Along their path to Super Bowl 50, the Carolina Panthers have been absolutely laying waste to opponents early in games. After a quarter against the Seattle Seahawks, they were up 14-0; at halftime they led 31-0. (Seattle would rally to bring the final score within a touchdown.) After a quarter against the Arizona Cardinals, they led 17-0; at halftime they were up 24-7. (Arizona did not rally at all, losing by 34.) Those average playoff leads — 15.5 points after one quarter, and 24 points after two — are both post-merger records1 for Super Bowl-bound teams.
Another way to quantify Carolina’s dominance is win probability. Ignoring point spreads — i.e,. assuming each team starts a game with a 50-50 shot at winning, instead of accounting for pregame differences in perceived strength between the teams — the Panthers have added an average of 41 WP points in the first quarters of their pre-Super Bowl playoff games, another record:
|WPA/GAME BY QTR|
In plain English, this means they’ve ended the first quarters of their playoff games with an average win probability of 91 percent. These games have been all but over after just 15 minutes of play! Tack on another 8 points of WP in the second quarter, as Carolina has done, and it’s averaging a 99 percent chance of victory at halftime during these playoffs. Among post-merger Super Bowl teams, that mark trails only the 1989 San Francisco 49ers by a hundredth of a percentage point.
So the Panthers have had insanely dominant starts in their playoff games. Does that actually say something extra about their chances in the Super Bowl? Historically speaking, not really. Since 1970, there’s basically zero relationship between how dominant a team has been in the first quarter of its pre-Super Bowl playoff games and its point differential in the Super Bowl itself. (In fact, the top six teams according to average first-quarter WPA all lost the Super Bowl.)
The same is essentially true when you look at the relationship between average first-half pre-Super Bowl WPA and Super Bowl point differential. Entire playoff games are a small sample,2 let alone fractions of those games, so a team’s early-game dominance doesn’t tell us a whole lot about how they should be expected to play in the future.
Let’s be clear: The Panthers are solidly favored to beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl, whether you look at Vegas lines, Elo ratings or other power-ranking metrics. But that should owe far more to their performance over the larger sample of the season (perhaps with a little extra emphasis on recent play) than the impressive way they’ve started their playoff games, even if those hot starts are incredibly fresh in our minds.