How much disparity is there between the best NFL team and the worst NFL team in any given season? The NFL is widely considered one of the most competitive leagues in professional sports, that’s why the mantra “any given Sunday” is so popular. The suggestion is that the talent level between the best and worst teams—thanks to the salary cap and the order of the draft—is small enough that any team can theoretically win any week.
But is that really true? One Reddit user decided to test that claim at its most extreme. “the_fuzzy_stoner” decided to simulate games between what many consider the best NFL team of all time, the 2007 New England Patriots*, and the mathematically worse NFL team of all time, the winless 2008 Detroit Lions, in order to see if the Lions could pull off a victory. 0-16 vs. 18-1. (h/t to Justin Rogers for finding this)
To simulate these games, the_fuzzy_stoner used a site called whatifsports.com, which allows you to pit historical teams against each other and simulates to extraordinary detail. The results not only give you a final score and full statistics for each game, but you can also get a full play-by-play, if you so desire. Their methods for simulating are not explained thoroughly, however.
So the_fuzzy_stoner started simulating games, making the 2008 Lions the home team for an small extra advantage. It did not start out well. Over the first 100 simulations, not only did the Patriots win every single game, but their average margin of victory was around 35 points per game.
By game 200, the Lions still hadn’t won a game, so the_fuzzy_stoner had to make some adjustments.
“Around game 244 I just wanted to know if I could get the '07 Pats to lose on their worst day to the '08 Detroit lions. I replaced all the starters on offense. Matt Cassell [sic], Chad Jackson, Troy Brown, Heath Evans, and Kyle Eckel led the way for the new New England Patriots.”
So how long did it take for the 2008 Detroit Lions to finally beat the 2007 New England Patriots? 262. It took two hundred and sixty-friggin-two games. Dan Orlovsky led the Lions to a dramatic last-minute drive to defeat the Patriots 24-23. Orlovsky connected with Kevin Smith on 20-yard pass on third and goal with just 17 seconds to go.
I tried the simulator myself, because I wanted to see just how bad it was. However, I gave up after five tries because this happened:
Go check out the entire details of the experiment over on Reddit. It is really quite an entertaining read. And if you want to run the experiment yourself, head to whatifsports.com.
*Even though the 2007 Patriots didn’t win the Super Bowl that year, they are still considered one of the best teams of all time. They recorded the highest Elo rating—fivethiryeight.com’s measure of team talent—in NFL history.