Saturday, January 31, 2009

Seeing into the Future At Least as Well as Citigroup

Few duties are more onerous in sportswriting than game predictions. If you're wrong, you're an idiot. If you're right, you're a know-it-all smartypants. Games being what they are, you're going to be seen as an idiot more often than the more appealing option of coming off as a total jerk.

But duty is duty. Sportswriters, even lapsed ones such as myself, are expected and required to become fortune-tellers on at least three occasions, the NCAA basketball tournament, the Kentucky Derby (even if the only horses you've ever seen were on TV with Randolph Scott on top of them), and, of couse, the Super Bowl.

Tomorrow is Super Sunday. Once more into the breach, dear friends.

For many, many years, the Super Bowl was the easiest game to predict in all of sports. One just chose the favorite to win and cover, and returned to one's normal life. Two-thirds of the time, this was exactly what happened. That's about as good a rate of return as exists in sports prognostication, not to mention sports betting. On those occasions where the favorite DIDN'T cover, the underdog won outright, so the prognosticator had company being wrong, and his bad guess tended to be overlooked amid the national astonishment that something unusual had happened at a Super Bowl.

Then came the New England Patriots of the 2000s. Teams don't get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, although they should, but if they did, the historical summary written under the Pats' team statue would surely include the words "Killed off the double-digit Super Bowl point spread forever."

It's a singular accomplishment. The Pats were/are (didn't I say I wasn't a futurologist?) a dynastic power that appeared in four Super Bowls in seven seasons. And the underdog was the winning bet in all four. New England won outright as a big 'dog, then won twice but didn't cover, the rarest Super bet outcome, and lost outright as a big favorite. Total victory margin in four Super Bowls was 12 points.

Sports betting, like all finance, is built on two pillars-optimism and short memories. The Pats' domination of this decade has caused both oddsmakers and gamblers to build an unpredictability factor into the Super Bowl line that ignored the results of the previous 35 games. This in turn has led straight-up, nongambling forecasters to see Super Bowl LXIII from the perspective of "how this will turn out to be a close game" rather than the more fundamental issues of "should this be a close game?"

Scrutinizing commentary this week (for hilarious performance art, you can't beat the NFL Network), it is remarkable how the burden of proof appears to rest on the favored Steelers rather than the Cardinals. It's as if the 2008 regular season didn't take place, and three playoff wins, all admittedly admirable, in what generally is seen as the weaker conference, erases the fact the Cardinals had, by far, the worst overall performance of any of the 86 teams to compete in the Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh is a seven-point favorite. Had the Patriots' dynasty not existed, there is no doubt in my mind that figure would be at least 10 and more likely 11 or 12. By almost every metric this blogger uses to evaluate football games, the Steelers have an edge, in most cases a big edge.

There are two exceptions. The Cardinals won a road playoff game and the Steelers didn't. That's a meaningful point in Arizona's favor. Mike Shanahan first expressed this thought, but I share it: it is much harder to win a road playoff game than to win any game played at a neutral site.

The other, weaker, indicator of a possible Cardinals win is that Kurt Warner is a better quarterback than Ben Roethlisberger. Quarterback is the most important position in the game, but Warner isn't THAT much better than his Steeler counterpart. Roethlisberger has proved he's a good enough QB to win a Super Bowl. He doesn't need to be better than that. Warner needs to be the best player on the field by a wide margin for Arizona to win.

See where we're headed here? All other factors that matter in football-defense, special teams, and, above all, a superiority in creative violence on a man-to-man basis-come down on the Steelers' side of the scale. The Arizona argument boils down to "Warner and Larry Fitzgerald will play out of their minds again." In other words, the Cardinals' big stars on offense give them a puncher's chance.

Decades of watching boxing, let alone football, have convinced me that a puncher's chance is next door to no chance at all. Good defenses get that way by turning big stars into ordinary players. Given my druthers, I bet defense every time.

As sports fan and Arizonan John McCain will tell you, more often than not, big games turn out exactly the way conventional wisdom says they will. And the Steelers aren't just a favorite. They're an overlay.

Favorite to win and cover. I told you picking the Super Bowl was easy.


At 3:59 PM, Blogger Colleen said...

Thanks for the prediciton , Mike! The folks in AZ are just happy (stunned, but happy) that the Cards are even in it. They've already put a mark in the win column. It's all about respectability here...


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