Just How Much Do Close Games Matter Anyway?


It's well known among Seahawk fans that this past year's 7-9 club was an improvement over 2010's 7-9 club because Seattle stayed close in so many more games, right to the very end. All we need is a quarterback who can handle the two minute drill and we're suddenly in 9-7 or even 10-6 territory. Right?

Additionally, a lot of Seahawk fans consider the Cardinals and 49ers to be somewhat overrated compared to their records, because they may have gotton lucky a lot more often: the Cardinals by winning all four of their overtime games, and the 49ers with their astounding turnover differential, which is (hopefully) unsustainable.

In other words, a regression to the mean would drop the 49ers and Cardinals in the standings somewhat and the Hawks would be due for a few more wins, meaning that there will be a real competition at the top (say around 10-6, 11-5) for the 49ers and Seahawks next year, and the Cardinals aren't in the picture as much as they think they are.

I started out doing a little research to paint exactly that picture with the numbers, looking at the score for every game last year that was won by 10 points or more and considering that a "solid" win, and games won by 9 points or less and considering that a "soft" win. I went about recalculating the final standings in our division by seeing what things would look like if all solids wins were kept in place but all soft wins were split 50-50 (regression to the mean) instead of the way things turned out with lucky bounces and plays. Here's what I got:

49ers (13-3) — Solid wins/losses: 6-1 — Soft wins/losses: 7-2 — Adjusted record: 10-6 or 11-5
Cardinals (8-8) — Solid wins/losses: 0-3 — Soft wins/losses: 8-5 — Adjusted record: 6-10 or 7-9
Seahawks (7-9) — Solid wins/losses: 5-4 — Soft wins/losses: 2-5 — Adjusted record: 8-8 or 9-7
Rams (2-14) — Solid wins/losses: 1-9 — Soft wins/losses: 1-5 — Adjusted record: 4-12

The adjusted records are a lot more in line with what it *feels* like the performance of the teams was like (at least from our point of view). Point proven, right?

But I also went ahead and did the same for the rest of the league, and was surprised to find that the playoff picture very barely changed (adjusted playoff teams in bold):

Patriots (13-3) —Solid W/L: 8-0 — Soft W/L: 5-3 — Adjusted: 12-4
Jets (8-8) —Solid W/L: 5-5 — Soft W/L: 3-3 — Adjusted: 8-8
Dolphins (6-10) —Solid W/L: 4-5 — Soft W/L: 2-5 — Adjusted: 7-9 or 8-8
Bills (6-10) —Solid W/L: 3-5 — Soft W/L: 3-5 — Adjusted: 7-9

Ravens (12-4) —Solid W/L: 7-2 — Soft W/L: 5-2 — Adjusted: 10-6 or 11-5
Steelers (12-4) —Solid W/L: 6-2 — Soft W/L: 6-2 — Adjusted: 10-6
Bengals (9-7) —Solid W/L: 4-1 — Soft W/L: 5-6 — Adjusted: 9-7 or 10-6

Browns (4-12) —Solid W/L: 0-6 — Soft W/L: 4-6 — Adjusted: 5-11

Texans (10-6) —Solid W/L: 6-2 — Soft W/L: 4-4 — Adjusted: 10-6
Titans (9-7) —Solid W/L: 4-3 — Soft W/L: 5-4 — Adjusted: 8-8 to 9-7
Jaguars (5-11) —Solid W/L: 2-7 — Soft W/L: 3-4 — Adjusted: 5-11 or 6-10
Colts (2-14) —Solid W/L: 1-6 — Soft W/L: 1-8 — Adjusted: 5-11 or 6-10

Broncos (8-8) —Solid W/L: 1-4 — Soft W/L: 7-4 — Adjusted: 6-10 or 7-9
Chargers (8-8) —Solid W/L: 5-3 — Soft W/L: 3-5 — Adjusted: 9-7
Raiders (8-8) —Solid W/L: 1-6 — Soft W/L: 7-2 — Adjusted: 5-11 or 6-10
Chiefs (7-9) —Solid W/L: 1-5 — Soft W/L: 6-3 — Adjusted: 5-11 or 6-10

Giants (9-7) —Solid W/L: 4-4 — Soft W/L: 5-3 — Adjusted: 8-8
Eagles (8-8) —Solid W/L: 6-3 — Soft W/L: 2-5 — Adjusted: 9-7 or 10-6
Cowboys (8-8) —Solid W/L: 4-3 — Soft W/L: 4-5 — Adjusted: 8-8 or 9-7
Redskins (5-11) —Solid W/L: 2-5 — Soft W/L: 3-6 — Adjusted: 6-10 or 7-9

Packers (15-1) —Solid W/L: 8-0 — Soft W/L: 7-1 — Adjusted: 12-4
Lions (10-6) —Solid W/L: 4-3 — Soft W/L: 6-3 — Adjusted: 8-8 or 9-7

Bears (8-8) —Solid W/L: 4-5 — Soft W/L: 4-3 — Adjusted: 7-9 or 8-8
Vikings (3-13) —Solid W/L: 1-4 — Soft W/L: 2-9 — Adjusted: 6-10 or 7-9

Saints (13-3) —Solid W/L: 9-1 — Soft W/L: 4-2 — Adjusted: 12-4
Falcons (10-6) —Solid W/L: 5-3 — Soft W/L: 5-3 — Adjusted: 9-7

Panthers (6-10) —Solid W/L: 4-4 — Soft W/L: 2-6 — Adjusted: 8-8
Buccaneers (4-12) —Solid W/L: 0-8 — Soft W/L: 4-4 — Adjusted: 4-12

49ers (13-3) —Solid W/L: 6-1 — Soft W/L: 7-2 — Adjusted: 10-6 or 11-5

Cardinals (8-8) —Solid W/L: 0-3 — Soft W/L: 8-5 — Adjusted: 6-10 or 7-9
Seahawks (7-9) —Solid W/L: 5-4 — Soft W/L: 2-5 — Adjusted: 8-8 or 9-7
Rams (2-14) —Solid W/L: 1-9 — Soft W/L: 1-5 — Adjusted: 3-12

In each conference, exactly one playoff team changed: the Chargers took the division crown from the Broncos (which shouldn't surprise anyone considering we're downgrading miraculous last-minute wins and spotlighting a solid core team with these adjustments), and the Eagles took the place of the Giants. (The Lions in this scenario are actually tied with the Seahawks and Cowboys for the playoffs, but I broke the tie to the Lions since I couldn't figure tiebreakers for such a fictitious arrangement.)

Now, since the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl, that skews things a little bit here by suggesting that winning your close games is really really really really important. Perhaps it is. Feel free to argue so in the comments. But it's not preposterous to think that the Eagles wouldn't have won that division if they'd had a little more health at quarterback or a few more lucky bounces, or that they won't challenge the Giants this coming year.

So while it is possible for a team to make the playoffs with a few close games going their way, the majority of the teams that made it could have regressed to the mean in their close games and still made it. Most of them did not luck into the playoffs with a string of last minute victories in the clutch. In order to make the playoffs you need to dominate other teams quite often and just not screw up too many close ones.

The conclusion I'm taking away from this is that, even though it was heartbreaking to lose those close games last year with the phantom holding call in Cleveland, T-Jack's last-minute fumble against San Francisco, and bad clock management at the end versus Atlanta — and it feels like these kinds of moments kept us out of the playoffs — in the long run they don't matter as much as becoming better at keeping games two scores out of reach, if our goal is to be a perennial playoff contender.

Which informs, to some extent, the quarterback competition: We hate last-minute mistakes and love last-minute clutch performances. At lot of us are longing for that guy who's going to fill highlight reels with final-minute miracles. But now, I find I'm looking at this thing through the lens of Carroll's game-manager/point-guard criteria. If he's counting on the defense to keep the score down, maybe what he's evaluating at in the competition — and what we need to be looking at in the preseason — is not who's better at the two-minute drill. It's instead, perhaps, which player is best suited to keep the offense on the field, churning clock, getting first downs, and possessing enough red-zone efficiency to keep the game *just* out of reach of the other teams' miraculous comeback moments. That's my takeaway.

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