NFL’s 12 best betting seasons of the Super Bowl Era
The NFL season is still a ways away. We know the 2020 schedule, and opening lines have been released for Week 1, Monday Night Football games and some other key matchups.
But while we wait for the real action to begin, why not take a look back at some of the best betting seasons in NFL history?
Our NFL Nation reporters give their perspective on the best individual seasons against the spread, using research from ESPN Stats & Information.
2004 Los Angeles Chargers (13-1-2, .929)
In a stark turnaround from a 4-12 record in 2003, the 2004 San Diego Chargers finished 12-4 and won the AFC West. Rookie quarterback Philip Rivers watched from the sideline as Drew Brees set out to prove the Chargers didn’t need to take a QB in the first round. Brees passed for 27 touchdowns with seven interceptions as he — along with running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates — earned Pro Bowl honors. Tomlinson scored a league-best 17 rushing touchdowns and Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer was named the NFL Coach of the Year as the Chargers capped the season with their first playoff appearance in nine seasons … a wild-card loss to the Jets. — Lindsey Thiry
2003 New England Patriots (13-2-1, .867)
This was when Tom Brady the sixth-round pick was starting to become Tom Brady the star. The 2003 season was his fourth in the NFL (third as a starter) and came after a 9-7 year in which the Patriots had missed the playoffs. Bill Belichick had shockingly cut safety Lawyer Milloy before the season opener and the Patriots lost their first game 31-0 to the Bills, who had signed Milloy. But after a 2-2 start to the season, the Patriots never lost again, as Brady’s star began to shine brighter en route to a second Super Bowl championship. — Mike Reiss
1968 Baltimore Colts (12-2, .857)
Success for the Colts in 1968 seemed like a long shot after quarterback Johnny Unitas — league MVP in 1967 — was injured in the final preseason game. However, backup quarterback Earl Morrall stepped in and threw for 2,909 yards and 26 touchdowns while going 13-1 as a starter during the 1968 season. Don Shula, the coach at the time, had a defense that was ranked first in the league and an offense ranked No. 2 that helped the Colts get to the Super Bowl, where they were double-digit favorites over Joe Namath and the New York Jets. Namath and his “guarantee” were this team’s downfall, as the Jets upset the Colts 16-7. — Mike Wells
1975 Houston Oilers (12-2, .857)
The 1975 Houston Oilers went 10-4 but finished one game behind the Bengals for a wild-card spot. All four of the Oilers’ losses came against the Bengals and Steelers. The Oilers’ season was highlighted by a four-game winning streak starting in Week 4 and capped by a three-game winning streak that included a victory over the Raiders. It was the franchise’s first winning season in seven years and its first season under coach Bum Phillips. Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was the team’s most dynamic player, returning three punts for touchdowns. — Turron Davenport
1972 Miami Dolphins (11-2-1, .846)
Dolphins fans shouldn’t have a hard time remembering why the 1972 season is their best against the number — this is the only team to go undefeated in NFL history. Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris became the first pair of teammates to rush for more than 1,000 yards each in a given season, and the Dolphins won 11 of their 14 regular-season games by double digits. The No-Name Defense never got the love that offense did, but it was the best defense in football that season, securing three shutout victories (including a 52-0 win over the Patriots) and allowing opponents to score more than 17 points only three times. This was the first Dolphins title in what ended up being a mini-dynasty from 1970 to 1974 with five division titles, three AFC championships (1971, 1972, 1973) and two Super Bowl wins. — Cameron Wolfe
1980 Atlanta Falcons (13-3, .813)
Behind quarterback Steve Bartkowski and running back William Andrews, the Falcons won the franchise’s first division title (NFC Western Division) with a 12-4 record. That season included a nine-game winning streak, which was a franchise best. Individual franchise records were established, too, with Bartkowski (3,544 passing yards, 31 touchdowns), Andrews (1,308 rushing yards) and receiver Alfred Jenkins (1,025 receiving yards) all hitting high-water marks at the time. Linebacker Al Richardson created a turnover in nine consecutive games out of the 3-4 scheme. And the Falcons had six Pro Bowl selections. — Vaughn McClure
1989 San Francisco 49ers (13-3, .813)
It should be no surprise that the 1989 team, which went 14-2, was so good against the spread given that it was one of the best and most complete teams in NFL history. That juggernaut of a squad was first in the league in points scored, third in points allowed and had a plus-189 scoring margin on its way to a 45-point victory in Super Bowl XXIV.
Quarterback Joe Montana put together one of the best seasons in history, posting a passer rating of 112.4 in the regular season before a red-hot postseason run in which he improved that passer rating to a whopping 146.4 as he collected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year awards and was named Super Bowl MVP. The star-studded Niners had six Pro Bowlers and five first- or second-team All-Pros. — Nick Wagoner
1991 Dallas Cowboys (13-3, .813)
Perhaps this was a sign of things to come for the Cowboys, who went on to win three Super Bowls in four seasons from 1992 to ’95. They went 11-5 in 1991, just two years removed from a 1-15 campaign. This was a young team, growing together and learning how to win. And they won their last four games without an injured Troy Aikman. The Cowboys found their formula with Emmitt Smith running the ball at least 25 times per game and a stifling defense allowing more than 14 points just once in Games 13-16. Jimmy Johnson won his first playoff game, a wild-card victory against Chicago, as his young team started to come of age. — Todd Archer
1999 St. Louis Rams (13-3, .813)
The 1999 Rams coached by Dick Vermeil were dubbed the “Greatest Show on Turf,” as they outscored opponents 526-242, produced an 8-0 record at home and finished the season 13-3 with a Super Bowl XXXIV title.
The offense was led by four future Hall of Fame players: quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk, receiver Isaac Bruce and left tackle Orlando Pace. The defense also was among the best in the NFL. It ranked first against the run, allowing only 74.3 rushing yards per game; was tied for the lead in sacks with 57; and produced seven interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. — Lindsey Thiry
2010 Detroit Lions (13-3, .813)
The Lions were still rebuilding from their disastrous 0-16 season in 2008 and were starting to build for the future with wide receiver Calvin Johnson in his prime and a first-round pick ready to take over the league in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and a dynamic young running back in rookie Jahvid Best. Detroit also had a young starting quarterback in Matthew Stafford — and his shoulder injuries are a likely reason why the Lions were able to do so well against the spread. Stafford was limited to three games in 2010, but the combination of Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton — though not imposing as quarterbacks — could get Detroit out of a game.
The way the season unfolded — starting 2-10 before winning four straight to end the season — did two things: It set expectations low on the Lions toward the end of the year to pick up games against the spread and in a bigger picture helped set up the team’s run to the playoffs in 2011 with a healthy Stafford. The Lions played all but four games — losses to New England, Minnesota and Dallas, along with a win over St. Louis — incredibly close, again helping the spread numbers. — Michael Rothstein
2015 Minnesota Vikings (13-3, .813)
Mike Zimmer’s second season in Minnesota featured a four-game improvement from his first. The Vikings finished 11-5, winning their first NFC North title since 2009 and clinching a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2012. Teddy Bridgewater showed promise in his first full season as a starter (3,231 passing yards, 14 TDs, 9 INTs, his first Pro Bowl) the same year the Vikings got Adrian Peterson back from suspension. Peterson led the NFL in rushing with 1,485 yards in his All-Pro/Pro Bowl season.
But all the excitement and hope built during the regular season came crashing down in a 10-9 wild-card loss to the Seahawks when kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds of the game. — Courtney Cronin
2016 Patriots (13-3, .813)
The four games without Tom Brady to open the season, as Brady served a suspension handed down from the NFL, were a big part of the Patriots’ success in 2016. They went 3-1 in those games, winning with Jimmy Garoppolo and then Jacoby Brissett after Garoppolo was injured. When Brady returned, he didn’t miss a beat, helping carry the team all the way to a Super Bowl championship in the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history — trailing the Falcons 28-3 in the third quarter before charging back to win 34-28. — Mike Reiss