Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

10 Jan 2012

Don't Talk About First-Round "Momentum"

This is really a Monday morning rant about multiple subjects. If you read my hemming and hawing about Mike Smith in Audibles, this represents my return to message.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 10 Jan 2012

70 comments, Last at 08 Dec 2012, 3:12am by john123456

Comments

1
by Dean :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 12:17pm

hopefully, there's some reader out there who is late to the party, but the lightbulb finally goes on. Next thing you know, the poor bastard stops talking about how many carries Joe RB needs for his team to win. Eh, probably wishful thinking. Good stuff regardless. Sometimes, even the choir needs to hear the sermon.

2
by Independent George :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 12:33pm

I wouldn't be so skeptical - I speak from personal experience, because I distinctly remember being that same poor bastard who thought of establishing the run to establish a swaggering identity, gaining momentum for the QB's moxie. I can't remember exactly when I started to think more deeply about it, or why. I know FO wasn't the cause, but was one of the first sites I started reading as I evolved from a casual fan.

10
by Dean :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 1:24pm

We all were that poor bastard at some point. I know I was. I'm pretty sure I found out about the site from Easterbrook all those years ago, but it's been so long that I don't even know anymore.

14
by tuluse :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 1:58pm

I don't remember how I found this site, but I know it was in 2005 because I was struggling to reconcile how good the Bears defense was with their ranking in yards (it was like 10th or something). I was thinking there is no way this is only the 10th best defense in the league, points weren't a good measure either because how special teams and offense affects it. I just know I found FO and finally found a ranking that made some sense.

15
by Andrew Potter :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 2:17pm

I first visited the site when Mike Carlson, then working on Channel Five's NFL coverage, mentioned on air an article by Mike Tanier, speaking favourably about the article, the writer, and the website. I checked out the link, liked what I saw, and never looked back. It's still the first website I visit every day.

I don't think I was ever one of the "run to win, momentum, rawr" crowd, but that's likely because I didn't grow up watching the NFL. I always found UK coverage pretty insightful, with the exception of Sky Sports and their studio team filled with clueless, cliché spouting, phonologically incompetent autocue readers. (The anchor is Kevin Cadle, the most successful basketball coach in UK history. He seems to have demonstrated no such level of competence where the NFL - or, indeed, speaking the English language - is concerned.)

31
by Dean :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 5:10pm

Sometimes I wonder if life was better before? If ignorance truly is bliss? I knew so much less, but I was sure of so much more. And I wonder if I enjoyed the game more when I wasn't so busy trying to understand it all? I wouldn't go back even if I could, but I wonder sometimes anyway.

32
by tuluse :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 5:28pm

Reverse Flowers for Algernon?

3
by zlionsfan :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 12:39pm

I think what you said applies to more than just readers.

4
by coboney :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 12:46pm

I thought many espn writers were thought here to be below the average reader.

37
by LionInAZ (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 6:05pm

If the posters on the ESPN comment boards are "average", I'd say they're neck and neck.

38
by Independent George :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 6:32pm

My favorite FO comment of all time proposed introducing advanced statistical measures to judge the merits of various online comment boards, adjusted for the general tenor of each discussion. In other words, a Discourse-Adjusted Vitriol-Over-Average measurement, if you will.

Does anybody remember who authored that one? Whoever it is, I salute you.

42
by Independent George :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 7:34pm

Your Google-Fu is superior to mine, sir.

49
by DGL :: Wed, 01/11/2012 - 10:50am

"My favorite FO comment of all time."

And I weep, for I have no new worlds to conquer.

52
by rfh1001 :: Wed, 01/11/2012 - 7:58pm

Just for fun, just because this reminded me, just because a lot of you guys are American and might not have heard this before, but one of the greatest moments in the history of tv commentary was a guy called Sid Waddell talking about a professional darts player called Eric Bristow in something like 1985: 'When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer... Bristow's only 27.'

62
by TomC :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 2:51pm

That would have been awesome no matter what, but DARTS?!?

(And I'm curious if Mr. Waddell knows of any humans who cry non-salt tears.)

63
by Dean :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 3:46pm

I cry tears made of bourbon.

64
by Kevin from Philly :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 4:09pm

I'm pretty sure that, legally, you can only call it "bourbon" if you're crying in Kentucky.

65
by Dean :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 4:43pm

They were distilled in Kentucky.

66
by DGL :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 5:15pm

And this, in turn, reminds me of Tom Lehrer's line, "It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years."

50
by Dean :: Wed, 01/11/2012 - 11:57am

Anybody know if that Dutch guy ever did anything other than go away?

5
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 12:47pm

The argument is a little weak, but the gist isn't wrong. The Saints are a much better offense when they have a legitimate threat to run. The Seahawks had success last year when NO was down to their 7th strong RB by totally ignoring the run and treating every play as a pass. And it worked, because every play was a pass.

8
by BJR :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 1:22pm

"Coach Sean Payton too often resembles a man who wants both to be victorious and to prove how much smarter he is than his opponent with his play calling."

This, however, is drivel of the highest order.

34
by LionInAZ (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 5:35pm

Wow. Agreed. I wonder if he keeps that line tucked away for future use on Bill Belichick.

9
by tuluse :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 1:23pm

Saying being good at running will help a team win is different some saying running will help a team win.

58
by Whatev :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 5:03am

Running will help a team win if it is good at running?

59
by armchair journe... :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 5:29am

well sure.. isn't the gist of the platitude that you continue to run, whether or not you're doing it well?

after all, Joe RB is the type of back who needs to keep getting carries to get his rhythm going. he tends to get all his yards in the 4th quarter...

//AJMQB

18
by CraigoMc (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 2:49pm

Look at it this way - there are a lot of internet-savvy kids out there whose football knowledge here to date has been gleaned from their dads and high school coaches, most of whom grew up with smashmouth football. Please, think of the children and continue this good work.

6
by Bernie (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 1:06pm

The one that pisses me off is the "51 rule" or whatever it is actually called....where if the total carries and completed passes totals 51, then the team will win.
What's more likely - that a team magically reaches that combination and a win goes up on the board, or they were dominant on offense, allowing them to complete a lot of passes, and run successfully, and that's why they won? Yet guys like Mike Lombardi will trot that little gem out constantly, like its the key to victory, rather than a byproduct of a team that had a really well functioning offense.

7
by BJR :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 1:18pm

If you check out the Vegas lines for the divisional round games, you'll find that they aren't really bothered about first round momentum either.

It gives people sitting in studios something to prattle on about, but nobody who is serious about the game gives stuff like this any attention whatsoever.

11
by Keystone Light and Stuff (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 1:33pm

Can we also talk about Matt Ryan's complete inability to throw deep (dead last in deep passing accuracy per Pro Football Focus. Dead. Last.) or outside the numbers past ten yards (by observation, admittedly. If you'd like to give numbers, please do so. They're often proprietary) if we're going to laud his short accuracy and chastize people who mistakenly watch his playoff games and chalk it up to intangibles? How about listing a reason that he has failed in a big game, instead of listing a reason why he might have success, but didn't? I think doing something like that would have actually fit the thesis of your article and Sunday impromptu conversation a little bit better. In other words, instead of:

HURR DURR DUMB BARSTOOL SHORT PASS GREAT

How about doing what you did with Mike Smith and the Giants' defensive line? Matt Ryan faced a weak secondary with obvious coverage problems. Nevertheless, both anecdotally (Roddy White begging to ditch the deep ball in Week 14 or so) and statistically, Matt Ryan is awful at deep passing, therefore he was unable to capitalize on his team's strengths (speed at wide receiver) and the Giants' big weakness (their secondary). Therefore, anyone familiar with the teams knew that if Giants jammed eight guys in the box against Atlanta, they'd be fine, because even if they got burned deep, the ball won't be thrown accurately enough to catch.

And that's all the momentum the Giants needed last Sunday, and it wasn't Matt Ryan's inability to perform in a big game, it was his inabilities as a quarterback in general.

24
by Keystone Light and Stuff (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 3:46pm

And then Vince Verhei did just the thing I would have liked to have seen in this article with match-ups and deep passing over at ESPN regarding the Steelers/Broncos game.

By the way, kudos to this site and its work.

My original suggestion was a criticism, so I just thought I'd say that.

12
by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 1:48pm

It really does still irritate me that people who have made a lot of money trying to win NFL games, often with success, often still refer to the won-loss record of a tiny number of playoff games, especially in a tournament system where a first round loss means you have to wait until your next playoff appearance to get to .500, as a means to evaluate the quality of a quarterback or coach. I mean, I expect the run of the mill talk radio host to be dumb, but you'd think somebody who spent 10 years or more in the league, trying to win games, would have more sense than that.

I hear former players do this more than former coaches. I think coaching yields a better perspective than playing does.

13
by tuluse :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 1:54pm

I think by and large, NFL players just aren't very bright.

I also think having success and failure rest upon such slim margins leads one to become superstitious and obsessive about playoff records. Mark Schlereth really thinks playoffs determine who is good from who is a fraud because he attached so much of his own self worth to such an endeavour. If they weren't so important and didn't tell you information about people and teams, why did he spend so much effort to succeed in them (well other than the pay check)?

Just my $.02, I'm not a psychiatrist nor do I play one on TV.

16
by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 2:42pm

Schlereth and be entertaining in a glib way, especially in giving insight as to what it is like to be untouted line prospect trying to make a career in the brutally physical world of an NFL lineman. He really does say some stupid stuff, however. I remember, after Wade Phillips took over from Parcells in Dallas, and had a great regular season, Schlereth saying that this established that Phillips had done a better job for the Cowboys than Parcells. Like taking over from three consecutive Dave Campo, 5-11, teams, with Quincy Carter and Troy Hambrick as offensive stars, and a bunch of old guys on defense, was like coaching a team with Tony Romo, Jason Whitten, Jay Ratliff, Demarcus Ware, etc., coming off a year where they tie a road playoff game in the last seconds of regulation, if they convert a PAT. That's really dumb.

20
by Eddo :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 2:54pm

My favorite Schlereth moment was when he said the Saints should beat the Bears in the 2006 NFC Championship because of the former's "reversibility".

60
by armchair journe... :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 5:38am

I think your second point is more the case than the first.

Being on a competitive field seems to bring out the superstition in most people, regardless of intellect or general bearings. Maybe adrenaline causes brains to oversimplify and such.. Play some competitive intramural/city league sports with otherwise intelligent professionals, and you hear the same mantras (from people who'd dismiss such ideas off the field).

//AJMQB

17
by Bjorn Nittmo (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 2:43pm

I'm really upset this article doesn't explain why you should never take points off the board.

Tanier's obviously accurate point about momentum notwithstanding, in fact in recent years the bye teams have not had the near-automatic trip to the conference championship game like they used to. At some point, I remember the #1 and #2 seeds were 43-9 in divisional round games starting in 1990 (when the top 2 division winners got byes instead of all 3 division winners). Roughly since the 2002 division realignment, the bye teams have lost many more division-round games. Probably just small-sample jumbling, as I can't really of any reason why the realignment would have changed anything significant.

19
by tuluse :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 2:52pm

"I can't really of any reason why the realignment would have changed anything significant."

With smaller divisions and more division winners, it's more likely a wild card team is better than a division winner, even possibly a top 2 seed.

27
by Bjorn Nittmo (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 4:01pm

Could be, but I'm skeptical this created a significant shift. I can believe that post-realignment #4's are weaker and #5-6 are likely to be a little stronger, but also seems like the bye teams now have to rise to the top of 4 division winners instead of 3. I'm sure a look at the playoff teams since 2002 would be better than my guessing, but I'd still vote for statistical flukiness as the most likely explanation.

28
by tuluse :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 4:16pm

I don't think it's any one thing. Flukiness is probably the primary reason, but there could be other reasons that flukiness is increasing.

43
by MJK :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 8:21pm

Here's some math behind it. For a 4 division, 4-team per division conference. Assuming the current method of ranking teams and applying tiebreakers correctly ranks which team is "best" (a big assumption, but let's go with it):

The #1 seed is the best team in the conference.

The #2 seed is definitely worse than 1 team (the #1 seed), and definitely better than 11 other teams (the eight teams in the conferences that produced the #3 and #4 seeds, and the three teams in its own conference). At worst, there could be four teams better than the #2 seed, but at most only 3 of them can make the playoffs (if both wildcards come from the same division as the #1 seed). The #2 seed can be worse than any wildcard team out of the #1 seed's division.

The #3 seed is definitely worse than 2 teams, and definitely better than 7 other teams. At worst, there could be eight teams better than the #3 seed, but at most, only four of those eight could make the playoffs (if the wildcards come out of the divisions with either the #1 or #2 seeds).

The #4 seed is definitely worse than 3 teams, and definitely better than just 3 others. At worst, there could be twelve teams better than the #4 seed, and as many as all five of the other playoff teams may be better.

Like the #2 seed, the #5 seed is definitely worse than just 1 other team. It is definitely better than 11 other teams (it is the best of the twelve non-division winners). At worst, there could be four teams better than the #5 seed, all of whom could be in the playoffs.

The #6 seed is definitely worse than two other teams, and definitely better than 10 other teams. At worst, it could be the worst team in the playoffs.

It's pretty clear that the expected goodness of a seed is extremely non-linear, and almost certainly non-monotonic with seed #. To summarize:

#1 seed: 1st to 1st best team (1st to 1st in playoffs)
#2 seed: 2nd to 5th best team (2nd to 4th in playoffs)
#3 seed: 3rd to 9th best team (3rd to 5th in playoffs)
#4 seed: 4th to 13th best team (4th to 6th in playoffs)
#5 seed: 2nd to 5th best team (2nd to 5th in playoffs)
#6 seed: 3rd to 6th best team (3rd to 6th in playoffs)

You can see there's a pretty good probability that both the #5 and #6 seeds are better than the #3 seed, let alone the #4 seed.

Bigger divisions will tend to iron out these wrinkles.

44
by Bjorn Nittmo (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 8:50pm

Good overall illustration here, but this doesn't indicate that realignment can help explain why the #1-2 teams are no longer dominant in the divisional playoff round. Sticking along the lines of your summary, obviously realignment didn't affect the relative quality of the #1 team. The #2 seed before realignment could have been the 2nd-6th best team (ie, 5 teams in each division instead of 4) -- hardly different than now, less so given reality (#2 seed is hardly ever worse than the 3rd, maybe 4th, best team in the conference). Going to the other end of the seeds, #6 theoretically is stronger now (3rd-6th best team instead of 4th-6th), and so on. But even in such extreme theoretical examples where one division is absolutely loaded and another is very weak, it hardly seems like we'd expect that much stronger lower seeds or weaker higher seeds.

To be non-scientific, seems like what we have seen more is lower-seeded teams entering the playoffs that are clearly stronger than their seeding indicates. I'm thinking especially of the '05 Steelers and '10 Packers -- Steelers had lost a couple of games mid-season because Big Ben was hurt, and '10 Packers lost 6 games by a combined 18 points (or thereabouts); DVOA would certainly put the '08 Eagles in that category. Everyone knew those teams were dangerous going into the playoffs. But no idea if/why we might expect more instances of teams like that now than prior to 2002 realignment.

45
by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 9:09pm

As I alluded to below, there were two instances where the #2 seed was NOT the #2 team in their conference if you used normal seeding rules, but pretended that divisions didn't matter (basically, have the same rules for qualifying - 4 division winners, 2 wild cards - but seed them according to best record 1-6 and use the tiebreakers normally used for seeding).

That first team was the 2008 Steelers, who would have lost a tiebreaker to the 2008 Colts, as they both finished 12-4 and the Colts beat the Steelers.

The other was the 2011 Bears, who would have lost the conference record tiebreaker to the 2011 Saints, as they both finished 11-5, but the Bears had 4 NFC losses, while the Saints had 3.

55
by Eggwasp (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 4:08am

With more divisions, it might (not done the maths) also be easier to sew up a playoff spot in a weak division. That could lead to either actual starter-resting (or not bringing injured players back early) or just "taking the foot off the gas" from better teams - that may therefore eventually lose a place in the seedings - I don't think many teams are that bothered if they are #3 or #4 and #5 or #6 - at least not prepared to risk their banged-up starting QB etc in a Week 17 game to do so. That might affect things on the margins too.

But I suspect the main reason is just free agency/parity. Back in the 80s there was no free agency or salary cap. #1 and #2 seeds found it easier to be truly dominant teams.

46
by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 9:14pm

If you are going by just records, here are the Wild Card teams that had better records than their first round division winning opponent.

*Because I didn't want to waste even more time, if two opponents had the same record, unless the road team had already beaten the home team, I disregarded it*

2002: Indianapolis (10-6 - traveled to 9-7 NYJ; lost 0-41)

2003: Tennessee (12-4 - traveled to 10-6 BAL; won 20-17)

2004: None

2005: Jacksonville (12-4 - traveled to 10-6 NE; lost 3-28); technically, the 11-5 Steelers got the #6 had a better record than a divisional winner (NE), but not any of their playoff opponents.

2006: None

2007: Jacksonville (11-5 - traveled to 10-6 PIT; won 31-29) & New York Giants (10-6 - traveled to 9-7 TB; won 24-14).

2008: Indianapolis (12-4 - traveled to 8-8 SD; lost 17-23), Baltimore (11-5 - traveled to 11-5 Miami who they already beat; won 24-9) & Atlanta (11-5 traveled to 9-7 ARZ; lost 24-30). Like teh 2005 Steelers, the Eagles had a better record than a division winner (ARZ) but didn't play them.

2009: Green Bay (11-5 - traveled to 10-6 ARZ; lost 45-51)

2010: New York Jets (11-5 - traveled to 10-6 IND; won 17-16), Baltimore (12-4 - traveled to 10-6 KC; won 30-7), Green Bay (10-6 - traveled to 10-6 Philly who they already beat; won 21-16) & New Orleans (11-5 - traveled to 7-9 Seattle; lost 36-41).

2011: Pittsburgh (12-4 - traveled to 8-8 Denver; lost 23-29) & Atlanta (10-6 - traveled to 9-7 NYG; lost 2-24). Like the 2005 Steelers and 2008 Eagles, the Bengals had a better record than Denver, but didn't play them.

So, it has happened 15 times out of a possible 40 in the Wild Card Round (including each matchup last year), which is quite a high percentage. Those 15 teams had a 7-8 record.

We have yet to have a scenario where a Wild Card team has played a team off of a bye in the divisional round with a worse regular season record. It could have happened only once. In 2008, had the Colts beaten the Chargers, they would have traveled to 12-4 Pittsburgh, a team they already beat in Pittsburgh.

Weird random stats I got from this:
1.) The three Wild Card Round meetings where a team had to travel to play a team with a record at least four games worse (2008 Colts, 2010 Saints, 2011 Steelers) all lost.
2.) Three of the four Wild Card Round games that went to OT were in these scenarios, and all three times, the home team (the one with the worse record) won.

35
by LionInAZ (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 6:00pm

This is off the top of my head, but I'm going to guess that the realignment ended up resulting in weak divisions, such as the NFC West and AFC West in recent years. In 2002 one could have called the NFC North a weak division, since only the Packers had a good record. In a weak division a moderately above average team can clean up in their division, be mediocre against the rest of the league, and still win 11-13 games and get a high seed. But that team might not fare well in the playoff rounds.

26
by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 3:53pm

Tanier put up the "teams off of the bye are 25-15 since 2001" stat, but in 2001 and 2002 they were 7-1. Home teams are 18-14 since 2003, and 12-12 since 2005.

47
by Red (not verified) :: Wed, 01/11/2012 - 2:59am

Realignment may be part of the explanation, but I'm thinking these upsets have more to do with the way the game is actually being played. Specifically, I think the increased emphasis on passing in recent years has made upsets more likely, simply because passing is a much higher variance strategy than running.

Back in the 90's when run-heavy playoff teams were prevalent, a team's game-by-game performance didn't vary all that much, because running is a low variance strategy. But in recent years, we've seen a lot more pass-happy teams in the playoffs, and the high variance strategy of passing creates more opportunities for a team's performance to deviate wildly from their true average.

The 2008 Cardinals are the best example of this. Overall, over the course of 16 games, they were probably the worst team in the playoffs that season. However, they were quarterbacked by the notoriously streaky Kurt Warner, who could alternate between cover-your-eyes-awful and historically great from one game to the next. During those playoffs, it just so happened that AZ's passing performances were all on the right tail of their bell curve, and they rode that hot streak all the way to the Super Bowl. Whereas if they had an offense that was merely consistently above average, they probably would not have made it that far.

51
by claude balls (not verified) :: Wed, 01/11/2012 - 4:11pm

Oops. That's not convenient.

53
by greybeard :: Wed, 01/11/2012 - 10:52pm

They are 67.5% the last two years. Small sample siz, and making it smaller will tell you even less.

21
by Bad Doctor :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 3:08pm

I'm really upset this article doesn't explain why you should never take points off the board.

I think that old chestnut has been taken out back and put down. I can recall a couple of teams taking points off the board this season and I don't think the announcers questioned the move either time. (On at least one of the occasions if not both, I don't think "taking points off the board" was even so much as mentioned.)

22
by Bjorn Nittmo (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 3:27pm

If the reaction I heard last time I was in a sports bar and a team nullified its own field goal after getting a first down on a penalty was any indication, this adage still has some life left. One guy was still bitching about the decision even after the team went on to score a TD on the drive.

23
by tuluse :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 3:29pm

At least he was consistent.

40
by Bernie (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 7:11pm

Phil Simms knows the value of a field goal.

25
by RichC (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 3:47pm

I see the "don't take points off the board" as one of the typical ultra-conservative things coaches are forced to do because of the results based media.

If your kicker hits a 50 yard field goal (from the 33), but gets fouled in the process (unneccesary roughness), and you have a choice with the ball on the 18, you're probably better of taking the foul.

Where the media comes in, is that there's basically 3 possibilities here, you either end up scoring a touchdown, kicking another field goal, or walking away with no points (via missed shorter fieldgoal/turnover/whatever). If you walk away with no points, you basically gave the other team points. If you kick a fieldgoal, you risked points for no gain. If you get a touchdown, they pretty much just forget about it.

Essentially, nobody gets fired for declining the penalty there, despite the fact that its lowering your expected points.

29
by BroncFan07 :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 4:49pm

I went to the store looking for Bye Week BonBons because they sounded delicious. Turns out they were in the same section as WWE Ice Cream Bars. Darn it all.

30
by Kevin from Philly :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 5:02pm

Look in the cereal aisle, next to the "TO's" and the "Flutie Flakes".

33
by BearJew (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 5:32pm

Florio:

Since 2005, the home teams in the conference semifinals have lost as many games as they have won: 12 wins, 12 losses.

It’s a dramatic difference from how things used to be. And it’s hard to pinpoint the reason.

The most plausible explanation comes from the boost that a team winning in the wild-card round receives. With low expectations and a chip firmly attached to their shoulders, the first-week winners can take to the road with a strong sense of confidence and an even stronger sense of disrespect.

The top two seeds, on the other hand, often are caught flat-footed by a loose team that isn’t supposed to win anyway. And if the home team falls behind and the visitor acquires even more confidence, things can get ugly, quickly.

36
by LionInAZ (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 6:02pm

That sounds disturbingly like "momentum".

41
by Bernie (not verified) :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 7:14pm

Especially if the visiting team runs to win, and doesn't ever take any points off the board.

48
by BJR :: Wed, 01/11/2012 - 9:52am

No matter that last weekend Denver lost their starting WR, Houston lost their starting TE and the Giants probably lost their starting CB, whilst the top seeds were at home resting. Dey got da momentum!

56
by Eggwasp (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 4:14am

Ah but who are the top seeds "going to win for?" now they are healthy?

54
by Lance :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 1:32am

Holy crap.

Most people here have played some competitive sport before, and perhaps they've played it at a high level (say top tier high school or college). Does anyone recall playing or competing with a "shoulder chip" and having said chip actually help in some significant way?

I recall plenty of times going against a rival school and hating that school, or hating how my school's team was perceived in comparison to the rival-- even getting literal bulletin board material as some added incentive. I also recall that when the actual team was better, they beat us regardless of how chipped we were.

I'm sure there are good reasons to explain odd shifts in play-off trends over the past decade (or whatever), but I refuse to accept that it's due to the shoulder chips of numerous lower-seeded teams, each of which is made up of some 50+ men. It's just nuts!

I really wish that on-air people would start calling out this crap. I have given up listening to pre-game shows and half-time shows because the commentary about what a team should or shouldn't do-- or why one team is or isn't winning-- is so banal.

61
by Dean :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 10:08am

I think that stuff like that does matter. It's part of why games don't always end up within a standard deviation of the expected outcome. The problem is that you can't measure it. But in the short term, for one game, one series, one play, whatever, yes, those factors are very real. On a long timeline, though, they will be reflected in the stats of the team and taken into account without having to specifically factor them.

Feel free to disagree, but I do believe that teams can overachieve or underachieve in a given moment in non-measureable ways.

67
by Lance :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 5:28pm

To be sure, teams "can overachieve or underachieve in a given moment in non-measureable ways." Or rather, they can have greater-than- or less-than-expected success because a particular player experiences something non-measurable. (E.g. The star WR is having problems at home with his wife, and ends up not concentrating as much in meetings, missing key points of the offensive focus for the week, and thus not performing as well.)

However, I find it impossible to imagine that a change over the last 10 years of how well the bye-round teams do in the play-offs is due largely to the winning wild-card teams having a collective "chip on their shoulder" which enables them to perform better than expected through the course of a game. And not just one particular group of 50-some-odd men, but different groups over the span of a decade.

To say that "the most plausible explanation comes from the boost that a team winning in the wild-card round receives" is, to me, tantamount to saying "I can't be bothered to put more than a few minute's thought into this question that I pondered the other night while drinking some wine and surfing the internet."

It's not like wild card wins and bye weeks are something newly introduced to football in 2005. It's totally the laziest thinking in the world, and this guy got paid to offer this opinion. Nuts. Just nuts.

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by Dean :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 5:39pm

On that level, sure. No argument here. It might help one team win one game one time, but it's not going to be any demonstratively consistent factor.

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by LionInAZ (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 6:51pm

I'm with Lance. The outcome of each game is determined by individual matchups, little nagging injuries, how creative the coaches are with the game plan, weird bounces of the football, how well players concentrate, inadvertent whistles, and the light coming on a player's head telling him "I recognize this play.". There are a hundred little things that can influence the outcome. It's silly to try to explain this with fuzzy concepts like "momentum".

This is exacerbated by the statistical problem that we can not, with much certainty, say which team is the best in the NFL when you have 32 teams and only 16 games. It's not like baseball or hockey where every team plays each other multiple times during the season, and even then little things can trip up good teams in the playoffs. All we can do is make educated guess based on tendencies and the fact that teams with low levels of talent or depth won't win as much as teams with high levels of talent or depth.

57
by Eggwasp (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2012 - 4:36am

Some thoughts
1) passing offenses - more variability - especially on turnovers - which are the best destroyer of DVOA or seedings than I can think of.
2) salary cap - teams have spent fortunes on good, expensive offenses and the defensive quality is poorer of the top teams - look at GB/NE. I don't remember the top seeds having defenses as objectively bad as some have been in recent years. The top seeds in the 80s/90s generally HAD to have decent defenses, average at worst. This makes the top seeds more flawed than perhaps in an earlier age where you could have/afford to be strong on both sides of the ball (or at least not in the bottom quartile!)
3) Strong/record-setting offensive teams with poor defenses that have inflated-seedings from good turnover-luck (or design - as its probably good strategy to build a turnover-focused defense if you can't afford to build a good one). Its more likely that turnover-luck will desert you in a playoff game, against the better quality offenses you are playing now. So these teams might be particularly vulnerable to "upsets" as their defenses can't hold without getting turnovers.
4) on the offensive side of the ball, if Pass interference is genuinely called less in the playoffs, the more pass-heavy offenses of recent top seeds might lose some of their potency, making them more vulnerable to upsets.
5) Playoff pressure I think disrupts the passing game more than the running game/defense. And I include offensive gameplans in that - any increased conservatism for a pass-happy offense likely reduces its chance of winning as you aren't playing to your regular-season strengths.

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