NFL Conference Championships: The Top 10 Great Super Bowls That Never Happened
With the NFL playoffs well underway and the AFC and NFC Championship Games mere days away, fans are more intrigued than ever to find out which two franchises will battle on the ultimate stage for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
When the postseason starts, there are so many potential outcomes that could happen.
Across eight games in the first two rounds, the NFL's system of re-seeding and the strong likelihood for upsets in recent seasons, one wrong prediction can entirely change the course of a person's prognostications, rendering full-scale playoff picks and potential Super Bowl considerations practically moot.
However, that all changes with the Conference Championships. With the Lamar Hunt and George Halas Trophies being polished for presentation, the total number of Super Bowl matchups has been limited from 36 (start of the tournament) to 16 (divisional round) to four. With four teams left playing, only four possible games can result from Sunday's play.
As it concerns the big game, this is the week when one popular question gets asked to everyone, from NFL "experts" to laymen alike:
"Who do you want to see play in the big game?"
Some love the dramatic dynamics of a Harbaugh Bowl.
Others would relish in a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, pitting the Patriots against the Giants, the team that spoiled their bid for an undefeated season in 2007.
Many New Yorkers wouldn't mind exacting revenge on the Ravens for their brutal 34-7 loss in Super Bowl XXXV.
Lastly, the fourth possible pairing would be the Patriots and 49ers—a clash of two dynastic franchises (1980s and 2000s).
While it isn't every season that presents so many intriguing potential battles in the big game, most conference title weekends present the possibility of a classic pairing or two that have fans pulling in certain directions, even when their favorite teams are already disqualified.
Be honest: didn't some little part of you find the potential Gruden Bowl (Oakland vs. Tampa Bay) intriguing in 2002-03? In that example, the (arguably) most intriguing Super Bowl game came to fruition.
Sometimes, that's not the case. In fact, many great potential championships haven't panned out.
This countdown showcases the top 10 Super Bowls that didn't happen. These are the games that many fans surely looked forward to during the Conference Championship Games, only to have one or both teams not uphold their end of the bargain.
The criteria for selection is very simple: the teams had to both play for their conference's crown.
No. 10: 100 Percent Favre Free (Super Bowls XLII and XLIV)
Playing his final game with the Green Bay Packers, the career of Brett Favre seemingly came to an inglorious end.
Eli Manning and Big Blue (in the case of Tom Couglin, Big Red) watched as kicker Lawrence Tynes redeemed himself after a missed field goal at the end of regulation. The football split the uprights, and the crimson-faced Coughlin celebrated a huge victory as digital thermometers read in the negatives.
It's difficult to complain. Super Bowl XLII became an instant classic, showcasing the fall of an undefeated team, the rise of an unexpected squad and the coming of age of "Peyton's Little Brother." Suddenly, Eli Manning was just that: Eli.
Many of those same fans, without the aid of hindsight and history to guide their perceptions, were intrigued by the thought of one last big game for the gunslinger. The idea of Brett Favre going up against the tall odds presented by the Patriots was relished by many.
The old gunslinger, before his annoying on again/off again career moves, against the perceived "Evil Empire." Classic, right?
Fast-forwarding two years, Brett Favre wore purple and handed the ball off to Adrian Peterson for a game-tying touchdown. The Vikings...
...yes, the same Vikings that are the sworn enemy of all that is Green...
...were hoping that Favre, now viewed as Judas among the Lambeau faithful, could lead them to a fourth-quarter comeback in New Orleans.
Facing third down in long field goal range, Brett had his chance. No. 4 took the snap, dropped back and threw his final meaningful pass.
Tracy Porter's interception was a cruel replay of Favre's early playoff mishaps, most similar to his turnover against the Giants at cold Lambeau Field.
In overtime, Drew Brees and the Saints never let the "old man" see the football again."
While both Super Bowls XLII and XLIV may have ranked higher on the list, the reality is that the actual games left nothing more to be desired. At the time of the NFC Championships mentioned, many fans wanted to see Favre vs. Brady and Manning (respectively) during those seasons.
For that reason, the Favre-less Bowls make the list.
Nevertheless, Eli's late rally (including the miraculous escape and throw to David Tyree) and the Saints' inspirational championship made it that few fans regret Brett's absence in those contests any longer.
While the actual games were great, it doesn't necessarily mean that the inclusion of Brett (in either season) wouldn't have been classics.
No. 9: Steelers vs. Rams (Super Bowl XXXVI)
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A young Tom Brady was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXVI, leading the "Cinderella" Patriots, whose fairy tale season later transformed into dynastic dominance, to an unlikely win over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams.
Weeks earlier, the upstart Pats were thought to be mince meat headed to the Steel City. In actuality, the Steelers had the better statistical team in 2001. However, games aren't played on paper, thus the existence of the following phrase:
"That's why they play the games!"
An excellent 54-yard, out-of-bounds punt by Pittsburgh punter Josh Miller was called back in the AFC Championship Game. The second attempt fell into the waiting arms of Troy Brown, who returned the kick for the game's opening score, 7-0.
In the second half, trailing 14-3, a field goal attempt by Kris Brown was blocked and returned for another New England score. Ahead 21-3, the Patriots held off a late Steelers' rally, winning 24-17.
Bill Cowher's Steelers were left to wonder what could have been. Featuring the league's No. 1 defense, with 55 sacks and nearly 30 takeaways, the Black and Gold held New England to one offensive touchdown in the key contest.
Yet, with special teams gaffes as the newest reason for disappointment in the 'Burgh, the Steelers didn't uphold their end of the bargain. In a season of revitalization for Kordell Stewart, the Steelers offense ranked seventh in the NFL in total scoring; yet, in their most important game of the year, "Slash" threw two interceptions, and the offense fell flat.
While the classic nature of the actual Super Bowl, a huge New England upset over the Rams that featured a brilliant defensive game plan by Bill Belichick, left little more to be desired, fans still have to wonder how interesting the battle would have been:
No. 1 Defense vs. No. 1 Offense.
Could the "Big, Nasty D" in Pittsburgh have gotten pressure and created the same type of havoc that the Patriots inflicted on the "Greatest Show on Turf" in Louisiana?
History had a different matchup in mind. Still, headed toward that weekend, most fans thought the battle of heavyweight was clearly in the cards.
No. 8: Cleveland Calamnity (Super Bowls XXI and XXII)
Fans in Cleveland hate John Elway. He beat their Browns, only to go and lay an egg in the Super Bowls that followed.
To this day, few are the fans in Western Ohio who won't claim that Cleveland would have given a more solid showing for the AFC. Indeed, it seemed each year that John Elway heroically exhausted his best efforts in torturing the "Dawg Pound," only to get embarrassed on the NFL's biggest stage.
Elway's comeback capability and boundless talents prevented the Browns franchise from participating in three Super Bowls, but this slide focuses on the two classic AFC Championship Games from January 1987 and 1988. In both games, the late going seemed to tilt heavily in the Browns' favor.
However, in the end, fate intervened, and Elway added himself to a Cleveland hate list that includes LeBron James, Art Modell and Mephistopheles himself.
In fact, many fans question whether their inability to reach the big game helped facilitate the sequence of events that led to the franchise's move from Cleveland in 1995.
Few would be so naive as to completely deny the impact.
While nothing about Browns vs. Giants (prevented by "The Drive) or Browns vs. Redskins (circumvented by "The Fumble") clearly made it the preferred match in either season, few would argue the marketability of either game historically.
Each would have been a bout between classic teams. Both Super Bowls would have featured two blue collar fanbases and a pair of great, tradition-heavy NFL franchises battling on the NFL's biggest stage.
Sure, many fans wanted to see the gunslinger in Denver over the awkward Bernie Kosar. In reality, they got what they wished for, and they ultimately were left wanting more. In both games, Elway's Broncos were thoroughly outplayed, and the quarterback seemed overwhelmed in the moment.
For a group of fans desperate for the successes their franchise had seen before and lost since the AFL-NFL merger, those 80s teams, filled with fan-favorite players, are still seen as a lost chance for greatness.
One thing is for sure: had the Browns held off Elway in 1987 or held onto the ball in 1987, they would have participated in the biggest game of the modern era for their classic franchise. Likely, they would have never been dislocated for any period of time.
And, who knows? Fans may have enjoyed a classic game. Surely, the outcomes couldn't have been any worse. Maybe the Browns and Giants would have played to a last second stalemate.
Instead, despite many historians viewing the Browns' teams as superior to the Broncos of the day, it was John Elway who lifted up the talent around him and led Denver to three AFC Championships over Cleveland.
Elway's most embarrassing effort came against the 49ers in 1989-90. The Broncos were decimated by Joe Montana and the 49ers, 55-10. Nevertheless, Denver was dominant in a 37-21 win over Cleveland.
For those two years in the mid-80s, the Browns had the Lamar Hunt Trophy within their grasp, only to fall short. Instead of seeing those underrated Cleveland squads on the ultimate stage, fans can only ask "What if...?"
What if the Browns had held off the coming-of-age of John Elway? Could they have beaten New York or prevented the surge of Doug Williams and Timmy Smith?
Perhaps, they would have known, if only they could have downed the Broncos just once.
No. 7: Chargers vs. 49ers (Super Bowl XVI)
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As offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Bill Walsh began the roots of his West Coast offense. With the Bengals, Walsh had the advantage of working with the underrated, highly efficient Ken Anderson.
However, when he brought his system to San Francisco, the seeds of perfection began to blossom into realized potential. Joe Montana was the sunlight, the tools around him were the fertilizer and the sum of the parts allowed the team to grow into champions.
Walsh's first Super Bowl win came against his former squad from Cincinnati. The Bengals fell behind 20-0 at halftime, losing 26-21 despite a valiant comeback effort.
Sure, it was an interesting matchup, pairing the old offensive coordinator against his former quarterback. Still, another classic possibility didn't come to fruition.
For San Diego, consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances both ended in failure. After losing at home to the Raiders in 1981, the freezing cold of Riverfront Stadium doomed the Californians in their 1982 loss to the Bengals (27-7).
While most Chargers fans view '81 as the bigger disappointment, the latter contest and its circumstances prevented the more entertaining contest.
Imagine the prospect of Joe Montana vs. Dan Fouts and the Walsh West Coast vs. Air Coryell.
While there's little doubt that the 49ers would have thoroughly defeated the '81 Chargers in future seasons, this pairing had the makings of a great game. After all, the 49ers—despite winning their first title—were still a team on the rise.
The San Diego defense was a weak link, but Montana and the 49ers offense hadn't yet reached the level of offensive mastery they would accomplish later in the decade.
Still, while comparing the two high-scoring offenses is the first instinct of most fans, another key matchup would have likely defined the colorful contest.
The 49ers rise to a championship is often credited to a complete overhaul of the secondary, featuring Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson (all rookies), alongside Dwight Hicks at safety.
As such, the notion of pitting the strong San Francisco defense against the likes of Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler seems epic.
No. 6: Bills vs. 49ers (Super Bowl XXVII and XXVIII)
The two teams could have met in Super Bowl XXV. For this selection, I chose the potential bout two years later.
Despite both teams being in the final four in 1990-91, the 49ers started Joe Montana for most of that season (more on that in a moment). Likewise, the Giants' epic win over San Francisco at Candlestick Park was a classic affair that prevented a three-peat. Lastly, the Norwood miss in the final seconds is a Super Bowl memory indelibly engraved into the minds of every NFL fan.
Who would want to even talk about replacing that classic, ballsy (to describe it bluntly) run?
Besides, this particular setup for a potential Bills-49ers Super Bowl was chosen for two reasons:
First, the Cowboys blew out the Bills, 52-17, leaving much to be desired from the 27th big game itself. Buffalo lost to the NFL's best team, so I can't argue that the game didn't include the deserving champion.
My second point is the most important: Steve Young vs. Jim Kelly.
The potential quarterback matchup represented a classic bout of USFL quarterbacks finding success in the NFL.
Likewise, while the Bills had lost two Super Bowls and choked in the biggest moments, an earlier meeting between the squads showcased the potential greatness of this particular matchup.
September 13, 1992.
During a key Week 2 showdown, Buffalo traveled to the Silicon Valley to play the 49ers. The classic match was a heavyweight throw-down between two of the game's best quarterbacks.
Steve Young completed 26-of-37 passes for 449 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Jerry Rice's first-quarter concussion knocked him out of the game, making this performance even more impressive. Mike Sherrard caught six passes for 159 yards from Young.
Not to be outdone, Jim Kelly hit on 22-of-33 attempt, compiling 403 yards and three touchdowns of his own.
Both offenses controlled the football, moving down the field at seeming will. It remains the only game in NFL history with no punts.
Ultimately, Buffalo defeated the 49ers, 34-31, in the exciting contest. Fans still warmly recall two great quarterbacks going blow-for-blow until the very end.
In the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers were favored over the Dallas Cowboys, who had yet to fully prove their championship mettle. Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith celebrated instead, defeating the 49ers 30-20 and prevented an encore performance of the epic quarterback duel.
In Super Bowl XXVII, the Cowboys showed the world why they defeated San Francisco: they were the better team.
Wasting no time in dispatching the Bills (who were actually favored by many analysts prior to the game due to their experience), Dallas rolled to a 52-17 victory that would have been worse if not for showboating by Leon Lett.
Considering their apparent inability to put their helmet on straight (literally in the case of Thurman Thomas), maybe the Bills would have simply choked under the lights against San Francisco as well, despite the confidence of their earlier victory.
Either way, I'd have loved to have seen it unfold.
No. 5: The Keystone Clash (Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXIX and XLIII)
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Throughout the last decade, the Steelers and Eagles have had the opportunity to face off in the Super Bowl. Both played on championship weekend in 2001, 2004 and 2008.
Indeed, the Keystone Clash has been quite close to becoming a reality. Instead, one of the teams has fallen short in each instance.
In 2001, both Pennsylvania teams squandered chances to participate in Super Bowl XXXVI.
The Patriots upset the heavily favored Steelers, 24-17. The loss to New England during Tom Brady's first year as a starter (though Drew Bledsoe had to finish the AFC Championship) prevented the potential for two great Super Bowl matches (vs. St. Louis or Philadelphia).
Instead, the Patriots gave the Rams the classic game that fans in the Steel City hoped to witness for themselves. St. Louis defeated the Eagles one week earlier, 29-24, to win the NFC.
In 2004, the Eagles finally won the George Halas Trophy after three straight losses, 27-10, over the Atlanta Falcons. However, the Steelers didn't hold up their end of the bargain, losing to the Patriots again, 41-27. It remains the most points scored by an opponent at Heinz Field.
Lastly, the 2008 season saw the Eagles surge as a wild-card team, making it to the NFC Championship Game against the surprising Arizona Cardinals. Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald proved to be an overwhelming combination, taking a 24-6 halftime lead on three "Fitz" touchdowns.
The former Pitt Panthers star receiver prevented an all-PA Super Bowl, ultimately defeating the Eagles 32-25 before falling two weeks later to the Steelers.
A "Keystone Super Clash" would almost assuredly result in Pennsylvania college towns burning (goodbye, IUP!) and Central Pennsylvania collapsing into the ground.
No. 4: 49ers vs. Chiefs (Super Bowl XXVIII)
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Once again, those pesky Cowboys disrupted another great Super Bowl matchup including Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers. In this case, a rematch with the Bills was still on the table (see No. 6 on the countdown).
However, in 1993, an additional, far more legendary game presented itself as a possibility on championship weekend.
Joe Montana was forced out in San Francisco, and this was to the chagrin of many fans. In Kansas City, Montana's fourth-down touchdown pass against the Steelers tied the Chiefs' wild-card playoff. Pittsburgh fell in overtime.
One week later, Montana magic was at work again. The Chiefs defeated the favored Oilers 28-20, scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns, two of those touchdown passes from "Joe Cool."
Heading to Buffalo, fans knew not to underestimate arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Montana had been surgical for most of two key playoff games.
In the NFC, Steve Young, the son that most of San Francisco had not yet accepted, was preparing for a rematch with the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas had beaten the 49ers in California in the NFC Championship one year earlier.
With four possible games, who wouldn't have loved to see Joe Montana and Steve Young square off for all the marbles, forgetting the odds and only considering the game itself?
As it turns out, both men entered their conference tilts as underdogs. In the end, Vegas proved to be correct.
Kansas City fell 30-13. Or, as simple-minded fans would put it, Montana lost first.
Then, San Francisco fell in the rematch against Dallas, and the 49ers had more reason to boo their illegitimate stepson, Steve Young.
In fact, in 1994, the Young vs. Montana dream became a reality. At Arrowhead Stadium, the 49ers fell 24-17. Many fans in San Francisco actually cheered for the Chiefs and Montana.
Young used the frustrations of two seasons of upsetting losses as a catalyst, ultimately winning Super Bowl XXIX.
Sadly, his competition wasn't the Bills, nor did it include Joe Montana. Young won a classic bout with...
No. 3: Raiders vs. Cowboys (Super Bowl XII)
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The Raiders were the defending champions, favored by many to win over the "Orange Crush" in Denver in the AFC Championship Game. John Madden and Al Davis had put together a gritty, fearsome cast of rogues who won the "Raiders" way.
Just win, baby! That was the slogan. And, it meant "just win by any means necessary."
Ken Stabler. Cliff Branch. Fred Biletnikoff. Dave Casper. Jack Tatum. Willie Brown. Lester Hayes. John Matuszak. George Atkinson.
Indeed, the Silver and Black had a scary brood of talent capable of living up to their motto.
At 11-3, the Raiders played at Mile High against the 12-2 Broncos, their bitter division rivals. Despite dominating the first half (41 plays to 19), a deep Craig Morton touchdown pass gave Denver a 7-3 halftime lead.
In the second half, a controversial play likely cost the Raiders the AFC. Having driven to the Raiders 2-yard line, the Broncos handed off to fullback Rob Lytle, who lunged toward the goal line. In midair, Jack Tatum blasted Lytle, causing a fumble.
Mike McCoy picked up the football. With nothing in front of him but green grass, McCoy began his run toward a stunning 10-7 Oakland lead. With the Mile High crowd exasperated, a reprieve came. The whistle had blown.
Despite a clear turnover, the refs had blown the whistle, ruling that Lytle was down prior to the ball being jarred loose. The error was obvious, but the damage was done with no replay to correct it.
The Broncos took their 14-3 lead, holding on for a 20-17 win after a Raiders rally.
One fateful call prevented Oakland from going to Super Bowl XII. The Steelers had already lost to the Broncos one week earlier, preventing either marquee AFC franchise from meeting the Cowboys.
Luckily, fans had the opportunity to witness Cowboys vs. Steelers for the right to be named "Team of the Decade" in Super Bowls X and XIII.
Unfortunately, the Raiders never faced Dallas in the biggest game, negating the opportunity for a classic highlight reel contest in the NFL annals.
Instead, Craig Morton, a former Cowboys quarterback before the superior Roger Staubach supplanted him, and the Broncos were overwhelmed by Dallas.
Who could blame them? It's not everyday you face:
Roger Staubach. Tony Dorsett. Preston Pearson. Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson. Charlie Waters. Cliff Harris. Randy White.
The contest would have been a who's who of Hall of Fame talent, much like the Super Bowl XIII, a classic 35-31 Steelers win over the Cowboys one year later.
No. 2: Broncos vs. Vikings (Super Bowl XXXIII)
The 1998 NFL season seemed to be a collision course inevitably leading to an epic showdown between two red hot teams.
The 15-1 Vikings featured a capable defense, led by John Randle, that finished sixth in points allowed and helped the franchise to a plus-14 turnover differential.
One of the most dynamic offenses in league history was led by quarterback Randle Cunningham. The unit was anchored by running back Robert Smith, but everybody knew the real threat was rookie receiver Randy Moss.
"The Freak" was an appropriate nickname. Already stressing defensive secondaries with Cris Carter and Jake Reed, the addition of Moss made coverage assignment nearly impossible. Carter and Moss combined for 19 touchdowns. The strength of Cunningham was his ability to get the football high, where only the freakishly gifted Moss could make the reception.
The defending champion Broncos started 13-0. Their defense was stout, and quarterback John Elway was having a career year. However, unlike the Vikings notoriously talented passing attack, the Broncos' freak was Terrell Davis, running behind a yeoman-clad offensive line.
Davis broke the 2,000-yard plateau in a Denver win to finish the season.
The 14-2 Broncos and 15-1 Vikings handily defeated their divisional playoff opponents, seemingly setting up for the "next victims" to come into Mile High and the Metrodome.
For Minnesota, the opposition was the Atlanta Falcons. The underdog "Dirty Birds" trailed 27-20 late in the game, and fans realized the deficit could have easily been worse. Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed a field goal all season, came in to attempt the 38-yard kick to ice the game late.
With a 30-20 lead all but assured, the kick...went wide! Fans in stunned disbelief watched as the Falcons rallied to tie the game before winning in overtime.
In "America's Game," Cris Carter spoke to the loss, telling the audience it made him question whether or not he wanted to play football any longer.
Surprisingly, the same NFL Films series featured the '98 Broncos, and the Denver spokespersons also refer to the game, admitting that they were scoreboard watching in Minnesota more than they should have been. They attributed this lack of focus in part to their trailing the Jets, 10-0.
Ultimately, the Broncos rallied, winning 23-10 over New York.
If a championship squad admitting to rooting for a team to fall isn't sign of that team's dominance, what is?
While a bout between Denver and Minnesota would have been a heavyweight slugfest, the contest with Atlanta turned sour quickly. Ahead 24-6, John Elway and the Broncos piled it on Dan Reeves' Falcons, winning 34-19.
No. 1: Dolphins vs. Bears (Super Bowl XX)
The 1985 Bears, remembered for their dominance and stylish "Shuffle," nearly went undefeated.
Finishing the regular season 15-1, their only loss came in a classic Monday Night Football showdown in Miami—site of the NFL's lone previous undefeated squad.
Dan Marino and the Dolphins were the only team to handle the 4-6 defense with swagger, and the result was a 38-24 victory that ended the Bears' streak of 12 wins to start the season.
A season removed from his record 48-touchdown performance, many favored Marino and the Dolphins to return to the Super Bowl. When the New England Patriots earned a trip to south Florida with two straight road wins to start the playoffs, this seemed almost assured.
Super Bowl XX would likely be a great rematch, pitting a great quarterback against a legendary defense. Not too shabby...
Early in the AFC Championship, a Marino touchdown pass gave the 'Phins a 7-3 lead. Then, it all went downhill for Don Shula and company.
From that point forward, the surprising Patriots dominated. Winning 31-14, New England was the first team in league history to win three straight road games to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
The '85 Bears, a colorful group of confident players, brought their dominance into Super Bowl XX, pasting the Patriots in one of the most lopsided championships in sports history.
The 46-10 beating had fans longing for so much more, though fans in Chicago surely enjoyed every minute of the domineering victory. The Patriots offensive totals were negative early in the contest, and the relentless Bears never let off the pedal.
By the time "Refrigerator" Perry bullied his way for a demoralizing touchdown, fans had to ask:
Would this have happened to Miami?
As happened so often in Dan Marino's career, the Dolphins fell surprisingly short, and we'll never know what may have been in a potential classic rematch between Chicago and Miami.