Through five weeks, the Jaguars have been the worst team in the league and the Broncos have been the best. One could also argue that these two teams are even more extreme than the typical worst/best teams in the league, and that Denver has a larger home field advantage than your typical team. In other words, this is as large of a mismatch as we could possibly create, which jives with the historically large points spread of 28 points.
The situation is only getting uglier in Jacksonville. Blaine Gabbert continues to look like one of the worst quarterbacks to ever start 25 games in NFL history, so perhaps it’s good news that a hamstring injury will force Chad Henne into the starting lineup. And a few days after trading left tackle Eugene Monroe, 2nd overall pick Luke Joeckel went down with fractured ankle and is now lost for the season. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense look unstoppable.
I thought it would be fun to look at other times where the best and worst teams played each other. I’m going to define “best” and “worst” as the first- and last-placed teams according to the Simple Rating System, which means we’re actually going to have the benefit of hindsight here (i.e., we’ll be looking at the best/worst teams from the entire season, not as of the time when those two teams played). Since 1970, the best and worst teams have faced each other a total of 21 times, with the best team owning a perfect record.
In the ten times the best team in the league hosted the worst team in the league, the average score was 36-4. In the eight of those games where we have a points spread, the best team was favored by an average of 16.2 points. Let’s walk down memory lane.
2011: Saints 62, Colts 7 – Boxscore
True to form, this game featured the highest Game Script of any game from the 2011 season. The Saints held an average lead of 29.5 points in a game unfortunately placed in prime time. NBC was hoping for stories about Peyton Manning going home to New Orleans; instead, we watched Curtis Painter’s Colts fall behind 28-0 in the game’s first 20 minutes. The loss dropped the Colts to 0-7, and Indianapolis would start 0-13 before finishing 2-14. After being forced to deal with a full season of non-elite quarterback play, the football gods provided Andrew Luck to the city of Indianapolis a few months later. The Saints went 13-3 in 2011, and Drew Brees set the record for passing yards in a season, en route to winning the AP Offensive Player of the Year award.
This was the last game of the 2004 regular season. The Patriots were the defending Super Bowl champs, and would win the Super Bowl five weeks after this game, too. The teams entered and exited the game with mirror records: the Patriots finished 14-2, while San Francisco ended 2-14 and won the right to draft Alex Smith. New England was locked into the #2 seed prior to the game, so perhaps that explains why the line was a bit low.
1999: Rams 34, Browns 3 – Boxscore
The first edition of the GSOT Rams against the expansion Browns? St. Louis had scored 121 points in their prior three games, so it’s not like the Rams were not yet properly rated. This is one of the best comparisons to Denver/Jacksonville you can find — St. Louis entered the game 5-0, Cleveland 0-6 — and still, the line was only 18.5. The Rams took a 21-3 first half lead, and Kurt Warner was “limited” to just 29 pass attempts.
1997: Broncos 38, Chargers 3 – Boxscore
John Elway’s 1997 Broncos weren’t as explosive as the Peyton Manning version, but this game in week 17 came just one month before the franchise won its first Lombardi trophy. One thing that’s crazy when you think about those teams is the death of the fullback: those Broncos teams started Howard Griffith, while the 2013 squad has Wes Welker. In this game, Elway threw four touchdowns, with each of his WOWY stars — Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, and Shannon Sharpe — reaching the end zone. Over in Minnesota that day, the Colts lost to the Vikings. That ensured that Indianapolis would land the first pick, while the Chargers (after trading up from 3 to 2) were left with Ryan Leaf.
1990: Bills 14, Patriots 0 – Boxscore
Yes, there was a time when the Bills were great; perhaps even more shocking to younger fans, there was a time when the Patriots were terrible. The 1-8 Patriots were 15-point underdogs when they traveled to Rich Stadium to face the 8-1 Bills. Three weeks earlier, Buffalo won 27-10 in Foxboro, , but this game was surprisingly close. Jim Kelly finished the game just 5 of 15 for 79 yards, and Buffalo clung to a 7-0 lead most of the game until an 80-yard touchdown run by Thurman Thomas in the 4th quarter. The Bills would go on to make their first of four straight Super Bowls, while the Patriots finished the year 1-15. Without a clear star in the draft, the Patriots traded down with the Cowboys, who selected Russell Maryland with the first overall pick.1987: 49ers 35, Falcons 7 – Boxscore
The matchup in Atlanta that season appears in the above table, too, of course, but that game deserves an asterisk. Joe Montana, Roger Craig, and ten other regular 49ers crossed the picket line, which made them monster favorites in Atlanta (before a crowd of 8,684). But Bill Walsh left Montana and most of the regulars in for just five possessions, which is one of the reasons the Falcons were able to keep that game close.
In this game in late December, Steve Young was actually filling in for an injured Montana. Young actually didn’t have a great passing game, and Jerry Rice only had 4 catches for 58 yards to go with his two touchdowns. But Young, Craig, and Joe Cribbs all rushed for at least 60 yards. San Francisco easily covered the 16-point line, as the only Falcons points came on a kickoff return. On the ensuing kickoff, San Francisco negated that with a 92-yard Cribbs kickoff return score.
Atlanta finished the season 3-12 — yes, Shattenjager, we have another Marion Campbell reference today — and drafted Aundray Bruce with the first pick in the ’88 Draft. San Francisco’s season ended with one of the all-time playoff chokes — you don’t hear about that game very often when the legacies of Montana and Walsh are discussed — losing as 11-point favorites to the Vikings in the playoffs. Of course, the 49ers won the Super Bowl the next two years.
1981: Eagles 38, Colts 13 – Boxscore
Ron Jaworski and the Eagles were the defending NFC Champs, while the Colts were one of the worst teams of all time. Baltimore entered the game on a nine-game losing streak and had allowed 40 or more points in four of their last five games. The 8-2 Eagles were coming off a 52-10 victory against the Cardinals, so the 14-point spread looks pretty low in retrospect. The game was not very close: Philadelphia picked up 34 first downs to Baltimore’s 9, and outgained the Colts 574 to 208.
1976: Steelers 42, Buccaneers 0 – Boxscore
The gold standard of mismatches: the expansion and winless Bucs in Pittsburgh against the two-time defending champions. Pittsburgh had allowed just 28 points in their last seven games, and had Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Lynn Swann in the primes of their careers (John Stallworth missed the game with an injury). The game had a spread of 26 points — the largest in history until this weekend — and was played in typical December conditions in Pittsburgh. Former Steelers quarterback Terry Hanratty started the game for Tampa Bay, but he was replaced for the ol’ ball coach, Steve Spurrier. The Steelers out gained Tampa Bay 385 to 105, and limited the Bucs to just 11 net passing yards.
1972: Dolphins 52, Patriots 0 – Boxscore
In 1972, the Dolphins produced the only perfect season in NFL history. The Patriots? They finished third to last in points scored, last in points allowed, and last in points differential. New England’s defense was horrible, finishing last in points, yards, first downs, passing touchdowns, net yards per attempt, rushing yards, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns. Even still, the game in Miami was the low point in a terrible year: Jim Plunkett went 7/19 for 66 yards and two interceptions, while Mercury Morris rushed 16 times for 90 yards and three touchdowns for Miami. The Dolphins led 31-0 at halftime, so third-string quarterback Jim Del Gaizo saw some garbage time action. Del Gaizo, born in Massachusetts, promptly completed four of six passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Head coach John Mazur resigned after the game.
1971: Colts 24, Bills 0 – Boxscore
In the ’70s, bad teams against good teams led to shutouts, and we close with our third straight scoreboard blanking. The Colts were the defending Super Bowl champions and won in Buffalo early in the season, 43-0. Buffalo finished the ’71 season 1-13, and ranked last in both points scored and points allowed. With the first pick in ’72, the Bills drafted Walt Patulski, the last Notre Dame player to be drafted number one.
When these teams met in December, the Colts were 9-2 and the Bills were coming off their sole win of the year. The game was scoreless in the first half, but Johnny Unitas got things going in the third quarter. Buffalo finished the day with just 8 first downs and six turnovers. Dennis Shaw averaged -2.3 Adjusted Yards per Attempt, while O.J. Simpson rushed 9 times for 26 yards. As for Baltimore, the Colts’ run under Unitas was coming to a close, and Don Shula’s new team was about to become the division overlord. The Colts were a dominant NFL team in the late ’60s, and beat out Miami for the AFC East crown in 1970, en route to winning the first post-merger Super Bowl. In ’71, Miami won the division by a half-game, shut out Baltimore in the playoffs, and made their first of three straight Super Bowls.