Ranking the top 10 teams of the Super Bowl era: ’78 Steelers, ’72 Dolphins battle for top spot


Before leaving Benny Rodriguez’s room, fictional Babe Ruth offered a piece of advice to the aspiring young baseball player in the 1993 hit movie “The Sandlot.” 

“Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends: Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” 

The Babe’s quote can also apply to the NFL. While there have been many championship teams, there are only a handful of champions that have reached the status of legendary. These teams continue to live on through the memory of the fans who feverishly watched their team’s championship quest. A few of these teams actually crossed over to pop culture, as the ’85 Bears are remembered just as much for their iconic “Super Bowl Shuffle” as they are for Buddy Ryan’s devastating “46” defense. 

With 55 Super Bowls in the books, here is a rundown of the 10 greatest teams of the Super Bowl era. The criteria used when creating this list included the team’s overall record, Hall of Fame representation, coaching, dominance vs. the field, quality of opponents, and offensive/defensive standings (largely points scored and points allowed). You also had to win a Super Bowl, which is why the 2007 Patriots failed to make the cut.

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10. 1999 St. Louis Rams 16-3 overall record (including playoffs)Scored 526 points (a then-NFL record) Featured HOF and league MVP Kurt Warner 

The ’99 Rams are the enduring NFL Cinderella story. A former grocery store clerk, Warner went from relative unknown to bona fide NFL star in a matter of weeks. Warner was the conductor of the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” offense that sprinted past opposing defenses all season. The Rams’ majestic offense also featured running back Marshall Faulk (who that season became the second player to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season), receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and Hall of Fame left tackle Orlando Pace. 

The Rams’ offense was great, but one reason why they made the cut was due to their underrated defense — a unit that held the Buccaneers to just six points in the NFC Championship Game. Linebacker Mike Jones’ tackle on Kevin Dyson one yard short of the end zone completed the Rams’ thrilling 23-16 win over the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. 

Kurt Warner finished his Cinderella season with an MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXIV. 
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9. 1986 New York Giants 17-2 overall record (including playoffs)Defeated the next two Super Bowl champions in the playoffs by a combined score of 66-3 Featured DPOY Lawrence Taylor 

Bill Parcells’ first of two Super Bowl championship teams in New York lost two games by a combined eight points in 1986. The Giants were led by a hard-hitting defense that featured Hall of Fame pass rusher Lawrence Taylor and Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson. The Giants’ offense was led by quarterback Phil Simms, who enjoyed a Super Bowl for the ages against the Broncos. Along with throwing for 268 yards and three touchdowns, Simms completed 88% of his passes to lead the Giants to a 39-20 win over Denver in Super Bowl XXI. 

The Giants’ Super Bowl win was impressive, but what really sticks out is the Giants’ 49-3 romp of the 49ers (the team that won four Super Bowls during the decade) in the divisional round. New York then shut out Washington 17-0 before carrying then-defensive coordinator Bill Belichick off the field. 

14-2 overall record (including playoffs)Featured 11 Hall of Fame playersBecame the first team to be crowed NFL and Super Bowl champions 

Fresh off of winning Vince Lombardi’s third title in 1965, the ’66 Packers made history by becoming the first Super Bowl champion. Two weeks after beating the Cowboys in one of the most thrilling championship games in NFL history, the Packers defeated a talented Chiefs team that three years later would win the final game played before the AFL-NFL merger. 

On offense, the Packers’ bread and butter was a powerful sweep that complemented the passing of Bart Starr, the MVP of the first two Super Bowls. Green Bay’s defense — given modern technology — would still dominate in today’s NFL. The defense (a unit that featured six Hall of Fame players) allowed just 11.6 points per game that season. Safety Willie Wood’s interception of Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson turned a competitive game into a 35-10 Packers rout of the Chiefs in Super Bowl I. 

7. 1998 Denver Broncos 17-2 overall record (including playoffs)Featured HOF QB John Elway and HOF RB/NFL MVP Terrell Davis Outscored their three playoff opponents 95-32 

Denver successfully defended its Super Bowl XXXII championship by running away from the field in 1998. The Broncos won their first 13 games before coasting to a 14-2 finish. Davis (who rushed for 2,008 yards that season) was the centerpiece of an offense that also featured Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, and two 1,000-yard receivers in Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. The Broncos’ high-scoring offense was complemented by an aggressive defense that allowed just two touchdowns during the postseason. 

The Broncos forced four turnovers in their 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, as Elway’s 336 yards and two touchdowns gave him MVP honors in his final game. The ’98 Broncos would have been higher had they been given the chance to defeat the Vikings (who had gone 15-1 during the season before being upset by Atlanta in the NFC title game) in the Super Bowl. 

Elway and Davis keyed Denver’s back-to-back championship run. 
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6. 1976 Oakland Raiders 16-1 overall record (including playoffs)Featured seven HOF players and HOF coach John Madden Defeated the defending two-time champion Steelers in the AFC title game 

The Raiders wore the battle scars of three consecutive losses in the AFC Championship Game. John Madden’s battle-hardened team wouldn’t be denied in ’76, despite being the league’s most penalized team. Led by Ken Stabler, a talented receiving corps and a dominant offensive line that featured Hall of Famers Gene Upshaw and Art Shell, the Raiders ran over the two-time defending champion Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, 24-7. 

In Super Bowl XI, Oakland rushed for a then-Super Bowl record 266 yards against the Vikings’ famed “Purple People Eater” defensive line. The Raiders’ intimidating defense put the exclamation point on Oakland’s 32-14 win after Willie Brown scored on a 75-yard pick-six. The Raiders’ first championship may have cracked the top five if not for needing a favorable call against the Patriots in the divisional round, along with the fact that they defeated a Steelers team that played without 1,000-yard running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. 

5. 1992 Cowboys 16-3 overall record (including playoffs)Featured “The Triplets” and the “Great Wall of Dallas” offensive line Three playoff wins by a combined score of 116-47

Three years after going 1-15, Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones reaped the fruit of their labor in 1992. Johnson parlayed the greatest trade in NFL history into a loaded Cowboys roster that would win three Super Bowls in a four-year span. The ’92 Cowboys, the team’s first championship squad of the ’90s, was the best of the bunch. After winning an NFC East division that included the previous two Super Bowl champions, the Cowboys defeated a talented Eagles team in the divisional round before taking down league MVP Steve Young and the rest of the 49ers at Candlestick Park. 

In Super Bowl XXVII, Troy Aikman bewildered the Bills’ defense to the tune of 273 yards and four touchdown passes. Two of Aikman’s touchdowns were caught by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, while Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith rushed for 108 yards while becoming the first rushing champion to win the Super Bowl. Dallas’ often overlooked defense, led by Hall of Fame pass rusher Charles Haley, forced nine turnovers while scoring two touchdowns in the Cowboys’ 52-17 romp. 

4. 1984 San Francisco 49ers 18-1 record (including playoffs)Defeated the next two Super Bowl champions in the playoffs by a combined score of 44-10Shut out Dan Marino and the Dolphins’ prolific offense during the second half of Super Bowl XIX 

Forgive the 49ers for feeling disrespected in the lead up to Super Bowl XIX. Despite winning 15 regular-season games, fielding the league’s top-ranked defense and second-ranked offense and defeating the Giants (21-10) and Bears (23-0) in the playoffs, the 49ers were largely overshadowed by the Dolphins and quarterback Dan Marino, who shattered the league’s single-season passing record en route to an MVP season. Instead of firing off bulletin board material, the 49ers took their frustrations out on the Dolphins. San Francisco’s defense — a unit that featured Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott and three other Pro Bowlers in the secondary — picked off Marino twice in the second half. 

While Marino was running for his life, Montana raced into the history books. Along with running for more yards (59) than any previous quarterback in the Super Bowl, Montana threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns. The 49ers’ 38-16 win is a testament to the overall dominance of that team, a team that is often overlooked in the annals of Super Bowl championship teams. 

Roger Craig hurdled over the Dolphins to become the first player to score three touchdowns in the Super Bowl. 
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3. 1985 Chicago Bears 18-1 overall record (including playoffs)Featured Buddy Ryan’s famed “46” defense Allowed 10 total points in three playoff games 

Unlike the ’84 49ers, there is no lack of fanfare surrounding arguably the most celebrated previous Super Bowl champion. The ’85 Bears were not only Chicago royalty, they temporarily stole the Cowboys’ tag line as “America’s Team” during their one-year run through the NFL. After a slow start, Ryan’s defense went on a roll after holding Montana and the 49ers to just 10 points in Week 6. Over the next 13 games, Chicago’s defense tallied four shutouts and held all but one opponent to 17 points or less. They also sent an unofficial record for quarterback knockouts while solidifying their status as possibly the most intimidating defense in league history. 

Fittingly, defensive end Richard Dent won Super Bowl MVP honors after being part of a Bears defense that forced six turnovers while holding the Patriots to a Super Bowl-low seven rushing yards. Quarterback Jim McMahon led the Bears on seven scoring drives, as Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton won his first and only Super Bowl. The Bears may have finished higher on this list had they faced Marino and the Dolphins — the only team that defeated them during the regular season — in a Super Bowl rematch. 

2. 1972 Miami Dolphins 17-0 overall record (including playoffs)Featured the league’s top-ranked offense and defense Shut out Washington’s offense in Super Bowl VII 

Nearly 50 years later, the ’72 Dolphins remain the NFL’s only perfect team. They featured a dominant “No Name” defense (led by Nick Buoniconti, Manny Fernandez and Super Bowl MVP Jake Scott) that allowed 17 points or less 14 times. Miami’s offense boasted the first pair of teammates to each run for over 1,000 yards in a season in Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris. When the Dolphins did throw, Miami fans were treated to the balletic play of Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield. 

Hungry to avenge their 24-3 loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI, Don Shula’s team did not lose a single game en route to defeating the Browns and Steelers (on the road, no less) in the playoffs before out-playing Washington in Super Bowl VII. Miami would have recorded the only shutout in Super Bowl history if not for one of the most iconic blunders in NFL history. The Dolphins can continue to take pride in being the NFL’s only unblemished team, but the fact that they faced just one team (an 8-6 Chiefs team) that finished with a winning record during the regular-season left them one spot off the top of this list. 

1. 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers 17-2 overall record (including playoffs)Featured 10 Hall of Fame players Dethroned the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII 

Before the ’78 season began, the league’s Competition Committee enforced rules that encouraged higher scoring and less contact from defensive backs. Many suspected that the new rules (one was unofficially named in honor of Steelers cornerback Mel Blount) were put in place to slow down the Steelers, who had won back-to-back titles earlier in the decade. Instead, the Steelers would go on to win the next two Super Bowls. Coach Chuck Noll unleashed quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who won league and Super Bowl MVP honors. In the playoffs, Pittsburgh’s offense put up 33 points on the defending AFC champion Broncos, 34 on the Oilers and then 35 on the Cowboys’ “Doomsday” defense in Super Bowl XIII. Receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth each recorded 100-yard receiving days against the Cowboys, while Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris gave the Steelers a double-digit lead on a 22-yard scoring run. 

While a little older, Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense was still playing at an all-time level in 1978. Led by two-time DPOY Joe Greene, Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and Donnie Shell, the Steelers’ defense allowed a league-low 12.2 points per game during the regular season. They allowed just 15 points in Pittsburgh’s first two playoff games before holding the Cowboys’ high-octane offense to just 17 points for the first 57 minutes of Super Bowl XIII. The ’78 Steelers boasted a star-studded roster, a Hall of Fame front office, and a collection of players who won a record four Super Bowls in a six-year span. 

Greene, Harris and Blount celebrate Harris’ back-breaking touchdown in Super Bowl XIII. 
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