Over the course of a marathon NFL season, almost every team -- even future champions -- look hapless at one time or another. In 1970, the Dallas Cowboys lost a "Monday Night Football" game to the Cardinals, 38-0 -- then went on to make it to the Super Bowl that same season. Early in our championship season of 2000, the Ravens team I was coaching went five games without scoring a touchdown, prompting a change at quarterback. Last season, the Broncos went through a stretch where they lost four of seven games from early November to mid-December, often looking dreadful in the process.
But if a team is sturdy, resilient and fortunate, it can get through the rough patch, fix what needs to be fixed and start building some steam for the playoffs. After their blowout loss to the Cardinals, those 1970 Cowboys reeled off five straight wins to close out the regular season. After a 5-4 start in 2000, my Ravens won their last seven, becoming exactly the sort of team nobody wanted to play come the postseason. It was the same with last year's Broncos, who recovered from their missteps to win the last two games of the regular season and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, then won Super Bowl 50.
Seasons never go as you expect them to, and you're always dealing with injuries, scheduling quirks and even weather as you jockey for playoff positioning. But the best teams adapt and find a way to build momentum at the best time of the year, in December.
In 2016, these teams are peaking at the right time:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have won seven out of their last nine, including five in a row, marking their longest winning streak since 2002, when they eventually went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII over the Raiders. During this five-game stretch, it's been coordinator Mike Smith's defense that has really found the groove, allowing just over 12 points per game (including this past Sunday against the Saints, when Tampa held Drew Brees and the No. 2 scoring offense in the NFL to a measly 11 points). Not only have the Bucs owned the league's best scoring defense since Week 10, they have also forced a league-high 14 turnovers (at least two in every game) during this five-game winning streak.
Offensively, Jameis Winston has settled in -- we're not seeing the kinds of roller-coaster outings we saw earlier this year. Consider Winston's output in the first quarter of the season: four touchdown passes in Week 1, four picks in Week 2, three touchdown passes in Week 3, two picks in Week 4. In his last nine games, however, Winston has 15 touchdown passes against just four interceptions -- and because of that, the Bucs lead the NFL in turnover differential (plus-15) since Week 5. Winston has exhibited an elusiveness under pressure that is somewhat reminiscent of early Ben Roethlisberger, and he's developed a real chemistry with nearly unstoppable wideout Mike Evans. The recovery of running back Doug Martin, who missed six games beginning in Week 3 while dealing with a hamstring injury, will only help the offense.
The 8-5 Bucs -- who currently project as the NFC's sixth seed -- are very much for real, though they'll have to prove it down the stretch, as they travel to the Cowboysthis week, then turn around and play the Saints for the second time in three weeks before finishing with a dangerous and proud Panthers squad.
Coached by Chuck Noll disciple Mike Mularkey, 7-6 Tennessee is a fundamentally sound and bruising team that has won three of four and is a legitimate contender in an AFC South that can likely be had with just a 9-7 record. In style and substance, the Titans can be compared to the team with the best record in the NFL, the 11-2 Cowboys. With their solid front lines and young, composed quarterbacks avoiding costly mistakes, the Cowboys and the Titansare Nos. 2 and 3 in the league in rushing yards. Both squads can run the ball down your throat with a physicality unmatched by other teams around the NFL.
Despite a dismal day passing (6 of 20 for only 88 yards) on Sunday, Marcus Mariota still refused to turn the ball over while the Titans outrushed the defending champion Broncos, 180-18. (Over the past month and a half, Mariota might have found a legitimate go-to receiving threat in Rishard Matthews, who has five touchdown catches in his past six games.) It says a lot about a team when you can win while having your worst offensive outing of the season, because your defense steps up and has its best performance of the year. Even in 2016, a steady running game and a solid defense can translate into wins.
Green Bay Packers
Remember when we were all sitting around asking, "What's wrong with Aaron Rodgers?" Well, don't look now, but Aaron Rodgers leads the NFL in touchdown passes (32) and has been absolutely white-hot during the Packers' three-game winning streak. It didn't happen overnight, either -- Rodgers has thrown at least two touchdown passes for eight weeks in a row, as the Packers have relied ever more on their passing game in the wake of injuries to running backs Eddie Lacyand James Starks.
But much like the Buccaneers, the Packers have turned the corner because of their defense. Coordinator Dom Capers has taken a lot of heat this season -- because of injuries, he has had to try a lot of different things, and sometimes that gets you in trouble. But when you find the right balance, it can also generate six takeaways, as the defense did against the Seahawkson Sunday. And that was just the latest strong showing for a unit on its own three-game hot streak, having held its last three opponents under 14 points. Prior to that, the defense hadn't held an opponent under 30 points in four straight games -- which is how Green Bay could have a four-game losing skid even as the offense was averaging 26.75 points in those four games. The Packers are 7-1 this season when holding opponents under 30 points. Under 30 points is a very attainable threshold!
They're still two games behind the NFC North-leading Lions and one game removed from the final NFC wild-card spot, but if they keep playing like this, not only will the Packers (7-6) qualify for the postseason, but they can't be counted out for the division title, and they are more than capable of making a deep run in January.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs might be the hottest team in the NFL, having won eight of their last nine (and 21 of their last 25, including playoffs), but it's been the most recent three games that have been really impressive. The Chiefs traveled to the defending champion Broncos and NFC South-leading Atlanta, then hosted the 10-2 Raiders ... and went 3-0. But the hard thing about the Chiefs is that they often don't pass the "eye test." For all the weapons in that offense -- game-breaker Tyreek Hill, formidable tight end Travis Kelce, Andy Reid's often-ingenious play-calling -- the unit has looked out of sorts for long stretches. That said, they are resilient. The Chiefs beat the Raiders last Thursday despite posting a minus-3 turnover differential; that's almost always a death sentence, but not for these Chiefs. This is the same team that was outgained 1,232-830 in a three-week span against the Jaguars, Panthers and Buccaneers -- and somehow still managed to win two of the three games.
The Chiefs still have to adapt to the loss of veteran run-stopper Derrick Johnson at inside linebacker, but the recent return of a healthy and dangerous Justin Houston to a team that has other edge rushers like Dee Ford and Tamba Hali makes them an imposing playoff opponent. Kansas City has scored seven non-offensive touchdowns, the most in the NFL this season -- in fact, the defense and special teams have combined to account for 49 percent of the Chiefs' total points. My 2000 Super Bowl-winning Ravens team scored 46.5 percent of its points on defense or special teams, but that was a different time, and I'm not sure that formula holds up in today's game like it did nearly 20 years ago. Still, there is no denying that the Chiefs find a way to win, and that alone is the sign of a good football team.
Much like the Chiefs, the Lions find a way to win. They have eight fourth-quarter comebacks (most in the NFL since in 1950) and have won three games in which they failed to score more than 20 points -- including Sunday's victory over the Bears, when they won on quarterback Matthew Stafford's first rushing touchdown of the season. The biggest difference between the Lions and Chiefs, though, are the opponents they are beating. Five of the Lions' last eight wins have come against teams that currently have losing records, and two of the other three wins have come against a Vikings team that has been on a downward spiral for nearly two months.
Obviously, the success of the Lions will be highly dependent on the health of Stafford, who dislocated the middle finger on his throwing hand. And while he currently plans to play through it, we saw how Raiders quarterback Derek Carr performed while playing witha dislocated pinky fingeragainst Kansas City last Thursday (Carr posted a 41.5 percent completion rate, 117 passing yards and a 49.1 passer rating). The margin for error with the Lions is miniscule -- they can't afford the potential NFL MVP to be off his game.
One more note: In the end, nothing generates momentum like winning. By that criteria, you know who else has been "hot?" Both the New England Patriots (who've won eight out of nine) and the Dallas Cowboys (who won 11 straight before Sunday night's upset loss to the Giants). We don't think of them as having momentum, because they've both been excellent all year long. There are concerns about the Patriots' defense (and, after Monday night, their special teams) and concerns about the Cowboys' passing game. But if those two teams can win out, they'll both be home throughout the playoffs and serve as the standard against which all those other clubs with momentum will be judged.