Nothing causes a stir quite like trying to get people to agree on which NFL team is the best of all time. Not only does everyone seem to have an opinion on the matter, but no one can ever agree on the best method to use for calculating an accurate answer. Of course, it’s always easier to come to a conclusion if you’re willing to look at the problem in a strictly objective matter. And if you ask us, there is no better way to do that than with Elo ratings.
For those of you who need a little reminder on how these work, the good folks at FiveThirtyEight, who used this methodology in 2014, have you covered: “Elo still works exactly the same way it did [in 2014]: Teams gain and lose ground based on the final score of each game and how unexpected the result was in the eyes of the pregame ratings.”
This may seem like a complicated method, but the more you look at it, the more it begins to make sense. And because Neil Paine was kind enough to break it all down, we have a credible process to figure out which teams are the greatest in NFL history.
Here’s how FiveThirtyEight explains it:
“For our master ranking of the best Elo seasons ever, we computed each team’s season-ending Elo and its season-long mean Elo in addition to its peak rating. The teams in the table above are ranked by the column labeled ‘blend,’ which simply takes the average of the three measurements to get a more holistic picture of a team’s quality.”
Since we’re all about passing along quality information, and always enjoy creating a lively discussion, we figured it would be best to get the ball rolling by taking a look, according to Elo, at the five best teams in the history of the NFL.
5. 1989 San Francisco 49ers
Elo blend: 1770
The 1989 San Francisco 49ers won the organization’s second consecutive Super Bowl, crushing the Denver Broncos in the big game by a score of 55-10. With the great Joe Montana under center, this team finished the regular season with a 14-2 record, was first in the NFL in scoring (27.6 points per game), and was third in the league in points allowed (15.8 points per game). According to FiveThirtyEight, this Niners team would reach a peak Elo rating of 1795, which would also constitute the club’s end-of-the-year mark. However, since San Francisco’s mean Elo would only hit 1720, the ’89 team would have to settle for an Elo blend of 1770, making it the fifth best team in NFL history.
4. 1998 Denver Broncos
Elo blend: 1771
Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway was able to ride off into the sunset after winning his second straight Super Bowl with the 1998 Denver Broncos. Like the No. 5 team on this list, the ’98 Broncos also finished the regular season with a 14-2 record. However, while this group only managed to hit a peak Elo rating of 1784 and finish the year with a mark of 1781, because these Broncos were able to acquire an average mark of 1747, their Elo blend score wound up being just higher — 1771 — than the 1989 San Francisco 49ers’. As a result, based on FiveThirtyEight’s calculations, this Denver Broncos team ranks as the fourth best NFL team ever.
3. 1942 Chicago Bears
Elo blend: 1785
The 1942 Chicago Bears are a great example of why using Elo ratings to rank teams is an imperfect system. Although this group finished the regular season with an 11-0 record, led the league in scoring (34.2 points per game), and had the top scoring defense in the NFL — allowing just 7.6 points per contest — it ended up losing to the Washington Redskins in the Championship game. Yet, because the Bears wound up with an Elo blend of 1785, it didn’t matter that they lost on the big game. Statistically speaking, the 1942 Chicago Bears fall into the No. 3 spot on the NFL’s best teams. Unfortunately, it still comes without a ring.
2. 2004 New England Patriots
Elo blend: 1792
Since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady came together to form one of the greatest head coach-quarterback combos the NFL has ever seen, the New England Patriots have had some pretty special teams. However, if we look at it from a strictly Elo perspective, the 2004 team finds itself in some pretty historic company. After toppling the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl, these Pats finished with a season-ending (and peak) Elo of 1817, as well as a mean score of 1743. Once you average it all out, New England’s Elo blend of 1792 is enough to make this team the No. 2 ranked squad in history.
1. 2007 New England Patriots
Elo blend: 1824
Considering the 2007 New England Patriots came up short in the Super Bowl, it would be easy to find their place at the top of history’s best teams controversial. However, let’s not forget that prior to losing their final game of the season, this Pats team finished the regular season 16-0, put up 38.6 points per game, and came within one “Helmet Catch” of running the table. The Patriots may have ended the year with an Elo rating of 1824 — and, therefore, an average mark of 1797 — but at the height of their domination, their peak Elo was a whopping 1849. Therefore, if one were to go off Elo ratings alone, New England’s blended rating of 1824 would make it the best team in the history of the National Football League.
To see the complete list of “The Best NFL Teams of All Time, According to Elo,” courtesy of FiveThirtyEight, click here.