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Ranking the NFL’s most dominant dynasties (part III)

Does a clear winner finally emerge?

Super Bowl XXVIII - Dallas Cowboys v Buffalo Bills

Previously we made the case for the why the following teams represent the most dominant dynasties in the Super Bowl era of the NFL:

We also looked at each dynasty’s regular season performance. The following table summarizes the results from that effort. A first place finish in, say, points scored, nets that dynasty five points while a last place finish nets only 1 point:

Today we look at playoff performance. This is where each of these teams truly proved themselves, combining to win 47 of 54 playoff contests (87%) and claiming 14 Super Bowls over 22 seasons (64%). (One thing that’s interesting is none of these teams played a wild card game; all won their divisions every year (except one exception) and thus bypassed the wild card round.) Here’s the team’s playoff results:

Notes:

  • The 70’s Steelers team won the most playoff games, but needed six years to do so; all the other dynasties lasted only four years.
  • Among those teams, the 90’s Cowboys won the most playoff games, averaging 3.3 wins per season (compared to the Steelers’ 2.2).
  • New England has the highest win percentage (100%) and is the sole team to never lose a playoff game during their run. However, this has much to do with the fact the 2002 team missed the playoffs entirely. That team finished 9-7 with a 4.0 SRS, so they certainly wouldn’t have been a sure out in the playoffs, but it’s almost certain they would have lost at some point.

Here’s another way of showing each team’s wins and losses:

No matter how you look at it... that’s a lot of playoff wins! Here’s the same chart with win percentage added:

So, what was driving these team’s post-season success? Was it high-powered offenses, stifling defenses or some combination of both? Let’s check the point totals:

Offense- points scored

The Cowboys and 49ers again stand out, ranking first and second. The Cowboys triplets-led offense was virtually unstoppable, averaging nearly 34 points per game. And this wasn’t driven by a couple of huge blowouts, the fewest points Dallas scored during those years in a playoff game was 27. It’s noteworthy that the 49ers two playoff losses were the two games they scored the fewest points (24 in 1987 and 13 in 1990).

Pittsburgh’s 70’s teams are generally remembered for their Steel Curtain defense, but their offense put up nearly 27 points per game. That’s remarkable over 15 games across six seasons. In fact, their ‘78 and ‘79 teams were offensive juggernauts, averaging 32.3 points in six playoff victories.

Defense - points allowed

The 49ers had a prolific offense but were also the stingiest in terms of surrendering points, allowing only 12.8 per game. In fact, if you exclude the ‘87 team’s shocking division round loss to the Vikings, San Francisco gave up less than 10 points per game in their next eight playoff games. The most they gave up was 16, to Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII. Five times they gave up 10 points or less.

The Dolphins ranked second in points allowed with 14.7. Their two defeats were the games they gave up the most points (24 to Dallas in Super Bowl VI and 26 to the Raiders to end the Dolphins run in 1974).

Similar to their offensive performance the Steelers were very consistent defensively. They gave up more than 19 points only three times in 15 games. They lost two of those three games and the third was the team’s legendary 35-31 win over the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII.

I was surprised the Cowboys finished last in this category. Giving up 18 points is a good number but it’s not as dominating as some of these other teams. When looking at the Cowboys’ results you see a lot of 38-21, 30-20, 38-27 results. I know from memory a significant portion of those points surrendered came during garbage time with the game decided, but we can probably say the same thing for the other teams on this list.

Thus, we get to what I consider the key piece of evidence in this exercise. Point differential is considered by a lot of the advanced analytics crowd to be a better indicator of a team’s quality than won-loss record which can be influenced by luck.

First, all of these results are impressive. Consistently winning playoff games against the league’s best teams by more than a touchdown is the sign of superior teams and the reason all five of these units are considered “dominant dynasties”.

But wow... San Francisco was annihilating their competition and Dallas wasn’t far behind. Each of these teams were beating teams by an average of 2+ touchdowns, the 49ers by two touchdowns and a field goal! Those are blowouts and illustrate that even the league’s better teams those seasons had little chance at victory. The Pittsburgh number (11.0) is a bit lower but still exceedingly impressive.

Miami and New England rank fourth and fifth and yet each of those teams were outscoring opponents by a touchdown. That’s outstanding considering this is across 10+ playoff games (okay, nine for the Patriots) over four seasons. And yet, those numbers lag significantly behind the Steelers and are less than half of what San Francisco and Dallas managed.

Blowout wins, bad losses and one-score results

We’ve talked before about one-score games and how the analytics guys claim teams should win them at a 50% rate:

Closely related to the gap between a team’s point differential and their actual record is how they perform in close contests. Historically, with precious few exceptions, teams will win games that are decided by seven points or less about 50 percent of the time.

But we’ve already seen that these teams turned that thinking upside down by winning 68% of their one-score regular season games. So how did they do in the post-season?

Again, the idea that teams win 1-score games at a 50% rate is obliterated. And the trend of San Francisco, Dallas and Pittsburgh separating themselves from Miami and New England continues. The vast majority of these team’s wins were by more than seven points, indicating superior performance and removing (or at least greatly reducing) the role luck played.

Dallas had zero wins by less than seven points, every one of the team’s 10 playoff victories came by more than seven points. San Francisco, meanwhile, had only a single “close win” (again, the team’s 20-16 win in Super Bowl XXIII over the Bengals). Pittsburgh had 10 dominant wins against three close wins. Two of those close wins came against the Cowboys in Super Bowl X (21-17) and Super Bowl XIII (35-31); the other was a 16-10 win over the Raiders in the 1975 AFC Championship.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, had four close wins against four dominant wins. Most notable is the “perfect” 1972 team won three playoff games by a combined 17 points. The Dolphins 20-14 divisional round victory over the Cleveland Browns saw the Dolphins out gained but a +3 turnover margin helped seal the victory.

Anyone who wants to claim the Patriots have been “lucky” during the Brady-Belichick era can use these results to support their point. It’s highly unusual to go 6-0 in 1-score games.

Margin of victory

Let’s look at each team’s games by margin of victory (or loss):

I really like this chart. You can really see how the Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys just dominated opponents. The three combined to win 12 games by 20+ points while Miami won only one such game and New England zero.

You also see six of San Francisco’s seven playoff victories were blowouts and only one victory was close. Similarly, every one of Dallas’ 10 victories came by 10 points or more. Pittsburgh had 4 20+ point victories, another four between 10 and 20 points and three close victories. The precariousness of the Patriots’ victories is well illustrated here.

Yards and turnovers

I noted earlier how Miami and New England won a couple games where they were out-gained but used turnovers to overcome that yardage deficit. It’s well understood that turnover margin is more closely related to winning than yardage margin. But in our regular season analysis we showed most of these teams had top 10 or even top 5 teams on both sides of the ball in terms of yardage. How did they do in the playoffs?

Notes:

  • I have to admit I’m surprised that Pittsburgh enjoyed the biggest yardage differential. You’ll win a lot of games by gaining 125+ yards more than your opponent. However, they also had the worst turnover margin, barely generating more turnovers than their opponents.
  • San Francisco and Dallas both generated the most yards, gaining nearly 400 yards per game (386 and 385 respectively). The 49ers, however, were better at limiting yards and thus have a better yardage differential (95 to 70). They both committed 1.3 turnovers per game, but Dallas generated slightly more turnovers (2.8 to 2.4).
  • Miami barely out gained their opponents and also enjoyed only a modest 0.7 more turnovers per game. Their overall history is not holding up as well as SF, Dallas and Pittsburgh.
  • New England also barely out gained their opponents. However, they were far and away the best at limiting turnovers (less than one per game) and easily had the best turnover margin (2.1 per game). The narrative of the Patriots was to play close games, limit mistakes and make key plays down the stretch. The Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys, by contrast, simply overwhelmed opponents.

Strength of competition

Wins, winning percentage and win margins tell us much of the story but they don’t tell which teams faced the most challenging competition. We’ll look at a couple metrics to measure the competition:

  1. Overall record
  • Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System. The crib notes version of SRS: take a team’s average margin of victory and then add or subtract points based upon that team’s strength of schedule; the result is that team’s simple rating. A general guide:
  • Over 15: legendary team
  • Over 12: outstanding team
  • Over 9: great team
  • Over 6: good team
  • Over 3: slightly above average team
  • 0: average team

So we see that both Miami and New England faced significantly better competition in the playoffs than Pittsburgh, San Fran and Dallas. Not only did their opponent’s win a higher percentage of games, they also had notably higher SRS ratings. To be fair though, the differences are not that great. New England opponents had the highest SRS (7.0) but it’s only 1.2 points better than the lowest SRS number (San Francisco’s 5.8). That’s basically saying if there was a point spread Patriot’s opponents were 1.2 points better than San Francisco’s.

These are averages, though, perhaps a game-by-game breakdown will provide some insights:

Now we’re getting somewhere. Notes:

  • Losses are outlined.
  • The teams combined to face “great” teams (those with SRS numbers of nine or above) 16 times. In those games their combined record was 13-3:
  • Miami (3-2)
  • Pittsburgh (3-1)
  • San Francisco (2-0)
  • Dallas (2-1)
  • New England (3-0)
  • Pittsburgh played three games against teams that were barely average or below average
  • The Patriots played, and beat, the team with the highest SRS of any opponent. That was their Super Bowl XXXVI victory of the “greatest show on turf” version of the St. Louis Rams (13.4 SRS). The 2001 Patriots’ opponents combined for a 24.4 SRS rating; the highest that any of these teams faced in a Super Bowl-winning year. (Of course, they won those three games by a combined 13 points so they weren’t exactly running over teams).
  • The 1992 Dallas team faced a nearly as difficult path, first beating a nearly-great Philadelphia team (SRS of 8.9) and a nearly-outstanding San Francisco team (11.8 SRS). The combined opponent’s SRS of 24.9 ranks second to the Patriots’ 2004 schedule.
  • The Patriots’ 2004 Patriots were the only team to play - and defeat - two teams with at least a nine SRS. They first beat Indianapolis (11.4), then Pittsburgh (9.0) and finally Philadelphia (5.6).
  • By contrast, the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers had the easiest path to a Super Bowl, beating three teams with a combined SRS of only 8.1 points (including a below average Los Angeles Rams team in Super Bowl XIV).
  • The worst team any of these dynasties faced was the 1987 Minnesota Vikings, who soundly defeated a 13-2 San Francisco team with a 13.3 SRS (easily the best of any of the four San Fran teams).

This is endlessly fascinating to me and I could go on, but I’ll stop here. I’ll show one last graph. This combines each team’s average margin of victory with their opponent’s average SRS rating:

It’s not a perfect line, with Pittsburgh an outlier, but it does seem to show that as quality of opponent goes up margin of victory goes down.

Summary

So, which dynasty is the most dominant? After a couple weeks of research, several dozen graphs and 10,000 words I have to admit I don’t have a definitive answer. I can comfortably eliminate either Miami or New England. While Miami ranked highest in the regular season they had too many close playoff contests and their playoff metrics simply lagged the top three teams.

Similarly, New England had the least impressive results in terms of point and yardage differentials as well as ranking fifth in the regular season. They’re arguably the most “clutch” of the teams, if you believe in that sort of thing. But they’re clearly a tier below Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Dallas.

I think fans of all three of those teams could make arguments in support of their squad. Pittsburgh did it longer and won more Super Bowls than any other. The 49ers absolutely crushed their playoff opponents and enjoyed dominating regular seasons. Dallas is the only one among the three to win three Super Bowls in four seasons; they won more playoff games in four years than any of the other four teams and every one of their 10 playoff victories came by double-digits.

For that reason I’m going to declare the Cowboys the victor but I’d listen to arguments. I was hoping for a more clear resolution but have to admit when looking at the data it’s not as clear cut as hoped for.

So, based on what you’ve read, which team do you think is the most dominant dynasty?

Poll

Which dynasty was the most dominant?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    1971 - 1974 Miami Dolphins
    (5 votes)
  • 5%
    1974 - 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers
    (24 votes)
  • 5%
    1987 - 1990 San Francisco 49ers
    (26 votes)
  • 82%
    1992 - 1995 Dallas Cowboys
    (374 votes)
  • 5%
    2001 - 2004 New England Patriots
    (25 votes)
454 votes total Vote Now

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