Sometimes, life is not fair. And that includes sports. When we look at who’s in and who’s out of the playoffs, the results aren’t always just. Due to a wide range of circumstances, the team that deserves to make the playoffs isn’t always the one that actually gets in. Such will be the case this year in the NFL.
Currently, every team in the AFC North is at least three games over .500, which is an NFL record. Meanwhile, every team in the floundering NFC South is at least three games under .500. But due to the nature of the NFL playoffs, one team from the NFC South has to make the post-season—no matter how bad its record is. Wouldn’t it be more fair for that berth to go to an AFC North team that will have a better record and plays in the better division?
This is certainly an injustice, but a ton of good teams (with awesome records) have missed the playoffs over the years. Here are the five winningest teams that missed out on the post-season.
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1. The 1993 San Francisco Giants. Record: 103-59
Bolstered by the off-season addition of Barry Bonds, the 1993 San Francisco Giants were primed to make a playoff run. And it’s hard to say they disappointed. Their 103 regular-season wins were the second most in the MLB that year. Bonds earned the NL MVP after hitting .336 with 46 home runs and 123 RBIs. They had a two great pitchers in Bill Swift and John Burkett, both of whom won over 20 games. However, back in those days, the MLB had only four divisions, and each division winner got an automatic playoff berth. There was no wildcard.
Unfortunately for the Giants, the only team that had a better record—the Atlanta Braves—was in their division. The Braves won one more game than the Giants, which meant the team with the second-best overall record in MLB would not be playing in October. Instead, teams with win totals of 97, 95 and 94 got to play in the post-season. The 1993 San Francisco Giants are the only team to win 103 games and miss the playoffs since 1954, when the post-season consisted of only two teams. Karma for the sins of Barry Bonds? Who knows.
2. The 2008 New England Patriots. Record: 11-5
The only team to win 11 games and miss out on the playoffs since the NFL expanded to a 12-team post-season in 1990, the 2008 New England Patriots were pretty remarkable. Coming off a 2007 season when they went 18-1, the Patriots were heavy pre-season favorites to return to the Super Bowl. All of that changed, however, when reigning NFL MVP Tom Brady suffered a knee injury in the season opener. Brady was out for the season, and it seemed like the Patriots might be in big trouble. But the team performed pretty darn well, in large part thanks to backup quarterback Matt Cassel, who proved surprisingly effective, throwing for 21 touchdowns and nearly 3,700 yards.
Both Wes Welker and Randy Moss had over 1,000 receiving yards, and Jerod Mayo led the team in tackles en route to an AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The Patriots won their final four games to finish the regular season 11-5, which was usually more than good enough to make the playoffs. However, both the Miami Dolphins and the Baltimore Ravens held identical records. The Dolphins and the Ravens had the advantage over the Patriots in a series of tiebreakers, forcing New England out of the playoffs. While it might be hard to feel sorry for the Patriots (after all, they’ve made the playoffs 11 out of the last 13 seasons), the fact that the San Diego Chargers, who finished 8-8, got to host a first-round playoff game while the Patriots sat at home is pretty ridiculous.
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3. 1971-1972 Phoenix Suns. Record: 49-33
Paul Silas of the Phoenix Suns
The 1970-71 and 1971-72 Phoenix Suns must’ve walked under a few ladders, cracked some mirrors and had a full litter of black cats cross their paths. That’s the only way to explain the extremely bad luck they experienced over those two seasons. Let’s start with the 1970-71 team. Those Suns went 48-34, which was the fourth best record in the league. Back in those days, there were two divisions in each conference and the top two teams from each division earned playoff berths. Unfortunately for the Suns, both the Milwaukee Bucks (66-16) and the Chicago Bulls (51-31) were in their division. That means the Suns couldn’t go to the playoffs, setting a record for the team with the highest winning percentage ever to miss out on the playoffs. The worst part? Due to the playoff formatting, the San Francisco Warriors got an automatic playoff berth—with a record of 41-41!
The next season, the Suns somehow managed to outdo themselves. Led by phenomenal players like Paul Silas, Connie Hawkins and Dick Van Arsdale, the 1971-72 Phoenix Suns went 49-33. But just like the previous year, they had extremely unfortunate luck and didn’t earn a playoff spot in the competitive Western Conference. They broke the record they had set the previous season for a team with the highest winning percentage ever to miss the playoffs. Meanwhile in the Eastern Conference, the 38-44 Baltimore Bullets and the 36-46 Atlanta Hawks both went to the playoffs. Wait, it was wayyyy easier to make the playoffs in the East than it was the West? Some things never change. The tough luck seems to be sticking around for the Suns, as they missed the playoffs despite winning 48 games last season.
4. 2010-2011 Dallas Stars. Record: 42-29-11
Hockey’s post-season is a different beast from those in other major sports. Berths are based mainly on total points instead of total wins. Heading into the 2010-2011 season, the Stars were coming off two consecutive seasons in which they missed the playoffs—despite having winning records. No way that bad luck could continue, right? Wrong. The 2010-2011 Dallas Stars were one of only two NHL teams to earn 95 points in the regular season and miss the playoffs.
Amazingly, the Stars finished dead last in the five-team Pacific Division in 2010-2011, and every one of their divisional foes made the playoffs. The Stars actually had equal or fewer losses than six playoff teams, but their struggles to win overtime games really cost them. From 2008 to 2013, the Stars didn’t make a single playoff appearance—despite never having a losing record.
1985 Denver Broncos. Record: 11-5
Coming off of an impressive 13-3 season, the 1985 Denver Broncos were ready to return to the playoffs and make some noise. They had the talent—guys like QB John Elway, RB Sammy Winder and LB Karl Mecklenburg—and they had the coaching, featuring Dan Reeves, Mike Shanahan and Chan Gailey. The team played well, finishing the regular season 11-5. However, the Los Angeles Raiders finished one game better at 12-4, which won them the AFC West. Two teams from the AFC East also finished 11-5, and they ended up winning tiebreakers with Denver to earn wildcard spots.
The 1985 Broncos finished the season tied for the fourth best record in the NFL, but they were not one of the 10 teams that went to the playoffs. It had to hurt seeing a mediocre Cleveland Browns team win its division and earn a playoff berth with a middling 8-8 record. Of course, Elway and the Broncos went on to get plenty of revenge against Cleveland.