In the run-up to the most recent Super Bowl, I found myself again wondering why so few of the Super Bowls of the 1980s were mentioned. Every list of top ten plays or moments made barely any references to the 1980s.
Then, in a moment of insight, I realized why! There were only two, maybe three games in the entire decade that were close. There were few game-winning drives, or “TSN Turning Points”, because the games were virtually all blow-outs.
Looking deeper, the lack of close games illustrated an interesting trend in NFL history: there was a competitive imbalance. One conference was superior to the other the entire time, and that would continue on well into the 1990s, before correcting itself.
If it wasn’t for the Oakland cum Los Angeles Raiders, the NFC won every Super Bowl – and it was no fun at all.
One trend to another?
The start of the decade continued a trend that had gone on much of the 1970s. The AFC won every Super Bowl in the decade, with the exception of two wins by the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowls after the 1971 and 1977 seasons. In fact, three teams dominated the decade – the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders. So, at the dawn of the 1980s, it did not seem like much was changing when the Raiders defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 to win the first championship of the decade and their second in five years.
The next year, the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 to win their first Super Bowl and begin what became their claim of being the best team of the decade. The year after that, the Washington Redskins, led by quarterback Joe Theismann, runningback John Riggins, a massive offensive line called “The Hogs” and a suffocating defence, beat the Dolphins at the Rose Bowl 27-17.
However, the next year, the Los Angeles Raiders, recently transplanted from Oakland, ended Washington’s dream of back-to-back championships by defeating the Redskins 38-9 in Tampa Bay to win the Super Bowl after the 1983 season.
So, four years into the decade, the AFC had won two and the NFC had won two.
It didn’t seem like there was much to separate the two conferences.
That would soon change.
Not a trend – domination
The NFC would reel off six straight wins to end the decade, and seven more to start the 1990s for a total of 13 straight wins – a dominating performance to say the least.
It started with San Francisco winning their second Super Bowl in four years, a 38-16 win over Miami at Stanford Stadium. The next year the Chicago Bears, one of the most dominating and intimidating teams of the decade, blew out the New England Patriots 46-10.
The decade closed out with four Super Bowls in which either Denver or San Francisco, or both, appeared.
The Super Bowl after the 1986 season saw Denver qualify by staging one of the most memorable comebacks against Cleveland in AFC Championship Game history. Quarterback John Elway led a comeback that became described simply as “The Drive” to take the Broncos to overtime where Rich Karlis kicked the winning field goal in overtime. Two weeks later they were thumped by the New York Giants by a score of 39-20, as Phil Simms, the New York quarterback, turned in one of the best performances in history, going 22 of 25 for 268 yards and an 88 per cent completion rate.
Denver was back the next year, defeating Cleveland once again, this time by recovering “The Fumble”, to face the Washington Redskins. This time, the Redskins were led by Doug Williams, who became the first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl, and unheralded Timmy Smith who rushed for a record 204 yards. The Redskins scored an unprecedented 35 points in the second quarter to thrash the Broncos 42-10.
The Super Bowl after the 1988 season was a rematch of the 1981 Super Bowl between San Francisco and Cincinnati. This time it went down to the wire. Quarterback Joe Montana led a drive to win the game on a pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left for the 20-16 victory.
Coincidentally, the only two close Super Bowls of the decade were between these two teams.
The last Super Bowl of the 1980s was a fitting one, between the two most successful teams of their conferences. San Francisco had won three Super Bowls already and was on a quest for a second straight one and fourth of the decade. Denver was appearing in their third Super Bowl in four years (defeating Cleveland in the AFC Championship for a third time as well), making them the most prolific AFC team of the decade.
The 49ers punctuated the NFC’s domination of the decade by hammering Denver by the biggest margin in history, handing the Broncos a 55-10 drubbing in New Orleans.
So, by the close of the decade, the AFC and NFC Championship Games were the entertaining ones to watch, because they were usually close and exciting.
The Super Bowl was rarely very close, or entertaining at all.
Every time I see a Top 10 list of Super Bowl moments, or highlights, there is very little from the 1980s. When the AFC did win, it was the Raiders, and they blew out their opponents in both those Super Bowls. Oddly, the only time the games were settled by less than a touchdown, it was when San Francisco played Cincinnati twice.
The rest of the games were routes.
The NFC had become so dominant, observers were beginning to worry about competitive balance, and suggesting changes to the playoff format.
That was needless because, even though the NFC streak extended to 13 straight Super Bowl wins and 15 out of 16, the AFC finally did win, and has been winning more of its fair share ever since.
Ironically, it was John Elway and his Denver Broncos, victims of three of those blow-out Super Bowls in the 1980s, who ended the NFC’s streak. He single-handedly, almost by force of will, led the Broncos over the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers after the 1997 season.
It was a measure of redemption for Elway and the AFC.