It’s that time of year again.
The weather is getting cooler, the kids are back in school and of course, football is on your TV.
Football is America’s most popular sport and it’s not even remotely close. According to Sports Media Watch, “43 of the 50 largest U.S. sports [television] audiences in 2015, including 14 of the top 15” were NFL games. The other seven events: Game 6 of the NBA Finals (Golden State vs. Cleveland), three college football playoff matchups, two of the three contests from the men’s college basketball Final Four and the Women’s World Cup Final (USA vs. Japan).
And of course, the Super Bowl is by far the most-watched game, with well over 100 million viewers each year in this country alone. Its primary purpose, after selling 30-second commercials for $5,000,000 each, is to determine pro football’s champion.
But just as with any sport, the best team doesn’t always hoist the trophy at the end. That’s a good thing; who among us would watch if there were never any upsets along the way?
There have been 50 Super Bowls to date, and while many NFL champions dominated their respective seasons from start to finish, there have been quite a few who weren’t exactly the ’85 Bears or ’91 Redskins. Surely, there are no bad Super Bowl winners; some are just not as impressive as others.
So while everyone else is debating which teams have the best odds of taking home the Vince Lombardi Trophy in early February, here’s a list that may provide a little hope for some of the fringe contenders.
15 Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XVII
A players’ strike shortened the 1982 NFL season to just nine regular season games. Though the Redskins had a strong defense, their offense that year was average, scoring the 12th-most points in the league. They tied for 12th in passing yards and ranked 10th in rushing. Washington’s kicker was good, though; Mark Moseley, who somehow botched three out of 19 extra points, won the NFL MVP after missing just one field goal attempt in nine games. During the season, the team took full advantage of a relatively easy schedule, en route to an 8-1 record. They were fortunate to play the 6-3 Dallas Cowboys just once (at home, no less), while facing three lesser divisional opponents twice apiece. Three of Washington’s eight victories were by four points or fewer against sub-.500 teams. After Week 6, however, the team performed much better. They won their final two regular season games by a combined score of 55-10 and then advanced through three conference playoff games, each by double-digits. The Redskins entered the Super Bowl as three-point underdogs to Miami, who led 17-10 at the half. Dolphins’ starting quarterback, David Woodley, would complete only four out of 14 passes for 97 yards on the day and Washington rode a big second half to a 10-point win.
14 New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXVIII
It’s easy to look at the Patriots’ 14-2 record back in 2003 and, knowing they had Tom Brady at quarterback, assume this team must have been an offensive juggernaut. But that wouldn’t be accurate. Like the 1982 Redskins (#15), New England relied more on their defense than offense to win games. They were 18th in the NFL in yards (9th in passing, 28th in rushing) and 12th in scoring. And though they had some tough teams on their schedule, they had a disproportionate number of opponents (nine) who ended the season with six or fewer wins. The Pats lost two of those nine games against poor teams and then eked out a 9-3 win at home over the 5-11 Cleveland Browns, before needing overtime to squeeze past the 5-11 Houston Texans by a field goal. During the Super Bowl, in which there were 37 points scored in the fourth quarter alone, Adam Vinatieri booted a 41-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to give New England their second championship in franchise history.
13 Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl IX
Another team that was better on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, Pittsburgh led the NFL in points allowed and went 10-3-1 in 1974. They were a run-heavy team, finishing second in the league in rushing yards and 22nd in passing. Impressive statistics on the surface, but they were compiled against weak competition. Of the 14 regular season games the Steelers played, only one was against a team with a winning record (Oakland Raiders) – and they lost that game at home, 17-0. They would later get their revenge, however, traveling to Oakland for the AFC Conference Championship game and leaving a 24-13 winner. Pittsburgh subsequently defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 16-6, in what would be their first of four Super Bowl victories over a six-year span. The 1974 season also marked the rookie campaigns for future Hall of Fame Steelers, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
12 Los Angeles Raiders, Super Bowl XVIII
The 1983 Raiders are the first team on this list with a strong offense. They were among the NFL’s top 10 in both passing and rushing yards and led the AFC in scoring, averaging 27.6 points per game. The Raiders’ defense, however, was a mess. They ranked 26th out of 29 teams in yardage allowed during the regular season. During the playoffs, however, L.A. surrendered a total of just 33 points in three games. They played a lot of close games that year; five of their games were decided by one or two points. One of those tight contests occurred in Washington, when the Redskins stormed back from a 15-point fourth quarter deficit by scoring the game’s final 17 points. Six Raiders’ turnovers probably didn’t help matters that day, either. They would avenge that narrow loss, though, with a 38-9 blowout victory in the Super Bowl. It would be the third and, to this point, last title for the Silver and Black.
11 San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XVI
How can a team with an NFL-best 13-3 record – one that is quarterbacked by Joe Montana, no less - make this list? For starters, San Francisco had the easiest schedule in the NFC, aided by the fact that the other three teams in their division had a cumulative winning percentage of just .354. And yet, against that soft schedule, the Niners put up modest offensive stats. They were a middling 13th in total yards and 16th in yards per play. San Fran’s defense, however, was very strong. But how much of their #2 ranking in yards allowed and +23 turnover ratio were attributable to their soft schedule? Their scoring defense did rise sharply from 15.6 in the regular season to 24.0 across three postseason games. But their offense did just enough; the 49ers won the NFC Championship Game by a point over Dallas and, after building a 20-0 halftime lead in the Super Bowl, hung on for a five-point win over Cincinnati.
10 Indianapolis Colts, Super Bowl XLI
First Montana, then Manning? Well, yes; though the Colts’ presence on this list is not in any way Peyton’s fault (Indy’s 4,308 yards through the air led the AFC in 2006). Their defense, on the other hand, was atrocious. Even the 4-12 Browns and 2-14 Raiders were stingier when it came to allowing points. Specifically, the Colts’ rushing defense was nearly non-existent. They allowed 2,768 yards on the ground, 441 more than any other team that year and the most in the NFL since the 1985 Houston Oilers. Four times in ’06, Colts’ opponents ran for over 200 yards, including a 1983-University-of-Nebraska-like 375 yards and four touchdowns by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the playoffs, Indy’s run defense stepped up and yielded just 82.8 yards per contest, less than half their average from the regular season. Overall, after surrendering 277 or more total yards in 15 of their 16 games that year, the Colts did so only once in four playoff contests.
9 Denver Broncos, Super Bowl 50
Back-to-back Peyton, but this appearance is squarely on him. In 2015, the Broncos gave up the fewest total yards and fourth-fewest points in football. As a team, they went 12-4 against a formidable schedule; Denver played seven of their 16 games against teams that wound up with 10 or more wins. Now that the good stuff is out of the way, let’s address the struggles on offense. The Bronco’s ranked 19th in points scored, as quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, combined for a 76.3 rating, the second-worst among the 32 NFL teams. They led the entire league in interceptions, throwing a pick on 3.8% of their attempts; only the Cowboys’ post-Romo collection of backups fared worse. In the playoffs, Denver eked out a pair of close wins over the Steelers and Patriots and then defeated the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl. It would be the final game of Manning’s career.
8 San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XXIII
In 1988, the 49ers played a lot of close games; seven of them were decided by a field goal or less. Four of their six losses came to teams that were .500 or worse, including a 17-point drubbing at home to Atlanta, who was 5-11. It just wasn’t a very dominant season for Montana and company. After beginning the year 6-5, though, they closed strong, getting four wins over the final five weeks to reach 10-6. While San Francisco was 10th in the NFL in passing yards, they led the NFC in rushing and finished with the seventh-most points in football. Their defense was also solid; only two teams gave up fewer total yards. But because of all their close games during the season, the Niners’ average margin of victory was just 4.7 points, which was fourth among the five NFC playoff teams. Once the postseason began, however, they turned things up, destroying the Vikings and Bears by a total score of 62-12. Then, in a tightly-contested Super Bowl against Cincinnati, Montana wrapped up the season by firing a 10-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining.
7 New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXVI
This was the game that birthed Tom Brady’s NFL career and the Patriots’ dynasty. Earlier in the season, starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, was injured against the New York Jets. Brady finished that game 5-10 for 46 yards and the Pats fell to 0-2. Of course, they then won 14 of their next 17 games, including a sweep of the postseason, to win the franchise’s first title. New England was fortunate, however; only five of their opponents were above .500 and their schedule ranked as the easiest in the entire league. Even so, they were just 20th in offensive yardage and 25th in total yards allowed on defense. The Pats’ average margin of victory was slightly skewed, as the team tied for the NFL lead in non-offensive touchdowns, with seven. As for the playoffs, they won a home game with Oakland via the Tuck Rule, escaped Pittsburgh with a seven-point win and then got a last-second 48-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri to defeat the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. Not a moment of this season was easy for New England, but it all worked out in the end.
6 Oakland Raiders, Super Bowl XV
In 1980, the Raiders became the first wild card team to win a Super Bowl since the 1969 Chiefs did so prior to the NFL-AFL merger. Oakland’s stats were fairly mediocre for an 11-5 team; their 3.6 average margin of victory that season was only the ninth-best in football. And they were just 17th in total yards offensively and 11th, defensively. The Raiders were highly volatile when it came to turnovers. Though their 44 giveaways were the third-most in the NFL, their 52 takeaways led all teams. This helped push Oakland to the top of the league with five defensive touchdowns. During their postseason run, they were a remarkable +10 in turnovers, which helped to offset the fact that they were outgained in three of the four contests. After giving up a late touchdown in a three-point loss to Philadelphia in Week 12, Oakland got their revenge two months later when they thumped the Eagles, 27-10 in the Super Bowl.
5 Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XXII
Because of a players’ strike, the 1987 NFL season included only 15 games, including three with replacement players. Obviously, a lot of luck was involved during the games in which each team’s regulars were not on the field. Washington managed to win all of those contests and received more good fortune via the low quality of the opponents on their schedule. They didn’t play a team that finished with a .500 or better record until the final two weeks of the season and by then, they were already 10-3. That was more than good enough to win a division that lacked a second quality team. The Skins were much better offensively (third in the league in yardage) than on defense (19th). They opened the playoffs on the road and stunned the favored Bears, 21-17. Washington caught a break when the top seeded, 13-2 49ers were ousted by the 8-7 Vikings, setting up a home playoff game for them, which they won, 17-10. Then, after falling behind by 10 points to the Broncos in the Super Bowl, the Redskins famously scored five touchdowns – in the second quarter alone. They had only posted 35 points once all season prior to that day.
4 New York Giants, Super Bowl XLII
Many football fans rank this game as the greatest Super Bowl to date. There were five lead changes. It had the “Helmet Catch,” perhaps the most famous grab in The Big Game’s history. And of course, it resulted in a monumental upset. The New England Patriots entered the game having won all 16 regular season games and both AFC playoff contests. Looking to become the first 19-0 team ever in the NFL, they would just have to get past the 10-6 Giants, who had limped into the playoffs, having won just four of their final eight games. New York outscored their opponents by just 1.4 points that season and weren’t particularly strong on either side of the ball. They were 14th in yardage on offense and 7th on defense. The Giants were in the bottom third of the league in both takeaways and giveaways and finished with a minus-9 differential. The Pats, on the other hand, did just about everything well. They scored the most points ever by an NFL team (since eclipsed by the 2013 Broncos) and even led the league in opponents’ starting field position. During the Super Bowl, New York’s defense pressured quarterback Tom Brady all game long, resulting in New England’s lowest point total all year. The Giants emerged from the game victorious, 17-14, on a late touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress.
3 Baltimore Ravens, Super Bowl XLVII
Though they won their division via a tiebreaker over the Cincinnati Bengals, the 2012 Ravens had just the fifth-best record in their own conference. They ranked a mediocre 16th in both offensive and defensive yardage. When Baltimore had the ball, they didn’t really excel at anything, finishing outside the top 10 in both passing and rushing yards. The Ravens played seven regular season games that were decided by three points or fewer, with a record of 5-2 in those contests, which helped explain why they only managed the 11th-best margin of victory across the league. They opened the postseason at home with a win against an overrated 11-5 Colts team that had been outscored on the year, despite playing the NFL’s easiest schedule, statistically. Next, Baltimore defeated a heavily-favored Broncos team on the road in overtime and then shut out New England, 21-0, in the second half at Foxboro a week later to advance to the Super Bowl.
2 New York Giants, Super Bowl XLVI
In a rematch of Super Bowl XLII (#4 above), neither the Giants nor the Patriots were as strong this time around. Despite winning their division, New York was just 9-7 and is the only team on this list to have been outscored over the course of its season. And New England, of course, was not undefeated. But the outcome was the same: the Giants scored the game’s final 12 points to pull out the fourth Super Bowl win in franchise history. During the season, New York ranked ninth and 25th in points for and against, respectively. Though they were also fourth in the entire league in passing yards, they were dead last with just 1,427 yards on the ground. On defense, the Giants yielded the sixth-most yards in the NFL; basically, they couldn’t stop anybody until, of course, the games mattered most. In the first round of the playoffs, New York shut down Atlanta, allowing only a safety, and then held the highest-scoring team in the league, Green Bay, to just 20 points on the road. After sneaking past S.F., they then held the Pats to 17 points on the game’s biggest stage.
1 Baltimore Colts, Super Bowl V
In 1970, the Colts were the #1 seed in the AFC, so they seem to be an unlikely candidate to top this list of worst Super Bowl champions. A closer look at their 11-2-1 mark, however, reveals their record was highly misleading. Baltimore played an absurdly soft schedule (.353 winning percentage); a remarkable eight out of 14 contests were against teams that were at least six games under .500. Their own division consisted of themselves, Miami and three franchises that went a dismal 2-16 against teams outside the AFC East that year. Baltimore also played three games against NFC clubs, but while that conference was littered with strong teams (six had at least nine wins, compared with just two in the AFC), the ones they faced all had losing records. Among their questionable outcomes that year, they tied the 3-10-1 Bills and beat the Chargers, Oilers, Packers and Bears by a total of 10 points, despite their collective 20-32-4 record. Though they trailed by a touchdown at the half during the Super Bowl, they outscored the Cowboys, 10-0, in the fourth quarter to win their first championship since 1959.