With perhaps the best teams in the NFL facing off in Sunday's Super Bowl LI, it's nice to look back on times when the football world wasn't so fortunate - when the Super Bowl wasn't played by the worthy but by the fluky. Here's our list of the 11 worst teams to play in the Super Bowl (* indicates those who won in spite of it).
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2011 New York Giants*
10-6, wild card, defeated Patriots 21-17
The Giants were outscored 400-394 on the season, not only making them the first Super Bowl champs to have a negative point differential but also the first team to reach the Super Bowl with such a margin. (Oddest of all is that New York barely had a point-skewing loss on their record. Lose 41-0 one week and 38-7 the next and that affects the season stats. The Giants' biggest loss was by 25 points to the Saints. All six others were by 14 points or less. Being outscored over the season was deserved.)
The team did win two virtual playoff games to get into the postseason though, including a de facto NFC East championship over the Cowboys in Week 17. Then again, the only reason the Giants needed to win that game is because they were swept by the 5-11 Redskins, in games that weren't particularly close.
They're the only Super Bowl champion to be swept by a 5-11 (or worse) team. In fact, there have been only three other times in the era of the 16-game schedule in which a Super Bowl winner was swept by a division rival. It happened to the 2002 Bucs (via the 9-7 Saints) and the 2007 Giants (with a much more understandable 13-3 Cowboys on the other side). The only other time a team was swept by a sub-.500 opponent? In 1995, when the Cowboys lost two to the - you guessed it -- Redskins. They were 6-10 that year.
As it is, No. 11 may be too kind.
2003 Carolina Panthers
11-5, NFC South champs, lost to Patriots 32-29
As we'll see on this list, some of the best Super Bowls were played by the worst teams. Of the 11 teams, seven played in objectively close games and, as you may have noticed, some won. These Panthers had the poster boy of mediocrity, Jake Delhomme, at quarterback, and despite offensive weapons in Stephen Davis and Steve Smith, had little offense to speak of. They lost five of eight games during one stretch and didn't score more than 27 points until the final week of the season. Then, interestingly, they scored exactly 29 in three of their four playoff games, including that narrow Super Bowl loss to the repeat Pats.
1994 San Diego Chargers
11-5, AFC West champs, lost to 49ers 49-26
The Chargers came back from a 21-8 deficit in the divisional round and trailed 13-3 in the championship game before scoring late touchdowns in both to get wins. They'd be unable to make up the 42-10 deficit in the Super Bowl, however.
San Diego ranked in the middle of the league in both offense and defense and finished 5-5 after a 6-0 start. On the plus side, Stan Humphries had a slightly better quarterback rating than Delhomme did a decade later (and the Stanimal was doing it in an era far less friendly to QBs).
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2000 New York Giants
12-4, NFC East champs, lost to Ravens 34-7
A 10-6 team masquerading as a 12-4 team that entered the Super Bowl a slight underdog and instead was worked over by Ray Lewis and Co. Those Ravens famously didn't score a touchdown in five consecutive games during the season and these Giants allowed them to score 34 points. (But the Ravens had a tremendous defense, which is why they weren't close to our list.) The only thing that kept us from putting these Giants higher was their 41-0 blowout of Minneseota in the NFC championship. Daunte Culpepper threw for 78 yards and Kerry Collins had the same amout of touchdown throws (5) as Randy Moss and Cris Carter did combined catches (5).
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1986 Denver Broncos
11-5, AFC West champs, lost to Giants 39-20
Because history had a wide lens, we often lump different teams of the same era and franchise together, especially when the core is the same. So the John Elway/Dan Reeves Broncos that made three Super Bowls from 1986-1990 or the Jim Kelly/Marv Levy Bills that made four straight from 1991-1994 become intertwined as one, through history. Obviously, some of those teams were better than others and the worst of the lot was the first of it -- Elway's 1986 Broncos.
Much like the '94 Chargers, the Broncos started 6-0 and finished 5-5 finish, then needed two narrow playoff victories for the right to be worked over in the Super Bowl by the NFC representative.
1996 New England Patriots
11-5, AFC East champs, lost to Packers 35-21
New England earned a playoff berth and was gifted a Super Bowl one after the second-year Jags upset the heavily favored Broncos in the divisional playoffs, giving New England an improbable home game for the AFC championship. The team couldn't stop the pass, which is why the two-touchdown spread and Brett Favre's domination in the Super Bowl was of little surprise.
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1999 Tennessee Titans
13-3, wild card, lost to Rams 23-16
Automatic point deductions if, to make the Super Bowl, you need a play that was eventually bestowed its own name. Forget 13-3. These Titans had the same point differential as the 9-7 Chiefs and proved to be a solid team with a cruise-control strength of schedule that needed the Music City Miracle to save their playoff lives. Again, a great Super Bowl appearance makes not a worthy participant.
1979 Los Angeles Rams
9-7, NFC West champs, lost to Steelers 31-19
You'll notice few teams from the first 15 or so Super Bowls and it's not all that surprising: Before 1978, there were only eight teams in the NFL playoffs -- four in each conference -- and 14 games per season. Sure, there were some subpar squads that slipped through the cracks, but it's not like today when, with four divisions and an extra wild card, a 9-7 playoff team is almost an annual tradition. These Rams won one a painfully pathetic division, barely outscored their opponents and was a victor in the ugliest conference championship (a 9-0 win over the putrid Bucs). But, again, they were right with the dynastic Steelers until the end of Super Bowl XIV.
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2001 New England Patriots*
10-6, AFC East champs, defeated Rams 20-17
A fine team that did everything well but nothing great, the 2001 Pats made the playoffs in a mediocre AFC and, once in the postseason, were beneficiaries of an NFL technicality, the hubris of Mike Martz and a great game plan after two weeks off. It's the kind that should be giving Kyle Shanahan the cold sweats right about now. Did Belichick have videotape of the Rams' walk throughs, as some Rams players still insist?
Oh, that was a rhetorical question.
2007 New York Giants*
10-6, wild card, defeated Patriots 17-14
The worst team to make the Super Bowl and then win it, the '07 Giants were a bundle of ordinary. They started 0-2, finished 4-4, took advantage of a Tony Romo implosion in the divisional playoff and a Brett Favre classic in the NFC championship and then - well, you all know the story about the 2007 Super Bowl. Don't be fooled by the 10-6 record. With some bounces the other way, these Giants could have been 6-10 and, if you split the difference, were probably an 8-8 team.
The team that was within a tiptoe of winning the most exciting Super Bowl also happens to be the worst team to play in the big game. It just goes to show that nothing makes sense in football. These Cardinals finished the year with a plus-1 point differential and took advantage of a division in which the other teams combined to win seven games against non-division opponents). Kurt Warner's offense was good, if inconsistent, the defense was virutally non-existent and only Donovan McNabb knows how the Eagles blew that NFC championship. (Of all the ones the Eagles choked in, the 2008 version had to be the worst.)
The Cards had no rushing attack to speak of, averaging 3.3 yards per carry with an ancient Edgerrin James and not-good Tim Hightower. They lost three games during the year by three or more touchdowns. And, at the end, they were, inescapably, the Arizona Cardinals.