Super Bowl heartbreak and lost legacies

February, 1, 2012
2/01/12
11:11
AM ET
Dejected PatsMark J. Rebilas/US PresswireJunior Seau and the Patriots were stunned by their Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Super Bowl reunion featuring the Patriots and Giants will spark memories from the 2007 season, when New England suffered one of the greatest upsets in NFL history.

The Patriots don’t need a rematch to remind them of that monumental collapse. Even though only 24 players remain from that New England team, everyone suiting up for this year’s Super Bowl remembers how the 12-point favorite Patriots fell four quarters short of perfection.

This is the ramification when a team goes from the expected coronation among NFL greats to the forever devastation of what might have been.

The 2007 Patriots, 1968 Colts and 2001 Rams have all felt the sting of screwing up their legacies. They aren’t just teams that lost in the Super Bowl, like last year’s Steelers.

These select few rank among the very best Super Bowl losers. They are the ones who dominated week after week, only to leave the game’s biggest stage defeated.

“The overwhelming sense of that year is the failure that is always remembered,” said Tedy Bruschi, a linebacker on that 2007 Patriots team, which lost to the Giants, 17-14.

“I’m proud of the run we made and we were on the cusp of something that had never been done before. But we failed.”

Those Patriots entered the Super Bowl with an 18-0 record and outscored their regular-season opponents by 315 points, or 19.7 per game.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezKurt Warner and "The Greatest Show on Turf" struggled in their Super Bowl loss to New England.
That average margin stands as the fattest for any team in the NFL since at least 1940, according to Pro Football Reference. Those Patriots didn’t just win. They won big, until they lost.

“You think you know, until you don’t know,” former Patriots linebacker Chad Brown said. “There was such confidence going through the season, such a sense of belief. But until the final whistle sounds, it’s never over. They found a way to get it done. Hats off to them.”

Before the 2007 Patriots forged their unenviable place in league history, the 1968 Colts actually changed the league’s future with their loss.

In what was the third AFL-NFL championship game, the Colts were heavily favored to bring the title to the NFL for the third straight year.

The previous two Super Bowl games were dominated by the NFL -- the Green Bay Packers won by a combined score of 68-24 -- which put the AFL’s existence in jeopardy.

Despite not having an injured Johnny Unitas, the Colts rolled to a 13-1 record during the regular season and routed the Cleveland Browns, 34-0, in the NFL championship to avenge their only loss.

The Colts heard about Joe Namath guaranteeing a win, but the 18-point favorites never took the Jets seriously.

One year after the Colts’ 16-7 loss, the AFL and NFL merged.

“We went down to Miami with a little different attitude -- that we were just going to win that game,” said Rick Volk, a three-time Pro Bowl safety for that Colts team.

“We were expecting to do it and I don’t think anybody had any question that we weren’t going to win. We went down not focused totally on the game itself.”

Volk suffered a concussion early in the game and doesn’t remember much of it. He had to watch film afterward to see how he played.

Following the loss, he asked quarterback Earl Morrall in the showers whether the Colts had won or lost.

“It was more than a game when we got beat,” Volk said. “It was devastation.”

The 2001 Rams can relate.

Most key players remained in place from their 1999 championship team. They breezed through the regular season with a 14-2 record, outscoring the Patriots by 132 points (503-371). They had scored 84 points in the divisional and conference championship rounds.

[+] EnlargeJoe Namath
AP PhotoNo one gave Joe Namath and the Jets a chance to win Super Bowl III.
“That was a great football team,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They were No. 1 in the league in defense and one of the most explosive offenses in the history of the NFL, and they were good in the kicking game.”

Marshall Faulk considers the 2001 team better than the 1999 version.

Players had been together longer. They were more proven, more refined. But the Patriots’ defense roughed up Faulk and the St. Louis receivers, taking the Rams out of their game.

The Greatest Show on Turf bogged down.

Faulk used the term “hack-a-Shaq” to describe the plan Belichick put into place that day.

The tactics New England used in that game might not fly as well under current rules. As much as any Super Bowl loser, those Rams would have benefited from new guidelines discouraging the rough-house tactics New England employed against Faulk and the St. Louis receivers.

“When I played, the game was played outside the numbers,” Faulk said. “You didn't challenge people down the middle. Cover 2 was built to put you in the middle of the field.

"Now, people want to see Cover 2 because, one, you can't touch a receiver down the field and, two, you can't separate him from the ball and three, you have to make sure he can see you before you hit him because he is defenseless, and you can't get hit him in the head. It is just a different game.”

The current Patriots are taking full advantage of the differences by targeting tight ends down the middle of the field. They were more of an outside passing team four years ago, when Randy Moss remained a dominant force at wide receiver.

Times change, but losing against the odds lingers. Those 2007 Patriots, like the 2001 Rams and a few others, never could enjoy the exalted places in history they seemed so likely to earn.

“I wish when you lined up to play that the team that was the most talented won the game,” Faulk said. “If that was the case, we wouldn't be so excited about the matchup we're about to see, because it's obvious the Patriots were the better team [in 2007], but the Giants played better that day.”

TOP 10 SUPER BOWL LOSERS

1. 2007 Patriots: The only 16-0 team in regular-season NFL history outscored opponents by 19.7 points per game, a record. Tom Brady's 50 touchdown passes exceeded by one the record Peyton Manning set in 2004. New England scored at least 38 points in half its regular-season games. The Patriots drew fines for illicitly taping opponents' signals and criticism after twice going for it on fourth down while leading Joe Gibbs' Redskins by 38-plus points.

2. 1968 Colts: Baltimore had a 13-1 regular-season record, the NFL's top-ranked defense, No. 2 offense and eight Pro Bowl players, including John Mackey and Bubba Smith. After a 34-0 shutout of the Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship, the Colts were touted as "the greatest team in pro football history." That is, until they faced the 18-point underdog Jets and Joe Namath from the AFL.

3. 1969 Vikings: Minnesota had allowed only 10 points per game in winning the NFL title. As feared as the Vikings were for their "Purple People Eaters" defense, their quarterback, Joe Kapp, seemed nearly as tough. Famed oddsmaker Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder called the Vikings' offensive line the best he'd ever seen in making Minnesota a 13-point Super Bowl favorite. But the Chiefs knocked Kapp from the Super Bowl with an injury in rolling to a 23-7 victory.

[+] EnlargeJackie Smith
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJackie Smith was wide open in the end zone when he dropped this pass.
4. 1983 Redskins: The Washington offense scored a then-NFL record 541 points and featured the Hogs, the Diesel, the Fun Bunch and MVP quarterback Joe Theismann. The defending Super Bowl champions stormed into the Super Bowl on an 11-game winning streak that included a 51-7 demolition of the Rams in the NFC Championship Game. The Redskins, though, were on the other end of the rout in the Super Bowl, losing to the Raiders, 38-9.

5. 1978 Cowboys: Dallas rode an eight-game winning streak into the Super Bowl and had shut out the Los Angeles Rams, 28-0, in the NFC title game. The Cowboys were defending Super Bowl champs and led the league in scoring. Legendary head coach Tom Landry masterminded a "Doomsday Defense" that led the NFL in sacks with 58. Jackie Smith's dropped TD and a disputed pass-interference call against Bennie Barnes proved pivotal in the Cowboys' 35-31 Super Bowl loss.

6. 2001 Rams: The Rams rolled to a 14-2 mark by lighting up the scoreboard with Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. The "Greatest Show on Turf" outgained opponents by an average of 137 yards per game and outscored them by an average of two TDs. But the 14-point favorite Rams were upset by Bill Belichick's defense and an unknown QB named Tom Brady.

7. 1990 Bills: A 51-3 victory over the Raiders in the AFC title game launched the Bills to the first of four consecutive Super Bowls. They amassed 502 yards against a Raiders defense that had held 12 opponents beneath 290. The Bills put an NFL-best eight players in the Pro Bowl, led by Jim Kelly, who posted a career-best 101.2 NFL passer rating. The Bills were so confident, claiming they would have rather faced the defending champs from San Francisco.

8. 1997 Packers: The defending Super Bowl champions were peaking by winning 10 of their last 11 games. Brett Favre led the NFL with 35 touchdown passes in winning the MVP for a third straight year. But the 11-point favorite Packers ran into an inspired John Elway.

9. 1967 Raiders: These Raiders established owner Al Davis' reputation for building top teams with castoffs. Daryle Lamonica, Hewritt Dixon, Dave Kocourek, Bill Miller and George Blanda were among the players from other franchises assuming prominent roles.

10. 1988 Bengals: One of the more underappreciated Super Bowl teams, Cincinnati tied for the best record in the NFL at 12-4, recorded seven games with a 100-yard rusher and beat the Buffalo Bills, 21-10, in the AFC Championship Game. Only a dramatic Joe Montana touchdown pass with 39 seconds left stopped the Bengals from continuing to do the Ickey Shuffle in the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJohn Taylor
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyJohn Taylor's last-second touchdown reception from Joe Montana lifted the 49ers past the Bengals.
FIVE WORST

1. 1979 Rams: The definition of mediocre, the Rams barely outscored their opponents in total points (323-309) and finished the regular season with a 9-7 record. Vince Ferragamo, who replaced an injured Pat Haden, completed fewer than half of his passes and threw twice as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (five). Los Angeles was outclassed in the Super Bowl.

2. 1985 Patriots: They lost three of their first five games but managed to get into the playoffs despite a third-place finish in the AFC East. Tony Eason struggled in his third NFL season, throwing 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Not exactly the quarterback you wanted going against the 15-1 Chicago Bears.

3. 1986 Broncos: It was surprising to see that Denver went as far as it did after finishing with four losses in its final seven regular-season games. As their defense crumbled throughout the season, the Broncos needed "The Drive" to get past the AFC Championship Game but there was no Elway magic left.

4. 2008 Cardinals: Every Super Bowl loser outscored its opponents during the regular season, but the Cardinals did so by only a single point. Kurt Warner made them dangerous in the playoffs, but a 47-7 defeat at New England in Week 16 completed a slide from 7-3 to 8-7. Arizona drew Atlanta Falcons rookie Matt Ryan in the wild-card round, then unexpectedly landed the NFC title game at home when Philadelphia upset the 12-4 Giants in the divisional round.

5. 1994 Chargers: They managed to split their final 10 games in the regular season before edging out the Dolphins (22-21) and Steelers (17-13) in the playoffs. But Stan Humphries was no match for the 49ers' Steve Young, who threw a record six touchdown passes.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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