Each year, 11 teams have their dreams crushed in the NFL playoffs. The league’s single-elimination tournament rewards exceptional regular-season performances with home-field advantage and little else, setting the stage for epic upsets and Cinderella runs like the Packers in 2010 or the Giants in 2007.
But while that creates the feel-good moments the league replays to great effect whenever needed, it also scuttles remarkable seasons for oft-forgotten teams. There are several candidates for the “best team to not win the Super Bowl,” but other than the 16-0 Patriots of ‘07, those seasons only remain vivid in the minds of fans forced to spend one Monday in January pretending SportsCenter doesn’t exist.
There have been plenty of good teams forced to watch the Lombardi Trophy fall just outside their grasp. There have been far fewer great ones. These are the best teams to never win a Super Bowl.
The 2007 New England Patriots
The bellwether for all “greatest team to never win it” arguments. New England was a juggernaut in ‘07 thanks to a record-setting offense that paired prime Tom Brady up with prime Randy Moss in an epic, months-long game of fetch. On the other side of the ball, head coach Bill Belichick mixed heady veterans like Junior Seau, Tedy Bruschi, and Rodney Harrison with young homegrown talent like Vince Wilfork and Asante Samuel to build a team that outscored opponents by an average score of 37-17 during the regular season.
Not many teams made it close against the Pats that year — but the Giants were an exception. New York played New England tough in a Week 17 defeat that proved they could hang with a team on the precipice of history. On that fateful Sunday, the Giants (and David Tyree’s helmet) proved much more, turning 19-0 into 18-1 and gifting Mercury Morris another decade-plus of relevancy.
2001 St. Louis Rams
The Greatest Show on Turf won Super Bowl XXXIV behind Kurt Warner’s explosion from Arena Football standout to NFL superstar, and Super Bowl XXXVI looked to be St. Louis’ coronation as the league’s latest dynasty. The Rams tore through 2001 with the league’s top-ranked offense and No. 3 defense, scoring 29-plus points 13 times through the regular season and playoffs. Marshall Faulk rolled up 2,147 yards from scrimmage in 14 games, giving the club an unstoppable rusher and valuable third receiver behind Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. St. Louis won its regular-season games that season by an average of more than 14 points per contest.
The ‘01 Rams ate up the Packers and then fended off the Eagles to become 14-point favorites in the Super Bowl. Then Brady became a thing. At least St. Louis always has that ‘99 season.
1998 Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings may be the league’s most tortured franchise, and 1998 serves as proof. The 1998 team took a repurposed Randall Cunningham and maximized his talent by letting him throw balls at the Metrodome ceiling and trust Hall of Famers Cris Carter and Randy Moss to run under them. He responded with his first and only first-team All-Pro selection after throwing for 34 touchdowns for a 15-1 NFC Central champion. Minnesota also boasted one of the league’s best red zone defenses, holding opponents to just 18.5 points per game thanks in part to the pass-rushing prowess of John Randle.
These Vikings held a seven-point lead with just 2:18 to play in the NFC Championship Game when Gary Anderson lined up a 38-yard field goal that would have effectively iced the game. Anderson had been perfect that season, making all 39 of his field goals that season, and now he was kicking from a manageable distance, off Astroturf, in a dome with no wind. And he shanked it.
The Falcons game back to tie the game before the final whistle, and despite fielding a prolific offense, Minnesota squandered both its overtime possessions before falling victim to, brutally, a made 38-yard field goal from a kicker named Andersen. That’s how one of the best teams in league history managed to fall short of even making the Super Bowl.
1992 San Francisco 49ers
It was 1992 when Steve Young claimed ownership of the 49ers’ offense, starting 16 games for the first time in his NFL career and earning MVP honors for a 14-win team. While he and Jerry Rice piloted the league’s most dangerous offense, Tim Harris, Bill Romanowski, and Pierce Holt held down a stingy scoring defense that allowed more than 17 points just once over the latter half of the season.
Unfortunately for San Francisco, Young’s emergence came at the same time a budding dynasty reached its potential in Dallas. The Cowboys dispatched the 49ers in the NFC title game, delaying the Niners from adding another championship for two more years.
1990 Buffalo Bills
Western New York was the home of a budding dynasty, the NFL’s House of Romanov, before the Giants gave way to a revolution that prevented Jim Kelly’s team from ever being the league’s ruling class. The Bills famously lost four straight Super Bowls, but the best team to fall short in that span was the first one — a star-studded 13-win unit. Four Hall of Famers — Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, and wide receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton — made up the league’s most devastating offense. A defense led by prime Bruce Smith (in the middle of a 19-sack season), Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley, and Shane Conlan held opponents to seven points or fewer five times.
One of those times came in the AFC title game, where Buffalo thwomped the Raiders in a 51-3 dismantling that made the Bills a 6.5-point favorite in Super Bowl XXV. But hanging 41 first-half points on the Raiders was one thing — gaining traction against Bill Belichick’s New York defense was another. The Giants held Kelly’s offense to just 17 points, and when Scott Norwood’s game-winning 47-yard field goal slid wide right of the upright with four seconds to play, it set the tone for four years of Sisyphean struggles in Buffalo.
Washington ran through a 14-2 regular season, winning games by an average of more than 13 points and laying a 51-7 shellacking on the Rams to open up their postseason. The club boasted the league’s top scoring offense thanks to the combination of first-team All-Pros Joe Thiesmann (29 touchdown passes) and John Riggins (24 rushing TDs in 15 games) alongside a young dynamic receiving corps led by Charlie Brown and Art Monk, who each averaged more than 15 yards per catch.
That group was bolstered by an opportunistic defense that forced 61 turnovers in the regular season and seven more over two playoff games before meeting the Los Angeles Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII. Tom Flores’ team took Washington’s game plan and ran it to perfection against them — only meaner. The Raiders forced Theismann to throw two interceptions and fumble once, while Marcus Allen ran for 191 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-9 blowout that set the tone for a litany of boring 1980s Super Bowls to come.