A short time ago, there was an article that told how the Packers late season loss to the Patriots was the impetus to turn their season around. They felt that if they could hang in that well with the Patriots, they could compete with anybody. That sounded familiar. In fact I'd heard the same thing from the Giants in 2007. Then it occured to me that the Cardinals said getting blown out by the Patriots in 2008 changed their season for them and they proceeded all the way to the Super Bowl. Three teams using the Patriots as a measuring stick? Is that coincidence?
Since, 2006, the Patriots have played both Super Bowl teams during the regular season (except for themselves, of course). In 2006, they lost to the Colts and beat the Bears. In 2007, they beat the Giants both in the Pre-season and regular season. In 2008, they lost to the Steelers and beat the Cardinals. In 2009, they were killed by the Saints and narrowly lost to the Colts. In 2010, they narrowly beat the Packers and killed the Steelers.
So what are the chances we would play both Super Bowl teams? On the NFC side, we play one division (4 teams) every four years. All things being equal (and they're not), there is a 25% chance that we would play the NFC champion. The inequality stems from certain divisions being weaker, in general, and not as likely to field a Super Bowl caliber team. Yet the NFC North (twice), NFC East, NFC West, and NFC South are all represented.
The AFC is more of a challenge because things there are less equal. For instance we play the AFC East every year, one other division (4 teams) every three years, and we play the teams from the other two divisions that had our same standings the previous year. That last line is where things become unequal. The Patriots won the division the previous year for all but the 2009 season. That season we happened to be playing the AFC South and the Colts. In fact, we happened to be playing that division in 2006 when they went as well. The 2008 Steelers were the only team swept in by the division standing clause, so I'll close my eyes and pretend it has no significance. Even though I feel that it increases our chances of playing a Super Bowl team when drawing from the tops of other divisions.
The easiest way to deal with it is to say we play 9 out of the 15 (not counting ourselves) AFC teams. The chance we would play the one that hits the Super Bowl is then 60%. Now let's see if we can be more accurate. If we say we play the Patriots (which in essence we do every week at practice), the chance we play an AFC East team is 100%. The chance we play any other division is 1 in 3 or 33.3%. To add in the other two teams is more difficult, because they are partially counted in out chances already. To take a swag at it, I'm going to say that we have 100% chance of playing 2 out of 12 teams. Our chances here become: 4/16 x 100% + 12/16 x 1/3 + 2/12 x 100% = 66.7%, which is higher, so I'll go with that.
The chance that we would play BOTH the NFC champ AND the AFC champ would be: 66.7% x 25% = 16.7% chance each year. That's exactly your chances of rolling a number you picked on a fair die. But wait, this is where it gets interesting (too late, I know). The chance that we would play BOTH the NFC champ AND the AFC champ every year for 5 straight years would be: 16.7% x 16.7% x 16.7% x 16.7% x 16.7% = 0.0129%. That's one chance in over 7,776. That's pretty darn small. Not as small as your chances of winning the lottery, but still fairly significant. Just try to roll a non-loaded die and get 5 ones in succession when you're bored some day.
Truth in numbers time. I've glossed over the fact that some divisions are more likely to turn out SB level teams, but that would tend to make the number smaller since we have to play EVERY division. I've also glossed over the fact that we play the better teams in the AFC, which would make the number a bit bigger. I've also ignored the fact that we didn't actually PLAY the Patriots, because we ARE the Patriots. I think the fact they scrimmage themselves tends to raise their games.
Does this prove statistically that the Patriots are the proving ground for Super Bowl contenders? No, but it is fun to think so. Are we a measuring stick for some other teams in the league? By their own admission, yes. With that in mind, the Patriots play the NFC East this year, so look for an NFC Champion out of the Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, and Redskins. In addition, we play the AFC East (Patriots, Jets, Dolphins, Bills), AFC West (Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, Broncos) as well as the Steelers and Colts. Look for an AFC Champion from that group. My fervent hope is the Patriots hoist the Lombardi this year. Go Pats!