Which team has the better chance at winning the Super Bowl—the best team or the hottest team?
This is a question I found myself answering during a recent radio interview when the host asked a simple question every guest is asked this time of year: Who is going to win the Super Bowl?
Who is going to win the Super Bowl? I was oddly taken aback by the query, which is particularly strange considering the entire discussion had been about the NFL. Just hours after the playoff berths had been decided, I was totally unprepared to give an opinion on who I thought was going to win the Super Bowl.
I offered the boilerplate answer by picking the Broncos over the Patriots in the AFC, and with no faith in the Atlanta Falcons at all, I went with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC.
Hearing myself sound so damn vanilla, picking basically the same Super Bowl as everyone else in NFL punditry, I hedged a little, saying I "wouldn't be surprised" if the winner of the Redskins-Seahawks Wild Card Game made a run to the Super Bowl. After all, the hot team has been doing rather well in the last few years.
Or has it? Since I got off that radio call I've felt a bit, well, lazy for going with the stock answer in the AFC and throwing out that off-the-cuff remark about the hot team without facts to back it up.
Now, will the Washington Redskins make the damn Super Bowl or not? Answer the question!
I will answer that question, I promise. (And the short answer to the original question is that it's good to be the hottest and best team. You're welcome, fans in Denver.)
But there is more to it than picking the team with the longest winning streak, so it's important to look at some of the historical trends and year-by-year results that may or may not* shed some light on what's going to happen in the NFL playoffs this year.
*I say may or may not because there really is no way to use historical data to portend who will win a game this year. Even if the top seeds made it to every Super Bowl in history, that doesn't necessarily give this year's top seeds any more of an advantage.
The Virtues of Being "Hot"
Let's consider the "hot team" notion with a look at the last five Super Bowl champions.
The New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI after a 9-7 regular season that had them 7-7 with two must-win games to play. The Giants won those games and then caught fire in the playoffs en route to winning another Lombardi Trophy.
The year before last, the Green Bay Packers were 8-6 before winning their last two regular-season games and qualifying for the playoffs via tiebreaker over two other wild-card teams. Four games later, the Packers had run the playoff table to become the third wild-card team to win the Lombardi Trophy in six years. (Check out Ty Schalter's great piece on how wild-card teams perform in the playoffs for more.)
After the last two years, it sure looks like my radio comment about the hot teams playing best in the playoffs made sense. Laziness is being rewarded!
Then the research took us back to 2009. The New Orleans Saints were 13-0 on the season before losing their last three games. Sure, the games were meaningless, but pundits thought the run of poor performances could be a bad sign for New Orleans come playoff time.
Those pundits were wrong. New Orleans won its first Super Bowl despite heading into the playoffs colder than any other team in the tournament.
The year before the Saints won it all, the Steelers took home another title after finishing the regular season by winning six of their last seven games.
See, this isn't to suggest being hot heading into the playoffs isn't a key to advancing in the tournament. Being hot certainly helps teams advance, but it's really hard to stay hot for a month, meaning that being the hot team heading into the playoffs doesn't necessarily mean much for getting all the way to the Super Bowl.
If there is a great reminder of the hot team—the team on the longest winning streak—not always bringing home a championship, it came after the 2007 season when the undefeated New England Patriots fell to a Giants team that had lost two of its last three regular-season games. So much for being hot.
How the Top Seeds Fare
Having said that, the Giants' win in Super Bowl XLII also proved that sometimes the best team doesn't win either. In fact, the best team—at least in terms of regular-season records—hasn't won the Super Bowl in 10 years. (Sorry, people of Denver and Atlanta.)
I took a look at three markers in recent NFL history to see if the best team not winning is the continuation of a pattern or a newer development over the last few years. First, I looked at the 34 Super Bowls since 1978-79, when the league expanded to a Wild Card Round. Second, I looked at every season since 1990-91, when the league expanded the playoffs to include 12 teams. Third, I looked at the Super Bowls since Roger Goodell has been commissioner.
The numbers are interesting, to say the least.
In the 34 Super Bowls since the 1978 season, a top seed from the AFC or NFC has won 17 times, exactly half the time. In those 34 games, the top seed from each conference has met seven times, with at least one top seed from either conference playing in the Super Bowl in 28 of the last 34 seasons.
Historically, there is a pretty strong case for the best teams making the biggest game.
In the 22 Super Bowls since the Wild Card Round expanded, a top seed in either conference has won nine times, with both top seeds facing each other just three times. Having said that, at least one top seed has made the Super Bowl in 18 of the last 22 seasons.
What's even more telling is that in the 12-team playoff era, where the top two seeds from each conference get byes, 33 of the 44 Super Bowl teams were No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in their conference.
Just 11 times since the Wild Card was expanded has a team that played on Wild Card Weekend made the Super Bowl. Earning the bye has immense historical significance.
Goodell and Parity
However significant that may have been in the past—there had to be a however—the bye-week delineation has been far less significant under Goodell's stewardship.
Since Goodell took over as NFL commissioner in 2006, a top seed has won the Super Bowl just once, despite a top seed appearing in five of those six games. The only time a top seed has won the Super Bowl under Goodell was after the 2009 season, when both top seeds made the game. Funny enough, the Saints had fewer wins than the Indianapolis Colts that year, so despite both teams having the same conference seeding, the Colts actually had the best record in football.
Since Goodell has been in charge, the team with the better overall record heading into the Super Bowl has won the game just once. The "best team in football"—at least in terms of regular-season record—has never won.
In the last six Super Bowls, a team that played on Wild Card Weekend has won four times, and a team with a first-round bye has won just twice.
Of course, this could have nothing to do with Goodell and more to do with the general development of parity in the league. Let's not forget the Steelers won the Super Bowl as the sixth-seeded team in the AFC the year before Goodell took over from Paul Tagliabue.
I'm not trying to blame Goodell for any of this, mind you. In fact, it's actually made the playoffs more fun to prognosticate (and watch).
If, historically speaking, the better teams have won, the results over the last five or six years have strayed from that pattern a bit. Keep in mind when picking your Super Bowl teams this year that at least one bye team has made the Super Bowl in every season since the playoff tournament expanded, with two bye teams making the game 11 times in 22 years.
In other words, it's fine to pick the Redskins, Seahawks, Vikings or Packers, but not if you also plan to pick the Ravens, Colts, Bengals or Texans. The safer bet, of course, is to pick two teams that have off on Wild Card Weekend, which is why the Broncos vs. the 49ers, while boilerplate, seems like a pretty good pick.
Oh, to answer that Redskins question from before? Sure, the team is hot, and I wouldn't rule out anything Robert Griffin III can do on a football field, but with three rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs and two playing each other in the first round, I doubt this is the year a rookie-signal caller gets his team to the Super Bowl. Maybe next year, Washington…if you earn a bye.