NFL Final Four History: No Match for NHL Clash of Champions

Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 31, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

In the slumber of the NFL offseason, we scrap for every morsel of a statistical nugget to pass the time.

As a sports fan, how could you not take notice of what’s going on in the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs right now?

The final four teams are the last four Stanley Cup winners: 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, 2010 Chicago Blackhawks, 2011 Boston Bruins and 2012 Los Angeles Kings.

The Final Four remains a major part of college basketball, but professional sports all boil down to the same event each season. They just prefer to call it a “Conference Championship.”

Yet this has not happened since the 1945 NHL playoffs, which is not nearly as impressive given it was a six-team league with four teams qualifying for the postseason.

Technically, the Detroit Red Wings (Stanley Cup winners in 2008), were the fifth team left standing; making the final five teams the last five champions. That’s even more stunning.

Let’s just focus on this final four feat.

We immediately started thinking about how this relates to the NFL, which stresses parity, yet we just had a season with a record-tying low of four new playoff teams and the exact same division winners and final four teams in the AFC playoffs from 2011.

The NHL has completed a league-record 13 consecutive seasons without a back-to-back Stanley Cup winner. The last team to do so was the 1997-98 Red Wings.

Sure, if the Baltimore Ravens fail to repeat as Super Bowl champions, the NFL will set a new record with a nine-year run (2005-13) without a repeat champion, breaking the old record of eight seasons (1980-87).

However, when it comes to a final four clash of champions, the NFL has come up empty.

 

The Final Four Data

There are two key components for this feat to even be possible.

The first requires a solid run of new champions. Not only do you not want to see back-to-back wins, but you can’t have teams winning multiple championships in a four-year window.

Just look at the Steelers (2005-08) as a recent example. Most of the teams winning multiple champions tend to do it in small windows.

Next, and perhaps even more important, is that you need to luck out in having two teams from each conference to match up in the final four.

In 2013, it will be impossible for the NFL to achieve this feat since there’s no way the Giants (2011), Packers (2010) and Saints (2010) can all make it to the final four. They are all NFC teams.

The NHL has it working in that Pittsburgh and Boston are in the Eastern conference, while Los Angeles and Chicago are in the Western conference.

With the details out of the way, let’s look at the NFL’s final four history to see where the close calls have been. We will look at it in two different ways, starting with the results of the past four champions in a season.

Each season is basically “Season N” and from there you work backwards, subtracting a year for each of the past four champions. The result is what happened in season N for each team. This data only has to go back to 1970, which coincides nicely with the merger and Super Bowl V.

Teams in bold were duplicate winners, while lines in red represent the only seasons where the last four champions included no duplicate winners.

Year-By-Year Results for the Past Four Super Bowl Champions

Season N

N - 1

Result

N - 2

Result

N - 3

Result

N - 4

Result

2012

NYG

No Playoffs

GB

Lost DIV

NO

No Playoffs

PIT

No Playoffs

2011

GB

Lost DIV

NO

Lost DIV

PIT

Lost WC

NYG

Won SB

2010

NO

Lost WC

PIT

Lost SB

NYG

No Playoffs

IND

Lost WC

2009

PIT

No Playoffs

NYG

No Playoffs

IND

Lost SB

PIT

No Playoffs

2008

NYG

Lost DIV

IND

Lost WC

PIT

Won SB

NE

No Playoffs

2007

IND

Lost DIV

PIT

Lost WC

NE

Lost SB

NE

Lost SB

2006

PIT

No Playoffs

NE

Lost CC

NE

Lost CC

TB

No Playoffs

2005

NE

Lost DIV

NE

Lost DIV

TB

Lost WC

NE

Lost DIV

2004

NE

Won SB

TB

No Playoffs

NE

Won SB

BAL

No Playoffs

2003

TB

No Playoffs

NE

Won SB

BAL

Lost WC

RAM

Lost DIV

2002

NE

No Playoffs

BAL

No Playoffs

RAM

No Playoffs

DEN

No Playoffs

2001

BAL

Lost DIV

RAM

Lost SB

DEN

No Playoffs

DEN

No Playoffs

2000

RAM

Lost WC

DEN

Lost WC

DEN

Lost WC

GB

No Playoffs

1999

DEN

No Playoffs

DEN

No Playoffs

GB

No Playoffs

DAL

Lost WC

1998

DEN

Won SB

GB

Lost WC

DAL

Lost WC

SF

Lost DIV

1997

GB

Lost SB

DAL

No Playoffs

SF

Lost CC

DAL

No Playoffs

1996

DAL

Lost DIV

SF

Lost DIV

DAL

Lost DIV

DAL

Lost DIV

1995

SF

Lost DIV

DAL

Won SB

DAL

Won SB

WAS

No Playoffs

1994

DAL

Lost CC

DAL

Lost CC

WAS

No Playoffs

NYG

No Playoffs

1993

DAL

Won SB

WAS

No Playoffs

NYG

Lost DIV

SF

Lost CC

1992

WAS

Lost DIV

NYG

No Playoffs

SF

Lost CC

SF

Lost CC

1991

NYG

No Playoffs

SF

No Playoffs

SF

No Playoffs

WAS

Won SB

1990

SF

Lost CC

SF

Lost CC

WAS

Lost DIV

NYG

Won SB

1989

SF

Won SB

WAS

No Playoffs

NYG

Lost DIV

CHI

No Playoffs

1988

WAS

No Playoffs

NYG

No Playoffs

CHI

Lost CC

SF

Won SB

1987

NYG

No Playoffs

CHI

Lost DIV

SF

Lost DIV

RAI

No Playoffs

1986

CHI

Lost DIV

SF

Lost DIV

RAI

No Playoffs

WAS

Lost CC

1985

SF

Lost WC

RAI

Lost DIV

WAS

No Playoffs

SF

Lost WC

1984

RAI

Lost WC

WAS

Lost DIV

SF

Won SB

RAI

Lost WC

1983

WAS

Lost SB

SF

Lost CC

RAI

Won SB

PIT

Lost DIV

1982

SF

No Playoffs

RAI

Lost DIV

PIT

Lost WC

PIT

Lost WC

1981

RAI

No Playoffs

PIT

No Playoffs

PIT

No Playoffs

DAL

Lost CC

1980

PIT

No Playoffs

PIT

No Playoffs

DAL

Lost CC

RAI

Won SB

1979

PIT

Won SB

DAL

Lost DIV

RAI

No Playoffs

PIT

Won SB

1978

DAL

Lost SB

RAI

No Playoffs

PIT

Won SB

PIT

Won SB

1977

RAI

Lost CC

PIT

Lost DIV

PIT

Lost DIV

MIA

No Playoffs

1976

PIT

Lost CC

PIT

Lost CC

MIA

No Playoffs

MIA

No Playoffs

1975

PIT

Won SB

MIA

No Playoffs

MIA

No Playoffs

DAL

Lost SB

1974

MIA

Lost DIV

MIA

Lost DIV

DAL

No Playoffs

CLT

No Playoffs

1973

MIA

Won SB

DAL

Lost CC

CLT

No Playoffs

KC

No Playoffs

1972

DAL

Lost CC

CLT

No Playoffs

KC

No Playoffs

NYJ

No Playoffs

1971

CLT

Lost CC

KC

Lost DIV

NYJ

No Playoffs

GB

No Playoffs

1970

KC

No Playoffs

NYJ

No Playoffs

GB

No Playoffs

GB

No Playoffs

Things were not good last year with three of the past four champions all missing the playoffs. Only the Packers returned for their fourth consecutive postseason appearance.

The last time something like that happened without any duplicates was 2002 when all four teams failed to make the playoffs.

Maybe the shocking result is only 16 of these 43 seasons included four different champions. Here is a summary of the team’s results in those 16 seasons:

16 Seasons with Four Different Champions

Seasons

No Playoffs

Wild Card

Divisional

Conf-Champ.

Super Bowl Loss

Super Bowl Win

1 (2002)

4

0

0

0

0

0

1 (2012)

3

0

1

0

0

0

1 (1972)

3

0

0

1

0

0

1 (1987)

2

0

2

0

0

0

1 (1971)

2

0

1

1

0

0

1 (1989)

2

0

1

0

0

1

2 (1973, 1988)

2

0

0

1

0

1

1 (2010)

1

2

0

0

1

0

2 (2003, 2008)

1

1

1

0

0

1

1 (1986)

1

0

2

1

0

0

1 (1993)

1

0

1

1

0

1

1 (1998)

0

2

1

0

0

1

1 (2011)

0

1

2

0

0

1

1 (1983)

0

0

1

1

1

1

The closest the NFL has ever been to a final four of the last four champions came in 1983 when three teams (Redskins, 49ers and Raiders) made it.

Washington (1982 winner) beat San Francisco (1981 winner) in the NFC Championship before falling hard to the Raiders (1980 winner), 38-9, in Super Bowl XVIII.

The Raiders’ dominant postseason is the only thing that screwed this up. Pittsburgh (1979 winner) was eliminated by the Raiders in the AFC Divisional in a 38-10 game, which opened the door for Seattle to make its first AFC Championship game.

This would serve as a critical postseason with Joe Gibbs and Washington looking to build a dynasty, having won the previous Super Bowl and setting a NFL record with 541 points in 1983 on the path to a 14-2 record. Washington’s two losses were each by one point, and it had beaten the Raiders, 37-35, in a thrilling game, but the Super Bowl blowout was the shock of the season.

With the Raiders being the first team to two championships in the ‘80s, they were very much in the hunt to build something great. But after 1987 it was Washington on top with two rings and even a higher winning percentage than San Francisco at the time.

But the 49ers would leave no doubt as to whom the team of the decade was after winning the final two Super Bowls of the ‘80s in impressive fashion.

Of the 27 seasons with duplicate winners, none were able to send more than two teams to the final four. Pittsburgh and Dallas met in the Super Bowl in both 1975 and 1978. That was as deep as it got.

So the missed opportunity was in 1983.

The next table is a look at the final four in the NFL for each season since the merger. This is essentially the history of the Conference Championship games, which were first held in 1970.

“LSBW” is the season in which the team last won a Super Bowl. If they had not won a Super Bowl in the past, no year is given.

NFL's Final Four: Conference Championship Era (1970-2012)

Year

AFC Winner

LSBW

AFC Loser

LSBW

NFC Winner

LSBW

NFC Loser

LSBW

2012

BAL

2000

NE

2004

SF

1994

ATL

-

2011

NE

2004

BAL

2000

NYG

2007

SF

1994

2010

PIT

2008

NYJ

1968

GB

1996

CHI

1985

2009

IND

2006

NYJ

1968

NO

-

MIN

-

2008

PIT

2005

BAL

2000

CRD

-

PHI

-

2007

NE

2004

SD

-

NYG

1990

GB

1996

2006

IND

1970

NE

2004

CHI

1986

NO

-

2005

PIT

1979

DEN

1998

SEA

-

CAR

-

2004

NE

2003

PIT

1979

PHI

-

ATL

-

2003

NE

2001

IND

1970

CAR

-

PHI

-

2002

RAI

1983

TEN

-

TB

-

PHI

-

2001

NE

-

PIT

1979

RAM

1999

PHI

-

2000

BAL

-

RAI

1983

NYG

1990

MIN

-

1999

TEN

-

JAX

-

RAM

-

TB

-

1998

DEN

1997

NYJ

1968

ATL

-

MIN

-

1997

DEN

-

PIT

1979

GB

1996

SF

1994

1996

NE

-

JAX

-

GB

1967

CAR

-

1995

PIT

1979

IND

1970

DAL

1993

GB

1967

1994

SD

-

PIT

1979

SF

1989

DAL

1993

1993

BUF

-

KC

1969

DAL

1992

SF

1989

1992

BUF

-

MIA

1973

DAL

1977

SF

1989

1991

BUF

-

DEN

-

WAS

1987

DET

-

1990

BUF

-

RAI

1983

NYG

1986

SF

1989

1989

DEN

-

CLE

-

SF

1988

RAM

-

1988

CIN

-

BUF

-

SF

1984

CHI

1985

1987

DEN

-

CLE

-

WAS

1982

MIN

-

1986

DEN

-

CLE

-

NYG

-

WAS

1982

1985

NE

-

MIA

1973

CHI

-

RAM

-

1984

MIA

1973

PIT

1979

SF

1981

CHI

-

1983

RAI

1980

SEA

-

WAS

1982

SF

1981

1982

MIA

1973

NYJ

1968

WAS

-

DAL

1977

1981

CIN

-

SD

-

SF

-

DAL

1977

1980

RAI

1976

SD

-

PHI

-

DAL

1977

1979

PIT

1978

HOU

-

RAM

-

TB

-

1978

PIT

1975

HOU

-

DAL

1971

RAM

-

1977

DEN

-

RAI

1976

DAL

1971

MIN

-

1976

RAI

-

PIT

1975

MIN

-

RAM

-

1975

PIT

1974

RAI

-

DAL

1971

RAM

-

1974

PIT

-

RAI

-

MIN

-

RAM

-

1973

MIA

1972

RAI

-

MIN

-

DAL

1971

1972

MIA

-

PIT

-

WAS

-

DAL

1971

1971

MIA

-

CLT

1970

DAL

-

SF

-

1970

CLT

-

RAI

-

DAL

-

SF

-

Here we find that just three seasons (1995, 2010-11) have produced a final four with teams who all won a Super Bowl in the past.

Considering 14 teams have yet to win a single Super Bowl, this makes some sense, yet it still feels like a very low number.

The first instance came in 1995, which followed 10 years of the AFC sending a title-less franchise to the slaughter in the Super Bowl. The only thing close in comparison has been the nine straight title-less teams who lost in the NFC Championship from 1998-06.

In 1995 we had great games with the Colts/Steelers coming down to Jim Harbaugh’s Hail Mary and a high-scoring affair in Dallas with the Packers.

However, only Dallas had a recent Super Bowl win (1993) at the time. The Steelers (16 years), Colts (25 years) and Packers (28) saw past glory far away in the rearview mirror.

The following year, two expansion teams in Jacksonville and Carolina reached the final four in just their second season of existence. Joining them were New England, who had yet to win a title and the Packers still looking to add another after Super Bowl II in 1967.

Moving into the 2000s, the AFC began to see domination by a select number of teams with the best quarterbacks. Sixteen of the last 20 spots in the AFC Championship have been filled by four teams (Patriots, Steelers, Colts and Ravens).

You certainly have to include the Ravens and Joe Flacco into that mix now, as John Harbaugh is the first coach ever to reach three Conference Championship games in his first five seasons.

The NFC has been more in flux, but in 2010, we had the second season with a final four featuring past Super Bowl champions. The same happened a year later, and this time things were a bit more modern with the last championship coming an average of 9.75 seasons ago for the four teams.

Since the information is right there, screaming to be presented, here is a summary of how all 32 teams have done in the Conference Championship (sorted by appearances):

NFL: Conference Championship Results  (1970-12)

Rank

Team

Appearances

First

Last

Record

Pct.

1

Steelers

15

1972

2010

8-7

0.533

2T

Cowboys

14

1970

1995

8-6

0.571

2T

49ers

14

1970

2012

6-8

0.429

4

Raiders

11

1970

2002

4-7

0.364

5T

Patriots

9

1985

2012

7-2

0.778

5T

Rams

9

1974

2001

3-6

0.333

7T

Broncos

8

1977

2005

6-2

0.750

7T

Vikings

8

1973

2009

3-5

0.375

9

Dolphins

7

1971

1992

5-2

0.714

10T

Redskins

6

1972

1991

5-1

0.833

10T

Colts

6

1970

2009

3-3

0.500

10T

Eagles

6

1980

2008

2-4

0.333

13T

Giants

5

1986

2011

5-0

1.000

13T

Bills

5

1988

1993

4-1

0.800

13T

Packers

5

1995

2010

3-2

0.600

13T

Bears

5

1984

2010

2-3

0.400

17T

Ravens

4

2000

2012

2-2

0.500

17T

Titans

4

1978

2002

1-3

0.250

17T

Chargers

4

1980

2007

1-3

0.250

17T

Jets

4

1982

2010

0-4

0.000

21T

Falcons

3

1998

2012

1-2

0.333

21T

Panthers

3

1996

2005

1-2

0.333

21T

Buccaneers

3

1979

2002

1-2

0.333

21T

Browns

3

1986

1989

0-3

0.000

25T

Bengals

2

1981

1988

2-0

1.000

25T

Saints

2

2006

2009

1-1

0.500

25T

Seahawks

2

1983

2005

1-1

0.500

25T

Jaguars

2

1996

1999

0-2

0.000

29T

Cardinals

1

2008

2008

1-0

1.000

29T

Lions

1

1991

1991

0-1

0.000

29T

Chiefs

1

1993

1993

0-1

0.000

32

Texans

0

-

-

-

-

Some day, Houston.

You can count on some of the usual suspects to make it back to this season’s final four, but expecting Baltimore, New England and San Francisco to each make it three years in a row is asking a bit much.

Only two teams have done it in the free-agency era (since 1994): 1995-97 Packers and 2001-04 Eagles.

One final stat: the NFL’s final four sees an average of 2.7 new teams each year.

As the years go by and more teams end their drought without a Super Bowl win, there will be more opportunities for final fours like the NHL feat to occur in football.

But for now, what we are about to see unfold in hockey is nearly a once in a lifetime event, just like when certain stars align for one night.

Not to sound like a Game of Thrones promo, but enjoy the clash of champions, for football is coming.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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