For every NFL season, each team has the same goal of reaching the Super Bowl and getting a shot at winning the illustrious Vince Lombardi trophy. If there is ever any team that says this is not their goal for the year, they are really bad at lying.
Throughout the history of the league, there have been a number of teams that seemed all but guaranteed to make it to that season’s Super Bowl based on the year they had. But for some strange reason, the team’s dreams of a championship are ruined and they are unable to make it to the NFL’s big game.
Then there have been a bunch of teams that appeared in a Super Bowl despite not being among the league’s best for that particular season. Most of those teams eventually learned that they may have been a bit in over their heads about the possibility of winning a championship.
Below, we take a closer look at some of the best team’s in the NFL’s history that were unable to get to the Super Bowl, as well as some of the teams that appeared in the league’s championship game and never had a chance to win as soon as they set foot on the field.
15 The BEST To Never Make It
8. 1998 Minnesota Vikings
The 1998 NFL regular season could not have gone any better for the Vikings. They won a franchise record, 15 games, lead the league in points per game with 34.8, drafted a rookie wide receiver in Randy Moss that tore up the league, and had a kicker in Gary Anderson that made every single field goal that he attempted that year.
Minnesota began that season’s playoffs by easily defeating the Arizona Cardinals 41-21 in the Divisional round. All the Vikings needed to do was win one more game and they would be making plans to travel to Miami to play in Super Bowl XXXIII.
But Minnesota ended up falling 30-27 to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship and their dream season had come to an abrupt end. The Falcons went on to lose to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl and the Vikings were just left wondering what could have been.
14 2011 Green Bay Packers
A year after they were hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy on the Super Bowl XLV podium after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Packers began the 2011 regular season with 13 straight victories. Everything seemed to be lining up for Green Bay to make their second straight Super Bowl appearance.
The team really could not be stopped. On offense, the Packers scored an astounding 560 total points (currently third all-time for a single-season in the NFL) and on defense Green Bay forced an average of 2.4 turnovers per game.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was named the league’s MVP after a monster year and he was voted to the Pro Bowl along with six other Packers teammates.
It was indeed a dream season for Green Bay in 2011, except for that part where they lost at home to the 9-7 New York Giants in the Divisional round of the playoffs. The Packers could not recover from a 20-10 deficit to the Giants at halftime and eventually lost the game 37-20.
At least Green Bay could say they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions that year, right?
13 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers
After losing 30-13 to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2, no one could have envisioned that the Steelers would go on to win all 14 of their remaining 2004 regular season games. Especially not with a rookie quarterback under center.
In his very first NFL season, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was thrown into the team’s starting role after an injury to Tommy Maddox during that Week 2 loss to the Ravens. Of course the Steelers were hoping for big things from Roethlisberger when they selected him with their first round draft pick (11th overall) in 2004. But not even Pittsburgh probably expected the rookie to help lead the team to one of their best regular seasons in the franchise’s history.
The Steelers entered the 2004 playoffs with a 15-1 record, home field advantage, and the league’s top ranked defense. What could go wrong?
Pittsburgh avoided a scare in their first playoff game against the New York Jets, winning 20-17, but they could not avoid the road block to the Super Bowl known as the New England Patriots.
Despite playing in front of a raucous home crowd, it just was not the Steelers day when they faced the Patriots in the AFC Championship. New England jumped out to a 24-3 lead in the second quarter and never looked back, eventually winning 41-27.
But do not feel bad for Pittsburgh, they hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy at the end of the very next season.
12 1986 Chicago Bears
Everyone knows about the 1985 Bears and their iconic defense. But not too many are aware that Chicago’s defense during the following season was even better.
Coming off the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory in 1985, the Bears were focused on ending the year on top of the NFL once again. After a 6-0 start to the season, it seemed like they were well on their way.
Chicago would go on to win 14 games in 1986 despite starting four different players at quarterback throughout the year (Mike Tomczak, Jim McMahon, Steve Fuller, and Doug Flutie). They entered the playoffs tied with the New York Giants for the best record in the NFC that season and a second round matchup with the Washington Redskins was their first step toward a second straight Super Bowl appearance.
But the Redskins had other ideas and upset the Bears 27-13 in front of Chicago’s home crowd. The Bears went on to make the playoffs in four of their next five seasons, but none of them ended with a trip to the Super Bowl.
11 2005 Indianapolis Colts
13 games into the year, the Colts were feeling pretty invincible and they should have. Yet to suffer a loss all season, Indianapolis was the obvious favorite to represent the AFC in the upcoming Super Bowl.
Led by an explosive offense that featured Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, and Reggie Wayne among others, the Colts had the fire power to keep up with any team in the league that year. Add in a defense that gave up the second fewest points per game in the NFL and Indianapolis surely had the recipe for a successful season.
But the Colts ended up losing two of their final three regular season games and some doubts about the team began to arise as they prepared for the playoffs.
Those doubts ended up being for good reason as the team’s year was suddenly cut short after a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the AFC playoffs. The game was, and still is, one of the most exciting playoff games in the league’s history, but a last second missed field goal to tie the game prevented the Colts from continuing that season’s Super Bowl journey.
The Steelers would go on to win that year’s Super Bowl and Indianapolis was left watching the game at home, just like the rest of America.
10 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars
In just their fifth season of existence, the Jaguars had a year their fans will probably never forget. Despite their short amount of time in the NFL (inaugural season was in 1995) Jacksonville made the league’s postseason in four of the franchise’s first five years.
By far they were not the flashiest of teams in 1999, but the Jaguars just found ways to win games. Well, having that season’s best defense in the NFL (13.6 points against per game) did not hurt either.
In eight of their 16 games, Jacksonville held their opponents to just seven points or less. They finished the year with a total of 57 sacks and the Jaguars’ defense held their opponents to a measly 181 passing yards per game.
Despite their success, which included a streak of 11 wins in a row, there was one team that managed to figure out the formula to defeat Jacksonville in 1999.
The Tennessee Titans.
For whatever reason, the Jaguars could not figure out a way to beat the Titans that year. During the regular season Jacksonville’s only two losses came courtesy of Tennessee and their eventual playoff exit came after a loss to, you guessed it, the Titans.
9 1996 Denver Broncos
This was going to be the year for quarterback John Elway and the Broncos. The year where the franchise would finally finish the season on the winning podium with orange and blue confetti falling everywhere after a Super Bowl win.
Denver was led by a top ranked rushing offense and a stout run defense in 1996. Running back Terrell Davis led the AFC in rushing with 1,538 yards on the ground and Elway could finally feel like he did not have to carry the Broncos’ offense for once.
Their defense featured a number of talented players including Tyrone Braxton (led league with nine interceptions), Steve Atwater, Bill Romanowski, and John Mobley. Denver held their opponents to under 100 rushing yards in eight of their 16 games that season.
The Broncos entered the playoffs as the clear favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. However, someone forgot to mention that to the Jacksonville Jaguars who ended up beating Denver 30-27 in the second round of the postseason.
It is an outcome that is still one of the greatest playoff upsets in NFL history, but one that almost every Broncos fan has done their best to erase from their memory.
8 1992 San Francisco 49ers
A team full of future hall of famers, including Steve Young, Joe Montana, and Jerry Rice among others, seemed primed to make their third Super Bowl appearance in five years in 1992. The 49ers knew that Montana’s time with the team was coming to a close, so what better way to send him off than with another Super Bowl win?
After starting the year 1-1, San Francisco went on to win 13 of their final 14 games. During those 14 games, the 49ers scored under 20 points just twice and their average margin of victory was almost 13 points per game.
In his second season as San Francisco’s starting quarterback, Steve Young scored 29 total touchdowns and helped lead the team in becoming the NFL’s top ranked scoring offense. Combined with a defense that was giving up under 15 points per game to their opponents, the 49ers seemed to have everything necessary for another Super Bowl run.
San Francisco finished as the top seed in the NFC heading into the playoffs thanks to an eight game winning streak to end the year.
After defeating the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins in their first playoff game, all the 49ers had to do was beat the Dallas Cowboys and they could punch their ticket for Super Bowl XXVII in their home state of California. But the Cowboys were that season’s up and coming team in the NFC and one of the few teams that had an actual chance of knocking off San Francisco.
Unfortunately for the 49ers and their fans, that is exactly what happened. Thanks to forcing four San Francisco turnovers during the game, Dallas was able to beat the 49ers 30-20 and end their hopes of another Super bowl appearance.
7 The WORST To Make It
7. 2008 Arizona Cardinals
Having missed the playoffs for nine straight years, it is very hard to imagine that anyone could have predicted that the Cardinals would make it all the way to the Super Bowl in 2008.
Arizona began the season with a 7-3 record, but they would then go on to lose four of their final six games and barley slide into the playoffs. But sometimes, getting into the playoffs is just enough to ignite a spark under a team to get them all the way to the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals finished the year with the league’s worst rushing offense. Running back Edgerrin James led the team with just 514 yards despite only starting seven games during the season.
Luckily for Arizona, their 37-year-old quarterback in Kurt Warner had one more good year of play left in him. Warner threw a touchdown in 15 of his 16 starts in 2008 and finished the season throwing for 30 touchdowns and over 4,500 passing yards.
After defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game, the Cardinals were set to compete in their very first Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Arizona’s luck in the playoffs ran out in the most important game as they fell to the Steelers 27-23.
6 1985 New England Patriots
Hard to believe, but before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick came along, the Patriots actually appeared in two Super Bowls. One of those came in 1985 against the Chicago Bears.
In his first full season with the team, head coach Raymond Berry led New England to their very first Super Bowl appearance in the history of the franchise.
The Patriots were able to make it to the big game despite finishing the regular season with more interceptions on offense than passing touchdowns. New England also had to win three playoff games on the road in order to even get to the Super Bowl.
But thanks to their defense generating 16 turnovers in their three AFC playoff games, the Patriots made it all the way to Super Bowl XX in New Orleans to face the Bears. Seven sacks and six turnovers later, New England found themselves on the other end of a 46-10 blowout loss to Chicago.
Little did they know, Brady and Belichick would come along years later and lead the Patriots to their first Super Bowl win in 2001 and help everyone forget about the disaster against the Bears.
5 1989 Denver Broncos
After two Super Bowl losses in 1986 and 1987, the Broncos had found themselves back in the big game for the third time in the last four years. The third time had to be the charm right?
Not so much.
Before John Elway evolved into the quarterback that would eventually land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he really was just an average signal caller. The 1989 season was no different, as Elway finished the year completing just 53.6 percent of his passes to go along with his 18 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions.
But Denver did not need Elway to do anything above and beyond that season as they rode their top ranked defense all the way to the Super Bowl. A common saying among football historians is that defense wins championships, so the Broncos figured they would have a decent shot at beating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV.
However, by halftime the 49ers had already jumped out to a 27-3 lead and they never looked back on their way to the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl title, defeating Denver 55-10. The Broncos did not even score a touchdown until they were down 41-3 in the third quarter.
It was incredibly hard to watch for Denver’s fans, who now wondered if their team would ever win a Super Bowl.
4 1994 San Diego Chargers
Despite losing three of their final six regular season games in 1994, the Chargers ended up in the playoffs as the AFC’s second best team.
Halfway through their first playoff game, San Diego found themselves down 21-6 to the Miami Dolphins. But the Chargers scored 16 unanswered points in the second half and got the 22-21 win over the Dolphins to move onto the AFC Championship against the top seeded Pittsburgh Steelers.
Once again, San Diego trailed at the half to the Steelers 10-3. But once again, the Chargers found a way to score 14 points in the second half and eventually beat Pittsburgh 17-13 to earn the franchise’s first and only appearance in the Super Bowl.
It seemed as though San Diego was riding on fumes heading into Super Bowl XXIX against the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers were favored to win the game by 19 points and that point spread apparently should have been much larger as they won the game 49-26.
For the third straight playoff game the Chargers trailed after two quarters. This time the score read 28-10 in favor of the 49ers heading into the locker room at the half.
Not even a Disney-themed halftime show could provide San Diego with enough magic to come back from from a halftime deficit for the third straight game. San Francisco proved to be too powerful and eventually turned the Chargers’ very first Super Bowl appearance into their very first Super Bowl loss.
3 1979 Los Angeles Rams
Before the Arizona Cardinals made the Super Bowl in 2008, the Rams of 1979 were the very first team to make it to the big game despite finishing the regular season with a 9-7 record. Even though they only scored 14 more total points than they gave up, Los Angeles still found a way to get to the Super Bowl.
11 games into the year, the Rams found themselves at 5-6 and had a very small chance at earning a postseason berth. But Los Angeles ended up winning four of their final five games and snuck into the playoffs.
Luck really had to be on the side of the Rams in 1979, because they definitely did not reach the Super Bowl with an explosive offense or an amazing defense. Turning the ball on offense a total of 49 times like Los Angeles did that year is not usually what someone would include in a winning formula.
In their Super Bowl XIV matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Rams were actually leading 13-10 after two quarters. But their string of playoff luck eventually ran out as the Steelers outscored them 21-6 in the second half en route to a 31-19 victory.
2 1992 Buffalo Bills
This may be hard for anyone born after the year 2000 to believe, but the Bills actually used to make the playoffs. Buffalo has not made the postseason for the past 16 years. Before that the Bills made the playoffs 10 times from 1988 to 1999.
In 1992, Buffalo was coming off two straight seasons that ended with Super Bowl losses. The Bills stormed off to a 9-2 record and seemed poised to not only make the Super Bowl for the third straight year, but actually win it this time.
However, Buffalo ended up losing three of their final five games and they lost quarterback Jim Kelly to a knee injury in the team’s final regular season game against the Houston Oilers. If the Bills were going to make it to the Super Bowl again, it was going to be with the help of backup quarterback Frank Reich.
Kelly was able to return to Buffalo for the team’s AFC Championship matchup with the Miami Dolphins, in which the Bills won 29-10 and earned their third straight Super Bowl appearance. The only team standing in the way of Buffalo and their dreams of a Vince Lombardi trophy were the Dallas Cowboys.
Bills running back Thurman Thomas scored the first touchdown of Super Bowl XXVII against the Cowboys and it seemed like maybe Buffalo could actually pull this off.
However, after Thomas’ touchdown, Dallas outscored the Bills 52-10 during the remainder of the game. The Cowboys ended up winning 52-17 and Buffalo was left looking like they did not even deserve to share the same field as Dallas.
1 1996 New England Patriots
Hopefully a giant thank you card was sent to Jacksonville Jaguars after the 1996 season because their playoff upset of the Denver Broncos is arguably what allowed the Patriots to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXI against the Green Bay Packers.
New England took advantage of a weakened AFC playoff bracket after the Broncos’ loss and turned it into the franchise’s second ever appearance in the Super Bowl. Instead of having to travel and face a tough opponent on the road, the Patriots had the luxury of playing both of their playoff games in front of their home crowd.
But New England would quickly learn why the Packers were favored by 14 points in their end of the year matchup.
In the same stadium where the franchise suffered a brutal 46-10 loss to the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX, the Patriots hoped that there would be a different outcome this time against Green Bay. But their hopes did not turn into reality as the Packers defeated New England 35-21 and reminded everyone watching why the Patriots were lucky to even be playing in the game.