A Decade of Hot Teams in the Playoffs

San Diego and Dallas were the Super Bowl-pick darlings of many sports writers and commentators heading into this postseason, in no small part because they were the two “hottest” teams in the NFL, having finished the regular season with the two longest winning streaks of any contenders (at 11 and 3, respectively).  Routinely, year after year, I think that the prediction-makers in the media overvalue season-ending rushes.  My reasons for believing this include:

  1. The seeding of many teams are frequently sealed or near-sealed weeks before the playoffs begin, leaving them with little incentive to compete fully.
  2. Teams that are eliminated from playoff contention may be dispirited, and/or players may not be giving 100% effort to winning, instead focusing on padding statistics or avoiding injury.
  3. When non-contenders do give maximum effort, it may more often be to play the role of “spoiler,” or to save face for their season by trying to beat the most high-profile contenders.
  4. Variance.

So the broader question to ask is “does late-season success correlate any more strongly with postseason performance than middle or early season success?”  But in this case, I’m interested only in winning streaks — i.e., the “hottest” teams, for which any relevant sample would probably be too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.  However, I thought it might be interesting to look at how the teams with the longest winning streaks have performed in the last decade:

2009:
AFC: San Diego: Won 11, lost divisional
NFC: Dallas: Won 3, lost divisional

2008:
AFC: Indianapolis: Won 9, lost wildcard
NFC: Atlanta: Won 3, lost wildcard

2007:
AFC: New England: Won 16, lost Superbowl
NFC: Washington: Won 4, lost wildcard

2006:
AFC: San Diego:  Won 10, lost divisional
NFC: Philadelphia: Won 5, lost divisional

2005:
NFC: Redskins: Won 5, lost divisional
AFC: Tie: Won 4: Denver: lost AFC championship; Pittsburg: won Superbowl
(the hottest team overall, Miami, won 6 but didn’t make the playoffs)

2004:
NFC: Pittsburg: Won 14, lost AFC championship
AFC: Tie: Won 2: Seattle: lost Superbowl; St. Louis: lost divisional; Green Bay: lost wildcard
2003:
AFC: New England: Won 12, won Superbowl
NFC: Green Bay: Won 4, lost divisional

2002:
AFC: Tennessee: Won 5, lost AFC championship
NFC: NY Giants: Won 4, lost wildcard

2001:
AFC: Patriots: Won 6, won Superbowl
NFC: Rams: Won 6, lost Superbowl

2000:
AFC: Baltimore: Won 7, won Superbowl
NFC: NY Giants: Won 5, lost Superbowl

From 2006 on, the hottest teams have obviously done terribly, with the undefeated Patriots being the only team to make it out of the divisional round.  Prior to that, the results seem more normal:  In 2005, Pittsburg won the Superbowl after tying for the longest winning streak among AFC playoff teams (though they trailed Washington in the NFC and Miami who didn’t make the playoffs).  New England won the Superbowl as the hottest team twice: in 2001 and 2003 — although both times they were one of the top seeds in their conference as well.  The last hottest team to play on wildcard weekend AND win the Superbowl was the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.

So what does that tell us?  Well, a decent anecdote — and not much more.  The sample is small and the numbers inconclusive.  On the one hand, the particular species of Cinderella team that gets predicted to win the Superbowl year after year by some — one that starts the season weakly but catches fire late and rides their momentum to the championship — has been a rarity (and going back further, it doesn’t get any more common).  On the other hand, if you simply picked the hottest team to win the Superbowl every year in this decade, you would have correctly picked 3 winners out of 10, which would not be a terrible record.

2 Responses to “A Decade of Hot Teams in the Playoffs”

  1. James says:

    I feel like you could have gone farther here than simply eye-balling the data. For one thing, the hottest team each year is by default going to be at the very least a good team, they’re in the playoffs after all. In addition, any team with a winning streak is more likely to have won more games overall and/or more likely to be a better team than not.

    How well did a team with the hottest record do against the other teams with the same or similar overall records, or against teams with the same seeding? It might be better to look at average number of playoff games won than simply Superbowl victories.

    Finally, while 3 out of the last 10 isn’t bad, I’d also be 3 out of the last 10 by just picking the Patriots each year.

    • benjaminmorris says:

      I agree there is much to be said about late-season performance and how well it predicts playoff performance, and probably even a lot more to be said about the implications of streakiness in general. But the impetus for this post was simply my curiosity about whether the yearly media infatuation with this one species of team is justified. Hopefully I will get some of the more hardcore stuff this season.

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