We’re a little over a week away from the NFL naming its 57th Super Bowl champion, which is rarefied air given the legendary teams that have achieved it… and also while reflecting on some of those that fell short on Super Sunday or fell short of Super Sunday entirely.
And it takes you into some “what if” terrain that is thought-provoking, particularly when you consider the finest single-season teams who missed out on the championship game. It’s a practice in remembering and appreciating some great teams that have faded with time but may still cause sadness in the hearts of supporters who haven’t forgotten.
So, with regards to the Super Bowl era, which started in 1966, these are the 16 teams I think are the best that didn’t get a chance to compete for the Lombardi Trophy:
16. Buffalo Bills in 2021 (lost divisional round)
Since its days in the American Football League, the franchise has endured 63 star-crossed seasons and no championships. The +194 point difference for this team, though, is unquestionably the best in Buffalo history. They upset the Patriots 47-17 in the wild-card round behind quarterback Josh Allen and the NFL’s top-ranked defense before losing in overtime to the Kansas City Chiefs the following weekend. A rule change was required for future postseasons as a result of Allen and Company losing the coin toss and not touching the ball in overtime during one of the greatest back-and-forth battles in playoff history.
15. Jacksonville Jaguars in 1999 (lost AFC championship game)
The top-seeded AFC Central champions, who were easily the best team in the short history of the Jaguars, were 15-0 versus everyone else that year but went 0-3 against the Tennessee Titans, including a 62-7 playoff rout of the Miami Dolphins in quarterback Dan Marino’s final game.
14. San Diego Chargers, 1981 (lost AFC championship game)
being challenged on defense? Sure. However, no squad during the Don Coryell era scored goals more consistently. Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts passed to three 1,000-yard receivers while having Pro Bowl running back Chuck Muncie behind him, and the Bolts scored 29.9 points on average during the regular season. These Chargers might have provided San Diego with the elusive Super Bowl victory if the AFC championship game, sometimes known as the “Freezer Bowl,” hadn’t been held in Cincinnati’s minus-59 wind chill.
13. Los Angeles Rams of 1973 (lost divisional round)
In the regular season, they outscored their opponents by 210 points, the most margin of victory among the 56 LA Rams squads. The finest Rams of the Chuck Knox era, these Cowboys lost their playoff opener by 11 points despite having the league’s top overall offense and defense and an All-Pro quarterback in John Hadl.
12. The 1968 Dallas Cowboys (lost the divisional round)
Their regular-season win margin exceeded three touchdowns, making them arguably the most dominant regular-season club in franchise history. But in a one-and-done postseason loss to the Cleveland Browns, a top-ranked offense that scored 20 points on average per game throughout the regular season.
11. Green Bay Packers of 2011 (lost divisional round)
After leading the defending champs to a 13-0 start in his first MVP season, QB Aaron Rodgers attained full-fledged superstardom. But after a 15-1 regular season record, which was a franchise high, Green Bay fell to the New York Giants 37-20 at Lambeau Field, marking the beginning of a disappointing playoff run for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
10. San Diego Chargers in 2006 (lost divisional round)
The Bolts’ 14-2 regular season record was set by MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, who also set a single-season record with 31 touchdowns. Tomlinson stormed off the field in rage after the Patriots’ playoff loss to the Chargers, believing that the players had disrespectfully celebrated on the Chargers’ midfield logo. He was also likely miffed by S Marlon McCree’s careless fumble after intercepting Tom Brady on fourth-and-5 midway through the fourth quarter.
9. Minnesota Vikings in 1975 (lost divisional round)
The Vikes started 10-0 on their route to winning the NFC Central, making them arguably Fran Tarkenton’s best squad in the league. But the “Purple People Eaters” were cruelly eliminated from the playoffs after Staubach’s infamous 50-yard “Hail Mary” touchdown pass to Drew Pearson in bitterly cold conditions at Minnesota’s former Metropolitan Stadium.
8. New Orleans Saints in 2011 (lost divisional round)
For what was, statistically speaking, New Orleans’ best team, QB Drew Brees threw 46 touchdown passes and a then-record 5,476 passing yards (franchise-record 547 points and 208-point differential to go with a 13-3 ledger). The team’s 2011 campaign was mainly overshadowed by the 15-1 Packers, but it had a far better – if tragic – postseason, losing a barnstormer 36-32 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. TE With nine seconds remaining, Vernon Davis caught Alex Smith’s game-winning touchdown throw.
7. Oakland Raiders of 1968 (lost AFL championship game)
The 1968 Jets, who Oakland defeated in the classic “Heidi Game,” statistically fared worse than the reigning AFL champions. But unlike New York, the Raiders were forced to play a tough Chiefs squad in the Western Division playoff. The following Sunday at Shea Stadium, Namath and company barely beat the Raiders in a playoff rematch before pulling off their iconic Super Bowl upset over the strongly favored Baltimore Colts.
6. Indianapolis Colts in 2005 (lost divisional round)
After a stunning 13-0 start, this team appeared to be destined to make history. The Colts’ 14 victories and +192 point differential reflect their best regular-season results under Peyton Manning, as well as the pinnacle of their time in Indianapolis. The final blow came when K Mike Vanderjagt missed a game-tying field goal try in the waning seconds of an Indy 21-18 home playoff loss to Pittsburgh. During that span, coach Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide.
5. New England Patriots in 2012 (lost AFC championship game)
The only other team in club history with a bigger point differential was New England’s 2007 squad, which went 16-0 during the regular season and outscored its opponents by 226 points. Brady and company, though, were routed 28-13 at home by the Ravens in a rematch of the AFC championship game.
4. Baltimore Ravens in 2019 (lost divisional round)
The AFC’s top-seeded team included a record 13 Pro Bowlers and won a club-record 14 games with a margin of victory averaging nearly three touchdowns. It was unquestionably the finest regular-season edition of a team that is usually always in playoff contention. Baltimore set an NFL single-season record for rushing yards with 3,296 and finished the year on a 12-game winning streak. The team was led by league MVP Lamar Jackson, who also set a quarterback record by rushing for 1,206 yards and passing for 36 touchdowns. But everything was lost in the first round of the playoffs when the wild-card Titans shocked Baltimore 28-12.
3. San Francisco 49ers of 1992 (lost NFC championship game)
Steve Young finally reached his potential after Joe Montana was benched, throwing a league-high 25 touchdown passes, winning his first league MVP title, and steering the Niners to a 14-2 record. After losing to the “Triplets” Cowboys for the NFC championship, the San Francisco 49ers are perhaps the best San Francisco squad that did not win the Super Bowl.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers in 1976 (lost AFC championship game)
There has never been a Super Bowl three-peat, but despite losing QB Terry Bradshaw for a significant portion of the season and, worse, having both of their 1,000-yard rushers (Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier) suffer injuries in the divisional round of the playoffs, they came close to pulling it off. With the defense blanking five opponents and allowing fewer than 10 points per game, there is still a case to be made that this was the best squad of the Steel Curtain period.
1. The 1998 Vikings (lost the NFC championship game)
They were 15-1 during the regular season, scored a then-record 556 points, and terrorized opponents with passes from All-Pro QB Randall Cunningham to Hall of Fame WRs Cris Carter and Randy Moss, who was then a breakout rookie. However, All-Pro K Gary Anderson’s memorable missed field goal, the only one he missed all season, allowed the Atlanta Falcons to pull off an overtime victory in the NFC championship game. The Denver Broncos, who defeated the Falcons in Super Bowl 33 to successfully defend their championship in quarterback John Elway’s farewell game, were scheduled to face the Vikings in what was anticipated to be one of the all-time championship games.