Earlier this week, I looked at the would-be NFL champions if the league never changed its 1920 rules for awarding titles. There were 74 years in league history that produced an undisputed champion. However, there have been 21 seasons that require some tiebreakers.
Tiebreaker Champions Under the Original Title Format
The next table shows every year in which at least two teams tied for the league’s best record. They are ordered, left to right, by SRS score. The champions (as explained below) are in bold.
|Year||W%||Team 1||Team 2||Team 3||Team 4||Team 5|
|1941||0.909||Chicago Bears||Green Bay Packers|
|1950||0.833||Cleveland Browns||New York Giants|
|1952||0.750||Detroit Lions||Los Angeles Rams|
|1958||0.750||Baltimore Colts||Cleveland Browns||New York Giants|
|1967||0.917||Los Angeles Rams||Baltimore Colts|
|1971||0.786||Dallas Cowboys||Minnesota Vikings|
|1973||0.857||Los Angeles Rams||Miami Dolphins||Minnesota Vikings|
|1975||0.857||Pittsburgh Steelers||Los Angeles Rams||Minnesota Vikings|
|1977||0.857||Denver Broncos||Dallas Cowboys|
|1979||0.750||Pittsburgh Steelers||San Diego Chargers|
|1980||0.750||Philadelphia Eagles||Dallas Cowboys||Atlanta Falcons|
|1982||0.889||Washington||Los Angeles Raiders|
|1986||0.875||New York Giants||Chicago Bears|
|1988||0.750||Chicago Bears||Buffalo Bills||Cincinnati Bengals|
|1993||0.750||Dallas Cowboys||Houston Oilers||Buffalo Bills|
|1996||0.813||Green Bay Packers||Denver Broncos|
|1997||0.813||Green Bay Packers||Kansas City Chiefs||San Francisco 49ers|
|2002||0.750||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Philadelphia Eagles||Green Bay Packers|
|2012||0.813||Denver Broncos||Atlanta Falcons|
|2013||0.813||Seattle Seahawks||Denver Broncos|
|2014||0.750||New England Patriots||Denver Broncos||Seattle Seahawks||Green Bay Packers||Dallas Cowboys|
In 1941, the Bears and Packers both finished the regular season 10-1, with their only losses coming against each other. Because the original league rules stipulated that head-to-head victory would determine tiebreakers, the two teams would have required a playoff to crown the champ. Given that Chicago was victorious in their actual playoff game, I feel okay calling the Bears the champs for this post.
In 1950, the newfangled Browns and the Giants tied for the league lead at 10-2. However, both of Cleveland’s losses came to the Giants, making New York the retroactive original format champions. In this alternate reality, Charlie Conerly later makes the Hall of Fame.
Just two years later, the Lions and Rams sat atop the NFL at 9-3. The two squads faced off twice in the regular season, with Detroit victorious in both matches. Thus, as is the case in real life, the Lions are our champion.
In 1958, the Colts, Browns, and Giants all tied for the NFL’s best record at 9-3. Fortunately, we don’t need a crazy formula based on a hypothetical to figure this one out: the Giants beat the Colts and twice beat the Browns in the regular season. This Conerly for the Hall of Fame thing keeps growing in this alternate reality.
In 1967, the Rams and Colts were both members of the NFL’s Coastal division, which meant they played each other twice. The first match ended in a draw, but the Rams pulled out the win in the rematch. In the regular season, the Rams also beat the eventual real-life champion Packers. For the purposes of this article, Roman Gabriel gets his missing championship.
The Cowboys and Vikings were on top of the league in 1971, each sporting an 11-3 record. The two teams never met in the regular season, but Dallas did defeat Minnesota 20-12 in the playoffs (before going on to win the Super Bowl). History doesn’t change here; the Cowboys are the champs.
The Dolphins, Rams, and Vikings of 1973 were both in the middle of dominant runs as league powerhouses.1 The Rams and Vikings met in the regular season, with Minny coming out on top. The AFC’s Dolphins didn’t play either until they play the Vikings in the Super Bowl, where they won in resounding fashion. The Dolphins retain their real-life title.
In 1975, the Steelers, Rams, and Vikings had 12-2 records. Although they won the Super Bowl in real life, a week 14 loss to the Rams eliminates them from title eligibility here. Minnesota boasted a better point differential, but Los Angeles produced a higher SRS score and estimated DVOA. They both have 9-1 records against common opponents. The Vikings went further in the playoffs that year, so they get the tiebreaker. At long last, a ring for Fran Tarkenton.
The 1977 Cowboys and Broncos led the league with 12-2 records. We know that Dallas decimated Denver in the Super Bowl, but the rules we’re using make the Super Bowl superfluous. Because Dallas won the regular season matchup, there is no need for a post season. The Cowboys are champions.
The 1979 Steelers had a streak of four games in which their opponents average five points. However, the Chargers broke that streak in a 35-7 victory in San Diego. This tiebreaker means the Chargers are the champs, and Dan Fouts and Don Coryell are ringless no more.
1980 saw a three-way tie at the top. The Eagles, Cowboys, and Falcons each had a .750 record. Looking just at the regular season, The NFC East foes split the series 1-1, but the mighty Eagles are eliminated because of their loss to the Falcons. Atlanta and Dallas did not play each other, so we will have to look at performance versus common opponents. Dallas went 6-2, while Atlanta went 6-1. The Falcons’ only loss to a common foe was against the Rams, who they also beat earlier. The Cowboys also lost to the Rams, so the title goes to Atlanta on the strength of their triumph in Philadelphia.2
In the strike-shortened 1982 season, Washington and the Raiders finished the regular season with 8-1 records. They did not play each other, and they had no common opponents. Washington played a tougher schedule and had a higher SRS score in season play. Given that they also convincingly won their playoff games en route to a Super Bowl title, I feel fine letting them keep the ring.
In a throwback to the 1940s, the Giants and Bears rode dominant defenses to the NFL’s best records. The New York feature the league’s last defensive MVP, Lawrence Taylor, while Chicago was in the middle of a dynastic run of defenses. They both went 5-1 against common opponents, so we’ll have to move to postseason play for the real tiebreakers. The Bears lost to Washington, while the Giants throttled Gibbs’ men. In addition to the added victory over a common playoff foe, New York also won the Super Bowl. No title is changing hands this year.
In 1988, the Bears, Bills, and Bengals sat atop the league standings, each at 12-4. We can immediately eliminate Buffalo, who played, and lost to, the other two squads. Chicago and Cincy both went 3-1 against common opponents, with both teams losing to the Patriots. The Bengals made it all the way to the Super Bowl and were a Joe Montana comeback drive from winning. In this version of history, Sam Wyche gets his championship and the place he deserves at the coaches table.
The 1993 title winner is a bit easier to determine. Although the Bills, Oilers, and Cowboys tied for the best record in the NFL, Buffalo defeated the latter two squads in the regular season. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, and Marv Levy finally get their ever-elusive championship.
Another easy one. The Brett Favre–Reggie White Packers and the John Elway–Terrell Davis Broncos finished with 13-3 records. In week 15, Green Bay defeated Denver 41-6 in Elway’s absence. Fantasy imitates reality as the Packers keep the title in Titletown.
In 1997, the Packers, 49ers, and Chiefs held the league’s top record at 13-3. We can eliminate San Fran right away due to their week 14 loss in Kansas City. Green Bay was 4-0 against common opponents with Kansas City, while the Chiefs went 3-1. By virtue of their win over the Dolphins in the regular season, the Pack repeat as champions – forever keeping a ring off the finger of John Elway. It’s a shame, really.
2002 is an interesting year. In real life, Jon Gruden borrowed the historically dominant defense that Tony Dungy built, and he led them to a Super Bowl win. Unfortunately, he won’t get to keep that victory in this version of history. The Bucs tied for the top record with the Packers and the quietly great Donovan McNabb Eagles. Tampa defeated Green Bay in week 12, thus eliminating the Favres. However, a week 7 loss in Philadelphia meant the Bucs themselves were already eliminated. Andy Reid‘s Eagles get the nod.3
In 2012, the Matt Ryan led Falcons had an answer for every team that wasn’t in the NFC South. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning took over for Tim Tebow and led the Denver offense to new and exciting levels.4 No need to worry about either quarterback choking in the playoffs, as the Falcons’ week 2 victory over the Broncos made the point moot. Atlanta earns its second championship.
2013 gave us a promising title match between the historically great Denver offense and the equally great Seattle defense. This time around, the battle for supremacy is a bit more interesting (by that, I mean it’s not over by halftime). The two squads didn’t face in the regular season, and they both went 3-1 against the AFC South – their only opponents in common.5 Denver had the greater point differential, while Seattle had the tougher strength of schedule, higher SRS score, and higher DVOA. To break this tie, we have to go all the way to the Super Bowl matchup itself, where the Seahawks easily win (maybe it was over at halftime after all).
In 2014, for the first time ever, five teams tied for the league’s best record. As you can see, we’ve never even had a season with four such teams. Every one of these teams played at least one other: New England beat the Broncos but lost to the Packers; Denver lost to both the Seahawks and the Patriots; Dallas defeated the Seahawks; Green Bay won against the Patriots but lost to the Seahawks; and Seattle beat the Packers and Broncos but lost to the Cowboys. By rock-paper-scissors dictate, the Cowboys take home their first title since 1977. Tony Romo finally gets the Steve Young sized monkey off his back.
- Despite having never won a title, those Rams and Vikings teams were always in contention because of their incredible defenses. ↩
- This is a prime example of the flaw of this method of awarding titles. Despite winning the tiebreakers, Atlanta was pretty clearly the weakest of the three teams. ↩
- This means my favorite player of the era, Derrick Brooks, must retire empty-handed. This one hurts, guys. ↩
- Critics will argue that he earned just as many postseason wins. If that’s your measure of quality, there’s probably nothing I can tell you that will convince you that one of these men is better than the other. Anyway, I count first round byes as playoff wins, as they both get you to the divisional round. ↩
- Despite going just 11-5 and probably not even being as good as their record indicated, Andrew Luck‘s Colts defeated the two best teams in the league. ↩