They had the stars, the swagger and the sparkling record to prove it. Then, poof, it was gone.
No Super Bowl ring, no parade, no trip to the White House. Nothing but a long off-season—or a lifetime in some cases—of what might have been.
Cam Newton and the rest of his “Dabbin'” dancing, selfie-with-the-clock-still-running Carolina Panthers will try to avoid the same fate the 2007 Patriots or the 1968 Colt, teams whose seemingly inevitable coronation instead turned into a crowning moment for the underdog.
Hey, at least the Panthers are still playing, right? For some in the following group—the best clubs to not win it all—the curtain fell long before the final act.
1968 BALTIMORE COLTS
Don Shula’s first truly great team came four years before he led the Miami Dolphins to perfection. With the Green Bay Packers dynasty in its twilight, the Colts picked up the mantle of NFL’s best and ran with it. They steamrolled through a 13-1 regular season behind league MVP Earl Morrall—subbing for Johnny Unitas—and a defense that allowed just over 10 points per game. How good were the Colts? Only three of their 16 games before their Super Bowl showdown with the Jets were decided by less than 10 points.
Yet that dominance disguised a penchant for sloppiness. Baltimore turned it over 34 times in the regular season and that carelessness cost them in the Super Bowl against Joe Namath and the upstart Jets. Morrall threw three picks and Unitas another. A pair of missed field goals by normally reliable Lou Michaels didn’t help and the Colts went from 18-point favorites to watching Namath jog into the tunnel before the stunned crowd at the Orange Bowl, his right index finger pointed in the air in triumph.
1983 WASHINGTON REDSKINS
The defending Super Bowl champions proved their title during the strike-marred 1982 season was no fluke. The Redskins went 14-2, with both losses coming by a single point, while setting a then-NFL record for points in a season. Joe Theismann won the league’s MVP Award while John Riggins (aka “The Diesel”) ran for 24 touchdowns at age 34. The defense produced 61 takeaways and a plus-43 turnover margin that will likely never be challenged let alone broken. The cracks, however, started to show in an NFC Championship win over San Francisco. The 49ers and Joe Montana scored three times in the fourth quarter to tie it before a late Mark Moseley field goal sent the Redskins to Tampa Bay. The magic that carried the Redskins vanished against Oakland. The Raiders and Marcus Allen stormed to a 38-9 victory that truly didn’t feel that close.
1990 BUFFALO BILLS
The Bills and their Hall of Fame laden roster put it all together in 1990. Quarterback Jim Kelly and Buffalo’s “K-Gun” offense that included Thurman Thomas, James Lofton and Andre Reed led the league in scoring. Bruce Smith and Darryl Talley were permanent fixtures in opposing backfields. The Bills beat the Raiders 51-3 in the AFC Championship game and when the New York Giants upset two-time defending champion San Francisco in the NFC title game, Buffalo was on the verge of its first Super Bowl title. It never happened. The Giants controlled the ball masterfully and when Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal on the game’s penultimate play started right and stayed right, the Bills were 20-19 losers, the first of four straight losses on the final Sunday of the season.
1998 MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Brad Johnson’s broken leg was supposed to doom the Vikings. Instead, they took off behind Randall Cunningham. His legs not quite as spry as they were during his prime in Philadelphia a decade earlier, it hardly mattered. With Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Robert Smith at his disposal, Cunningham orchestrated an offense that averaged 35 points a game. A Super Bowl showdown with Denver looming, instead the Vikings folded. Gary Anderson’s only missed field goal of the season helped Atlanta force overtime. Morten Anderson’s winner in the extra session forced the Vikings to watch Denver’s demolition of the Falcons two weeks later on TV while wondering “what if?” That is if Minnesota players could stand to watch it at all.
2007 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Where do you start? The perfect record? Tom Brady and Randy Moss’ otherworldly chemistry? The way they gleefully dominated games as if trying to prove a point? The Giants had the answer in the Super Bowl, spoiling New England’s bid for history by getting pressure in his face and more than a little help from David Tyree’s epic helmet grab. Still, if Brady’s 65-yard heave to Moss on New England’s final drive was a few inches longer, maybe Moss comes down with it and the ’72 Dolphins have company in the group of best ever.
1976 Pittsburgh Steelers: Defense allowed two touchdowns over final nine weeks of regular season. Injury ravaged club fell to Raiders in AFC title game.
2001 St. Louis Rams: “The Greatest Show on Turf” came undone against Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
2005 Indianapolis Colts: A 13-0 start ended with zero playoff wins when the Steelers upset them in the divisional round.
2011 Green Bay Packers: Another 13-0 start and another early exit when Eli Manning and the Giants blew them out in the divisional round.