Lovable Losers? NFL Teams with a Losing Streak that Made it to the Super Bowl

This is Part 3 of a series about teams who make it to the Super Bowl after overcoming regular-season struggles.  Part 1 and Part 2 can be found here and here.

This post will look at the Super Bowl teams that sustained the longest losing streaks during the regular season. DVOA analysis will be given for the post-1991 teams. The first team listed is the one with the losing streak.

 

Super Bowl XIV  

Los Angeles Rams (9-7) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Final Result: Steelers 31, Rams 19

 

Super Bowl XXXV  

Baltimore Ravens (12-4) vs. New York Giants (12-4)

Final Result: Ravens 34, Giants 7

 

Super Bowl XXXVII

Oakland Raiders (11-5) vs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4)

Final Result: Buccaneers 48, Raiders 21

 

Super Bowl XXXVIII

Carolina Panthers (11-5) vs. New England Patriots (14-2)

Final Result: Patriots 32, Panthers 29

 

Super Bowl XL  

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) vs. Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Final Result: Steelers 21, Seahawks 10

 

Super Bowl XLIV  

New Orleans Saints (13-3) vs. Indianapolis Colts (14-2) 

Final Result: Saints 31, Colts 17

 

Six teams have gone to the Super Bowl in the past 45 years after losing three or more consecutive games at some point in their season. The losing streak generally came mid-season. All but one team lost three games in a row—a single team lost four games in a row. So far, no team has had a losing streak longer than four games and made it to the Super Bowl. However, as crazy as this year has been so far, it wouldn't surprise me to see that statistic overturned. Who knows—we might be watching the Totally Non-PC Names Bowl between Washington and Kansas City. Probably not, though.

But to return to history, the majority of the teams with a three-game losing streak won the Super Bowl. The sole team with four losses missed out on the Lombardi. Here is a bit more about those Super Bowls.

 

First up are the 1979 Los Angeles Rams. They lost all three games in Weeks 7-9, as well as four others, including the first and last game of the season. They were the first team to go to the Super Bowl with such a poor regular-season record. This record has never been bested, although the 2007 Cardinals tied it. The Rams never made it to the Super Bowl again until after they moved to St. Louis.

The tale of that team reads like Greek mythology, with the owner mysteriously drowning just before the start of the season and a power struggle between the second wife and the owner's son ending with the (possibly evil) stepmother in the ascendant.

They lost their starting quarterback slightly more than halfway through the season, and his successor was nothing to write home about, completing less than 50% of his passes. Yet they won six of their last seven games, and won all of their playoff games, largely due to a great running back and a stifling defense.

In the end, though, they were no match for Pittsburgh. The Men of Steel had managed to limit their playoff opponents to 35 rushing yards. That is the total for two playoff games against two of the best backs in the NFL. One of the backs was Earl Campbell, the 1979 rushing leader—he gained almost 1700 yards during the regular season.

However, the Rams put up a terrific fight, and the lead changed seven times during the game, still a Super Bowl record. In fact, the Rams were leading by two points at the beginning of the fourth quarter, thanks in part to Terry Bradshaw's generosity—he threw three interceptions during the game. But the Steelers' defense pitched a shut-out in the fourth quarter. Terry Bradshaw threw a long bomb to John Stallworth which he ran in for a touchdown. Then Jack Lambert intercepted the Rams' quarterback to give the ball back to the Steelers with 5:24 left in the game, and a Franco Harris run into the endzone put the game away.

 

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens split the regular-season games with the Steelers, but the Steelers began the season with three losses and ended up 9-7, third in the division. The Ravens' three-game losing streak came right at mid-season, in Weeks 7-9. They entered the playoffs as a wild card.

The offense was pedestrian at best, but the defense was legendary. They were the only team in NFL history since the change to a 16-game season to allow less than 1000 total rushing yards for the season. The 165 points they allowed for the season broke the 1985 Chicago Bears' long-held record of 187 points. They shut out four teams—the Steelers in Week 1, the Bengals and Browns in Weeks 4 and 5, and the Cowboys in Week 12.

During the playoffs they allowed only a single touchdown and three field goals, in all three playoff games combined.

The Giants were nothing to sneeze at, though, as they beat the Eagles 20-10 and shut out the Vikings 41-0 to make it to the Super Bowl.

In the end, the Ravens stomped all over the Giants, with a final score of 34-7—a score that somehow seems strangely repugnant to me. Ray Lewis was the MVP—something else I don't want to dwell upon.

In a series of three consecutive plays, Super Bowl history was made when three touchdowns were scored, one after another. The first was a pick-6 by a Baltimore DB; the second was a kickoff return, giving the Giants their sole score. The Giant's kickoff to the Ravens was also returned for a touchdown, in a display that has never been matched.

So how does the DVOA stack up for these two teams? The Ravens were ranked No. 3 overall; although their Trent Dilfer-led offense was only No. 23, their defense was No. 2 and their special teams No. 3. Both units came up big for them in the game. The Giants were No. 10 overall, with the 8th-ranked offense, the No. 12 defense, and a woeful special teams ranking of No. 27. However, their Weighted DVOA moved up to put them at No. 9, while the Ravens moved down to No. 5. An interesting indicator of the relative strengths of the two teams is shown in the Pythagorean Wins column. The Ravens and the Giants were both 12-4 teams, but the Ravens' expected win total was 13.5, while New York's expected win total was 10.6, putting them at about a three-game differential.

 

The 2002 Oakland Raiders are the sole team with four consecutive losses. Beginning in Week 6 they lost every game until Week 10. However, two of those games were decided by less than a touchdown, in overtime.

The Buccaneers began their season with a loss, and so the DVOA analysis can be found here.  I'll just note that despite the 4-game losing streak Oakland was still the No. 2 ranked team that season, according to DVOA. But apparently they were no match for No. 1 Tampa Bay. Oakland put three points on the board first, and never again held the lead.

It probably didn't help them that their coach for the previous season, Jon Gruden, had jumped ship and was now the coach of—yes, Tampa Bay. Since Oakland hadn't changed their audible signals, Tampa Bay knew all the line calls. And naturally Gruden had coached the Buccaneers as to the plays they might expect to see. So it's hardly surprising that the Raiders didn't stand a chance.

 

The 2003 Panthers lost three consecutive games, in Weeks 12-14. A full DVOA and game analysis can be found here, as the Patriots began their season with a loss.

 

The 2005 Super Bowl was not the Steelers' best effort, but they won. They had a three-game losing streak during the regular season, losing the three games in Weeks 11-13. An additional two losses gave them an 11-5 record.

Let's look at those losses a bit more closely, though. The first was a Week 3 loss to the Patriots, by three points. That is the smallest point differential between the two teams in the last decade:

2001: Patriots @ Steelers, AFC Championship; L 17-24.

2003: Steelers @ Patriots, Week 1; L 14-30.

2004: Patriots @ Steelers, Week 8; W 34-20

2004: Patriots @ Steelers, AFC Championship; L 27-41

2007: Steelers @ Patriots, Week 14; L 13-34

2008: Steelers @ Patriots, Week 13; W 33-10

2010: Patriots @ Steelers, Week 10; L 26-39

The Week 3 game saw the Patriots taking the lead first. They held it for precisely 9 seconds, as the 2nd play of the ensuing series was an 85-yard bomb to Hines Ward for a touchdown. The Steelers then took the lead five minutes later and didn't relinquish it until 10:46 in the 4th quarter. The game-winning field goal was not kicked until the last 35 seconds of the game.

The Steelers also lost in Week 6 to the Jaguars, in overtime. Week 11 was the first of the 3-game slide, with an overtime loss @ the Ravens, 13-16.  In Weeks 12 and 13 they lost @ Indianapolis and to the Bengals at Heinz Field, undoubtedly creating the usual predictions of doom in Steeler Nation. After that it was a clean sweep through the rest of the regular season, ending with their fifth Lombardi.

The Seahawks began the season with a loss, and so the DVOA analysis can be found here.  The main point is that even though the Seahawks looked like the better team, the Steelers had a significantly better defense and special teams, and in the end it put them over the top.

 

And finally, the 2009 Saints. Long known as the "Ain'ts," their fans were easily identified by the paper bags they wore over their heads to avoid detection and the consequent ridicule. A franchise since 1967, it had taken the Saints 27 years to post a winning season, and this was their first-ever Super Bowl appearance.  

The Colts were 4 1/2 point favorites in the Super Bowl, and the first half appeared to be playing out as expected. Indianapolis put up 10 points, while the Saints didn't manage to get on the scoreboard until the 2nd quarter. Even so, they only managed two field goals, taking a four-point deficit into halftime.

But the Saints' offense came alive in the third quarter, and although the Colts put up a touchdown to maintain a 1-point lead, the Saints' 15 points in the fourth quarter were unanswered, setting off a party in New Orleans that probably hasn't completely ended.

So how did the teams match up?  The Saints made it onto this list because they lost their last three games, from Week 15-17. Those were their only losses of the season. The Week 16 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a 17-20 overtime loss. The Week 17 game was a 10-23 loss to the 8-8 Panthers. However, the Saints had already locked up the No. 1 seed, and rested their starters.

Still, the 14-2 Colts looked like the better team, until one looks at the numbers. New Orleans was ranked No. 6 in overall DVOA, with the No. 2 offense and the No. 14 defense. Their biggest weakness was special teams, at No. 28. The Colts were No. 8 overall, but even their vaunted offense fell short of the Saints at No. 6. Their defense was slightly poorer at No. 15, and only their special teams showed up as superior to the Saints at No. 20. Both teams took a nose-dive in the Weighted DVOA, with New Orleans falling to No. 13 and Indianapolis falling to No. 14.

The most revealing statistic is perhaps the Pythagoren wins. New Orleans won more than one game over their expected wins (11.6,) but the Colts won a whopping 3.2 games more than expected, at 10.8 expected wins. In the end, though, I suppose you could attribute it to Drew Brees' superior Clutchness Factor, vaulting him over The Great Peyton Manning.  Or maybe it was just the universe cutting New Orleans some slack.

 

Next up—the teams with the worst record to reach the Super Bowl, and the best teams that didn't make it.

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