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Momentum ... Shmomentum! How Important Is It For The Cowboys To Enter The Playoffs 'Hot'?

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One of the funniest things about the NFL is how most people will believe anything if it's just repeated often enough. Take 'momentum'. Everybody knows that teams that play well and win games at the end of the regular season are more likely to have postseason success. Right?

There's a lot of discussion in Cowboys Nation right now about various playoff scenarios and whether the Cowboys should rest their starters against the Eagles this week or perhaps against the Giants the next week - all dependent on various game outcomes and playoff scenarios. And regardless of how the Cowboys decide to handle that, one thing is certain: Captain Hindsight and his merry band of know-it-alls will make the call on whether the decision was right or wrong.

  • If a team decides not to rest its starters and wins its playoff game, the team was 'peaking at the right time'. But if they lose, they were 'physically and mentally exhausted'.
  • If a team decides to rest its starters and loses its playoff game, they were 'rusty'. If they win they were 'healthy and well-rested'.

This type of post-rationalization drives me to the alcohol every single time. But what's even worse is that the arguments you hear and read that purportedly prove or disprove momentum are largely arbitrary, often anecdotal and almost always based on a negligible sample size. Arguments typically look something like this:

Pro: The Steelers rode a 6-1 regular season ending record straight to the Super Bowl in 2008. This proves that momentum is important.

Con: The red hot 2010 Patriots, riding an 8-game winning streak, were one-and-done in the playoffs. Ergo, momentum is overrated.

You get the idea. Momentum, Shmomentum ... after the break, we look at the actual numbers.

To try to establish some quantifiable base for 'momentum', I've arbitrarily decided to take W/L records for all playoff teams in their final five regular season games as a starting point, and looked at the data from 1978 to 2010.

The NFL moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978 and expanded the playoff field to 10 teams, so that was a good place to start. In 1990, two additional wildcards were added to establish the 12-team playoff format we are still using today. I have excluded all data from 1982, as that strike-shortened season saw a 16-team playoff field, and I've counted two ties in those 32 years (1997 Giants and 1978 Vikings) as losses to keep things simple.

In total, I looked at 362 teams and their final five-game regular season records in order to determine the effect of 'momentum'.

Making the playoffs

One thing right off the bat: Teams that make the playoffs almost always have a winning record. It is therefore only natural that the majority of playoff teams also have a winning record in their last five games. The stats confirm this:

Playoff Team by record in last 5 regular season games, 1978-2010
W/L record
0-5 1-4 2-3 3-2 4-1 5-0
No. of teams 1 9 55 135 114 48

297 of the 362 playoff teams (82%) over the last 32 years had a positive W/L record over their last five regular season games. The 1986 Jets are the only team to enter the playoffs riding a five game losing streak, and as luck would have it, they beat the Chiefs - who themselves were coming off a three game winning streak - in the wildcard game that year.

Winning a playoff game

But does 'momentum' actually help you win a playoff game? The numbers below suggest that it doesn't:

Record in 1st playoff game, 1978-2009
W/L record 0-5 1-4 2-3 3-2 4-1 5-0
No. of teams 1 9 55 135 114 48
Record in 1st PO game
1-0 4-5 32-23 70-65 62-52 33-14
Winning %age
100% 44% 58% 52% 54% 70%

Whether teams come into the playoffs at 1-4, 4-1 or anything in between, historically they've won about half the games. The record in the last five regular season games has virtually no effect on the winning percentage in that first playoff game - except if you're rolling into the playoffs on a five game winning streak, but then again, those 5-0 teams are probably pretty good teams to start with and should be expected to win that first game more often than not.

So, can we forget about momentum now? Not so fast. Is it really that surprising to see a winning percentage of around 50% for most teams here? Consider that these are the 12 best teams in the league. There is going to be the occasional blowout, but for the most part these are going to be tough games for all teams.

Playoff success

If we look beyond that first playoff game, we can actually see a much stronger correlation between playoff success and the record in the last five regular season games: The better your record in those last five regular season games, the higher your likelihood of winning the Conference Championship or the Super Bowl:

Playoff success, 1978-2009
W/L record 0-5 1-4 2-3 3-2 4-1 5-0
No. of teams 1 9 55 135 114 48
Conference Champions (in %)
0 0 7 (13%)
17 (13%) 22 (20%) 17 (36%)
Super Bowl Champions (in %)
0 0 2 (4%) 10 (7%) 10 (9%) 10 (21%)

Only two teams that entered the playoffs with a 2-3 record have won the Super Bowl , and both of them recently: the 2009 Saints, who came in on a three game losing streak, and the 2006 Colts, who also rode into the playoffs on a 2-3 record. And just for your reference, the '92, '93 an '95 Cowboys Super Bowl teams were 4-1, 5-0 and 3-2 heading into the playoffs.

The higher percentages of Super Bowl wins and Conference Championships for teams entering the playoffs on a 4-1 or 5-0 season-ending record suggests that there is indeed something to the notion of a 'hot streak'. But at the end of the day, it's fairly simple:

Good teams win Super Bowls. Good teams win more games than they lose, and that includes the last five regular season games. And good teams win playoff games. If you want to call that momentum, more power to you.

If the 2011 Cowboys are a good team, they'll win in the playoffs. If they aren't, they wont. No amount of arbitrarily defined momentum is going to change that.