Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Best Teams Not to Win the Super Bowl: NFC
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 recall 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 second 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. Last month, we looked at AFC teams, and this week, we'll wrap up with the NFC. Teams are sorted alphabetically within their divisions.
1986 Chicago Bears
14-2, outscored opponents 352-187; lost divisional playoff
This defense allowed fewer yards and fewer points than the famous 1985 Bears, holding 10 opponents to 10 points or less. Walter Payton was still among the most productive RBs in the NFL, with 1,333 rushing yards, plus another 382 receiving and 11 total touchdowns. The Bears actually rushed for nearly twice as much yardage (2,700) as their opponents (1,463), and kicker Kevin Butler led the NFC in scoring.
The Bears also passed for more yardage (2,759) than they allowed (2,667) and scored nearly twice as many TDs (38) as they gave up (20). They sacked opposing QBs 62 times, compared to 24 sacks taken by Chicago QBs. My favorite statistic goes back to rushing: the Bears gained 166 first downs with their ground game, compared to just 67 for opponents — that's a difference of 99 rushing first downs.
Runner-up — 2006: 13-3, outscored opp. 427-255; lost Super Bowl XLI
Brilliant defense led by Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Tommie Harris, plus 6 return TDs by Devin Hester.
1970 Detroit Lions
10-4, outscored opponents 347-202; lost divisional playoff
Through most of the 1950s and 1960s, the Lions had a strong defense led by an exceptional secondary. In 1970, future Hall of Fame DBs Dick LeBeau and Lem Barney joined old lions Alex Karras and Wayne Walker on a defense that nearly rivaled Minnesota's legendary Purple Gang. Detroit led the NFL in rush defense, and opponents averaged just 3.2 yards per carry. Even in its playoff loss to the Cowboys, the defense yielded only 3 points, when a Lions turnover at midfield set up a field goal. Despite a tremendous defensive performance against a powerful offense, the Lions lost 5-0.
Detroit's offense was better than it showed in that loss, though, scoring the second-most points in the NFL. Quarterback Greg Landry and running back Mel Farr had their moments, but the unquestioned star was Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders, a consensus All-Pro. Landry, who took over for Bill Munson halfway through the season, was a great scrambler whose 76-yard run was the longest of the year in the NFC.
Runner-up — 1969: 9-4-1, outscored opp. 259-188; missed playoffs
The 1991 Lions went 12-4 and reached the NFC Championship Game, but they weren't really an exceptional team. Barry Sanders doesn't single-handedly compensate for a defense.
2011 Green Bay Packers
15-1, outscored opponents 560-359; lost divisional playoff
The Packers went 15-1 and outscored their opponents by over 200 points. That's really all you need to know this was a great team. But this didn't happen against a cupcake schedule. Six of the Packers' 15 wins came against playoff teams, including a Week 17 win over the Lions when Green Bay had already secured the top seed in the NFC playoffs. The Packers rested their stars, but backup QB Matt Flynn set franchise records for passing yardage (480) and TDs (6), and Green Bay's B-Team defeated a playoff team.
Aaron Rodgers was named NFL MVP almost unanimously (48/50 votes) after he broke the single-season record for passer rating (122.5). Rodgers passed for 45 touchdowns and rushed for another 3, with only 6 interceptions and no lost fumbles. That's six times as many TDs as turnovers, a +42 differential. Unfortunately, the time off in Week 17 and the first-round bye appeared to make Green Bay rusty, as the team looked out of sync for its playoff loss to the Giants. Three different announcers at FOX said something to the effect that Green Bay wasn't the same team we'd been watching all season. It was a huge disappointment for a team that had dominated all season, even against strong opponents.
Runner-up — 1997: 13-3, outscored opp. 422-282; lost Super Bowl XXXII
One year after their superb '96 team won Super Bowl XXXI, the Packers won both their playoff games by double-digits and were two-touchdown favorites against Denver.
1969 Minnesota Vikings
12-2, outscored opponents 379-133; lost Super Bowl IV
The '69 Vikings allowed fewer than 10 points per game and scored nearly triple what they gave up. The offense was good, as Minnesota led both the NFL and AFL in scoring, but the heart of the team was its defense, which featured Hall of Famers Alan Page, Paul Krause, and Carl Eller. The Viking defense was the NFL's best by nearly 1,000 yards. In the playoffs, Minnesota defeated the 11-3 Rams, then breezed by Cleveland in the NFL Championship Game, going up 27-0 before the Browns scored a late touchdown to spoil the shutout.
On Super Bowl Sunday, however, turnovers and a physical Chiefs team ended Minnesota's season in disappointment. The defense held up its end of the bargain, not allowing a touchdown drive until late in the third quarter. But the offense, which thrived on an excellent line and strong ground game, was beaten at its strength, getting overpowered on the line and netting just 239 yards. The Vikings went on to become a losing dynasty, with four Super Bowl defeats in less than a decade.
Runner-up — 1998: 15-1, outscored opp. 556-296; lost NFC Championship Game
Fourth-highest margin of victory since the AFL merger (16.3 ppg), 15-1 record, weird overtime loss to the Falcons when it mattered most.
2012 Atlanta Falcons
13-3, outscored opponents 419-299; lost NFC Championship Game
Atlanta also went 13-3 two years earlier, but I chose this team for two reasons. One is that it won a playoff game, while the 2010 Falcons lost in the divisional round to Green Bay. The other is pass offense. The earlier team had a better running game and perhaps a slightly better defense. But for 2012, Atlanta had a mature Matt Ryan at the height of his powers, and a mostly healthy Julio Jones as an additional weapon to terrorize defenses.
I prefer the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan teams over Dan Reeves' 1998 Super Bowl team mostly for consistency. The '98 Falcons were a one-year wonder, the franchise's only winning season between 1995-2002. With Smith and Ryan on board, the Falcons have had a winning record every year and made the playoffs four times in five seasons. Everything came together in '98, but there's a lot more talent on the current team.
Runner-up — 1998: 14-2, outscored opp. 442-289; lost Super Bowl XXXIII
Honestly, the 2010 team was probably better, but this is the only Super Bowl team in Falcons history, and its point differential of +153 is the best in franchise history.
2008 Carolina Panthers
12-4, outscored opponents 414-329; lost divisional playoff
Carolina was 8-0 at home, outscoring opponents 234-111. That includes victories against two playoff teams, another two wins against non-playoff teams with winning records, and a 34-0 shutout of Kansas City.
On the road, the Panthers went 4-4 and got outscored 218-180. That includes a 1-3 record against playoff teams, with the win a 2-point nail-biter in Week 1. Basically, you've got a team that was great in home games, incredible really, but probably a little below average on the road. So it's a bit startling that Carolina's decisive 33-13 playoff loss to the Cardinals — a team they'd beaten during the regular season — came in Charlotte. Jake Delhomme committed six turnovers and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald hauled in 8 receptions for 166 yards and a TD.
Carolina had talent. DeAngelo Williams rushed for 1,500 yards and scored 20 TDs. Steve Smith averaged 18.2 yards per reception and gained over 1,400 yards. Julius Peppers posted a career-high 14.5 sacks. Jordan Gross and Jon Beason made the All-Pro team. If you put Cam Newton in a time machine and sent him back to replace Delhomme, I think there's a good chance the Panthers would have reached the Super Bowl.
Runner-up — 2005: 11-5, outscored opp. 391-259; lost NFC Championship Game
By far the best point differential in club history. Two years earlier, the 2003 Panthers got hot in the playoffs, but that wasn't a great team, Super Bowl or not.
2011 New Orleans Saints
13-3, outscored opponents 547-339; lost divisional playoff
When I was growing up, the Saints were a joke. Sometimes a team is bad long enough that it becomes known for losing. Casual fans know it, late-night TV hosts joke about it, even your mom who doesn't care about sports is vaguely aware of it. For about two decades, that was the Saints. From 1967-85, New Orleans went 83-187-5 (.311) and never had a winning season.
Jim Mora changed that. Under his leadership, the Saints made the playoffs four times. Then the team got terrible again, with only one playoff appearance from 1993-2005. Since Sean Payton came on as head coach, New Orleans is a perennial playoff contender, and most of the team's best seasons are from the last seven years. The 2011 Saints set all-time single-season records for yards per game (467.1, shattering a 50-year-old record), first downs (416), and passing yards (5,347). In their first playoff game, they set a postseason record for offensive yardage (626) and didn't punt all game.
Runner-up — 1991: 11-5, outscored opp. 341-211; lost wild card playoff
First team in franchise history to win a division title, led by a historic defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL.
2000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
10-6, outscored opponents 388-269; lost wild card playoff
When I was growing up, the Buccaneers were a joke. Sometimes a team is bad long enough that it becomes known for losing. Casual fans know it, late-night TV hosts joke about it, even your mom who doesn't care about sports is vaguely aware of it. For about two decades, that was the Bucs. From 1983-96, Tampa Bay went 64-159 (.287) and never had a winning season.
Tony Dungy changed that. Under his leadership, the Bucs made the playoffs four times. The team was up-and-down under Jon Gruden, and mostly down since Gruden's firing prior to the 2009 season. Apart from a trio of playoff appearances between 1979-82, all of the team's good seasons came with either Dungy or Gruden at the helm. There are two teams in Buccaneer history that outscored their opponents by more than 64. The 2002 Super Bowl champions were +150, and the 2000 Bucs were +119, nearly double the next contender.
Tampa had an okay offense, with Mike Alstott, Keyshawn Johnson, and one-year wonder QB Shaun King, but the standout was Warrick Dunn, having his best season as a Buccaneer (1,133 rushing yards, 422 receiving yards, 9 TDs). Even kicker Martin Gramatica had a Pro Bowl season. Of course, the team's real strength was its defense. Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, and Warren Sapp were first-team All-Pro, and CB Donnie Abraham made the Pro Bowl on the strength of 7 INTs. Marcus Jones had 13.5 sacks, and Ronde Barber finished with 5.5 sacks and 2 return TDs.
The 2000 Bucs played in one of my all-time favorite games, on December 18, 2000. Playing against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams on Monday Night Football, the Bucs pulled out a dramatic 38-35 victory. The signature play came in the fourth quarter, with Tampa trailing 35-31 and under 2:00 left. Dunn got wrapped up on a short pass in the backfield, but he lateralled to King, who eluded several defenders and sprinted for a first down. A late hit out of bounds made the play a 35-yard gain, and set up the winning touchdown.
Runner-up — 2001: 9-7, outscored opp. 324-280; lost wild card playoff
Basically the same team, but with Brad Johnson at quarterback and Simeon Rice added to the defense.
1978 Dallas Cowboys
12-4, outscored opponents 384-208; lost Super Bowl XIII
Until the last few years, Super Bowl XIII was widely regarded as the best ever. It featured two legendary dynasties, the Steel Curtain and the "America's Team"-era Cowboys, who had nine Pro Bowlers in 1978. Captain Comeback, Roger Staubach, staged a late rally that fell barely short and made the Super Bowl final 35-31.
During the regular season, Dallas led the NFL in scoring and offensive yardage, ranking second in total defense and third in points allowed. After a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Cowboys beat Atlanta despite a late hit that knocked Staubach out of the game. The next week, with Staubach back in the lineup, the defending champs served notice with a 28-0 rout against the Rams. Ultimately clashing with one of the best teams in football history, Dallas established itself as one of the greatest contenders not to win it all.
Runner-up — 1994: 12-4, outscored opp. 414-248; lost NFC Championship Game
The middle of their '90s dynasty, the only year from 1992-95 that they didn't win a Super Bowl.
2008 New York Giants
12-4, outscored opponents 427-294; lost divisional playoff
The year after their victory in Super Bowl XLII, everything was meshing for the Giants. It is the only season of Eli Manning's career so far in which he threw twice as many TDs (21) as INTs (10), and the Giants' running game of Earth, Wind, and Fire produced nearly 2,500 yards. Brandon Jacobs (1,089 yds, 15 TD) and Derrick Ward (1,025 yds, 5.6 avg) both had the best seasons of their careers, while Ahmad Bradshaw (355 yds, 5.3 avg) was just coming into his own. Defensively, the unquestioned star was All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Tuck, who recorded a career-high 12 sacks and an interception return for a touchdown.
Fresh off their Super Bowl win, the Giants started the season 11-1, with wins over four playoff teams (including both Super Bowl representatives). In the last month of the season, though, their success unraveled. Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself and went to jail, while Tuck seemed to wear down, with only 0.5 sack in the last four games. New York lost three of those four games, a cold streak that extended to 1-for-5 when the team lost to Philadelphia in its first playoff game. The '07 Giants got hot at the right time; the '08 Giants got cold at the wrong time.
Runner-up — 1989: 12-4, outscored opp. 348-252; lost divisional playoff
One year before they won Super Bowl XXV, an overtime loss knocked the Giants out of the playoffs. Remember, we're only looking at the Super Bowl era, so the old Y.A. Tittle / Frank Gifford teams aren't eligible.
1980 Philadelphia Eagles
12-4, outscored opponents 384-222; lost Super Bowl XV
The culmination of Dick Vermeil's rebuilding project, the 1980 Eagles led the NFL in scoring defense and point differential. Quarterback Ron Jaworski was first-team All-NFC, and Wilbert Montgomery was brilliant when healthy, but this team's foundation was its defense. There were stars, like LB Bill Bergey and DE Claude Humphrey, but mostly the unit was led by players with a shorter window of greatness: guys like Herman Edwards, Carl Hairston, Charlie Johnson, Randy Logan, and Jerry Robinson. The standout probably was Johnson, a nose tackle who made his third straight Pro Bowl after intercepting three passes in the regular season.
Even without obvious superstars, the Eagles had a roster full of good players, and there's little question they were the best team in the NFL. They won their first three games by a combined score of 104-16. They beat the Raiders and took two of three from the Cowboys. Philadelphia took its foot off the gas pedal at the end of the regular season, losing three of its last four after an 11-1 start, but rebounded to win two playoff games and reach the Super Bowl. Sometimes good teams have a bad day at the wrong time, and Oakland won the rematch, 27-10.
Runner-up — 1992: 11-5, outscored opp. 354-245; lost divisional playoff
The '81 Eagles were pretty much the same team as the year before, and the Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb Eagles dominated a rebuilding NFC, but with a dominant defense and a healthy Randall Cunningham, this might be Philly's 2nd-strongest team in the Super Bowl era.
1983 Washington Redskins
14-2, outscored opponents 541-332; lost Super Bowl XVIII
To this day, players and coaches from the Joe Gibbs dynasty insist that their best team was the one that lost Super Bowl XVIII to the Raiders. The defending champs went 14-2, both of their losses coming by a single point. They won their first playoff game 51-7 and beat Joe Montana's 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
Washington's success was founded on a historic offense, the first NFL team ever to top 500 points in a season. Joe Theismann was named NFL MVP and John Riggins set the single-season touchdown record. The team lit up scoreboards despite a conservative offense and a coach who didn't believe in running up the score. Alone among the NFL's highest-scoring offenses, Washington ran more than any other team in the league (629 att).
The offense was uniquely successful, but Washington's defense was great, too: it led the league in rushing defense and interceptions, with the 2nd-highest takeaway total (61) in NFL history. This team was +43 in turnovers, the best mark ever. After finishing two points away from an undefeated regular season, Washington suffered an upset Super Bowl loss against a Raider team it had beaten earlier in the year.
Runner-up — 1972: 11-3, outscored opp. 336-218; lost Super Bowl VII
The 1974 team was probably a little better, but this version won a pair of playoff games, and RB Larry Brown was named NFL MVP.
1975 St. Louis Cardinals
11-3, outscored opponents 356-276; lost divisional playoff
Here's the thing. Do you know how many times the Cardinals have made the playoffs in the 47 seasons the Super Bowl has been played? Six. That includes the 5-4 Cardinals in 1982, plus two 9-7 teams that were probably below average and only qualified because they played weak schedules. Teams like the Cowboys and 49ers, you're just trying to narrow down which squads to exclude. With the Cardinals, teams that didn't even make the postseason deserve real consideration as the best of the last 50 years.
From a talent standpoint, I like Don Coryell's 1974-76 teams, all of which won double-digit games in 14-game seasons. In '75, the Cardinals won the NFC East, ahead of the Super Bowl X Cowboys (10-4). The St. Louis offense was comprised of explosive playmakers: Jim Hart, Terry Metcalf, Jim Otis, Mel Gray, and Jackie Smith, with all except Smith (who missed five games) making the Pro Bowl. Three offensive linemen also played in the Pro Bowl: Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler, and center Tom Banks. The defense, while less impressive, did feature Hall of Famer Roger Wehrli, in an All-Pro year with 10 takeaways (6 INT, 4 FR).
Runner-up — 1974: 10-4, outscored opp. 285-218; lost divisional playoff
Ken Whisenhunt's two playoff teams (2008-09) beat up on the NFC West when that meant nothing. They couldn't reliably hold leads because of an inconsistent defense and non-existent run game. I think the Cardinals were better in the Coryell era.
2001 St. Louis Rams
14-2, outscored opponents 503-273; lost Super Bowl XXXVI
Blasted through the regular season with the league's best offense and a solid defense coordinated by Lovie Smith. Led by All-Pros Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, the Rams finished first in total offense and became the eighth team in history to score more than 500 points in a season. The only problem was Warner's tendency to throw interceptions, but he made up for it with the second-most passing yards in league history.
The playoffs opened with a 45-17 romp over 12-4 Green Bay, in which the Rams intercepted Brett Favre six times. St. Louis entered the Super Bowl as prohibitive favorites, but ran into the NFL's hottest team, the New England Patriots. Warner threw for 365 yards, but with two costly interceptions, and the defense couldn't stop New England's game-winning drive with a minute and a half remaining in the fourth quarter.
It was a turning point for both teams. The Patriots' 20-17 victory was the first step in establishing them as the best team of the new millennium, while the Rams' defeat ended their brief run as football royalty and marked Warner's last full season in St. Louis.
Runner-up — 1973: 12-2, outscored opp. 388-178; lost divisional playoff
Completely overhauled the 6-7-1 '72 team by bringing in Chuck Knox, John Hadl, Lawrence McCutcheon, and Harold Jackson. Doubled their win total, in the first of eight straight playoff seasons.
1992 San Francisco 49ers
14-2, outscored opponents 431-236; lost NFC Championship Game
Steve Young led the NFL in passing TDs and passer rating, with another 537 yards and 4 TDs on the ground, en route to his first NFL MVP Award. Young was one of seven players from San Francisco's offense selected to the Pro Bowl and/or the All-Pro team, joining Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice, Brent Jones, and three of the team's five offensive linemen. The only offensive players left out were Tom Rathman (9 TDs, but there was no roster spot for fullbacks in the Pro Bowl at that time), John Taylor (Super Bowl XXIII hero), Jesse Sapolu (who made each of the next two Pro Bowls), and right guard Roy Foster. The weakest link on Mike Shanahan's offense was a 10-year veteran, former first-round draft pick, two-time Pro Bowler who started all 16 games.
San Francisco's defense ranked 3rd in fewest points allowed, led by Bill Romanowski and the DE tandem of Tim Harris (17 sacks) and Pierce Holt (Pro Bowl). The 49ers went 5-1 against playoff teams, including a sweep of the Saints, who were 12-2 in their other games. The Niners beat the Falcons (who made the playoffs the year before) by a combined total of 97-20. In the playoffs, they knocked out defending champion Washington before a 30-20 loss to Dallas in the NFC Championship Game.
Runner-up — 1998: 12-4, outscored opp. 479-328; lost divisional playoff
Young set career-highs for yardage and TDs and Garrison Hearst rushed for 1,570 yards in the last season before the team rebuilt with Steve Mariucci and Jeff Garcia.
2012 Seattle Seahawks
11-5, outscored opponents 412-245; lost divisional playoff
I hate choosing teams when there are three obvious standouts, because I'm only honoring two per franchise. For Seattle, you've got three successful teams from three distinct eras: Chuck Knox's 12-4 1984 Seahawks with Dave Krieg, Steve Largent, and Kenny Easley; Mike Holmgren's 13-3 2005 team with Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander, and a great offensive line; and Pete Carroll's team last year, with Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and the NFL's top scoring defense.
Wilson got better and better as the season progressed, and Lynch rushed for 1,590 yards, but outstanding defense ultimately set Seattle apart, and nearly carried the team to a Super Bowl appearance. A slow start sent Seattle on the road in the postseason, a colossal factor for the team with the longest road trips and largest homefield advantage in the NFL.
Runner-up — 2005: 13-3, outscored opp. 452-271; lost Super Bowl XL
Easily the best team in the NFC, at a time when that meant almost nothing.