Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The NFL Playoffs are Full of Randomness

There are "scripts" we've all seen before in sports, where we get to expect certain outcomes to happen. These ideas can come about fairly quickly, or can slowly form for decades. In the NFL, we see patterns emerge, and we expect them to continue... but this year they haven't. The Cowboys were not bad in December, actually winning a few games and making the playoffs. The Jets made it into the playoffs with luck actually treating their fans decently for once. Heck, the Saints won their first ten games or so, reversing a trend that goes back decades, even though it's not quite so surprising anymore. I think that more than once in the playoffs, we're going to have our minds blown by a result that we didn't see coming.

Along those line, I'm starting to think that, now that we all believe it's a bad idea to rest starters in the final few weeks, suddenly that doesn't mean anything. Think of quantum physics, that by observing a particle it changes the particle. Now that we've observed the phenomenon, it will no longer exist. As Chris pointed out, seven teams rested there starters, and we can't ignore them all. The "football gods" no longer care about this.

Stick with me for a second with a soccer comparison? Nations come to have a certain identity on the pitch, and in the World Cup and other such competitions, you start to have a general idea of what's going to happen. Everybody, including myself, felt that Germany would beat Spain in the finals of the Euro 2008 tournament. As they say, "football" is a game that's played for 90 minutes, and then the Germans win on penalties. This held true for decades, basically since Germany reemerged in the 50's. And Spain always underachieves, always, in every major tournament, again going back decades. Almost no one predicted Spain to win, based on historical precedent alone. So what happened in the final? Spain won, and convincingly. It felt, and still feels, that a new era is upon us, one in which I expect the scripts to be flipped... but I expect as soon as we figure out the new script, it will change.

Before the season ended, I assumed the Vikings and Saints would lose quickly, because they always do. I thought the hot team would continue to win, and the teams that rested their starters would struggle. But now that I'm thinking some of the scripts will change, I'm rethinking that, and beginning to believe that about anything could happen. The Saints could suddenly turn it around, the Eagles could catch fire, anything could happen, much like the Cards last year. We could even be headed for one weird Super Bowl. Let's just hope that that doesn't mean a Cardinals-Ravens Super Bowl, but I wouldn't be shocked.

As far as official picks go, I just don't know, there's way too much in the air this year. I do feel a Colts/Pats rematch could be in the cards, and I feel strongly that we'll be looking at a Vikings/Packers rematch as well. THAT would be a great championship Sunday, don't you think? But it's too much of a crapshoot, and I don't trust any team.

Except for one. For the Super Bowl, I think Manning will want to prove this whole not playing at the end of the season stuff isn't going to keep them from the title, and he has the mindset to do it. We all think they are one of the best three or four teams in the league, but I think they are the most mentally strong, starting with the QB, the real leader of this team. That'll put them over the top to win it all. If I have to choose an NFC team I'll choose the Pack, but I think that conference is wide open.

Or maybe I'm totally full of crap. Their lifeless coach could bomb them. We'll see.

One more thing, off subject: all Week 17 games need to be played at the same time, say 2:00 Eastern Time. I know this would cost the NFL a few bucks, but it would decrease the number of games where a team simply roles over, like the Bengals did. The World Cup does this in the final game of each group so that games like this don't happen again, with a scoreline agreed upon before the game.

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At 1/05/2010 06:37:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

To clarify, only 5 teams rested their starters. The 7 listed all in one sentence played them.

However, to comment on the "observing the phenomenon changes the phenomenon," ahem, phenomenon...I'm not sure it works this way in this case. We've observed it, sure, but we are not interacting with these teams. This is just raw data found on the internet.

And despite this easily researched data, teams, the media, general people off the street, still think it's a good idea to rest your starters in Week 17. Since I believe I'm the only person in the world to actually research this in detail, and I'm not exactly famous, I'm not sure my observation, and subsequent followers of said observation (roughly the people who read this blog) changes much.

I'm sure there are those who will say the "resting of starters" argument is actually a coincidence, that other, more invisible reasons contributed to the 20 for 20 streak of Super Bowl contenders who played their starters. Yet, there it is. That Steelers team that went 15-1 and nearly lost to the Jets, got waxed by the Pats at home, is the prime and not only example.

And I agree about randomness often reigns, but perhaps this little factor contributes to the randomness. This is why, should the Pats or Jets emerge as the Chargers' round 1 opponent, I would not be surprised to see them lose.

At 1/06/2010 04:04:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Along these lines, I'm officially worried about Alabama tomorrow. Everybody assumes, at least in this part of the country, that the SEC is the premier force, and must win the national title. They've had some rough games this year, and I hope they don't get over-confident.

And I know there are a lot of examples about resting your starters. I just think now's the time for it to reverse with all the attention paid to it.

At 1/06/2010 04:55:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Oh, and there's the Wes Welker thing.

After these playoffs, we will know who is the greater man, Chris. This is the final showdown between us...

At 1/07/2010 01:32:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Whoa, whoa, wait a minute...what has to happen for this final showdown to be won? Do one of the 5 teams who rested their starters have to go to the Super Bowl? If San Diego goes to the Super Bowl, does this disprove the point, in light of the weak AFC this year?

Actually, I'll say this: If this ends up being Colts/Saints, like everyone was rooting for early on when both teams were undefeated, I'll continue to stick to my guns on this until the evidence sways dramatically. This year would be what is known as a "small sample size." The ten years beforehand? Large sample size.

At 1/08/2010 11:30:00 AM, Blogger Mike said...

I'd still say 20 is a small sample size. There's only one football league that matters, so we can't really build enough evidence. For the final showdown... actually, I figure it will be a mixed bag and nothing determined. Some of the five teams will do well, others not. I bet at least one of them will be conference champions.

And I'm going to say that I was right about Alabama (not that other opinions were voiced); they should have lost that game, and would have if Colt hadn't been injured. They came out way over-confident, as evidenced by the horrible fake punt early on. And, after thinking they'd already won at halftime, they came out flat in the third quarter and let Texas back in. By far the better team, but their head was in the wrong place. If they were totally involved in the game, that rushing tandem would have scored 40 points.

But damn, the SEC is just that much better than everybody! Makes me happy.

At 1/08/2010 02:23:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

I had to go back all the way to 1991, the Bills, to find the team that last went to the Super Bowl after resting their starters.

Look all up and down the 90s, you see teams that should have made a better run in the playoffs, especially:

The 1996 Denver Broncos, 13-3, rested their starters, lost to a 9-7 Jacksonville team at home. The next two years, played their starters, won the next two Super Bowls.

At 1/10/2010 10:10:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

0-4 on my picks this weekend! After a while I was rooting for it. But I am right that Manning - at least this year - is better than Brady in the big games, the post-season. That was horrible. I'm so glad I'm not a Pats fan today.


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