On Monday, we ran my annual column looking at the NFL teams that are most likely to improve this upcoming season. That one usually goes over well. Everybody likes hope. Today, we’re going to look at the teams most likely to decline in 2020. This one just gets people angry.
Unfortunately for the teams in question, it’s usually easier to find the ones that are probably going to decline. The goal isn’t to put anyone down or ruin anybody’s excitement over the season but rather to try to see whether there are reliable indicators of future success or failure. I think we have a few.
Over the past three years, I’ve identified 16 teams who I expected to decline in their upcoming campaign. Fourteen of those 16 teams did decline, while two maintained their prior record. Not a single one improved. Per the totals on Pro Football Reference, betting the under on their season-long over/under in Las Vegas would have been a winner 12 out of 16 times. Those 16 teams dropped by an average of 3.9 wins from their prior total.
Last year, four of the five teams identified in this column did decline. The three playoff teams from the bunch — the Chargers, Cowboys and Rams — fell off by a combined 13 wins and failed to make it back to the postseason. The Dolphins impressed when they found their footing late in the season, but they dropped from 7-9 to 5-7. One team out of the five managed to maintain its record from the prior season … and it is featured again this year. We’ll get to that one later.
I’ll also mention again: Given the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season, everything included here makes the (unrealistic) assumption that this will be a normal campaign. There’s no way to project a team’s strength of schedule when we don’t know whether they’ll even complete a full season.
Let’s start our group of four likely decliners with a team we last saw in the NFC Championship Game:
2019 point differential: plus-63
Pythagorean expectation: 9.7 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 6-1
FPI projected strength of schedule: 11th easiest
If the Packers decline in 2020, the postmortems will likely revolve around the organization’s failure to add another weapon on offense for future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers. While I wouldn’t have faulted them for adding another wide receiver in the 2020 draft or via free agency, their chances of declining this season were already extremely high before draft weekend. The Packers have enough talent to be competitive, but it’s difficult to imagine their formula for winning 13 games in 2019 holding up again.
Most 13-3 teams blow out their competition. Green Bay didn’t have many of those blowouts. Forty-eight teams have gone 13-3 since 1989, and they outscored their competition by an average of more than 150 points, or 9.4 points per game. Matt LaFleur’s team outscored its opponents by 63 points — less than 4 points per contest. It’s the worst point differential for a team with this record over the past 31 seasons and the fourth-largest gap between a team’s win-loss record and expected win-loss record over that time frame.
While the Packers did blow out the Raiders and gave the Vikings fits in a home-and-home sweep, this wasn’t often a dominant team. They were forced to either come up with a goal-line stop or an interception to win games against the Bears and Panthers. They let the Broncos, Giants and Lions stick around into the fourth quarter, even with the latter having nothing to play for and David Blough at quarterback in Week 17. A nominally impressive win against the Super Bowl champion Chiefs is tempered by the fact that Kansas City was missing Patrick Mahomes, Eric Fisher, Frank Clark and Chris Jones.
The Packers were 6-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer (and that’s not including two eight-point wins). As tempting as it is to ascribe that to Rodgers’ brilliance, he was just 34-34-1 as a starter in those same games before 2019. Is it possible that the difference between LaFleur and oft-criticized game manager Mike McCarthy was enough to turn this team into a late-game juggernaut? Theoretically, yes, although there has never been a coach in league history who won anything close to 85% of his close games over any significant length of time. The overwhelming evidence suggests that they won’t win as many of these close ones in 2020.
What will slow down the Packers? To start, they’re not likely to be as healthy. While star wideout Davante Adams missed time, Rodgers started all 16 games. Guard Lane Taylor missed the entire season after suffering a preseason injury, but their five other linemen made it through all 16 games without any missed time. Likewise, while linebacker Oren Burks went down with a torn pectoral muscle before the season, the 11 projected starters on defense missed a total of four games throughout the regular season. Those preseason injuries count, of course, but Green Bay’s depth wasn’t really tested.
While the defense certainly improved by adding Preston Smith and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Za’Darius Smith in free agency, their highlights were more impressive than their snap-to-snap performance. The Packers improved from 29th in defensive DVOA to 15th, in part because they were able to come up with 17 interceptions. Expressed on a per-play basis, they picked off 3.1% of opposing passes last season, which was third in the league behind the Patriots (an amazing 4.7%) and Steelers (3.9%).
Relying on a steady dose of interceptions to fuel your defense, especially with big stops at the right time, can be tough. Take the division rival Bears. In 2018, I wrote that the Bears were likely to improve thanks to posting the league’s fourth-lowest interception rate the prior year. They promptly improved their interception rate from 1.5% to a league-best 4.4%. Before last season, I warned that Chicago’s interception rate was likely to decline; the Bears posted an interception rate of 1.8% in 2019, falling all the way to 26th in the league. (Ignore the part about a Sony Michel breakout.)
The Packers’ interception rate should fall in 2020. Their fumble recovery rate should improve, as they ranked 30th in the league at just 41.2%, but they are also counting on Rodgers to continue producing virtually unprecedented interception rates. He posted the lowest interception rate in league history in 2018 and then followed it with the sixth-lowest interception rate in league history last season. Rodgers’ interception rate had never been an issue, but it had also not been astronomically low before 2018. I would expect it to climb at least a tiny bit this season, and for Green Bay to struggle to keep up the plus-12 turnover differential it posted a year ago.
It’s also difficult to imagine the Packers being quite as dominant on both sides of the football in the red zone, given how inconsistent red zone performance is from year to year. Assigning 6.95 points for a touchdown (given the estimated chances of an extra point) and three for a field goal, last season they scored 5.17 points per red zone trip on offense and allowed 4.41 points each time the opposing offense entered the red zone. Both marks ranked in the top 10 in the league.
If you take the difference between those two performances, you could say that the Packers had a red zone differential of 0.76 points per trip. That was the third-best mark in football a year ago, trailing only the Ravens and Vikings. Go back through 2001, and there are 91 teams that posted a red zone differential greater than 0.6 points per possession. The following season, those teams’ average red zone differential was 0.13 points per trip, falling almost all the way to average. They also declined by an average of nearly two full wins over the prior season.
One other place I’d be worried about the Packers keeping up their 2019 formula is within the NFC North. Rodgers & Co. went 6-0 in the North last season despite outscoring the Bears, Lions and Vikings by a little more than six points per game. Since the NFL went to its current format in 2002, 21 other teams have swept their divisions in a given season. Just one repeated the feat the following year, with those 21 teams averaging 3.3 divisional wins the following campaign. Green Bay’s schedule outside the division isn’t particularly onerous, but the North should be tougher for them this season.
In all, it’s fair to expect a step backward from this team in 2020. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Green Bay just a 47.8% chance of returning to the postseason. After adjusting for the vig, the Caesars sportsbook comes in at 55.3%. Your typical 13-3 team doesn’t usually have something around a 50/50 shot to make it back to the postseason, and that’s only after the league added a seventh team to the playoffs this offseason. The Packers could find a better formula and win 13 games that way, but it’s tough to see them winning as frequently as they did in 2020 without one.
2019 point differential: plus-7
Pythagorean expectation: 8.2 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 9-2
FPI projected strength of schedule: ninth toughest
The Seahawks’ formula also seems difficult to sustain. As you can see from the numbers above, they went 11-5 while essentially battling their opponents to a draw in terms of point differential. Pete Carroll’s team ranked eighth in DVOA, in part because they played the second-toughest schedule in the league by Football Outsiders’ numbers, but their strategy was bizarre. Most weeks, Carroll would rely heavily on the run and play middling football for some or most of the game before reluctantly letting star quarterback Russell Wilson take over and lead Seattle to victory.
The Seahawks won six games they were trailing at halftime in 2019. Not only is that two more than any other team, but it’s tied for the second-highest total of any team since the 1970 merger. The 2011 Cardinals are the only team to win as many as seven games after trailing at halftime, and that’s because they trailed at the half 13 times. Seattle was 6-4 in games when it was trailing at halftime. It’s rare to see a team that trails at halftime so frequently win so many of those games.
To try to isolate this group, let’s consider the other teams since the merger that trailed at halftime more than four times and won more than half of those games. Those teams were collectively 284-162-3 (.634) when they trailed at halftime. The following year, when they trailed at halftime, those same teams went 122-296 (.292). The league as a whole won games about 22.4% of the time when they trailed at halftime in 2019.
In other words, the few teams that have been able to win games using the 2019 Seahawks model in the past have shown no ability to keep that up the following season. Their records on the whole fell by about 1.7 wins per 16 games. From 2012 to ’18, the Wilson-era Seahawks had gone 17-25-1 (.407) when trailing at halftime, which is better than most teams, but not in line with their performance this past season.
Seattle was 9-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer, which might be a surprise given that its most memorable close call of the season was the Week 17 loss at the goal line against the 49ers. Every close Seahawks game last season seemed to be a new adventure. It took a fourth-and-goal stuff, a missed field goal and a fumble in the red zone by the Bengals’ offense for Seattle to narrowly beat the eventual worst team in football in Week 1. A rare (especially in the first half of the season) defensive pass interference overturn pushed them past the Steelers in Week 2. They needed missed would-be game-winning field goals from Greg Zuerlein and Chase McLaughlin to seal wins over the division rival Rams and 49ers, and they nearly blew a game against the Bucs with their own miss at the end of regulation.
As much as Wilson thrived with the ball in his hands in these moments, this was also not typical for this generation’s Seahawks. From 2012 to ’18, with Wilson starting every game, they were 29-29-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Since 1989, just 22 other teams have won at least six more close games than they’ve lost in a given season. They went a combined 180-31 in those games and followed it up the next year with a combined close-game record of … 83-81-1. It seems fair to expect the Seahawks to win half of their close games next season.
On top of that, while they did play a tough schedule, there were few teams that seemed to benefit more from opposing injuries than Seattle. You could make a case that it started the season with four games against teams missing their best players or something close to their best players. Its schedule included the Bengals without A.J. Green, the Steelers with a compromised and then injured Ben Roethlisberger (and before they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick), the Saints without Drew Brees and the Cardinals without Patrick Peterson.
Later in the year, the Seahawks beat the Falcons when Atlanta was missing Matt Ryan and won that overtime game against the 49ers when McLaughlin, who was filling in for the injured Robbie Gould, missed his kick. They got another win against a backup quarterback when they beat Kyle Allen‘s Panthers in Week 15, and in their playoff win against the Eagles, Philadelphia lost Carson Wentz to a concussion and was forced to play 40-year-old Josh McCown through a torn hamstring for most of the game. The Seahawks were the sixth-healthiest team in the league by adjusted games lost.
As we look toward 2020, I would worry that the Seahawks might also be more susceptible to the impact of whatever this season is going to look like than most other organizations. While they’ve retained key members of their coaching staff, one place that continuity is likely to matter quite a bit is along the offensive line.
They have made wholesale changes there. Justin Britt, D.J. Fluker, Germain Ifedi and frequently used swing tackle George Fant, who combined for 2,946 offensive snaps a year ago, are all gone. General manager John Schneider imported the likes of B.J. Finney, Brandon Shell and third-round pick Damien Lewis as replacements, but independent of each player’s talent, the reality is that these guys haven’t had much time to work with each other after minicamps were canceled.
I’m not sure the Seahawks upgraded the talent on their line with those changes, and even if the new guys are better, they’re still going to need time to settle in and get their timing right. The Seattle offensive line is only going to get a handful of padded practices during training camp, and while Wilson might be the best quarterback in the league at avoiding free rushers, even he declines when he doesn’t have steady pass protection.
The other concern for the Seahawks in the unique crucible of 2020 is losing their home-field advantage. They take pride in having one of the league’s loudest stadiums and most difficult environments for road teams, although they were actually better on the road than at home a year ago. With the chances of even letting a small subset of the usual fans into stadiums seeming unlikely at best, they won’t enjoy that noise advantage in 2020.
Seahawks fans will understandably pin their hopes on another MVP-adjacent season from Wilson and the upgrades the team made on defense by trading for defensive backs Jamal Adams and Quinton Dunbar. The organization still hasn’t done enough to address a pass rush that ranked 30th in both sack and pressure rate a year ago with Jadeveon Clowney. With the likes of Clowney and Everson Griffen still free agents, however, there’s still time to make an addition up front.
With a quarterback like Wilson, anything is possible. The Seahawks have the talent under center and the upside on defense to dramatically raise their point differential and drastically improve their chances of winning 11 games again. Unless Adams turns the defense into the new Legion of Boom, though, I’d expect Seattle to take a step backward and fall closer to 9-7.
2019 point differential: minus-8
Pythagorean expectation: 7.8 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 8-3
FPI projected strength of schedule: eighth easiest
While a likely Packers decline will get blamed on not adding a receiver, a likely Texans decline will probably be pinned on giving one away. Just as I wrote with Green Bay, I’m not projecting the Texans to decline primarily as a product of the DeAndre Hopkins trade. Even if they had held onto Hopkins, the Texans were going to have a tough time reproducing their 10-win performance from 2019. Without Hopkins, it’s going to take a return to form from guys like Brandin Cooks, J.J. Watt and David Johnson for Houston to raise its level of play, because it can’t do the same things and expect a 10-win season in 2020.
If the Packers were a pretty good team with a great record in 2019, the Texans were … a mediocre team with a good record. Bill O’Brien’s club became just the fifth since 1989 to win at least 10 games with a negative point differential. Teams that have been outscored by less than a point per game over that time frame won an average of 7.6 games. Some of that has to do with the Texans resting their stars in Week 17 and losing by 21 points to the Titans, but even if we ignore that game, Houston’s record was far better than their performance.
To use a more advanced metric, the Texans finished the season 19th in DVOA. They shared an identical minus-5.8% figure with the Cardinals, who went 5-10-1. Seven different teams that missed the playoffs and two of the other three teams in the AFC South posted a better DVOA than Houston.
The most difficult thing to understand about the Texans is just how inconsistent they can be from week to week. Last year, they went into New Orleans in Week 1 and came within a blown coverage and one stop of beating the Saints. They blew out the Patriots in a game in which the final score undersold just how much they dominated. The Texans beat the Chiefs in Week 6 in a contest in which Carlos Hyde fumbled away a possession inside his own red zone and Deshaun Watson threw an interception inside Kansas City’s 5-yard line. Houston was then up 24-0 after 20 minutes of football against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, before Patrick Mahomes torched the Texans and sent them home.
This same Texans team lost 41-7 to the Ravens and went down 38-3 at home in the third quarter against the Broncos. Houston needed a failed two-point conversion to beat the Jaguars at home in Week 2 and fourth-quarter comebacks to get past the Raiders and Colts. In Week 16, despite facing a Buccaneers team without Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and getting Jameis Winston to spot them a pick-six on the opening drive as part of a four-interception day, the Texans needed a fourth-quarter field goal to top the Bucs. The Bills are a good football team, but the Texans needed a heroic return from Watt and a meltdown from Josh Allen after going down 16-0 at home in the wild-card round to get back in the game.
Houston was able to overcome its middling performance and post a 10-6 record, naturally, by winning the close ones. It went 8-3 in one-score games after previously going 20-18 in seven-point games under O’Brien and 7-7 in them with Watson as its quarterback. It had a season like last year’s in 2016, when it went 9-7 with an 8-2 record in one-score games. Despite having Watson for part of his rookie year before the star quarterback tore his ACL, the Texans fell to 4-12 and posted a 1-4 record in those same one-score contests.
They were able to win some games on the margins with difficult-to-maintain splits. Watson & Co. scored touchdowns on 64.2% of their red zone trips, the seventh-highest rate in the league. They survived on defense by inheriting excellent field position from their offense and the punting team and by recovering fumbles on 6.2% of opposing possessions, the seventh-highest rate in football. Overall, the Texans recovered 61.1% of the fumbles in their games, the second-highest rate in the league. Historically, there’s no evidence that any team is able to recover a significant portion of the fumbles in their games year after year.
On a personnel level, are there reasons to think the Texans will be better in 2020? It’s true that they’ll get back Watt after the future Hall of Famer missed half of the season with a pectoral injury, but he has now missed 32 games over the past four seasons with various injuries. Eight games out of Watt in 2019 wasn’t an aberration; it was in line with his recent history. His chances of playing a full season increase if the season does get shortened, but it seems dangerous to count on him to play all 16 games. This team also was relatively healthy on defense, ranking 12th in adjusted games lost.
The Texans weren’t quite as healthy on offense, but they did get healthy seasons out of their three most valuable offensive pieces in Watson, Hopkins and Laremy Tunsil, who combined to miss just one game via injury. Hopkins missed one game during his seven seasons in Houston, and the Texans are now replacing him with Cooks, who suffered multiple concussions for the Rams last season and missed the better part of four games. Randall Cobb, who was signed to take over in the slot, hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2015. Will Fuller V is brilliant when healthy, but he has missed 22 games and significant portions of four more since entering the league four years ago.
The move to trade Hopkins for David Johnson, a second-round pick and some of the cap space used to sign Cobb is unlikely to make the team better in the short term. The second-round pick was used on defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, and while he might turn out to be a promising player, the Texans also lost a starting defensive lineman in departed tackle D.J. Reader, who left for the Bengals in free agency after earning Pro Bowl chatter in a breakout season. Cobb didn’t have much of a market a year ago, and he settled for a one-year deal in Dallas; he was a solid slot receiver with the Cowboys, but his deal stands out in comparison to similar players on this year’s market.
Johnson has one healthy, productive season in five years as a pro, and while he hasn’t had one chronic injury slowing him down over that time frame, the Texans are paying more than $11 million and they gave up Hopkins out of the hopes that Johnson will return to form. Anything short of a repeat of Johnson’s 2016 breakout season would represent poor value. Another injury-impacted season from him would be a disaster.
The other problem with the Hopkins trade and the subsequent decision to send a second-round pick to the Rams for Cooks is that the Texans weren’t able to address their other problems this offseason. Having traded away multiple picks for players such as Tunsil, Gareon Conley and Duke Johnson, they had just five selections in April’s draft, with only one in the top 60 and two in the top 120.
They weren’t able to address what might be one of the three worst secondaries in the league on paper with more than a pair of special-teamers in Eric Murray and Michael Thomas. And while they might hope for better performances from pedigreed young players such as Conley, Lonnie Johnson and Vernon Hargreaves behind Bradley Roby, Conley and Hargreaves were first-rounders who weren’t NFL-caliber corners with their old teams or after joining Houston. Johnson was a size/speed project coming out of Kentucky. Are those guys likely to get significantly better in an offseason during which there was no minicamp and a reduced practice schedule?
To be fair, there are elements of the game in which the Texans probably won’t be as bad as they were a year ago. They allowed 5.64 points per red zone trip, which was the worst mark in football. I say “probably” because that almost always regresses towards the mean; but in 2018, they actually allowed 5.65 points per red zone possession.
Houston also allowed teams to convert 48.5% of their third downs a year ago, which ranked 31st in the league, ahead of only Washington. The Texans were all the way up to 53.5% over the second half of the season, which is the worst mark we’ve seen from any team in football over the second half across the past 20 years. They should be better in those situations, which will help their bottom line.
The problem is that a couple of pieces of evidence that the Texans were dealing with bad luck on defense doesn’t make up for many of the other problems elsewhere. The play-by-play or score-by-score metrics suggest that they were more lucky than good a year ago. For them to keep things up, they’ll either need to stay lucky; keep every one of their stars healthy; play significantly better after an offseason of widely panned personnel moves; or hope the rest of the AFC South collapses. The fourth option might be their best shot for a return to the postseason.
2019 point differential: plus-117
Pythagorean expectation: 10.7 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 6-1
FPI projected strength of schedule: 14th toughest
Wait, the Saints? The same team that was on the most likely to decline list last year, lost their future Hall of Fame quarterback for six weeks and … still went 13-3? Even I would tell you that the Saints have the most talented roster, 1-53, in the league. Drew Brees is still playing at a high level, and they yet again squeezed out some cap space this offseason to add veterans such as Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins to their roster. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Saints were the ones who made a last-second grab for Jadeveon Clowney. Why on earth would I try to pick on New Orleans for a second consecutive season?
It comes down to a rule I’ve found to be helpful: If a team sets an NFL record in a key category, you can’t count on it to keep that up the following year. One of the reasons the Saints were able to defy history and keep up their record between 2018 and 2019 is because they happened to quietly set an NFL record.
Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and the rest of the Saints turned the ball over only eight times during the regular season. While teams are better at avoiding giveaways than ever before these days, no team in NFL history had managed to avoid hitting at least 10 of them in a single season before New Orleans last year. The Buccaneers and Chargers each had a game in which they turned the ball over seven times. The Saints came within one takeaway of hitting that number across the entire season.
Now they have an incredibly gifted offense. They have an incredibly accurate quarterback who knows where he is going with the football, an offensive line that keeps pressure off that quarterback and a star receiver who vacuums up passes at a historic rate. By all accounts, it’s reasonable that the Saints would rank among the toughest teams in the league when it comes to giveaways.
To get to eight, though, you need luck. Brees was the third-luckiest quarterback in the league in terms of dropped would-be interceptions a year ago, trailing only Carson Wentz and Kyle Allen. And while the Saints fumbled only nine times on offense, they managed to land on seven of those fumbles, for a recovery rate of 77.8%. That’s the 16th-best fumble recovery rate by an offense since 1991. They also recovered 10 of 15 fumbles on defense; their overall recovery rate of 70.8% was the third-best mark by any team since 1991.
Since turnover rates are at an all-time low, let’s just keep things simple and look back through the merger at the team that led the league each season with the fewest giveaways. Since 1989, after prorating for a 16-game season, those teams have followed up their impressive season by turning the ball over an average of 9.2 more times the following season. Their average giveaway rank the following year was 11th, and they fell off by 1.5 wins per 16 games. The results were similar if I standardized their giveaway rates and looked at the 40 least-friendly teams since the merger, a list that included the Saints.
Given that even New Orleans has no track record of avoiding giveaways at this rate, it seems likely that it will hand the ball over more frequently in 2020. In all, its turnover margin of plus-15 last season will be tough to keep up. It had only posted a margin of plus-10 or better once in the Brees/Sean Payton era before 2019, and it came back in the Super Bowl-winning season of 2009.
Teams that post a turnover margin better than plus-10 also almost always take a step backward. Since 1989, 130 teams have posted such a figure. The following year, their average turnover margin was plus-two and fell by an average of more than 13 takeaways or giveaways relative to their prior season. Most importantly, they won an average of 2.1 fewer games than they did the previous year.
Leaving the turnovers aside, it was impressive to see the Saints continue their mastery of one-score games. With Brees and Payton both around (leaving out the season in which Payton was suspended), the Saints were 40-37 in one-score games before 2018. They went 5-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer in 2018 and then 6-1 in those same games in 2019.
Have they established a formula for winning the close ones? I’m skeptical as always, but they weren’t quite as lucky as their record indicated. Two of their six wins came in games in which the opposing team scored a touchdown in the final 20 seconds to make it a seven-point game, with the final score not representative of the actual contest itself. The Saints struggled a bit with the Cowboys and Jaguars, but New Orleans’ defense held up in the fourth quarter to seal a pair of Bridgewater-led victories.
Kimberley Martin and Jeff Saturday both love Cam Jordan’s comments that the Buccaneers will be “fighting for second place” behind the Saints.
The only games you could really argue the Saints won by the skin of their teeth were their other two victories.
In Week 1, they allowed Deshaun Watson to drive 75 yards in two plays for a touchdown with 43 seconds left and then roughed Ka’imi Fairbairn on the extra point, giving the Texans a 28-27 lead. The Texans then blew a coverage to help push the Saints into field goal range, where Wil Lutz hit a 58-yarder to win it.
Later in the year, playing lowly Carolina, the Panthers possessed the ball on the Saints’ 3-yard line with 2:21 to go in a 31-31 tie. The Saints held the line and pushed the Panthers seven yards backward on the ensuing three plays, then Joey Slye missed a chip shot from 28 yards. Brees promptly drove New Orleans 65 yards to set up a 33-yard winner from Lutz as time expired.
I always talk about how teams can’t keep up their performance in one-score games from year to year, but what if they keep it up for two seasons? There have been 12 other teams since 1989 that won nine or more one-score games than they lost over a two-year stretch, just like the Saints, who are 11-2 in those games over the past two years. Those teams were a combined 172-41 (.808) in one-score games over their respective two-year stretches. In Year 3, they were a combined 46-37 (.554) in those same games.
It’s a small sample, but if we expand it out to the 44 teams that were seven or more wins ahead of their loss column over a two-year span, those teams went from 522-162-2 (.762) in one-score games to 169-150-1 (.530) in Year 3. As good as the Saints are, we should expect them to win something close to half of their close games in 2020.
One way we can surmise this style of winning isn’t sustainable is what has happened in the playoffs. In each of the past two years, the Saints haven’t been able to sustain their formula into a deep postseason run. In 2018, a New Orleans team that had won a bunch of close games and dominated on offense in the red zone lost a 26-23 heartbreaker to the Rams. While everyone will remember the missed pass interference call in the fourth quarter of that NFC Championship Game, the Saints weren’t able to parlay a dominant early spell into an unassailable lead because they settled for short field goals on their first two trips. New Orleans ended up scoring just two touchdowns in five red zone appearances, and that opened up the door just enough for the Rams to come back and for one terrible missed call to extend the game.
Last year, the Saints hosted the Vikings as 7.5-point favorites on wild-card weekend and again lost in overtime. This time, it was a six-point loss after Kirk Cousins found Kyle Rudolph for a touchdown. (I’m not as open-minded about the missed pass interference complaints here.) Again, the element of the Saints’ game that was so difficult for opposing teams to overcome in the regular season was an issue here. They turned the ball over twice for the first time all season, with the Vikings converting a Brees interception in the second quarter into a touchdown just before the half. New Orleans even responded with a long kickoff return and a quick pass for 20 yards from Brees to Michael Thomas, but the same Lutz who seemed to show up in every big moment and went 32-of-36 during the regular season missed a 43-yarder.
The Saints are good enough to overcome an interception and a missed field goal, but that razor-thin margin for error that sent them home twice in the postseason is also the difference between an 11-win regular season and a 13-win campaign. This is an incredibly talented team, and even after the Buccaneers loaded up by adding Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, I think the Saints should still be considered the favorites to win the NFC South. Again, though, I think it’s more likely that they make it to the postseason with a 10-6 or 11-5 record than they do as a 13-3 team.