The reason that’s a notable game is precisely because the 49ers were six-point favorites. That marked the first time since week 2, 1999 — when the Rams had not yet been recognized as the Greatest Show on Turf — that St. Louis was not favored to win a game. For the final 14 regular season games and the three playoff games in 1999, all seventeen games in 2000, all 19 games in 2001, and the first four games in 2002 — a stretch of 57 straight games — the Rams took the field as favorites. That’s the longest streak since 1978, and perhaps ever. And I’m not sure if this makes that fact more of less impressive, but all things considered, the Rams’ record wasn’t that great during the stretch. Part of the reason for the streak was that St. Louis generally had a weak schedule those years, but continually being favored to win games without a great record is an interesting (and rare) sign of respect.
The list isn’t too surprising. You have the great ’84 49ers and some residual goodwill going to Joe Montana’s crew second at 39 games. The Cowboys, in the post-Roger Staubach era, made the NFC Championship Game in 1980, 1981, and 1982, so their third-place slot maybe isn’t so surprising. Dallas was favored in the ’81 NFCCG (the “Catch”) and caught a bit of luck facing the ’82 Skins in Washington during the strike (and, in many ways, in what was *the* replacement game). In a sign of how well-regarded this Cowboys team was, remember that in ’82 Washington won the Super Bowl and in ’83 the team was arguably even better, going 14-2 and setting a record for points scored with 541. But Dallas traveled to D.C. in both the ’82 playoffs and the opener of the ’83 season, and was favored in both games. The streak didn’t end until they were a pick’em at San Francisco in the finale of 1983, a game we’ll come back to later. 1
I don’t have points spread data before 1978, so I don’t know if another Steel Curtain team had a longer streak. I can tell you that the streak in the table didn’t start in 1977, as Pittsburgh was a 3-point dog against the Rams in 1978, and the 35-game streak didn’t start until the first playoff game that season.
The 49ers won the Super Bowl in ’88 and ’89, and nearly threepeated. But San Francisco was just 10-6 in 1988, and was an underdog in week 3 of the 1989 season. That came at Veterans Stadium, site of one of Joe Montana’s most famous comebacks: the 49ers were 3-point underdogs, the Eagles defense sacked Montana 8 times, and Philadelphia took a 21-10 lead into the fourth quarter. But Montana threw four touchdowns in the final frame, and San Francisco was favored in their next 34 games. One narrative regarding the ’90 Giants, who upset the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, is that they were a gritty underdog in the mold of the ’01 Patriots. That’s not true at all: in the recently released 1990 DVOA regular season ratings, the Giants were number one. Here’s more proof: the Giants were 1.5-point favorites in week 1 of the 1991 season, and beat San Francisco 16-14. I don’t actually know, but I suspect the ’02 Rams would have been something like a six-point favorite if they had opened that season at Foxboro.2
How would the streaks look if we ignored the postseason? Not much would change at the top, although the Rams would drop to 50 games and the 49ers steak that ended in ’86 would be only 35 games long. That matches a later streak from the same franchise: from week 8, 1993, until week 10, 1995, the 49ers were favored in 35 straight regular season games. San Francisco was favored in 39 of 40 total games during that streak, as the 1993 NFC Champinship Game (played in January 1994) in Dallas was the only time the 49ers were underdogs. In fact, those 49ers teams were favorites just about any time they weren’t playing Dallas. In week 7, 1993, the 49ers were 6.5 point underdogs in Dallas, and week 11, 1995, the Elvis Grbac-led team was a 13.5-point underdog in Dallas. That means for 71 straight games, the 49ers were favorites 68 times, and played in Dallas the other three times.3The ’96 through ’98 49ers were favored in 33 straight regular season games. After a week 7 game in Green Bay against Brett Favre and the Packers, San Francisco was favored in their final 10 games of the year, every game in ’97, and their first seven games of ’98…. until heading back to Lambeau Field. During that streak, the only times the 49ers were underdogs were in two playoff games against Green Bay.
How’s this for impressive: Starting in week 12, 1991, and ending in week 18, 1998, the 49ers played 131 games, including the postseason. They were underdogs in only eight of them: three in games in Dallas (all in years the Cowboys won the Super Bowl), including one in the playoffs; four in games against the Packers (three of which were in Lambeau), two of which were in the playoffs, and one game against Miami, in a game featuring against Dan Marino when Grbac was the starter. And in that game, the 49ers won in Miami 44-20, when Grbac threw for 382 yards and four scores.
But here’s the craziest stat. In week 16 of the 1983 season, the 49ers were a pick’em in a game against the Cowboys. That was the last regular season home game the 49ers weren’t favored to win until facing Warner’s Rams in 1999. That’s a streak of 123 consecutive games! Jerry Rice had already caught 1,175 passes, gained 17,939 receiving yards, and caught 166 touchdowns before he played a regular season home game as an underdog. And the 49ers were not underdogs (as opposed to favorites) in 139 straight regular season games, as including the push against Dallas stretches the streak back to the middle of the ’81 season. Incredible.
In non-49ers news…. excluding the postseason, Washington was favored in 32 straight regular season games from 1990 to 1992, and the Cowboys in 31 straight from ’81 to ’83.
The longest active streak belongs to the Patriots, who are at 18 including their week three matchup against Tampa Bay. But that might change when New England goes to Atlanta in week four. The second-longest active streak belongs to Denver at 14, including the Broncos’ week three game against the Raiders. That one looks pretty safe for awhile. But the obvious takeaway: It’s Tom Brady’s and Peyton Manning’s world, we’re just living in it.
- Dallas opened the ’84 season in Los Angeles and was a two-point dog against the Rams, so the “not being an underdog in any game” streak didn’t last much longer. [↩]
- Further support: the Rams were 4/1 to win the Super Bowl that year, while the Patriots were at 20/1, per RJ Bell. St. Louis was also an 8.5-point favorite in Foxboro in 1999. For what it’s worth, the ’90 Giants were just 3.5 point underdogs against the 49ers in the greatest game there ever wasn’t. [↩]
- San Francisco was also an underdog in week 12, 1995, as Grbac was still the starter in a game in Miami. As for the Cowboys teams of that era…. late in the ’92 season, Dallas was a three-point dog at defending champion Washington. The Cowboys were also an underdog in the NFCCG that year in San Francisco and then in week 1 of the ’93 season in Washington; that was the last time Dallas was an underdog until week 11 of the ’94 season, when they traveled to San Francisco (that ended the 27-game streak in the table). They were favorites the rest of the year, then underdogs in San Francisco in the NFCCG (which they lost). Dallas was then favored in every game until playing in Philadelphia in 1996. [↩]