Back in the 1980s the NFC conference dominated the NFL landscape, winning eight of ten Super Bowls, with only the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders twice wrestling away the Vince Lombardi Trophy from the decade’s superior half of the league.
During the 80s two NFC teams achieved a feat that has to this day never been equalled. The achievement was combining for 15 regular season wins and winning a Super Bowl.
Remarkably the other four teams to have won 15 regular season games in a 16 game schedule (introduced out of interest as late as 1978) failed to win, and in some cases even reach the big dance.
They were as follows:
- 1998 Minnesota Vikings (lost NFC championship to the Atlanta Falcons)
- 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers (lost AFC championship to the New England Patriots)
- 2011 Green Bay Packers (lost NFC Divisional playoff to the New York Giants)
- 2015 Carolina Panthers (lost Super Bowl to Denver Broncos)
Before anyone throws their arms up and says what about the 2007 Patriots and the 1972 Dolphins (both who went undefeated in the regular season) please note the small print in this piece, as neither team won 15 regular season games or went on to win the Super Bowl.
We all know the 1972 Miami Dolphins remain the only team to stay undefeated in an entire NFL regular and post-season, but they won a combined 17 games, not 19, and the 2007 New England Patriots indeed went 18-0 (16-0 in the regular season) but came unstuck against Eli Manning in the Super Bowl as the Giants came away with all the marbles.
Now I’m not going to explore the triumphs of the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX (1984 season) or Da Bearz in Super Bowl XX (1985 season), instead it’s time to turn the tables and dig a little deeper into the two games that prevented perfection for these two mid-80s powerhouses.
For a world yet to be saturated with mobile/cell phones it was somewhat ironic that Stevie Wonder’s classic ‘I just called to say I love you’ was atop the U.S. billboard charts in the middle of October 1984. Over in blighty the chart topping song was Freedom by Wham, and American football coverage was in it’s infancy on Channel 4.
The reigning NFL champions, the Los Angeles Raiders, fresh from their second Super Bowl win in four seasons, were lighting up the 1984 season early on going 4-0. That streak came to a grinding halt in Week 5 as a 4 yard third period rushing td from Denver Broncos running back Gerald Willhite was the gamebreaker in a 13-16 loss.
Over in the NFC the San Francisco 49ers were drawing the attention of West Coast reporters, but maybe not the rest of the NFLs journalists quite yet.
After four weeks the Niners were undefeated, the first time the franchise had gone 4-0 since 1952, and it was their defense that was garnishing all of the headlines as they streaked to 6-0. In fact between weeks 4-6 the Gold Rush defense, led by punishing defensive back Ronnie Lott, the team allowed a measly 24 points.
This was a team nobly led by Joe Montana, but when he was injured prior to a week 4 contest against the Eagles in Philly it was up to backup Matt Cavanaugh to come in and guide the team to a statement 21-9 victory. Cavanaugh threw three touchdown passes on the day, one to RB Roger Craig.
With the Niners at 6-0 and cruising they started to smell the polish on the Lombardi Trophy, and facing a mediocre 3-3 Pittsburgh Steelers team at home was not an opponent the team feared. Arguably the 49ers were looking to a Week 9 road game in L.A. as their next quality rival.
The 1984 Steelers were not a special team if you used the regular season as a metric to judge their success. They finished 9-7, barely winning the AFC Central over the 8-8 Cincinnati Bengals.
They did astonish the heavily favourited Denver Broncos in the Divisional playoffs before getting punched, kicked and knocked out by the Miami Dolphins in the AFC championship.
Coming from Pennsylvania to California in October would likely have been welcomed by Steelers players and fans alike, but their expectations would not have matched their optimism for some sunshine.
Playing a 6-0 team that won a Super Bowl just three seasons before would not have been welcomed, and the Steelers were a completely different team from the one that dominated the previous decade and won four Vince Lombardi trophies.
Dateline – October 14 1984, Candlestick Park, California.
Having come back from a one week sojourn on the injury list 49ers QB Joe Montana tossed five td’s and zero interceptions in Week 5 and 6 wins, the game against Pittsburgh was seen as a tough but imminently winnable game.
With an average roster the Steelers were remaining competitive in the main because of the winning mentality of their head coach Chuck Knoll, in his 16th consecutive year at the helm. Knoll had gained four Super Bowl wins in the 70s and would go on to coach the Steelers all the way until 1991.
To the shock of home fans the Steelers took a 10-0 lead, behind a first quarter Rich Erenberg 2 yard run and a Gary Anderson field goal. (Side note: It was the very same Gary Anderson that missed a game-winning field goal in the 1998 NFC championship for the 16-1 Vikings.)
Much like he did in Super Bowl XVI, 49ers QB Joe Montana opened his team’s scoring with a 7-yard run to bring the deficit down to three at half-time.
The third quarter was a 0 point slugfest, and it was the 49ers who took the lead in the fourth quarter courtesy of a Wendell Tyler run. Ray Wersching booted the extra-point. Tyler certainly enjoyed 1984 as he made his only Pro-Bowl appearance in 10 seasons as a pro.
The lead wasn’t held for long by the home team as the erratic Steelers QB Mark Malone connected with veteran WR John Stallworth on a six yard pass with under three and a half minutes left. Anderson added the point after.
Unable to counter the 49ers gave the ball back to Pittsburgh and Gary Anderson converted his second field-goal of the game – a dinky 21 yard attempt, that turned out to be the winning score for the black and gold.
The tale of the tape revealed that it was the Steelers running game that was the difference, holding the ball for almost 35 minutes thanks to 47 attempts. 11th round 1980 draft pick Frank Pollard led the team with 105 yards on 24 carries. QB Mark Malone was a paltry 11-18 for 156 yards, but his touchdown pass was the only aerial td on the day. Joe Montana had 241 yards in the air and 29 on the ground in the defeat.
The three-point loss turned out to be the 49ers single blemish on a remarkable season. The following week, a 34-21 win over the Houston Oilers, was the only other time in the whole season the Niners allowed over 17 points in regular or post-season.
Joe Montana went on to lift the Super Bowl and become the game’s MVP, beating the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, Miami Dolphins QB Dan Marino. Steelers QB Mark Malone, who prior to the 1984 season hadn’t registered a single victory, finished his career with 23 wins, and one playoff victory (in 1984) over John Elway’s Broncos.
Saying out loud or even typing the words ‘the 1985 Bears’ conjures up an almost mythical sense of nostalgia, evoking memories of Fridge-Mania, Walter Payton and Jim McMahon baring his pasty white posterior to a flying television crew.
Arguably the ultimate defense to ever be assembled, and without doubt the single greatest group of personalities ever to be grouped together on an NFL roster, the Chicago Bears, led by the combination of the outlandish head coach Mike Ditka and the defensive savant Buddy Ryan, began the season hotter than an exploding volcano in a heatwave.
From September until the end of November the team reeled off twelve consecutive wins, few being solid, but most being spectacular displays of defensive prowess, including weeks 7 to 12 where they allowed just 29 points in six games. Just absorb that – 29 points in six games – that’s under 5 points a game in that stretch.
Dateline – Monday December 2 1985, Orange Bowl, Miami, Florida.
Travelling east to Miami was not a common occurrence for the Bears, who were making only their fourth trip to play the Dolphins in their rich history. It was a fixture they had never previously won.
The Dolphins boasted a respectable 8-4 record after 12 weeks, and an unblemished 5-0 home record in the tropical Florida sunshine, the four losses coming on their travels to Texas, New York, Michigan and Massachusetts.
In a year that saw the cinematic release of ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ it was the Dolphins that drew the red stuff first, making the initial cut into the thigh of the Bears, Dan Marino hitting WR Nat Moore on a 33 yard passing score to set an early tone. The score, on the Dolphins first offensive possession saw Marino exploit Bears safety Gary Fencik.
The Bears, led by QB Steve Fuller, starting in place of an injured Jim McMahon, replied straight away, a bomb to Willie Gault helped move downfield quickly, and Fuller carried the rock himself on a 1 yard dive to tie up the game.
Still in the first quarter the Dolphins got to double digits, kicker Fuad Reveiz blasting a 47 yard field goal. With the wind in Miami’s sails they opened up the second quarter scoring with a rushing score from 6thround rookie Ron Daventport. The drive again aided by Nat Moore, who was lining up all over the field, including reps at tight-end.
Bears kicker Kevin Butler got the deficit down to 7, before Miami’s death by a thousand cuts offense, led by the arm of Dan Marino, the coaching guile of Don Shula and the outstanding blocking of the Dolphins offensive line, produced two late second period scores.
Before blinking the Bears found themselves down by 21 at the half as Miami completed a 21 point quarter. Davenport breaking the plane for his second one yard score, and WR Nat Moore capping off one of the single greatest halves of football in his career with a 6-yard TD grab.
Chicago fought back in the third quarter, backup QB Steve Fuller scoring twice in the third quarter, either side of Dan Marino’s third TD pass, a 43-yard laser caught by Mark Clayton, but that was all the Monsters of the Midway could muster.
A scoreless fourth quarter gave Bears fans time to realise that the team that had gone undefeated in the same regular and post-season had just prevented Chicago from pursuing perfection.
Everything that could go wrong in the game did for Chicago, including a blocked punt, a muffed kick-off and a pass deflected by DE Dan Hampton that ended up landing in a Dolphins players hands for a score.
Much like the 1984 49ers, the lone defeat was enough of a splash of icy water on the faces of the Bears players and coaches alike to refocus the team, as Chicago went on to crush their next six opponents, including the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
The Bears and Dolphins were clear favourites to reach the Super Bowl in 1985, but it was division rivals the New England Patriots, who finished third in the AFC East that season but still scraped into the playoffs, who became the AFC representatives.
In the AFC championship the Patriots held the ball just under 40 minutes, rushing for 255 yards, and effectively keeping Dan Marion on the side-lines. Marino’s stat line was an ugly 41% completion rate.
Super Bowl XX was a dominating display by the Bears, but even Mike Ditka regrets not having Hall of Fame RB Walter Payton score on the day, in the 46-10 mauling.
Going 15-1 in the regular season is absolutely no guarantee of winning a Super Bowl. Only one in three teams who complete a 16 game regular season with one cross in their schedule have ended up winning the big dance.
The 1984 49ers and the 1985 Chicago Bears are historically great teams, the Bears dominating in terms of popularity and misty-eyed greatness.
Both teams played each other in 1984 and 1985, the team that won the Super Bowl winning beating their fellow NFC foe on the way to victory.
The best 15-1 Super Bowl winners? I’ll be controversial here and give the overall nod to the 84 49ers, simply because they were the first to go 15-1 and win a Super Bowl in the same season. The team they beat in the NFC Championship to get to Super Bowl – none other than the Chicago Bears!
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