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Game trends: Analyzing late-season mo, third-and-1s; right, Motown?

Dannell Ellerbe and the Ravens defied the odds with a cold December before a championship run. (USATSI)
Dannell Ellerbe and the Ravens defied the odds with a cold December before a championship run. (USATSI)

SB contenders: Do they need to be hot right now?

There's plenty of talk about heading into the playoffs with momentum. Granted most coaches want a hot team late in the season because it feels better, but is it a necessity? This week Pete Carroll said there was a silver lining to the Seahawks' loss in San Francisco because it puts Seattle in a position to still be playing for something with two weeks to go.

I took a look at the past 16 teams to make it to the Super Bowl and how they played in their final four regular-season games leading up to the playoffs. Of course, last year the champion Baltimore Ravens finished the regular season 1-3, so some would believe momentum is overrated. The truth of the matter is the past 16 Super Bowl teams finished up 42-22 -- an average record of 3-1.

Interestingly, the Super Bowl winners have not done as well as the Super Bowl losers in the final month of the regular season. Champs are 18-14 while runners-up are 24-8. There were only two teams to reach the Super Bowl that had losing records in the last month of the season -- Baltimore in 2012 and New Orleans in 2009. Keep an eye on this year's playoff teams that are starting to fade down the stretch. Even if they make it to the playoffs, their chances of getting to the Super Bowl are about 13 percent based on the past eight years.

Third-and-1 situations

Last week the Lions lost a tough game 18-16 to the Ravens. One of the key moments in the game was early in the third quarter with the Ravens leading 9-7. They went three-and-out on their first possession of the half and the Lions took over on their own 37 after a 16-yard punt return.

In the first half, Detroit ran the ball 12 times for 66 yards at 5.5 yards per carry. In that first drive of the third quarter, the Lions ran the ball three times for another 14 yards leading up to a third-and-1 situation at the Baltimore 31. Before that third-and-1 play, the Lions had 15 carries for 80 yards. Detroit elected to pass instead of run with a 48-yard field goal and the lead waiting for them if the play failed to gain a yard. The pass was intercepted and the drive died.

Is it fair to say the Lions should have run the ball in that situation? Their only touchdown in the game was a bounce run by Reggie Bush, and in the first half they were 1 for 5 on third downs with all pass plays before that third-and-1.

It made me think about third-and-1 situations in the NFL over the past six seasons, and given the information I'm about to deliver, you decide what the Lions should have done then and what they should do if the situation arises this week with their playoff hopes on the line.

The Lions were in third-and-1 situations 23 times before last week and were successful running it 11 of 13 times. Detroit's 85 percent success rate running the ball is tied for fifth best in the NFL. As one coach who played Detroit said to me this week, "Man, they have Calvin [Johnson] lined up on third-and-1 just daring you to stop the run and not double him."

The NFL run/pass data on third-and-1 situations says run the ball, and with the Lions at home having success on the ground, they might want that play back. This year, NFL teams have successfully converted 70 percent when they run and 51 percent on passes. The Lions' 85 percent run success rate stands out. Overall for the league since 2007, the success rate is very consistent with 70 percent on runs and 55 percent on passes.

In 2012 Detroit was tied for last in run attempts in third-and-1 situations, converting six of just nine runs. But they addressed that issue this year, and 11 of 13 is a big improvement. I bet we see a run the next time Detroit is in a third-and-1 situation unless the clock says throw the ball.

Playoff scenarios

This time of year there are so many playoff scenarios that it gets tough to follow. You regularly hear players like Ben Roethlisberger say, "All we can do is win the game we have to play and see what happens."

Coaches are wise not to stand in front of their teams and go through the old "If we win and three teams tie or lose we get in as a wild card. But if four teams lose, we have a chance at the division title." One year when I was in the league we had a 4:05 ET game time and we needed three teams to lose in the 1 p.m. time slot. They all did as everyone from the ball boys to the quarterbacks watched the games. We got on the bus and headed out to play Houston knowing if we won we were in. Guess what, we lost.

As I look back on it today we left our game in the hotel watching other teams play. Smart coaches keep it real simple for the players and put the focus on their game only. That being said, there are five head coaches who don't have to spell out any scenarios involving other teams. They can simply say it doesn't matter what any other team does today; if we win we are in the playoffs or secure the division title and/or home field. Seattle wins and gets the division and home field throughout. New Orleans wins and gets the division title and a first-round bye. Carolina wins and gets a playoff spot. Same for San Francisco, and if the Patriots win, they win the division. Every other team in the playoff hunt needs a win and someone else to lose or tie. Hopefully none of those teams are sitting around watching games and losing their focus on what they have to do.

Back-to-back road games

Just as a reminder, keep an eye on teams that are on the road this week after being on the road last week. Teams in the second game of back-to-back road games are 27-35-1 this season. This week the four teams in that situation are New Orleans, Chicago, New England and Arizona. The Saints visit Carolina, the Bears go to Philadelphia, the Patriots are in Baltimore and the Cardinals play in Seattle. Those games are hard enough without hitting the road in back-to-back weekends.

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