- Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders
Each Monday, Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders scours over tape from that weekend's games and evaluates the performance of skill-position players. For a full archive of Quick Reads, please click here. For a better understanding of the FBO metrics used to arrive at these conclusions, please click here.
That is to say: Most explanations of why a team succeeded or failed in the playoffs are ridiculous, filled with hindsight-laden explanations that don't hold up. They're excuses that get applied upon failure and ignored upon success. The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers used their experience from the 2005 run to calm their nerves late and beat the Arizona Cardinals, but the 2006 Colts and the 2007 New York Giants had no more than a small handful of players that had ever participated in a Super Bowl.
Some narratives are created to explain variance. When a 14-win team loses in the second round of the playoffs after a bye -- no matter what happened in the game itself -- it was because they're rusty. Never mind that a team of that caliber loses to a 10-win team a fair amount of the time in the regular season. If they win, rusty doesn't come up. Teams that lose after a couple of playoff games on the road were too exhausted physically and emotionally, but when those same teams win and head on to the Super Bowl, they managed to remain healthy and happy.
What recent results have showed, though, is that the idea of momentum -- of teams "peaking at the right time" -- is a crock. The past three years provide enough fodder to kill the idea. The 2006 Colts went 2-3 in December, losing by 27 to the Jacksonville Jaguars and by three to a 6-10 Houston Texans team before narrowly beating a 6-10 Miami Dolphins team to finish the year. They then won four straight games en route to the Super Bowl.
In 2007, the Giants supposedly picked up momentum when they played the undefeated New England Patriots to an extremely close game, losing by three before starting off their hot streak. That's reasonable, but it was preceded by a 3-3 stretch in which the team lost to the Minnesota Vikings by 27, the Washington Redskins by 12 and narrowly pulled out victories over mediocre teams in the Detroit Lions (six points), Chicago Bears (five points) and Philadelphia Eagles (three points). The idea that the Giants' near-win over the Patriots had given them momentum didn't come until they actually made it to the Super Bowl, and their "momentum" consisted of one game.
Last year's Cardinals took the cake, though. After virtually locking up the NFC West with a 7-3 start, Arizona took the rest of the season off. Finishing 2-4, the Cardinals lost to the Giants by eight and the Eagles -- the same team they'd beat in the NFC Championship Game -- by 28. It got worse in December. Playing two playoff-caliber teams, the Cardinals lost by 21 to the Vikings and the Patriots by 40. The idea that they had momentum is absurd; time will not produce a better example of a team limping into the playoffs for decades.
Of course, the flip side of the "momentum" idea is fallacious, too; there are plenty of examples of teams sweeping December after an uneven first three months, only to disappear in the playoffs. The 2007 Redskins won their final four games after burying Sean Taylor, pushing them into the playoffs after a 5-7 start, but got annihilated in Seattle when Todd Collins started throwing interceptions. Last year's San Diego Chargers went 4-0 in December to sneak into the playoffs, and beat the Colts with a great performance at home in the wild-card round, but were summarily dispatched in Pittsburgh a week later. The Atlanta Falcons finished 5-1, winning their final three, and lost to the Cardinals in the wild-card round. The Dolphins did them one better -- going 5-0 to end the year, and 9-1 overall -- and got stomped 27-9 by the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round. These are the most recent of many such examples in the past.
The point of all this is that what happened in December doesn't mean squat once the playoffs roll around. Each year, fans and media alike try and parse meaning out of small samples and natural variance. How many people get excited for the first preseason game of the year? By the time Week 1 of the regular season rolls around, only a month later, the preseason's been totally forgotten about. While the Colts lost their chance at an undefeated season, their decision to rest their stars won't have any effect on when they're "peaking" or their momentum heading into the playoffs.
Bottom line: Teams win in the playoffs because they play well and breaks go their way, the same way they do in the regular season. And if teams really can peak, the right time to peak isn't the end of December. It's the end of January.
And now, onto the analyses:
So your friend turns to you and says, "If the Eagles beat Dallas in Week 17, they'll enter the playoffs hot. I smell title for McNabb!" Turn to him and say, "Momentum in the playoffs is a myth." When he gets angry, pull up this article. He'll see.