ARIZONA CARDINALS

Unlucky Cardinals? Win probability model examines close games

Jan 3, 2020, 11:11 AM | Updated: 11:36 pm
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals on the sidelines in the first half of the game ...
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals on the sidelines in the first half of the game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

The Arizona Cardinals had some “close” games in 2019. For one, you can look at how many games they had (nine) in which the margin of victory was one possession.

But an article from FiveThirtyEight took a different perspective. As their Ty Schalter pointed out, just because a game ended within a margin of eight or fewer points doesn’t mean the game was ever really “close,” and the inverse is also true. For example, the Cardinals’ game at San Francisco on Nov. 17 ended with a score of 36-26 — two possessions — but the Cardinals had a lead late in the game with possession of the football.

We have much better tools than the final score to describe what happened in an NFL game. Win probability can tell us whether games that seemed close after the fact were actually coin flips in the closing minutes. So I found the games in the 2019 NFL season that ESPN’s win-probability model gave a 60-40 (or narrower) split at any point with five or fewer minutes left in regulation.

Schalter then looked at the opposite result of those games, figuring out what teams’ records would have been if they had won those “close” games that they lost, and lost those “close” games that they had won.

The Cardinals would have tacked on 3.5 wins (the half is because they had one tie), which is the seventh-highest hypothetical increase of any NFL team (the Lions were No. 1 with 5.5 gained wins). In this regard, the Cardinals were perhaps one of the league’s most unlucky teams.

Arizona, in that scenario, would’ve finished 7-8-1, good for third place in the NFC West ahead of Seattle (7-9) and behind L.A. (13-3) and San Francisco (9-7). San Francisco, by the way, would have lost seven wins in this hypothetical (net: -4) — the greatest such loss in the NFL had their close games gone the other way.

All this might make one wonder: With the margins so narrow at certain points in the season — including a tie in Week 1 and a six-point loss to Baltimore in Week 2 — how would certain factors have drastically altered the Cardinals’ record?

What if Kliff Kingsbury had not been a first-year head coach? What if David Johnson were his old self? What if Patrick Peterson were never suspended, Robert Alford never injured and Darius Philon never released?

Parallel universes aside, the Cardinals have some improvements to make.

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