If it seems like there are a ton of tight games each week in the NFL this season, you’re definitely not imagining things. When it comes to close contests, 2022 is shaping up to be an all-timer. So far this season, 92 games (90 decisions and two ties) have been decided by 6 points or fewer, the most through Week 14 in NFL history. To put that in perspective, at least half of all games played in nine out of 14 weeks were decided by 6 points or fewer.
All these close games have led to some incredibly exciting finishes. The most recent example is Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s last-minute drive Sunday against the Houston Texans, a win that saved the Cowboys from the embarrassment of losing to a 17-point underdog. On Thursday in L.A., we were also treated to an improbable Baker Mayfield-led comeback against the Las Vegas Raiders — a win that came just two days after he joined the Rams. And there have been 75 more game-winning drives where those came from since the season started.
In fact, teams are on pace to record 101 game-winning drives in 2022, 12 more than in any other season since the merger. And even after adjusting for the added games from a 17-week season, the pace is historic: The NFL is averaging 5.5 game winning drives per week. Mercy.
What’s going on here? Who pumped up the parity to such preposterous proportions, and should we expect it to continue?
One partial answer is that teams have become more conservative in their passing attacks for most of the game, checking down more than in any season since at least the mid-2000s. Nearly 24 percent of all pass attempts have been at or behind the line of scrimmage in 2022, up 5.8 percentage points from 2006 (our first season with data) and the highest figure we’ve seen since that year. The average depth of target across the NFL has fallen from 8.74 to 7.47 yards over that span and, in a not-so-shocking twist, the shorter passing has led to lower passing yardage: Yards per completion have also hit a 16-year low, at 10.95.
The net effect of the dip in downfield passing has been fewer passing touchdowns and a decrease in overall scoring. NFL teams are averaging 22.0 points per game in 2022, down from an all-time high of 24.8 just two seasons ago. Part of the dip in offense could be explained by the increase in two-high-safety coverages across the league, but the evidence for that theory isn’t terribly strong. (It could also just be all of those Justin Herbert checkdowns.)
In some ways, the league has morphed from one where gunslingers fill the air with downfield bombs into one that the power run-loving Vince Lombardi might appreciate. For instance, interceptions per game, which have been on a steady decline since the 1950s, are now at their lowest levels since 1930. Meanwhile, rushing has never been more efficient. Yes, that’s right: NFL teams have been passing so much that it’s gotten easier to pick up yardage on the ground. Yards per rushing attempt has increased from last season’s high-water mark of 4.4 to 4.5 yards per carry, the most in league history.
But it’s not just old-school conservatism that’s leading to the close games. One part of the game Lombardi would not recognize (and probably wouldn’t approve of, either) is the continued popularity of going for it on fourth down. On a per-game basis, coaches are going for it the second-most frequently since at least 1984,1 and they’re converting those tries at the seventh-highest rate in that same span. The majority of the league (20 teams) have gone for it 15 or more times this season.
The main benefit of fourth-down aggression is that it allows teams to extend drives. Time of possession per drive (2:48) is the second-highest it’s been since 2000 (2:32), a 16-second increase over that period. The drawback for offenses is that longer drives means fewer possessions per game.
A little modeling shows that we should expect teams to lose about a drive per game for every 15-second increase in time of possession per drive.2 And in 2022, teams are right at 10.9 drives per game — exactly one drive per game fewer than in 2000. Fewer, longer drives are a solid recipe for close games, especially when those drives are filled with runs and quarterbacks throwing short of the line of scrimmage.
This mixed bag of conservatism and aggression is making for close scores and compelling finishes. Teams are playing it safe most of the way, passing short to avoid turnovers through the air and running the ball to take advantage of the two-high safety looks they’re seeing more often. But when they fall behind and need to pass late, offenses aren’t hesitating to use all the downs that Walter Camp has bestowed on them.
If these trends continue, there’s no reason to expect the close games to go away. The lack of scoring might make for less-than-exciting play early in games — but if it means tight scores late in the fourth quarter and a record-breaking volume of contests decided on the final drive, that seems like a trade-off well worth making.
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