The Baltimore Ravens’ 59-10 Week 1 demolition of the Miami Dolphins seemed to mark the arrival of Lamar Jackson as a complete quarterback, the establishment of the Ravens as serious AFC contenders and a death knell for the Dolphins — who reportedly had a flurry of players turn in trade requests the night of the loss.1 But other than dropping Miami from being tied for 31st to dead last in the FiveThirtyEight Elo rankings, did the third-biggest Week 1 beatdown since the AFL-NFL merger actually mean anything?
Back in 2003, the Buffalo Bills baited the football-watching world into a massive Week 1 overreaction when they walloped the rival New England Patriots, 31-0. The win came with a neat narrative — new Bills safety Lawyer Milloy was surprisingly released by the Patriots in the preseason— and seemed to signal a changing of the guard in the AFC East. But the Bills finished the season 6-10, out of the playoffs — and the Patriots won 17 of their next 18 games, including the Super Bowl.
Both participants in the biggest Week 1 blowout ever, the 1973 Atlanta Falcons’ 62-7 win over the New Orleans Saints, missed the playoffs. Meanwhile, Washington shut out Detroit 45-0 in 1991, only for the teams to meet again in the NFC Championship Game.2
So we know there’s no guarantee that the winner of a Week 1 blowout will have a better season than the loser. But how have the teams on either side of the ledger fared overall? We looked at all Week 1 blowouts — any game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger in which the margin of victory was at least 30 points3 — to see what the Ravens and Dolphins might expect for the rest of their seasons, if history proves a guide.
Across the 46 games in question, it’s inescapable: Teams that opened their season with a statement victory had, on average, a higher regular-season winning percentage — and advanced farther in the playoffs — than the teams on the receiving end of a blowout. A total of 38 of the 46 blowout winners finished with a higher winning percentage than the losers did.
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|Team||Year-end Win %||playoffs||div. round||Conf. Champ.||Super Bowl|
As I tabulated these averages, another trend became apparent: Week 1 blowouts have become more rare of late. There were 31 between 1970 and 1996, an average of 1.1 per season. But between 1997 and 2018, there were 15 — only 0.7 per season.
What’s more, opening-week blowouts used to be much stronger indicators of success. Before 1997, teams that delivered a Week 1 walloping won almost twice as many of their subsequent games as their victims did, and the victors went on to make the playoffs a whopping 83.9 percent of the time. Keep in mind that the wild-card round wasn’t introduced until the 1978 season, so earlier teams had a shorter road to the Super Bowl. Still, it’s impossible not to see the chasm in the postseason returns of blowout winners and losers:
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|Team||Year-end Win %||Playoffs||Div. Round||Conf. Champ.||Super Bowl|
But of course, if blowouts were both more frequent and more significant before 1997, that means they’ve been less frequent and less significant since:
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|Team||Year-end Win%||Playoffs||Div. Round||Conf. Champ.||Super Bowl|
The difference in win percentage is much smaller in recent years than in the older sample.4 In fact, the number of Week 1 blowouts has been so small in recent years that we run into sample size concerns; the 6.7 percent rate of Super Bowl appearances for blowout winners and losers since 1997 represents one team each.
Ideally, we would only examine blowouts that took place after the 2002 realignment, as that standardized divisions and playoff seeding across the league. That leaves us only nine data points, but the resulting gap between the winners’ win percentage (.531) and the losers’ (.438) continued to shrink.
So what happened? Why did winning a season opener by 30-plus points before 1997 give an NFL team about a 5-in-6 chance of making the playoffs, but winning teams after that have had worse than even odds? Why did the blowouts occur more frequently than once a year over that first stretch, and significantly less often since?
It’s probably a confluence of several factors, rather than any one switch being flipped. The advent of free agency in the early 1990s, a slate of player-protection rules passed a few years later and the concurrent evolution of more dynamic, three-wideout offenses all contributed to more seasonlong parity between teams despite more in-game scoring volatility.
But there are still reasons to believe that a 59-10 drubbing means something. Only a handful of modern-era teams have been blown up in Week 1, as Miami was, and gone on to have any kind of success. Even though dominating a team in Week 1 isn’t nearly as strong an indicator of success as it used to be, Baltimore is still likely in decent shape for this season. Oh, and the Ravens are all but certainly better than the Dolphins.
Then again, if any of these trends were ironclad, Milloy and the Bills would have won Super Bowl XXXVIII while Tom Brady and the Patriots watched from their couches.
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