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How the Super Bowl Works

By: Kevin Bonsor & John Donovan  | 

Super Bowl History: A Not-so-Super Start

Super Bowl
The first Super Bowl pit the Kansas City Chiefs against the Green Bay Packers at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The modern era of professional football began in 1922 when the American Professional Football Association changed its name to the National Football League. From 1922 to 1932, the team with the best regular season record was crowned champion. At the time, the league fluctuated between eight and 18 teams.

The NFL didn't implement a postseason until 1933, when the league divided its teams into two five-team divisions and scheduled the first NFL Championship Game. In that first title game, the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants 23-21 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. But the first Super Bowl, as we know it today, wouldn't be played for 34 more years.

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The seeds for the Super Bowl were planted in 1960, when a second professional football league formed to compete with the established NFL. Although other leagues had come and gone, the eight-team American Football League (AFL) gained fan interest unlike any league before it. What's more, the AFL had owners with the money to sign players to lucrative contracts.

The NFL-AFL rivalry became bitter in 1965, when the New York Giants broke an informal agreement between the two leagues not to pursue players already under contract. The Giants signed Pete Gogolak, a kicker still under contract with the AFL's Buffalo Bills. In retaliation, AFL owners targeted the NFL's top quarterbacks, signing seven of them before the NFL finally relented. When the NFL gave in, the AFL owners nullified the contracts of those seven quarterbacks.

During negotiations to settle the personnel matters between the leagues, a plan formed for the leagues to merge. They did so in 1970, but before they did, they agreed to play an inter-league championship game, from 1967 to 1969 (covering the 1966, '67 and '68 seasons), pitting the best teams from each league against each other. For its first three years, the game officially was labeled the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. Those games now are considered Super Bowls I through III.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt is credited with suggesting the "Super Bowl" as a moniker. Hunt was inspired as he watched his kids play with a Super Ball, a rubber ball that was introduced by Wham-O in 1965. Fittingly, Hunt's Chiefs represented the AFL in the first Super Bowl, though the Chiefs were trounced by the Green Bay Packers 35-10 on Jan. 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Forgotten Champions

Memories are short in the sports world. The creation of the Super Bowl in 1967 created a second-class status for those champions crowned in the years prior to the Super Bowl era. Here is a list of teams that won the most NFL and AFL championships prior to 1967:

NFL (1922-1965)

  • Green Bay Packers: 9 championships
  • Chicago Bears: 6 championships
  • Cleveland Browns: 4 championships
  • Detroit Lions: 4 championships

AFL (1960-1966)

  • Buffalo Bills: 2 championships
  • Houston Oilers: 2 championships

Of the teams listed, only the Packers and Bears have won a Super Bowl.

In the next section, we'll explain how the NFL playoffs work and how a team gets to the Super Bowl.