Scoring Distribution of NFL Teams
For NFL die-hards, each quarter of a game has its distinctive qualities. There are the excitement and promise of the first, and the way offenses get rolling in the second. The third can sow the seeds of a comeback, and the fourth harbors high-stakes drama. Some players pride themselves on making a statement quickly, bringing everything they’ve got at kickoff. Others emphasize their staying power, outworking exhausted opponents in the game’s final minutes. But one thing’s for certain at all times on the gridiron: Let your guard down, and you’re likely to pay for it, no matter what the clock says.
In the 2017 regular season, when did NFL teams tend to make the magic happen and light up their defenses across the league? In this project, we studied which teams were the most capable scorers across all 60 minutes of play, and which heated up during specific quarters. Finally, we considered how teams performed when the chips were down in the final quarter. Keep reading to learn when your team found the end zone most often.
How Each Squad Scored
While the typical NFL team scored 21.9 points per game on average, many did much better – and others were woefully worse. LA fans must be amazed by the fireworks provided by their relocated franchise: After dreadful scoring just one season prior, the Rams were reborn as the league’s most electric offense under the guidance of new coach Sean McVay. The second and third place went to NFL championship opponents Philadelphia and New England respectively, a high-powered matchup that had oddsmakers predicting over 48 points would be scored in the title game, despite those teams’ top-shelf defenses.
On the offensively troubled end of the spectrum, the Cleveland Browns had the lowest average in the league. While the causes of the Browns’ scoring struggles were numerous, the team was particularly inept in the end zone. The Giants and Colts didn’t fare much better, partially due to their challenges at quarterback last season. But below-average offensive squads weren’t automatically disqualified from playoff contention, either. The Bills made their first playoff appearance since 1999 despite subpar scoring, proving some combination of defense and dumb luck can still go pretty far in this league.
Although the fourth quarter may be known for clutch play, the second is when the most scoring actually goes down. This was particularly true for some of the NFL’s most impressive offenses, such as the Patriots (11 Q2 points, on average) and Rams (10.5). One possible explanation for this quarter’s productivity is the dissipation of kickoff jitters: Players settle into a rhythm and grow confident against their opponents. Another reason may be that coaching insights improve after first quarter experimentation, with offensive coordinators doubling down on plays that prove effective.
With few exceptions, scoring decreased substantially after halftime – perhaps defensive adjustments implemented between halves take effect in the third quarter. This decline was especially evident for the aforementioned second quarter scoring squads (New England and LA), but also for other teams, like the Falcons. Interestingly, the last quarter was the period when the average scoring gap between playoff and non-playoff teams was smallest. This trend may be attributable to the game management scheme of successful teams: Often, the side with a hefty lead in the final quarter will deprioritize scoring and opt to wind the clock down instead.
Helped along by their raucous “12th Man” atmosphere at home, the Seahawks had the best record for scoring in the final quarter. The team prides itself on performing in the clutch, including quarterback Russell Wilson, whose passer rating was highest in that quarter in 2017. Philadelphia was nearly as good, as were Baltimore and Tampa Bay. Unfortunately for Ravens and Bucs fans, this success as the clock ticked down didn’t help them secure a playoff spot.
Some squads who did go deep in the playoffs had only middling success in the last quarter, however. The Patriots, for instance, scored only 5.9 points in the fourth quarter, on average, although perhaps they blew out opponents so often that putting up points late wasn’t often a priority. The same could be said for the Rams as well, who averaged fewer than five points in the final quarter. But the absolute worst fourth-quarter team could really have used some clutch points in a season with some close losses. The Colts scored just 2.5 points in the last quarter on average, a dismal statistic by any measure.
Winning at Any Time
On one point, our data are indisputable: Across the NFL, nearly every play contains the potential for a flash of offensive genius, no matter how much of the game remains to be played. While critics may take issue with the game’s frequent pauses, the uncertainty at work in each play keeps us glued to our TVs in every quarter. After all, you never know when a giant run or reception will tear the game wide open. That’s the fun part of being a fan.
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We collected information from teamrankings.com, which provides a statistical database related to the performance of NFL teams. For this project, we utilized scoring data pertaining to the 2017 NFL regular season, excluding metrics from the preseason or playoffs.
No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is purely exploratory, and future research should approach this topic in a more rigorous way.
Fair Use Statement
You’re free to use our content for noncommercial purposes, and we hope your audience will enjoy it. We do ask that you credit us properly for our work, however, by providing a link back to this page. It may not seem as important as a fourth-quarter Hail Mary, but attribution matters a lot to us.