You hear about momentum all the time in sports. Talking-head TV
yahoos proclaim, “This team has won five in a row to clinch a playoff spot,
which means they’re going to be awfully tough in January!”
Newspaper reporters will often analyze upcoming scenarios placing
important emphasis on how an NFL team has stumbled down the stretch and “must
do something to turn around the momentum.”
Does momentum mean anything? If you want a black or white answer,
the answer is “No.” If you want to dig a
little deeper – which smart sports bettors do – momentum can be
important if it’s tied to several key factors. Is the team on a roll against
good competition? Are they simply lucky?
Does the team have any weak spots that can be exploited in the next game?
The Philadelphia Eagles are a perfect example, over and over again
this season. The Super Team (so said QB Vince Young) got off to a blistering
start by pounding the Rams, 31-13. Then they lost four in a row. What happened
to all that August momentum? OK, so they broke that skid by winning two in a
row, including an impressive 34-7 thumping of rival Dallas on national TV.
Surely the momentum was back! Then they flopped, losing as an 8-point home
favorite to the Bears, 30-24, and a stunning home loss to Arizona.
But they turned it around with an impressive 17-10 upset of the
Giants on the road…only to fall flat at home in a 38-20 loss to the Patriots. What’s
happening is that momentum by itself is overrated. Yes, a team on a roll can be
focused and motivated to play hard each game, but hot teams can also get
complacent and lazy if a winning streak is more luck than effort. It’s more
important if a team is on a winning streak against quality opponents, or a
team’s offense is rolling because of some tangible factor, like a speedy young
wide receiver beginning to click with the QB.
Last season the Patriots stormed into the postseason with a No. 1
seed and a 14-3 record. All that season long momentum meant nothing, however,
when the Jets beat them in their first playoff game. A few years ago the New York Giants roared
down the stretch in December winning their final four regular season games. The
Giants went 4-0 against the spread during that run, winning twice straight up
as a dog in the NFL odds, while the defense allowed 14 ppg. That was clearly a team with
momentum at the right time, but in the first game of the playoffs, New York had
a second-half collapse for the ages in a 39-38 loss at San Francisco. What
happened to the Giants’ defensive momentum?
On that same Wild Card weekend, the Green Bay Packers carried a
9-3 SU/8-4 ATS run into their playoff game against Atlanta, where they were a
7-point favorite. The Falcons had stumbled badly down the stretch, backing into
the playoffs despite losing three of their final games and carried a poor 1-3
ATS run into Lambeau Field. The final score? Atlanta 27, Green Bay 7. So much
Some may recall the Chicago Bears had a remarkable regular season run,
surprising many with a 13-3 SU/11-4-1 ATS regular season. The Bears were weak
at quarterback, but combined a good defense, an easy schedule and some lucky
breaks into a run to the playoffs. A closer look saw that the Bears beat up on
the Lions and Vikings twice, and had wins over five other teams with losing
records: the Cardinals, Bengals, Jaguars, Falcons, and Browns. They also had
back-to-back miraculous wins over the 49ers and Browns, which seemed to give a
“team of destiny” label to this bunch of Bears.
Destiny didn’t get very far in the playoffs, getting completely
out-played and out-coached in a 33-19 home loss to the Eagles as a favorite. It
was interesting that during the regular season, the Bears had only three
victories against teams with winning records and they got beat up twice by the
Packers. Momentum? That didn’t help the Bears in the playoffs, even as a
2-point home favorite.
The only momentum that really means anything to NFL handicappers is against
the spread momentum. I know something about being on a roll against the
spread, and that’s the kind of momentum that interests those of who wager on
football for profit.