It's only fitting that two of the best teams in the NFL are the ones that meet in the Super Bowl at season's end to play for the Lombardi Trophy. That has not always been the case, however, in the Super Bowl's 56-year history.
As these teams can attest, just because you are playing on Super Sunday doesn't mean your squad is championship-caliber. The New England Patriots make a couple of appearances below, but that's somewhat a byproduct of playing in the most Super Bowls (11) of any franchise.
Athlon Sports' 10 Worst Teams to Play in a Super Bowl
1. 1985 New England Patriots
Super Bowl result: Lost 46-10 to Chicago in Super Bowl XX
New England went 11-5 in the regular season to earn a wild-card berth, getting hot at the right time. The Patriots won eight out of nine during one stretch and then rode their defense late in the season and in the playoffs. New England forced 16 turnovers in its three postseason victories, including six against Miami in the AFC Championship game. An opportunistic defense carried an inconsistent offense all season long, at least up until the Super Bowl.
Despite taking an early 3-0 lead, Chicago scored 44 straight points and thoroughly dominated New England in posting the biggest victory in Super Bowl history at the time. For the game, the Patriots managed 123 total yards on offense, including just seven yards rushing, turned the ball over six times and gave up seven sacks.
2. 1979 Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl result: Lost 31-19 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIV
Credit Los Angeles for taking full advantage of its schedule and division, as the Rams (9-7) won the NFC West even though they beat only two teams that finished with a winning record. The offense was marginal, as their quarterbacks combined for a 19:29 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the regular season, and the team finished with a negative (-8) turnover differential.
In the postseason, Los Angeles downed Dallas 21-19 in the Divisional round thanks to a tipped pass that resulted in a 50-yard touchdown with 2:06 remaining. In the NFC Championship against Tampa Bay, the Rams' offense managed just three field goals, but that was more than enough thanks to a stifling defensive effort that held the Buccaneers to zero points, just five completed passes and seven first downs.
The first team to make the Super Bowl having won just nine games in the regular season, Los Angeles hung with defending world champion Pittsburgh for the first three quarters. The Rams held a three-point lead at halftime and went ahead by two in the third quarter, only to watch the Steelers score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 31-19 win. If not for three interceptions by Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Super Bowl XIV may not have ended up as close as it did.
3. 2003 Carolina Panthers
Super Bowl result: Lost 32-29 to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII
This Carolina team mastered the art of winning the close one. Champions of the NFC South with an 11-5 record, the Panthers won just two games in the regular season by more than six points. Seven of the victories were by three points or fewer, as the team’s point differential was plus-21, or 1.3 per game. The Panthers out-rushed their opponents, but this was mainly due to the fact they had nearly 100 more rushing attempts. Still the ground game produced just nine rushing touchdowns (opponents had 10), while quarterback Jake Delhomme posted a 19:16 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The Panthers seemed to get all of the breaks in the postseason, starting with a 29-23 double-overtime victory in St. Louis in the NFC Divisional round. Carolina squandered an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Rams that included St. Louis head coach Mike Martz opting to hold the ball for a game-tying field goal even though the Rams were inside the 20 with less than a minute remaining and still had one time out. Both teams missed field goals in the first overtime session, as John Kasay made his 40-yard attempt only to find out it didn’t count due to a delay of game penalty on the Panthers. He then missed the subsequent 45-yard attempt. Delhomme took matters into his own hand at the start of the second overtime period, hitting Steve Smith for the game-winning, 69-yard touchdown only 10 seconds into it. Carolina’s defense came up big on the road in the NFC title game against Philadelphia, injuring Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and picking off four passes in the 14-3 win.
Carolina’s reward for earning the franchise’s first NFC crown was a Super Bowl XXXVIII matchup with New England. The game was scoreless until 3:05 left in the second quarter, when the teams combined for 24 points, including a 50-yard Kasay field goal that cut the Patriots’ lead to 14-10 at the half. All the other scoring took place in the fourth quarter, including Delhomme’s game-tying touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left, but Kasay proceeded to kick the ball out of the bounds. Tom Brady got the ball on the 40-yard line and six plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning 41-yard field goal with just four ticks remaining. While the final score may have been close, New England dominated the box score, outgaining Carolina by nearly 100 yards (481-387) and nearly doubling the Panthers in first downs (29 to 17).
4. 2008 Arizona Cardinals
Super Bowl result: Lost 27-23 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII
The greatest season in Arizona Cardinals franchise history is largely the product of great timing and having all of the breaks go your way, at least up until the game that counts the most. Arizona won the NFC West with a 9-7 record that included a spotless divisional mark (6-0) thanks to one of the top scoring offenses in the league at 26.7 points per game.
The flip side of this, however, is the fact that the rest of the division went a combined 13-35, as the Cardinals beat just two teams in the regular season that finished with a winning record and stumbled into the postseason losing four of their final six games. A suspect defense (team outscored opponents just one point in the regular season), caught a break in the Wild Card Round when it got to face Atlanta rookie quarterback Matt Ryan making his first career playoff start on the road. The Cardinals then got plenty of help from Carolina’s Jake Delhomme, who tossed five interceptions at home in their Divisional Round matchup. Arizona claimed its first conference championship with a 32-25 home victory over No. 6 seed Philadelphia, thanks to a late Kurt Warner touchdown pass and despite being outgained by the Eagles (454 to 369).
In the Super Bowl, Arizona had its chance to completely cash in on all of its good fortune, fighting back from a 13-point, third-quarter deficit against Pittsburgh to take a 23-20 lead on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Larry Fitzgerald with less than three minutes remaining. Alas, it was not meant to be, as Ben Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes in the end zone with 42 seconds left for one of the more memorable plays in Super Bowl history, much to the chagrin of the Cardinals and their fans.
5. 1994 San Diego Chargers
Super Bowl result: Lost 49-26 to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX
San Diego won the AFC West with an 11-5 record, and its losses were by seven or fewer points except for one. That one game, you ask? It was a 38-15 loss to San Francisco in Week 15. Foreshadowing perhaps? This was not a powerful team by any stretch, as the Chargers’ point differential (+75) translated into an average of fewer than five points per game, and the ground game averaged less than four yards per carry.
San Diego's defense carried the team throughout the season, and especially in the playoffs. The Chargers came back from a 21-6 halftime deficit to Miami in the AFC Divisional round, winning the game 22-21 on a touchdown pass with 35 seconds left followed by a missed 48-yard field goal by the Dolphins with one second on the clock. In the AFC Championship game, San Diego trailed Pittsburgh 13-3 at one point only to take a 17-13 lead with 5:13 remaining. The Chargers needed one final goal-line stand with just over a minute left to finish the job, despite being outgained by a wide margin (415 to 226) and having the ball less than 23 minutes.
San Diego entered Super Bowl XXIX against San Francisco as the biggest underdog ever (18.5 points) and lived up to that billing. Steve Young threw four of his Super Bowl-record six touchdown passes in the first half, as the closest the Chargers ever were to the 49ers in this one was 14-7 late in the first quarter. The 49ers led 42-10 with less than five minutes left in the third before the Chargers scored two meaningless touchdowns. This game still holds the records for most combined points (75) and total touchdowns (10) in Super Bowl history, with the majority of the damage (49 and 7) done by game MVP Young and his 49ers.
6. 1987 Denver Broncos
Super Bowl result: Lost 42-10 to Washington in Super Bowl XXII
Denver took full advantage of a strike-shortened season, not to mention three games played with replacement players, to win the AFC West with a 10-4-1 record. Quarterback John Elway led one of the more productive passing offenses in the league, but the Broncos' rushing offense (3.9 ypc) lagged behind. The Broncos needed another miracle (see No. 8 below) to get past Cleveland in the AFC title game, this time at home. And just like what took place the previous season with "The Drive," the Browns delivered once again, as a late fumble sealed the Broncos’ 38-33 win and return trip to the Super Bowl. But Denver's third Super Bowl trip was anything but a charm. The Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead on Washington in the first quarter, only to watch the Redskins storm back with 35 points in the second quarter. Washington finished with a Super Bowl-record 602 total yards, including a record 280 yards rushing, in the rout. Denver was outgained by its opponent in all three of its playoff games, so perhaps the end result against Washington wasn’t all that surprising after all.
7. 1996 New England Patriots
Super Bowl result: Lost 35-21 to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI
Before the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady reign began in New England, the head coach-star quarterback pairing was Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe. However, this Patriots team relied more on defense than offense, as it won the AFC East with an 11-5 record. Bledsoe did throw for more than 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns in the regular season, but the defense allowed just as many yards through the air. New England's D was much more stout against the run, giving up less than 94 yards rushing per game, but its own ground attack fared even worse (92 ypg).
New England got a major break in the playoffs when Jacksonville upset top-seeded Denver (13-3) at home in the Divisional round. The Patriots then dispatched of the upstart Jaguars 20-6 at home to earn the franchise’s second AFC crown. Even though the offense sputtered against Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI, the Patriots hung around until the Packers scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter. Bledsoe threw four interceptions and the Patriots finished with a grand total of 43 yards rushing, as the Packers sealed the deal with MVP Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the latter part of the third quarter.
8. 1986 Denver Broncos
Super Bowl result: Lost 39-20 to New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI
Denver got off to a 6-0 start to the season but finished just 5-5. The Broncos’ 11-5 record was good enough to win the AFC West, thanks to a defense that led the conference in rushing yards allowed. The problem for the Broncos’ offense, however, was that it only generated 27 more yards on the ground than their defense gave up. After getting by New England 22-17 at home in the Divisional round, quarterback John Elway orchestrated “The Drive” late in the fourth quarter in Cleveland to get the Broncos to their second Super Bowl. Unfortunately, this one ended like the franchise’s first big game appearance (vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XII in 1978), as the Broncos managed just 52 yards rushing and Elway got sacked four times (one went for a safety) in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
9. 1992 Buffalo Bills
Super Bowl result: Lost 52-17 to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII
This Buffalo team maintained the Bills’ run in the AFC, capturing the East division title with an 11-5 record, powered by the NFL’s top rushing offense and third-ranked scoring offense (23.8 ppg). The defense was average in terms of where it ranked in points allowed but generally got the job done. A third straight trip to the Super Bowl almost didn’t happen, however, as Buffalo trailed Houston 35-3 early in the third quarter of its wild-card game. Backup quarterback Frank Reich, filling in for an injured Jim Kelly, orchestrated what became known as “The Comeback” with the Bills pulling out a 41-38 victory in overtime.
Buffalo then easily defeated Pittsburgh and Miami by a combined score of 53-13 to reach its third straight Super Bowl, this time against Dallas. The Bills held a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, only to watch the Cowboys score the next 17 points and pile on 21 more in the fourth quarter. As talented and good as this Dallas team was, Buffalo could ill afford to give the Cowboys many breaks, which the Bills certainly did. The Bills turned it over a Super Bowl-record nine times, including five fumbles, which led to 35 of the 52 points the Cowboys scored.
10. 2000 New York Giants
Super Bowl result: Lost 34-7 to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV
After losing two games in a row in early November, New York’s record stood at 7-4. Undeterred, head coach Jim Fassel guaranteed that this team would not miss the playoffs. He made good on that promise as the Giants won their last five, albeit just one of those victories came against a team that finished with a winning record, to capture the NFC East title.
Similar to Baltimore, their eventual opponent in the Super Bowl, this Giants team was built around defense. The G-Men held opponents to 15.4 points per game and less than 1,200 yards rushing total (72.3 ypg) during the regular season. This was especially the case in the playoffs, as the Giants yielded a total of 10 points in wins over Philadelphia and Minnesota, including shutting out the Vikings in the NFC Championship game by holding them to 114 total yards and forcing five turnovers.
The problem for the Giants, however, was their offense and this was especially the case in Super Bowl XXXV against the Ravens. Baltimore’s defense, considered one of the best in the history of the game, kept the Giants’ offense scoreless, as their only points in the game came on a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Ron Dixon in the third quarter. For the game, the Giants’ offense mustered a total of 152 yards and quarterback Kerry Collins was responsible for four (all INTs) of the Giants’ five turnovers.