Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Super Bowl Hype, Part IV: Chalk One Up For The Pats

That is, if they can finish off the Giants on Sunday. Last post I listed the four other teams worthy of being named the greatest single-season team in NFL history. I should note that I've looked solely to Super Bowl era teams, only because it's difficult to compare the Super Bowl era NFL to the game's earlier days. Prior to 1933, there was no regularly scheduled championship game, and from 1933-1965, the NFL consisted of 8-12 teams whose best met in a one game playoff. Prior to the Dolphins, no team ever won a championship after an undefeated regular season, yet there were nearly a dozen teams that won the championship following an 11-1 regular season. It's just not quite the same thing, so we'll stick to the modern era.

In terms of the Patriots four competitors, I'm going to dismiss two of them right off the bat. The '76 Raiders were a good team, but I've never heard them talked about in the discussion of greatest ever. Additionally, Patriot fans will remember how that Raider team got to the Super Bowl. In their first playoff game, those Raiders trailed the Patriots, 21-17 in the 4th quarter, and watched would should have been a game ending pass fall incomplete on 4th and 10. Instead, the officials called what Patriot fans still insist was a phantom roughing the passer call on Patriot defensive lineman Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton. (By the way, this was much worse than the tuck rule- replays showed that Hamilton literally hit Oakland QB Kenny Stabler as the ball was leaving his hands.) The Raiders went on to win the game, 24-21. The same Raider team played the Steelers in that years AFC Championship Game, winning 24-7 as Pittsburgh played without any of it's running backs. But beyond the [playoffs, those Raiders had a margin of victory of 8.1. Not just slightly less, but much, much less than any of the other teams under consideration.

I'm also going to dismiss the '72 Dolphins, because if the Patriots can complete this season, there's just not much in the way of comparison between the two undefeated teams. The Dolphins had always previously stood out and warranted consideration because of their unique status. But just look at the numbers- the Patriots were more dominating, beating the Dolphins in average margin of victory 19.7 to 15.3. And while the Dolphins beat two 8-6 teams during the regular season, this years Patriots took on and defeated six playoff teams- the Colts, Steelers, Chargers, Cowboys, Giants, and Redskins.

That leaves the Niners and the Bears, both teams that went through the regular season with only one loss. The Bears loss in 1985 is well known, the 38-24 game against Dan Marino's Dolphins in week 13. Not so well recalled in the public conscience is the '84 49ers only loss, a 20-17 game against the Steelers. Because the Bears had the big names, the nasty defense, and the rap video, the Bears tend to be a sentimental pick as the greatest team ever- but that 49er team shouldn't be forgotten about. Unlike the Bears, they were only three points away from an undefeated season. And just like the Bears, they rolled through the playoffs, beating the Giants 21-10, the Bears 23-0, and topping it all off by shutting down Dan Marino and his 48 TD passes, 38-16 in the Super Bowl. The Bears, of course, were just as dominant in the playoffs, shutting out the Giants and Rams before crushing the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

The average margin of victory is close, 15.5 for the 49ers and 16.1 for the Bears- the Patriots is better at 19.7. This years Patriots also beat more winning teams. But here's the real clincher, at least in my mind. While the Patriots run through the playoffs has not been as impressive, I think the Patriots have faced tougher games throughout. The Bears and 49ers completed their one-loss seasons in the age before 24 hour sports media. The Patriots dealt with the specter of an undefeated season from September onward. And starting with the Eagles game they've faced a gauntlet of quality teams that have been gunning for them. To me, that's what most impressive- the Eagles, Ravens, Steelers, Giants, Jaguars, and Chargers have all given the Pats great games. People remember the Bears as a dominating team, and they were, but plenty of teams wilted in their path. Playing them in the Super Bowl back in January of 1986, the Patriots pretty much just rolled over and died. And yeah, I know, this years Ravens team wasn't very good, but you can't look me in the eye and tell me the Ravens defense wasn't terrifying on that Monday night game. The Bears lost their toughest challenge back in 1985 when Dan Marino came to town. This years Patriots have faced numerous tough challenges and emerged victorious each time. 19-0? If they get there, they'll certainly be worthy of the moniker greatest team ever.


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