Ever since their Super Bowl championship in 2001, the New England Patriots have crept closer and closer to surpassing the 49ers from 1981-1998 as the greatest dynasty in NFL history. Both dynasties boast five Super Bowl championships with over 15 playoff appearances over relatively the same amount of time, and the Patriots had the opportunity to lay this debate to rest for good on Sunday.
All the Patriots needed to do was defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII to win their sixth Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era. Ultimately, they were unable to do that, and the 49ers’ reign as the NFL’s greatest dynasty continued. At least until next year.
New England’s loss to Philadelphia was another blemish on the Patriots’ resume, and is something that sets the 49ers’ dynasty apart. The Patriots are now 5-3 in their eight Super Bowl appearances since 2001 while the 49ers were a perfect 5-0 in the title game during their run of dominance.
Starting with their first franchise championship in 1981, the 49ers proceeded to win five Super Bowls, including back-to-back championships in 1988 and 1989, until their seven-year playoff streak came to an end in 1998.
As for the Patriots, they won back-to-back championships of their own in 2003 and 2004, and are currently on a stretch of nine consecutive playoff appearances.
|San Francisco 49ers (1981-1988)||New England Patriots (2001-2018)|
|1||Back-to-back Super Bowls||1|
Someone in the pro-Patriots’ camp might argue that quantity is better than quality, but if New England had the same success rate as the 49ers did during their run, they’d have eight Super Bowls instead of five. Not to discredit the Patriots for reaching the Super Bowl the number of times that they did. It’s truly an impressive feat and makes them one of the best dynasties in history. After all, it’s better to make the Super Bowl and lose, than not make it at all.
Yet a closer look shows that the quality of San Francisco’s five Super Bowl victories trumps the impressiveness of New England’s eight appearances.
Three of New England’s Super Bowls were won by three points with the other two by no more than six. That comes out to an average margin of 3.8 points per Super Bowl victory, which is significantly lower than the 49ers’ 19.8.
In 2001, the Patriots won on a 48-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri without any time left, after allowing the Los Angeles Rams to score 14 points in the final quarter. Three years later, Vinatieri hit another game-winning field goal in the final seconds of the Super Bowl against the Carolina Panthers, who outscored the Patriots 19-18 in the fourth quarter.
In their next championship, their opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, were five yards away from scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just over a minute left in regulation. Had it not been for Malcolm Bulter’s heroic interception, the Seahawks very well could have beaten the Patriots in that Super Bowl.
The Patriots won their most recent Super Bowl thanks in part to a complete meltdown by the Atlanta Falcons, who took a commanding 21-3 lead into halftime, and could have won if they scored another touchdown in the second half. As it turned out, that six-point victory turned out to be the Patriots largest victory in any of their Super Bowls. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say New England could have easily been 1-7 instead of 5-3 in the big dance.
And even though the 49ers didn’t reach the Super Bowl as many times as the Patriots, the 49ers were kept from at least two potential championships by the Dallas Cowboys, one of the greatest teams in NFL history.
From 1991-1996, the Cowboys kept pace with the 49ers as one of the best teams in league. With six consecutive playoff appearances and three Super Bowls, the Cowboys proved much tougher competition in the NFC Championship in 1993 and 1994 than the 49ers would have faced in the Super Bowl.
If they had the longevity the 49ers had, they’d be a prodominant member of this debate, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers who made eight playoff appearances from 1972-1979 with four Super Bowls titles.
Let’s say the 49ers flipped the script and beat the Cowboys in the conference championship in 1992 and 1993, as they did in 1994. If that were the case, they would have gone to play the Buffalo Bills on both occasions, who were 14-6 in 1993 and 14-5 in 1994.
Meanwhile, the biggest threat to the Patriots not advancing to the Super Bowl were the 2004 Steelers, who were 15-1 and averaged the fewest points allowed in the NFL (15.7). Aside from that, the Patriots didn’t face a team with more than 13 wins in the AFC Championship, including the 2001 Steelers (13-3), 2003 Colts (12-4), and 2014 Colts (11-5).
As for the 49ers, they won a pair of narrow Super Bowls against the Cincinnati Bengals in 1981 and 1988, but went on to beat the Miami Dolphins by 22 points in 1985, the Denver Broncos by a staggering 45 points in 1990, and the San Diego Chargers by 23 points in 1995.
One could argue that the Patriots faced tougher opponents in their victorious Super Bowls; which based on wins is technically true, but not by much. As a whole, New England’s defeated foes combined for 72 wins while San Francisco’s amassed 70.
That’s not much of a difference. The real difference comes when you compare the the amount of offense both dynasties put up against the defenses they faced.
Although the Patriots faced more defenses in the top 10 of the league (4) than the 49ers (3), the opponents in each of their five Super Bowls evened out to allow an average of roughly 18 points per game during the regular season. Against those defenses, the Patriots scored an average of 27.6 points in the Super Bowl.
The 49ers: 37.6
That same person could argue that the fact that the Patriots have excelled this long under one head coach and an aging quarterback puts them ahead of the 49ers. The deadly combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been the mainstay of New England’s incredible run.
However, that argument is better used in the Joe Montana-Brady debate, and it can be argued that it’s just as impressive, perhaps more so, that the 49ers managed to maintain their success amidst a series of personnel changes. By keeping their dominance alive while handling two coaching changes – Bill Walsh to George Seifert – and quarterback changes – Montana to Steve Young – the 49ers not only showed they had a well-rounded roster over those years, but also knew how to equip themselves for the future.
Granted, if the Patriots had defeated the Eagles on Sunday, this argument would’ve been harder to make. Not only would the Patriots have won more Super Bowls than their rival dynasty, but they would’ve become first team since the Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-75, 1978-79) to win back-to-back championships twice.
Should the Patriots return to the Super Bowl for the third straight year and win, their longevity and number of championships would be enough to top the 49ers. However, until then, the 49ers’ reign as the greatest dynasty in NFL history is safe.