After the Green Bay Packers dispatched the Minnesota Vikings last week for their fourth straight win, Mike McCarthy turned to one of his favorite themes in five seasons as coach.
“We’ve got our foot on the gas, our hands on the wheel and we’re looking straight ahead,” he said. “That’s what you have to do in November; this is the best time of year for football. November football is critical because it gets you into December when it counts.”
It was another way of saying it’s important for his team to peak late in the year. That was one of former Packers coach Mike Holmgren’s mantras as well. He repeatedly talked about getting his team playing its best football in the season’s stretch run. Seems like a no-brainer.
But as we hit the home stretch for 2010, it’s worth examining how much it really means to play well at the end of the regular season. And if playing well is judged by wins and losses in the stretch run, the evidence says, maybe not all that much.
Look no further than the Packers last season. They won five of their last six games, seven of their last eight, and were as hot as any team in the league. Oddsmakers made them a one-point favorite over Arizona in their wild-card playoff game even though the Packers were on the road. Yet they lost in that playoff opener in overtime.
One game proves nothing, but the playoffs over the last five years similarly show that a team’s record in the stretch run isn’t a particularly good predictor for postseason success. There are multiple examples of teams that finished hot but were knocked out in the first two rounds, and that closed lukewarm but played in the Super Bowl.
The most prominent recent example is Arizona in 2008. Those 9-7 Cardinals finished on a 2-4 downer yet advanced to the Super Bowl, where they lost to Pittsburgh on a last-second touchdown pass.
Likewise, Minnesota last year was only 3-3 in its last six games, including a win in its finale even though it rested key players because its playoff seeding had been wrapped up, yet advanced to the conference championship.
In ’08, Miami and New England were hot teams in the AFC — both closed with four-game winning streaks and 5-1 records in the last six games — yet neither made it to the conference championship.
In ’07, the New York Giants closed 3-3 yet went on the road to win three playoff games and beat undefeated New England in the Super Bowl.
In ’06, Indianapolis closed 3-3 despite playing its starters all way because its seeding wasn’t locked up, yet won the Super Bowl. San Diego (6-0), Baltimore (5-1) and New England (5-1) were the hot teams in the AFC that year.
And in ’05, Pittsburgh played out the season with its starters, closed only 4-2, then won the Super Bowl.
So why do coaches emphasize peaking at the end of the regular season?
No doubt it’s psychologically preferable to go into the playoffs on a run, and there is something to be said for momentum. But what matters far more is optimal health.
The Packers in 2002 on the surface look like the prototypical good team that peaked early and bombed in the playoffs. They went into the regular-season finale needing a win for the No. 1 seeding in the NFC but were blown out 42-17 by the New York Jets, and the next week lost a home playoff game for the first time in franchise history, 27-7 to Atlanta.
But a closer look shows that flameout had little to do with momentum and more to do with that team simply not having it. By the Jets game, the Packers’ offense had lost both starting tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, to season-ending injuries, and halfback Ahman Green had an injured knee that rendered him a shell of the player he’d been. Safety Darren Sharper, the best player on an otherwise modestly talented defense, missed the last two games because of a sprained knee. The team lacked the depth to absorb those losses.
So while coaches feel better going into the playoffs on a winning run, Arizona in ’08 and the Giants in ’07 showed a team can get its momentum starting in the postseason. Think about this: In its second-to-last game in ’08, Arizona lost to New England 47-7. How’s that for finishing on a high note?
This isn’t to say the Packers’ play the last six weeks means next to nothing. Their matchups with Super Bowl contenders Atlanta, New England and the New York Giants will be revealing, and could, for instance, expose a fatal flaw that portends a fall in the playoffs. But recent history shows the outcomes, short of failing to make the playoffs, just as likely won’t mean much either way.
E-mail Pete Dougherty at firstname.lastname@example.org.