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Kelley: Why Aren’t All NFL Championships Counted Equally?

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Providence Steam Roller pennant from the 1928 NFL Champions.

Next Sunday the AFC and NFC representatives for Super Bowl 58 will be decided in their respective conference championship games. The National Football League will celebrate their fifty-eighth Super Bowl champions in a few weeks. But why do all the NFL Champions before 1966 not get the love they deserve?

The Detroit Lions are one game away from the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Some football fans might think that means the Lions were never NFL champs, but that is far from the case. Detroit has won four NFL titles. They ruled the football world during the 1935, 1952, 1953, and 1957 seasons. While their title drought is currently in year 66, it doesn’t mean they have never won. They’ve just never won a Super Bowl.

Since the AFL and NFL began playing the Super Bowl following the 1966 season, the teams with the most banners are the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, with six each. But these franchises have less than half the total of the Green Bay Packers 13 titles. The Chicago Bears (nine) and New York Giants (eight) are both ahead of these six-time Super Bowl Champions in total titles too.

The 1920 season was the first year of the NFL. The league was known as the APFA (American Professional Football Association) for two years before rebranding to the National Football League. The American Football League began play in 1960, and in 1966 began battling the NFL Champion in the Super Bowl. By 1970 the two leagues merged into the current version of the NFL.

The 1920 Akron Pros were the first champions, featuring Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Fritz Pollard. They are one of five defunct franchises to be NFL Champions. The others are the Canton Bulldogs (1921, 1922), Cleveland Bulldogs (1924), Frankford Yellow Jackets (1926), and Providence Steam Roller (1928). How many fans realize the 2001 New England Patriots aren’t even the first NFL champs from New England?

Detroit is not the only NFL franchise with titles shutout during the Super Bowl Era. The Cleveland Browns sat atop the NFL four times (1950, 1954, 1955, and 1964). They also won all four AAFC Championships (1946-to-1949). Cleveland was one of three teams from the All-American Football Conference (along with the Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers) to merge into the NFL following the 1949 AAFC season.

Four franchises won AFL titles prior to the start of Super Bowl play. The Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers each won twice, with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers raising one banner each. The Baltimore Colts and Minnesota Vikings also technically won NFL Championships before the merger, only to lose in the Super Bowl. These now feel more like NFC Championships. While counting the AAFC or AFL titles as NFL Championships is not necessary, acknowledging the first 46 champions is.

So, despite the lack of Lombardi Trophies in Detroit, the Lions are not trying to win their first NFL title this season. They’ve already won four. All of the remaining teams remaining have multiple titles. The San Francisco  49ers (five), Kansas City Chiefs (three), and Baltimore Ravens (two) all just happened to win in the Super Bowl Era. Perhaps it is time to drop the Roman Numerals and just celebrate the Super Bowl winner each year as the NFL Champions. In 1920 it was the Akron Pros. Whichever franchise it is this season will be celebrating at least their third.