By Adam Dobrowolski
Cold, Hard Football Facts Championship-Caliber Mathlete

In the 2011-12 NFL playoffs, we see a lot of firsts that the team have already achieved or are looking to achieve:
  • The Green Bay Packers won 15 regular season games for the first time in franchise history.
  • The San Francisco 49ers clinched their first playoff berth since 2002.
  • The New Orleans Saints became the first 13-win team to play on Wild Card Weekend. Furthermore, they will need to win their first road playoff game to reach the NFC Championship Game.
  • The Atlanta Falcons made consecutive postseasons for the first time in franchise history, and Matt Ryan looks for his first playoff victory.
  • The Detroit Lions clinched their first playoff berth since 1999, and they can win their first playoff game since 1991.
  • The Houston Texans clinched their first ever playoff berth.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers look to become the first defending Super Bowl loser since the 1993 Bills to reach the conference championship.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals can win their first playoff game since 1990.
In many ways, this could become quite a special postseason for the NFL. If the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl, we'll see only the third 18-1 champion. If somebody outside of the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers win the AFC, the conference will go away from its big three (Patriots-Steelers-Indianapolis Colts) for the first time since 2002, when the Oakland Raiders won the conference.

Perhaps even better, if a certain team makes the run, we could see something truly rare and special happen in the playoffs. For teams like the Denver Broncos and New York Giants, the odds are greatly against them. We take a look at the chances of each team hoisting The Lombardi Trophy, beginning with the Giants and Broncos. Remember, under the guidelines of Mathletics, history will show us rare feats that are very unlikely to occur.

CUE THE VINCE MCMAHON TITANTRON (No Chance): Broncos, Giants, Bengals, Texans
Literally, these teams have a chance, as they are in the playoffs. However, the odds for these three teams to win the Super Bowl barely pass zero percent. Denver finished the year with a 8-8 record, which immediately shows where the problem lies. No team made it as far as the conference championship with an 8-8 record. Worse yet, both the Broncos and Giants were outscored in the regular season. No team who was outscored in the regular season made it to the Super Bowl. In fact, only the 1978 Oilers and 1996 Jaguars made it as far as the conference championship during the Super Bowl era. Futhermore, the Giants and Bengals share a 9-7 record, and no team has won a Super Bowl with a 9-7 record. Only the 1979 Rams and 2008 Cardinals made the big game with a 9-7 record. Finally, with the Bengals and Texans squaring off in an all-rookie quarterback match-up, we'll see teams with virtually no chance to win the Super Bowl. No rookie starting quarterback made the Super Bowl. (If there's any consolation, rookie starting quarterbacks own a 6-9 record. Of the four rookies to win in the playoffs, all of them reached the conference championship. Look out, Baltimore or New England!) Perhaps on another day would the Broncos and Texans at least have some precedent for a championship. Both teams ended the season on a losing streak, and only the 1967 Packers and 2009 Saints won a Super Bowl with a losing streak entering the playoffs.

So where exactly does Mathletics fit into this argument? Consider it support some basic football theories:
  • 1. You are what your record says.
    Most commonly, teams with a worse record are not as good as teams with a better record. Most commonly, the better teams win. Asking for that happen four times is quite the stretch. History and context will tell you that the 2010 Packers were argably the best six-seed ever, even before they won the Super Bowl. That's the outlier of the bunch, and they at least won 10 games. If an 8-8 or 9-7 team is to emerge as the champion, it will require a rare blend of factors to come together.
  • 2. Rookie quarterbacks aren't as good as veteran quarterbacks.
    This should make some basics sense. Sure, not all vets are better than rookies, but it's a rarity for a given quarterback to have his best season as a rookie. Generally, rookie quarterbacks aren't 100% adjusted to NFL game speed, so how can one expect that rookie to beat the best defenses in the league, most of which generally make the playoffs.
  • 3. Peak at the correct time.
    Perhaps this one theoretically doesn't illustrate the odds as much, but it still holds weight. Generally, when teams on a losng streak heading into the playoffs, they lost to teams that won't be playing into late January. Think about, only three other teams can make at least the conference championship if this cold team is to make the Super Bowl. What are the odds this team happens to play two or all three teams in the final few games? Think about it; two or three specific games out of 256 total regular-season games, in two or three consecutive weeks to end the regular season out of 17 total regular-season weeks. You don't need a mathematician to tell you those odds are low. Therefore, most teams simply aren't playing good football heading into the playoffs, and you can follow this up by revisiting the first theory.
Don't overthink it. Remember, we are simply playing the odds. As history shows, these four teams will need to win a metaphorical lottery to win Super Bowl XLVI.

ALL IN MODERATION (Decent Chance): Lions, Falcons, Steelers
With two 10-6 teams and a defending Super Bowl loser, we some hope... but not a whole lot. Let's start why it matters that the Steelers lost the Super Bowl last year. First things first, it's extremely tough to make the Super Bowl. Just by the basic odds, with an even playing field, a random team has 1 in 16 shot (6.25%) to make the Super Bowl. The odds fall to 1 in 256 (0.39%) for that random team to repeat as conference champion.

True, a franchise like Pittsburgh Steelers usually field a team better than the average team. True, teams that make the Super Bowl are usually significantly better than the average team, which is why we are eliminating the first four teams from the conversation anyways. However, it's still a 1 in 256 chance we're trying to work with. While the odds have greatly increased since the 2010 season started, looking at the odds before the run began gives the proper perspective for how tough it is to repeat. And remember, we're only talking about the Steelers making the Super Bowl. If we're going to talk about winning, we have to increase the odds to 1 in 512.

So why aren't the Packers on this list too? First off, the Packers may be part of the absolute best two-year teams in NFL history, so they can overcome such odds. Second, history better favors the Super Bowl winners. Eight teams repeated as Super Bowl teams, while only two teams that lost the Super Bowl came back the following year to win the Super Bowl. Go back to the top to see even how long it's been since a defending Super Bowl loser made it to the conference championship game.

As for the Lions and Falcons, look no further than their 10-6 record. In an extension of previous work, 10-6 teams are generally not as good as the 11-5, 12-4 or 13-3 teams (and so forth). Unless there's an outlier like the 2010 Packers or abnormally weak elite competition (see the 1988 season), there's not much reason to belief in a Super Bowl run. Only three Super Bowl championships finished the regular season with a 10-6 record. Add in the fact that one of the teams played last year, and we're talking about a truly rare feat to see back-to-back 10-6 champions. We've never seen it happen in history, and understandably so with the low odds. More so, only once in NFL history did we see back-to-back playoff years with a wild card team making the Super Bowl. Worse yet, of the six wild card teams to win the Super Bowl, only three did so as fifth or sixth seed.

You can also consider this further proof of what obstacles face the Steelers. (One more note: the Steelers won four one-possession games against losing teams. Only five Super Bowl champions did that at least four times.)

Of the two 10-6 teams here, the Falcons are in worse position. Only one Super Bowl champion, the 2007 Giants, won the Super Bowl with a worse scoring differential than Atlanta's +52. Yes, the Falcons are one spot higher than the Lions in playoff seeding, but they didn't play like that in a 16-game sample size. The Lions finished with a more respectable +87 scoring margin.

AIN'T NO DUMB AND DUMBER (Good Chance): Saints, Ravens, 49ers, Patriots, Packers
"So you're saying there's a chance..."

It's much more than that. In fact, you should expect one of these five teams to emerge as NFL Champions. Of course, there's different levels of expectations to give these teams.

The Saints finished the regular season with a -3 turnover margin. Six teams won the Super Bowl despite a negative turnover margin. Look at it this way: although the Saints couldn't win the turnover battle against the average opponent, they didn't regularly lose the turnover battle. If the Saints can keep the turnover battle at least tied against the 49ers, then can win their first road playoff game. However, they may need that critical battle to upset the Packers.

The Ravens didn't do themselves any favors by finishing a pedestrian 4-4 on the road. Only four Super Bowl champions finished the regular season with a non-winning road record. The 1979 Steelers didn't need to play a road playoff game, yet the 1997 Broncos won two and the 2006 Colts won one. The Ravens would play a maximum one road game, and that would be the AFC Championship Game in New England, if it happened.

The 49ers relied much of the year on a sterling turnover margin, which finished at +28. While that might be great, stew on the meader +44 yard differential for the 49ers. Only two Super Bowl champions, the 1980 Raiders and 2001 Patriots, had a yard differential worse than +50. For comparison, of the previous four playoff teams in the Super Bowl era to sport a turnover margin of at least +25, only the 1983 Redskins won a playoff game. Theoretically, this suggests that these teams fed on the weaker pray with takeaways and later couldn't get the job done when they couldn't rely solely on takeaways.

The Patriots defense took the brunt of criticism in New England. Save for a Week 17 showing from the Green Bay Packers, the Patriots would've set the record for most passing yards allowed. However, the 26 passing touchdowns allowed weighs with much more importance. Only two teams, the 1988 49ers and 1998 Broncos, won the Super Bowl after allowing at least 25 passing touchdowns in the regular season. We at Cold, Hard Football Facts like to believe that certain passing stats apply to all eras, but this isn't truly one of them. In a year where we saw three of the eight 40-touchdown passing performances from a quarterback, perhaps it's not such a terrible thing anymore to allow that many passing touchdowns.

Note the four other playoff teams with at least 25 passing touchdowns allowed: Atlanta (25), Detroit (26), New York (28) and Green Bay (29).

Speaking of Green Bay, what does their 15-1 season mean? Of the previous four 15-1 teams, two won the Super Bowl (1984 49ers and 1985 Bears) and two lost in the conference championship game (1998 Vikings and 2004 Steelers). At the least, expect a Green Bay-hosted NFC Championship Game. However, remember that the two conference championship losers were defeated by 14-2 teams.

Pick and choose how you'd like it, but it seems like the three top offenses are in the best shape. In this pass-happy season, the Packers and Patriots shouldn't have to worry much about the passing touchdowns. Meanwhile, a negative turnover margin is more than manageable for the Saints. Believe it or not, it will be the defensive-minded Ravens and 49ers who have the outside legitimate shots in this postseason. However, it's more likely that Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees will finish off a stellar passing season with another championship ring.