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What NFL Preseason Wins Mean For the Regular Season

By Matthew Reese in Sports
| July 28, 2017 12:00 am PDT
nfl-football

The Internet has eliminated nearly all of the good old-fashioned sports bar trivia debates. Instead of going back and forth with your drinking buddy all night over who had the most home runs or most touchdowns, your argument can be quickly settled with a quick Google search.

There are still a few good sports discussions out there though, ones that can’t be resolved as simply as looking up who led the NBA in scoring average in 2000-01. One great debate that still lingers is whether or not win-loss records in the NFL preseason indicate how a team will perform when the games actually matter.

We’ve all seen fans get excited about the potential of a huge year ahead after their team goes a perfect 4-0 in exhibition play. And when a team goes winless in the preseason, their supporters will either get an uneasy feeling in their stomach or shrug off the results as meaningless because exhibition games are essentially a battle of the back-ups.

In this article, I’ll compare preseason records to regular-season records over the past 10 years to see if there is a strong correlation or not between them.

How Super Bowl Winners Have Done In Preseason Play

Here’s a look at the preseason records of the past 10 Super Bowl winners (points for/against in parentheses)

  • 2016: New England went 3-1 (85-78)
  • 2015: Denver went 3-1 (75-64)
  • 2014: New England went 2-2 (91-81)
  • 2013: Seattle went 4-0 (110-36)
  • 2012: Baltimore went 2-2 (108-92)
  • 2011: New York Giants went 2-2 (72-67)
  • 2010: Green Bay went 2-2 (123-92)
  • 2009: New Orleans went 3-1 (107-38)
  • 2008: Pittsburgh went 3-1 (68-60)
  • 2007: New York Giants went 3-1 (66-83)

The team that jumps off the page here is the 2013 Seahawks. Seattle allowed an average of 9 points per game in its 4-0 exhibition performance, and that stellar defense continued in the regular season as the Seahawks led the NFL in total defense and fewest points allowed.

Seattle was the only eventual Super Bowl champion in the past decade to go undefeated in preseason play, but it’s also worth noting that only 1 of the last 10 NFL champs had a losing record in exhibition play and that none of them went winless. Another interesting takeaway is that the last 9 Super Bowl winners outscored their opposition in the preseason.

How The Worst Teams Have Done In Preseason Play

Now, here’s a list of how the teams that finished with the worst record in the league over the past 10 years fared in the preseason (again, points for/against in parentheses).

  • 2016: Cleveland went 0-4 (44-92)
  • 2015: Tennessee went 2-2 (85-96)
  • 2014: Tennessee went 2-2 (71-83) and Tampa Bay went 1-3 (61-74)
  • 2013: Houston went 3-1 (98-67)
  • 2012: Jacksonville went 3-1 (100-117) and Kansas City went 1-3 (61-116)
  • 2011: Indianapolis went 1-3 (51-86) and St. Louis went 4-0 (88-53)
  • 2010: Carolina went 1-3 (33-52)
  • 2009: St. Louis went 3-1 (77-70)
  • 2008: Detroit went 4-0 (80-32)
  • 2007: Miami went 2-2 (57-65)

The 2008 Lions are the poster child for the argument that preseason records don’t mean a single thing. Detroit’s 4 victories in exhibition play (with an average margin of victory of 12 points) ended up being its only wins of the entire year, as the Lions went on to become the NFL’s first (and only) team to go 0-16.

The 2011 Rams’ 4-0 preseason was also hardly a precursor of things to come. St. Louis was an abysmal 2-14 in the regular season, finishing dead last in the league in points per game on offense after averaging 22 points per outing in exhibition action.

Overall, 5 of the last 13 teams to finish with the worst regular-season record in the NFL posted winning preseason records, 3 went 2-2 and 5 had losing marks. 9 of the 13 were outscored in exhibition play.

How Unbeaten Preseason Teams Have Done In The Regular Season

Let’s switch gears a bit and see if a dominant preseason led to similar success in the regular season. Here’s a list of the 19 teams who enjoyed undefeated exhibition campaigns over the last 10 years (with their season record and playoff performance in parentheses.)

  • 2016: Baltimore (8-8), Houston (9-7, won the AFC South, lost first round of playoffs), Philadelphia (7-9), Minnesota (8-8)
  • 2015: Kansas City (11-5, earned a wild card, advanced to the divisional round)
  • 2014: Baltimore (10-6, earned a wild card, advanced to the divisional round), New York Giants (6-10), Minnesota (7-9)
  • 2013: Washington (3-13), Seattle (13-3, won the NFC West, won the Super Bowl)
  • 2012: Seattle (11-5, earned a wild card, advanced to the divisional round), Philadelphia (4-12)
  • 2011: St. Louis (2-14), Detroit (10-6, earned a wild card, lost first round of playoffs)
  • 2010: San Francisco (6-10)
  • 2009: Miami (7-9), Baltimore (9-7, earned a wild card, advanced to divisional round), Seattle (5-11)
  • 2008: Detroit (0-16)

Of those 19 teams to go 4-0 in the preseason (the 2014 Giants were actually 5-0), 10 of them posted losing records in the regular season and another 2 finished at .500.

Only 7 of the 19 perfect preseason teams ended up going to the playoffs, just 2 of them won their division that year, and only the 2013 Super Bowl champion Seahawks advanced past the divisional round.

How Winless Preseason Teams Have Done In The Regular Season

Unbeaten preseasons don’t really seem to mean that much. But what about the teams that go into the regular season without an exhibition victory under their belt?

Here’s how winless preseason teams have fared in regular-season play the last 10 years (again, with their season record and playoff performance in parentheses.)

  • 2016: Cleveland (1-15), New Orleans (7-9)
  • 2015: St. Louis (7-9), New Orleans (7-9)
  • 2014: Dallas (12-4, won NFC East, advanced to divisional round), Indianapolis (11-5, won AFC South, advanced to AFC Championship Game)
  • 2013: Pittsburgh (8-8), Atlanta (4-12)
  • 2012: Miami (7-9), Buffalo (6-10), New York Jets (6-10)
  • 2011: Kansas City (7-9), Oakland (8-8), Atlanta (10-6, earned a wild card, lost first round of playoffs)
  • 2010: Indianapolis (10-6, won AFC South, lost first round of playoffs), Chicago (11-5, won NFC North, advanced to NFC Championship Game)
  • 2009: Kansas City (4-12), Arizona (10-6, won NFC West, advanced to divisional round), Carolina (8-8)
  • 2008: New England (11-5), Cleveland (4-12)
  • 2007: Kansas City (4-12), Arizona (8-8)

A winless preseason seems to be a decent indication that it’s going to be a long year. Of the 23 teams to go 0-4 in exhibition play, only 7 of them posted winning regular-season records, just 6 made the playoffs, and only 2 made it as far as the conference championship.

Conclusion

Though I only went back 10 years with this study, a lack of strong correlation between preseason success/struggles and regular-season performance has been a trend for a long time.

According to NFL.com, only 4 of the 24 division winners from 2004-06 posted winning preseason records. Carolina, Cincinnati, and the Giants all went 4-0 in the 2006 exhibition season, then went on to finish 8-8.

The New York Times has suggested that a strong preseason may actually be a bad sign. From 2005-14, the 18 teams who didn’t taste defeat in exhibition action combined to post a regular-season record of 130-158.

And a 2012 USA Today article noted that preseason results really haven’t mattered since 1994, the year after the collective bargaining agreement saw a drastic increase in player salaries. That made teams and coaches much more reluctant to give their highly-paid veterans and stars significant playing time in the preseason, fearing the possibility of injury.

Other than Week 3, when the starters generally receive the bulk of the playing time, the NFL preseason is more about making some extra money for the owners and giving coaches a chance to see their second- and third-stringers in game action.

You can still find edges betting on individual preseason games. Some teams have a couple of strong backup quarterbacks, giving them a major advantage against second-string defenses, and certain coaches put a greater emphasis on winning preseason games.

But I wouldn’t put much stock in teams’ overall preseason records when it comes to projecting how they’ll do in the regular season.

Sure, there are occasions where you might be able to learn something about a team from its exhibition games, especially if the team was badly outscored.

But for every team like the 2013 Seahawks, there seems to be a case like the 2008 Lions.

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