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Cardinals, Lions, and Pythagnenpat Records

Two teams once known for their great receivers are now known for being great teams

Two teams once known for their great receivers are now known for being great teams.

The Arizona Cardinals are 8-1, giving them the best record in football. The Detroit Lions are 7-2, tied with the Patriots and Broncos for the second-best record through ten weeks.1 In week 11, the Lions head to Arizona in a game that may well decide which team gets home field advantage in the NFC playoffs: it certainly will decide which franchise is in the pole position with five weeks left.

We should be celebrating these teams. Detroit has only had one year in its last 70 seasons when it started with a better record through 9 games: that was the ’54 squad, which began 8-1 and finished with the Lions in the NFL title game. Detroit also started 7-2 in 1993: that’s the only other time in the last 50 years that the Lions have started so well through nine games.

For Arizona, the situation is even bleaker. The team has won at least 8 of its first 9 games just two times before this year. One was in 1948, back when Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman  was coaching the team (then in Chicago). And the other was in 1925, when Chicago was led by Hall of Famer Paddy Driscoll. That’s it. The oldest franchise in NFL history has started with an 8-1 record (it has never began 9-0) now just three times. On the first two occasions, the Cardinals wound up winning the title, albeit with one asterisk.

But both the Lions and Cardinals have been overachieving this year, at least according to their Pythagenpat Records. Detroit has scored 182 points and allowed 142 points; that gives the Lions a 0.648 Pythagenpat winning percentage. Among the 72 teams to start 7-2 between 1990 and 2013, 59 had better Pythagenpat winning percentages.

In that group, 39 of those teams had Pythagenpat winning percentages of at least .700; they won, on average, 3.9 of their next 6 games.2 The other 33 teams won just 3.2 of their next six, proving once again that Pythagenpat records do have predictive ability. The Lions are a very good team, and one that has excelled without Calvin Johnson for long stretches. A 0.648 Pythagenpat winning percentage translate to 10.36 wins out of 16, so the Lions are no fraud. But a 7-2 record overstates things quite a bit.3

For Arizona, the situation is much more severe. The Cardinals have scored 223 points and allowed 170. That translates to just a 0.668 Pythagenpat winning percentage. That’s easily the worst of any team since 1990 to start 8-1 or 9-0. Here’s how to read the table below: In 2007, the Patriots won 9 of the team’s first 9 games, scoring 355 points and allowing 147 in the process. That gave New England a 0.918 Pythagenpat winning percentage. The Patriots finished the year with 16 wins.


The good news for the Cardinals is that all of those teams won at least 11 games and made the playoffs. However, that 0.668 Pythagenpat Win percentage is the worst of any team since 1990. 4 In fact, of the 134 teams since 1920 to win at least 8 of 9 to start the year, Arizona ranks 132nd in Pythagenpat winning percentage through 9 games. The only two worse teams? The 1987 Chargers and 1976 Raiders.

San Diego lost its first game that year, won some close games with replacement players, and kept that tradition alive when the real players returned. Then, after an 8-1 start, the team lost its final 6 games. Those were the final six starts of Dan Fouts’ career.

The 1976 Raiders went the other way. It was one of the weirdest seasons in NFL history. Despite a 13-1 record and a Super Bowl title, Oakland was a pretty average team through nine weeks, outscoring opponents by just eleven points! Of course, a 48-17 blowout in New England skewed things a bit, but Oakland was not a great team (particularly on defense) by Super Bowl champion standards (despite the lofty record).

Of course, there’s a limit to how much history can tell us. This is fun to look at, but both teams can change their level of play significantly over the last seven weeks. Despite what appears to be a very “over-achieving” start, if the Cardinals falter, much of the blame will likely be assigned to new quarterback Drew Stanton. He’ll be starting, of course, because Carson Palmer appeared to suffer a season-ending leg injury against the Rams. Even when things go well for the Lions and Cardinals, it seems like the other shoe won’t wait long to drop.

  1. The Eagles can match that record tonight with a win against the Panthers. []
  2. I have excluded week 17 for purposes of this study, since many of these teams will have had nothing to play for. []
  3. On the other hand, Detroit’s true win percentage is 0.625. []
  4. Imagine how things would look if Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie didn’t score late touchdowns against the Rams yesterday! []
  • Tycho

    Conclusion: Cardinals are a lock for the playoffs and that it’s random luck that they could win it. That’s great news!

    Also, the footnote, “Imagine how things would look if Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie didn’t score late touchdowns against the Rams yesterday!” tipped off that you’re really not that objective; plenty of games have garbage points at the end. The Cowboys score at the end of the Cardinal game last week was garbage time. Where’s the footnote for that? Also, the Broncos ran up the score in the 4th quarter against the Cardinals.

    • Chase Stuart

      Sorry. Given the well-known nature of my long-standing anti-Cardinals bias, I guess it was kind of silly of me to think I could slip that in there.

      • Tom

        Well-deserved sarcasm aside, his point still stands. There wasn’t really any need for the footnote and it doesn’t add at all to the point of the article as plenty of teams have plenty of garbage-time points in both directions.

        For example, would you have made the same footnote the other direction if the Denver game was the last game as they ran up the score in the 4th with the Cards’ 3rd string QB playing? I doubt it, because it would actually have detracted from the point of the article, but it would have been just as fair and meaningful as the footnote you did include.

        • Chase Stuart


  • Travis Jones

    I’ve always found the Jacksonville Jaguars ’99 squad fascinating. Talk about your “best teams never to win the Super Bowl”. Undefeated against the rest of the league, 0-3 against the Titans. And what a defense! 79 points through 8 games?? That’s ridiculous! Truly a forgotten gem of a team, who also btw had the 6th highest scoring offense and 7th-rated offense yardage-wise.

    • RustyHilgerReborn

      The ’99 Jags were definitely good, and fun to watch (the Mark Brunell to Jimmy Smith combo was always good for making SportsCenter highlights), but their non-Titans schedule was pretty easy, which inflated their W-L a bit.

  • RustyHilgerReborn

    As a Lions fan, I’m fully aware that the Lions are lucky to be 7-2, but I’m just going to enjoy the ride. That 1993 team that started 7-2 finished 10-6, but mostly because Barry Sanders missed the last 5 games with a knee injury. This team, at least subjectively, is much better than the ’93 team. And this time, there’s no Steve Young 49ers, or Aikman Cowboys that own the NFC, so who knows what will happen in the playoffs? (yes I know the Rodgers Packers are pretty good, but Lions have already proven they can beat them).

  • Richie

    Lions vs Cardinals for the #1 seed? When was the last time something like that might have happened? 1956?

    I think the only time both teams ever made the playoffs in the same season was the strike-shortened 1982 season when over 50% of the league made the playoffs, and the Lions were one of them with a 4-5 record.