The value of momentum

Mike McCarthy's Packers and Brad Childress' Vikings are heading in different directions. US Presswire

When someone mentions “Big Mo,” I always think of a former baseball slugger. In football, however, it refers to another opaque entity: momentum.

You’re hearing that word bandied about regularly as we approach the NFL playoffs, perhaps in no division more than the NFC North. Our two playoff teams are going in opposite directions, and the debate is on as to whether their late-season performances will impact their postseason run. How much importance should we place on Minnesota’s 1-3 record in December? What does Green Bay’s 3-1 mark over the same stretch indicate?

Conventional wisdom suggests teams playing well at the end of the regular season are more likely to experience postseason success. In this ESPN Insider piece, Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders terms that notion “a crock,” noting examples from both sides of the equation -- hot teams that failed in the playoffs (Atlanta, 2008) and cold teams that marched through the postseason (Indianapolis, 2006).

If you’re talking about the ultimate goal of reaching the Super Bowl, however, recent history gives the Packers a much better chance than the Vikings.

I took a somewhat arbitrary look at each of the 18 teams that have reached the nine Super Bowls during this decade, measuring their records in December/January regular-season games. Of that group, 16 had winning records over that time period. The 2006 Colts were the only team that made it after losing more games than they won in December/January.

Take that for what you will. The Vikings and Packers are. To little surprise, the Vikings are downplaying the idea of momentum this week while the Packers are emphasizing the necessity to maintain it.

In Minnesota, entering the playoffs on a winning note is only one of multiple motivations to win Sunday against the New York Giants. Most important, a victory would give the Vikings a chance at a first-round bye in the playoffs, followed by a divisional round game at home.

If the Vikings continue their current path, quarterback Brett Favre said Monday night, their playoff run will be over “fairly quickly.” But speaking to Minnesota reporters this week, coach Brad Childress articulated a familiar refrain.

“You would love to have momentum,” Childress said. “With all that said, it’s a 12-team tournament. You can cite any number of cases where people have come in with momentum. All the records fall by the wayside at that point. It’s a single-elimination tournament. Whether it’s a bounce of the ball or how you are feeling or ‘we get no respect.’ Whatever it is that motivates you at that time, the [playoff] game is going to be won on the football field and regular-season records won’t have anything to do with it.”

That’s true from a mathematical standpoint, but there is a difference between teams that have been on the short end of lucky breaks and teams that are playing poorly. I think we can agree the Vikings are closer to the latter category and need to make tangible improvements in specific areas to render “momentum” moot. As we discussed late Monday night, their pass defense has slipped considerably this month, and their offensive line is struggling. You only have to look at the Vikings’ 10-1 start to know those issues are fixable, but even Childress admitted the Vikings “need to keep working to find ourselves and get back to some of the minutia that makes you a good football team.”

The Packers, meanwhile, could walk onto the field Sunday in Arizona with no tangible incentive to win. Based on the results of earlier games, their playoff seeding could be locked in. There will be a temptation to protect key players and limit the Cardinals’ insight into their schemes in anticipation of a postseason re-match.

Doing so, however, would risk disrupting the confidence the Packers have built in winning three of their four December games and six of their past seven overall. There is no way to measure that karma. But coaching a football team is as much about feel and instincts as it is about game planning and decision making, and the Packers’ Mike McCarthy has left no doubt about his intentions.

“Our approach is going to be the same for this week as it has been for the first 15,” McCarthy told reporters in Green Bay. “It’s important for us to continue the way we have been playing the last seven weeks, and that’s really the message to the football team. … We’re not in this situation to back off. It’s important for us to continue our style of play. … I think routine in your preparation and your approach is a big part of your success, so we’re going to go out there and our goal is to go 11-5.”

The true test will be whether McCarthy plays his starters for the entire game if the outcome has no postseason implication. Everyone has a thought on momentum, but I think Minnesota linebacker Ben Leber put it best.

“Momentum is important,” Leber said. “It’s not everything.”

We’ll soon find out.