The San Francisco 49ers stormed back from a 28-6 deficit before falling just short, 34-31, in Super Bowl XLVII.
Their coach, Jim Harbaugh, later said "90 percent of the teams will lose by 40" after falling behind by such a wide margin. The comment caught my attention. I wondered whether the 49ers had indeed pulled off something special.
Of course, Harbaugh wasn't saying he had conducted a study that found exactly 90 percent of teams trailing by 22 points would lose by 40 points. In general terms, he was saying the 49ers fared better than the vast majority of teams would have fared after falling behind by such a wide margin. He was right about the 49ers doing something special by nearly winning, but he was wrong about other teams losing by 40.
Super Bowl XLVII marked the ninth time since 2001, counting playoffs, that one team has trailed another by exactly 22 points during the first minute of the second half. Those teams are 0-9. The 49ers were the only team to lose by fewer than 11 points. The eight other teams lost by 23 points on average. None lost by more than 29 points. The list included the 2001 49ers, who lost 31-6 to Tampa Bay in a divisional playoff game after trailing 28-6.
The 22-point margin was a significant cutoff.
Eight of 286 teams since 2001 have come back to win after trailing by 20-plus points with less than one minute gone in the third quarter. Six of 243 have done so after trailing by 21-plus points. Only one of 155 teams has come back to win after trailing by 22 or more points with that much time to play. That team was the 2012 Denver Broncos, who scored 35 consecutive points to post a 35-24 victory against San Diego in Week 5.
The chart breaks out the nine games when one team trailed another by 22 points less than a minute into the third quarter. Note that the 2012 49ers appear in the first and final rows of the chart. They accounted for the largest and smallest margins of defeat. I'm not sure either outcome says a great deal about the 49ers' heart or character. We can safely say they outplayed the Ravens in the second half of the Super Bowl, but it wasn't quite enough.