After the merger was announced in the summer of 1966, three primary things were set before the leagues would officially merge for the 1970 season. First, the champions of the two leagues would meet in an AFL-NFL championship game, beginning in the 1966 season. Second, the two leagues would conduct a joint college draft and no longer engage in bidding wars for players, beginning with the 1967 draft. Third, the two leagues would be free to schedule exhibition games, beginning with the 1967 pre-season (presumably because the merger agreement was finalized less than two months before the start of the exhibition games in 1966).
The two leagues would play a total of 72 exhibition games over the next three seasons, so a substantially larger sample size than the four championship games. But how much can we really take from preseason contests? For the modern fan, the initial reaction is probably nothing. However, I think we can take quite a bit from those games. You have to put the games into the context of their times. Exhibition games at the time were not the absolute afterthoughts they are today. From 1960-1966, the eventual NFL division champions combined to win 74.7% of their preseason contests, compared to 80.2% in the regular season. In the AFL over the same period, the division champions won 63.1% of the preseason games and 74.7% in the regular season. In both cases, we see that the eventual winners did tend to win in the exhibition contests as well. In fact, over the seven year period prior to the merger agreement, only 5 of the 28 division winners had a losing record in the preseason, while 7 of them had a perfect record (preseason schedules were typically 5 or 6 games then).
Add on to those numbers the additional incentive that these were games between rival leagues, and the fact that the leagues that did not necessarily like each other, and I think you can definitely consider these exhibition results to have some meaning in the aggregate, even if any particular individual result may be a fluke. Take for example the game between the Bears and Chiefs in August 1967. The Chiefs had heard all about how they wouldn't even be an average team in the NFL after their defeat in the first Super Bowl, and then an honest to goodness average NFL team, who happened to be coached by an NFL icon in George Halas, came to town. I have a hard time believing the Chiefs put up a 66-24 score on the Bears because it was just an exhibition game.
So with all that in mind, let's get to the actual results. (all results from www.profootballarchives.com). I list the date of the game, with the AFL listed first and the NFL second, then the score (AFL, then NFL), followed by the site of the game.
1967 Exhibition Games
Date AFL NFL Score Venue 8/05/1967 Broncos-Lions 13 7 Denver 8/13/1967 Patriots-Colts 3 33 Cambridge, MA 8/14/1967 Bills- Lions 17 19 Detroit 8/18/1967 Broncos-Vikings 14 9 Denver 8/19/1967 Dolphins-Falcons 17 27 Miami 8/19/1967 Jets- Eagles 19 34 Cincinnati, OH 8/20/1967 Chargers-Lions 17 38 San Diego 8/23/1967 Chiefs- Bears 66 24 Kansas City 8/25/1967 Bills- Eagles 30 38 Buffalo 8/26/1967 Patriots-Redskins 7 13 Cambridge, MA 8/27/1967 Chargers-Rams 7 50 San Diego 9/01/1967 Chiefs- Rams 24 44 Los Angeles 9/02/1967 Chargers-Steelers 7 16 San Diego 9/02/1967 Dolphins-Saints 17 20 Charleston, SC 9/02/1967 Oilers- Cowboys 17 30 Houston 9/03/1967 Raiders-49ers 10 13 Oakland
The Chiefs' dismantling of the Bears notwithstanding, the NFL soundly won the series in 1967, by a final record of 13-3. The average score result was a +8.1 winning margin for the NFL. Of course, we need to adjust that raw score by a couple of factors. First, home field advantage. You may notice that a majority of the games were played in AFL cities (and that was true throughout these exhibition games) as NFL teams apparently liked playing in places like San Diego and Miami before the season began. Also, we need to adjust for team quality, and I do that by looking at the regular season point differential for each team that played in an exhibition games. As it turns out, the opponent adjustment is necessary because the AFL teams who played the most exhibition games were below average, while the NFL were right at average. When I include both factors, though, they cancel out, and the NFL was about 8.1 points better than the AFL in those 16 games.
1968 Exhibition Games
Date AFL NFL Score Venue 8/01/1968 Oilers- Redskins 9 3 Houston 8/03/1968 Chargers-49ers 30 18 San Diego 8/03/1968 Raiders-Colts 12 14 Oakland 8/05/1968 Bills- Lions 13 9 Buffalo 8/10/1968 Chiefs- Vikings 13 10 Minneapolis 8/10/1968 Patriots-Saints 0 19 New Orleans 8/17/1968 Broncos-Vikings 16 39 Denver 8/17/1968 Chargers-Steelers 33 36 San Diego 8/17/1968 Chiefs- Cardinals 13 10 Kansas City 8/17/1968 Dolphins-Eagles 23 7 Miami 8/18/1968 Oilers- Saints 24 23 Houston 8/23/1968 Broncos-49ers 6 22 Denver 8/23/1968 Jets- Falcons 27 12 Birmingham, AL 8/24/1968 Chargers-Rams 35 13 San Diego 8/25/1968 Bengals-Steelers 19 3 Morgantown, WV 8/30/1968 Bills- Browns 12 22 Buffalo 8/31/1968 Chiefs- Rams 16 36 Los Angeles 8/31/1968 Dolphins-Colts 13 22 Miami 8/31/1968 Oilers- Cowboys 19 33 Houston 9/01/1968 Raiders-49ers 26 19 San Fransisco 9/02/1968 Patriots-Eagles 20 22 Cambridge, MA 9/07/1968 Dolphins-Falcons 19 13 Miami 9/07/1968 Jets- Lions 9 6 Cleveland, OH
The AFL actually won the series in 1968, 13-10. The average margin was slightly in the NFL's favor, +0.2 per game. When I adjust for both team quality and venue, the NFL is +3.2 compared to the AFL in 1968.
1969 Exhibition Games
Date AFL NFL Score Venue 8/02/1969 Chargers-Colts 6 26 San Diego 8/02/1969 Dolphins-Vikings 10 45 Tampa, FL 8/08/1969 Bills- Redskins 21 17 Buffalo 8/09/1969 Broncos-Vikings 6 26 Minneapolis 8/09/1969 Chargers-Saints 10 7 San Diego 8/09/1969 Chiefs- Lions 38 13 Kansas City 8/09/1969 Dolphins-Bears 10 16 Miami 8/09/1969 Jets- Cardinals 6 13 Saint Louis 8/09/1969 Raiders-Colts 30 34 Oakland 8/15/1969 Bills- Lions 12 24 Detroit 8/15/1969 Oilers- Colts 29 33 Houston 8/16/1969 Broncos-Saints 22 28 Denver 8/16/1969 Dolphins-Eagles 10 14 Miami 8/17/1969 Jets- Giants 37 14 New Haven, CT 8/17/1969 Patriots-Falcons 16 34 Newton, MA 8/22/1969 Bills- Colts 7 20 Buffalo 8/22/1969 Oilers- Bears 19 17 Houston 8/23/1969 Broncos-49ers 19 15 Denver 8/23/1969 Chargers-Browns 19 19 San Diego 8/23/1969 Chiefs- Rams 42 14 Los Angeles 8/25/1969 Patriots-Lions 9 22 Montreal, CA 8/28/1969 Oilers- Cowboys 11 14 Houston 8/29/1969 Chiefs- Cardinals 38 28 Saint Louis 8/30/1969 Bengals-Steelers 23 13 Pittsburgh 8/30/1969 Bills- Bears 16 23 Cleveland, OH 8/30/1969 Chargers-Rams 14 24 San Diego 8/30/1969 Dolphins-Colts 10 23 Miami 8/30/1969 Jets- Vikings 24 21 Winston-Salem, NC 8/31/1969 Raiders-49ers 42 28 Oakland 9/06/1969 Bills- Rams 20 50 Los Angeles 9/06/1969 Chiefs- Falcons 14 10 Kansas City 9/06/1969 Jets- Cowboys 9 25 Dallas 9/06/1969 Oilers- Saints 30 14 New Orleans
The NFL won the series in 1969, with a record of 19-13-1. The average score was NFL +2.9 points. When I adjust for team and venue, the average result drops slightly, to the best result for the AFL, with the NFL being +2.7 points better than the AFL in 1969.
Overall, the NFL was better every year, though it was much closer in both 1968 and 1969 than public perception of the difference between the two leagues. The leagues certainly were not two touchdowns apart at any point in this span. The public must not have paid attention when the AFL had a winning record against the NFL in 1968, or given much credence to the Chiefs going 4-0 against the NFL in 1969 with a +16.8 margin of victory (similar to the Vikings win differential), or given any weight to the Vikings losing to the Jets on a neutral field. In retrospect, the evidence was there that the AFL was ready to compete with the NFL when the Jets took the field as 19 point underdogs in January of 1969. Later this week, we'll see additional evidence that is consistent with this improvement, when we look at the draft classes of the combined drafts of 1967-1969.
For previous posts in the AFL versus NFL series, click here.
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