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Which Teams Win Close Games In The NFL?

The Cowboys missed the possible game winning field goal in overtime against the Cardinals. <em>If only ...</em>
The Cowboys missed the possible game winning field goal in overtime against the Cardinals. If only ...

"If only the Cowboys had won more close games, they would have made the playoffs."

How often have you heard or read that comment? After last season, in which the Cowboys managed just a 4-4 record in games decided by four points or less, I’m sure you’ve heard that sentence a lot. In fact, I’m pretty sure you hear that sentence a lot in just about any major sport.

And on the face of it, it makes sense. Had the Cowboys gone 6-2 in those close games, they would have made the playoffs. But they didn’t. The thing that type of wishful thinking ignores is that in a league like the NFL - a league that worships parity like others worship the Holy Grail - lots of games are close until the very end, yet the better teams routinely win those contests.

There were 125 of 256 regular season games, or almost half of all games, that were decided by a touchdown or less last year. And the teams that went to the playoffs won a lot of those games. Teams that did not go to the playoffs lost a lot of those games. It's really quite simple: good teams find ways to win close games, and the Cowboys simply weren't that good last year.

After the break, we quantify all of this a little further.

Let's first look at the most obvious stat, games decided by a small margin, and see how well the playoff teams conducted themselves last year. The table below shows the W/L records for close games split by playoff and non-playoff teams, and compares their records in close games against their overall record.

Games decided by 3
points or less (50 of 256)
Games decided by 7
points or less (125 of 256)
Total Regular Season W/L
2011 W/L Percentage W/L Percentage W/L Percentage
Playoff teams 23-13 .639 58-32 .644 134-58 .698
Non-Playoff teams 27-37 .422 67-93 .419 122-198 .381

The playoff teams in 2011 had a strong W/L record regardless of whether the games were close or not. The winning percentage dips slightly in close games, but is still significantly ahead of non-playoff teams. Similarly, while the non-playoff teams performed slightly better in close games, overall they struggled to win games, regardless of whether those games were close or not.

Like objects in the rearview mirror, a couple of these results may appear closer than they actually are: some of these scores could be games in which the losing team scored some garbage time points to make the score a little closer. So let's only look at the 101 games in which the score was within seven points at the end of the third quarter:

- Playoff teams: 57-31 (0.648)
- Non-Playoff teams: 58-84 (0.408)

Doesn't change the picture much, does it? But not all playoff teams are created equal. While the Saints and Ravens for example won every single game where the score was within one TD entering the fourth quarter, other teams like the Giants, Texans and Lions had a spotty record in these close games:

2012 Playoff teams W/L record in close games*
Team W/L W/L % Team W/L W/L %
New Orleans 5-0 1.000 San Francisco 5-3 0.625
Baltimore 4-0 1.000 Cincinnati 6-4 0.600
Pittsburgh 6-1 0.857 Atlanta 4-3 0.571
Green Bay 4-1 0.800 NY Giants 5-5 0.500
Denver 8-3 0.727 Houston 4-5 0.444
New England 4-2 0.667 Detroit 2-4 0.333
*Score differential of 7 points or less heading into 4th quarter

So as a general rule, it's probably fair to say that good teams find ways to win games, regardless of whether they are close or not - even if there are some teams that are an exception to that rule.

But one of these days, somebody is going to pop up somewhere close to you and say "If only team XYZ had won more close games, they would have made the playoffs."

So just for the sake of argument, and to have a little fun, let's assume all 2012 NFL teams had turned half of their close game losses (lost by seven points or less) into wins. And let's call the resulting W/L record the 'Wishful Thinking' record. Here's what the league standings would have looked like :

Team 2012
2012 Close
Games record
Team 2012
2012 Close
Games record
New England 13-3 4-2 14-2 NY Giants 9-7 5-3 11-5
NY Jets 8-8 3-2 9-7 Dallas 8-8 4-5 11-5
Miami 6-10 2-5 9-7 Philadelphia 8-8 2-5 11-5
Buffalo 6-10 3-5 9-7 Washington 5-11 3-5 8-8
Pittsburgh 12-4 5-2 13-3 Green Bay 15-1 5-1 16-0
Baltimore 12-4 4-2 13-3 Detroit 10-6 5-3 12-4
Cincinnati 9-7 5-5 12-4 Chicago 8-8 4-3 10-6
Cleveland 4-12 3-6 7-9 Minnesota 3-13 2-9 8-8
Houston 10-6 4-4 12-4 New Orleans 13-3 4-1 14-2
Tennessee 9-7 5-4 11-5 Atlanta 10-6 4-3 12-4
Jacksonville 5-11 3-5 8-8 Carolina 6-10 1-5 9-7
Indianapolis 2-14 1-5 5-11 Tampa Bay 4-12 4-3 6-10
Denver 8-8 7-4 10-6 San Francisco 13-3 6-2 14-2
San Diego 8-8 3-5 11-5 Arizona 8-8 8-5 11-5
Oakland 8-8 7-2 9-7 Seattle 7-9 2-5 10-6
Kansas City 7-9 6-4 9-7 St. Louis 2-14 1-5 5-11

Assuming 10 wins get you into the playoffs, 11 NFC teams and 8 AFC teams would have made the playoffs in this scenario last year. Heck, look closely at the standings above and you'll notice that there are only four teams left in the entire league with a losing record. The NFL is designed from the ground up to built on close games and the league designs the rules of the game so that games stay close

So next time time somebody comes at you with a "had my team won more close games" argument, there really is only one answer that's appropriate.


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