How Many Times Has an NFL Team Beat Another Team 3 Times in the Same Season?
I hope you’re sitting down when you read this because it’s going to cause a shock, but here it is: Everything you’ve been told in your life about sports is WRONG!
OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. Actually, pretty much everything you’ve been told is right on the money.
But in one crucial respect, especially as it pertained to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium, the gulf between conventional wisdom and actual reality was quite large.
To hear conventional wisdom tell it, the chances for the 49ers to upset the higher-seeded Rams and advance to Super Bowl 56 were somewhat diminished, not just because the Rams had home-field advantage.
Rather, it was because the 49ers were attempting to accomplish what is considered one of the more challenging feats in the NFL: Beating the same team three times in the same season. The odds were against the 49ers winning Sunday’s third meeting, after handling their business in the two previous encounters this season.
That’s what they want you to believe.
The truth is out there.
Is beating the same team three times in a season unlikely? History tells a different story
The 49ers failed on Sunday to reach the Super Bowl, falling short of beating the Rams for the third time this season in a 20-17 loss in the NFC Championship Game. But it wasn’t because history suggested it is a statistical improbability. In fact, teams that meet an opponent in the playoffs after sweeping their two regular-season matchups are still more likely to win the third game as lose it.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, there have now been 23 occasions of a team meeting for the third time after one team won the first two matchups. In those 23 playoff games, including Sunday, the “sweeping” team is 14-9. And the more recent the sweep scenario has played out, the better the results have been for the team going 3-0. The first such third meeting featuring a regular-season sweep was the 1982 Miami Dolphins beating the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game.
But including the next seven sweep scenarios through 1994, the sweeping team was 4-4, with wins and losses alternating each of those eight years. Basically, three-game sweeps were as likely to occur as not.
But from 1994 to 2021, teams having beaten an opponent twice went on to complete the three-game sweep 10 times out of 15, a winning percentage of .667.
The home team seeking the sweep has the advantage; Road teams have succeeded as well
Unfortunately for the 49ers, Sunday’s game was being played in Los Angeles. And though 49ers fans did everything in their power – and pocketbooks – to turn SoFi Stadium into Levi South (can we call it Candlestick South?), the fact remains, the greater advantage is for teams seeking a three-game sweep to be the home team.
In the 23 third meetings between the same teams, the team with the two regular-season wins has been the home team 17 times. In those games, the home team is 12-6.
Now, in the five times the road team was going for the sweep, that team is 2-3.
The most recent third meeting with the road team having won the first two came in 2004. That day, in the NFC Playoffs Wild Card round, it was the St. Louis Rams, playing the Seahawks in Seattle, who emerged with the sweep. The other road winner was the Tennessee Titans over the Jaguars in Jacksonville in the 1999 AFC Championship Game.
The 49ers showed their mettle in pulling the regular-season sweep
Both of San Francisco’s victories over the Rams in 2021 were season-saving wins.
The first, in mid-November on a Monday night in Santa Clara, prevented the 49ers from falling to 3-6 on the season and likely out of the NFC playoff race. That 31-10 victory was the night the 49ers finally harnessed the running game that would carry them all the way to the NFC Championship Game, with wide receiver Deebo Samuel utilized as a running back for the first time all season.
“It got us into a rhythm for sure,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “That’s the way we want to do it. Just running the ball, converting on third down and then score at the end. I don’t want to say it took their soul away but it definitely did something.”
The second meeting, in the final regular-season game of the season, put the 49ers into the playoffs in dramatic fashion, overcoming a 17-0 first-half deficit before finally prevailing in overtime, 27-24.
That win, at SoFi Stadium just three weeks ago, could have been an x-factor in the 49ers’ bid for a season sweep, as the close proximity to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game could give the 49ers a psychological edge.
“Getting off to a slow start and then coming back like we did, it took everything,” Garoppolo said after the second win. “We say that a lot of weeks, but this one really did. I felt it after the game. I know a lot of guys in that locker room did. It was worth it, though. It was one of those games you won’t forget any time soon.”
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference