The first two decades following the NFL’s most recent realignment spanned most of the New England Patriots’ dynasty. But even as the Patriots were a constant, rules changes encouraging passing production and player safety contributed to the league producing 20 sometimes very different Super Bowl champions during that span.
The game’s evolution complicates efforts to compare teams from the two-back, under-center era to the teams of today. But as The Athletic commemorates the 20th anniversary of the NFL’s move to 32 teams spread over eight divisions, Austin Mock’s betting model allows us to fairly rank the past 20 Super Bowl champs, adjusting for era.
The model has over the past five seasons returned 5 percent profit against the Vegas spread, including about 25 percent since debuting on The Athletic in 2021. Applying the model backward to evaluate past teams requires era adjustment, and once that was completed, the 2004 Patriots and 2013 Seattle Seahawks stood above all other champs from the previous 20 years.
Of course, the best team in a given season doesn’t always win it all, especially in the absence of the seven-game playoff series that other sports use to prevent a single outlier game from determining championship fates. While ranking the last 20 Super Bowl winners, we’ll point out which ones ranked especially high or low among all 640 teams from the past 20 seasons.
To produce a ranking fairly, we compared every team’s metrics to its peers’ metrics in that specific season. Metrics were then adjusted onto the same scale to “level” the playing field. From there, the teams’ metrics were leveraged to project points for (xPF) and points against (xPA) when facing an average NFL team. We then derived a projected margin of victory (xMOV) and a projected win percentage (xWIN) against an average team.
Using the model to rank all 640 teams from 2002 through last season, the 16-0 Patriots from 2007 came out on top, followed by three mid-2000s Indianapolis Colts teams. None of those teams won Super Bowls, however, so they are not listed below. We’ll mention them for context while stacking the past 20 Super Bowl winners, beginning with a tie at the top, and ending with a champ that ranked only 333rd out of those 640 total teams.
T-1. 2004 New England Patriots
xWIN: T-1st | xMOV: 1st | xPF: 5th | xPA: 7th
The Patriots tied Philadelphia for the NFL’s best regular-season record from 2001-2004, then defeated those Eagles in the Super Bowl for their second consecutive championship and third in four seasons. No team since these Patriots has repeated as Super Bowl champion.
This was the Patriots team that added running back Corey Dillon, got a career-best year from him for rushing yardage and ranked No. 1 among these 20 Super Bowl winners in percentage of pass plays gaining more than 15 yards (20.9 percent). Though the model ranks this Patriots team fifth out of all 640 teams, the 2004 Colts, led by peak MVP Peyton Manning, actually outranked them very slightly on the list, checking in at No. 4.
T-1. 2013 Seattle Seahawks
xWIN: T-1st | xMOV: 2nd | xPF: 12th | xPA: 2nd
Seattle added defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to a defense already featuring emerging young stars in Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor. The upgraded pass-rush helped Seattle hold all but three opposing offenses to less than 21 points in 19 total games. Among the past 20 Super Bowl winners, the model ranks only the 2002 Buccaneers higher than this Seattle team in adjusted points allowed.
3. 2014 New England Patriots
xWIN: 3rd | xMOV: 3rd | xPF: 2nd | xPA: 12th
The model ranks one team from 2014 higher than it ranks these Patriots. That one team, Seattle, nearly had these Patriots beat in the Super Bowl, but could not close out New England. The situationally critical play that Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler made to win that game characterized an opportunistic/situational team overall. Of the past 20 Super Bowl winners, this Patriots team ranks No. 1 for the regular season in: drives starting in opposing territory; special-teams EPA (not factored by the model); and “middle eight” point margin (defined as points scored during the four minutes ending the first half and the four minutes beginning the second half).
4. 2009 New Orleans Saints
xWIN: T-5th | xMOV: 4th | xPF: 4th | xPA: 14th
The Saints were almost always very good on offense with Sean Payton and Drew Brees. The defense was sometimes so poor, the team had losing records even with that Hall of Fame combination leading the offense. The 2009 team had it all: prime Brees with a solid defense (12th among teams in 2009).