Best teams not to win Super Bowl, Part 2: How Niners dynasty falls short of Patriots

The 49ers put together one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history. But was it better than the Patriots? (Getty)
The 49ers put together one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history. But was it better than the Patriots? (Getty)

As we count down the days until Super Bowl LI, Yahoo Sports is taking a look at the best teams to not win it all. First we’ll dive into a group of contenders that didn’t quite make the cut, and we’ll finish by ranking our top seven picks.

Certain decades in the NFL are often associated with certain franchises. The 1960s belonged to the Packers, for example, while the Steelers owned the 1970s and the Cowboys dominated the 1990s.

Sometimes, those runs extend well into two decades. That’s certainly what we’re seeing right now with the Patriots, same as it was with the 49ers of the 1980s and 1990s.

The current Patriots need to win Super Bowl LI this Sunday to match San Francisco’s total of five championships, but by sheer volume of success, this Patriots run is better.

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To be fair to New England, which still has years left as a contender, we’ll look at a 16-season sample size for both franchises, including the season they won their first title and the ensuing 15 years.

The Patriots have gone to seven Super Bowls during their stretch, while the Niners went to five. True, San Francisco never lost in the big game, but New England held last-minute leads in both its losses. The Pats have also gone to 11 conference title games, while the Niners went to nine, and New England won two more division titles.

Both teams missed the playoffs only twice, including one season apiece of atypical circumstance (1982 strike for the Niners, Tom Brady missing most of 2008 due to injury). But the 49ers were one-and-done in the postseason four times, while New England had that happen only twice.

The talent level is clearly on the 49ers’ side, with Hall of Famers all over the field, the sideline and the front office. But under these mountaintop criteria, isn’t that a relative indictment of their accomplishments? Aren’t the Patriots’ accomplishments all the more impressive given the fact that the only Hall of Fame-level constants since 2001 have been Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft?

And for anyone who wants to argue the Niners had it tougher with all-time greats like Lawrence Taylor and the Cowboys’ Triplets playing in their conference, what are you trying to say about the likes of Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis and Ben Roethlisberger?

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Sure, the specter of Spygate, deflate-gate and whatever else-gate will linger over the Patriots’ dynasty, and Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense signaled a new era in play-calling and design the Patriots can’t claim. But scores of teams have tried (and failed) to recreate New England’s culture and strategy, and the off-field scandals haven’t come close to erasing the franchise’s championships in any official capacity.

So once again, the 49ers dynasty comes up short compared to the Patriots.

Three seasons could have changed that. Let’s take a look at them now.

(Graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The story of this 49ers season begins and ends with wide receivers.

Jerry Rice had one of the finest seasons of his career, being named NFL Offensive Player of the Year after finishing with 22 touchdown catches (a record since broken by Randy Moss) and 1,078 yards despite sitting out four games due to a players’ strike.

He helped the 49ers finish 13-2 and earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. In the divisional round, San Francisco hosted a Vikings team that lost three of its last four games in the regular season and snuck into the final playoff spot.

That’s where the other wide receiver comes in:

While Anthony Carter didn’t find the end zone, he caught 10 passes for a staggering 227 yards in the huge upset. What’s more, Rice finished with a measly three catches for 28 yards, almost 200 yards less than Carter.

Much of that can be tied, however, to Joe Montana’s struggles. The legendary quarterback had his worst playoff game, finishing 12-of-26 for 109 yards and an interception before being replaced by Steve Young in the second half.

The stunning faceplant – against a team that didn’t even win the conference title, no less – pretty much takes the 1987 49ers out of the running for best team to not win the Super Bowl. And oh what could have been.

This is probably the closest any team has come to winning three straight Super Bowls, as the Niners were two-time defending champions who lost the NFC championship game by two points.

That said, the final score belied how much better the Giants actually played in that game. San Francisco could not run on New York’s linebacker-driven 3-4 defense, and therefore the Giants finished with almost double the time of possession along with 71 more total yards.

Despite not scoring a touchdown, the Giants advanced to the Super Bowl on Matt Bahr’s 42-yard field goal as time expired:

One could argue that even though the 49ers played poorly and still came close to winning, they deserve exalted status on a list of best teams that didn’t win the Super Bowl.

But here’s the thing: You could also argue they were beaten at their own game.

During the regular season, the 49ers excelled at winning close games, with eight of their 14 victories coming by one score or less. That included a 7-3 win over the Giants in Week 13 at Candlestick.

Ignoring for a second all those close wins against a fairly weak schedule, San Francisco couldn’t replicate its strong play in crunch time of the NFC title game. Roger Craig fumbled with a little over two and a half minutes remaining, and Taylor’s recovery kickstarted the game-winning drive:

It’s understandable that these Niners, who played into late January three straight seasons, wouldn’t quite have the capacity to win such a game. Hopefully you understand that this leaves them on the outside looking in on our list.

The Niners gradually replaced most of their 1980s stalwarts with young talent that would continue their run into the 1990s, and this season exemplified that transition.

Montana spent his last season in San Francisco on the bench behind Young, who started all 16 games for the first time in his career. He responded by winning NFL MVP after throwing for 3,465 yards and 25 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.

The 49ers won 14 games and had an average margin of victory of nearly 15 points, but growing pains inevitably reared their ugly head in the playoffs.

In the divisional round against the Redskins, who were defending champions but slumping through a decline themselves, the 49ers came within a whisper of losing at home as the No. 1 seed:

The season ended in the NFC title game, when the budding Cowboys dynasty capitalized on four turnovers and punched that group’s first Super Bowl ticket:

There’s no shame in losing to those Cowboys, especially after they beat Buffalo by five touchdowns in the Super Bowl two weeks later. Still, it’s not the greatest look when Dallas’ equally young squad deals with the playoff pressure so much better than the 49ers.

They got over the proverbial hump two seasons later. They were simply too young to do so in 1992.

Coming Wednesday: Our countdown of the best teams not to win the Super Bowl begins in earnest, with three personal selections you don’t always hear in this conversation.