Every team that wins a championship got hot at the right time. It is, however, likely more a descriptive phrase about what did happen, rather than some sort of inevitable turning of the hotness valve. Seattle is the current hottest team in the NFL, having won the last three games by an average score of 50 to 10. What does it likely mean as we head to the postseason?
Well, just like in baseball where momentum is the next starting pitcher, in football momentum is the next matchup. I went through all playoff teams since 1978 (except for the 1982 strike season), and sorted teams by the point differential in the first 10 games vs. the final 6 games. I compared the “hot” teams versus the “cold” teams by comparing their point difference per game late vs. early.
Using that method, Seattle right now would rank third in terms of hotness compared to their first ten games. Only the 2010 Patriots and the 1989 Steelers (who started horribly early and played well late) rate higher. In terms of just raw performance, Seattle is one of just six playoff teams to average greater than a 20 point per game margin over the final six games (2010 Patriots, 1987 49ers, 1984 49ers, 1978 Cowboys, and 2011 Saints).
You might notice that the 2010 Patriots were the hottest team ever entering the postseason. They lost at home to the Jets in a massive upset. The 1987 49ers also lost at home to the Minnesota Vikings, in the loss that prevented them from putting up what could have been three straight titles (They later won in both ’88 and ’89).
Those are just two examples, though. I compared the twenty hottest and coldest teams entering the postseason, compared to their play in the first ten games. To do so, I used the regular season simple rating system (SRS) to calculate an expected score and actual score for each playoff matchup. If hot teams tend to stay hot, then we should see them outperform their overall regular season SRS, and vice versa for cold teams.
Hot Teams went 16-19 in the postseason. They would have been expected to go 17-18 based on the overall SRS of both teams, not taking into account how hot or cold they were in the most recent games. More importantly, the difference between the actual and expected point difference was +0.07 points per game. Basically, they played exactly as you would expect, as a group, based on knowing their overall performance without giving weight to recent results.
The Cold Teams went 19-18, when they would have been expected to go 22-15, and the difference between actual and expected points was -0.61. Maybe some of the cold teams were dealing with injuries and it pulled it down a bit, but the performance was still closer to the overall rating than the “cold” stretch as a group. Recent examples like Arizona reaching the Super Bowl after the 2008 season or the Saints winning the Super Bowl in 2009 (remember, they lost their last 3 games) cast doubt on cold teams being unable to switch it back to hot.
Plenty exist the other way too. Sometimes hot stays hot, sometimes not. The most similar teams to Seattle might be those that started with fewer than 7 wins in the first ten, then had large point differentials and a winning streak late. The teams that most fit that criteria are 1978 Dallas (lost in Super Bowl), 1995 Detroit (destroyed in wildcard round), 2007 San Diego (upset Indianapolis in semis, lost to undefeated Patriots), 2000 Baltimore (won Super Bowl), and 2009 Green Bay (lost to Arizona in overtime shootout).
Seattle should be considered as a serious contender for the Super Bowl, based on their overall body of work. They are currently second in point differential to New England, and rated at or near the top in most objective measures, from Football Outsiders to Advanced NFL Stats to the simple rating System. I’m just not sure how much more of a contender they should be considered because they have been dominating the last three weeks. Playoff history would suggest it is better to just forget when those performances happened and just look at their overall results.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]