Who ranks first in the all-time Super Bowl rankings? The answer might surprise you

If you polled some diehard NFL fans and asked them, “Which team has won the most Super Bowls?” you could be fairly certain that the overwhelming majority would know the correct answer: the Pittsburgh Steelers with six.

And if you polled the same fans and asked them, “Which quarterback has won the most Super Bowls?” you could also be pretty sure that most of them would correctly answer, “Tom Brady with five.”

But what if you asked that same sample of diehard fans to name the team that ranks first in the all-time Super Bowl standings? My guess is you’ll get a wide range of answers — none of them necessarily wrong. Most of this stems from people’s divergent definitions of Super Bowl success. I mean, do you know who ranks atop the Super Bowl standings on NFL.com? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not the same team that’s listed №1 by Pro-Football-Reference.com.

This Sunday the Patriots are playing in their record-extending 10th Super Bowl. If New England wins, they will tie the Steelers with the most all-time wins. But regardless of the outcome, the Patriots cannot supplant Pittsburgh atop the Super Bowl standings compiled by NFL.com or Pro-Football-Reference.com. Why? Because they’ll still have a worse winning percentage in the Super Bowl.

That’s right: They’re basically punished for reaching the title game but not sealing the deal.

On the face of it, this is absurd. On the other hand, it’s quintessentially American — and also great fodder for a bar stool debate.

For years, the gold standard of NFL quarterbacks was Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers, who was a perfect 4–0 in the Super Bowl. But last year, after Brady won a record-setting fifth title, many reasonably argued that the mantel had been passed. Sure, Brady had lost two Super Bowls (both to the Giants), but he’d appeared in and won more Super Bowls than anyone. Who could argue that he wasn’t the greatest signal-caller ever?

Well, this being sports, you could scatter a handful of peanut shells in any bar and nail a few people who would argue against the supremacy of Brady. And they wouldn’t necessarily be drunk Jets fans.

In the NBA, Michael Jordan is widely considered the best player in league history. Not only was he the league’s best player for many years (which is something Bill Russell cannot claim), but unlike Russell he was undefeated in the NBA Finals (6–0 for Jordan, 11–1 for Russell).

Rest assured that anytime a fan argues that LeBron James has replaced Jordan as the GOAT, someone will point out that LeBron is “only” 3–5 in the NBA Finals. Even if James were to win three more rings to tie Jordan, he’d “only” be 6–5 in the title round. Never mind that James has already helped his team to two more Finals appearances than Jordan compiled with Chicago. Nope, he gets punished in the GOAT conversation because his team lost several times in the Finals while Jordan’s teams went undefeated.

Better, it seems, for Lebron’s legacy if those teams of his that lost in the Finals had had the good sense to bow out in the conference finals.

Such is the thinking undergirding the Super Bowl standings compiled by NFL.com and Pro-Football-Reference, which are the two standard bearers for NFL records (though NFL.com has inexplicably not updated its standings to reflect last year’s New England win and in fact hasn’t updated that link in two years; the Pats are still listed at 4–4 all-time, so somebody at 345 Park Ave. needs to get on that).

Take a moment and think about this: Would you rather that your favorite team were 5–3 in the Super Bowl or 5–0? As a fan of the Steelers, who’ve lost two Super Bowls in my lifetime, I can honestly say I’d rather they be 6–2 than 6–0. The two additional appearances, though losses, amounted to a full month of wall-to-wall coverage of my favorite team. Sure, that added time widened the window for one of the players to get arrested for, say, soliciting a prostitute. But the anticipation of the Super Bowl is in many ways more exciting than the event itself. After all, you can spend the approaching two weeks reading about your team in private, while Super Bowl Sundays can often be spent in the trying company of people who know little about the sport.

If you get a moment this Sunday, ask a passive observer — ya know, someone who doesn’t know how many Super Bowls that Tom Brady has played in — whether it’s preferable to be 5–0 or 5–3 in the Super Bowl. And frankly, don’t be surprised if they say 5–0. After all, that’s the company line with the NFL and other record keepers.

In the meantime, congrats to the Baltimore Ravens, who are №1 in the Super Bowl standings on NFL.com — thanks to a 2–0 record. And congrats to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are №1 in the Pro-Football-Reference standings — thanks to having the most wins.

And tough luck to the New England Patriots, who would rank* 12th on the NFL.com Super Bowl standings with a 5–4 record (and .555 winning percentage); and do rank 4th on the Pro-Football-Reference standings behind the Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys.

Take heart, New England. No matter the standings, you’re still ranked way higher than the 0–2 Eagles.

* Seriously, NFL, clean up your Super Bowl site.