Since Jan. 8, 2000, a lot has happened in the world of pro football. Tom Brady has gone from unknown backup to greatest QB of the generation. Michael Strahan and Brett Favre reminded Americans the right and wrong ways to end their careers on top. Even the team once known as the 'Aints took home a Lombardi Trophy. Yet, there's one thing that hasn't taken place: the Bills and Lions playing in the postseason.
It now has been 11 years since those two teams played in the playoffs. Every other franchise that was around at that time has made the playoffs since then, but not Buffalo or Detroit. Both franchises have had some unfortunate draft picks; a couple of balls didn't bounce their way. But no playoff trips in more than a decade is a shock, considering the parity that has spread throughout the rest of the league.
Just look at the numbers: Every year more than a third of the league makes the postseason. The past two years 17 different teams have made the playoffs. Go back to '08 and the number rises to 21 different teams. It has proven to be nearly mathematically impossible to go an extended period of time in the NFL without making the playoffs, yet the Bills and Lions defy the odds, year after year.
The strange thing is, these two teams weren't always synonymous with losing. Buffalo made the playoffs 10 times between 1988-99, reaching four Super Bowls in a row behind a group of Hall of Fame players. Entering that playoff game vs. the Titans following the '99 season, the Bills appeared to have a talented 26-year-old QB in Rob Johnson whom they could build around for many years to come.
Detroit, meanwhile, was a constant participant in January football in the 1990s, with Barry Sanders as its main attraction. Even after his retirement prior to the '99 season, the Lions still ground out a wild-card berth in a competitive NFC Central. As the world worried about the repercussions of the Y2K bug, nobody could have foreseen that these two teams would fade into football oblivion.
That fateful day 11 years ago changed it all. The Bills played first, and anyone who has turned on ESPN Classic knows how that game ended. Buffalo took a one-point lead with 16 seconds left, only to see Frank Wycheck and Kevin Dyson execute the "Music City Miracle," giving Tennessee an improbable victory on its way to an appearance in the Super Bowl. Hours later, the Lions were overmatched by Stephen Davis and the Redskins, falling behind 27-0 at halftime before losing 27-13.
Since their last playoff appearance, the Bills have played to a record of 70-106, while the Lions have been even worse, at 48-128. Both teams have whiffed on free-agent signings, draft picks and head coaches. They both have been embarrassed on the field (see Buffalo's 15 consecutive losses to the Patriots) and off (see nearly every one of Matt Millen's draft picks for the Lions) since Jan. 8, 2000.
Things began to turn for both teams in 2010. The Bills had one of the league's least-talented rosters but played hard every week and seem to be on the upswing. The Lions have stockpiled talent through the draft in recent years and finished the season with four consecutive wins. If everything goes right, maybe these two teams will make the playoffs in 2011. Odds say they have to — eventually.
This column was originally published in the current print edition of Pro Football Weekly, dated Jan. 9, 2011, which also includes a playoff primer with in-depth analysis of all 12 playoff teams, ranked from most likely to win Super Bowl XLV to least likely, our grades for all 36 NFL head coaches this season, plus columnists and insights into the upcoming NFL draft, handicapping and fantasy football. The Pro Football Weekly print edition is on sale at retail outlets across the country and at PFWstore.com, where you can purchase either the print or electronic (PDF) version of this issue.