So on the eve of the Super Bowl, it would have been hard to argue that San Francisco and Miami were not legitimately the league's two best teams. (Denver and Seattle had matching 8.7 percent probabilities of being in the top two, but neither did anything to bolster its case in the playoffs.)
It's easy to explain this probability. Going into the big game, there was only a 7 percent chance that the Bears were not the NFL's best team -- the second-best pre-Super Bowl odds of any team since the merger. Those Bears are the stuff of legend, and routinely come up atop lists of the most dominant teams in NFL history.
But this Super Bowl matchup suffers in the rankings because New England was hardly a lock for No. 2, with a 41.8 percent probability.
The New York Jets, meanwhile, had a 24.5 percent shot at No. 2 after leading the AFC in SRS during the regular season. (They promptly lost by 12 at home to New England in the playoff opener.)
And even the 49ers had a 13.1 percent claim on the second slot in a down year (by their standards) after beating opponents by 9.3 PPG during the regular season.
Looking back, it's easy to forget that the Raiders were favored by 3.5 points going into this Super Bowl, and they also boasted the league's best pregame claim at No. 1 in SRS with a 59.4 percent probability. It was a year of parity in the NFL (no team won more than 12 games), but Oakland outscored a relatively difficult set of opponents by a league-best 9.1 PPG during the regular season, then beat the Jets and Titans with relative ease en route to the Super Bowl.
The Bucs were the more uncertain of the two teams, with a 25.3 percent claim to No. 1 -- though it bears mentioning that no one was especially threatening to them in the race for No. 2. This was the last time No. 1 and No. 2 met in a Super Bowl; let's hope this year's game is more competitive than the 48-21 rout that Tampa handed the Raiders.
The Packers were favored by 11 points before Super Bowl XXXII, but this was more because the game pitted a prime Brett Favre against the Ghosts of John Elway Super Bowls Past than because of any statistical evidence from the 1997 season itself. The Broncos led the league in SRS during the regular season, avenged their 1996 playoff loss to Jacksonville in the wild-card round, then gutted out a couple of tough playoff road wins to punch their ticket to San Diego, proving their readiness for the big stage.
Our model says there was an NFL-best 47.4 percent probability that Denver was the true No. 1 team before the Super Bowl, compared to a 28.9 percent mark for a Green Bay team that underperformed during the regular season (at least, relative to their otherworldly 1996 campaign). Despite the oversized pregame line, it shouldn't have been surprising that the Broncos stood toe-to-toe with the Packers throughout, eventually prevailing in one of the best Super Bowls ever.