I know the title might be a bit misleading, but this isn’t about teams that are horrible one season and good the next. This is about teams that started the season horribly, but managed to salvage it and produce a nice W-L record at the end.
Honorable Mentions: The 1999 New York Jets and the 1996 Cincinnati Bengals
The 1999 Jets started the season 1-6, with Vinny Testaverde injured, the Jets had to turn to Rick Mirer and Tom Tupa, neither of which could win anything. Bill Parcells eventually pulled his team together on the back of Curtis Martin, and they finished with an 8-8 record, but failed to make the playoffs.
The 1996 Bengals also started out 1-6 behind the utter stupidity of Dave Shula, but Bruce Coslet came in and helped them to finish 7-2 to find their first record of .500 or above since 1990.
10. The 1995 Detroit Lions
The Lions entered 1995 full of uncertainty, after a 9-7 finish in 1994 after high-priced quarterback Scott Mitchell started to show some flaws. The season started out badly, as the Lions lost 3 of 4, including a gutting loss to the Vikings in which a near-interception was tipped, then caught for a long touchdown by Qadry Ismail. The Lions then dropped to 3-6 after their bye, losing to division rival Green Bay, and losing to Washington on the first play in overtime on a pick-six. But Wayne Fontes pulled his team together, and sent them on a 7 game winning streak in which they set a franchise record for points scored (436) until the 2011 team broke it. What made it impressive was the Lions did this against an incredibly competitive division in the 1995 NFC Central, in which all the teams (save the still creamsicle-donned Buccaneers) qualified for post-season play.
But we can’t ignore the hideous playoff loss to the Eagles, and that’s why they aren’t higher on the list.
9. The 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers
Another 1995 team. The Steelers entered 1995 as popular AFC Super Bowl picks, behind Bill “The Chin” Cowher’s leadership. But right out of the gate, the team flopped like an fish out of water. They went 3-4 in their first 7 games, and plummeted in the standings. But Cowher changed his offense, going from a monotonous ball-control offense to an exciting, passing airshow. The Steelers won 8 of their last 9 to finish 11-5, and advanced to the Super Bowl. However, what keeps them from being higher are 2 things.
Number one, they faced an easy playoff schedule, first clobbering the over-the-hill Buffalo Bills 40-21, and were one dropped hail mary away from watching the 9-7 Colts in the Super Bowl.
Number two, they didn’t win. Neil O’Donnell threw two interceptions that were practically gift-wrapped to Larry Brown while the game was within reach, making him the MVP.
8. The 1999 Minnesota Vikings
Maybe they should be a bit lower. The 1998 Vikings were a historically great team, with a big play defense and the best offense in history (to that point). They choked in the 1998 NFC Title game against the Falcons, ruining their 15-1 season. In 1999, they tried to duplicate the success. With the apparently reborn Randall Cunningham as their starter, the Vikings began the season 2-4. So who did they turn to? Veteran journeyman Jeff George, who argued and fought his way out of his previous three teams. George had the arm strength, and he also had Cris Carter, Jake Reed, and Randy Moss. These main four propelled the Vikings to win 8 of their last 10, to finish 10-6. They advanced to the playoffs and beat the Cowboys’ last hurrah of the 90s, 27-10, but were outpaced by the Greatest Show on Turf in the divisional playoffs.
7. The 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars
After drudging through a typical expansion-team season in 1995, the Jaguars were being poked at and watched by everyone to see if they were going to implode on themselves. Originally, it looked like they would. The Jags stumbled early in modern-day fashion, losing 7 of their first 11, 4 of which were against division rivals. They managed to string everything together, and going into the final week against 3-12 Atlanta, they could make the playoffs if they won. Well, in the last seconds, the normally reliable Morten Andersen missed a chip-shot field goal, putting the Jaguars into a Wild Card game against the aging, creaky Bills. It took all 4 quarters, but the Jaguars finally emerged with a 30-27 win. On came the best team in the AFC, the 13-3 Denver Broncos. No chance. 0.
After a long run by Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith caught a touchdown pass to beat the Broncos 30-27, which John Elway called his “worst loss to that point” even though he had lost three Super Bowls. The Jags couldn’t beat the Patriots in the AFC title game, though, falling 20-6, but this successful season jump-started the team to go on and win 36 games over the next 3 seasons.
6. The 1988 San Francisco 49ers
Probably the most successful team on the list, the ’88 49ers came into the season after a devastating playoff loss the year earlier to the 8-7 Vikings. It showed early, as the Niners lost 5 of their first 11 games, and were stuck in the mediocre section of the NFL. After this, they managed 4 more wins, to finish 10-6 and advance to the playoffs. There, they unexpectedly beat the Giants and Bears, and advanced to Super Bowl XXIII to face the high-powered Bengals. The close game was a breath of fresh air, after a long line of championship game blowouts. The 49ers prevailed though, on a touchdown pass to John Taylor in the final minute to beat the Bengals, 20-16.
5. The 1985 Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins were coming off a stupendous 1984 campaign in which they lost in the Super Bowl to the 49ers, and were looking to repeat as the dominant team in the league. After all, the 49ers didn’t really do anything in 1985. Miami started 5-4 though, and looked to finish around 9-7. After a loss to New England, Miami put together a 7 game winning streak, in which they put the only L in the 1985 Bears’ record. In the playoffs, they suffered a tragic loss to the cinderella Patriots in the AFC Title game.
4. The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals at that point were still young and didn’t have very much talent, and it showed early. Cincinnati started the season with a dysmal 1-6 record. But then, out of nowhere, game a 7 game winning streak that clinched the AFC Central in the final week. In the Wild Card playoff game, they were shut out by Baltimore, 17-0, to end a special season on a sad note.
3. The 1992 San Diego Chargers
San Diego hadn’t found their way out of the forest after Dan Fouts retired, suffering a horrible late season collapse in 1987 and then losing records since then. In 1992, they started out 0-4 and San Diego fans automatically wrote off the season just like the last five or so. What followed was a 12 game span where San Diego went 11-1. In the playoffs, they defeated bitter rival Kansas City 17-0, but couldn’t secure a win in Miami.
2. The 1975 Baltimore Colts
After a few abysmal seasons, Baltimore fans were fed up with the losing. They wanted wins and heroic plays, like the past. Joe Thomas was previously hired, and gutted the team. They finished 2-12 in 1974, and after a 1-4 start in 1975, the fanbase was going mental. In a crucial game against Buffalo, in which Baltimore trailed by 21 at Halftime, Ted Marchibroda looked at Bert Jones, and said, “Bert, we’re going to win this game.”. That challenged the team, and they scored 42 second half points to beat the Bills by a score. In fact, Baltimore won their last 9 in a row, before advancing to the playoffs and _falling_ in the playoffs to Pittsburgh, 28-10.
1. The 1993 Houston Oilers
The Oilers had been labeled as “playoff chokers” after six straight seasons in which they failed to even get to an AFC Championship Game. In 1991 and 1992, they suffered devastating playoff collapses, particularly in 1992. With a 35-3 lead over Buffalo at halftime, the Oilers imploded and allowed 38 points in the second half, while only scoring 3 themselves, to lose the game 41-38 in overtime. Automatically, this prompted some coaching moves. In 1993, Houston hired defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who was well-known for his aggressive, blitzing defense. At the start, though, it didn’t show, but the playoff hangover sure did. The Oilers started 1993 with a 1-4 record, displaying complete ineptitude on both sides of the ball. The fans questioned whether or not an aging Warren Moon could take them anywhere. And boy, did he. Aided with a defense that only gave up 20 or more points once during the stretch, the Oilers became the first team since the 1972 Dolphins to win their last 11 games in a row. Their run-and-shoot offense was defibrillated as well, showing life that had been totally absent in the first 5 weeks. They won the AFC Central with a 12-4 record, and the first ever Divisional playoff game was held in the Astrodome, where they faced the now Joe Montana led Kansas City Chiefs. With a moderate lead in the second half, the Oilers choked again, giving up 3 touchdowns in one quarter alone. After the embarrassing 28-20 loss, owner Bud Adams held true on his promise that he made at the beginning of the season, that if Houston could not win that year, their stars were likely to be scattered around the league. In 1994, the Oilers started 1-9 and finished 2-14. Head coach Jack Pardee was fired after the tenth game.