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The NFL’s Week 1 Games Have Never Been So Close

When a game takes an unexpected turn in Week 13 of an NFL season, it can easily be recognized for what it is: an outlier. But when a favorite is upset in Week 1, it’s harder to say whether the game is an aberration or a sign of how the rest of the season will unfold. Observers have such a tendency to overreact to the results in Week 1 that Football Outsiders has coined it National Jump to Conclusions Week.

But this year, in a special Week 1 twist, there’s very little to overreact to, at least at a macro level. As usual, some games unfolded in fascinating ways — the Chargers blew a huge lead to the Chiefs, the Lions blew a huge lead but then still beat the Colts, the Raiders won on a 2-point conversion — but Week 1 should generate surprisingly few hot takes. In fact, the most notable result in Week 1 was how close the games were.

Philadelphia beat Cleveland, arguably the worst team in the NFL, by 19 points. That otherwise tame result is notable for one reason: Of the 14 games played so far, this was the only game decided by double digits. That’s already tied for the single-week record, with two games (Washington/Pittsburgh and San Francisco/Los Angeles) still to play this evening.

The NFL introduced free agency for the 1993 season, another in a long line of efforts by the league to create parity. From 1993 to 2015, the average margin of victory in Week 1 was 11.6 points; this year, pending the results of tonight’s games, the average margin of victory is a microscopic 5.1 points.

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But this year’s Week 1 results aren’t just close by Week 1 standards. The Broncos (over the Panthers), Bengals (Jets), Raiders (Saints) and Giants (Cowboys) all won by just 1 point: That’s the first time that four games in one week have been decided by a single point in 34 years.

Since 1993, only one week has been as close on average as the 5.1-point margin tallied so far on opening weekend — Week 5 of the 2001 season. Since 1993, the standard deviation of from the previously mentioned 11.6-point average margin of victory was 2.3 points. That makes this season’s Week 1 a true outlier: At 5.1 points (pending tonight’s games), it is 2.3 standard deviations from average. The graph below shows the average margin in each week of the regular season since 1993:

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Of course, if you insist on having something to overreact to, your best bet for a hot take this morning is to look at the performance of the two NFC heavyweights, Seattle and Arizona. The Seahawks were favored by 10 points but needed a late touchdown to beat the Dolphins, 12-10. And Arizona, favored by 9 points against a New England squad without both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, missed a last-minute field goal and fell, 23-21. But given that Seattle and Arizona both rank in the top five in wins over the last three years, both teams have earned the benefit of the doubt after one mediocre performance.

Chase Stuart writes about football statistics and history at FootballPerspective.com

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