In 1994, the NFL implemented the salary cap, making it far more difficult for teams to stockpile talent in backup positions. Some say the 49ers’ dynasty, with Steve Young backing up Joe Montana as Montana advanced in age was a big motivator in getting the cap approved.
It definitely changed the game. Only two teams have repeated as Super Bowl champions in the cap era. We’ve also had seven different Super Bowl winners in the last seven years – the first time that’s happened in NFL history. Teams in this era didn’t dominate the league the way some teams did in the ’70s and ’80s. A 16-game season is too long for sustained excellence.
In fact, only 14 teams have won 14 or more regular-season games during the last 21 years. What’s truly remarkable is that these 14 teams were only 3-4 in the Super Bowl, meaning seven of them never made it past the conference championship game. There is no 1984 49ers or 1991 Redskins or 1985 Bears in this group. We traded that absolute dominance for parity that is far greater than most people realize.
As before, the numbers in parenthesis after the team name refer to points scored and points allowed, based on standard deviations from the league mean that season.
10. 2000 Baltimore Ravens (0.2, 3.3).
Many don’t consider this Ravens team, which allowed just 9.4 points per game, the best defense of all time, but it was a close second to the 1985 Bears. This team really struggled on offense, overcoming a three-week losing streak mid-season where it scored only 15 total points. The Ravens lost the division to the Titans, but ended up beating them on the road in the playoffs. Trent Dilfer was the quarterback for about half the season and the entire playoffs, but he only had a 15/12 TD/Int ratio, including the playoffs. Ray Lewis and the defense shined, outscoring teams 95-23 in four playoff games, including a 34-7 rout of the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
9. 2013 Seattle Seahawks (0.7, 2.4).
The best defense in recent years, these Seahawks were 13-3 and capped off the year with a 43-8 victory over Denver in the Super Bowl. They allowed only 14.3 points per game in the highest-scoring season in NFL history. Going up against MVP Peyton Manning, they forced four turnovers in the Super Bowl, while second-year star Russell Wilson threw for 206 yards and a pair of touchdowns. During the regular season, Wilson also ran for 539 yards, while teammate Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,257 and 12 touchdowns.
8. 2009 New Orleans Saints (2.7, 0.2).
The Saints blew out of the gate with 13 straight wins, scoring 30 or more points nine times. They then lost their last three. Drew Brees threw for 34 touchdowns during the regular season. He picked it up in the playoffs, the Saints beating Arizona, 45-14, then Minnesota, 31-28 in Brett Favre’s last playoff game. Brees was 32-39-288-2-0 in a comeback Super Bowl victory over Indianapolis.
7. 2004 New England Patriots (1.4, 1.5).
Very early in his career, Tom Brady was more a game manager. This was the year he broke out as a gunslinger, beating seven yards per pass attempt for the first time. The Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years, defeating Philadelphia, 24-21. The defense, led by Rodney Harrison, was one of the best in the league, allowing just 16.4 points per game. The Patriots were 14-2 during the regular season.
6. 2001 St. Louis Rams (2.8, 0.8).
The Rams went 14-2 and Kurt Warner threw for 4,830 yards and 36 touchdowns during the season. They looked to be peaking in the late season going into the playoffs. Then they hit the Super Bowl, and turnovers created one of the bigger playoff upsets in league history. Warner threw for 365 yards while New England’s Tom Brady threw for only 145. But two interceptions and a fumble made the difference. Warner brought the Rams back from a 17-3 deficit in the fourth quarter, but Brady, just 24 and in his first year starting, drove the team 53 yards after the two-minute warning rather than playing for overtime, and Adam Vinatieri made a 48-yard field goal as the clock expired.
5. 1998 Denver Broncos (2.5, 1.0).
The Broncos were coming off their first Super Bowl title after four losses. They were 14-2 (winning their first 13 games) and had little trouble reaching the Super Bowl. John Elway was 38 and put up the best passer rating of his career. His last game in the NFL earned him his first Super Bowl MVP award, throwing for 336 and a touchdown as the Broncos beat Atlanta, 34-19. Terrell Davis had 2,008 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns during the season.
4. 1998 Minnesota Vikings (3.3, 0.6).
With 34.7 points per game, the Vikings had the top offense in the cap era. They were 15-1 in the regular season, never scoring less than 24 points in a game. They blew out Arizona in the divisional round, then came up against Atlanta and built a 27-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Then the ever-reliable Gary Anderson missed a 38-yard field goal and somehow the game wound up in overtime where the offense sputtered twice before the Falcons won the game. Randall Cunningham, at 35 and in his final season as a full-time starter, was never better in his career. Randy Moss and Cris Carter each had more than 1,000 yards receiving – Moss, as a 21-year-old rookie, averaging 19 yards per catch.
3. 1996 Green Bay Packers (2.2, 2.1).
The Packers were one of a very few teams to lead the NFL both in scoring and scoring defense during the regular season. They were 13-3, and got stronger as the season went on, winning their playoff games easily, including a 35-21 victory over New England in the Super Bowl. Brett Favre was 27, and despite leading teams to the playoffs twelve different times in his career, he was only 1-1 in the Super Bowl. During the regular season, he led the league with a career-best 4,413 passing yards and 38 touchdowns. LeRoy Butler and Reggie White led a defense that wasn’t overpowering, but only allowed more than 21 points twice.
2. 1999 St. Louis Rams (2.8, 1.5).
This was the Greatest Show on Turf, and outscored opponents by an average of 18 points during a 13-3 regular season. Kurt Warner threw for 41 touchdowns and Marshall Faulk ran for 1,381 and caught another 1,048 yards in passes (the 2,429 yards from scrimmage is second-best all-time). Their playoff games were close, but they wound up with the Lombardi trophy as Warner threw for 414 yards in a 23-16 victory over Tennessee.
1. 2007 New England Patriots (3.1, 1.3).
The best team of this era didn’t even win the Super Bowl. How is this possible? Of the three 15-1 regular season teams during the era, none even reached the Super Bowl. The three that were 14-2 and won the Super Bowl weren’t as dominant. Every team has those down stretches. Only one team didn’t. The Patriots were the only 16-0 team in NFL history. They outscored opponents by 20 points per game during the season. They scored 34 or more points in their first seven games and they didn’t give up 30 until the regular-season finale – at the New York Giants. They reached the Super Bowl with relative ease, where they faced the Giants again. This time, it was a defensive battle, and New England took a 14-10 lead with 2:45 to play. Then came an 83-yard drive that featured David Tyree’s helmet catch and the 12.5-point favorites came 39 seconds short of being the second undefeated NFL team to win a Super Bowl. Tom Brady threw for 50 touchdowns and 4,806 yards against just eight interceptions during the regular season. Randy Moss caught 23 of those touchdown passes. I’d rank this team ahead of the 1985 Bears easily if the Super Bowl had ended a minute earlier.
Honorable Mention: 1997 Denver Broncos (12-4, won SB), 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars (14-2), 2011 Green Bay Packers (15-1), 2003 New England Patriots (14-2, won SB), 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4, won SB), 1992 San Francisco 49ers (14-2), 1990 Buffalo Bills (13-3, lost SB), 1993 Dallas Cowboys (12-4, won SB), 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, won SB), 1990 New York Giants (13-3, won SB), 1968 Oakland Raiders (12-2), 1969 Minnesota Vikings (12-2, lost SB), 1966 Green Bay Packers (12-2, won SB), 1969 Kansas City Chiefs (11-3, won SB).