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Top 10 Teams in NFL History

ca. 1960-67, CC Public Domain

The National Football League entered its second century of competition in the 2020 season, and there is no better time to reflect on the rich history of America’s most popular sports league. Narrowing down a century of champions into ten teams is a daunting task, and the results are of course subjective, but there are a few rules to follow. First, a team must have dominated its competition. Second, a team must have either won the NFL championship in the pre-Super Bowl era or the Super Bowl in the present era. Finally, only one entry is allowed per team. A franchise may have multiple entries, but the majority of the roster must be different for each team.

1) 1962 Green Bay Packers, 13-1

The 62 Packers are the greatest collection of Hall of Fame talent in NFL history. Led by legendary Head Coach Vince Lombardi, the Packers started 11 Hall of Famers, six on offense and five on defense. With such unprecedented talent on both sides of the ball, Green Bay led the NFL in points scored (415) and fewest points allowed (148), and their point differential of 19.1 per game was 9.2 more than the next closest team.

The offense was led by quarterback Bart Starr, who finished first in the NFL in completion percentage (62.5), and fullback and NFL MVP Jim Taylor, who led the league in rushing yards (1,474), touchdowns (19) and scoring (114 points). The Packers’ attack also featured all-purpose backs Paul Hornung and Tom Moore, wide receivers Boyd Dowler and Max McGee, and All-Pro tight end Ron Kramer. The line included Hall of Famers at tackle (Forrest Gregg), guard (Jerry Kramer) and center (Jim Ringo).

Green Bay’s defense dominated its opponents on all three levels. The defensive line featured Willie Davis and Henry Jordan, who terrorized quarterbacks and running backs equally. The linebackers were led by Ray Nitschke, the unit’s leader from the middle, and All-Pros Bill Forester and Dan Currie, who excelled on the outside. The secondary featured the league’s best young corner in Herb Adderley and the NFL’s best young safety in Willie Wood. The defense combined to force a league-best 50 turnovers and a phenomenal +22 turnover margin.

In a cold and windy NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium, the Packers defeated the New York Giants 16-7. Taylor led Green Bay with 85 yards rushing and a touchdown, Jerry Kramer kicked three field goals, and the Packers’ defense forced three turnovers and held Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford and the league’s second-ranked offense in check.

2) 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, 14-2

In the first 39 years of their existence, the Pittsburgh Steelers made one playoff appearance. From 1972-79, they made the playoffs eight straight years and won four Super Bowls under Hall of Fame Coach Chuck Noll. The 78 Steelers represent the high point of one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.

By 1978, Pittsburgh had assembled a roster consisting of nine players who would later be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, five on offense and four on defense. Their excellence on both sides of the ball made the Steelers a nightmare for opposing teams.

The offense was well-balanced and multi-talented. The running game was led by 1,000-yard rusher Franco Harris at fullback and the steady Rocky Bleier at halfback, and the passing game was one of the league’s most dangerous with NFL MVP quarterback Terry Bradshaw (2,915 yards, NFL-high 28 touchdowns) leading the way. Receivers Lynn Swann (880 yards, 11 TD) and John Stallworth (798 yards, 9 TD) gave Pittsburgh one of the best pass-catching duos of the decade.

As good as Pittsburgh was on offense, it was their defense that struck the most fear in opponents. The impenetrable “Steel Curtain” D featured “Mean” Joe Greene at defensive tackle, L.C. Greenwood at defensive end, Jack Lambert at middle linebacker, Jack Ham at outside linebacker, Mel Blount at corner, and Donnie Shell at safety. The Steelers led the NFL in fewest points allowed at 195, and forced the second most turnovers with 48.

In the postseason, the Steelers took their game to another level, defeating the Denver Broncos 33-10 in the AFC Divisional Round and the Houston Oilers 34-5 in the AFC Championship Game. In one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever, Pittsburgh beat the defending champion Dallas Cowboys 35-31. Bradshaw was named the game’s MVP with 318 yards and four touchdowns.

3) 1972 Miami Dolphins, 14-0

The 72 Dolphins remain the only undefeated and untied team in NFL history. Hall of Fame Coach Don Shula’s squad led the league in points scored (385), fewest points allowed (171) and point differential per game (15.3).

On offense, Miami became the first team in NFL history to feature two 1,000-yard rushers: fullback Larry Csonka (1,117 yards, 6 touchdowns) and halfback Mercury Morris (1,000 yards, 12 TD). After Hall of Famer Bob Griese was injured in week five, veteran Earl Morrall took over at quarterback. His leading target was the always dangerous Paul Warfield, who averaged over 20 yards per catch.

The Dolphins “No-Name” defense may have swum under the radar at the time, but the years have revealed how good it really was. Defensive end Bill Stanfill, linebacker Nick Buoniconti, and safeties Jake Scott and Dick Anderson ended up with 21 combined Pro Bowl appearances in their outstanding careers. In addition to leading the league in scoring defense, the Dolphins finished second in turnovers (46) and turnover margin (+18).

In the postseason, Miami continued with the formula that got them to 14-0. The Dolphins averaged 192 yards rushing, held their opponents to 12.7 points per game and had a +5 turnover margin in their three postseason games. In Super Bowl VII, the Dolphins beat the Washington Redskins 14-7. Scott was named the game’s MVP with two interceptions.

4) 1985 Chicago Bears, 15-1

Few defenses in NFL history have been as dominant as the Bears’ famed 46. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan’s scheme used eight men on the line of scrimmage to both pressure quarterbacks and stifle the running game. In 1985, Chicago did that and more. The Bears led the NFL in fewest points allowed (198), turnovers (54), turnover margin (+23), rushing yards allowed (1,319) and opponent passer rating (51.2).

Chicago’s star-studded defense included three Hall of Famers: middle linebacker and Defensive Player of the Year Mike Singletary, defensive end and NFL sack leader Richard Dent, and defensive tackle Dan Hampton. Tackles Steve McMichael and William Perry, linebackers Otis Wilson and Wilber Marshall, corner Dave Duerson and safety Gary Fencik rounded out one of the most talented defenses ever assembled.

Head Coach Mike Ditka’s Bears were more than just a great defense, though. The NFL’s top-ranked rushing offense was led by Hall of Famer Walter Payton, who had 1,551 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Flamboyant quarterback Jim McMahon led an efficient passing game that featured deep threats Willie Gault and Dennis McKinnon. On special teams, Chicago had the NFL’s top-ranked kick return team (25.3 yards per return) and an accurate rookie kicker in Kevin Butler (31-37 field goals, NFL-high 144 points).

The Bears roared through the regular season, winning the NFC Central Division by seven games, and leading the NFL in point differential at 16.1 per game. They would then go on to have one of the most dominant postseasons ever, as they shut out both the New York Giants (21-0) and Los Angeles Rams (24-0) before annihilating the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. MVP Dent led a Bears defense that forced six turnovers and had seven sacks.

5) 1984 San Francisco 49ers, 15-1

When most people think of the 49ers dynasty, they think of an offensive juggernaut led by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. What they may not know is that the best team of the 49ers dynasty also had the NFL’s best defense. The 84 Niners led the NFL in fewest points allowed with 227, beating such high-profile defenses as the Chicago Bears and New York Giants.

The Niners D was led by a secondary that sent all four starters to the Pro Bowl: corners Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright, and safeties Carlton Williamson and Dwight Hicks. Pro Bowler Keena Turner led the linebacking corps, and defensive ends Dwaine Board and Hall of Famer Fred Dean led a strong pass rush.

Head Coach Bill Walsh’s offense was as dangerous as ever, ranking second in points (475) and total yards (6,366). Montana (3,630 yards, 28 touchdowns, 102.9 QB rating) led a balanced attack that was in the top four in the league in both rushing and passing yards. Pro Bowler Wendell Tyler (1,262 rushing yds, 7 TD) and all-purpose back Roger Craig (649 rushing yds, 675 receiving yds, 10 TD) led the ground attack, while veterans Dwight Clark (880 yds, 6 TD) and Freddie Solomon (737 yds, 10 TD) led the receiving corps.

In the playoffs, San Francisco proved beyond a doubt who was the best team in football. They beat the Giants 21-10 in the NFC Divisional round, and shut out the Bears 23-0 in the NFC Championship Game. In Super Bowl XIX, the 49ers dismantled one of the greatest offensive teams the NFL had ever seen, quarterback Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins. In a 38-16 victory, Montana threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns, winning the game’s MVP, while Craig added three touchdowns and 135 combined rushing and receiving yards.

6) 1991 Washington Redskins, 14-2

The 91 Redskins were dominant from day one, posting three shutouts in their first five games and starting 11-0. Washington was a force on both offense and defense, finishing first in points scored (485) and second in fewest points allowed (224). Their point differential of 16.3 per game was nearly double that of the next closest team.

On offense, the Redskins were led by Pro Bowl quarterback Mark Rypien (3,564 yards, 28 touchdowns) and the league’s best receiving triple threat: Hall of Famer Art Monk (71 catches, 1,049 yds, 8 TD), Pro Bowler Gary Clark (70-1,340-10) and Ricky Sanders (45-580-5). Running behind the famed “Hogs” offensive line were Pro Bowler Earnest Byner (1,048 yds, 5 TD), rookie Ricky Ervins (680 yds) and bruiser Gerald Riggs (11 TD).

The defense featured Hall of Fame corner Darrell Green, Pro Bowl defensive end Charles Mann and versatile linebacker Wilber Marshall. On special teams, Washington had the NFL’s top punt returner, Brian Mitchell (600 yds, 2 TD), and the league’s leading field goal kicker and scorer, Chip Lohmiller (31 FG, 149 pts).

The Redskins rolled through the NFC playoffs with dominant wins over the Atlanta Falcons (24-7) and Detroit Lions (41-10). In Super Bowl XXVI, Head Coach Joe Gibbs cemented his Hall of Fame legacy with his third NFL championship, a 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills. Rypien won the game’s MVP (292 yds, 2 TD), but it was the defense that overwhelmed the Bills with five sacks and five turnovers. In their three postseason games, the Redskins had an incredible +12 turnover margin.

7) 1996 Green Bay Packers, 13-3

Few teams in NFL history dominated their opposition like the 96 Packers. Green Bay led the league in points scored (456), fewest points allowed (210) and point differential per game (15.4). Of the Packers’ 16 combined regular and postseason wins, 14 were by 10 points or more and nine were by at least 20 points.

On offense, Green Bay overcame injuries at wide receiver and tackle to become the league’s top scoring team. NFL MVP Brett Favre (3,899 yards, 39 TD) had a deep and versatile arsenal of weapons at his disposal, including all-purpose backs Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens, and a receiving corps featuring Antonio Freeman, Robert Brooks, Don Beebe, Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura. When Brooks suffered a season-ending injury in week seven, the Packers acquired yet another playmaker, Andre Rison.

The league’s best defense was led by Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White (8.5 sacks) and All-Pro safety Leroy Butler (5 interceptions, 6.5 sacks). Joining White on a stout D-line were veteran end Sean Jones, and tackles Santana Dotson and Gilbert Brown. Joining Butler in the secondary were safety Eugene Robinson and young corners Doug Evans and Craig Newsome. George Koonce was the team’s leading tackler at middle linebacker. On special teams, Desmond Howard was the NFL’s leading punt returner with 875 yards, three touchdowns and a 15.1 average.

Head Coach Mike Holmgren’s Packers continued their dominance in the postseason with double-digit wins in all three of its games. In Super Bowl XXXI, Green Bay defeated the New England Patriots 35-21 in a well-rounded performance. Favre threw for 246 yards and had three total touchdowns, White had a Super Bowl-record three sacks, and Howard was named MVP with 254 combined return yards, including a game-changing 99-yard kick return for a touchdown.

8) 1941 Chicago Bears, 10-1

The 41 Bears were the most dominant team of the NFL’s iron man era, a time when players played both offense and defense. Chicago led the league in points scored (396) and posted the highest per game point differential by a championship team in NFL history (22.6).

Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman (NFL-high 95.3 passer rating) led a big-play Bears offense that finished first in the league in both yards per carry (4.4) and yards per passing attempt (10.2). Fellow Hall of Famer George McAfee had one of the best all-around seasons of the two-way era, leading the Bears in rushing, interceptions and scoring. Even more impressively, he scored touchdowns in six different ways (rushing, receiving, passing, kick return, punt return and interception return).

Chicago’s success on both sides of the ball was made possible by the league’s best offensive and defensive lines, assembled by the Bears’ iconic owner, General Manager and Head Coach, George Halas. Four Hall of Famers led the Bears’ attack: center Clyde “Bulldog” Turner, guard Dan Fortmann, tackle Joe Stydahar and guard/team captain George Musso.

The Bears overwhelmed their opponents all season long, with 11 of their 12 wins being by 10 points or more. Their only loss was to the 10-1 Green Bay Packers, a team the Bears would later defeat in a divisional playoff game to determine the Western Division champion. In the NFL title game, Chicago beat the New York Giants 37-9. The Bears defense forced five turnovers, and backs McAfee and Norm Standlee combined for 246 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns.

9) 1992 Dallas Cowboys, 13-3

The 92 Cowboys represented a return to glory for one of pro football’s most iconic franchises. Head Coach Jimmy Johnson’s team was arguably the best in franchise history, with 12 of the Cowboys’ 16 regular and postseason wins coming by at least 10 points. Dallas was strong on both sides of the ball, finishing second in points scored (409) and fifth in fewest points allowed (243).

The offense was led by the Hall of Fame trio of quarterback Troy Aikman (3,445 yards, 23 touchdowns), running back Emmitt Smith (NFL-high 1,713 yds, 19 TD) and wide receiver Michael Irvin (1,396 yds, 7 TD). All-Pro Jay Novacek gave Dallas a premier receiving threat at tight end, and Pro Bowlers Mark Stepnoski at center and Nate Newton at guard anchored one of the league’s best offensive lines.

On defense, the Cowboys’ line featured Hall of Famer Charles Haley (6 sacks), Tony Tolbert (8.5 sacks) and Jim Jeffcoat (10.5 sacks) at end, and Tony Casillas and Russell Maryland at tackle. Linebacker Ken Norton led the team in tackles with 120. On special teams, Kelvin Martin was the NFL’s leading punt returner with 532 yards and two touchdowns.

After an outstanding regular season, Dallas elevated its game in the playoffs, outscoring its opponents 116-47 in three games. In Super Bowl XXVII, the Cowboys had one of the most dominant performances in the game’s history, as they defeated the Buffalo Bills 52-17. MVP Aikman threw for 273 yards and four touchdowns, Smith ran for 108 yards and a touchdown, and Irvin added 114 yards and two touchdowns. On defense, Dallas set a Super Bowl record by forcing nine turnovers. Safety Thomas Everett led the way with two interceptions and a sack.

10) 2004 New England Patriots, 14-2

With wins in their first six games of 2004, the Patriots set an NFL record with 21 consecutive regular and postseason wins. New England improved on its Super Bowl-winning performance of 2003 by increasing its point total from 348 to 437, and its per game point differential from 6.9 to an NFL-best 11.1 in 2004.

The Patriots’ offense was a balanced attack led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady (3,692 yards, 28 touchdowns) and newly-acquired Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon (1,635 yards, 13 TD). The receiving corps consisted of David Givens (874 yds, 3 TD), David Patten (800 yds, 7 TD), Deion Branch (454 yds, 4 TD in 9 games) and tight end Daniel Graham (7 TD).

While the improved offense made New England more explosive, the Patriots’ greatest strength remained their defense. The league’s second-ranked scoring defense featured Pro Bowl inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi (122 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3.5 sacks), outside linebackers Willie McGinest (9.5 sacks) and Mike Vrabel, All-Pro defensive end Richard Seymour, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, Hall of Fame corner Ty Law and safety Rodney Harrison (138 tackles, 2 INT, 3 sacks). A stellar special teams unit included Pro Bowler Larry Izzo and All-Pro kicker Adam Vinatieri (NFL-high 31-33 field goals and 141 points).

In the playoffs, Head Coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots scored double-digit wins over the league’s top offense, quarterback Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts, and the league’s top defense, the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, to win the AFC championship. In Super Bowl XXXIX, New England laid claim to a dynasty by defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21 to capture its third title in four years. Branch was named the game’s MVP with 11 catches for 133 yards, while the defense forced four turnovers, including two interceptions by Harrison.

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