There’s No Such Thing as a Super Bowl Curse
Curses and hangovers don't exist – it's all regression to the mean.
Posted Jan 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Another NFL season – albeit an especially weird one – is practically in the books. The final game of the year, Super Bowl LV, will pit the Kansas City Chiefs against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Chiefs won last year’s Super Bowl, beating our beloved San Francisco 49ers, in a comeback for the ages. The Chiefs won the AFC Championship Game convincingly last week to reach Super Bowl LV, establishing themselves as the favorites to repeat as world champions.
Props to the Chiefs. This article, though, isn’t about the Chiefs’ path back to the Super Bowl. Instead, this story is about Super Bowl losers, including the 49ers, who finished an injury-riddled season 6-10 and missed the playoffs entirely.
This disappointing finish illustrates what many have come to expect from Super Bowl losers: a curse that dooms them to vastly underperform the following season. Examples abound beyond the 49ers, from the 1999 St. Louis Rams; to the 2014 Seahawks; to the infamous 2017 Atlanta Falcons, who blew a 28-3 lead.
Particularly for gut-wrenching or unexpected losses, the narrative makes sense – a team is distraught, emotionally frustrated and, as a result, can’t perform the following season. That is, the losing team is unable to successfully deal with the trauma of losing and feels, well, cursed. Or maybe you prefer the Super Bowl hangover explanation.
Either way, as scientists, we have to ask two questions:
- Does this kind of curse exist? Do teams perform badly after losing the Super Bowl?
- If so, what’s causing the worsened performance? Is it, in fact, a curse or can other factors explain it?
Does a curse exist?
Looking at the last 11 years of Super Bowl losers’ records the following season (Table 1), a few trends emerge. First of all, Super Bowl losers did, indeed, tend to perform worse – on average, they won 2.9 fewer games the next year. Only one of the 11 teams fared as well as they had the prior season (the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers also went 12-4) and none won more regular season games.
A similar picture emerges from the losing teams’ season-ending results: three teams missed the playoffs, while only one (the 2019 New England Patriots) made it back to the Super Bowl (they also happened to win the thing). Among the eight Super Bowl losers who did make it back to the playoffs, only two reached their conference title game.
Sure, this is a relatively small sample of only 11 teams’ records following a Super Bowl loss, so it’s tough to draw any hard and fast conclusions. The trend, however, does seem clear: in general, teams tend to perform worse the year after losing in the Super Bowl.
That sure sounds like a curse or a hangover to me.
Is it, like, actually a curse?
Although it’s impossible to know whether a curse has been placed on each of these teams, that certainly doesn’t seem to be the most plausible explanation for their lack of success the season after a Super Bowl loss. Perhaps it’s important to state the obvious: cursing one specific team after each NFL season seems dubious at best. There’s also the issue of whether curses even exist.
A considerably more plausible – and well-researched – explanation is what statisticians call regression to the mean. The idea is that anytime an individual or a team does exceptionally well at something (an exam, a competition), performance the next time will, invariably, be a little bit worse. Let’s say a high school student takes the SAT in September and aces it, earning the top score of 1600. If the same student takes the SAT again in October, her score will very, very, very likely be less than 1600.
The student isn’t cursed; she doesn’t have a hangover. The student didn’t suddenly become less smart. Instead, the student merely performed closer to the average (or mean), which is around 1060 nationally. Given the student’s top initial performance, she had nowhere to go but down – that is, she regressed back toward the mean.
There’s no Super Bowl curse – or hangover
The same logic applies to NFL teams’ performance following a Super Bowl loss. Reaching the Big Game is damn near the pinnacle of achievement for an NFL team, just short of winning it. Bottom line is that it is exceedingly difficult for a team to make, much less win, the Super Bowl in any given season. Lots has to go right and not a lot can go wrong.
Given the peak performance and good luck required to even make it to the Super Bowl, a regression should not be surprising; in fact, it should be expected to occur. It would be more surprising for a team to repeat their exceptional performance and good luck in back to back seasons than it would be for them to do worse, even by just a bit.
So, whatever happens on Sunday, February 7, 2021, one thing is a shoo-in: the loser, whether it’s the Chiefs or the Bucs, is unlikely to reach the same heights next season. Book it now – the participants in Super Bowl LVI on February 6, 2022 will almost assuredly not be the same two teams.
Don’t blame it on a curse or a hangover. Blame it instead on good old regression to the mean.