In Week 3, the Buffalo Bills fell to the Miami Dolphins in the sweltering heat of South Florida. The loss dropped the Bills to 0-7 in their last seven games decided by one score. The narratives have started to swirl on this topic now that it’s reared its ugly head in 2022—this after it was caught lurking in the background during the 2021 season.
Does Buffalo lack the ability to finish? Do they lack poise or composure late in games? Is head coach Sean McDermott not a “big game” coach? No matter how you want to frame the narrative, it’s shown up in one form or another in the immediate aftermath of the loss to their Dolphin-themed division rivals.
But I think the narrative’s lacking context.
The easiest and most common rebuttal is that the Bills were spectacular in one-score games in 2020, going 5-1 with their only loss coming against the Arizona Cardinals on the spectacularly named “Hail Murray” throw to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The head coach in 2020 was the same. The defensive coordinator was the same. The quarterback was the same. The offensive coordinator is now different, but if you were trying to isolate that as the variable, it would only apply to the most recent loss to Miami and not to any of the losses in 2021 (when Buffalo was 0-6 in one-score games). Did all of these people involved magically lose their “clutch gene” in the two years that have passed since the COVID-19-affected 2020 season? It feels unlikely, but let’s go further. In the last three years (since quarterback Josh Allen transcended to MVP-level play and the Bills became a meaningful Super Bowl contender), the team is 9-14 in one-score games overall. It may seem even with a larger sample size that Buffalo is failing to capitalize in the clutch.
When prognosticators look for regression candidates among good NFL teams from one year to the next, one key point of emphasis is that a high winning percentage in one-score games isn’t a sustainable metric. In this article from Pickswise, they estimate that one-score games are essentially a coin flip—that teams could expect regression to the mean whether they are exceptionally good or exceptionally bad in winning percentage in those situations in any given season. There is an element of randomness to close games that we as fans frequently aren’t comfortable discussing because it would mean there wasn’t always a solution to a problem. Random ball bounces, penalties called or uncalled in strategically valuable situations, the directional doink of a field goal, and other random factors affect one-score games in a meaningful way every single week in the NFL.
So how does a team go about trying to remove this randomness from the game?
They blow teams out. Don’t let the randomness affect the win-loss column. The Bills have been doing an exceptional job of that for some time now. On average, between 50-60% of NFL games are decided by one score or less in any given season. In 2020, Buffalo ranked fifth in the NFL with an average scoring differential of +6.8—just within the “one-score” boundary. In 2021, that number grew to +11.5. In 2022 thus far, that number has ballooned even further to +17.7. In 2020, 37.5% of Buffalo Bills games were decided by one score. In 2021, it was 29.4%. Acknowledging the randomness associated with one-score games and not falling into the “any given Sunday” trap is a better solution that playing with fire week over week and hoping your “clutch gene” carries you through time and time again.
“But Bruce, the Bills will play better teams in the playoffs and they’ll need to win close games.”
The average margin of victory in NFL playoff games over a ten-year period studied by Stats on Tapp indicated that postseason games, as a whole, didn’t have a markedly different margin of average victory than a typical NFL regular season.
So we know that, over a large enough sample size, the 9-14 record the Bills boast with a good QB and a good coach in one-score games isn’t egregious enough to make a narrative out of compared to the rest of the NFL. We know that victory in one-score games carries much more randomness than we would care to admit. And we know that avoiding one-score games as much as Buffalo has been doing for the last three years is the BEST path to victory.
I’m not willing to go searching for a solution to a problem that I’m not sure actually yet exists.
...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!