Momentum Mirage Threatens Jets, Packers Facing Home-Field Teams

Forecasting a Bears victory over the Green Bay Packers is natural for finance professor Tobias Moskowitz, not just because he teaches at the University of Chicago. His number crunching predicts that home-field advantage will trump the Packers’ four-game winning streak.

For proof, Moskowitz also likes Pittsburgh over the New York Jets because both the Bears and Steelers play host.

The Packers take their streak into Sunday’s National Football Conference title game with the Bears after a 48-21 victory Jan. 15 over the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons. The Jets face the Steelers in the American Football Conference championship after upsetting the top-ranked New England Patriots 28-21.

Momentum in almost all sports, including football, doesn’t exist, according to Moskowitz, 39, who teaches at the university’s Booth School of Business and is co-author of “Scorecasting,” a book set for release Jan. 25 that tests sports cliches and conventional wisdom against data.

“People put a lot more emphasis on this notion of momentum than they should,” said Moskowitz, who in 2007 won the Fischer Black Prize, which goes to the world’s top finance scholar under 40. “So a lot of the people are going to be talking about the Packers, they’re playing so well, and they’re playing so hot, and they’re on this big hot streak. What we find is, that doesn’t matter.”

Same goes for the Jets, said Moskowitz, who teaches next to the Midway Plaisance, the stretch of boulevard on Chicago’s south side that gave the 1940s Bears their Monsters of the Midway nickname.

Streak Fallacy

In his research, Moskowitz found that teams on winning streaks don’t have an advantage over teams on a run of losses entering the playoffs.

The Jets are 3 1/2-point underdogs against the Steelers in the AFC championship game at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers. The Packers are 3 1/2-point favorites over the Chicago Bears in the NFC title game at Soldier Field in Chicago.

President Barack Obama predicted a 20-17 Bears victory over the Packers, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday.

The best indicator of postseason success in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and European soccer is how well teams performed during the regular season, according to “Scorecasting,” which Moskowitz co-wrote with longtime friend L. Jon Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and author of five books.

Home Field

One sports belief that held up under Moskowitz and Wertheim’s scrutiny is home-field advantage. It’s not a myth, according to the book, though the edge doesn’t come from loud fans boosting the spirits and performance of the home team. The advantage is “the referees seeing things the home crowd’s way,” Moskowitz said.

In the NFL from 1966 to 2009, the home team has won 58 percent of the time, according to the book. The research found that home teams are assessed fewer yards per penalty and fewer penalties per game.

“When humans are faced with enormous pressure -- say, making a crucial call with a rabid crowd yelling, taunting and chanting a few feet away -- it is natural to want to alleviate that pressure,” the book said. “By making snap-judgment calls in favor of the home team, referees, whether they consciously appreciate it or not, are relieving some of that stress.”

Final Four

Moskowitz predicts the Bears and Steelers will win Sunday and advance to the Super Bowl because of home-field advantage. The final four teams are evenly matched, and there is no obvious favorite among them, he said.

“That slightly tilts the odds in their favor,” Moskowitz said of the Bears and Steelers. “It’s going to be really close.”

Another factor that may boost the Bears’ chances: If Bears head coach Lovie Smith gives more latitude to offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who Moskowitz said is “a bit of a gambler.”

“I think it would give the Bears a much bigger chance of winning if they did that,” he said.

Download: Tobias Moskowitz Interview on NFC, AFC Finals

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