The old cliche that the "winners write the history books" certainly applies to the NFL, and the champions the league has produced in the Super Bowl era. Over the years we've seen some great Super Bowl-winning teams, but also some teams that came up just short, that deserve equal amounts of reverence. Some of these would-be champions have boasted an elite offense or defense, and their efforts have been lost when a discussion occurs about the great teams in league history.
It's important to take into account that the NFL operates on a single-elimination playoff system, as opposed to most other major American sports, which utilize a series-based system. For any given team to win the Super Bowl, they need to win three or four games in a row, which leaves little room for error in the postseason. Many of the teams mentioned here were just as good on paper as the eventual champions, but several mistakes may have cost them the chance for a title win. Had they been given the luxury of a seven-game series, the ending to the story may have been altered. As it stands, they are relegated as afterthoughts in the history of the NFL.
Ranked below are 15 largely forgotten teams that could have won a championship, but ultimately did not.
15 2012 San Francisco 49ers
It's only been a few years, but with the dumpster fire that the Niners have become recently, it's often forgotten just how good this individual team was during the 2012 campaign. They won 11 games during the regular season, and featured a potent defense that ranked as one of the league's best. Led by a trio of stud LBs; Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks), and NaVorro Bowman, the whole unit was unstoppable for a good portion of the season. When they began to falter slightly in the playoffs, Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore picked up the slack, before losing to the Ravens in a well-contested Super Bowl match-up. Of course, soon after this everything fell apart. Jim Harbaugh was fired for essentially having a tumultuous relationship with the front office, Kaepernick's QB play quickly regressed, and the Niners became anonymous once again.
14 1973 Minnesota Vikings
One of the most underrated and forgotten teams in NFL history, the "Purple People Eaters" era Vikings had a chance to win three Super Bowls during the 70s, but could never quite get the job done. Still, in the 1973 season they won 12 games (when only 14 were on the schedule). Led by QB Fran Tarkenton on the offense, and CB Bobby Bryant and DE Jim Marshall on defense, they were a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball. Opponents registered over 20 points against them just three times all season, one of which came in the Super Bowl loss to the Dolphins. One of the best teams of their era, that ultimately came up one game short on three different occasions. They deserve much more credit than they receive in the modern era.
13 1989 Denver Broncos
Elway's had several shots at a Super Bowl before the more well-documented late-90s Broncos teams, and ironically, it was the defense that was the standout unit on the 1989 roster. They featured five 100-yard tacklers including Steve Atwater, Karl Mecklenburg, Tyrone Braxton, Michael Brooks, and Simon Fletcher; a true rarity for any team in any era. As a whole, the defense was stellar, holding opposing offenses to 20 points or less, on 13 different occasions throughout the year. This is largely forgotten due to the team's trouncing they received at the hands of Joe Montana's 49ers in the Super Bowl, giving up a whopping 55 points in that game. Still, these Broncos deserve just as much credit as the 90s teams that won the title. Elway was in his prime, and the defense was stout.
12 1990 Buffalo Bills
Everyone knows that the Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls, but very little is actually discussed as to how good those teams actually were. Specifically, the 199o Bills were one of the best offensive teams of their era, featuring stars like Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed. They won 13 games during the regular season, and dominated most of the playoffs with 44 and 51 points performances against the Dolphins and Raiders respectively. Of course, this was the team that suffered the ill-fate of the "wide right" kick that sent them home losing the Super Bowl by one point to the Giants. The fortunes for a title win never got any better in Buffalo, as they lost the next four. That however doesn't discount what they were able to accomplish, which was offensive dominance with this core group of offensive personnel.
11 1991 Philadelphia Eagles
This Eagles team featured the first-ranked overall defense against the run, pass and overall. Known as "Gang Green", they first dominated the NFC for the previous four years under head coach Buddy Ryan, with it culminating under new defensive coordinator in 1991, Bud Carson. Featuring the likes of Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Andre Waters and Seth Joyner. Yet, this team failed to reach the playoffs. The reason? A week one injury to starting QB and best overall playmaker Randall Cunningham, which forced the likes of Jim McMahon and Jeff Kemp into action for the remainder of the season. The Eagles finished 10-6, but the defense remains one of the best of all-time. If they had been fortunate enough to have Cunningham at the helm, their fortunes may have been different in 1991.
10 2002 Oakland Raiders
With head coach Bill Callahan at the helm, the Raiders had one of their most dominating seasons in years, winning 11 games and making it to the Super Bowl before losing to John Gruden's Buccaneers. Featuring the explosive WR tandem of Jerry Porter and Jerry Rice, along with successful reclamation projects in RB Charlie Garner and QB Rich Gannon, the Raiders were the surprise of 2002, maintaining their winning ways against all odds. Rod Woodson racked up eight INTs, and the rest of the defense played well in a timely manner, making them formidable on both sides of the ball. While they couldn't get it done against Tampa Bay, this Raiders team deserves to be commended. Of course, many subsequent seasons weren't as successful, but this Raiders team was a notable exception to the rule.
9 1994 San Diego Chargers
This tough Chargers team barely received any recognition anymore, but truly proved that a unit that is greater than the sum of their parts, can still put together a deep playoff run. Headed up on defense by Junior Seau, and on offense by RB Natron Means, San Diego was able to cobble together an 11-win season, after going 8-8 the year before. They scored playoff victories over Dan Marino's Dolphins and the Steelers before losing a blowout in the Super Bowl to the 49ers. There wasn't really a marquee player on this team who was ever a star in the league for an extended period of time, barring Seau, which probably lessens their historical significance. Still, they were a quality team in an era full of them, and their difficult road to the Super Bowl warrants more credit than they've gotten.
8 1984 Miami Dolphins
One of the true tragedies of the NFL, is that an all-time QB talent such as Dan Marino was never able to win a Super Bowl. In 1984, which was arguably Marino's best season, he went off. A total of over 5,000 passing yards, 48 TD passes to just 17 INTs, and a 64% completion showed what an elite talent he was. Mind you, this was in an era when QB stats weren't naturally inflated, and many of these statistics were complete rarities for the time period. Overall, the Dolphins won a stellar 14 games, and seemed primed for a title-win, before falling to the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Bill Walsh's dynasty was probably the only thing that could have stopped them, and Marino would never have as good of a chance to win it all, as he did this season.
7 1988 Cincinnati Bengals
Yes, it actually exists. There was a time when the Bengals used to win playoff games. Featuring the steady play of QB Boomer Esiason, and the brief phenom that was FB Ickey Woods, the Bengals won 12 games during the 1988 campaign, and solidified themselves as one of the league's best teams after a four-win season the year prior. The defense rose to the occasion in the playoffs, holding the Seahawks and Bills to 23 points combined in the first two games, before falling to the 49ers in the Super Bowl. This season mostly turned out to be an anomaly for the Bengals, as they would shuffle back into a middling team during the next two seasons. Another improbable success story, and one that deserves more recognition.
6 2004 Philadelphia Eagles
This was the infamous "T.O. season", and truthfully, there probably wasn't a better top to bottom team in the NFL on paper. Between McNabb, Owens, and Westbrook commanding the offense, and the culmination of a defense that featured one of the best secondaries in NFL history, anchored by Brian Dawkins, the Birds tore up everything in their path, en route to a 13-win season, and two dominating wins in the playoffs. Then came the infamous "Spygate" Superbowl against the Patriots, which was lost by a three-point deficit, and the run promptly came to an end. In all, it's probably one of the best overall teams in league history, and easily should be credited as one of the dominant teams of all-time.
5 2005 Seattle Seahawks
Before Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson were even on Seattle's radar, head coach Mike Holmgren led them to a Super Bowl appearance on the back of RB Shaun Alexander, who had one of the greatest rushing seasons ever committed to statistics. A total of over 1,800 yards on the ground and an unfathomable 27 rushing TDs was the order of the day, and the Seahawks cruised to a 13-win record, and dominated in their first two playoff games. They lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl in a complete upset, and sent the franchise back into mediocrity, before their obvious resurgence several years ago. It remains to this one of the greatest offenses of all-time, topped off with one of, if not the best single season performance in league history. The current Seahawks are more relevant, but their RB from 2005 eclipses anything Marshawn Lynch ever did.
4 1979 Los Angeles Rams
Racking up only nine wins during the regular season, this Rams team is often considered one of the worst to ever make a Super Bowl. They snuck into the playoffs to begin with, and then eeked out several close postseason wins, before being fairly-well decimated by the clearly-superior Steelers in the title game. The team wasn't without merit; RB Wendell Tyler rushed for over 1,000 yards, and S Nolan Cromwell yanked five INTs. Overall however, this wasn't even the best Rams team of the era, yet it's the one that had the most success. They're a testament to the unpredictability of the NFL, proving that any team can go on a championship during any given season. Many teams for the 2016 campaign will be counting on that same fate for their overall season results.
3 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers
Between the "Steel Curtain" and Roethlisberger eras of Steelers football, it's often forgotten that they had a Super Bowl-appearing team in 1995. It featured a quality defense, anchored by Kevin Greene, and and offense that was able to put points on the board, despite a lack of overall elite talent. They overachieved and won 11 regular season, before scoring two postseason, and then losing to the Cowboys dynasty in the Super Bowl. At the very least, this season served as a buffer between the 70s and 00s Steelers, but on their own, they deserve to at least be remembered for doing the most they could with limited elite talent. Not the most remembered team in franchise history, but their success came at an important time.
2 1998 Atlanta Falcons
Most newer fans of the league probably aren't even aware that Atlanta ever made a Super Bowl, but the 1998 team that won 14 regular season games looked poised to win it all, before running smack dab into John Elway and the Broncos. Still, this was a team that boasted a great offense, led by RB Jamaal Anderson, and defense alike. They exhibited dominance on both sides of the ball, finishing fourth in both points for, and points again. The defense came into prominence during the second half of the season, and was the extra push the Falcons needed to be a legitimate playoff contender. The next year they stumbled, winning just five games, and never truly regained dominance under head coach Dan Reeves. This Atlanta team may have been an anomaly, but it's still overall one of the better teams of the 90s, despite ultimately coming up short.
1 1999 Tennesse Titans
Before current Rams coach Jeff Fisher was laughed at for being the pillar of mediocrity, he was actually headed a very success team in Tennessee, that was one of the best of its era. It featured an elite offense, led by Steve "Air" McNair at QB, and RB Eddie George, along with role playing receivers such as Kevin Dyson and Frank Wychek. On defense it was decidedly a bend-don't-break philosophy, and the Titans were very good at limiting their opponents from scoring too much, even if they couldn't consistently stop them. This gameplan worked for most of the season, as they racked up 13 regular season wins, followed by three postseason victories. Of course, their Super Bowl opponents were "The Greatest Show On Turf" Rams team that took everyone by surprise with their dynamic offense. Fisher never got the ring, and would never achieve quite the level of success as a head coach that he did here, but it's worth remembering, just to prove that at one time he wasn't toiling in seven-win seasons.