Saturday, January 10, 2009

NFL Playoffs: The Case for Momentum - Mac Millings

“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.


andrewm said...

Very interesting, Mac, and it's always a pleasure to read about American football on Pseuds. I'm not sure you're entirely correct on momentum though.
As good as the game plan might be, the execution of it largely comes down to the will and belief of the players. Put simply, if they lose games running those plays, they won't believe in the plays and consequently they won't execute them as well as they need to in order to win.

The Vikings let me down for another year. Oh well.

beyond the pale said...


Well, a steeler is not necessarily a bloke. "Person" would be the more accurate term, as, in the heyday of Pittsburgh's famous domination of the world steel industry, women (not forgetting Rosie the Riveter and her sister-workers) as well as men worked in those Monongahela Valley mills, as you will note from the following excerpt from an article on the collapse of that industry in the 1970s/1980s (The film Deer Hunter, by the by, is set in that milieu, a little before the full-out collapse):

"I grew up in McKeesport and have vivid memories of the way it used to be. In the late 1940s, when I was a teenager, a dozen great steel plants lined the banks of the Monongahela, extending forty-six miles up the valley from Pittsburgh. The mills worked twenty-four hours a day and provided jobs for nearly eighty thousand men and women, not counting employees in the companies' Pittsburgh offices. They were enormous steaming vessels, clanging and banging, spouting great plumes of smoke, and searing the sky with the Bessemer's reddish orange glow. The narrow brick streets of the mill towns were filled with streetcars, automobiles, workers going to and from the plant, and shoppers carrying big brown paper bags. There were two or three saloons to a block on the main street near the mill, and almost as many churches scattered through each town."

So, in sensibly picking the Steelers, you are however making a gender-neutral statement (as well as, perhaps, a somewhat nostalgic one), and should really be saying "person tames horse."

mac millings said...


You are, of course, quite right. I suppose (I hope) that I was thinking of the football team when I typed it, rather than of steelworkers.

Still, not a mistake I should have made, especially as my wife's family is from Youngstown, Ohio - a former steel town itself, as you'll know.

Some of the family are Steeler fans, but most support the Browns, which can't be much fun.

I, naturally, remain neutral, and picked the Steelers (rightly, as it turns out, which is always a surprise) purely based on my, ahem, analysis of the two teams. Plus, person tames horse.

mac said...


Fair point. I hurried the piece to get it done before this weekend's round of games (I was 2-for-4, a great improvement), but even if I'd worked on it until this moment, I still wouldn't really know what to say.

I get, of course, the idea that confidence can help success (in other people - it's alien to me), but I still wonder where it ranks on the list of important factors in winning/losing in sport.

As I was arguing anti-momentum, football appealed for the reason I mentioned in the piece, and also because of the separation of Offence and Defence (and, I suppose, Special teams), and also the fairly simple structure of the season - sixteen games over 17 weeks (including a bye), plus maybe playoffs, as opposed to, say, the English Premier League, with mid-week games, League Cup and FA Cup games, perhaps CL and UEFA Cup too, all inevitably leading to a fixture pile-up for everyone at some point - does more preparation time/a longer gap between games change "momentum"?

Baseball is a candidate, too, because of the way pitching is handled - the pitcher is a unique player in the game, typically turning up once every 5 days. You might have been playing terribly, or your opponents might be on a hot streak, but if you go into a game with CC Sabathia on the mound for you, you've got to feel good about your chances (although with Sabathia, I'm not talking about the postseason, naturally).

Anyway, as I said, these are less than half-formed thoughts. Which is actually pretty well-formed, for me.

guitou said...

Mac ,
Great piece.
How about these birds?remember in the comics books, the
Bird and the cat, the bird always get the last word .
Love the Steelers always did since Swan and Franco Harris era when Monday night football was an American tribal rite.

beyond the pile-up said...

The problem with this particular American "tribal rite" (for me anyway), Gui, is, I fear, that the current incarnation of televised American football, with its intermittent climacterics of awful artless violence and chest-bumping barely interrupting the endless stream of coma-inducing brainless adverts, is simply unwatchable--again, that is, by me. During the playoffs the commercial streams grow even longer and the games, as it happens, even more tiresome. The only person I know who's been enjoying this latest spell of playoffs is a Mexican counterman at a local eatery who drew the Phoenix Cardinals in a lottery and so is following their progress with interest--the interest, that is, of his wallet. Our discussion of the subject had ample space, as well, because it was conducted in the restaurant kitchen during some of those endless commercials.

Whereas (and as much as I'm turned off by United triumphalism, one must give credit where it's due) I found yesterday's United/Chelsea affair riveting for the full 90 minutes. (And Mac, though you had a prognosticator's stake in the concurrent NFL game, did I not encounter you, equally engrossed at that same time in the EPL match, on Scott Murray's Guardian minute-by-minute blog--or was that merely your avatar?) As another friend here--a Somalian, this one--said of that United/Chelsea match, "I did not miss a second."

Not that this is so unusual with the watching of real (as vs. ersatz American) football: one simply watches the play continuously. The early match on Sunday between Villa and West Brom was in its own way quite as interesting and sustaining of attention as the later Big One, I thought. But then I just enjoy the sustaining of attention, as opposed to exploding blurts of attention in between oceans of ennui and distaste. Concentration and focus would appear to be not only virtues but additives of the ultimate joy (assuming there is any to be found anywhere in what some call "ball sports"--but that's another issue).

Not, mind you, that American football was always this way. (Those Steelers teams of the early Seventies you nostalgically refer to Gui, like the Raiders teams they always seemed to end up facing, were a different story, and the media presentation of the games as well as the games themselves were to me a great deal more endurable.) And not for that matter that America itself was always this way.

Not to be too sour here, but finally, Mac, turning to follow you to balls of a different sort, I've seen Sabathia blow up too many times to put very much faith in him as an every-fifth-day "stopper". The demonic realist in me would not be entirely surprised if a year from now he were to appear a hundred-million-plus-dollar bust, eating his way to the engorged dimensions of a barrage balloon and catching the appropriate amount of media flak in the insatiable Big Happy. At least Cristiano Ronaldo, for all his infantile pouting, has light feet.

guitou said...

thanks, I was referring to 1979 superbowl team, (chuck Knoll) who beat the Rams-because of the mystic of this team,their legendary coach, Terry Bradshaw over 300 yards passing Game and Franco Harris over 1000 yards seventh season.
Reference to the film Deer Hunter shooting in Pittsburg is very interesting because It's about steel workers, hunting, drinking and dancing (btw most of the streets scenes ,church etc.. were shot in Cleveland)and the film won as many oscars as the steelers did win superbowls-
As far as chest bumping ,violence,and bullying behavior,you're perfectly right about the idiotics end-zone celebrations and all the circus surrounding the NFL -But NFL misses Pete Rozelle,
he was the NFL, the Monday night, and the superbowl at the same time and he knew how to keep things under control. Now, well it's just he opposite.

guitou said...

-everything under control, I should have added "at the exception of al Davis"

beyond the pale said...

Well, Gui, I suppose Pete had that in common with everybody.

Yes, interesting, now that you mention it, to recall that location circumstance re. Deer Hunter--and even more curious than the fact these Pennsylvania steelworkers were actually in Cleveland was the fact that when they go out on their mythic deer shooting expedition, they jump in the car in Pittsburgh/Cleveland and only a few short hours later end up in the Cascade range of the state of Washington (Mt. Baker). But that's myth (with, in that particular director's case, a little Harvard thrown in) for you, I suppose.

Allout said...

Good article Mac.

It's not been an easy job predicting the results in these playoffs (especially for a certain Hawaii based individual who is currently 2-6)! Of the eight matches so far only one as been won by the team with the better regular season record which is an amazing statistic.

I am not sure about your momentum analysis but what is clear is that in American football (and any sport using the playoff system) that you often do not get the best team over the course of the season. We saw that last year when the 8-8 Giants won the Super Bowl, beating the unbeaten Patriots. And we are seeing it again this year with two teams with nine wins apiece playing in the NFC Championship game.

offside said...

I can't believe there isn't a single NFL franchise called the Deers. Or the Hunters.

Because, if they met, Mac's prognostication technique might show its limits:

millings said...

Thanks for all your comments, everyone.

Allout - I'm 2-6, you're 4-6, there are 3 games out, you're still in my sights!

Offie - I would have picked hunter, and therefore expected deer to win.

There are plenty of equine representatives in the NFL, as well as birds, big cats, and people, but no deer at all, and, in fact, only one ruminant in the Rams (the Buffalo Bills almost had me fooled). I consider it discrimination.

beyond the pale said...

Mac, I know at least one Bill who ruminates all the time. (I think perhaps he is merely working on building up momentum, however).

Always enjoy your provocative pieces, keep 'em coming. Thanks.

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