The modern era of the NFL can be fairly said to have begun in 1978. Three significant changes took place—the first significant restrictions were placed on defensive backs, thereby opening up offenses and beginning to create the modern style. The schedule expanded to 16 games and a wild-card round was added to the playoffs. The league that many of us grew up with effectively began in 1978. So who are the top Super Bowl winners of the modern era?
This is a subject that could easily be an entire book, but for the sake of narrowing it down for a single blog post, I used these three criteria…
*The team must have finished in the top three in both scoring offense and scoring defense, thereby demonstrating balance.
*They must have earned a #1 seed for the playoffs, thereby demonstrating season-long excellence.
*They must have won at least 13 games.
I understand if you want to quibble with the criteria. There are some awfully good teams that won 12 games, or finished in the top five both offensively and defensively or were a 2-seed but won a high-profile conference championship game (I hear you 2004 New England Patriots or 1992 Dallas Cowboys). But this criteria served to narrow the list down to five teams which is a good number for separating the best of the best.
Here they are, in chronological order…
1984 San Francisco 49ers: The most underrated of the four championship teams in the Joe Montana era. These 49ers didn’t have a great Dwight Clark catch (1981), an epic Super Bowl drive (1988) and it wasn’t Montana’s best single season (1989). What these 49ers did do was go 15-1, dismantle two rising powers in the New York Giants and Chicago Bears and finish it off by routing league MVP Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl.
1985 Chicago Bears: The defense of these Bears is one for the ages at the forefront of any serious conversation regarding the best defenses of all-time. But are you surprised to learn they were also the second-best offense in the NFL? Jim McMahon had the best year of his career in 1985. The Bears didn’t allow a point in the NFC playoffs and the 10 points allowed in the Super Bowl came off a turnover and then a garbage-time touchdown. McMahon was ruthlessly efficient in all three blowout wins.
1989 San Francisco 49ers: Just how good were the 49ers that they can produce two teams on this short list in a six-year window? San Francisco won their three postseason games over the Vikings, Rams and John Elway’s Broncos by a combined 126-26.
1991 Washington Redskins: My favorite team of all-time, with Mark Rypien having the season of his life. The Detroit Lions were the prime challenger in the NFC that year. The Redskins opened the season in prime-time by beating Detroit 45-0 and then beat the Lions 41-10 in the NFC Championship Game. Washington then sealed it with a 37-24 win over a highly regarded Buffalo Bills team and MVP running back Thurman Thomas…in a game where the margin reached 37-10.
1996 Green Bay Packers: There’s only team besides the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins to have the best offense in the league, the best defense in the league and win the Super Bowl. And it’s these Packers, as they rode Brett Favre’s second of three straight MVP seasons and Reggie White’s defensive leadership to bring the Lombardi Trophy home.
So who’s the best? I’m not going to make any attempt to be unbiased. I’m picking the ’91 Redskins. Advanced analytics has shown the Redskins’ underrated excellence on special teams helps separate them from other great teams. I generally don’t subscribe to advanced analytics except in cases like this where it’s convenient for me.
But in all seriousness, I’ll just pick who I think is the best of the rest. A part of me says to keep it simple—the ’96 Packers had the best offense and the best defense. But they did lose three games, more than anyone else on this list. Both San Francisco teams and Chicago were 15-1 and Washington was 14-2, but one of the losses was a meaningless season finale that they mailed in.
The team I’d rank behind the ’91 Redskins would be the 1989 49ers. While all of these teams had impressive postseason runs, the sheer annihilation the ’89 San Francisco team put on in January serves to separate them.