Recently, I narrowed down all 50 Super Bowl champions to the 15 who were least impressive. Now, it’s time to sort through the best of the best.
In the NFL, it’s relatively rare that the top team during the regular season wins it all. Football is the only major American sport with a single-elimination playoff format; this lends itself to the potential for more upsets than the seven-game series utilized by the NBA, MLB and NHL.
In fact, despite a #1 seed winning the past three Super Bowls, the average conference seeding of an NFL champion since 2000 has been 2.8. This matches hockey’s figure over that time, while baseball’s is 2.5. Basketball, meanwhile, has managed to eliminate just about any hint of drama with a suspense-killing 1.7 average (seven of the past nine NBA champs were a top seed).
All that said, the greatest roster of players in a given sport is not necessarily the one with the most wins. When comparing teams from different seasons, the quality (or lack thereof) of their opponents and how they beat them matters. NFL schedules are not all created equally and, therefore, neither are all 14-2 teams.
With that in mind, the Vince Lombardi Trophy winners below are rated on just about everything but their record.
15 New England Patriots, Super Bowl XLIX
It took a near-miracle finish for the Patriots to defeat the defending champion, Seattle Seahawks, but make no mistake about it; New England’s 2014 team deserves a seat at this table. The 12-4 Pats earned the AFC’s top seed via a head-to-head tiebreaker (a 43-21 thrashing in Week 9) over Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos. Three times during the regular season, they put up more than 40 points against teams that would finish with at least 10 wins (with a cumulative score of 131-45). They did it again in the AFC title game when they trounced the 11-5 Indianapolis Colts, 45-7. Despite playing nine teams during the regular season with a .500 or better record, New England’s 9.7 average margin of victory that year was nearly a full point greater than that of any other NFL squad. With quarterback, Tom Brady (4,109 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, nine interceptions), and tight end, Rob Gronkowski (1,124 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns), leading the way, the Pats led the AFC with just 13 turnovers and were second in scoring at 29.3 points per game.
14 Miami Dolphins, Super Bowl VII
Some (many?) will argue that the only undefeated team to win a Super Bowl should be much higher than #14 on this list. On the surface, the 1972 Dolphins posted some impressive stats. They led the league in points scored and points allowed. Miami also had two 1,000 yard rushers (Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris) and led the league in quarterback rating, despite starting their backup QB, Earl Morrall, for several games after starter, Brian Griese, broke his ankle. However, they amassed those numbers and their 14 wins against some horrible competition; the ‘Phins had by far the easiest schedule in the NFL that year. They played two teams that were 8-6, but their remaining 12 games were against a Who’s Who of the league’s worst teams with a combined record of 54-110-4 (.333 winning percentage). In the playoffs, Miami won each of their three contests by no more than seven points. A great run by a very good team, yes. But we’ve seen better (this isn’t even the best Dolphins’ squad on this list).
13 San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XXIX
In 1994, San Francisco quarterback, Steve Young, led the league in touchdowns (35), completion percentage (a career-high, 70.3%), yards per attempt (8.6) and QB rating (112.8). The Niners became the first team in NFL history to score at least 500 points in a season and, on defense, surrendered the sixth-fewest points in the league. Oh, and they had some guy named Jerry Rice (1592 yards from scrimmage and 15 TDs). On defense, Deion Sanders had six interceptions (he returned three for touchdowns), as San Fran tied for the league lead with 23 picks overall. One of their three losses came in a meaningless regular season finale, when Young was pulled after just three possessions. In nine of their 19 games, including the playoffs, the 49ers outscored their opponent by at least three touchdowns. They averaged 43.3 points per game in the postseason, culminating in a 49-26 win over the San Diego Chargers for the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl victory.
12 Kansas City Chiefs, Super Bowl IV
In the final season before the AFL-NFL merger, the 11-3 Kansas City Chiefs didn’t even win their division. They were absolutely dominant defensively, however, yielding just 12.6 points per game, nearly five points fewer than anyone else in the league. K.C.’s D also led the AFL in both passing and rushing yards allowed, as well as turnovers forced. In the playoffs, they were even better; against three high-powered offenses – the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets were ranked first and third, respectively, in the AFL in points per game, while the Minnesota Vikings led the NFL in scoring – the Chiefs allowed no more than seven points against any of them. And they held those teams’ quarterbacks (Joe Namath, Daryle Lamonica and Joe Kapp) to a combined 43.3 percent completion percentage, no touchdowns and eight interceptions. Overall, they gave up 10 or fewer points in 10 of their 17 games (including the postseason) in 1969. Though it was an outstanding season, Future Hall of Fame quarterback, Len Dawson, would play in only one more playoff game before retiring after the 1975 season.
11 St. Louis Rams, Super Bowl XXXIV
We’ve all seen the movie. Team goes 4-12. Team loses starting quarterback to a knee injury during the subsequent preseason. Team names 28-year old former Arena League player the starter. Team wins Super Bowl as new QB wins both NFL and SB MVP. Ok, that was the 1999 St. Louis Rams and not a movie (yet). Led by Kurt Warner (4,353 passing yards, 41 touchdowns), Marshall Faulk (2,429 yards from scrimmage, 12 TDs) and Isaac Bruce (1,197 receiving yards, 12 TDs), the Rams’ offense averaged 32.9 points per game, resulting in the nickname, “The Greatest Show on Turf.” But St. Louis wasn’t just a high-powered offense; they gave up the fourth-fewest points in the NFL. Their three losses, all on the road, were by a combined 14 points and their 17.8 average margin of victory is the highest among the teams on this list. The only negative on the Rams’ resume, and it’s a legitimate one, was their schedule. Over 16 games, they played just one team that finished the season above .500; more than half their games (nine) were against teams that were 5-11 or worse.
10 Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XIV
In 1979, the Steelers hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the fourth time in six years. At that point, no other team had won more than two Super Bowls. Pittsburgh went 12-4 versus some pretty tough competition; seven of their 16 games were against teams that wound up winning 10 or more games. On six occasions, they held an opponent to single-digit points. The Steelers of the 1970s were known for their smothering defense and 1979 was no exception, as they ranked second in the NFL in yards allowed. What set this team apart from the previous great Pittsburgh teams, however, was their offense. With future Hall of Famers, Terry Bradshaw (3,724 yards, 26 touchdowns) at quarterback, Franco Harris (1,477 total yards, 12 TDs) in the backfield and John Stallworth catching passes (1,183 receiving yards, eight TDs), they placed second in the entire league in both passing and rushing yards. In the year prior, they had ranked 12th and 14th, respectively.
9 San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XIX
Of all the great Niners teams of the 1980s, the best one went 15-1 while Jerry Rice was catching passes at Mississippi Valley State. Their only loss in 1984 came at home against the AFC Central champion, Pittsburgh Steelers, by three points. Interestingly, they only won one home game all year by more than 10 points, but averaged a 20.8 margin of victory on the road. San Francisco gave up the fewest points in the league (14.2 per game) and was second to Dan Marino’s Dolphins in scoring (29.7). Quarterback, Joe Montana, had a very efficient season; he was second in TD% (percentage of passes that resulted in a touchdown) at 6.5%, first in Interception% at 2.3% and second in yards per attempt at 8.4. As tough as the 49ers defense had been during the regular season, they were even stingier in the playoffs. In three postseason games, they allowed just two touchdowns and 26 total points.
8 New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXIX
The 2004 Patriots were 14-2 and one of their losses came to the 15-1 Steelers on the road. The other wasn’t so easy to explain, as they blew an 11-point lead in the game’s final four minutes. At 4-12 Miami. Against quarterback, A.J. Feeley. But despite those setbacks, New England was fourth in the NFL in scoring and tied for second in fewest points allowed. The Patriots had won the Super Bowl during the prior season, despite ranking 28th in rushing yards as a team. Even champions can be better, apparently; during the offseason, they traded for 30-year old running back, Corey Dillon, and he went on to rush for a career-high 1,635 yards (third-most in the league). New England opened the playoffs by holding Indianapolis, the highest-scoring team in the league, to just three points and 46 yards rushing. They then got their revenge against Pittsburgh by drubbing them, 41-27, in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate (the Pats led, 31-10 in the middle of the third quarter). In the Super Bowl, the Pats squeezed past the Eagles by three points for their third Super Bowl title in four seasons.
7 Seattle Seahawks, Super Bowl XLVIII
Though they were only tied for eighth in scoring, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks were completely dominant on defense. They led the NFL in points allowed (for the second time in a row and what is now four straight years and counting), total yards (by 442 yards over any other team), turnovers and, by nearly 11 points, quarterback rating. The Seahawks lost just three games all year – all to teams with 10 or more wins - by a total of 15 points. While the D was shutting opponents down, their offense was effective. Quarterback, Russell Wilson, was second in the league in TD% and fourth in yards per attempt. And Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,257 yards and had 14 total touchdowns. Over three playoff games, including a 43-8 blowout of Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, Seattle surrendered just 40 total points. To date, it is the only championship for the Seahawks since they joined the league in 1976.
6 Miami Dolphins, Super Bowl VIII
The 1973 Dolphins lost more games than the ’72 Miami team that went undefeated (#14 above). But their season was more impressive, as they played a much tougher schedule (.474 winning percentage and six teams over .500 versus .333 and two winning teams). And they only allowed 10.7 points per game as a result of an extremely stingy pass defense. In 17 games, including the playoffs, opposing quarterbacks threw just six touchdown passes and had 24 interceptions. (Read that last sentence again.) Miami’s defense led the NFL in yardage allowed and TD% and was second in quarterback rating and sacks. They gave up 20+ points just twice all year, while shutting out two teams and allowing no more than seven points against five more (including a 24-7 win over Minnesota in the Super Bowl). A good example of how dominating this team was: in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, quarterback, Bob Griese, threw a total of just 13 passes and the Dolphins won both games by a combined 51-17 count.
5 Green Bay Packers, Super Bowl I
Speaking of great defenses, the 1966 Green Bay Packers certainly had one. While they gave up a few more points than the ’73 Dolphins (#6 above), 163-150, their numbers look slightly stronger when comparing them with the rest of the league. The Pack’s 11.6 points allowed per game was a mere 53.5% of the NFL average, while Miami’s was 54.9%. As a team, their only two losses came by a total of four points. During the regular season, quarterback, Bart Starr, threw for 14 touchdowns against only three picks, which is remarkable on its own, but particularly when considering Green Bay’s defense gave up just seven passing TDs, while snatching 28 interceptions. Starr’s quarterback rating of 105.0 was 16.8 points better than anyone else’s, which would remain the largest margin between the top two QBs of any season in the Super Bowl era until Joe Montana’s 20.3 spread 23 years later. This would be the Packers’ fourth NFL title in what would end up being five over a seven-year span.
4 Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl X
When compared with many other teams on this list, the 1975 Steelers may not have been as dominant in any one area of the game. But they were extremely well-balanced and tough to beat. On offense, Pitt ranked fifth and seventh in scoring and total yards, respectively. Running back, Franco Harris averaged 4.8 yards per carry and finished the season with 1,246 rushing yards (second to the Bill’s O.J. Simpson) and 10 rushing touchdowns. A 23-year old Lynn Swann tied the Cardinals’ Mel Gray for the NFL lead with 11 receiving TDs. Defensively, the Steelers allowed the second-fewest points in the league, while giving up the fourth-fewest yards. Cornerback, Mel Blount’s 11 interceptions were the most in the league. They lost just two games that year; one was a meaningless contest in the season finale to the 12-2 Los Angeles Rams after Pittsburgh had already clinched the AFC’s top seed.
3 Green Bay Packers, Super Bowl XXXI
One of just two Super Bowl champions (along with the 1972 Dolphins, #14 above) to have led the entire NFL in both points scored and points allowed, the Green Bay Packers were easily the best team in football in 1996. They were favored by 12 points in the NFC title game against a 12-4 Carolina team and by 14 in the Super Bowl against the Patriots, who were 11-5. Quarterback, Brett Favre, was tops in the league with 39 touchdowns and led the NFC with 3,899 passing yards. On defense, despite playing against teams that were forced to throw a lot due to the Packers’ large leads, Green Bay ranked first in both total and passing yards allowed. They were even strong on special teams; Desmond Howard ran back three punts for touchdowns during the regular season and did so again in the NFC Divisional Round. Then, in the Super Bowl, he capped the scoring with a 99-yard kickoff return for a TD and won the game’s MVP with 244 total return yards.
2 Chicago Bears, Super Bowl XX
Perhaps the most popular champion that the sport has seen (anyone who was conscious in the 1980s remembers the Super Bowl Shuffle), the 1985 Chicago Bears went 15-1 and demolished just about everyone they faced. Offensively, they were second in scoring and, headed by Walter Payton (1,551 yards on the ground, nine TDs), their running game was tops in both yards and touchdowns. But Chicago’s true identity was their impenetrable defense, which surrendered 65 fewer points than any other team that year and led the league in yards allowed and turnovers. Though they gave up the 11th most pass attempts in the NFL, only two teams were stingier in passing yards and touchdowns through the air. Once the playoffs began, the Bears’ defense was even stronger, as they shut out the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams (somehow, the Patriots managed to put up 10 points in the Super Bowl). In all, the Bears outscored their three postseason opponents, 91-10, and gave up a total of just 434 total yards between them.
1 Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XXVI
The greatest team to win a Super Bowl in NFL history was quarterbacked by… Mark Rypien? Yup. In 1991, the 14-2 Redskins became the first team ever to average at least 30 points per game; they led the league in scoring and were second in points allowed. They began the season by defeating the Detroit Lions, 45-0 and then beat them again, 41-10 in the NFC Championship Game. The Lions, by the way, were 12-4. Their two losses were by a combined five points; one came in the season finale when they pulled their starters during a meaningless game (they led by 12 early in the fourth quarter) against an Eagles’ squad that needed the win to make the playoffs. For the season, Washington had the third-fewest giveaways and third-most takeaways. They were also extremely well-balanced; the ‘Skins were among the top-seven in just about every meaningful stat, including yards and touchdowns, both offensively and defensively and both passing and rushing. Rypien, for what it’s worth, was second in the NFC in both yards and TDs. And perhaps most impressively, they did all of this while playing a schedule that was littered with great teams (eight of their 16 regular season games and all three of their postseason contests were against teams with 10 or more wins).