Friday, January 17, 2014

Phew, it's Championship Weekend

Last week, I laid out the recent history of the NFL playoffs. It went a little something like this: seeding is irrelevant, home field doesn't matter as much as you think it does, and the better team on paper doesn't always win. Go figure, that for the first time since 2004, each favorite won, and the only top seed that lost (Carolina) was favored to lose to a superior team. Where does that leave us? It would be foolish to believe that the trend of inferior teams making runs through the playoffs is over. But this season, another season of major injuries, offensive records, and concussion protocols, the best four teams on paper have found their way to the final four. With that, we're given another series of narratives that involve two old school QB's going at it in the twilight of their careers and two new school QB's fighting to assert themselves as the future of the NFL. Either way, we're setup for a glorious Super Bowl matchup (unless the goddamn Patriots are in it...).

I've made the mistake in the past of picking an outcome that would make me seem like a hero. Nobody wants to read a vanilla blog post where I pick all the favorites to win, right? Well, maybe. I've realized I shouldn't try to stand out from the crowd and try my best to pick games with my head, instead of my heart. Here's the difference. If I'm picking with my head, I'm using all the information I have to make an informed decision. If I'm picking with my heart, I throw data by the wayside and make up things like "Tom Brady is too clutch for the Broncos defense to handle," and "The 49ers can't handle the Seahawks crowd". Where we reach an impasse is here: no narrative assumption is quantifiable, so we can't use it to make an informed decision on a game. Stats are great to tell you that Seattle will beat the 49ers eight out of ten times in games played at CenturyLink Field. They're not playing ten times; they're playing once.

Without further adieu, here are my picks.

Patriots (+5.0) over BRONCOS 

The narrative: It's Manning-Brady Bowl XV, and this may be the biggest one yet. This game is a rematch of the week 12 matchup that saw the Patriots rally from a 24 point deficit and win on a fortuitous bounce in overtime. Coming off a record-setting year, Peyton Manning pulled back the reigns on the passing game against San Diego in favor of a balanced run-pass game (36 pass attempts to 34 rush attempts). Tom Brady's Patriots continued to adapt as they morphed into a power running team, amassing 234 yards on 46 rush attempts (versus just 25 pass attempts) in their win over the Colts. It's interesting that the running game of both teams has been on display of late, but with pristine conditions expected Sunday, neither team's passing attack will be hindered. 

The pick: While I feel very awkward and uncomfortable picking the Patriots to cover, I believe it's the right move here. Any scenario whereby the Broncos win by more than five points sounds wonderful, however unlikely. The Broncos hold off the Patriots in the 4th to win 28-24

Some props: Keep your eye on the total in this game, currently set at 57 total points. Typically, in these high-caliber affairs, the betting public hits heavy on the over, leading to an inflated total. Your inclination may be that Manning and Brady always light it up. However, looking at their point totals from all 14 previous matchups, there were only five instances (36%) where they totaled over 57 points. However, dating back to 2007, they've totaled over 57 points in four of six matchups (67%). Even when you use your head, the data is still confusing.

SEAHAWKS (-3.5) over 49ers 

The narrative: The Seahawks and 49ers are two teams that absolutely loathe each other. It begins with Richard Sherman, a pupil of Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, who talks more trash (and backs it up) than anyone in the NFL. The rivalry continues with the perception of their respective quarterbacks, the tattooed, lanky Colin Kaepernick and the humble, stout Russell Wilson. Even Apple and Microsoft have duked it out for years. San Francisco has had little success playing on the road in Seattle, getting trounced by a combined score of 71-16 over the past two seasons. However, the 49ers are regarded as the most complete team in football right now, and ride an eight game win streak into the game. Seattle's dominance may be declining, due to their less than dominant effort in last week's win over the Saints. 

The pick: I don't place any merit in winning streaks in football (see, the Broncos 11-game winning streak entering last year's playoffs), so I throw out all that junk about the 49ers carrying more momentum. This isn't a physics equation! Seahawks dominance at home continues as the beat the 49ers 24-14.

Some props: Seattle led the league in takeaways (interceptions plus fumbles) in the regular season with 39, while San Francisco was 4th in the league with 30. Touchdowns after takeaways are largely random, however if you're a fan of defensive scoring, consider either prop "49ers to Score a Defensive TD and Win Game" at +750 or "Seahawks to Score a Defensive TD and Win Game" at +550.

Last Week: 2-2

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