Being 4-1 and atop the AFC East heading into an AFC showdown that could have No. 1 seed playoff implications, the Buffalo Bills have to think of the first quarter-plus of the season as a success. The weekly injury reports have been much more lengthy than in previous years, and safety Micah Hyde’s season-long loss to a neck injury looms large as the Bills’ defense takes on powerful opposing passing games. However, the team must still feel good about their win-loss record.
But with all due respect to Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells, you are not necessarily exactly what your record says you are. Not all 4-1 records are created equal, because not all methods of acquiring a 4-1 record are equally sustainable. Things like fumble luck, defensive touchdowns, and the now-infamous “one-score game luck” serve as reminders that the better team doesn’t always win on game day. The better team, over the long haul, scores more points and allows fewer points.
We intrinsically know this when we play fantasy football—where our team may be 4-1 but has the second-fewest points scored in the league. We know the team is due for losses and maybe even a significant backslide because we recognize that how a team wins and loses is more predictive than the win or the loss itself.
But when we look at football played on a real field with real athletes, we have a tendency to ignore the “hows” and the “whys” of a win or a loss. In 2021, the division champions around the NFL had the following final regular-season point differential:
- Buffalo Bills: +194
- Cincinnati Bengals: +84
- Tennessee Titans: +65
- Kansas City Chiefs: +116
- Dallas Cowboys: +172
- Green Bay Packers: +79
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: +158
- Los Angeles Rams: +88
Two of the four teams with the lowest point differential ended up making the Super Bowl.
Why would I bring this up? Because of how incredibly rare that is, and how seldom it happens. Since 2002, 40 teams have played in the Super Bowl. Of those 40 teams, only nine of them had a regular-season point differential of less than 100: the 2021 Rams and Bengals as mentioned, as well as: the Denver Broncos in 2015, the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, the 2011 New York Giants, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, the 2007 Giants, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, and the Carolina Panthers in 2003. The other 31 teams went into the playoffs as teams that didn’t just win games, but dominated en route to victory. They won big, and they didn’t lose big.
Look at all the teams in the NFL that are currently 3-2:
- Baltimore Ravens: +21
- New York Jets: -2
- Miami Dolphins: -16
- Tennessee Titans: -22
- Los Angeles Chargers: -14
- Green Bay Packers: +1
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: +20
- San Francisco 49ers: +47
Would you rather be a fan of the Titans with a point differential of -22, or the San Francisco 49ers with a point differential of +47? Both teams currently lead their divisions and very well may win them and secure themselves a playoff berth. While the AFC South may prove to be a weaker division than the NFC West, and Tennessee’s path to the playoffs may be easier, do you feel as an observer that the Titans are the better team primed for more playoff success?
How a team wins matters, because it gives observers predictive optimism or predictive pessimism. I have optimism about the Bills not just because of their record, but because of how they arrived at it.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!