To hear some talk about it, the Indianapolis Colts have been underachievers going on a decade now.

Seven 12 win seasons! Nine playoff appearances!  Just one Super Bowl!  They are the Atlanta Braves!

Now, I’ve never been sure exactly why calling a team “the Atlanta Braves” is an insult, but beyond that there’s a major problem with that kind of analysis of the Colts.

They’ve rarely been as good as their record indicates.

For you long-time readers well versed in the concept of Pythagorean wins, skip ahead.  For you newcomers, there exists well established evidence that contrary to what Bill Parcels thinks, you aren’t what you are.  It’s been shown that because there is so much ‘luck’ in any given football game, that team records don’t always reflect how well a given team has played.  Over time, a mathematical formula based simply on Points Scored and Points Allowed gives us a truer predictive measure of a team’s quality than just using wins and losses.  An example:

The 2009 Jaguars are 7-5 and in the Wildcard picture.  Everyone who watches them realizes they aren’t very good.  They have 6 of their 7 wins by less than a touchdown, and those all came over some of the worst teams in the league.  So, should we treat the Jags the same as the Patriots?  Both have 7-5 records.  They are what they are, right?  The big difference is that the Jags have been OUTSCORED on the season by 48 points and the Pats have outscored their opponents by 104 points.  Even taking into account that the Jags got blown out by Seattle and the Pats scored a 59-0 win, we can still see that on the whole, the Pats are better team than the Jags, and should naturally expect more from them.  “Pythagorean Wins” say that for predictive purposes, we should treat the Jags like a 5-7 team and the Pats like an 8-4 or 9-3 team.  The Jags have been a bit “lucky”, the Pats a bit “unlucky”.  Obviously, a blowout win or loss will skew the numbers early, but over time those tend to even out.  This is a well proven theory, so if it rankles, you I’m sorry.  It’s football fact at this point.

So what does this have to do with the Colts?  For a decade now Indy has been one of the most consistent “over performers” in the regular season.  The Colts consistently win more games than they should (we’ll talk about reasons for that shortly).  Take a look at this chart, bearing in mind that the first three seasons were “Mora Years”:

 Record Expected Record Difference (extra wins) Record of Best Playoff opponent Expected Record of Playoff opponent Difference (extra wins) 1999 13-3 10.2-5.8 +2.8 13-3 9.8-6.2 +3.2 2000 10-6 10.5-5.5 +0.5 11-5 11.2-5.8 -0.2 2001 6-10 6.5-9.5 -0.5 X X 2002 10-6 9-7 +1.0 9-7 8.6-7.4 +0.4 2003 12-4 10.6-5.4 +1.4 14-2 11.4-4.6 +2.6 2004 12-4 11.5-4.5 +0.5 14-2 12.4-3.6 +1.6 2005 14-2 12.7-3.3 +1.3 11-5 11.6-4.4 -0.6 2006 12-4 9.6-6.4 +2.4 13-3 12.7-3.3 +0.3 2007 13-3 12.5-3.5 +0.5 11-5 11.3-4.7 -0.3 2008 12-4 10.2-5.8 +1.8 8-8 10.2-5.8 -2.2

What can we learn from this chart?

1.  The Colts have been ‘overrated’ every single year this decade, except for the one year they missed the playoffs.  In no given year has Indy actually been ‘as good’ as their record would indicate.  Again, I’ll try to answer the ‘why’ question in a moment.

2.  4 times, the Colts lost games to “inferior opponents” (1999, 2002, 2005, 2007).  Four times they lost to superior opponents, and when they won the Super Bowl, they did so beating three consecutive ‘better’ teams. The Colts played four teams that were actually better than their records indicated (2000, 2005, 2007, 2008).

3.  Of the games where they lost to “inferior opponents”, the Pythagorean numbers show the teams were much more evenly matched than the records appeared.  In 2002, the Colts were basically a 9-7 team playing at an “8.4 win” team.  In 2005, instead of a 14 win team hosting an 11 win team, the Colts/Steelers game should have been seen like a “12.4 win team hosting an 11.6 win team”.  In 2007, the Colts and Chargers were separated by three wins in the standings, but by only one Pythagorean win.  In other words, people thought the Colts were better than they should have.

4.  The most interesting game was last year’s playoff game with the Chargers.  Indy was a 12 win team playing an 8 win team.  Anyone paying attention, however, would have seen that the matchup was dead even with both teams being 10.2 win teams.  In the end, it was decided by a coin flip in overtime.

Why do the Colts break the system?

Luck is supposed to even out.  No team is supposed to get ‘lucky’ every single year, but the Colts do.  Every year the Colts win more games than they “should”.  Why?

1.  The Colts never lose a “trap game” or have a “let down game”.    The last time the Colts lost a true ‘trap game’ (a game against a weaker team sandwiched between two better teams) was probably 2003 when they dropped a 28-23 game at 1-7 Jacksonville.  The Colts win every game they are supposed to win.  They are highly disciplined and don’t make mistakes.  In other words, they make their own luck.  We’ve seen that all season.  “The Colts’ way” forces opponents to beat themselves.  In the regular season against lesser teams, that is a massive advantage.  Against good teams in the playoffs the effect is lessened and the games come down to over all talent and the bounce of the ball.  More often than not, the Colts haven’t been the more talented club in the playoffs.

2.  They sometimes let up in the 16th week.  Taking on a more lopsided loss than normal can affect a team’s overall ranking.

3.  The Colts don’t run up the score. You rarely see the Colts adding on garbage points, which helps to suppress their over all quality numerically.

4.  Indy has Peyton ManningHe has this habit of helping his team win games they shouldn’t probably win.  It’s a thing he does.  Maybe you’ve noticed?

What does this mean for 2009?

The good news:  Indy leads the AFC in Pythagorean wins.  They are second in the NFL to the Saints with an overall positive differential of +130 points.  The next closest AFC team is the Pats at +104, but we know they racked up 59 of those in just one game.  The Colts are the best team in the conference.

The bad newsThe Colts may not be as good as their record.  Pythag says Indy is really a 9.2-2.8 win team (call it 9-3 for fun).  San Diego and the Pats? They are 8.3 and 8.5 win teams.  In other words, the gap between the Colts and the rest of the conference isn’t as big as it looks when reading the tables.  The numbers don’t indicate that the 2009 Colts are among the best teams ever.

The best news:  We already know that the Colts have won some games they probably shouldn’t have this year, or perhaps more accurately stated:  they didn’t lose some games they could have.  What we’ve seen in the last few games from the running game and from Garcon means that the Colts are actually better now than they have been at any point this season.  All this plays into the reasons why all season we’ve been hammering home that the Horse had to get BETTER in order to win it all.  Sure, they were 6-0 or 7-0, but there were pretty obvious flaws that were bound to be exploited in the playoffs.  Now, the Colts are close to being a complete team, as long as they can keep this up and get Mathis and Freeney 100% at the same time, the Colts ironically may turn out to be exactly as good as their record indicates.

In the end, the important thing is to maintain perspective. Never just look at wins and losses and assume you know which team is better than another team.  I suppose we should be thankful that the NFL settles things on the field, instead of forcing us to parse through all this data so that we can guess who the two best teams are so they can play for some trumped up champion.

If the 2009 Colts are the best team in the NFL, they get the chance to prove it.  Just don’t be surprised if the road ends up being a lot harder than you expect.