He Ain't Pretty, But He's Ours...
Here is the final post in the series about teams who make it to the Super Bowl after overcoming regular-season struggles. The first post considered the fate of teams that began the season with a single loss. The next post looked at teams that began the season with multiple consecutive losses. And finally, here is the article about teams with the worst regular-season records who made it to the Super Bowl.
This post takes a different tack. It is about the teams with the most impressive regular season record that didn't make it to the big game.
There are only two teams so far, post-merger, to put up a perfect regular season. The first is the 1972 Miami Dolphins. They are the only team ever, up to this point, to also put up a complete perfect record. After going 14-0 in the regular season they won both playoff games and the Super Bowl, giving them a 17-0 record. The 2007 New England Patriots actually bested that number of wins, but their perfect 16-0 regular season will be forever marred for the Patriot faithful by the final 1 after the 18.
Only five teams have pulled off an almost-perfect season. The 1976 Oakland Raiders went 13-1 and won the Super Bowl, as did the 15-1 1984 San Francisco 49ers and the 1985 Chicago Bears.
But two teams managed almost-perfect (15-1) seasons and yet didn't make it to the Super Bowl—the 1998 Minnesota Vikings and the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers. Let's see what happened.
1998 Minnesota Vikings (15-1) vs. Atlanta Falcons (14-2)
NFC Championship Game: Falcons 30, Vikings 27
An offensive powerhouse, the '98 Vikings scored a record number of points during the regular season (556,) a unmatched number until the 2007 Patriots put up 589 points on their way to Super Bowl XLII.
Minnesota was steamrolling the opposition during the regular season. They won every game but one by at least a touchdown, most by more, and their single loss was by a field goal. Their points earned/given up ratio was 556/296. Their next-to-last game of the season was a 50-10 drubbing of Tampa Bay
After defeating the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Vikings hosted the Atlanta Falcons. The Vikings were heavily favored for the NFC Championship game, but looking at the DVOA numbers reveals interesting layers below the offensive juggernaut on the surface.
Given the amazing number of points they were accumulating, there are two surprising figures. The total DVOA figure of 22.9% put them at No. 5 in the league. Surprisingly, their offense was only No. 3, and their defense and special teams were in the middle of the pack at No. 18 and No. 15 respectively. Atlanta's DVOA of 19.0% put them at No. 7, and their strengths (the No. 5 defense and No. 3 special teams) matched up well with Minnesota's weaknesses. Interestingly, Minnesota's Weighted DVOA held steady at No. 5, but Atlanta move up five spots to end up No. 2.
The game itself was a hard-fought contest that went into overtime. The Vikings' kicker, who had been perfect (35/35) during the regular season missed a 38 yard FG that would have likely put the game out of reach with two minutes left in the game. The score remained 27-20 until the Falcons scored a short drive later.
The Vikings won the coin toss, but the ball changed hands three times before the Falcons won on a FG, also of 38 yards, thus putting an ironic twist on the result.
2004 Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1) vs. New England Patriots (14-2)
AFC Championship Game: Patriots 47, Steelers 21
The 2004 Steelers were the first team in AFC history to go 15-1. Few would have given a plugged nickel for their chances of doing so at the beginning of the season. Their first round pick that year was a QB from Miami University at Ohio, not a school that generally comes immediately to mind as a hotbed of NFL talent. They were choosing at No. 11 after a disappointing 2003 season in which they never managed to win two games in a row. They ended the season at 6-10, one of the Steeler's few losing seasons post-1969.
Roethlisberger was drafted as the QB of the future and was expected to sit and learn at the feet of Tommy Maddox. However, it was not to be. Maddox eked out a 3-point Week 1 win at home over the Oakland Raiders, but was injured during a Week 2 loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
Originally Roethlisberger was the No. 3 QB on the depth chart, behind Charlie Batch, but Batch was injured in the preseason. Ben was thrown into the maelstrom and went on to lead his team to 13 straight regular season wins. (Maddox came back for the final game of the season.)
Roethlisberger's record-setting rookie season made him the unanimous selection for NFL Rookie of the Year.
Not to take anything away from Ben, but "leading his team" is a slight overstatement. He didn't post a 300+ yard game until Week 15, and he was bolstered by an excellent defense and helped out by an extensive stable of RBs headed by Jerome Bettis.
However, he demonstrated flashes of brilliance, including his Week 8 and Week 9 games in which the Steelers defeated two previously undefeated teams. In Week 8 he threw for 2 TD with no interceptions, breaking the defending Super Bowl Champion Patriot's NFL-record 21 game-winning streak. The following week the Steelers beat the Eagles, with Roethlisberger again throwing 2 TDs, although he added an interception to the stats sheet.
The Week 15 Giants game must have been exceptionally satisfying for Roethlisberger, as he not only posted his first 300+ yard game but beat the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, Eli Manning, who threw an interception to seal the game for the Steelers.
Unfortunately, Ben's winning TD/interception ratio in the regular season (17-11) was not matched in the playoffs (3-5.) Despite throwing two intercepted passes in the divisional game vs. the New York Jets, the Steelers squeaked out a 20-17 win in overtime. This was due in part to the Jets kicker, who managed to miss not one but two FGs in the final two minutes of the game.
The Patriots came back to Heinz Field the following week determined to avenge the regular season loss, and although Ben threw two TD passes, he also threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and thus the Steeler's trip to the Super Bowl was postponed by a year.
So what was going on in the background of this very heart-warming story of a boy from a small college whooping the butts of a lot of big-time NFL bullies? Well, the Steelers were No. 1 in the league with a DVOA of 38.1%. The offense was ranked No. 8 and special teams No. 10. Curiously, the defense was only No. 3. The No. 1 defense in the league that year was Buffalo, who also had the No. 1 special teams. But Buffalo's 21st-ranked offense pulled them down.
New England was No. 2 in the league with a DVOA of 35.9%. Their defense was ranked No. 6 and special teams No. 16. Also curiously, their offense was only No. 3. The No. 1 offense that year was the Colts, but their 19th-ranked defense and No. 23 special teams made them a wild card, and they lost the divisional round to the Patriots.
The Weighted DVOA moved both teams down a slot, and the Bills shot to the top of the list. This is an excellent demonstration of the fact that even the best ranking system doesn't completely carry over into real life—the Bills went 9-7 and didn't even make the playoffs.
In the end, 2004 was an amazing run, even if the Steelers didn't get to the big game.
And here's a bonus round—the 1976 Steelers.
"Wait just a moment," the alert reader might say. "The '76 Steelers were 10-4. How does this team qualify?"
The Steelers began the season as two-time champions, winning Super Bowls IX and X. After a shocking 1-3 start by QB Terry Bradshaw, he was injured in Week 5's game vs. the Cleveland Browns, a game which also ended with a loss.
The rookie QB that started in place of Bradshaw, Mike Kruczek, posted the best ever start for a rookie QB (6-0), a record only supplanted by Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. The historic Steel Curtain clicked into full gear during Week 6, the first game without Bradshaw, giving up only 28 points. That is, only 28 points during the remaining 9 games. Five of those games were shut-outs. They outscored their opponents 234-28.
They lost the AFC Championship Game to the Oakland Raiders, mainly because they lost both Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris (both of whom had posted 1000+ rushing yard seasons) to injuries during the AFC Divisional game vs. the Baltimore Colts.
Lombardi Trophys Nos. 3 and 4 were deferred until the 1978 and 1979 seasons, but it was a year to remember. Supposedly the Rooney family considers this team, despite the unpromising beginning of the season, to be the best Steelers team ever, Super Bowl champions or no.