Advanced metrics show 8-0 Steelers have been ‘historically lucky’

Jesse Pantuosco
November 13, 2020 - 11:23 am

Are the 8-0 Steelers as good as their perfect record would indicate? Nope, says Neil Pane of sports analytics site FiveThirtyEight.com. Pane contends the Steelers have been “historically lucky,” significantly outperforming their Pythagorean win expectation.

The Pythagorean model projects a team’s expected win total based on their point differential. The Steelers have so far outscored opponents 235-161, which is more indicative of a 6-2 or 5-3 team than their unblemished 8-0 mark at the season’s halfway juncture. Per FiveThirtyEight, the difference between the Steelers’ actual win total and their Pythagorean expectation (5.7 wins) is the fourth-largest disparity among the 31 NFL teams to start 8-0 since 1960. The only “luckier” 8-0 teams in that span have been the 2006 Colts (5.3 expected wins), the 2015 Panthers (5.5) and the 1990 49ers (5.6). Two of those teams (Carolina and Indianapolis) reached the Super Bowl, so maybe there’s something to be said for catching a favorable bounce or two. As they say, it’s better to be lucky than good.

FiveThirtyEight’s projections indicate Pittsburgh has been the luckiest team in football this year, though the 7-2 Bills (4.7 expected wins) aren’t far behind. In fact, only eight teams in NFL history have outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by a larger margin than Buffalo through nine games. While framing the Bills and Steelers as imposters pulling the wool over our eyes would be an overreaction, their pedestrian point differentials (+74 for Pittsburgh compared to an even bleaker +9 for Buffalo) certainly paint a much different picture than their glowing win/loss records.

On the other end of that spectrum, the Chargers, Jaguars and Falcons have experienced the opposite phenomenon with all three drastically underperforming their Pythagorean expectations. Masters of the fourth-quarter collapse, the embattled Bolts have been the unluckiest of the bunch, coming in well below their expected win total (3.8). Los Angeles (-11 point differential) has essentially been a .500 team on paper, but, in typical Chargers fashion, they have just two wins to show for it.

We’ll see what the Steelers are really made of down the stretch with upcoming matchups against a slew of difficult opponents including Baltimore, Buffalo and Indianapolis.

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