“You want to be playing your best football in December.”
Every NFL fan has heard this cliché. A simple Google search finds it from Atlanta Falcons’ center Todd McClure after his team’s latest loss in Carolina. Apparently coach Mike Smith has told his team this before.
Maybe that's why the Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs under Smith. They expect their best a month too soon.
The New York Giants are poster boys for the getting-hot-late strategy with their two championships (2007 and 2011). Exactly how hot they got late in the season can be revisionist history, as there was a bad home loss to the Washington Redskins in December both times.
There is something to be said for peaking too soon. Fourteen of the last 15 NFL teams with the best regular-season record have failed to win the Super Bowl. Only the 2003 New England Patriots did. This is a problem we are also seeing in the NHL, NBA and MLB with "regular season champions."
But focusing on football, we have seen the hot team do well in recent years, and not just the Giants. The 2010 Green Bay Packers didn't clinch a playoff berth until the last day of the regular season before making their run, while a team like the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers created the formula for going on a Super Bowl run as the No. 6 seed.
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Both came out in their first playoff game and won by at least 21 points. So much for not having that precious momentum.
Once again it is that time of year where teams are starting to talk playoffs and playing their best. Let’s see if we can quantify just how important it is to be playing well late in the season, especially in terms of equating to playoff success.
Results of the study say …
While it's nice for 3-9 teams to win their last four games, they don't make the playoffs. So, we will only look at the teams who made the playoffs from 2002 to 2011, the era in which we have had eight division winners and the current playoff format.
Since there's nothing magical about December versus a game played on Jan. 1, let’s break the season down into the final quarter (games 13-16).
Here's how the 120 playoff teams since 2002 have done in the last four games of the regular season, and how it has translated into their postseason success.
No one finished 0-4, but teams finishing 4-0 on their way to the playoffs have won 51.2 percent of their playoff games. That is not quite as good as teams finishing 2-2, as they have won 52.5 percent of their playoff games, including three Super Bowls. That 2-2 finish has produced the highest rate of championship teams (9.7 percent).
A lot of the numbers are close, which supports the conclusion that it really is not overly important to have a strong finish in the regular season.
What about winning big or resting starters?
But records can be deceiving, especially over a small sample size such as a few games.
For the 1-3 teams that went 10-12 in the playoffs, a better field-goal placehold (Tony Romo in Seattle) and a last-second field goal (Doug Brien for the Jets in Pittsburgh in a 2004 AFC divisional game), and those teams are instead 12-10 (.545). Surprisingly those teams have only gone one and done 38.4 percent of the time, which is the lowest percentage.
To make matters worse, some teams like to rest their starters in the final week or two, practically playing it like a preseason game and compromising the stats. The Colts were notorious for this under Tony Dungy and Bill Polian, often resting Peyton Manning and key starters. The irony is some of their best runs, including their Super Bowl XLI win, came in years where they had to fight down to the wire in the fourth quarter of Week 17.
This rest strategy also goes against the clichés of “momentum” and playing your best heading into the playoffs.
But instead of focusing on the records, how about looking at how dominant a team is on the scoreboard? Let’s look at the scoring differential over the last four weeks.
Now we see more separation at the top with the teams who had an average scoring margin of more than 12.5 points pre game (+50 scoring differential) winning 57.1 percent of their playoff games, and only going one and done 26.9 percent of the time.
What’s surprising is the third row (+0-27 PTS) going one game under .500 in the playoffs just like the teams who averaged more than a touchdown per game in scoring margin, and the fact that they went one and done 60.6 percent of the time.
As you might have expected, the teams with a negative scoring differential only won 44.6 percent of their playoff games. But we did see the 2006 Colts and 2009 Saints win the Super Bowl, though the Saints were another product of playoff rest. After starting 13-0, they actually finished 0-3, which no other Super Bowl winner has ever done.
Here are the top 10 scoring differential finishes by a playoff team since 2002.
No playoff team was hotter than the 2010 Patriots, outscoring their opponents 139-44 (+95) to finish what was actually an eight-game winning streak to end the regular season. But that team did greatly disappoint in the playoffs, going one and done with a stunning loss to the Jets, just a little over a month after destroying New York 45-3.
Still, the numbers would suggest you may want to keep an eye on the scoring differential more than the record down the stretch to forecast a team’s playoff results.
Finally, here is a list of the Super Bowl winners since 2002 and how they performed in the last quarter of the regular season in terms of scoring differential, total yards margin, and turnover differential.
What does it mean this year?
Sometimes we get too caught up with games late in the season being overly important. Some team is going to lose one of these crucial matchups, and that is going to knock them out of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, that team likely blew a game in September that had they won that day, then it never would have come down to that Week 16 game on the road. The season is not long enough at 16 games to blow off the start of it. Those games are very important too.
Should the New England Patriots get a first-round bye and hold home-field advantage over the Denver Broncos, then you can look at that head-to-head win Oct. 7 in Week 5 as the deciding factor.
That’s part of the beauty of a NFL season. So many little, seemingly insignificant events throughout the season change the entire course of the playoffs and future of the league. It is the butterfly effect at work.
Be careful in going with the hot team. This year’s Patriots may end up posting similar numbers to their 2010 finish, but look what that got them in the postseason: a home loss to a team with Mark Sanchez at quarterback.
While it may feel nice to take a winning streak into the postseason, all that matters is how you execute that day. With the one-and-done format, literally anything can happen, and that is why the playoffs are so exciting.
December football? It’s just not that much different from September.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
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