Call it an upset. Call it a choke job. But however you want to refer to the New England Patriots' 28-21 loss to the New York Jets in the divisional round, there's one word you can't use: surprising.
New England looked to be the favorite to win Super Bowl XLV, rolling to a league-best 14-2 regular season record. They did it on the strength of a historically great offense; the Patriots averaged 32.38 points per game, the eighth-most in the Super Bowl era. In their last eight regular season games, they averaged 37.38 PPG and never scored less than 31.
But all that offense didn't matter when the season was on the line. And that's hardly unusual. In the Super Bowl Era, there has been little to no connection between historically great offensive production and championships.
In the 45 years of the Super Bowl, there have been 25 teams that averaged at least 30 PPG. Here's a look at all 25, along with their regular season record and how the season ended:
|1||2007 New England Patriots||36.81||16-0||Lost Super Bowl XLII, 17-14|
|2||1998 Minnesota Vikings||34.75||15-1||Lost NFC title game, 30-27 |
|3||1983 Washington Redskins||33.81 ||14-2|
Lost Super Bowl XVIII, 38-9
|4||2000 St. Louis Rams ||33.75||10-6||Lost Wildcard, 31-28 |
|5||1967 Oakland Raiders (AFL)||33.43||13-1||Lost Super Bowl II, 33-14|
|6||1999 St. Louis Rams||32.88||13-3|
Won Super Bowl XXXIV, 23-16
|7||2004 Indianapolis Colts||32.63||12-4||Lost Div. Round, 20-3|
|8||2010 New England Patriots||32.38||14-2|
Lost Div. Round, 28-21
|9||1968 Oakland Raiders (AFL)||32.36||12-2||Lost AFL title game, 27-23|
|10||1984 Miami Dolphins||32.06||14-2||Lost Super Bowl XIX, 38-16|
|11||1966 Kansas City Chiefs (AFL)||32.00||11-2-1||Lost Super Bowl I, 35-10|
|12||1982 San Diego Chargers||32.00||6-3||Lost Div. Round, 34-13|
|13||2009 New Orleans Saints||31.88||13-3|
Won Super Bowl XLIV, 31-17
|14||1966 Dallas Cowboys||31.79||10-3-1||Lost NFL title game, 34-27|
|15||1994 San Francisco 49ers||31.56||13-3||Won Super Bowl XXIX, 49-26|
|16||2001 St. Louis Rams||31.44||14-2||Lost Super Bowl XXXVI, 20-17|
|17||1998 Denver Broncos||31.31||14-2||Won Super Bowl XXXIII, 34-19|
|18||1968 Dallas Cowboys||30.79||12-2||Lost Div. Round, 31-20|
2006 San Diego Chargers
|30.75||14-2||Lost Div. Round, 24-21|
|20||1987 San Francisco 49ers||30.60||13-2||Lost Div. Round, 36-24|
|21||1991 Washington Redskins||30.31||14-2||Won Super Bowl XXVI, 37-24|
|22||2000 Denver Broncos||30.31||11-5||Lost Wildcard, 21-3|
|23||2003 Kansas City Chiefs||30.25||13-3||Lost Div. Round, 38-31|
|24||2004 Kansas City Chiefs||30.19||7-9||Missed Playoffs|
|25||1975 Buffalo Bills||30.00||8-6||Missed Playoffs|
Obviously, there is a correlation between scoring lots of points and winning regular season games. The teams that have averaged at least 30 PPG have a combined record of 306-72-2, a winning percentage of 0.805 (roughly equivalent to a 13-3 season), while only two have missed the playoffs.
Once the playoffs begin, though, it's a whole other story. Here are the postseason results broken down by category. (Note: in the years 1966-1969, before the official NFL/AFL merger, there were separate NFL and AFL title games along with the Super Bowl. For our purposes, these games are considered equivalent to conference title games and counted as such.)
|Won Super Bowl||5|
|Lost Super Bowl||6|
|Lost Conf. Title Game||3|
|Lost Div. Round||7|
In other words, only 20 percent of the top 25 scoring offenses have gone on to win the Super Bowl, and just one of the top 12. Less than half the teams even reached the biggest game of the year. In addition to the 2004 Chiefs and 1975 Bills missing the playoffs, eight others, including this year's Patriots, failed to win a playoff game.
What's most notable, however, is the way that these teams lost. Most often, it was the result of their high-octane offense failing to show up with the season on the line. The 2007 Patriots are the most famous recent example of this. After setting the Super Bowl-era record for scoring in the regular season, they averaged just 22 PPG in the playoffs, a two touchdown drop-off. They petered out with 14 points in the Super Bowl against a New York Giants team they lit up for 38 in the regular season finale.
But those Patriots, or even this year's version, are hardly the only case. The 1967 Raiders were also held to 14 points in the Super Bowl after scoring 33.43 PPG during the season, and destroying the Houston Oilers 40-14 in the AFL title game.
The 2004 Colts were deemed unstoppable when Peyton Manning threw a then-record 49 touchdown passes. After lighting up the Broncos in a 49-24 wildcard win, they were held to a field goal in their divisional round loss.
The 1983 Redskins may be the most egregious example. They set a then-record with 541 points in the regular season (33.81 PPG) and torched the Los Angeles Rams for 51 points in the divisional playoff round. They squared off against the Los Angeles Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII, a team they beat in a 37-35 regular-season shootout, but with the championship on the line, they were hammered 38-9. Against a team that ranked 13th in scoring defense, no less.
Overall, 18 of the top 25 offenses were eliminated short of glory. In their Exit Stage Right games, they averaged 17.83 PPG—barely half of their 32.33 regular season average. Only one of those teams exceeded their regular-season average in its season-ending loss: the 2003 Chiefs, who scored 31 points against Indianapolis after averaging 30.25 during the season.
Even if you consider every playoff game a team played that season, the numbers don't add up. Overall, only five of the teams averaged more points a game in the playoffs than in the regular season. Not surprisingly, four of those were teams that won the Super Bowl (the other was the one-and-done Chiefs); the 1999 St. Louis Rams were the only historically great offense that won the Super Bowl in spite of a postseason scoring decline.
Clearly, having a high-flying offense isn't everything in the NFL. And it goes back to before the Super Bowl. The most potent offense of all time belonged to the the 1950 Los Angeles Rams, who averaged 38.83 PPG; they lost the NFL title game to the Cleveland Browns 30-28. The 1942 Bears scored 34.18 PPG in an undefeated regular season, then could muster only six points—on a fumble return for a touchdown, no less—in a loss to the Washington Redskins.
In the defunct All-American Football Conference, the San Francisco 49ers averaged 35.36 and 34.67 points in the 1948 and 1949 seasons. In 1948, they didn't even make it to the AAFC title game; in 1949, they flamed out 21-7 against the Browns.
Patriots players and fans are undoubtedly disappointed about how the 2010 season ended. But it's not the first time an offense rolled over its opponents in the regular season only to disappear in the postseason, and it won't be the last either. Maybe during their second-half tear, the Pats should have tried to save some of those points they were scoring for the playoffs.