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:
- The seeding of many teams are frequently sealed or near-sealed weeks before the playoffs begin, leaving them with little incentive to compete fully.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
AFC: San Diego: Won 11, lost divisional
NFC: Dallas: Won 3, lost divisional
AFC: Indianapolis: Won 9, lost wildcard
NFC: Atlanta: Won 3, lost wildcard
AFC: New England: Won 16, lost Superbowl
NFC: Washington: Won 4, lost wildcard
AFC: San Diego: Won 10, lost divisional
NFC: Philadelphia: Won 5, lost divisional
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)
NFC: Pittsburg: Won 14, lost AFC championship
AFC: Tie: Won 2: Seattle: lost Superbowl; St. Louis: lost divisional; Green Bay: lost wildcard
AFC: New England: Won 12, won Superbowl
NFC: Green Bay: Won 4, lost divisional
AFC: Tennessee: Won 5, lost AFC championship
NFC: NY Giants: Won 4, lost wildcard
AFC: Patriots: Won 6, won Superbowl
NFC: Rams: Won 6, lost Superbowl
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.