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How Important Is It for Playoff Teams to Build Late-Season Momentum?

After getting off to a hot start being the only 11-0 team in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have dropped three straight. It’s not just that the Steelers are losing, it’s that they are losing to sub-.500 teams. Falling to both the Washington Football Team and the Cincinnati Bengals has people wondering: Is Pittsburgh still a legitimate contender?

Ben Roethlisberger, who turns 39 in March, struggled mightily against Cincinnati on Monday night.

“There may be some level of concern with Ben,” said former front-office exec Terry Bradway. “You sometimes worry about older quarterbacks being able to perform at a consistently high level late in December, into January, especially one coming off an injury.”

Roethlisberger certainly isn’t the only problem. The Steelers were not only outplayed Monday night – they were out-physicaled. That’s not something you normally associate with any Pittsburgh team under Mike Tomlin.

It won’t be easy for the Steelers to reverse this trend and get hot again before the playoffs, becase they end the regular season with tough games against Indianapolis and Cleveland.

Will Pittsburgh be able to make a Super Bowl run with little-to-no momentum going into the postseason? You’ve got to go back to 2009 for the best example of a team being able to flip the switch in the postseason. The Saints started 13-0 that season, lost their final three regular-season games and then went on to win Super Bowl XLIV.

But the 2009 Saints are the exception to the rule. Looking at the teams that played in the last 10 Super Bowls, recent history does not bode well for Pittsburgh.

Looking at the last five regular-season games from the Super Bowl winners over the last 10 years:

  • The 2012 Baltimore Ravens are the only team in the last decade to have a losing record in their last five games of the regular season (1-4)
  • These teams averaged 3.2 wins in their last five regular season games
  • Excluding Baltimore, these teams averaged 3.4 wins in their last five regular-season games

Examining the last five regular-season games from the Super Bowl runners-up over the last 10 years:

  • Every single team had a winning record in their last five regular-season matchups
  • They averaged just under 3.9 wins in their last five games of the season
  • 70% of these teams had a record of 4-1 or better

When looking at the Super Bowl winners and runners-up together, the 2012 Ravens were the only team that entered postseason play with a losing record in their last five games. When combined, these teams averaged 3.55 wins in their final five games.

Gaining Momentum

With two games left in the 2020 season, these teams are getting hot at the right time:

Baltimore Ravens (9-5)

Piecing it together in December has been a developing trend for the Ravens over the past couple of seasons. According to ESPN, Baltimore is 12-2 in the month of December since 2018, outscoring opponents 398-161 (best record in NFL during this time span). After their loss to the Patriots in Week 10, the Ravens have really stepped up their game as an entire unit.

They have won three of their last four games, one of them being a thrilling victory over a quality Cleveland Browns team. The schedule is working in their favor coming down the stretch, with games against the 5-9 Giants and the 3-10 Bengals to close out the year. They could very easily go 5-0 in their last five regular season games to finish 11-5.

Indianapolis Colts (10-4)

The Colts have been an up-and-down team this season, but are currently sitting at 10-4 and are poised to make a playoff run. Indianapolis has won four of their last five, doing so with balance on the offensive side of the ball.

They are hitting their stride in the run game at just the right time. Indianapolis has run for over 100 yards in each of their last three contests and are averaging just about 150 yards per game during this stretch. Rookie RB Jonathan Taylor has come back from COVID with a new sense of urgency -- averaging 108 yards in each of the past three weeks, while also tallying 3 TDs.

Philip Rivers and the Colts have the struggling Steelers in a big Week 16 matchup that will likely have implications on playoff seeding. The Colts close out the regular season hosting Jacksonville and looking to avenge a Week 1 upset. If Indy can pull off a win in each of these two matchups, they, too, will go 5-0 to close out the regular season.

Buffalo Bills (11-3)

Josh Allen and the Bills have held their own all season long, but they have really started to come into their own in the past couple of weeks. Buffalo has won four of five, the one loss coming as a result of the infamous “Hail Murray.”

The Bills have two divisional opponents to close out the year. New England is officially out of the playoff hunt but there is no doubt Bill Belichick will throw everything he has at the Bills in hopes of knocking them down in AFC playoff seeding. Buffalo will close out the season vs. the Dolphins, who are currently still in the hunt for a playoff spot. Getting a win in each of these games would give the Bills all the momentum they need to make some noise in the postseason.

Losing Momentum

The Steelers, meanwhile, aren’t the only team falling off as of late:

New Orleans Saints (10-4)

The Saints have dropped out of the No. 1 seed in the NFC after losing two straight games. At one point this season, the Saints had a stretch where they won nine consecutive games. Could they have peaked too soon?

After missing some time with broken ribs, Drew Brees will be looking to get back in rhythm with the offense to end the regular season. Lucky for him, the Saints have the Vikings and Panthers left on the schedule, two opponents who should allow for New Orleans to end the season on a positive note.

Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)

John Gruden’s Raiders have dropped four of their last five, with their one win being a last-second victory over the Jets, who at the time were still winless. This comes after the Raiders started 6-3, and were making a case for a playoff spot.

Defense and the running game have been an issue for Las Vegas. In four of these five games, the defense has allowed 30-plus points to opposing offenses. The Raiders have only rushed for 100-plus yards once during this five-game stretch, against the Chargers in their overtime loss. If you exclude this game from the last five, the Raiders are averaging only 70 yards on the ground. The Raiders will need to win out to even have a shot at the playoffs.