The Bengals finished the season 1-3 in their last four games and 3-4 in their last seven. Their three wins came over Cleveland, Detroit, and Kansas City, and by margins of only 9 points, 10 points, and 7 points, respectively. Suffice it to say, the Bengals don't have "momentum" on their side heading into this Saturday's playoff game.

But how important is momentum? Here are two articles, one of which debunks the notion, while the other recognizes its importance.

Updated: December 28, 2009, 4:31 PM ET
The myth that is ... momentum

Whoever enters January "hot" won't necessarily win the whole thing

By Bill Barnwell
Football Outsiders

As we watched Curtis Painter and company almost literally give the Indianapolis Colts' perfect season away, we were reminded of the futility of playoff performance narratives.

That is to say: Most explanations of why a team succeeded or failed in the playoffs are ridiculous, filled with hindsight-laden explanations that don't hold up. They're excuses that get applied upon failure and ignored upon success. The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers used their experience from the 2005 run to calm their nerves late and beat the Arizona Cardinals, but the 2006 Colts and the 2007 New York Giants had no more than a small handful of players that had ever participated in a Super Bowl.

Some narratives are created to explain variance. When a 14-win team loses in the second round of the playoffs after a bye -- no matter what happened in the game itself -- it was because they're rusty. Never mind that a team of that caliber loses to a 10-win team a fair amount of the time in the regular season. If they win, rusty doesn't come up. Teams that lose after a couple of playoff games on the road were too exhausted physically and emotionally, but when those same teams win and head on to the Super Bowl, they managed to remain healthy and happy.

What recent results have showed, though, is that the idea of momentum -- of teams "peaking at the right time" -- is a crock. The past three years provide enough fodder to kill the idea. The 2006 Colts went 2-3 in December, losing by 27 to the Jacksonville Jaguars and by three to a 6-10 Houston Texans team before narrowly beating a 6-10 Miami Dolphins team to finish the year. They then won four straight games en route to the Super Bowl.

In 2007, the Giants supposedly picked up momentum when they played the undefeated New England Patriots to an extremely close game, losing by three before starting off their hot streak. That's reasonable, but it was preceded by a 3-3 stretch in which the team lost to the Minnesota Vikings by 27, the Washington Redskins by 12 and narrowly pulled out victories over mediocre teams in the Detroit Lions (six points), Chicago Bears (five points) and Philadelphia Eagles (three points). The idea that the Giants' near-win over the Patriots had given them momentum didn't come until they actually made it to the Super Bowl, and their "momentum" consisted of one game.

Last year's Cardinals took the cake, though. After virtually locking up the NFC West with a 7-3 start, Arizona took the rest of the season off. Finishing 2-4, the Cardinals lost to the Giants by eight and the Eagles -- the same team they'd beat in the NFC Championship Game -- by 28. It got worse in December. Playing two playoff-caliber teams, the Cardinals lost by 21 to the Vikings and the Patriots by 40. The idea that they had momentum is absurd; time will not produce a better example of a team limping into the playoffs for decades.

Of course, the flip side of the "momentum" idea is fallacious, too; there are plenty of examples of teams sweeping December after an uneven first three months, only to disappear in the playoffs. The 2007 Redskins won their final four games after burying Sean Taylor, pushing them into the playoffs after a 5-7 start, but got annihilated in Seattle when Todd Collins started throwing interceptions. Last year's San Diego Chargers went 4-0 in December to sneak into the playoffs, and beat the Colts with a great performance at home in the wild-card round, but were summarily dispatched in Pittsburgh a week later. The Atlanta Falcons finished 5-1, winning their final three, and lost to the Cardinals in the wild-card round. The Dolphins did them one better -- going 5-0 to end the year, and 9-1 overall -- and got stomped 27-9 by the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round. These are the most recent of many such examples in the past.

The point of all this is that what happened in December doesn't mean squat once the playoffs roll around. Each year, fans and media alike try and parse meaning out of small samples and natural variance. How many people get excited for the first preseason game of the year? By the time Week 1 of the regular season rolls around, only a month later, the preseason's been totally forgotten about. While the Colts lost their chance at an undefeated season, their decision to rest their stars won't have any effect on when they're "peaking" or their momentum heading into the playoffs.

Bottom line: Teams win in the playoffs because they play well and breaks go their way, the same way they do in the regular season. And if teams really can peak, the right time to peak isn't the end of December. It's the end of January.

Thursday, December 31, 2009
The value of momentum
By Kevin Seifert

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.