This is the 47th Super Bowl, and -- follow closely here -- two teams play in each game, which means there have been 94 Super Bowl slots open over the years. There's parity in the NFL, and that extends to the biggest game: 28 NFL franchises have played in at least one Super Bowl.
But four have never made it.
Everybody will be focused this week and next on Baltimore and San Francisco, but let's take just a minute to play the sad trombone for the Failed Four. We'll look at them in order of accumulated pain, from least to most.
* * *
Houston Texans, 0 for 11 (began playing in 2002)
Closest to Super Bowl: Lost in divisional round in 2012 (to New England, 41-28) and 2011 (to Baltimore, 20-13).
The Texans haven't earned much sympathy yet, but the city of Houston has. The Oilers won a couple of titles in the old AFL, but went 0-for-31* in the Super Bowl era before the team moved to Tennessee in 1997. Tennessee, of course, went to the Super Bowl in just its third season and fell one yard short against the Rams. (Do any Houston fans count that one as theirs? This will come up again later.)
*The closest the Oilers got was the AFC championship game in 1978 and '79, when teams led by the great Earl Campbell lost back-to-back to the Steelers. I remember sitting down to watch that '78 game. I loved the Oilers and hated the Steelers. The Steelers won 34-5.
It took the Texans all the way until 2009 just to get on the right side of .500, but for the last two years, they've been one of the better teams in the AFC. They've got Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball (RB Arian Foster, WR Andre Johnson, OT Duane Brown, DE J.J. Watt). They're a couple of defensive players away from a serious run. Hang in there, Houston. It might not be long.
Odds of a Super Bowl soon: Good.
* * *
Jacksonville Jaguars, 0 for 18 (began playing in 1995)
Closest to Super Bowl: Lost AFC championship game in 1999 (to Tennessee, 33-14) and 1996 (to New England, 20-6).
That first AFC title game was a huge surprise -- the Jags barely made the playoffs, but beat Buffalo in the wild card game, then upset Denver at Mile High and threw Broncos fans into existential despair that John Elway would never win a Super Bowl. (Elway, with help from Terrell Davis, took the Broncos to the next two Super Bowls and won them both.)
The Jags used to be fun to watch, back when Tom Coughlin was screaming on the sidelines and Mark Brunell was throwing bombs to Jimmy Smith -- from 1997-99, they went 11-5, 11-5 and 14-2. But they've won just one playoff game since then, and now they're the least-interesting, least-loved team in the league. They came into the NFL the same year as the Carolina Panthers, and although the Jags have a slightly better overall record (145-154 to 138-160), the Panthers did make the Super Bowl in 2003. Almost won the thing, too. Stupid Adam Vinatieri.
Right now the Jags have one Pro Bowl-caliber player (RB Maurice Jones-Drew), one quarterback nobody believes in (Blaine Gabbert) and a lot of guys you've never heard of. Despite all that, they drafted a punter in the third round last year. They're playing a home game in London the next four seasons to raise some extra money. None of these seem like promising signs.
On the other hand, their owner has retired the trophy for best mustache in the league.
Odds of a Super Bowl soon: Sigh.
* * *
Detroit Lions, 0 for 47
Closest to Super Bowl: Lost NFC championship game in 1991 (to Washington, 41-10).
In some ways, the Lions qualify as the worst of the worst. They have just that one conference championship game, and they haven't made it past the wild card round since. They've played just 11 playoff games in the Super Bowl era -- that's the same as the Jaguars, and Detroit had a 29-year head start.
The Lions have been around since 1930 and were one of the dominant teams in the '50s - they won the NFL championship in the pre-Super Bowl years of 1952, '53 and '57. But since then, most of the highlights have been lowlights. They lost a 1970 playoff game to Dallas 5-0. (Three-run homer by Craig Morton in the eighth.) They went 0-16 in 2008. In fact, look at their record from 2001-2010:
That's like the track listing to a Smiths album.
Things are looking up … sort of. The Lions went 10-6 two years ago behind QB Matthew Stafford, DT Ndamukong Suh and all-galactic WR Calvin Johnson. But this season Detroit backslid to 4-12. They have that San Diego Chargers vibe -- lots of talent that's rarely pointed in the same direction. Although Chargers fans are probably insulted to be compared to the Lions.
Odds of a Super Bowl soon: Decent -- if all those talented players peak at the same time.
* * *
Cleveland Browns, 0 for 44 seasons (no team from 1996-98)
Closest to Super Bowl: Lost AFC championship game to Denver (1989, 37-21; 1987, 38-33; 1986, 23-20).
My friend J.* is a huge Browns fan, and he hated it when Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore… but he's claiming the Ravens for the Super Bowl anyway. He even calls them the Bravens. He knows it violates every rule of Sports Fidelity. He can't help it. He just wants to see some team he cares about in the Super Bowl.
*I'll leave his full name out of it in case any Browns purists are already lighting torches.
The Browns claim eight football titles: Four from the old All-American Football Conference, and four pre-Super Bowl NFL titles. But the last one of those was in 1964. Since then, the Browns have nothing but a bottomless well of playoff agony. The Drive. The Fumble. Red Right 88. Minnesota and Buffalo are both 0-4 in Super Bowls, and that is its own kind of pain. But those teams were conference champions. They got to stand on the big stage, even if the lights were too bright. The Browns get one step from the top, then fall all the way back down the stairs.
The last five seasons for the Browns: 4-12, 5-11, 5-11, 4-12, 5-11. At least they're consistent. In a season where rookie QBs lit up the league, the Browns' rookie QB, Brandon Weeden, did not. Plus, he turns 30 next year.
There are a few positives. Trent Richardson looks like a top-shelf running back. OT Joe Thomas is one of the best in the league. A couple of potential studs are out there on defense. They're better than Jacksonville. And historically, they're still better than Detroit. But sometimes the pain of losing is worse than the pain of never getting there.
Then again, if you want to talk about never getting there: The Detroit Pistons, Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings have all won titles in the past 30 years. That lonely Browns championship from 1964 is the last one for any Cleveland team in a major sport.
Which is another way of saying, when it comes to sports suffering, the winner is always Cleveland.
Chances of a Super Bowl soon: Let's just not talk about it, OK?
* * *
Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. Ten teams have made a Super Bowl but haven't won: Arizona, Atlanta, Carolina, San Diego, Seattle and Tennessee (all 0-1); Cincinnati and Philadelphia (0-2); and Buffalo and Minnesota (0-4)