Football Folklore: Comparing Super Bowl Teams Since 1990

With the Super Bowl upon us and the football season finish line right in front of our eyes, what better time than now to reflect on past big games and how their participants compare to this year’s combatants: the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots.

In my previous article looking at recent conference championship games, I included each team making an appearance in the 32-team era (since 2002). But for the Super Bowl, in order to get a comparable number of data points, it meant going back in history a little bit without straying too far from the current era. To do that, I went back to 1990, the first year there were 12 teams included in the playoffs.

I also made a few statistical adjustments from my previous historical playoff glance. For overall team ratings, I reverted back to standard DVOA instead of weighted DVOA. About a month removed from the end of the regular season, I felt weighting the end of the season too heavily was unnecessary. In my opinion, with each team having two games under their belt and two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl, how they were playing from the middle of December to the end of January doesn’t matter as much as their entire body of work. Also, instead of breaking down team types by measuring run offense/defense and pass offense/defense relative to league average for each team, I used the offensive and defensive segments of both SRS and DVOA while also bringing in two of my favorite measurements from a piece I wrote this college football season: yards per play and yards per point.

There is an added layer to the graphs shown below. Based on the figures used, I was able to calculate a similarity score for each of this year’s team to find out their most comparable teams from this 26-year study.

Here is a refresher on the statistics used in the charts:

SRS: A statistic devised by Pro-Football Reference based on points scored and points allowed to adjust margin of victory for strength of schedule. OSRS is a measure for offensive performance and DSRS is for defensive performance.
DVOA: A statistic created by Football Outsiders that takes each play for a team during a given season and measures it against the league average dependent on the situation. DVOA is presented as a percentage above or below league average which is 0. The more positive an offensive score is, the better while a more negative a number is better on the defensive side of the ball.

Yards Per Play (Explosiveness): Measures yards gained/allowed divided by offensive/defensive plays

Yards Per Point (Efficiency): Measures yards/gains/allowed divided by points scored/allowed; theoretically, a team that gains less yards is more efficient while a team that gives up more yards per point causes more inefficiency in their opponent




With so many teams muddled around the middle of the graph, it’s hard to find this year’s Falcons and Patriots. Both of Super Bowl LI’s participants, based on the two overall team ratings being used, are just about average relative to the rest of the data set.

The Falcons SRS is above the Super Bowl average since ‘90, but their DVOA is below. Their most similar team tusing these metrics were the ‘90 Bills, who of course lost to the Giants following a missed Scott Norwood field goal. The ‘98 Falcons, the only other Atlanta Super Bowl team, were similar in terms of DVOA, but had a stronger SRS. The Dirty Bird Falcons, quarterbacked by Chris Chandler, were more balanced on both sides of the ball than this year’s squad.

The Patriots find themselves just above average in SRS and DVOA, with a strong similarity along these measures to the ‘93 Cowboys and ‘11 Patriots. There are 21 previous teams that were above average in both measures. Those teams went 12-9 in the Super Bowl, or 11-8 if you exclude Super Bowl XLVIII which was the only game to include two teams (Seahawks, Broncos) above average in both categories.

The best teams by a wide margin are the ‘07 Patriots, ‘91 Wahington, and the ‘96 Packers followed closely by the ‘13 Seahawks, ‘04 Patriots, and ‘01 Rams. The only two teams that range into the dreaded, “How the heck did they get to the Super Bowl category” are the ‘03 Panthers and ‘08 Cardinals. The funny thing about those two teams is that even though they lost, both were in position to win within the last few minutes.

Offensive Ratings – SRS vs DVOA

While not as strong as the ‘13 Broncos or the ‘07 Patriots on the offensive end, the Falcons are in the conversation for best Super Bowl offense since 1990. They compare favorably with the ‘09 Saints, ‘91 Redskins, ‘98 Broncos, and ‘11 Patriots, but will hope for better luck as the aforementioned teams went 3-4 in the Super Bowl. The Patriots are above average in offensive DVOA, but below average in SRS. Their closest comparison is the ‘93 Cowboys who defeated the Buffalo Bills and it must be noted that these numbers do include four games without Tom Brady at the helm.

Defensive Ratings – SRS vs DVOA

The defensive graph looks different from the previous ones because a negative DVOA is better. The four top defenses based on this information – ‘00 Ravens, ‘02 Buccaneers, ‘08 Steelers, and ‘13 Seahawks – all won the Super Bowl. However, no one similar to those teams will be playing Sunday. The Falcons have the third worst D-DVOA, however one of the teams worse (‘06 Colts) finished the season with a victory. But Atlanta also has the fourth worst DSRS and all three teams behind them lost. The Patriots defense is strong by SRS standards, but are middle of the pack as far as DVOA. Like on offense, they find their defensive profile very similar to the ‘93 Cowboys.

Offensive Explosiveness and Efficiency

The Falcons enter Sunday as the most explosive team in the Super Bowl since 1990, just edging out the ‘01 Rams. They are also very efficient, ranking in the top third of the data set. This data confirms what we’ve been seeing all season from Atlanta. The Patriots are better than average in offensive yards per play, but fall below average in yards per point as they are clustered with four teams – ‘08 Cardinals, ‘02 Raiders, ‘91 Bills, and ‘09 Colts – that lost in the final game.

Defensive Explosiveness and Efficiency

As explosive and efficient as the Falcons were on offense, they struggled to the same extent in those areas on defense. Oddly enough, the only two teams worse than the Falcons in yards per play allowed were the ‘11 Patriots and Giants. But their overall defensive explosive and efficiency profile is very similar to those same Giants and the ‘06 Colts, who both won. The Patriots Super Bowl teams all seem to have a similar profile. Every Patriots’ Super Bowl team, except for the ‘03 version which was stellar in both areas, were worse than average at yards per play allowed, but they instead focused on creating inefficiency. Four of the seven teams in the above average yards per play allowed and above average yards per point allowed quadrant are Patriots teams, including this year’s squad. The previous teams went 2-1 in the Super Bowl.

Net Explosiveness and Efficiency

The final set of numbers seem to back up what we see on Sundays. The Falcons’ explosive offense far outpaces their lacking defense when calculating their net yards per play, while their net yards per point are below average but nowhere near the worst we’ve seen in the big game. They are similar to the ‘92 Cowboys, ‘08 Steelers, and the ‘13 Broncos. The Patriots insane efficiency is typical for the Brady/Belichick era. All seven Super Bowl teams during their run are above average in net efficiency, which seems appropriate for a team so focused on the details. But this year’s team is the most efficient yet. Their profile comparables in this category are two Super Bowl winners, the ‘02 Buccaneers and ‘10 Packers.

Closest Comparables

Again, these are not who I believe the teams compare to. This is based on the data presented above, in addition to points scored/allowed and yards scored/allowed and the similarity score generated from this data.

New England Patriots

  1. ‘05 SeahawksMatt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander, and company fell short against the sixth seeded Steelers. A balanced offense and underrated defense allowed them to cruise through the regular season and playoffs. One of the more underrated teams we’ve seen in recent memory. Perhaps a call (Ben Roethlisberger QB sneak that wasn’t) and trick play away from a Super Bowl victory.
  2. ‘04 Eagles – The Eagles finally made the Super Bowl after their fourth consecutive conference championship appearance, only to be taken down by the second strongest Patriots team of the Brady/Belichick era. Only Andy Reid’s ineffective clock management stood between them and a potential game-tying drive.
  3. ‘09 Colts – It’s ironic that the Colts’ two Super Bowl appearances in the Peyton Manning era were made by two of their weakest squads when assessing them by their season-long numbers. Between 2003 and 2010, during Manning’s peak (all five of his 1st team All-Pro seasons with the Colts), Indianapolis had three seasons with an SRS under 6, two of them ended in a Super Bowl appearance. This Colts team is similar to this Patriots team with their underrated defense led by defensive end Dwight Freeney.
  4. ‘93 Cowboys – This Dallas team can be found sidling up to the Patriots on a few of the charts above. The offense was balanced led by Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, while the defense was sound.
  5. ‘90 Bills – The first of four Super Bowl teams, this Bills offense was the most efficient of that group while their defense continued to get better against the run. Again, like the Patriots, they had balance on offense and were a team built for sustained success.

The group above is an excellent snapshot of what the 2016 Patriots are: a balanced team offensively and defensively with a veteran quarterback and a history of sustained success leading to their Super Bowl appearance. Again, we use the caveat, that these numbers are skewed by Tom Brady’s four-game absence. These teams went 1-4 in the Super Bowl.

Atlanta Falcons

  1. ‘06 Colts – See above regarding my Manning-era Colts comments, but this team had a very difficult time stopping the run during the regular season and relied on Manning to will them to 12-4. While they were not as young as this year’s Falcons defense, their own D got better down the stretch led by 26-and-unders Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Antoine Bethea, Bob Sanders, and Gary Brackett.
  2. ‘98 Broncos – On the face, this wouldn’t seem like an apt comparison given this Broncos team had a much more veteran and stronger defense than the Falcons. But the advanced defensive metrics don’t like the Broncos defense as much as standard points and yards allowed. In addition, like the Falcons, they had one of the worst pass defenses in the league. That didn’t matter much as their explosive offense led by Terrell Davis’s 2,000 yard season got them a Super Bowl win in John Elway’s last hurrah.
  3. ‘09 Saints – I was surprised they were only the third closest comparable. On each graph, they are relatively close to the Falcons with Atlanta having a slightly more explosive offense and the Saints having a slightly better overall defense. Drew Brees was able to put up points on a decent Colts defense, but one not as strong as these Patriots seem to be.
  4. ‘13 Broncos – We all know what happened to Peyton Manning and the record-setting Broncos when they ran into the buzzsaw that was the ‘13 Seahawks. The Broncos couldn’t get an inch in the Super Bowl after running and passing all over the rest of the league. Their net efficiency and explosiveness is almost exactly like the Falcons team this year.
  5. ‘11 Patriots – The most explosive Brady-led Patriots’ team from a yards per play perspective were a Wes Welker drop from defeating the Giants. They allowed the most yards per play of any team in this data set by far (the Giants that beat them and the ‘16 Falcons at second and third, but a whole half yard behind), but like these Falcons, passed the ball down the field at will and had a very good ground game behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley, and Danny Woodhead.

Without looking at the numbers, the ‘09 Saints would have been my first guess as the closest comparable for the Falcons. Maybe it’s the fact they’re in the same division or my narrow focus on their offense, but they only check in as the third closest. All of these teams can be found in the top left quadrant of the D-SRS vs D-DVOA chart signaling a below average overall defense, but all had extremely explosive offenses. These teams went 3-2 in the Super Bowl.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jfey5 and find his other work here, including how the Atlanta Falcons’ offense fits into the NFL historically, the best playoff QBs in recent memory, and how Aaron Rodgers hit Jared Cook down the sideline.

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