I want to say that there is a "long history" of Super Bowls, but that would be unfair to things like the city of Rome and Doctor Who. Relatively speaking, the history of the Super Bowl only goes back 47 years, to when the Packers beat the Chiefs 35-10 in Super Bowl I, I suppose that was also the day that somebody came up with the bright idea, "Yeah, sure, Roman numerals. People will be using these forever, it will in no way be confusing to future generations." And so it was that the first Super Bowl was played in Los Angeles, Calif., and involved the Chiefs.
Yes, this was football from a long, long time ago.
But that didn't stop me from spending a few days running down every single Super Bowl champion and loser, all 92 of them, and looking for trends, patterns, and record-breaking history that might give us some idea of how real the hopes are for the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens when they meet in Super Bowl XLVII. From Bart "Bort" Starr to Refrigerator Perry to Rex Grossman, I left no stone unturned. Yes, I turned over all of the stones. Many a rock has been flipped, is what I am saying.
Through it all I came away with some very interesting facts, figures, stats, and history that should give us an idea of how possible it's going to be for the Ravens to upset the 49ers on February 3rd. In short, the odds are stacked heavily against the Ravens, but those odds have been bucked more often than not in recent years. In long, read this:
Believe it or not, it is very important to stop other teams from scoring. Points are an integral part of football, or so I have heard. Some teams will try to outscore you, like the 2009 Saints. Other teams will try to outscore you but fail miserably at stopping you, like the 2012 Saints.
The moral would be "Well, you are either a high-scoring team with a below-average defense or vice versa, points are points!" Except that it has not exactly worked out like that. What history tells us is that it is actually better to stop teams from scoring than it is to score yourself. How so?
Of the 46 Super Bowl champions, they have averaged a scoring offense of 25.58 points per game, which on average ranked them 5.5th (five point fifth) in the NFL in scoring during the regular season. Not bad at all. On defense, those champions allowed 15.86 points per game, good for 5.2ndish (five point secondish) in the league in scoring defense.
However, of the 46 Super Bowl losers, or "Super Losers", they had a scoring offense of 25.67 points per game and a ranking of 5.2ndish in scoring. The losers have actually scored more regular season points than the winners. But, there is a major difference on defense, where Super Losers averaged 17 points per game allowed and a ranking of 7th in the NFL. So while the winners and losers were almost equal on offense, Super Winners allowed a little more than one point less per game on defense.
Not only did they allow more points, but the Super Losers were ranked 9.4th in total defense on average, while the winners were ranked 6.5th, a significant difference. Broken down by team and you'll continue to see a wide disparity.
Of the 46 Super Bowl champions, 14 were the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL, eight were the No. 2 scoring defense, and four were the No. 3 scoring defense. In total, 30 of the 46 champions (65.2%) had a top-five scoring defense. Now compare those dominating numbers to Super Losers:
Only five Super Losers had the No. 1 scoring defense. That number includes the 2010 Steelers, a team that lost to the Packers, the No. 2 scoring defense. Or the '89 Broncos that lost to the No. 3 scoring defense of the 49ers. As well as the '69 Vikings and the '68 Colts, back when it was hard not to be a No. 1 scoring defense. Basically, if you bring a No. 1 scoring defense into the Super Bowl and you aren't facing a top-five scoring defense, you have a lot of history on your side.
The San Francisco 49ers are the No. 2 scoring defense in the NFL, while the Ravens were just 12th, allowing 21.5 points per game. One of the only comparable upsets of this magnitude came back in 1980, when the No. 1 scoring defense of the Eagles lost to the Raiders, the No. 10 scoring defense.
Top two scoring defenses are 22-11 in the Super Bowl and 10-2 since 1990. Both of those losses came against a team that was also a top-two scoring defense.
What you will notice is that of course scoring and offense always matter, but it is so rare that you get any exceptions on offense in the Super Bowl. The lowest-ranked scoring offense to ever make the Super Bowl was the 20th-ranked offense of the Steelers in 2008. The lowest average points per game to ever win a championship was actually the Ravens (20.8 ppg) in 2000. Overall, 88 percent of Super Bowl teams had a top 10 scoring offense. That's more than significant, but it hardly gives anyone an edge. The Ravens were ranked 10th in the league in scoring and the 49ers were 11th. What sets teams apart has typically been defense, and that's where San Francisco has the major advantage.
Can we find other areas that favor Baltimore though?
Well... not here! In the grand style of John Madden, "More often than not, when you outscore your opponents you're gonna win football games." Indeed, it comes as no surprise than a positive point differential is important to success and the more positive it is, the more positively happy you will be. In fact, the 2011 New York Giants were the first team in NFL history to make the Super Bowl after being outscored in the regular season (-0.4 ppg differential) and then they went out there and beat the 14-2 New England Patriots.
(You'll also notice that in Super Bowl history, the 2007 and 2011 New York Giants ruin everything.)
Only two champions weren't ranked in the top 10 in point differential: The 2011 Giants (19th) and the 2007 Giants (13th). Between 1989 and 2001, every single Super Bowl winner was ranked either first or second in point differential. Notable exceptions to this rule include the Giants plus:
The 2006 Colts that allowed 22.5 points per game and outscored opponents by just 4.2 points per game and then beat the Bears, No. 2 in the NFL in point differential.
The 2001 Patriots were the team that pulled off arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history when they defeated the Rams. New England was seventh in point differential (+6.2) and the Rams were first (+14.4). The +14.4 of St. Louis was the fifth-highest of any Super Loser.
And once again, the 1980 Raiders. The Jim Plunkett-led Raiders only outscored opponents by 3.6 points per game, while the Eagles were first in the NFL in that category.
So, how does that apply to Super Bowl 47? The Ravens were just 11th in point differential (+3.4) while the 49ers were fourth (+7.8) in that category. It wouldn't be an unprecedented upset, as you've just seen, but it would be an upset. At least one thing to remember in that regard: If the Ravens win, it would be an upset on par with the Patriots beating the Rams in 2001, which was also the last time the game was held in New Orleans.
Let's put at least one point in Baltimore's court right now...
The Underdog is the Favorite?
At least, that's how it has gone over the last seven years. In history, 14 of the 46 Super Bowls were won by a team with a worse record than their opponent. This includes Super Bowl II when the 9-4-1 Packers beat the dominating 13-1 Raiders. Really, the 11-3 Jets beating the 13-1 Colts was necessary to prove that the Super Bowl would be something worth watching in terms of being competitive and uniting the two leagues, because the Raiders got whomped by Green Bay in 1967.
However, these "record upsets" (as in, team with worse recording winning the Super Bowl) were still few and far between. It didn't happy once in the 1970's. It happened three times in the '80's. It happened only once in the '90's. None of them were incredibly significant until the 11-5 Patriots beat the 14-2 Rams in 2001. And then, all of a sudden, you couldn't stop it.
11-5 Steelers over 13-3 Seahawks
12-4 Colts over 13-3 Bears
10-6 Giants over 16-0 Patriots
13-3 Saints over 14-2 Colts
10-6 Packers over 12-4 Steelers
9-7 Giants over 14-2 Patriots
Six of the last seven Super Bowl winners had a worse regular season record, including the two biggest "record upsets" in history with the Giants beating the Patriots despite being six and five wins worse than them in those years, respectively.
Turnovers: The Most Important Stat and Yet The Least Predictable
The team that wins the turnover battle in the Super Bowl can start booking tickets to Disneyland. (How ridiculous would it be for Ray Lewis to get to go to Mickey's house 12 years after they said, "Ehh, we're going to have Trent Dilfer go to Disneyland because of that whole murder thing"?) Only four times in NFL history (2005, 1988, 1979, 1970) has a team lost the turnover battle and won the game. On average, the Super Bowl winner won the turnover battle by +2.04 in the championship. Truly, football games often come down to one or two mistakes and taking advantage of those mistakes. So, great, all we have to do is use history to tell us who is going to win the turnover battle, right?
Good luck. No, literally, this is going to come down to luck. Because we've all seen how a fumbled football is like a greased Butterball turkey to players trying to dive on it or pick it up. Why should it be so hard to pick up a football right, you are only football players. Whether it's a muffed punt, an interception, or a hard hit on an unsuspecting runner, turnovers are key and will almost certainly turn the tide into the favor of one of these teams. But which one? How will we know?
First you'd want to look at turnover differential during the regular season. Since almost every Super Bowl team except the Giants were great regular season teams, then they're all ranked high in TO plus-minus right? Not really. Only five champions and two Super Losers were ranked first in turnover differential during the regular season. The average ranking in that category was 6.84 for the winner and 7.71 for the loser. A difference, but not a significant one.
There's also a matter of coming in with a hot hand, but both Super Bowl teams usually do. On average, they both average about 1.5 turnovers per game in the playoffs and force a little less than three per game in the playoffs.
This year the 49ers and the Ravens were both plus-9 in turnovers (tied for eighth). Baltimore has forced eight turnovers and turned it over three times in three playoff games. San Francisco has forced four turnovers and turned it over twice in two playoff games. Joe Flacco currently has 8 TD and 0 INT in the playoffs, but he will have to play his best game of the year against the Niners. Flacco had 10 interceptions and nine fumbles in the regular season. Ray Rice had just one fumble.
Colin Kaepernick had just three interceptions in 13 games, seven starts, and nine fumbles. Frank Gore had three fumbles, Michael Crabtree had four. If any team knows the price of a turnover, it's this 49ers team. It's going to play a key role in the game, we just don't know which way the ball is going to roll or who has been practicing falling on footballs the best.
One other resource, though it only goes back to 1991, is Football Outsiders and their DVOA rankings. Some people might doubt it's validity or maybe you just fear change like Garth Algar, but there is no denying that DVOA has done a pretty damn good job of knowing who is good.
The average total DVOA of a Super Bowl winner is 26.09 for an average ranking of ~4th. The average Weighted DVOA, which takes into account recent games more heavily than early-season games, or game that happened back in September or October, is 26.29 for a ranking of 4.80. However, for Super Losers, the average DVOA is 19.64 for an average ranking of 6.47. For Weighted DVOA: 18.5 and 7.33. There is a significant dropoff from 26 to 18.5 and just like with standard statistics, defense is more important than offense.
The average offensive DVOA ranking for a winner is 7.19 and for a loser it's 7.66. However, the average ranking on defense for DVOA is 8.7 for a winner and just 11.85 for a loser. As you could have probably already guessed, the 49ers were ranked 2nd on defense by DVOA, while the Ravens were just 19th. That would make Baltimore tied for the thirdrd-lowest defensive DVOA ranking in history for a Super Bowl winner, should they actually win. However, other teams ranked comparably low, like the 2009 Saints, 2006 Colts, 1998 Broncos, and 1993 Cowboys, all had stellar offenses. The Ravens are just 13th in offensive DVOA.
Baltimore's best hope at that point would have to come down to one truth: The Ravens need to be an anomaly. They need to be the exception to the rule. They need to be the Giants, or the 2001 Patriots, or the 1980 Raiders (the first Wild Card to win the Super Bowl) or the 1968 Jets, the team that changed everything about what we understand about football and predictions.
Because in reality, predictions are only ever going to be so accurate. I would guess that based on everything we know about the previous 46, that San Francisco is going to win this game and go 6-0 all-time in Super Bowl history. Nearly every piece of evidence says that it's going to happen that way. As much as we want to believe that Ray Lewis can move objects with his mind and determine the outcome through sheer will and determination, that's simply not how reality works. If it did, then why didn't Lewis win all of the other Super Bowls that happened during his career? What it all comes down to is a combination of skill, coaching, and luck. What the Ravens will need is more luck than the 49ers and they will need to protect the football like it's an undercover drug informant. As incredible as Colin Kaepernick has been and as impressive as this run is to watch, there's opportunity there for a veteran team to rattle a young quarterback playing in the biggest game of his lifetime, while Joe Flacco has started three more playoff games in his career than Kaep has started total. That fact alone is hardly enough for Baltimore to pull off the upset, but it's a start.
If history has taught us anything, it's that the Ravens are facing an uphill battle. But if we just went by history, there would be no point in playing the game, and we'd never have the Jets, Raiders, Patriots, or Giants. Baltimore was never supposed to be here in the first place, and with one game left, anything could happen. History is changing constantly.