The National Football League has played 104 seasons, dating back to its roots as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920.
Since then, there have been 2,321 teams spanning the NFL’s and American Football League’s history. Yet only a select few have made a lasting difference, something by which they have been—and will forever be—defined.
Here at Sports Illustrated, we embarked on a journey with the hope of finding the 50 most impactful teams in NFL history. Our process was simple.
During the offseason we brought together a 31-person blue-ribbon panel consisting of media members, analysts, former front office personnel and more, having each vote on more than 100 candidates. Each panelist voted for 50 teams, with their top team earning 50 points and their 50th team garnering a single point.
From those tallies, we detailed why each team deserves to be on the list, including quotes from panelists for every squad. Most importantly, SI reached out to a star player or head coach for every team from the Super Bowl era (1966 to present), gaining valuable insight into what made those teams so unique.
Below are the panelists and their titles, followed by our list, starting with numbers 50 to 41. Enjoy.
50. 1990 New York Giants
Record: 13–3, Super Bowl XXV champions
Coach: Bill Parcells
Hall of Famers: Bills Parcells (HC), Lawrence Taylor (LB)
Why they mattered:
The 1990 Giants were a unicorn in their time, and they remain one in many ways. But they were the precursor of a dynasty that took place a few hours north in New England.
That year, the Giants predominantly ran a 3–4 defense that under coordinator Bill Belichick, morphed time and again in the playoffs, a staple Belichick would become known for in his six Super Bowl victories as a head coach.
Against the run-heavy Bears in the divisional round, Belichick went to a four-man front. By choking off the run (Chicago rushed for 27 yards on 16 carries), New York’s top-ranked defense allowed only three points.
The following week, Belichick’s unit ended the 49ers’ dreams of a third straight title by eschewing a base defense to instead play nickel. New York held the high-powered San Francisco offense to 13 points in a 15–13 upset.
Then, in Super Bowl XXV, Belichick faced the league’s top-scoring offense in Buffalo, which averaged 47.5 points per game in the AFC playoffs. In a stunning twist, the Giants invited first-team All-Pro running back Thurman Thomas to run the ball while playing only two defensive linemen. The idea was to punish receivers and slow down the no-huddle with speed. New York won, 20–19.
“This might have been one of the most well-coached teams in NFL history, especially given the circumstances facing Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Losing Phil Simms late in the season meant that Jeff Hostetler was suddenly the starter, and they had to go through a playoff gantlet of the Bears, two-time defending champion 49ers and Bills, whose K-Gun offense was considered by many to be unstoppable. If they were to lose, Parcells told his team emphatically, it would not be because of Hostetler. He was right. The game plans were brilliant, with Hostetler outlasting Joe Montana in the NFC championship and Belichick’s defensive masterpiece against the Bills in Super Bowl XXV giving the Giants a second Super Bowl title and assuring Parcells’s place in the Hall of Fame.” —Bob Glauber, retired Giants beat writer, Newsday
“We had versatile players on defense. We had a couple of linebackers who could play inside and outside. So that gave us some flexibility that way. We had enough defensive linemen—our base was a three-man front—but we could use a four-man front. We had enough depth on the team there. Offensively, we were a highly disciplined team. We set the record for the fewest turnovers in a season that year. We played 19 games and turned the ball over only 14 times. We didn’t help our opponents very often, and we were good under pressure.” —Bill Parcells, Giants coach, 1983–90
49. 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Record: 11–5, Super Bowl LV champions
Coach: Bruce Arians
Likely Hall of Famers: Tom Brady (QB), Rob Gronkowski (TE), Ndamukong Suh (DT), Antonio Brown (WR), Mike Evans (WR)
Why they mattered:
For the first 54 years of the Super Bowl era, only one quarterback had won Super Bowls with two teams. It was Peyton Manning, who despite an illustrious career, was a passenger (if not a burden) for his Broncos during the 2015 season.
Then, in Super Bowl LV, Tom Brady became the second, dismantling the defending champion Chiefs to win his seventh title and first with the Buccaneers.
For Tampa Bay, it was a championship. But for the NFL, it was a relatively new blueprint, and one that has been followed in the few years since. Despite free agency coming into existence in 1993, teams still believe the best and arguably only way to win a Super Bowl is through the draft, with outside signings used for needy areas of the roster.
The Buccaneers used free agency and trades to build a huge portion of their roster in 2019 and ’20, bringing in Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski, receiver Antonio Brown, edge rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and others.
The following year, Tampa Bay was knocked from the postseason by the Rams, who used trades to win it all in 2021.
“The whole season had such a storybook feel to it: Brady leaving the Patriots and coming to this long-suffering franchise to see if he could defy the odds and win one more ring. Every game, every step of the journey was so compelling. And then when the Bucs went on their late-season run to close out the regular season and march through the playoffs, to reach the Super Bowl and knock off the defending champion Chiefs for Brady’s seventh and longtime coach Bruce Arians’s first? Just magical.” —Mike Jones, national NFL writer, The Athletic
“One of the many things [Brady] does well is be able to see weak points, not only in us but opponents. Addressing the weak points in our team. Our run game wasn’t really where we wanted to be, our screen game wasn’t where we wanted it to be, our two-minute offense wasn’t how he wanted it to be. Those things specifically, he figured out ways to improve them, and how he decided to attack them were all different. Identifying weak points and how we could get better, that’s huge. Instead of just saying we need to get better, but figuring out ways.” —Ali Marpet, Buccaneers guard, 2015–21
48. 1994 San Francisco 49ers
Record: 13–3, Super Bowl XXIX champions
Coach: George Seifert
Hall of Famers: Steve Young (QB), Jerry Rice (WR), Richard Dent (DE), Deion Sanders (CB), Bryant Young (DT)
Why they mattered:
In 1993, the NFL underwent a seismic shift. Free agency was introduced alongside the salary cap.
The following year, San Francisco showed how a team could win the Super Bowl by marrying smart drafting with significant moves in free agency. In the 1994 offseason, the 49ers signed linebacker Ken Norton Jr., stealing him from the defending champion Cowboys along with defensive end Richard Dent. Then, in September, San Francisco inked future Hall of Fame corner Deion Sanders to a one-year deal, while also bringing defensive end and four-time Pro Bowler Charles Mann for his final season.
The 49ers proceeded to go 13–3, winning the NFC West by six games due to an offense ranked first in points. The defense, spearheaded by its new talent, checked in at sixth in points allowed. In the playoffs, San Francisco crushed the Bears before beating the Cowboys at Candlestick Park in the NFC title game, finally winning the matchup for the first time in three years.
In Super Bowl XXIX, the Niners easily dispatched the Chargers, 49–26, coming into the game as a whopping 18-point favorite. Afterward, Sanders signed with the Cowboys in free agency, while Norton played another six seasons with San Francisco before retiring.
“The 1994 49ers were a perfect blend of intelligent, complementary team-building that combined youth with targeted, veteran offseason acquisitions resulting in one of the most balanced, explosive football teams of any era. The youth and playmaking ability of guys such as Ricky Watters and Merton Hanks, combined with the Hall of Fame talents of Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Rickey Jackson and Deion Sanders all meshed together perfectly on the field by a star-studded coaching staff. Names such as Mike Shanahan, Ray Rhodes and Gary Kubiak would go on to be head coaches and win Super Bowls themselves, while many players on the roster would finish their careers being considered as some of the greatest to ever play the game.” —Louis Riddick, ESPN NFL/college football analyst
“It was the first time we experienced bringing in people right away from other teams, compared to what it used to be where when you were a free agent, you weren’t a true free agent even if you played your contract out. … Eddie DeBartolo and Carmen Policy jumped and tried to be creative with the system and beat the system in that way where we were selling our standard of play and how many championships we won to make it attractive for people to come to us at a cheaper price.” —Jesse Sapolu, 49ers guard/center, 1983–97
47. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Record: 12–4, Super Bowl XXXVII champions
Coach: Jon Gruden
Hall of Famers: Warren Sapp (DT), Derrick Brooks (LB), John Lynch (S), Ronde Barber (CB)
Why they mattered:
After three consecutive years ended in playoff defeat, Tampa Bay fired Tony Dungy before trading multiple first- and second-round picks to the Raiders for coach Jon Gruden. The change spurred a new attitude in the Buccaneers, who scored nine defensive touchdowns en route to the franchise’s first title.
While Gruden was important, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was essential.
It was Kiffin who installed the now infamous Tampa 2 defense, which called for a two-deep safety look with a middle linebacker who could run down the seam to take away the inside. Underneath, it’s typically a four-man rush while the corners, safeties and other linebackers play zones. The scheme swept the NFL and remains a popular style of defense today, with the passing game flourishing more than ever.
In the Buccaneers, Kiffin had the perfect personnel. Derrick Brooks was a marvel down the middle, becoming an 11-time Pro Bowler and first-ballot Hall of Famer. On the back end, Tampa Bay had John Lynch and corner Ronde Barber, both also enshrined in Canton. Up front, defensive tackle Warren Sapp crushed the pocket, earning four consecutive first-team All-Pro honors.
“How many teams get an entire defensive scheme named after them? It’s not called the Steeler 2 after all. It’s the Tampa 2. They say that the NFL is a copycat league, and every Super Bowl champion does something that the rest of the league then tries to emulate. With the 2002 Buccaneers, that thing was clear. The Tampa 2 scheme spread throughout the league after the Buccaneers started winning games in 1997, but everyone had to try it once they reached their peak with the 2002 championship. Advanced DVOA metrics go back to 1981, and over the past 42 years the 2002 Bucs had the best pass defense in a nonstrike year—and by a significant amount, too.” —Aaron Schatz, ESPN+ NFL analyst, founder of Football Outsiders
“It’s evolved over the years, but I think that was our legacy. A lot of teams tried to recreate it, but they just didn’t have the players. They didn’t have elite seam-droppers or the above-the-neck ability, the willingness to tackle and the other stuff asked of us to make the defense successful. I’d love to say it was genius in work, but it really was just having coaches able to coach up what those players had to do on every single snap against every single formation, etc. Our devil was in the details.” —Ronde Barber, Buccaneers corner/safety, 1997–2012
46. 1937 Washington
Record: 8–3, NFL champions
Coach: Ray Flaherty
Hall of Famers: Ray Flaherty (HC), Turk Edwards (OT), Sammy Baugh (QB), Cliff Battles (RB), Wayne Millner (WR)
Why they mattered:
On the surface, the 1937 edition of Washington is most notable for having four Hall of Famers on offense and winning a title, beating George Halas’s Bears. But this team is more about the NFL’s fabric, and its future.
At the 1937 NFL draft, Washington selected quarterback Sammy Baugh with its first-round choice (No. 6) out of TCU. Baugh came with much fanfare and delivered immediately, leading the NFL in attempts, completions, passing yards and passing yards per attempt. Over time, Baugh revolutionized the position, becoming a six-time Pro Bowler, four-time first-team All-Pro and a charter member of the Hall of Fame.
During his 16-year career in Washington, no campaign was better than 1943. In an era when almost all players handled multiple positions, Baugh led the NFL with a 45.9-yard punting average and interceptions with 11 as a defensive back, all while throwing 23 touchdowns in 10 games.
In 1937, Washington and Baugh firmly enforced the idea that a quarterback could be central to winning a title, something the Packers had begun the year before with fellow Hall of Fame signal-caller Arnie Herber. Still it was Baugh who captured the public’s imagination, taking the position to new heights over time.
“Washington rode the brilliance of rookie tailback Sammy Baugh to the NFL championship and in the process established the foundation of a devoted and loyal fan base. When Washington met the Giants in New York on the last day of the regular season to decide the Eastern Division championship, 10,000 fans accompanied the team and marched up Eighth Avenue from Penn Station to Columbus Circle, led by the team’s marching band. Washington won 49–13, and a week later beat the Bears, 28–21, in Chicago to win the NFL title, as Baugh passed for 335 yards and three touchdowns.” —Joel Bussert, former NFL vice president of player personnel and football operations
45. 1990 Buffalo Bills
Record: 13–3, AFC champions
Coach: Marv Levy
Hall of Famers: Marv Levy (HC), Bruce Smith (DE), Thurman Thomas (RB), James Lofton (WR), Jim Kelly (QB), Andre Reed (WR)
Why they mattered:
The 1990 Bills didn’t invent the no-huddle offense, but they took it to another level.
In a wild 34–30 divisional-round game loss to the Browns in 1989, Buffalo coach Marv Levy watched his team rally furiously in the final minutes using the hurry-up tactic, something used by the Bengals in ’88 to reach the Super Bowl. Levy went all in on the offense in ’90, with quarterback Jim Kelly calling the offensive plays.
The result was magnificent. Buffalo rolled to the AFC’s top seed while scoring a league-high 428 points. In the postseason, the Bills scored 95 points in two AFC playoff games. However, they were stunned 20–19 by the Giants in Super Bowl XXV, with the offense having only 19 minutes and 27 seconds of possession.
The Bills were both important as a schematic touchstone—taking a concept and reaching new heights by going to four consecutive Super Bowls with it—but also as one of the more iconic teams in NFL history.
While Buffalo never won a title, it’s the only group to ever reach four consecutive Super Bowls.
“The 1990 Bills’ season was defined by an errant field-goal attempt that cost them a Super Bowl victory. As unforgettable as Scott Norwood’s wide-right kick against the Giants might have been, it’s only part of a larger story. This was the year the Bills’ offense fully unleashed its fast-paced, no-huddle attack. Jim Kelly, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas formed the nucleus of a scheme that kept defenses on their heels and even forced them to call timeouts just to catch their breath, as the Raiders did in the AFC championship game. It also began a run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances that might never be duplicated.” —Vic Carucci, Pro Football Hall of Fame voter
“For us, it was up-tempo. That was it. We had an offensive line that could run and pass-block. That team was all led by Jim [Kelly], who wanted to run the no-huddle. The only thing I was concerned about was I was involved in the running and passing game, so I got extra tired, and had to come out a lot. It was something that we wanted to do. If you see teams today at a fast pace, it’s not as fast as we ran. We were getting to the line and within 10 seconds, we were snapping the ball every single play. Now teams don’t do that. We had to be in shape. It caught a lot of defenses by surprise.” —Thurman Thomas, Bills running back, 1988–99
44. 1982 Los Angeles Raiders
Record: 8–1, lost in AFC divisional round
Coach: Tom Flores
Hall of Famers: Tom Flores (HC), Ted Hendricks (LB), Art Shell (OT), Cliff Branch (WR), Howie Long (DT), Ray Guy (P), Marcus Allen (RB)
Why they mattered:
This is a rare instance on our list where the on-field product wasn’t memorable, but the team was still important to the league’s history.
After spending their first 22 seasons in Oakland, the Raiders moved to Los Angeles before the 1982 season. For owner Al Davis, the relocation proved arduous, as he fought with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle in court for the right to move without league approval. Eventually, Davis won the legal battle, and after years of trying, finally took his team from Oakland to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.
Davis’s bullheadedness on the issue opened the proverbial floodgates of relocation in the NFL. Two years later, the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis under the cover of darkness. Four years after that, the Cardinals abandoned St. Louis for Phoenix. Then, in 1995, the Browns did the unthinkable, moving from Cleveland to Baltimore.
Davis’s ability to win his infamous court case helped league owners gain more power, and forever changed the landscape when franchises are seeking new stadiums or new cities. As an example, the Raiders have moved twice since 1982, including back to Oakland and then in 2020 to Las Vegas.
“Irrespective of what one thinks about team relocation, whether in favor or not, it should be noted that Davis paved the way for teams to move when he moved the Raiders to Los Angeles in 1982. Many team owners opposed him when he did so, yet many followed suit. The league opposed him and initiated a legal dispute when he did so, yet the league now thwarts teams when they use relocation as leverage in stadium negotiations.” —Amy Trask, CBS Sports NFL analyst, former Raiders front office exec
“In 1981, we thought we were going to (play in Los Angeles while practicing in Oakland). And then it didn’t happen. Then ’82 came, and it did happen. Even before we got to training camp, they were saying that essentially we were going to have a whole season of away games. We were kind of mentally prepared for it. We showed up just like an away game, the day before. After a while, it just became, that’s what we do. I don’t believe it had as big a thing mentally as people would view it. The bottom line is we were prepared for it.” —Matt Millen, Raiders linebacker, 1980–88
43. 1950 Los Angeles Rams
Record: 9–3, lost NFL championship game
Coach: Joe Stydahar
Hall of Famers: Joe Stydahar (HC), Tom Fears (WR), Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (WR), Bob Waterfield (QB), Norm Van Brocklin (QB)
Why they mattered:
In 1940, the Eagles became the first team in NFL history to throw the ball more than they ran it. The result was a 1–10 season. Ten years later, the Rams also went to the air on more than half of their plays, and became the first team in league history to enjoy a winning record by doing so.
Los Angeles went 9–3 and for the second consecutive year won the Western Conference. In the title game, the Rams visited the Browns in Cleveland’s first year as an NFL squad following the merger from the AAFC. Cleveland won, 30–28, on a field goal with 28 seconds remaining by future Hall of Fame Lou Groza.
Still, Los Angeles’s impact on the game is undeniable. The Rams featured a pair of Canton-bound flankers in Fears and Hirsch, who in 1950 combined for 14 receiving touchdowns. In one five-week stretch, Los Angeles averaged 50.2 points per game, including consecutive wins over the Colts and Lions where the Rams scored 70 and 65 points, respectively.
In 1951, the Rams rode a similar roster to a third consecutive NFL title game, this time defeating the Browns for their first championship on the West Coast.
“Clark Shaughnessy developed the Rams’ offense in 1948 and ’49, but he was gone in ’50 due to squabbles with ownership and other coaches. Line coach and former NFL player Joe Stydahar took over and simply let nature take its course. [The Rams] became the top offense in the history of the NFL to that point and remain one of the best to this day—known as the “Point-a-Minute Offense.” In fact, their 38.8 points per game average is still first in NFL history edging teams such as the 2013 Broncos and ’07 Patriots.” —John Turney, NFL historian; writer, Pro Football Journal
42. 2013 Seattle Seahawks
Record: 13–3, Super Bowl XLVIII champions
Coach: Pete Carroll
Likely Hall of Famers: Richard Sherman (CB), Russell Wilson (QB), Marshawn Lynch (RB), Bobby Wagner (LB), Earl Thomas (S)
Why they mattered:
In the golden age of two-high safety looks, the Seahawks flipped the script on the NFL.
Seattle dominated with a Cover 3 (four underneath players, and three deep players), playing Earl Thomas as a post safety while Kam Chancellor roamed the box. With Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner on the outside, the Seahawks rolled to their first Super Bowl title, destroying the high-powered Broncos, 43–8.
Seattle’s brand of football wasn’t original but certainly brought the scheme to another level, largely because of the exceptional secondary personnel. With Sherman, the Seahawks’ secondary had one of the great zone corners in league history, while Thomas was a worthy heir to Ed Reed’s free safety throne.
By holding Peyton Manning and Denver’s record-setting offense to only eight points in one of the Super Bowl’s biggest blowouts, Seattle showed the coverage is capable of dominating even the best units.
In addition to the defensive importance of Seattle’s championship, the Seahawks were only the second team in NFL history to win a title with a Black quarterback in Russell Wilson. And Wilson led Seattle back to the Super Bowl the following year, falling to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the final seconds.
“There are two types of dominant defenses. The first type excels in a number of areas. That team finds what you do best on offense and shuts it down. (Bill Belichick defenses are a good example.) The other kind of defense just has great players that fit the scheme. They line up, run the strategy they want to run and dare you to get past them. The 2013 Seahawks are a great example of this second type. You knew they would run Cover 3. The Legion of Boom was so good that it didn’t matter how much you prepared. They allowed a league-low 14.4 points per game in ’13 and then shut down Peyton Manning and the powerful Denver defense, 43–8, in Super Bowl XLVIII. Pete Carroll’s Cover 3 style then spread throughout the league, with ex-Seattle coordinators such as Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley earning head coaching jobs.” —Aaron Schatz, ESPN+ NFL analyst, founder of Football Outsiders
“We probably called the same play about 93% to 95% of the game. We called the same damn play, but we ran it so well. We ran Cover 3. That’s all we ran. We knew exactly what our opponents were going to do, we knew how we’d fit what we called their issues and we played super fast—faster than anybody in the league. We did what we did, and nobody could figure it out.” —K.J. Wright, Seahawks linebacker, 2011–20
41. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers
Record: 10–4, lost AFC championship game
Coach: Chuck Noll
Hall of Famers: Chuck Noll (HC), Terry Bradshaw (QB), Franco Harris (RB), Lynn Swann (WR), John Stallworth (WR), Mike Webster (C), Jack Lambert (LB), Jack Ham (LB), Mel Blount (CB), Joe Greene (DT), Donnie Shell (S)
Why they mattered:
If you understand NFL history, it was a cinch the 1974 and ’78 Steelers would make this list from the Steel Curtain era. However, some might be surprised a nontitle team from the era showed up.
Yet the 1976 Steelers might be the biggest reason we have the wide-open game of today. After winning consecutive Super Bowls the two years before, Pittsburgh struggled early, going 1–4 and with quarterback Terry Bradshaw suffering a concussion and neck injury in Week 5. The defense then put forth one of the most spectacular efforts ever seen, allowing only 28 total points across their final nine games, all resulting in wins. The Steelers also notched five shutouts during this stretch, including three straight.
Pittsburgh was so defensively dominant in this stretch, it eventually helped rewrite the rule book, making this particular Steelers team so noteworthy.
While the star-studded front seven (four Hall of Famers) was largely responsible for Pittsburgh’s dominance, corner Mel Blount literally inspired a rule change before the 1978 season. From then on, receivers were no longer allowed to be hit more than five yards downfield, whereas previously they could be chucked until the ball was in the air. Blount, who was 6’3″ and 205 pounds, became the namesake of the rule.
“The dream of three straight Super Bowl wins died in an East Bay–hosted AFC title game with both of the Steelers’ 1,000-yard rushers Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier watching in street clothes. That one game, though, isn’t enough to shake off the violent nightmares the Steel Curtain defense caused NFL offenses all season long. After starting 1–4 and losing Terry Bradshaw to injury, the team won nine straight on the backs of Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount, who collectively allowed one touchdown and pitched five shutouts. Bottom line: This team may not have reached the top of the mountain, but it still stands conservatively as one of the five best defenses of the Super Bowl era.” —Dave Dameshek, NFL analyst and host, Minus Three
“We played outstanding defense. It was because of Chuck Noll’s emphasis on playing special teams and defense to carry the load for the offense. I don’t care how good one facet of your team is. If one portion of the team is not carrying its load, and as a teammate you’re saying O.K., it doesn’t bother us, we’ll carry the load. But over time, it starts to erode confidence in the other group. I’m saying this because that confidence never was eroded, and it’s because the head coach and what he said at the beginning of all that. That’s what, in my view, made that team go out and deliver what it was capable of delivering.” —Joe Greene, Steelers defensive tackle, 1969–81