NFL: Does scoring first create a considerable advantage?

By lee cleveland - July 15, 2022

In pro football, how often does the team that scores first win the game?

FiveThirtyEight.com found teams that have struck first have won 63.2 percent of the time in 2021. And since 2000, the first horse out of the gate has gone on to win 64.5 percent of the time in regular-season games.

Even in Super Bowls, games pitting two elite teams, the squad that scored first is 36-19, winning 65.4 percent of the time.

Super Bowl I Winner 1966 | Sports Team History
In Super Bowl I, Bart Starr, under center, connected with Max McGee on a 37-yard touchdown pass to give the Packers a 7-0 lead early. They went on to defeat the Chiefs 35-10.

So, is scoring first that crucial to winning, or are better teams with superior offenses simply more likely to draw first blood?

The Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, and Minnesota Vikings lead the league in games scored first with 10. And the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints have the best win percentage when scoring first, 100%.

Polls and Trends Fact:
With each team having played 14 games in the 2021 NFL Regular Season, 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams have a winning record in games they scored first. Only 9 have a worse record and 3 are .500.

Dallas is 8-0 when they’ve scored first but just 2-4 when they haven’t. And the Chiefs, who have scored first a whopping 10 times, and are 8-2 when they’ve drawn first blood but just 2-2 when their opponent has claimed the game’s first lead.

But Dallas and Kansas City are good teams that seem to be on pace to win their respective divisions. Perhaps their scoring first is a byproduct of having stronger offenses and defenses than most of their opponents?



So, what about mediocre teams? How have they fared when scoring first this year?

The Saints and Denver Broncos are only 7-7 thus far but very successful when getting on the board first. Combined, they are 10-1 when taking the game’s first lead but just 4-10 when trying to play catch-up.

The Colts’ score-first stats most closely resemble historic norms. They are 6-4 when striking first and 2-2 when they don’t.

Score-First Stats Through Week 15 of the 2021 Season

Number of wins | number of games a team scored first | and a team’s win percentage in those games. Courtesy: FiveThirtyEight.com

The Minnesota Vikings (7-7) represent the biggest score-first outlier. The team formerly dubbed Purple People Eaters has made a habit of scoring first (10 times so far this year) but has little to show for it. They’re just 4-6 when taking the lead first and 3-1 when having to come from behind.

Point: Score-first stats can be byproducts of team superiority / inferiority
The Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, NY Giants, and Chicago Bears are below .500 when scoring first but those teams would have likely been in the cellar regardless because their overall records are poor.

To that end, it’s no surprise several of the top teams, such as Dallas (100 percent), Tampa Bay (89 percent), Kansas City, (80 percent), and Green Bay (80 percent) are so successful when scoring first. They are, in general, good teams with strong offenses and are more likely than not to strike first – and win – because of it.

Counterpoint: The team that strikes first still has a formidable statistical advantage over their opponent
Not only have score-first teams won over 64 percent of NFL regular-season games since 2000, but this year’s data also shows mediocre teams (those between 6-8 and 8-6) get quite a boost from scoring first.

Moreover, when strongly favored teams score first the odds of an upset seem to rise considerably. And when elite-level teams face each other, the team that strikes seemingly first has a strong statistical advantage as evidenced by the previously-mentioned Super Bowl stats.

Even in cases when a top team plays a much weaker team, scoring first appears to retain some relevance. Such was the case last week when the Arizona Cardinals (then 10-3) were upset by the Detroit Lions (then 1-11-1). The latter took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, led 17-0 at halftime, and never looked back en route to their 30-12 upset win.

In sum
NFL history is replete with great comebacks by teams that not only didn’t score first but dug themselves deep holes and trailed by considerable margins.

Teams that don’t score first rally back to win all of the time – HOWEVER, from a purely statistical standpoint, the team that strikes first considerably boosts its odds of winning.

The importance of getting those first points, even via a field goal, seems to be more than just negligible in determining the outcome.

Please share your thoughts on the importance of scoring first below.