Two years ago, I looked at teams that were 8-8 or worse, but finished stronger than their record based on a simple weighting system of wins at the end of the season. Here was the upshot:
It would appear that, for those teams generally out of the playoff picture at the end of the season, the way they finished does have some bearing on the next season. The strong finishers out of the 4-win group were better than the average and weak finishers for the entire group. And starting with the 5-win group, the strong finishers have been better than teams that finished with better win totals, but did not finish strong. However, finishing poorly doesn't seem to be a worse indicator than simply playing about the same as you had all year.
Our strong finishers also outperformed the league average, even though they averaged only 6.3 wins the previous season. A league average team would have made the playoffs about 39% of the time for this period, and reached a conference championship game about 14% of the time.
That said, that post did not adjust for *how* the teams won, counting a 1 point win the same as a blowout. Now, using the team game finder, we can set up a quick query to identify strong finishing teams. I ran a sort for all teams since 1978 with a non-winning record, who had a point differential of +36 or better over the final 6 games of the regular season. You can view the complete list here.
Thirty teams appear on that list, including two from 2009. For the previous 28, 16 of them would go on to make the playoffs (57%), 8 would reach a conference championship game (29%), 4 played in a Super Bowl, and 2 won it all. For comparison, that is about the same number of teams that have played in a Super Bowl since 1990 and returned to the playoffs.
Over the last fifteen years, 12 teams have met this criteria, and it is a virtual who's who of surprise teams, with 10 of them making the playoffs. The 1998 "Dirty Bird" Falcons knocked off the San Francisco dynasty and went 14-2 and all the way to the Super Bowl. The 1999 Buccaneers came within a few plays of knocking off the Rams in the Super Bowl. The 2000 Raiders and 2000 Ravens met in the conference championship game, with the Ravens going on to win the Super Bowl. The 2003 Chiefs got off to a 10-0 start en route to 13-3. The 2005 Panthers bounced back and went on an impressive playoff run with road victories at New York and Chicago. The 2009 Chargers went 13-3 and won the division by five games. Last, but certainly not least, the 2009 Saints rode a six game stretch from the end of the previous year where they scored 32.8 per game, and won the only Super Bowl in franchise history.
So who are the strong finishers from last year? One is everybody's trendy pick for sleeper team, the San Francisco 49ers. The other I don't hear too much buzz about, but it is a team that got horrible quarterback play for the first two months, but where the quarterback who will be starting this year came off the bench to go 4-1 over the last month with a 7.6 yards per attempt, and played five teams that finished 8-8 or better over the last six weeks, including blowout wins over Minnesota and the New York Giants. That team is the Carolina Panthers. I think one of those two teams (if not both) has a chance to have a special year in 2010.