Does Regular Season Point Differential Correlate Into Playoff Success?

I've long been curious as to how predictive point differential is and if we can make objective projections on which teams will end up in the Super Bowl. Turns out, point differential (which I will refer to as PD from here on out) is a fantastic tool to predict the eventual Champion and the runner-up.

I charted every single Super Bowl and both participants conference/league rankings in PD. Here are those results (conference point differential ranking in parenthesis):


1966: Packers (2), Chiefs (1)

1967: Packers (3), Raiders (1)

1968: Jets (3), Colts (1)

1969: Chiefs (1), Vikings (1)

1970: Colts (1), Cowboys (4)

1971: Cowboys (1), Dolphins (2)

1972: Dolphins (1), Washington (1)

1973: Dolphins (1), Vikings (3)

1974: Steelers (2), Vikings (2)

1975: Steelers (1), Cowboys (3)

1976: Raiders (5), Vikings (2)

1977: Cowboys (2), Broncos (1)

1978: Steelers (1), Cowboys (1)

1979: Steelers (2), Rams (6)

1980: Raiders (4), Eagles (1)

1981: 49ers (2), Bengals (1)

1982: Washington (2), Dolphins (2)

1983: Raiders (2), Washington (1)

1984: 49ers (1), Dolphins (1)

1985: Bears (1), Patriots (3)

1986: Giants (2), Broncos (4)

1987: Washington (3), Broncos (2)

1988: 49ers (4), Bengals (1)

1989: 49ers (1), Broncos (1)

1990: Giants (1), Bills (1)

1991: Washington (1), Bills (1)

1992: Cowboys (2), Bills (1)

1993: Cowboys (2), Bills (3)

1994: 49ers (1), Chargers (3)

1995: Cowboys (2), Steelers (2)

1996: Packers (1), Patriots (2)

1997: Broncos (1), Packers (1)

1998: Broncos (1), Falcons (2)

1999: Rams (1), Titans (4)

2000: Ravens (2), Giants (3)

2001: Patriots (2), Rams (1)

2002: Buccaneers (2), Raiders (1)

2003: Patriots (4), Panthers (9)

2004: Patriots (1), Eagles (1)

2005: Steelers (3), Seahawks (1)

2006: Colts (4), Bears (1)

2007: Giants (8), Patriots (1)

2008: Steelers (3), Cardinals (10)

2009: Saints (1), Colts (4)

2010: Packers (1), Steelers (2)

2011: Giants (10), Patriots (1)

2012: Ravens (5), 49ers (2)

2013: Seahawks (1), Broncos (1)

2014: Patriots (1), Seahawks (1)

2015: Broncos (6), Panthers (1)

2016: Patriots (1), Falcons (1)

2017: Eagles (1), Patriots (1)

2018: Patriots (2), Rams (2)

2019: Chiefs (3), 49ers (1)

2020: Buccaneers (3), Chiefs (3)


Now that's a lot of data I just threw at you, but there are very interesting data points in there.

Firstly, in the 110 Super Bowl teams, only 15 of them have finished outside the top 3 in their conference in PD. That would seem to indicate the overwhelming majority of Super Bowl participants finished in the top 3 in PD, which is true. 86% of all Super Bowl teams were one of the 3 best teams in their conference in PD.

Secondly, it is incredibly rare that both Super Bowl teams were outside of that top 3 distinction. So rare in fact that it's only happened once in Super Bowl XXXVIII between the Patriots and Panthers. Panthers at that point, were the worst team to ever make a Super Bowl. They no longer hold that distinction, mind you.

Thirdly, it is also rare that a Super Bowl didn't feature at least one team who topped their conference in PD. Only 10 Super Bowls have that honor, with 4 of them occurring since the turn of the century. 25 Super Bowls had either the 1st or 2nd teams in their conferences in PD, with 13 of those Super Bowls having the best team in both conferences in PD.

Here's some weird anomalies I've found: The 2007 Giants, 2003 Panthers, 2008 Cardinals and 2011 Giants are the worst teams to ever make a Super Bowl (and that's in order too). 2011 Giants are the worst team to ever win a Super Bowl, and to date, they are the only Super Bowl Champion who had a negative PD in their regular season.

Using this data, I can make certain statements/predictions about this postseason with a good measure of confidence. Since 45 Super Bowls had at least one team who finished 1st in their conference in PD, I can state in good confidence that either the Buffalo Bills or the Dallas Cowboys will be making a Super Bowl appearance this season.

When taking a look into this season's playoff team's and their PD (with their playoff seeding in parenthesis, and ranked by conference PD), we can start to make some educated predictions on this postseason.


1. Buffalo (3)

2. New England (5)

3. Kansas City (2)


5. Cincinnati (4)

6. Tennessee (1)

13. Las Vegas (5)

14. Pittsburgh (7)



1. Dallas (3)

2. Tampa Bay (2)

3. LA Rams (4)


4. Arizona (5)

5. Green Bay (1)

6. Philadelphia (7)

7. San Francisco (6)


I separated the top 3 teams in each conference to show that regular season PD doesn't always correlate into win-loss records. Additionally, I separated the top 3 to show who are the most likely Super Bowl participants.

As you can see, the top seven teams in the NFC by PD all made the postseason, though not in order of their win-loss records. The AFC is a far different scenario with the 4th best team by PD (the Colts) and 7th best team (the Chargers) not making the playoffs, while the 13th and 14th ranked teams did.

History tells us that one of the teams consisting of Buffalo, New England, Kansas City, Dallas, Tampa Bay or the LA Rams will win this year's Super Bowl. That's not an amazing prediction I know, considering that's nearly half the playoff teams this year, but using more historical data I can refine those predictions.

Since 2009, after the strange decade of many underdog teams making deep runs, the favorites by PD began to go back to what the league had been for the last four decades. If we ignore conference PD ranking and go by overall league ranking, 8 out of the last 12 Super Bowl Champions were ranked in the top 4 in league PD (one of them was the 5th overall 2018 Patriots). Aside from three teams who got hot and somewhat lucky or were led by an historically dominant unit (the '11 Giants, '12 Ravens, and '15 Broncos), one of the top 4 teams have won the Super Bowl. The teams those four Champions beat were in the top 4 in PD by league ranking: 2011 Patriots were 3rd, 2012 49ers were 4th, 2015 Panthers were 1st, and 2018 LA Rams were 3rd.

You can further clarify that data by saying since 1966, one of the top 4 teams in PD overall has made the Super Bowl in every year except, Super Bowl XI (Washington, Vikings), Super Bowl XXXVIII (Patriots, Panthers) and Super Bowl XLIII (Steelers, Cardinals). Only 3 out of the 55 Super Bowls did not feature a top 4 team in PD.

Using that data set, this would indicate that one of Buffalo, New England, Tampa Bay or Dallas will make the Super Bowl, with one of those teams highly likely to win it all.


Now since we are Cowboys fans, and this is a Cowboys blog, let's see some historical Cowboys point differential data and how the 2021 Cowboys compare to the best teams in our history.

By consensus, we would all agree that the best Cowboys teams' since the 90's glory days were the 2007, 2009, 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2021 Cowboys. Here's those team's point differential and their conference and league ranking; I'll also include their record and playoff seeding (also for fun, I'll add the 2019 team):


2007 Cowboys +130 (2nd in NFC, 4th overall) 13-3, 1st.

2009 Cowboys +111 (4th, 8th) 11-5, 3rd.

2014 Cowboys +115 (3rd, 5th) 12-4, 3rd.

2016 Cowboys +115 (2nd, 3rd) 13-3, 1st.

2018 Cowboys +15 (7th, 14th) 10-6, 4th.

2019 Cowboys +113 (3rd, 6th) 8-8, 9th.

2021 Cowboys +172 (1st, 2nd) 12-5, 3rd.


It turns out these 2021 Cowboys are quite easily the best Cowboys team we've seen since our last Super Bowl run. If we take away the 17th game (which was the Patriots game) and that PD, these Cowboys are at a +166 had this been a 16 game season. It's also interesting to note that despite the Cowboys having a very similar PD across 4 teams 2009, 2014, 2016 and 2019 Cowboys, the regular season record, PD rankings and playoff seedings aren't the same.

How does this year's team compare to the great Cowboy teams of our past using PD? Here's a list of every Cowboys team who made a Super Bowl (with the * representing a championship):


1970 Cowboys +78 (4th in NFC, 5th overall) 10-4, 3rd.

*1971 Cowboys +184 (1st, 1st) 11-3, 1st.

1975 Cowboys +82 (3rd, 7th) 10-4, 4th.

*1977 Cowboys +133 (2nd, 2nd) 12-2, 1st.

1978 Cowboys +176 (1st, 1st) 12-4, 2nd.

*1992 Cowboys +166 (2nd, 2nd) 13-3, 2nd.

*1993 Cowboys +147 (2nd, 2nd) 12-4, 2nd.

*1995 Cowboys +144 (2nd, 2nd) 12-4, 1st.

2021 Cowboys +172 (1st, 2nd) 12-5, 3rd.


For added clarity, I'll add the Cowboys teams who finished at least 2nd in overall league PD once the league went to 16 games.


1980 Cowboys +143 (2nd, 2nd) 12-4, 4th.

1994 Cowboys +166 (2nd, 2nd) 12-4, 2nd.


Using this data, and I don't mean to sound like R.J., but the last time the Cowboys finished first in the NFC by PD, they went to the Super Bowl. And furthermore, the last time the Cowboys finished in the top 2 in overall PD, they won a Super Bowl.

I know PD isn't the end all be all and just because a team has a higher PD doesn't mean they'll win the title, or even win a single playoff game, but using this information suggests that our eyes haven't been deceiving us, that our 2021 Cowboys are indeed the best Cowboys team we've seen in a generation.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.