Did the Preseason Really Matter?

by Andrew McKinley

September 6, 2004

As the NFL season is about to begin it is a good time to take a look at this year’s preseason results and decide if they really matter. It has been well documented that last year’s two Super Bowl teams, New England and Carolina went unbeaten in the preseason. What can we take from this year’s results?

Only one team went unbeaten in the preseason this year and that was the Carolina Panthers. That should bode well for them as unbeaten teams in the preseason have faired pretty well over the years. Super Bowl winners also have done well in the preseason. Here are the records of the last 10 Super Bowl winners in the preseason. As we mentioned, last year the Patriots were 4-0. In 2002 the Bucs were 3-1, 2001 had the Patriots at 3-1, 2000 the Ravens went 4-0, 1999 saw the Rams go 2-2, 1998 had the Broncos at 3-1, in 1997 the Broncos went 3-2, 1996 had the Packers at 3-1, 1995 had the Cowboys at 2-3, and 1994 the 49ers went 3-1. The only losing record of the 10 teams was the Cowboys, who actually played five preseason games that year. If we go back over the past eight seasons we find that winning teams in the preseason have nearly a 60% chance of finishing with a winning record in the regular season. On the other hand, the teams that had losing preseason records have over a 55% chance of finishing the regular season with a losing record.

What does all this say? If you have a winning preseason you are more likely to have a winning regular season, but if you lose in the preseason your chances of winning in the regular season are less than 33%. Remember that a lot of teams go 2-2 in the preseason so we can’t take much from a .500 record. What if we go a bit deeper? Of the teams that made the playoffs in the past eight years, 45 had a winning preseason, 30 had a losing one, and 21 finished at .500. What about the teams making the Championship games? Of those 32, 20 had a winning preseason, 7 a losing one, and five finished at .500. If you want to make the final four you had better win in the preseason. If you take it one step farther you’ll see that of teams in the Super Bowl, only two, the Titans in 1999 and the Giants in 2000 had a losing preseason and no team in the past 8 years has won the Super Bowl with a losing record in the preseason.

Since we determined that to win the Super Bowl you really need to finish the preseason with a winning record, who are the teams with a chance this year? We already mentioned the Panthers who went 4-0, so here are the teams that went 3-1 - the Jets, Ravens, Browns, Jaguars, Titans, Raiders, Cowboys, Bucs, and Seahawks. The Redskins finished at 3-2. If recent history holds true then two of the preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl, New England and Indianapolis will not do so this season. You can also throw out the Broncos, Eagles, Vikings, Packers and Rams. We sure did eliminate a lot of Super Bowl favorites with this study didn’t we? Of those with the best chances we have to look at the Panthers, Ravens, Jets, Titans, Bucs and Seahawks. Those would be the six most logical choices. If you are looking to make a bet on a team to win the Super Bowl this should at least narrow your choices down to a select few.