Sunday, January 30, 2011

In 85 Days, Things Can Happen

Kobe Bryant remains the only player on the Los Angeles Lakers yours truly, if he were rich and owned an NBA franchise, would willingly employ.

Aside from that, I am reluctant to express many opinions on the deep meaning of the Celtics' victory over LA this afternoon. Boston looked very good, as it often does. The Lakers looked wretched, as they often have lately. But seeing spring trends in winter regular season games is a risky business.

It was right about now, after all, that the 2009-2010 Celtics began stinking out the joints on a remarkably regular basis. Did LA lose to the Kings at home last Friday? Sounds a lot like losing at home to the Nets to me.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Defense, Make That Fielding, Mechanism

Like many other folks in these parts, I got a great deal of vigorous outdoor exercise yesterday -- cold, wet exercise. After supper, I clicked the remote very idly between broadcasts of about 37 college basketball games in which my interest was not piqued, but were better than the reruns of Senior Bowl practices and NHL All-Star games of yesteryear which were my alternative.

Last night, I had vivid, brightly colored and complex dreams. They were all about baseball.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Penultimate P&%!-Poor Pigskin Prognostication Post

Those of us like myself whose primary interest in life is the absurd are rooting like hell for the Jets and Bears to win today's conference championship games. The prospect of a face-to-face meeting between Rex Ryan and Barack Obama in a post-Super Bowl locker room fills me with giddy joy.

Ahh, but it's wicked and even worse, mundane world we live in, and bettors could do worse when handicapping NFL playoff games than to always pick the most boring winner. The usual quota of big upsets in the 11 playoff games (Super Bowl included) is one. We've already had two this season (Seahawks-Saints, Jets-Pats). Picking one or two more is pretty much like letting it ride on double-zero at the roulette wheel.

The dull smart money and just plain dull media experts are almost all choosing the
Packers to beat the Bears today and with the exception of Tedi Bruschi, unanimous in going with the Steelers over the Jets. Nothing is more painful for this blogger than falling into the herd following the scent of conventional wisdom, but in all honesty, I see no alternative. Pittsburgh and Green Bay should be boring winners today, and for some pretty boring, I mean basic, reasons, too.

Both the Bears and Packers and Steelers and Jets played each in the regular season. All three games were close. So we must turn to the most elemental rules of playoff analysis of evenly-matched teams.

Rule 1. Look at the defenses. There is nothing to choose between the Bears and Packer defenses, and precious little to choose between the Jets and Steelers -- except, and big except it is, Pittsburgh is superior at defending the run.

Rule 2. Look at the quarterbacks. Now, there's no such thing as an NFL team in a conference title game whose quarterback hasn't playing well lately, but no neutral observer not ordered to take a contrarian position by their talk-show producer could do anything but rate Aaron Rodgers above Jay Cutler, and Ben Roethlisberger a bit further ahead of Mark Sanchez than that.

Rule 3. Look at everything else, which still won't equal the importance of what you found in 1 and 2. The Bears may have the best all-around special team play in the league, from kicker Robbie Gould to Devin Hester's punt returns. Mediocre-to-poor special teams play has been a Steeler tradition for more than a decade, and if we hadn't seen the Jets' placekicker and punter yack all over themselves against the Pats, we might give the Jets a big edge there, too. They beat Pittsburgh in December thanks to a kickoff return touchdown, after all.

Special team plays have won innumerable NFL games. They're tough to plan for, however. Right, Patrick Chung? They're even more problematic to bet on.

Boil down the last four paragraphs and what do we have? A prediction based on the most banal, simple-minded analysis of them all -- comparing quarterbacks. It's shameful, isn't it? All I have to defend myself is the motto I often used as a columnist with a tight deadline: "Don't be afraid to grasp the obvious."

I am afraid that the long-sought Obama-Ryan meeting will have to wait until HBO's "Hard Knocks: The White House & the Lockout," which is slated to begin shooting in July.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Yahooism: Maybe We Should Treat It As an Art Form

Friday night is when the television tells Americans, "Gang, you're on your own." Idly clicking through the 500-channel desert I pay through the nose to get after the BU-hockey game. I came upon the late news on WGN, Chicago.

The lead story, and also the second, third and fourth stories, was the NFC championship game. No surprise there. The WGN team rang all the familiar local TV chimes -- interviews with men and women on the street predicting Bears victories (since the temperature was one above yesterday, they looked more pained than happy about it), half-in-the-bag Packer fans reeling in front of Chicago civic landmarks, and a lengthy feature on the gag bet between the mayors of Chicago and Green Bay.

(BTW, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said the cold in which the game would be played was part of it traditional charm. Any bets on the temperature of the luxury suite in which you know Hizzoner will be watching this tilt?)

All the stories were presented in the tone of small-town boosterism and starry-eyed hero worship that is de rigeur for local TV coverage of big games. In that respect, Auburn, Alabama and New York City are identical. The gag bet segment was particularly notable. The Chicago reporter gave a bitter ad lib denunciation of the Wisconsin foods put up by Green Bay's mayor. It isn't just Aaron Rodgers who's Chicago's enemy this weekend. Cheese itself is an object of loathing.

What DID surprise me about this festival of broadcast Babbittry was my own reaction. I enjoyed the hell out of it. I was amused, even charmed, by the banal bandwagon-hopping. It was a trifle disconcerting when the female half of the anchor team forgot to remove her "Go Bears" smile when segueing into the actual news lead, which was two people dying from a space heater malfunction, but glitches happen on live TV.

If the Pats had won last Sunday, our local news would have been just the same last night. And I wouldn't have been able to tolerate for more than about a second. I would have been ashamed, embarrassed, and humiliated on behalf of my home town of almost 40 years and even more on behalf of my former profession -- even though I have known for more than 40 years that any connection between local TV news and journalism is sheer coincidence.

Why is that? Why did I laugh my ass off in Pittsburgh the night before the 2001 AFC title game when the 11 o'clock news anchors actually wore Steelers jerseys, while if a Boston did that I'd nearly expire from shame?

(Not that they would, mind you. This may be hard for folks who live here to believe, but I've traveled this United States fairly extensively, and believe me, the sports local yokel quotient of Boston TV news is very low compared to most other places, especially the two biggest cities, New York and LA.)

It's important to note that in that laughter there was no ridicule, well, not much anyway. The whole point of Big Games is their ability to drive fans bananas. It IS fun to watch a community get behind a shared experience, and as we all know here, a Big Game is a lot less stressful means of building community than a 22-inch snowfall.

So why does Boston yahooism pain me? I think my reaction is actually a twisted form of civic pride. We all like to think OUR town is above mass civic manias and shameless attempts by soulless mass media conglomerates to capitalize on them.

Well, we're not. Nobody is. For evidence, I note that one of the Chicago residents who has gleefully participated in a week of Bears media hype is the supposedly cold and ultra-rational President of the United States.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Continuing Slow, Agonizing Death of Sports Commentary

Late Sunday night on Channel 38, Steve Burton, looking as if the game had personally cost him a full playoff share, introduced the "viewer poll" section of WBZ's endless Pats' post-game program.

The question was "Who was most responsible for the Patriots' loss?"

My hand was up. I had an answer. "The New York Jets," I blurted at the set.

Gang, not only was that not the leading answer, it wasn't even one of the POSSIBLE answers in this multiple-choice quiz. The only persons WBZ thought possibly could have made the Patriots lose were Patriots' players and coaches. The opposition had nothing to do with it. Maybe they hadn't even been there.

If only the poll was an outlier. But no, almost forty-eight hours later and all the commentary I have read, heard and seen on the Pats' upset loss remains monochromatic and insular. New England's season ended wholly as a result of its own actions or lack of same, its own judgments or lack of same. I realize this burg has a reputation for being somewhat provincial, but to erase one of two football teams from a playoff game is some exercise in revisionist history.

Not that Boston is any worse in that regard than any other place. I know FANS have always thought their teams won or lost solely because of their own virtues and vices. I was a fan once, and that's how I thought about it. Commentators, reporters, and analysts, however, are supposed to adhere to higher, or at least more rational standards. Both sets of competitors influence the outcome of a game in any team sport. Figuring out the "did they fall-were they pushed" dividing line is kind of the point of commenting on a single game, or so I used to think.

Not anymore. There is no lonelier opinion in the sports opinion business than "Visiting Team played really well and that's why Home Team lost." The pressure for more ratings, readers, clicks, etc., which has always existed, has led to the total dominance of the "Home Team = Only Team" school of journalism. Journalism, consciously but mostly unconsciously, has become "market-driven," a euphemism for "give the rubes what they want."

"The customer is always right is a useful maxim in business, but not in all businesses (neurosurgery, for example). In the information business, it is simply silly. The customer cannot always be right, because if he/she was, the customer wouldn't need your %^&@$ product in the first place. The customers want to learn something new. If they want to consume their opinions in regurgitated form, they can and will start their own damn blogs, message boards, etc.

But sports commentary now consists of giving the public a mirror to look into. Then members of the commentariat will complain, some of them publicly, that sports fans seem crazier than ever these days. If they are, well, that's another game where more than one team is responsible for the final score.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Game of Yards, Not Inches; A Game of Points, Not Yards

Strip away the egos of both sides (quiet people have egos, too), the ill feelings (as if playoff games didn't always have plenty of those), the play-call second-guessing (fans and media will go to any lengths to avoid concluding blocking and tackling have anything to do with the final score). What's left of the Jets defeat of the Patriots yesterday?

What remains is a not particularly unusual football game, one best viewed through an invaluable piece of analysis I once received from the 1980s Pats' offensive lineman Sean Farrell.

"All football games are basically five or six big plays," Farrell said. "The rest is filler."

The Jets' win stands as incontrovertible evidence Farrell knew what he was talking about. New England's league-leading offense ran about 20 more plays than New York, had the ball for 10 minutes more than New York, and outdid New York in spinning its wheels by a factor of about 15 to 1.

For the numeral-minded reader, the following stat is presented. Each team in this game had four scoring drives. The Jets' drives totaled 16 plays, and all of 'em ended in touchdowns. The Patriots' drives totaled 33 plays, and two ended in field goals. Right there is arithmetical proof that the Jets seized every moment that came their way, while the Pats could not.

But arithmetical proof is hardly needed. Memory will do just fine, thank you. A quick brain scan reveals that there were four plays after which I thought, with decreasing amounts of confidence in my opinion "yes, the Pats will win." These were a the first missed Jets field goal, the the Pats' fumbles they managed to recover in the second half, and Sammy Morris' two-point conversion.

As big plays go, those aren't exactly skyscrapers. They are not the stuff AP game story ledes are made of. By contrast, the Jets have a laundry list of plays that will fill a room in the abandoned warehouse that has been the site of the New York Jets Legend and Lore Museum. My memories of each are sharp, but my memories of my reactions to them are sharper still.

David Harris' interception made me think "hey, maybe this'll be a game worth watching after all." The Jets' first TD drive = "Definitely going to be a game here." The Jets second TD, when noted slacker Braylon Edwards carried two Pats DBs into the end zone along with the ball, was when I first thought "The Jets CAN win." The Jets instant response to the Pats cutting the lead to 14-11 brought forth "The Jets deserve to win." When the Jets stopped the Pats' odd fourth quarter tribute to Woody Hayes drive was when "deserve" became "will." Everything after that was confirmation of an already set opinion. The 28-21 final score hid a Big Play score of about 11-4 and a Really Big Play shutout.

What was New England's effort after the first quarter but an increasingly futile search for big plays, either on offense, defense, or special teams? What was that fake punt but some individual's (we'll never know whose, apparently) attempt to generate an artificial big play, because neither the defense nor offense appeared capable of doing so?

Live by the turnover differential, die by the lack of one. All season New England's defense was only as good as its interceptions and fumble recoveries. Without them, they were less than adequate against a Jets offense that is, let's face it, only slightly above adequate on its best days.

Thing is, the Jets know this. Their game plan was Farrell's sentence in x's and o's. Filler, filler, filler, then when the chance presents itself, go for the decisive strike. Above all, don't make negative big plays, Mark!

That offensive strategy only works when a team's defense works wonderfully well. The Jets' defense won its gamble (one which they approached with significantly more confidence after Brady's pick) that they could best neutralize Brady, the Pats' Living Big Play, by focusing on his collaborators. Play the wideouts tight and fly to the ball as a group on the dumpoffs. Crowd the middle and make the rookie tight ends work for space. In essence, the Jets back seven-eight bet they were superior athletes to the Pats' collection of pass catchers and ballcarriers. On this night, they collected.

When nobody's open, all QBs are mediocre. Four of the five sacks the Jets had on Brady surely fell into the coverage category. All those throwaways! Take away 65 yards gained on two passes to different tight ends, and Brady averaged 5.4 yards a pass attempt. That figure indicates that New England's YAC was, well, yack.

The following paragraph is NOT about Randy Moss. He didn't help much the other time the Pats lost to the Jets, after all. But just as the playoff loss to the Ravens last year demonstrated the need for New England to recreate its defense with more emphasis on athleticism than technique, this loss showed the same need for the offense. No quarterback can make all the big plays all the time. On this point, Brady and Peyton Manning are in perfect agreement.

But back to the victors. And here we must swerve from cold stats and colder game plan diagrams to the white-hot and very malleable substance that is the Jets' collective psyche. What DID drive slacker Edwards to come up with a reasonable Bronko Nagurski impression when his team needed it?

Before the game, I wrote that the Jets were too neurotic and insecure to make the most of their acknowledged talent againsts the Patriots, a notably secure, not to say smug, bunch. Wrong again. I saw just how wrong I was last night watching another television program after the game was over, a program that had nothing to do with sports.

The Golden Globe Awards were a three-hour reminder that sometimes, neurosis and insecurity are WHY people in demanding professions achieve success.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

In the Less Quotable Games...

Just because NFL playoff forecasting is a futile exercise when I do it is not enough reason for me to stop doing it.

Choosing between the Ravens and Steelers is a particularly futile exercise, as there are years of evidence indicating that the difference between the two teams in any given day depends on biorhythms, astrology, or particularly whimsical decisions of the pagan Gods of the ancient Greeks and/or Norsemen.

Howsomever, today's game is at Pittsburgh, and in an otherwise excellent season, the Steelers have been more than a trifle soft at their home field, where they lost to the Patriots, the Jets, and more to the point, the Ravens. This minor tendency is enough to lead me to believe the Ravens will prevail. This means that for WEEI and 98.5, exit Antonio Cromartie, enter Terrell Suggs.

More prognosticators who unlike me are getting paid for football opinions are choosing the Packers over the Falcons. Why? Well, many of them picked the Packers to make the Super Bowl before the season began, so they're striving for consistency and intellectual honesty. Or, for those of you who prefer an explanation more grounded in our own space-time continuum, experts are picking the Packers because of the "we saw them win the wild card, so we expect them to keep winning" fallacy, and because, frankly, few football followers have paid much attention to the Falcons this year.

I'm no exception, but I do note that every time I DID bother to catch some of an Atlanta game, they won it. One of them, if I recall correctly, was against the Packers. So I'll go with that memory.

The Seahawks won't beat the Bears. I wish they would, as the idea of a sub-.500 NFL champion should appeal to all sports fans with a taste for the ridiculous, and because it would give me much pleasure to hear Boston sports commentators be forced to admit Pete Carroll knows what he's doing. But after the wheel comes up on double zero once, it seldom does so on the next spin.

Still, the chance of Jay Cutler morphing into his evil, make that incompetent, twin in his very first playoff game is not negligible. And for those motivated by the love of money, double-digit playoff point spreads are an excellent reason to avoid betting the favorite.

Silence and Peace Beckon -- Or at Least a Better Class of Noise

One way or the other, we will no longer be hearing from the New York Jets after Sunday night.

If the Jets lose to the Patriots, they will be struck dumb, or more accurately, any sounds they might emit will be obscured by a national horselaugh at their expense. The franchise will fade from the collective NFL consciousness until it emerges with a few more desperate and erratic personnel moves after the Super Bowl.

If the Jets win, well, nobody will hear anything in New England for the next month but wailing, whining, and bitter backbiting and second-guessing from fans and commentators at this hideous and unexpected turn of events. In defeat, the Pats organization itself has the mother wit to shut up and move on. Its outriders, not so much.

This trait is not limited to New England. Of all the sports, pro football is where fans and media have the least nuanced mindset about the home team. It is either adulated as invincible or excoriated as a bunch of weaklings and bums. This has always struck me as a weird way of thinking about a league that has an avowed goal of dragging all competitors either up or down towards a .500 record, but illogical or not, we all know that's what will happen if the Pats are upset. Poor (actually really rich) Giselle can expect a quick reversion to the "homewrecking, strength-sapping hussy" image should hubby Tom throw two or three picks.

This regional catastrophe is very unlikely to occur. On the sports upset scale "Jets beat Pats" ranks lower than say, "Orioles win AL East," but not much lower. Leave aside all the pregame bullshit, from foot fetish jokes to neurotic belligerence from cornerbacks, and the New England-New York game falls into a familiar NFL playoff trope. Like innumerable decent playoff teams before them, the Jets' offense only works if it can run the ball productively and frequently. These teams generally lose in the playoffs, and almost NEVER pull upset victories for the simple reason that most other playoff teams became such in large part because they have quality defenses. Defenses which cannot stop the run do not get the adjective "quality." Neither do they appear in many playoff games.

So like everybody else under the new and improved zodiac, I expect the Pats to win. Let the record show, however, that "expect" and "very unlikely" are not expressions of certitude, nor are they terms anyone would want to see in an investment recommendation (Pats giving nine is a modest but genuine overlay for Jets bettors). The Jets COULD win. They're plenty good enough. I'd even be tempted to pick the upset if only the Jets acted like THEY thought they could win the damn game.

That's what's blown my mind about the pregame ranting emanating from that New Jersey hamlet the Jets call home these days. In-game trash talk is a byproduct of a violent sport. Pre-game trash talk is the venting of insecurity. The braggadocio of Antonio Cromartie and the disconnected ramblings of Rex Ryan were, in psychological terms, obvious calls for help from men overwhelmed by the prospects of their immediate futures. Why would any head coach make a single playoff game a personal duel between himself and a surefire first ballot Hall of Fame opposing coach such as Bill Belichick unless he was creating a prepaid excuse card for his players to use following a loss he saw coming? Why express undying hated for Tom Brady unless you felt he was going to riddle your side of the field with completions?

The Jets do themselves a disservice with their mouths. Not because their words have any effect on their opponents -- as Bill Parcells once noted "that stuff goes away fast the first time you get hit in the mouth," but because their words sell themselves short. That's not the internal stuff of champions.

Had the Jets not gone verbally all-id this week, more folks might have noticed the most significant aspect of their victory over the Colts last Saturday night. After 59 minutes and change, the Jets were behind, and two New York players being fitted for 10-point goat horns as only New York City can do it were quarterback Mark Sanchez and, as luck would have it, Cromartie. Sanchez and Cromartie then made all the plays in what became the Jets' game-winning drives.

Punks and frauds can't pull off feats like that. Those were big-boy plays by a very adult football team, a team to be respected, and if you're a fan of their next opponent, feared.

Which is why it's so baffling, and for them sad, that among the people who clearly don't see the
Jets in that light are the Jets themselves.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Not With a Bang, But With a "I Forgot It Was On."

The college football season ends tonight with the BCS Championship game between Auburn and Oregon. They're both undefeated teams who score a lot, so the game will 1. Decide the fraudulent "national" championship and 2. Probably provide superior pigskin entertainment.

I might watch the first quarter, the first half if it's an especially exciting game. I just don't care about the culminating moment of a sport I otherwise enjoy. I can't. The expiration date on college football has come and gone in my mind. There's only so much room in this head for thinking about sports, and once the NFL playoffs begin, there's no room left for the colleges in the space alloted to football.

My attitude towards the BCS game and its incessant hype this past week on ESPN is almost exactly the same as my attitude towards the outdoor Christmas lights people still have illuminated outside their homes in my town. Objectively, I know the lights are just as pretty as they were last month. But I hardly see them now.

I've moved on.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Mayans: World to End in 2012. Baseball: Make That 2013

Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro were not elected to the baseball Hall of Fame last week. They didn't, however, lose the election. And not losing was all the win they needed.

Each of the two noted performance-enhancing drug user received more than the minimum percentage of the Hall vote needed to stay on the ballot in 2011 for the 2012 Hall class (Disclosure: I voted for McGwire, but not Palmeiro). In doing so, both players took a significant step towards being elected to Cooperstown some time the road, say by 2017 or thereabouts. In fact, if McGwire and Palmeiro maintain their ballot status next year, I'd go so far as to say they are strong favorites to become immortals at a future awkward induction ceremony.

The Hall's rules give a player 15 years of eligibility to be elected by the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who compose its jury. That's a lot of time for historical revisionism, and the alteration of judgment through the passage of time has worked well for inductees Jim Rice and Bert Blyleven. Nobody, however, has ever needed their history revised more drastically than do McGwire and Palmeiro, the poster children (and I do mean children) for PED use and abuse during baseball's Pharma '90s.

Oddly enough, such revision is on the schedule. It's due to start in December 2012, when the voters will get a ballot which will include the names of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Both Bonds and Clemens are no worse than the 20 greatest players of all time. Both Bonds and Clemens are universally and rightly assumed to have used PEDs like 1890s ballplayers used liniment. Both very well could be doing time in a federal sneezer for perjury when the voting goes down -- for lying about using PEDs to people like Congressmen and grand jury members.

Both Bonds and Clemens are considered likely to be elected to the Hall anyway. I'm voting for them. More to the point, many of my fellow voters are on record as saying that they will do so even as they refuse to vote for other players they think "tainted" the game by drug use, on the novel grounds that Bonds and Clemens were already Hall-worthy players BEFORE they started taking PEDs.

You have to love the baseball community. The scientific method is less used there than in the Republican freshman caucus of the House of Representatives. Leaving aside the absolutely unprovable nature of the above rationale, let's consider its practical implications. If Bonds and Clemens are elected as Hall members, then the voters have established a clear PED policy -- it disqualifies a candidate for membership except when it doesn't. I said clear, not logical or morally justifiable.

The absurdity of that position will make it insupportable. No voter could cast a ballot for Bonds, then not vote for McGwire, whose pure numbers are utterly Hall-worthy, as are Palmeiro's, are defend that choice without looking as stupid as the ESPN guy who voted for B. J. Surhoff this year. Believe it or not, almost every Hall voter takes that responsibility with the utmost seriousness, and treats both the pure baseball and ethical issues involved as matters requiring real thought. They want to do the right thing. It is beyond obvious that once one known PED user is elected, you can't keep other PED users out on the grounds THEIR accomplishments are tainted. That argument is too powerful for voters to ignore.

Here's one that's even more powerful. If enough voters, and all it takes is 26 percent, maintain a consistent position on PED use and keep Bonds or Clemens out of Cooperstown, then they won't be voters much longer, and neither will I or any BBWAA member.

Logic always works in reverse, too. If Bonds and Clemens don't get elected, then NO known or suspected PED users will be elected. And the more we learn about the Steroid Era, the more we know that that means pretty much everyone who played at that time, especially pretty much everyone who was any good.

The "keep 'em all out" policy, then, would result in somewhere between five-10 years in which NO players would be elected to the Hall. The annual ceremony at Cooperstown in late July would consist of broadcasters and sportswriters accepting their annual awards, and increasingly bottom-of-the-barrel inductees from the Veterans Committee. I'm sure thousands of folks are just dying to travel to the middle of nowhere to hear Pat Gillick speak.

Major League Baseball the business is not going to tolerate a Soviet-style erasure of a decade of its traditional historical narrative of unbroken glory. A sport that markets generational continuity can't possibly let that happen. Before it does, MLB will yank the vote away from the writers (something it has always wistfully wished to do) and set up a new electorate that WILL let in Bonds and Clemens -- followed by the McGwires, Palmeiros, Sosas, etc.

Mind you, this is a good thing. If the knock on PEDs was that they created an unfair competitive advantage, but everyone was taking them, then what was the advantage? It will be a far better thing for baseball and reality if the players of the PED Period are judged on their accomplishments alone, while it is duly noted those accomplishments were assisted by means the game has now forbidden and sanctioned.

Baseball 1990-2005 is not an uplifting story. But it happened. And history as true as man can make it is always better than a fairy tale, no matter how moral and just the outcome of said tale might be.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Self-Criticism Is Good for You -- Says Somebody Else

Before the NFL season began, I forecast that the Patriots would win the AFC East. This was correct. Yay!

I also predicted that the Pats would be just about as good a team as they were the season before, with a 10-6 record or thereabouts. This was somewhat less than correct.

What did I do wrong? Nothing. It's just that the Patriots proved me wrong through two major unforeseen-by-me accomplishments, one I feel slightly bad about missing, the other one I expect was unforeseen by the whole damn franchise back in September.

Accomplishment one is that Tom Brady had one of the two best and for my money the best regular season of his already legendary career. I should have made allowances for that possibility. With Hall of Famers, off-the-charts performances are always in the cards. Few will predict that Albert Pujols will win the Triple Crown in 2011, but nobody's going to bet too much money he won't, either.

Accomplishment two was the astonishing improvement curve of the Pats' defense in the second half of the season, which directly contradicted my forecast that the defense would struggle to establish cohesion due to the introduction of many new starters. This feat is a tribute to both the players and coaches involved, and those responsible cannot receive too much praise, although I'm sure Glen, Fred and Steve will test that assertion.

Accomplishments one and two add up to New England's ridiculous plus margin in the takeaway/giveaway ratio. That statistic alone, if the Pats had done nothing else this year, hell, if Brady had retired before the season started, would likely have given them that 10-6 record I murkily foresaw.

Just like on Wall Street, forecasts in sports tend to fluctuate in excess in response to each new bit of real data. After Week One, the Houston Texans were the coming force in the AFC. Michael Vick has gone from MVP to a menace to his own team off the results of one poor game.

All available data makes the Pats the overwhelming consensus favorite to win the Super Bowl. Really now, who else could anyone pick without admitting they were playing something of a longshot?

Consensus forecasts have about the same track record as individual ones -- mixed, very mixed. The Pats were overwhelming favorites to win the Super Bowl when the 2004 playoffs began, and they did. They were even more overwhelming favorites when the 2007 playoffs began, and they didn't.

That's why forecasting is easier than football. A .500 record can be a winner in places other than the NFC West.