Friday, February 02, 2007

Who Did Pythagoras Ever Play For?

Predictions are onerous. Still, there are three occasions when the self-respecting sports commentator must take a position. You must have a horse in the Kentucky Derby, fill out an NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket, and above all, pick a team in the Super Bowl. So here goes.

The hype for Super Bowl XLI has followed a pattern most familiar to those of us who covered Super Bowls in the '80s and '90s during the long years of NFC dominance. At the end of the two conference title games, the representative of the stronger grouping was installed as a significant (in this case 7-point) favorite. For the next two weeks, analysts searched diligently for reasons why the morning line might be wrong. By game time, many of them had convinced themselves they'd found the whys and wherefores of triumph for the underdog.

Then the NFC favorite would take the field and massacre the AFC rep one more time. This formula held true until Terrell Davis ran it out of the ballpark in Super Bowl XXXII.

The AFC is the dominant conference today, but the formula holds. There's neither fun nor credit in forecasting a routine win by a favorite, so we've all spent a week reading and listening to explanations as to why Chicago will beat Indianapolis. For obvious reasons, New England audiences are very susceptible to this train of thought.

I'm sure Boston area readers are thrilled by Allen St. John's Super forecast in today's Wall Street Journal. St. John not only says the Bears should win, he says a Colt victory would be a major upset. This contrarian case rests on one of sports' most fallible tools-the Pythagorean theorem.

Pythagoras ain't the same in games as he is in math. In sports, the theorem boils down to this-the more points a team scores and the fewer it allows, the more games it will win. Speaking on behalf of Abner Doubleday, Walter Camp, and James Naismith, I can only respond "no shit." A glaring cliche is no less banal because it's expressed in numbers instead of words.

Anyway, St. John notes the Bears beat the snot out of more opponents in their 15 wins than did the Colts in their 15, primarily because the Chicago defense allowed far fewer points than did Indy's. All true, all largely irrelevant. Throughout history, St. John declares, Pythagoras has correctly forecast the Super champion, except for the three or four times it didn't.

That last clause is why Vegas welcomes anyone with a "system." Exceptions bankrupt the rule. The Colts have the worst "P-score" of any Super Bowl contender since 1970. It's far worse than the P-scores of the Ravens and Patriots. You know, the two teams Indianapolis just beat to get to the Super Bowl.

The Ravens and the Bears resemble each other closely. Disruptive defense, run-first offense. The Colts went to Baltimore, were held without a touchdown, had Peyton Manning play a poor game, and won anyway. Won and covered, by the way.

Now we move to the AFC title game. The Colts spotted the historic dynastic champion of our time-their own special hoodoo-a 21-3 lead off an interception return for a touchdown and came back to beat the Patriots 38-34. The notion of the Bears pulling off a similiar feat is laughable on its face, at Soldier Field or anywhere else. Oh, yeah, the Colts covered against the Pats, too.

Just imagine if New England had won the AFC crown. The Pats would be a double-digit favorite, and nobody on earth would be picking Chicago. Shouldn't the team that eliminated New England enjoy similiar public favor, P-scores be damned?

Could the Bears win? Sure. Polls don't select the Super Bowl teams. Nobody goes 15-3 on smoke and mirrors. In the 40 previous bowls, I can think of only four (the Packers in I and II, the Bears vs. the Pats in XX, and the 49ers over the Broncos in XXIV) where it was impossible to imagine how the underdog could win. If the Colts' run defense reverts to its disgraceful form of November and December, and/or the Bears defense forces a turnover differential of plus three, AND Devin Hester creates a touchdown on returns, Chicago not only could win, but win by double-digits itself.

That, however, is the only realistic scenario for a Bears' triumph I can create. The Colts have already won three playoff games by means I felt beyond them, stopping an All-Pro running back, winning a game on defense and running themselves, and taking their demon's best shot, getting off the canvas, and knocking it out. If there's one lesson to be learned from New England's dynasty, it's the desirability of versatility in the pursuit of victory.

At bottom, the Pythagorean theorem of sports is just the old golf cliche "it's not how, it's how many." There's truth to that in all games. But football ain't golf. In Super Bowl XLI, I'm picking the team whose motto was "it IS how, not how many."

Colts 23-Bears 13


At 3:07 PM, Blogger chris said...

I agree with you Mike but I think the score will be higher. Your point of "if the Patriots won then nobody would be picking the Bears" rings very true


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