Are the Cardinals the most surprising team to ever make a Super Bowl? Compare. Some of the other most unlikely candidates:
There were plenty of reasons to think the Patriots wouldn't survive their road to the Super Bowl. After finishing second in the AFC East behind Miami, New England went on the road as a wild-card team. Making matters worse, the Patriots hadn't had much regular-season success against their postseason opponents — the 11-5 Jets, the 12-4 Raiders and the 12-4 Dolphins (going 2-3 in the regular season against them). After dominating the AFC Championship Game 31-14 at the Orange Bowl, the Patriots were pounded 46-10 by the Bears in Super Bowl XX.
Cincinnati and rookie RB Ickey Woods shuffled their way to Super Bowl XXIII one year after finishing 4-11, last in the AFC Central. The Bengals emerged from the basement and had nine players go to the Pro Bowl, among them QB Boomer Esiason, T Anthony Munoz and WR Eddie Brown. Esiason was named the league MVP. The Bengals ultimately lost 20-16 to the 49ers in the championship game.
The Giants weren't a surprise because they lacked talent, because they had plenty. But starting QB Phil Simms suffered a season-ending injury in December, three weeks before the playoffs. That left the Giants in the hands of unknown backup Jeff Hostetler, who led them past two-time defending champion San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, then to Tampa and Super Bowl XXV, where they edged the Bills.
The Falcons finished the regular season 14-2, good enough to win the NFC West title. But the Vikings, Atlanta's opponent in the NFC Championship Game, were considered a shoo-in for the Super Bowl with a juggernaut offense led by QB Randall Cunningham and WRs Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Minnesota had scored a then-league record 556 points in the regular season, 34.8 per game. But the Falcons upended the Vikings 30-27 in overtime at the Metrodome. Atlanta lost to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.
This team literally needed a miracle to reach the Super Bowl — a Music City Miracle. Tennessee barely survived the wild-card round, using one of the most memorable finishes in playoff history to pull out a 22-16 win over Buffalo on a disputed lateral pass on a kickoff to score the winning touchdown. TE Frank Wycheck fielded the kick with 16 seconds left, then threw across the width of the field to WR Kevin Dyson, who went 75 yards for a touchdown. It was the Titans' first playoff victory since 1991. They went on to lose to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.
When the obstacle you're facing is perfection, the odds are certainly stacked against you. The Giants, a wild-card team that earned its way to the Super Bowl with three road wins, had to overcome the Patriots' 18-0 record in Super Bowl XLII. New England was billed as arguably the greatest team in league history, having set records for points (589) and touchdowns (75) in a single season. But the Giants would pull off a 17-14 victory.
Stephen F. Holder, Times staff writer