Do Hot Teams Really Perform Better in the NFL Playoffs?


Seattle is on fire entering the playoffs (let’s just ignore that Rams game). Washington surged to a playoff appearance by winning 5 of the last 6 games, often in impressive fashion (again, we’ll pretend that what happened against the Cowboys at home didn’t happen). Kansas City enters on a 10-game winning New England, meanwhile, is laboring into the postseason, beset by some offensive injuries and ineffectiveness. They’ve lost 4 of the last 6 games after a 10-0 start, and dropped out of the #1 seed with a loss at Miami. Green Bay has looked downright dreadful at times, often falling behind. They went 4-6 after a 6-0 start, and one of those wins came on a hail mary.

Does it matter? Well, obviously, in general, teams that have performed better over a larger sample size are better teams and have increased chances going forward. But does the ordering matter? That is, can we see momentum building, and project it into January?

Let’s take a look at the facts. Going back to 2002, when the league went to the 8 division format, we’ve got 13 years’ worth of data. I went through all the playoff teams over the last six weeks of the regular season and put together a quick formula to try to capture “hotness” or lack thereof. I added the wins and the point spread record to get a number (pushes or ties count as half wins). So a team that went 5-1 both straight up and against the spread would get a “10”, like Seattle and Washington this year. Conversely, New England went 2-4 both straight up and against the spread, so they get a “4”.


Super Bowl teams over the last 13 years have averaged a score of 7.3 (4.1 wins, 3.2 wins ATS). The other playoff teams that did not reach the Super Bowl averaged a score of 7.5 (4.2 wins, 3.3 wins ATS).

That tells you that “being hot” is overrated. The Super Bowl teams look no different than other playoff teams as a group.

We can also look at the groups at the extremes. Seven of the 10 teams that entered with a score of 4 or worse (like the Patriots), won the first playoff game. Four of them reached the Super Bowl (Carolina 2003, Arizona 2008, New Orleans 2009, and Baltimore 2012).

Conversely, the 11 hottest teams (with scores of 10.5 or better), went 5-6 in their playoff openers, and two of the 11 reached Super Bowl (New England 2003 and Seattle 2014).

Taking the coldest teams (those with a score of 5 or fewer) versus the hottest teams (score of 10 or more, like Seattle and Washington), we get the following:

COLD TEAMS (24 total): 26-21 in the playoffs, 30-17 ATS, 5 Super Bowl Appearances, 3 Titles

HOT TEAMS (23 total): 22-21 in the playoffs, 16-26-1 ATS, 3 Super Bowl Appearances, 2 Titles

Predicting when a team will turn from hot to cold, unless it’s accompanied by clear injury issues, is difficult (last year’s Arizona team heading into the playoffs was “cold” with Ryan Lindley at QB, but also not the same team).

The teams that emerged from playing in the wildcard round to reach the Super Bowl show how difficult it is to identify who will get hot. Of the eight teams to advance to a Super Bowl since 2002 by winning three games, none had a score of higher than 7 by adding wins and ATS record.

Only Pittsburgh in 2005 (who magically became one of the best teams when Ben Roethlisberger came back from injury) had a winning record over the final six games. Here’s a summary of the teams to advance to the Super Bowl from the wildcard round since 2002:

Only with hindsight can we look back and say when a team got hot. The Giants went all out to beat the Patriots in 2007 in week 17, for example, and that carried into the playoffs. But good luck identifying it. More teams that have looked like the Packers have gone on a postseason run than those that are on fire entering the wildcard round.

[images via USA Today Sports Images]