Years ago, I was quite interested in whether or not the better football team consistently won games that matter.
- Some games don’t matter, because one or both teams have limited incentive to win. But playoff games, presumably, matter as much as games can.
In baseball, an inferior major league team will often beat a superior team. Even the very best team would be expected to lost about a third of its games to the very worst. That’s why you need to have 162 games in the season, and a 7-game series, to have any reasonable hope of establishing who deserves to win.
Football isn’t like that; in football, I think most people believe that a very good team will almost always defeat a bad one. But the playoffs are giving us reason to doubt.
- I think this year’s champions, the Baltimore Ravens, were probably the fifth best team in the NFL at the end of the year. (I'd rank SF, Denver, New England, and Seattle ahead of them. Football Outsiders would add Green Bay, the Giants, and (!) Da Bears.
- I think most people watching the first half of the Super Bowl thought it that SF was clearly better. They were just losing, and the question was whether they’d have time to catch up after some bad luck.
- Last year, the Giants were clearly not the best team. They got lucky in two, maybe three playoff games.
- The previous year, the result was about right.
- The year before, a very mediocre Arizona team made it to the Super Bowl.
This is a long-term threat to football; if the games are mostly going to be decided by lucky breaks and the referees, it’s harder to care. (I think everyone would agree that the refs could have given the game to SF if they were so inclined.) This year’s Super Bowl was filled with defensive ads (“We’re doing research to make the sport safe for your kids!” “We’re not sexist anymore!”), but none of this will matter if the games don’t.