By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Factsmanship Award Winner

The hot team, or the better team?

When you subtract all the Brady vs. (other) Manning hype, the rematch hype, the Boston-New York hype, that’s what Super Bowl XLVI comes down to.

The Giants are hot.

The Patriots are better.

Many people have questioned Vegas’ opening line of Patriots -3 – didn’t the Giants beat them once already and outplay them in the playoffs?

Yes. But there’s really not much doubt that New England had the better team this year when you look at the seasons both had – in fact, if you take the entire 2011 picture into account, New England should probably be favored by more.

The "Yeah, but the Giants won the first one" argument, even when paired with the "Yeah, but the Giants upset them in 2007" argument, doesn't hold a whole lot of water. When the Vegas boys look at teams, one game is one game, a piece of the larger puzzle -- a puzzle that is put together based off an entire season's output.

New York went 9-7, and becomes the third team to make the big game after such a season. The others (2008 Cardinals, 1979 Rams) both lost, to the Pittsburgh Steelers as it happened. Arizona was a 6.5-point underdog, the Rams an 11-point underdog.

And at least those other 9-7 teams had the decency to outscore their opponents on the season. New York headed to the playoffs having been outscored, 400-394 – the first time anyone has reached the Super Bowl off such a year.

What type of company does that put them in? Looking back through history, here are the four most similar teams to New York, based on their record, points allowed and points scored:
  • 2008 Dallas Cowboys (T.O.’s last season; Dallas’  hangover year after a great 2007)
  • 2007 Houston Texans (Ron Dayne at RB, a green Matt Schaub at QB and a shoddy D)
  • 2004 Seattle Seahawks (Won a bad NFC West at 9-7 with a team that was below average on O and D)
  • 1997 Minnesota Vikings (The year before they drafted Randy Moss)
The interesting thing about this group of teams is that in three of the four cases they were a year away from great seasons. Minnesota and Seattle got there the next year (the Vikings to 15-1, the Seahawks to a Super Bowl loss), and Dallas had just been there (13-3 season).

But as a group, they were far from special. Two made the playoffs, one won a game, and none are going to go down as all-time greats. They were flawed, forgettable teams.

Now, here are the four most similar teams to the 2011 Patriots:
  • 2011 Saints (a pretty special group, we can all agree)
  • 2004 Colts (the season that Peyton Manning had a 121.1 rating)
  • 2001 Rams (Greatest Show on Turf)
  • 1998 Broncos (repeat SB champions)
That’s a pretty stark difference in company.

Super Bowl teams with the better record in the regular season have only won once in the last six matchups … but is that a trend or an aberration? Before that, the team with the better record had gone 23-5 in Super Bowls.

And consider that last year’s Green Bay team, while finishing 10-6, did so with an impressive set of stats that suggested they’d have finished 12-4 or 13-3. New York finished 9-7 with stats that suggested they’d have finished 8-8.

None of this goes to determining the outcome (SB 42 reminded us of that), but yes, the Patriots do deserve their favorite’s role.