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!
- Hamilton’s “It’s Quiet Uptown” and The Joy of Melancholy Music - May 9, 2022
- Gentle and Lowly: A Review Of The Most Celebrated New Christian Book - April 25, 2022
- For Math Nerds, On 3.14 Day: Why I Love Perfect Squares - March 14, 2022