Patriots: The greatest ever?

New England Patriots' brilliant season spurs discussion of greatest teams in NFL history.

The New England Patriots have marched through the National Football League's regular season with a spotless 16-0 record. After earning a bye during this week's opening round of the playoffs, the team will begin what it hopes will be a crowning achievement: only the second perfect season ever and the longest.

The 1972 Miami Dolphins went 17-0, but the Patriots need to go two better to win the Super Bowl.

The Patriots have often won impressively this season, sometimes by big margins, other times by coming from behind, as they did Saturday beating the New York Giants, 38-35 after trailing by 12 points.

To really distinguish themselves, however, they must now win three more playoff games in a league that prides itself on competitive balance. If they do, it will cement the view among many fans that New England is the ultimate team in the most team-oriented of all the major American spectator sports.

No other sport, after all, has such large rosters (45 players) or uses so many athletes in a typical game. No other sport requires so much en masse coordination. And in no other sport do players who virtually never touch the ball (linemen) factor so significantly in a team's success. So a team approaching perfection in the NFL's upset-rich atmosphere is truly something special.

Whether the Patriots become the greatest ever remains to be seen, but to date they've had the right stuff to take their place among the greatest of all time. Some of the members of that select group follow:


Record: 17-0

Coach: Don Shula

Avg. margin of victory: 13.6 points

Championship game: Beat the Washington Redskins, 14-7, in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever.

Notes: After an embarrassing 24-3 Super Bowl loss to Dallas in the previous season, few could have anticipated the team would run the table. Starting quarterback Bob Griese broke his leg in the season's fifth game, but veteran backup Earl Morrall emerged as a supersub, taking the Dolphins all the way to the Super Bowl, whereupon Griese returned. The offense wasn't overpowering, but the swarming "No-Name Defense" shut out Washington until they scored on a flukish play with two minutes to go.


Record: 16-0 and counting

Coach: Bill Belichick

Avg. margin of victory: 19.7 points.

Post season: Must win two playoff games to reach Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 3.

Notes: Coach Belichick was fired during his first fling as head coach (by Cleveland) and quarterback Tom Brady was an overlooked sixth-round draft choice coming out of the University of Michigan. Together they've led New England to three Super Bowl wins. This year's team greatly improved its pass-catching corps, adding deep-threat receiver Randy Moss. The result: league records for TD throws and catches during a campaign in which an odd incident (an NFL reprimand for sideline spying) stoked motivational fires.


Record: 15-1

Coach: Mike Ditka

Avg. margin of victory: 19.6 points

Championship game: Beat New England, 46-10, in the biggest Super Bowl rout up to that time.

Notes: For one glorious season, the Bears were about as dominant and intimidating as any team has ever been, especially on defense. They also were a colorful contingent, with a flamboyant coach, a cocky quarterback (Jim McMahon), and a lovable wide-body rookie defensive lineman (William "The Refrigerator" Perry), who was used as a ballcarrier near the goal line. During the playoffs, they outscored three opponents by a combined 91 to 10.


Record: 13-1Coach: George Halas

Avg. margin of victory: 25.6 points

Championship game: Beat the New York Giants, 37-9

Notes: The Bears earned the reputation as Monsters of the Midway during the early 1940s, and with good reason. In 1940, they produced the most lopsided victory ever, beating the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the title game. In 1942 they turned in the club's only perfect regular season. Even so, the '41 squad might have been the best of the bunch.


Record: 18-1

Coach: Bill Walsh

Avg. margin of victory: 17.1 points

Championship game: Beat the Miami Dolphins, 38-16

Notes: While it can be hard to pick from among San Francisco's five championship teams of the 1980s and '90s, and even harder to bypass one without superlative receiver Jerry Rice, who arrived in 1985, the 1984 squad may well have been the best in franchise history. Certainly it had the best record. Quarterback Joe Montana was in his prime executing the famous "West Coast offense," with its short, horizontal passing attack. The entire defensive backfield was all-star caliber, and its play in Super Bowl XIX was a key factor in limiting the effectiveness of Miami's record-setting quarterback Dan Marino in his only Super Bowl.


Record: 17-2

Coach: Chuck Noll

Avg. margin of victory: 12.9 points

Championship game: Beat the Dallas Cowboys, 35-31.

Notes: Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" teams were the first to win four Super Bowls, securing back-to-back SB championships on two occasions in the 1970s. The roster remained basically the same throughout this dynasty, with quarterback Terry Bradshaw guiding the offense and "Mean" Joe Greene anchoring the defense. Two things stand out about the 1978 team: It lost just twice, and both times by narrow margins to good teams. Then, in the playoffs, it defeated the defending champion Dallas Cowboys in one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever, 35-31.


Record: 13-1

Coach: Vince Lombardi

Avg. margin of victory: 20.6 points

Championship game: Beat the New York Giants, 16-7

Notes: Notes: Lombardi, maybe the ultimate taskmaster coach, put his stamp all over this franchise, driving it to win on simple plays honed to near-perfection. Running backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor helped make the phrase "run to daylight" famous. Green Bay would win five league championships during a seven-year stretch, but this squad (called the last of the great pre-Super Bowl era teams) was arguably the best. It outscored its opponents 415 to 148. [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly identified Paul Hornung as a quarterback.]


Record: 15-2

Coach: Tom Landry

Avg. margin of victory: 15.3 points

Championship game: Beat Miami, 24-3

Notes: For sustained brilliance, Dallas was never better than while winning three out of four successive Super Bowls in the mid-1990s with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Deion Sanders. But the best season may have been in 1977, when the Cowboys lost the fewest games in franchise history. The team was led by quarterback Roger Staubach. Overseeing the sideline was stoic Coach Landry, one of the most innovative minds in football, who took his team to five Super Bowls.

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