It’s been pretty well established that there is little to no correlation between a strong preseason and a team’s odds of making the playoffs.
The 2010 season proved this yet again, as the San Francisco 49ers went 4-0 in the preseason, only to stumble to a 6-10 record in the regular season. Meanwhile, both the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts failed to win a preseason game, yet won their divisions in the regular season.
However, I’d like to examine the preseason from a slightly different angle. I will ask a more specific question: is a poor preseason an indication that a team is unlikely to win it all? In other words, can a team that is bad in the preseason put the pieces together in order to make a successful Super Bowl run?
To answer this question, let’s examine the preseason performances of Super Bowl champions dating back to 2002 and evaluate three key stats to see whether they are helpful in answering the question.
Stat #1: Win-Loss
The past nine Super Bowl champions have a combined record of 21-15 in the preseason. Not bad, but nothing that blows you away. Only one team, the New England Patriots in 2003, finished with a perfect 4-0 record. No eventual champion went winless in that time period, but three of them went an uninspiring 1-3 (2007 New York Giants, 2006 Colts and 2004 Patriots).
Not surprisingly, a poor preseason record proves to be of little worth in determining a team’s odds of winning the Super Bowl.
Stat #2: Points Differential
In sports, if you score more than the other guys, you tend to win the majority of the games. But for our purposes, does it hold true that a poor scoring differential means it’s unlikely for a team to end up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year?
As a matter of fact, four of the past nine Super Bowl champions have had negative scoring differentials in the preseason. This number includes the three aforementioned teams that went 1-3 in the preseason as well as the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went 3-1 despite a -2 scoring differential.
In the interest of full disclosure, the average preseason scoring differential for Super Bowl winners since 2002 is +10.9, so Super Bowl winners tend to have a positive points differential. However, a bad differential in the preseason doesn’t mean a team’s title hopes are doomed.
Stat #3: Points Allowed
Defense wins championships, so the old cliché goes.
But what about preseason defense? Can a team’s defense be really bad in the preseason prior to a Super Bowl run?
Of the three stats, this one is probably the best for separating the contenders from the pretenders. No Super Bowl winner from the past nine seasons has given up more than 92 points in the preseason.
But it's still not a terribly good indicator. Four teams since 2002 have ranked 23rd or worse in preseason points allowed and yet went on to win the Super Bowl.
The other five teams finished ninth or better in this category, making the average preseason points allowed ranking 14.4 for the past nine champions. Not bad in a league with 32 teams, but nonetheless slightly above average at best.
Not only is poor defense an unreliable indicator of poor play the rest of the year, but great defense in the preseason is no guarantee of Super Bowl success. No team has led the league in points allowed in the preseason and seen that success translate into a championship. The Saints ranked second with 38 points allowed in the 2009 preseason, but after the Saints, the 2003 Patriots and 2002 Buccaneers are next-best among eventual Super Bowl champions at sixth (54 and 63 points allowed, respectively).
In conclusion, these three stats are obviously critical in determining a team’s strength in the regular season. But once again, the preseason is shown to be virtually worthless in evaluating a team’s chances for a successful postseason run.