So much discussion is made about which Super Bowl winning teams are the best, but to reach a Super Bowl, there’s no doubt a team has to be pretty good. Let’s take a look at the 10 very best teams, like the 2007 New England Patriots, that made it to the Big Game but didn’t take home the Lombardi Trophy and see where they rank.
In 1984, head coach Don Shula turned loose second-year quarterback Dan Marino, and Marino responded with one of the greatest seasons ever for a quarterback. The Dolphins won their first 11 games of the season riding Marino’s passing and would score no fewer than 21 points in a game all season. Miami scored 30 or more points in a game 10 times during the season. Miami led the NFL in offense scoring 513 points and finished with an impressive 14-2 record.
Marino threw for a record 5,084 yards and a record 48 touchdowns and had a passer rating of 108.9. Marino’s primary targets were the Marks brothers, Mark Clayton, who caught 73 passes for 1,389 yards and 18 touchdowns, and Mark Duper who had 1,306 yards receiving.
Marino was named NFL MVP, and the Dolphins had eight players named to the Pro Bowl: Marino, Clayton, Duper, center Dwight Stevenson, guard Ed Newman, defensive tackle Bob Baumhower, linebacker A.J. Duhe and punter Reggie Roby.
The 1984 Miami Dolphins would lose to the 15-1 San Francisco 49ers 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX.
The 1997 Green Bay Packers and head coach Mike Holmgren were looking to repeat as Super Bowl Champions after beating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXII. Things were looking bright as the Packers had a 13-3 regular season record and had the highest scoring offense in the NFC scoring 422 points on the season, which was second most in the NFL.
Packers quarterback Brett Favre was named the league’s MVP for the third year in a row as he threw for 3,867 yards which led the NFC and led the NFL in touchdown passes with 35.
Packers running back Dorsey Levens was second in the NFC in rushing with 1,435 yards, and wide receiver Antonio Freeman had 81 receptions for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Packers would have six players named to the Pro Bowl: Favre, Levens, tight end Mark Chmura, defensive end Reggie White, defensive back Leroy Butler and special teams specialist Travis Jervey.
The Packers wouldn’t repeat though, losing to John Elway and the Denver Broncos 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Head coach Marv Levy directed the Buffalo Bills to their first Super Bowl that season, and to the next three Super Bowls as well, but never brought back a Lombardi Trophy.
In 1990, the Buffalo Bills had the highest scoring offense in the NFL scoring 428 points and quarterback Jim Kelly led the AFC in completion percentage with a 63.3 percent completion rate and had the highest passer rating in the NFL at 101.2. Catching Kelly’s downfield passes were wide outs James Lofton and Andre Reed.
Running back Thurman Thomas was the leading rusher in the AFC rushing for 1,297 yards. He also led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage for the second consecutive season with 1,829 yards.
The Bills were good defensively as well. Defensive end Bruce Smith had 19 sacks and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and linebackers Darryl Talley and Shane Conlan also were named to the Pro Bowl.
Kelly, Thomas, Lofton and Reed and center Jim Richter were named to the Pro Bowl on offense and special teams specialist Steve Tasker made it as well.
In one of the most competitive Super Bowl games ever, the Bills lost to the New York Giants 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV when Scott Norwood’s last second field goal missed wide right.
The 2001 Rams were coached by Mike Martz, and he led the Rams to an NFL best 14-2 record and the highest scoring offense in the NFL scoring 503 points. The Rams were held under 24 points only twice during the regular season.
Lovie Smith was brought in from Tampa Bay to be the Rams defensive coordinator, and the Rams went from giving up 471 points the year before to giving up 273 under Smith’s defensive watch.
Led by All-Pro quarterback Kurt Warner the Rams offense was rightfully known as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Warner had an incredible season, leading the NFL in yards passing, 4,830; touchdowns, 36; completion percentage, 68.7 percent; and passer rating, 101.4. It was no surprise that Warner was named league MVP.
His downfield weapons were wide receivers Terry Holt, who had 1,363 yards receiving, and Isaac Bruce, who averaged 17.3 yards per catch, second best in the NFC. Both Holt and Bruce were named to the Pro Bowl.
When Warner wanted to hand off, he often did so to another Pro Bowler in Marshall Faulk. Faulk rushed for 1,382 yards to keep defenses from gearing up to play against the pass. Faulk also caught 83 passes for 765 yards and nine touchdowns for a total of 2,147 yards from scrimmage. Faulk’s ability to catch and run with the football in the open field provided Martz and the Rams with a mismatch advantage over most linebackers.
Other Pro Bowlers from the ’01 Rams were offensive tackle Orlando Pace and cornerback Aeneas Williams.
Despite their incredible offense, the Rams were upset by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI 20-17.
In 1971, head coach Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins were only a year away from their two-year reign as Super Bowl champs. With a defense led by linebacker Nick Buoniconti, the Dolphins “No-Name” Defense" gave up only 174 points all season, which was third fewest in the NFL.
The most points scored against the Dolphins in a game was 21, and that was the only time any team scored more than 14 points against the No-Name Defense that season. In fact, in seven of their 14 games, the Dolphins limited their opponents to just 10 points or less.
On offense, the Dolphins were led by bruising fullback Larry Csonka, who rushed for 1,051 yards rushing, averaging 5.39 yards per carry. Mercury Morris provided Miami with speed to the outside on the ground. Efficient quarterback Bob Griese threw to Paul Warfield who had 11 touchdowns and averaged 23.2 yards per reception.
The Dolphins had seven players named to the Pro Bowl: Csonka, Griese, Warfield, Morris, guard Larry Little, defensive end Bill Stanfill and safety Jake Scott.
In the playoffs, the Dolphins would defeat the Kansas City Chiefs on the road 27-24 in one of the greatest playoff games ever, a double-overtime thriller, and the following week they defeated the Baltimore Colts in the AFC Championship Game 21-0.
The Dolphins went on and then lost to the Dallas Cowboys 24-3 in Super Bowl VI.
The 1969 Minnesota Vikings at 12-2 had the best record in the NFL and had a 12-game winning streak during the season. They also scored the most points in both leagues with 379 and allowed the fewest points in all of football giving up only 133 points during the regular season.
The Vikings gave up only 20 or more points in a game once all season, that being 24 in their opening game loss to the New York Giants. After Week 1, no team would score more than 14 points against Minnesota all season and nine opponents were held to 10 points or less. The Vikings defense also had an amazing 30 interceptions.
The Vikings on offense were led by quarterback Joe Kapp. Kapp, known for his leadership and running ability more so than his passing, led the Vikings to score more than 50 points three times during the 1969 season.
Ten Vikings were named to the Pro Bowl: wide receiver Gene Washington, tackle Grady Alderman, center Mick Tinglehoff, kicker Fred Cox, and six members from the defense, defensive ends Carl Eller and Jim Marshall, defensive tackle Alan page, cornerback Bobby Bryant, and safeties Paul Krause and Karl Kassulke.
Six members of the ’69 Vikings are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: head coach Bud Grant, Tarkenton, Eller, Page, Krause and tackle Ron Yary.
The Vikings lost 23-7 to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV despite being a 13-point favorite.
A third Don Shula-coached team makes the list this time at No. 4.
The 1968 Baltimore Colts had the best record in the NFL at 13-1, and they allowed the fewest points in the NFL allowing only 144 points scored against them. In fact, 10 of the Colts’ 14 opponents were held to 10 points or less a game.
Quarterback Earl Morrall threw for 2,909 yards which was second best in the NFL, and he led the league in touchdown passes with 26.
Eleven players from the Colts were named to the Pro Bowl: tight end John Mackey, end Willie Richardson, Morrall, guards Glenn Ressler and Dan Sullivan, and from the defense were defensive end Bubba Smith and defensive line mate Billy Ray Smith, linebacker Mike Curtis, cornerback Bobby Boyd, and safeties Jerry Logan and Rick Volk.
The Colts won the NFL Championship defeating the Cleveland Browns 34-0. Winning the Super Bowl seemed like a mere formality, but in one of the great upsets in all of sports history, the Colts, favored by 18 points, lost to Joe Namath and the New York Jets 16-7 in Super Bowl III.
The 1983 Washington Redskins were defending Super Bowl champions, having beaten the Miami Dolphins the year before in Super Bowl XVII and future Hall-of-Fame coach Joe Gibbs had the team to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
The ‘83 Redskins set a then NFL-record for points scored with 541. The trigger-man for the Redskins offense was quarterback Joe Theismann. Theismann threw for 3,714 yards, completing 60.1 percent of his passes, 78 of them to wide receiver Charlie Brown. Brown had 1,225 yards receiving on the season.
Washington could move the football on the ground in addition to through the air. Running through holes opened up by Washington’s famed offensive line known as the Hogs, John Riggins ran for 1,347 yards and set a then NFL-record for rushing touchdowns with 24. The Redskins also had dynamic all-purpose back Joe Washington who provided the speed to compliment Riggins’ power.
The Redskins set an NFL record for turnover differential that still stands. Washington had an amazing +43 turnover differential.
On defense the Redskins had stalwarts such as defensive lineman Dexter Manley and cornerback Darrell Green.
The Redskins had seven players named to the Pro Bowl: from the Hogs, center Jeff Bostic, guard Russ Grimm and tackle Joe Jacoby, Theismann and Brown. Defensive tackle Dave Butz and free safety Mark Murphy also were named to the Pro Bowl.
The Los Angeles Raiders would avenge an earlier season defeat to the Redskins, beating them 38-9 in Super Bowl XVIII.
The ’83 Redskins were one of the best teams ever to lose a Super Bowl. If you disagree with me, just ask Joe Theismann.
Under the direction of head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots were trying to win their fourth Super Bowl in seven years. The 2007 New England Patriots would go on to become the first team to go undefeated in a 16-game regular season.
With Tom Brady at quarterback, the Patriots were an offensive machine in 2007. New England set a record for points scored with 589. The Patriots scored no fewer than 34 points in each of their first eight games of the season and scored over 30 points in all but four games. Brady would set an NFL record with 50 touchdown passes on the season, completing 68.9 percent of his passes for 4,806 yards.
Wide receivers Wes Walker would lead the NFL in receptions with 112 for 1,175 yards, while Randy Moss would set an NFL record with 23 touchdown receptions. Moss had 98 receptions on the year for 1,493 yards.
New England had eight players named to the Pro Bowl: Brady, Walker, Moss, tackle Matt Light, guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen. From the defense linebacker Mike Vrabel, tackle Vince Wilfork and cornerback Asante Samuel were Pro Bowlers.
The Patriots, who were a 14-point favorite, were upset by the New York Giants 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII.
The 2007 Patriots were one of three teams to go 18-1, joining the 1984 San Francisco 49ers and the 1985 Chicago Bears, both of whom won their respective Super Bowls.
There are many who will say the 2007 Patriots were the best team ever to lose in a Super Bowl. If the 2007 New York Giants, just 10-6 during the regular season and perhaps the worst team ever to win a Super Bowl could defeat the Patriots, then my No. 1 team surely would.
The 1978 Dallas Cowboys were defending Super Bowl champions having defeated the Denver Broncos convincingly the year before in Super Bowl XII, and head coach Tom Landry directed the Cowboys to a 12-4 record during the regular season.
The Cowboys led the NFL in scoring with 384 points scored and gave up the fewest points in the NFC giving up 208 points on the season. The Cowboys also led the NFL in rushing and in fewest rushing yards allowed. Not only could the Cowboys stop the run, but they also led the NFL in sacks as well and Dallas held nine of their opponents to 10 points or less.
Quarterback Roger Staubach threw for 3,190 yards and 25 touchdowns and was the NFL’s passing leader. Running back Tony Dorsett rushed for 1,325 yards and had a 4.6 rushing average.
Tight end Billy Joe DuPree had nine touchdowns, which tied for first in touchdown receptions in the NFC.
The Cowboys had nine All-Pros: wide receiver Tony Hill, DuPree, Staubach and Dorsett, and on defense defensive tackle Randy White, defensive end Harvey Martin, linebacker Tom Henderson, and safeties Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters.
Dallas shut out the Los Angeles Rams in Los Angeles 28-0 in the NFC Championship game. In Super Bowl XIII, the Dallas Cowboys lost to the team many believe is the greatest of all-time, the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, 35-31.
You can read in greater detail in my article: Why the 1978 Dallas Cowboys Were Better Than the 2007 New England Patriots.