Statistically speaking, this Super Bowl matchup pulls a pair of aces
The 2014 Super Bowl is special. All Super Bowls are special — don’t feel bad, other Super Bowls — but the 2014 Super Bowl is really special.
And I’m not just talking about it being a potential coronation for Peyton Manning as the greatest quarterback to play the game, or an anointing of Russell Wilson as the Next Great American Athlete, or the possibility that Richard Sherman will trash talk someone so effectively that they break down in tears on the field, or the chance that the Broncos will score anywhere from zero to 100 touchdowns.
This Super Bowl is special for what would seem to be a very stupid reason: it’s a matchup of the NFL’s two best teams.
Now, it is not a fact, obviously, that the Seahawks and the Broncos are the NFL’s two best teams: best is a subjective judgment. But just as you could have made a good case that the Baltimore Ravens weren’t the best team in the NFL last year despite their Super Bowl win — you could have made a good case that they weren’t even one of the 10 best — you can back up, with solid evidence, the idea that the Seahawks and the Broncos are the best teams in the NFL.
First, they were the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences, speaking to season-long success. Second, they had the two best point-differentials of any team in the league, generally a good indicator of a team’s overall strength — good teams beat their opponents by large margins and lose by small margins.
And third, using Football Outsider’s advanced metric DVOA — which, generally speaking, measures how effective a team’s performance is relative to other teams in the league — the Seahawks and Broncos are once again one and two in the league.
“Well, sure,” you might say, sipping from your special-edition Super Bowl Whatever Hologram mug, “but it’s the Super Bowl. That should be expected.” This is an understandable opinion. It’s also both wrong and historically inaccurate.
It shouldn’t be expected because the teams that make the Super Bowl aren’t the best teams all season: they’re the best teams in a tournament whose field is chosen from the best teams of the season.
The teams in the Super Bowl are the ones who played best in the three-week period that leads up to the Super Bowl: the 2012 Ravens and the 2011 Giants and the 2008 Arizona Cardinals are great examples of this.
Last season’s Ravens squad outscored its opponents by 54 points over the course of the season, or less than 3.5 points per game.
The ’08 Cardinals outscored their opponents by a single point over the course of the season. And the ’11 Giants had a negative point differential, becoming the first team to ever reach the Super Bowl after being outscored over the course of the regular season. The 2011 Giants weren’t the best team in the league that year. They were closer to worst than best, at least by that metric.
In fact, over the last two decades, this year’s Seahawks-Broncos matchup is only the third time the Super Bowl teams were the ones with the best point differentials in their respective conferences. Even more unusual, it’s the first time in the last 20 years — going back to and including Super Bowl XXVIII at the end of the 1994 season — that the two teams with the NFL’s two best point differentials, regardless of conference, reached the Super Bowl.
Those other metrics tell a similar story of this Super Bowl’s exceptional status. Only once in the last two decades, at the end of the 2009 season, did the top seed from each conference reach the Super Bowl, when the Saints beat the Colts. And Football Outsiders has this as only the third time that the top two teams in DVOA have both reached the title game.
The imperfection of this sorting out the top team — the randomness of the playoffs — is part of the sport’s charm. If we were only trying to decide the best team in the NFL, then the way to go would be more like international soccer’s table system. But tournaments heighten the sensation of deciding a champion — they create a ceremony out of it.
This year’s Super Bowl is the rare opportunity for us to have the best of both worlds.