Friday, February 2, 2018


The Eagles victory in the NFC Championship game was truly wonderful.  Foles went 26/33 for 352 yards with three TDs and no interceptions.  He averaged more than 10 yards per pass. The Eagles (mostly Foles, but with some help), put up 38 points on what was supposedly the best defense in football.  Projecting Nick Foles’s numbers into the Superbowl, he’s going to complete 54 of 62 passes for 502 yards and six touchdowns and the Eagles are going to beat the Patriots 84 – 3.  Right?  Right??

In the late 1960’s, Daniel Kahneman, who would win a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work with Amos Twersky in creating the field of behavioral economics, was working as a psychologist for the Israeli Air Force, helping train fighter pilots.  The instructors had come to believe that criticism was more effective than praise when teaching men to fly jets.  They pointed out (accurately), that pilots who performed well and received praise almost uniformly performed worse their next time out, while pilots who were criticized almost always performed better.  Kahneman observed the process for a while and then explained what was really going on.

Both the good performers who were praised and the bad performers who were chastised were simply regressing to the mean on their subsequent flights.  The “bad” ones would have flown better and the “good” ones would have flown worse even if the instructors had said nothing at all.  What Kahneman described was an illusion of the mind that all of us are subject to---the belief that our words are most effective when they are critical or give pain.  Our criticism is “rewarded” because it is often followed by a better performance.  Kahneman later wrote, “Because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.”

(This story comes from “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis.)

In Kahneman’s terms, if we accept Foles’ performance against the Vikings as the reality, we will be punished for it.  If we bet on him now to repeat the day he had against Minnesota, we will regret it because he will most likely regress to the mean rather than produce a second consecutive hall-of-fame afternoon.  You don’t get consecutive hall-of-fame afternoons from Nick Foles.  You get one every three years or so, like the game against the Raiders in 2013 where he had seven TD passes.  We’ll get another game like that from Foles, but it won’t be this Sunday; it will be in 2021.
Listen kids, I like Nick Foles.  He is the best quarterback in his family, unlike Eli Manning (or even Chelsea Manning).  When the Eagles traded him to St. Louis for Sam Bradford in March, 2015, I viewed it as the first of many signs that Chip Kelly is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.  And the day he had against Minnesota was not a complete fluke.  He’s played some great games.  Foles is good enough to win a Superbowl someday, though it probably won’t be this one.

In terms of our basic numbers, New England has a significant edge.  If the ability to make big pass plays is what brings home the Lombardy Trophy (and that, of course, is the theory we’re pursuing here), the Pats win because their Adjusted Yards/Pass is a very respectable 6.8 yards (2nd best in the NFL) vs. 5.8 yards for the Eagles (8th).  The Eagles’ defensive AYP is better than New England’s, but all the Pats’ defensive stats are somewhat deceptive because their defense played so badly the first four games of the season.  Over the last twelve games of the regular season, New England gave up 171 points to its opponents (14.25/game).  The Eagles gave up 203 points over that stretch (16.9/game).  So who really has the better defense?

My reasoning here is pretty straightforward.  Assuming Brady has his normal day and Foles has his normal day, Brady will prevail.  With the line at Patriots -4 ½, I would normally advise you to take the Patriots and lay the points.

But look at the Superbowl scores in the Brady/Belichick era:

2002---NE 20     St. L. 17

2004---NE 32     Caro  29

2005---NE 24     Phl     21

2008---NY 17     NE    14

2012---NY  21    NE    17

2015---NE  28     Sea   24

2017---NE   34    Atl    28  (OT)

Notice anything?  The only game decided by more than four points in either direction was last year’s overtime extravaganza, and that one was tied at the end of regulation.  I’m not saying New England is incapable of beating the Eagles by more than 4 ½ points this year, but they haven’t shown that kind of domination in seven previous Superbowls, so I do not plan to put good money on the proposition they will do it this time.  I’m passing.  New England is better, and should win.  But the line is about right.

I do have one recommendation, however.

We have all seen the surprising stat that the Patriots, in their seven previous Superbowls, have not scored a point in the first quarter.  Digging a bit deeper and looking at the total scoring for both teams in the first halves of those seven games, we find an average of 18 ½ points scored in the first half.  In only one game (the 2015 match against Seattle), did the first half total exceed 24 points.

This year, the over/under total for the first half of the Superbowl is 24 points.  Take the under.


Saturday, January 20, 2018


Jacksonville @ New England (-7 1/2 )

It is assumed that the magic of Brady and Bellichick will prevail once again, and the Jacksonville Jags, like many fine teams before them, will find a way to lose this game.  Certainly, the Patriots are not exactly famous for losing games in January in Gillette Stadium.

But the Jaguars clearly belong here.  In the AFC this year, New England scored 458 points (1st) and Jacksonville scored 417 (2nd), while New England gave up 296 (3rd) as opposed to the Jags’ 268 (1st).  The Patriots outscored their opponents by 10.1 points/game while Jacksonville’s margin was 9.3.

Turning to Adjusted Yards per Pass, the Patriots have an edge---6.8 to 5.6.  (Bortles is not Brady, and unless Tom’s right hand is actually amputated in the next 24 hours, Bortles will not be the best QB on the field.)  Defensive Adjusted Yards per Pass favors the Jags, on the other hand, and by a large margin---3.3 yards to NE’s 5.8 yards.

These numbers overall suggest a relatively even matchup.  Then there is the nagging sense that NE’s defense is a potentially serious problem, largely because we all remember Kansas City pounding them on national TV in the first game of the season. And in fact, the Patriots are only 19th against the run and 29th against the pass during the regular season.

Looking a wee bit deeper, however, you notice that the Patriots gave up 32 points/game or their first four contests and only 13 points/game in the thirteen games since then, so maybe those early defensive issues are ancient history.

So what’s a boy to do?

Well, like everybody else, I am assuming New England will win this game and that if, in the closing minute or two, Tom Brady has to put the biscuit in the basket in order to advance, he will find a way to do so.  All the numbers are sufficiently close, however, that I will take the 7 ½ points and the Jags. With a timely turnover or two, Jacksonville could even win this game.

Minnesota @ Philadelphia (+3)

Last week, when Philly was a three-point dog, I told you the line was wrong.  This time, Philly is a three-point dog and the line is correct.

On my standard measures, the Vikings are superior.  Adjusted yards/pass favors Minnesota by 6.4 yards to 5.8 yards. (The Eagles’ number is almost all due to Wentz rather than the less-skilled Foles, by the way.)  The Vikes have a small edge in Defensive AYP also.  Both outscored their opponents by a substantial margin, Philly by 10.1 points and Minnesota by 8.1 points.  It is also worth noting that Minnesota’s defense gave up 43 fewer points than did the Eagles.

It is true that Minnesota is a dome team coming to the great outdoors in January, and it is also true that the Vikings were 9-1 in domes this year and only 4-2 on grass (losing to Carolina and Pittsburgh).

Also, because these are two great defenses, it is possible the final score will be 10-7 or something like it, and a game like that can swing on a single turnover or a close call by the officials---in other words, the game may be decided by luck rather than skill.

If you want to make arguments for Philly in this game, they are easy to find, and I won’t dispute you. Nevertheless, Minnesota is favored by three points and that’s about what the line should be, so I pass on the spread.  I expect Minnesota will win a close one.