Because games are neatly spaced a week apart, over the course of a season momentum is less a factor in football than in baseball, where teams inexplicably get hot and reel off five, six, seven victories in a row in as many days. What happens last week in football has no staying power compared to what happens last night in baseball.
But if momentum is more influential in baseball, confidence is essential in football. Precisely because the games are so infrequent, you must walk onto the field believing you can defeat your opponent. The football mentality approaches each game like a war, winner take all. This isn't a seven-game series in which the breaks even out. This is best of one. There's no time to sort out the emotional baggage on the field. A doubting football team will be thrashed. Chicago did it to New England in Super Bowl XX.
How deep is the Washington Redskins' confidence now?
In their previous three games -- versus the Giants, Cardinals and Cowboys -- the Redskins managed to cram enough excellence into one half to overcome stumbling, incomplete performances. Whatever criticism was tossed, they could legitimately refute by pointing to the standings: We won. What more do you want?
By their regularity, the skinny wins fostered a credible bravado. Following the Dallas game, an optimistic Darryl Grant said, "I have accepted that we will go into the playoffs playing this kind of ball. Hopefully, we can go into that first playoff game, and flip the switch and all of a sudden be great. I think we can." Grant proudly labeled the Redskins "a team of extreme urgency." Echoing that, Charles Mann said, "We always win the games we have to win. No matter how bad we look, no matter how we stink it up, we win. We know how to win."
Miami was a game of some urgency.
The party line seems to be that by finally stringing together four quarters of solid football, the Redskins gained something positive from the Miami game.
But is that blowing smoke?
The Redskins hadn't played a single important game all season, not one with anything tangible on the line, until Miami. Since the Bears already lost that afternoon, the Redskins entered the field Sunday night knowing that by winning their final two games they'd have the home-field advantage at least until the NFC championship. Just par in.
The Dolphins were a 7-6 team. They had lost twice to Buffalo, the only team the Redskins had dominated since the strike. Granted, the Redskins were on the road. But in their playoff picture it seemed likely they'd have to win one game on the road to get to the Super Bowl, anyway. This was training.
With every possible incentive, the Redskins got good running, good passing and good defense. And still lost.
Lost close. But lost.
Tim Mayotte has made a career of doing just that, of having what they call in tennis a portfolio of "good losses." It seems every time he steps in against top flight players, like Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker or John McEnroe, he goes five tough sets. And loses. It's difficult to believe Mayotte has true confidence against those top guns.
In assessing the implications of the Miami game, consider that the Redskins not only turned over their lead in the race for home field, but also probably doomed themselves to a more difficult first-round playoff opponent. Assuming favored New Orleans wins the wild-card game, the Redskins -- seeded ahead of Chicago -- would have hosted the Saints. But if their current dubious position holds, should the Saints advance, the Redskins will have to play the 49ers in San Francisco. Quite a costly turnover.
Dan Marino is a great quarterback. There's no shame losing to him. But look at what the Redskins face if the NFC playoff seedings hold form: Joe Montana in the first game, Jim McMahon in the second. They are also great quarterbacks, and unlike Marino (or Jim Kelly, a great quarterback who the Redskins clamped), have better and more diverse offensive weapons to launch. If the Redskins can't withstand Marino operating behind a patchwork line, how confident can they be in their ability to go on the road and overcome Montana and McMahon in successive weeks?
All of this makes Saturday's game against Minnesota one of particular, if not extreme, urgency. For the second week in a row, the Redskins will be on the road against a team that needs to win to maintain its playoff aspiration. (To compound the problem, the game will be played inside the Metrodome, where the noise level, as we learned in the World Series, is roughly equivalent to having Twisted Sister rehearse inside your ear canal.) Any pressure that a Redskins victory would put on the Bears for home field is almost incidental. The main issue is that in a dress rehearsal for the playoffs, the Redskins have this last chance to prove to themselves they can beat a good team on the road.
It's a deadly weight, dragging two straight losses into the playoffs. This is not a character builder; the Redskins have character. This is a confidence builder.