Colts trio TY Hilton, Andrew Luck and Marlon Mack celebrate a second quarter touchdown against the Houston Texans last weekend. SIPA USA/PA Images
it's science

Momentum, upsets, and your NFL divisional weekend preview

It’s not how you finish December, it’s how you start February, writes Steve O’Rourke.

THE FOOTBALL COMMUNITY is a strange one.

Sure, we all like the same sport, but for 17 weeks of the season we’re usually watching different games.

Some of you will watch Redzone, others will just watch your favourite team, but it’s rare that we’re all sitting down at 6pm on a Sunday to take in the same game.

When it does happen, you tend to notice certain trends among NFL fans. Firstly, everyone is obsessed with holding. And I get it, holding is annoying, but you get it on every play and it’s only the really flagrant ones that will ever get flagged.

Secondly, while everyone has a good grasp of pass interference, most people lose all sense of objectivity when it comes to their own team.

Finally, if I see the word ‘momentum’ one more time, I might have to find wherever it is they store the internet in Ireland and plug it out.

The simple fact is that momentum in sport is a myth. We’ve known this for 30 years since a study by Thomas Gilovich and Amos Tversky looked at the idea of “hot hands” or streaks in the NBA and found no evidence of momentum.

Since then, countless more studies have shown that past success — either within games or over the course of a season — has no bearing on future attempts. Not one iota.

And yet NFL fans and coaches will insist time and time again that playing well in December is a sure sign a team will do well in the playoffs.

But let’s take a look at the last 10 Super Bowl winners and see how much it mattered?

Super Bowl LII – Philadelphia Eagles – Lost two of their final five games
Super Bowl LI – New England Patriots – Went 7-1 after their bye week
Super Bowl 50 – Denver Broncos – Lost two of their last four games
Super Bowl XLIX – New England Patriots – Went 2-3 in their final five games
Super Bowl XLVIII – Seattle Seahawks – Lost four of their final five games
Super Bowl XLVII – Baltimore Ravens – Finished the season 1-4
Super Bowl XLVI – New York Giants – Won three of their final four
Super Bowl XLV – Green Bay Packers – Finished 2-2 over the last four weeks
Super Bowl XLIV – New Orleans Saints – Lost their final three games after starting 13-0
Super Bowl XLIII – Pittsburgh Steelers – Won six of their final seven games

There you have it, the vast majority of those teams had a losing record in the final weeks of the season but it didn’t stop them lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy on the first weekend in February.

Divisional weekend picks (season record 166-92-2)

Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs
Saturday, 9.35pm

Momentum is also a large part of the reason why the Indianapolis Colts are being tipped to come out on top in this game. Last week’s win over the Texans, coupled with their strong end to the regular season, has many observers tipping them for an upset.

But the Colts also have history on their side as they’ve won as many playoff games at Arrowhead Stadium as the hosts, and are 4-0 all-time against the Chiefs in the postseason, including a 2013 game that saw Andy Reid’s side lose 45–44 after surrendering a 28-point lead in the third quarter.

In the run up to this game, a lot has been made of Reid’s record in the playoffs (11-13) and the fact his sides have crashed out at the first round in five of their past six postseason appearances. But this is a team with the league’s MVP at quarterback, a player with 50 touchdowns to his name already this season.

Mahomes also led an offence that scored 565 points, 38 more than anyone else and the third-most of all time behind only the 2013 Denver Broncos (606) and much vaunted 2007 New England Patriots (589).

Of course, there are huge question marks over their defence, a unit that finished second last in the NFL in total defence and 24th in points allowed (26.3), but Kansas City fans will be happy enough they have the best quarterback in the game if it comes to a shootout.

Pick: Chiefs

Dallas Cowboys @ LA Rams
Sunday, 1.15am

NFL 2018: Saints vs Cowboys Nov 29 Cowboys offensive guard Xavier Su'a-Filo. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

That the Rams and Dallas are facing off in the playoffs should be no surprise as this is the ninth time they’ll play each other — though the first time since 1985 — and no two teams have matched up more in the postseason.

The all-time series is tied 4-4, but the Cowboys will have to overcome their record of being one the worst road teams in playoff history having lost seven straight outside of Dallas since 1993. They’re also 0-5 in the divisional round — both home and away — since 1995.

They go to LA at almost full strength with Cole Beasley a likely game-time decision. Left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, also dealing with an ankle knock, is almost certain to play which is good news for a Dallas offensive line getting ready to block Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.

This game probably comes down to LA’s ability to stop the run, something they have failed to do most of the season, surrendering 5.1 yards per attempt on the ground, the worst mark in the NFL. With Zeke Elliott the league’s leading rusher, it could make for a long night for the Rams’ defence.

Sean McVay’s game plan will surely be to score early and build a lead to force Dallas away from the run. Given the quality of the Cowboys’ defence, this is easier said than done and, even then, Amari Cooper has the ability to burn any defender in the passing game. This has all the makings of an upset.

Pick: Cowboys

LA Chargers @ New England Patriots
Sunday, 6.05pm

I’ll begin the preview of this game with a declaration of interest; the Chargers were my pick to reach the Super Bowl from the AFC at the start of the season and it’s really difficult for me to get away from them. It’s especially hard when you consider how impressive Anthony Lynn’s defence were last week.

However, there are a lot of red flags going into the game. Whatever way you paint it, LA’s offence struggled down the stretch in the regular season. In fact, they have averaged just 282 yards over their past five games. For context, the Arizona Cardinals were the only team to average less than 282 yards per game over the course of the year.

Then you have Philip Rivers who is not only 0-4 in Foxborough, but has never won a game against the Patriots when Tom Brady has started. I know what you’re thinking, quarterbacks don’t play each other and you’re right. But his touchdown to interception ratio in those games is 1.0 to 1.4, compared to 1.8 touchdowns to 0.83 picks across his career.

And while the Chargers defence was excellent last week, no team has given up more receiving yards to opposing running backs this year than their 1026. With James White alone having 87 receptions for 751 yards and seven touchdowns, you can see why they might be in trouble this weekend.

All that said — and I haven’t even mentioned a 10am start time for the second week in a row — the inevitably of a Patriots appearance in the AFC championship game isn’t there this year. It’s a team aging in front of our eyes, and though they may still come out on top, this game is there for the taking for LA.

Pick: Chargers

Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints
Sunday, 9.40pm

NFL 2018: Eagles at Saints Nov. 18 Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas makes a touchdown in the corner against the Philadelphia Eagles in November. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

The New Orleans Saints — my NFC pick to make the Super Bowl at the start of the year — have won six consecutive postseason games at the Superdome and rode their last number one overall pick all the way to the Vince Lombardi trophy in 2009.

To do the same this year, they’re going to have to overcome the world champions. But if Sean Payton is looking for a blueprint, he doesn’t have to go too far back in time having masterminded a 48-7 beatdown in November, the largest loss ever suffered by a defending Super Bowl champion.

Of course, Nick Foles didn’t play that day — Carson Wentz threw three picks — and much is made of the fact that the defending Super Bowl MVP has lost just one game in his postseason career. He is also fresh off a late go-ahead drive with a crucial fourth down conversion to get past the Bears last week.

However, that ignores the two horrible picks Foles threw in the game and, of course, Cody Parkey’s missed field goal that should have ended the Eagles’ season. It’s also worth noting that Foles’ lone playoff loss came against the Saints in the 2013 playoffs; the only postseason game in which he was held to fewer than 200 yards passing.

For the Eagles, while this game should be about keeping alive their hopes of becoming the first defending champions to repeat in 15 years, their players have spoken all week about gaining revenge for the loss to New Orleans in week 11. That’s hardly ideal.

Pick: Saints

Ahead of a huge weekend of Heineken Champions Cup action, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey assess the provinces’ chances of putting a foot in the last eight:

Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42 / SoundCloud

Subscribe to our new podcast, Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42, here:

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel