How Important Is The Preseason?

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How Important Is The Preseason?

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are both injured, and their teams are a combined 1-5 in the preseason thus far. The Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers—the teams with the best two records in the NFC last year—are under .500, and the Cleveland Browns—the same team that had a 10-6 record last year—are winless.

But just how accurate are preseason records in predicting a team's regular season record? Is the best preseason team always the best in the regular season, and is the worst preseason team always the proud owner of the Number One pick?

And most importantly, is a team's preseason record always the best predictor in a team's regular season expectations, or is there another statistic that provides a more precise look at a team's forecast?

I looked at every team's preseason record since 2002—the first year of the NFL's newly-aligned divisions—and compared them to their regular season record and, in the case they qualified, their playoff seeding (division winner, wild card winner, or Home Field Advantage; teams with HFA were not included as a division winner). The first table shows how teams fared based on their preseason win total.

Total - Based on Preseason Wins
Wins # Teams Wins Won Division %Division Won W.C. %W.C. Won HFA %HFA Missed playoffs
4 16 8.56 4 25% 3 19% 1 6% 50%
3 48 8.08 11 23% 6 13% 0 0% 65%
2 67 8.60 15 22% 10 15% 8 12% 51%
1 50 7.16 7 14% 3 6% 2 4% 76%
0 11 6.91 0 0% 0 0% 1 9% 91%

As you can see, there was no similarity between preseason record and their regular season win total, nor with their playoff seeding. In fact, teams that had only two wins fared the best in the regular season, racking up an average of 8.60 wins, the most among each win total. Those teams had a considerable margin in percentage of teams with Home Field Advantage, with those eight teams accumulating two-thirds of all HFA bids in that time.

Essentially, preseason win totals do no good in predicting a team's success in the regular season.

The next table shows how well preseason point differential managed to foresee teams' regular season records. For each year from 2002 through '07, I separated teams into four groups based on their point differential: The top-eight teams, the teams ranked 9th through 16th, teams ranked 17th through 24th, and the teams in the bottom eight. I then added the corresponding groups and found out the percentages by dividing each of the numbers by 48 (six years, with eight teams in each group).

Total - Based on Preseason Point Differential
Rank Wins Won Division Division% Won W.C. W.C.% Won HFA HFA% Missed playoffs
1 - 8 9.02 11 23% 9 19% 3 6% 52%
9 - 16 8.46 10 21% 6 13% 4 8% 58%
17 - 24 7.54 10 21% 4 8% 3 6% 65%
25 - 32 6.96 6 13% 3 6% 2 4% 77%

Separating teams by point differential provides a more accurate prediction of a team's regular season record and playoff expectancy. For each of the figures, the values were ordered by a team's point differential rank, with the lone exception of Home Field Advantage; compare that to the first table, where all but one of the figures were not in the correct order based on the win totals.

And how about Super Bowl teams? How did they fare in the preseason?

Super Bowl Teams' Preseason Records
Year Winner Preseason wins Point Differential Loser Preseason Wins Point Differential
2007 New York Giants 1 -17 New England Patriots 2 18
2006 Indianapolis Colts 1 -19 Chicago Bears 2 13
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers 3 18 Seattle Seahawks 3 17
2004 New England Patriots 1 -44 Philadelphia Eagles 1 -16
2003 New England Patriots 4 54 Carolina Panthers 4 50
2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3 -2 Oakland Raiders 2 11
  Winner Averages 2.2 -1.7 Loser Averages 2.3 15.5
  Combined Averages 2.3 6.9

As of now, five teams have a .500 winning percentage (an average of 2.3 wins is a .575 win percentage) and a point differential between zero and ten points: Buffalo Bills (point differential=0), New York Jets (1), Pittsburgh Steelers (3), New York Giants (0), and the New Orleans Saints (10).

Jets vs. Giants Super Bowl? We'll see.

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