Some people are calling the New England Patriots the best team in NFL history. And if the Pats run the table in the playoffs -- starting with tonight's game against Jacksonville -- a lot of people will agree with them.
And they'll all be wrong. Only one team can be called the best of all time, and it ain't the Pats. That honor belongs to, and always will belong to, the Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the mid- to late 1970s that won four Super Bowls.
Pick any of their Super Bowl seasons, and those Steelers were better than these Patriots. And it doesn't matter that none of those Pittsburgh teams went undefeated.
It's all a matter of timing, and that's where the Patriots can't match up with the Steelers. You can't compare eras when it comes to talent, but you can compare them in other ways. And in this case, that means the era before free agency and the salary cap, and the era after they were made such an integral part of the game in 1994.
Those two related policy changes had an impact on the NFL like nothing else, with the possible exception of the college draft. They put restrictions on today's teams, restrictions the Steelers of the 1970s didn't have.
That's why it's impossible to put together a team like that now, and why nobody will ever touch them. Not even a team that goes 19-0.
This Patriots team had eight players selected to the Pro Bowl, and that's impressive. Those Steelers teams had nine players elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that's unparalleled.
Look at the Patriots roster, and how many Hall of Famers do you see? Quarterback Tom Brady, of course, and probably resurrected receiver Randy Moss and linebacker Junior Seau. Perhaps one or two more could make it if the Pats win a couple more Super Bowls.
But nine from one team in the same era? It's never happened before, and it'll never happen again. That Steelers squad should have its own wing at Canton.
Their Hall of Famers on offense include all the skill players -- quarterback Terry Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris and wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth -- and center Mike Webster. On defense, it was end Joe Green, cornerback Mel Blount and linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert.
So, Pittsburgh has more Hall of Famers from the '70s than the Eagles have had in 75 seasons. Plus, those Steelers teams had other players who made it to at least one Pro Bowl, like defensive end L.C. Greenwood, linebacker Andy Russell and defensive backs Donnie Shell, Glen Edwards and J.T. Thomas.
Then, the salary cap and free agency arrived, and everything changed. One of the great teams of the past 20 years was the Dallas Cowboys squad that won three Super Bowls from 1992 to 1995 with a star-studded lineup that had plenty of All-Pro players. When the salary cap and free agency era began, Dallas discovered it couldn't keep all of its stars.
Many of them left because the Cowboys simply couldn't squeeze all of those players under their cap, and Dallas became the first team that had to make the tough decision of whom to keep and whom to let walk away. They focused on quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and receiver Michael Irvin, but free agency and the cap chipped away at them until the Cowboys became just another team.
The Steelers' best players in the 1970s, their Hall of Famers, played their entire career in Pittsburgh, with the exception of Harris, who played his final season with Seattle, and Webster, who finished up with Kansas City.
New England deserves plenty of credit for the mini-dynasty it has created despite the salary cap. The Patriots are a very good team, and if they go 19-0 they'll be a great team. But they'll never be the greatest team.