Based on History, Could the Carolina Panthers Be Doomed?
In a single-elimination tournament where teams are forced to play in particular conferences, the best teams aren't always competing in the championship.
Don't tell this to Giants fans, but the Patriots were better than them back in 2007. Some strong play, a little luck, and the football gods were just on their side during that amazing Super Bowl XLII contest.
It shouldn't surprise you to learn that this year's Super Bowl matchup isn't between the best two teams in football. One side of the matchup gives us the strongest squad, at least according to our nERD metric, which measures the number of points we'd expect a team to win by against an average team on a neutral field. Carolina, after last weekend's domination, sits comfortably in first with an 11.36 nERD.
Denver, though, has a 4.31 nERD, which sits as the ninth best in football. According to our algorithm, Arizona, Seattle, Pittsburgh, New England, Cincinnati, Kansas City and New York (Jets) were all better than Denver this season. That, obviously, is due to the Broncos' 30th-ranked offense.
Since the turn of the century, the average nERD among Super Bowl teams, including the two in Super Bowl 50, has been 7.41. Or, in other words, a random Super Bowl team would be expected to win by more than a touchdown against an ordinary squad. This also makes Carolina well above average, and the Broncos below the norm.
Carolina is also pretty sensational among the 32-team subset (16 Super Bowls). Within the group, their 11.36 nERD is fourth best, behind only the 2007 Patriots, the 2001 Rams, and the 2013 Broncos.
Those top-three teams, though, have something in common.
They lost their respective Super Bowls.
This isn't to say that we predict the Panthers will lose next Sunday's matchup against the Broncos -- they're at about a 64% chance to win according to our numbers -- but it does show that the "any given Sunday" mantra is indeed a thing.
And the thing about the three teams above who lost the Super Bowl is that they were unable to win thanks to great defensive play on the other side of the ball.
The 2001 Patriots did rank eighth in the NFL in schedule-adjusted defense, so it's not as though they were a bad unit, but they also held the Rams to just 17 points after St. Louis scored 20 or more points in 15 of their 18 games prior to the Super Bowl. That Rams offense was so good, in fact, that in an era that wasn't as offensive-friendly as today's, they posted 30 or more points in over 63% of their contests. And, that year, no team came close to their 503 points scored (Indianapolis was second at 413).
Fast forward to the 2007 Patriots, and it's the same story: a prolific scoring offense getting stopped by a surging defense. The '07 Giants weren't a great defensive team during the regular season (they barely ranked in the top half according to our database), but they showed up in the playoffs and Super Bowl, holding the Patriots to just 14 points. The Patriots had averaged nearly 37 points per contest that season, putting together one of the best offenses in the history of the NFL.
And then there was Super Bowl XLVIII, where Peyton Manning's Broncos scored an unprecedented 606 points in the regular season (37.9 points per game) before tallying just 8 in the big game. Everyone knows why: Seattle's top-ranked defense crushed them.
Yes, the Panthers have the second-best defense in football, which certainly helps their cause. But while everyone remembers the Rams, Patriots and Broncos for their offenses, New England and St. Louis finished as top-two defenses the year they went to the Super Bowl, and Denver was 10th, all according to our numbers.
Carolina doesn't have the best offense in the league according to our schedule-adjusted numbers (they rank fourth), but they did score more points than any other squad in 2015. And, of course, they're facing the most dominant defense the league has seen in years.
Will history repeat itself?