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Playing Four Strong Quarters

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    There has come to be a widely espoused perception of the Denver Broncos as a team that has a proclivity for collapsing late in the season.  I must admit that I have, in the past, both bought into and perpetuated this view without questioning it.  The perception of the Broncos as team likely to collapse late in the season appears to have gained much of its support from the fact that they have finished each of the last four seasons by losing 4 of their last 6 games:

2009 - NYG (W), KC (W), Ind (L), Oak (L), Phi (L), KC (L)

2008 - Oak (L), NYJ (W), KC (W), Car (L), Buf (L), SD (L)

2007 - Chi (L), Oak (L), KC (W), Hou (L), SD (L), Min (W)

2006 - KC (L), Sea (L), SD (L), Ari (W), Cin (W), SF (L)

     It has been pointed out by some, and quite rightly so, that using a very arbitrary divison of the season for analysis purposes can be misleading.  So the question becomes, how have the Broncos performed throughout the season, in terms of wins and losses?

Let's take a small jump, and look at some history.

     In order to keep this article within reason, and to be able to compare the 4 seasons mentioned above to similar seasons, I have arbitrarily chosen to focus on the 32 seasons in which the NFL has played a 16-game regular season.  It should be noted that one season (1987) only played 15 games due to a strike.  A second season (1982) will be omitted from this study since it was also a strike shortened season -- which saw only 9 games played.  This will leave us with 31 years to examine.

     I have broken the schedule into 4 quarters (after all, a football game is played by quarters).  I have also included breakdowns by 1st & 2nd halves of the season, and one for how the Broncos stood at the 3/4 of the season mark.  I have also included whether or not the Broncos made it into the playoffs in any given year (it is interesting to note that Denver made it into the post season in 16 out of the 31 years).

 

The 31 Seasons

Year 1st Q 2nd Q 3rd Q 4th Q 1st Half 2nd Half 3/4 Way Final Playoffs
2009 4-0 2-2 2-2 0-4 6-2 2-6 8-4 8-8 No
2008 3-1 1-3 3-1 1-3 4-4 4-4 7-5 8-8 No
2007 2-2 1-3 2-2 2-2 3-5 4-4 5-7 7-9 No
2006 3-1 3-1 1-3 2-2 6-2 3-5 7-5 9-7 No
2005 3-1 3-1 3-1 4-0 6-2 7-1 9-3 13-3 Yes
2004 3-1 2-2 2-2 3-1 5-3 5-3 7-5 10-6 Yes
2003 4-0 1-3 2-2 3-1 5-3 5-3 7-5 10-6 Yes
2002 3-1 3-1 1-3 2-2 6-2 3-5 7-5 9-7 No
2001 3-1 1-3 2-2 2-2 4-4 4-4 6-6 8-8 No
2000 2-2 2-2 4-0 3-1 4-4 7-1 8-4 11-5 Yes
1999 0-4 2-2 2-2 2-2 2-6 4-4 4-8 6-10 No
1998 4-0 4-0 4-0 2-2 8-0 6-2 12-0 14-2 Yes
1997 4-0 3-1 3-1 2-2 7-1 5-3 10-2 12-4 Yes
1996 3-1 4-0 4-0 2-2 7-1 6-2 11-1 13-3 Yes
1995 2-2 2-2 2-2 2-2 4-4 4-4 6-6 8-8 No
1994 0-4 3-1 3-1 1-3 3-5 4-4 6-6 7-9 No
1993 3-1 2-2 2-2 2-2 5-3 4-4 7-5 9-7 Yes
1992 3-1 2-2 2-2 1-3 5-3 3-5 7-5 8-8 No
1991 3-1 3-1 2-2 4-0 6-2 6-2 8-4 12-4 Yes
1990 2-2 1-3 0-4 2-2 3-5 2-6 3-9 5-11 No
1989 3-1 3-1 4-0 1-3 6-2 5-3 10-2 11-5 Yes
1988 1-3 3-1 2-2 2-2 4-4 4-4 6-6 8-8 No
1987* 2-1-1 2-2 4-0 2-1 4-3-1 6-1 8-3-1 10-4-1 Yes
1986 4-0 3-1 2-2 2-2 7-1 4-4 9-3 11-5 Yes
1985 2-2 4-0 2-2 3-1 6-2 5-3 8-4 11-5 No
1984 3-1 4-0 4-0 2-2 7-1 6-2 11-1 13-3 Yes
1983** 2-2 3-1 2-2 2-2 5-3 4-4 7-5 9-7 Yes
1981 3-1 2-2 3-1 2-2 5-3 5-3 8-4 10-6 No
1980 1-3 3-1 3-1 1-3 4-4 4-4 7-5 8-8 No
1979 3-1 2-2 4-0 1-3 5-3 5-3 9-3 10-6 Yes
1978 3-1 2-2 3-1 2-2 5-3 5-3 8-4 10-6 Yes

 

*1987 was a strike season that shortened the regular season to 15 games

**1982 has been omitted due to it being a 9 game season due to a strike.

 

Some Observations About the Data

     The most encouraging thing about the table above is that it shows, when the dust had settled at the end of the season, the Broncos have had 20 winning seasons in the 31 years listed, and they have made it into the post season 16 times.  They appeared in the AFC Championship game 7 times during this span.  They appeared in 5 Super Bowls, and won 2 of them.  So how did they get there?

Win/Loss Records Above, At or Below .500

By Above .500 At .500 Below .500
1st Quarter 21 6 4
2nd Quarter 15 11 5
3rd Quarter 14 14 3
4th Quarter 7 17 7
1st Half 21 6 4
2nd Half 24 4 3
3/4 Season 24 4 3
Final Record 20 7 4

 

     The table above shows that 21 times, Denver ended the first quarter of the season at 3-1 or 4-0, as compared to only posting that kind of a record 7 times during the 4th quarter of the season.  Expanding that out a bit, Denver posted a 5-3 or better record 21 times in the 1st half of the season, and went on to post a 5-3 or better record 24 times in the 2nd half of the season.  Interestingly enough, though, Denver only posted a 9-7 or better record 20 times during that span.

     Perhaps the clearest point shown by the table, in regards to the question of how Denver has performed late in the season is the fact that 54.8% of the time, the Broncos only played .500 ball during the 4th quarter of the year.  Add in the 7 times that they played 1-3 or 0-4 ball in the 4th quarter, and we find that 77.4% of the time, Denver went .500 or worse to close out the season.  Does the justify characterizing the Broncos as a team that collapses late in the season?  Not really.  What it does suggest is that historically, the Broncos have not, on the average, played their best ball in the 4th quarter of the year.  Rather, they've pretty much played average (.500) ball during that final quarter of the year.

     There are some fairly clear consequences of this manner of ending the season:

The 2nd Half of the Season

Not once when the team played under .500 in the 2nd half of the season did the Broncos make the playoffs

3 times .500 ball in the 2nd half was good enough to make the playoffs.

Only twice did the Broncos play above .500 in the 2nd half and not make the playoffs.

14 times, when Denver played above .500 in the 2nd half, they made playoffs.

It seems like a rather obvious statement to say that winning more than half the games in the 2nd half of the season is important if the Broncos want to make the playoffs.  Finishing strong shows up even more clearly when we take a look at the effects of ending the first 3/4 of the season in a strong manner.

3/4 of the Way Through the Season

Not once when the Broncos were below .500 at the 3/4 mark, did they make the playoffs.

Not once when the Bronocs were at .500 at the 3/4 mark, did they make playoffs.

16 times, when the Broncos finished the first 3/4 of the season above .500, they made playoffs.

The fourth quarter finish has also played a role in whether or not the Broncos have made the playoffs.

The 4th Quarter Finish

Only twice have the Broncos finished below .500 in the 4th quarter of the season and made the playoffs.

8 times, Denver has finished at .500 in the 4th quarter and made the playoffs (against 9 times of missing)

Only 1 time has Denver finished the 4th quarter with a record of 3-1 or 4-0 and not made the playoffs.*

*it should be noted that that season (1985), Denver finished the year at 11-5, but lost the tie breakers with the New York Jets and the New England Patriots.  That same year, the Cleveland Browns won their division and went to the post season with an 8-8 record.

     While I am now not particularly convinced  that the Broncos can be legitimately characterized as a team with the propensity for collapsing late in the season, I am of the opinion that the Broncos need to improve how they play out the fourth quarter of each season.  In the last decade, every time Denver has played the 4th quarter of the season by going 3-1 or 4-0 (4 times), they have played in the post season.  Every time they have gone 2-2 or worse in the 4th quarter, they have missed the playoffs.  I, for one, would like to see the Broncos play strong football throughout the first three quarters of the season, but I would especially like to see them finish 2010 with a 3-1 or 4-0 record in the 4th quarter.  The last time they did that (2005), the Broncos played in the AFC Championship game.

Go Broncos!