Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

07 Oct 2004

Every Stat Tells a Story: Hey Nineteen

By Michael David Smith

You might have heard a little something recently about the Patriots tying a record shared by five other teams by winning 18 consecutive games. Well, that's not exactly right.

First of all, this isn't an official record of any kind. The NFL keeps regular season and postseason records separately, whereas the 18 games won by the Patriots and the teams they've tied include playoff and league championship games.

Second, if we are counting the postseason, there actually are six professional football teams with winning streaks of exactly 18 games. In addition to the five you've probably heard about, the Cleveland Browns of the old All-America Football Conference did it in 1947-48. The NFL for some odd reason doesn't count records of the AAFC as official, even though the Browns joined the league in 1950 and proved that the AAFC was legitimate by winning the NFL title.

As long as we are celebrating the Patriots, we ought to celebrate the six other teams that have won 18 straight. What I can't explain is why each of these teams hit the wall at exactly 18 games. Is there some mystical curse to the 19th game in a row? I leave that for the Patriots to deal with on Sunday.

Here are, in reverse chronological order, the teams that won 18 straight:

1997-98 Denver Broncos

Best players: Running back Terrell Davis, quarterback John Elway, offensive lineman Tom Nalen, tight end Shannon Sharpe, defensive lineman Neil Smith, linebacker Bill Romanowski

Most lopsided win: The first one, 38-3 against the Chargers. The next-biggest win was a 40-14 victory over the Raiders in win No. 16, as Mike Shanahan enjoyed beating up on Al Davis.

Closest call: The 24-21 victory at Pittsburgh in the 1997 AFC Championship.

Streak started: That 38-3 victory against the Chargers in the last game of the 1997 regular season. The Broncos had lost their two previous games, 35-24 at Pittsburgh and 34-17 at San Francisco.

Streak ended: A 20-16 loss at the New York Giants, who came into the game 5-8 and were led by quarterback Kent Graham. The Broncos were 13-0 and much talk centered on their chance to finish the season undefeated, but the loss to the Giants in the season's 14th game ended those hopes. Gary Brown carried 18 times for 112 yards and Graham hit Amani Toomer with a 37-yard touchdown pass with 48 seconds left to seal the victory. The Broncos lost the 15th game as well, to the Dolphins.

Comments: Patriots fans can learn a lesson from the Broncos when this streak finally ends. The Broncos played badly in those losses to the Giants and the Dolphins, but that didn't stop them from rebounding and winning their second consecutive Super Bowl.

1989-90 San Francisco 49ers

Best players: Quarterback Joe Montana, wide receiver Jerry Rice, linebacker Charles Haley, safety Ronnie Lott, guard Guy McIntyre, defensive tackle Michael Carter, kicker Mike Cofer

Most lopsided win: A big one, 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV against the Broncos.

Closest call: A 13-12 squeaker over the division rival Saints in the 1990 opener for Win No. 9.

Streak started: On Monday Night Football with a 34-24 win against the Giants. The week before the 49ers had lost 21-17 to Green Bay.

Streak ended: With a 28-17 loss against the Los Angeles Rams. The 49ers seemed to overlook their division rival Rams, who came in with a 3-7 record. Were the 49ers looking past the Rams at their showdown with the Giants? (The Giants also were undefeated and also lost the game preceding the big Monday Night Football showdown.) Rams running back Cleveland Gary scored three touchdowns, including one on a bizarre pass from fullback Buford McGee, who took a handoff, plowed into the line, then pitched the ball forward to Gary, who ran 22 yards untouched for the score. Buford hadn't crossed the line of scrimmage, so the play was legal.

Comments: Beware, Patriots, of overlooking the Dolphins. Will the Patriots look past the division rival Dolphins and instead focus on their next game, against undefeated Seattle? We shall see.

1972-73 Miami Dolphins

Best players: Wide receiver Paul Warfield, guard Larry Little, running back Larry Csonka, running back and kick returner Mercury Morris, linebacker Nick Buonicanti, safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott, quarterbacks Bob Griese and Earl Morrall

Most lopsided win: 52-0 against the Patriots for Win No. 9.

Closest call: 24-23 against the Bills for Win No. 6.

Streak started: With the first game of the perfect 1972 season, a 20-10 victory at Kansas City. The Dolphins ended the 1971 season with a loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI.

Streak ended: A 12-7 loss at Oakland (it was the Raiders' home opener, but they played in Berkeley's Memorial Stadium) in the second game of the 1973 season. The Dolphins got their revenge with a 27-10 win against Oakland in the AFC Championship, then won Super Bowl VIII.

Comments: Of all the teams here, this is the one that most reminds me of the Patriots: Not a lot of stars, but great depth and no real holes. The Dolphins were able to adjust to the Bob Griese injury much more easily than the Patriots would be able to adjust to a Tom Brady injury, but aside from that they're very similar. Don Shula thinks the Patriots have what it takes to have a perfect season.

1947-48 Cleveland Browns

Best players: Fullback Marion Motley, quarterback Otto Graham, ends Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli, centers Mike Scarry and Lou Saban, tackle Lou Rykmus, guard Bill Willis

Most lopsided win: They twice won by 42 points, a 49-7 beating of the Buffalo Bills in the 1948 championship game, and a 42-0 win at the Baltimore Colts in Win No. 2.

Closest call: A 14-10 win at the Colts in Win No. 8.

Streak started: A 27-17 win against the Los Angeles Dons on Thanksgiving of 1947. The previous week they had tied the New York Yankees 28-28.

Streak ended: With a 28-28 tie at Buffalo in the 1949 opener. I think it's fair to say that no team will ever bookend an 18-game winning streak with a pair of 28-28 ties again.

Comments:: The '72 Dolphins weren't the only team to make it through a full season of pro football undefeated. The Browns did it in 1948 en route to winning the third of their seven championships (four in the AAFC, three in the NFL.) From 1946 to 1955 the Browns played in every championship game and compiled a total record of 105-17-6.

1941-42 Chicago Bears

Best players: Quarterback Sid Luckman, halfback George McAfee, end Dick Plasman, guard Dan Fortmann, center Clyde "Bulldog" Turner

Most lopsided win: 47-0 against the Cleveland Rams for Win No. 17.

Closest call: A 34-24 victory over the Chicago Cardinals for Win No. 5. Yes, you read that right. The Bears won all 18 games in their streak by double-digit margins.

Streak started: With a 31-13 thrashing of the Rams, one week after a 16-14 loss to the Packers.

Streak ended: In the 1942 league championship game, as the Bears tried and failed at becoming the first undefeated, untied champions in pro football history. They lost to the Sammy Baugh-led Redskins, 14-6 Baugh threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Wilbur Moore, but his best play of the game was an 80-yard quick kick with the Redskins down 6-0 that completely changed the field position of the game. Coach George Halas wasn't around to see it, as he left after five games of the 1942 season to join the Navy.

Comments:: These Bears were incredible. From November 5, 1939, through the end of the 1943 season, they went 45-6-1, winning three championship games by margins of 73, 28, and 20 points.

1933-34 Chicago Bears

Best players: Fullback Bronko Nagurski, end Bill Hewitt, guard Joe Kopcha, center Ookie Miller, tackle Link Lyman, halfback Beattie Feathers, back and kicker Jack Manders

Most lopsided win: 41-7 against the Cincinnati Reds in Win No. 11. Beating the Reds by that margin wasn't too impressive, though; the Reds lost games by 38-0, 41-0, and 64-0 that year before moving mid-year and becoming the St. Louis Gunners.

Closest call: A 10-9 victory at New York to beat the Giants in Win No. 13.

Streak started: With a 17-14 win against the Portsmouth Spartans a week after losing 3-0 to the Giants.

Streak ended: A 30-13 loss to the Giants in the 1934 league championship game. Temperatures at the Polo Grounds were well below freezing, the field was icy, and the hometown Giants had the advantage of a wide selection of footwear, while the visiting Bears had only what they brought on the train. At halftime Coach Steve Owen told his Giants to change into basketball shoes. Ken Strong used the shoes to score two touchdowns and kick two extra points and a field goal, and the game became known as the Sneakers Game.

Comments:: I hope some day someone uncovers some old films of those Bears-Giants matchups. In 1933 and 34 the teams played six times -- twice each regular season and both years in the league championship game. Also, why don't players have names like this anymore? Aside from Bronko Nagurski, who has the greatest name in the history of football, we've got guys named Ookie, Link, and Beattie. That sounds like a cartoonist, not a football player.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 07 Oct 2004

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