Four Games in December: The Line Between Winning and Losing in the NFL

Andrew StevensCorrespondent IJanuary 1, 2009

Being a New York Jets fan, your writer understands the value of winning (or not winning) late-season games in the National Football League. This is very evident in the NFL, particularly when it comes to the Jets, but also critical for all teams.

A Jets-specific statistic from a previous article stated in stark terms New York's December records: 62 percent of the Decembers in Jets history have ended with losing records. The other 38 percent ended in either a .500 record or a winning record. An inability to win late-season games plagues the franchise. This year's disaster was par for the course.

As much as Jets fans feels the pain of December failure, this year they are not the only fans to suffer. Across the NFL, it is clear the Jets are not the only team stuck in a late-season malaise. 

The Dallas Cowboys, a flagship NFL franchise, have struggled mightily in December and collapsed this year late. Many questions are now being asked about Wade Phillips, the Cowboys' head coach, and his ability to lead the team. 

The  Denver Broncos, needing just one win late in the season to secure a playoff berth, lost to inferior opponents and failed to make the playoffs. The questions are no longer asked to Mike Shanahan, the  Broncos coach for the last decade-plus. He was fired the day before New Year's Eve. 

Other collapses include the Tampa Bay Bucs (started 9-3 and now out of the playoffs) and the Buffalo Bills (lost 3 of 4 in December and now out of the playoffs). Both of these teams started strong and failed down the stretch. Tampa Bay is particularly striking. 

As mentioned, they won nine of 12 to start the year and didn't win another game. Their vaunted defense failed when it matter most, giving up big yardage to a mediocre Oakland Raiders team on the last game of the season.

The other side of these collapses are late-season winning streaks. The Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers, and Philadelphia Eagles all won at least three games in December, thereby cementing their opportunity to play postseason football.

In particular, the contrast between the Eagles and Cowboys could not be more glaringly obvious. On the last day of the season, with both teams needing a win to get into the playoffs, the Eagles throttled the Cowboys 44-6 (the Eagles forced five turnovers). Any Dallas fan worth their salt should be embarrassed by such a disgraceful performance.

Winning in December is critical because it builds momentum for a postseason run. A failure to win December games will result in either a loss of a playoff position or a lack of momentum going into the playoffs in January. 

Even if a season looks bleak, winning at least three games in December can change a team's fortunes quite a bit. To paraphrase the legendary Bill Parcells, the formula for success in the NFL is quite simple: run the football, stop the run, and win in December.