This is my 2nd post in response to NFL.com’s Bracketology, where they take who they consider the 64 greatest teams of the Super Bowl era, then seed and “regionalize” them into four 16-team quadrants. Here I will present to you my Super Bowl winning teams who I ranked 31-40.
40. 2010 Green Bay Packers
This team was the second #6 seed to take the Lombardi Trophy, and the third with a 10-6 record to take it. Also the 3rd to win 3 road playoff games then the Super Bowl. The Packers needed to beat the Bears on the final weekend just to qualify for the playoffs as a wild card. They won that game 10-3 and edged out the Giants and Buccaneers based on strength of victory – the 4th tiebreaker step used to determine wild card berths.
They struggled to make the playoffs, even though they were considered an elite team to start the season, due to major season-ending injuries and others that caused key players to miss time. They lost starting running back Ryan Grant during their season opener – a 27-20 win in Philadelphia, their first in that city since 1962. They lost star TE Jermichael Finley for the season during a 16-13 OT loss to the lowly Washington Redskins. QB Aaron Rodgers played like a superstar, but at times his offensive line had trouble protecting him. Such troubles led to a concussion suffered in a Week 14 loss at Detroit 7-3. They lost the next week at New England 31-27 despite a valiant performance by backup QB Matt Flynn.
The defense was a strength of the team, allowing only 240 points during the regular season. And that defense, along with Aaron Rodgers and the passing game, would catch fire in the playoffs. Those elements, as well as a strong performance by running back James Starks, gave them a 21-16 victory in a return trip to Philadelphia in the NFC Wild Card game. The next week they rolled in to Atlanta and destroyed the top seed, 13-3 Falcons 48-21. A 70-yard interception return TD by Tramon Williams near the end of the first half broke the Falcons will. The next week was a match against their 90-year-long arch rival Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The Packers jumped on the Bears for a 14-0 lead after 3 quarters as they turned QB Jay Cutler into an ordinary QB and eventually knocked him out of the game. Chicago did rally to pull within 14-7 but then nose tackle B.J. Raji picked off a Caleb Haine pass and returned it 18 yards for a TD. Another interception in the final minute preserved a 21-14 victory. Aaron Rodgers capped his fantastic run with an MVP performance in Super Bowl XLV, a 31-25 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The defense also fueled the Packers win with a 37-yard interception return TD by Nick Collins in the first quarter and a forced fumble by Clay Matthews that set up Rodgers 3rd TD pass.
With that description it would seem unfair to rank them this low, and such an argument would be valid. Still a 10-6 record, due in part to losses in games they should have won – at Chicago in Week 3, the Redskins game, and the next week at home against the Dolphins, plus many other all-time great teams, knock them down ultimately to this spot. Doesn’t mean in the tournament they won’t pull an upset or two.
39. 2001 New England Patriots
New England was picked by many to finish either 4th or dead last in the AFC East, and after the first two games, they seemed headed in that direction. But in the 2nd game (originally scheduled as the 3rd but Week 2 was moved back to Week 17 after the September 11 terrorist attacks), one play changed not just a season, but the course of history with ripple effects throughout the league. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe was running toward the sideline only to suffer a crushing hit from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Bledsoe, considered at the time a franchise player on a team not loaded with talent (even though his talent had many doubters), was hospitalized from the hit with a collapsed lung. New England lost that game 10-3 in Foxboro. Tom Brady, a second-year QB out of Michigan as the 199th player selected in 2000, was inserted as the starter.
The next week things began to turn around. They blew out the Colts 44-13 in Foxboro. A loss the following week in Miami 30-10 put them at 1-3, but they only lost again 31-20 in Denver in Week 7 and 24-17 at home to the Rams in Week 10. The Patriots would not lose again. They would overtake the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins to win the AFC East at 11-5, one game over the Jets and in a tiebreaker over Miami based on division record. That record was good enough to get them one more game in Foxboro Stadium, their final game there before moving into Gillette Stadium to start the 2002 season. That game would be one of the most memorable in NFL postseason history.
The Oakland Raiders came calling for an AFC Divisional playoff game, the first ever to be played on primetime television. It was also played in a driving blizzard. New England fell behind 10-0 then cut the lead to 13-10 and got the ball late in the 4th quarter. A hit by Raiders CB Charles Woodson jarred the ball loose from Brady and Greg Beikert recovered, giving Oakland an apparent victory. Enter referee Walt Coleman. The replay booth called for him to review the play. He overturned the call, invoking the Tuck Rule, a controversial ruling which gave the Patriots new life. What replays show is that Coleman failed to call Woodson for roughing the passer. Woodson belted Brady in the head. They drove down to the Oakland 28-yard-line, where kicker Adam Vinatieri drilled a 45-yard, line-drive field goal into the driving snow and fierce winds to tie the game 13-13 and send it into OT. The Patriots took the OT kickoff, and drove inside the Oakland 10, holding the ball for nearly 10 minutes before Vinatieri hit a chip shot field goal for a 16-13 win.
The next week they ousted the heavily favored Steelers 24-17 at Heinz Field to capture a surprising AFC Championship. The special teams carried them to a 21-3 lead on a punt return TD by Troy Brown and a blocked field goal return TD. Their other TD came on a pass by Drew Bledsoe, inserted after a hit on Brady injured his ankle. The defense intercepted Kordell Stewart twice in the 4th quarter to stave off any Pittsburgh comeback.
With only one week to prepare for the first Super Bowl ever played in the month of February, the Patriots were heavy underdogs against a team many thought were dynasty material: the St. Louis Rams. They set another trend by being introduced as an entire team during the pregame ceremonies rather than having the offensive starters introduced one by one, followed by the rest of the team. After spotting the Rams a field goal, the defense, who hit Rams receivers all day, pressured Warner, forcing an errant pass that was picked off by CB Ty Law and returned 50 yards for a TD. Following a fumble recovery, New England converted a two-minute drill into a 9-yard Brady to David Patten TD pass to make it 14-3 at halftime. St. Louis rallied to tie the score with two 4th quarter TDs, the second one with less than 90 seconds left. Fox commentator John Madden opined that the Patriots should settle for overtime, but Brady and New England thought differently. A series of completions brought them to the Rams 30-yard-line, then Vinatieri showed his clutch play again drilling a 47-yard field goal right down the middle as time expired, giving New England a 20-17 upset in Super Bowl XXXVI and their first ever World Championship.
This teams low ranking is based on my belief that if the 2001 NFL playoffs were replayed 20 times, the Patriots may not even come out on top even once more.
38. 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
They were the #6 seed and needed to beat Detroit 35-21 on the final weekend to qualify for the playoffs. But they weren’t just any 6 seed. They finished 11-5, ending up in second place behind the Bengals due to a tiebreaker. They were 4-0 against the NFC North and could have easily been a dominant NFC team, as could the teams they outlasted for the AFC Wild Card berth, the Chiefs and Chargers.
Two of their losses were in overtime directly attributable to interceptions thrown by backup QB Tommy Maddox, who just didn’t have it anymore. Maddox was thrust into the lineup a few times due to injury suffered by Ben Roethlisberger. One was returned for a TD in overtime by Jaguars cornerback Rasheen Mathis in a 23-17 loss in Week 6. The other led to a Matt Stover field goal giving the Baltimore Ravens a 16-13 win in Week 11. The loss that ultimately cost them the AFC North was a 38-31 setback to the Bengals in Week 13 at Heinz Field. That game, however, served as a precursor to the Steelers’ title run.
For the AFC Wild Card game they drew the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Bengals QB Carson Palmer completed a 66-yard pass to Chris Henry to put the Bengals at the 8 on their first offensive play. That play would be Palmer’s last, as a hit below the knees by Steelers lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen tore Palmer’s ACL, knocking him out of the game. The Bengals stayed afloat in the first half with Jon Kitna now at the controls, leading 17-14 at halftime. The second half, however, was all Pittsburgh as Big Ben performed surgery on the Bengals secondary, including a 43-yard TD to Cedrick Wilson on a gadget play. Steelers 31, Bengals 17. Part of the motivation for the Steelers victory was footage of Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiping the bottom of his cleats with a “Terrible Towel” following that Bengals win in Pittsburgh, footage that incensed head coach Bill Cowher. In the locker room following the victory, the team together chanted “Who Dey?” (a Bengals rallying cry for years) to which Cowher responded “We Dey!”
The next week Pittsburgh traveled to the RCA Dome to face the #1 seed, 14-2 Indianapolis Colts. The Steelers dominated on both sides o the ball, building a 21-3 lead before the Colts staged a furious rally to cut it to 21-18. The Steelers tried to put the game away deep in Colts territory, but RB Jerome Bettis was hit near the goal line and fumbled. Colts safety Nick Harper scooped up the ball and appeared gone. But a wrong cut to the middle allowed Roethlisberger to slow him down and catch him near midfield. Peyton Manning got the Colts into field goal range but 3 straight incompletions forced a long, 46-yard attempt by normally reliable Mike Vanderjagt. Vanderjagt’s attempt missed badly to the right by at least 10-15 yards, and the Steelers became the first #6 seed to ever beat a #1 seed in the divisional round. Four teams have done it since.
The next week brought the Steelers to Denver to face the 13-3 Broncos in the AFC Championship game. The Steelers harrassed QB Jake Plummer all day, forcing two interceptions and a lost fumble. Roethlisberger played maybe his best game yet, converting several third-and-longs for first downs and bagging two TD passes as Pittsburgh won going away 34-17. They became the second team to ever advance to the Super Bowl with 3 road wins in the playoffs, and the first to do it as a #6 seed.
Two weeks later the Steelers traveled to Bettis’ home town of Detroit to face the NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field. Hines Ward, the wide receiver many consider to be Hall of Fame worthy, won the game’s MVP by catching a 43-yard pass from fellow receiver and college QB Antwaan Randle-El to put the game away. Running back Willie Parker broke the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history with a 76-yard TD early in the 3rd quarter. The 21-10 victory, though, was considered by many to be clouded by several officials calls – judged questionable. One wiped out a Seattle TD pass in the 1st quarter. Another negated a pass that would have given them a 1st and goal and an excellent chance to take the lead in the 4th quarter.
37. 2006 Indianapolis Colts
Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning finally got their rings. The road to get there came with lots of potholes. They started 8-0, the first to ever do so in back-to-back seasons (they would also accomplish this in 2007 and 2009 – in all but ’07 they started at least 9-0). But a couple of those victories, over Tennessee 14-13 at home in Week 5 and 34-31 at Denver in Week 8 showed the Colts inability to stop the run. The wheels came off in December. The low point came in Week 14 – a 44-17 loss at Jacksonville where they gave up 375 rushing yards. The run defense again cost them in a 27-24 loss at Houston in Week 16, their first ever defeat at the hands of the Texans, which cost them a first-round bye. They ended up 12-4 as the AFC’s #3 seed.
What the regular season was to night, the playoffs were to day for the 2006 Colts. Wild Card weekend brought the 9-7 Kansas City Chiefs to the RCA Dome. Larry Johnson, the Chiefs running back who led the league with over 1700 rushing yards on a league record 416 carries, was held to 39 rushing yards. The Colts offense was spotty as Manning threw 3 interceptions, but they prevailed 23-8. The next week they would travel to M & T Bank Stadium to face the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC Divisional playoff game. They would also face a hostile crowd still bitter about the Colts moving from Baltimore to Indianapolis 22 years earlier. The Colts had another un-Colt-like game, as former Patriot and all-time clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri nailed 5 field goals to lead to a 15-6 victory as they held Jamal Lewis to 53 rushing yards and the Ravens to just 83 as a team. It was the first NFL playoff game without a TD since the 1979 NFC Championship game.
The next week would bring the AFC Championship game in what turned out to be a game for the ages. The New England Patriots had an identical 12-4 regular season record and were also coming off a road
playoff upset, a 24-21 win in San Diego. The Colts 27-20 victory at New England in Week 9 meant this time Manning would face Bill Belichick’s defense in his own backyard instead of in Massachusetts. Early on that didn’t seem to matter as the Patriots built a 21-3 lead early in the 2nd quarter. One TD was an Asante Samuel 39-yard interception return of a Manning pass. New England also recovered their own fumble in the Colts end zone for a TD. Logan Mankins was the recipient of the gift TD after Corey Dillon dropped the ball on the turf. A field goal made it 21-6 at halftime. Then the Colts opened the 2nd half with two TD drives, sandwiching a 3-and-out from New England’s offense. A two-point conversion on the 2nd TD tied the score at 21. The two teams went back and forth the rest of the way, this time with the Colts getting the bounces to go their way. Jeff Saturday answered Mankins’ score by pouncing on a Joseph Addai fumble for a TD. Another break saw Patriots wide receiver Jabar Gaffney lined up wide near the sideline, uncovered. Tom Brady’s pass to him was dropped, though, and the Patriots squandered what would have been a walk-in TD, settling for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. With New England leading 34-31 late in the 4th quarter, Manning led the Colts into scoring range again, this time with a bruised thumb that collided with a helmet on an earlier pass. Addai finished it off with a 3-yard TD run with exactly one minute left to give the Colts their first lead 38-34. Marlin Jackson’s interception of a Brady pass sealed it.
Two weeks Dungy’s Colts would face a former assistant, Lovie Smith and the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in Miami. Dungy and Smith were the first two black head coaches to lead their teams to the Roman numeral classic. The Colts got off to a shaky start as Devin Hester took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a TD. They trailed 14-6 after 1 quarter. Manning hit a wide-open Reggie Wayne for a 53-yard TD but the extra point failed when the holder couldn’t handle the wet ball on the snap. Indianapolis got their bearings and took a 16-14 lead into halftime. Two more Vinatieri field goals and one from the Bears Robbie Gould made it 22-17 early in the 4th quarter. Then Bears QB Rex Grossman threw an ill-advised pass into the teeth of the Colts secondary, which was snagged by Kelvin Hayden, making his first ever interception. He made the most of it, returning it 56 yards for the TD that sealed the game. Colts 29, Bears 17.
36. 1990 New York Giants
The 1990 Giants set a record with only 14 turnovers. A deadly efficient offense, along with a defense that yielded only 211 points, started the season 10-0. Then they hit a bump in the road, losing 3 of 4 games, including a tough 7-3 defeat at San Francisco on Monday Night Football which effectively gave the 49ers the NFC’s #1 seed. A loss two weeks later, 17-13 at home to the Buffalo Bills, was also costly in that Phil Simms was knocked out for the season with a fractured foot. Jeff Hostetler would be at the controls the rest of the way. They finished 13-3 with their 2nd straight NFC East title. Their offense, while efficient, didn’t exactly strike fear in opponents, only scoring 335 points.
The Giants, as the NFC’s #2 seed, opened the 1990 playoffs in the divisional round at Giants Stadium against the Chicago Bears. A bruising running game yielded 191 yards, and Hostetler tossed two TD passes. The defense shut down the Bears and New York won easily 31-3. This led the Giants back to Candlestick Park for a rematch with the 49ers, this time for the NFC Championship. In one of the most physical, hard-hitting games ever, the offenses were put on the back burner. The only touchdown of the game came on a 62-yard catch-and-run pass from Joe Montana to John Taylor, giving San Francisco a 13-6 3rd quarter lead. It was 13-9 after 3 quarters. In the 4th quarter Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall got off the ground after being blocked and delivered a vicious hit on Montana, jarring the ball loose. The 49ers recovered the ball but Montana wouldn’t play again until December of 1992. Late in the 4th quarter, with the 49ers in Giants territory trying to melt down the clock, a hit by defensive tackle Erik Howard forced Roger Craig to fumble. Lawrence Taylor recovered. Two Hostetler completions put the Giants on the 49ers 24-yard line. That set up kicker Matt Bahr for his fifth 3-pointer, which hooked just inside the left upright as time expired, giving the Giants a 15-13 upset win and ending the 49ers quest for a threepeat.
One week later they traveled down to Tampa for another rematch against a team that beat them in December, the Buffalo Bills. Super Bowl XXV would be played against the backdrop of the Gulf War. Whitney Houston’s stirring rendition of the National Anthem preceded the game, which I consider still to this the day the most well-played of all time. The Giants were in danger of being blown out of the stadium as the Bills “K-Gun” no-huddle offense propelled them to a 10-3 lead after a 1-yard TD run by Don Smith. Then Hostetler stumbled at his own goal line, leaving him exposed to all-time great pass rusher Bruce Smith, who trapped him for a safety and a 12-3 Bills lead. It would have been a TD had Hostetler not gripped the ball tightly, thus avoiding a fumble. The Giants then got their bearings and drove for a TD late in the first half on a 14-yard pass from Hostetler to Stephen Baker. New York took the second half kickoff and put together the most time-consuming drive in Super Bowl history, over 9 minutes. It ended with a 1-yard TD run by Super Bowl MVP O.J. Anderson. The Bills, however, regained the lead early in the 4th quarter on a 31-yard run by Thurman Thomas. A Matt Bahr chip-shot field goal put the Giants back on top 20-19. One more chance for Buffalo, who drove down to the 29-yard line. Set up on the right hash mark, Bills kicker Scott Norwood’s 46-yard attempt with 8 seconds left was pushed just wide right, and the underdog Giants escaped with their second Lombardi Trophy in 5 years. It also marked the last game for coach Bill Parcells with the team.
35. 1982 Washington Redskins
The Redskins yielded a league low 128 points and finished 8-1. That’s right, 8-1. A 57-day players’ strike disrupted the season, wiping out half of the regular season schedule. Divisions were done away with for this season. The playoffs would be a “Super Bowl tournament” featuring 8 teams from each conference, seeded by record. Washington, under second-year head coach Joe Gibbs, rode to their record on the running of John Riggins, the passing of Joe Thiesmann, and kicker Mark Moseley – the league’s MVP (not a misprint, Moseley won the award in 1982). We can only speculate how the Redskins would have fared with a full 16-game schedule.
In the playoffs, though, Washington was lights out. Tied for the best record in the league with the Raiders and owning the NFC’s #1 seed, the Redskins blazed through the playoffs, soundly beating the Detroit Lions 31-7 and the Minnesota Vikings 21-7, leading to the NFC Championship game against the archrival Dallas Cowboys, who handed them their only defeat of 1982 – a 24-10 decision in Week 5 at RFK Stadium. The Redskins were ready for the rematch. Riggins had another 100+-yard performance with 2 rushing touchdowns. Dexter Manley knocked Dallas QB Danny White out of the game with a concussion. Manley then deflected a Gary Hogeboom screen pass intended for Tony Dorsett. The pass landed in the arms of Daryl Grant, who waltzed in for a TD as RFK Stadium went berserk. Redskins 31, Cowboys 17.
Washington’s NFC Championship victory was over the same team they beat 10 years prior. Super Bowl XVII would be against the same team they faced in the big game that season – the Miami Dolphins. This time, the Dolphins had the “Killer Bees” on defense (due to several starting defenders whose last names begin with the letter “B”) instead of the “No Name Defense”. And this time the Dolphins weren’t undefeated.
Miami did, however grab the early lead when QB David Woodley found WR Jimmy Cefalo for a 76-yard TD pass. Washington tied Miami 10-10 late in the 2nd quarter on a Thiesman 4-yard TD fade to Charlie Brown, but gave the lead right back as Fulton Walker returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a TD – the first such score in Super Bowl history. Washington drew closer with a 3rd quarter field goal to make it 17-13. The 4th quarter brought out John Riggins to close the deal. With 9 minutes plus remaining, and it 4th and 1 on the Miami 43-yard line, the Redskins called on Riggins to pick up the first down. With the game in the balance, Riggins picked up the first down, but also a lot more. He burst through the arms of much smaller Dolphins corner Don McNeal and raced for a TD. Another TD, a Thiesmann 6-yard TD pass to Alvin Garrett, sealed the Redskins 27-17 victory. “Rigginomics” ruled the day with a Super Bowl record 166 rushing yards (since broken twice).
34. 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers
They began the ’74 campaign not with Terry Bradshaw as the starting QB, but with “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam, a rifle-armed, African-American QB who showed some promise in 1973. His passing was lighting up the skies the first two weeks – a 30-0 shutout of the Baltimore Colts at Three Rivers Stadium and a 35-35 overtime tie at Denver. Week 3 was his undoing, however, as the Raiders came into down and pillage Pittsburgh 17-0. The running game, with Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, along with the Steel Curtain defense, who was at the height of its powers in the mid-1970s, were the catalysts for the Steelers’ success. Bradshaw got his starting role back but after a 17-10 loss at Cincinnati in Week 9 Terry Hanratty was named the starter the next week in their game at Cleveland, a 26-16 victory were Hanratty threw only 4 passes. Pittsburgh finished 10-3-1, easily winning the AFC Central. Key to their success was perhaps the best draft class of all time, where they landed wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as well as linebacker Jack Lambert.
The divisional round of the playoffs brought the Buffalo Bills to Three Rivers Stadium. They held O.J. Simpson to 49 rushing yards, which would be more than their next two opponents combined. Pittsburgh’s offense took off, getting on a roll and leading to a 32-14 victory. The win brought them west against the Oakland Raiders for the AFC Championship. they held Oakland to 29 rushing yards and intercepted Ken Stabler three times. It was a 21-point fourth quarter that was the difference in the 24-13 victory.
For the first time in the 42-year history of the franchise the Pittsburgh Steelers would be playing to be King of the Hill in the NFL. Super Bowl IX, the last game ever played in Tulane Stadium, would pit them against the Minnesota Vikings. The Steelers run defense was even more stiff, holding Minnesota to 17 rushing yards and 119 yards in total offense. Fran Tarkenton was intercepted 3 times. The defense also became the first ever to record a safety in a Super Bowl as a fumble ws recovered by Tarkenton in the end zone, who was downed by defensive tackle Dwight White. Pittsburgh increased their lead to 9-0 as a fumble on the 2nd half kickoff led to a Franco Harris 9-yard TD run. Harris would win MVP honors with 158 rushing yards. A blocked punt recovered for a TD made the Steelers sweat it out. But leading 9-6, Bradshaw led the team on a drive that culminted in Bradshaw hitting TE Larry Brown for a 4-yard TD. Final: Steelers 16, Vikings 6.
33. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
They gave up 196 points in a year where expansion diluted rosters and scoring and offense reached new heights (as it would several times over later on). Since the league expanded the regular season to 16 games in 1978, only the ’78 Steelers, ’86 Bears and ’00 Ravens permitted fewer points. Jon Gruden took over the team after they let go of Tony Dungy, the architect of their “Tampa Two” defensive system. The 2002 Bucs are still the only Super Bowl champion to ever start the season with a home loss – this a 26-20 overtime defeat to the Saints. New Orleans beat them twice, but the Bucs were 12-2 against the rest of the league, easily winning the newly formed NFC South. This time, though, the offense, with Gruden leading the way, was more functional than in the past, especially in the playoffs, though not spectacular.
They disposed of the San Francisco 49ers 31-6 in an NFC Divisional playoff game at Raymond James Stadium. Quarterback Brad Johnson led the attack to an efficient performance, and the defense shut down Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia. The next week brought them back to Philadelphia for a playoff showdown for the 3rd straight season. This time the NFC Championship was at stake. And this time, Tampa Bay had what it took. In the final game ever played at Veterans Stadium, the Bucs spotted the Eagles an early 7-0 lead, but then the Bucs offense took off. Brad Johnson led them on two TD drives and a 17-10 halftime lead. The Tampa Two kept Donovan McNabb in check, and sealed it late in the 4th quarter on a 95-yard interception return TD by Ronde Barber. Tampa Bay finally beat the Eagles in the playoffs and finally reached the Super Bowl with a 27-10 victory.
The next week it was the Bucs against the team Gruden departed from a year before, the Oakland Raiders. Playing the role of league MVP quarterback Rich Gannon in practice, Gruden had the defense ready. They picked off 5 Gannon passes, returning 3 of them for TDs, two of them in the final two minutes, sealing a 48-21 victory. That Raiders head coach Bill Callahan (a Gruden assistant) didn’t alter the Raiders’ audible system is one of the most confounding things an NFL coach has ever done (or not done).
32. 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers
Under second-year head coach Mike Tomlin (another Dungy disciple), the Steelers breezed to a 12-4 record on the strength of their defense which yielded 223 points. The offense could get the job done, but at times the line had trouble protecting Ben Roethlisberger. But they looked Super Bowl caliber with about 1/4 of the season left, especially on defense, with linebacker and Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. Their 12-4 mark earned them the AFC’s #2 seed.
The Steelers welcomed the AFC West champion San Diego Chargers to Heinz Field. The offense stole the show, particularly Santonio Holmes, in a 35-24 victory. A third match with the Baltimore Ravens, at Heinz Field, would decide the AFC Championsihp. Pittsburgh won both regular season contests in the final seconds or overtime. The championship game was a physical affair, decided when safety Troy Polamalu intercepted Joe Flacco and returned it 38 yards for a TD, giving them a 23-14 win.
They would face just the 2nd 9-7 team ever to reach the Big Game – the Arizona Cardinals. Pittsburgh jumped out to a 10-0 lead and was up 10-7 late in the 2nd quarter. Arizona threatened to take the lead before halftime but Harrison stepped in front of a Kurt Warner pass and scored on a marathon 100-yard return, the longest scoring play of any kind in a Super Bowl. They increased the lead to 20-7 in the 3rd quarter, but the Cardinals showed heart, scoring 16 unanswered points, the 2nd TD a 62-yard Warner to Larry Fitzgerald pass which put Arizona up 23-20 with just over 2 1/2 minutes left. But the Steelers showed their championship mettle with Big Ben and Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes making the big plays. The first was a 35-yard completion that put the ball on the 5-yard line. Then on 2nd and goal Holmes caught a Roethlisberger pass in the corner of the end zone, just keeping his toes inbounds, and doing it with two Cardinals defenders draped on him. The score with 34 seconds left made the final 27-23.
31. 2000 Baltimore Ravens
They started with Tony Banks as the QB. Their 2nd game was a 39-36 shootout victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, their first ever over that team. But anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge sees what obviously carried that team. They went the entire month of October without scoring a single touchdown, and still won 2 of those 5 games. They were also the first ever Super Bowl champion with a 3-game losing streak at one point in the season.
Trent Dilfer was inserted as the starter in the middle of a 14-6 home loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 8. Two weeks later their touchdown-less streak ended, as did their losing streak. They showed they could compete with the big boys by handing the Titans their first ever loss at the Coliseum in Nashville 24-23 in Week 11. Tennessee still won the division at 13-3, but the Ravens secured their first ever playoff berth as a 12-4 wild card, allowing just 165 points, by far an all-time low for a 16-game schedule. They also as a team allowed fewer than 1000 rushing yards, another record.
The playoffs saw the defense, led by linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Rod Woodson take their game to another level. The defense also had great role players like Peter Boulware, Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Duane Starks and Gary Baxter. The AFC Wild Card game yielded a 21-3 victory over the Broncos in Baltimore. Ex (and future) Bronco TE Shannon Sharpe scored a 53-yard pass on a deflection and the defense shut down the AFC’s highest scoring offense. The divisional playoffs brought the Ravens back to Nashville, and they gave up a 1st quarter touchdown, but then put an end to it. A blocked field goal led to one TD. Then they broke the Titans when Lewis wrestled a pass from running back Eddie George and rumbled 50 yards for a TD. Shots of a dejected George, prone on the ground face buried in the turf told the story. Ravens 24, Titans 10.
They then went west to face the 12-4 Oakland Raiders for the AFC Championship. Baltimore shut down another high-scoring offense, as Rich Gannon was knocked out of the game after being flattened by Siragusa. Shannon Sharpe gave the Ravens all the points they needed by catching a short Dilfer pass and outracing the defense for a 96-yard TD, to this day the longest play from scrimmage in playoff history. Baltimore won 16-3.
Two weeks later they went down to Tampa to face the NFC Champion Giants for Super Bowl XXXV. New York went into the game with 8 straight wins, but the Ravens defense set the tone early, not allowing the Giants to run. A first-quarter TD pass of 38 yards from Dilfer to Brandon Stokley put the Ravens up to stay. A 3rd quarter interception return for a TD by Duane Starks made it 17-0. The Ravens would have become the first team to record a Super Bowl shutout but allowed the Giants Ron Dixon to return the ensuing kickoff for a TD. But they put the game away when Jermaine Lewis returned the following kickoff 84-yards all the way. They eventually made the final score 34-7, and of course it was Ray Lewis who claimed MVP honors.