The 1989 NFL season is best remembered for the wire-to-wire dominance of the San Francisco 49ers. With Joe Montana winning the first MVP award of his illustrious career, the 49ers sealed their status as Team of the Eighties with a repeat Super Bowl championship that was their fourth crown of the decade.
Behind the 49ers were three teams that might have been championship-caliber in a different year. The Denver Broncos won their third AFC crown in four years behind the greatness of John Elway before again succumbing to the NFC champ. The Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants were good all-around teams in the NFC and they played a terrific divisional playoff game at the Meadowlands.
The Cleveland Browns were to the AFC Championship Game what Denver was to the Super Bowl—good enough to get there, not quite good enough to win it. For the third time in four years, it was the Browns who fell to the Broncos in the battle for the AFC crown. The Buffalo Bills won their second straight AFC East title and were on the cusp of becoming an AFC dynasty themselves. The Minnesota Vikings, winners of the old NFC Central, rounded out a trio of teams that were steady contenders in this era.
The same could be said of the Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Oilers, but both missed opportunities when they lost the wild-card game at home. The Oilers loss, coming to the upstart Pittsburgh Steelers, was particularly aggravating and cost Houston head coach Jerry Glanville his job.
This was the last season when only 10 teams could qualify for the playoffs. Three teams that just missed were the Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals. The Redskins finished 10-6, but the quality of the NFC East kept them at home. The Bengals lost a season-ending Monday Night game in Minnesota that could have put both them, and the Packers, into the postseason
Marty Schottenheimer was in his first year of what would be a successful tenure coaching the Kansas City Chiefs. Even though the Chiefs didn’t make the playoffs, they did have a winning season. In of itself, that was a big turnaround and set the stage for a string of playoff years. The same could be said of the Miami Dolphins. After three down years, the coach/QB tandem of Don Shula and Dan Marino got into contention. Even though the Dolphins didn’t make the Dance this season, they would be back soon enough.
And finally, there was the strange season of Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears. After winning five straight NFC Central titles and then getting off to a 4-0 start in this 1989 season, the Bears came completely unglued. They immediately returned to the top of their division in 1990, but the strange aberration that was the last three quarters of 1989 makes theirs a story worth telling.
The following links go to game-by-game narratives about all 16 of these teams. They recall each team’s top performers on both sides of the ball and all the moments that served to define their season. Taken collectively, these articles are the way to experience the 1989 NFL season all over again, through the eyes of its most consequential teams.