Does momentum at the end of the NFL regular season predict success in the playoffs?
With three weeks remaining in the 2015 regular season, NFL teams have separated themselves into one of three categories: bound for the playoffs, out of the playoffs, or fighting to enter the playoffs.
Consider the Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers. As NFC South division champions, the Panthers have already clinched a position in the playoffs. On the other hand, it is statistically impossible for the Browns to reach the playoffs because they have the worst record in the league (3-11) and are seven wins behind the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. Meanwhile, the Steelers find themselves at the cusp of the postseason as they, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the New York Jets fight for a wild-card berth in the AFC.
NFL teams fighting for a postseason position need to win the final games of the regular season. This is certainly true for the Steelers, Chiefs, and Jets since each team has a 9-5 record, and there are only two wild-card entries. On the other hand, NFL teams with a guaranteed position in the playoffs can make one of two decisions at the season’s end: rest starting players for the postseason or use them to win the final games of the regular season regardless of postseason standings.
And these two decisions differ in their prioritization of player rest versus team momentum.
This article seeks to evaluate which decision is more conducive to playoff success, but we encounter an immediate issue. While team momentum can be quantified, player fatigue cannot. Therefore, we can only judge the impact of team momentum on postseason success. Namely, does a team’s record in the final two weeks of the regular season predict postseason success?
Conventional wisdom certainly suggests that finishing the regular season in strong fashion is essential to success in the playoffs. Consider the story of the 2010-11 Green Bay Packers. That season, the Packers clinched bottom seed in the NFC playoff bracket by winning their final two games and went on to win the Super Bowl.
However, the 2009-10 New Orleans Saints lost the final three games of the regular season but still won the Super Bowl. So does regular season momentum truly boost playoff performance or not?
To answer this question, NFL teams that made the playoffs during the last 10 years were separated into one of three categories: teams that finished the regular season with a 2-0 record, teams that finished with a 1-1 record, and teams that finished with an 0-2 record. 2-0 teams were designated “high momentum;” 1-1 teams were designated “medium momentum;” and 0-2 teams were designated “low momentum.” Then, the cumulative playoff record of high momentum teams, medium momentum teams, and low momentum teams was recorded.
During the last 10 NFL postseasons, 56 high momentum teams won 47.5 percent of postseason games (standard error 4.3 percent), 53 medium momentum teams won 53 percent of postseason games (standard error 4.9 percent), and 11 low momentum teams won a 44.4 percent of postseason games (standard error 10.8 percent).
According to a one-way ANOVA, there is no significant difference in postseason success between playoff teams that win, lose, or split the last two games of the regular season.
Thus, the answer to our question is no―a team’s record in the final two weeks of the regular season does not predict playoff success. Case closed. Analytics debunk the myth of momentum into the postseason.
This data has especially important implications for the Carolina Panthers. At 14-0 the Panthers have an opportunity to become the fifth team in NFL history to finish the regular season undefeated. Other teams that accomplished this feat include the 1972 Dolphins, the 1934 Chicago Bears, the 1942 Chicago Bears, and the 2007 New England Patriots.
In weeks 16 and 17, the Panthers face the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Panthers will likely beat the Falcons this upcoming Sunday considering that the latter have lost the last seven of nine games. In fact, Odd Sharks favors the Panthers by seven points. Therefore, in the final week of the regular season Ron Rivera looks to face a decision: rest starters and risk a week 17 loss or go for the perfect 16-0 record.
The data from our analysis suggests that either decision would not significantly impact the Panthers’ postseason success. So why not go for the undefeated season? Even if the Panthers don’t win the Super Bowl, the feat would be remembered. The 2007-08 Patriots will always be remembered for their perfect season despite their loss to the fifth-seeded New York Giants in the championship game.
One might argue that our original analysis is too superficial to encourage the Panthers to go for perfection in their final weeks. This rebuttal is valid since our original analysis considers the impact of weeks 16 and 17 on postseason success. Thus a new question arises: Does a win or loss in week 17 predict an NFL team’s postseason success?
In order to answer this question, NFL teams that made the playoffs during the past 10 years were separated into one of two categories: teams that finished the regular season with a win and teams that finished the regular season with a loss. Then, the cumulative playoff record of each category was calculated.
According to a two-sample t-test, NFL teams that win or lose week 17 have similar postseason success. During the last 10 NFL postseasons, teams that finish the regular season with a win have won 50.7 percent of postseason games (standard error 3.7 percent) while teams that finish the regular season with a loss have won 47.6 percent of postseason games (standard error 5.9 percent).
There you have it, Coach Rivera. Go for perfection if the opportunity is available after week 16. But if you end up losing week 17, and even week 16, fret not. Your chances to succeed in the playoffs are not in danger.
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