NFL 2021: Close Game Summary

With three overtime games on Sunday, the NFL had 21 overtime games this season, tied with 1995 and 2015 for the fourth most in NFL history. With so many walk-off scores in those games – Detroit-Pittsburgh tie aside – it beefed up the total for a stat that NFL media adopted this year that became a pet peeve of mine.

Between that stat and the lack of dominant teams quickly locking up playoff spots, it gave the impression that the 2021 NFL season was historically competitive and games were closer than ever.

Having studied this stuff for a living, I can say that this was not the case. There were 136 games that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points in the fourth quarter or overtime. While a lower number, that is in line with recent years: 143 in 2020, 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.

But this season introduced a 17th game for the first time, so we had 272 games instead of the usual 256. So, when it’s 136 out of 272, that means exactly half of the games this season had a comeback opportunity. That rate is usually in the 55-60% range.

We also had 48 games in 2021 where a team was favored by at least 10 points. Only the 2009 season (62) has had more games with a double-digit favorite out of all the seasons since the salary cap in 1994.

The spread is about expectations. What about results? There were 137 wins by double digits this season, second to only the 2014 season (141). The 78 wins by 17-plus points are the most since 2014 had the same amount. There were 62 wins by 1-3 points, but that’s a number that was hit five other times since 2001.

This season had 35 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game. That is more in line with the totals from 2019 (33) and 2018 (34) than 2020’s outlier of 43 such wins.

The 2021 season featured 63 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 81 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2020, those numbers were 58 4QC wins and 76 GWD. Through Week 17 this year, there were 58 4QC wins, which tied the numbers for 2019 and 2020 (including playoffs those years).

In the game Ben Roethlisberger missed with COVID, Mason Rudolph got credit for a 4QC tie against the Lions. There were also two games won with a non-offensive score. The Patriots came back to beat the Chargers (of course) after a Justin Herbert pick-six. Then on Saturday, the Chiefs came back to beat the Broncos with a fumble return touchdown.

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 32.4%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 37.7% (2020 was 35.0% and 2019 was 35.9%).

The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2022 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

Oddly enough, the last Sunday of the regular season saw the Rams lose their first close game of the year to the 49ers, and the Bills technically won their first “close game” of the year against the Jets. For starters, both teams are in these positions because of how one-sided their outcomes have been this season. The Rams didn’t have close losses before Sunday because they were too busy getting their ass kicked in the other losses this year. The Bills never had a close win because all of their wins this year have been by double digits and they couldn’t buy a win in an actual one-score game where they had to come from behind.

But even Sunday’s win over the Jets was a 27-10 final. However, the Jets had the ball down 13-10 to start the fourth quarter. That’s why the game qualifies. The Bills stopped them cold the rest of the way and added two touchdowns for good measure.

If you’re thinking about the postseason, it’s quite possible the Rams shit their pants in any game. They’ve already lost 37-20 at home to the Cardinals, their Monday night playoff opponent. That is not much of a home-field advantage in Los Angeles yet, and the Cardinals have played better on the road this year.

As for the Bills, I’d love to see them play another close game in Tennessee to see if they can avenge that MNF loss earlier this year. But it’s looking like we won’t see that matchup until the AFC Championship Game. Up first, the Bills get New England, the only other playoff team this year with a losing record in close games.

Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and even the Chargers all had winning records in close games despite still missing the playoffs. The Falcons and Chargers won more close games than they lost? Sounds like a miracle.

Last year, I spent a whole paragraph on Baltimore, which had only played a league-low five close games in both 2019 and 2020. Well, you can say (thanks to injury) regression hit, because the Ravens played an NFL-high 13 close games this year and went 6-7 in them on their way to missing the playoffs at 8-9. The six-game losing streak to end the year was a masterclass in losing (five) close games, but I don’t think people acknowledged enough how fortunate this team was to ever get to 8-3 in the first place. The Ravens needed a Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble (first of his career) against the Chiefs in field goal range, a record 66-yard field goal (via bounce) in Detroit, and a missed 47-yard field goal by the Colts to get those three wins. Never mind Lamar Jackson beating the Browns despite throwing four picks. It was a wild season for the Ravens.

The Steelers, Chargers, and Vikings all played 12 close games as well, including two of the games against each other. Incredibly enough, the Chargers and Vikings were the only two close games the Steelers lost this year, producing a 9-2-1 record in such games. Ben Roethlisberger led some incredible comeback attempts in those games, including from 29-0 in Minnesota, before the Steelers came up short at the end. Yet, it took a close Chargers loss (and not a tie) in the final game of the season to send the Steelers to the playoffs while the Chargers missed out and the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer on Monday. Roethlisberger finished with a career-high six 4QC and seven GWD to lead the league and help the Steelers play at least one more game.

Arizona was the lone team to not blow a fourth quarter/overtime lead this season. In 2020, the Chiefs, Saints, and Titans were the only teams to not blow a lead, but they all had multiple losses this season. A third one by the Chiefs in Cincinnati in Week 16 helped the Titans get the No. 1 seed in the AFC. We’ll see how costly that might turn out to be.

We have a six-way tie for the most blown leads at four each by the Bears, Lions, Ravens, Colts, Vikings, and Browns. Naturally, they all missed the playoffs. The Colts especially had some daggers in there with the Ravens and Titans games. Carson Wentz was unable to lead a single game-winning drive or comeback for the Colts, but what did you expect?

With the Steelers winning so many close games, it is no surprise they led the league with seven defensive holds of a one-score lead. Sunday’s win in Baltimore does not count as one given the overtime drive, but the first Baltimore matchup was a classic example of a stop of a game-deciding two-point conversion play. T.J. Watt got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to force an errant pass to Mark Andrews. The Rams, Dolphins, and Chargers all had six holds.

Seattle was a team I cautioned about close-game regression with after the Seahawks were 16-4 in close games in 2019-20. Well, it hit hard in 2021. Seattle finished 3-7 in close games, 0-6 at 4QC opportunities, and 1-7 at GWD opportunities. The only GWD came Sunday in Arizona on a 10-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. The first Russell Wilson injury led way to the first losing season in the Wilson era, but these close-game failures obviously contributed too.

The Eagles (9-8) have had an odd playoff season. One year after playing the most close games (15) in the league, Philadelphia played in a league-low four close games and are 0-6 against playoff teams. One of their close wins was against Carolina, a game I’m still regretting on betting on Sam Darnold.

How are Matt Rhule’s Panthers so bad in close games? In 2020, the Panthers were 0-9 at GWD opportunities. Throw in 0-4 this year and that’s 0-13 under Rhule.

The Bills (0-5), Colts (0-5), and Texans (0-5) were also winless at GWDs, but the worst team this year was Cleveland at 0-7. Not every loss was Baker Mayfield’s fault, but he needs to start coming through as 2022 should be his last chance in Cleveland. Maybe with some better close-game fortune, health, and desperation to hold onto a job, Cleveland could be a sleeper playoff pick in 2022.

Let’s hope we get a legitimately close playoff game this year. Last season, there was not a single fourth-quarter lead change in any of the 13 playoff games. The only game-winning drive went to the LOAT in New Orleans. Throw in a sorry ass Super Bowl and it was the worst postseason I’ve ever experienced.

But if the season trends tell us anything, it’s to not expect a lot of close finishes.