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AFL versus NFL: the exhibition games

Posted by Jason Lisk on September 28, 2009

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.

This entry was posted on Monday, September 28th, 2009 at 7:02 am and is filed under AFL versus NFL. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.