Who's better: The Cowboys of the 1990s or the Patriots of the 21st century?
That's the debate of the day following New England's 24-21 victory over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX. In fact, it may a debate for the ages. After all, Dallas and New England are the only two teams to win three Super Bowls in four years.
Cowboys fans and "pundits" cite Dallas's 20.6-point average margin of victory in Super Bowl victories over Buffalo (twice) and Pittsburgh as a sign of its superiority. The Patriots, meanwhile, have won all three of its Super Bowls by just three points each.
Plus, "the competition was much better back then," or so said a rather partial "pundit" Michael Irvin on the ESPN Super Bowl postgame show. Irvin, of course, played for those great Cowboys teams.
Yes, Dallas was dominant in two of those Super Bowls, particularly its 52-17 win over Buffalo in a game in which the Bills committed nine turnovers. The misty lens of history, however, tends to distort memory, alter reality and muddy the big picture. So we broke out a trusty old chamois cloth of clarity called the Cold, Hard Football Facts, wiped away the distorting effects of nostalgia and brought the past into crystal-clear focus.
Here's what we found: The best team of the New England dynasty, the 2004 Patriots, is better than the best team of the Dallas dynasty, the 1992 Cowboys. The 2004 Patriots, meanwhile, just laid to waste a series of powerhouse playoff opponents the likes of which the Cowboys never came close to facing. Consider this:
The 1992 Cowboys went 13-3, boasted a +166 point differential (409-243) and went 6-2 against quality opponents (including playoffs). Why are the 1992 Cowboys the best of the Dallas dynasty? They had the best record and boasted the greatest scoring differential among the three Dallas champions.
The 2004 Patriots went 14-2, boasted a +177 point differential (437-260) and went 10-1 against quality opponents (including playoffs). Why are the 2004 Patriots the best of the New England dynasty? They had the same record as the 2003 Patriots but boasted the greatest scoring differential of the three New England champions.
The 1992 Cowboys, meanwhile, had a relatively easy road on the way to its victory in Super Bowl XXVII. The 2004 Patriots just ran one of the toughest playoff gauntlets in NFL history on its way to victory in Super Bowl XXXIX.
The 1992 Cowboys bested the wildcard Eagles (12-5) in the divisional round; the NFC West champion 49ers (15-2) in the NFC title game; and the wildcard Bills (14-5) in the Super Bowl. Their playoff opponents, in other words, included just one divisional champ and were a combined 41-12 (.774).
The 2004 Patriots bested the AFC South champion and wildcard Colts (13-4) in the divisional round; the AFC North champion Steelers (16-1) in the AFC title game; and the NFC East champion Eagles (15-3) in the Super Bowl. Their playoff opponents, in other words, included three divisional champs and were a combined 44-8 (.846).
Of Dallas's three champions in the 1990s, the 1992 Cowboys actually faced the toughest road in the playoffs. The 1993 Super Bowl champion Cowboys faced playoff teams who had a combined record of 35-17 (.673). The 1995 Super Bowl champion Cowboys faced playoff teams who had a combined record of 37-16 (.698).
The Patriots of the 21st century have overcome tougher opponents every step of the way. The 2001 Super Bowl champion Patriots faced playoff teams with a combined record of 41-11 (.788). The 2003 Super Bowl champion Patriots faced playoff teams with a combined record of 41-13 (.759).
In its three Super Bowl-winning postseasons, Dallas played just two opponents who were 12-4 or better in the regular season. One was 14-2.
In its three Super Bowl-winning postseasons, New England played seven opponents who were12-4 or better in the regular season. Four were 13-3 or better. Two were 14-2 or better. One opponent was 15-1.
In three Super Bowl years, the Cowboys beat nine playoff opponents with a combined .715 winning percentage. In three Super Bowl years, the Patriots beat nine playoff opponents with a combined .797 winning percentage.
Yes, Dallas won its Super Bowls by bigger margins. But the quality of the teams the Cowboys faced bared scant resemblance to the gauntlet of juggernauts New England had to overcome on its way to three Super Bowl champions.
Bottom line: the best team of the Patriots dynasty is better than the best team of the Cowboys dynasty. Cold, Hard Football Facts don't get much more obvious than that.