NFL Nation: NFC Best teams ever

Best Vikings Team Ever: 1969

July, 1, 2010
7/01/10
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Notable players: Defensive linemen Carl Eller, Gary Larsen, Alan Page and Jim Marshall; receiver Gene Washington; center Mick Tingelhoff; quarterback Joe Kapp; safety Paul Krause.

Carl Eller
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireCarl Eller was part of a Vikings defense that allowed just 133 points in 1969.
Analysis: On the strength of a defensive line that sent all four starters to the Pro Bowl, the 1969 Vikings won 12 consecutive games and became the first NFL expansion team to reach a Super Bowl. The “Purple People Eaters” defense allowed the fewest points in the league that season (133), while the Vikings offense scored a league-high 379 points.

NFL Films recently produced a series naming the 1969 Vikings one of the five best teams in league history that didn’t win the Super Bowl. The 1998 Vikings were also on that list, but the ’69 team was more balanced. Its offense scored at least 50 points in three different games, while the defense allowed the fewest points, yardage and first downs in the NFL while ranking second in takeaways. The 12-game winning streak was the longest in a 35-year span of the league.

The team’s two losses that season came by one point at the New York Giants in the season opener and by a touchdown in the season finale at Atlanta. Both defeats came with starting quarterback Joe Kapp sidelined and backup Gary Cuozzo taking most of the snaps. Despite the presence of three future Hall of Famers (Eller, Page and Krause), Kapp was named MVP for the way he inspired a team-oriented concept throughout the year.

In a legendary gesture, Kapp turned down the award and reiterated the team’s battle cry that season: “40 for 60” -- 40 players committed for 60 minutes of football. Players were so confident in the sum total of their talent that they often laughed at opponents when they celebrated touchdowns.

Speaking in the NFL Films piece, Marshall said opponents would ask why they were laughing when they had just given up a touchdown. “Yeah,” Marshall said, “but you’re not going to win the game. We are.”

There was a sense of destiny for this team, and its 23-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV was stunning. But when you consider the four Vikings teams that went to the Super Bowl, as well as the 1998 team that just missed it, you have to consider the 1969 group as the most dominant.

Most impressive victory: Tie for the team’s collective work against the 10-3 Cleveland Browns. The Vikings took two games against the Browns by a combined score of 78-10, including a 51-3 romp in the regular season and a 27-7 victory in the NFL Championship Game.

Did you know? The 1969 Vikings won the last NFL Championship in history. The NFL and AFL merged the year afterward, creating conference championships that fed into the Super Bowl.

Honorable mention

1998: Finished a franchise-best 15-1, set the NFL record (since broken) with 556 points scored and made it to NFC Championship Game.

1973: Advanced to Super Bowl VIII with a 12-2 record and a resounding victory at Dallas in the NFC Championship Game.

1976: This team’s two losses came by a total of five points. It breezed through the playoffs before a 32-14 loss to Oakland in Super Bowl XI.

Best Packers Team Ever: 1962

July, 1, 2010
7/01/10
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Notable players: Fullback Jim Taylor, right tackle Forrest Gregg, quarterback Bart Starr, linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley, defensive end Willie Davis, center Jim Ringo, halfback Paul Hornung, safety Willie Wood, defensive tackle Henry Jordan.

[+] EnlargeJim Taylor
AP Photo/Bill IngrahamIn their 49-0 win over the Eagles, Jim Taylor and the Packers gained a total of 628 yards.
Analysis: There are notable players, and then there are the best of the very best. All 10 players listed above have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In other words, nearly half of the Green Bay Packers' 1962 regular lineup were among the best of their era. That type of talent collection could never be replicated in today's era of superstar contracts.

Under Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi, this Packers team shut out two of its first three opponents and won its first four games by a combined score of 109-14. It went on to finish the season 13-1, leading the NFL in both points scored and fewest points allowed, and won the league championship with a 16-7 victory over the New York Giants. There hasn't been another one-loss season in Green Bay ever since.

The Packers have won 12 titles in their history, including five under Lombardi, but the 1962 team was a powerhouse unto itself. If you've read David Maraniss' biography of Lombardi, you understand why: This edition of the Packers recorded a pair of 49-0 victories and set an NFL record for highest average point differential in its games (19.1 points). Here are some other notable marks:

  • In the second 49-0 drubbing, this one at Philadelphia, the Packers gained -- yes -- 574 more yards than the Eagles (628-54).
  • The 49-0 victories are the two biggest shutouts in team history.
  • The 1962 Packers scored 53 touchdowns, the second-most in team history despite a 14-game season at the time. Its 36 rushing touchdowns remain an NFL record.
  • The defense led the NFL with interceptions (31) and fewest passing yards allowed (2,084).
The season's running performance was the grist for Lombardi's epic "Run To Daylight" with Bill Heinz. While Hornung is often remembered as the Packers' top back, in 1962, Taylor led the team with 1,474 yards and an amazing 19 touchdowns.

The Giants were hell-bent on revenge in the championship game, having lost to the Packers 37-0 the year before. The game was in New York, but the Packers controlled the game throughout in 17-degree weather at Yankee Stadium. The Giants' only score came on a blocked punt. (Check out this NFL Films video on that game. Cool stuff.)

Most impressive win: It's hard to overlook an NFL title game, but beating any team 49-0 and outgaining it by 574 yards is a stunning demonstration of dominance.

Did you know? Nitschke was the MVP of the championship game but might have had a bigger impact on the league a few hours after the game. As the story goes, Nitschke appeared on the television show "What's My Line?" wearing his trademark black rimmed glasses. A film producer named Ed Sabol bought the rights to that appearance for $3,000. Sabol's company eventually became known as NFL Films.

Honorable mention:

1966: Won Super Bowl I after finishing the regular season 12-2. Its two losses, to San Francisco and Minnesota, came by a total of four points.

1996: Led the NFL in points scored and fewest points allowed, the only team to do so in the past 36 years, and won Super Bowl XXXI.

1929: Clinched the Packers' first NFL Championship, this one based on final standings, with an undefeated record (12-0-1).

Best Lions Team Ever: 1970

July, 1, 2010
7/01/10
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Notable players: Running back Mel Farr, center Ed Flanagan, tight end Charlie Sanders, linebacker Paul Naumoff, defensive tackle Alex Karras, cornerback Lem Barney, cornerback Dick LeBeau.

[+] EnlargeDick LeBeau and Lem Barney
AP Photo/Jim PalmerCornerbacks Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau combined to snag 16 interceptions during the 1970 season.
Analysis: I’m fully aware that this franchise played for four NFL Championships during the 1950s, winning in 1952, 1953 and 1957. It was without question the golden age of Lions football, but you can make a decent argument that the best team came two decades later.

The 1970 Lions ranked second in the NFL in points scored and points allowed, won their first two games by a combined score of 78-3 and finished the season with the league’s second-highest average point differential (10.4), according to pro football-reference.com. They had the best turnover ratio in the league, were the victims of Tom Dempsey’s then-record 63-yard field goal and produced an impressive five-game winning streak to end the regular season.

This team fielded two Hall of Fame cornerbacks, and both Barney and LeBeau had the best seasons of their careers. LeBeau intercepted nine passes, while Barney had seven -- returning two for touchdowns. The Barney/LeBeau team helped the Lions limit the powerful Dallas Cowboys to five points in the playoffs, and that total should have been enough for an offense that put up at least 28 points in six of its regular-season games.

But the offense inexplicably fell flat that day in a 5-0 defeat, leaving Lions fans their first in a series of torturous “what-ifs.” At the time, there was a feeling the Lions were bound for a Super Bowl victory had they gotten past the Cowboys.

I realize there is some room for discussion here. But the 1970s were a newly competitive era for the NFL, and that’s where I landed when comparing this team with the 1950s teams.

Most impressive victory: I’ll go with a tie for the Lions’ collective performances in shutting out Green Bay twice -- 40-0 in the season opener and 20-0 in the season finale. The Packers weren’t a good team that year but they did win six of their other 12 games.

Did you know? The 1970 Lions were the first wild-card playoff team in NFL history. When the league merged with the AFL, the postseason was expanded to eight teams -- three division winners and one wild-card team.

Did you know, Part II? Soul musician Marvin Gaye had a failed tryout for the 1970 team.

Honorable mention

1952: A high-powered offense scored 40-plus points five times on the way to a 9-3 record and an NFL Championship.

1953: A similar team scored a touchdown in the final minutes of the championship game to become the third team in NFL history at that point to win back-to-back titles.

1957: The Lions overcame the training camp resignation of coach Buddy Parker and the broken leg of quarterback Bobby Layne to win its last NFL title.

Best Bears Team Ever: 1985

July, 1, 2010
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Notable players: Tailback Walter Payton; quarterback Jim McMahon; defensive linemen Richard Dent, William "The Refrigerator" Perry, Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton; linebacker Mike Singletary; safety Dave Duerson.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Perry
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesRefrigerator Perry celebrates during Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots.
The 1985 Chicago Bears were known, in equal parts, for their dominant defense and outsized personalities. The Bears' blitz-happy "46" defense spurred them to a 12-0 start, a 15-1 regular season record and the largest margin of victory in a Super Bowl at the time. And a roster that included three Hall of Fame players, five All-Pros and nine Pro Bowlers gave us some lasting and unique images.

Who can forget Perry diving into the end zone on Monday Night Football or catching a touchdown pass at Lambeau Field? Many of us can still feel the tension between coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, a dynamic that ultimately resulted in both men carried off the field after the Super Bowl. McMahon's message-laden headbands. And is there anything else to say beyond "Super Bowl Shuffle?"

Those sideshows were the grizzle on the meat of a team that was as talented, at least defensively, as any modern-day championship group. That collection of players gave the Bears the only championship they have known in the past 47 years.

Nearly half of the defensive starters made the Pro Bowl. Singletary and Hampton are in the Hall of Fame. One day, Dent will join them. Two players finished with double-digit sacks: Dent (17) and linebacker Otis Wilson (11). As a team, the Bears forced 54 turnovers. During one particularly dominant stretch, the Bears went two months without giving up more than 10 points in a game.

Their only loss came in Week 13 at Miami, which finished 12-4 that season. But the Bears rebounded from that loss, winning their final three games by an average margin of two touchdowns, and then elevated themselves to historic status in the playoffs.

On the way to Super Bowl XX, the Bears shut out the New York Giants (21-0) and Los Angeles Rams (24-0). The culmination of their season was a dominating 46-10 victory over New England in which the Bears set seven Super Bowl records.

Most impressive win: It's hard to look past a 36-point victory in a title game of any kind. At the time, it was the largest margin of victory in a Super Bowl.

Quotable: "In life, there are teams called Smith, and teams called 'Grabowski'....We're Grabowskis!" -- Ditka, painting his team as a blue-collar group that evoked Chicago's heritage. The nickname caught on.

Honorable mention:

1941: Six future Hall of Fame players contributed to a 10-1 record and an NFL Championship. All of its victories were by more than a touchdown, and its only loss was by two points to Green Bay.

1940: The same core of Hall of Fame players finished 8-3 and also won the NFL Championship. The title game was a legendary 73-0 defeat of Washington.

1942: An undefeated regular season (11-0) featured four shutouts over its final six games. But this team lost 14-6 to Washington in the NFL Championship Game.

Best Falcons Team Ever: 1998

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
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Notable players: QB Chris Chandler, RB Jamal Anderson, WR Terance Mathis, LB Jessie Tuggle, K Morten Andersen, LB Cornelius Bennett.

[+] EnlargeJamal Anderson
Getty ImagesJamal Anderson rushed for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1998.
If ever there’s been a one-year wonder, it was the 1998 Atlanta Falcons. For the better part of three months, this team was as hot as any team ever and it really didn’t matter who was coaching.

With coach Dan Reeves having open-heart surgery late in the season, Rich Brooks took over as the interim coach and the Falcons just kept on winning with a great defense and Anderson having a huge year. The Falcons went from Oct. 25, 1998, until the Super Bowl on Jan. 31, 1999, and didn’t lose a game.

During a Dec. 13 victory in New Orleans that made the Falcons 12-2, Reeves began experiencing chest pains. When he mentioned it to team doctors the next morning, they took a look and quickly rushed him into surgery. Without Reeves, the Falcons won the next two regular-season games to finish a franchise-best 14-2.

With some help from a first-round bye, Reeves was able to return for two very narrow playoff victories against San Francisco and Minnesota. The NFC Championship Game was in Minnesota, but Atlanta upset the Vikings. That also put the Falcons into the Super Bowl for the first -- and only -- time. The opponent was Denver.

That set up a great subplot as Reeves went against John Elway, the quarterback he had clashed with when they were together with the Broncos. Things didn’t go well for the Falcons even before the game.

Safety Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the game and that created turmoil for Reeves and the Falcons. In the end, Robinson played, but it didn’t really matter. Elway and the Broncos had the upper hand, winning 34-19.

Most impressive win: The Nov. 1 game against St. Louis gets an honorable mention because it came after the Falcons got trashed by the Jets and it started the long winning streak. But people who were with the team then said the most important game was on Dec. 20 at Detroit. With Brooks coaching the team, the Falcons overcame three deficits to win 24-17 and clinched the NFC West title (this was before the NFC South was formed in 2002).

Research room: The 1998 Falcons led the NFL in takeaways (44), fumble recoveries (25 ) and time of possession (33:10).

Honorable mention

1980: With quarterback Steve Bartkowski and running back William Andrews leading the way, the Falcons won a division title for the first time in franchise history.

2008: In the aftermath of Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick, coach Mike Smith came in and took over a team that was expected by many to be horrible. With rookie Matt Ryan at quarterback, the Falcons went to the playoffs.

2002: This team made history by going into Lambeau Field and handing the Packers their first home playoff loss in franchise history.

Best Buccaneers Team Ever: 2002

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
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Notable players: LB Derrick Brooks, DT Warren Sapp, S John Lynch, CB Ronde Barber, QB Brad Johnson, WR Keyshawn Johnson, FB Mike Alstott.

[+] EnlargeJon Gruden
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Bucs sent two first-round picks and two second-round picks, plus $8 million, to the Raiders for Jon Gruden.
Analysis: In the first year of the NFC South’s existence, the Glazer family, which owns the Buccaneers, pulled one of the boldest moves in sports history. The Glazers fired coach Tony Dungy, who was beloved by players and fans and the only coach in franchise history to have any extended success.

They thought they had Bill Parcells lined up as the replacement, but Parcells backed out of the deal. That led to desperate measures as the Glazers overstepped general manager Rich McKay, who wanted to hire Marvin Lewis, and worked out a rare trade for a coach. They shipped four draft picks and $8 million in cash to Oakland for Jon Gruden.

Gruden came in and did what Dungy couldn’t -- he won a Super Bowl. Still relying heavily on a defense built by Dungy and coordinator Monte Kiffin, Gruden was able to infuse a little bit of offense into the Buccaneers.

With Brad Johnson at quarterback and Brooks, Lynch, Sapp and Barber all in their prime on defense, the Bucs were pretty much dominant as they went 12-4 and became the first NFC South champions.

In the irony of all ironies, Gruden wound up facing the Raiders, then coached by Bill Callahan, in the Super Bowl. Although the Raiders had the league’s No. 1 offense, Gruden outdid his former team and the Buccaneers won 48-21.

Most impressive win: A 26-14 victory in Week 3 in which the Bucs intercepted St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner four times.

Research room: Tampa Bay’s defense held opposing quarterbacks to a 48.4 passer rating for the season.

Honorable mention

1997: This was not the best Tampa Bay team ever, but it might have been the most important in franchise history. In Dungy’s second season, the Bucs went 10-6 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1982. That raised expectations and changed the entire football climate in Tampa Bay.

1979: The Bucs were formed in 1976 under some harsh expansion rules and lost their first 26 games. But with Doug Williams and Lee Roy Selmon leading the way, John McKay took this team to the NFC Championship Game in only its fourth season.

1999: This might have been the Tampa Bay defense at its absolute best. With rookie quarterback Shaun King, the Bucs still managed to go 11-5. The Bucs lost the NFC Championship Game, 11-6, to St. Louis in a game that involved a controversial non-catch by receiver Bert Emanuel.

Best Panthers Team Ever: 2003

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
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Notable players: RB Stephen Davis, QB Jake Delhomme, WR Steve Smith, WR Muhsin Muhammad, DE Julius Peppers, DT Kris Jenkins, LB Dan Morgan.

Analysis: When owner Jerry Richardson talked about how the life had been drained from his franchise during a disastrous 1-15 season in 2001 under coach George Seifert, he couldn’t have expected how dramatic the turnaround would be. Nobody saw the Panthers going to the Super Bowl within two years, but that’s exactly what happened with first-time head coach John Fox.

[+] EnlargeStephen Davis
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesStephen Davis rushed for a career-high 1,444 yards in 2003.
In 2002, Fox’s team showed some promise, but there was no real reason to think the Panthers were ready for an incredible run. They had the makings of a very good defensive line, but nobody really knew how much Davis had left when the Panthers brought him in and nobody had a clue what Delhomme, who had spent his career on the bench in New Orleans, might bring.

Rodney Peete opened the season as the starting quarterback and that lasted all of two quarters before Delhomme came on to rally the Panthers and take over the job. With Davis carrying the offense and the defensive line dominating, Delhomme continued to show a knack for leading comebacks.

The Panthers caught lightning in a bottle and also rode the emotion of preseason news that linebackers coach and former team captain Sam Mills and starting linebacker Mark Fields each had cancer. Carolina finished the regular season 11-5 and won its first NFC South championship.

A playoff victory at home against Dallas wasn’t a big surprise, but the Panthers stunned just about everyone by going on the road and winning at St. Louis (in double overtime) and completely dominating the Eagles on a frigid night in Philadelphia.

That put the Panthers into the Super Bowl against New England. A touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with one minute, eight seconds remaining tied the score. But Carolina’s chances of pulling the upset faded as John Kasay followed up by kicking the ball out of bounds to give New England good field position. The Patriots kicked the game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining.

Most impressive win: It’s tough to top the image of Steve Smith scoring a touchdown on the first play of the second overtime in St. Louis, but players and coaches will tell you the key moment of the season came in Week 2 at Tampa against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bucs scored a late touchdown and needed only to kick the extra point to win the game. The Panthers blocked the kick, forced overtime and won 12-9.

Research room: This team was known as the “Cardiac Cats." The reason was simple. The Panthers won seven games in the last two minutes or in overtime.

Honorable mention

1996: In only the second year of the franchise’s existence, coach Dom Capers, quarterback Kerry Collins and a great defense took the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. A home playoff victory against Dallas provided a truly monumental moment for an expansion team and the city of Charlotte.

2005: Fox’s 2004 team underachieved, but the 2005 team overachieved more than any in franchise history. Give the credit to Smith for carrying the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Seattle. Injuries to the running backs kept the Panthers from running like Fox wanted to, but Smith and Delhomme had a special chemistry that year.

2008: A 12-4 record, an NFC South crown and a first-round bye added up to absolutely nothing. In what easily is the most disappointing game in franchise history, Arizona came into Bank of America Stadium and routed the Panthers 33-13. Starting with that game, the normally reliable Delhomme began turning the ball over so frequently that he played his way out of Charlotte.

Best Saints Team Ever: 2009

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
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Notable players: QB Drew Brees, G Jahri Evans, WR Marques Colston, RB Reggie Bush, LB Jonathan Vilma, S Darren Sharper.

Analysis: The Saints and New Orleans have gone hand in hand for a long time. But the franchise and the city are locked in a loving embrace right now. That’s because the 2009 Saints won the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history and provided one of the best feel-good stories in recent sports history.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees and Sean Payton
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDrew Brees and Sean Payton were key acquisitions who helped turn the Saints around.
New Orleans was so battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that it was unclear for a while if the Saints would even be able to stay there for the long term. As the city was rebuilding, so were the Saints. They hired Sean Payton in 2006 and also signed Brees, a move that has turned out to be one of the best free-agent signings in the history of sports.

It took a few years for Payton and Brees to bring up the level of the rest of the team. But it happened in 2009, with Payton making one of the most critical decisions of his tenure. His offense already was very good, but his defense had struggled. He brought in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who changed the entire personality of the defense.

With Sharper playing the role of a ball hawk and defensive end Will Smith having a huge season, the Saints suddenly became a machine at creating turnovers. The offense took care of the rest as the Saints won their first 13 games and ran away with the NFC South.

Injuries caused a little slump at the end and the Saints lost their final three games. Payton later admitted in his book that it was “crisis time," but you never really got that sense from the Saints at the time. Payton handled the situation masterfully, using the bye to get his team healthy, rested and ready, and the home-field advantage played a key role in playoff victories against Arizona and Minnesota.

The Super Bowl turned out to be a showcase for Payton’s bold coaching style. His decision to open the second half with an onside kick was successful in catching the Colts off guard. It gave the Saints control of the game and probably was the biggest play in franchise history.

Most impressive win: It seemed as if the Saints were playing big games every week as the season went on. But none was bigger than a 38-17 victory against New England on "Monday Night Football" in Week 12. Once and for all, that sent a message that the Saints were a legitimate force.

Research room: The Saints were so dominant early on that they never trailed in their first five games. They didn’t fall behind an opponent until Oct. 25 at Miami and that opened the door for a series of comebacks.

Honorable mention

1987: After a miserable early history for the franchise, coach Jim Mora and general manager Jim Finks put together a team that recorded New Orleans’ first winning season. That paved the way for the Saints to make the playoffs four times in the Mora era.

2000: The Mike Ditka era was a disaster, but rookie coach Jim Haslett came in and took the Saints to the playoffs in his first season. He also did something Mora never did. He won a playoff game.

2006: The arrival of Payton and Brees, combined with the re-opening of the Superdome, gave the Saints a huge emotional lift. They rode that all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

Best Seahawks Team Ever: 2005

June, 24, 2010
6/24/10
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Notable players: LT Walter Jones, LG Steve Hutchinson, C Robbie Tobeck, RB Shaun Alexander, QB Matt Hasselbeck, FB Mack Strong, MLB Lofa Tatupu, RCB Marcus Trufant, WR Bobby Engram, WR Darrell Jackson, WR Joe Jurevicius

[+] EnlargeMike Holmgren
AP Photo/John FroschauerMike Holmgren's 2005 Seahawks were the only team in franchise history to make the Super Bowl.
Analysis: The 2005 Seattle Seahawks were the only team in franchise history to win more than 12 regular-season games. They were the only Seahawks team to appear in a Super Bowl, the only one to lead the NFL in points per game or to place more than two offensive linemen in a Pro Bowl.

This was the best team in franchise history by the critical measures. It had a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, the best offensive line in the NFL, the league MVP at running back and a defense that played its best where it mattered -- in the red zone. Rookie middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu brought direction to a defense lacking leadership.

Coach Mike Holmgren always said he needed his best players to be at their best for a team to approach its potential. This team had that, but clutch contributions from role players sent the 2005 squad on its way.

Receiver Joe Jurevicius added toughness at receiver while catching 10 touchdown passes, offsetting injuries to Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram.

On defense, backup cornerback Jordan Babineaux made a season-altering play by picking off Drew Bledsoe with 14 seconds remaining during a 13-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7. Seattle had lost two of its first four games that season. Beating the Cowboys heading into the bye was important, but the matter in which Seattle won the game proved transforming.

"My hope is that every time you can win a game like this where it looked a little grim for a while but they you pull it out, it really helps you down the road," Holmgren said afterward. "It really helps your confidence. Organizations need to win games like this at some point."

The Seahawks had tied the score with 46 seconds remaining on Hasselbeck's 1-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end Ryan Hannam (after another backup, receiver Jerheme Urban, made a 22-yard reception at the 2-minute warning). Babineaux returned Bledsoe's pass 25 yards, getting out of bounds in time for Josh Brown to kick the winning field goal as time expired.

Most impressive win: The 2005 team was at its dominant best during a 34-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game.

Advanced chemistry: Teams release injured backups regularly without repercussions, but veteran players protested when management released Urban instead of placing him on injured reserve following a foot injury in November. Urban had made an impression on teammates while catching seven passes for 151 yards. Management gave in to Seattle's veteran leadership, rescinding Urban's release and placing him on IR. The unusual move reflected the strength of the Seattle locker room during a special season.

Honorable mention

1984: This was the only team in franchise history to rank among the NFL's top five in points scored and points allowed. Kenny Easley was the NFL's defensive player of the year. Steve Largent and Daryl Turner combined for 22 touchdown receptions. Defensive ends Jeff Bryant and Jacob Green combined for 27.5 sacks.

1983: Other Seattle teams had better regular-season records, but the 1983 team recorded two playoff wins, including an upset shocker in Miami. The 2005 Seahawks were the only other Seattle team with more than one victory in the same postseason.

2007: Losing Hutchinson during the previous offseason hurt, but Hasselbeck set a career high with 28 touchdown passes. Alexander topped 100 yards rushing in an overtime road defeat at eventual NFC champion Chicago in the divisional round.

Best 49ers Team Ever: 1989

June, 24, 2010
6/24/10
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Notable players: QB Joe Montana, QB Steve Young, WR Jerry Rice, WR John Taylor, RB Roger Craig, FB Tom Rathman, TE Brent Jones, G Guy McIntyre, FS Ronnie Lott, OLB Charles Haley, DE Pierce Holt, DE Kevin Fagan, OLB Keena Turner, LB Matt Millen.

[+] EnlargeJoe Montana
Andy Hayt/Getty ImagesJoe Montana and the 49ers were at the height of their success during the 1989 season.
Analysis: The San Francisco 49ers had multiple teams worthy of consideration as the best in franchise history. I'll take the one that outscored its opponents 126-26 during the postseason, including 55-10 over the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Denver led the NFL in scoring defense that season.

The 1989 team featured the 49ers' offense at the peak of its powers.

Joe Montana averaged 9.1 yards per attempt with 13 starts that season. The figure for three-game starter Steve Young -- 10.9 yards per attempt -- was even more ridiculous. Drew Brees set a career high at 8.5 yards per attempt last season. Tom Brady's average was 8.3 during his historic 2007 season. Dan Marino was at 9.0 in his 1984 career season. None could match the 49ers' top two quarterbacks during this special season.

This was the first 49ers team of the 1980s without Bill Walsh, but offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren was still there, as were nearly all of the team's iconic offensive players from the decade. Tight end Brent Jones emerged as a starter. Roger Craig topped 1,000 yards rushing. Fullback Tom Rathman caught 73 passes. Montana set a career high for passer rating at 112.1, completing 70.2 percent with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Rice caught 17 touchdown passes while averaging 18.1 yards per reception.

The defense was typically overlooked except by those forced to play against it. John Elway completed only 10 of 26 passes for 108 yards and two interceptions against the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

"Their defense doesn't get enough credit," Broncos coach Dan Reeves said afterward. ''I can't say enough about them.''

Walsh later regretted retiring. This team made it easy to see why.

Most impressive win: Having already touched on the Super Bowl victory, let's focus on the victory that delivered the NFC West title to San Francisco that season. Montana passed for 458 yards, including 286 to receiver John Taylor, and the 49ers twice overcame 17-point deficits to edge the division-rival Rams, 30-27, on the road.

Transcending Walsh: This 49ers team became the only one in NFL history to win back-to-back Super Bowls with different head coaches. The change from Walsh to George Seifert might have actually helped this team, at least for a season. The offensive-minded Walsh left the defensive-minded Seifert with a veteran offense trained to function at a high level without much big-picture help. Holmgren took the best of what Walsh taught him and made it even better with his own tweaking. In that sense, the 1989 team might have gotten the best of what Walsh and Holmgren had to offer. Montana was also at his best. He never enjoyed a finer season.

Honorable mention

1984: This was the team that knocked off Marino in the Super Bowl after the quarterback shredded defenses for a then-record 48 touchdown passes. This was a great 49ers team with a franchise-best 15-1 record, but the best group in 49ers history needed to include Rice, I thought. He arrived the next year.

1994: Proponents of this team will point to a defense featuring Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson, Ken Norton, Merton Hanks, Eric Davis, Tim McDonald, Bryant Young and others. They'll point to Young's record six touchdown passes against the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl.

1948: Let's save some recognition for one of the early 49ers teams. This one outscored opponents by more than 17 points per game on its way to a 12-2 record. Frankie Albert put up modern-day numbers with 29 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and a 102.9 rating.

Best Rams Team Ever: 1999

June, 24, 2010
6/24/10
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Notable players: QB Kurt Warner, RB Marshall Faulk, WR Isaac Bruce, WR Torry Holt, LT Orlando Pace, WR/PR Az-Zahir Hakim, DE Kevin Carter, DE Grant Wistrom, DT D'Marco Farr, CB Todd Lyght.

[+] EnlargeWarner
Tom Pidgeon/Getty ImagesKurt Warner threw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns during the 1999 season.
Analysis: The 1999 St. Louis Rams were tied with the Tennessee Titans in the final minutes of the Super Bowl.

Conventional wisdom called for a clock-killing drive to the winning field goal, but convention didn't appeal to the 1999 Rams. They had shrugged off losing their starting quarterback during the preseason. They had knowingly backed Warner without much evidence to suggest he would succeed. They passed the ball first when tradition called for establishing the run. They pushed the ball downfield when West Coast schemes were favoring shorter timing throws.

And so with the 2-minute warning approaching in a 16-16 game, the Rams went deep to Bruce for a 73-yard touchdown. The aggressiveness came with a price when the Titans, armed with plenty of time, moved within a yard of the tying touchdown. But the Rams won their way -- defiantly and with an offense few teams in NFL history could challenge for pure multidimensional flair.

The only team in Rams history to win a Super Bowl gets my vote for best team in franchise history. The 1951 version also won an NFL title, but that team finished the regular season with an 8-4 record. It played only one postseason game. Chuck Knox's Rams of the early 1970s were very good. John Robinson had some solid Rams teams in the 1980s. The 2001 Rams had a chance to be the best in franchise history, but the 1999 team separated itself by becoming the only Rams team to win a Super Bowl.

Dick Vermeil was coach of the year. Warner was MVP and Super Bowl MVP. Faulk was offensive player of the year.

This was a team of signature players and also signature plays: Most impressive win: For years the Rams had watched the San Francisco 49ers dominate them and the NFC West. That's what made the Rams' Week 5 victory over the 49ers so meaningful that season. Bruce caught four touchdown passes during a 42-20 victory as the Rams improved to 4-0. Fans wanted to believe after a 38-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals a week earlier. The blowout against San Francisco provided validation (no one knew the 49ers would finish with a 4-12 record that season).

Return to sender: Offense wasn't the only way the 1999 Rams found the end zone. Hakim averaged 10.5 yards per punt return with one touchdown. Tony Horne averaged 29.7 yards per kickoff return with two touchdowns. The Rams scored seven touchdowns on interception returns and one more on a fumble return.

Honorable mention

2001: The Rams rebuilt their defense and made another run to the Super Bowl. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots kept St. Louis from winning another title and challenging for the title of best team in Rams history.

1973: First-year head coach Chuck Knox turned around the Rams quickly, leading them to a 12-2 record with No. 1 rankings in total offense and total defense. John Hadl tossed 22 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions in his only full season as the Rams' starter.

1951: The Rams won a championship for Los Angeles thanks to Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin and Elroy Hirsch. Four-time Pro Bowl fullback Dan Towler averaged 6.8 yards per attempt.

Best Cardinals Team Ever: 1947

June, 24, 2010
6/24/10
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Notable players: Charley Trippi, Elmer Angsman, Paul Christman, Pat Harder, Stan Mauldin, Chet Bulger, Billy Dewell, Mal Kutner, Boris "Babe" Dimancheff, Jeff Burkett, Marshall Goldberg

[+] EnlargeCharley Trippi and Jimmy Conzelman
AP PhotoCharley Trippi, right, signed a four-year contract to play for Jimmy Conzelman before the season began.
Analysis: The Pro Football Hall of Fame describes Jimmy Conzelman as a "newspaper publisher, playwright, author, orator, actor" -- and the only head coach to win an NFL championship with the Cardinals. (The team was based in Chicago from 1920-59. It played in St. Louis from 1960-87.)

Conzelman's brilliance as a coach shined through before and during the Cardinals' 28-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1947 NFL championship game. Conzelman initially refrained from reporting the Eagles for illegally filing down their cleats to better cope with the icy conditions at Comiskey Park. Conzelman instead reported the Eagles on a player-by-player basis, and only after Philadelphia had made significant gains. Officials wiped out the gains and penalized the Eagles, forcing players to leave the field to replace their equipment.

The Cardinals had addressed the footing issue by changing into sneakers before the game. Angsman scored twice on 70-yard runs. Trippi scored on a 44-yard run and 75-yard punt return.

Conzelman's resourcefulness reflected his varied background. His playing career included stints with Decatur, Rock Island, Milwaukee, Detroit and Providence. He had even owned the Lions for a couple of seasons in the 1920s, supposedly paying $100 for the franchise before returning it to the league. He retired as a player in 1930 and returned as a coach a decade later. But his record in three seasons with the Cardinals was only 8-22 when he stepped away following the 1942 season. The Cardinals brought back Conzelman four years later and he rewarded them by winning 27 of 37 games, counting playoffs and the only league title in franchise history.

The 1947 season produced tragedy in addition to triumph. A plane crash killed punter Jeff Burkett as he tried to rejoin the team following an appendicitis. Charles Bidwill, the team's owner since 1933, had died in April before the season.

Most impressive win: The 1947 team needed a victory over the Chicago Bears in the final regular-season game to win the Western Division title. The Cardinals picked off Bears quarterback Sid Luckman four times in the 30-21 victory, but the offense might have provided the most important contribution. Christman's touchdown pass to Dimancheff on the first play of the game set a winning tone for the Cardinals. Dimancheff had missed every practice during the week while tending to his expectant wife, preventing him from practicing a play Conzelman was eager to run. No matter. The Cardinals isolated Dimancheff against Bears linebacker Mike Holovak, a speed mismatch Dimancheff used to his advantage.

Free-spending Cardinals: The team landed Trippi before the season with a four-year contract worth a then-staggering $100,000. Trippi had been a Maxwell Award winner and Rose Bowl MVP at the University of Georgia, which retired his No. 62 jersey after a college career that later landed Trippi a spot on ESPN's list of 25 greatest college players. The move helped put the Cardinals over the top in 1947. Trippi ranked second on the team that season with 641 yards from scrimmage.

Honorable mention

2008: The Cardinals came within a defensive stop of winning the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh after Kurt Warner found Larry Fitzgerald for the go-ahead touchdown pass late in the game. This team delighted in disproving skeptics and redefining an organization known for decades of futility.

1948: A defeat in the championship game prevented this Cardinals team from challenging and probably overtaking the 1947 team as the best in team history. The 1948 team went 11-1 during the regular season as Trippi became a bigger threat.

1975: Coach Don Coryell produced an 11-3 record thanks to an offense featuring Pro Bowl players in quarterback Jim Hart, receiver Mel Gray, running back Terry Metcalf, fullback Jim Otis and offensive linemen Dan Dierdorf and Conrad Dobler.

Best Eagles Team Ever: 1960

June, 22, 2010
6/22/10
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Notable players: LB Chuck Bednarik, WR Tommy McDonald, SE Pete Retzlaff, LB Maxie Baughan, QB Norm Van Brocklin, FB Ted Dean, DE Marion Campbell, CB Tom Brookshier

[+] EnlargeNorm Van Brocklin
David Boss/US PresswireNorm Van Brocklin quarterbacked the Eagles to the 1960 championship.
Analysis: Because we reward championships -- even when there weren’t a lot of other teams. The Eagles beat Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the championship game at Franklin Field, and that’s saying something. Bednarik remains an iconic part of the franchise’s history. In a win over the Giants in 1960, he famously knocked out Frank Gifford with a punishing blow. Gifford didn’t get up that day, and he also missed the following season.

Van Brocklin was at the end of the career, but he made his final season count by delivering bombs to McDonald and Retzlaff. McDonald, a Hall of Famer, averaged more than 20 yards per catch in 1960. He scored a 35-yard touchdown in the Eagles’ classic 17-13 win over the Packers. The Eagles won their other two titles in the late 1940s under coach Greasy Neale, but the ’60 team made more of an impact in the community. It’s only appropriate that the Eagles will break out the kelly green jerseys for the season opener against the Packers. Too bad they can’t play at Franklin Field (they supposedly looked into it).

Most impressive win: Definitely the title game against the Packers. In his second season as head coach of the Packers, Vince Lombardi had Jim Taylor, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Max McGee, Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg on offense. This was a dynasty in the making, but the Eagles forced the Packers to wait a year before Green Bay won the NFL title in ’61.

Best player: McDonald was a burner, but I’ll go with Bednarik because he gave the team its identity. He played center and linebacker.

Honorable mention

2004: Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens formed one of the top combinations in the league, and Brian Westbrook was dangerous as a dual threat. This was a superb team -- as evidenced by its playoff run without the injured T.O.

1980: Eagles fans have fond memories of Wilbert Montgomery carving up the Cowboys in the NFC title game for 194 yards and a touchdown. Nose tackle Charlie Johnson helped anchor a dominating defense.

2002: Duce Staley ran for 1,000 yards and had 500 yards receiving. The Eagles were deep enough that they made it to the NFC title game during a season in which A.J. Feeley had to start five games because McNabb was injured. I don’t have to remind you what happened against Tampa Bay in the playoffs. By the way, the Eagles dominated the Bucs in a 20-10 win earlier that season.

Best Redskins Team Ever: 1991

June, 22, 2010
6/22/10
11:30
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Notable players: QB Mark Rypien, RB Earnest Byner, WR Gary Clark, G Mark Schlereth, DE Charles Mann, CB Darrell Green, K Chip Lohmiller

[+] EnlargeMark Rypien
US PresswireMark Rypien threw for 3,564 yards and 28 touchdowns during the 1991 season.
Analysis: Maybe I should've leaned toward the Riggo-Theismann teams, but in my mind, the ’91 team was too stacked to ignore. Clark was such an unbelievable competitor and he still drops by practice from time to time and inspires the current players. Green was the primary reason opposing teams only managed 6 yards per passing attempt that season. His battles with Michael Irvin were priceless.

The ’91 offensive line was dominant to a ridiculous degree. Redskins quarterbacks were only sacked nine times that season, which is a decent half for the current unit. Rypien had 14 touchdown passes of 25 yards or more to lead the league. Washington could beat you with the pass or run and then its defense knew how to protect leads.

Most impressive win: The Redskins breezed through the regular season with a 14-2 record and then pounded the Lions and Falcons in playoff games. But the 37-24 Super Bowl win over the Bills stands out to me. The Bills were in the middle of a remarkable run and they had an immensely talented offense. The Redskins didn’t care about any of that. We remember the Cowboys being the dominant team of the '90s, but the Redskins set the table in ’91 with a memorable season.

Best player: Green was brilliant at cornerback, but Rypien was the MVP of the league. For that one season, he put up numbers (3,564 yards passing, 28 TDs) that would make any quarterback envious. And the man threw an excellent deep ball.

Honorable mention

1987: I’ll never forget Doug Williams’ performance in the Super Bowl. He was shaky early in that game, but after the Skins fell behind the Broncos by 10, Williams settled down and started shredding the defense.

1983: I know the ’82 team won a Super Bowl, but that was in a strike-shortened season. Give me the ’83 team even though it was pummeled by the Raiders in the Super Bowl.

1972: The Skins ran into the perfect Dolphins in the Super Bowl, but Billy Kilmer and the gang had a tremendous season. Larry Brown was a monster and the great George Allen had the Cowboys in full paranoid mode. It was a classic time in the rivalry because the Cowboys also had become an elite team.

Best Giants Team Ever: 1986

June, 22, 2010
6/22/10
11:15
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Notable players: RB Joe Morris, LB Lawrence Taylor, TE Mark Bavaro, T Brad Benson, DE Leonard Marshall, NT Jim Burt, LB Harry Carson, QB Phil Simms

Lawrence Taylor
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireLawrence Taylor was the leader of a dominant Giants defense.
Analysis: Some longtime members of the organization tried to talk me into the ’90 team based on the Jeff Hostetler theory, but I held strong. The Giants had the most dominant defensive player in the game with Taylor and Morris still had his legs at that point. Simms was the Super Bowl MVP after he completed a ridiculous 22 of 25 passes.

The ’86 team was dominant enough to destroy teams in the playoffs. In the divisional game and the NFC title game, the Giants’ defense gave up a combined three points. The ’90 and ’07 Super Bowl teams were special in their own right, but I believe the ’86 team was among the best in league history.

It was during the ’86 season that the world took notice of Bill Parcells’ Gatorade baths, which were started as a prank by Jim Burt. And after overhearing some of Burt’s stories during a Cowboys training camp a few years ago, that’s probably not the only prank he pulled.

I would’ve really enjoyed watching the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys teams of the ‘90s play against Parcells’ Giants teams. They both had the same foundation: A group of relentless pass-rushers who made it almost impossible for opposing quarterbacks to find any rhythm. A lot of folks in the Giants’ organization think the fact that Parcells won a Super Bowl with Hostetler playing a large role suggests how strong his supporting cast was. And while I appreciate that argument, I’d still take the ’86 Giants.

Most impressive win: This Giants team reeled off 12 consecutive wins, but the most impressive was against the Redskins in the playoffs. Joe Gibbs had an excellent team, but the Giants beat the Skins twice in the regular season and then shut them out 17 -0 in the playoffs. I loved watching Morris in the playoffs. He didn’t have a lot of size, but he kept his legs churning at all times and was a vital part of the ’86 Super Bowl team. I think Parcells still feels guilty that he later ran Morris into the ground.

Best player: Lots of great players on this team, but Taylor, the Hall of Fame linebacker, wins in a rout. The MVP and Defensive Player of the Year had 20.5 sacks in 1986, the fifth-highest total of all time.

Honorable mention

1990: Simms was injured, but the Giants weren’t going to be denied in the playoffs. It was a remarkable season and at that point we thought Parcells would have several more Lombardi trophies in him.

2007: The David Tyree catch never gets old. It was a case of a team catching fire at the right time. But unlike some pundits, I’ve never used that to take away from what that team accomplished. Now we know how special that pass rush was after watching things disintegrate last season.

2000: Wait, did that team really play in the Super Bowl? Hey, it was an excellent team. But nowhere close to as dominant as the ones I ranked ahead of it.

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