04 February, 2017

The Monday Morning Quarterback

The History Behind Super Bowl LI

February 4, 2017
Peter Solari, Contributing Editor

Kickoff of Super Bowl LI in Houston, TX is just hours away, which means it's time for The Monday Morning Quarterback's annual Big Game preview!

Since Super Bowl LI has been the talk of the sports world for nearly two weeks now, you've undoubtedly heard enough statistical and matchup analysis about this game, to make your head spin. With that in mind, I decided to give you a different kind of Super Bowl preview; one from a historical perspective. 
I did the same thing last year, for Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, and it worked out really well, because that matchup was full of interesting story lines.

 You can read last year's Big Game preview here

Before we take a look at Sunday's game, here are the records of all 32 NFL franchises in the Super Bowl. First up are all the teams with at least one Super Bowl title to their names. 

Now, here are the organizations who have never won the Super Bowl:

Super Bowl LI will feature the AFC Champion New England Patriots, out of the AFC East Division, against the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, from the NFC South. Current AFC East teams are a combined 7-11 in 18 Super Bowls. The Patriots are 4-4, the Miami Dolphins are 2-3, the New York Jets are 1-0, and the Buffalo Bills are 0-4. 

Super Bowl LI will be the sixth appearance in the Big Game for current NFC South teams. They have a cumulative record of 2-3 in five previous Super Bowls. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints are each 1-0 on Super Sunday, while the Panthers are 0-2. The Falcons were walloped 34-19 by John Elway's Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, the organization's only prior Super Bowl appearance back in 1999. 

The Patriots finished the 2016 regular season with a record of 14-2, while the Falcons were 11-5. This year's Patriots will be the 13th 14-2 team in the Super Bowl since the NFL switched to a 16-game regular season in 1978. For the sake of consistency and fairness, I will only look at Super Bowls in the 16-game regular season era, which covers Super Bowl XIII through Super Bowl 50. All analysis from here on, will only cover that specific period, unless otherwise noted.

14-2 teams are a combined 8-4 in those 12 prior Super Bowls, including 7-2 against teams with less wins. The 1984 Dolphins are the only 14-2 team to face a team with more wins on Super Sunday, when they lost to the 15-1 San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XIX. The aforementioned Super Bowl XXXIII is the only time since 1978 that both Big Game participants (Broncos and Falcons) were each 14-2. The Patriots are 2-0 in Super Bowls following 14-2 regular seasons, after knocking off the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and the Philadelphia Eagles a year later in Super Bowl XXXIX.

The Falcons will be the 12th 11-5 team in Super Bowl history. Unfortunately for them, 11-5 teams are just a combined 3-8 in 11 Super Bowls. No 11-5 team has ever faced an opponent with less wins in a Super Bowl, but after a player's strike shortened the 1987 to just 15 games, the 11-4 Washington Redskins beat the 10-4-1 Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. Including the '87 Redskins, 11-win teams are 4-8 in 12 Super Bowl appearances. 

Obviously, none of this is good news for Atlanta heading into Sunday, but what's really amazing, is how much better their prospects would have been, if the regular season turned out just a little bit differently. 

While 14-2 teams, like this year's Patriots, are 8-4 in Super Bowl history, 13-3 teams are just 7-9, and 3-4 against teams with less wins. On the other hand, 11-5 teams, like the Falcons, are 3-8 in Super Bowl history, 10-6 teams are 3-0, with all those victories coming against opponents with worse regular season records. So, if either New England or Atlanta had lost just one more regular season game in 2016, history tells us that the Falcons would stand a much better chance on Sunday. It should be noted, however, that had they finished 10-6, the Falcons wouldn't have received a first round playoff bye, and would have been forced to win three games, rather than 2, to advance to Super Bowl LI. 

38 Super Bowls have been played since the 1978 season, and in that span, teams with more regular season wins than their opponent, are 19-12 on Super Sunday, while seven of those games were contested between teams with identical records. But Atlanta fans shouldn't get discouraged just yet, because Super Bowl teams with more wins than their opponents, are just 5-10 since Super Bowl XXXI, and the underdogs have won five straight, as well. In fact, the last Super Bowl winner with more regular season wins than their opponent, was the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. Since then, the 2009 Saints, 2010 Green Bay Packers, 2011 New York Giants, 2012 Baltimore Ravens, and 2015 Broncos have all beaten their favored opponents in Super Bowls XLIV, XLV, XLVI, XLVII, and 50, respectively. 

Next, we'll examine the two franchises who will face-off on Sunday, and how history has treated similar teams from the past.

Analyzing the Patriots in this context can be quite difficult, because when it comes to Super Bowl history, the Patriots are it! Since coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady arrived on the scene in 2000, New England has transformed itself from a fledgling NFL franchise, into the league's gold standard. Super Bowl LI will be the organization's record-ninth appearance on Super Sunday, surpassing the Steelers, Broncos, and Dallas Cowboys, who have appeared in the game eight times each. Barring a setback, Brady will start his seventh Super Bowl on Sunday, which is also a record. Elway, who led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, is second on that list. Five different quarterbacks (Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, Peyton Manning, and Jim Kelly) have started four Super Bowls. Should the Patriots come out on top Sunday, Brady will be the first and only player to quarterback five teams to Super Bowl championships, passing Bradshaw and Montana, who each went 4-0 on Super Sunday.

Like his quarterback, and again, barring any setbacks, Belichick will also be appearing in his seventh Super Bowl on Sunday, and in doing so, will break new ground, as he will pass Don Shula, the only other coach with six Super Bowl appearances between the Dolphins and Baltimore Colts. Tom Landry took the Cowboys to five Super Bowls, while Chuck Noll, Joe Gibbs, Bud Grant, and Marv Levy have each coached in four. Belichick and Noll are the only two coaches in history, with four Super Bowl wins. If New England wins, Belichick will be the first head coach with five Super Bowl rings. 

The Patriots are one of six NFL franchises with at least four championships in the Super Bowl era. On Sunday, they will become the fourth team to attempt a fifth win. Teams going for their fifth Super Bowl title, are 3-1 in the past. The 49ers were the first team to reach that plateau when they defeated the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. One year later, in Super Bowl XXX, the Cowboys joined them by knocking off the Steelers, who were also going for their fifth win. It would take a decade, but Pittsburgh finally joined the 49ers and Cowboys atop the NFL, when they knocked off the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, and claimed their fifth championship. Three seasons later, the Steelers returned to Super XLIII, and beat the Cardinals to become the first franchise with six Super Bowl titles. No team has matched that mark since. 

Unlike the Patriots, the Falcons are going where many franchises have gone before: to a second Super Bowl, and if history has taught us anything, it's that the outcome of Super Bowl LI, could be pivotal for the Atlanta organization moving forward. 

The Falcons will appear in the Super Bowl for the second time in history on Sunday. Their participation in the Big Game is limited to a 33-19 drubbing at the hands of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.  Should history repeat, what happens next, could be telling.

28 of the 32 NFL franchises have made at least one Super Bowl appearance, with the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Houston Texans, being the exceptions. Those 28 teams are a composite 9-19 in their respective franchises' first Super Bowl appearance. New England and Atlanta are 0-2 in those games. Of the 19 teams to lose their first time around, Atlanta will become the 16th to make a second trip to the Big Game, on Sunday. (the San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, and  Cardinals are all 0-1 in Super Bowls). This is where things get interesting. 

The previous 15 teams to lose their first Super Bowl have an aggregate record of 8-7 their second times around. The eight teams who are 1-1 in their first two Super Bowls (Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, Cowboys, Dolphins, Redskins, Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks) are a combined 10-9 in subsequent Super Bowls, but only two of the seven franchises to start 0-2, have since lifted the Lombardi Trophy (Broncos, Patriots). The other five (Minnesota Vikings, Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Eagles, Panthers) are collectively 0-4 in ensuing Super Bowls and 0-14 overall in the Big Game. With the future of the organization hanging in the balance, and dynasties being rare and short-lived  in today's NFL, the importance of winning Super Bowl LI, is about so much more than just the 2016 season. And it's not just about the organization as a whole either. Players' and Coaches' futures are at stake too. 

Barring any setbacks, Atlanta's Matt Ryan will be the 59th quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl. The prior 58 are an even 29-29 in their inaugural Super Bowls. Of those 29 losers, 23 never started another Super Bowl, and the six who have, are collectively 4-9 on Super Bowl Sunday. Meanwhile, 14 of 29 quarterbacks who won their first Super Bowl Start have made a second, and are a combined 17-12 in subsequent appearances, so there's a lot at stake for Ryan in this game. And don't forget his coach, because his whole career could be riding on Sunday too. 

Dan Quinn will become the 53rd head coach in Super Bowl history on Sunday, when he lines up across the field from his counterpart, who has done this more than anybody ever. Like the quarterbacks, those previous 52 coaches have an even collective record (26-26). And also like the signal callers, 14 of those 26 winners have made at least a second trip to the Big Game, and have a composite record of 17-8 in their return trips.

Sadly, history hasn't been kind to coaches who came up short in their initial Super Bowls either. Of the 26 who lost their first time, only nine made at least one return, and their aggregate record is 7-16 on Super Sunday. While it would be foolish for either Quinn or Ryan to be considering any of this on the eve of the biggest games of their lives, it's noteworthy, and rather interesting, how one game has made or broken so many careers in the past. 

But enough about the past. It's time to step back into the present. 

Super Bowl LI has the makings of a very exciting game. With two explosive offenses, and two less-than-impressive defenses, logic would dictate that we could be in for a real shootout, and Vegas has set the over/under for this game at 58, the highest ever! But don't get ahead of yourselves, because high-octane offenses don't always shine under the brightest of lights. Some recent examples of this would include the 2007 Patriots, who entered Super Bowl with a record of 18-0 and the highest scoring offense in league history, but only managed 14 points against the Giants on Super Sunday. The 2013 Broncos surpassed those Patriots as the league's most potent offense ever, but they only put up a measly eight points against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. Then, of course, there was Cam Newton and the Panthers last season who only scored 10 points in the Super Bowl. In all fairness, though, all three of those examples were facing better defensive units than either of the teams playing in Super Bowl LI.

I don't believe that either of these two defenses, can stop their opponent's offense, so I'm expecting them Brady and Ryan to put some points on the board. And even though Vegas is begging you to take the "under," I'm going to go out on a limb here and tell you to take the "over" because I'm predicting a 31-28 New England victory. The Patriots are a three point favorite, and I think that's right on.

Wherever you're watching the game, make sure you're comfortable, because this one could very easily come down to the last drive, and more specifically, who has the ball last. Enjoy Super Bowl LI, everyone.


We discussed this story on the most recent episode of the "For Pete's Sake" podcast. Have a listen below.

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