The 20 Most Devastating Super Bowl Losses Ever
by Alexander Chester
Honorable Mention: Super Bowl LII: Philadelphia 41 New England 33
The Eagles had thought their season was over when Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending injury in December, but Nick Foles’ dominant performance against the Vikings in the NFC Championship gave the Eagles hope. But they were still 4.5-point underdogs in their latest attempt to win their first Super Bowl, against the same team that had broken their hearts in their previous Super Bowl appearance 13 years earlier.
The Eagles jumped to a 15–3 lead in the first quarter, and they led 22–12 headed into halftime after pulling off the Philly Special on fourth down in the last minute of the half. The teams continued to score back and forth in the second half, but the Eagles maintained the lead until the Patriots scored to go ahead 33–32 with just under ten minutes remaining (the difference being a missed Jake Elliott extra point on Philly’s first touchdown of the game). But the Eagles responded with a 14-play seven-minute drive that resulted in the go-ahead touchdown with 2:21 remaining. A missed two-point conversion meant that if Tom Brady could lead the Patriots into the end zone one more time, the Patriots would win. And given that Brady was unstoppable all game, ending with a ludicrous 505 passing yards, everyone watching assumed that was exactly what would happen next.
The shocking strip-sack of Brady on the second play of the Patriots drive sent Philadelphia into delirium. But with the two-minute warning and one timeout remaining, if New England could hold Philly to a three-and-out and field goal attempt, they’d be guaranteed to get the ball back still within one score with about a minute to play. That’s exactly what happened, and after Elliott hit a 46-yard field goal, the Eagles kicked off with 1:05 remaining. The Patriots attempted a reverse on the kickoff return, which backfired, and forced Brady to start the drive from his own nine yard line. He made it to midfield before the clock ran out.
Had Brady pulled off the miracle, this Eagles loss would be in the top five of this list. But it’s hard to consider it too devastating for the Patriots, who already had five rings with this regime.
20. Super Bowl IV: Kansas City 23 Minnesota 7
After the previous season (see #10 below) the oddsmakers were trying to be more careful. Still, Minnesota was a historically good team (winning their games by an average score of 27–10) and the AFL still wasn’t taken too seriously. The spread was 12. But it was even less close than the previous year. The Chiefs matriculated the ball down the field all over the Vikings, taking a 16–0 lead at halftime, and holding on for the win.
19. Super Bowl IX: Pittsburgh 16 Minnesota 6
The Vikings lost the Super Bowl in 1969 and 1973. In 1974 they faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first Super Bowl appearance. The Vikings had been heavy favorites against the Chiefs in ’69 and underdogs against the Dolphins (who were on a 31–2 streak entering that game) in ’73, but the ’74 matchup was much closer. On the season the Vikings had scored exactly five more points than the Steelers and allowed exactly six more, so the teams were nearly even, and Pittsburgh was a slight three-point favorite. It would turn out to be one of the ugliest Super Bowls ever.
The Super Bowl was supposed to take place in the brand-new Superdome, but when it wasn’t ready in time, the game was moved to Tulane Stadium, the scene of the crime for the Vikings’ first Super Bowl loss. A storm left the Tulane field waterlogged, windy, and cold, which only emphasized expectations for a defensive battle between the Steel Curtain and the Purple People Eaters. Indeed, the Vikings would have just 102 yards passing and the Steelers just 84. But while the Vikings would run for just 17 yards, the Steelers gained 249 yards on the ground. The Steelers also forced five Vikings turnovers, against just two for Pittsburgh.
The first half was especially defensive, with the only points coming on a Pittsburgh safety when a Fran Tarkenton lateral was fumbled. The second half started even worse for the Vikings. Steelers kicker Roy Gerela slipped on the opening kickoff, but Bill Brown fumbled the ball, handing it to the Steelers, who quickly scored, making it 9–0. That was the score early in the fourth quarter when Steelers safety Mike Wagner was flagged for a 42-yard pass interference penalty, giving the Vikings first and goal from the five. But Chuck Foreman fumbled on the very next play, giving the ball back to Pittsburgh. But then the Steelers went three-and-out, and the Vikings blocked the Pittsburgh punt and recovered it in the end zone, making it 9–6 (they missed the extra point).
The Steelers got the ball back with ten minutes remaining and engineered the only sustained drive of the game. That drive included the longest play of the game, a 30-yard pass to tight end Larry Brown, who fumbled as he was tackled, giving the Vikings the ball back. But the officials changed the call, ruling that Brown was down before the ball came out. Shortly thereafter Bradshaw found Brown for a four-yard touchdown that gave the Steelers a 16–6 lead with three-and-a-half minutes remaining. Wagner intercepted Tarkenton on the Vikings’ first play after the kickoff, and the game was sealed.
For the Steelers, this was the start of a dynasty that would win four Super Bowls in the next six years. The worst franchise through the first half century of NFL history would arguably be the best franchise in the next half century, with a total of six Super Bowl rings. Coupled with Pirates World Series titles in 1971 and 1979, Pittsburgh dubbed itself the City of Champions in the 1970s. The Vikings, meanwhile, would make it to the Super Bowl two years later, losing once more to fall to 0–4 in the big game. They haven’t been back since.
18. Super Bowl XVII: Washington 27 Miami 17
1982 was one of the strangest years in NFL history. Washington’s kicker Mark Moseley won the MVP, and he didn’t even have a good season. A strike reduced the season to just nine games, and the league decided to allow 16 teams into the playoffs, which meant no byes and two quadruple-headers on Wild Card weekend. The best two teams in both conferences were in the East, and in each conference those teams survived the first two rounds of the playoffs to meet in the conference championships.
In both conferences the team with the better record had the worse metrics, and both road teams were expected to win. The Cowboys were road favorites in Washington, but Washington won 31–17. The Dolphins were only one-point favorites at home against the Jets, who boasted the second highest scoring offense in the league, but they left the tarp off the field as a storm drenched southern Florida, and the Jets high powered offense was mired in the swamp, losing 14–0.
It was an impressively quick retool for Shula and the Dolphins, following the retirement of Bob Griese and the end of the ’70s dynasty. Washington, meanwhile, was just starting its run of dominance under second-year coach Joe Gibbs, quarterback Joe Theismann, and a run-first offense behind John Riggins and the Hogs on the Washington offensive line. They had lost their only other Super Bowl to the undefeated Dolphins a decade prior, and hadn’t won a championship of any kind in 40 years.
Miami entered the game as three-point favorites, and they took an early lead on a 76-yard bomb from David Woodley to Jimmy Cefalo. Washington tied the game at ten with under two minutes to go in the first half, but Fulton Walker returned a kickoff 98 yards to give the Dolphins a 17–10 lead at the half. Washington still trailed 17–13 late in the third when a Theismann pass deep in his own territory was deflected high into the air by Kim Bokamper. With a swarm of Dolphins converging on the ball as it headed towards the end zone, Theismann managed to knock it away, preventing Miami from taking a 24–13 lead that could have forced Washington to abandon its running game.
That score held into the fourth quarter, when Washington decided to go for it on 4th and 1, and John Riggins gained the first down and more, running 43 yards into the end zone for the longest touchdown run to that point in Super Bowl history. Miami went three-and-out on its next drive, and Riggins ran the ball through Miami’s defense to lead Washington to a game-clinching score that ended the game 27–17. Riggins ended with 38 carries for 166 yards, both Super Bowl records (though the latter would be broken the following year by Marcus Allen, with Timmy Smith wresting it back for Washington four years after that).
Over the next decade Washington would win double digits games in all but one season, winning additional Super Bowls in 1987 and 1991. David Woodley was the youngest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, but the next season he would give way to an even younger quarterback named Dan Marino, and the Dolphins still haven’t won a title since 1973.
17. Super Bowl XLVI: N.Y. Giants 21 New England 17
The Patriots were desperate for revenge against the team that had ruined their perfect season four years earlier. Given that history, though, and the fact that the Giants had just won three straight games against better teams, they were just three-point underdogs, and they started well. Tom Brady was flagged for intentional grounding in his own end zone on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage, giving the Giants a 2–0 lead. Victor Cruz fumbled near the goal line on the Giants’ following possession, but the Patriots were flagged for 12 men on the field, and Eli Manning then found Cruz in the end zone to take a 9–0 lead. The Patriots would come back to take a 17–9 lead, however, sandwiching touchdowns on the last drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half.
A pair of Giants field goals made it 17–15 in the fourth quarter. The teams continued trading punts, the final one from New England following Wes Welker dropping a deep pass from Brady that would’ve given the Patriots a first down in the Giants red zone with fewer than four minutes remaining and the Giants holding only one timeout. Instead the Giants took over on their own 12, and on the first play of the drive the Giants got to midfield thanks to Mario Manningham tapping his feet in bounds on a 38-yard bomb. The Giants drive took them into the New England red zone and with time evaporating it seemed New England might let the Giants score a touchdown to get the ball back. Indeed, Ahmad Bradshaw seemed to try to stop at the inch line as he ran into the end zone, but he fell in to give the Giants a 21–17 lead. Brady got the ball back with one minute left, but his last gasp ended when Rob Gronkowski just missed a Hail Mary as time expired.
It’s hard to consider this loss too devastating for the Patriots, who still had three rings in the previous decade. But this was now two Super Bowl losses to Eli Manning and the Giants in five years, and their chance at revenge for the ruination of their perfect season was lost. Since this game Eli has gone 47–70, losing his only playoff game by 25 points. But this game clinched the fact that one day he’ll join Joe Namath in the wing of the Hall of Fame reserved for QBs who don’t deserve to be there but are because they brought surprising titles to New York.
16. Super Bowl XIV: Pittsburgh 31 L.A. Rams 19
The Steelers were the class of the NFL in the 1970s, and entered Super Bowl XIV seeking their second consecutive title and fourth in six years. The Rams were also one of the best teams of the ’70s, going 10–4 or better in six consecutive seasons from 1973 to 1978, with a top ten defense and offense in every season. But all six years they faltered in the playoffs, losing three times each to the Vikings and Cowboys, four of those losses in the NFC Championship. In 1979 they fell off, going just 9–7. But the NFC was very weak that season, with the best six or seven teams in the NFL all in the AFC, and the NFC West was especially weak, allowing the 9–7 Rams to sneak into the playoffs. They got revenge on the Cowboys in the divisional round, and then won on the road against the next week in Tampa, surprisingly making their first Super Bowl a year after they thought their window had closed.
The Steelers were ten-point favorites, but the Rams started well and took a 13–10 lead into the half. The Steelers opened the second half with a 47-yard bomb from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann to make it 17–13, but the Rams immediately struck back. A 50-yard pass from Vince Ferragamo to Billy Waddy got the ball into Pittsburgh territory, and on the very next play Lawrence McCutcheon took a handoff and threw it to Ron Smith in the end zone to take the lead back 19–17. Bradshaw threw interceptions on each of the next two Pittsburgh possessions, but the Rams couldn’t capitalize, and then Bradshaw found John Stallworth for a go-ahead 73-yard touchdown. The Rams drove back into Pittsburgh territory with under six minutes remaining, but Jack Lambert picked Ferragamo off in the red zone, and after Bradshaw found Stallworth again for 45 yards, Franco Harris ran it in to clinch the game.
The L.A. Rams would not return to the Super Bowl for 39 years (though they would make it in 1999 and 2001 while playing in St. Louis). For the Steelers, it was also the end of the dynasty. Bradshaw would never win another playoff game, and the Steelers would gradually fall into mediocrity until the arrival of Bill Cowher resuscitated them in the ‘90s.
15. Super Bowl XLIV: New Orleans 31 Indianapolis 17
In the pre-Super Bowl era, the Bears went undefeated in 1934 and 1942, only to lose the championship both times, and the Browns went 15–0 in 1948 (including winning the championship). The 1972 Dolphins famously went 17–0, and the 2007 Patriots went 18–0 before losing Super Bowl XLII. Two other teams started a season 13–0 before 2009 (the 1998 Broncos and 2005 Colts), and in subsequent years the 2011 Packers and 2015 Panthers (who started 14–0) would join them. But 2009 was historic because two teams started the season 13–0, and in November and early December NFL fans could dream of the possibility of two 18–0 teams meeting in the Super Bowl.
The 2009 Saints started 13–0, but fell behind to Dallas 24–3 in the fourth quarter in week 15, and a furious comeback ended when Brees was strip-sacked in Dallas territory driving for the game-tying score with 12 seconds remaining. They lost again the next week in overtime, but clinched the one seed anyway when the Vikings lost in overtime to the Bears the following night on Monday Night Football. The Saints then rested Brees in a week 17 loss, ending the regular season 13–3. They advanced to the Super Bowl in an overtime NFC Championship victory over the Vikings thanks to cheating, bounties, blown calls, lots of fumbles, and idiocy by Brad Childress and Brett Favre.
The 2009 Colts started 14–0, which also gave them an NFL-record 23 consecutive regular season wins. Then Jim Caldwell idiotically decided to intentionally lose to the Jets in week 16, believing that continuing to win would be too much pressure for his team. The Jets, whose own coach thought they were eliminated from the playoffs, took Caldwell’s gift and turned it into not only a playoff birth, but a spot against those very same Colts in the AFC Championship. Though the Colts still advanced to the Super Bowl against the Saints, no longer would the game have any undefeated-related drama.
But Super Bowl XLIV still provided the drama of the GOAT Peyton Manning seeking his second title, while the near-GOAT Drew Brees sought his first. The Colts were 4.5-point favorites and jumped out to a 10–0 first quarter lead, but the Saints chipped away, taking a 13–10 lead after scoring a touchdown following a surprise onside kick to start the second half. But Peyton Manning would drive the Colts into New Orleans territory every time he touched the ball in the second half. Immediately after the onside kick touchdown, Manning led a ten-play drive that ended with a Joseph Addai run that put the Colts back ahead 17–16.
Following a made field goal by the Saints’ Garrett Hartley and a missed field goal by the Colts’ Matt Stover, the Saints took over near midfield, and Brees followed a two-yard touchdown pass with a two-point conversion that was ruled no good on the field but was overturned upon review, giving New Orleans a seven point lead with under six minutes remaining. Peyton came back onto the field and threw seven consecutive passes. The final one targeted Reggie Wayne near the red zone, but Tracy Porter stepped in front of it with a 74-yard pick six that clinched the Saints’ first championship.
The Saints have never made it back to the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning would never win another playoff game for the Colts. He’d get injured before the start of the 2011 season and end up going to Denver, while the Colts bottomed out and drafted Andrew Luck with the #1 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
14. Super Bowl XXXVI: New England 20 St. Louis Rams 17
The 2001 Rams were wrapping up one of the most dominant three-year stretches in NFL history, and looking to cap it with their second Super Bowl. They were overwhelming 14-point favorites, tied with the 1997 Packers for the biggest Super Bowl favorite in the past 24 years.
Their opponent, the Patriots, was assumed to be there by mistake. Their star quarterback suffered an injury in week two and was replaced by a no-name sixth-round pick, and teetered around .500 until Thanksgiving. A December winning streak got them into the playoffs, but they only beat Oakland in the divisional round snow because of the “tuck rule” and some incredible kicking by Adam Vinatieri. In the AFC Championship they upset Pittsburgh, a ten-point favorite and the class of the relatively weak AFC, when that same star quarterback came off the bench to replace the no-name who suffered his own injury.
The Patriots were so anonymous entering the Super Bowl that rather than choosing to have their offensive or defensive starters introduced, the team came out as a group, which had never been done before. Indeed, St. Louis would dominate most of the game, with eleven more first downs, a seven minute advantage in time of possession, and 160 more yards, an NFL record for a losing team. But the game would stay close because of three Rams turnovers.
New England’s offense did nothing in the first half, but their defense kept them in the game, holding the Rams to two long field goal attempts, only one of which went through. The Patriots’ defense gave them the lead in the second quarter, thanks to a Ty Law pick six. Then in the last two minutes of the half and the Rams deep in their own territory, Rams’ WR Ricky Proehl was stripped by Antwan Harris, and New England recovered with a short field. They quickly converted the second turnover into another touchdown, taking a shocking 14–3 lead into the half. The third quarter was more of the same, with punts galore and another Kurt Warner interception, which the Patriots converted into a field goal.
The Rams offense finally woke up in the fourth quarter, putting together a 12 play drive to the Patriots goal line. But the Patriots defense held, and on fourth and goal, Warner tried to run it in himself, but he fumbled and Tebucky Jones picked it up and raced 97 yards the other way to seemingly put the game away 24–3. But there was a penalty on the Patriots, and two plays later Warner sneaked in to make it 17–10.
The Patriots went three-and-out on each of their next two drives and punted it back to St. Louis with 1:51 to go. Warner immediately completed three consecutive passes, the last a 26-yard touchdown to Proehl to tie the game. The Rams had knelt on the final 31 seconds of the first half, and with the Patriots starting at their own 17 with 81 seconds remaining and no timeouts for either side, everyone assumed the Patriots would run the ball and play for overtime, rather than risk incomplete passes giving the ball back to Warner and the Rams. After all, Tom Brady was just 11/19 for 92 yards. But instead Brady completed two short passes to J.R. Redmond for a first down, and after a spike, he was at the 30 yard line with 41 seconds remaining. Again he found Redmond, who ran out of bounds with another first down. With 29 seconds left Brady looked downfield and hit Troy Brown for 23 yards, taking the ball into St. Louis territory with 21 seconds left. With ice in Vinatieri’s veins, all the Pats needed was a 48-yard field goal to pull off the upset and earn their first Super Bowl.
The Warner-led Rams’ three year run of excellence came crashing down the following season. Warner started 0–6 with three touchdowns and eleven interceptions, giving way to Marc Bulger. Warner wouldn’t be a full-time starter again until two teams later in 2008. The Rams would win just a single playoff game over the next 17 years, eventually moving back to Los Angeles. After the game, the Patriots were considered by most to be the worst Super Bowl champion ever, a team with an anonymous sixth-round QB who would soon be forgotten.
13. Super Bowl XXXII: Denver 31 Green Bay 24
The Broncos had lost three Super Bowls in four years in the ’80s, during a run of 13 consecutive Super Bowl losses for the AFC. After falling into mediocrity in the early ’90s, they were back in the Super Bowl a decade later. John Elway was nearing the end, but this team was deeper than any previous Broncos team, with the best running back in football in Terrell Davis and an elite defense. The offense finished #1 in both yards and scoring, neither of which the Broncos had ever done before. With the #1 offense and a top five defense and far and away the league’s best point differential, the Broncos were the best team in the NFL by almost any metric. But because they finished one game behind Kansas City in the AFC West, they had to go on the road in the divisional and conference rounds, where they won close games over Kansas City and Pittsburgh.
The Packers were the defending champions and they won each of their first two playoff games by two scores. Brett Favre had just won the MVP for the third time in a row, an unprecedented achievement. But it’s impossible to understand why the Packers were favored by 14 points (no Super Bowl spread has been bigger in the intervening 20 years, even when the undefeated Patriots faced the Wild Card Giants) without understanding the context of the AFC/NFC disparity. It was assumed coming into this game that the AFC just could not compete with the NFC. The 13 consecutive NFC wins included the previous five games by an average of 20 points, and of course the three Broncos losses had been by an average of 32 points (never mind that the only thing these Broncos had in common with those Broncos was the quarterback and the owner). It was in that context that the Broncos arrived as enormous underdogs.
Each team scored two touchdowns in an entertaining first half, the Packers via two Favre passes, the Broncos via two one-yard dives, and the Broncos led 17–14 at the half. The Packers were stunned, because they had bought the line that the AFC was essentially a minor league. Terrell Davis fumbled on the first play of the second half, and the Packers kicked a field goal to tie the game. Late in the third quarter Denver was trying to complete a 93-yard-drive, and on third and six from the Packers 12 yard line, 37-year-old Elway helicoptered himself to a first down. Two plays later Davis collected Denver’s third one-yard rushing TD of the game, giving Denver a 24–17 lead, their first ever lead in a Super Bowl. The Packers fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and John Elway looked to the end zone on the very next play, seeking to expand the lead to 14, but a Eugene Robinson interception kept Green Bay in the game, and it took Favre just five plays to tie the score at 24.
What was shaping up as the most exciting Super Bowl ever went dull as the fourth quarter played on, however, as each of the next four drives ended with punts. The Packers offense had become one-dimensional, relying solely on Favre’s arm, while Denver’s was likewise, relying solely on Davis’s legs. As Super Bowl XXXII approached the two minute warning, yet again the announcers speculated about the possibility of the first ever Super Bowl overtime. But Elway found fullback Howard Griffith for a 23-yard gain, and after a Davis run brought the ball inside the one, the Packers allowed Davis to get Denver’s fourth one-yard TD run of the game, in order to get Favre the ball back with 1:47 remaining. Favre completed four consecutive passes to Dorsey Levens for 39 yards, getting the ball to the Denver 31 with under a minute to go. But on fourth and six, Favre could not connect with Chmura in the middle of the field, and Denver had ended not only their drought, but the drought of their entire conference.
The AFC would win eight of the next ten Super Bowls, and no longer does anyone consider one conference to be fundamentally different than the other. The three-time MVP Favre was only 28 years old, but he would never play in another Super Bowl.
12. Super Bowl XXXVIII: New England 32 Carolina 29
As noted at the end of #14 above, the 2001 New England Patriots were seen at the time as perhaps the worst team to ever win the Super Bowl. They followed that up by missing the playoffs the following year at 9–7, and they started the 2003 season 2–2. They would never lose again that season.
The 2003 Panthers had the pythag and advanced stats of a .500 team, but they won three overtime games by a field goal and another four games by ten points combined, lucking into an 11–5 record and division crown. Offensively they were led by Stephen Davis, who ran for 1444 yards, and the only strength of their mediocre defensive was a line anchored by Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker and a young Julius Peppers. The best teams in the NFC were the Rams (at the tail end of the Greatest Show on Turf) and the Eagles (in the midst of four consecutive trips to the NFC Championship), but Carolina went on the road to upset both of them in consecutive weeks to make an unlikely Super Bowl appearance.
The Patriots were seven point favorites, and Belichick’s defense — led by stars Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Rodney Harrison and Willie McGinest — was expected to dominate Jake Delhomme and Carolina’s underwhelming offense. The Patriots extended their 14–10 halftime lead to a game-high 21–10 when Antowain Smith ran in from the two at the start of the fourth quarter. But it took the Panthers less than two minutes to respond, and after five quick Delhomme passes he gave it to DeShaun Foster in the shotgun, who broke several tackles on a 33-yard touchdown scamper. The Patriots lead was still five, though, when the two-point conversion failed.
After a Brady interception in the end zone prevented New England from scoring what could have been a game-sealing touchdown, Delhomme found Muhsin Muhammad for 85 yards to give the Panthers their only lead of the game. But the Panthers’ lead was just one as they failed on another two-point conversion, and Brady methodically led the Patriots down the field, finding linebacker Mike Vrabel for the go-ahead score. The Patriots hit their two-point conversion, making it 29–22 with under three minutes remaining.
But this crazy fourth quarter was far from over. Not only did Delhomme score, but he did so too quickly, finding Ricky Proehl in just 90 seconds. After John Kasay’s kickoff sailed out of bounds, Brady was at the 40-yard line with 1:08 and three timeouts to get into Vinatieri’s field goal range for another Super Bowl winning kick.
The Patriots repeated their 17–2 record the following season, with their third title in four years, establishing the Belichick/Brady Patriots as a dynasty. Carolina, meanwhile, would make another Super Bowl over a decade later, but they are still looking for their first title.
11. Super Bowl XXXIV: St. Louis Rams 23 Tennessee 16
The 1999 Rams were the most surprising dominant team in NFL history. They hadn’t won more than seven games in a decade, and they opened the season with a league-low 200:1 odds to win the Super Bowl when newly acquired quarterback Trent Green suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. But the unheard-of arena football quarterback Kurt Warner took over and took the league by storm, winning the MVP over teammate Marshall Faulk. The top offense in the league was paired with an elite defense, led by Kevin Carter’s 17 sacks.
The Rams had only been in St. Louis for five years, but that seemed like an eternity to their opponents, who were in Nashville for only the second season, and it was the first season in the new stadium for the newly named Titans. The Oilers had been 8–8 in each of the previous three seasons under Jeff Fisher, and they surprised everyone with a 13–3 record despite the pythag of a nine- or ten-win team. Their playoff run began with the Music City Miracle and was followed with road upsets of the Colts and Jaguars, the latter meaning Jacksonville ended the season 0–3 versus Tennessee and 15–0 versus the rest of football. The Rams were expected to win, but after a surprisingly low-scoring NFC Championship win over the Bucs, they came into the Super Bowl as just seven point favorites.
The Titans’ defense was average at best, and Kurt Warner threw for 277 yards in the first half. But the Rams faltered in the red zone five times, including a turnover on downs and a missed field goal, and so they led just 9–0 at the half. Tennessee’s offense did very little, and after Al Del Greco missed his second field goal on the opening drive of the second half, the Rams quickly scored to take what seemed like an insurmountable 16–0 lead.
Suddenly the Titans’ offense woke up, with Eddie George running seven times on a drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown, which pulled Tennessee within ten (after the two-point conversion failed). After the Rams went three-and-out, Steve McNair led another long touchdown drive, this one featuring eight George runs, the final one for a two-yard touchdown. The Rams went three-and-out yet again, and McNair led a third consecutive scoring drive, this one ending with a 43-yard Del Greco field goal to tie the game.
Kurt Warner took over at his own 27 with 2:05 remaining in a tied game with a chance to drive down the field to win the Super Bowl. It took only one play, as Warner found Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard touchdown that immediately put Tennessee’s offense back on the field. And for the fourth consecutive drive they responded. This time, with under two minutes, just one timeout remaining, and starting from their own 12-yard line, McNair had to do it without George. All ten plays of the final drive were McNair’s, the most incredible being an escape from a sack on the 40 that ended with the ball in Kevin Dyson’s hands on the ten yard line with six seconds remaining. On the final play of the game McNair looked to Dyson one more time, but this time he was just short. The Super Bowl had still never gone to overtime.
McNair would get to just one more conference championship game in Tennessee, and the Titans have never gotten there since. The Rams seemed to be at the start of a dynasty, but would lose the Super Bowl to the Patriots two years later (#14 above), and would never make it to another Super Bowl until they moved back to L.A. two decades later.
10. Super Bowl III: N.Y. Jets 16 Baltimore Colts 7
Why were the Colts 18-point favorites? They weren’t just the best team in the NFL that year, they were one of the best teams in history, going 13–1 with an average score of 29–10. The AFL had been a joke in the first two Super Bowls, and the Jets were only the third best team in the weaker league that season, making the Super Bowl only because of quirky AFL rules. The Colts’ loss was as shocking as any Super Bowl loss ever, but the game itself wasn’t particularly close.
9. Super Bowl V: Baltimore Colts 16 Dallas 13
The Colts were moved to the AFC in the first year following the merger, and they came into the Super Bowl as 2.5-point favorites against the young Cowboys.
The Cowboys dominated in the early going, but stalled and had to settle for two field goals. The Colts tied the game early in the second quarter on a miraculous and controversial play. A Johnny Unitas deep ball bounced off the hands of Eddie Hinton, the intended receiver, and then appeared to touch the hands of Cowboys DB Mel Renfro, before falling into the hands of John Mackey, who gathered it in and galloped 75 yards for a touchdown. Under the rules of the time, a pass touched by one offensive player could not be caught by another offensive player unless a defender touched it in between, and the Cowboys insisted that Renfro hadn’t touched the ball. But the call stood and the Colts tied the game at 6–6 (they missed the extra point). In a game marred by an incredible eleven turnovers, the most critical in the first half was Unitas’s fumble deep in his own territory, which was recovered by Jethro Pugh. Within three plays, the Cowboys were in the end zone to take back the lead, 13–6, which is how it stayed into halftime.
Unitas was hurt in the third quarter and replaced by Earl Morrall. Morrall, who had been blamed for the Colts loss to the Jets two years earlier (see #10 above), played much better than Unitas, leading two long drives into the red zone. But the first ended in an end zone interception, and the second ended even more bizarrely, when Morrall handed it to Sam Havrilak, who was supposed to toss it back to Morrall. But Pugh broke up the play, and instead Havrilak threw a pass downfield to Mackey. But it was caught instead by Hinton, who was stripped by Cornell Green while running towards the end zone. The ball bounced out of the back of the end zone, making it a touchback for the Cowboys. This was indicative of the sloppy second half, whose first seven drives ended with a fumble, missed field goal, punt, Morrall’s interception, punt, Hinton’s fumble, and interception. That last interception of Craig Morton was on a pass tipped by his receiver, and was picked and returned by Rick Volk all the way to the Cowboys three-yard line, and the Colts tied the game at 13 two plays later.
After a couple of punts, the Cowboys took over from the Colts 48 with under two minutes to go, seeking to drive into field goal range and avoid the first Super Bowl overtime. Indeed, Super Bowl overtime would have to wait another 46 years, but not because the Cowboys drove into field goal range. Instead, a Morton pass bounced off of the hands of a wide open Dan Reeves and was intercepted, and three plays later Jim O’Brien kicked a field goal to take a 16–13 lead with five seconds remaining. But the game still wasn’t over. The Colts decision to attempt the field goal on third down with nine seconds left meant the Colts still had to kick off, and the squib kick was downed by the Cowboys on the 40 yard line with one second remaining, giving the Cowboys a chance at a Hail Mary (not then known by that name). But Morton was intercepted for the third time, ending the game.
For the Cowboys, revenge would come the next season, when they’d return to the Super Bowl and earn their first title. The Baltimore Colts would never return to the Super Bowl, but Baltimore would get some revenge, as their new team, the Ravens, would make and win the Super Bowl six years before the Colts would in their new hometown of Indianapolis.
8. Super Bowl XLVII: Baltimore Ravens 34 San Francisco 31
The 2012 Super Bowl was a strange game played by strange teams coached by brothers. The Ravens had been a second tier AFC contender for a decade, always behind the Patriots and Colts and Steelers. In 2012 they jumped out to a 9–2 start, before losing four of five to back into the playoffs. But in the playoffs Joe Flacco transformed. A mediocre QB who had played for a lot of winning teams thanks to Baltimore’s incredible defenses, Flacco’s 2012 postseason run is arguably the greatest in NFL history. In the divisional round, they upset the Broncos on what Ravens fans would call the Mile High Miracle. After winning in Denver as nine-point underdogs, winning in New England as 7.5-point underdogs was easy, and Flacco arrived in the Super Bowl as a 4.5-point underdog who had thrown for 853 passing yards and eight TDs with no interceptions through the first three playoff games.
The 49ers had lost a brutal NFC Championship to the Giants the previous season thanks to Kyle Williams repeatedly muffing punt returns. In Jim Harbaugh’s second season, Alex Smith put together a career year, and the 49ers were 6–2 at the bye. But then Harbaugh chose to bench Smith for little seen second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Harbaugh’s confident move would pay off in the playoffs. In the divisional round the 49ers ran away from the Packers, as Kaep threw for 263 and two TDs and ran for 181 and two more TDs. In the NFC Championship Kaep ran just twice for 21 yards, but the passing game and the Frank Gore/LaMichael James tandem at RB was enough to edge Atlanta and get San Francisco to their first Super Bowl in 18 years.
The story of the first half of the Harbaugh Bowl was the dominance of the Ravens. Flacco threw his ninth, tenth and eleventh touchdowns of the playoffs, and the Ravens lead extended to 28–6 when Jacoby Jones returned the opening kick of the second half a Super Bowl-record 108 yards.
Two plays into the following drive, the lights went out in the stadium. 35 minutes later the game restarted, both teams punted, and Baltimore seemed headed to an easy victory. But after San Francisco scored on the following possession, Baltimore went three-and-out, and a wobbly punt and great return led in two plays to a 28–20 game. Ray Rice fumbled to start the next Ravens’ possession, and San Francisco quickly kicked a field goal to pull within five.
A San Francisco goal line stand held Baltimore to a field goal on their next possession, and San Francisco responded with a touchdown drive highlighted by a 32-yard pass to Randy Moss in his final game, and capped by a 15-yard skaempernick. But the two-point attempt to Moss failed, and Baltimore responded with a field goal drive to put the lead back at five. San Francisco roared back again, this time highlighted by a 33-yard run out of the pistol by Frank Gore. But with first and goal to go, the 49ers could not get past the five-yard line, with three consecutive incompletions to Michael Crabtree ending the game for San Francisco.
The Ravens would reward Flacco for his incredible postseason with an enormous contract, and he would soon revert to being a mediocre QB. The Ravens have been under .500 with Flacco at QB since this game. The following year the 49ers would lose another devastating NFC Championship. Then Harbaugh would quit after the next season, and San Francisco would bottom out, hiring four coaches in four years. They have not returned to the playoffs since.
7. Super Bowl XXXIX: New England 24 Philadelphia 21
Headed into the 2004 season, the Patriots were trying to repeat as Super Bowl champs. The Eagles had lost the NFC Championship three years in a row. Donovan McNabb had never had an elite weapon to target, and the Eagles acquired Terrell Owens in the hope that he would be the missing piece. Owens was great, with 1200 yards and 14 TDs in 14 games. But an injury in week 15 seemed to end TO’s season for the 13–1 Eagles. The Eagles would lose their final two regular season games, both meaningless, before recovering with easy victories over the Vikings and Falcons that finally led them to the Super Bowl.
TO made a courageous return to play in the Super Bowl on one healthy leg. The Eagles offense moved early, but two first quarter turnovers limited Philly to only seven points at the half. The Eagles defense was excellent, though, as New England couldn’t do anything until their last drive of the half, when they tied the game at seven. The Patriots opened the second half with Mike Vrabel’s second consecutive Super Bowl with a touchdown reception. The Eagles responded to tie the game at 14 on their final drive of the third quarter. But New England quickly scored again, and after an Eagles three-and-out, the Patriots scored again to make it 24–14. Philadelphia’s following drive started positively with a 36-yard play to Owens, but McNabb was intercepted on the next play.
The Patriots went three-and-out and punted, and Philadelphia took over on their own 21 down ten with 5:40 to go. The Eagles needed to score quickly, but Andy Reid and McNabb (who allegedly was so nervous he puked) could not get downfield on Belichick’s defense, and instead they dinked and dunked, using up nearly four minutes of clock. Finally, on the wrong side of the two minute warning, McNabb looked downfield, finding Greg Lewis to bring Philly within three. The onside kick failed, and after holding the Patriots to three-and-out and using their remaining timeouts, the Eagles were pinned on their own four-yard line with 46 seconds remaining. McNabb was intercepted for the third time in the game, and the Eagles’ season was over.
The injured TO was magnificent in the Super Bowl, with nine catches for 122 yards. But he and McNabb had a falling out the following season, and the Eagles run of NFC dominance was over, as they collapsed to 6–10. It would be another three coaches and six quarterbacks until the Eagles would win their first Super Bowl.
It would take the Patriots a decade to win another Super Bowl, their only streak of more than two years without a championship this century.
6. Super Bowl XLII: N.Y. Giants 17 New England 14
The Patriots were 18–0, the greatest team of all time, trying to cap the greatest season of all time. The Giants were a mediocre Wild Card who pulled off a miraculous NFC Championship in Lambeau to improbably end up in the Super Bowl. No one gave them a chance.
The Giants opened with the longest drive in Super Bowl history, 16 plays over nearly ten minutes that ended with a 32-yard field goal. But the Patriots scored on their opening drive, and when Eli Manning threw an interception in the red zone on the Giants’ second possession, it looked like the Giants had fatally missed their chance. But the Giants defense stiffened in the second quarter, and the rest of the half was a series of punts, with a strip-sack of Tom Brady ending the first half 7–3.
The Patriots opened the second half with a long drive of their own, but the 14th play was an incompletion on fourth down, and the score remained the same. After two more punts, the Giants started the fourth quarter with a 45-yard pass to rookie backup tight end Kevin Boss. Five plays later, Eli found David Tyree in the end zone, and New York had the lead. After a New England punt, the Giants had a chance to extend the lead, but Eli just missed a wide open Plaxico Burress, and New York punted again.
Finally New England’s offense got rolling, with Brady targeting Kevin Faulk, Wes Walker and Randy Moss, finding Moss for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:42 remaining. But now it was Eli’s turn. After Asante Samuel dropped a game-ending interception, on third and five with 75 seconds left, Eli escaped the grasp of two Patriots defenders to find Tyree for The Helmet Catch, arguably the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Four plays later Eli found Burress in the end zone to take a 17–14 lead with 35 seconds remaining. Down three with 29 seconds but all of his timeouts, Brady still had one more chance. But on second down he was sacked for the fifth time in the game. Two deep incompletions to Randy Moss, and the perfect season was over.
It would take the Patriots seven more years to finally win their fourth Super Bowl. Along the way they’d run into the Giants again, who would be even worse four years later, but would again sneak into the playoffs and ride all the way past New England for another title.
5. Super Bowl XLIII: Pittsburgh 27 Arizona 23
The Steelers entered Super Bowl XLIII seeking to break their tie with San Francisco and Dallas to earn a record sixth Super Bowl win, including the second in four years. The Cardinals were one of the most pathetic franchises in American sports, with only one playoff victory over 61 years. They weren’t much better in 2008. With the exception of the 0–16 Lions, probably every NFC team outside the West was better than the Cardinals, who went 2–7 against teams .500 or better, but went 6–0 against their atrocious division. But by virtue of winning the garbage NFC West, Arizona was guaranteed not only a playoff spot, but home field advantage against the wild card teams.
The Cardinals had a poor defense and the worst rushing game in football. The only thing Arizona had going for it was Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. An aging Warner had been replaced by younger QBs in St. Louis and New York, and arrived in Arizona to back up young Matt Leinart. But after starting on the bench and outperforming Leinart in 2006 and 2007, the Cardinals handed the solo reigns to the veteran in 2008.
Warner and Fitz would be enough in the playoffs, as Fitzgerald would set NFL records for catches, yards and touchdowns in a single postseason. Arizona first knocked off the Falcons at home, with Fitz posting 101 and a touchdown. As ten-point underdogs in Carolina, they won 33–13 with Fitz adding 166 yards and another score. With the wild card Eagles advancing to the NFC Championship, the Cardinals got another home game, and Fitz put up 152 yards and three touchdowns in a fourth quarter come-from-behind victory that sent the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl.
Ben Roethlisberger ran into the end zone from the one on the first drive of the game, but Arizona challenged, and after the call was overturned, Pittsburgh settle for a field goal from the one-foot line. Each team would add a one-yard touchdown by little used backups to give Pittsburgh a 10–7 lead late in the second quarter, when Roethlisberger threw a pick deep in his own territory near the two-minute warning, giving Arizona a golden opportunity to tie or take the lead heading into halftime. On first and goal from the one with 18 seconds remaining, Warner looked for his second one-yard touchdown pass of the half, but James Harrison intercepted him at the goal line, and spent the next 18 seconds meandering 100 yards down the field, just making it into the end zone with no time remaining on the clock.
After the Steelers kicked a field goal to make it 20–7 headed into the final quarter, it was all on the shoulders of Warner and Fitzgerald, who didn’t make his first catch until the final minute of the first half. Of the Cardinals 22 offensive plays in the fourth quarter, 20 were Warner passes, one was a rush for zero yards, and one was a strip-sack that would end the game.
Warner went to work. On the second Cardinals possession of the fourth, he drove his team down the field, throwing yet another one-yard touchdown pass, this one to Fitzgerald, making it 20–14. The teams then traded punts, but the Cardinals punt pinned Pittsburgh on their own one yard line with 3:26 to go. The Steelers attempt to run out the clock failed miserably, as a hold in the end zone gave Arizona a safety and the ball back, this time with a chance not just to tie, but to take the lead. Indeed, it took just two plays to do that, as Warner found Fitzgerald for a 64-yard touchdown to give the Cardinals a 23–20 lead with two-and-a-half to go.
That was more than enough time for Ben Roethlisberger, who led the Steelers not only into field goal range, but into the end zone on an incredible catch by Santonio Holmes. But Mike Tomlin had some curious clock management, using two timeouts that reserved time for Arizona. Down 27–23 with 29 seconds to go, the Cardinals needed a miracle. Warner completed two quick passes and followed each with a timeout, getting Arizona into Pittsburgh territory with 15 seconds remaining. But then LaMarr Woodley put an end to it, strip-sacking Warner to give the Steelers their sixth championship.
Warner would return the following year for one more season at age 38, and even gave the Cardinals a thrilling 51–45 wild card victory over Green Bay (he went 29/33 for 379 yards and five TDs, two of them to Fitz). But the Cardinals have won just one playoff game since then, and they don’t appear headed anywhere near another Super Bowl anytime soon. The Steelers have remained contenders since this game, but have gone just 5–6 in the playoffs, losing their only other Super Bowl appearance.
4. Super Bowl XXIII: San Francisco 20 Cincinnati 16
In 1981 Cincinnati lost their first Super Bowl appearance to San Francisco in their first Super Bowl appearance. That was the start of the Bill Walsh/Joe Montana dynasty in San Francisco, and they returned to the Super Bowl in 1988 seeking their third title of the decade. Cincinnati had completely retooled in the intervening years, replacing Forrest Gregg with Sam Wyche and the retiring Ken Anderson with Boomer Esiason. But when they returned to the Super Bowl, they saw the same opponents across the field. San Francisco would dominate this game, outgaining Cincinnati 452–229, but the score would be much closer.
The first three quarters were a boring field goal fest, and the game was tied 6–6 late in the third quarter when Stanford Jennings returned a kickoff 93 yards to give Cincinnati a 13–6 lead. But Montana gained 71 yards on the first two plays of the following drive, getting the ball into the red zone. On the next play Lewis Billups dropped an easy interception (Montana would never throw a Super Bowl interception), and on the very next play Montana and Jerry Rice beat Billups to tie the game at 13.
San Francisco kicker Mike Cofer missed his second field goal of the game on the 49ers’ next possession, and then his Cincinnati counterpart Jim Breech hit to give the Bengals a 16–13 lead with 3:20 remaining. A penalty on the kickoff forced San Francisco to start its drive on its own eight yard line. What followed was the Super Bowl equivalent of The Drive. It started with Joe Montana telling his teammates in the huddle that he saw John Candy watching from the sidelines, and it ended with Montana finding John Taylor in the end zone for the game-winning score.
Jerry Rice was named the game’s MVP with eleven catches for 215 yards, the latter a Super Bowl record that still stands. Bill Walsh retired after the game, but his defensive coordinator George Seifert took over the following season as the 49ers won their fourth Super Bowl of the decade. Cincinnati has won just one playoff game since.
3. Super Bowl XLIX: New England 28 Seattle 24
Super Bowl XLIX was between juggernauts. Seattle was the defending champions, with the Legion of Boom defense and an offense led by Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. The Patriots hadn’t won a Super Bowl in a decade, but they were the best team in the regular season, and they won the AFC Championship by 38 points. The game was a pick ’em, a Super Bowl first.
The first half went back and forth, with Seattle choosing to go for a touchdown on the final play of the half rather than a field goal, successfully tying the game at 14. The Seahawks then scored twice in the third quarter to take a 24–14 lead. But while Seattle punted on their next three drives, New England engineered the biggest (to that point) fourth quarter Super Bowl comeback against the best defense in the league, with two short Tom Brady touchdown passes giving the Patriots a 28–24 lead with two minutes to go.
Russell Wilson took over at his own 20, and immediately found Marshawn Lynch on a wheel route to get to midfield. With 1:14 remaining and Seattle on the 38 and down to their last timeout (New England had two), Jermaine Kearse made a circus catch that made the Helmet Catch seem routine, and it looked like the Patriots would lose another stunning Super Bowl. On first and goal from the five, Lynch ran it down to the one. Seattle had more than enough time to run three plays, so New England’s only hope was to use their final two timeouts and save the clock. If they stopped Seattle, they could still kneel and end the game. But if Seattle scored, they would have some time for a last gasp response. But Bill Belichick inexplicably froze, and 40 seconds drained from the clock between Lynch’s first down run and the next snap. If Seattle had scored, Belichick’s error would go down as one of the greatest coaching mistakes in history. Instead, Malcolm Butler made his interception, it was Pete Carroll whose coaching was excoriated, and Pats truthers started making absurd claims about Belichick’s intentions.
New England seemed energized by their victory, as they started making the Super Bowl an annual event. For Seattle, however, this game was the beginning of the end. Injuries and free agency started to chip away at the Legion of Boom, and the Seahawks haven’t returned to a conference championship game since.
2. Super Bowl XXV: N.Y. Giants 20 Buffalo 19
Bill Parcells’ Giants hadn’t won a playoff game since their first Super Bowl victory four years earlier. In 1990 they jumped out to a 10–0 start, but in a week 15 loss to the Bills, star QB Phil Simms suffered a season-ending injury. His replacement, Jeff Hostetler, was passable, and the defense-first Giants beat the 49ers 15–13 in a thrilling field goal fest of a conference championship to advance to the Super Bowl. But their opponent was the Bills, who not only had knocked Simms out in their previous victory over the Giants, but were the best team in the NFL during the regular season, and had just won the AFC Championship 51–3 over the Raiders. Thus, despite the AFC having lost six consecutive Super Bowls, the Bills were 6.5-point favorites coming into Tampa Stadium.
The game was played under the shadow of the Persian Gulf War, and was instantly immortalized by Whitney Houston’s rendition of the national anthem. A deflected 61-yard pass to James Lofton earned the Bills their first three points, and they took a 12–3 lead after sacking Hostetler in the end zone. But the Giants made it 12–10 on with 30 seconds remaining in the half, and took a 17–12 lead after a 14-play drive to start the second half.
The Bills took the lead back on a 31-yard Thurman Thomas run on the first play of the fourth quarter, but the Giants responded with another 14-play drive, which took up nearly half the fourth quarter and resulted in a 21-yard field goal to give the Giants a one-point lead.
After a pair of punts, the Bills took over on their own ten-yard line with 2:16 to play. Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas ran for 51 yards, while throwing for just ten, as the Bills got to the New York 29 with eight seconds remaining. Scott Norwood lined up for a 47-yard field goal to win the Super Bowl, but it was Wide Right.
The Bills would go on to lose each of the next three Super Bowls by increasing margins, and then fell out of relevance. They haven’t won a playoff game in 22 years.
1. Super Bowl LI: New England 34 Atlanta 28
The Falcons hadn’t been above .500 in four seasons, and had gone all in to give Matt Ryan an elite weapon in Julio Jones. By 2016 it paid off. The Patriots were the best team in the league again, but the Falcons had the best offense in football, and after scoring 80 points in their first two playoff games, they were just three-point underdogs entering Super Bowl LI.
The underdogs outplayed the favorites in the first half, and had a 14–0 lead when Brady targeted Danny Amendola late in the first half hoping to cut the Atlanta lead in half. Instead, Robert Alford stepped in front of the pass and returned it 82 yards, giving Atlanta a 21–0 lead.
The Falcons lead was 28–3 approaching two minutes remaining in the third quarter, when New England finally got in the end zone, but Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point, and New England still trailed 28–9. With a win expectancy still near zero, New England was forced to attempt an onside kick, only the second onside kick before the fourth quarter in Super Bowl history (see #15 above). The Falcons recovered, but were unable to do more than go three-and-out, so New England took over to start the fourth quarter on their own 13. Brady managed to drive the Patriots into the red zone, but after a sack on third and ten, New England was forced to settle for a field goal.
Atlanta was up 28–12 with the ball and under ten minutes remaining in the Super Bowl. But Matt Ryan was strip-sacked by Dont’a Hightower, and when Alan Branch recovered at the Atlanta 25, Falcon sphincters suddenly began to tighten. Sure enough, within five plays Brady had a touchdown and James White a two-point conversion, and although it was still Atlanta 28, New England 20, few people in America believed the Falcons were going to hold on to their lead.
But on the Falcons’ first play of the next drive Devonta Freeman gained 39 yards to get to midfield, and two plays later Julio Jones made an incredible catch to gain 27 more yards. Would the Falcons survive? With 4:40 remaining Atlanta had first down from the New England 22-yard line up 28–20. Three more plays and a field goal and the game might have been over. Instead Matt Ryan was sacked for a 12 yard loss, Jake Matthews was called for offensive holding, and the Falcons were knocked out of field goal range and forced to punt on 4th and 33.
Everyone knew what was coming next, if not exactly how it transpired. Edelman’s miraculous catch with 2:20 remaining brought New England into Atlanta territory. Then it was Amendola for 20, and three times to James White, the last for the touchdown. Then Brady found Amendola for the two-point conversion for the tie.
Atlanta got the ball back with under a minute to go but was forced to punt again,and finally, after 51 years, we had the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Of course this one was hardly dramatic, and when the Patriots won the overtime toss, nobody doubted that New England would complete the comeback, and Atlanta, the most devastating loss in Super Bowl history.