If the New York Jets had beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers for the American League title (and they came reasonably close), we would have had a Super Bowl of two sixth seeded teams. This has never happened before. And this is only the second time ONE sixth seeded team made it to February. This first time was the Pittsburgh Steelers, of 2005, which they won. The Green Bay Packers might do the same.
But putting aside the "sixth seed," at least one of those names, the Packers should have been no surprise, given the selection rule discussed below.
Seeding purports to measure a team's strength through its "record," (although it did a poor job with the Seattle Seahawks, ranking a seven to nine team fourth, because it had won its division). And maybe they weren't the weakest contender, beating the fifth-ranked New Orleans Saints in the wild card round. But the Packers were wrongly seeded below these two.
The problem is that a 16-game season represents a small sample size. Even baseball statisticians are dissatisfied with the measurements afforded by a 162-game season. So they created an alternate measure of a team's strength, the relationship between points (runs) for and points against. Although the so-called "Pythagorean" formula they actually use is a bit complicated, the relationship is adequately captured in the "difference" between a team's two score totals. (Point spreads will be in parentheses after teams, below).
Which team had the largest point differential in the National League? The Green Bay Packers, in spite of their sixth seed. This means that their ten victories were (mostly) large ones, and their six defeats were all small ones.
Two of the latter were in overtime, with the score was tied in "regulation." These were against the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins, both middling teams. One defeat was a flukey seven to three loss to the weak Detroit Lions, not a glorious result, but one that way understates, the Packers capabilities. The other three losses were to contending teams, Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, and the New England Patriots, but all by three or four points, meaning that these results were basically "coin flips." But note that the Packers wiped the slate clean, at least against the Bears, by defeating Chicago decisively in the last game of the season,
In the wild card round, the defeat of the defending Super Bowl champions, the New Orleans Saints (77) by the Seattle Seahawks was(-97) a genuine upset. Yes, the Seahawks gave up many more points than they scored, meaning that their losing record was not an accident, unlike the Packers that had gotten "unlucky" for several games.
In the American League, the demonstrably stronger Baltimore Ravens (87) put down the Kansas City Chiefs (40). And based on point spreads, the New York Jets (63) were not really underdogs against the Indianapolis Colts (47), whose defense had given up more points.
In the division round in the National League, the Seattle Seahawks (-97) finally got their "comeuppance" at the hands of the second-seeded Chicago Bears (48). But the latter's margin of victory over weak competition was only 11 points, portending trouble ahead.
Meanwhile, Green Bay (148) defeated the sabermetrically inferior Atlanta (126) team that had a superior record. Like the Packers, the Falcons had lost three games to other contenders (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and, New Orleans) but without the three "unlucky" losses to weak teams.
In the American League, although it was a tight, close, game, between two similar teams, the decidedly stronger Pittsburgh Steelers (143) beat the Baltimore Ravens (87), narrowly avoiding an upset.
The real upset took place in Foxborough Stadium, with the Jets beating New England Patriots.
The latter team had the strongest record overall, 14 to two, and also the largest score differential (205). But included in this total were two "blowout" victories against the New York Jets and Chicago Bears, both contending teams.
Scores are usually close between such evenly matched teams, so I subtracted 35 points of score differential from the Jets victory, and 22 points from the Bears victory to "cap" the margin of victory in each case at one touchdown. Making these adjustments, New England (+141, adjusted) was basically in a statistical dead heat with the Packers and the Steelers, although still a favorite over the Jets.
In the conference round, the sabermetrically "true" results prevailed, with the Packers beating the Bears, and the Steelers defeating the Jets.
So of the three "sabermetrically" best football teams, two of them made it to the Super Bowl with the third one being eliminated along the way. This should make for one of the better match-ups in recent history, the Packers' original sixth seeding notwithstanding.