The last time the Kansas City Chiefs played the Oakland Raiders, the Chiefs had nine sacks, three interceptions, a world record in crowd noise and a 24-7 win at Arrowhead Stadium. That game was the sixth win in a row by Kansas City.
Since then, the Raiders have gone 2-5 and switched quarterbacks from Terrelle Pryor to Matt McGloin. The Chiefs have gone 4-3, including three tough losses in a row, but recovered with a dominant performance against Washington last week.
There has been no streakier team in the NFL than the Chiefs this year. Nine straight wins. Three straight losses. The momentum pendulum has swung in both directions for Kansas City.
Last year just before the Super Bowl, Brian Burke wrote a great piece on “Excellence Versus Momentum.” Burke explains why the the San Francisco 49ers were the favorite to win the Super Bowl, even though the Baltimore Ravens were the hot team:
…I think fans and analysts alike are susceptible to the idea of momentum because our brains are geared to detect patterns from nature. Football teams and their win-loss records are very, very abstract constructions, but our brains aren’t built for such abstractions.
A boulder rolls down a hill and gains momentum. A spark sets a fire, and soon it has built into a blaze. The rains come and soon the river is rushing over its banks. Momentum is everywhere in nature, but applying it to abstractions like team win-loss records in a relatively small sample of football games is what I call voodoo analysis.
Voodoo analysis is the application of apparently intuitive patterns beyond their natural settings. A football team is not a boulder rolling down a hill. It’s not a river bursting through a damn. It’s not a spreading fire. Our brains are continuously looking for patterns like these, and often see them even when they’re not there. That’s why we’re better off taking a disciplined look at the numbers from the full season. Here we see a 49ers team that is superior or equal in nearly all key aspects.
Burke is a smart and gifted analyst, and one with whom I agree vigorously and often. Teams like the Seattle Seahawks of late and the New England Patriots historically are models of excellent and consistent play throughout the year, and are deserving of their seeds and winning odds.
But in practice, ask yourself: would you rather go into the playoffs on a streak or be consistently excellent all year long?
Despite the analytics, I think I’d rather go with the streak. Momentum, as Burke says, is, statistically speaking, a fabrication. It’s a convenient way for us to make sense of events, to create a story that more often than not, has more to do with the story we want to hear, rather than an accurate portrayal of those very same events. Optical illusions are a useful analogy. Our brains fill in what’s not there, completing a familiar picture based on what we hope or expect to see rather than on what is actually visible to our eyes.
But that fabrication can take on meaning – just ask the 2012 Baltimore Ravens or the 2010 New York Giants, both of whom rode late-building momentum to Super Bowl championships. There is something about momentum in football that transcends what Burke described. Momentum can become a real, physical thing.
Perceived momentum can create emotion and confidence. And heightened states of emotion and confidence are the catalysts that cause exceptional players to make exceptional plays at exceptional times.
The perception of momentum can also change decision-making. When you feel “luck is on your side” or “we’re in the zone” or “the game is slowing down,” you are more likely to go for the high-risk/high-reward plays that become difference makers in a game – the blitz, the long pass or the decision to go for it on 4th and 1. This impact on decision-making affects players and coaches alike, and can separate a playoff team from a championship team.
The notion of momentum also translates into head coach Andy Reid’s impending decision to rest his starters in the coming weeks. In Adam Teicher’s blog this week, he quotes Reid:
I’ve done both, gone both ways with that. I have held people from games and (at other times) played people just depending on what I feel we need to get ourselves ready if we have that opportunity to continue to play. We’re not there yet….You work it out (the way) you think it works in that situation. They’re all different.
Part of Reid’s calculation will be his perception of whether momentum is building or not. If it’s building, he’ll give his starters more playing time, not less.
The strength of the Chiefs continues to be their ability to beat the teams they are supposed to beat. The challenge over the final three games of the regular season – against the Raiders, Colts and Chargers – is to build momentum so that in the playoffs, the Chiefs can beat the teams they are not supposed to beat. And while momentum is defined as the relationship among a series of events, you build momentum one game at a time, which means focusing like a laser on the Oakland Raiders.
The Chiefs stand at 10-3, the Raiders at 4-9. The Raiders, like Washington, are underdogs against the Chiefs, and rightly so. They are starting McGloin, a rookie quarterback (even though Pryor got one series last week, in one of the most confusing coaching decisions of the year). Their running back situation is a mess of injuries, with starter Rashad Jennings perhaps returning this week and Darren McFadden still out. The Raiders defense is 23rd in the League in points allowed. Even Sebastian Janikowski is having an unusually error-prone year.
If we want momentum, then we must put all of our focus on Sunday’s game.
In the debate between sustained excellence and late-building momentum, I’ll take momentum. Addicts, which would you prefer, and can the Chiefs build momentum to ride into the playoffs?!