Saturday, January 31, 2015

Your Guess Is As Good As Theirs and Better Than Mine

 Last year was so simple. Writing a Super Bowl prediction took about three minutes. There was no doubt in my mind that Seattle's defense would thwart Denver's offense enough for the Seahawks to win. Did I expect a thwarting by 43-8? Hell, no. But the basic outline of the game was so clear I barely bothered to make the call in the first place.

Twelve months later, clarity has been replaced by blurry double-vision. A myriad of scenarios creating a Patriots win in Super Bowl XLIX have flitted through my brain the last week (too busy laughing at Ballghazi the week before to handicap). Every time one is just about to come into focus, it's been replaced by an equally hazy and ephemeral picture of a Seahawks' triumph. While these two admirable football teams have every reason to be confident of victory Sunday night, none of the rest of us should have any confidence in agreeing with them.

Check out the pundits' forecasts in the national media. These worthy men and women are paid to be never in doubt, right or wrong. Among the brief explanations accompanying the game picks on were "I don't know why I did this" and "I've changed my pick every time I've thought about it."

Exactly two of ESPN's over 50 forecasters called the game to be decided by more than 10 points. Ron Jaworski sees the Pats winning big, while Ray Lewis sees Seattle winning the same way. These forecasts are surely the result of which position each man played in THEIR NFL careers. All forecasters have biases, and homerism is usually the least of them.

It has been noted that Seattle was only 3-4 in games in which it allowed opponents more than 20 points. This is seen as an indication of weakness, as it is really difficult to hold the Patriots to such a low total. It has been less noted, but is also true that New England was 2-4 in games in which it scored fewer than 21 points, and that those two wins were over the Raiders and Jets. So while difficult, it can be done, and when done, the Pats are in trouble.

Go through the matchups and records, we see more equality. New England's offensive versatility is a theoretical advantage, but no more so than is Seattle's running game. Each has a superlative turnover ratio and excellent placekicking. Each team had one horrific and embarrassing loss in the regular season in the state of Missouri (we're scraping the bottom of the matchup barrel now. Always happens by Saturday).

One Super Bowl tell I have used in years past with good effect is that the team which had a tougher time in the playoffs has earned an advantage through having stared elimination in the face without blinking. As near-death experiences, there's nothing to choose between the Pats' comeback against the Ravens and Seattle's against the Packers. Super Bowl routs occur not because the loser gives up, but because it stops expecting good things to result from its best efforts. I don't see either of these teams  succumbing to despair.

If I knew how the Pats' offensive and defensive lines, the two groups in this tilt facing the largest challenges, would perform, a prediction would be a cinch. Not even Bill Belichick knows that, though. It is best to assume that they will battle their opposite Seahawk numbers to a draw or close to it.

Assuming that, we assume a close game. To assume a close game is to assume it will be decided on between three and six "big plays" the unpredictable turns of skill and fate which we know will take place but that only the foolhardy would predict who'll they'll benefit.

The Pats got here on a halfback option pass and a weird formation, the Seahawks on an onside kick and fake field goal. Look at that sentence and tell me you think either team is a safe bet tomorrow.

Here's an unsafe bet. Combing through my double visions, I didn't find ALL things equal between the Pats and Seahawks. I give New England the tiniest of edges for creativity. It is the team somewhat more likely to improvise a game-changing play if it's forced to do so.

I expect it will be,too. Say New England by no more than three points. If I could pick a tie, I would, but that's against the rules. There's never even been an overtime Super Bowl.

First time for everything.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Unlikeliest Showman

Bill Belichick faced a crisis a little after five p.m. last Saturday evening. To win against the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots were going to have to play an exciting game.

Coaches hate exciting games. It's easy to see why. An exciting NFL contest is one in which both teams have roughly equal chances to win or lose. The more time spent in that situation, the more exciting the game. In other words, the more stress faced by the coach, the more pleasure given to neutral couch potatoes who face no consequences from the results.

However, when a team gets down 14-0 in the first quarter of a playoff game, it really has no choice. It can try and win an exciting contest, or it'll wind up losing a very dull one. That's way worse than excitement on the coaching stress scale.

Thorough preparation, indeed, overpreparation, is the activity which consumes well over 90 percent of every coach's time. The rest is spent on game days making those "adjustments" one hears so much about. An adjustment is nothing more than a decision made in reaction to the new information and circumstances created by the chaos of game action All coaches make them in every game, unless, like poor John Fox yesterday, they are faced with an insoluble problem such as "the Hall of Fame quarterback's injury we've been covering up for a month has not healed!"

Among the most notable ways Belichick stands apart from his peers are his quickness in reacting to information and his willingness to go whole hog in a new direction if he deems it necessary. Against Baltimore, Belichick became P.T. Barnum in a sweatshirt. If thrills were required, he'd provide 'em or go down trying.

In chronological order, here are Belichick's decisions helping create what was without question the most entertaining game of New England's 2014.

1. Fuck the run. What's OUR Hall of Fame quarterback for? Tom Brady threw 50 passes, and the Pats needed each and every throw.

2. The delightfully arcane formation making Shane Vereen an ineligible receiver. If this one doesn't work, it could get Brady killed. It should also only work once. It worked three times against the Ravens, because John Harbaugh, a fine coach, could not bring himself to believe it was within the rules.

I am willing to believe that that formation was part of New England's original game plan, created as a means of discombobulating Baltimore's front seven. No way I will ever believe that's true of the next bullet point.

3. The double pass from Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola. I don't know how many pages are in the Pats' playbook, but I'll bet the one with this play is much closer to the appendices than to the title page. It was a trick play called in the heat of the moment by a staff and head coach who had embraced the need to use every possible bullet in a shootout. It was a brilliant decision with an extremely high chance of going terribly wrong (which wouldn't have made it any less brilliant). If  fortune always favored the brave in the NFL as it did on that play, we'd all see many more exciting games.

It all sounds so simple, doesn't it? When a coach sees which way the game is flowing, he issues instructions accordingly. As often in sports, what's simple isn't easy by a long shot. Coaches are trained from their unpaid college assistant days to be risk averse. It's the line of least resistance to assume that a game with early scoring won't be a shootout, that a defense of the Pats' caliber will recover its equilibrium, letting the team run a "normal" offense. It is psychologically difficult for a coach to throw away hours and hours of careful study and preparation to embark on a new strategy under duress. That's why so many of them wait to do so until it's too late.'

I'm sure it was difficult for Belichick when he realized his team needed 30 or more points if it was to have a chance to win. Point is, the difficulty didn't slow him down. He may not be a born gambler. But when he bets, it's always for the table limit. If nothing else will do, he'll be an entertainer with a headset.

Of course, right now the coach is in his office or a meeting room at Gillette Stadium, planning how and hoping that Sunday's game against the Colts is as humdrum a victory as possible. He's had enough excitement for these playoffs.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

To Err Is Human, To Lose Money Erring Even More Human

There is a unique consensus among the vast pro football commentariat about this evening's playoff game between the Patriots and Ravens. Almost all of them are predicting a Pats victory, but only in a close game. It's like they were writing or broadcasting network promos.

Of all the predictors I've seen, only Benjamin Hoffman of the "New York Times" has picked the Ravens to win. But only Jim McBride of the "Globe" has formally chosen the Pats to win by a double-digit point total (a couple of others, including the stat-crazed gang at have hinted that this is their guess).

The consensus is best expressed by a seven-expert panel of, who unanimously predicted that Baltimore would cover the seven-point spread. One of them, Pete Prisco, subsequently wrote that New England should triumph 28-24. I'll bet at least four others of the seven also think the Pats will win.

"They'll win, but it'll be close" is a prediction that echoes the vapid search for the "sensible middle" that is one bane of American political commentary. Worse than that, it's gambling malpractice. Strange as it may seem, many bettors are guided by the thoughts of people who they innocently assume know more about pro football than themselves. I know, because I once wrote a gambling column for the Herald, meant to be more than slightly tongue in cheek, and I took phone calls from happy/sad/very angry souls who had taken my predictions as Gospel.

Bet the NFL consistently, you'll lose money. You'll lose it much faster, however, if you ignore certain principles of wagering. Pats to win but not cover is a bet that violates a Prime Directive.

Never, never, ever bet the underdog just to cover. Only take points if you believe that the team getting them will win the game without artificial assistance. This goes quadruple for road dogs, and ten times that for playoff games.

I see the Pats winning and covering, I could be wrong. The consensus could be right. But in pro football, as in all other sports, blowouts occur more frequently than nailbiters. Close games are celebrated precisely because they're rarer than dull ones.

"All life is six to five against," Damon Runyon wrote. Why seek out an eight-to-five against proposition?