Fired up for another round of the NFL playoffs? You know Tom Brady is. This weekend marks his 16th postseason appearance since he took over as the Patriots’ starting quarterback in 2001.
The five-time Super Bowl champion isn’t out of gas, either, having led New England to three of the past four Super Bowls and seven straight AFC Championship Games. He is precisely why the Patriots’ dynasty is among the longest in major pro sports history.
So what qualifies as a sports dynasty? Simple. Multiple championships — preferably more than two — over an extended period of time. With help from ESPN Stats Info, we’ve developed a list of 20 teams since the 1970s that, along with the Pats, can call themselves elite.
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Miami Dolphins, 1971-73
The rings: Super Bowl champions in 1972, ’73
The ringleader: Don Shula
Memorable matchup: Although points were at a premium in Super Bowl VII, the Dolphins achieved perfection. They defeated the Redskins 14-7 — the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history — to become the only NFL team to complete a season undefeated at 17-0. But the number 17 nearly cost them the 1972 championship. Miami attempted to cap its 17-0 season with a 17-0 shutout over Washington. In the final minutes and ahead 14-0, Miami sent in Garo Yepremian for a 42-yard field goal. Uh-oh. It was blocked and returned for a touchdown, making the score 14-7. Washington even got the ball back with a chance to tie, but Miami got the stop it needed to seal the title.
What set them above: Talk about beating the odds: The Dolphins running the table in 1972 was all the more unlikely after starting quarterback Bob Griese suffered a serious leg injury in the fifth game and didn’t return until the AFC Championship Game. But a running game powered by Larry Csonka and the “No-Name Defense” helped make the Dolphins dominant. They clearly were the NFL’s best team from 1971 to 1973, going 36-5-1 in the regular season and playing in the Super Bowl in each season. But that ’72 squad, for obvious reasons, is the measuring stick for every Dolphins team going forward. “These teams live in the shadow of the ’72 Dolphins,” former linebacker Nick Buoniconti told the Palm Beach Post in 2012. “It’s a real big shadow that casts itself across the field, and it’s very difficult for them to measure up to those standards. I feel for them, because when you’re getting measured against perfection, it’s pretty tough.”
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974-79
The rings: Super Bowl champions in 1974, ’75, ’78, ’79
The ringleader: Chuck Noll
Memorable matchup: The Steelers shot past the rest of the NFL by defeating the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Each team was seeking a third Super Bowl title, with the Cowboys going for consecutive crowns. But Terry Bradshaw made sure the Steelers’ dynasty rolled on. He recorded Super Bowl records of 318 passing yards and four touchdown passes in a 35-31 victory, earning MVP honors. The Steelers then had to survive a late Dallas rally to capture the title. With Pittsburgh ahead 35-17, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach tossed two TD passes in the final six minutes, but it wasn’t enough.
What set them above: The Steelers’ run was proof that hitting on draft picks, no matter the era, is essential to a team’s success. Noll selected Joe Greene, Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Jack Ham and Franco Harris from 1969 to 1972. Each of those players was enshrined in Canton. In 1974, Noll hit the lottery with his draft class, nabbing four future Hall of Famers: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. Indeed, Noll had an eye for talent. He had the love of his players, too. “A lot of times, guys go around and make remarks about coaches and things like that, just kidding around. But nobody ever kidded around. They had the greatest respect for Chuck,” former Steelers assistant coach Dick Hoak said.
San Francisco 49ers, 1981-89
The rings: Super Bowl champions in 1981, ’84, ’88, ’89
The ringleaders: Bill Walsh (1981-88), George Seifert (1989)
Memorable matchup: Trailing by three and with 3 minutes, 10 seconds left in Super Bowl XXIII, the 49ers had to go 92 yards to reach the end zone to beat the Bengals. No sweat. They had Joe Cool, after all. Known for his late-game wizardry, quarterback Joe Montana led the 49ers down the Joe Robbie Stadium field on 8-of-9 passing, including connecting with John Taylor for the winning score with 34 seconds on the clock. It was the 49ers’ third Super Bowl title in an eight-season span and the last with the legendary Walsh on the sideline.
What set them above: The 49ers won 10 or more games eight times from 1981 to 1989, with Montana running Walsh’s West Coast offense. With the likes of star skill players Roger Craig, Jerry Rice and Dwight Clark in the mix, San Francisco led the NFL in total offense seven times in the ’80s. But clearly Montana was the star of the show. In his four Super Bowl wins, Montana completed 83 of 122 passes (68.0 percent) for 1,142 yards and 11 touchdowns with no interceptions, earning game MVP honors three times. It’s easy to see why he’s arguably the greatest QB ever. “The minute I saw Joe move, there was no question in my mind that he was the best I’d seen,” Walsh said in 2005, referring to Montana’s pre-draft workout. “I knew with the offense I planned to run, Joe would be great.”
Dallas Cowboys, 1992-95
The rings: Super Bowl champions in 1992, ’93, ’95
The ringleaders: Jimmy Johnson (1992-93), Barry Switzer (1994-95)
Memorable matchup: Most observers will remember Super Bowl XXVII for Leon Lett’s lollygagging to the end zone, but the game was just the beginning of Dallas’ run of dominance. The Cowboys blasted the Bills 52-17 on Jan. 31, 1993, forcing a Super Bowl-record nine turnovers. Troy Aikman threw for four touchdowns, helping Johnson become the first coach to win both a college national championship and a Super Bowl.
What set them above: Perhaps Johnson was ahead of his time. He made everyone forget about his first season leading the Cowboys, in which they went 1-15 in 1989, by putting together a roster loaded with talent and depth. To do that, Johnson had to think outside the box. He made 51 trades in his five seasons in Dallas, acquiring mostly draft picks. His most famous deal, of course, was when he sent star running back Herschel Walker — one of the Cowboys’ few valuable commodities at the time — to the Vikings for a slew of draft picks that helped make up the core of Dallas’ success, including Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland and Darren Woodson. “I was playing fantasy football before there was fantasy football,” Johnson told ESPN in 2014. Johnson, whose relationship with team owner Jerry Jones soured, left the Cowboys after winning the Super Bowl in the ’93 season. Still, the foundation was firmly in place.
New England Patriots, 2001-present
The rings: Super Bowl champions in 2001, ’03, ’04, ’14, ’16
The ringleader: Bill Belichick
Memorable matchup: When your run is approaching 20 seasons, there’s obviously a lot to choose from. Malcolm Butler‘s game-clinching interception in Super Bowl XLIX and the Patriots’ historic championship comeback two years later come to mind. But we’ll go with possibly the most surprising of the Patriots’ five championships: the first one. New England was a whopping 14-point underdog against the Rams, who outgained their opponents by more than 2,200 yards in the regular season, in Super Bowl XXXVI. But the Patriots kept “The Greatest Show on Turf” in check and led by 14 in the fourth quarter. The Rams tied it with 90 seconds remaining — just enough time for a kid named Brady to take his first steps toward becoming a household name. He drove the Patriots 53 yards, setting up Adam Vinatieri‘s 48-yard winner at the final gun. It was the first time a Super Bowl was won by a score on the final play.
What sets them above: It isn’t difficult to figure this one out. Coach and quarterback, Belichick and Brady, have been with the Patriots throughout this span of success. Belichick has been a master game planner and has excelled in finding the right personnel pieces at bargain prices: landing Randy Moss for a fourth-round draft pick, trading a second-rounder for Corey Dillon, drafting a QB from Michigan in the sixth round in 2000 … you get the picture. It’s no surprise that includes Brady, a four-time Super Bowl MVP and a 14-time Pro Bowler. As a result, the Patriots have had 18 straight winning seasons and have won 10 or more games in 17 of those, including a 16-0 regular season in 2007. “How easy is that for all of us to just take it easy?” former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi told the Washington Post prior to last season’s Super Bowl. “Winning four, that’s enough. Winning five, that’s enough. [But] it just doesn’t stop. It’s an addiction. Winning becomes an addiction.”
Los Angeles Lakers, 1980-88
The rings: NBA champions in 1980, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’88
The ringleaders: Paul Westhead (1980-81), Pat Riley (1981-88)
Memorable matchup: The Lakers’ final championship in their 1980s run was perhaps their most grueling, as they went the distance with the physical Pistons in 1988. The Pistons led the series 3-2 and nearly closed it out in Game 6 in L.A. Pistons star point guard Isiah Thomas, who badly sprained his ankle in the third quarter, managed to score 25 points in the third and finished with 43 and eight assists. But it wasn’t enough. The Lakers forced a seventh game at home, and did James Worthy ever deliver. The forward recorded his only career triple-double, with 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists. They didn’t call him “Big Game James” for nothing.
What set them above: Want to be the hot ticket in Hollywood? Gotta have some sizzle. And boy, did the Lakers know how to put on a show. Led by point guard Magic Johnson, Worthy and center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers, who played in the NBA Finals eight times in the ’80s, attracted some of the biggest names in showbiz to the Forum with their up-tempo flair. Jack, Arsenio, Dyan, they were just a few of the celebrities who paid a bundle to sit courtside for Showtime. “It was an incredible time,” Hall told ESPN in 2011. “I was living in Michigan while Magic was going to college, and when he came here, I got to watch the Magic Show shift. Initially, I went to the Forum to meet Paula Abdul, but I left a Lakers fan.”
Boston Celtics, 1981-86
The rings: NBA champions in 1981, ’84, ’86
The ringleaders: Bill Fitch (1981), K.C. Jones (1984-86)
Memorable matchup: Love the NBA? We’ll go back to 1984 for a look at the rivalry that helped save the league: Bird vs. Magic. That year brought the first of three grueling Finals played by the Lakers and Celtics in the ’80s, with the ’84 classic going seven games. The headliners didn’t disappoint. Johnson averaged 18 points, 7.8 rebounds and 13.6 assists in the series, while Bird carried the Celtics to the championship. He recorded 27.4 points, 14 rebounds and 3.6 assists per contest, earning Finals MVP honors. Not long after, the NBA exploded in popularity.
What set them above: Although the team embraced “Celtic Pride,” Boston’s blue-collar rallying cry, it had loads of talent. Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge and, of course, Larry Legend, the guy who seemed to make everyone around him so effective. Bird won three straight league MVP awards from 1984 to 1986 and was Finals MVP twice, including in ’86 against the Rockets. He averaged 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists in that six-game series. Perhaps former Boston Globe scribe Bob Ryan best summed up Bird’s performance — and overall brilliance. “The Houston Rockets were like an unwary couple pulled over on the highway for going 3 miles over the speed limit by a burly Georgia cop with the mirrored sunglasses,” Ryan wrote after Game 6. “The cop’s name was Bird. The bailiff’s name was Bird. The court stenographer’s name was Bird. The judge’s name was Bird. And the executioner’s name was — guess what? — Bird.”
Chicago Bulls, 1991-98
The rings: NBA champions in 1991, ’92, ’93, ’96, ’97, ’98
The ringleader: Phil Jackson
Memorable matchup: Want to be like Mike? Start by clocking in for work the next time your body has been blitzed by a bug. That’s what Jordan did in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals versus the Jazz, putting on one of the most memorable performances in NBA history. Jordan barely had the strength to move, it seemed, needing help from teammate Scottie Pippen just to walk to the bench during timeouts. That didn’t stop MJ from scoring 38 points and hitting a tie-breaking 3 with 25 seconds left in what has been dubbed “The Flu Game.” Oh, yeah, he was named series MVP, and the Bulls won in six games.
What set them above: Michael. Jordan. Yes, the Bulls had a legendary coach and a solid supporting cast, including a Hall of Famer in Pippen, but they had arguably the greatest player in NBA history leading the way. Jordan powered the Bulls to six titles in an eight-season span and was Finals MVP each time. In fact, the only time Chicago wasn’t hoisting championship banners during that time was when Jordan left the team for nearly two seasons to give hitting curveballs a try. After the Bulls won their sixth and final crown in 1998, author and Chicago sports historian Jack M Silverstein captured Jordan’s thoughts on the Bulls’ dynasty. “Y’all can say whatever you want,” Jordan told everyone and no one. “They can’t win until we quit.”
San Antonio Spurs, 1999-2017
The rings: NBA champions in 1999, 2003, ’05, ’07, ’14
The ringleader: Gregg Popovich
Memorable matchup: Too old. That’s perhaps how some viewed the Spurs heading into the 2013-14 season. Big man Tim Duncan was turning 38, and star guards Manu Ginobili was 36 and Tony Parker 32. Worse, the Spurs could have been mentally broken after blowing a 3-2 series lead in the NBA Finals to Miami the previous season. Instead, they were driven. San Antonio’s veteran stars made it to the Finals again and had another crack at the Heat. This time, the series was never in doubt. The Spurs won in five games, with each of their victories coming by double digits, ending Miami’s two-year run atop the league. It was championship No. 5 for the Spurs and possibly their most gratifying.
What set them above: In the past 20-plus years, the Spurs have been the standard in the NBA. Just check out this consistency: With Popovich in charge, the Spurs won 50 or more games in 19 of 20 seasons from 1997-98 to 2016-17. The only season in which they didn’t win 50 was the strike-shortened 1998-99 campaign, one that saw them go 37-13 and win it all. Duncan, one of the NBA’s all-time great post players, was there throughout virtually the entire run, and Popovich managed to keep together the team’s core, including Parker and Ginobili. In a video for ESPN in 2016, Popovich, who was sitting with his “Big Three,” said it was simple to see why the Spurs were so steady. “You guys lead the way, it makes it easy for us [coaches] to have everybody else follow. It’s a huge part of why things work the way they do.”
Los Angeles Lakers, 2000-04
The rings: NBA champions in 2000, ’01, ’02
The ringleader: Phil Jackson
Memorable matchup: With the Lakers never seriously threatened in their three NBA Finals wins during this run, it can be argued that the series that got them to their first title shot might have been the most important. In the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals versus Portland, it appeared that the Lakers’ season was about to come to a shocking end. The Blazers won Games 5 and 6 to stay alive and led by 15 in the final quarter in Los Angeles. But the Lakers went on a 15-0 run to get even, then pulled away. Perhaps you remember the lob from Kobe to Shaq with under a minute left? Speaking of those two …
What set them above: With Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers were virtually unstoppable in the early 2000s. O’Neal was Finals MVP each time they won the title, and Bryant was becoming basketball’s most exciting player. But the story of this Lakers team was what they could have accomplished but didn’t. The two alphas butted heads, and soon after the Lakers were upset by the Pistons in the 2003-04 Finals, Shaq was shipped to Miami. Dynasty over. Even their rivals were stunned by the premature ending. “The competitive part of me feels like the Soviet Union just disbanded,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Miami Heat, 2010-13
The rings: NBA champions in 2012, ’13
The ringleader: Erik Spoelstra
Memorable matchup: You couldn’t have blamed league officials for bringing out the yellow tape to cordon off the floor for the presentation of the Larry O’Brien Trophy late in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. The Spurs were set to close out the Heat, leading by five with 28.2 seconds left. But LeBron James hit a 3 with 20 seconds left, and Kawhi Leonard made just one of two free throws after being fouled. The Heat had a chance and turned to — who else? — James to get them even. He missed a 3, but Chris Bosh grabbed the rebound and tossed the ball to Ray Allen for a 3 from the right corner with 5.2 seconds left. Swish! In overtime, Miami hung on for a 103-100 win, forcing Game 7. And was James ever clutch. He scored 37 points, hit five 3-pointers and sealed the Heat’s second straight championship with a jumper in the final minute.
What set them above: LeBron took a ton of criticism for “The Decision” to ditch Cleveland in free agency and join pals Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami in 2010. Whether fans thought it was a cheap road to winning a championship, there’s no question that the trio succeeded in their quest to make the Heat an NBA dynasty. They spent four seasons together, reaching the NBA Finals in each and winning consecutive titles in 2012 and 2013. “The vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true,” James said during a news conference following the Heat’s 2013 Finals victory. “Through adversity, through everything we’ve been through, we’ve been able to persevere and been able to win back-to-back championships. It’s an unbelievable feeling, and I’m happy to be a part of such a first-class organization.”
Golden State Warriors, 2015-present
The rings: NBA champions in 2015, ’17, ’18
The ringleader: Steve Kerr
Memorable matchup: The Warriors have won three NBA titles in the past four seasons, mostly cruising in their Finals wins. It can be argued that their most thrilling series victory came last season in the Western Conference finals, in which they were nearly bounced by the Rockets. Houston led the series 3-2 before losing star point guard Chris Paul to a hamstring injury. Advantage Golden State, right? Not quite. The Warriors had to overcome double-digit deficits in Games 6 and 7, including a 17-point margin heading into the second quarter at home in Game 6. The Warriors turned up their D and held the Rockets to an unfathomable 25 points in the second half, including nine in the fourth quarter, to force a seventh game in Houston. Golden State outscored the Rockets 58-38 in the second half of Game 7 en route to another Finals berth.
What sets them above: Ask someone which team is the most exciting to watch in major pro sports, and chances are you’re going to get the Warriors as the answer. It’s a basketball fan’s fantasy, really. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson relentlessly pushing the pace and putting up historic shooting numbers … what more could one want? That style no doubt has led Golden State to play in the past four NBA Finals, winning three, with each coming against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. Even the finest player on the planet is sold on the Warriors’ greatness. “Listen, Golden State is one of the best teams I’ve ever played,” James said during last season’s Finals. “It’s one of the best teams that’s ever been assembled.”
Oakland Athletics, 1972-74
The rings: World Series champions in 1972, ’73, ’74
The ringleader: Dick Williams (1972-73), Alvin Dark (1974)
Memorable matchup: The A’s, who hadn’t won a World Series in 42 years, had a chance to end their skid in 1972. All they had to do was knock off the powerful Reds — and do it without slugger Reggie Jackson. Indeed, Oakland was a heavy underdog entering the series, but it stunned observers by winning in seven games, with each of its four wins coming by one run, including three victories in Cincinnati.
What set them above: Long before the Bash Brothers were hitting bombs and Moneyball was born, the Swingin’ A’s were dominating baseball, winning three straight world titles from 1972 to 1974. This success despite a rather frugal owner in Charlie Finley, whose meddling was believed to be a major reason manager Dick Williams resigned after the team won the ’73 crown. Team chemistry also wasn’t exactly high during Oakland’s dynasty, with infighting seemingly the norm. But the A’s were a competitive bunch, and they had each other’s backs on the field. Take the 1974 World Series versus the Dodgers, for example. A Dodgers player said that Jackson and Jim “Catfish” Hunter were the only two A’s players good enough to crack the L.A. lineup. How’s that for bulletin board material. “Somebody taped the newspaper up in our locker room,” A’s catcher Gene Tenace told the San Jose Mercury News. “Nobody said anything to the media. Nobody said anything to the Dodgers. We just went out and beat them. … You rattle our cage, and we took it to another level.”
Cincinnati Reds, 1970-76
The rings: World Series champions in 1975, ’76
The ringleader: Sparky Anderson
Memorable matchup: Ask a longtime baseball fan which was the greatest World Series ever played, and it’s likely that the ’75 Fall Classic still makes the cut. The Big Red Machine knocked off the Boston Red Sox in seven games, with the final two especially thrilling. Boston tied the series in Game 6, when Carlton Fisk hit a rocket over Fenway Park’s Green Monster in left field in the 12th inning, seemingly guiding the ball to stay fair with his outstretched arms. But the Reds wouldn’t be denied. They rallied late to win Game 7 4-3, capturing the first of two straight world championships.
What set them above: Watching the Reds play throughout their run was like watching the NL All-Star team play on a nightly basis. Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, George Foster, Ken Griffey Sr., Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo — yeah, the Reds were stacked. That group, known as the “Great Eight,” yielded 63 All-Star Game appearances, six NL MVP winners and three Hall of Famers. From 1970 to 1976, the Reds won the NL West five times and played in four World Series. Even fellow big league stars seemed in awe of the Big Red Machine, including Davey Lopes, who regularly faced them while playing for the rival Dodgers. “They were as good as you’ll ever see,” Lopes told the Los Angeles Times. “In ’75 and ’76, they may have been in a league by themselves.”
New York Yankees, 1996-2000
The rings: World Series champions in 1996, ’98, ’99, 2000
The ringleader: Joe Torre
Memorable matchup: The 1996 World Series appeared all but over after two games. The Yankees were shellacked by the defending world champion Braves at Yankee Stadium. With the series headed to Atlanta, championship banner No. 23 was surely going to have to wait for the Bombers. Instead, they were breaking out the bubbly less than a week later. New York won all three games in Atlanta and took Game 6 back in the Bronx, with three of those victories coming against Future Hall of Famers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. The Yankees won their first World Series in 18 years — and they weren’t close to being finished dominating baseball.
What set them above: While the “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams got the majority of the headlines, they had tons of help in winning four world championships from 1996 to 2000. Guys such as Jim Leyritz, Scott Brosius, Chad Curtis, Paul O’Neill, Jorge Posada, Chuck Knoblauch and Tino Martinez, to name several, will never have to buy their own beverages again in the Bronx. “When somebody would walk into our clubhouse, even someone with a high profile, they didn’t come in saying, ‘Here I am.’ They came in saying, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and that made a huge difference,” manager Joe Torre told the YES Network in 2014. “I don’t think any one person could have come in and disrupted that because there was too much quality among the players.”
Montreal Canadiens, 1975-79
The rings: Stanley Cup winners in 1976, ’77, ’78, ’79
The ringleader: Scotty Bowman
Memorable matchup: The Canadiens pulled some magic in the 1979 semifinals against the Bruins, overcoming a 3-1, third-period deficit in Game 7 before winning in overtime on a Yvon Lambert goal. Montreal finished its four-peat in the next round, with a five-game Stanley Cup Final victory over the Rangers.
What set them above: The Canadiens’ roster during this dynasty was dotted with Hall of Famers such as goaltender Ken Dryden, forward Guy LaFleur and defenseman Larry Robinson. They combined for three dominant seasons, highlighted by a 1976-77 season in which the Canadiens set NHL records for points (132) and season goal differential, and they were able to claw together for a fourth cup. Bowman, who joined Montreal after leading the Blues to multiple Cup Finals in the early 1970s, knew he had a special group when he arrived. “The team was hungry, and once they started winning in 1976, that’s all they wanted to do,” he said. “It was a tremendous team. We had a lot of players who are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
New York Islanders, 1979-83
The rings: Stanley Cup winners in 1980, ’81, ’82, ’83
The ringleader: Al Arbour
Memorable matchup: In a “watch how it’s done, kids” series, the Islanders gave the fledgling Oilers a tough lesson in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final, as they swept the star-studded youngsters in four games to win their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup.
What set them above: The Islanders were a potent mix of skill, with forwards Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy providing the flash, and toughness in the form of Brent Sutter and defenseman Denis Potvin. The Islanders were especially dominant during the 1981-82 season, as they won a then-NHL record 15 games in a row — all coming in regulation. They swept three of their four Stanley Cup-winning Finals series (their first against the Flyers took six games) and are the only American-based franchise in NHL history to win more than two consecutive titles. As Potvin succinctly put it after the 1982 Cup: “We’re the best that’s ever skated, and if anyone doesn’t believe it, they’re just kidding themselves.”
Edmonton Oilers, 1983-90
The rings: Stanley Cup winners in 1984, ’85, ’87, ’88, ’90
The ringleader: Glen Sather
Memorable matchup: The Oilers were taken to the limit by the Flyers in the 1987 Cup Final, as the Flyers forced a Game 7. But Mark Messier and Jari Kurri scored to help the Oilers to a 3-1 victory and the third of their five Cups.
What set them above: Pure firepower, led by The Great One. Wayne Gretzky was the leader of an offense that was unmatched in NHL history, as Edmonton scored an NHL-record 446 goals in 1983-84 en route to its first Cup Final, in which the Oilers dethroned the four-time defending champion New York Islanders. Gretzky wasn’t alone, though, as Messier, Kurri, Esa Tikkanen and Paul Coffey aided the Oilers’ irresistible offense. The Oilers were so potent that they were able to win a Cup after Gretzky was traded to the Kings in the summer of 1988. “All I know is that 15 years from now, I’m going to say, ‘Gawd, I played on a great hockey team,'” Gretzky said.
Chicago Blackhawks, 2009-15
The rings: Stanley Cup winners in 2010, ’13, ’15
The ringleader: Joel Quenneville
Memorable matchup: It was as if Patrick Kane was going to stop at nothing to be a hero in Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks’ star fired a shot from the left side just over four minutes into overtime, then started celebrating his apparent championship-clinching goal like a madman. One problem: Where the heck was the puck? The red light on top of the net that signifies a goal never went off. Was Kane trying to pull a fast one in Philly? As it turned out, the puck indeed got past Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton and was stuck in the padding at the bottom of the net. After replay confirmed the goal, the Blackhawks officially celebrated snapping a 49-year Stanley Cup drought.
What set them above: No team has been as successful as the Blackhawks in the NHL’s salary-cap era, which began in 2005. Chicago had one of the league’s all-time great coaches in Quenneville and a stellar core during its seven-season run, with Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. But the Blackhawks found ways to thrive despite having to turn over more than 50 percent of their roster from their first championship in 2010 to their second in 2013 as they worked around the cap. “When you have to do it on the fly, like Chicago did it, you’re looking at the players having to adjust and the coaching staff having to figure things out and find roles for players, and the players have to feel like they have worth,” NHL Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier told NHL.com. “Those small-minute guys have to feel like they’re contributing as much as the 20-minute guys. … To do it within the basement and the ceiling of the salary cap, teams have to juggle a lot. It’s impressive.”
The rings: First Division championships in 1976, ’77, ’79, ’80, ’82 ’83, ’84, ’86, ’88, ’90; European Cup titles in 1977, ’78, ’81, ’84
The ringleaders: Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan (1983-85), Kenny Dalglish (1985-90)
Memorable matchup: The Liverpool dynasty started with a late-season burst in 1976, as the Reds won eight of their last nine matches (they drew the ninth) to finish one point ahead of the Queens Park Rangers in the Football League First Division. They overcame a late 1-0 deficit in the last match of the season to finish the job, as Kevin Keegan, Josh Toshack and Ray Kennedy scored in the final 14 minutes to beat the Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-1. Toshack’s goal in the 85th minute was the championship winner. Also impressive during this lengthy run of dominance was a then-Premier League-record 29-game unbeaten streak to start the 1987-88 season, with only two losses in that campaign.
What set them above: Liverpool have had many great managers in their storied history, but none is as revered as Paisley — for good reason. Paisley led LFC to 20 cups and titles in his nine years as manager, and his ability to adjust his roster on the fly kept Liverpool going even after he retired after the 1982-83 season. He won four First Division titles and two European Cups (now UEFA Champions League) in his first six seasons on teams led by Kenny Dalglish, David Johnson and Tommy Smith. Paisley retooled the club with younger players such as Ian Rush, who led him to two more First Division titles before he retired. Paisley’s rebuild helped successors Joe Fagan and Dalglish to another dynasty after he left. Paisley’s will to win made him the Bill Belichick of English football, embodied by his quote, “I’ve been here during the bad times, too. One year we came in second.”
Manchester United, 1992-2003
The rings: Premier League championships in 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2002-03; UEFA Champions League title in 1998-99
The ringleader: Alex Ferguson
Memorable matchup: The 1998-99 season saw Manchester United win a treble, as they clinched each title in a 10-day period between May 16 and May 26. They won the Premier League championship on May 16 to cap a 20-game domestic league win streak, defeated Newcastle United 2-0 for the FA Cup on May 22 and shocked Bayern Munich 2-1 in the UEFA Champions League final on May 26, thanks to two extra-time goals by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
What set them above: Talent, talent and more talent. While Ferguson is one of the best managers in English football, this era of Man United football featured a who’s who of soccer royalty. From star goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel to prolific strikers such as Solskjaer, Eric Cantona and Ruud van Nistelrooy to midfielders such as Roy Keane and David Beckham Jr., the Red Devils were stacked. It was no surprise that Ferguson observed, “All they can talk about is Manchester United.” While he was referring to Manchester Derby rival Manchester City in that quote, he could have been referring to every side in England with that statement.
ESPN editor Theodore Berka also contributed to this story.