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Fact checking Bill Belichick’s explanation on the high frequency of close games in the NFL

The Patriots head coach wasn’t sure about the numbers. Let’s fill in the blanks for him.

NFL: New England Patriots at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, a reporter asked New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about the competitiveness of the NFL and how this year seems different from others. It seems like any team can beat another in 2017 and there are no sure-fire locks on game day.

While there are some terrible teams with the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Indianapolis Colts, and while the Philadelphia Eagles are playing at an extremely high level, all other teams are a jumbled mess in the middle with 19 teams with records between 5-3 and 3-5.

Belichick doesn’t believe that there’s anything unique about the competitiveness of the 2017 season compared to prior years.

“Well, I don’t have the numbers right off the top of my head,” Belichick said. “You can go back and look them all up, but basically half of the games in this league are decided by seven points or less.”

Since the start of 2008, including the postseason, 1,183 out of 2,535 games have been determined by 7 or fewer points. That is 46.7%, which is pretty dang close to what Belichick suggested.

In 2017, 58 of 132 games have been decided by 7 or fewer points (43.9%). This year isn’t too different from others.

“A quarter of the games are decided by three points or less it seems like every year.”

565 games have been determined by 3 or fewer points since the start of 2008, including the postseason. That is 22.3% of games, again in line with what Belichick said.

33 of 132 games have been determined by 3 or fewer points in 2017, which is exactly 25% as Belichick claimed.

“You have eight divisions. Again, I can’t remember exactly what the numbers are but I know that over the past few years there are a number of teams that were in the playoffs one year, that weren’t in the playoffs the next year, that weren’t in the playoffs the previous year that won the division that year. It’s got to be somewhere near half or it’s a pretty strong number. It’s not just like one team.”

In a press conference setting, it’s completely fair for Belichick to round his figures and he was certainly accurate. Again looking back to the 2008 season, 49 of the 108 playoff berths have gone to teams that did not make the postseason in the previous year, or 45.4%. That averages out to 5.4 new teams per year.

For the record, there are currently eight teams (67%!) on pace to reach the playoffs after missing it in 2016. The Texans, Raiders, and Dolphins are extreme long shots to make it pack to the postseason in 2017, while the Patriots, Steelers, and Chiefs are near-locks. The Cowboys are the only 2016 NFC playoff team currently slated for a playoff seed in 2017; a lot can change over the rest of the year.

“I think the competiveness of this league from week to week, from month to month, from year to year is very, very high. A lot of times it’s not even who you play; it’s when you play them. When you play a team at one point in the season and when you play a team at another point in the season you’re not really getting the same team.

“That could actually be from week to week, too. But certainly teams go through phases where they’re playing well and then sometimes things happen and it drops off a little bit, or vice versa, a team looks like they’re not – the Chargers last week; they lost their first games and then came back and played very well and are playing really good football.

“To me it seems like that way every year. It seems like that way every week to be honest with you. It doesn’t really matter who you play. If you don’t play well then you’re probably not going to do well.”

There isn’t a good study for this variation, but it’s certainly true. The Kansas City Chiefs team that the Patriots faced in the season opener is not the same as the team today, with Eric Berry lost for the season and the Chiefs defense suddenly one of the worst in the league. The New Orleans Saints team that started 0-2 hasn’t lost again. That Houston Texans team was good for stretch with rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, but now they’ve lost him to an injury.

Teams change over the course of the year as their either fall in or out of their groove. Belichick’s job is simply to ensure that the Patriots’ groove remains as consistent as possible and not as vulnerable to noise as other teams.

“A lot of times it comes down to the final possession or the final play. That’s the way it’s been for most of our games this year. It just seems like that’s the way it normally is for me.”

Five of the Patriots eight games in 2017 have come down to the final drive, with only the Chiefs, Saints, and Falcons games excluded. This stat should align with the very first about 46.7% of games coming down to a single score because that always means the final drive for the trailing team is either to win or force overtime- or by the leading team to drain the clock and secure the victory. There is some variance allowed for garbage time touchdowns that bring the losing team within a score.

Underdogs are losing close games at roughly the same rate as previous years, too, so it’s not like the outcome of these close games are any different and could cause a change in perception.

Ultimately, Belichick is spot on with most of his figures and the 2017 season isn’t that different from previous years; in fact, it’s fairly normal. And with the Patriots’ previous track record of getting on track for the second half of the season, some offensive and defensive normalcy for the Patriots will be a very welcome sight.