How Much Does Wild Card Momentum Really Carry over to Divisional Round?
Wild Card momentum can be a decisive factor in this weekend's Divisional round. Five of the last seven Super Bowl winners have used momentum from the Wild Card Round.
That's not just a stat, it's a trend all by itself. But does it really show that any momentum that carries over from Wild Card Weekend can determine the Divisional round?
The answer in many respects is yes. That's because the nature of the league has altered dramatically in the last 10 years.
It's not so much a case of momentum being built via victory on Wild Card Weekend. It is more to do with momentum being discovered going into the playoffs.
Whichever team finishes with the hot hand now becomes a favourite for Super Bowl glory. The 2011 New York Giants will forever stand as the embodiment of this phenomenon.
The two wins that backed them into last season's playoffs at 9-7 set the platform for their title push. Further impetus was added with the Wild Card thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons.
By the time the Divisional Round rolled around, the Giants had all the momentum. They used it to trounce the 15-1 Green Bay Packers on the road. Last season's Giants shared similar traits with the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers.
That version of the Steelers earned passage to the Wild Card Round, thanks to an inspired four-game winning streak. That provided Bill Cowher's team with the winning knack at just the right time.
In the modern NFL, timing is everything and the regular season form book no longer holds sway. The problem is that those who dominate the regular season, often play their best football during it.
That means they are sometimes spent by the time the playoffs begin. They have also spent 16 weeks being the prime target of the rest of the league. Those who hit the 13-win mark or above are scrutinised in greater detail.
Opponents have analysed their weaknesses more carefully. They can become easy prey to those teams boosted by the vigour and desire provided by momentum.
Gone are the days of the comforting simplicity of the early- to mid-90s. Back then, the only suspense was who out of the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers would win the Super Bowl. Either would, of course, dominate an AFC usually led by the Buffalo Bills.
However, momentum is not so easy to define. As much as peaking late has buoyed some Wild Card entrants, momentum has also been grabbed from the depths of adversity. Step forward the 2006 Indianapolis Colts and 2007 New York Giants.
The Colts ended the regular season with three losses in their last five games. The criticism they received after losing the No. 1 seed and the doubts concerning their soft run defense, helped re-focus the team.
Beginning in the Wild Card Round, the Colts proceeded to shut down the running game of every opponent they faced. Eventually they captured the Super Bowl title after dominating the Chicago Bears.
The 2007 Giants preceded the postseason with a loss. However, that defeat served as the catalyst for their improbable title win.
When Big Blue were beaten 38-35 by the New England Patriots in Week 17, they had given the league's best team all it could handle. That gave the Giants the confidence to fear nobody in the playoffs and earn another shot at the Patriots.
For these two teams, momentum had come from negatives. The momentum was created in defeat, but gathered steam from the Wild Card Round onwards.
Of course, the real question is which of this year's Wild Card teams can match those previous five winners? The answer, rather unsurprisingly, lies in the NFC.
Three of the last five wild-card Super Bowl winners represented the national conference. There's no mystery to that number. The NFC simply offers a greater level or parity, because there are no truly elite teams in the conference.
While the AFC playoff picture is predictable, the NFC houses an ever-changing list of characters for its annual postseason drama. Last year it was the Giants, Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers who surprised.
This season, the Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks all defied expectations. Those Seahawks, along with the Packers, are the most likely wild-card teams who could earn a place in the Super Bowl.
Both have found the key ingredients at the right time. The Seahawks have chosen the perfect moment to shed their frailties on the road.
Wins on their travels against the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills started the process.The Wild Card win in Washington only boosts belief that the Seahawks can survive without the comforts of home.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith should be very wary of the Seahawks in the Divisional Round. His team will likely be nervy, given their recent playoff failings and are facing an opponent with true momentum.
Major momentum is also on the side of the Packers—as is that all-important timing. The Packers are peaking just when it matters, especially on offense.
Veteran Greg Jennings is still the team's best wide receiver, and he has returned to form in his last four games. That's after registering only 17 catches in his first 13.
More importantly, the Packers have recently found a credible running game. Ryan Grant, Alex Green and DuJuan Harris have all helped provide an element of balance.
That is ominously familiar to the formula that won the Packers the Super Bowl as a wild card in 2010. Then it was James Starks who emerged from obscurity to provide enough of a complement to Aaron Rodgers.
It was Starks who used the Wild Card Round to announce himself. He rushed for 123 yards and keyed a road victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, creating the momentum the Packers needed.
The Packers used their Wild Card momentum to dominate in the Divisional Round against the 13-3 Atlanta Falcons.
A daunting road trip to San Francisco faces the Packers in this year's Divisional Round. However, it would take a brave observer to bet against Rodgers and company with their current momentum.
The momentum created in the final weeks of the regular season and ignited in the Wild Card Round has become increasingly significant.
The regular season used to set the pattern for the playoffs. Now it is merely a precursor, offering little indication of the eventual outcome. That's because the tournament is everything and that tournament now belongs to everyone.
Salary cap and free agency have increased parity until almost no obvious gap exists among contenders. So those who back into the playoff tournament are no longer simply fodder for the 13-3, 14-2 and 15-1 teams. They each justifiably have the realistic expectation of contesting the Super Bowl.
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