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Super Bowl XLIV and Big Game Experience

Posted by Jason Lisk on February 8, 2010

Big game experience is way over-rated.

I thought about writing this post on Friday or Saturday, suggesting that part of the point spread line in favor of the Colts had a big game experience factor built into it. Of course, that may be rational, because if teams with big game experience do play better than their underlying numbers would suggest, then we should expect them to play better in big games and favor them more than the numbers suggest. Turns out, though, they don't, at least in the little bit of Super Bowl information that we have. We are limited by a small sample size of 43 Super Bowls to begin with, and then alot of them don't really fit the theme we had with the Saints and the Colts, where one participant had a recent championship while the other had no experience in the Super Bowl.

With such a limited data set anyway, I thought better of posting it, mostly because applying general thoughts (like experience might be a tad over-rated) to one specific game situation often leads to immediate embarrassing results. Then, my colleague Neil Paine, far more brash and full of youthful exuberance, posted what I was thinking all week: Why are the Colts 5-point favorites?

Now, the answer to that is not a simple one. Other factors were certainly at play, all of which may or may not also be over-rated, such as the Colts had not lost a meaningful game while the Saints had, or that the Colts had played more consistently all year while the Saints played worse late and didn't play nearly as well in the Championship game. In listening to all the pre-game chatter that I could stomach and in hearing a sizeable majority of pundits picking the Colts, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that "big game experience" was a big factor for most of said pundits.

So, let's look at other games that might be similar to this Super Bowl on big game experience differential. Here's a list of every Super Bowl since the merger where one team had won a Super Bowl title within the previous four season, and was playing a team that had not appeared in a Super Bowl during that time.

Year Winners Novices Line PF PA ATS RESULT
2009 Colts Saints -5 17 31 L -19
2008 Steelers Cardinals -7 27 23 L -3
2007 Patriots Giants -12.5 14 17 L -15.5
2004 Patriots Eagles -7 24 21 L -4
2003 Patriots Panthers -7 32 29 L -4
2001 Rams Patriots -14 17 20 L -17
1998 Broncos Falcons -7.5 34 19 W 7.5
1997 Packers Broncos -11.5 24 31 L -18.5
1995 Cowboys Steelers -13.5 27 17 L -3.5
1990 Giants Bills 6.5 20 19 W 7.5
1988 49ers Bengals -7 20 16 L -3
1980 Raiders Eagles 3 27 10 W 20
1979 Steelers Rams -11 31 19 W 1

The Colts-Saints matchup is the thirteenth such matchup in the post-merger Super Bowl era. The team with big game winning experience went 9-4, but only 4-9 against the spread (at least that's my best guess, as I had to search for the older lines in archives and went with what I could find--you may tell me you had to lay 12 1/2 on the Steelers back when they were going for the fourth title against the Rams). Two of those examples are less applicable to this year's situation, as the Raiders (1980) and Giants (1990) were exactly four years removed from titles, they were the only two underdogs, and the opponent had as much playoff experience in the two seasons before the Super Bowl matchup. When the team with big game winning experience has been favored, they are now 2-9 against the spread.

The SRS ratings show that the teams with big game winning experience were better on average, as they had a 9.5 average SRS rating compared to 5.4 for the novice opponent. However, the average point spread was 7.2, so the big game experience teams were getting about an additional field goal boost at the point spread over what the simple rating system would suggest. The actual game results show an average margin of 3.1 points in favor of the big game experience teams (and thus roughly 4 points worse than the point spread), so these teams with the supposed big game edge played roughly in line, and slightly worse, than the average SRS expected result, and almost 4 points worse than expected by the public.

I suspect that the Colts' boost was a little larger than that even, considering that the Saints weren't just a team lacking "big game experience", they were a franchise that had exactly 2 playoff victories ever and were "just happy to be there". So when Neil asks why the Colts were a 5-point favorite, I think the answer is that the public and the talking pundits way overvalued the benefit of big game experience, and this matchup was a lot closer than most people believed.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 8th, 2010 at 1:04 am and is filed under History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.