The Greatest NFL Team of All-Time
I have almost as much fun debating sports as I do watching them. Few things produce as many passionate arguments as football. Watching and talking football is also a family tradition for my father, my brothers and me. And while college football reigns supreme in many pockets of the U.S., nothing is as big throughout our country as the NFL.
The NFL is never far from my mind. Today, I’m thinking about the Carolina Panthers, recently losing their first game, ending their quest to become the first team to finish 19-0 in NFL history. They can no longer do that, but they still can do something special if they win next weekend and go on to win it all in February. Based on what they have accomplished so far, winning the championship this year puts them in the argument for greatest NFL team ever. While we wait for this season to end, I wanted to put one man’s opinion out there as to who is the best NFL team ever as of right now.
Before I get to my criteria, I want to set some boundaries:
A) I am only counting the Super Bowl era.
It is hard enough to compare eras, but it became easier to see an era distinction when the AFL and NFL started playing each other every year.
B) I am only counting teams who actually won the Super Bowl.
Without consideration of this guideline, I believe the 2007 New England Patriots are the best team. They finished 16-0 in the regular season, the only team ever to do that. And that year they beat ten out those teams by 20 or more points. Their 19.7 average margin of victory is nearly two points higher than the second team ever in that category. I personally think the pressure of the undefeated season finally got to them in the Super Bowl and they fell. But they did not win it all and in my opinion if you are not the best of your year, you cannot be the best of all time. It is for this reason that 2015 Carolina will not be considered.
C) I am only considering teams that won 13 regular season games (12 for teams who had 14-game regular seasons) and won their division.
This eliminates some good 12 and 11-win teams, but I think to be truly dominant, winning 80% of your regular season games should be the minimum.
Now, criteria. To separate the 20+ most dominant NFL teams of the last 50 years, these are the things I consider to be crucial:
- Regular Season W-L Record
- Strength of Schedule (Opponent Winning %)
- Regular Season Margin of Victory (MoV)
- Play-off Margin of Victory (PMoV)
My aim is to strike a balance between the extremes of the subjective “eye test” and getting too bogged down in data, statistics and details. I have often been accused of this (fairly so) in sports arguments because of my love for numbers. But the “greatest” anything in sports (and much of life) cannot be solved like a math problem. At the same time, without basic, measurable criteria, we are left with mere opinion statements that do not make a real argument. Make no mistake, I like arguments.
So I am going with four things that I think measure greatness on a team level–how much you win, the strength of your schedule, how badly you beat other teams in general and how badly you beat teams when the pressure is the highest. In doing this, I realize two things: 1) I realize there are many other things I could have included in my criteria. For instance I could have considered things like how good the franchise was over the long term. This criteria would have made it unlikely that the team I picked would be one that was a flash in the pan (in other words, more than likely just fortunate in their success). I was also tempted to judge teams based on how scary they seem in historical perspective. But again, I’m trying to avoid nebulous criteria. 2) I realize that some of my criteria can be deceiving without context. For example, I will give a 15-win team a nod over a 14-win team without knowing anything else, but it’s possible that the 14-win team rested its starters in the last week and the 15-win team did not. I concede that problems like this will exist no matter how detailed I make it and again, I’m trying to avoid a scientific formula. At the end of the day, I use as much common sense as I can while applying these criteria. None of the four criteria are significantly more important than the others and yet they are not necessarily equal. There has to be room to apply reason to interpret data.
So, without further ado, my personal ranking of the greatest teams in NFL history. I considered 22 teams and I ranked the Top 16.
LAST SIX TEAMS OUT (in reverse order according to when they won the Super Bowl):
2009 New Orleans
2003 New England
1999 St. Louis
1990 New York Giants
1966 Green Bay
The most interesting team here is 1999 St. Louis. They hold the record for highest margin of victory in the regular season for SB winners (17.8 PPG). However, they played one of the easiest regular seasons schedules for any SB winner ever, playing 11 teams with losing records. They also did not win their playoff games easily, winning the last two by a touchdown or less. 1966 Green Bay was hard to evaluate because they only played 2 playoff games. And lastly, worthy of note is that the 1990 Giants were too far behind in all major categories to make the list. I decided to give them special mention for winning what is in my opinion the toughest 2-game playoff stretch ever, beating 14-2 San Francisco in the NFC Championship and 13-3 Buffalo in the Super Bowl.
But on to the list…
16. 2013 Seattle (13-3, 11.6 MoV, 16.7 PMoV, 53.0% OW%)
Very good numbers in all categories. Only this low because they lost three times.
15. 2004 New England (14-2, 11.1 MoV, 11.3 PMoV, 54.6% OW%)
This team rates low for MoV and PMoV, but they were 14-2 and ran through the toughest regular season of any team I considered and the toughest playoff gauntlet of any team in SB history. Their playoff opponents were a combined 40-8 and they completely shut down one of the most prolific offenses ever (Indianapolis, 20-3), and then going on the road and beating 15-1 Pittsburgh 41-27, in a game that felt like a bigger blowout.
14. 1976 Oakland (13-1, 8.1 MoV, 12.7 PMoV, 52.3% OW%)
Along with 1972 Miami, one of only two teams to lose 1-game or less in the 14-game Regular Season era.
13. 1994 San Francisco (13-3, 13.8 MoV, 20.7 PMoV, 49.7% OW%)
Big props for keeping Dallas from winning 4 in a row. Could have easily won the Super Bowl in the biggest blowout ever, but San Diego scored two meaningless TDs at the end.
12. 1973 Miami (12-2, 13.8 MoV, 17.3 PMoV, 52.3% OW%)
This team may be even better than the Miami team from the previous year that went undefeated (most of their other stats are better) but they are ranked lower because they lost two games.
11. 1977 Dallas (12-2, 9.5 MoV, 21.3 PMoV, 52.5% OW%)
Decent regular season but an incredible, dominant post season run.
10. 1978 Pittsburgh (14-2, 10.1 MoV, 19.0 PMoV, 48.4% OW%)
Razor thin advantage over the #11 team on this list. However, this Pittsburgh team had to beat a tougher Super Bowl opponent–that year’s Dallas team.
9. 1996 Green Bay (13-3, 15.1 MoV, 17.3 PMoV, 54.0%)
I do not like Brett Favre at all, but I have to admit this was an amazing start-to-finish season. Green Bay faced one of the toughest schedules ever for a SB winner and still won by over 15 PPG in the regular season and 17 in the post season.
8. 1986 New York Giants (14-2, 8.4 MoV, 27.3 PMoV, 51.0% OW%)
Very low MoV number, but incredibly high PMoV number. This resulted in three incredible post season wins, including 49-3 over four-time 80’s champ SF, in the midst of a dominant run by the NFC.
7. 1992 Dallas (13-3, 10.6 MoV, 23.0 PMoV, 48.4% OW%)
They earn the highest ranking of all the 13-3 teams based on how toughness of their NFC Championship game opponent (SF) and how badly they won the Super Bowl: they are tied for the 3rd biggest blow out ever. They would have set the record for points in the SB had Leon Lett not gotten caught from behind by Don Beebe on a fumble return.
6. 1998 Denver (14-2, 12.0 MoV, 21.3 PMoV, 50.0% OW%)
Easily John Elway’s best team. The 1998 Denver team was not challenged in any of their postseason games.
5. 1972 Miami (14-0, 15.1 MoV, 5.7 PMoV, 44.1% OW%)
They have by far the lowest Opponent Winning percentage number in this list. They have the most pedestrian postseason run. Yet, they get this high because there is something special about being undefeated. No one else has done it. Only one other team has really come close.
4. 1984 San Francisco (15-1, 15.5 MoV, 18.7 PMoV, 46.1% OW%)
I was stunned to learn that this team scored more PPG on offense than their brother team from 1989 below, 29.7 PPG. They are one of only two teams to win 15 regular season games AND win the Super Bowl in NFL history.
3. 1989 San Francisco (14-2, 11.8 MoV, 33.3 PMoV, 49.0% OW%)
How this team lost twice is beyond me. They also have a mediocre MoV number. They are this high because in my opinion they have the greatest postseason run ever. They won their three games by 100 total points, including the biggest SB blow out ever. It looked like Alabama vs. I-AA team. Their other two postseason wins were equally as impressive. I remember watching an NFL films special on this team. They showed the sidelines of the L.A. Rams in the NFC Championship game, which SF won 30-3 to go to the SB. You could see the fear in his eyes of Rams premier defensive player, Kevin Greene, as he spoke to a teammate and said, “They are kicking our (expletive).” That says it all. I would put money on this team to beat any other on this list. But this list is about what each team accomplished, not who I think would win in a theoretical match-up.
2. 1991 Washington (14-2, 16.3 MoV, 20.3 PMoV, 54.0% OW%)
When first beginning to compile this list, I thought this team would rank 4 or 5 at best. As I started really looking at the numbers I was blown away. 14 wins, second highest MoV of any SB winner, excellent PMoV number and second toughest schedule of any team I considered. They also rested starters for part of their last regular season game, which they lost by 2 points to Philadelphia. Their other loss was to Dallas, who was 11-5 that year. What is more impressive is that this Dallas team would go on to win three of the next four Super Bowls. It is a vast understatement to say that Washington had impressive season in 1991. Had they won 15 games I would have them first all time.
1. 1985 Chicago Bears (15-1, 16.1 MoV, 27.3 PMoV, 50.3 OW%)
This is THE team in NFL history to me. One of only two teams to win 15 games in the regular season. The 1985 Bears also won the SB, 3rd highest MoV, tied for 2nd on PMoV, and played the second biggest SB blow in history. In addition, they were the only team in NFL history to shut out their first two playoff opponents and on and on it goes. On top of it all, they were supremely entertaining. You may think I am a homer as a Chicago resident, but the numbers speak for themselves.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know below!
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14 thoughts on “The Greatest NFL Team of All-Time”
I agree with your choice of the 1985 Bears. Good analysis. Should bring about some nice arguments!
Just a more emphatic note about the “SB winner only” criteria…there has to be emphasis on winning in the clutch to be “Greatest” anything. Non-SB winners, including the 07 Patriots, faltered in the most clutch game of the year. If you disagree, fine, but trying to include non-SB winners opens up Pandora’s Box and also rewards non-champion teams. Which is counterintuitive for this sports fan.
Also, thanks for your support, Steve. Neil has told me many times of your sharp sports acumen and I have seen it up close and personal from all three of your sons for 2 years now. I love talking with people who are knowledgable. And the 85 Bears were a safe choice to be sure. But they were the team that got me into the NFL as a 7 year old so maybe there is some emotion tied to the choice. But if they were not listed as #1 on a lot of reputable lists, i’d feel less confident.
Your arguments and use of numbers are thorough and well thought out. I can’t argue with the choice of the 85 bears as number 1. An argument could be made for the 89 49ers, that team is as good as any. It is very difficult to debate different teams from different eras. I could argue for or against some of your choices, but, then again, that would be your opinion versus mine. One point of contention, for me, would be not considering teams with 12 or even 11 wins. Some things, numbers cannot factor in, such as injuries, holdouts, and whether or not the team had home field locked up and rested players.
Those are fair points to be sure, Aaron. I respect those thoughts. I think at some point to keep this from being a 40-hour project I cut it off to keep the number of teams down (as it was, it was still probably a 20-hour project). Evaluating 20-something was easier than doing all 49 SB winners. Both 90s Cowboy teams that won it all that didn’t 13 games in the regular season won 12 and probably were just as good as the 92 team I did rank. Not to mention some good 11-3 teams from the 14-game era. Thanks for commenting! This is what I was going for.
Let’s keep this comment in mind when you do the “Greatest Quarterback” article:
there has to be emphasis on winning in the clutch to be “Greatest” anything.
Players perform. Teams win.
So could we modify your comment as:
“…there has to be emphasis on performing in the clutch to be the “Greatest” anything.”
I would put the 75 and 78 Steelers as one and two. I also think that the 89 and 84 49ers were overrated, and the 04 Pats don’t belong anywhere near the top-20 (that team was a by-product of two questionable champions in the 01 and 03 Pats).
However, I like the fact that they 98 Broncos are in the top-10 (Go Broncos!!).
I can respect that opinion. Sports is much more than numbers. Pittsburgh definitely has a “fear” factor to those 70s teams that could easily come out on top if we could match these teams up. Jack Ham and those guys are frightening to think about.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins never lost. Then there’s everyone else. Take everybody else you like better—and make their backup QB start 9 regular season games, then 2 playoff games (if they make it that far). Then make them play on the road in the post season against a team with a better SRS than the 1978 Steelers. Then ask their defense to allow ZERO points in the Super Bowl against the team that just demolished the defending Super Bowl Champions, 26-3.
You hear it all the time when a good team that is racking up the wins finally loses a game: “A wake up call… it was the best thing that could have happened”. Well, the 1972 Dolphins never got that wake up call. And don’t act like that doesn’t matter—because if it didn’t, nobody would say it did after they lost. But they always do. Then take a moment and list all of the teams that beat the teams you have ranked ahead of the 1972 Dolphins. Then try to convince yourself how a team like that would beat a team that never lost. That’s what makes them special. They won them all. I am willing to bet that neither Vince Lombardi, nor Bill Walsh or Chuck Knoll, Ditka or Gibbs ever said: “I’m fine with losing this game today so long as we win our playoff games by larger margins”. I’m pretty sure they wanted to win them all. The 1972 Dolphins played a decidedly weak schedule by the standard of opponents’ win/ loss record. But some of those games were perhaps tougher than final records indicate. They opened up in Kansas City for the ribbon cutting at Arrowhead Stadium against a Chiefs team hell bent on revenge. I think the Jets were the top passing offense in the NFL and the Vikings were strong when Miami caught them on their schedule. Regardless, they did lead the NFL in scoring offense, scoring defense, offense net yards and defensive net yards. That’s really all you can do. And they did it with a 38-year old backup QB. They had two 1,000 yard rushers when the opponent knew they were going to run. And 38 is ancient in 1972. That’s how good they were. Then they beat the Browns, then the Steelers on the road, then their defense pitched a goose egg in the Super Bowl.
That’s all great info. Their Margin of victory wasn’t quite as good as others on the list nor their playoff MOV. Their back up being in there is something but all time teams still can put up big MOV numbers with backups, like Washington in 1987.
Wow, just found this and thought it was very interesting. I’m a BIG NFL fan and I barely remember watching my first SB in 1976 and thought I never want to get hit like Sammy White did that day. I have to agree with the Miami Dolphins argument. Winning is everything in sports and when you have 0 losses, it matters even more. How it happened is not very relevant when no other team has 0 losses. You can also look at teams on this list where they only had 1 loss and the loss was a bad loss – remember the 38 points Dan Marino put up against, what I think is, the greatest defensive team in NFL history. Bottom line in my opinion is this: the team that didn’t lose is the best and until a future team wins the SB with an undefeated regular season record and post season can an argument be made about which team is better. I think any former NFL player would agree. They know winning is the objective and no loses removes the subjective argument.