Momentum is a tough concept to measure or quantify.
In baseball it seems to shift from week to week, even from game to game. During the second half of the 1990 season the Cincinnati Reds were a .500 team. Not much momentum there.But after postseason play, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland Athletics, the fall's supposed "hot" teams, knew the Reds had not left their best baseball in May.
Pro football is different. Momentum over the final weeks of a season is important - vitally so. Teams that limp into the playoffs usually don't last.
The 1969 Los Angeles Rams won their first 11 games, but then lost three straight to end the season. The playoffs brought no redemption as the Minnesota Vikings ousted L.A. in the first round.
Of the 24 teams that have won Super Bowls, none finished the final five weeks of the regular season with a losing record. Only four were even 3-2. Nine of the teams were 5-0, and the other 11, including the 1985 Bears, were 4-1.
These champions-to-be weren't just winning; they were rolling over the opposition. The average score over the final five weeks for all 24 Super Bowl champs, including defeats, is 25-15.
The 17-0 Miami Dolphins of 1972 won their final five games by an average score of 27-14. The 18-1 San Francisco 49ers of 1984 pounded their final five opponents 33-12.
No Super Bowl king entered the playoffs with greater momentum than the 1971 Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry's finest team. Featuring a backfield of quarterback Roger Staubach, running backs Duane Thomas, Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison, wide receivers Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth, plus a tight end named Mike Ditka, Dallas blasted its final five foes by a 33-11 margin.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears finished the final weeks of the 1990 season with a 2-3 record (and were outscored by their opposition), while the New York Giants went 3-2, barely outscoring their foes.
This is a far cry from their counterparts of the mid-1980s, who roared into the playoffs.
The 1985 Bears finished the season with a 27-14 margin over the final five weeks, despite a 38-24 loss to Miami.
The 1986 Giants had an even stronger ending, averaging 29-16 per game and winning each contest by a progressively larger margin: three points over Denver, four points over the 49ers, 10 points over Washington, 20 points over the Cardinals and 31 points over Green Bay.
As for the four 3-2 teams that claimed Super Bowl glory, two were very good (1967 Green Bay Packers, 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers) and two were very lucky (1969 Kansas City Chiefs, 1980 Oakland Raiders).
The 1967 Packers, with four NFL titles already under their belts, clinched a playoff berth early and used the final weeks to fine-tune their game. In a season-ending loss to the then-woeful Steelers, rookie quarterback Don Horn played in place of Bart Starr. A week earlier, the Rams beat the Pack 27-24 on a blocked punt in the final minute. Green Bay avenged that loss by stomping the Rams 28-7 in the playoffs.
The 1979 Steelers, with three Super Bowl trophies gracing their mantel, also knew exactly how much to exert over the final weeks. A 20-17 loss to Houston in the season's next-to-last week put the AFC Central crown in jeopardy, but Pittsburgh regrouped and clobbered the Buffalo Bills 28-0. The Steelers entered the playoffs with momentum restored.
The 1969 Chiefs benefited from a one-time American Football League format that allowed the division's second-place teams to make the playoffs. After beating the New York Jets, the Chiefs, who had lost twice to Oakland in the final weeks, got a third chance and upset the Raiders 17-7 in the final AFL title game. They were aided by a controversial catch by Otis Taylor (who may have been out of bounds), Daryle Lamonica's three interceptions and George Blanda's three missed field goals.
Kansas City also was helped by an unusual one-week break before the Super Bowl, which limited the Vikings' preparations for the diversified Chiefs offense.
The 1980 Raiders may have been the luckiest team to win a Super Bowl. They averaged just 17 points a game over the final five weeks, lowest of any eventual Super Bowl champ.
Oakland beat the Cleveland Browns 14-12 in the AFC divisional playoff when Brian Sipe threw a late interception rather than play it safe for an almost-certain game-winning field goal. The Raiders nearly were faced with an AFC title game date in frigid Buffalo, but the Bills blew a late lead to San Diego after a Buffalo defensive back dropped a sure interception with less than two minutes to play. In balmy San Diego, the Raiders beat the defenseless Chargers 34-27.
In the Super Bowl, the Raiders defeated an offensively conservative Philadelphia Eagles club that had eliminated the much more dangerous Dallas Cowboys. Dallas already had beaten the Raiders in a December game in Oakland.
A boffo ending, however, doesn't ensure possession of the Vince Lombardi Trophy. No team in the Super Bowl era finished on a higher note than the 1987 49ers, who outscored their final five foes by a staggering 37-9. This included a 41-0 blanking of the Bears in which Ditka's postgame chewing gum toss was Chicago's offensive highlight.
But in their opening playoff game, the team that couldn't lose was humbled by Minnesota 36-24. This stunning outcome nearly persuaded coach Bill Walsh to replace quarterback Joe Montana, the NFL's Player of the '80s, with Steve Young the following season.
Momentum doesn't guarantee playoff success. But the record shows it's a good foundation for any NFL team to have when January rolls around. That's bad news for the Bears and Giants, but may bring good tidings for the Bills, Raiders, 49ers and Chiefs.