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Close wins don't forecast future success

10/28/2007 - NFL

From 1996 to 2006, Denver Broncos kicker Jason Elam averaged one "clutch" field goal per year. A clutch field goal is defined as a field goal that ties or wins a game in the final minute or overtime. This year, Elam already has had three in just six games. Those three field goals gave Denver all three of its wins.

How rare is it for a team to have three close wins this early in the season? Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only 24 other teams have won three times by a field goal or less in their first six games, less than one team per season.

There are two ways to look at the Broncos. We could say these close victories demonstrated character and that Denver is a team capable of gutting out a win even when it isn't playing its best. Or, we could say the Broncos are lucky to be 3-3 right now, considering they have been outscored 164-106 and they aren't going to sniff the playoffs if they keep playing at this level the rest of the season.

Unfortunately for Denver fans, the latter is closer to the truth. Generally, championship teams beat their good opponents convincingly, destroying the cupcakes on the schedule. Teams that win most of their games by just a field goal or a touchdown rarely make it to the postseason.

The other 24 teams that started the year with three close wins averaged 9.4 victories for the season. The 1999 Titans and 2003 Panthers made it to the Super Bowl, and the 1976 Raiders won the Super Bowl.

However, the close wins were not the only wins for those three teams. All three started the season 5-1. That's not the case in Denver. The Broncos are just the third 3-3 team since 1970 to notch all three of its victories by such a small margin.

The 1978 Houston Oilers reached the playoffs as a wild card with a 10-6 record, then upset the Dolphins and the Patriots before getting blown out by the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. The 2003 Redskins won only two more games all year, finishing 5-11 and sending Steve Spurrier back to the college ranks.

In addition, 15 teams started 4-2 with at least three wins coming by three points or fewer. If we include the 1978 Oilers and 2003 Redskins, we get 17 teams that had a combined winning percentage of .647 after six games. Those teams went just .476 the rest of the way, and only seven of the 17 teams made the playoffs.

To put those numbers in perspective, 17 teams since 1970 have started 4-2 or 3-3 with all of the wins coming by at least 10 points. These teams had a combined winning percentage of .578 after six games but went .604 the rest of the way, with 10 teams making the playoffs.

The AFC West is up for grabs, and the Broncos are only half a game behind the surprising 4-3 Kansas City Chiefs. But if they want to show they are a playoff team, they need to win some games in convincing fashion -- and they can start by taking down the Green Bay Packers on Monday.

Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008.