It’ll be hard for Championship Sunday to compete with the football we all witnessed in the divisional round. All four playoff games were decided in the final moments on either a last-second field goal or touchdown. And in the case of the incomparable Kansas City Chiefs-Buffalo Bills showdown, the final moments featured both.
But last week wasn’t the apex of the NFL season — it was only the second round of the playoffs. All four teams still have two games to go before they can hoist the Lombardi Trophy. So with the emotional highs of last-second victory fresh on everyone’s mind, the threat of a subsequent letdown exists.
The emotional and physical toll of an epic football game cannot be understated. So, Yahoo Sports looked at what happens after down-to-the-wire playoff games. We found 67 non-Super Bowl playoff games decided by six points or fewer either in the final minute or overtime. Then, we looked at the winning team’s next game to see how they responded. We qualified a “letdown” performance as either a double-digit loss or a failure to score 20 points in a close loss.
It’s not an exact science, but the numbers are striking.
Teams are almost as equally likely to put up a clunker following an emotional win as they are to be unaffected by it. Thirty-three teams stumbled badly the following week, while 34 teams managed to lose in a close game or win. A third of those 34 teams – 11 – even went on to win the Super Bowl that year.
This means it’s hard to predict if a team coming off a monster victory will falter the following week unless you have context behind each game. Namely, who’s on the winning team and who’s on the opponents' team the next week.
Let's look at a few recent examples.
Remember the "Minneapolis Miracle" in the 2017 season's divisional round? Where Stefon Diggs hauled in a last-second catch and sprinted to a game-winning touchdown to lift the Minnesota Vikings past the New Orleans Saints? The very next week, the Vikings didn’t score a single point in the second half and lost 27-10 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game.
Rams fans will remember three seasons ago when Los Angeles followed up its incredible overtime win over the Saints in the NFC championship with an absolute dud of a Super Bowl LIII performance against the New England Patriots. But context is even more important here because the Rams had Jared Goff, while the Patriots had Tom Brady and a top-seven defense.
One of the best examples of an emotional letdown from a fantastic team occurred in the 1981 AFC championship game. The then-San Diego Chargers were coming off their “Epic in Miami” overtime win over the Miami Dolphins in the Divisional Round, which our own Frank Schwab picked as the second-greatest playoff game of all time, but immediately followed it up with a blowout 27-7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals a week later. The Chargers boasted the No. 1 offense led by Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, yet failed to score more than seven points against the Bengals. Granted, the Chargers went from the heat of Miami to the tundra of Cincinnati in a game dubbed “The Freezer Bowl” for its wind chill of 59 degrees below zero, but this is the epitome of coming down hard from an emotional high.
There are plenty of instances where teams seized on their momentum, though. The 2006 Indianapolis Colts, 2007 New York Giants, 2009 Saints, 2011 Giants and 2018 Patriots all won the Super Bowl two weeks after overtime wins in the conference championships. Even the 2012 Baltimore Ravens went on to upset the Patriots and then beat the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl after narrowly beating the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos in overtime in the divisional round.
So with regards to the four teams left, it’s hard to guess who, if any, will have a letdown after winning emotionally draining games this past weekend. It’s certainly been a much more recent pattern for emotional letdowns in the past six playoffs; six of the past eight winners under our criteria since 2015 got blown out the following game.
Context could illuminate a prediction, then. The Chiefs look least likely to follow up their wild win over the Bills with a bad loss to the Bengals because, well, they have Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The Rams, too, boast an impressive roster on offense and defense that could just muscle a win over the 49ers in the NFC title game.
Or, we could just get another fantastic weekend of football before the ultimate showdown on February 13 in Super Bowl LVI.