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Momentum in the NFL playoffs is indeed over-rated

Coming into the AFC and NFC Divisional games, no two teams were hotter than the Dallas Cowboys and the San Diego Chargers. Heck, some were saying that "momentum" would propel the the Baltimore Ravens past the Indianapolis Colts.

In both the media and in fan circles, the talk of momentum was as loud as any other subject. In fact, the chatter was so intense that the battle was not simply between the Vikings and the Cowboys or the Colts and the Ravens. The battle was an ideological battle between "resting starters" and "building momentum." Coaches and players got into the discussion, weighing in on one side or the other.

The "immortal" Michael David Smith, via the Wall Street Journal:

This year's two hottest teams—the San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles—have a chance to enter the playoffs having won at least their last five. Teams with that kind of momentum usually do very well when the playoffs...


Confident Dallas Cowboys ride momentum into playoffs

"That’s the way to go into the playoffs," Phillips said. "We still have the playoffs to go, but I think that’s the way you need to go into the playoffs. We certainly couldn’t go in on a higher note. People are going to keep coming back to [the past] unless you do something about it. This team did something about it."

NY Times:

The Chargers were rested and ready, they were playing the best football in the N.F.L., and they believed they had a coach who knew how to win in the playoffs.

Bolt Hype:

The 2009 NFL season is quickly coming to a close, but the Chargers aren't done just yet. We move away from Week 16 and approach the final game of the regular season this Sunday, with the Chargers full of momentum as they head into the playoffs.

ESPN's NFC North blog:

When someone mentions "Big Mo," I always think of a former baseball slugger. In football, however, it refers to another opaque entity: momentum.

You’re hearing that word bandied about regularly as we approach the NFL playoffs, perhaps in no division more than the NFC North. Our two playoff teams are going in opposite directions, and the debate is on as to whether their late-season performances will impact their postseason run. How much importance should we place on Minnesota’s 1-3 record in December? What does Green Bay’s 3-1 mark over the same stretch indicate?

Colts' Rest vs. Ravens' Momentum

The Colts believe they will be fine after all that rest, which includes the bye that comes with the No. 1 seed. They will certainly be healthy, as key players such as defensive ends Dwight Freeney (abdominal) and Robert Mathis (quadriceps) were able to nurse themselves back to full strength.

In Indianapolis' case, they thought it would be better to turn it off down the stretch once home-field advantage was secured.

Of course, there are two sides to that argument.

"There's something to be said for coasting in, because obviously, you've earned that right to do that," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh last week. "You've gotten to the point where you've won a lot of football games up to that point, where you were able to rest some people. I think there's an advantage to that.

"There's an advantage to having to fight your way in. If you look at the history, probably, of who's won the World Championship, you've seen it come from both places, right?"

Final scores:

Colts 20 - Ravens 3

Vikings 34 - Cowboys 3

Jets 17 - Chargers 14

January 17, 2010: The day "momentum" died.

One of the truly great things about sports is that the play on the field will often end all arguments. The play will prove or debunk all theories. There is a certain finality to (duh) the final score, and when the final score throws monkey poop in the face of the whole "you have to have momentum going into the playoffs," look for the talking heads and coaching idiots who trumpeted that "theory" to run and stick their heads in the sand.

And it was not just this season where "momentum" was shown up to be the fool's gold it is. At the start of last season's playoffs, no team looked worse heading into the tournament than the Arizona Cardinals. They'd been blown out in multiple games down the stretch, and had rested starters two games prior to the end of the regular season. Contrast this with our Colts, who won nine straight games going into the post-season.

Cardinals went to the Super Bowl while the Colts lost in the Wild Card.

Despite this, the subject of momentum popped up again these playoffs, and once again the teams that were, quite simply, better than the perceived teams with "momentum" triumphed.

The Vikes destroyed the Cowboys because they were supposed to. The Vikes are better, up and down the roster. The Colts beat the Ravens because they are better. The Saints blasted the Cardinals because... you get the point.

If anything, this weekend gave a small measure of vindication to Bill Polian, who stated way back on December 8th that "momentum is over-rated." People like me laughed off his claim that practice would help keep a team from accumulating "rust" just as well as another team who was playing a real, live NFL football game. I still think there is some truth to the notion that practice cannot simulate the value of a real game, but in the case of momentum v. rest, Bill Polian won the weekend.

More than the Cowboys, Cardinals, Ravens, and Chargers losing this weekend, what truly lost was the over-rated, over-used myth of momentum.