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Super Bowl Underdogs, Are Stats On Their Side?


The Baltimore Ravens are the underdogs in this Sunday's Super Bowl, going up against the San Francisco 49ers. Now, there have been bigger underdogs. And yes, the Ravens are not the lowest-seeded team to make it to the Super Bowl. But the team can claim to have beaten the odds in one way. NPR's Mike Pesca talked to some football numbers guys, and has this report.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The Ravens embrace the role of the underdog at the same time that they scoff at the very notion. Here's wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who two games ago, made a 70-yard touchdown reception against the Broncos - with 31 seconds left in the game.

JACOBY JONES: No, that just lets you know, you got to play till the clock says all zeros, you know? So that don't really - that's why, when that play happened, we just said, let's be great. Everytime we make a big play, we always go in the huddle and say, let's be great.

PESCA: Jones said the following fact did not surprise him because football players don't look at stats - as well they shouldn't, but here goes. If you were to take the most dire moments in the Ravens' post-season run - trailing by that touchdown in Denver, with 30 seconds left; down 6 on the road, in New England; in the first-round game against the Colts, that wasn't decided until late - and then calculate their cumulative chances of winning all three games, you get the following number.

PAUL BESSIRE: They had about a 1 in 950 chance to be able to pull that off.

PESCA: That's Paul Bessire, a statistician who runs predictionmachine.com, which generates in-game odds of a team's chances of success. Bessire's machine - think more like a laptop than the Whopper from "War Games" - takes into account the strengths of each team and the situation, to make calculations. The Ravens were down to a 1.4 percent chance of winning in that Broncos game.

Brian Burke, a former fighter pilot turned stats guru who runs AdvancedNFLStats.com, has a slightly different method of in-game calculation. He's loaded into his machine every game ever played in the past dozen years; and can compute the odds of a comeback given any score, time, down and distance. He says the Ravens had all of a 2 percent chance of winning that Denver game.

Burke put the Ravens' odds of being in New Orleans, if calculated from the most dire point in each game, at 1 in 625. Compared to every other team to make the Super Bowl, Burke says of the Ravens...

BRIAN BURKE: Yeah, they're the least likely - by a factor of about 2 to 1.

PESCA: Burke notes, however, that if you take into account amazing comebacks in the Super Bowl itself, the 2007 Giants become the team that beat the greatest odds. That distinction did not surprise Amani Toomer, a wide-out on that Giants team.

AMANI TOOMER: Players are the ultimate optimists. And you have to be that way because just the odds to make it into the NFL, as an individual player, is extraordinary. Then, the odds to stay healthy a whole, entire season are extraordinary. So we've been beating stats, as football players, our entire lives.

PESCA: In the Super Bowl's first three decades, there were no winning teams that had amazing comebacks to rival the Giants or these Ravens. However, the 1988 San Francisco 49ers dodged some bullets in an unusual way. Those '9ers, with one more regular-season loss, wouldn't have made the playoffs; and they had a number of fourth-quarter, come-from-behind wins. 49er receiver Jerry Rice - it may not surprise you - was never really nervous.

JERRY RICE: I love when everything is on the line because that brings out your best football. And, you know, we were able to always put points on the board, or win a football game, that we had time on the clock.

PESCA: Rice, who was promoting SAP business software, went on to say that great players love it when the game is on the line late. And certainly, members of the Ravens won't be intimidated if that's the case on Sunday. Of course, they'd probably also take a situation like Jerry Rice's other two Super Bowl victories - where his team beat its opponents by a combined 68 points.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.
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