Monday, January 23, 2017

It's Not Like the NFL to Go to Reruns This Early

Most fans and commentators expected, or at least hoped that yesterday's conference championships would be shootouts. They got what they wanted, sort of. Most real-life shootouts usually go to the shooter who hits first.

So it was with the Falcons against the Packers and the Patriots against the Steelers. Each winning team got a 10-0 lead in the first quarter in which unsolvable problems for the losers were revealed. The Steelers could get no pass rush on Tom Brady. The Packers' secondary couldn't cover Julio Jones or any other Atlanta receiver. To have even the ghost of a chance to keep the games close, the Pittsburgh and Green Bay offenses were going to have to score touchdowns on a consistent basis, like on over half their possessions.

Every so often that happens in an NFL playoff game, and the result is a thriller fans always remember, like last week's Green Bay-Dallas game. Way more often, it doesn't. The high-scoring team with the early lead keeps right on scoring, while the trailing offense succumbs to the urgent necessity of winning the game by itself. Being down by more than one score in the first half is no worry. In the third quarter, it's a drag. In the fourth, it's deadly. Even a very poor defense (and no playoff team has that) is 50-100 percent better when all it has to do is rear back, rush the passer and wait for the turnovers a desperate offense creates all by its lonesome.

The early line on the Super Bowl, which both reflects and sets the conventional pregame wisdom as well as the spread, has the Patriots as three-point favorites with an over/under of 59 points. That is to say, it forecasts a New England victory by a score of 31-28. A shootout as the term is commonly understood -- a close game featuring much scoring.

Could well happen. Conventional wisdom always has a little better than a .500 record at its worst. But what I saw yesterday makes me wonder, and makes me very cautious about going long on Super Bowl LI at this point in time.

One of the many, many ways the Super Bowl differs from other NFL games, even playoff games, is that the time-scoreboard continuum runs at a faster pace. The desperation created by trailing by 10 or more points starts earlier. The third quarter drag becomes operative in the second, fourth quarter anxiety starts in the third, and by the fourth, well, poise and execution require almost superhuman discipline and willpower. One simple stat tells the result. In 50 Super Bowls, the margin of victory has been 15 points or more 21 times. No team, ever, has come back after trailing by more than 10 points in the second half. Some have come close, but that's all.

This possible gambler thinks it more likely that the Falcons and Pats play the kind of shootout where one team goes "bang" right out of the blocks and the other says "ya got me!" in response. If only I had the slightest notion of which team will be the shooter and the other the shootee.


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