Perhaps we should start with the teams that didn’t repeat as Super Bowl champions, that couldn’t pull off the title two-step, because they include some of the great teams of all time and they provide a blueprint for exactly how treacherous the path back to glory can be.
Take the 1986 Bears. In ’85, they went 18-1 and rolled through the Patriots in Super Bowl 20. They had everything, on both sides of the ball, even if Buddy Ryan had fled for Philly after getting a ride from his defense at the Superdome. They won 14 out of 16 games and actually allowed 11 fewer points than the ’85 team, and would have hosted the NFC title game against the Giants … except Washington stomped them 27-13 at Soldier Field the week before. Da Bears hit Da Wall.
Take the 2000 Rams, heirs to the Greatest Show on Turf that had ransacked the NFL the year before, which actually scored 14 more points than their high-flying predecessors once offensive whiz Mike Martz succeeded Dick Vemeil, yet couldn’t make it out of the first round the next year, handing the Saints the first playoff victory in their heretofore tortured Big Easy history.
Take the 2014 Seahawks, who’d throttled the Broncos in the Super Bowl the year before, 43-8, who rolled through their regular season and pulled off a miracle comeback against the Packers in the NFC title game and were set up — perfectly — second-and-goal from the 1, time running out against the Patriots … before Russell Wilson’s toss found Malcolm Butler’s arms before Ricardo Lockette’s.
Listen to the men who couldn’t get that done:
“Sometimes,” Mike Ditka said on Jan. 3, 1987, “the best team doesn’t win.”
“We thought were just going to catch fire and roll again,” Kurt Warner said on Dec. 30, 2000. “But football can be a funny game sometimes.”
“It’s hard to repeat,” Pete Carroll said on Feb. 1, 2015. “Case in point.”
So you see what the Kansas City Chiefs are facing now, with the opportunity before them to repeat as NFL champs. Only seven franchises have managed to do it, a total of eight times since Green Bay became the first, winning Super Bowls I and II in Los Angeles and Miami, at a time when the Pack figured they could just beat any and all comers.
“Winning when the whole world wants nothing more to knock you down a peg or two, that’s the best there is,” Vince Lombardi said on Jan. 14, 1968, when his Packers — just 9-4-1 on the regular season, who’d barely escaped Dallas in the Ice Bowl — clobbered Oakland 33-14. “Nothing about this is easy. Nothing.”
The ’72 Dolphins went 17-0, and yet it was the next year’s team, which lost twice, which may well have been the better of Miami’s back-to-back teams. As much as Kansas City’s passing game makes people shake their heads, so too did the ground-and-pound Fish of Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick, and while the ’72 team had some postseason struggles, the ’73 repeaters outscored the Bengals, Raiders and Vikings 85-33.
“Maybe we’ll do this again next year,” Csonka cracked after accepting his MVP trophy, and as we know no team has ever done that, has ever gone 3-for-3. The Steelers came closest — winning four out of six titles between 1974 and 1979, and they are the only team to go back-to-back twice, and they spread the wealth among their raft of Hall of Famers — Franco Harris and Lynn Swann won Super Bowl MVP the first time around, with Terry Bradshaw winning the trophy each of the second two.
“I’m not going to say that we’re the best team ever,” Mean Joe Greene, the heart of the Steel Curtain defense, said on Jan. 20, 1980, after the Steelers had dismissed the Rams 31-19 for No. 4. “But I don’t mind that we’ll be in that conversation for a long, long time.”
As impressive as those first four repeats were, though, the last four were probably more improbable, because they all happened after the NFL’s economics began to change, when parity began to partner with the league office thanks to free agency and the salary cap. When the 49ers repeated in 1988 and ’89, they had the same star power (Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott) but different coaches, Bill Walsh first, then George Seifert.
And by the time the Cowboys (1992-93), Broncos (1997-98) and Patriots (2003-04) each pulled their two-fers off, there was a sense, each time, we might never see this again. In truth, when the Brady-Belichick partnership beat the Eagles for the third of their six titles in Jacksonville on Feb. 6, 2005, the coach, a well-versed football historian, understood what the moment meant.
“You need a lot of good coaches, a lot of great players and a little bit of good fortune,” Bill Belichick said that day, and many figured that might be the last back-to-back we’d ever see. And it still might be, unless the Chiefs decide to alter the timeline this Sunday against Tampa. With Tom Brady standing in their way, serving as history’s honorary doorman. Of course.