Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Perfect Super Bowl

Despite having two of the best offenses in the league, Indianapolis and New Orleans aren’t necessarily the most attractive markets for the NFL. Sure, die-hard fans know the deal but they make up just a small percentage of the reported billion people who watch the Super Bowl worldwide. Look no further than the moribund ratings that resulted from the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays playing in the World Series for evidence of just how important getting the right markets into the playoffs are for our various professional franchises. While not nearly as unattractive as the Rays, the Saints and Colts aren’t likely to draw record ratings—unless, of course, there was something compelling about those two particular teams facing each other like, I don’t know, both being undefeated…

Both New Orleans and Indianapolis stand undefeated at 11-0. They’ve gotten there two very different ways—the Colts have six wins by four points or less; the Saints have zero wins by four points or less—but they’ve gotten there nonetheless. In previous seasons, teams that started off the year with a string of victories would be dismissed by the foolish notion that “it’s impossible to go undefeated.” Until 2007, nobody had done it before. The ’07 Pats changed that and now undefeated threats are viewed as just that: threats. The Saints and Colts aren’t threats to go undefeated because the Pats did it—although some people probably think this—rather they’re threats because they’re really good football teams and have really easy schedules to close out the regular season.

With Denver’s freefall, the only team on either schedule that appears to be a challenge record-wise is Dallas. While 8-3 is nothing to scoff at, I don’t know anyone—granted I don’t know everyone—who expects the Cowboys to go to New Orleans and stay within 10 points of the Saints let alone win. Barring a major upset, the Saints should breeze (or Brees) to the final week of the season undefeated. A better bet to challenge the Saints is Atlanta who gave Drew Brees and Co. a battle in New Orleans in Week 8. This time the game takes place in the Georgia Dome and Atlanta will be fighting for a playoff spot.

The Colts would appear to have the same easy path but due to the sheer number of close games they have played against weak teams, five more wins don’t seem as inevitable as it does for the Saints. Odds are if the Colts continue tussling with teams well into the fourth quarter, they’re eventually going to lose. Still, based on schedules alone, the Colts and Saints seem to be pretty good bets to get to 15-0.

That is where the biggest obstacle to perfection would come into play. More so than any single opponent, “week 17” could be the biggest roadblock to undefeated seasons for the Saints and Colts. Both teams would have to make the decision to either go for perfection with playoff positioning already decided, or play backups to rest starters and avoid potential injuries. In 2007, with nothing other than a “perfect season” to gain, the Patriots went for it. They beat the Giants in a game that would end up costing them more than they gained. The Pats got the perfect season but the Giants got the confidence and game-plan that allowed them to defeat the Pats in a rematch just weeks later in Super Bowl XLII. It remains to be seen whether Jim Caldwell or Sean Payton would risk postseason success for a regular season distinction. The allure of the “perfect season” isn’t as palpable as it was before the Patriots became the first team to accomplish the feat in the 16-game era back in ‘07. Even if Bill Belichick’s decision to go for the perfect record wasn’t the reason his team didn’t win the Super Bowl—I’m not convinced that it was the wrong decision since there was no way to know that he would have to face the Giants in the Super Bowl—I wouldn’t be surprised if Caldwell and Payton simply look at the fact that a perfect regular season meant nothing for the Patriots in ’07. The ultimate goal for every coach is to win the Super Bowl. It’s possible that these guys will pass on chasing after a “novelty prize” merely to avoid being second-guessed down the road.

If either chooses to rest their starters in Week 17, then the perfect marks are as good as gone. Both Carolina and Buffalo are conference rivals who would relish the opportunity to ruin a perfect season. Even more daunting for the Saints and Colts’ backups would be playing in hostile road environments. It really comes down to whether Caldwell and Payton want to go undefeated. If they do, the schedule is there for the taking. If they don’t, then they’ll rest their starters in Week 17 and, who knows, maybe they’ll accidentally win.

In the event that both “go for it” and make it, the NFL would just be five weeks from the greatest Super Bowl storyline in NFL history: the Perfect Super Bowl. I can’t even imagine the intrigue and hyperbole that would go into a game of this magnitude. The Brees vs. Manning matchup at quarterback alone would be enough ammunition for weeks of analysis and fodder. That wouldn’t even be one of the top three storylines. Those would be reserved for the rise of the Saints following Hurricane Katrina, Peyton Manning entering the discussion of G.O.A.T. with a second Super Bowl ring, and Indy’s Jim Caldwell possibly becoming the first coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl in his first season. You’ll probably even see a sudden media obsession with importance of playing home games in domes.

Obviously, this is all a long way from happening. In fact, it won’t be a realistic possibility until halftime of the conference championship games. The odds are just not favorable. Thanks to the ’07 Patriots, we can calculate just how unfavorable the odds are for two teams going undefeated in the same regular season. Since only one team has gone 16-0 in the 30 16-game regular seasons since 1978, that puts the odds of both the Saints and Colts doing it this season at (1/30)(2) or, 1 in 900. The odds of both continuing their perfect seasons all the way through to the Super Bowl are obviously much, much lower. The Colts would have to contend with the Patriots for a second time. The Pats dominated the majority of their Week 10 tilt in Indy before letting the Colts back into the game. The Saints will have to contend with the Minnesota Vikings which might just be the best team in the NFL. If the Saints get to the playoffs undefeated, they will get the Vikings in New Orleans and should get the “W.” Interestingly, the Vikings have a very good chance of finishing 15-1. Only five teams in NFL history have equaled or beaten that mark. That makes the odds of having two undefeated teams and a 15-1 team all in the same NFL-season 1 in 5,400.

While all of this is nice to envision, the “Perfect Super Bowl” is unlikely to happen. What’s likely to happen, however, is an amazing NFL postseason. It’s probable that the conference championship games will feature the four best quarterbacks in the NFL with Indianapolis vs. New England and New Orleans vs. Minnesota. Those are games that every fan should be begging to see (I know I am). In fact, I would say that they would be pretty close to a perfect pair of championship games which is really all the perfection I'm looking for. Any more than that would just be gravy; albeit the extra succulent variety made with turkey giblets that Martha Stewart coincidentally calls, "Perfect Turkey Gravy."

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