Sunday, February 05, 2017

So There's a Game Today?

Data analytics rose to its current lofty post in sports management techniques as a reaction to one immutable truth. When forecasting anything, there's nothing as dangerous as the evidence of one's own two eyes.

The human brain sees what it expects to see. That's why .350 hitters get those borderline ball-strike calls and .230 hitters don't. It's why LeBron James foul out too often. And it is why almost 100 percent of all predictions about the Super Bowl today will be based on what the forecaster saw this season and what he or she didn't.

I'm no different. Can't help it. I've been watching the Belichick-Brady Patriots, up close as any outsider can get at times, for 16 years. That means I've seen them win 80 percent of the time. I saw all 18 of their previous games in the 2016 season, of which they won almost 90 percent. I've seen them lose, of course. I've seen them lose Super Bowls. But operant conditioning is a thing and before the start of any New England game, from preseason to this one, I never EXPECT them to lose.

I've seen two Atlanta Falcons games from start to finish this season, their two playoff victories. They looked great. It was easy to see why they had the NFL's highest scoring offense, and on both offense and defense, they had the best team speed I saw this season. The Patriots are fast enough on both sides of the ball, but that's all. Nobody looks at them and says, "what a bunch of burners."

Team speed is a big edge in a football game. Paul Brown thought it the most important one. But that edge is not enough to make me or almost anyone else pick the Falcons as winners this evening. We see what we expect. I'm not the only observer who no longer ever expects the Pats to lose.

Nevada sports books have the Pats as three-point favorites and the over/under at 59. That translates to a New England win by a 31-28 score, which seems reasonable. The boys out West have seen all the Falcons games. They expect Atlanta to score because that's what they've been watching since August. They expect the Pats to win because same reason.

It is telling that ESPN's Bill Barnwell, whose noteworthy writing skills allow him to use analytics without irritating or stupefying the reader, forecast a Pats win by a non-exciting 34-17 score. Coincidentally, this is a margin almost exactly that of New England's two playoff wins, which were 34-16 and 36-17. Those were games imprinted on Barnwell's brain as he wrote. What good is data against memory?

The data and eye-based cases for a New England win today are identical and simple. Both teams have wonderful offenses, but the Patriots' defense is pretty good at worst while Atlanta's is average at best. Since the last four Super Bowls have either been won though a dominant defensive performance or by last minute goal line stands by the victor's defense, this makes it hard to argue for the Falcons.

Atlanta's defense did fine in the playoffs. It did what an adequate defense must do, generate some turnovers. The New England and Atlanta offenses were the league's two best at protecting the ball this season. But there have been 50 Super Bowls now, a significant data set, and only one of them (XXV, Giants-Bills) was turnover free. In most, even the winner gave the ball back to its foe at least once. It's possible the Falcons' D could get its mitts on the ball a couple of times in the first half, have Matt Ryan and Co. make the most of it, and force New England to chase the game. Unfortunately for contrarians, it's much easier to envision the reverse of that scenario.

One more fact that never figures into any football predictions, be it for a game or a season. It's a rough sport and people get hurt. The Super Bowl is the roughest game of 'em all. A player or players will be injured. That could alter circumstances dramatically, as the rash of injuries to the Pats' defensive backs in Super Bowl XXXVIII turned Jake Delhomme into Dan Marino.

But the reason nobody mentions injuries in predictions is that they are both a high probability and utterly random effect. We know Americans will die from lightning strikes in 2017, but we can't say who. I'm not about to hand the queen of spades to some player who'll then wind up being the Bowl MVP by 10 p.m.

No, I'm going to go with what I expect, what the 2016 season has taught me to expect. It's been a dull year for the NFL, and the playoffs, excepting the Cowboys and Packers, have been duller still. In those 18 Patriots games, exactly two were engrossing to the end to anyone but diehards, the loss to Seattle and the win over the Jets in the Meadowlands.

What's a duller story than "Dynasty Wins Again"? Fundamentals are dull, too. Blocking and tackling win every game, and the Pats have no worse than equal blockers and way better tacklers. Call it Pats 34-Falcons 23. Game-watching parties will end in political arguments that will begin at roughly the 7:00 mark of the fourth quarter.


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