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.