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Appreciating Statistics that Predict Super Bowl Winners

Each year come playoff time I like to look at some more obscure statistics in an effort to come an educated decision on the champion (similar to my Shot Differential and Goal Differential per game for predicting the 2013 Stanley Cup winner).  To be clear, in the NFL there is not one single statistic that has been proven to consistently pick the Super Bowl winner.  Statistics cannot predict 70 yard lobs to Jacoby Jones in the final minute of the AFC Divisional game, or the infamous helmet catch in the 2007 Super Bowl by David Tyree.  But there are characteristics of success in the post season. 

I decided to go back over the last 20 (or so) years and see if there were some regular season statistics that are consistent with teams that make and early exit and those that characterize Super Bowl winners.  I’m not just searching for the winner, but also potential upsets...or value situations for the gambling crowd.

Yards per Play Differential
As an initial process of elimination we’ll take a look at Yards per Play Differential; it helps explain offensive and defensive efficiency.  A majority of Super Bowl winning teams have a positive differential.  In fact even the New York Giants' wins in 2011 and 2007 seasons (where they were longshots), they still maintained a positive yards per play differential despite being poorly ranked in many other statistical categories.  In the last 20 seasons, only 1 team has won the Super Bowl despite a negative YPP differential (the 2001 Patriots when Tom Brady stepped in for Drew Bledsoe).

The following 2014 playoff teams have FAILED to earn a positive YPP differential:

Of the 12 teams that made the post season, only 9 remain based on YPP.

Time of Possession
It’s often thought that teams with a greater time of possession win more games, mainly because it's better to have your offense on the field more than your defense.  The other reason - winning teams typically end with a higher TOP because they run the clock out towards the later stages of a football game. 

Interestingly, in the last 15 seasons only 1 team has won the Super Bowl WITH a Top 5 rating in time of possession (the 2000 Baltimore Ravens).  The 2005 Steelers were in a two-way tie for 5th overall, so call it 2 out of 15. 

The following 2014 playoff teams finished Top 5 in time of possession this year:

I’ve been trying to rationalize why it’s so infrequent for a Top 5 team to win it all, especially in an important statistical category.  I suggest reading Brian Burke’s take at Advanced Football Stats.  He conceptualizes that TOP is an “intermediate outcome” in a football game. In other words, it is a natural byproduct of being good at something else. You can’t be good at “time of possession". I agree with most of his argument. I’m throwing out these 4 teams.

Toxic Differential
This is a statistic that combines turnover differential and big play differential to give insight into how teams balance risk and reward in generating and avoiding giving up big plays (plays over 20+ yards) and winning the turnover battle. This term was coined by former NFL head coach Brian Billick.   The idea behind this statistic is that teams who generate big plays win games but more importantly they need to win the battle of these plays by generating more than giving them up, which is similar to the idea behind the turnover battle. 

We have data for this statistic going back to 1991, in the last 22 Super Bowl winners; just two teams have won the Super Bowl with a negative differential (the 2007 New York Giants and ’01 Patriots Brady replacing Bledsoe), and all but 3 teams in 22 seasons have won the big game without a Top 10 Toxic Differential to end the season.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to throw out all teams that don’t have a Top 10 toxic differential, this includes:


***Half-time Recap***
Teams that have been eliminated include the Colts, Chargers, Bengals, Packers, Chargers, Patriots, Panthers, and Saints.  Not overly surprising, but the teams that remain alive include the Seahawks, Broncos, 49ers, and Eagles. The Eagles are a little surprising, they struggled early in the season with new coach Chip Kelly but have found their stride since promoting quarterback Nick Foles.  We’ve got our top 4 teams; let’s try paring this list down even further.

300+ Yard Passing Games
The term ‘pass happy’ league gets thrown around a lot, and it’s completely true that the passing attack has evolved more than ever due to rule changes over the past decade.  That said, in the last 20 seasons just 1 team (1999 St Louis Rams) has finished the regular season with the most 300+ yard passing games and then gone on to win the Super Bowl.  Toss out the Broncos, who finished with 12 games above the 300 yard mark.

Total Regular Season Wins
Since 1990 a mere 6 teams (26%) that finished first overall in the league standings went on to win the Super Bowl.  Even more staggering, just 2 teams (17%) since 2000 have led the league in wins and went on to win it all.  We already tossed out the Denver Broncos, but they tied with the Seattle Seahawks with 13 wins, sorry ‘hawks you’re out.

In summary, for every statistic there is one that discredits the other.  Take this with a grain of salt, I did look at a LOT of statistics over the last couple decades to cherry pick some more statistically significant with Super Bowl winners.  If you don’t agree, that’s fine.  But hopefully it’s helped you look beyond the Vegas odds and win totals, and maybe even seeing some value you otherwise wouldn't. That said statistics will never predict the Tuck Rule, Jacoby’s 70 yard catch, the '07 helmet catch, or any bad penalty call in the final minutes of a game.  

I'm rolling with the Eagles and 49ers to win Super Bowl XLVIII. Good luck with your 2014 NFL Playoff brackets.

Authors note: From a biased Packers fan they are statistically undervalued, their true statistics are most definitely deflated without one of the best quarterbacks in the league :) 

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