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This season, we are not only watching the New England Patriots staking their claim as a great NFL dynasty, we're also watching them attempting to complete one of the most dominant playoff runs of all time. The Patriots kept the NFL's highest-ranked offense to just a field goal, and then laid waste to the NFL's highest-ranked defense with 41 points. And if the Patriots beat Philadelphia on Sunday, they will become only the second Super Bowl champion to beat three 12-win teams. (You'll find out the other later in the column.)
In that spirit, we decided to take a look at the most dominant playoff runs in NFL history. The teams were chosen based on a combination of who they beat and how they beat them. A last-second field goal to win the title is exciting, but we wanted teams that humbled their playoff opponents.
If New England does beat Philadelphia by at least two touchdowns, they would have be at least fifth on this list -- maybe higher. If the Pats lose, they go in the pile with other teams that followed a couple big playoff wins by going bust on the national stage.
10. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4)
Tampa Bay started its playoff run with a 31-6 win over 10-6 San Francisco before heading to Philadelphia to face two adversaries: the 12-4 Eagles and the cold. But the Bucs won 27-10, completely shutting down the Eagles except for long Brian Mitchell kickoff returns that led to a short field. Then, in Super Bowl XXXVII, defense trounced offense. Tampa led the 11-5 Raiders 34-3 and picked off five Rich Gannon passes in a 48-21 trouncing. It was Chucky's Revenge (immediately followed by two years of Fate's Revenge on Chucky).
9. 1977 Dallas Cowboys (12-2)
The Cowboys dominated the NFC, which ironically makes their playoff run a little less dominant. The only other NFC team with double-digit wins, the 10-4 Rams, was upset by the 9-5 Vikings in the first round of the playoffs. So Dallas had an easy path to the conference title, routing the 9-5 Chicago Bears 37-7 and then the Vikings 23-6. In the Super Bowl they finally met a reasonable challenge: the 12-2 Denver Broncos allowed an NFL-low 148 points with their Orange Crush defense and had a strong offense led by ex-Cowboy QB Craig Morton. This made for good pregame hype, but the Cowboys shut down the Denver offense for the entire first half and ended up with a 27-10 victory.
8. 1986 New York Giants (14-2)
I'm not sure if the official NFL records have a statistic for which team has most often knocked a specific opposing quarterback out of the game, but the answer has got to be "New York Giants" and "Joe Montana." One of those knockouts came as the Giants annihilated the 10-5-1 49ers 49-3 in the 1986 divisional round. Next, the Giants faced their division rivals, the 12-4 Redskins, and knocked out another quarterback, Jay Schroeder, in a 17-0 shutout. Facing the 11-5 Broncos in Super Bowl XXI, the Giants found themselves in unfamiliar territory, down 10-9 at halftime. But in the second half, the offense put up 24 straight points while the defense held John Elway in check until garbage time, and the Giants won 39-20.
7. 1992 Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
The 1992 Cowboys clobbered two inferior teams and played a close game with a team that was their equal. In the divisional round, they easily whipped the 11-5 Eagles 34-10. The NFC Championship sent the Cowboys on the road to face the 14-2 49ers. The game was tied at halftime, but Dallas pulled away in the second half to win 30-20. After beating the 49ers, sending the 11-5 Bills to a third straight Super Bowl loss was no challenge. The Bills turned the ball over an astonishing nine times with the final score Dallas 52, Buffalo 17, and Leon Lett's hubris 7.
6. 1973 Miami Dolphins (12-2)
Although the 1972 Dolphins are the undefeated team, their playoff run was decidedly not dominant: they won all three games by a touchdown or less. The following postseason, the Dolphins were much more impressive. First they cruised to a 34-16 victory over the 10-4 Bengals. Then they got revenge on the team that had ended their unbeaten streak, the 9-4-1 Raiders, rushing for 266 yards in a big 27-10 win. And in Super Bowl VIII, the Dolphins beat 12-2 NFC champ Minnesota 24-7 as Larry Csonka rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
5. 1983 Los Angeles Raiders (12-4)
Here's the best-case scenario for this year's Eagles. The 1983 Raiders easily dispatched two conference foes with unspectacular records and then shocked the NFL world by obliterating the defending Super Bowl champion. The first two wins came 38-10 over the 10-6 Steelers and 30-14 against the 9-7 Seahawks (who, despite their mediocre record, had beaten the Raiders twice during the regular season). Super Bowl XVIII pitted the Raiders against the 14-2 Redskins, who had set a record (since broken) with 541 points scored. Marcus Allen rushed for 191 yards on only 20 carries and the Raiders scored touchdowns on an interception return and a blocked punt for an overpowering 38-9 victory.
4. 1991 Washington Redskins (14-2)
The Redskins started with an easy 24-7 victory over the 10-6 Falcons, keyed by six Atlanta turnovers, and then faced Detroit in the NFC Championship. The Lions had been destroyed by the Redskins 45-0 on opening day, but recovered to go 12-4. Washington held Barry Sanders to 44 yards in a 41-10 win. In Super Bowl XXVI, the Redskins had a 24-0 lead over the 13-3 Bills by the third play of the third quarter. The defense held Thurman Thomas to 13 yards rushing and picked off four Jim Kelly passes. The relatively close 37-24 final score was the result of two garbage touchdowns by the Bills in the final six minutes.
3. 2000 Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
The Ravens are the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the column -- they are the only team so far to beat three 12-win teams on way to a Super Bowl title. Actually, since they were a wild card, they had to play four games instead of three, but their legendary defense allowed only 23 points total. First, they stomped 11-5 Denver 21-3. In an eagerly anticipated rematch with 13-3 Tennessee, the team that beat them for the division title, the Ravens got revenge, 24-10. They humiliated the pass-happy 12-4 Raiders in the AFC Championship, winning 16-3 and holding Rich Gannon to only 80 yards, two interceptions, and no touchdowns. Finally, in Super Bowl XXXV, they held the 12-4 New York Giants to 152 total yards and forced five turnovers in a 34-7 win.
2. 1989 San Francisco 49ers (14-2)
If the 1983 Raiders are the model that the Eagles hope to follow, the 1989 49ers are the model for this year's Patriots. In the NFC playoffs, San Francisco coasted to a 41-13 win over 10-6 Minnesota, the league's leading defense, and then prevented the powerhouse offense of the 11-5 Rams from scoring a touchdown in a 30-3 NFC Championship win. Like this year's Eagles, San Francisco's 1989 Super Bowl opponent was the best team from an inferior conference; the 11-5 Denver Broncos were the only team in the AFC with more than nine wins. The 49ers proceeded to beat them senseless by the score of 55-10 in the most lopsided Super Bowl of all time. They outgained the Broncos 461 yards to 167 and held John Elway to 108 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns.
1. 1985 Chicago Bears (15-1)
It is a close battle for the title of Most Dominant Playoff Run. But while the 1989 49ers won their playoff games by larger margins, nobody has ever marched through the postseason like the 1985 Chicago Bears. No team had ever shut out consecutive playoff opponents until the Bears shut out the 10-6 Giants 21-0 and 11-5 Rams 24-0. The scoreless streak ended in the first two minutes of Super Bowl XX when a fumble led to a field goal for the 11-5 Patriots, but Chicago then scored 44 straight points and won 46-10. At halftime, they had gained 236 yards and the Patriots had minus 19. Over three games, the Bears outscored their opponents 91-10 and outgained them 1003 yards to 434 -- a reason many call them the greatest team ever.
Honorable mention: 1969 Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)
They didn't win their first two playoff games by particularly large margins (seven and 10 points) but the 1969 Chiefs deserve a mention because the combined record of their three opponents was 33-8-1. No Super Bowl champion has faced three stronger opponents, though if the Patriots win, they will surpass the Chiefs by beating three teams that were a combined 40-8. In Super Bowl IV, they took on the 12-2 Vikings, who led the NFL in both points scored and allowed. The Vikings had not allowed an opponent to score more than 14 points since the first week of the season, but the Chiefs led 16-0 at halftime and won 23-7.
Least dominant Super Bowl run: 1981 San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
The 49ers beat the 9-7 Giants by only two touchdowns, and then beat two teams that were "only" 12-4 by less than a touchdown apiece. Of course the NFC Championship game gave us The Catch, proving that dominant and exciting are not necessarily the same thing, but the 49ers won their three playoff games by a combined 20 points. Only three Super Bowl winners had a smaller total margin in their victories: the 1972 Dolphins and both the 2001 and 2003 Patriots. But all three of these teams faced tougher competition, and the 1972 Dolphins also had to overcome a kicker who suddenly decided he was Johnny Unitas in the middle of the Super Bowl.
Aaron Schatz is editor-in-chief of FootballOutsiders.com.