Thursday, September 24, 2009

NFL: How much do the first two games matter?

We're two games into the season. Players are still shaking off the rust, some are learning new systems, getting used to new coaches. There's still lots of football left to play, right?

I was curious about how a teams early results correlated to their final standings, so I took the historical record from 1993 to 2008 (inclusive), and divided them up into four categories based on the results of the first two games:

  1. Two wins
  2. Win then loss
  3. Loss then win
  4. Two losses

I then counted the number of wins for all teams in each category. Since there were only a handful of tie games during this era, they are ignored.

I should also say I know the data should be plotted as a column chart or histogram, but I couldn't figure out how to make any of my chart-making programs create a chart that was both correct and not awful.

It's good to be 2-0

Not exactly a stop-the-presses insight, I know. What's interesting is how good it is to be 2-0:

Click on image to see full resolution

The graph peaks only one win better than 8-8, but note that the bulk of the teams are at 8 wins or better. Of the 137 teams in this data set, only 25 (18.2%) didn't make it to at least 8-8.

Teams that tanked the hardest after starting 2-0:

  • The 1998 Chargers won 5 games
  • The 2001 Chargers won 5 games
  • The 2002 Bears won 4 games
  • The 2003 Redskins won 5 games
  • The 2007 49ers won 5 games

1-1: WL vs LW is not the same

As indicated above, I split the 1-1 teams that lost in Week 1 (LW) from the teams that lost in Week 2 (WL). Here's the result:

Click on image to see full resolution

As you can see, both data sets are more-or-less centered around the 8-8 mark, but the WL teams have finished with 8, 9, or 10 wins a lot more than the LW teams (which actually has a small dip for 8 and 9 wins).

Also note that while 16 WL teams have made it to at least 11 wins, 24 (half again as many) LW teams have made it to 11 wins.

It's not good to be 0-2

Most teams that start 0-2 never make it to 8 wins:

Click on image to see full resolution

A few teams that started 0-2 have managed to pull things out:

  • The 1993 Cowboys won 12 games (won Super Bowl XXVIII)
  • The 1996 Patriots won 11 games (lost Super Bowl XXXI)
  • The 1998 Jets won 12 games (lost AFC CG)
  • The 2001 Patriots won 11 games (won Super Bowl XXXVI)
  • The 2003 Eagles won 12 games (lost AFC CG)
  • The 2008 Dolphins won 11 games (lost Wildcard game)


The way the first two games of the season play out are in many cases a strong indication of what you can expect for the remaining 14 games. Winning teams win games, while losing teams lose games, almost always right from week 1.

And there is a surprising difference between WL and LW teams (perhaps the psychological shock of starting 0-1 pushes those LW teams more than the teams that lose their second game?).