In addition to being the top-ranked team in the NFL’s NFC North division, the Detroit Lions have the distinction of being football’s most bizarre statistical anomaly. In every single one of the team’s first 11 games this season, they were trailing in the fourth quarter. Somehow, they managed to come back and win seven of those games — an outcome that had a 0.0025 percent chance of happening.
This is why it was all the more surprising that they won their twelfth game against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night in a totally straightforward way.
This feels unexpected because it is the first time all season that the Lions have done something that makes sense. In itself, this concept is an odd thing: The team’s impossible track record this year has been so consistent that it had many fans convinced that the improbable comebacks were probable — even something to be expected.
On PredictionMachine.com, the site that calculated the Lions’ strange odds, writer Frank Brank explains how “live in-game odds at the point in which the opposing team scored last to take the lead as the point of odds-checking” were used to determine the combined odds of their comeback consistency — that is, the 1 in 40,000 chance that this scenario would actually play out. The website makes its prediction using data from game simulations; it claims to play all games “50,000 times before it’s actually played.”
The odds it calculated for each of the Lions’ games this season varied widely. In the Lions’ game against the Colts, for example, Detroit had a 34.7 percent chance of winning when Indianapolis scored with 37 seconds to go; when they played the Indians, however, their chances of winning with a little over a minute to go were only 7.9 percent. If you were to plot this data on a graph, the chances that the Lions would win over the course of game would show a pathetic dip in the fourth quarter followed by a surprise jump, as illustrated in this handy graph from NumberFire of Week 11’s game. Check out that dramatic fourth-quarter spike!
If watching the Lions’ game against the Jaguars was the probabilistic equivalent of watching the season finale of Westworld, watching Sunday night’s game against the Saints was like watching a run-of-the-mill episode of NCIS. From the beginning of the game, it was pretty obvious what the outcome of the mystery — who’s going to win? — was going to be.
This shows that it was clear, early on, that the Lions’ win on Sunday night was an increasingly safe bet over over the course of the game. Gambling Lions fans that considered Matt Prater’s field goal in the first quarter a good sign, for example, were wise to trust their guts, just as those that didn’t second-guess their hunches when Prater scored another field goal in the fourth quarter were being quite prescient.
Whether the predictability of Sunday night’s game marks a turning point in the team’s predictably unpredictable run, however, remains to be seen. Lions fans, however, should just be thankful for their team’s return to obviousness; as exciting as the team’s last-minute comebacks have been, gambling football fans are much better off when games are boring.