“The team with the hottest quarterback.”
“Momentum is what matters, so whoever was on a roll going into the postseason.”
“Defense wins championships, therefore the winner must be highly ranked in this area.”
Until the 2012 Super Bowl, I would have responded to the question with those same answers. But when the New York Giants became the first 9-7 team to win the “Big Game,” I reconsidered.
Prior to the 10-6 New York Giants upsetting the undefeated New England Patriots after the 2007 season, the only other 10-6 SB winner in the entire history of the game was the 1988 San Francisco 49ers. The 2010 Green Bay Packers were also SB winners with a 10-6 regular season record.
That means within five years, three teams with records that barely had them making the playoffs in the past ended up winning the Lombardi Trophy.
Clearly, something was afoot.
It turns out that starting in the 2006 NFL season, a lot of preconceived notions started falling by the wayside. What I believed, and what most fans believed, about winning the Super Bowl did not always apply.
So we will take a little excursion through the land of statistics, where much of what we accept as the truth is proven wrong. At least a majority of the time.
Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl XLI
From 2006-11, SB winners had a 17-13 record over the last five games of the seasons. Not a single one was 5-0 over that period, and two teams were 2-3 down the stretch.
|New York Giants||2011||3-2|
|Green Bay Packers||2010||3-2|
|New Orleans Saints||2009||2-3|
|New York Giants||2007||3-2|
The last 5-0 finisher to win the Super Bowl was the San Francisco 49ers in 1984, who rode a 15-1 regular season record to victory over the Miami Dolphins in Dan Marino's only Super Bowl appearance. New England went 5-0 in 2007, but fell to the Giants 17-14 in SB XLII.
This is how the losers fared in their final five:
|New England Patriots||2011||5-0|
|New England Patriots||2007||5-0|
Notice how the Patriots twice carried 5-0 marks into the playoffs, only to fall short in the end. In every year but 2008 the loser had a better record than the winner.
The San Francisco 49ers concluded the 2012 season at 3-2 while the Baltimore Ravens nearly missed the postseason with a 1-4 close.
Aaron Rodgers at Disney World
If he wants to ride down Main Street with Mickey, his play late in the season does not always play a role.
Four of the six QBs on the winning teams had lower passer ratings over those five games as compared to the entire regular season:
|Player||Year||Reg. Season||Last Five|
This predictor is 1.6 rating points (Roethlisberger, 2008) from being a tossup. All it demonstrates is that since 2006, teams and their signal callers have a tendency to take their foot off the gas as the 16-game schedule comes to an end.
Colin Kapernick of the 49ers was promoted to full-time starter in Week 11, giving him a smaller body of work than the Ravens' Joe Flacco. Kapernick's full season/five game comparison is 96.2/98.3, while Flacco's is 89.8/87.7.
Since 2006, four of the six winners have been middle of the pack or worse in yardage and/or points allowed. However, the defense must be opportunistic with a positive turnover differential. The sole exception was the New York Giants in 2007.
|New York Giants||2011||25th||27th||+7|
|Green Bay Packers||2010||2nd||5th||+10|
|New Orleans Saints||2009||20th||25th||+11|
|New York Giants||2007||17th||7th||-9|
In more than a few seasons, there appears to be an inverse relationship between having a highly-ranked defense and ultimate glory.
In a couple of Super Bowl games, the winner did lose the yardage battle (Pittsburgh 2008, New Orleans 2009). Not a single one lost the turnover battle.
San Francisco was third in yardage allowed and second in points allowed in the regular season, while Baltimore was 17th and 12th in the same categories. Both teams were plus-7 in turnovers, making that stat a wash.
The NFL is characterized as a passing league, but not when it comes to one-and-done time. Five of the last six SB winners have out-rushed their opponents in the postseason:
|Team||Year||Team Yards||Opp. Yards|
|New York Giants||2011||466||444|
|New Orleans Saints||2009||290||365|
|New York Giants||2007||415||296|
This includes three teams that did not outgain the opposition on the ground for the entire regular season:
|Team||Year||Team Yards||Opp. Yards|
|New York Giants||2011||1427||1940|
|Green Bay Packers||2010||1606||1838|
Most notable is the Colts in 2006. They had a deficit of over 1,000 yards in the regular season and then had an almost 300 yard surplus in the playoffs.
Both the Ravens and 49ers have pounded the opposition on the ground en route to New Orleans. San Francisco has gained 472 yards in just two games to 185 for their playoff victims. Baltimore's margin is not as wide, but they have a comfortable 446-385 edge.
Since Jim Caldwell took over for Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator in Week 15, the Ravens have averaged 155.3 rushing yards per game. They managed to pull this off while shuffling their offensive line in the weeks leading up to the playoffs.
Colin Kaepernick set a playoff record for rushing yards by a quarterback by picking up 181 yards on the ground when the 49ers upended the Packers in the NFC Divisional Round.
Or is it wide receivers?
The last five Super Bowl winners have had at least three players with 550 or more receiving yards. The last two would have had four if Mario Manningham (523 yards in 10 starts) played another game or two in 2011:
|New York Giants||2011||Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Jake Ballard|
|Green Bay Packers||2010||Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson
|New Orleans Saints||2009||Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem
|Pittsburgh Steelers||2008||Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington
|New York Giants||2007||
Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, Jeremy Shockey
|Indianapolis Colts||2006||Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne|
The 2006 Colts did not really need a third receiver since Harrison and Wayne each had over 1,300 yards.
San Francisco's Michael Crabtree (1105 yards) is the only 49er over this threshold, but Vernon Davis is close enough with 548 yards. Baltimore does have their three in Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta, Torrey Smith.
Putting pressure on the quarterback is important, but only twice over this period did a winning team have two double-digit sack artists (Giants 2007, Steelers 2008):
|Team||Year||Sacks||Rank||Top Two Sackers|
|New York Giants||2011||48||3rd||Jason Pierre-Paul 16.5, Osi Umenyiora 9.0|
|Green Bay Packers||2010||47||5th||Clay Matthews 13.5, Cullen Jenkins 7|
|New Orleans Saints||2009||35||13th||Will Smith 13, Charles Grant 5.5|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||2008||51||2nd||James Harrison 16, LaMarr Woodley 11.5
|New York Giants||2007||51||1st||Osi Umenyiora 13, Justin Tuck 10
|Indianapolis Colts||2006||24||31st||Robert Mathis 9.5, Dwight Freeney 5.5|
Both the 49ers (38 sacks) and Ravens (37 sacks) are known for their defenses, but respectively rank 15th and 17th in sacks.
New Orleans Saints 2010 Parade
A look back over the last eleven years illustrates how irrelevant home field advantage (H.F.A.) has been.
Only three teams with the top playoff seed have won the Super Bowl, with just a single one (New Orleans 2009) in the last eight seasons. On just two occasions have both “home field” winners made it to the NFL’s ultimate contest.
Year: H.F.A. team(s) that made Super Bowl
2011: New England Patriots (L)
2009: New Orleans Saints (W), Indianapolis Colts
2007: New England Patriots (L)
2006: Chicago Bears (L)
2005: Seattle Seahawks (L)
2004: Philadelphia Eagles (L)
2003: New England Patriots (W)
2002: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (W), Oakland Raiders
The 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2011 New York Giants had to play the Conference Championship Game on the road. The same was true for the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers this season.
But hosting this game is essential for teams whose home field is indoors. Three "domers" have won the Super Bowl: the 1999 St. Louis Rams, 2006 Indianapolis Colts and 2009 New Orleans Saints.
Each of these squads was able to play the Conference Championship Game at home. This does not have any bearing on SB XLVII, but should catch the eye of the nine NFL organizations that play in sheltered environments.
Therefore, the Super Bowl winner must be ranked in the top three during the regular season.
This turns out to be an incorrect assumption. No team in the last six seasons has ranked higher than fourth in average Time of Possession (T.O.P.), which would be the Green Bay Packers in 2010:
|New York Giants||2011||29:58||19th|
|Green Bay Packers||2010||32:00||4th|
|New Orleans Saints||2009||31:03||11th|
|New York Giants||2007||31:22||5th|
The 2011 Giants are the only SB champ that did not have the ball at least half the time during the regular season.
In this year's matchup, the Baltimore Ravens had an average possession of just 27:49, placing them 30th in the NFL. San Francisco has the advantage with a T.O.P. of 31:13, ranking them 8th in the league.
This year's playoffs diminish the importance of this stat even more. The Ravens lost the T.O.P. battle in two of their three AFC wins with a low of 22:28 when they beat the Colts 24-9 in the Wild Card Round.
The 49ers were 1-1 in playoff T.O.P., beating the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 on the scoreboard with only 27:56 in the possession column.
By now, the reader must realize that placing third or higher does not automatically translate to Super Bowl success.
The only team to rank first was the Indianapolis Colts in 2006. The highest ranking for anyone else is sixth place for the New Orleans Saints in 2009:
|New York Giants||2011||38.76||12th|
|Green Bay Packers||2010||42.91||7th|
|New Orleans Saints||2009||43.72||6th|
|New York Giants||2007||41.91||13th|
Doug Williams Super Bowl XXII
This bit of useless info has no bearing on winning the Super Bowl, yet it looks like another trend.
Until the Washington Redskins won Super Bowl XXII after the strike-shortened 1987 season, no QB with an official height of 6’4” or taller had been able to say, “I’m going to Disney World!”
That year Doug Williams was the first, followed by Mark Rypien (1991) and Troy Aikman (1992, 1993,1995). Until 2002, these tall guys had won only five of 36 Super Bowls.
Since then, Brad Johnson (2002), Ben Roethlisberger (2005, 2008) and the Manning brothers (2006, 2007, 2011) have been at least that height and won it all six times.
Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens and Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers are both listed at 6'5" according to Pro Football Reference. This marks the second time in seven years two long, tall gunslingers have met on Super Bowl Sunday. The last was Roethlisberger and Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks in SB XL.
The Harbaugh Brothers
All this contrary analysis challenges some of the most popular beliefs held by NFL aficionados. Can it determine which team will win the game to be played on February 3rd, 2013?
For instance, it would mean proposing that Baltimore has the upper hand because their 1-4 record in their last five games is worse than San Francisco’s 3-2 mark.
By the same token, the defense of the Ravens is middle of the pack in yardage and points allowed. How can that be construed as some kind of advantage over a 49ers’ defense that ranks near the top?
In the end, most of these trends favor the unexpected outcome.
Baltimore looked doomed towards the end of the regular season, but three of their four losses in the final weeks were by a combined 12 points. That is far less than San Francisco’s Week 16 slipup in Seattle by a 42-13 score.
The betting line as of publication is the 49ers by 3.5 points. Therefore, the contrarian approach is to take the Ravens and the points. We will see if it holds up.