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The Best Football Teams to Lose the Super Bowl

  • Feb 9, 2012

Football is America's most popular sport, and the NFL is the most popular league. In the Super Bowl, two teams face off for the right to call themselves the best and be immortalized as champions forever in Canton, and be remembered as the winning team in the minds of Americans. When you're a Super Bowl champion, you're a CHAMPION, and no matter how bad the past years, all sins are gone and forgotten. If your team spent the last decade going 1-15, it's now okay. If they're new and no one ever heard of them, they'll now hold respect among fans. If they're the Detroit Lions, everyone will know their fans have finally been rewarded for years of loyalty. 


But then again, you have the forgotten teams. For every Super Bowl winner, there's gonna be a loser, and that means that, no matter how good they are, they retain the sting of whatever past came back and bit them in their shining moment of glory. Here are ten Super Bowl losers who deserve better than their pasts, or at the very least a victory.

1990 Buffalo Bills

The poor people of Buffalo have to endure, among the obvious things, a walking punchline of a football team. But after hitting one of their many nadirs in the early 80's, those high draft picks began paying off dividends, and the Bills hired a Hall of Fame GM who pulled together the required pieces of a good team. After a breakout season in 1988 and a disappointment (9-7) in 1989, the 1990 Buffalo Bills adopted a new style of offense called the K-Gun. They became the first AFC team to ever have a 13-win season. One of their losses was a meaningless season finale against Washington in which the team rested its starters. Their top-ranked offense featured Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, future Hall of Famer Andre Reed, their 6th-ranked defense had all-time sack leader Bruce Smith and an army of all-stars like Cornelius Bennett and Shane Conlan, and even their special teams featured a monster in Steve Tasker. They outscored their playoff opponents 114 to 57 and looked destined to shed their loser image forever. 


In the Super Bowl, they ran into the New York Giants, who found a way to slow Buffalo's unstoppable attack. In the closest Super Bowl in history, the G-Men rose up and came out on the upper end of a 20-19 victory which was only sealed when the potential game-winning kick flew just right of the goal post with eight seconds left in the game. The iconic, lasting image of the 25th Super Bowl is a heartbreaking image of kicker Scott Norwood, a dependable clutch kicker whose leg had saved the Bills many times that season, walking dejected off the field, head hung, having missed the biggest kick of his life. This Super Bowl is still one of the most analyzed Super Bowls in history, and people still debate and fight over the way the game should have turned out. But by any laws of space and time, the Giants had no business being a factor in the game. They had no business winning that game, and Buffalo should never have been in the position where their victory was reliant on a field goal. 

1968 Baltimore Colts

Quarterback Earl Morrall and coach Don Shula took the Baltimore Colts to a record of 13-1 in 1968. They put up 402 points and allowed only 144 as Earl Morrall - NOT Johnny Unitas - marched them to the NFL Championship with a scary efficiency. They scored at least 20 points in all but one game, and in the title game, they beat the Cleveland Browns 34-0; the Browns were the one team that toppled Baltimore during the season. Oh yeah, the coach of their defensive backfield was none other than future Steelers legend Chuck Noll. 


In Super Bowl III, the Colts met the New York Jets. At the time, the AFL and NFL were still two separate leagues, and the AFL was still the crazy cousin the NFL was ashamed of. The experts rolled out an unfathomable spread of 21 points, and the game was all but ceded by all watchers. But the NFL was being seen as a stoic, stodgy league by this time in which whatever worked was copied by every other team, and what worked was strong defense and running. The AFL was the experimenter's league, where coordinators ran wild. And so when the Jets stunned the Colts 16-7, Joe Namath later quipped that the best defense he had seen that season was Buffalo's. The Jets went 11-3 that year, but one of their losses was to the one-win Bills.

2007 New England Patriots

It was that 16-0 record that got all the attention. All season long, the Patriots had their way with opponents, and bringing in Randy Moss - perhaps the most physically gifted receiver to ever play in the NFL - gave quarterback Tom Brady a dangerous new target. Bill Belichick morphed into the greatest offensive coach the league had ever seen, and Brady set a record when he heaved 50 touchdowns, 23 of which were caught by Moss, also a record. All en route to putting a whopping 589 points total on the board, yet another record, to go with a 315 point differential which - you guessed it - is a record. 


What no one was looking at were the team's various weak points: Vulnerability at tackle, terrible at picking up outside pressure, a corp of aging defensive players who weren't capable of playing their best for sustained periods anymore, Rodney Harrison being an overrated and dirty player who got called for stupid fouls, and not giving Moss much of a challenge. Mostly the defense benefitted from the offense scoring so many points that the other team was forced to stick with the pass. While the Patriots were undefeated, teams had been beating them up for the second half of the season by exploiting those weaknesses. When the Giants attacked all of New England's weaknesses simultaneously in the Super Bowl in a 17-14 New York victory, it was more an instance of the arrogant Patriots getting a comeuppance which was inevitable. 

2001 St. Louis Rams

One of the greatest offenses in league history, the 2001 Rams were known as The Greatest Show on Turf. Through the efforts of Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, and Torry Holt, the Rams swamped their opponents with over 500 points and were heavy favorites with a 14-point spread. The Rams had spent the buildup to the game talking about the overnight birth of the NFL's latest dynasty. 


The Rams couldn't have been more right. Their opponents were the New England Patriots, fresh off a 5-11 season the previous year and without the services of their longtime cornerstone quarterback, Drew Bledsoe. In his place was a young upstart named Tom Brady, whom second-year coach Bill Belichick stuck with because he liked Brady's ability to throw the ball around after Bledsoe was severely injured early in the year. All game long, the defense-minded Patriots hassled Faulk, and were agressive in the face of the Rams' passing attack. With a minute and a half left in the last quarter and the game tied at 17, the Patriots had the ball and no timeouts, and people were counting on the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Brady and kicker Adam Vinatieri had other ideas, and Brady drove the Pats up to the Rams' 30-yard line, where Vinatieri booted the Rams' dynastic dreams. 

1983 Washington Redskins

The Redskins marched into the 1983 season as the defending champions, having won the previous Super Bowl against Miami. They put up 531 points in a two-loss season. Both of the losses were by one point, and the Redskins only scored under 27 points once. Quarterback Joe Theismann won a ton of acclaim for running one of coach Joe Gibbs's vaunted offensive machines, including the league MVP. The team had a record turnover margin of 43. 


Their Super Bowl opponents were the Los Angeles Raiders, who bullied, taunted, and aggressively attacked every team in the league. The Washington Redskins were dominated and humiliated in a one-team football game which saw the Raiders put 38 on the board - which was a record at the time - while giving up a puny nine points to Washington's vaunted, league-leading offense. 

1969 Minnesota Vikings

Fielding a defense with one of the coolest names in history - The Purple People Eaters - the Vikings went 21-2 and led the NFL - still separate from the NFL back then - in both points scored and points allowed. They lost their opener and their regular-season closer, and their twelve-game winning streak in between was the longest winning streak the league had seen in over 30 years. They specialized in interceptions: Defensive backs Bobby Bryant, Earsell Mackbee, and Paul Krause had eight, six, and five interceptions respectively. 


With all the hype about how Super Bowl III changed everything about the AFL's image, most people in Michael MacCambridge's book America's game told a much different story: Super Bowl III was originally seen more as one of those once-in-a-lifetime upsets. I mentioned the way NFL gameplans in the senior league operated in those days - if it works, steal it. It was still the prevailing modus operandi a year later, and Minnesota was an NFL team. That put them at a distinct disadvantage in their Super Bowl loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. MacCambridge's interviewees believe it was that Super Bowl, only the fourth ever, which changed things for real because after Kansas City's victory, the NFL had only won half their tete-a-tete matches against AFL teams. At the least, the NFL now had to openly admit to the parity of the AFL. 

1978 Dallas Cowboys

Dallas had won the Super Bowl in 1977. A defensive-minded team with a defensive-minded coach in Tom Landry, the Cowboys fielded a an efficient offense in 1978 to compliment their top-ranked defense. Roger Staubach, their quarterback, wasn't afraid of anything, Drew Pearson and Tony Hill were deep threats on the pass, and great running back Tony Dorsett had another one of his standard excellent seasons, with a total of 1703 yards rushing and receiving from scrimmage. Their defense had 16 interceptions and names like Too Tall Jones, Hollywood Henderson, Randy White, and they were called the Doomsday Defense for a reason. This was the team whose highlight reel forever branded them "America's Team," which isn't as true as Cowboys fans desperately want it to be but it does show how awesome the team itself was. 


The Super Bowl that year featured possible the greatest assemblage of Hall of Fame talent to ever appear in the Super Bowl at the same time. The Cowboys had five Hall of Famers while their opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers, had nine. Before the game, Hollywood Henderson talked a lot of trash about Pittsburgh's players and predicted a Cowboy shutout. Of Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Henderson quipped "Bradshaw couldn't spell 'cat' if you spotted him the c and the a." The classier Steelers didn't take the bait - the only verbal response came from Joe Greene, who said Pittsburgh didn't need to say they were the best. They would just go out and get the job done. They did it, too. Final score: Pittsburgh Steelers 35, Dallas Cowboys 31.

1984 Miami Dolphins

It was a points party for second-year Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino in 1984 as he set every major single-season passing record, throwing for 5084 yards and 48 touchdowns, both of which were only recently broken. The team's 14-2 record was their best since the undefeated 1972 season, and the Dolphins scored over 500 points for the first and so far the only time in their history. Marino won a score of awards for his individual play. 


The Super Bowl that year was a battle between two of the greatest quarterbacks in league history - Marino and Joe Montana - and two of the greatest coaches - San Francisco's Bill Walsh and Miami's Don Shula. The two teams combined for over 800 yards on offense, and Marino was marvelous on the biggest stage in the country. The 38-16 49ers victory wasn't quite that lopsided, but in the end San Francisco had the better team, and Miami was just the quarterback. In 17 years being one of the greatest players in NFL history, it was Dan Marino's only trip to the Super Bowl. 

2004 Philadelphia Eagles

Quarterback Donovan McNabb had already been keeping defensive coordinators up nights. In 2004, he finally got the potent weapon capable of pushing the Iggles over the top: Terrell Owens, one of the greatest and most freakishly talented wide receivers the league had ever seen, fresh off a stint with the San Francisco 49ers and ready to kick ass and take names. The two of them combined for a hell of a lot of touchdowns. Philadelphia's outstanding defense took care of business as usual, and everyone knew from the get-go the Eagles would be the ones to beat. The Eagles were so much better than the rest of the NFC that year, they were able to get away with resting their starters for the last two games instead of just one. 


In the playoffs, Owens was injured. He did manage to return to play in the Super Bowl, making a real show of it and saying God had healed him. I've always liked Owens, and to his credit, his performance in the Super Bowl was certainly miraculous, and he would certainly have been the MVP had the Eagles won. Eagles receiver Freddie Mitchell spent the buildup to the game running his mouth about how awesome he was going to be. The contest between the Eagles and the New England Patriots was a hard-fought one, and according to many accounts, it should have brought a premature end to the Patriots dynasty. But the Eagles fell behind 24-14 late in the game and got the ball back with just under six minutes to play. The Eagles did manage to score a touchdown to cut the score to 24-21, but Eagles coach Andy Reid managed the clock during that drive without any sense of urgency, and his clock management through the rest of the game afterward was just boneheaded. The 24-21 score was the final. And despite Mitchell's bragging, he had all of one catch during the game, which was one less catch then Rodney Harrison, the defensive back covering him, had interceptions. 

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March 27, 2012
Cool list. Those Bills were heartbreakers. To this day I always quietly hope that they return to the Super Bowl and actually win one.
February 27, 2012
Other than thinking my NE Patriots 2007 team should be #1 this is a great list. Seriously, even though admittedly a die hard Pats fan, I'd go 2007 Pats, '68 Colts, and 1990 Bills followed by the Rams.
February 19, 2012
Very creative list. I am so with you on this especially the Buffalo Bills. It just goes to prove the unpredictability of the game.
February 21, 2012
That's why it's so popular!
February 18, 2012
Well thought out list. Yeah that 1990 Bills team made 4 straight super bowls so they had a lot of talent. The loss to the Giants evoked memories of the Villinova upset of Georgetown in the NCAA basketball final. The Giants literally needed to play a perfect game and the game still went down to the last second. The Colts loss was a shocker but nobody really knew how good the Jets really were as few people watched AFL games. Those Jets had a great running attack that made Namath that much better. And this was when Namath was at his peak (knee injuries really limited him in following seasons).
February 21, 2012
I don't know the Villinova/Georgetown upset. But yeah, the more I read about that Super Bowl, the more it became obvious that the Giants were playing at their absolute peak level, while the Bills were, to an extent, playing like they thought the season was over. Lawrence Taylor talked years later about how the Giants spent the buildup trying to get the Bills to buy into their own hype, and it STILL came down to a missed field goal! Life in Buffalo was very unpleasant after that loss, and all the others. But after the fourth, we were hoping they would keep the streak alive. We adopted a motto: Strive for five!
February 21, 2012
You ought to look up that Villanova/Georgetown final (I think it was in 85 or 86) and see all the similarities for the upset. Villanova shot over 90% in the second half and needed to play an almost perfect game just like the Giants did with their running attack and still the game went down to the final second.
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Nicholas Croston ()
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