Counting Down the Most Influential Teams in NFL History: Top 10 Revealed

We’ve arrived at the top 10 teams.

Over the past week, Sports Illustrated has embarked barked on a journey to find the 50 most impactful teams in NFL history. Our process was simple.

During the offseason we brought together a 31-person blue-ribbon panel consisting of media members, analysts, former front office personnel and more, having each vote on more than 100 candidates. Each panelist voted for 50 teams, with their top team earning 50 points and their 50th team garnering a single point.

From those tallies, we detailed why each team deserves to be on the list, including quotes from panelists for every squad. Most importantly, SI reached out to a star player or head coach for every team from the Super Bowl era (1966 to present), gaining valuable insight into what made those teams so unique.

  • Read the full list here: Counting Down the 50 Teams

Below are the panelists and their titles, followed by the final iteration of our list: Nos. 10–1. 

10. 1961 Green Bay Packers

Record: 11–3, NFL champions

Coach: Vince Lombardi

Hall of Famers: Vince Lombardi (HC), Bart Starr (QB), Jim Ringo (C), Jerry Kramer (G), Forrest Gregg (OT), Willie Wood (S), Herb Adderley (CB), Willie Davis (DE), Paul Hornung (RB), Henry Jordan (DT), Ray Nitschke (LB), Emlen Tunnell (S), Jim Taylor (RB)

This Packers team featured more than a handful of Hall of Famers.

Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

Why they mattered:

Dynasties typically come around once a decade. The 1961 Packers launched perhaps the greatest the NFL has seen.

In 1961, the Packers led the league in scoring with 391 points while finishing only three points behind the Giants for the NFL’s best-scoring defense. Green Bay won the Western Division by three games before hosting the NFL championship game at City Stadium (later renamed Lambeau Field), where it annihilated the Giants, 37–0.

This edition of Green Bay is one of the greatest collections of talent ever put together. The backfield had three Hall of Famers in Bart Starr, Paul Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor. Up front, Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg are also enshrined in Canton.

Defensively, the secondary is perhaps the best ever assembled, with three Hall of Famers in Willie Wood, Herb Adderley and Emlen Tunnell. In the front seven, Ray Nitschke, Willie Davis and Henry Jordan also earned gold jackets.

Including Vince Lombardi, perhaps the most iconic coach in U.S. sports, the 1961 Packers sent 12 men to the Hall of Fame.

Lombardi’s preference of hard-nosed running married with a defensive-minded approach dominated the decade in the NFL. While his Packers racked up titles, the other NFL champions, including the 1963 Bears and ’69 Vikings, were paced by run-heavy approaches and bone-crushing defenses.

The Packers set the blueprint of the era and then perfected it over time, leaving one of the most indelible legacies the game has ever known.

Panel quote:

“Green Bay went 11–3 in the NFL’s first 14-game season, the Packers’ first with the distinctive ‘G’ on their helmets. Hornung was the NFL’s MVP. Hornung rushed for 597 yards on 127 carries, was a threat to throw the halfback option pass and was also the Packers’ kicker. Lombardi’s team treated its home fans to a 37–0 pillaging of the visiting Giants in the NFL’s title game, [with] the Pack scoring 24 points in the second quarter. Hornung scored 19 points, playing on leave from active army duty.” —Les Bowen, retired Eagles beat writer, Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer

Team quote:

“Coach Lombardi is the quick answer. He’s the guy. He’s the man that changed the attitude. He would chew your ass unmercifully in front of the guys. … He gave me a vision, gave me a dream, gave me a mission. I started busting my backside and everything I did was full speed. … That was something that was permanent. My attitude had changed dramatically from getting by, doing your job, not worrying about the speed to bust your ass and go like you can go, as hard as you can go, do everything to the limit of your ability. He had a dramatic impact on the football team. And you started to win. You didn’t want to let the team down. It became a close-knit brotherhood of ballplayers who depended on one another.” —Jerry Kramer, Packers guard 1958–68

9. 2001 New England Patriots

Record: 11–5, Super Bowl XXXVI champions

Coach: Bill Belichick

Hall of Famers: Ty Law (CB), Richard Seymour (DE), Bill Belichick (coach), Tom Brady (QB)

Brady’s season and the Tuck Rule game became infamous.

John Biever/Sports Illustrated

Why they mattered:

For New England, the story begins with quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick. The former is the most accomplished player to ever grace a football field. The latter revolutionized the sport.

In New England, Belichick vacillated between 4–3 and 3–4 defenses, while employing a versatile secondary, including Hall of Famer Ty Law and All-Pro safety Lawyer Milloy. While the defense was statistically an average unit in 2001 in many facets, it ranked sixth in points against. Despite checking in 24th in yards against, the Patriots finished third in the red zone.

Brady went from second-year role player to a 15-time Pro Bowler, three-time MVP and seven-time Super Bowl champion, largely because of a 2001 decision by Belichick. Once Drew Bledsoe recovered from his Week 2 injury, Belichick stayed with Brady, despite the former having signed a $103 million deal the offseason before. Bledsoe was dealt the following spring to the Bills for a ’03 first-round pick, which became defensive lineman Ty Warren.

The combination of Brady and Belichick eventually became the greatest duo in league history. From 2001 until their split after the ’19 season, the Patriots won six Super Bowls, 17 AFC East titles and nine AFC championships, and they appeared in 13 conference title games.

Finally, it’s impossible to tell the story of the NFL without mentioning the 2001 Patriots and the Tuck Rule game, a divisional-round affair that altered football history. Ultimately, they began an era that may never be matched with the constraints of the salary cap.

What happened in New England for those two decades is currently and may forever be the benchmark for ultimate greatness.

Panel quote:

“There was a time, believe it or not, when the Patriots were America’s darlings—the team that won by subjugating self for the good of team, with a plucky sixth-round quarterback and a mad scientist coach, wearing America’s colors in the wake of 9/11 [they even had a starting lineman with three brothers who were New York firefighters]. Context has changed. The roster was more talented than we thought. Cinderella was actually a forerunner for a dynasty. And the likability of the team, in the 44 states outside of New England, took hits over the years. But the magic of the run itself, from Tom Brady trotting in after Drew Bledsoe was hurt to the Snow Bowl to ending the Greatest Show on Turf, remains, as does the legacy of so many involved.” —Albert Breer, senior NFL reporter, Sports Illustrated

Team quote:

“What you see now in every Super Bowl, we started it. … Everybody runs out as a team. They were about to fine us, and we were like, ‘I guess Mr. [Robert] Kraft is about to get a hell of a fine.’ They were really trying to make us come out as individuals for the money and timeline and TV stuff. We were like, no, we did it this way. … They can call out whoever they want to call out, but we’re running out as a team. They tried to stop us for TV, to get that whole production thing going on. You better figure it out. It’s not coming out of our pockets. Mr. Kraft’s got it.” —Ty Law, Patriots corner, 1995–2004

8. 1946 Los Angeles Rams

Record: 6-4-1, missed playoffs

Coach: Adam Walsh

Hall of Famer: Bob Waterfield (QB)

Kenny Washington (center) was one of many Black NFL players who broke barriers in the league. 

Pro Football Hall of Fame/AP

Why they mattered:

The 1946 Rams were a 6-4-1 team, never threatening to qualify for the NFL championship game. Yet they have an argument as the most impactful squad in league history.

First, they broke the color barrier, which had been instituted a few years into the league’s existence. Kenny Washington and Woody Strode became the first Black men to play in an NFL game since 1933, helping pave the way for players of color in the coming years, including Hall of Famers such as Marion Motley and Bill Willis of the Browns.

While Strode lasted only one year in the NFL and Washington three, their presence changed what was possible for coming generations. (As an aside, Strode and Washington both played their college ball at UCLA, sharing a backfield with Jackie Robinson.)

Eventually, Black players not only populated the league in greater numbers but became some of its greatest stars in the 1950s and ’60s, including Browns running back Jim Brown, Giants and Packers safety Emlen Tunnell, and Cardinals corner Dick “Night Train” Lane.

The second impact had more to do with geography than on-field exploits. After winning the NFL championship in Cleveland the year before, the Rams moved to Los Angeles under the stewardship of owner Dan Reeves. This was the first time a team had been located west of Chicago, expanding the sport in a way previously unimagined. They were the only team on the West Coast until the 49ers came over from the All-America Football Conference after the AAFC-NFL merger of 1950.

All told, the 1946 Rams may be lost in time, but their impact is stronger than ever.

Panel quote:

“Woody Strode and Kenny Washington weren’t the NFL’s first Black players, and the league had even had a Black coach before they joined the Rams in 1946. But the league instituted a color barrier in ’33, and, 13 years later, those two broke it down, a year before Jackie Robinson did the same in Major League Baseball. Their Los Angeles team would go on to finish a respectable 6-4-1, good for second in the NFL’s Western Division, which, in those days, wasn’t enough for a postseason berth. But those Rams’ impact on a league that’s player population is now nearly 60% Black would resonate for decades to come.” —Albert Breer, senior NFL reporter, Sports Illustrated

7. 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers

Record: 10-3-1, Super Bowl IX champions

Coach: Chuck Noll

Hall of Famers: Chuck Noll (HC), Terry Bradshaw (QB), Franco Harris (RB), Lynn Swann (WR), John Stallworth (WR), Mike Webster (C), Jack Lambert (LB), Jack Ham (LB), Mel Blount (CB), Joe Greene (DT), Donnie Shell (S)

Harris won four Super Bowls with the Steelers.

Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Why they mattered:

The NFL draft is typically where dynasties take off. That axiom was never more true than with the Steelers of the 1970s.

To this day, Pittsburgh is the last team to win an NFL championship completely constituted of players who had never played for another franchise. They were built with arguably the greatest front office in league history, led by Hall of Fame assistant personnel director and scout Bill Nunn, and director of player personnel Dick Haley, along with another Hall of Famer in coach Chuck Noll.

By 1974, the Steelers had amassed a roster of 10 players destined for Canton. Incredibly, four of them arrived over a five-round span in the ’74 draft, including receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, linebacker Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster.

In the playoffs, the Steelers hammered the Bills and favored Raiders before handling Bud Grant’s Vikings in Super Bowl IX, 16–6. Minnesota’s only points came on a blocked punt, recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.

One of its Hall of Famers, defensive tackle Joe Greene, created the stunt 4–3 look. Greene essentially tilted his body to break through the guard-center gap, creating havoc on the interior. That also led to more movement along the line, as offenses had to commit two or even three blockers to handle Greene. Of course, the extra attention paid to Greene also opened up linebackers such as Lambert, Jack Ham and Andy Russell to run free.

But it all started in 1974, when the Steelers graduated from good to great.

Panel quote:

“Two seasons removed from the Immaculate Reception, the ’74 Steelers provided Pittsburgh with its first of four Lombardi trophies over a half dozen years, but it’s the way the team’s foundation was solidified several months prior that may be even more significant. Bill Nunn, Dick Haley, Dan Rooney, et al., cobbled together nothing short of the finest draft in the history of drafts, landing four Hall of Famers—Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Mike Webster—in the first five rounds, then signed free agent Donnie Shell, who’d also go on to earn a gold jacket. Nunn deserves specific recognition for his contributions to that Steelers dynasty because, while his peers continued down the conventional path, he blazed a new trail by tapping into the pool of HBCU athletes.” —Dave Dameshek, NFL analyst and host, Minus Three

Team quote:

“The biggest thing that came together in 1974 was looking at the past, overcoming obstacles, coming together as a team and then starting to mesh at the latter part of the season as a team. Functionally, we won some games early, and then it was kind of moving the team in that direction. … If you look at all those [Steelers] teams, they all had to overcome some obstacle in time.” —Rocky Bleier, Steelers running back, 1968 and ’70–80

6. 1981 San Francisco 49ers

Record: 13–3, Super Bowl XVI champions

Coach: Bill Walsh

Hall of Famers: Bill Walsh (HC), Joe Montana (QB), Ronnie Lott (S), Fred Dean (DE)

Clark, 6’4″, jumped to make the legenday Super Bowl–winning catch.

Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Why they mattered:

Turn on an NFL game today, and you’ll see the 1981 49ers everywhere you look.

San Francisco wasn’t the first team to install the West Coast offense, but the innovative brand began with its coach, Bill Walsh, during his time with the Bengals. The Niners took it from peculiar to popular with the beginning of their dynasty, winning four titles in nine seasons, including three under Walsh.

Instead of playing the standard brand of football—run twice and throw on third down—San Francisco used its back as an extension of the pass game with short, high-percentage throws. The 49ers also put more timing and rhythm into their drop-back passing attack, giving quarterback Joe Montana a system to thrive in.

Under Walsh, the Niners went from one of the league’s worst teams in the late 1970s to a powerhouse by ’81. They went 13–3 and rolled through the Giants in the divisional round before knocking off the Cowboys one week later in a contest best remembered for “The Catch” by Dwight Clark. In Pontiac, the Niners knocked off Cincinnati, touching off one of the greatest runs in NFL history.

Yet for all the winning, San Francisco’s greatest achievement was changing the game forever by mainstreaming an innovative offense.

Panel quote:

“The 1981 season had just about everything for San Francisco. Quarterback Joe Montana launched fourth-quarter comeback victories. The 49ers finished a franchise-best 13–3, their first winning season in five years and their first playoff appearance in nine. Dwight Clark made ‘The Catch’ in the NFC championship game, dethroning NFC heavyweight Dallas. And the 49ers won Super Bowl XVI, their first NFL title ever. But it’s not so much what happened in 1981 that was so significant. It’s what happened afterward: One dynasty was supplanted by another. Instead of Dallas, it was San Francisco that assumed command of the NFC … in fact, took over the entire NFL … winning four Super Bowls in nine seasons and five in 14.” —Clark Judge, Pro Football Hall of Fame voter

Team quote:

“It’s the genesis of Bill Walsh’s impact on the NFL. That’s where it all started. More than anything else. That was all on the field. The way our guys defensively destroyed guys at times, and then we’d score. The way we played. The lack of experience we had on that team. More than anything else, that’s what I remember. … I think it all started with that team. We were his hothouse, his greenhouse of his ideas, and it sort of all got going.” —Randy Cross, 49ers center/guard 1976–88

5. 1985 Chicago Bears

Record: 15–1, Super Bowl XX champions

Coach: Mike Ditka

Hall of Famers: Mike Ditka (HC), Walter Payton (RB), Jim Covert (OT), Dan Hampton (DT), Mike Singletary (LB), Richard Dent (DE)

Chicago’s defense shut out the Giants and Rams in the playoffs that season by a combined 45–0.

Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated

Why they mattered:

No single team is more iconic than the 1985 Bears, known for their physicality on the field and flash off it.

But the Bears were much more substance than simply style. Chicago invented and then perfected the 46 defense under coordinator Buddy Ryan, who believed in bringing an inordinate amount of pressure to harass the quarterback. The results were staggering. The Bears led the NFL in numerous defensive categories while racking up 64 sacks, with Richard Dent leading the club with 17.

In the postseason, Chicago became the first and (to date) only team in the Super Bowl era to not allow a point in its conference playoffs, before blowing out the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, 46–10.

While the dominance remains notable, it was the 46 defense that lives on. While nobody has run it in such a prominent fashion since, there are elements of the pressure-heavy scheme across the league. Ryan was a visionary, using an eight-man front to dissuade teams from running while trying to figure out who was coming on a blitz and who was dropping.

The result was one of the best teams to ever play and a defensive tactic that lives on.

Panel quote:

“The 1985 Bears were so dominant and such pop-culture crossover superstars that they sang ‘The Super Bowl Shuffle’ and produced a rap video that became an MTV hit with three games left in the regular season. They called their shot, going 15–1, and trounced the Patriots 46–10 for the Lombardi Trophy. Coach Mike Ditka somehow kept all these alpha personalities together—himself included—for one glorious championship season. Iconic running back Walter Payton was 32 years old but amassed 2,034 yards from scrimmage. Punky quarterback Jim McMahon went undefeated as a starter. Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense was revolutionary, posting back-to-back playoff shutouts, with Defensive Player of the Year Mike Singletary in the middle, Richard Dent the rare defensive Super Bowl MVP and rookie William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry a household name.” —Tim Graham, senior NFL writer, The Athletic

Team quote:

“It was a metamorphosis of the Buddy Ryan philosophy, and so much of that was built on ‘if you don’t got it, find it.’ If we didn’t have pass rush, then you’ve got to send another guy. And then when we started adding the great talent like Richard Dent and Steve McMichael, The Fridge (William Perry) and linebackers Otis Wilson and Wilber Marshall, then it became lethal. Even though we only had 64 sacks the year of the Super Bowl, the year before we set the NFL record with 72. It was the basis of what we wanted to do. But that team was special because in the Super Bowl, we had nine first-round draft picks starting. We had [three] second-round picks starting. It was the product of [former general manager] Jim Finks and [coach] Mike Ditka, and it was terrific.” —Dan Hampton, Bears defensive end/tackle, 1979–90

4. 1950 Cleveland Browns

Record: 10–2, NFL champions

Coach: Paul Brown

Hall of Famers: Paul Brown (HC), Marion Motley (FB), Otto Graham (QB), Len Ford (DE), Mac Speedie (WR), Dante Lavelli (WR), Lou Groza (OT/K), Frank Gatski (C)

Graham was a dynamic quarterback for the Browns.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Why they mattered:

In 1950, the NFL was going through its first major merger, inheriting three franchises from the All-America Football Conference. The Browns, who came over from the AAFC after winning all four of its league titles, were expected to be an also-ran in the more established league.

Cleveland and coach Paul Brown recalibrated everyone’s expectations in the first game, crushing the two-time defending champion Eagles, 35–10. The win was led by quarterback Otto Graham, who threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns.

By season’s end, the Browns were 10–2 and had won the NFL title with a 30–28 victory over the Rams. Cleveland went on to play in the next five NFL championship games, winning two of them.

More importantly, Brown brought a slew of innovations to the NFL, including film study, modern scouting practices, calling in plays from the sideline, the face mask and many others. Perhaps most notable, Brown’s offensive scheme gave the sport a new way to pass-block, which meant the line was shaped more like a boomerang than a straight line.

It’s impossible to overstate how revolutionary both Brown and his team were, helping usher the NFL into an era of prosperity after struggling to find its footing in the U.S. for its first 30 years.

Panel quote:

“The Browns won 10 of 12 games that season, outscoring opponents 310–144, and defeated the Rams for the league championship. Fullback Marion Motley was the NFL leading rusher, and seven Browns were in the Pro Bowl. It started a stretch of six consecutive championship game appearances, and they won three, all with Graham under center. In Graham’s 10 Browns seasons, they advanced to the title game every year and won seven.” —Howard Balzer, Pro Football Hall of Fame voter

3. 1972 Miami Dolphins

Record: 14–0, Super Bowl VII champions

Coach: Don Shula

Hall of Famers: Don Shula (HC), Larry Little (G), Jim Langer (C), Paul Warfield (WR), Bob Griese (QB), Larry Csonka (FB), Nick Buoniconti (LB)

The Dolphins set a new standard for success this season.

Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

Why they mattered:

Perfection. The 1972 Dolphins don’t have a legacy of innovation or scheme, but a legacy of dominance, setting a standard that hasn’t been achieved before or since their run.

Few teams are brought up more often when talking about excellence. In 1972, Miami was in the midst of a three-year run in which it appeared in the Super Bowl every season, winning the final two. It was the first great dynasty for an AFL team, further legitimizing the young group after it merged with the NFL two years before.

In that undefeated year, the Dolphins finished first in both points scored and against, registering a points differential of plus-214. They breezed through the regular season despite quarterback Bob Griese missing eight games with a broken leg. In his stead rose Earl Morrall, the 1968 NFL MVP who thrived under Shula with the Colts. With both in Miami, Morrall went 9–0 in his starts, buoyed by the rushing tandem of Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, who each ran for 1,000 yards.

Everything culminated in Super Bowl VII, where the Dolphins beat Washington, 14–7, becoming the only team in NFL history to win all of its games in the regular season and postseason.

Panel quote:

“Although the 1972 Miami Dolphins had compiled a 16–0 record, they were still slight underdogs to an 11–3 Washington team heading into Super Bowl VII. Late in the game, with Miami leading 14–0, Washington blocked a 42-yard field goal attempt by Garo Yepremian that somehow landed back in the hands of the diminutive Dolphins kicker. An ugly pass attempt by Yepremian was picked off by cornerback Mike Bass and returned for a touchdown, cutting the Dolphins lead to 14–7. After an unsuccessful Dolphins drive, and with just 42 seconds remaining in the game, the Dolphins’ ‘No-Name Defense’ sacked Washington quarterback Billy Kilmer and preserved Miami’s perfect season.” —Joe Horrigan, senior adviser, Pro Football Hall of Fame

Team quote:

“[Shula’s] pursuit of perfection in every game was second to none. His objective was to win the Super Bowl. As a result, we achieved it. If you wanted to enrage Don Shula, all you had to do was go through the motions and not pay attention. That was the most infuriating thing you could do to cause him to lose interest in you or perhaps trade you to another team. If you wanted to win, you had to pay the price. That’s the bottom line. You had to be willing to sacrifice, no matter what the situation. You had to pay great attention to the smallest detail. That’s an easy thing to say but a very difficult thing to do. And we achieved it.” —Larry Csonka, Dolphins fullback, 1968–74 and ’79

2. 1958 Baltimore Colts

Record: 9–3, NFL champions

Coach: Weeb Ewbank

Hall of Famers: Weeb Ewbank (HC), Johnny Unitas (QB), Lenny Moore (RB), Raymond Berry (WR), Art Donovan (DT), Gino Marchetti (DE), Jim Parker (OT)

The 1958 championship game won over a major media market for football.

Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

Why they mattered:

The 1958 Colts didn’t just win a championship. They changed professional football forever in the U.S.

While the NFL was gaining popularity in the post–World War II era, it still lagged significantly behind Major League Baseball. That began to change in earnest on Dec. 28, 1958, when the Giants hosted the Colts at Yankee Stadium for the league title.

Trailing 17–14 in the dying minutes, Hall of Fame Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas executed the two-minute drill to perfection, a rare sight in that era. After Baltimore tied the score on a field goal, the game went to sudden death, creating the first overtime period in NFL history.

In the extra session, the Colts drove down and scored on an Alan Ameche plunge, giving Baltimore its first NFL championship, 23–17.

While the game was great, it was the reverberation that mattered most. On that cold day, many Americans were doing something uncommon in those days and impossible to ignore now: They were watching television. And for all the nation to see, the Giants and Colts showed the NFL could not only be a gladiator sport, but an art form with drama.

The Colts’ championship gave a glimpse of what the NFL could—and eventually did—become.

Panel quote:

“They lived in modest homes, next door to the fans who rooted for them. They were built masterfully. They arrived in Baltimore in 1953 with two Hall of Famers—Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan—and within five years drafted or signed Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Jim Parker (all Hall of Famers), plus Alan Ameche. In their date with destiny, Dec. 28, 1958, they captivated a sporting nation by defeating the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium, in overtime, to win the world championship. Perfect timing for connecting television, sports and Madison Avenue.”—Ernie Accorsi, former Giants general manager

1. 1968 New York Jets

Record: 11–3, Super Bowl III champions

Coach: Weeb Ewbank

Hall of Famers: Weeb Ewbank, Joe Namath (QB), Don Maynard (WR), Winston Hill (OT)

Namath is best remembered for his role in the Jets’ upset of the Colts.

Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

Why they mattered:

In 1965, Alabama quarterback Joe Namath was selected with the No. 1 pick in the AFL draft and the No. 12 selection in the NFL draft, spurning the NFL for the riches of Sonny Werblin’s Jets, taking an eye-popping $427,000 contract.

In his fourth year with New York, Namath and a ferocious defense led the Jets to an AFL title and were 18-point underdogs to the one-loss Colts in Super Bowl III. To the shock of almost everyone—except Namath, who guaranteed they’d win the game—they won, 16–7, giving the upstart league its first victory in three tries over the established NFL.

While the 1970 AFL-NFL merger had already been agreed upon, the Jets’ victory is the most important in pro football history. The Jets showed the AFL was on par, something hammered home the following year by the ’69 Chiefs, who pummeled the Vikings—13-point favorites—in Super Bowl IV. Instead of the merger being seen as a necessary business decision that could hurt the sport from a competition standpoint, it established the AFL’s superiority over the best the NFL had to offer for the second consecutive year.

Moreover, the upset in Super Bowl III sparked additional interest in the AFL and the merger, giving a boost to a sport that was taking over the country by the late 1960s.

Panel quote:

“People remember the shocking upset, and the Jets getting five turnovers on the way to a 16–7 Super Bowl win, but they tend to forget the epic AFL championship game won by New York in a windy Shea Stadium over the Oakland Raiders. It was a rematch of the bonkers ‘Heidi Game’ played in mid-November in Oakland. The Raiders outgained the Jets in that AFL title game but had to settle for three short field goals (nine, 20 and 26 yards). The rest was up to Namath, his guarantee and the hubris of the Colts, who acted like they’d already won the game.”—Michael MacCambridge, NFL historian, best-selling author

Team quote:

“The goal is to win a championship on any level. I remember being in the training room and Sal Marchiano asked me about it and I just had three words, man, ‘We did it.’ We did it. … Our rings say world champion. We did it. Those dreams, since you were a child, since junior high ball, high school ball, college ball, to win a championship at the top level. Wow. We did it. That’s the way I felt then and now. I still get goosebumps talking about it. It was great.” —Joe Namath, Jets quarterback, 1965–76

Related: The NFL’s 50 Most Influential Teams

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