Super Bowl classics are forever etched in the minds of football fans. In Super Bowl XLII, the underdog Giants toppled the undefeated, 18-0 Patriots. In Super Bowl III, Joe Namath guaranteed a victory and then came through as the New York Jets became the first AFL team to win a title. And, of course, last year’s epic comeback by the New England Patriots to give Tom Brady his record fifth title.
But what if these Super Bowl matchups that we look back on fondly (and I have memorized) were different? What if the teams that were on the doorstep of the Big Game actually won their conference championship? I’ve compiled a list of hypothetical Super Bowls from the past 20 years with matchups between the teams that lost their conference championship games. I’m also picking which team would have won the hypothetical game and won the Super Bowl champions.
Warning- there are some strange ones. Like the Cutler-Sanchez Super Bowl, or the battle for Florida, or the battle for Pennsylvania, or three consecutive Eagles Super Bowls. Let’s get to it!
Super Bowl LII (2017)- Minnesota Vikings (13-3) vs Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
This year’s hypothetical matchup pits the league’s two best defenses and includes the Vikings as the first true home team in a Super Bowl. The Vikings, with the momentum from Stefon Diggs’ thrilling catch, take this one 33-14.
Super Bowl LI (2016)- Green Bay Packers (10-6) vs Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
This matchup was the one we saw in Super Bowl XLV, in which Aaron Rodgers and the Pack topped Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers. The 2016 Packers caught fire late last season, winning eight straight games before falling to the Falcons in the NFC Championship, and have the look of a Super Bowl champion.
Super Bowl 50 (2015)– Arizona Cardinals (13-3) vs New England Patriots (12-4)
The Cardinals looked like a Super Bowl contender until they ran into the 15-1 Panthers, while the Patriots seemed a Super Bowl lock until being upset by the tenacious Broncos. In a matchup between New England’s Tom Brady and Arizona’s Carson Palmer, I’d take Brady.
Super Bowl XLIX (2014)- Green Bay Packers (12-4) vs Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Remember the days when Andrew Luck was considered an elite, healthy quarterback? His best year was 2014, when his Colts reached the AFC Championship only to be demolished by the Patriots (the DeflateGate game). Green Bay would’ve handed them the 45-7 shellacking the thin Colts deserved.
Super Bowl XLVIII (2013)- San Francisco 49ers (12-4) vs New England Patriots (12-4)
The 49ers, who reached three straight NFC championships under Jim Harbaugh, will be the dynasty of the 2010s that time forgot. This was a dominant defense and dynamic offense (remember Colin Kaepernick?) and would’ve beaten even the mighty Patriots in a thriller.
Super Bowl XLVII (2012)- Atlanta Falcons (13-3) vs New England Patriots (12-4)
Might the Falcons have blown a 28-3 lead in this matchup (which we saw in Super Bowl LI)? Probably not, but New England was clearly a superior team at this time and would’ve had their way with the old Falcons defense and then-head coach Mike Smith.
Super Bowl XLVI (2011)- San Francisco 49ers (13-3) vs Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
These two teams didn’t have to wait long to play on the big stage, as both reached the Super Bowl the following year in what turned out to be a Super Bowl classic. The main difference between the two years was the quarterback situation- the 49ers started Alex Smith, while the Ravens had a slightly-less-spectacular Joe Flacco. The Ravens would’ve won this game, but it would be close.
Super Bowl XLV (2010)- Chicago Bears (11-5) vs New York Jets (11-5)
Jay Cutler against Mark Sanchez in the Super Bowl? Doesn’t seem like a Super Bowl that any fan outside of New York or Chicago would tune into. Chicago was a particularly weak team that year, beating only the 7-9 Seahawks in the Divisional Round and then losing handily to the archrival Packers. I’d take the Jets and their stingy defense in this one.
Super Bowl XLIV (2009)- Minnesota Vikings (12-4) vs New York Jets (9-7)
Here’s another Jets Super Bowl, this time against Brett Favre’s Vikings. Minnesota beat a great Dallas team 34-3 in the Divisional Round, then took the eventual Super Bowl champ New Orleans to overtime in the NFC Championship. They would’ve had their way with New York and their rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Especially interesting is the fact that it would’ve been Favre against his team from the previous year.
Super Bowl XLIII (2008)- Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) vs Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
The Ravens, led by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, bounced back from a 5-11 campaign to reach the AFC Championship and nearly beat the Steelers. The Eagles, a borderline playoff team, went on a strong run themselves and fell to Kurt Warner and the Cardinals. No rookie quarterback has ever started on a Super Bowl champion, but in this game, Flacco would’ve been the first.
Super Bowl XLII (2007)- Green Bay Packers (13-3) vs San Diego Chargers (11-5)
Brett Favre in his last year as a Packer against Philip Rivers and LT would’ve been an absolutely fantastic game. The Chargers fielded many Super Bowl-caliber teams and this team ran into the then 17-0 New England Patriots. Green Bay was an offensive juggernaut and would’ve had the chance to send Brett Favre into retirement in style. I’d go with San Diego
Super Bowl XLI (2006)- New Orleans Saints (10-6) vs New England Patriots (12-4)
This would’ve been one of the best stories of all-time. The Saints, in their return season to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, reach their first Super Bowl behind newly acquired quarterback Drew Brees. It would’ve made for a great story, but New Orleans would’ve been no match for New England.
Super Bowl XL (2005)- Carolina Panthers (11-5) vs Denver Broncos (13-3)
This matchup would have provided an interesting and even game. Though neither teams wound up winning a Super Bowl in this era, the Panthers and Broncos both fielded impressive teams. Behind Jake Delhomme and the league’s third-ranked defense, Carolina defeated the Patriots in Week 2, shut out the Giants 23-0 in the Wild Card round, and avenged a regular season loss to the Bears in the divisional round. Denver had the second-best rushing attack and upset the Patriots in the playoffs. Give me Delhomme and the Panthers’ D in this one.
Super Bowl XXXIX (2004)- Atlanta Falcons (11-5) vs Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1)
This one is the mercurial Michael Vick against rookie sensation Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers won 15 straight games before running into the dynasty of the decade, the Patriots. Atlanta had the NFL’s best running game with Vick and running back Warrick Dunn. Roethlisberger and the Steelers were the better team and would’ve won convincingly.
Super Bowl XXXVIII (2003)- Philadelphia Eagles (12-4) vs Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
The Eagles were a good-borderline-great team, but the Peyton Manning-led Colts were a dominant team that deserved to win more championships.
Super Bowl XXXVII (2002)- Philadelphia Eagles (12-4) vs Tennessee Titans (11-5)
This Tennessee team did not have the magic of the 1999 team that rode the Music City Miracle to the Super Bowl, and though it shared many players as that team, I couldn’t see a weaker Jeff Fisher team beating the consistent Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXXVI (2001)- Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) vs Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
The battle for Pennsylvania! The quarterback matchup of Donovan McNabb vs Kordell Stewart may not be enticing, but these were two stellar teams that would’ve given us a classic Super Bowl matchup. The Steelers may have been the AFC’s top seed, but the Eagles would’ve pulled away with a victory.
Super Bowl XXXV (2000)- Minnesota Vikings (11-5) vs Oakland Raiders (12-4)
A dynamic offensive clash- Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss in Minnesota against Jon “Chucky” Gruden’s Oakland Raiders. Gruden and Gannon give the Raiders an edge over the Vikings, who lost 41-0 in the NFC Championship Game that year.
Super Bowl XXXIV (1999)- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) vs Jacksonville Jaguars (14-2)
The battle for Florida! I can’t say I expected to see this one on the list, but it would’ve been great. The Jaguars defeated the other Florida team, the Dolphins, 62-7 in Dan Marino’s final game and their NFC counterpart almost upset the Greatest Show on Turf Rams in the NFC Championship Game. The Jags would’ve come out on top, giving Jacksonville a Super Bowl after only four years.
Super Bowl XXXIII (1998)- Minnesota Vikings (15-1) vs New York Jets (12-4)
There is no doubt in my mind that the Vikings would’ve won their first Super Bowl in this game. The Vikes had the league’s best offense but were doomed by kicker Gary Andersen’s late field goal miss, his first miss of the entire season. Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, Randy Moss- this team had Super Bowl written all over it.