Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Best Teams Not to Win the Super Bowl: AFC

By Brad Oremland

I'm interested in losers. Our sports culture focuses on winners, to the point that we forget about those who fell short. Twenty years from now, will anyone but home fans and die-hards remember last season's 13-3 Broncos and Falcons, or the Houston Texans, who started 11-1? Will fans remember the 2011 Green Bay Packers as a great team who had a bad week at the worst possible time, or as just another good team that wasn't good enough?

This is the first article in a two-part series, looking at every current NFL franchise and picking out its best team of the Super Bowl era that did not win a championship. This week, we'll start with the AFC. Teams are sorted alphabetically within their divisions.

2006 Baltimore Ravens
13-3, outscored opponents 353-201; lost divisional playoff

Which Baltimore Ravens team had the best regular season record? Not the 2000 Super Bowl champs (12-4), or the 2012 edition (10-6), and not any of the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco teams that reached the AFC Championship. The '06 Ravens hold the franchise record for most regular season wins, and they're second only to the '00 team in point differential, outscoring opponents by 152.

This team had a pretty average offense, led by elder statesmen like Steve McNair, Jamal Lewis, and Derrick Mason. But the defense was among the greatest in history. I would entertain arguments that Baltimore had a better defense in 2006 than the legendary 2000 unit. The '06 Ravens led the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed (which the 2000 team did not). They allowed just 3.3 yards per carry and a 63.4 passer rating. None of their last eight opponents scored 20 points, and even in their playoff loss, they held the eventual Super Bowl champions (the Colts with Peyton Manning) without a touchdown.

Runner-up — 2011: 12-4, outscored opp. 378-266; lost AFC Championship Game

Basically the same team that won the Super Bowl the next year, but with Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb healthy.

1988 Cincinnati Bengals
12-4, outscored opponents 448-329; lost Super Bowl XXIII

This was not an easy choice. The 1975-76 Bengals won double-digit games in 14-game seasons, against a harder schedule that included the Steel Curtain. You could also argue for the 1981 Bengals who lost Super Bowl XVI. All of those teams had better defense than the '88 squad, but Sam Wyche's group probably had the best offense in the NFL. Boomer Esiason was NFL MVP. A healthy Eddie Brown ranked 3rd in receiving yardage, right behind Jerry Rice. James Brooks averaged over 5 yards a carry and scored 14 touchdowns. And this was the year of the Ickey Shuffle, as rookie sensation Ickey Woods rushed for over 1,000 yards, with a 5.3 average and 15 rushing TDs.

The '88 Bengals suffered one of the more devastating losses in Super Bowl history. They led the 49ers 16-13 with only 3:10 to play and the Niners backed up to their own 8-yard line. Joe Montana threw the winning touchdown with only :34 left, the latest a team has ever lost the lead in a Super Bowl.

Runner-up — 1976: 10-4, outscored opp. 335-210; missed playoffs

Lost to the Super Bowl champion Raiders, twice to the dynasty-era Steelers, and by one point in Baltimore against the 11-3 Colts. Won all their other games, by an average of 16 points.

1987 Cleveland Browns
10-5, outscored opponents 390-239; lost AFC Championship Game

This is The Fumble, not The Drive. When I started this exercise, I had mentally penciled in 1968 for the Browns. They led the NFL in turnover differential, went 10-4, and were the only team to beat the Colts, advancing to the NFL Championship Game before losing a rematch with Baltimore. But in the course of my research, I decided '87 had the edge. The '68 Browns had a great offensive line, and the offense featured Hall of Famers Leroy Kelly and Paul Warfield. But Marty Schottenheimer's '87 team had a much better defense, top-3 in both points and yardage. Both cornerbacks, Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield, made the Pro Bowl, as did Clay Matthews and Bob Golic.

Schottenheimer's offense wasn't as explosive as Blanton Collier's 20 years earlier, but it did feature Bernie Kosar's best season (95.4 passer rating) and an effective running tandem with Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack.

Runner-up — 1968: 10-4, outscored opp. 394-273; lost NFL Championship Game

A close call, even as runner-up, over Bill Belichick's 11-5 1994 Browns, the last team in franchise history to win a playoff game. The '94 defense allowed the fewest points in the NFL.

1976 Pittsburgh Steelers
10-4, outscored opponents 342-138; lost AFC Championship Game

Famously the best non-Super Bowl team in franchise history. Some fans even insist this non-championship team was better than the four Super Bowl winners in the decade. In '76, the offense was devastated by injuries. Terry Bradshaw missed most of the season, while both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were injured during the playoffs. The defense, however, was among the greatest in history. It boasted 8 Pro Bowlers, including Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, and Defensive Player of the Year Jack Lambert.

Pittsburgh posted five shutouts in the last eight games, allowing an average of just 2.8 points during that stretch. The dominant run defense allowed just 3.2 yards per carry, leading the NFL in rushing yards allowed, rushing TDs allowed, and yards/attempt allowed. Missing Harris and Bleier, the Pittsburgh offense stalled in the AFC Championship Game, and a sensational Raider offense scored 24 points to end the Steelers' run.

Runner-up — 2004: 15-1, outscored opp. 372-251; lost AFC Championship Game

Ben Roethlisberger's rookie year. The Steelers started 1-1, then won their last 14 games, including victories against both Super Bowl teams.

2012 Houston Texans
12-4, outscored opponents 416-331; lost divisional playoff

The Texans have a brief history, but last season was clearly the highlight. As the season fades into memory, fans are already beginning to forget that for most of the season, Houston was the best team in the NFL. The Texans started 11-1, and in Week 7, they out-gained the (eventual Super Bowl champion) Ravens 420-176 and won by 30.

Houston had a good offense: star running back Arian Foster, solid air attack with Matt Schaub passing to Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. But the defense really distinguished this team. In particular, Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt led all defensive linemen in tackles and solo tackles (by more than 1/3), led the NFL in sacks (20.5), deflected 16 passes, forced 4 fumbles, and recovered 2.

Runner-up — 2011: 10-6, outscored opp. 381-278; lost divisional playoff

Same team, one year earlier.

1968 Baltimore Colts
13-1, outscored opponents 402-144; lost Super Bowl III

In the Super Bowl era, the teams with the highest average margin of victory are both teams that lost Super Bowls: the 16-0 2007 Patriots (19.7) and the '68 Colts (18.4). The Patriots scored about twice as many points as their opponents, but Baltimore nearly tripled its opponents' scoring total, winning by an average of 29-10. The Colts scored at least 20 points in every game but one, recorded three shutouts, and didn't have a game decided by less than a touchdown until the regular season finale. The NFL Championship provided a rematch with the one team that beat them, and this time the Colts won, 34-0.

They were 20-point favorites to win Super Bowl III, and because of overconfidence, bad luck, or something else, they lost 16-7. If they had won, the '68 Colts would probably be considered one of the two or three best teams in the history of professional football.

Runner-up — 2005: 14-2, outscored opp. 439-247; lost divisional playoff

Good defense, incredible offense, started 13-0. This was probably the one season in which Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, and Reggie Wayne were all at the top of their respective games.

1999 Jacksonville Jaguars
14-2, outscored opponents 396-217; lost AFC Championship Game

The Jaguars lost to only one team all year: the Tennessee Titans. They were 15-0 against everyone else, including a brutal 62-7 playoff win over the Dolphins, in Dan Marino's last game. Jacksonville allowed the fewest points in the NFL and scored the 6th-most. This is the second-highest-scoring team in franchise history, but it's the best in scoring defense by over 50 points (269, 2005 Jags). Three players had double-digit sacks, while Aaron Beasley had 200 INT return yards and 2 TDs.

If there's a criticism of this team, it's that it played an easy schedule, and only beat a playoff team once all season (the playoff win against Miami). The schedule was brutal on paper, including both 1998 Super Bowl teams (Denver and Atlanta), the AFC runners-up (Jets), and perennial powers like the 49ers and Steelers. Every one of those teams crashed and none finished with a winning record, so I understand arguments that the '99 Jags were overrated and untested. But even against an easy schedule, 14-2 is very impressive.

Runner-up — 2007: 11-5, outscored opp. 411-304; lost divisional playoff

This was the year David Garrard threw 18 TDs and only 3 interceptions. Jacksonville lost in the playoffs to the 16-0 Patriots.

2008 Tennessee Titans
13-3, outscored opponents 375-234; lost divisional playoff

Tied for the best record in franchise history, with the 1999 and 2000 teams. The '99 team nearly won Super Bowl XXXIV, but the league as a whole was weak that year, and the Titans weren't really a dominant team. They needed a Miracle just to get past the Bills in the wild card round. The 2000 club was stronger, with a much larger margin of victory against a tougher schedule, and a defense that allowed fewer yards than the Super Bowl champion Ravens.

But the '08 team was the best in the NFL. The running game (featuring rookie Chris Johnson) and defense (with Albert Haynesworth at the height of his powers) were so good that ancient Kerry Collins, filling in at QB, just had to avoid mistakes. They lost in the playoffs after they failed to capitalize on opportunities in the first half and Johnson missed the second half with an injury.

Runner-up — 2000: 13-3, outscored opp. 346-191; lost divisional playoff

I'm not trying to disrespect the old Houston Oilers teams, who had some fine seasons in the early AFL and the Warren Moon years, but those teams had little run game and no defense. The Steve McNair/Eddie George years were better teams.

1990 Buffalo Bills
13-3, outscored opponents 428-263; lost Super Bowl XXV

The most heart-breaking loss in Super Bowl history. The Bills rolled through the regular season and won the AFC Championship Game 51-3. In the middle of two decades of NFC dominance, the Bills looked so good that they were favored to win the Super Bowl ... and they nearly did, with the game slipping away on the most famous Wide Right kick in history. This team was stacked with talent, including Hall of Famers Marv Levy, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton, and Bruce Smith.

While each of Buffalo's four Super Bowl teams had a good offense, the '90 edition was the only one with an impressive defense. Led by Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, and Darryl Talley, it ranked in the NFL's top 10 in both yards allowed and points allowed.

Runner-up — 1991: 13-3, outscored opp. 458-318; lost Super Bowl XXVI

Buffalo lost four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93, and only the first one was particularly close. Thurman Thomas won NFL MVP this year; it's as good a choice as any other.

1984 Miami Dolphins
14-2, outscored opponents 513-298; lost Super Bowl XIX

In just his second season, Dan Marino blew away the NFL records for passing yards and passing TDs. The existing single-season record for passing TDs was 36, from the pass-happy AFL. Marino threw 48, a record that stood for 20 years. No one else even passed for 40 TDs in a season until 2001. The existing single-season record for passing yardage was 4,802 (Dan Fouts, 1981). Marino gained 5,084, and that record held up for almost 30 years.

Miami was good enough to win a championship, but in Super Bowl XIX, it ran into one of the greatest teams in history, the 15-1 San Francisco 49ers. The Dolphins couldn't stop Joe Montana, and even Marino struggled against the tough 49er defense.

Runner-up — 1971: 10-3-1, outscored opp. 315-174; lost Super Bowl VI

The year before their undefeated season and back-to-back titles, the Dolphins scored nearly twice as many points as their opponents, and reached the Super Bowl.

2007 New England Patriots
16-0, outscored opponents 589-274; lost Super Bowl XLII

The only team since the '96 Packers to score more than twice as many points as it allowed, also the only team ever to outscore its opponents by 300 points. The Patriots shattered the single-season scoring record and won by an average score of 37-17. The defense was outstanding, too, ranking fourth in the NFL in both points and yards allowed.

New England's downfall was the length of the season. Over the first half of the season, the Patriots won every game by at least 17 points, with an average score of 41-16. In the second half of the season, they won four very close games (four points or less). The Patriots had an old team in '07, so maybe players wore down. Maybe opponents took advantage of weaknesses exposed by the Colts and Eagles. Maybe their aura of invincibility simply cracked. By February 2008, the Giants probably were the best team in the NFL, but looking at an overall season, the '07 Pats are one of the very greatest teams in history.

Runner-up — 2010: 14-2, outscored opp. 518-313; lost divisional playoff

Won their last eight games in a row, outscoring opponents 299-125. They lost their first playoff game to the Jets, a team they had beaten 45-3 a month earlier.

1998 New York Jets
12-4, outscored opponents 416-266; lost AFC Championship Game

I believe there were no truly great teams in the NFL from 1999-2002. Every dynasty collapsed in '99. The Broncos fell apart when John Elway retired and Terrell Davis got hurt. Brett Favre injured his thumb and Reggie White retired. Steve Young retired and Jerry Rice went to Oakland. The Steelers rebuilt without Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Carnell Lake. Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin retired. The Jets had their greatest season since Super Bowl III right before all that happened, in the last year there was still elite competition.

The spark for New York, 1-15 just two years earlier, was 35-year-old Vinny Testaverde, who led the AFC in passer rating (101.6) and went 13-2 as starter. That record includes a loss to the once and future Super Bowl champions, the Denver Broncos. One year later, and things might have been different...

Runner-up — 1985: 11-5, outscored opp. 393-264; lost wild card playoff

Playing in a stacked AFC East, with the Dan Marino Dolphins and Super Bowl-bound Patriots, the Jets ranked among the NFL's top 10 in points, points allowed, yards, and yards allowed. Ken O'Brien got knocked out of their first playoff game, a loss to New England.

2012 Denver Broncos
13-3, outscored opponents 481-289; lost divisional playoff

There were about a million choices here. The Broncos lost Super Bowls in 1977, 1986, 1987, and 1989, and they went 13-3 in 1984, 1996, 2005, and 2012. Okay, that's eight contenders, not a million, but it's still an unusual number of very successful teams that fell short of winning championships. The weakest, I think, are the four Dan Reeves teams from the '80s. The AFC as a whole was down, so the Broncos were able to reach Super Bowls in years they might not have made the playoffs in the NFC.

I'm sure there are some fans that won't like this, but I ultimately went with John Fox, Peyton Manning, and Von Miller on last year's team. Following a 2-3 start, the Broncos won 11 games in a row. Denver was a balanced team, ranked in the top four in points, points allowed, yards, and yards allowed. This year tied the 1998 Super Bowl champions for the best point differential (+192) in franchise history. A choke job in the playoffs was disappointing, but all these teams ended the season with disappointment.

Runner-up — 1977: 12-2, outscored opponents 274-148; lost Super Bowl XII

The 1977 team, with Craig Morton at quarterback, had a pretty average offense — backed up by the Orange Crush defense. Denver beat the Raiders and Steelers twice each, once in the regular season and again in the playoffs.

1997 Kansas City Chiefs
13-3, outscored opponents 375-232; lost divisional playoff

This exercise seems tailor-made for Marty Schottenheimer. The Chiefs led the NFL in scoring defense, led by stars like Derrick Thomas, Dale Carter, and James Hasty. In '97, though, several other defenders also had impact seasons. Dan Williams led the team in sacks (10.5), Donnie Edwards emerged as one of the best young linebackers in the league, and backup safety Mark McMillian intercepted 8 passes, amassing 274 INT return yards and 3 TDs.

After a regular season split with the Broncos, Kansas City lost the rubber match in January, but gave Denver its toughest game of the postseason, 14-10. Tony Gonzalez's TD at the end of the third quarter gave the Chiefs a late lead, and they were in it until :19 of the fourth quarter, when Elvis Grbac's pass in the end zone, for the game-winning touchdown, was incomplete.

Runner-up — 1968: 12-2, outscored opponents 371-170; lost AFL Championship Game

This team lost 41-6 in the playoffs, but I still think it was a little better than the team that lost Super Bowl I. The same dominant defense led KC to a Super Bowl win the very next year.

1967 Oakland Raiders
13-1, outscored opponents 468-233; lost Super Bowl II

Few teams have dominated a professional sports league the way the 1967 Raiders did. They won their first game 51-0 and went on to score more than twice as many points as their opponents, sweeping the defending champion Chiefs and losing only to Joe Namath's Jets, whom they beat later in the season. The Raiders were led by the downfield passing of AFL MVP Daryle Lamonica.

In the league championship game, Oakland annihilated the Houston Oilers, 40-7, to advance to Super Bowl II. Unfortunately, that game matched them up against Vince Lombardi's Packers. Green Bay scored on its first three possessions and went into halftime leading 16-7. The Packers put the game away in the second half and won by a convincing margin of 33-14.

Runner-up — 1974: 12-2, outscored opponents 355-228; lost AFC Championship Game

Ken Stabler won NFL MVP. The Raiders shut out the Steelers (17-0) and beat the Cowboys and Dolphins, before losing a rematch with Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

2006 San Diego Chargers
14-2, outscored opponents 492-303; lost divisional playoff

In a year with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees all at the top of their games, LaDainian Tomlinson set the single-season touchdown record (31) and the Chargers led the NFL in scoring. Nine Chargers were voted to the Pro Bowl. Linebacker Shawne Merriman was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and first-team All-Pro despite his four-game suspension. Tomlinson was named league MVP. San Diego won its last 10 games in a row before a weird, flukey loss to New England in the playoffs. Tom Brady threw three interceptions and the Pats had just 51 rushing yards. LaDainian Tomlinson gained 187 yards from scrimmage, scored two touchdowns, and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. If Ray Lewis is right and God cares who wins playoff games, the Supreme Being is obviously not on Marty Schottenheimer's side.

This is the third Schottenheimer team named as a franchise-best non-Super Bowl champ, joining the '87 Browns and '97 Chiefs. I'm sure some fans will disagree about '06 over the Air Coryell teams, but this was the highest-scoring team in Chargers history — and it had a good defense, as well, leading the NFL in sacks. We're only looking at Super Bowl-era squads, so Sid Gillman's early AFL teams, which lost four of the first six league championships, aren't eligible.

Runner-up — 1979: 12-4, outscored opponents 411-246; lost divisional playoff

Any of the 1979-82 Air Coryell teams would be a good choice, but the '79 team was the only one with a good defense. The '80 and '81 teams allowed over 300 points, and '82 allowed 221 in just 9 games.

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