indeed, in the NFC Championship game against Tampa Bay, the St. Louis offense mustered just nine points and they won the game on the strength of their defense, which produced two turnovers, five sacks and a safety. Of course, no one could forget about backup QB Kurt Warner, who came off the bench (and out of the grocery store) and won over the nation. Warner is perhaps the ultimate Cinderella story of professional sports.

1 New York Giants, 2007-08

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It was the year that the Patriots were supposed to be crowned as the greatest team of all time. That regular season had seen them go 16-0, including a supposedly meaningless win over the Giants in Week 17 when the Giants had nothing to play for. Instead, the ingenious Tom Coughlin played his starters and forced the Pats to win the game in the fourth quarter.

The sixth seed Giants gained confidence from the narrow 38-35 defeat and felt ready to take on anybody in the playoffs. They had to go on the road to Tampa Bay, at Dallas and at Green Bay and emerged victorious in each match to win the NFC. In the Super Bowl, they, of course, met the Pats who had walked through the AFC and were headed for 19-0 and the perfect season. Eli and company had other ideas as David Tyree made the greatest (or, at least, the most miraculous) catch in Super Bowl history and the Giants defense held one of the league’s most potent offences to a mere two touchdowns. Most incredibly, that regular season the Giants had lost to Dallas twice and both Green Bay and New England, yet defeated them all in the post-season.

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Top 10 Cinderella Seasons in NFL History