We’re a little more than a week away from the NFL crowning its 57th Super Bowl champion, obviously rarefied air considering the immortal teams that have accomplished it … and also while ruminating on some of those that fell short on Super Sunday or fell short of Super Sunday entirely.
And that leads you to veer into some thought-proving “what if” territory, specifically when pondering which are the best single-season teams that didn’t qualify for the big game. It’s an exercise in reminiscence and appreciation for some fantastic squads that have faded over time yet may trigger melancholy for fans who haven’t forgotten.
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So, regarding the Super Bowl era, which began in 1966, these are the teams I rank as the 16 best (listed in ascending order) which didn’t earn their opportunity to play for the Lombardi Trophy:
16. 2021 Buffalo Bills (lost divisional round)
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This franchise has been in existence for 63 star-crossed seasons and hasn’t won a championship since its days in the American Football League. But this crew’s +194 point differential is easily the best in Buffalo’s history. Led by QB Josh Allen and the NFL’s top-ranked defense, they defeated the Patriots 47-17 in the wild-card round before falling in overtime to the Kansas City Chiefs the following weekend. After a back-and-forth classic that was among the best in playoff history, Allen and Co. lost the coin flip and never touched the ball in OT, necessitating a rule change for subsequent postseasons.
15. 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars (lost AFC championship game)
Easily the best team in the Jags’ brief history, the top-seeded AFC Central champs were 0-3 against the Tennessee Titans that year, but 15-0 against everyone else – including a 62-7 playoff runaway from the Miami Dolphins in QB Dan Marino’s final game.
14. 1981 San Diego Chargers (lost AFC championship game)
Defensively challenged? Sure. But no team of the Don Coryell era put up points more relentlessly. With Pro Bowl RB Chuck Muncie behind him, Hall of Fame QB Dan Fouts threw to a trio of 1,000-yard receivers, and the Bolts averaged 29.9 points in the regular season. Had the AFC title bout, aka the “Freezer Bowl,” not been played in Cincinnati’s minus-59 wind chill, these Chargers might have given San Diego an elusive Super Bowl breakthrough.
13. 1973 Los Angeles Rams (lost divisional round)
They outscored the opposition by 210 points in the regular season, the highest differential by any of 56 LA Rams teams. The best from the Chuck Knox era, these Rams featured the league’s No. 1 overall offense and defense and were led by All-Pro QB John Hadl but lost their playoff opener to Roger Staubach’s Cowboys by 11 points.
12. 1968 Dallas Cowboys (lost divisional round)
Probably the most dominant regular-season team in franchise history, their margin of victory in the regular season exceeded three touchdowns. But a top-ranked offense that averaged 31 points during the season only managed 20 in a one-and-done postseason defeat to the Cleveland Browns.
11. 2011 Green Bay Packers (lost divisional round)
QB Aaron Rodgers reached full-blown superstardom in his first MVP season, leading the defending champions to a 13-0 start. But after a franchise-best 15-1 regular season, Green Bay lost at Lambeau Field in a 37-20 playoff flameout against the New York Giants – the start of a long string of postseason disappointments for Rodgers.
10. 2006 San Diego Chargers (lost divisional round)
MVP LaDainian Tomlinson led the Bolts to a franchise record 14-2 regular season, LT piling up a single-season record 31 TDs. But the ride ended in frustration with a playoff loss to the Patriots, Tomlinson angrily storming off the turf feeling New England players disrespectfully celebrated on the Chargers’ midfield logo … and probably equally peeved about S Marlon McCree’s boneheaded fumble after intercepting Tom Brady on fourth-and-5 midway through the fourth quarter.
9. 1975 Minnesota Vikings (lost divisional round)
Perhaps league MVP Fran Tarkenton’s best team, the Vikes started 10-0 on their way to the NFC Central title. But the “Purple People Eaters” exited the playoffs in jaw-dropping fashion, victimized by Staubach’s famous 50-yard “Hail Mary” TD to Drew Pearson in sub-freezing temperatures at Minnesota’s old Metropolitan Stadium.
8. 2011 New Orleans Saints (lost divisional round)
QB Drew Brees fired off 46 TD passes and a then-record 5,476 passing yards for, by the numbers anyway, what was New Orleans’ best team (franchise-record 547 points and 208-point differential to go with 13-3 ledger). The club was largely overshadowed by the 15-1 Packers in 2011 but had a much better – if more heartbreaking – postseason, losing a 36-32 barnburner at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. TE Vernon Davis snagged the game-winning TD pass from Alex Smith with 9 seconds left.
7. 1968 Oakland Raiders (lost AFL championship game)
Statistically, the reigning AFL champs stacked up better when compared to the famed ’68 Jets, whom Oakland beat that year in the infamous “Heidi Game.” But unlike New York, the Raiders were forced to endure a Western Division playoff against a stout Chiefs team. Namath and Co. eked out the playoff rematch with the Raiders at Shea Stadium the following Sunday before pulling off their legendary Super Bowl stunner over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.
6. 2005 Indianapolis Colts (lost divisional round)
This had the look of a history-making squad after its dominant 13-0 start. The Colts’ 14 wins and +192 point differential represent the heights of their tenure in Indianapolis and peak regular-season performance during the Peyton Manning era. But Indy lost three of its final four – coach Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide during that stretch – the final blow coming when K Mike Vanderjagt shanked a game-tying field-goal attempt in the final seconds of a 21-18 home playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
5. 2012 New England Patriots (lost AFC championship game)
Only New England’s ’07 team – the one that went 16-0 in the regular season – had a higher point differential in franchise history than this group, which outscored the opposition by 226 points. But Brady and Co. got their doors blown off 28-13 at home in an AFC title rematch against the Ravens.
4. 2019 Baltimore Ravens (lost divisional round)
Easily the greatest regular-season edition of a franchise that’s almost always in playoff contention, the AFC’s top-seeded team featured a record 13 Pro Bowlers and won a club record 14 games with a margin of victory averaging nearly three TDs. Led by league MVP Lamar Jackson – he rushed for 1,206 yards, a record among quarterbacks, and passed for 36 TDs – Baltimore racked up an NFL single-season record 3,296 rushing yards and ended the season on a 12-game winning streak. But it all went up in smoke in the playoff opener, when Baltimore was stunned 28-12 by the wild card Titans.
3. 1992 San Francisco 49ers (lost NFC championship game)
With legendary QB Joe Montana mothballed, Steve Young finally blossomed – throwing a league-high 25 TDs while earning his first league MVP award and leading the Niners to a 14-2 finish. Probably the best San Francisco team not to win the Super Bowl after coming up short against the “Triplets” Cowboys for the NFC crown.
2. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers (lost AFC championship game)
There’s never been a Super Bowl three-peat, but they almost pulled it off despite losing QB Terry Bradshaw for a chunk of the season and, worse, seeing both their 1,000-yard rushers (Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier) injured in the divisional round of the playoffs. Still, an argument to be made that this was the best team of the Steel Curtain era, the defense blanking five opponents and allowing fewer than 10 points per game.
1. 1998 Vikings (lost NFC championship game)
They went 15-1 in the regular season, posted a then-record 556 points and struck fear into opponents with Hall of Fame WRs Cris Carter and Randy Moss – then a breakout rookie – catching passes from All-Pro QB Randall Cunningham. However, All-Pro K Gary Anderson’s infamous wayward FG, the only kick he missed all season, opened the door for an Atlanta Falcons’ overtime upset in the NFC title game. The Vikes’ loss aborted what projected as one of the all-time championship matchups against the Denver Broncos, who rolled over the Falcons in Super Bowl 33 to successfully defend their crown in QB John Elway’s final game.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.