3. Does momentum matter heading into the playoffs?
This is such an open-ended question, and it can be as focused or protracted as we want, so let’s first set some parameters for the question. The longest current win streak by any NFL team heading into the postseason is — you might be surprised — four games.
One is the Chicago Bears. The other is an AFC team. Can you guess?
Yes, that would be the Colts, who beat the Titans (then winners of four straight) last week to get into the playoffs. Can we say they’re the hottest team in the conference field right now? There’s certainly a argument to be made, especially as they had won five straight prior to their 6-0 clunker of a loss to the Jaguars. That’s been Indy’s only setback since Week 6.
But what about the team they face? The Texans started 0-3 and ripped off 11 wins in their next 13 tries. That might be defined as hot. Of course, one of those losses came to the Colts at home in Week 14, and Houston missed a golden chance to lock up a bye by losing at Philly. So that’s only a 2-2 finish after a scorching middle portion of the season.
The Ravens are winners of six of seven since the bye when Jackson took over at QB. They’re playing some of their best ball of the season now, even in the 27-24 loss at Kansas City that came down to a few wild conversions late by Mahomes and Co.
Like the Texans, the Chargers overcame a poor start to enter the dance. They’re on an 11-2 run as well, but just like Houston, they also lost just to a team (Baltimore) they recently faced — and this rematch is on the road.
The funny part about this is that of the top two seeds, the Chiefs and Patriots, neither can really be called hot. The Chiefs are 3-3 down the stretch, which was preceded by an unimpressive win over the three-win Cardinals, and they blew three separate 14-point leads in their only home loss of the season to the Chargers.
New England won eight of nine games and was on the verge of making it nine of 10 prior to the “Miami Miracle” loss to the Dolphins. That was followed by a bad loss to the Steelers. Two losses in December for a Bill Belichick-coached team? The last time that happened, in 2012, the Patriots were the two seed and were beat up in the AFC title game to the top-seeded Broncos.
Of course, both the Chiefs and Patriots blew out their lesser Week 17 opponents.
It begs the question: Does any of this even matter?
Recent history suggests maybe not. The Eagles lost two December games last year sandwiched around three narrow victories. The team they beat in Super Bowl LII, the Patriots, went 11-1 to finish the 2017 regular season. The Patriots and Falcons both steamrolled into the playoffs and eventually the Super Bowl with strong finishes down the stretch in 2016, but the Broncos — shaky late amid a QB change — beat the 15-1 Panthers the year before that.
It’s hard to discount what the Texans and Colts have done during their magical runs, nor can we ignore how transformative the past two months have been for a team such as the Ravens. But those elements also do not portend Super Bowl destinies, of course.
Momentum feels like a faulty measurement heading into the postseason. Some teams are able to elevate their play once the stakes have been raised, and others clearly cannot. Consider this a new season starting Saturday.