Carolina Panthers and Close Games – By the Numbers

The 2015 NFL season produced many franchise bests for the Carolina Panthers.  One of the less discussed or less noticed stats was the Panthers success in winning close games.  It turns out that 2015 was a record year for the Panthers in that category.

In 2015, the Carolina Panthers had a franchise best +6 differential in close games.  In the regular season they played 8 games decided by less than 10 points, and won 7 of them. (7 wins – 1 loss = +6 differential).

Thanks to Sporting Charts, here’s a graph of the “small-win-loss differential” over the course of Panthers history 1995 – 2015:

Data from Sporting Charts

Sporting Charts divides NFL wins & losses into 4 categories:

    • Big Win – a win in which the team won by 10 or more points.
    • Small Win – a win in which the team won by between 1 and 9 points.
    • Big Loss – a loss in which the team lost by 10 or more points.
    • Small Loss – a loss in which the team lost by between 1 and 9 points.

Here’s what Sporting Charts has to say about Big Win vs. Small Win differentials:

Teams that are able to consistently outscore opponents by significant margins should be considered to be very strong teams vs. teams that edge out wins by smaller margins. This strength is represented in the Big Win % statistics which measures the percentage of a team’s games that are won by 10 or more points.

Additionally, a statistic that can indicate a larger degree of luckiness or unluckiness is the Small Win-Loss Differential which compares the number of small wins to small losses. Wins and losses in the 9 or less point range can be thought of as more random than big wins and losses and therefore a team with a large differential (either positive or negative) can be a sign that the team got lucky or unlucky in close games – something that is unlikely to repeat and can be a sign of a team that could regress.

Of course lots of big wins makes for a great season, no denying it.  But I don’t think one should overlook the importance of small wins – i.e. pulling out a win in a close game.  I’m not so sure I agree with Sporting Charts’ suggestion that a high small win differential is typically due to a team “getting lucky.”  My sense is that there’s very often a less tangible, but nonetheless CRITICAL, “will to win factor” in such games.  (Think of Cam’s nodding his head on the sidelines as if to say “I got this” in the final minute of the Giants game after the Panthers had given up a large lead and the Giants had tied the score.)   Yes, the 2015 Panthers had quite a few “Cardiac Cats” moments. They gave up some leads they shouldn’t have.  In some cases one clutch play saved the game or led to the win.

  • Josh Norman’s end zone interception against the Saints;
  • Thomas Davis’ interception of Rodgers as the Packers were threatening in the final minutes.
  • Luke’s interception against the Colts in OT which set up the Panthers’ game winning field goal.
  • TD’s “hands team” catch of the onsides kick by Seattle in the Playoffs that preserved the win after the Panthers had given up 24 unanswered points.

But was this “luck?”  I contend these “clutch” plays happened too regularly throughout the Carolina Panthers season in 2015 for them to be mere luck.   The Panthers defense consistently forced turnovers and the offense capitalized on them.  Taken together they resulted in 17 wins:  9 “big” wins, 8 “small” wins.  But those 8 “small” wins versus

  • Houston,
  • New Orleans (twice),
  • Seattle (twice),
  • Indy,
  • Green Bay,
  • Giants

These games were huge for the Panthers, and were key to the Panthers extraordinary season.

I think Carolina’s recent history and statistics in close games also points to the critical role coaching plays during close games, because the evolution of Ron Rivera as a coach has been striking to witness.

Most Carolina Panthers fans know this story well.  In Ron Rivera’s first two seasons (2011 and 2012) and into the beginning of 2013, the Carolina Panthers struggled mightily to win close games.  The nadir was reached against Buffalo in week 2 of 2013 after Buffalo squeaked out a 1 point win on a field goal in the final seconds.  It was a heart-breaking loss for the Panthers, and the speculation began that Ron Rivera would be fired.

On Sept 15, 2013, Sports headlines screamed:

The Carolina Panthers are 2-14 in games decided by 7 points or less under head coach Rivera

By his own account, that loss to Buffalo prompted deep soul-searching and re-evaluation of his coaching decisions, particularly his attitude towards calculated risks.  Rivera began coaching more aggressively, playing more to win, rather than playing “not to lose,” and the persona Panthers fans now know and love, “Riverboat Ron” was born.

The results have been nothing short of amazing.  Since the birth of “Riverboat Ron,” the Panthers record is 16-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less.  That kind of dramatic turnaround and consistent winning in clutch situations seems like a lot more than luck.

Let’s take a closer look.  Here are all the Panthers games decided by a touchdown or less since Ron Rivera became head coach in 2011:

Including the Post-Season, from 2011 – 2015, the Panthers have played a total of 86 games.  Of those, 35 games (40.7%) were decided by one touchdown or less (7 points or less).   Here’s how it breaks down Pre-Riverboat Ron and Post-Riverboat Ron:

2-14 “Pre-Riverboat” (.125 win percentage)

16-3 “Post-Riverboat” (.842 win percentage)

Those results aren’t “luck!”  That kind of turn-around is due to improved game management and a winning culture.

Good teams don’t necessarily rely on big wins in which they dominate their opponents, but they find a way to win close games.  They make their own luck, just as Riverboat Ron and the Panthers have done since week 3 of 2013.

A will and a drive to win, grit, clutch play, and yes, skill too.  A great coach.   A great team.  A team making their own luck.  The results are exciting!  Long may this riverboat keep on rollin’.

Finally, the 2003 Carolina Panthers – aka the Cardiac Cats – deserve a special mention in talking about close wins.  They played 13 close games and won 9 of them.  NFL success is not always about blow out wins.  Playing lots of close games, but winning almost all of them is also a recipe for success — a rare one,  a heart-stressing one.  But it can be done.  It just takes extra guts.

The 2001 Panthers deserve a place in the close game hall of shame.  They played 9 games decided by fewer than 10 points, and lost them all.

Here’s a look at Panthers History in terms of close games played and close games won:

You can call me the Panthers Stat Lady. A passionate Panthers fan and a database geek... staying up to date with my favorite team from afar and having fun with number crunching too.