With the 2015 NFL season fast approaching, we went back and looked at the most common margins of victory and game totals over the last 13 seasons.
The 2015 NFL season is now just two months away as training camps will all be open soon, the preseason is only a month away and NFL odds for Week 1 of the regular season have already been up for a few weeks. Besides, it is never too early to begin doing NFL research.
To that end, we looked at every NFL game since 2002 and looked for the most common margins of victory as well as the most common games totals. Then we repeated that exercise looking at just the 2014 season only, to see if there has been any shifting in either of those areas.
NFL Rule Changes
Before moving on, keep in mind that there are a couple of rule changes in the NFL this year that have the potential to change this data in the future, although we feel that change should be minimal. One change is that extra points will now be snapped from the 15-yard line instead of the two-yard line, making the kicks 32 yards instead of 20 yards. Keep in mind though point-afters are always attempted from the center of the field, so we still expect misses to be infrequent.
The other change is the addition of the reverse two-point conversion, which is identical to the college football rule that rewards two points to the defensive team for returning either a blocked PAT or a turnover on a PAT or two-point attempt all the way the other way. Again though, we do not see that happening nearly often enough to have any serious bearing on these probabilities.
And the best evidence of all that these changes will have minimal impact is that many sportsbook managers have already openly stated that they will not change their approach of setting spreads and totals in light of the new rules, or at least not for the time being.
So with all of this in mind, we first present to you the most common historical frequencies of winning margins since 2002, followed by that same data for last season only.
Top Winning Margins from 2002 to Present
Top Winning Margins for 2014 Season
There should be absolutely no surprises at the top of the charts here. The most common winning margin by a rather wise margin the last 13 years has been 3 at 15.7 percent. Then the second most common margin has been 7 at 9.7 percent before another noticeable drop to the rest of the population. It is at that point that the percentages get closer together, but the order of the frequencies is extremely logical at 10, 6, 4, 14 and 17 in that order.
And now we know why when buying points in the NFL, sportsbooks charge 20 to 25 cents to buy off the 3 and some charge 15 cents to buy off the 7, compared to the conventional 10 cents off of any other number.
If you are interested in some extreme outliers, consider that there have been five tied games in the NFL (margin of 0), with the most recent one coming last season when the Carolina Panthers tied the Cincinnati Bengals 37-37. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the biggest margin of victory since 2002 was 59 points when the New England Patriots annihilated the Tennessee Titans 59-0 in 2009.
Next you will also notice that 2014 was a microcosm of the last 13 years with the frequency of the winning margins in almost the same order. Once again, the 3 last season led the way at 10.9 percent and there was a noticeable drop to the 7 in second. In fact, the top four winning margins of the past 13 years of 3, 7, 10 and 6 took place in that same order last year!
The subtle differences were the 14 being fifth in 2014 vs. sixth historically and the 4 being seventh vs. fifth the past 13 years. The aberration last year was the 2 being sixth at 4.9 percent vs. 3.5 percent historically and the 17 not cracking the top seven last season at only 3.4 percent. The biggest blowout of 2014 was 52 points with the St. Louis Rams skunking the Oakland Raiders 52-0.
Next we move on to totals, which we suspected would be more volatile when comparing the single season of 2014 to the 13-year population, but is that the case? Here are the most common total frequencies since 2002, followed by frequencies for last season only.
Top Score Totals from 2002 to Present
Top Score Totals for 2014 Season
Not surprisingly with so many possible outcomes, the frequencies of the top totals were not as high as the frequency of winning margins. For the record, the most common total the past 13 years was 41 at 4.3 percent of the time, not much ahead of 37 in second at 4.1 percent and then 44 in third at 4.0 percent. We would never advise buying points on totals, but if you can do so for less than 10 cents, then maybe it may merit a bit of consideration at those top three totals.
Looking at the extremes, the highest scoring game since 2002 saw 106 points scored when the Bengals beat the Cleveland Browns 58-48 back in 2004. And what was the lowest scoring game the last 13 seasons? Well that would be three points as the Pittsburgh Steelers nipped the Miami Dolphins 3-0 in 2007!
Now, comparing the results for 2014 to the 13-year study, the volatility is not as extreme as we expected. Granted the frequencies were in a different order last year than over the entire population, but the 37 and 44 are again in the top three and the 41 came home tied for fifth. Even the 51 and 47 are near the top on both tables, although we would not recommend buying off of those totals at any price.
As for the anomalies for last season, the most points scored in a game were 85 when the Steelers beat Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts 51-34. Now, in this era of more hurry-up offenses, there were no games in the single-digits last year as the lowest scoring game produced 18 points when the Arizona Cardinal defeated the Rams 12-6 in a game with no touchdowns and six field goals.
Most Common Score of All?
Finally, if you were wondering what the most common final score was over the last 13 years, well that would be 23-20, which happened 57 times or in 2.1 percent of all games. That is followed closely by a final of 20-17, which has happened 55 times for a virtual tie at 2.1 percent. Incidentally, 20-17 had the slight edge in 2014 with four occurrences compared to three final scores of 23-20.