A little over half the 256 games played in the 2016 regular season were decided by seven points or less, 133 games to be exact. A little over a quarter of all games (72) were decided by four points or less.
In many games, the outcome was determined by a single play: a missed extra point, a botched two-point conversion, a ball dropped on a crucial third-down conversion, a fumble at an inopportune time, a drive-extending penalty.
Four Cowboys games were decided by four points or less last year. The Cowboys finished 2-2 in those close games, losing to the Giants twice, winning 27-23 against the Redskins in Week 2 and 17-15 against the Vikings in Week 13.
The Lions and Panthers each played eight games decided by four points or less, the Lions finishing 6-2 in the process while the Panthers ended up 2-6. Which just goes to illustrate a point BTB HoFer rabblerousr made repeatedly:
The problem is that close games are highly subject to luck; in large sample sizes, all teams' winning percentages in such games, regardless of overall record, are roughly .500.
Good teams aren't good because they win close games, but because they managed to avoid close games.
Back to the Lions and Panthers, do the results above mean the Lions were luckier than other NFL teams? Or the Panthers unluckier?
Good news for everybody who's ever pondered this conundrum: a little bit of simple math can help us find the answer. But before we do the math, here's an overview of the teams with the best and worst W/L record in games decided by four points or less.
|Team||W/L||W/L %||Team||W/L||W/L %|
If you've been on this blog for a while, you're familiar with the Pythagorean Formula. If not, here is what it is: The formula was originally developed by the godfather of baseball stats, Bill James, who surmised that a team's true strength could be measured more accurately by looking at points scored and points allowed, rather than by looking at wins and losses.
The formula was later revised by Daryl Morey (then a statistician for STATS, Inc., since 2007 General Manager of the Houston Rockets), who developed the following NFL version of the formula:
Points Scored2.37 + Points Allowed2.37
When Morey adapted the formula to football, he ran a regression against the results of the previous ten years, and ended up with 2.37 as the most accurate exponent based on that specific 10-year period. Other people have tested the formula against other periods and have come up with different exponents, but the 2.37 has stuck around and is the most commonly used exponent today. Football Outsiders still use the 2.37, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
The formula calculates the projected wins for a team based on points scored and points allowed. Applied at the end of the season, it can tell you which teams won or lost more games than they "should" have. Teams that won more games than the formula provides for are considered lucky, teams that lost more games than projected are unlucky.
Here's the full list of teams ranked by their level of luck, as measured by the variance between actual and projected wins in 2016:
|New York Giants
|New York Jets
"Luck" is of course a headline-friendly simplification of a concept that might be better described as "teams that benefited inordinately from the randomness and variance inherent in the game of football." Still, "luck" is a good shorthand for describing teams that overperformed in the W/L column relative to their points differential.
The four teams at the top of this table were projected for average W/L records based on their 2016 point differential, but made the playoffs anyway. And that's where it looks like their luck ran out. The Raiders, Giants, and Dolphins all lost by at least 13 points, the Texans got a win but are now 16-point underdogs against the Patriots.
The Cowboys are ranked as the fifth-most lucky team here, but that doesn't mean the Cowboys were lucky to end up where they did - based on their point differential, the Pythagorean Formula projects the Cowboys for 10.9 wins, the second-best value in the league behind only the Patriots.
Joining the Patriots and Cowboys as teams with 10+ projected wins are the Chiefs and Falcons, with the Steelers and Seahawks just missing the cut at 9.9 and 9.8 projected wins respectively. It's no surprise that those are six of the eight teams left in the playoffs. There may have been some luck / randomness / variance in each off these teams' W/L record, but these teams' point differential speaks to the quality of football these teams have played this year.