Every year around this time, fans of 30 NFL teams watch the Super Bowl and wonder what it would have taken for their team to be there instead. What went wrong for our guys? What went right for the others? For some teams, the gulf is vast — the Cleveland Browns weren’t exactly inches from the promised land this year. But for others, that ultimate destination, if not the prize, was tantalizingly close. This year, Patriots fans lament their cavalcade of injuries that left them unequipped to deal with the Denver Broncos’ defense, even as their legendary quarterback heavily outperformed Denver’s over the balance of the season.
But other teams in history have had it even worse. These are teams that seemingly had everything working, only to sputter right before the finish line — teams that didn’t even get their tragic 30 for 30 like the Buffalo Bills did so recently. For all their hard work, these teams are historic footnotes. Let’s get reacquainted.
1986 Chicago Bears
The Bears were fresh off a Super Bowl victory and still sported their legendary defense and Walter Payton’s last good season. In fact, their defense might have been even better in 1986 than the year before, as they finished with the fewest points allowed of any team in the NFL and the best point differential. But their star quarterback, Jim McMahon, couldn’t stay healthy and they took the field in the divisional round with Doug Flutie as their quarterback. The Washington Redskins forced three turnovers out of him to move on to lose to the New York Giants in the conference championship. This is not the last time you’ll see the Giants winning a Super Bowl over higher-quality teams on this list.
1992 San Francisco 49ers
That’s Steve Young up there sucking down oxygen, and at the time he was most notable for not being Joe Montana. The 80’s legend had been traded to Kansas City a couple of years earlier to make way for Young, and though his team was best in terms of point differential during the regular season (with the top-ranked scoring offense and the third-ranked scoring defense), it lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the conference championship for the first of two consecutive times. Jerry Rice was still very much at the top of his game, and Ricky Watters was starting his run as one of the best running backs in the game. Charles Haley was gone, but Tim Harris led the team with 17 sacks that year. They were the real deal, but they still couldn’t beat America’s team when it counted for another two years.
1998 Minnesota Vikings
This one really hurt. These Vikings were as much fun as any team we’ve ever seen, with old Randall Cunningham bombing it to young Randy Moss (and Cris Carter) and John Randle intimidating folks on the defensive end. They went 15-1 before losing to the Atlanta Falcons in overtime of the conference championship game. Most galling? They had a chance to stretch their lead to 10 points late in the fourth quarter, but Gary Andersen — who hadn’t missed a single kick all year — pulled a 39-yard indoor attempt wide left. The Falcons marched the ball down the field to tie the game, and went on to win in overtime. America was deprived of their chance to see those Vikings take on John Elway in the Super Bowl. Instead, the Broncos rolled right over the happy-to-be-there Falcons. Minnesota made it back to the conference championship two years later, but that one wasn’t as much in doubt — they lost to the Giants 41-0 in the most lopsided conference championship game ever.
1999 Jacksonville Jaguars
Bet you didn’t think you’d be seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars on this list, but these Jags were no joke. Coached by Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars had names on offense that 90’s NFL fans will remember fondly: Fred Taylor, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell and Mark Brunell. They also had three different players with double-digit sacks on defenseThis was actually the last hurrah for that team, as the final entry in a streak of four consecutive playoff appearances (in only five years of existence! Man, those Jaguars started fast). If you were a die-hard Jags fan at the time, you will probably curse the Tennessee Titans for as long as you live. The Jaguars were undefeated against every opponent they faced in 1999 but Steve McNair’s Titans, who beat them three times — the last of which was in the AFC conference championship, a game in which the Jaguars committed six turnovers and didn’t score in the second half.
2005 Indianapolis Colts
Before the Denver Broncos’ pass rush started carrying Peyton Manning’s old bones to Super Bowl, this might have been the best defense he ever had. Of course, he already had Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and peak Edgerrin James, but when they faltered, the two-headed pass rushing monster of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis gave them a large margin for error. These Colts started 13-0 before faltering late and getting knocked out of their first playoff game by young Ben Roethlisberger and his eventual Super Bowl-champion Steelers. The chorus of “Peyton Manning can’t win in the playoffs” was never louder than after this season, before he put it to bed forever with the Colts’ title the very next season.
2007 Dallas Cowboys
The Green Bay Packers from this season were also considered for this spot, considering both they and the Cowboys finished 13-3 only to be upset by those pesky Giants on their way to arguably the biggest upset in American sports history. But those Packers haven’t suffered just one indignity at the hands of the Giants, so we’ll come back to them. These Cowboys were supposed to herald the return of America’s Team, with Jason Witten as their staunch heart, Tony Romo as their dimpled face and Terrell Owens as their loud mouth. DeMarcus Ware (who’ll finally get his Super Bowl moment on Sunday) was the superstar of the surprising defense, with Roy Williams as their enforcer in the defensive backfield. That was back in the time when football teams could still have enforcers, of course. And unless the Cowboys make some dramatic changes over the next couple of seasons, this may have been the closest Tony Romo ever came to a Super Bowl.
2011 Green Bay Packers
Since the end of the 2010 regular season, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers had lost only once. They were a better team than the one that won the Super Bowl the previous season, with their starting running back Ryan Grant back healthy and the best group of receivers Rodgers ever had with Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and rookie Randall Cobb. Charles Woodson was still near the peak of his powers and Tramon Williams was one of the best cornerbacks in football to pair with him. And then the 9-7 New York Giants, quite possibly the worst team ever to win a Super Bowl, came into Lambeau and made Green Bay look ordinary. The New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers also enjoyed spectacular seasons in 2011 and could have made this list as well, but the Packers could have been crowned one of the greatest teams ever had they taken care of business. They haven’t returned to the Super Bowl since.