The New England Patriots are the best team in the NFL, face no real roadblocks to winning the AFC and are overwhelming Super Bowl favorites. But the New England Patriots aren’t going to win the Super Bowl, and it’s for one very simple reason: The NFL’s top team rarely wins the year-end knockout tournament. (The Dallas Cowboys aren’t going to win the Super Bowl either, but that’s just because they’re not all that good.)
Click on 100 different articles and you’ll find 100 different predictions, each with their own set of rationale and forecasts about how the 11-game postseason will play out. Does defense win championships? (It can.) How about a rookie quarterback and running back? (Never.) Is New England as good as its 14-2 record would suggest or did it merely have a “right place, right time” schedule? (A little from Column A and a little from Column B.) Who are the dark horses? (There are none — the winner will be one of the eight teams not named the Texans, Raiders, Dolphins and Lions.) Can Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethslisberger keep up their win streaks? (Why not?) Is Eli going to Eli it up in the playoffs once again? (If his defense can stop Aaron Rodgers’ win streak.) Can an offensive line be the cornerstone of a champion? (It worked thrice for Joe Gibbs.) Which teams present the worst matchups for each other? (The Giants seem to be a bad one for most, and no one should want to go on the road to Atlanta.) What do advanced statistics tell us? (Nothing of relevance.) Who’s going to win? (See above.)
Why not New England? The Patriots are such huge favorites to win the AFC they’re getting negative odds. (The Pats are -180 to win the conference, meaning you have to bet $180 to win $100. A $100 bet on the second-favored team — the Steelers — earns $350.) Their Super Bowl odds are three times as good as any other team. They have the best quarterback (sorry, Aaron) the best coach (no one’s arguing that) and like a 10 percent chance they’ll gain some advantage through nefarious shenanigans (looking at you, Putin). The Pats are the logical choice to win the Super Bowl, and for a decade that’s been reason enough to predict they won’t.
Over the past 10 seasons, the best team entering January hasn’t emerged as the champion in February once. Here are the years and playoff favorites dating back a decade (we identified the best team by record, playoff odds, contemporary news accounts and what’s left of my memory): 2015: Carolina; 2014: Seattle; 2013: Denver; 2012: Denver; 2011: New England; 2010: New England; 2009: Indianapolis; 2008: Tennessee; 2007: New England; 2006: San Diego/Chicago. None of those teams won. (A few Super Bowl teams were right there – the 2014 Pats, the 2009 Saints – but they were 1B, if anything.)
So what? It’s not that the best team can’t win, it’s that it recently hasn’t. In the ’80s and ’90s the best teams won more often than not. Odds are this run is going to end sooner rather than later.
The NFL playoffs are far more of a crapshoot than anyone likes to admit. In all but the rarest instances (2007 Giants) we retroactively assign singular greatness to the team that hoists the Lombardi Trophy because winning it all is the only thing that matters, not who had the best regular-season record or who should have made the title game. But winning the Super Bowl doesn’t mean you were the best team. It never has and never will. Nobody thinks the winner of the NCAA tournament was the best team all season, it’s acknowledged that it was the winner of a quirky 67-game bracket — a deserving winner, but not necessarily the best team. (If that were the case, Kentucky would have gone 40-0, Coach K would have more than five titles and Bill Self wouldn’t be sitting at one.) The NFL playoffs are just as unpredictable.
Duke is the best comparison, for so many reasons beyond quality and the reality of the difficulties of a one-and-done situation. You could argue that the Pats are either the best team or the team best prepared to win the Super Bowl every year because Brady and Belichick have done it so much. That argument supports the larger point: Even with all that greatness, New England only has one Super Bowl win in the past 11 seasons, and it took a horrible Seahawks decision to get it.
Of course, the Pats barely lost in 2007 because Eli Manning somehow danced around like Fred Astaire in the pocket and connected with the crown of David Tyree’s helmet, which apparently had better hands than Jerry Rice. The Pats probably should have won in 2011, too. The Broncos would have taken the Super Bowl in 2011 if not for Chris Harris misplaying a pass so badly it changed the entire tenor of the NFL season. New England was once a 9.5-point favorite over the Jets in the 2010 AFC divisional playoff before getting effectively shut down by a Rex Ryan team (a Rex Ryan team, I said). In recent years, the Ravens, 49ers and Falcons have all been one catch from making the Super Bowl, and Arizona, New England (twice) and San Francisco have all been one play from winning it. There’s no larger meaning other than to prove the randomness of the sport. (For a list of heartbreaking playoff moments, click here and see how thin the line is between glory and failure.)
Math, which is often dubious in relation to the NFL, easily supports our theory and it doesn’t take a PhD specializing in game theory to figure it out. The politics website 538, which was the lone analytics site even sniff a Donald Trump victory, says the Patriots have just better than a 1 in 3 chance of winning the Super Bowl. You can come with all the breakdowns, analysis, stats and all-22 highlights you want, but nothing is more meaningful than one-in-three chances to become one of 12.
It’s the same as those old discussions about Tiger Woods vs. the field, except on a smaller level: If you must take one player or team, the favorite is who to bet the house on. But if it’s between one team and 11 others, it’s a no-brainer. You take the Pats, and I’ll take the field. In the past decade, including a year in which New England was the most dominant football team the sport has ever seen, I win nine times out of 10.