Super Bowl LIV was a matchup of NFL franchises which hadn’t won a Lombardi Trophy in quite some time. Of course, the Kansas City Chiefs ended a 50-year wait with their 31-20 victory – extending the dry spell of the San Francisco 49ers, the first team to win five Super Bowls, to 25 years.
There are still a dozen organizations in the league that have never hoisted a Lombardi. And while New England Patriots fans grapple with nearly 400 days without a new ring – sorry, kids – the Niners have joined a list of a half-dozen clubs at least a quarter century removed from Super Sunday glory. (The Dallas Cowboys will boost that figure to seven a year from now if they don’t win Super Bowl LV.)
So who’s closest to a Chiefs-level breakthrough? Let’s rank the “contenders” (most recent title listed in parentheses):
18. Jacksonville Jaguars (never reached Super Bowl): When you’re bleeding core talent like CB Jalen Ramsey, allowing executive VP Tom Coughlin to scare off free agents before finally ousting him, hoping sixth-rounder Gardner Minshew solves a long-festering quarterback problem – all while sticking more toes into the London market – that 2017 AFC championship game appearance suddenly seems a long way off.
17. Carolina Panthers (never won Super Bowl): Veterans Luke Kuechly and Greg Olsen are gone, and former MVP Cam Newton could be next given he’s only got one year remaining on his contract – and has to prove he’s healthy enough to play. The defense was horrible with Kuechly, and there’s not much more all-pro RB Christian McCaffrey can do after an epic individual performance in 2019. And as the team transitions to former Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who must re-adapt to a pro mindset, good possibility he’ll have to go well into his seven-year deal if he’s to take the Panthers where they’ve never gone.
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16. Cincinnati Bengals (never won Super Bowl): Things might be looking up for a team poised to add record-setting Heisman Trophy winner and native Ohioan Joe Burrow atop the 2020 draft. But assuming that’s true, Burrow will have to prove he can excel when not surrounded by a surplus of talent. Even if he becomes a franchise-level passer, will the Bengals ever break their pattern of failing to pursue (either in free agency or with aggressive draft moves) talent that might finally enable them to win their first playoff game in nearly three decades?
15. Washington Redskins (won Super Bowl XXVI in 1992): Thirsty as owner Daniel Snyder is for a return to relevance, the common denominator in his 21-year tenure – one that includes two playoff wins, none since 2005 – is Snyder himself. Coach Ron Rivera now steps into this quagmire of football culture – which could make all the difference. He established an impressive track record in Carolina and joins a team with enough young talent – and in a seemingly weak division – to mount a swift turnaround.
14. Detroit Lions (never reached Super Bowl): The 3-12-1 record in 2019 was ugly. But remember, this team was competitive early, its 0-8 finish coinciding with the loss of injured QB Matthew Stafford. This isn’t to suggest Detroit’s first Super Bowl appearance is just around the corner, but this is a group that could elevate fairly quickly with better luck, proper allocation of more than $40 million in cap space and wise use of the draft’s No. 3 overall pick.
13. Los Angeles Chargers (never won Super Bowl): The defense seems to be in excellent shape, assuming young stars like DE Joey Bosa and S Derwin James can stay on the field. But an offense that never reached Super Sunday with likely Hall of Famer Philip Rivers at the controls is now in need of a new quarterback. After squandering a major opportunity in 2019, hard to see a championship nucleus jelling soon.
12. Arizona Cardinals (never won Super Bowl): First-year NFL coach Kliff Kingsbury and Co. won five games in 2019, exceeding most outside expectations. But even with QB Kyler Murray winning offensive rookie of the year honors, the Cards have quite a few personnel holes to fill. And though they ran the ball well late in the season behind rental RB Kenyan Drake, Kingsbury must still determine how his “Air Raid” offense can better complement a defense that ranked dead last with Pro Bowl-caliber players like OLB Chandler Jones, CB Patrick Peterson and S Budda Baker.
11. Miami Dolphins (won Super Bowl VIII in 1974): The ’72 and ’73 Dolphins, the former edition going 17-0 for the only perfect season of the Super Bowl era, are two of the greatest teams in league history. But the Fins haven’t been to a Super Bowl in 35 years – QB Dan Marino couldn’t overcome Joe Montana’s 49ers in Super Bowl XIX – and have only reached postseason twice in the past 18 seasons. Still, with five first-round picks over the next two drafts and nearly $90 million of salary cap space this year, great potential for an instantaneous reboot – if they solve a decades-long quarterback conundrum.
10. Chicago Bears (won Super Bowl XX in 1986): The supporting cast is decent enough, though the roster is largely capped out. Yet the 2019 season seemed to illustrate that the defense must be transcendent, not merely elite, for this team to win consistently as currently constructed. The wheels will surely continue to spin until QB Mitchell Trubisky proves he’s not the worst starting quarterback in the NFC North.
9. New York Jets (won Super Bowl III in 1969): Glass half full? Or half empty? They won a bunch of games in the second half of the 2019 season … after QB Sam Darnold’s month-long mono battle had already ruined the campaign. The jury remains out on retread coach Adam Gase and whether he’s capable of restoring this team – its record streak since its previous Super Bowl appearance now at 51 years – to contention. Still, Darnold continues to flash and went 7-6 in his sophomore outing. Led by presumed cornerstone Jamal Adams, the defense was resurgent. And $50 million in cap room could fill some holes in GM Joe Douglas’ first offseason.
8. Cleveland Browns (never reached Super Bowl): They seem to have a lot of the right pieces – DE Myles Garrett (presumably), QB Baker Mayfield (presumably), WR Odell Beckham Jr. (presumably) and RB Nick Chubb (definitely), among others. But can a new regime that includes first-year coach Kevin Stefanski and rookie GM Andrew Berry overcome decades of disappointment which have all too often been fueled by what amounts to self-sabotage?
7. Las Vegas Raiders (won Super Bowl XVIII in 1984): GM Mike Mayock’s first draft was quite fruitful, and the Silver and Black nearly doubled their win total in Year 2 of the Jon Gruden reboot. Still, many obstacles to navigate before this itinerant franchise is ready to snag a long-awaited fourth crown. This year’s move to Vegas promises to be highly disruptive as the players and entire organization endure the hassle of uprooting families, not to mention day-to-day football operations. Rumors about QB Derek Carr’s job security continue to circulate, and a significant talent gap remains between the Raiders and the team they must overtake in the AFC West, reigning champion Kansas City.
6. Houston Texans (never reached Super Bowl): QB Deshaun Watson has done a nice job fulfilling Dabo Swinney’s Michael Jordan comparison prior to the 2017 draft. But MJ had Scottie Pippen and some combination of Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoč, Steve Kerr and others. Are aging DE J.J. Watt and WR DeAndre Hopkins enough to help Watson take the Texans to glory never realized by this franchise or the departed Oilers? Newly promoted GM Bill O’Brien’s penchant for mortgaging the future doesn’t necessarily bode well.
5. Tennessee Titans (never won Super Bowl): The current Oilers got awfully close to football immortality last season, making an unexpected run to the AFC title round and giving the Chiefs a stern test for three quarters. But major financial decisions loom with RB Derrick Henry (the NFL’s 2019 rushing king), QB Ryan Tannehill (the NFL’s 2019 leader in passer rating) and RT Jack Conklin all unsigned. Heading into this third season, coach Mike Vrabel also needs to figure out how to create an easier Super Bowl path in January for a team that’s finished 9-7 each of the past four years.
4. Atlanta Falcons (never won Super Bowl): Perhaps no team is better positioned to take the league by storm than this one. Sure, it may seem like the Falcons have been steadily descending since their infamous Super Bowl LI implosion, but they’ve also suffered an unusually high amount of injuries to key players. And despite falling out of the race quickly in 2019, Dan Quinn’s reconfigured coaching staff found something in the second half to salvage a 7-9 finish after a 1-7 start. Former MVP Matt Ryan, star WR Julio Jones and a bevy of capable young players still have a legitimate championship window.
3. Minnesota Vikings (never won Super Bowl): They took a significant step forward in their second year with Kirk Cousins, the oft-maligned quarterback earning his first playoff win while taking the wild-card Vikes to the divisional round. Losing Stefanski as the offensive play-caller hurts, and GM Rick Spielman must address secondary issues for a team that isn’t even cap-compliant at the moment. Still, reason to believe there’s enough in the cupboard for Minnesota to build on its 2019 success.
2. Buffalo Bills (never won Super Bowl): With two playoff berths in the last three seasons, an ascending quarterback in Josh Allen and a defense that’s ranked in the top three the past two years, they’re probably not going to sneak up on anyone in 2020. Sean McDermott’s team might even be ready to knock the Patriots off their long-held AFC East perch. But a coronation likely hinges on Allen’s continued development and the ability of McDermott and GM Brandon Beane to recruit a top-tier free agent or two to Buffalo with their $80 million war chest.
1. San Francisco 49ers (won Super Bowl XXIX in 1995): They were just minutes from obtaining a record-tying sixth Lombardi, so the Niners are tantalizingly close to adding to their proud lineage. Will the team return intact in 2020? Of course not. San Francisco can’t afford to keep DL Arik Armstead, DB Jimmie Ward and WR Emmanuel Sanders. And yet DE Nick Bosa and WR Deebo Samuel should only get better coming off strong rookie showings. And despite largely unfair criticism lobbed at coach Kyle Shanahan and QB Jimmy Garoppolo following Kansas City’s fourth-quarter comeback, the duo should only get better in the wake of their first full season of collaboration. Throw in an excellent group of assistants and GM John Lynch’s ability to tweak the roster, and this appears like a club that should contend for the foreseeable future.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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