Many have tried to quantify luck. The NFL’s own football operations department identified four key scenarios in which luck plays a large role: dropped interceptions, dropped passes, missed kicks (field goals and extra points) and fumble recoveries, which can depend on which way the football bounces. Julian Ryan from the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective found nearly a decade ago that 55 percent of an NFL team’s turnover-differential during the regular season was because of luck. A highly regarded paper written in part by Michael Lopez, now the senior director of data and analytics for the NFL, found that luck permeates the league, from the small number of games played each season to the parity of the league to the unpredictable nature of the sport itself. So it should come as no surprise there were teams that won in Week 1 that may have been lucky to do so.
The luckiest team of the week was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 20-17 winners over the Minnesota Vikings. Tampa Bay led for just five minutes 49 seconds of that game and benefited from three turnovers — two fumble recoveries plus an interception. Interceptions are considered to involve luck because they can depend on unpredictable elements such as receiver mistakes, deflections and defensive positioning, along with whether the defensive player actually catches the ball. Those Minnesota mishaps saved 14 points for the Bucs based on the down, distance and field position of each turnover, a huge figure in a three-point game. Minnesota safety Jay Ward also jumped offsides on a Tampa Bay field goal attempt in the third quarter, which gave the Buccaneers a fresh set of downs which they used to score a touchdown. Some might not think of that as luck — Ward made the mistake — but was it a true measure of the talent differential between the two teams?
After adjusting for those and other lucky bounces, we would expect Tampa Bay to lose a game such as that by 12 points rather than win by three. Looked at another way, after stripping out the role luck played in that matchup by adding or subtracting expected points added for the various fluky factors, the Buccaneers should only win a game such as that about 36 percent of the time. Since 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams, only seven other teams won with a lower expected win rate in the first week of a season. Those seven teams went a combined 1-6 in the Week 2 games following their opening week good fortune.
The Buccaneers were the luckiest team of the week, but the Philadelphia Eagles, considered a Super Bowl contender by many, were a close second. The Eagles intercepted quarterback Mac Jones on the Patriots’ first drive, resulting in a 70-yard pick-six. On the next play from scrimmage, defensive tackle Jordan Davis stripped New England running back Ezekiel Elliott, setting up a four-play touchdown drive that put the Eagles up 16-0 by the end of the first quarter. Philadelphia’s offense would score just nine more points while New England managed 20 points with the benefit of just one turnover, a fumble by quarterback Jalen Hurts that New England recovered but couldn’t convert into points. Adjust for those and other luck factors and Philadelphia would have been expected to win that game just 42 percent of the time.
Other lucky winners from Week 1 included the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions.
The Saints, 16-15 winners over the Tennessee Titans, benefited from three interceptions. Detroit got past the Kansas City Chiefs, 21-20, thanks in part to star tight end Travis Kelce and all-pro defensive tackle Chris Jones not being on the field for the Chiefs. Plus, the Chiefs had a chance to win it with two-and-a-half minutes left, but missteps (a dropped pass, an offensive holding penalty and a false start) doomed their comeback. Moments such as that are often more an anomaly than a trend, which is why the Chiefs remain one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl, with far lower odds than the Detroit team that just beat them.