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A fun article at Five Thirty Eight last week noted how insanely top-heavy the NBA is this year. Just about everyone knows that the Warriors set the record for wins in a season with 73, as part of a wire-to-wire display of dominance. But the Spurs were nearly as good. In fact, based on Elo Ratings, San Antonio was the best second-best team in the league in league history. And the Oklahoma City Thunder? They’re currently (since Elo is constantly updating) the strongest 3rd-best team in NBA history. And LeBron James and the Cavs? They’re the toughest 4th-best team in NBA history, thanks in part to a scorched earth run through the Eastern Conference in the playoffs.

Which made me wonder: what NFL season was most comparable to the 2015-2016 NBA season? There are some good candidates out there:

  • In 2012, the Seahawks, 49ers, Patriots, and Broncos were far and away the best teams in the NFL. They were no flukes in this bunch: those four teams met in the conference championship games the next year, after another set of strong regular seasons.

  • In 1998, the Jets (with a revitalized Vinny Testaverde), the Vikings (with a revitalized Randall Cunningham), the Falcons (with a revitalized Chris Chandler) and the Broncos (with… well, John Elway) stood out as far and away the best teams in the league. The AFC Championship Game featured New York and Denver: the Jets went 12-1 in game started by Testaverde, while the Broncos began the year 13-0. In the NFC, Minnesota and Atlanta met in the NFC Championship Game, after the Vikings went 15-1, while the Falcons went 14-1 in games started by Chandler.
  • The 1968 AFL stands out, too: the Chiefs went 12-2, and outscored opponents by 14.4 points per game, with the only losses coming to the Raiders and Jets. Oakland went 12-2, with losses to KC and to San Diego when Lance Alworth (courtesy of John Hadl, of course) went off for 9-182-1. The Raiders led the league in points differential, at 15.7 points per game. Oakland was the AFL Champion the prior year, while Kansas City was the AFL Champion the next year, so both teams were in the middle of dominant runs. The Jets would go 11-3 and win the Super Bowl, of course, beating the great ’68 Colts in the process. And San Diego went 9-5, but that was after going 1-5 against the Jets/Chiefs/Raiders and 8-0 against the rest of the AFL. It was an incredible year, but…
  • Guess what? The 1968 NFL was pretty top-heavy, too: The Colts were one of the great teams in league history, outscoring opponents by 17.9 points per game on the back of a historically dominant defense. The Cowboys were always strong during this era, but particularly good this year, leading the NFL in scoring and ranking second in points allowed. In fact, it remains the best season in the storied Dallas history in terms of both points differential and SRS. The Los Angeles Rams began the year 10-1-1, before losing the final two games by a combined five points to the Bears and Colts. And the Browns won 8 straight games after a 2-3 start, including a win in Baltimore against the Colts, making them a very strong fourth-best team.
  • The 1948 season deserves a mention, too. The Bears, Eagles, and Cardinals went 30-5-1, or 26-1-1 in games against the rest of the NFL. Philadelphia won the title, while the Bears and Cardinals only lost to each other or the Eagles. It was a heavily-skewed season… and also doesn’t include arguably the two best teams in football that season. Over in the AAFC, the Browns went 15-0, one of just two teams in pro football history to complete a regular season and postseason undefeated and untied. But Cleveland didn’t even lead the AAFC in points differential: San Francisco outscored teams by 17.6 points per game that year. The two teams staged two epic battles during the regular season, and that 49ers team may have been the single greatest rushing offense in football history.

But I think the 2007 NFL season stands out as the best comparison. Like the Warriors, the Patriots set the single-season wins record in the NFL, and many were anointing them the greatest team in football history (there are probably a few Tom Brady/Steph Curry comparisons one could make, too). And New England had their own version of the Spurs in the Indianapolis Colts: that Colts team posted the best SRS of any Indianapolis team of the Peyton Manning era (or any team since the Colts moved to Indianapolis). The Colts went 13-2 in the regular season before losing a meaningless season finale, but even that may understate things. The two losses came by 4 points against the 16-0 Patriots, and by 2 points in San Diego in a game where (i) Indianapolis had 25 first downs to San Diego’s 11, (ii) Manning threw six interceptions, (iii) Darren Sproles had two return touchdowns, and (iv) Adam Vinatieri went 0/2, missing a 42-yard field goal and a 29-yarder with less than two minutes remaining.

And, just like the way the Warriors and Spurs appeared headed on a collision path all year, the same was true of those Patriots and Colts (who, by the way, were the defending Super Bowl champions). But in both cases, there was an upset: San Antonio lost to Oklahoma City, while Indianapolis lost to San Diego.

The comparisons break down a little bit here, because the Chargers weren’t the 3rd best team in the NFL that year. But in the NFC, both the Cowboys and Packers fielded great teams. Dallas, like the Colts, began 13-2 with one of those losses coming to New England, before losing a meaningless regular season finale. And Green Bay had an even better points differential than the Cowboys that season.

Of course, the Giants wound up upsetting the Cowboys…. and then the Packers…. and then the Patriots, creating the most unlikely Super Bowl champion since at least the merger. I am not expecting the Toronto Raptors to repeat that feat.

  • This is interesting, Chase — I like this kind of piece, sort of a trivia-walk-down-memory-lane. But I really don’t like using SRS to make definitive statements about a team’s strength, especially in <16-game seasons.

    For example, you wrote that the 1968 Browns were "a very strong fourth-best team". The Browns beat Dallas in the playoffs to reach the NFL Championship Game, and they were the only NFL team to beat the Colts. You noted that they began the season 2-3 before winning 8 in a row. But that undersells how dominant they were. They beat the Colts by double-digits in Baltimore, then won 30-7, 33-21, 35-17, 45-24, 47-13, 45-10, 24-21, then a meaningless loss in the final week, when their playoff position was already secure. There's a very reasonable argument to be made that the Browns were the 2nd- or 3rd-best team in the NFL.

    I realize you don't want to write "according to SRS" a dozen times, and probably I'm the only one who cares about this, but I wish we could avoid declarative statements based on imperfect stats. SRS simply isn't precise enough for us to draw those conclusions with confidence.

    • Tom

      Brad – I do agree with you that declarative statements can be troublesome, but it seems to me that the data that you then throw out to support your claim (that SRS rankings undersell the Browns) is the exact data that SRS is using, namely, score differentials. The fact that they beat the Colts by double-digits and then dominated in 7 games after that, would be taken care of by SRS. Are you saying that something is broke with the way SRS is calculated? Obviously, I’m not disputing whether or not the Browns are the 2nd, 3rd or 4th best team (doesn’t really matter to me); I’m just curious as to how you would rank them higher using the numbers you provided…are you thinking maybe the SOS adjustments are weighted to strongly, etc?

    • Thanks, Brad. Glad you enjoyed. Walks down memory lane are fun.

      Where would you put Cleveland in the 1968 pecking order? I can’t imagine you would put them above Dallas, so it comes down to the Browns vs. the Rams. I’m not too worked up about who should be third and who should be fourth, but the Rams did win in Cleveland 24-6, and started 10-1-1 with the only loss coming in Baltimore. That team had the Fearsome Foursome in its prime (or, at least, Jones and Olsen), too.

    • Tom

      Tried messing around with the SRS numbers to see if I could move Cleveland up…the hard part, of course, is leaving out that last game. Don’t really know how to do that without leaving out everyone else’s last game (Chase could probably do it). So I did a couple of things:

      1. I made that last game against St. Louis a tie. Running the iteration, and including all playoff games (except the Super Bowl), we still have the same ranking, BAL, DAL, RAM (9.0 SRS), CLE (7.4). Cleveland is a strong fourth.

      2. But maybe it’s safe to assume that Cleveland would have handily beat St. Louis. After Week 13, the Browns had an SRS of 8.1 (just 0.5 below the Rams) and St. Louis was at 0.5. So let’s just say Cleveland beat the Rams by a touchdown. Doing that, Cleveland gains 0.3 SRS points, but the ranking stays the same.

      The biggest problem I see with moving Cleveland up, is the fact that Baltimore blew them out in the Championship.

      3. So let’s put a limit on the point differentials, making wins and losses more important. If I keep the last game a tie, and limit point differentials to 3 points (meaning, you can only win or lose a game by as much as 3), we have this order:
      BAL (2.8)
      RAM (1.8)
      CLE (1.4)
      DAL (1.3)

      There, I did it. Cleveland is now the third best team in 1968.

      (Man, am I bored at work)

    • It seems like the specific example of the ’68 Browns has obscured my larger point: we shouldn’t use SRS to make declarative statements that read like facts. SRS is great, but 12-16 games is a tiny sample, too small for confidence that it will produce precise results, and team strength can fluctuate dramatically even within that.

      For the ’68 Browns, I think there’s a very straightforward case — though I’m not thrilled to be the one making it — that they were the second-best team in the NFL:

      1] They made the NFL Championship Game
      2] They were the only team in the league to defeat the Colts

      The quarterback switch to Bill Nelsen, in Week 4, made the Browns a different team. If you’re evaluating the greatness of the ’68 Browns, I’m not sure how relevant the first three games are.

  • sacramento gold miners

    1968 was also a strong signal about the improved quality of play in the AFL. The Colts could only manage a late TD, while their vaunted defense was shredded by Matt Snell, and Namath easily read their defense. It was so obvious watching that game the AFL had arrived. The following year, another highly touted NFL champion was also dismantled, this time by the wildcard Chiefs.

    The merger just wasn’t about convenience, the NFL realized they had a real threat on their hands, and had no interest in seeing their champion humbled in future Super Bowls.

  • Ajit

    That Giants run had the toughest gauntlet of opponents I’ve seen since watching football(1999). They were on the road facing the 13-3 Cowboys, the 13-3 Packers, and the 18-0 Patriots. They were heavy underdogs in all of those games and won all of them. Just an incredible performance.