Close games and a closer NFC West race

The Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers showed admirable close-game mettle last season.

That's how it appeared, anyway.

Scott Kacsmar, writing for CHFF.com, offers another view. Where the traditional football narrative sees resolve, Kacsmar sees an unsustainable string of outcomes. He demonstrates emphatically why Arizona, San Francisco, Denver and the New York Giants probably won't fare as well in the clutch this season.

2011 Cardinals Victories

"The fact is that winning a lot of close games consistently is very difficult, because so often the outcome can hinge on one play," he writes. "Whether it is Billy Cundiff blowing the field goal (and apparently his career) or Kyle Williams fumbling another punt in overtime, the luck factor can really outweigh the skill."

Basically, teams that have won lots of close games one season have almost always won fewer of them the next. Kacsmar, whose work has helped to more accurately define fourth-quarter and comeback victories, based his research on the 36 teams from 1980 through 2010 with at least six close victories in regular-season or playoff games.

By "close" games, he means those decided by points scored in fourth quarters and overtimes. This excludes games when the losing team made a blowout appear respectable.

These 36 teams averaged 6.4 "close" victories and a 67.6 percent win rate in games decided that way. The numbers fell to 2.8 victories and a 39.9 percent win rate the following season, closer to average. These teams averaged about 1.6 fewer victories for the season overall.

Kacsmar points to a few memorable examples.

"Despite 'The Drive' wiping out an eighth game-winning drive, the 1986 Cleveland Browns were 7-2 at fourth quarter/overtime wins," he writes. "Even with Bernie Kosar's career season in 1987, Cleveland regressed to just 1-6 in such games, including 'The Fumble' against Denver in another AFC Championship loss."

The subject interested me for what it could mean in the NFC West this season. The Cardinals were 8-5 (.615) in these close games last season. The eight victories were an NFL record for one season in games decided this way. The 49ers were 5-3 (.625) in the regular season. The Seattle Seahawks (1-6, .143) and St. Louis Rams (1-5, .167) fared unusually poorly in these games.

The quarterback changes Seattle made this offseason stemmed in part from those late-game failures. John Skelton's late-game successes for Arizona contrast with how he has played earlier in games.

An evening out of the unusual results from last season could contribute to a more tightly contested NFC West race in 2012.