It’s Theme Week again in the SB Nation community, and this week is one of my favorite themes: “What if...”
Fans of all NFL teams love to play the what-if game. With only 16 games in a season and a single-elimination playoff format, it’s easy to see why it’s such a tempting game. The littlest of changes to a season can result in the biggest of results. What if Chiefs defensive lineman Dee Ford wasn’t lined up offsides in the AFC Championship Game? What if they hadn’t picked up the flag in Dallas?
But, perhaps the most common what-if game played by fans is “what if we had just won that game?” There are so many close games to each NFL season. In 2018, teams averaged 8.5 games decided by just one score, meaning over half of the games in the NFL had the narrowest of margins.
Studies have proven that year-to-year records in one-score games are highly variable. In other words, if a team had a good record in one-score games one year, they aren’t any more likely to have a similarly impressive record in close games the following year.
So I decided to see who was—for lack of a better word—lucky last year. Who benefited most from a good record in close games, and what would happen if we took every one-score game and gave it the opposite result. The team that lost a one-score game is now the team that won the one-score game. How would’ve that affected the 2018 standings? How does it project to 2019?
Obviously, it’s not a perfect method. Not every one-score game is equal. For instance, the Detroit Lions lost a one-score game in Dallas thanks to a last-second field goal. That seems like a fair instance of a “close” game. However, the Lions’ Week 5 31-23 victory over the Packers was also technically a one-score game, despite the fact that Detroit once led that game 24-0, and the only reason it ended in an eight-point game was because of a last-second field goal from Green Bay. That doesn’t feel like a close game, but it falls under the definition.
Shortcomings aside, here’s a look at what the NFL standings would have been had every single one-score game had the opposite outcome. The number in the parentheses represents the change in win total for each team.
Let’s start with the NFC North. By this measure, the Bears were the luckiest team in the division with a 6-4 record in close games. The Packers were the least lucky, just going 3-6-1 in one-score games. But even after swapping the results, the Bears maintain their first-place status in the NFC North.
The Lions went just 2-4 in one-score games, and therefore just barely get out of the basement of the division. As we noted a couple weeks ago, Detroit had the second-fewest one-score games in the entire NFL.
There are some particularly shocking results across the entire league, but none more shocking than Miami. The Dolphins finished the season 7-9, but all seven of those wins were by one score. Only one of their nine losses was by a single score, so if everything was swapped, the 7-9 Dolphins would’ve been just 1-15 last year. They could be in for a world of hurt in 2019, especially starting over with a new quarterback and coach.
Almost equally as lucky were the Cowboys (8-3 in close games) and the Rams (6-1). I don’t think it would surprise many to see Dallas regress in 2019, but to see the Rams fall all the way to 8-8 in this exercise is certainly surprising.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Giants were surprisingly the team that was hurt most by 2018 results in one-score games, having just a 4-8 record in close contests. The Jaguars, Jets and Panthers were just as unfortunate in 2018, but only the Panthers would’ve won the division had they been on the other side of lady luck.
How would the postseason have changed if every one-score game had gone the opposite way? Well, not much would’ve changed in the AFC. The Chiefs, Colts and Patriots still would’ve been in very good shape. In fact, there would’ve only been one change in playoff teams. The Bengals would’ve replaced the Chargers (Cincy would have had a better conference record than the Jaguars).
The NFC is a completely different story. The NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams would’ve been out of the playoffs completely, while the Panthers — who really did miss out on the playoffs — would’ve earned themselves a first-round bye. Finally, I have some bad news for you. In this alternate reality, the Packers would’ve somehow snuck into the final wild card spot with a 9-6-1 record, just barely edging out the Giants. They’d take the place of the Cowboys, who dropped from 10-6 to 5-11.
As for the Lions, it really wouldn’t have changed much at all. Though they move up a single spot in the NFC North standings, they still finish in the bottom half of the league. Only 10 teams would have had a worse record than Detroit, meaning the Lions would have been picking somewhere between 11 and 17 in the NFL Draft depending on strength of schedule.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said the Lions went 2-3 in one-score games. They actually went 2-4, meaning their record would bump from 6-10 to 8-8. The article has been updated to reflect that. I apologize for the error.