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The Patriots Are The NFL’s Greatest Dynasty

The numbers are self-evident: Win or lose Sunday night, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have put together one of the best runs in NFL history. Since 2001, the team has made seven Super Bowl appearances, with four wins (and another possible this week), and it has achieved a level of sustained success unheard of in the modern NFL. Exactly where does this stretch rank among football dynasties, though? Well, it depends on how you define dynasty.

Do two titles in three years qualify as a dynasty? What about three in five? The end points for runs of dominance have always been up for debate. So rather than pick one definition and stick to it, we went looking for the best team over any number of years.1 The table below shows the top teams over a given period — from the best one-year teams, to the best team over a quarter-century, based on FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings:

BEST DYNASTY SECOND-BEST THIRD-BEST
# OF YEARS TEAM AVG. ELO TEAM AVG. ELO TEAM AVG. ELO
1 Patriots2007 1824 Patriots2004 1816 Bears1985 1796
2 Cowboys1992-93 1786 Patriots2003-04 1782 Dolphins1972-73 1779
3 Cowboys1992-94 1759 Dolphins1972-74 1751 Steelers1974-76 1743
4 Cowboys1992-95 1751 Patriots2004-07 1747 49ers1989-92 1734
5 Patriots2003-07 1747 Steelers1975-79 1727 49ers1988-92 1725
6 Patriots2003-08 1732 49ers1989-94 1727 Steelers1974-79 1726
7 49ers1988-94 1722 Patriots2003-09 1713 Patriots2010-16 1713
8 49ers1987-94 1718 Patriots2003-10 1713 Steelers1972-79 1700
9 Patriots2003-11 1715 49ers1987-95 1715 Steelers1972-80 1689
10 Patriots2003-12 1714 49ers1987-96 1709 Steelers1972-81 1677
11 49ers1984-94 1712 Patriots2003-13 1711 Cowboys1971-81 1671
12 Patriots2003-14 1714 49ers1984-95 1710 Cowboys1970-81 1670
13 Patriots2004-16 1710 49ers1984-96 1706 Cowboys1970-82 1667
14 Patriots2003-16 1713 49ers1984-97 1700 Cowboys1970-83 1663
15 Patriots2002-16 1702 49ers1984-98 1697 Cowboys1970-84 1655
16 Patriots2001-16 1700 49ers1983-98 1692 Cowboys1970-85 1647
17 49ers1981-97 1685 Patriots2000-16 1684 Cowboys1970-86 1637
18 49ers1981-98 1683 Patriots1999-2016 1673 Cowboys1970-87 1628
19 49ers1980-98 1666 Patriots1998-2016 1665 Packers1994-2012 1617
20 Patriots1997-2016 1662 49ers1981-2000 1654 Packers1995-2014 1614
21 Patriots1996-2016 1660 49ers1981-2001 1651 Packers1995-2015 1614
22 Patriots1995-2016 1650 49ers1981-2002 1645 Packers1995-2016 1615
23 Patriots1994-2016 1646 49ers1981-2003 1639 Packers1994-2016 1614
24 Patriots1993-2016 1635 49ers1980-2003 1628 Packers1993-2016 1611
25 Patriots1992-2016 1621 49ers1980-2004 1615 Cowboys1971-95 1611
The top dynasties in NFL history, by number of years

That the 2007 Pats (undefeated until a loss against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl) are the top one-year team of all time, despite not winning the title, isn’t all that surprising. But the Patriots’ dynasties being at the top of the longer-term ranges is. Consider that the Pats claimed the top spot for the 25-year stretch despite a dreadful 2-14 1992 season, when they were coached by Dick MacPherson, as well as a couple painful years during Bill Parcells’ brief tenure, which also included a Super Bowl appearance following the 1996 season.

In the in-between lengths, New England owns many but not all of the top spots. It never had as dominant a three- or four-year run as the Cowboys in the 1990s, but at the five-year mark, New England begins a run of taking a top-two spot in most ranges, trading off occasionally with the 49ers. But by the time we get into the 20-year windows, with Walsh and Montana having given way to Mooch and Garcia, even San Francisco begins to fade.

And we haven’t even accounted for the NFL’s modern era of parity yet, although things begin to look a little unfair once we do. If we look at the post-Cowboys-era NFL, beginning in 1997,2 the Patriots take the top spot in every dynasty range, from one year to 20 years, except for the three-year range, which Seattle locked down from 2013 to 2015.

ALL-TIME BEST DYNASTIES BEST DYNASTIES SINCE 1997
# OF YEARS TEAM AVG. ELO TEAM AVG. ELO
1 Patriots2007 1824 Patriots2007 1824
2 Cowboys1992-93 1786 Patriots2003-04 1782
3 Cowboys1992-94 1759 Seahawks2013-15 1743
4 Cowboys1992-95 1751 Patriots2004-07 1747
5 Patriots2003-07 1747 Patriots2003-07 1747
6 Patriots2003-08 1732 Patriots2003-08 1732
7 49ers1988-94 1722 Patriots2003-09 1713
8 49ers1987-94 1718 Patriots2003-10 1713
9 Patriots2003-11 1715 Patriots2003-11 1715
10 Patriots2003-12 1714 Patriots2003-12 1714
11 49ers1984-94 1712 Patriots2003-13 1711
12 Patriots2003-14 1714 Patriots2003-14 1714
13 Patriots2004-16 1710 Patriots2004-16 1710
14 Patriots2003-16 1713 Patriots2003-16 1713
15 Patriots2002-16 1702 Patriots2002-16 1702
16 Patriots2001-16 1700 Patriots2001-16 1700
17 49ers1981-97 1685 Patriots2000-16 1684
18 49ers1981-98 1683 Patriots1999-2016 1673
19 49ers1980-98 1666 Patriots1998-2016 1665
20 Patriots1997-2016 1662 Patriots1997-2016 1662
All-time dynasties and dynasties since 1997, by number of years

How we qualify success is a big part of how we define a dynasty, so a quick note on the method we’re using here: Elo ratings are a favorite around FiveThirtyEight because they are relatively simple to calculate and don’t require many points of input, making it possible to apply them to time periods when data collection wasn’t very good. Want to know if the Cleveland Spiders of the 1890s were the sorriest team in baseball history? Elo can do that.

The price of that simplicity is, well, a fairly simplistic stat, without the benefit of modern advancements like player tracking data in the NBA or PITCHf/x in MLB. Elo doesn’t know about star players coming or going or fortuitous bounces or egregious penalty calls — it just knows who won, who lost, and by how much, and trusts that the specifics will even themselves out over time.

While this can complicate things when trying to use Elo to make predictions (as with the 2016 Raiders), the stat is much stronger when it looks backward because it struggles to immediately pick up a team’s rises and declines.

Public perception tends to lag when a traditionally bad team gets good, or a traditionally good team goes all to hell. And football is less dependent on individual players than basketball, where LeBron James can leave town and send the Cavaliers to the lottery for nearly half a decade. So when we see the Patriots maintaining these high ratings across different eras and team compositions, what we’re seeing isn’t just sustained performance, but sustained relevance.


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Footnotes

  1. This is an update to a feature we ran a few years ago, which used a different version of Elo, so the ratings will be a little different, but reflect the same principles.

  2. The salary cap was instituted for the 1994 NFL season, but by then, powerful teams in the league had already been assembled. It’s an approximation, but we used 1997 and post-Cowboys as a rough estimate of when the “parity era” began.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Jay Boice is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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