Is This One of the Best Super Bowl Matchups of the Past Three Decades?
Unlike last year when we wondered if the upstart Cincinnati Bengals had a chance against the talented Los Angeles Rams, there’s a different feeling around the first Super Bowl matchup between No. 1 seeds since the 2017 season.
After all, our model projected the Philadelphia Eagles to have one of the highest win totals in the NFC and the Kansas City Chiefs to finish among the winningest teams in the AFC at the start of the season. They also easily had the highest probabilities of advancing to this point when the postseason began.
All this salivating over a battle between a pair of 16-3 titans has got us thinking about where this showdown ranks among the best Super Bowl matchups of all time. But that’s tough to determine because of the challenges you face when trying to compare teams across different eras with different league environmental factors.
However, we’ve developed a model that takes data on both sides of the ball to calculate how many points per 10 drives better or worse conference championship teams since 1991 were than the average team during those specific seasons. From this model, we’re able to create an adjusted offensive rating, an adjusted defensive rating and an overall adjusted team rating for those teams heading into the Super Bowl.
These adjusted team ratings are the same ones we used to determine that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are the best NBA champions since the 1986-87 season and that the 2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks were one of the worst. They’re important because they normalize a team’s performance from various league factors during a respective era that can either inflate or deflate its numbers.
What the model revealed last year was that despite the pregame tone, the Rams-Bengals clash was rated to be nowhere near the most one-sided Super Bowl matchups since 1991. And it played out that way as the Rams held on for a 23-20 victory after stopping the Bengals on a fourth-and-1 on their final drive.
So what do the ratings say about this year’s Andy Reid or Kelce Bowl? Well, it’s lined up to be one of the most competitive Super Bowls over the past 32 years with the ninth-smallest differential in adjusted team ratings between opponents over this span.
This list might tell us how competitive a Super Bowl should be (seven of the top 10 were decided by 11 points or fewer), but it doesn’t tell us whether it’s the best Super Bowl matchup since 1991 since we could have two teams will low adjusted team ratings battling it out in a potentially ugly affair.
Coincidentally, the Super Bowl favorite (by our ratings) with the worst adjusted team rating over this time frame is last year’s Rams at 6.64. The 2003 New England Patriots, who defeated the Carolina Panthers on a last-second Adam Vinatieri field goal, are second at 6.72.
The 2018 Rams are third on that dubious list at 7.48. That team played in what is now widely considered to be one of the worst Super Bowls of all time, falling 13-3 to the Patriots in a game that was 3-3 at the half and only featured one touchdown.
But we digress. According to our historical ratings, is this one of the best Super Bowl matchups in recent memory?
Let’s look at the Super Bowl underdogs (again, by our ratings) who have had the highest adjusted team ratings to get a sense of which games have featured the two best teams by the data since the 1991 season.
And there you have it. This is the eighth-best Super Bowl matchup going back three decades, according to our ratings.
The Chiefs were favorites by our model in their two previous trips to the Super Bowl since 1991. They were favorites by the second-smallest margin over this span at the end of the 2020 season when they lost to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-9. Kansas City was also involved in the Super Bowl that had the sixth-highest combined adjusted team ratings on Feb. 2, 2020 when they beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-20 in Miami.
This the Eagles’ third Super Bowl over this span, but the first time our model has dubbed them the favorites. But one of those was the game with the smallest difference between opponents’ adjusted team ratings during the 2017 season when Nick Foles had the performance of his life in a 41-33 win over Brady and the Patriots. The previous matchup with Brady’s Pats didn’t go as well on Feb. 6, 2005 when Reid, Donovan McNabb and the Eagles lost 24-21 in Super Bowl 39.
This time, the Eagles head into Arizona with the best adjusted team rating in the NFL at 11.02, while the Chiefs rank second at 8.55. The 49ers (8.04), Cincinnati Bengals (7.98) and Buffalo Bills (7.90) round out the top five before there’s a good drop to the Dallas Cowboys in sixth (5.99).
Though most of these matchups ended up being competitive Super Bowls, the top two on this list don’t inspire much confidence in an instant classic. The Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl on Feb. 2, 2014, with a 43-8 rout of the high-powered Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos and the Buccaneers won their first title on Jan. 26, 2003, with a 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders in the Jon Gruden Bowl.
What does it all mean for two weeks from Sunday?
While the historical data certainly doesn’t guarantee a thrilling finish in Super Bowl 57, it does tell you that this is a Super Bowl between not only the two best teams in the NFL this season but it’s also one of the top-rated combined matchups of the past 32 years.