Momentum theory often disappoints in playoffs

Jan 7, 2003 4:00 AM

A common public perception of how to evaluate a playoff matchup is to examine which team has "more momentum" coming into the game.

The idea here is you want to back the hot team that is "peaking" as the playoffs begin. On the other hand, there’s the argument that the better teams tend to ease up in the last couple of weeks after locking up a spot in the postseason. The question for data-hounds is which of the above views has been the correct one over the past 10 years of NFL post-season theatrics?

Before we compiled the results, we made some assumptions ”” since playoff teams would on the whole win more than they lose, both straight-up and against the spread. We consider a two game losing streak to be significant, but a winning streak of three games or more is needed to catch our eye.

The answer seems to be that teams with momentum are not especially good bets, whereas teams that seemingly are backing into the playoffs have been outstanding! Score one for the contrarians.

In particular the 80% mark of teams that have lost two or more consecutive games against the spread before entering the playoffs is worth noting. The numbers in the chart represent the results of a team playing its first game of the postseason.

For the 2002 playoffs, the teams that qualify in the above include:

2+ spread losses: San Francisco, Indianapolis

3+ spread wins: Tennessee, New York Giants

Another question that comes to mind when dealing with playoff handicapping is how well teams do after earning a first round bye?

Well, overall the home sides playing off an extra week’s rest are 25-17 (60%) over the past decade of playoff action in the second round of the postseason. So, a case can be made that the extra time is a benefit.

Another area of interest is teams that pull off an upset in the Wild Card round. How do sides that win outright as underdogs fare in the next game?

Underdogs coming off an opening round upset win have gone 4-10 ATS (29%) in the second round. Most likely that first triumph feels like enough to make the season a success. Teams that were double-digit winners in first round contests have gone just 7-15 ATS (32 percent) the following week.

Those are some trends to watch in the upcoming games. Remember, teams gaining home field advantage are to be respected. And, beating up on a lesser side is no guarantee of success when you’re on the road against the "big boys" the following week. features innovative statistical coverage of the NFL to help you win.