Ranking the Top 25 NFL Teams of the Past 25 Years

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistAugust 19, 2020

Ranking the Top 25 NFL Teams of the Past 25 Years

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    A new decade is upon us in the NFL, which gives us a nice opportunity to view the most recent quarter-century span from 1995 to 2019 for historical purposes.

    Which teams have been the most impressive in a single season? Let's rank the top 25.

    First, some fine print:

    • Teams had to at least make the Super Bowl to be considered
    • Rankings were weighted in favor of Super Bowl winners, but many Super Bowl losers beat out winners based on other criteria
    • Primary criteria: Super Bowl success, total wins, scoring margin, turnover margin, playoff success, defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders
    • Extra points awarded for extraordinary circumstances (see: 2017 Philadelphia Eagles)
    • Extra credit handed out to teams that raked in awards and honors (see: 1999 St. Louis Rams)
    • Additional props to teams that were historically dominant in one particular area (see: 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

    With that in mind, let's kick off a list that will make Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets fans particularly sad.

25. 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Led by Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and a strong core on that side of the ball, the 2008 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers surrendered just 13.9 points per game while generating 29 takeaways.

    The offense wasn't special, though, and turned it over 25 times. Pittsburgh also won a mere 12 games—a mark 111 other teams have hit in the last quarter-century. That's why it ranked below 24 other teams, including nine that failed to win the Super Bowl.

    Still, the Steelers made the cut thanks to that epic defense, which was likely the difference in a Super Bowl XLIII victory over the Arizona Cardinals. It also helps that they scored 116 points in their last four games.

24. 1995 Dallas Cowboys

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The last Dallas Cowboys team to win a Super Bowl did so with the league's No. 3 scoring offense and No. 3 scoring defense. That 1995 squad won its three playoff games by double digits en route to the title and sent 10 players to the Pro Bowl.

    It was the last sign of the only NFC-based dynasty from the last 25 years.

    Like Pittsburgh, though, Dallas won just a dozen games that year. The Cowboys outscored their opponents by an impressive 9.0 points per game (compared to 7.8 for the '08 Steelers), but they weren't dominant on either side of the ball and forced only two more turnovers than they committed.

    This was a great team but not a legendary one.

23. 2017 New England Patriots

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The first non-champion on this list, the 2017 New England Patriots fell short in Super Bowl LII despite winning 13 regular-season games and outscoring their opponents by 10.1 points per outing.

    New England had a top-five scoring offense and defense, plus a decent plus-six turnover differential. Quarterback Tom Brady was the league MVP for quite possibly the final time as the Pats lost just a single game between Oct. 1 and the Super Bowl.

    A victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in that fight for the Vince Lombardi Trophy would have given the '17 Pats at least a top-20 spot on this list, but they still sneaked in thanks to Brady, an oft-dominant offense and another Super Bowl appearance.

22. 2018 Los Angeles Rams

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    One year later, the Pats captured their sixth Lombardi with a victory over the 2018 Los Angeles Rams, who still earned a spot in the bottom section of this list thanks to an unreal offense and a stellar defense.

    The 13-win Rams outscored their opponents by 8.9 points per game and posted a plus-11 turnover differential (behind only 11 teams on this list). They averaged 32.9 points per game, which is the fourth-highest mark among Super Bowl finalists in the last quarter-century, but they also had the league's Defensive Player of the Year in lineman Aaron Donald.

    Throw in that Todd Gurley was an All-Pro in the offensive backfield, and the Rams deserve a spot.

21. 2019 Kansas City Chiefs

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The league's reigning champion deserves a spot on this list, but let's not let a recency bias cloud our view of the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs.

    Like '08 Pittsburgh and '95 Dallas, K.C. lost four regular-season games and outscored its opponent by fewer than 10 points per outing (8.9). The Chiefs didn't have the league's top offense or top defense, though they did rank in the top seven in each, and their plus-eight turnover margin trumped Pittsburgh's, Dallas's and a handful of other teams' on this list.

    They'd rank higher if quarterback Patrick Mahomes remained healthy throughout the year or if the defense was more consistent, but there's room here for a team that scored 117 points in three playoff games (only three other teams have done that in the last 25 years—but they each played four postseason games).

20. 2014 New England Patriots

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Some of these Patriots teams might blend together, and the 2014 squad was by no means special compared to other installments (there are plenty more to come). But by outscoring their opponents by 9.7 points per game and putting up a plus-12 turnover margin in a Super Bowl season, they still easily made this list.

    They won "only" 12 games, but the sky was allegedly falling after a 2-2 start, and they were practically perfect the rest of the way. That earned Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co. extra points, as did the fact that they scored a ridiculous 108 points in three playoff games.

    They ranked near the bottom here, though, because they weren't particularly dominant in any area.

19. 2011 New England Patriots

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Some of New England's best teams failed to win the Super Bowl, including the 2011 squad that won 13 games and was one of only five teams on this list that outscored its opponents by more than 10.0 points per game and registered at least 16 more takeaways than giveaways.

    They averaged 32.1 points per game and led the AFC with 34 takeaways, which would have positioned them for a legendary season if not for the fact that they lost Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants.

    Still, a squad that sent eight players to the Pro Bowl ranks among the 20 best teams of the last quarter-century.

18. 2005 Seattle Seahawks

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    ELAINE THOMPSON/Associated Press

    The 2005 Seattle Seahawks don't come up a lot in conversations regarding all-time great teams. But on paper, the Super Bowl XL finalists were stupendous. 

    The Seahawks won 13 games and rolled over the competition en route to the Super Bowl. They outscored their opponents by 11.3 points per game, they forced 10 more turnovers than they committed, and they won their first two playoff outings by a combined 30 points. 

    MVP running back Shaun Alexander was unstoppable while fueling the league's highest-scoring offense, but Seattle also ranked seventh in points allowed. At one point, it won back-to-back December games by a combined margin of 83-3. That just doesn't happen in this era of NFL football. 

    It's too bad the team got robbed when it mattered most.

17. 1998 Atlanta Falcons

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    Ed Reinke/Associated Press

    Speaking of underrated Super Bowl losers from the last 25 years, the 1998 Atlanta Falcons were a 14-win juggernaut that was unfortunately overshadowed by John Elway and the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, as well as the 15-win Minnesota Vikings that season. 

    But the Falcons, who had the league's fourth-ranked scoring offense and defense along with a plus-20 turnover margin, beat those Vikes en route to Super Bowl XXXIII. 

    The Broncos beat them handily in the Super Bowl, but that doesn't change the fact that they're one of just three teams on this list with a plus-150 scoring margin and a plus-20 turnover differential, as well as one of just 17 teams to win 14 or more games in a season since 1995. 

16. 2001 St. Louis Rams

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    MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press

    The 2001 St. Louis Rams are the weirdest team on this list.

    They're one of nine teams in modern NFL history to outscore their opponents by 230-plus points in a single season, but they're the only team ever to post a plus-200 scoring margin along with a turnover differential of minus-10 or worse. 

    How in the world did they win by an average of 14.4 points per game in a 14-2 season and manage to commit 10 more turnovers than takeaways? I guess it was fitting that they lost the turnover battle 3-0 in an unforgettable upset at the hands of the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. 

    Still, the sheer destruction over the course of a season in which they lost just three total games by one score each does the trick, especially when you throw in that quarterback Kurt Warner was the league MVP and running back Marshall Faulk was the Offensive Player of the Year. 

15. 2013 Denver Broncos

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Some of these teams went out on such sour notes that it's hard to consider them among the best of this era. That's especially the case with the 2013 Denver Broncos, who were embarrassed in their Super Bowl XLVIII loss to the Seahawks but were historically dominant before that. 

    Like the 2001 Rams, the '13 Broncos outscored their opponents by more than 200 points. Unlike those Rams, they at least had an even turnover margin. And most critically, they're the only team in NFL history to score 600 points in a single season. They routinely made it look easy as quarterback Peyton Manning set new NFL records with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns in an MVP campaign. 

    The defense, however, was not good. And they faded in the playoffs. That keeps them well back of the top 10 on this list. 

14. 1997 Denver Broncos

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    ED ANDRIESKI/Associated Press

    There was something magical about the Denver Broncos team that finally delivered John Elway his first Super Bowl ring in 1997, but with "only" a dozen regular-season wins, a defense that ranked just out of the top five in terms of points per game, a handful of Pro Bowlers and no major award winners, we couldn't justify placing them any higher on this list. 

    This Denver team did outscore its opponents by 11.6 points per game, however, and it posted a plus-10 turnover differential thanks mainly to a top-scoring offense that committed just 21 turnovers (a strong number by 1997 standards). 

    They also get some points for capping a magical playoff run with an upset Super Bowl victory over the superior Green Bay Packers, which is why they land somewhere in the middle here. 

13. 2015 Carolina Panthers

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Meet the second-best Super Bowl loser of the last quarter-century. 

    That's right, (almost) every remaining team listed here was a champion. The 2015 Carolina Panthers were not, but on paper, they were far better than the 12-win Broncos team that defeated them in Super Bowl 50. 

    The one-loss '15 Panthers are one of only two teams since 1986 to win 15-plus regular-season games en route to the Super Bowl. And they're the only team featured here that outscored their opponents by 12-plus points per game while registering a turnover margin of plus-20 or higher. Quarterback Cam Newton won MVP for orchestrating a 500-point offense, while Coach of the Year Ron Rivera's defense ranked sixth in the NFL. 

    Had they been able to finish with a Lombardi Trophy, they'd surely be in the top 10 here. 

12. 2009 New Orleans Saints

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    Mike Groll/Associated Press

    We've established some clear-cut criteria for these rankings thus far, and the 2009 New Orleans Saints check all of the boxes. 

    Super Bowl winner? Check. Thirteen-plus wins? Check. Outscored their opponents by more than 10 points per game? Check. Turnover margin in the double digits? Check. 

    Guided by an offense that averaged 31.9 points per game and buoyed by a wildly opportunistic defense that compiled 39 takeaways, the '09 Saints were one of only eight teams in modern NFL history to start 13-0. And after losing their last three games, they recovered by scoring 107 points in three playoff games to capture the Lombardi Trophy for the first and only time in franchise history.  

    That'll do the trick. 

11. 2017 Philadelphia Eagles

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles were about exactly as dominant as the '09 Saints. Both won the Super Bowl in 13-win seasons, both posted plus-11 turnover margins, the Saints outscored their opponents by an extra half-point per game (10.6 versus 10.1) and Philadelphia drew a slightly higher DVOA (defense-adjusted valued over average) total from Football Outsiders. 

    But the Eagles get the edge because they lost their starting quarterback in December and still managed to rip through the NFC playoffs en route to their first and only Super Bowl victory, with said win coming over the dynastic Patriots. 

    Even with Carson Wentz down, it was hard to find a weak spot on a team that ranked in the top four on both offense and defense. 

10. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    J. PAT CARTER/Associated Press

    Speaking of DVOA, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers possess the best defensive DVOA in the league dating back to 1992

    They somehow lost four regular-season games, and their point differential isn't overly impressive (they outscored their opponents by 9.3 points per outing) because the offense was was mediocre for much of the year. However, the '02 Bucs remain the only team this century to surrender fewer than 200 points in a season. 

    Led by All-Pros Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber, they recorded 38 takeaways during an unforgettable campaign. And they get extra credit for demolishing the competition with a 106-37 scoring margin in the playoffs. 

9. 2000 Baltimore Ravens

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    DOUG MILLS/Associated Press

    While the '02 Bucs had the best DVOA against the pass in league history, the 2000 Ravens rank No. 1 all-time in DVOA against the run. And while those Bucs surrendered only 196 points in '02, Baltimore somehow surrendered 31 fewer points in 2000. 

    The Bucs and Ravens both won 12 games in their respective Super Bowl-winning campaigns around the turn of the century, but Baltimore's 10.3 points allowed per game remains the lowest total across a non-shortened season since the 1970s. That historically stout defense also racked up an unbelievable 49 takeaways, which is absurd in this era and the highest total in the last 30 years. 

    Throw in that they were also utterly dominant with a 95-23 scoring margin in the playoffs, and it's safe to say the '00 Ravens are one of the greatest teams in NFL history, even if they lost four regular-season games and the offense was only so-so. 

8. 2003 New England Patriots

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    ELISE AMENDOLA/Associated Press

    The 2001 Super Bowl champion Patriots were magical, and that team might even be more memorable than those that won back-to-back titles a few years later. That's because it started the dynasty.

    But in reality, the 2003 and 2004 Pats were far more talented and dominant than the surprise '01 squad. 

    It's somewhat of a toss-up between the two. Both went 14-2 and didn't trip on the way to championship glory, but the '04 team was slightly more dominant. 

    Still, the '03 team won 15 consecutive games after a 2-2 start and compiled 41 defensive takeaways for a turnover margin of plus-17 (compared to plus-nine for the '04 Pats). That opportunistic D gave up six or fewer points in five of the team's last 11 regular-season games, which is something only one other team has done in the last 40 years. 

    These Pats didn't continually hammer opponents (they outscored the competition by an average of only 6.9 points per game), but they were extremely special nevertheless. 

7. 2004 New England Patriots

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    DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press

    While the 14-win '03 Super Bowl champion Pats had only three Pro Bowlers, the Super Bowl-winning '04 squad—which averaged nearly six more points per game for a far superior per-game scoring margin of 11.1sent six players to the Pro Bowl. 

    In part because the offense was so much more productive in 2004, the Patriots' DVOA was nearly 14 points higher than it was in 2003. And with an even larger target on their back than the year before, they easily disposed of the 12-4 Colts and 15-1 Steelers en route to the Super Bowl. 

    This team just didn't cut it as close. There was never much doubt. 

6. 1998 Denver Broncos

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    Doug Mills/Associated Press

    The Broncos team that ran it back for Elway's swan song in 1998 was a little more dominant than the squad that finally helped him land his first title one year prior. 

    The '98 Broncos went 14-2 with an average scoring margin of 12.0 points per outing while posting a plus-10 turnover margin and the eighth-best team DVOA on this list. They didn't lose until the middle of December, and then they plowed through the postseason with a scoring margin of 95-32, a run which they capped with a one-sided Super Bowl XXXIII victory over the aforementioned Falcons. 

    Running back Terrell Davis was the MVP as the Broncos became just the fifth team in modern NFL history to score 500 points in a season while the defense also ranked in the top 10 in points allowed. 

5. 2016 New England Patriots

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    They barely pulled it off after falling behind 28-3 in Super Bowl LI, but the 2016 version of the Patriots is the best Super Bowl-winning Pats team of all time. 

    That 14-win squad outscored its opponents by 11.9 points per game and posted a plus-12 turnover differential as a result of only 11 giveaways all year. They accomplished all of that even though they were without Brady for the first quarter of the year while he served a suspension stemming from Deflategate. 

    They wound up with the league's top-scoring defense and third-highest-scoring offense.

    The Pats then crushed the Houston Texans and Steelers by a combined margin of 70-33 in the first two rounds of the playoffs before executing a circus-like comeback to cap it all off in the Super Bowl. They scored 104 points in those three playoff games and smothered one of the best offenses of all time in the second half of that final victory over Atlanta. 

    That game was epic, but it shouldn't cause us to overlook how the '16 Pats were usually unstoppable. 

4. 2013 Seattle Seahawks

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    In the last 25 years, two Super Bowl-winning teams have earned DVOA totals of 40.0 or higher. One of those was the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, who were about a lot more than just the Legion of Boom defense that committed 39 takeaways and surrendered a league-low 14.4 points per game. 

    Unlike the other historically dominant defensive teams mentioned so far, the '13 Seahawks were also remarkable offensively. They ranked eighth in the NFL in points per game and posted a plus-20 turnover margin in a 13-win campaign. 

    And they did that despite a tough schedule in a division that contained two other double-digit-win teams.

    Stacked with Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball, this was one of the best all-around champions of the modern era. 

3. 1999 St. Louis Rams

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    DAVE MARTIN/Associated Press

    The "Greatest Show on Turf" 1999 St. Louis Rams are the only Super Bowl-winning team in NFL history that outscored its opponents by 17 or more points per game over the course of the season. In other words, the 13-win Rams were regularly winning by three-score margins. 

    They put up 83 more points than the next-highest-scoring team in football that year, while the defense also ranked fourth in the NFL with 15.1 points per game allowed. And their plus-five turnover margin wasn't too shabby considering their all-or-nothing offensive approach. 

    Quarterback Kurt Warner was league MVP, running back Marshall Faulk won Offensive Player of the Year, head coach Dick Vermeil was Coach of the Year and seven Rams were All-Pros in a campaign that took the sports world by storm. 

2. 1996 Green Bay Packers

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    DOUG MILLS/Associated Press

    The 1996 Packers didn't annihilate the league quite as shockingly as the '99 Rams (they merely outscored their opponents by 15.4 points per game) but they won just as many games (13) and posted a plus-15 turnover margin (compared to plus-five for St. Louis). 

    The Packers' claim to fame, though, is that they scored the most and allowed the fewest points in the NFL (they're only the second team in modern NFL history to accomplish that) while also earning the second-best special teams DVOA in the league.

    Quarterback Brett Favre was league MVP, legendary pass-rusher Reggie White joined safety LeRoy Butler on the All-Pro team, and the Packers put up the highest Super Bowl-winning team DVOA since 1992. It never felt as though that title was remotely in doubt. 

1. 2007 New England Patriots

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The only team ever to run the table in a 16-game regular season did not win the Super Bowl, but the 2007 Patriots were such a devastating steamroller that they can't be denied the top spot despite a narrow loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. 

    Their average margin of victory was 19.7 points per game, which is nearly two full points clear of the next-best team in modern NFL history in that category. With help from the league's fourth-highest-rated scoring defense, they also posted a plus-16 turnover differential and the highest team DVOA since 1991 by a margin of more than eight percentage points. 

    If the '07 Pats could have finished off the Giants, they'd undoubtedly be the most dominant team in pro football history. But in a year in which Brady won MVP with a then-record 50 touchdown passes, Belichick won Coach of the Year and Randy Moss caught a record 23 touchdown passes, a Pats team that won a record 10 games by 21-plus points still did enough to grab the top spot on this list. 

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