NFL Conference Championship Results

With there being basically a dead weekend before the Super Bowl (does anyone really watch or care about the Pro Bowl?), I put the conference title games on the backburner until now.  As predicted by essentially everyone, the two favorites won (that’s why they’re favorites).  As not really predicted by everyone, one won by the most fortunate of circumstances while the other is now deflecting criticism that it may have cheated.  Let’s flash back all the way to… one week ago.

Recapping the picks are easy.  All three models, along with Bill Simmons, went with the underdogs to cover.  Since the Pats got a blowout but Seattle won in overtime, locking in any picks for Packers +7 (or +6.5, or higher; I had the spread listed at +7.5), everyone went 1-1.  Recapping the games is a little tougher.

I was at the gym for the end of the Seattle – Green Bay game, so I got to see all the good parts.  I texted my wife when the Pack got their final interception of the game, saying that it should be about over.  ‘Should’ turned out to be the operative word as GB went conservative and Seattle went lucky + good.  Seattle forced quick three-and-outs, used their time outs, and got a score.  They had to have the onside kick, which they did when it bounced off of a Packer’s facemask.  Pretty much regardless of who you put on a football field, you would have to assume that they would catch that ball.  People have kind of an instinct to protect their faces; maybe they wouldn’t just catch it cleanly, but they’d get a hand on it.  For an NFL-caliber tight end to completely whiff a ball aimed at his head is unlikely at best.  Seattle was fortunate there.

The Seahawks marched down the short field and expressed their luck again.  They actually scored too quickly, getting in the end zone to take the lead with about 90 seconds left in the game.  They probably would have gone for 2 to protect against a field goal with most amounts of time on the clock, but they definitely had to convert it now.  The play was pretty well blown up by the Packers, and Wilson was left heaving a rainbow of a pass all the way across his body and across the field.  He was at the 17, maybe the 18, when he threw it; conversions are snapped from the 3.  The play was supposed to go to the right, so there were only four guys on the left side of the field where Wilson threw it: two Seahawks and two Packers.  The ball didn’t even get to the end zone.  Neither Packer made a play on the ball, although one was certainly close enough to get there.  Neither made a play on the receiver, even to maybe get pass interference.  There could have been 0 packers on that side of the field.  If Seattle ran that play and made that pass 100 times, you have to assume they complete it maybe 5 times.  This was one of them.

They obviously needed the conversion since the Packers went down the field and kicked a field goal to send it to overtime; without the conversion, the Packers win.  Even now, Seattle had the good fortune of facing Mike McCarthy and his complete inability to think strategically; the Packers ended up using one of their three timeouts when they settled for the field goal.  On a day when Green Bay rushed for 135 yards at 4.5 a pop, maybe it would have helped to try mixing in a run for some yards, or at least a surprise.  Instead, by the time the Packers got to first and 10 at the Seattle 36, there were only 35 seconds left.  Two incompletions followed by 6 yards when you need 10 meant that they had to settle for the field goal without even taking a shot at the end zone.

Seattle’s final piece of luck was to win the coin toss in overtime and to never let Aaron Rodgers have the ball.  Obviously it’s on the Packers defense to stop them, but it seems odd that you can change the rules to try to make the game more even yet still have a circumstance where one team never takes the field.  Especially in a playoff game.  It was only the 9th time since 1970 that a team lost the turnover margin by 3 or more and won a playoff game (the only ‘more’ was when the Raiders overcame four turnovers to beat the Baltimore Colts in overtime in 1977).

As for the Patriots and Colts, there isn’t too much to say about the game itself.  New England scored early and then scored often in the third quarter to turn a fairly comfortable 10 point lead into a ridiculous blow-out.  Instead of talking about how good the Pats were, the discussion has been about deflated footballs.  I find this to be overblown.  On the one hand, I understand that any attempt to cheat is taken seriously (except for performance enhancing drugs, which are taken seriously anywhere except for the NFL).  On the other hand, it seems obvious that there is no way that underinflated balls had anything to do with New England winning this game.  I don’t think it covers every way you’d want to look at it, but Neil Paine has a few good ones.  The short version:  the Colts arguably had a better passing half than the Pats to start the game, and the Patriots only really exploded to put the game away in the third, after the referees were aware of the deflated balls.

I’ve been reading a book on Bayesian statistics recently, so I prefer to think of it from a different angle.  What kind of prior probability do you put on New England cheating?  If you’re a believe in Spygate and how far Bill Belichick might go to win, your number might be fairly high.  But what prior do you put on the Patriots cheating blatantly?  Do you think that Belichick (or Brady, or whoever) would doctor the balls when officials check them before the game, touch them literally every play, and the other team might touch on any turnover or lose ball?  I put the odds on that pretty low.  Quotes from other QBs since the game and what we know about Belichick certainly make it likely that lots of teams do things to their footballs so that their particular QB is happy, including pushing the boundaries of the rules (Rodgers says he pushes them on the overinflated side).  But to doctor so many balls so obviously stretches plausibility, at least in my mind.

Assuming that the league doesn’t go crazy and suspend anyone in the next week, we should have a pretty awesome game between the Pats and Seahawks next week.  I’ll have a breakdown closer to then, unless this crazy East Coast blizzard is really bad and I do it earlier to stave off frostbite.

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