Here is the promised continuation of this post about the historical fate of teams that lose games at the beginning of the season. That post discussed teams with a Week 1 loss.
This post will look at teams that lost two consecutive games at the beginning of the season, yet went on to play in the Super Bowl. Fortunately, as I had hoped, this is of no relevance to the Steelers this season. But before we leave that topic, we should note that Tomlin may be 4-1 now for the opening game, but he's 5-0 for the opening home game. This makes him the first coach in franchise history to achieve that mark. Yeah, baby!
So without further ado, here are the teams that began their seasons with two losses.
Historically, it looks like it is better to have lost two games than one. Only four teams have lost the first two games of the season and gone on to the Super Bowl, but three of the four won the big game. Here they are:
Super Bowl XXVIII (1994)
Final Result: Cowboys 30, Bills 13
Super Bowl XXXI (1997)
Final Result: Packers 35, Patriots 21
Super Bowl XXXVI (2002)
New England Patriots (11-5) vs. St. Louis Rams (14-2)
Final Result: Patriots 20, Rams 17
Super Bowl XLII (2008)
New York Giants (10-6) vs. New England Patriots, (16-0)
Final Result: Giants17, Patriots 14
So far, no team has ever lost more than two games at the beginning of the season and gone on to play in the Super Bowl. Which means precisely nothing, really. Who knows? As crazy as this year is shaping up to be, it wouldn't utterly shock me for a team to lose their first six or seven games and make it to the Super Bowl. After all, Seattle made it to the playoffs with a losing record last year.
Since all four teams on our list are post-1992, let's look a bit more at the teams using DVOA. And a hearty thank you to the fine folks at Football Outsiders for the amazing work they have done breaking down every play of every game for the past 19 seasons.
First, the 1994 Super Bowl. Looking at the stats from both teams, the final result was very much in line with what one would expect. The Cowboys had a DVOA of 25.0%, putting them second in the league. Buffalo's 9.4% put them at No. 12. The big weakness in the Dallas team was the defense—the offense was No. 2, special teams No. 7, but the defense only No. 17. Buffalo wasn't particularly strong in any area, with the No. 13 offense, No. 8 defense, and No. 6 special teams. The Weighted DVOA shows Dallas holding firm at No. 2 while Buffalo plummeted to No. 18.
It's also interesting to look at the Pythagorean Wins. (This is the number of wins the team would be expected to have vs. how many they actually got. In other words, did a team get a lot of breaks, or conversely, none at all? Here is a fuller explanation.) The expected win total for Dallas was 12.2, so their 11-5 record is poorer than expected. Conversely, Buffalo's would only have been expected to win 10.8 games. They won more than a full game over expectations.
Although the Bills were winning 13-6 at halftime, the Cowboys completely dominated the second half of the Super Bowl, and Buffalo never sniffed the scoreboard again. This was the fourth season in a row that the Bills made it to the Super Bowl, and the fourth time in a row that they lost it.
Since then they have made the playoffs three times. During the 1995 season they made it as a wild card and won their first game, but lost to Pittsburgh in the divisional round. The also made it to the playoffs in 1996 and 1999, as a wildcard both times. They lost both those games. Who knows, though—maybe this is their year. They are looking good so far.
And yes, this was supposed to be about Dallas, but I grew up with a father who was a die-hard Cowboys fan, and I heard enough about the Cowboys to last me a lifetime. Sorry, Dad : )
The 1997 Super Bowl was Green Bay's game to lose, and they didn't. Their DVOA of 41.3% was 11.6% higher than the next closest team, San Francisco. They were astonishingly good.
The Patriot's 10.4% DVOA looks quite pedestrian in comparison, and put them at No. 8. The Packers had the No. 3 ranked offense, the No. 1 ranked defense, and the No. 2 ranked special teams. By contrast, New England's special teams were their best unit at No. 10, with their defense at No. 12 and their offense at No. 14. Both teams' Weighted DVOA dropped, but Green Bay was still at No. 1, with New England falling to No. 9.
Green Bay's win extended the NFC Super Bowl winning streak to 13—the last time an AFC team won the Super Bowl was 1984. (The Broncos would finally break the NFC domination the next year.) This game was the first time a special teams player was declared the MVP of the Super Bowl. Kick/punt returner Desmond Howard had a remarkable 254 return yards in this game, including a return for a touchdown.
And yes, this was supposed to be about New England. But they clawed their way to the Super Bowl over Pittsburgh's quivering corpse, beating them 28-3 in the first round. So I don't want to talk about them. But then you've got the Packers. Oh well, I guess you can't hate everybody, unless you're Mechem, who is particularly gifted that way...
The 2002 Super Bowl featured another appearance by the Patriots, and their first win. On paper, they didn't have a great shot at it. Their DVOA of 7.7% put them at No. 12, far below No. 1 ranked St. Louis. St. Louis had an Achilles heel, though—their special teams were only ranked No. 29. (Offense and defense were No. 2 and No. 5 respectively.) The Patriots' only unit that made it to the single digits was their defense, at No. 4. Their Weighted DVOA did climb at the end of the season, to No. 10, but St. Louis held on firmly to the No. 1 slot.
This was the season that an injured Drew Bledsoe unleashed Tom Brady onto the league. Thanks a lot, Drew. Naturally, the Patriots knocked the Steelers out in the AFC Championship game, because they're annoying like that. Kordell Stewart thoughtfully threw two picks in the last three minutes of the game. I expect he was just trying to help out a young QB.
New England went into the game as a 14-point underdog, and when you look at the Super Bowl statistics, you can see why. You would never suspect that New England had won the game.
Tom Brady passed for 145 yards, Kurt Warner for 365. First downs: STL 26, NE 15. Third-down efficiency: STL 5/13, NE 2/11. Total yards: STL 427, NE 267. Pass completion percentage: STL 63.6, NE 59.2. TOP: STL 33:30, NE 26:27. It isn't until you get down to "Turnovers" that you begin to see what happened. STL 3, NE O. Interceptions thrown: STL 2, NE O.
And even then Kurt Warner almost brought his guys back, scoring 14 points to tie the game in the fourth quarter. An Adam Vinatieri field goal with 0:00 on the clock put the Pats up by three.
And finally, the 2008 match between the Totally Awesome Patriots and the Totally Overmatched Giants. The Giants had no business being in that Super Bowl. The Patriots had a perfect season—the very first since the league went to a 16-game season. (Here is an October 3, 2007 ESPN article giving "Four Reasons 16-0 Will Never Happen in the NFL." Mr. Chadiha must have felt a bit foolish the next January.)
The DVOA rankings definitely reinforce the disparity between the teams. With a DVOA of 53.1%, the Patriots were No. 1. The nearest team, the Colts, had a DVOA that was an astounding 22.4% lower than New England's. The Patriots had the No. 1 offense, the No. 7 special teams, and the No. 12 defense.
The Giants, on the other hand, were No. 16, with a woeful 1.1% DVOA. Their very best unit, the defense, was still two notches below the Patriots, at No. 14. Their offense was No. 18, their special teams even worse at No. 19. In other words, the only unit that wasn't in the bottom half of the league was the defense—barely. The Weighted DVOA brought little comfort; New England remained at the top of the heap while the Giants dropped to No. 18.
In terms of Pythagorean wins, New England outperformed expectations, with a projected 13.8 wins, about 14% better than expected. So did the Giants. Their expected win total was only 8.6, so 10-6 is also a 14% increase. No advantage there.
Once they made it to the playoffs, things didn't look much brighter for the Giants. They had not won a playoff game in seven years. They had a single Pro Bowler on the team—DE Osi Umenyiora. This is the lowest number of Pro Bowl representatives ever on a Super Bowl team. The Patriots had eight Pro Bowlers on their team, tied for the all-time record with the 1985 Bears.
The Giants had to play three post-season games on the road. And they had to beat Tampa Bay (ranked 8th in DVOA,) Dallas (ranked 4th in DVOA), and the Packers (ranked 6th) to make it to The Bowl That is Super, as "Yinz Luv Da Stillers" would have it.
New England, on the other hand, went from strength to strength. While beating the No. 3 ranked Jacksonville in the Divisional round, Tom Brady set a new record for a full-game completion percentage (92.9%.) The team had already broken almost every offensive record during the regular season. Although Brady had a bad week against San Diego, the defense stepped up to the plate and forced two turnovers and restricted the Chargers to field goals.
The two teams had already met during the last game of regular season. The Patriots were determined to have a perfect season, and their starters played the entire game. Surprisingly, it turned out to be closely contested game in which New England had to overcome a 12-point deficit to win it, 38-35.
Still, the Patriots were highly favored to win the Lombardi, and to win it big, with an expected total of 54 points. But unlike the regular-season joust, the Super Bowl was a low-scoring affair. The Giants didn't even score a touchdown until 11:05 in the fourth quarter. But the much-vaunted NE offense had only scored a single touchdown at this point. Although they answered the Giants' fourth-quarter TD with one of their own, the Giants scored again with :35 on the clock.
This game is generally considered to be the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. And it all began back in September 2007, with two losses to begin the Giant's season. The Greatest Team of All Time was sent back to Foxborough with no confetti, no parade, and no rings, and the 1972 Dolphins are still the only team to post a perfect season and cap it with a Super Bowl win.
To be continued next week. As noted above, no team has lost its first three games and gone on to play in the Super Bowl, at least so far. So I will look at the longest loss streaks, poorest season record, and other esoterica.