Saturday, January 19, 2013

Triumph of the Mundane

Athletes enjoy thinking the world doesn't respect them. Many fans enjoy thinking the world doesn't respect their team even more than athletes do.

This pleasant sense of aggrieved pride has been denied to the New England Patriots and their followers this week. As near as I can tell, nobody in the sports world with one exception has picked the Ravens to beat the Pats in the AFC Championship Game tomorrow.

The one exception is Michael Felger, who is merely proving the rule. His forecast puts Felger in a win-win catbird seat as far as conducting his increasingly intolerable talk show goes. If Baltimore wins, he can spend all Monday afternoon in "woe-is-the-Pats" mode, a favorite topic. If the Pats win, he will happily switch to "Joe Flacco is a bum," another favorite bit of malicious nonsense.

Back on Planet Trying to Take Football Seriously, I have yet to see Baltimore picked by any of the hordes of former players and coaches employed by ESPN and the NFL Network. Some have implied the Ravens will cover the nine-point spread, but that's as far as it goes. Frankly, I haven't had the interest to scour the Web for print journalists' picks, but if any of 'em picked Baltimore, I'm confident Channel 4 would've called 'em out by now.

On Wall Street, such unanimity of sentiment is a contrary indicator. When everybody else is a bull, it's time to sell ASAP, and vice versa. In the NFL, it doesn't work that way. Conventional wisdom can be wrong, is often wrong, but it's not wrong more often than it's right.

Conventional wisdom can be overly influenced by what it saw last, which is why the 49ers are the conventional pick to beat the Falcons, and why you have to give nine to bet New England. But all in all, forecasting that the Pats will advance to the Super Bowl rests on the simplest analysis method of all. I call it the 1000 Mile Test.

If you're a New Englander, detach yourself from the region and imagine if you lived at least 1000 miles away and the AFC Championship involved two teams for which you had not the slightest emotional interest, either like or dislike. Of course, this week that would mean you weren't reading or thinking about the game at all, and were making up jokes on Twitter about Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o. But try the mind experiment anyway.

What would you see? It's pretty straightforward. This would be a playoff game between two very good teams who've played each other frequently in the recent past, including the regular season, and have a history of playing very close games, too.

Knowing just that and that alone, who'd you pick? Given those facts, 99 out of a 100 football people would predict a home team victory. And far often than not, those 99 people would turn out to be right.

They'll be right tomorrow evening, too.

PS: Conventional wisdom loves the 49ers, about as wisely as Te'o loved. The chance to get points with a home team in a conference championship is rare. The Falcons strike me as worth a little flutter.

PPS: Nine points is an overlay. But no lower than number three in the Big Book of NFL Betting Rules is "don't bet the spread, bet the game." Unless you truly believe the Ravens will win, take the AFC off the board. 


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