- Sal Paolantonio, SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
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In his new book, "The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches & Moments in NFL History," Sal Paolantonio (with Reuben Frank) challenges some of your long-held beliefs about America's popular game.
If we had sporting royalty in this country, Don Shula would be it. He's our national grand uncle of pro football. When he opens his mouth, we wait for the golden nuggets of NFL history and wisdom to tumble out.
That's why he caused quite a stir last week when he told the New York Daily News that the New England Patriots were in jeopardy of being labeled the Barry Bonds of NFL history -- and then backpedaled on the "Mike & Mike" show on ESPN Radio the next day.
Perhaps Shula was just trying to protect the honor of his 1972 Dolphins, the only team to turn in a perfect season. Maybe he was just trying to spark a little debate, start a little bar-room sports argument about the best Super Bowl team ever, anticipating that the Patriots are headed to 16-0 and their fourth Lombardi Trophy.
So, let's jump in. If the Pats hoist Vince on Feb. 3 in Arizona -- and go undefeated in the process -- let's make no mistake about it: They will be the best Super Bowl team ever. And it won't even be close.
Let's compare the 2007 Patriots to three possible contenders for best-ever Super Bowl team: the 1972 Dolphins, the 1985 Bears and the 1989 49ers.
Last year, a panel of sportswriters voted this team the best ever. It crushed Denver 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. The Niners were so good, Steve Young was the backup quarterback. Joe Montana threw 26 touchdown passes. Jerry Rice scored 17 times.
Let's stop right there. In 2007, with 33 TD passes after just nine games, Tom Brady has already surpassed his boyhood idol. And Randy Moss -- although he's not going to be a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer like Rice -- already has 12 touchdown catches. So, he most likely will catch and surpass Rice.
The '89 Niners were first in points scored and total yards. Same with the Patriots. But their point differential was 159. New England is on pace to outscore its opponents by 369 points.
Of course, the Niners had one of the most underrated running backs in NFL history, Roger Craig, who finished that year with 1,527 total yards and should be in Canton. The Patriots don't rely on one running back like that.
But that Niners team finished 14-2 in the regular season. A perfect Patriots team would, of course, have the ultimate edge.
A panel of experts assembled by NFL Films last year ranked this 15-1 Bears team the second-best ever. Their 15 wins came by an average score of 29-11, none by fewer than six points. They finished the season first in points and yards allowed and made a total mockery of the postseason, shutting out the New York Giants in the divisional playoffs and the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game, then mauling the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, 46-10 -- at the time the most lopsided Super Bowl ever.
The Bears allowed 12.4 points per game. This Pats team is on a pace that's not that far off -- 16.3 points per game. The Bears' point differential is higher right now, 258 to the Patriots' 208.
But when you look at the quarterbacks the Bears faced that season -- especially in the Super Bowl run -- and compare them with this year's Patriots, there are some legitimate questions to be raised.
That Bears team lost to Dan Marino, who finished the season with a quarterback rating of 84.1. They beat Montana, who finished third in the league in passing that year. They didn't face a quarterback with a rating over 100.
The 2007 Patriots have already beaten two quarterbacks with a rating in triple digits -- Tony Romo and Peyton Manning. In beating Dallas and Indianapolis, they've already taken down the No. 1 offense in the NFC and the second-ranked offense in the AFC.
And in embarrassing the Rams in the 1985 NFC Championship Game, the Bears beat L.A. quarterback Dieter Brock, who played exactly one NFL season -- 1985. And then they tormented Tony Eason and Steve Grogan in the Super Bowl.
This Pats team could see Manning and Romo again in the postseason.
The Bears had the intrepid, great Hall of Famer Walter Payton, who put in a season that defined his career -- even if he was ignored in the Super Bowl.
But here's what settles the argument: Would you rather line up with Brady or Jim McMahon? Edge: decidedly Patriots.
This Dolphins team was voted best ever by the NFL Films panel. Not when you take a closer look. The '72 Dolphins played a ridiculously easy schedule in a terribly weak AFC. Counting the division rivals -- the Colts, Patriots and Bills twice -- Miami's 14 opponents had a combined record of 70-122-4, a .367 winning percentage, the worst ever for a Super Bowl champion.
There's an old adage in sports: You can only beat who you play. Well, the '72 Dolphins beat a bunch of nobodies. None of their opponents reached the playoffs, and only two of them -- the Giants and Chiefs -- finished over .500. Each was 8-6.
The 1972 Dolphins are the only Super Bowl winner since the merger that didn't face a playoff team and the only Super Bowl winner ever that didn't face a team that won nine or more games. It looks like the Patriots will have beaten at least three teams headed for the 2007 playoffs -- the Chargers, Cowboys and Colts, and would have to beat two more: the Steelers and Giants.
What's more, that Dolphins team did not face a quarterback who finished that season with a rating north of 84 (that would have been Norm Snead, not exactly in the prime of his career).
There's something to be said for a team that knows how to win close games, but the Dolphins weren't good enough to blow anybody out in 1972. They beat the 7-7 Vikings by two, the 4-9-1 Bills by one, the 7-7 Jets by four.
And then they sputtered in their first two postseason games, overcoming a 14-13 fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Cleveland Browns, whose quarterback was the one and only Mike Phipps. That year, the Browns scored the fewest points of any playoff team. Phipps completed a lowly 47.2 percent of his passes during the '72 season.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Dolphins had to overcome a 10-7 third-quarter deficit to beat the Steelers.
In the Super Bowl, the Dolphins faced the Redskins. Washington's quarterback? Billy Kilmer, who was 2-4 in the playoffs in his career. Coach George Allen's offense was pretty one-dimensional. Kilmer did go to the Pro Bowl that season, but the Redskins' offense finished 17th in the league in passing. Kilmer couldn't beat Miami.
So, the undefeated '72 Dolphins were great, yes. But best ever? No way. If they go undefeated and go all the way, the 2007 New England Patriots will claim that title.
Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.
3dEric D. Williams
2dMel Kiper Jr.