Perhaps the 41 best sports documentaries ever made came from NFL Films in its “America’s Game” series featuring the NFL’s Super Bowl champions. Now, according to the Houston Chronicle, NFL Films plans to profile five non-champions in similar fashion.
According to the Chronicle, a five-episode series called “Missing Rings” will highlight five teams that couldn’t win the big one. Those include two Minnesota Vikings’ squads — the 1969 NFL champs which lost to Kansas City in Super Bowl IV — and the 1998 Vikings which finished the regular season 15-1 but lost the NFC title to Atlanta in OT. Other teams profiled include the 1990 Buffalo Bills, which lost to the N.Y. Giants on a last-second field goal; the 1981 San Diego Chargers, which lost in the AFC title game at frigid Cincinnati; and the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals that lost to San Francisco on a last-second drive.
It’s possible that those documentaries set to air this fall will be even better than the “America’s Game” series. History books are written by the winners. The same holds true for NFL highlight films. Often, the better stories come from the losers.
The upcoming series also got me thinking about the 12 best teams never to win the Super Bowl. Here are my choices:
12. 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers — After finishing 15-1 during the regular season, the Steelers needed OT to beat the Jets in the divisional round before stumbling to New England at home in the AFC title game. The Steelers had it all, including rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger, but he was no match for New England’s defensive experience.
11. 1986 Chicago Bears — The Bears finished 14-2 in the regular season, a not-too-shabby follow-up from its 18-1 Super Bowl season. But in-fighting and a major quarterback controversy kept the team from reaching its potential. It boiled over after QB Jim McMahon and his right shoulder were KO’d on a cheap shot from Packers defensive lineman Charles Martin. Coach Mike Ditka inexplicably chose rookie Doug Flutie to start a playoff game against Washington, which the Bears lost 27-13. Flutie threw three interceptions.
10. 2006 San Diego Chargers — The Chargers were the NFL’s most complete team that season, finishing the regular season 14-2. But in a monumental slugfest against New England, bad luck struck when a fourth-down interception by Marlon McCree appeared to seal the win. McCree was stripped by New England’s Troy Brown, who recovered the fumble, giving the Patriots a first down. New England later scored twice to win the game and knock out the league’s top scoring team.
9. 1990 Buffalo Bills — Three teams dominated the 1990 season (the 13-3 Bills, the 13-3 Super Bowl champion Giants and the 14-2 49ers). The Bills had the best team of the three and entered the Super Bowl off a 51-3 blitzkrieg of the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC title game. Had Scott Norwood’s 47-yard FG attempt moved slightly to the left with a 22-20 Bills’ win, the Giants might hold this position instead.
8. 2005 Indianapolis Colts — After a 13-0 start, the Colts were threatening the 1972 Dolphins’ hold as the only unbeaten team in history. But the Colts put their season in overdrive in December, losing two of their final three regular-season games. Then the Steelers’ ferocious defense backhanded the Colts in their AFC playoff matchup, 21-18.
7. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers — After starting 1-4, the Steelers won their final nine regular-season games. The Steel Curtain defense was astounding, allowing only 28 points and two touchdowns during their win streak. The Steelers blasted Baltimore 40-14 in the divisional playoffs before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland 24-7 when their three top running backs were injured.
6. 1994 Dallas Cowboys — It’s easy to forget how good the early 1990s battles were between San Francisco and Dallas. The 12-4 Cowboys were the two-time champs and had beaten the 49ers twice en route to Super Bowl titles. This time, Dallas fell behind 21-0 to San Francisco in the NFC title game. The Cowboys fought in vain before losing their three-peat chances, 38-28. It was the third straight season the teams had met in the NFC championship with the victor also winning the Super Bowl. Dallas rallied to win the Super Bowl the following season.
5. 1968 Baltimore Colts — The 13-1 Colts scored 28 points and gave up 10 on average that season. The Colts avenged their only loss to Cleveland with a 34-0 win in the NFL title game. So what happened? The heavily favored Colts ran into the supremely confident Joe Namath and the N.Y. Jets in Super Bowl III and fell apart. It was the greatest upset in NFL history.
4. 1983 Washington Redskins — The Redskins’ (14-2) only losses came by a combined two points. They led the league with nearly 34 points a game. John Riggins scored a then-NFL record 24 touchdowns. But they played flat against the Los Angeles Raiders in the Super Bowl and committed errors of every kind in a 38-9 loss. But if you still ask Coach Joe Gibbs or quarterback Joe Theismann about their best team, it’s always the 1983 version, not the 1982 Super Bowl Redskins.
3. 1978 Dallas Cowboys — The greatest Super Bowl matchup in NFL history pitted the defending champion Cowboys (12-4) against the 14-2 Pittsburgh Steelers. The game ultimately ended the argument about the decade’s greatest team and possibly history’s best dynasty. After trading touchdowns through the third quarter, tight end Jackie Smith’s dropped touchdown pass cost Dallas four points (the Cowboys kicked a field goal instead), which proved fatal in a 35-31 loss. Five Cowboys from that game (QB Roger Staubach, RB Tony Dorsett, OT Rayfield Wright, DT Randy White and Smith) are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It’s a shame a few others like safety Cliff Harris or wide receiver Drew Pearson aren’t there with them.
2. 1998 Minnesota Vikings — Nobody stopped the 15-1 Vikings during the regular season. The Vikings set an NFL record 556 points and scored at least 24 points in every game. The Vikings were led by rookie wide receiver Randy Moss, who scored 17 touchdowns. But the Vikings couldn’t put away the 14-2 Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game. Late in the fourth quarter, Minnesota led 27-20 and kicker Gary Anderson attempted a field goal. Anderson shanked the field goal, his only miss the entire season. Atlanta regrouped and scored to force the game into OT, which it eventually won. The loss shocked everyone in the NFL, including the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. In NFL Films’ “America’s Game,” Denver Coach Mike Shanahan couldn’t help but giggling relay to his coaches that the Falcons had won. Denver nearly lost its own title game and trailed by 10 points at halftime, in part because of Minnesota’s shocking loss.
1. 2007 New England Patriots — The best team ever … until 30 seconds left in the final game. The 18-0 Patriots simply ran out of steam and answers against the N.Y. Giants. The Patriots had immortality on the line and blew it. New England scored a whopping 589 points, winning every game but four by double digits. QB Tom Brady threw 50 TDs; Randy Moss caught 23 TDs. But New York’s front four kept the Patriots’ offense off-guard, and the Patriots never adjusted. When a late touchdown pass from Brady to Moss seemed to put New England ahead to stay, the Patriots defense couldn’t stop Giants QB Eli Manning. Manning’s touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 30 seconds left sealed the Pats’ fate as the best team to never win the Super Bowl. Had the Pats held a 14-10 lead, they’d be No. 1 on the real list.
Others worth mentioning: 1987 San Francisco 49ers (13-2 in strike year); 1990 San Francisco 49ers (14-2); 1984 Miami Dolphins (14-2); 1996 Denver Broncos (13-3); 1974 Oakland Raiders (12-2); 1975 Minnesota Vikings (12-2); 1988 Cincinnati Bengals (12-4); 2001 St. Louis Rams (14-2)