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More Super Bowl History: Teams with the Worst Regular-Season Records and How They Fared in the Super Bowl

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This is the next post in the series about teams who make it to the Super Bowl after overcoming regular-season struggles.  If you want to read about teams that made it to the Super Bowl after beginning the season with a loss, click here.  This post looks at teams that began the season with more than one loss. If you want to read about teams that had a substantial losing streak during the regular season and yet made it to the Super Bowl, click here.

This post looks at the Super Bowl teams that had the poorest regular season records. DVOA analysis will be given for the post-1991 teams that have not already been covered in an earlier post. 

Super Bowl XIV

Los Angeles Rams (9-7) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Final Result: Steelers 31, Rams 19


Super Bowl XXIII

San Francisco 49ers (10-6) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)

Final Result: 49ers 20, Bengals 16


Super Bowl XLII

New York Giants (10-6) vs. New England Patriots (16-0)

Final Result: Giants 17, Patriots 14 


Super Bowl XLIII

Arizona Cardinals (9-7) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Final Result: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23


Super Bowl XLV

Packers (10-6) vs. Steelers (12-4)

Final Result: Packers 31, Steelers 25


Let's look at these a bit more closely. Before I deal with the individual games, it is interesting to note that so far teams have been able to overcome a 10-6 season—all three teams with that record went on to win the Super Bowl. But having a 9-7 record didn't work out too well for either the Rams or the Cardinals.


The Rams/Steelers game was covered extensively in the previous post, so I'll move on, other than to note that this is the first time a team with that poor a regular-season record reached the Super Bowl. 


There is no DVOA information for the 1988 season, so there won't be any analysis from that standpoint, but we can still consider the circumstances of Super Bowl XXIII

That Super Bowl was legendary coach Bill Walsh's final game as an NFL coach. (Walsh took the job as Head Coach at Stanford four years later, a position he held for three years.) The season had its definite ups and downs, as you might expect from the record. The strange thing was that Walsh was starting both Joe Montana and Steve Young at QB. This is possibly because the 49ers had been to the playoffs the previous three years and, astonishingly, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, and RB Roger Craig couldn't produce a single touchdown between them in any of the three games. Hard to believe when Jerry Rice led the NFL in 1987 with 22 touchdowns—twice as many as his closest competitor (Eagles WR Mike Quick with 11.)

The team as a whole was stronger than its record indicated, though. Just to give one example, the defensive backs had 18 interceptions between them that season, in an era when QBs didn't throw the ball quite as often as they do today.

The Bengals were no slouches that year either, with six Pro Bowl selections on their offense. Eddie Brown, their No. 1 WR, had almost as many yards that season as Jerry Rice, and the same number of touchdowns (9.) LT Anthony Muñoz was NFL Offensive Lineman of the Year for the third time in his career. But despite this, and despite their superior regular-season record, San Francisco was heavily favored, and of course went on to win the game.

The Giants/Patriots game has also been extensively covered in the previous post, so we'll just skip over that as well.

The last two games involve the Steelers. In both cases it was the other team with the less-than-stellar season record. The outcomes were rather different, unfortunately.


The Giants/Patriots game was possibly the biggest mismatch in Super Bowl history, in terms of the numbers at least. Until Super Bowl XLIII.  Super Bowl XLII was a mismatch. Super Bowl XLIII should have looked like taking candy from a baby. But as we all know to our cost, on Any Given Sunday the worst team in the league can beat the best one. There are really no gimmes in football.

Let's see how lopsided the figures are according to DVOA.

Arizona's total DVOA was a negative number, -3.2%, placing them at them No. 21 in the league. The Steelers were No. 2 at 29.6%. The Steelers' defense was No. 1 in the league—the Cardinals had the No. 23 defense. The only place they bettered the Steelers was their offense, at No. 15, compared to No. 21. Even our special teams, at a scarcely impressive No. 23, beat out the Cardinals, who rejoiced in position No. 28. And although the Cardinals were hanging on with their fingernails to a 9-7 record, according to Pythagorean Wins they should have only had an 8-8 season.

The Weighted DVOA figures brought no comfort to the Arizona faithful. The Cardinals' total DVOA dropped to an even more negative number, -10%, lowering them to No. 22 in the league. This is scarcely surprising when you consider that they lost 4 of their final 6 games, allowing at least 35 points in each loss. The Steelers, on the other hand, moved up to 34.4% to grab the No. 1 spot from the Eagles. This Super Bowl wasn't even like taking candy from a baby—it was more like David and Goliath, with the Steelers starring as the giant and the Cardinals as the scrawny shepherd boy. 

But although David did some substantial damage with his slingshot, Goliath roused himself just before it was too late and won on a last-minute Hail Mary to the far corner of the endzone.  MVP Santonio Holmes caught it on his tippie-toes and managed to scrape them in bounds before plunging to the ground. It wasn't a comfortable game for Steeler Nation, but it sure was exciting. 


And as much as I don't want to talk about the February 2011 Super Bowl, duty compels me.

Much has been made of Green Bay's unprecedented number of players on IR—15 by the end of the season. (They also had a DE who was indefinitely suspended for a second-degree felony conviction prior to the season.) Not so much has been made of the fact that this happened in the first uncapped year in a very long time. This gave their Front Office the ability to go out and sign free agents at will, with no cap consequences—something that the Steelers are no doubt envious of right about now. 

But the question is, did they? I decided to have a look at how they replaced the wounded warriors. The list of transactions for that season made me dizzy to look at, but as far as I can tell, they replaced some of the injured with players from their practice squad (and the practice squad was a dizzying whirl of cuts and signings in and of itself.) They also brought in a DE, traded a conditional 2011 draft pick for a safety, signed three LBs that were either claimed off waivers or were free agents, signed a TE and another DE, and finally signed a C/OG. So while they used backups and promoted guys from the practice squad, they also did a lot of dealing in free agency during the season.

But when you look at the DVOA numbers you can see just how close the two teams were, despite the constant upheaval on the Packers. And lest we forget, we had an unprecedented number of injuries on the offensive line ourselves, with only a single lineman, the 36-year-old Flozell Adams, starting every game of the season. The line that started in the Super Bowl was a new configuration from any used during the previous games, with the exception of the latter part of the final playoff game. The loss, of course, was C Maurkice Pouncey, who had looked like the best member of the offensive line.

*Slap* Thanks. I'm calmer now, and here are the numbers:

Green Bay had a total DVOA of 23.4%, No. 3 in the league. The Steelers had a much higher DVOA of 36.8%, second only to the Patriots, who had a total DVOA of 45.4%. And yet the Jets (No. 6 with 18.3%) beat them. It just goes to show that the numbers only tell you so much.

The Steelers and Packers were quite comparable in two of the three phases. Green Bay was No. 7 in offense; the Steelers were No. 3. Their No. 2 defense was only topped by ours, at No. 1. Only in special teams did we have a substantial advantage—the Steelers were No. 16, the Packers No. 26.  Not too surprisingly, given these figures, the two teams had the exact same Pythagorean Wins figure—12.1. 

But Green Bay had actually dropped to No. 4 in Weighted DVOA by season's end, while the Steelers held fast at No. 2. Despite that, and despite the fact that the Packers as the No. 6 seed had to play three playoff games instead of two, they were slightly favored for the big game.

We all know how it turned out. My lips are now sealed on the subject. 


And this post, like so many of mine, has gone on long enough, so I'll finish up the series next week with the best teams that didn't make it to the Super Bowl. Hint: at least one of them is a Steelers team...