Conventional wisdom suggests that pounding two hapless opponents into submission does wonders for the winning percentage, but doesn't reveal much about the 2007 Pittsburgh Steelers. Conventional wisdom is often neither prevailing nor insightful, and that is the trap the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mike Prisuta falls into in his Monday column. After the Steelers shellacked the Browns and Bills in consecutive weeks -- by a combined score of 60-10 -- Prisuta offered this:
The competition has been inferior enough over the regular season's first two weeks that the Steelers have been able to treat these first two games as exhibitions…. Eventually, they're going to have to play an actual NFL-caliber team…. Only then will we know just how good these Steelers really are.
First, what kind of jerk uses the tired line equating an early-season beatdown to an additional preseason game? Pathetic. Second, we already have a good idea just how good these Steelers are -- because of their blowout victories against inferior opponents, not despite them.
Two seasons ago, Football Outsiders Head Honcho, Aaron Schatz, wrote a nifty article looking at a teams' weekly margin of victory during the regular season and correlating it to playoff success. And the results are pretty incredible:
People want to believe that the teams that can win the close ones are championship teams. But as counter-intuitive as it sounds, championship teams are generally defined by their ability to easily win games over inferior teams.
It's hard to get your head around such a notion, but think of it this way: a typical NFL game is decided by a handful of plays -- in 2001, Kris Brown honked FOUR field goals and the Steelers lost to the Ravens by three points; in 2004 against the Cowboys, Kimo von Oelhoffen recovered a Vinny Testaverde fumble late in the game to set up the winning Jerome Bettis touchdown rumble; a year later, Tommy Maddox threw an overtime pass right to Jacksonville's Rashean Mathis, who promptly took it to the house -- game over; and last season, a ill-fated Ricardo Colclough muffed punt single-handedly doomed the Steelers' chances against the Bengals.
My point: football is a fluky game; a lucky bounce, a tipped pass, a dropped interception, a cleanly-fielded punt … any one of those happen and the results could've been different. But here's the thing: games seldom hinge on one play in blowouts. Cleveland could've intercepted Ben Roethlisberger on five straight second-half possessions, and they still would've lost. And the same with the Bills. No amount of luck -- unless it's 2002, Tommy Maddox is the quarterback, and the Steelers are hosting the Texans -- can account for the disparity in talent.
It's this imbalance that proves to be a great predictor of playoff success. And it's not just blowouts -- Pittsburgh rocked Kansas City last year, but the Chiefs were a playoff team -- it's the blowouts versus teams that finish the season with sub-.500 records. Additionally, beating the league's worst teams into a pulp is more indicative of postseason good fortune than winning close games against quality opponents (teams that finish the season above .500) I know, it boggles the mind -- it seems so counterintuitive, but the numbers back it up … really. From the article:
* In the last ten years, the team with more big wins versus bad teams is 7-2 in the Super Bowl, and 21-7 in the Super Bowl and conference championship games;
* The team with more big wins versus good teams is 5-4 and 19-6;
* The team with more close wins versus good teams is 4-6 and 9-15;
* The team with more close wins versus bad teams is 2-6 and 7-18.
See a pattern forming? And in case you're wondering about the 2005 Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers: they had one close win versus a good team, five big wins versus bad teams, one big win versus a good team, and one close win verses a bad team. Compare this to the other three teams to make it to the conference championship in '05 [following Schatz's convention, the breakdowns are defined thusly: STOMPS (big wins vs. bad teams), DOMINATIONS (big wins vs. good teams), GUTS (close wins vs. good teams), SKATES (close wins vs. bad teams)]:
Pittsburgh: 1 Gut, 5 Stomps, 1 Dominate, 1 Skate
Denver: 4 Guts, 4 Stomps, 1 Dominate, 1 Skate
Seattle: 2 Guts, 6 Stomps, 1 Dominate, 3 Skates
Carolina: 0 Guts, 2 Stomps, 2 Dominates, 4 Skates
Notice anything? That's right, smoking a weaker opponent is a better predictor of playoff success than eking out a win against a top-notched team. I've read this article several times, and it's still hard to digest … but it's also hard to refute the evidence.
Wins against the Titans (34-7), Texans (27-7), Browns (41-0 … huzzah!), and Lions (35-21) had more to do with getting' Jerome home than the 24-22 victory over the Chargers, or the 23-20 loss to the Patriots. Sure, the Steelers played both teams close, but if those games were replayed 10 times, I don't think it would surprise anyone if Pittsburgh went 5-5. That two quality teams are so evenly matched doesn't shed any light on how good they really are. That's where the league's worst teams come in -- their ineptitude allows good teams to get a sense of how good they actually are. So, in a roundabout way, the Browns are partly responsible for the Steelers winning Super Bowl XL. That should excite them immensely.
It's interesting to note that the Seahawks and Steelers, the two XL participants, led the league in STOMPS. Blabbering from the Pacific Northwest about the officiating aside, these two teams were evenly matched, and I wouldn't have been shocked if Seattle had won the whole thing. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Broncos were the favorites -- they had four GUTS, after all -- but as we've established, conventional wisdom is often wrong.
Just keep this in mind as the Steelers prepare to face the 49ers, another 2-0 team. But unlike Pittsburgh, who beat its opponents by 27 and 23 points, San Francisco squeaked out victories of three points and one point.
Despite Prisuta's concerns, I think we already have a pretty good idea about how good the Steelers are.
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