NFL Playoffs: Comparing the Final 4 Teams to Prior Super Bowl Winners
The roster construction of Super Bowl winners can be vastly different from year to year -- last season saw the Denver Broncos’ defense drag a bad offense to a Lombardi Trophy, while this year’s final four is filled with great offenses and middling defenses. But this doesn’t mean these teams are all that different from winners of Super Bowls past.
Using our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric and single-season team rankings on offense and defense, we can attempt to get a look at which previous Super Bowl winners most closely compare to the teams playing in the conference championship games. Since our NEP data only goes back to 2000, we’ll be using teams starting with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, winners of Super Bowl XXXV.
New England Patriots -- 2004 New England Patriots
2016 Patriots: 14-2, 4th in Adjusted NEP per play, 11th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play
2004 Patriots: 14-2, 4th in Adj. NEP per play, 12th in Adj. Defensive NEP per play
It really shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the New England Patriots end up matching up with another Patriots team of the past. This year’s version of the Patriots matches up almost exactly in offensive and defensive efficiency as the 2004 squad. They were also nearly identical in points for and points against.
Both teams finished their respective seasons ranked fourth in Adjusted NEP per play on offense and ranked in the top four in points scored. This past season, New England was third in points scored while the team ranked fourth in 2004.
The 2004 team featured the third-best passing offense that year by Adjusted Passing NEP per play, though as an individual, Tom Brady was sixth among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back. This season the Pats were second in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, while Brady was second individually among quarterbacks.
The two defenses also sync up, and their efficiency rankings do not live up to their standing in points against. This year’s Patriots defense was first in points allowed, but they sat just 11th in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP per play -- capitalizing on a weak schedule. The 2004 squad was second in points against, but they sat 12th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
Both teams finished 14-2 in the regular season, but while New England was the No. 1 seed in the AFC this season, they were only No. 2 in 2004, behind the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers. New England met Pittsburgh in that AFC Championship Game and won convincingly, 41-27.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- 2011 New York Giants
2016 Steelers: 11-5, 9th in Adj. NEP per play, 19th in Adj. Defensive NEP per play
2011 Giants: 9-7, 9th in Adj. NEP per play, 19th in Adj. Defensive NEP per play
Efficiency rankings for the Steelers and the 2011 New York Giants are almost identical, but the similarities in roster construction kind of stop there. The quarterbacks were similar -- both Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger were in the bottom half of the top-10 by Passing NEP per drop back in each season -- but the way the offenses were structured around them were quite different.
The Giants were a pass-heavy team with two separate wide receivers who gained at least 1,000 yards in Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. And while the Giants went with a committee in the backfield, Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw only combined for 1,290 rushing yards, nowhere near the peak of the 2008 version of the Giants, which saw Jacobs and Derrick Ward each rush for over 1,000 yards.
Pittsburgh, this year, has been more dominant on the ground with Le'Veon Bell fifth among 19 running backs with 200 or more carries in Rushing NEP per attempt. Bell also serves as the de facto No. 2 receiver on the team with 97 targets, 75 receptions, and 616 receiving yards, which only trail Antonio Brown among his teammates.
Defensively, the Giants and Steelers were slightly below average in efficiency during their respective regular seasons, with each ranking 19th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. Both displayed a big jump in play in the postseason, too. New York morphed into one of the best defensive units in football during their 2011 postseason run, giving up no more than 20 points -- and as little as 2 -- in any playoff game. Pittsburgh, so far, has allowed 12 and 16 points, respectively, in their two playoff games.
Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers -- 2006 Indianapolis Colts
2016 Falcons: 11-5, 1st in Adj. NEP per play, 25th in Adj. Defensive NEP per play
2016 Packers: 10-6, 5th in Adj. NEP per play, 22nd in Adj. Defensive NEP per play
2006 Colts: 12-4, 1st in Adj. NEP per play, 31st in Adj. Defensive NEP per play
Both NFC teams match up best with the 2006 Indianapolis Colts because that Indy squad was the most unbalanced all-offense, no-defense team to win the Super Bowl in the past 16 years. Peyton Manning led the top-ranked offense in the league to a Super Bowl win while carrying the second-worst defense in the league by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. It’s fitting that Manning’s first title came from carrying one of the league’s worst defenses, while his last was won with the league’s best defense carrying him.
Still, no other team has won the Super Bowl since 2000 with a similar, offensive-only squad. The other five Super Bowl winners with a top-five offense by Adjusted NEP per play had defenses ranked 2nd, 6th, 8th, 11th, and 12th by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
This year’s Atlanta Falcons match most closely to those Colts, possessing the top offense and 25th-ranked defense. The Green Bay Packers are pretty similar, too, boasting the fifth-ranked offense by Adjusted NEP per play and the 22nd-ranked defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
The Colts, like the Falcons and Packers, had to go against one of the league’s best offenses in the conference championship game, which, in 2006, was the fourth-ranked Patriots. But unlike the Falcons and Packers, the Patriots also had one of the league’s best defenses that season, too -- sixth by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
In that AFC Championship Game, the offenses won out with a final score of 38-34 in favor of Indianapolis. Given that the over/under for the matchup between Atlanta and Green Bay is a whopping 60 points, their path to the Super Bowl might look fairly similar, too.