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There’s No Such Thing As Super Bowl Momentum

With a crush of worldwide media searching for talking points, the two weeks between the NFL’s conference championships and the Super Bowl can feel like an eternity. Every little aspect of the two teams is up for (over) analysis. And that goes extra when the teams got to the big game in very different ways, as the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles did this past weekend. The Patriots needed another remarkable fourth-quarter comeback to outlast the Jacksonville Jaguars — so much for that easy path! — while the Eagles cruised past the Minnesota Vikings in the fifth-most lopsided conference title game ever. So there might be some temptation to think Philly’s momentum (and the Pats’ lack thereof) will carry over to Super Sunday.

But if history is any indication, that’s not true. In fact, it might be the opposite of true. Whether a team rolled to its conference crown or sweated things out two weeks earlier just doesn’t seem to matter once the Super Bowl finally kicks off.

If this sounds counter-intuitive, well, I’m right there with you. I expected that the simple fact of trouncing a strong playoff opponent would tell us something extra about how good a conference champ is — and, therefore, how it might perform on the game’s grandest stage. And in fairness, sometimes big wins have translated to Super Bowl success — such as when the Patriots followed up their rout of the Indianapolis Colts in the Deflategate Game 2015 AFC Championship by beating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Or when Washington walloped the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills in successive games in 1992.

But each of those cases has plenty of counter-examples. A year before falling to Washington, for example, Buffalo demolished the Oakland Raiders 51-3 for the 1991 AFC Championship — still the biggest landslide in conference title game history — yet lost the Super Bowl in heartbreaking fashion.

Ten years later, the New York Giants thrashed the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 to win the NFC title (what is it with Minnesota in the playoffs against NFC East teams?), only to see the Baltimore Ravens dominate them in the Super Bowl. And just two seasons ago, the Carolina Panthers outclassed the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 to make Super Bowl 50, but had no answers for the Denver Broncos’ defense during the big game.

By the same token, plenty of teams have squeaked past their conference-championship opponents, only to win big in the Super Bowl. For instance, after they handled Carolina, it was easy to forget that the Broncos had been a failed two-point conversion away from blowing a fourth-quarter lead against the Pats in the 2016 AFC title game. Or that in 1991, the Giants had only beaten the San Francisco 49ers by 2 points while their Super Bowl opponents were winning by 48 on championship weekend. (As we mentioned above, it didn’t matter.)

Beyond anecdotes, since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, there’s basically no relationship between how a team played in the conference championships and whether it ended up winning the Super Bowl. I tested this in a number of different ways, from running correlations between the difference in the two participants’ conference title-game victory margins1 and their margin in the Super Bowl itself, to building regression models to predict the Super Bowl outcome using conference championship performance as a variable. No matter how I sliced it, a team’s play in the conference title game failed to be significant in any of the tests.

In fact, to the extent there was any trace of a relationship, it was negative. Since 1970, Super Bowl losers won their respective conference title games by an average of 14.2 points per game, while Super Bowl winners won by only 12.8 points. And when it comes to predicting Super Bowl outcomes, you’d have been slightly more accurate if you made your selection using a team’s Elo rating before the conference championships, disregarding anything that happened in the title games themselves.

Again, those differences aren’t anywhere near statistically significant, so it probably isn’t the case that dominating your conference championship will lead to playing worse in the Super Bowl. But that’s partly the point. The Patriots opened as 6-point favorites in Vegas, but the line has moved toward the Eagles ever since. It’s impossible to say how much of that is due to recency bias — in addition to a host of other factors — but the contrast in performances Sunday is probably playing some role in the perception of the matchup. The history of the Super Bowl says that’s a mistake, no matter how solid or shaky each team appeared to be while tuning up for the big game.

Footnotes

  1. Both raw and adjusted for strength of schedule using our Elo model.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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