In case you missed the Thursday Night Football game between the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals, you need to know that neither team scored a touchdown. That resulted in a whole lot of punting, field goal kicking, and generally hapless announcers trying to drum up tension where there wasn’t much — a situation exacerbated by the fact that it was a battle of the backup quarterbacks.
In essence, it was everything that everyone who complains about Thursday Night Football could dream of. What was interesting, though, was that the game offered up a scenario in which a team (in this case, it was Arizona) won without actually completing a touchdown. This is not something that typically happens in the course of an NFL game, and certainly not in the modern era, which has seen the rules adjusted time and time again to facilitate more touchdowns, not fewer.
And so, with our curiosity alight, we decided to investigate which NFL teams had actually been able to win games without bringing the ball into the other team’s end zone, be it from a rushing touchdown, passing touchdown, or any kind of return touchdown (interceptions, punt returns, and the like). More specifically, since the days of antiquity in professional football involved a whole lot more running and not so much throwing, we decided to track data from the fateful 1978 season, when defenders were prohibited from excessive contact with receivers more than five yards from the line of scrimmage. What we found was surprising.
Are data are courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
11. Washington, 5 wins
10. Baltimore, 5 wins
9. Tennessee, 5 wins
8. Minnesota, 5 wins
7. Miami, 5 wins
6. Pittsburgh, 5 wins
What’s most interesting about the first four teams on our list is the variable frequency in regards to when these games occurred — because Pro Football Reference has a fairly versatile search function, we can see the first and last time that each team was able to win a game without scoring a single touchdown.
So out of the massive tie that dominates the first page of our results, we found that Minnesota had the shortest window (the Vikings’s first game won in this fashion came in 1978, and their last in 1993), while Washington had the longest amount of time between its first and last touchdown-less victories — the Redskins started in 1978, and their most recent came in 2009.
For the curious, Miami’s range is 1982-2003; Baltimore’s is 2000-2013; Pittsburgh didn’t get one until 1990 and had one in 2008; and Tennessee, counting its heritage as the former Oilers, started in 1979 but hasn’t had a game like this since 2000. Out of these six teams, the Steelers have gone the longest since winning a game strictly from field goals and safeties.
5. Oakland, 6 wins
4. New England, 6 wins
3. Cleveland, 6 wins
One of these teams is not like the other, right? While you might expect the Raiders and the Browns to place fairly high on a list like this, as they hover between a rock and a hard place when it comes to hanging on to receivers, or quarterbacks, or anyone who might be good at helping a football break the plane, the Patriots feel like a bit of an anomaly.
Of course, that’s before you realize that the last time the Patriots won a game without a touchdown was in 2003, in a 9-3 win over the Cleveland Browns. Tom Brady was still the quarterback, but he’s typically pretty good at finding the end zone. The Browns and the Raiders weren’t quite as fortunate, having won games in such a manner in 2011 and 2012, respectively. But as fans from that era can attest, at least they won, right?
2. Indianapolis Colts, 10 wins
1. Buffalo Bills, 12 wins
Weirdly enough, Indianapolis’s last touchdown-less victory also came in 2003, which means (we think) that there really is some kind of creepy force binding Peyton Manning and Tom Brady together in an endless battle for marginal points toward each being the best quarterback of the modern era.
Or maybe it’s just a coincidence. But the world of the NFL can be more fun if you approach it like it’s all playing out in a Robert Anton Wilson novel. Anyway, the Colts have a fairly narrow scope as far as winning games without scoring much is concerned, starting in 1984 and not even making it to the 20-year mark. On the other hand, they went straight from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck, so they haven’t had to weather scoreless storms very often.
As for the Bills, well, if there was any team that was going to be atop this list, they’re not the most surprising, are they?