Pain Rankings: Which NFL fan bases suffer the most?


Two summers ago, I sought the answer to a quantifiably impossible question: Which NFL team and fan base had suffered the most misery in the Super Bowl era?

The result of my research was the Pain Rankings, a collection of ill-fated teams who must've royally ticked off the football gods in a prior life. During these final quiet days of the NFL calendar, I thought it might be fun to revisit these rankings. Which teams are better off? Which have slipped deeper into the abyss? Should anyone be added? Who should escape?

My original rankings included seven teams. I'm going to expand the club to eight, adding two teams while removing one. Before we get started, here was the Sad Seven from July 2015. Click on the teams to read their original Pain Rankings dispatch.

7) Kansas City Chiefs
6) Cincinnati Bengals
5) Minnesota Vikings
4) Detroit Lions
3) Buffalo Bills
2) New York Jets
1) Cleveland Browns

To clear space for the newcomers, we'll say goodbye to the Chiefs. In the summer of 2015, they shared an NFL record with eight consecutive playoff defeats dating back to 1993. Fortunes have improved since, even if their 47-year Super Bowl drought continues. Working in favor of K.C.: The Chiefs have the best record in the NFL over the past season-and-a-half, they're the defending AFC West champions, and they snapped that ugly playoff-loss streak with a shutout road conquest over the Texans in January 2016, a performance so dominant it directly led to Brock Osweiler getting a bonkers $72 million contract. That's an impressive victory!

We fully acknowledge the frustration that comes with this past January's playoff bye followed by another quick ouster in the Divisional Round -- this is known as The Marty Special in K.C. -- but even the most pessimistic Chiefs fan would struggle to make a case that things are not trending upward in Arrowhead. We even like the decision to draft Patrick Mahomes, a move that should allow the Chiefs to win a game with a quarterback they drafted for the first time since 1987. Just a matter of time, baby!

The Pain Rankings say goodbye to the Chiefs. For now, anyway.

(One last thing before we go on. You probably think it's a cop-out to add two teams and only eliminate one. First of all, back off. You don't know me. Second, I could not, in good conscience, bump any of the remaining six teams off the list. They have suffered too much. To take this ignominious honor away is an exercise in irony I am unwilling to embrace. So the other six stay. Don't @ me.)

Onward and downward.

8) Bengals

Pain Resume

Regular season record (all-time): 344-408-4
Playoff record (all-time): 5-14
Super Bowl wins: 0
Super Bowl appearances: 2 (none since 1988)
2015 Pain Rankings: No. 6

The Bengals have done nothing to shed their reputation as the NFL's Kings of What Might Have Been. They jumped out to a 10-2 start in 2015 with Andy Dalton playing the best football of his career, but Dalton's season ended in a flash when he broke the thumb on his throwing hand in Week 14. Cincinnati limped to a 12-4 finish without the quarterback, then suffered one of the most crushing postseason defeats in recent memory against the Steelers on Wild Card Weekend. It was almost like Jeremy Hill, Pacman Jones and Vontaze Burfict conspired to keep Bengals fans miserable just for the fun of it.

The result? The Bengals still haven't won in the playoffs since Jan. 6, 1991. Last season's ho-hum 6-9-1 was almost an act of mercy after their act of self-immolation against the Steelers.

7) Vikings

Pain Resume

Regular-season record (all-time): 457-387-10
Playoff record (all-time): 19-28
Super Bowl wins: 0
Super Bowl appearances: 4 (none since 1976)
2015 Pain Rankings: No. 5

The Vikings re-upped their lease on the Pain Rankings thanks to a pair of devastating moments:

Blair Walsh ... meet Gary Anderson: Riding the tandem of rushing champion Adrian Peterson and a very good defense, the Vikings went 11-5 and won the NFC North in 2015. On a freezing day at TCF Bank Stadium, Minnesota appeared primed to take out the mighty Seahawks in the Wild Card Round. And then ...

The Vikes stood by Walsh after the crushing miss, but he struggled in 2016 and was released midway through the season.

Teddy goes down: This was the textbook definition of a freak injury. During a noncontact drill just a week before the start of the 2016 regular season, Teddy Bridgewater planted his leg and saw his life change forever. The 23-year-old suffered a catastrophic knee injury that ended his season and placed his career in jeopardy. There have been promising signs this offseason, but there's no guarantee we ever see the former first-round pick get back on the field for the Vikings ... or anyone else.

And, oh yeah, the Vikings started 5-0 last season before losing eight of 11 to miss the postseason. At least their new stadium is cool.

6) Lions

Pain Resume

Regular season record (all-time): 544-641-32
Playoff record (all-time): 7-13
Super Bowl wins: 0
Super Bowl appearances: 0
2015 Pain Rankings: No. 4

The Lions have qualified for the playoffs in two of the past three years, but does it actually feel like they've turned any corner? They still haven't won a postseason contest since January of 1992 and they remain one of just two teams (the Browns being the other) who have been around as long as the Super Bowl has existed without actually ever making it to the big game.

Now Megatron's retired and he's gone public saying he cut his career short because he just didn't see the Lions ever being winners during his career window. Come to think of it, Barry Sanders -- the team's other legendary talent of the past 25 years -- quit for the same reason.

Two of the greatest players in NFL history walked away in their prime solely because they were Lions. How could Detroit not have a permanent home on the Pain Rankings?

Not really related, but I found this funny:

5) Falcons

Pain Resume

Regular-season record (all-time): 341-437-6
Playoff record (all-time): 9-13
Super Bowl wins: 0
Super Bowl appearances: 2 (last appeared in, well, you know)
2015 Pain Rankings: Unranked

What do we even do with the Falcons now?

We're really in unprecedented territory here. A team loses the Super Bowl every year, but no team has lost a Super Bowl like the 2016 Atlanta Falcons. I feel confident calling it the most devastating defeat in the history of the NFL. Matt Ryan and Dan Quinn could win four Super Bowls in the next five years and they'll still never escape 28-3. It is on their football tombstones. Hell, it could end up on their actual tombstones.

The pain of the loss was obvious. But the fallout continues to surprise. The Falcons' collapse has become a societal obsession, a meme of misery. Everyone has taken a turn, from creative Boston Marathon motivators, to merciless NOLA float designers, to snarky, Tampa-based social media managers, to Peyton freaking Manning.

The Falcons and their fans are the butt of the joke over and over, the trauma of that Sunday evening now comedic fodder for the enemy and everyman alike. This is more than twisting the knife. It's death by a thousand cuts, the same method of destruction used by Tom Brady on that fateful night.

Will the Falcons peel themselves off the mat? Maybe. But they'll never fully escape LI. It's a scarlet letter that might as well be painted at midfield in their shiny new stadium.

Hey, at least the hot dogs are cheap.

4) Bills

Pain Resume

Regular season record (all-time): 400-460-8
Playoff record (all-time): 14-15
Super Bowl wins: 0
Super Bowl appearances: 4 (none since 1993)
2015 Pain Rankings: No. 3

Back in 2015, I spoke with NBC News correspondent and Bills superfan Luke Russert. Like many Buffalo diehards, he had fallen hard for Rex Ryan. Here's what Russert said on the eve of Ryan's first season in Orchard Park:

"Belichick is the master; however, the Jets beat Belichick before in the playoffs. If [Ryan] could pull that off one time, he'll be God. In all honesty, if he gets to the playoffs, they will erect a statue at this point. It doesn't even matter if he never goes for the rest of his coaching career in Buffalo. If he gets to the playoffs this year, they will erect a statue. They already hit their season-ticket record -- it's not even August and they did that. It's going to be mayhem, at least in those first few games."

I highlight Russert's misplaced optimism as a reminder of the cycle of disappointment the Bills have been locked into since their run of conference championships (and subsequent Super Bowl busts) concluded in the mid-90s. There's never any shortage of reasons why the Bills will finally snap their endless playoff drought -- 17 years and counting now -- but nothing ever actually takes hold. Of course, it's no coincidence that Buffalo's long run of dark Januarys has coincided -- to the year -- with the career of one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.

Rex is gone now. There will be no statue. The only consolation is that, one day, there will be no more Brady, either. Well, maybe.

3) Jets

Pain Resume

Regular season record (all-time): 392-468-8
Playoff record (all-time): 12-13
Super Bowl wins: 1
Super Bowl appearances: 1 (none since 1968)
2015 Pain Rankings: No. 2

These are dark times for Jets fans. There have been many, many years where you have been able to make that statement, but there just seems to be something a bit more depressing about their seemingly hopeless place in the football universe right now.

In 2015, Jets fans got sucked in by a career year from Ryan Fitzpatrick and the 10 wins Fitzmagic yielded. A stomach-punch season-finale loss to Rex Ryan and the Bills (naturally) ruined that year, and 2016 was a 5-11 disaster that's prompted a full-blown teardown. Even their own players are calling the season a tank job designed at landing a premier college talent in 2018. How confident should any Jets fan be that this will all actually work out as planned? Does it ever for this team?

Jets misery covers the spectrum: They can suck you in and crush you just as easily as they can remove hope from the equation entirely. They are the Daniel Day-Lewis of pain: gifted, mysterious, versatile, enduring. DDL announced this year he has quit acting. Critics are accusing the Jets of quitting the 2017 season before it starts.

2) Browns

Pain Resume

Regular season record (all-time): 509-470-13
Playoff record (all-time): 16-20
Super Bowl wins: 0
Super Bowl appearances: 0
2015 Pain Rankings: No. 1

Every couple years or so, a sense of optimism builds around the Browns. It happened when they hired Mike Holmgren, it happened when they brought in Mike Pettine. We saw it when they drafted Trent Richardson, then witnessed it once more when Johnny Manziel came to town. These are only the most recent examples.

You already know the hope was misguided in each and every one of those cases. We're in a new cycle now, with Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson coming off a draft in which they landed three promising first-round picks, as well as a quarterback with potential. They spent money, too, addressing problem areas on a roster that managed a single victory in 2016.

On paper, the Browns seem like a team finally ready to make a move out of the AFC North cellar, a place they've pretty much called home since re-entering the league in 1999. Frankly, we hope that's what happens. The Browns being forever terrible is a tired NFL storyline by now.

But we can't remove the Browns from the Pain Rankings until we see actual proof the Factory of Sadness is closing down. Hope is good. Results are better.

1) Chargers

Pain Resume

Regular season record (all-time): 426-431-11
Playoff record (all-time): 11-17
Super Bowl wins: 0
Super Bowl appearances: 1 (none since 1994)
2015 Pain Rankings: Unranked

There's a strong case to be made that the Chargers should have been on this list before they left their fans for the (ostensibly) greener pastures of Los Angeles. colleague Gregg Rosenthal lamented this often during our Pain Rankings conversations -- and he always had a good case. This team and fan base has seen it all: soul-crushing playoff losses, draft-day bumbling, bad trades, off-the-field tragedy, the cosmic joke of playing a jobber in their lone Super Bowl appearance. But nothing was worse than the interminable divorce proceedings with San Diego -- a city that doesn't even get left holding the bag. Those folks just got ... nothing.

Teams like the Vikings and Jets allow their fans to let their guards down before disaster strikes. The Falcons' devastation became the world's amusement. The Bills, Bengals, Lions and Browns won't always be lost -- even if it feels that way. Their time will eventually come. Tomorrow is promised.

The same can't be said for Chargers fans in San Diego. That book is closed. The team continues on, but Qualcomm Stadium will be uninhabited land on the Sundays to come. What could be more painful than that?