The Super Bowl was created as part of the merger agreement between the National Football League (NFL) and its competitive rival, the American Football League (AFL). After its inception in 1920, the NFL fended off several rival leagues before the AFL began play in 1960. The intense competitive war for players and fans led to serious merger talks between the two leagues in 1966, culminating in a merger agreement announcement on June 8, 1966. One of the conditions of the AFC-NFC Merger was that the winners of each league’s championship game would meet in a contest to determine the “world champion of football”. According to NFL Films President Steve Sabol, then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle wanted to call the game “The Big One”. During the discussions to iron out the details, AFC founder and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt had jokingly referred to the proposed inter league championship as the “Super Bowl”. Hunt thought of the name after seeing his children playing with a toy called a Super Ball; the small, round ball is now on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The name was consistent with postseason college football games which had long been known as “bowl games.” The “bowl” term originated from the Rose Bowl Game, which was in turn named for the bowl-shaped stadium in which it is played. Hunt only meant his suggested name to be a stopgap until a better one could be found. Nevertheless, the name “Super Bowl” became permanent.
After the NFC’s Green Bay Packers convincingly won the first two Super Bowls, some team owners feared for the future of the merger. At the time, many doubted the competitiveness of AFL teams compared with NFL counterparts. That perception all changed with the AFL’s New York Jets’ defeat of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami. One year later, the AFC’s Kansas City Chiefs defeated the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings 23-7 and won Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, the last World Championship game played between the champions of the two leagues, as the league merger finally took place later that year.
The game is played annually on a Sunday as the final game of the NFL Playoffs. Originally the game took place in early to mid-January following a 14-game regular season and playoffs. Over the years the date of the Super Bowl has progressed from the second Sunday in January, to the third, then the fourth Sunday in January; the game is now played on the first Sunday in February, given the current 17-week (16 games and one bye week) regular season and three rounds of playoffs. This progression of the date of the Super Bowl has been caused by the following: the expansion of the NFL regular season in 1978 from 14 games to 16, the expansion of the pre-Super Bowl playoffs from two rounds to three (also in 1978), the addition of the regular season bye-week in the 1990s, and the decision prior to the 2003 season to start the regular season the week after Labor Day, moving the start of the season to a week later than it had been (in 1997, for example, the regular season started on Sunday, August 31). Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle is often considered the mastermind of both the merger and the Super Bowl. His leadership guided the two competitors into the merger agreement and cemented the preeminence of the Super Bowl.
The winning team gets the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named for the coach of the Green Bay Packers, who won the first two Super Bowl games and 3 of the 5 preceding NFL championships (1961–62, 1965). Following his death in September 1970, the trophy was named the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and was first awarded as such to the Baltimore Colts at Super Bowl V in Miami. Super Bowl III was the first to be numbered. Super Bowls I and II were not known as such until the game’s third year and were named “The AFC-NFC World Championship Game” when they were played.
See also: List of Super Bowl champions
1966–1967: Packers’ early dominance
The Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, defeating the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. The Packers were led by quarterback Bart Starr, who was named MVP for both games. These two championships, along with the Packers’ NFL championships in 1961, 1962, and 1965 have led many people to consider the Packers to be the “Team of the 1960s.” Green Bay, Wisconsin is often referred to as “Title Town”; by its own residents due to the five championships the Packers won in the 1960s and its twelve championships since the team began playing in 1919.
1968–1979 AFL/AFC dominance
Super Bowl III featured one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history as the New York Jets, behind the guarantee of Joe Namath, defeated the 18-point favorite Baltimore Colts 16–7. Namath, the MVP of the game, and Matt Snell, 121 yards on 30 carries with a touchdown, led the Jets to victory. The win helped solidify the AFL as a legitimate contender with the NFL.
The 1970s were dominated by the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers, winning a combined six championships in the decade. Miami won Super Bowls VII and VIII, the former completing the NFL’s only perfect season. Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls (IX, X, XIII, and XIV) behind the coaching of Chuck Noll and play of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and Franco Harris—each receiving at least one MVP award—and their “Steel Curtain” defense led by Jack Lambert.
The only NFC franchise to win a Super Bowl during the decade was the Dallas Cowboys winning Super Bowls VI and XII. On the other end of the spectrum were the Minnesota Vikings, who lost Super Bowls IV, VIII, IX, and XI.
1980–1996: Two decades of NFC dominance
NFC teams won sixteen of the twenty Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s, including thirteen in a row from 1984 to 1996.
The 49ers lead the NFC domination of the 1980s
The most successful franchise of the 1980s was the San Francisco 49ers, who won four Super Bowls in the decade (XVI, XIX, XXIII, and XXIV). The 49ers were led by coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana. They were known for using the precision accurate, fast-paced west coast offense. The 1980s also included the 1985 Chicago Bears who finished the season 18–1 (a feat accomplished the prior year by the 49ers), and two championships for the Joe Gibbs-coached Washington Redskins. The Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders were the only AFC franchise to win a Super Bowl in the 1980s, winning Super Bowls XV and XVIII.
The Cowboys dominate the early 1990s
The Dallas Cowboys became the dominant team in the NFL in the early 1990s. After championships by division rivals New York and Washington to start the decade, the Cowboys won three of the next four Super Bowls. The Cowboys were led by Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, the first two of whom won MVP awards. The early 1990s also featured the Buffalo Bills appearing in four consecutive Super Bowls, although they lost all of them. The 49ers became the first team to win five championships with their win in Super Bowl XXIX, with the Cowboys accomplishing that same feat a year later. As both teams began to fizzle late into the decade, another NFC powerhouse, the Green Bay Packers, led by multiple-MVP quarterback Brett Favre, emerged, winning Super Bowl XXXI following the 1996 season.
1997–2000: The AFC rises again
In Super Bowl XXXII, quarterback John Elway led the Denver Broncos to an upset victory over the defending champion Packers, snapping the NFC’s 13-game winning streak, and beginning a streak in which the AFC would win eight of the next ten Super Bowls. The Broncos would go on to win Super Bowl XXXIII the next year, over the Atlanta Falcons, in Elway’s final game before retiring. After an NFC win by the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, the AFC continued its winning ways, with wins by the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots.
2001–2005: The Patriots’ Dynasty
The Patriots became the dominant team of the early 2000s, winning the championship in three of the first five years of the decade. In Super Bowl XXXVI Super Bowl MVP quarterback Tom Brady led his team to a 20–17 upset victory over the Rams. The Patriots also went on to win Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX. After championships by AFC rivals Pittsburgh and Indianapolis in Super Bowls XL and XLI, respectively, the Patriots responded in 2007 an undefeated regular season – only the second in modern NFL history and the first with a sixteen game schedule – which included a road win over the defending champion Colts. Despite the regular season performance, the Patriots were upset by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.