Now that the Saints have made it to their first Super Bowl, there are now only four teams — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, and Detroit Lions — that have never been. There are also now ten teams that have only been to the big game once, with mixed results. In the last decade alone, six of those teams (including New Orleans) have made their first trip to the NFL's premiere event.
Since the New York Jets made their first trip in Super Bowl III — and it was the first trip for the Colts, who were in Baltimore, and in the NFC — they are left out of this discussion even though they were one of the few teams without prior Super Bowl experience to emerge victorious, with a 16-7 win. Also, the three other first-time entrants played in their first Super Bowl in the 1990s and since the advent of the salary cap, so they can be considered to be in the modern era.
The San Diego Chargers did not make their first trip until 25 years after the AFL-NFL merger and were throttled 49-26 by the heavily favored San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers were making their fifth Super Bowl appearance of the previous 14 and were undefeated in their previous four trips. They had an extremely talented roster and were able to pass at will against a formidable Chargers defense, with quarterback Steve Young setting a Super Bowl record with six touchdown passes. San Diego was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and were on the wrong side of the final push of a storied dynasty.
Atlanta was the next victim of a first time appearance versus a superior opponent, as they faced the Denver Broncos, who had won their first 14 games of the season and were the defending champs. The Falcons were also steam-rolled 34-19 by a Denver squad — and quarterback in John Elway — that was playing in its fifth Super Bowl in Elway's run and the sixth in franchise history. Once again, a rookie team was overwhelmed by a stronger, more experienced, more talented team on Super Sunday.
In 1999, the Tennessee Titans were appearing for the first time against the Rams, who were making their first appearance since they moved to St. Louis. The Los Angeles Rams made only one trip to the Super Bowl and were on the wrong side of the last push of the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. The Titans played a hard-fought game in which they came back from 16 points down to tie the game before Isaac Bruce caught a long, game-winning touchdown. Tennessee came within one yard of the first overtime game in Super Bowl history, but ultimately fell short.
The Baltimore Ravens turned the tide in Super Bowl XXXV by thrashing the New York Giants 34-7 with a strong team effort led by their historically great defense. Baltimore scored on offense, defense, and special teams in a game that they dominated from the first snap to the last. This was the first time that a team making its original — and only — trip to the Super Bowl was victorious over a franchise that had a long and storied history in the Super Bowl, as the Giants were playing in their third championship.
Tampa continued the run of success against another storied Super Bowl franchise in the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. The Raiders were playing in their fifth Super Bowl in franchise history and had not lost since falling to the Green Bay Packers — on the tail end of their 1960s dynasty — in Super Bowl II. Jon Gruden humiliated his former team 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII and the advantage seemed to be shifting to novice teams now that the salary cap era was in full swing.
As it turns out, there was another first time entrant in the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, but they faced the New England Patriots, who were on their way to establishing a dynasty of their own in the 2000s. Carolina played the Patriots tough, but were felled by Adam Vinatieri 32-29 as the clock went to all zeroes.
The Seattle Seahawks were undone more by questionable officiating calls than they were by a seasoned Super Bowl franchise. They lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were playing in the sixth Super Bowl in franchise history, but four of those appearances came in the 1970s and one in the 1990s, so the only carryover was one player and head coach Bill Cowher from that 90s team.
Notable for this matchup was that Seattle finished first in offense in the NFL in the 2005 regular season, which was a departure from the other first-time entrants on the list. The Chargers, Falcons, Titans, Ravens, Buccaneers, and Panthers were not inept on offense, but were more well-renowned for their defense. The 1968 Jets finished fourth in total offense and third in scoring, so they would be in the discussion as well if they had not won their only franchise Super Bowl so early.
Super Bowl XLIII featured another first-time participant in the Arizona Cardinals, facing the same veteran Super Bowl franchise in the Steelers, with the same result as the Seahawks. The officiating was not as suspect and the game was considerably closer, but the results were the same, as the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl in seven trips, defeating the Cardinals 27-23. Arizona was also an offensively focused team, finishing fourth in total offense and third in scoring in 2008.
The Saints finished first in total offense and first in scoring in 2009 and, while they're not inept on defense, they are obviously more well-renowned for their offensive prowess. First time teams playing against squads or franchises that have a depth of Super Bowl experience have not fared well overall, but offensive teams have fared worse. In total, rookie Super Bowl teams are 2-6 in the modern era and offensive-minded teams are 0-2.
This is not to say that New Orleans should just give up now, but history is not on their sides in terms of staging an upset against the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
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