“Can the Cardinals just turn it on after weeks of poor play? I don't think so,” asked an idiot, amateur, 0-for-4, below-the-line pundit recently. Arizona proceeded to defeat the visiting, and strongly favoured, Atlanta Falcons last weekend. Said idiot amateur pundit – you’ll never guess who it was - had fallen victim to the Momentum Fallacy.
The Cardinals had lost 4 of the 6 games leading up to that Wild Card match-up with the Falcons, their two wins in that period coming at the expense of two of the League’s weakest teams, St. Louis and Seattle. Meanwhile, the Falcons had won 3 straight, and 5 of their last 6; this was a leading reason why most experts, and a certain ex-pat, wrongly backed the away side.
In the event, the Cardinals emphasized their previously-lacking running game, and featured an unexpectedly aggressive defence, to confound, and eventually defeat, the visitors.
Over in San Diego, the hosts had won four in a row, their guests nine straight. Plenty of momentum on both sides, but 9 beats 4, right? Unfortunately for Peyton Manning’s Colts, momentum did not bring triumph. Instead, their inability both to run the ball and to stop the run did for Indianapolis.
A run of 5 wins coming into their game against Baltimore didn’t help Miami deal with the Ravens’ relentless defence, nor did it allow them to take advantage of rookie Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s struggles.
Momentum favoured neither team in the final Wild Card game. In the last five regular-season tussles leading up to their post-season meeting, the record of both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings read W-W-W-L-W; so instead of relying on the winning habit, Philly decided not to allow prolific running back Adrian Peterson to win the game for Minnesota, and pressured Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson into losing it for them.
In short, “momentum” means less than you might think in professional sports. Sure, it’s nice to have the confidence that winning your last game brings – but in this case, my (doubtless inadequate) research tells me that EVERY team in the Wild Card round had won its previous match. The momentum theory doesn’t take the opponent into account.
Furthermore, I’d suggest that the impetus of a winning streak drives an American football team, with its rigidly structured patterns of play (every player on offence knowing exactly where to go and what to do at the start of every play), less than teams in any other major sport. How “hot” you are is no substitute for how good your game plan, and your execution of that plan, is.
As for the next round of games, Mystic Mac predicts:
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers – Carolina’s power running game is carrying them to the Super Bowl. Also, Panthers are big cats, whereas Cardinals are birds, whose bright red plumage leaves them especially vulnerable if it snows. Panthers
Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans – Ravens have too much defence, Titans not enough offence. Plus, ravens, like all members of the genus Corvus, are wily, whereas Titans, I’m guessing, are ponderous and stupid. Ravens
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants – It’s even between these teams’ passing games, but, Brian Westbrook’s one big carry last week notwithstanding, the Eagles can’t run the ball. The Giants can, and will. Hmm…having just predicted that an enormous, fictional creature will be defeated by a mere bird, I’m now not so sure. Is it a big Eagle? Hedge your bets, Millings. Giants
San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers – I really don’t like the Steelers, but I’m not choosing based on who I like (not any more, after last week). I’m afraid the Steelers defence will squish little running back Darren Sproles, and then go after QB Philip Rivers. Let’s see…a Charger’s a horse, right? And I suppose a Steeler’s a bloke. Umm…man tames horse. Steelers
And so the Seer of Seers, the Sage of Sages, the Prognosticator of Prognosticators has spoken. These predictions are correct. If any of them prove to be wrong, something must be terribly amiss. Feel free to print that out and take it to your bookie.
And why are they right? Because they’re based on reason, on observation, on cold, hard fact. Nevertheless, there are plenty of pundits prepared to base their predictions for this weekend’s games on the myth of momentum. But not this one, not this time. I’m sticking to the basics. May the best teams win.