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 dove into a group of contenders that didn’t quite make the cut, and now we’re unveiling our top seven picks. (Here are parts 1 , 2, 3 and 4 in the series)
The top two teams on our countdown combined to go 34-3 in their respective seasons.
They combined to score nearly 1,300 points, and outscored their opponents by over 600.
There were 17 All-Pros between them, and at least eight players or personnel who are either in the Hall of Fame or locks to get in once eligible.
And neither of these teams won the Super Bowl?
Such are their stories, which are as steeped in misfortune and irony as they are in success and greatness. But that’s how it goes in pro football. The margins are so incredibly fine you have to prepare your best, coach your best, play your best, and even then, it may not be good enough.
It wasn’t for either of these teams. Let’s dive into why.
The star-crossed Vikings, the NFL’s archetypal can’t-win-the-big-one franchise, have been to more Super Bowls than 19 other teams. And yet their best team, the No. 2 team on our list, was one that didn’t make it that far.
The 1998 squad took the NFL by storm with its soaring offense, led by the most unlikely of quarterbacks. Randall Cunningham was 35 years old and almost three years removed from retiring from football after an injury-filled falling out with the Eagles. He sat out 1996 and joined the Vikings in 1997, appearing in six games with middling numbers.
One other thing he did, however, is re-join Cris Carter, with whom he played in Philadelphia earlier in his career. That served him well when starting quarterback Brad Johnson sprained his ankle in Week 2 the following season, and Cunningham guided an offense that included Carter, running back Robert Smith and guard Randall McDaniel, not to mention tackle John Randle anchoring an opportunistic defense.
Oh, and this guy:
You can recite Randy Moss’ rookie numbers – 69 catches, 1,313 yards, 17 touchdowns, 19 yards per catch – and they still fall woefully short of describing his impact.
He seemed to play faster than his 4.25 scouting combine speed and taller than his 6-foot-4 frame. Moss seemed to catch every jump ball, threaten to score on every reception, break every game open with his peerless ability.
Behind Moss, Cunningham and Carter, the offense scored a then-record 556 points in the regular season, a feat so impressive it still ranks top-five all-time despite the NFL heavily trending toward the passing game over the past decade. The Vikings finished an authoritative 15-1, dominating both matchups with two-time defending NFC champion Green Bay and never failing to score at least 24 points in a single game.
By the time Minnesota reached the NFC championship, the hype for a potential Super Bowl between the Vikings and defending champion Denver hit a fevered pitch. Sure, the Falcons won 14 games themselves and were about to pay a visit to the Metrodome, but few people, if any, expected them to leave victorious.
Even with Atlanta proving trickier to put away than they thought, the Vikings took possession with six minutes left and a 27-20 lead. All they needed to do was add more points, and as famed analyst John Madden intoned on the broadcast, “you could smell Super Bowl.”
Except the drive stalled at the Falcons’ 20-yard line, and Gary Andersen, who hadn’t missed any of the 39 field goals he’d kicked that season, pulled the 38-yarder left in gut-wrenching fashion:
Another thing that hindered Minnesota on the drive was the decision-making of Smith, who ran out of bounds on three separate occasions when staying inbounds would’ve ran more time off the clock.
The Falcons took over with a little more than two minutes left, and Chris Chandler found Terance Mathis for a 16-yard strike that tied the game in the final minute. By the time overtime began, the Vikings had lost several players due to injury, and their fans watched in disbelief as the 11-point underdogs kicked a game-winning field goal to rob them of their Super Bowl dreams.
Credit is always due to the winner, and the Falcons played the game of their lives, especially Chandler.
But there’s still a nagging sense that the best team in football that season didn’t win the NFC, let alone the Super Bowl.
Nine years after Minnesota’s heartbreak, another team wrestled away the mantle of greatest to not win the Super Bowl.
How could anyone deny the Patriots the honor? They’re still the only team to finish a 16-game schedule unbeaten, still the only team to seriously threaten the 1972 Dolphins’ immortal statute of perfection.
And they were very much built to do so.
The core of the early-aughts dynasty that won three Super Bowls was still around, chiefly head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. But it had been two seasons since the team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, and the previous year ended with undermanned New England blowing a 21-3 lead in the AFC title game and losing to eventual champion Indianapolis.
Belichick sensed an opportunity, so he was uncharacteristically aggressive in the offseason. He traded for slot receiver Wes Welker, and later disgruntled star receiver Randy Moss, who took a $6 million paycut to join the Patriots.
He also filled out the skill positions with the likes of Sammy Morris, Kyle Brady and Donte Stallworth in free agency, as well as beefing up the defense with Adalius Thomas.
A cast of stars descended upon New England, and Belichick welcomed them in characteristic fashion.
“We’re all losers,” he told the team in its first meeting, according to Stallworth. “None of you were on the Colts.”
The potential for a big season was clearly there. After Week 1, so was the motivation.
The Jets reported to the NFL that the Patriots had been videotaping their defensive signals from the field, a violation of league policy. As punishment, Belichick was fined $500,000, the maximum penalty allowed, and New England was fined $250,000 and stripped of its first-round pick in the 2008 draft.
The “Spygate” controversy lingered, as did questions over the legitimacy of the Patriots’ success.
They began to answer them with psychotic fury. New England raced out to an 8-0 start, never winning by less than 17 points and occasionally humiliating teams in the process.
After earning a big win over the Colts in Week 9, the Patriots enjoyed a bye and won their final seven games, although three came by just a field goal. But they still won them, making NFL history by beating the Giants 38-35 in the final week of the season.
Winning every game became the byproduct of having so much talent in a culture that demands victory every time out. Brady was named league MVP after completing 69 percent of his passes for 4,806 yards and 50 touchdowns with just eight interceptions.
Moss caught an NFL record 23 touchdowns, and the offense scored a record 589 points (since broken by the 2013 Broncos). Moreover, the defense finished top-four in both points and yards allowed.
Despite a pair of underwhelming performances in the AFC playoffs, New England entered Super Bowl XLII as a decisive favorite to finish 19-0. The challenge ahead was a rematch with the Giants.
Or more specifically, Eli Manning and New York’s dynamite front seven.
The Patriots gave up five sacks and couldn’t run the ball, but their own defense held strong and the result was an ugly game until the fourth quarter.
New York went ahead on a Manning touchdown pass to David Tyree early in the fourth, but Brady led the Patriots on a drive that culminated in a touchdown pass to Moss and seized back the lead with 2:45 left.
What happened next? The fine margins of victory reared their ugly heads.
On third-and-5 from his own 44-yard line, Manning pulled off a seemingly impossible escape and hit Tyree for one of the most memorable plays in NFL history:
Two completions later, the Giants scored the final touchdown to complete the stunning upset.
While the helmet catch has been replayed ad nauseam, what’s often forgotten is that defensive back Asante Samuel had a chance to end the game the play before, but let a title-clinching pick slip through his hands:
Make just one of those plays, or any number of others, and the Patriots are atop the podium once again.
Instead, congratulations New England: You’re at the top of our list.