Some people might look back at the New Orleans Saints’ season opening win over the Atlanta Falcons last year and conclude the fate of each team was set on the final meaningful play of the game.
After safety Kenny Vaccaro tipped a Matt Ryan pass away from Tony Gonzalez in the end zone to Roman Harper, who dived to pull in the interception and seal the Saints’ 23-17 win, the teams were sent down different paths. New Orleans finished the year 11-5, while the Falcons limped to a 4-12 finish.
Did the Saints end up on the right side of the momentum that day? Were the Falcons crushed underneath it?
It’s possible both of those things happened, but that might not be asking the right question.
The right question is this: Does momentum even exist on a week-to-week basis?
The idea of what happened one week somehow influencing the next week is something that Bill Belichick will not entertain. The New England Patriots coach has fielded that inquiry several times throughout his tenure, and each time he dismisses it by saying something along the lines of, “Each week’s different, each game’s different.”
But not everyone agrees with Belichick — at least not fully.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith refuses to buy into the notion that his team was somehow doomed after walking out of Mercedes-Benz Superdome last season. To him, the first game matters in that he wants to set the tone for the season, as he will look to do when the Falcons host the Saints on Sunday, but it is only one game.
However, he does acknowledge that one win can lead to another one and then another, until suddenly everything is moving forward and your team begins to feel untouchable. But even so, Smith was tepid in his response when asked if he believes momentum exists.
“I think you can get momentum going, but again, each game has its own elements and its own dynamic,” he said. “That is how you have to approach each game, as a single entity. I don’t think you can look at it as anything else because there are different matchups, different players healthy, there are so many different factors. I think every week in the NFL is a completely different week.”
Saints coach Sean Payton isn’t buying that theory. He acknowledges that each game is its own entity, but he also believes that teams that play well also practice well. Confidence grows, and suddenly the team begins to roll.
He’s seen it happen enough times to believe it exists and can influence a season.
“Momentum comes and goes in games. It comes and goes in seasons,” Payton said. “I think momentum is a real thing that is very important. ... I don’t know if it is necessarily momentum but you would definitely attribute to a player makes a good play and then all of a sudden you see him have a better practice, you’d say that he could grow a lot from that.
“Teams do the same thing. Yeah, I think (momentum) certainly exists in courses of the season.”
What Payton and everyone else agree on, however, is that Week 1 is too early for any team to begin building momentum. It’s one game out of 16. There’s plenty of time for things to fall apart or come together down the road.
Drew Brees pointed at the 2011 season when asked about the importance of the first week of the season. That year, the Saints lost to the Packers 42-34, and then won their next four contests.
“They went 15-1 that year, but we went 13-3,” Brees said. “We had a great team. They had a really great team. Somebody had to win, somebody had to lose, unfortunately.”
But Brees was willing to acknowledge that momentum can begin to form in the first game and that it can set the tone for the rest of the season.
“Especially division games,” he said. “You just feel like — especially if you can go on the road and get a win the division — you feel like that’s kind of ‘one plus.’ ”
Does momentum carry over? Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. What matters is the Saints believe it can and does.
If everything goes right, they can make the Falcons the first casualty in a season they hope carries into February. Getting a little early momentum could help New Orleans achieve its goal.