It's not over 'til it's over
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

If you're a football fan, your favorite team may be the Redskins. Or the Giants. Maybe the Packers or 49ers. Perhaps the Bills. Possibly (you mensch, you) the Bengals.

At this point, you may be tempted to follow your fantasy team a lot more closely than your real team, figuring that a wild-card spot is but a distant hope, anything beyond that a Jennie Finch dream.

Time to give up? Not a chance. There are still seven games left, and just about anything can happen. These 10 teams tell the tale of great midseason turnarounds:

1. 2001 Patriots
The Pats started 3-4, but went on to win eight of their last nine games to win the AFC East title with an 11-5 mark (their only loss during that run came at home, to the St. Louis Rams). Then the Pats won two playoffs games and beats the Rams 20-17 in one of the best Super Bowls ever.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady went from backup to Super Bowl hero.

What happened? For one, the defense turned around, going from 22nd in the league after seven games to sixth at the end of the season. Second, second-year backup quarterback Tom Brady, who took over from Drew Bledsoe after the first-stringer was injured, played like an old pro. Even when the Pats hit the halfway mark at 4-4, some believed the team would at least make the playoffs, especially considering they had three straight home games coming up. "This is our house, and we have a chance to start something positive here," said safety Lawyer Milloy. "We're 0-0 as far as we're concerned. If we put together a good second-half record, we'll be in the playoffs."

2. 1996 Jaguars
Jacksonville had, on paper, absolutely no right to make it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. They reached their bye week -- Week 10 -- with a 3-6 record. Granted, many of their losses had been close (five by seven points or less), but still, the were losses. And when you added everything up, the Jags seemed no better than average -- 14th in offense, 19th in defense, allowing more points than they scored.

But after the bye week, they turned it around -- or, perhaps they got luckier. The Jags won six of their last seven, the wins coming on a combined margin of 24 points. They won their wild card and the divisional playoff games over the Bills and Broncos by identical 30-27 scores -- making it eight of nine, with four of those wins having a final score of Jags 30, Opponent 27.

The Patriots finally ended Jacksonville's run, beating them in the AFC Championship, 20-6. It was only the third time during the entire 19-game season that the Jags lost by more than seven points.

3. 1979 Rams
The Rams, hobbled by injuries to nine starters, had a 4-5 record after Week 9. Though it looked like they still had a chance to win the weak NFC West, nobody expected L.A. to recover the way it did -- winning four of their last five to win the division with a 9-7 record, then beating the Cowboys and Bucs to reach the Super Bowl, which they lost to the powerhouse Steelers, 31-19.

The path to the Super Bowl wasn't pretty. Players fought in the locker room and even on the sidelines. The owner fired her stepson from his GM position. Head Coach Ray Malavasi always appeared on the verge of being fired. But the Rams, dubbed "a soap opera in cleats" by Christian Science Monitor writer Phil Elderkin, somehow got to the big game without a single outstanding offensive player (Vince Ferragamo was the quarterback by the playoffs), and with a defense that gave up, on the season, only 14 fewer points than the offense scored.

4. 1957 Lions
The 1957 preseason couldn't have been worse for Detroit. On Aug. 12, head coach Buddy Parker stood before a crowd gathered for a "Meet the Lions" dinner, and stunned the gathering by quitting. "There comes a time in a coach's career when he feels he can't control his team -- on or off the field," said Parker. "When that time comes it's time to get out."

Parker explained his resignation further the next day: "It's the worst team I've ever seen in training camp There's no life, no go. It's a completely dead team. I don't want to get in the middle of another losing season."

One of Parker's assistants, George Wilson, took the reigns. Midway through the season, the struggling Lions had a mediocre 3-3 record. Had Parker been right?

No. Detroit, which lost star QB Bobby Layne to a broken ankle with a month left to go, won five of its last six games to finish 8-4, tied atop the West Division with the 49ers. The Lions then beat the 49ers 31-27 in a divisional playoff. On a roll, the Lions drank the bubbly a week later, after crushing the heavily-favored Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship, 59-14.

Tobin Rote did a great job filling in for Layne. In the title contest, he completed 12 passes for 280 yards and four TDs and also rushed for another.

Bill Cowher
Bill Cowher and Neil O'Donnell got the Steelers all the way to the Super Bowl.

5. 1995 Steelers
Midway through the 1995 season, it didn't look like Pittsburgh would even come close to its 1994 performance, which included a regular-season mark of 12-4, and a trip to the AFC Championship.

Two straight embarrassing losses -- to the lowly Jaguars in Jacksonville and the Bengals at home -- sunk the Steelers to a 3-4 record. During the Cincinnati game, the Three Rivers Stadium crowd loudly jeered and booed the Steelers, then mocked them as they left the field following a humiliating 27-9 loss. "All of last night's indicators," wrote Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "swung toward the effective end of this team's 1995 plans."

But the following week the Steelers beat the Jags to start an eight-game winning streak. They finished with an 11-5 record, the second-best in the AFC, thanks largely to a passing attack featuring four wide receivers and an awesome stretch run from QB Neil O'Donnell.

The Steelers beat the Bills and the Colts in the playoffs to earn a spot in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1979. They lost to Barry Switzer's Cowboys, 27-17.

6. 1976 Steelers
Deeeeee-fense! The Steelers began the 14-game 1976 season with a mediocre D, giving up 107 points in the first five games -- a corduroy curtain. Then, with a 1-4 record, cord turned back into metal, and the defense became the Steel Curtain again, almost impenetrable.

Pittsburgh won nine straight to close out the season, surrendering only 28 (yes, 28!) points total. That run included five shutouts, a 22-quarter streak of holding opponents scoreless, and two games where opponents could only muster a measly field goal. In the playoffs, the Steelers beat the Colts in the first round, 40-14. In the AFC Championship, playing without running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, the Steelers lost to the Raiders, 24-7.

7. 2000 Ravens
Everyone knew the Ravens had a great defense in 2000, and they showed it right from the start, shutting out three of their first five opponents. But Ray Lewis' crew couldn't hold opponents scoreless every game ... and the Ravens appeared to have almost no offense. In midseason, Baltimore lost three in a row and fell to 5-4. At one point, the Ravens went five straight games without scoring a touchdown.

Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis and the Ravens' defense led the team to an unlikely Super Bowl title.

Baltimore won its final seven games to grab a wild-card spot, thanks largely to the D, which held the opposition to a TD or less in five of those contests. And the offense also started to hum on all three cylindars. In the playoffs, same story: solid, if unspectacular, offense (hard to believe with Priest Holmes and Jamal Lewis in the backfield and Shannon Sharpe at tight end, but true), and incredible defense. The Ravens beat the Broncos, Titans, Raiders, and then the Giants to win the Super Bowl, surrendering only 23 points total in the playoffs and Super Bowl.

8. 1961 Oilers
The Oilers looked like a pretty good team at the start of 1961 -- they had George Blanda at QB, former Louisiana State star Billy Cannon in the backfield, and the first AFL title under their belts.

But the season began poorly, with the Oilers only 1-3-1 after five games. But Houston went on an offensive tear the rest of the season (in five of their last nine games, the Oilers scored 45 or more points), winning nine straight to finish 10-3-1. They beat the Chargers, 10-3, to win the AFL Championship.

9. 1970 Bengals
Bengals fans, listen up! You, of all people, should know there is always hope. In 1970, your team -- a mere three-year-old baby -- began the season with a 31-21 win over the Raiders, then proceeded to lose six straight.

It looked like the team MVP would end up being Horst Muhlmann or Dave Lewis. No joke -- former Browns head coach Paul Brown deliberately built the new team by focusing on the kicking game, and Muhlmann would finish the season as the second best placekicker in the conference, next to Jan Stenerud. Lewis, meanwhile, would lead the NFL in punting, averaging 46.2 yards.

Then came the turnaround. In Week 8, Cincy trounced the Bills 43-14 in Buffalo. Six more wins followed, including a regular-season-ending rout over the Patriots, 45-7. No team had a longer winning streak in 1970.

The Bengals finished 8-6, atop the AFC Central. And Brown savored a sweet division title over his former team, who finished second with a 7-7 record. Unfortunately, the team had to travel to Baltimore to face the mighty Colts in the divisional playoff, and lost 17-0. The Colts went on to win the Super Bowl.

10. 1995 Chargers
In 1994, San Diego was Cinderella, making it all the way to the Super Bowl. In 1995, the glass slipper broke. In late November, the 4-7 Chargers stood in last place in the AFC West. Looking ahead, San Diego head coach Bobby Ross admitted, "We're not talking playoffs."

But in a Monday Night game against the 8-3 Raiders, the Chargers pulled off a 12-6 upset, with cornerback Dwayne Harper picking off three passes and the usually porous defense holding tight.

The Chargers went on to win four more -- including a wild final game in the Meadowlands. Giants fans bombarded the Chargers with iceballs throughout the game (police arrested 15 fans, security ejected 175, and the refs almost forced a Giants forfeit with the score tied at 17), but San Diego managed to win, 27-17. They squeezed into a wild-card spot with a 9-7 record. Miraculous recovery achieved. The Chargers lost the wild-card playoff game to the Colts, 35-20.





FANTASY FINISHES

ALSO SEE:


Schoenfield: Top 10 sad retirements

The List: Best teammate feuds

The List: Greatest coaching moves

The List: Biggest postseason distractions

The List: Most painful losses in baseball history

The List: Worst coaching decisions

The List: Greatest NFL playoff upsets





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