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Super Bowl: Ranking the teams that haven't won it by how close they came

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In the 55 years of the Super Bowl era — with the 56th set to culminate this Sunday in Inglewood, California — 20 NFL teams have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. Sunday’s AFC representative, the Cincinnati Bengals, can become the 21st and heal a 33-year-old scar in the process. (More on that to come.)

Below, we ranked the 12 franchises that haven’t tasted Super Bowl glory by how close they have come.

The Heartbreak Tier

1. Buffalo Bills

How close? About 10 feet.

A Super Bowl ending so famous it quasi-inspired the main plot point from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

The underdog New York Giants held the Bills and their K-Gun offense to under 20 minutes of possession of Super Bowl XXV, but it was almost all Buffalo needed. After Thurman Thomas got the Bills down to the 30-yard line, Scott Norwood lined up for a 47-yard field goal with eight seconds left from the right hash mark and pushed it wide right. The laces were, in fact, out.

The Bills lost 20-19, but things may have been different had AP Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Smith knocked the ball out of Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler’s hand while sacking him in the end zone in the first half, rather than just taking the two points for the safety.

Buffalo did make the next three Super Bowls, but didn't come nearly as close to winning. The only lead the Bills held in those games came two years later against the Dallas Cowboys at 7-0 at the Rose Bowl before getting blitzed 52-17.

2. Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers

How close? About 2 feet.

Poor Kevin Dyson. Three weeks after scoring on the Music City Miracle (we’re not rehashing that here), he came up juuuust short on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV. The Titans entered their only Super Bowl to date as seven-point underdogs to the then-St. Louis Rams’ vaunted "Greatest Show on Turf," but Jevon Kearse and the defense held St. Louis out of the end zone until midway through the third quarter.

After erasing a 16-0 deficit to tie the game with 2:12 to go, Tennessee gave up a 73-yard touchdown to Isaac Bruce. But since that drive was just one play, the Titans got the chance to run a two-minute drill and got down to the 10-yard line before Rams linebacker Mike Jones made the tackle on Dyson and dashed their dreams.

Kevin Dyson came up less than a yard short of scoring a potential game-tying touchdown on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV. (Photo by: Tom Hauck /Getty Images).
Kevin Dyson came up less than a yard short of scoring a potential game-tying touchdown on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV. (Photo by: Tom Hauck /Getty Images).

An oft-forgotten footnote: Titans kicker Al Del Greco missed two field goals that may have altered the calculus of that final drive.

An honorable mention in this category has to go to the 1992 Oilers, who ranked third in the league in points for and against, but famously blew a 35-3 lead to Frank Reich and the Bills in the wild-card round.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

How close? 34 seconds.

In Super Bowl XXIII, the Bengals held a 49ers offense featuring Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and John Taylor out of the end zone until the fourth quarter, leading 13-6 at the time. From there, Montana engineered two scoring drives of over 80 yards, relying heavily on game MVP Rice (11 catches, 215 yards and a touchdown). Rice caught a 14-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter and was the decoy running in motion for Taylor’s 10-yard winning touchdown catch with 34 ticks left. It was Taylor’s lone catch of the game.

The result is likely very different if not for a dropped interception by Bengals cornerback Lewis Billups in the end zone on the play just before Rice’s touchdown catch.

4. Atlanta Falcons

How close? 57 seconds and the flip of a coin.

How many 28-3 memes did you share after Super Bowl LI?

As Yahoo Sports' Frank Schwab noted in the aftermath, 16 things absolutely had to go right for the Patriots to pull off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, including a strip sack, a two-point trick play and one of the greatest catches ever.

This improbable Julian Edelman reception is just one of 16 things that had to go wrong for the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
This improbable Julian Edelman reception is just one of 16 things that had to go wrong for the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

James White scored the tying touchdown with 57 seconds left in regulation before the Patriots won the overtime coin toss and marched down the field, culminating in White’s championship-winning 2-yard touchdown run.

5. Arizona Cardinals

How close? 35 seconds and about 1 foot.

Santonio Holmes’ toe tap is just the latest entry here of an iconic play denying a franchise its first Super Bowl victory, and is deserving of its place in every big-game highlight package you’ll ever see.

Circumstantially, you can point directly to that play, given that Pittsburgh took a 27-23 lead with 35 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIII. But if you want to talk about high-leverage plays, you need to go back to just before halftime.

Arizona appeared poised to score and go into the break up 14-10, but James Harrison stepped in front of Anquan Boldin to make a goal-line interception and improbably rumble 100 yards — breaking four tackles along the way — to put the Steelers up 17-7 at halftime, forcing the Cardinals to empty the playbook in their second-half comeback.

6. Carolina Panthers

How close? Six minutes and 51 seconds.

Super Bowl XXXVIII featured two of the wildest quarters (the second and fourth) that the game has ever seen. Other than that? A whole lotta punts.

Jake Delhomme rallied the underdog Panthers from down 21-10 in the third quarter to a 22-21 edge after an 85-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad with 6:51 to go and later tied it at 29 with a 12-yard toss to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left.

Then Tom Brady marched the Patriots down in what’s become an all-too-familiar sight, and Adam Vinatieri added to his Hall of Fame credentials by hitting a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left to seal the win and the Patriots' second Super Bowl title of their first dynastic run.

The Panthers got back to the big game 13 years later, but in Super Bowl 50 Cam Newton made a business decision and Von Miller happened as Carolina was nowhere close in that game.

The At Least You Tried Tier

7. Minnesota Vikings

How close? Well, they got there.

Four times, in fact. But, in those Super Bowl trips (IV, VIII, IX and XI), they couldn’t muster a score until the second half of any game, never even tasting a lead. Which is incredible considering the legends they had on the field (Fran Tarkenton, Alan Page, Carroll Dale) and the sideline (Bud Grant) in that era.

Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton played in three of the Vikings' four winless Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton played in three of the Vikings' four winless Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The best team the Vikings have fielded in the Super Bowl era — by regular season record and statistical rankings — was the 1998 outfit featuring a rookie out of Marshall named Randy Moss, a 35-year-old Randall Cunningham experiencing a career renaissance and a kicker in Gary Anderson who was perfect all season and playoffs until … he wasn’t.

Anderson missed a 39-yard field goal attempt that would have given the Vikings a 30-20 lead over the Falcons with 2:11 remaining in the NFC title game. As it happened, Atlanta tied the game in regulation and won it overtime on a Morten Anderson field goal, and Minnesota fans have been left to wonder how they’d have fared against the defending champion Denver Broncos.

8. San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers

How close? Got to smell the grass.

It’s possible that the Chargers were emotionally spent in Super Bowl XXIX, having first mounted a second-half comeback to dispatch the visiting Dolphins in the divisional round, and then rallying from down 10 points on the road at Three Rivers Stadium to beat the Steelers, 17-13, in the AFC title game.

That, or they were simply overmatched by a 49ers team featuring three future Hall of Famers in Steve Young (the game’s MVP), Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders, not to mention Ricky Watters, who scored three touchdowns.

San Diego got in a 14-0 hole early and never recovered, getting blasted 49-26 in what is their lone Super Bowl appearance to date.

The Nothing To See Here Tier

9. Cleveland Browns

How close? A notch on John Elway’s comeback belt.

This isn’t where the Factory of Sadness started (refer to Red Right 88 for that), but it’s certainly a significant entry in the book.

Leading 20-13 at home with 5:32 remaining in the 1986 AFC Championship game and having pinned Denver at its own 2-yard line, victory was in sight and optimism was still a thing in Cleveland. Until Elway did what he would become famous for, leading the Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays on "The Drive" and going 6-of-9 through the air to score the game-tying touchdown before Denver won it in overtime.

The Browns would make it back to the AFC title game the very next year against the Broncos in Denver, and appeared to be driving for the winning score late in the fourth quarter until Earnest Byner committed "The Fumble." The Browns haven’t been that close ever since.

Thank goodness for LeBron James and Kevin Love, right?

10. Jacksonville Jaguars

How close? A Bill Belichick scowl.

It’s hard to believe that just four years ago the Jags held a 10-point lead over the Patriots in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium, but it did happen. But as happens so often with Emperor Belichick and his Death Star, teams get so taken out of their own scheme by what New England might do that they do everything possible to hand the game over. (See: Falcons, Atlanta and Rams, Los Angeles for more on this phenomenon.)

After going up 20-10, Leonard Fournette only managed just three yards on four carries, Blake Bortles went 5-for-12 for 73 yards and Myles Jack got an unfortunate whistle. Meanwhile, Tom Brady led two surgical scoring drives to send the Patriots to Super Bowl LII.

11. Detroit Lions

How close? A hog mauling.

Yep. We’ve all heard that stat: Just one playoff win in the Super Bowl era despite having generational talents in Hall of Famers Barry Sanders (1989-1998) and Calvin Johnson (2007-2015). Not to mention Matthew Stafford, who could punch his ticket to Canton with a win over the Bengals this weekend.

The Detroit Lions made the playoffs five times in Barry Sanders' Hall of Fame career, scoring their lone playoff win of the Super Bowl era in the 1991 playoffs, before getting blown out by Washington in the NFC title game. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
The Detroit Lions made the playoffs five times in Barry Sanders' Hall of Fame career, scoring their lone playoff win of the Super Bowl era in the 1991 playoffs, before getting blown out by Washington in the NFC title game. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The closest the Lions have got to a Super Bowl was a 41-10 drubbing in Washington in the 1991 NFC championship game that really wasn’t even that close.

12. Houston Texans

How close? Mahomes’d.

The NFL’s youngest franchise has made the playoffs six times in its 20 years and the pinnacle so far is a 24-0 lead over the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round just two years ago. Then the Chiefs woke up, storming to a 28-24 lead by halftime of what would become a 51-31 boat race.

Not much has gone right for the Texans since then, as Bill O’Brien traded away wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins the following offseason and then got fired less than a month into the 2020 regular season. Another franchise cornerstone left the building in the 2020-21 offseason when defensive end J.J. Watt asked for and was granted his release. And then came Deshaun Watson’s trade demand and subsequent legal issues, which are currently ongoing.