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Games Are Closer Than Ever Now

In 2016, 146 of 256 regular season games finished with a margin of victory of 8 or fewer points. That’s an incredible 57.0% of all games being decided by one score, which makes the 2016 season one of the most competitive in NFL history. If not the most competitive. In 2015, 54.7% of all games were decided by 8 or fewer points; prior to that, no other season since 1960 finished with 54.1% or more games being decided by one score.

The graph below shows the percentage of all games since 1960, by year, where the final margin was 8 or fewer points:

If we use 7 points as our cut-off instead of 8, the 2016 season was also a record-breaking one. Last year, for the first time since at least 1960, 53% of all games were decided by a touchdown or less:

And here’s one graph with both 7- and 8-point margins depicted:

There are many takeaways from this — it probably is a sign of greater parity, at least in the sense of competition within a season. It also, to some extent, devalues the myth of fourth quarter comebacks. With so many close games, most games are going to have a fourth quarter comeback, or at least a chance for one. And it also means records may be less sticky from year-to-year: we know that records in close games don’t hold much predictive value. Well, the larger percentage of a team’s games that are close, the less predictive value that team’s overall record will have.

  • sacramento gold miners

    I think the closer games may also reflect an issue with quality of play, the last CBA put resulted in restrictions on practice time, both in the off season and during the year. The NFL needs a developmental league, IMO.

    While games are close in the fourth quarter, I see the better QBs still having the edge in leading their respective teams to victory.

    • Topher Doll

      Quality of play seems subjective to mean and a game one person loves another may dislike. I also think quality of play is more tied to injuries than practice schedule and we’ve seen some of the consistently good teams ruined by injuries in recent years.

      I would like to see a developmental league but I don’t see a drop off in quality, my desire for a developmental league is mostly to help players make smart decisions about their futures and allow talented QB’s with bad fundamentals to not be rushed into a starting job.

      • Richie

        I’d like to see a place for players to go instead of the charade of student athlete. If a kid doesn’t want to go to college, I’d love to see a league where he could play, make a little money before going to the NFL.

    • Josh Sanford

      The NCAA FBS _is_ the NFL’s developmental league. And it’s perfect: it costs the NFL nothing, the college’s spit out the types of athletes, i.e. tall WRs, that the NFL wants, the best players come out branded and with individual fan bases. Nothing could be finer for the NFL.

  • Tom

    This is pretty interesting; just to further solidify the point – the standard deviation for point differential, looking at all 512 regular reason games for 2016, is 13.1. This the lowest since 1970; the last time it was below 14 was 1995. The highest it’s been (since 1970) is 1973 at 17.9! As Chase’s charts show, these numbers go up and down, but yeah, the trend is downward…the games are getting tighter.

  • Paul

    Maybe this is a reflection of a league wide increase in quarterback play. The increase in close games seems to have happened right around the 1978 rule changes. Except that crazy 1974 season where it jumped 15% from 1973. There must be a pretty interesting explanation for that abberation.

    • Paul

      Just reviewed the 1973-1975 seasons at profootballreference.

      The average team scored 19.5 ppg in 1973, 18.2 ppg in 1974, and 20.6 in 1975.

      Maybe the lack of relative offensive scoring meant closer games?

  • Paul

    I remember alot of pundits saying how lousy the season was, that it wasnt competitive. Hard to believe they spend their careers spouting nonsense that doesnt match a rational analysis.

    • Richie

      Probably the same guys who every year say “this season is crazy” .

    • AgronomyBrad

      I think the biggest complaint was the primetime games, especially early in the season.

      • Paul

        Thats true, though they werent as bad as they were made out to be. I think the biggest problem was the lack of any headlining stories. Peyton mannings retirement (the nfl is far less interesting without him), tom bradys suspension, aaron rodgers early season struggles, tony romo out for the year, no great Teams, injured russell wilson and a mediocre seahawks without earl thomas. The biggest story was the falcons and matt ryan, and that juat didnt seem sexy enough for the pundits to give them any due. The nfl on a whole really lacked the early season allure were used to seeing.

  • Adam

    Maybe this is why, despite endless criticism of the NFL brass in recent years, football continues to dominate the American sports landscape. When the games are competitive, fans will tolerate the minor irritations of poor officiating, too many commercials, inconsistent league discipline, etc.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Agree about football dominating the sports landscape, but there are potential red flags which could change that. TV ratings dipped last season, and I don’t think it was all because of the presidential election. In both the national and local TV games I saw, not even close games could hide the difference in quality of play, IMO. The constant interruptions disrupt the flow of the game, and I think more player safety rules will only add to the problem.

      In the future, I think we’re getting closer to a tipping point where the essence of NFL football will be eroded, popularity wanes, opening the door for a rival “old school” football league to emerge. San Diego, Oakland, St. Louis, San Antonio, Memphis, Birmingham, Orlando, Portland, and Mexico City are possible markets where pro football could thrive.

      • Deacon Drake

        Ratings decline had nothing to do with the election… it’s simple oversaturation. There is an NFL game on constantly (Thurs, all day Sunday, Monday), and with NFL network, FS, CBS Sports, and ESPN, the coverage is overwhelming. By halftime Sunday night, its teetering on burnout. But if you play fantasy, you spend Tuesday doing waiver transactions, Wednesday setting lineups and investigating injuries, Friday following up on questionable injuries… by week 8 you just don’t care and end up watching EPL in the morning because the games are half as long and done by noon so you can do something with the day.
        I still think NFL is great (NCAAF coverage is awful… every game is over 4 hours) and there is potential there, but they need some fresh leadership at the top.

        • Richie

          Nope, still haven’t watched a soccer game.