Last week I wrote the following in this article:
"Both teams have young head coaches who are undefeated thus far in the opening game of the season. John Harbaugh is 3-0, Mike Tomlin 4-0. Obviously, that is going to change for one coach on Sunday, unless they manage that rarest of beasts—a tied game."
Well, as we all know, it is now Tomlin 4-1, Harbaugh 4-0. Bummer.
But while I was writing that article, I found myself wondering just what, if anything, a Week 1 loss says about a team's chances to reach the Super Bowl. So I fired up Pro-Football-Reference and started looking. Here is what I found.
90 teams have made it to the Super Bowl in the past 45 years. Only eight of them—right around nine percent—lost their first game. Four of those teams won the Super Bowl.
Off-hand, this isn't particularly encouraging. That means that, having lost Game 1, the Steelers only have a 4.5 percent chance to win the whole enchilada, if history is to be our guide.
But on the other hand, history would have said that we would win Sunday's game. Not only was Mike Tomlin 4-0 in opening games, but the Steelers had an eight-season streak of winning Game 1, whether at home or away—the longest such streak in the league.
Still, history is interesting, even if it doesn't have a great deal to say about the outcome of any particular game in the future. So I decided to dig a bit deeper. Using Football Outsider's DVOA rankings, I took a look at the teams that lost their first game, their opponent, and how they did in the big game. (If you aren't familiar with this method of analysis, here is the explanation.)
DVOA rankings currently only go back to the 1992 season, however. So the first five Super Bowl teams listed will not have any additional analysis, as these games were played between1967 and 1992. Here they are—the first team of the two listed is the team with a loss in Week 1. (So far, there has never been a Super Bowl played between two teams that lost their first game.)
Super Bowl IV (1970)
Minnesota Vikings (12-2) vs. the Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)
Final Result: Chiefs 23, Vikings 7
Super Bowl XIV (1980)
Los Angeles Rams (9-7) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Final Result: Steelers 31, Rams 19
Super Bowl XVI (1982)
San Francisco 49ers (13-3) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
Final Result: 49ers 26, Bengals 21
Super Bowl XVIII (1984)
Washington Redskins (14-2) vs. Los Angeles Raiders (12-4)
Final Result: Raiders 38, Redskins 9
Super Bowl XXI (1987)
New York Giants (14-2) vs. Denver Broncos (11-5)
Final Result: Giants 39, Broncos 20
Although there are no DVOA rankings for the teams, we can note that the team that began the season with a loss lost the Super Bowl three out of five times.
Here are the remaining three Super Bowl teams with a Week 1 loss:
Super Bowl XXXVII (2003)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4) vs. Oakland Raiders (11-5)
Final Result: Buccaneers 48, Raiders 21
Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004)
New England Patriots (14-2) vs. Carolina Panthers (11-5)
Final Result: Patriots 32, Panthers 29
Super Bowl XL (2006)
Seattle Seahawks (13-3) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Final Result: Steelers 21, Seahawks 10
Two out of three of the teams that began the season with a loss won the Super Bowl, bringing us to a 50-50 split for our eight teams under consideration.
Now for the analysis of these teams:
2003 was the only Super Bowl thus far that pitted the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams (according to DVOA, and thus post-1991.).* Tampa Bay's 33.4% DVOA for the 2002 regular season put them in first place. Oakland's 29.6% put them at No. 2.
Breaking it down further, Tampa Bay's offense was ranked No. 20, their defense No. 1, and their special teams No. 8. Oakland, by comparison, had the No. 2 offense, the No. 9 defense, and No. 15 special teams. Oakland was a 4-point favorite in the game.
When you look at their Weighted DVOA (adjusted to give the games at the end of the season more weight than the earlier games) Tampa Bay fell to No. 3 overall, while Oakland stayed at No. 2. In the end Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl quite definitively, 48-20.
I wondered whether the Weighted DVOA might have been skewed by Tampa Bay resting starters during the final week. As it turns out, I suppose you could say they 'rested' their QB, as he was injured during the Week 15 game. He did not play again until the Divisional playoff game. They split the two games played without him. In Week 16 they lost to the Steelers, 17-7. A Week 17 15-0 win against the Bears gave them the No. 2 seed and a bye. But Tampa Bay's greatness was in their defense rather than their offense anyhow.
Certainly there was no chance for the 10-5 Raiders to rest their starters. Their final regular-season game was against a divisional opponent, the Denver Broncos. They met the Broncos again two weeks later, in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
2004 was quite a different animal. The Patriots were by any measure substantially better than the Panthers. Their DVOA of 21.8% put them 4th in the league. Their offense was No. 20, their defense No. 2, and special teams No. 8.
The Panthers were so far down the list that I checked twice to make sure I was looking at the correct year. Their overall DVOA was 0.8%, which landed them with the No. 17 spot. Their offense was No. 18, their special teams No. 17. Only the defense made it to a figure that wasn't in the bottom half of the league—it ranked No. 10.
And in case you are thinking that perhaps the Weighted DVOA makes them look better, you're partially correct. They managed to climb all the way to 2.2%, but they were still ranked No. 17.
However, the entire 2003 season was part of an improbable climb for the Panthers. Two seasons previously, they had gone 1-15. Although nine teams have managed this dismal record since the 1978 change to a 16-game season, the Panthers were the only team to ever manage 15 losses in a row (they won Week 1, and never posted another win) until the hapless 2008 Detroit Lions wiped away the Panther's badge of shame by going 0-16.
The following season (2002) the Panthers made it to 7-9 under new Head Coach John Fox. So a trip to the Super Bowl to cap the 2003 season had to have been pretty exciting for the fans. Nonetheless, this game would appear to merit a blowout by New England. Instead, it ended up as a defensive struggle, with neither team putting points on the board until most of the way through the second quarter. In the end the Patriots won, but only by a field goal, 32-29.
Finally, the infamous 2006 Super Bowl. Seattle had a very respectable DVOA of 29.7%, putting them No. 3 in the league. They had the No. 1 offense, but only the No. 15 defense and No. 20 special teams.
Pittsburgh's DVOA of 27.9% put them at No. 4. Their offense was ranked No. 8, their defense No. 3, and special teams No. 10. This looks like a great test of the adage that "defense wins championships." However, as the No. 6 seed they had to get there first, by playing what seemed like every other team in the league to get to the big game.
It would hardly have been surprising if the team was too exhausted to do much in the Super Bowl. A No. 6 seed had never made it all the way to the Super Bowl since the league expansion in 1990. And the Steelers had to do something no one else had ever done, either. They had to beat the top three seeded teams—Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Denver—on the road. (The 1985 Patriots, seeded No. 5 of 5, also won three road games to make it to the Super Bowl. But their first game was against the other No. 5 seed, the New York Jets. They went on to lose the Super Bowl.)
As we all know, the Steelers did win it in the end. There are those (mainly from Seattle) who would claim that the referees were sort of a 12th man on the Steelers side. However, every team gets some good breaks and some bad ones. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren didn't see it that way. On February 6, 2006, he was quoted as saying "We knew it was going to be tough going against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn't know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well."
Greg Aiello, speaking for the NFL, defended the officiating, declaring a few days later "The game was properly officiated, including, as in most NFL games, some tight plays that produced disagreement about the calls made by the officials." A referee not involved in the game, Ed Hochuli, said "The league felt, actually, that the Super Bowl was well officiated. Now, that doesn't mean there were no mistakes. There are always mistakes, but it was a well-officiated game."
I was at the game in Baltimore last Sunday, and I can say that it felt as if the accumulated weight of lucky breaks for the Steelers for the past 88 years were being rectified on that bleak day. And there may be more to come, if the referee for this Sunday's game, who as we all know by now was the head ref for the 2006 Super Bowl, feels the need for continuing atonement. Let's hope not.
To be continued - in the next installment I'll put up the stats for teams that began the season with more than one loss. I fervently hope, however, that those stats are just a matter of intellectual interest with no relevance to the current season.
* Here are the rankings for each post-1992 Super Bowl team. The first figure in parenthesis is the DVOA ranking, the second Weighted DVOA. The winning team is listed first.
1993 Cowboys (1/1) vs. Bills (7/9) Final Score: 52-17
1994 Cowboys (2/2) vs. Bills (12/18) Final Score: 30-13
1995 49ers (3/1) vs. Chargers (7/8) Final Score: 49-26
1996 Cowboys (2/3) vs. Steelers (4/5) Final Score: 27-17
1997 Packers (1/1) vs. Patriots (8/9) Final Score: 35-21
1998 Broncos (3/6) vs. Packers (1/1) Final Score: 31-24
1999 Broncos (1/3) vs. Falcons (7/2) Final Score: 34-19
2000 Rams (1/1) vs. Titans (5/5) Final Score: 23-16
2001 Ravens (3/5) vs. Giants (10/9) Final Score: 34-7
2002 Patriots (12/10) vs. Rams (1/2) Final Score: 20-17
2003 Buccaneers (1/3) vs. Raiders (2/2) Final Score: 48-21
2004 Patriots (4/1) vs. Panthers (17/17) Final Score: 32-29
2005 Patriots (2/3) vs. Eagles (7/9) Final Score: 24-21
2006 Steelers (4/6) vs. Seahawks (3/4) Final Score: 21-10
2007 Colts (7/6) vs. Bears (6/7) Final Score: 29-17
2008 Giants (16/18) vs. Patriots (1/1) Final Score: 17-14
2009 Steelers (2/1) vs. Cardinals (21/22) Final Score: 27-23
2010 Saints (6/13) vs. Colts (8-14) Final Score: 31-17
2011 Packers (3/4) vs. Steelers (2/2) Final Score: 31-25