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Preseason Super Bowl 50 Forecast: Analyzing the path of past champions


No two teams travel the same path to glory. For some, the climb is steep; for others, the journey to the top is more gradual, complete with varying degrees of peaks and valleys.  But can each quest be quantified? There are always parallels that can be observed and analyzed.

I have long contended that one can narrow the list of Super Bowl favorites by examining the winding road each franchise takes in the years leading up to their big moment. Once again, I have forecasted the most likely Super Bowl favorites by combining my tried and true approach for narrowing the field with a brand new methodology for paring down the list to a select group.

MY ANALYSIS

At the beginning of each NFL season, I analyze the three year path to success for past Super Bowl winners. In order to do this, I reviewed each season’s final standings and playoff results to characterize teams into the following four categories:

ELITE (E) = Super Bowl winner plus the next three best regular season teams. Teams must have won at least 75% of their games. Any ties were broken by judgment based on whether they were a division winner or went deeper into the playoffs.

CONTENDER (C) = Remaining playoff teams and any other teams who won more than 50% of their games.

MIDDLING (M) = Teams that win more than 25% of their games, but no more than 50%.

DREADFUL (D) = Teams that won at most 25% of their games.

For example, in attempting to predict Seattle’s victory following the 2013 season, you could review their previous three seasons (2010-2012) in which they were a Contender in 2010, Middling in 2011 and a Contender again in 2012, before winning it all the next season. Last season’s champion – the New England Patriots – had a little less fluctuation. The Pats were an Elite team for all three years (2011-2013).

The following table summarizes how past Super Bowl winners1 are characterized in the three seasons leading up to their championship campaign:

 

One Season Ago

Two Seasons Ago

Three Seasons Ago

Elite

45.5%

23.3%

28.6%

Contender

38.6%

39.5%

38.1%

Middling

13.6%

34.9%

26.2%

Dreadful

2.3%

2.3%

7.1%

1Only post-AFL merger regular season data was used. Consequently, Super Bowl VI winners (Dallas) were the earliest champions included in the analysis.

It should have been no surprise at all that the Patriots were Elite last season, or that the Seahawks were at least a Contender in the season prior to their Super Bowl. In fact, in analyzing the results from all the post-merger seasons, 84.1% of the eventual Super Bowl winners were either Elite or a Contender in the previous season. This trend remains fairly strong two and three seasons removed; between 62-67% of winners were either Elite or a Contender in those seasons too.

Another way to look at the statistics is from the bottom up. Only one Dreadful team (the 1999 St. Louis Rams) has ever turned it around to win it all. In fact, there have only been four champions that were Dreadful at any point during their previous three seasons – the 1999 Rams, the 1981 San Francisco 49ers, the 1986 New York Giants and the 1992 Dallas Cowboys.

Perhaps, there is a happy milieu? Middling teams have only ever made the one year leap to the Lombardi Trophy 14% of the time. However, 35% of world champs were Middling just two years before. I narrowed the sample to the past 20 years, then further to only the past ten years. Over the past twenty seasons, 50% of winners were Middling two years prior and the percentage increased to 60% isolating the data to the past ten years. Could this be the trend towards parity that we always talk about?

In addition, the most prevalent combination of characteristics of any Super Bowl champion is to be Elite, a Contender and Middling in any order over the previous three seasons. This is proof that the reigning Super Bowl champions are the exception. It is far more common to see a Super Bowl winner emerge from peaks and valleys than to see the perennially Elite teams, like the Patriots, remain standing when it’s all said and done.

TRIED & TRUE APPROACH FOR NARROWING THE FIELD FOR SUPER BOWL 50

Over the past 42 Super Bowls, approximately 90% of winners were never Dreadful at any point in the three seasons leading up to hoisting Lombardi. Therefore, I start with a list of teams (see below) that haven’t been Dreadful over the past three seasons (2012-14). The list is made up of 20 teams.

Team

2014

2013

2012

Arizona Cardinals

Contender

Contender

Middling

Baltimore Ravens

Contender

Middling

Elite

Buffalo Bills

Contender

Middling

Middling

Carolina Panthers

Middling

Elite

Middling

Chicago Bears

Middling

Middling

Contender

Cincinnati Bengals

Contender

Contender

Contender

Dallas Cowboys

Elite

Middling

Middling

Denver Broncos

Contender

Elite

Elite

Green Bay Packers

Elite

Contender

Contender

Indianapolis Colts

Contender

Contender

Contender

Miami Dolphins

Middling

Middling

Middling

Minnesota Vikings

Middling

Middling

Contender

New England Patriots

Elite

Elite

Elite

New Orleans Saints

Middling

Contender

Middling

New York Giants

Middling

Middling

Contender

Pittsburgh Steelers

Contender

Middling

Middling

San Diego Chargers

Contender

Contender

Middling

San Francisco 49ers

Middling

Contender

Contender

Seattle Seahawks

Elite

Elite

Contender

St. Louis Rams

Middling

Middling

Middling


The list includes all of the preseason favorites: last year’s Super Bowl combatants (New England and Seattle), each of the conference finalists (Green Bay and Indianapolis) and teams with Super Bowl winning quarterbacks (Denver, New Orleans, New York Giants and Pittsburgh). But that’s not much of a surprise. The real question is, “Who’s missing?” Philadelphia and Detroit are the teams that jump out the most to me. Of course, the Eagles were excluded as a result of the team tanking on Andy Reid in 2013 and the Lions can never seem to put two solid seasons together. Do you think I’m being hasty keeping them off the list so soon? After all, no team made as many noteworthy offseason moves as the Eagles. Then again, Detroit could easily regress without key defensive components returning like Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

I realize this doesn’t go far enough. Surely I can pare the list down further. What if I remove those teams that were Middling a season ago? If you remember, just over 84% of the eventual Super Bowl winners were either Elite or a Contender in the previous season. Taking the next step, the list below is narrowed to 12 teams.

Team

2014

2013

2012

Arizona Cardinals

Contender

Contender

Middling

Baltimore Ravens

Contender

Middling

Elite

Buffalo Bills

Contender

Middling

Middling

Cincinnati Bengals

Contender

Contender

Contender

Dallas Cowboys

Elite

Middling

Middling

Denver Broncos

Contender

Elite

Elite

Green Bay Packers

Elite

Contender

Contender

Indianapolis Colts

Contender

Contender

Contender

New England Patriots

Elite

Elite

Elite

Pittsburgh Steelers

Contender

Middling

Middling

San Diego Chargers

Contender

Contender

Middling

Seattle Seahawks

Elite

Elite

Contender

There are three types of franchises that didn’t make the cut. The first type include those well entrenched into a rebuilding phase that they hardly stand a chance (Chicago, Minnesota and St. Louis). The second are those teams past their peak and bracing for a slide (New York Giants and San Francisco). And, finally, there are teams who have the potential to rebound from a so-so 2014 campaign (New Orleans and Carolina).

So, where do I go from here? There must be certain traits that each Super Bowl victor exhibits in the seasons leading up to their championship.

PARALLELS THAT CAN BE OBSERVED & ANALYZED

I researched several team offensive and defensive statistics over the past decade to establish correlations between the statistical performances of the past ten champions. Sometimes I found highly correlated results. For example, the past 10 Super Bowl winners were all in the previous season’s top 10 in either passing or rushing. But then sometimes, the data was far from helpful. For example, there were five top quartile teams with the fewest yards allowed on defense in the season prior to winning it all, only to be countered by three teams in the bottom quartile.

I ended up focusing my analysis on the following team statistical categories from the season prior to winning a Super Bowl:

1. Points for. The past 10 champions were each in the top 12 of the NFL in points scored the previous season. In fact, to be accurate, it’s been the past 12 winners.

2. Passing or rushing yards. As mentioned above, the past 10 Super Bowl winners were all in the previous season’s top 10 in either passing or rushing. 80% of winners from the past decade were at least top quartile.

3. Defensive score percentage. This is a measure of how often the defense is scored on. If a defense is scored on three times out of 10, then this metric would be 30%. Over the past ten seasons, 80% of Super Bowl champions fall in the top quartile during the prior season.

Using the list of Super Bowl favorites developed above, I outlined each franchise’s 2014 NFL ranking for these statistical categories. The results are presented in the table below.

Team

Points For

Best of Passing/Rushing

Defensive Score %

Arizona Cardinals

24

14

6

Baltimore Ravens

8

8

17

Buffalo Bills

18

18

5

Cincinnati Bengals

15

6

14

Dallas Cowboys

5

2

10

Denver Broncos

2

4

9

Green Bay Packers

1

8

16

Indianapolis Colts

6

1

4

New England Patriots

4

9

13

Pittsburgh Steelers

7

2

28

San Diego Chargers

17

10

21

Seattle Seahawks

10

1

3

Note that each team was top 10 during 2014 in at least one of the measures, but very few made the top 10 or top quartile in all three. The diagram below helps identify which teams excel across these key statistics. The criteria were determined as follows:

  • Points for: Top 12 during 2014
  • Passing/rushing yards: Must have been top quartile in 2014 in at least one of these statistics
  • Defensive scoring percentage: Top quartile during 2014

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As you can see, there are only two teams who meet all three criteria. One team, the Seattle Seahawks, were a questionable play call away from becoming consecutive Super Bowl champions and the other, the Indianapolis Colts, have been gradually knocking on the door since drafting Andrew Luck first overall in 2012.

Can the Seahawks sustain their level of excellence? They haven’t lost too many pieces and the addition of Jimmy Graham has the potential of paying big dividends for the club. But three consecutive Super Bowl appearances is a big task for the best of teams.

What about Indianapolis? Can the Colts continue to build on their prior successes? I say they can. Luck is helming the number one passing offense and the defense rivals the Seahawks in preventing scoring drives. This season, Indianapolis will not only emerge from the AFC but will be hoisting Lombardi for the world to see on February 7th.

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

NOTES:

The links to my previous attempts at narrowing down the Super Bowl pick can be found below.

2014 – Narrowing Your Pick For Super Bowl XLIX By Analyzing The 3 Year Path Of Past Champions

2013 – Narrowing Your Pick For Super Bowl XLVIII By Analyzing The 3 Year Path Of Past Champions

2012 – Back To The Futures: Analyzing The 3 Year Path Of Super Bowl Champions



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