NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Teams in NFL History
A countdown of the greatest teams in pro football history needs little introduction. You are about to meet an amazing collection of Super Bowl champions, undefeated teams, teams that led the league in offense and/or defense, teams that captured imaginations and defined generations.
There is one ground rule to keep in mind. To prevent this from becoming just a countdown of 1960s Packers, 1970s Steelers and recent Patriots, each team chosen casts a five-year "shadow." So the 2004 Patriots also represent the 2003 Patriots, the 1998 Broncos represent the 1997 team, and so on.
There are still multiple great Tom Brady Patriots teams and Steel Curtain Steelers on the list, despite the "shadow" effect. And multi-season dynasties get a boost in the rankings over teams that rose and fell quickly. But no matter how much time you spend encyclopedia crawling and stat crunching (including Football Outsiders' historical DVOA estimates), comparing great teams across decades and eras is an inexact science.
You can quibble with some of the selections and the order, but you can't argue with this countdown's sheer volume of football excellence.
25. 2006 Indianapolis Colts: 12-4, Super Bowl Champions
The 2006 Colts probably weren't the best Peyton Manning Colts team of the mid-2000s. They just happened to be the one that won a Super Bowl.
The 2005 and 2007 teams won more games and posted much better defensive stats. The 2005 Colts finished second in the NFL in points allowed, the 2007 Colts first, while the 2006 Colts finished 23rd.
Frankly, the 2006 Colts would not have made this countdown at all if teams did not get a bonus for their long-term excellence. They're boosted onto the list by a decade of Manning teams that won 12-14 games but lost in the playoffs. It's a group of teams that kept finishing a victory or two short of reaching our top 10.
The names and personalities are familiar to you: Manning, Tony Dungy, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The style of play is also familiar: Manning and Harrison running the route tree before dawn on Sunday morning, Manning barking audibles at the line, Dungy's Tampa-2 defense holding opponents at bay when they tried to catch up.
You know the storyline as well: outstanding in the regular season, foiled by the Patriots or otherwise snakebit in the playoffs.
But this was the year the Colts finally broke through, beat the Patriots in a memorable AFC Championship Game, beat the Bears in a rainy Super Bowl and redeemed all of the Colts teams of previous years that looked so much better in the regular season than this one yet lost in the playoffs like it was their cosmic destiny.
24. 1949 Philadelphia Eagles: 11-1, NFL Champions
Having helped win World War II, the 1949 Eagles had little trouble winning the National Football League.
The NFL was full of World War II veterans in the late 1940s, of course. But the Eagles, just a few years removed from merging with the Steelers for a season due to wartime manpower shortages, had a roster loaded with men just back from the European and Asian theaters.
Quarterback Tommy Thompson earned a Purple Heart on the beach at Normandy. End Pete Pihos won both the Bronze Star and Silver Star as an infantry lieutenant. Center-linebacker Chuck Bednarik flew 30 bombing missions over Germany as a waist-gunner in a B-24. Fullback-linebacker-punter Joe Muha was an artillery lieutenant at Iwo Jima.
Coach Greasy Neale gave his combat veterans a wide berth when it came to discipline; he figured General Patton covered that part of their training. With the help of speedy young running back Steve Van Buren, Neale's Eagles stormed the NFL in 1948 and 1949. The 1949 team topped the league in points and points allowed, winning a series of 38-7 and 42-0 blowouts before blanking the flashy Los Angeles Rams, 14-0, in the NFL Championship Game, the Eagles' second straight shutout in a title game.
The only force that could stop these battle-hardened Eagles was another team with its own military ties. While the Eagles were flying bombing missions and storming beaches, a brilliant young coach was keeping morale high by assembling football teams at stateside military bases. His name was Paul Brown. You'll meet him and his namesake team a little later in the countdown.
23. 1968 Baltimore Colts: 13-1, NFL Champions*
Keeping the 1968 Colts off this countdown because they lost Super Bowl III to Joe Namath's Jets would be like keeping the 2007 Patriots off for what happened in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl against the Giants.
Actually, it would be worse. The Colts were the NFL champions in 1968. The Super Bowl was still an interleague game between opponents who never faced each other and played different styles of football. Don Shula's 1968 Colts did everything NFL champions had ever been asked to do for the previous 40-plus years. They just ran into destiny in that extra game Pete Rozelle dreamed up at the end.
The Colts finished 11-1-2 with Johnny Unitas at quarterback the previous year but missed the playoffs because of the weird rules of the time. (The Rams finished 11-1-2 in the same division and won the tiebreaker; there were no wild cards). Unitas suffered an arm injury in the final game of the 1968 preseason, so Shula turned to veteran backup Earl Morrall and also to one of the stingiest defenses of that or any era.
Morrall threw 26 touchdown passes to Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey and blazing receivers Jimmy Orr and Willie Richardson. Meanwhile, the pass defense led by Bobby Boyd intercepted 29 passes and allowed just nine passing touchdowns. The Colts shut out four opponents, including the Browns in the NFL Championship Game, and held three other opponents to a touchdown or less.
If it weren't for those pesky Jets, they'd be in the top 10. Heck, a healthy Unitas would have landed them in the top five.
But these Colts kept running into fate.
Still, what a team they were.
22. 2013 Seattle Seahawks: 13-3, Super Bowl Champions
Thirty years from now, young fans will talk about the Legion of Boom Seahawks the way we graybeards talk about the 1985 Bears.
They weren't the best team of this generation, but the 2013 Seahawks defined this generation. There's something distinctly millennial about the way the Seahawks go out of their way to defy categorization. They were, and still are, the team that breaks all the rules.
They were built by a coach whose rah-rah college demeanor was twice declared unsuitable for the NFL, with the help of a fresh-faced general manager who still looks like a Silicon Valley intern. Their quarterback was a pint-sized try-hard overlooked in a draft class full of preordained superstars. Their brightest stars were a late-round wide receiver turned mouthy cornerback and an iconoclastic running back whose silence was worth 1,000 thinkpieces.
Pete Carroll. John Schneider. Russell Wilson. Richard Sherman. Marshawn Lynch. Don't forget scouting wizard Scot McCloughan, because this Hoosiers tale needs a Norman Dale. They overcame every obstacle in the book, built the best secondary in NFL history and an option offense that wasn't supposed to work at the championship level, and crushed Peyton Manning's Broncos, 43-8, in a game that felt like a symbolic changing of the generational guard.
The core of the Legion of Boom Seahawks still makes the playoffs each year, of course. But like the Bears of the late 1980s, they lack a little of that magic. Or maybe they just lack offensive linemen. Teams with as much personality as the 2013 Seahawks and 1985 Bears burn a little too hot to last very long. But in their moment, they can not only win Super Bowls but capture the spirit of an era.
21. 1986 New York Giants: 14-2, Super Bowl Champions
The 1986 Giants may be the ugliest team on this list.
Other defensive juggernauts made the countdown, of course, but they mixed their brutality with a sense of style. Watching the 1985 Bears, for example, was like watching Mad Max: Fury Road. They were vicious in a gleeful, feverish way. The 1986 Giants were more like watching a handheld documentary about guerilla warfare. Lawrence Taylor and Leonard Marshall were coming to hurt you, and there was nothing fun about it.
Taylor and Marshall combined for 32.5 of the Giants' 59 sacks. Harry Carson, Carl Banks. Pepper Johnson and others divvied up the remains. Offense? There was a bare-knuckles brawler and battering ram of a tight end named Mark Bavaro, a tiny running back named Joe Morris who somehow earned his living between the tackles and some wide receivers who never got the ball. Phil Simms endured 45 sacks himself and threw 22 interceptions, but on rare occasions when the game was close, he found a way to win.
Defensive tackle Jim Burt knocked Joe Montana out of a playoff game, leading to a 49-3 win. Washington was next, but Taylor had long ago taken care of Joe Theismann for good. The Giants defense pitched a shutout in the conference championship game. George Martin sacked John Elway in the end zone for a safety, and a 39-20 Super Bowl rout ensued.
Simms was beautiful in Super Bowl XXI, throwing as many touchdown passes as incompletions (three). But everything else about the 1986 G-Men was street-brawl nasty. And man, did it work.
20. 2016 New England Patriots: 14-2, Super Bowl Champions
This is the scariest team on this countdown. Because these are last year's Patriots, and the Patriots got better in the offseason.
To recap recent history: Last year's Patriots won two games with their backup quarterback and beat a playoff-bound Texans team with their rookie third-stringer. They lost one game when that third-stringer was playing hurt and a second in a fourth-quarter comeback by the always-formidable Seahawks.
And that was that. Tom Brady shook off two years of Deflategate silliness and a four-game suspension, cruised to the Super Bowl in his usual fashion and...well, the Super Bowl was bonkers. But the Patriots have a way of making a comeback from a 28-3 deficit look both graceful and inevitable.
According to the precise DVOA calculations at Football Outsiders, the 2016 Patriots were not as good as the 2004 or 2007 Patriots but better than the 2001, 2005, 2011 or 2013 Patriots. (Some non-Super Bowl Patriots teams are sprinkled into the list as well.) Advanced metrics do not account for what the Patriots would have done if Brady was not suspended. And the differences among so many great teams get a little nitpicky anyway.
Barring an unforeseen eruption of Concussiongate, Brady will not be suspended this year. Rob Gronkowski is currently healthy. The roster has been reloaded with newcomers like Brandin Cooks, Mike Gillislee, Stephon Gilmore and Kony Ealy.
Putting the 2017 Patriots on this list would be jumping the gun just a little bit. For now, last year's Patriots will hold their place.
19. 1976 Oakland Raiders: 13-1, Super Bowl Champions
The 1970s Raiders were the outlaw biker gang of pro football history. Like an outlaw biker gang, they were dangerous to themselves as well as others. With a defense full of headhunters and an offense that studied the playbook by the light of the proverbial jukebox, they were built to cause mayhem for months but ultimately lose to a more law-and-order-minded team like the Steelers.
But in 1976, the Raiders found just the right balance of devastation and discipline. Ken Stabler threw 27 touchdown passes to the star-studded receiving corps of Cliff Branch, Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Casper. Gene Upshaw and Art Shell made sure Stabler stayed vertical to execute Al Davis and John Madden's preferred brand of vertical offense. The defense was full of guys with nicknames like The Assassin (Jack Tatum), Doctor Death (Skip Thomas), Butch (George Atkinson) and The Mad Stork (Ted Hendricks). Even punter Ray Guy was a star.
The 1976 Raiders finally overcame the Steelers in a typical slobberknocker of a 1970s AFC Championship Game: The teams combined for just 457 yards of offense in a 24-7 final. Then they took their turn crushing the Vikings in the Super Bowl.
Some of these Raiders would still be around when the team won a pair of Super Bowls in the 1980s. But the old bikers had settled down a lot by then. They could match the results of this team, but they could not come close to the mystique.
18. 1998 Denver Broncos: 14-2, Super Bowl Champions
The 1998 Broncos were already defending champions. They started the season 13-0, winning four games when Bubby Brister subbed for injured John Elway. Terrell Davis rushed for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns. Mike Shanahan, coordinator Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs made "zone blocking" the hot new NFL strategy and catchphrase. Steve Atwater, John Mobley and Bill Romanowski led a defense that did what it had to do, which wasn't much when Elway and Davis were controlling the clock and the game.
The 1997 and 1998 Broncos were not just outstanding teams but perhaps history's most thorough narrative changers. Elway was an official "Big Talent Who Couldn't Win the Big Game" right through 1996, when the Broncos went 13-3 but lost to the Jaguars in the playoffs, ostensibly because they were too devoted to resting their starters after they clinched. Thanks to Davis and the newly balanced offense, Elway became the unquestioned, unquestionable champion we know and love (even when he gets a little too meddlesome with the Broncos quarterback situation) today.
17. 1942 Chicago Bears: 11-0, Lost NFL Championship Game
The 1942 Chicago Bears were the 2007 Patriots of the Greatest Generation. No team was more dominant during the regular season. But they could not win the big game.
The 1942 Bears shut out four opponents during an 11-game regular season, outscoring their opponents 376-84. Sid Luckman quarterbacked the innovative T-formation offense shown in the photo, the forerunner of modern offenses (most teams of the era still ran an A-formation offense which looked more like the modern Wildcat). Coach/GM/Owner George Halas left the team for a naval tour of duty in October, but assistants Hunk Anderson and Luke Johnsos kept the Bears cruising.
Oh yes, World War II was going on, so some of those Bears shutouts come with an asterisk. The Detroit Lions refused to sign any players eligible for combat and shipped their whole coaching staff to military bases before the season. The Bears beat the Lions by a combined score of 58-0 in two meetings. Halas had more money to spend than other owners, more influence than most (some Bears players got deferments to finish the 1942 season before joining the military), a vast national scouting network and a quarterback serving stateside in the Merchant Marine: all distinct advantages as teams scrounged for able bodies during the war years.
The Bears were three-touchdown favorites to beat the Redskins in the championship game. But Washington quarterback/safety Sammy Baugh intercepted a Luckman pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter. The Bears later drove to the 1-yard line, but a motion penalty negated a would-be touchdown, and the Redskins defense held its ground at the goal line to preserve a 14-6 upset.
So the Bears had a little bit of 2014 Seahawks in them to go with the 2007 Patriots. No matter. They won the NFL in 1943, just as they had in 1940 and 1941. The Monsters of the Midway became part of our national lexicon. It just so happens that the best of those great teams came up a little short.
16: 1999 St. Louis Rams: 13-3, Super Bowl Champions
The Greatest Show on Turf arrived suddenly and hit with a wallop, like a summer squall or a first crush or...well, a traveling circus that transforms a fallow country-town field into a wonderland overnight.
One moment, the Rams were perennial sad sacks who had just lost their only experienced quarterback to a preseason injury. The next moment, Kurt Warner was a superstar, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt joined Marshall Faulk as household names, and the Rams upended both the NFL balance of power and expectations of what an NFL offense could do.
The Rams averaged 32.9 points per game. Faulk gained over 1,000 rushing yards and receiving yards. Warner, a few years removed from stacking cans in an Iowa grocery store, threw 41 touchdowns and became the final great inspirational sports story of the last millennium.
The playoff gauntlet proved the Rams defense could win games as well. After a grueling 11-6 trench battle with the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game, the Rams needed a full team effort to hold off the Titans in the most exciting Super Bowl of its era.
The 1999 Rams were a spectacle to behold, and they would rank higher if they had sustained their peak a little longer. But after a commanding performance in 2001, they vanished. The storm melted into the horizon. The blush of young love faded. The big top collapsed and moved on to another dusty town, leaving only giddy memories.
15. 1950 Cleveland Browns: 10-2, NFL Champions
The 1940s Browns were too great for their own good. Paul Brown's team dominated the AAFC so thoroughly that it contributed to the league's collapse: It had to be hard to get fans excited about the Chicago Rockets while the Browns were losing a total of four games in four years and winning championships by scores like 49-7.
Brown's team arrived in the NFL in 1950, and while some coaches scoffed at his "finesse" style of football, it soon became clear that Brown was playing chess while everyone else was hitting each other over the head with clubs. Brown had invented modern scouting, practice scheduling, conditioning, coaching staff configurations and the basis of modern pass offense. Every week, they were a Roman legion efficiently dispatching hordes of barbarians.
Brown called the plays. Otto Graham read defenses and adjusted his passing decisions accordingly, a breakthrough tactic. Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli ran precise pass routes designed to work in tandem. Marion Motley ran innovative new wrinkles like the draw play. Blockers formed a pocket (another Brown innovation) around Graham instead of just walloping their defenders. The upstarts from a rival league beat established NFL teams by 35-10, 31-0 and 45-7 scores.
Only the Giants could beat those Browns. Coach Steve Owen matched innovation with innovation, inventing the Umbrella defense (the forerunner of the modern 4-3) to combat the Browns passing game. The Giants handed the Browns their only losses of the season. But the Browns got their revenge during an icy playoff game in Cleveland, beating the Giants with the help of one extra burst of Brown genius: black Chuck Taylor sneakers for the basketball-like playing surface. That's right: The Browns innovated the shoe endorsement as well.
The Browns won the 1950 NFL championship, then went 2-3 in the next five title games. No team in history had a greater impact on strategic evolution. Brown and his team changed football forever, and when the rest of the league finally caught up, the game looked a lot like the one we now watch on Sundays.
14. 1977 Dallas Cowboys: 12-2, Super Bowl Champions
The 1977 Cowboys truly were America's Team, a team literally led by military officers (World War II pilot Tom Landry, Vietnam naval veteran Roger Staubach) and cheered on by disco-dancing Farrah-haired cheerleaders through our nation's bicentennial.
But it took a computer to put them over the top.
The Cowboys had used computers to aid their scouting for decades; chief exec Tex Schramm saw the newfangled gizmos in action at the Winter Olympics, contracted a young engineer named Salam Qureishi to devise a scouting computer and the Cowboys were soon outsmarting the NFL in every draft.
In 1977, the scouting consensus backed USC running back Ricky Bell as the best player in the draft. The Cowboys computer preferred Tony Dorsett. Schramm and Landry listened to the contraption.
Dorsett rushed for 1,007 yards in the most defense-dominated season in modern pro football history. The Cowboys offense climbed from fourth in the NFL in yards to first. The ferocious Flex Defense, led by Harvey Martin and Randy White on the defensive line, also led the league in yards allowed.
The Cowboys finally escaped years of playoff losses and Super Bowl near-misses. They won two playoff games by a combined 60-13 score before embarrassing the Broncos in a Super Bowl that was not nearly as close as the 27-10 score.
The Landry Cowboys would stay near the top of the league for years to come, but they would never be quite as good as they were when Staubach and Dorsett first met. Think of it as one more innovation for America's Team: the first successful online matchmaking.
13. 2004 New England Patriots: 14-2, Super Bowl Champions
All of the great Patriots teams were coached by Bill Belichick and helmed by Tom Brady. Other than that, each is completely unique.
The dazzling-yet-doomed 2007 team played an entirely different brand of football from the plucky underdogs of 2001, who looked nothing like the master technicians of 2014 and 2016. The supporting casts, offensive systems and narrative themes grew and changed with the years.
The 2004 Patriots were the precision-balanced model with a Corey Dillon-led power running game, a pop-gun receiving corps and a (mostly) no-name defense. Brady spread 28 touchdowns among David Patten, Deion Branch, David Givens, Daniel Graham and others. Richard Seymour was the only All-Pro on defense, but Tedy Bruschi, Asante Samuel, Vince Wilfork, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law and others were at the start or end of their careers.
This was the Patriots team that had Troy Brown moonlighting as a slot cornerback and Mike Vrabel as a goal-line tight end.
The Patriots were in transition in 2004. Brady was ascending toward demigod status. Belichick and his all-star staff (Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels and more) had just mastered the art of repurposing spare parts as superstars. The defense held seven opponents to 10 points or less. The offense scored 30 or more points six times. For a grand finale, the 2004 Patriots knocked the 2004 Eagles off this list with a narrow Super Bowl victory.
The Patriots became the franchise we know today in 2004, the team of the new millennium. They have fielded flashier teams since then. But this team was the most quintessentially "Patriots."
12. 1975 Steelers: 12-2, Super Bowl Champions
The Steelers were the NFL's lovable losers from the franchise's birth in 1933 until a January day in 1974 when they drafted Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
Two years later, they became the team that defined football greatness for an entire generation.
Swann, Lambert, Stallworth and Webster became Hall of Famers, of course. They joined budding superstars acquired over a half-decade of fertile drafts—Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Franco Harris—to give Steelers coach Chuck Noll a critical mass of overwhelming talent. The four rookies helped the Steelers steamroll to a Super Bowl victory in 1974.
Then everyone got better. Swann graduated from punt returner to offensive playmaker. Lambert became a Pro Bowler. The Steelers won games by 37-0 and 42-6 en route to their second Super Bowl win. Remember that this was 1970s football. Scoring 42 points back then was almost like dropping 60 on an opponent today.
Along the way, the Steelers codified the iconography of football greatness: the Steel Curtain defense, the pounding Franco/Rocky Bleier running game, the blue-collar ethos. When fans of my generation close their eyes and picture the ideal football team, we cannot help but picture the mid-'70s Steelers, clad in all black, galloping in NFL Films slo-mo, beating opponents with brutal determination.
The Steelers are now thought of as a historic, traditional powerhouse. That history and tradition begins right here.
11. 1996 Green Bay Packers: 13-3, Super Bowl Champions
Let's not wax poetic about Brett Favre, OK?
Favre was magnificent in 1996, but he spawned a whole genre of sports literature—the fawning, near-pornographic Favre-as-avatar-of-American-masculinity puff piece. They got a little creepy by the end of his career. So you don't need me to tell you Favre was the nation's merry gunslinger in the mid-1990s.
Let's talk about the 1996 Packers defense. It allowed just 19 touchdowns. That was the NFL record for a 16-game season until the 2000 Ravens defense allowed 16 touchdowns. The 1985 Bears defense allowed 22 touchdowns, while the 2013 Seahawks defense allowed 20 (albeit in an era of increased scoring). Reggie White, Sean Jones, LeRoy Butler and company did historic work in the shadow of you-know-who.
Let's talk about special teams. Desmond Howard set a record for punt return yardage (875, with three touchdowns) which still stands today. Howard then returned a punt for a touchdown against the 49ers in the playoffs and won the Super Bowl MVP award with a 99-yard kickoff return.
The 1996 Packers dominated in all three phases. They also introduced the Lambeau Leap to our vocabulary and transformed Lambeau Field from a frozen old football mausoleum into a bucket-list destination for NFL fans.
Also, their quarterback was pretty good.
10. 1992 Dallas Cowboys: 13-3, Super Bowl Champions
The Wowboys of the early 1990s didn't beat opponents in any particular way. They beat opponents in every way.
Their offensive line overwhelmed defenses. Their defenses smothered them. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin made everything look easy. The supporting cast—Jay Novacek, Daryl Johnston, Alvin Harper, even return man Kelvin Martin—would have been featured weapons on an ordinary team.
The 1992 Cowboys ranked fourth in the league in total yards and first in the league in fewest yards allowed. They blew out quality opponents by scores like 27-0 and 30-3. The playoffs were a joke, as they crushed the Eagles, soundly defeated Steve Young's 49ers and embarrassed the Bills in the Super Bowl, 52-17.
They proceeded to do almost the same thing the following year.
The only forces that could stop the Wowboys of this era were time and the clash of egos that broke up the Jimmy Johnson-Jerry Jones front office. On-field opponents never stood a chance.
9. 1984 San Francisco 49ers: 15-1, Super Bowl Champions
The brilliance of the West Coast offense does not lie in what it did for Jerry Rice and John Taylor in the late 1980s. A playground quarterback could design an offense for Rice and Taylor.
The brilliance of the West Coast offense lies in what it did for Russ Francis, Earl Cooper, Freddie Solomon and Wendell Tyler, Joe Montana's supporting cast for a team that averaged nearly 30 points in the regular season and beat opponents by scores of 51-7, 41-7, 35-3, 33-0 and so on.
Dwight Clark and Roger Craig were also part of that 1984 49ers offense. But Clark caught just 52 passes, while Craig was a second-year fullback. It took the brilliance and vision of Bill Walsh to make an all-purpose back out of Craig while coaxing a 1,200-yard career year out of Tyler (a speedster with severe fumbling issues) while distributing opportunities among Solomon, tight ends Francis and Cooper and Olympic hero Renaldo Nehemiah.
It helped that defensive coordinator George Seifert fielded one of the best secondaries in history: Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson. Opposing quarterbacks threw 25 interceptions against just 14 touchdowns while trying to keep up with Montana.
The 49ers fielded better teams than this one in the 1980s; we will meet one of them soon enough. But the 1984 team proved what Walsh, Montana and the West Coast offense was capable of, even before they assembled one of the greatest receiving corps in history.
8. 1985 Bears: 15-1, Super Bowl Champions
The Bill Walsh 49ers were the NFL team of the 1980s. But the 1985 Bears were the 1980s.
They were funky, punky, edgy and rebellious. The were Walter Payton's Jheri curl and Jim McMahon's headband, Mike Ditka's scowl, Mike Singletary's cobra-like gaze and Buddy Ryan's cocky grin.
The 1985 Bears wanted their MTV, and MTV wanted them. No boy-band Svengali could assemble a more compelling mix of personalities—Payton's trademarked Sweetness, Singletary's intensity, William Perry's lovability, Ryan's outlaw country vibe, McMahon's proto-Bart Simpson insouciance. No one could get enough of the 1985 Bears.
No one could stop them, either. Their 46 Defense terrorized opposing quarterbacks for 64 sacks and 34 interceptions. Meanwhile, Payton smoothly churned out over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. McMahon played quarterback and did everything else his own way, with ample relief from backup Steve Fuller, because McMahon performed all his own stunts.
The 1985 Bears beat opponents by a combined score of 104-3 over one three-game stretch. It was a preview of the playoffs, when they shut out the Giants and Rams before inaugurating the era of unwatchable Super Bowl routs with a 46-10 demolition of the Patriots.
The Bears might have been even better in 1986, but McMahon's injuries left them playing musical chairs at quarterback. Ryan left, Payton and others retired, and the Bears slowly became just another good team with a great defense.
Eventually, MTV stopped playing videos, too.
But in 1985, the Bears were more than an exceptional football team. They were a phenomenon.
7. 1966 Green Bay Packers: 12-2, Super Bowl Champions
The 1966 Packers won the first Super Bowl and inaugurated the modern era of pro football as an afterthought. What mattered to Vince Lombardi and his team was winning the NFL Championship, not some glorified exhibition/publicity stunt against the champion of the freshly merged AFL junior circuit.
Lombardi's Packers beat the Cowboys for the NFL Championship. Then they put the AFL-champion Chiefs in their place, though the Chiefs put more fight into their 35-10 loss than many NFL competitors did against the Packers in 1966, proving in defeat that the NFL-AFL merger—and this kooky championship game—might just work out for the long haul.
The 1966 Packers were about at the point that the current Patriots reached a few years ago. Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke and the rest had been together long enough to win 56-3 and 31-7 blowouts without breaking a sweat. Opponents had spent so many years getting socked around by Lombardi's precision machine that they practically arrived at Lambeau pre-beaten.
That golden age of Packers football would come to an end a few seasons later. But not before helping trigger a golden age of pro football that still hasn't ended, just by winning a game that didn't mean a whole lot to them at the time.
6. 1991 Washington Redskins: 14-2, Super Bowl Champions
Most of the original Hogs had long been replaced. The receiving corps had graduated from "The Smurfs" to "The Posse." Joe Theismann was in the broadcast booth. John Riggins was on the Hall of Fame ballot. These were no longer the famous 1980s Redskins of song and story.
They were better.
On paper, the 1991 Redskins don't look like much. Darrell Green and Art Monk were still around, as were some other holdovers like Joe Jacoby and Charles Mann. But the rest of the cast of characters reads like a B-list compared to Theisman, Riggo and the original Hogs: Mark Rypien, Earnest Byner, Gary Clark, Brian Mitchell, Jim Lachey, Mark Schlereth and many others who would never be confused for all-time legends.
But on the field, few teams were more dominant. The 1991 Redskins shut out three opponents in their first five games by a combined 102-0 score. They cruised through the playoffs and Super Bowl, outscoring opponents 101-41 in three games.
Most remarkably, the 1991 Redskins shared the NFC East with the Troy Aikman-Emmitt Smith-Michael Irvin Cowboys, a Giants team that went 13-3 under Bill Parcells the previous year and an Eagles team fielding one of history's most devastating defenses. Sure, the Wowboys weren't fully gestated yet, Parcells was gone and the Eagles went through about 30 quarterbacks that year. But winning 14 games against such tough competition—one of the losses was a meaningless Week 17 game—was extraordinary.
When fans debate all-time great teams, the 1991 Redskins rarely come up. But when Football Outsiders or other analysts dig deeply into the stats, they always come up near the top. That's the difference between star power and quality at work. These Redskins didn't have the biggest names, but they did get results.
5. 1978 Steelers: 14-2, Super Bowl Champions
The NFL changed a lot between 1975 (when we last visited the Steel Curtain Steelers on this countdown) and 1978.
That's because the Steelers changed the NFL.
The Steel Curtain Defense and its imitators were so effective that the league enacted drastic rule changes to give offenses a chance. One change, nicknamed the Mel Blount Rule after the Steelers cornerback, outlawed contact with receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage. That paved the way for everything from the West Coast offense to 5'9" receivers who catch 110 passes per year.
One would think a series of rule changes almost explicitly designed to stop the Steelers would at least slow them down. Instead, they somehow got better. The new contact rules wound up helping John Stallworth and small, speedy Lynn Swann more than they hampered Blount. Swann and Stallworth combined for 20 touchdown receptions. Blount still made the Pro Bowl. Instead of weakening the Steelers, the rule changes just made them more balanced—first in the league in points allowed, but also fifth in points scored.
It's tough to determine which classic Steelers team was better than any other classic Steelers team. When in doubt, pick the team that defeated the NFL itself.
4. 1989 San Francisco 49ers: 14-2, Super Bowl Champions
The 1989 49ers are what you think of when remembering the great San Francisco teams of that era.
This is the team that brought Steve Young off the bench in relief of Joe Montana. This is the team that had Jerry Rice and John Taylor gaining over 1,000 receiving yards each. The team of Roger Craig, Tom Rathman and Brent Jones. This is the defense still anchored in the secondary by Ronnie Lott, with Charles Haley terrorizing quarterbacks.
This was George Seifert's 49ers team, but Bill Walsh's influence was still powerful. Mike Holmgren was the offensive coordinator, so the 49ers weren't hurting for offensive brilliance. This was the team that made every franchise in the NFL want to copy the West Coast offense.
The 1989 49ers averaged 27.6 points per game and allowed just 15.8. They outscored their playoff competition by a margin of 126-26. They were one of the most balanced teams in NFL history, as well as one of the deepest. Their backup quarterback, after all, was a future Hall of Famer just entering his prime. Not even the Lombardi Packers or modern Patriots can make that claim.
3. 2007 Patriots: 16-0, AFC Champions
Ancient cultures around the world sacrificed their most precious possessions to the gods: the unblemished lamb, the first fruits of the harvest, sometimes their own children. They did so because there is something in the primordial human mind that rejects what it perceives as too perfect. No feet may tread the sacred ground beside the waterfall. The foxiest girl in town can never get a date.
The 2007 Patriots had to lose the Super Bowl to the Giants to reaffirm humanity's place in the cosmos. Bill Belichick had built the Tower of Babel. Tom Brady flew on Icarus' wings. Fate had no choice but to go all Final Destination on them in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots were on the decline in 2005 and 2006—still great but very mortal, particularly because Tom Brady lacked playmakers. So they reloaded their offense with Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth and unleashed fury upon the NFL. They pummeled opponents so thoroughly that it looked vindictive— vengeance against the SpyGate allegations of the time, perhaps, or against those who doubted their place among the pantheon.
Brady's 50-touchdown onslaught. Moss' aerial thrills. The defense delivering 47 sacks when opponents tried in vain to stay in the game. It was beautiful to watch, but somewhat unpleasant as well. We accused the Patriots of running up the score when we weren't accusing them of videotaping opponents. They scoffed. They were prideful. Powerful. Any first-year literature student could tell you what had to happen.
If all of the teams on this countdown played a tournament, the 2007 Patriots would probably win. But perhaps not; maybe a more humble team would fell them the way the Giants did.
Few would be rooting for them. Patriots fans would probably line up behind the 2016 or 2004 teams, because even a perennial champion finds it easier to relate with the underdogs.
2. 1972 Miami Dolphins: 14-0, Super Bowl Champions
The more you study football history, the more clear it becomes that the undefeated 1972 Dolphins weren't the greatest team ever.
Instead of doing something controversial like comparing them to the 2007 Patriots or our No. 1-ranked team, let's compare them to the 1973 Dolphins.
The 1973 Dolphins won the Super Bowl. Bob Griese was their quarterback, not a mix of Griese and Earl Morrall. They faced a much tougher schedule than the 1972 team: the undefeated Dolphins feasted on teams that were AFL weaklings just two seasons earlier, while their 1973 successors battled the Raiders, Steelers and Cowboys in the regular season.
The 1973 Dolphins cruised through the playoffs with three easy wins, while every playoff game for the 1972 team was nip-and-tuck. The undefeated team beat regular-season opponents by an average score of 27.5 to 12.2; the next year, they beat better opponents 24.5 to 10.7. It's close, but there are many reasons to believe that the Dolphins were better in 1973 than in 1972.
But the 1973 team lost two games, and we all know the 1972 team lost zero.
Ultimately, this list isn't about what teams could do, but what they did. The 1972 Dolphins produced two 1,000-yard rushers (Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris) in a 14-game season. Their No Name Defense helped them dominate the NFL despite Griese's absence for most of the year. They beat some terrible opponents, but you can only play the teams on the schedule.
If I had to bring one team to an all-time football tournament, this isn't even the early '70s Dolphins Super Bowl team I would select. But this is the team that did something no other team has ever done.
Thus, it takes a team of legends-among-legends to rank above them.
1962 Green Bay Packers: 13-1, NFL Champions
The 1962 Packers started the season by winning four games by a combined score of 109-14.
Then they got hot.
These Packers forced 50 turnovers in 14 regular-season games. They rushed for 175.7 yards per game. They won by 49-0 final scores twice. In one of those contests, they outgained the Eagles, 628-54.
These are the greatest of the great Packers teams: Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor (pictured), Jim Ringo, Willie Davis, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderly and the rest at the height of their powers. They entered the 1962 season as defending champions. Their only loss came at the hands of the Lions (whose defense was studded with future Hall of Famers) on Thanksgiving. They defended their title against the Giants with a 16-7 victory in Arctic outpost conditions at Yankee Stadium.
This team defined the way we think of great football teams. The Packers remained dominant for years, but they were never again quite as great as they were in 1962.
The undefeated teams were just as dominant as this iteration of the Packers. But no team has ever represented greatness quite like Green Bay in 1962.