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.


Friday, January 12, 2018


Atlanta @ Philadelphia (+3)

This line is wrong.  I could understand Philly being dogs, even at home, to New Orleans or the LA Rams, but Atlanta is a 6th seed for a reason and Philly is a top seed for other reasons.  This line reflects a perception that the Eagles, under Foles, have suddenly become the worst team in the playoffs, and by a significant margin.

In the superficial analysis of this game, there is simply too much focus on the difference between Wentz and Foles.  There is a difference, but Foles is not nothing.  I mean, how many back-up quarterbacks have been to the Pro Bowl?  This perception, or misperception, is exacerbated by the fact that Foles does nothing spectacular while Wentz makes highlight-reel plays every game, and the result is that Wentz is routinely given too much credit for Philly’s success this year.  He’s wonderful, of course, but the reason the Eagles are 3-point dogs here is that the defense, special teams and the peculiar football genius of Doug Pederson are not being given their props.

And then there’s Atlanta, and I guess I’m not as impressed with them as I should be.  The 26 points they scored is---well, a lot of teams did that against the Rams this year. (Eight teams scored 20 or more.)  The surprising thing was the Falcon defense holding the Rams to 13 points, though it wasn’t really all that surprising if you saw it.  Atlanta held only four teams below twenty during the regular season, so for the playoffs, they instituted a new defensive strategy called “assault and battery.”  Basically, every Rams receiver got mugged as he crossed the line of scrimmage and, mirabile visu, yellow flags were nowhere to be seen.

After the embarrassment of the 2014 Superbowl (Seattle 43 Denver 8), in which the Seahawks were permitted actually to win a championship with such a “defense,” there is NO chance Atlanta will be allowed to do to Philadelphia what they did to LA.  The NFL will speak to the officials about this.  The Falcons will have to leave their truncheons home and play their actual pass defense, which is among the worst in the playoffs.

Foles will not scintillate; he rarely does.  But the Eagles can be expected to put some points on the board.  Somewhere in the 20s will be sufficient against the Falcons, who will struggle to get above the teens against the Eagles’ defense.

The Eagles win the game.

Tennessee @ New England (-13 ½)

New England’s AYP is 6.8; Tennessee’s is 4.7.   The Pats beat their opponents by more than ten points per game, while the Titans were outscored.  In games decided by more than 10 points, Tennessee was 3-3 and New England was 8-1.  DeMarco Murray, the heart of Tennessee’s running game, will not play against the Pats.

Want more?  Well, Brady’s QB rating this year was 102.8.  Mariota’s was 79.3

I (and everybody else), assume New England will win, but the problem with this game is the line.  Will the Pats win by 30, or will they be leading by 30 at halftime and then cruise to a 10-point victory?  Both scenarios are plausible.

I can’t bet this line.

Jacksonville @ Pittsburgh (-7)

 Pittsburgh beats J’ville in the AYP battle by a few ticks---6.2 to 5.6, while the Jags win the defensive AYP by a score of 3.3 yards to 4.8 yards.  (The Jags have the best defensive AYP in the NFL.)  Also, the Jags outscored their opponents by 9.3 points/game while Pittsburgh only won by 6.1 points/game.  In addition, Jacksonville handed the Steelers its worst defeat of the season on October 8, in Pittsburgh.  The final score of 30-9 featured two pick-6s for the Jags and 181 yards rushing, with two TDs, by Fournette.  Not a great day for Roethlisberger, obviously, but Bortles’ helmet won’t be headed to Canton, Ohio either.  He passed for 95 yards with one interception.

That was Jacksonville football at its best, and maybe Pittsburgh at its worst, and this weekend will almost certainly look a lot different.  Still, the spread is too much.  I think Pittsburgh wins this game, but a Jaguar win would not surprise me, and I certainly take the seven with the Jags.

By the way, though I don’t usually opine on totals, the over/under here is 41.  I can’t envision the sort of game between these two teams that would produce that many points.  I would go under.

New Orleans @ Minnesota (-5)

This is another game where the line is simply wrong.  New Orleans is a slightly better team, but they have to try to win at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are 7-1 this season.  Fortunately for the Saints, they are also a “dome team,” so the venue represents less of a disadvantage than it might for some other visitors.  The game is about even. The only sensible play here is to take the five points.

Brees had an AYP of 7.1 yards this year, highest in the league, while Minnesota (Bradford and Keenum), registered an excellent 6.4 yards.  Minnesota’s pass defense was superior by a small margin, and they gave up the fewest points (252) in the league.  New Orleans beat seven teams by more than ten points and Minnesota won eight games by that margin, so they both pound the weaklings.  These are both serious contenders for the crown.

They met in Minnesota in the first game of the season, and the big story that day was the debut of Adrian Peterson for the Saints.  With six carries for eighteen yards, he was not a factor. The quarterbacks were the real story that day with Brees throwing for 291 yards and Bradford for 346.  There were no interceptions.  Minnesota won 29-19.  Arguably, both teams have improved since that day.  In the case of New Orleans, the obvious change is a running game that compliments Brees and must be taken seriously.

(Note: it has been reported that Bradford, who last played in Week 5, will be activated for this game, though Keenum will start.)
I will pick Minnesota to win the game, but with no particular enthusiasm.  They are among the best teams in the playoffs this year, but their real edge lies in the way the draw has fallen.  This first game, at home against the Saints, is winnable, though it may be the most difficult one they face.  If they win, the NFC Championship will be a home game against Atlanta or a road game in Philly, and the Vikings will be favored in either case.  Should they get to the Superbowl, they will be favored there as well because it will be a home game.  If the Vikings don’t get the ring this year, there will be a lot of woulda/coulda/shoulda conversations in the Vikings front office for the next six months, and it will be a cold winter in the land of 10,000 lakes.


Friday, January 5, 2018

THE 2018 NFL PLAYOFFS---Dome Sweet Dome

Quick, now.  What’s the last dome team to win a Superbowl?

That’s correct.  It was the New Orleans Saints on February 7, 2010 in a game you may have forgotten because it coincided with celebrations of Dimitri Mendeleev’s birthday around the globe.  On that day, the Saints triumphed at Hard Rock Stadium in South Florida and defeated the Indy Colts (another dome team) by a score of 27 - 10.

Most years, two or three dome teams make it to the NFL playoffs, and all of us wise guys nod sagely and say something like, “Well, let’s see what happens when they have to leave their little temperature-controlled hut and play a road game on the planet Neptune (that one’s still a planet, right?), in January.”  I know I’ve thought that in the past when Indy or Minnesota or Atlanta managed to limp into the playoffs.

This year, however, Superbowl Whatever-Whatever will be played under a dome at U.S. Bank Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the home field of the Vikings, and one likely scenario is that the Vikes will simply need to win three home games (the Divisional Playoff, the Conference Championship and the Superbowl), to secure the trophy.


As you should know by now, the predictions here are based on the theory that the ability to “make a big play” or “throw the ball down the field” is what wins championships and the best statistical measure of this ability is what I call Adjusted Yards Per Pass (“AYP”), which is the readily-available stat yards/pass adjusted downward for interceptions.  Teams with a high AYP number win Superbowls.  Teams with low AYPs do not, no matter how good their running back is or how dominant they are in time of possession or how many of their starters are married to exotic foreign supermodels.

I also calculate defensive AYP because it provides some measure of a team’s ability to stop the other guy from completing long passes.  And finally, I look at points/game differential, and I do this not because it has a great track record of predicting Superbowl victories but because a) it’s so easy to calculate that I don’t see why I shouldn’t, and b) my plodding intellect assumes that if New England outscores its opponents by 10.1 points per game and Buffalo is outscored by 3.6 points per game, then New England is more likely to win a championship.  But I have no evidence to back that up.

And one more thing is being added---I counted the number of times each team has crushed or been crushed, which is defined as winning or losing a game by ten or more points.  I’ve discussed this in the past, and it’s something Bill James originally posited regarding baseball---that the measure of a good team is not its record in close games but rather its record in blowouts.  Truly good teams pummel the weak ones far more often than they get pummeled themselves.  Here, for example, is the record of the last ten Superbowl winners in regular-season games decided by ten or more points:

2017   New England    10-1
2016    Denver    3-1
2015    New England   8-2
2014    Seattle   8-0
2013    Baltimore   4-2
2012    NYG   4-3
2011    Green Bay   5-0
2010    New Orleans   9-1
2009    Pittsburgh    6-1
2008    NYG    5-5

Note that the only two teams with more than two crush losses are the NYG teams in 2008 and 2012 which, under Eli’s magic touch, somehow managed to get the trophy despite being viewed, by rational observers, as the twelfth-best of the twelve teams competing that year.  In other words, they pretty much sucked all season, and then got smokin’ hot.


THE PRETENDERS---Tennessee, Buffalo, Carolina, Atlanta

There are different reasons for discarding these guys, but the red flags are unmistakable. Carolina (4.5), Tennessee (4.7) and Buffalo (4.9) have the three lowest AYP in the tournament.  Tennessee and Buffalo were outscored by their opponents in the regular season.  None of them has a winning record against the other playoff teams (Atlanta played seven playoff teams this year, and lost five of those games).  Buffalo has a 2-5 record in crush games (i.e., they were beaten five times by ten or more points).  Carolina was 3-4 in crush games, Tennessee was 3-3, and Atlanta was 4-2.

Atlanta is the best of the bunch, but their AYP of 6.4 is only fourth best of the six teams in the NFC.  Their defensive AYP of 5.5 is fifth of six.

All are dogs on Wildcard Weekend, and all of them will probably lose.

COULD GET LUCKY---Philly, KC, Jacksonville

These teams all have something wonderful going for them, but also have potentially fatal flaws.

Jacksonville is a hot team among certain wise guys because they have the best pass defense in the NFL, they are second in points allowed (Minnesota is first), they outscored their opponents by 9.3 points/game, and they seem to be getting stronger as the season progresses.

The problem with Jacksonville is that they are all defense.  When they held opponents to ten points or less, they went 8-0.  When they gave up more than ten points, they were 2-6.  In order to advance to the Superbowl, they will probably have to beat both Pittsburgh and New England (and both those contests will be road games for the Jags).  How likely is it they will hold each of those stalwarts to single digits?

As we all remember, KC started the season by dominating the Patriots in New England, rolled through the first six weeks of the season, and then fell off a cliff in November.  The Chiefs are the only team that lost to BOTH the Giants and the Jets. They recovered their mojo sufficiently to win their last four games, beating the Raiders, Chargers, Miami and Denver (none of which will be playing on February 4th.)  So they kind-of suck, right?

Well, maybe.  When you add it all up, they are 10-6 and are tied with NE for the best AYP in the AFC.  They get a pretty easy home game in the wildcard round, and they’ve already beaten the Patriots.  Also, is Andy Reid NEVER going to get a little lucky and win a Superbowl?  OK, I’m making the call here---KC could get lucky.

Then there’s my Iggles, the team with the best record in the NFL but which will be an underdog at home when they play their first game in the second week of the playoffs.

The theory that Philadelphia can still get to the Superbowl, and win it, is based on everything you can think of that’s good for the Eagles and doesn’t have anything to do with Carson Wentz.  Home field advantage is part of it, for example.  To get to the Superbowl, Philly will probably have to win home games against New Orleans and Minnesota, two decent dome teams that may not like playing in South Philly in January.  It is plausible that Philly can win both those games.  Another thing that doesn’t have anything to do with Carson Wentz is the Eagle defense, which has been very good and which is at least as responsible as the offense for Philly’s success.

Finally, the thing that really has nothing to do with Carson Wentz is Nick Foles, who actually has a decent record as an NFL starter (and backup) quarterback.  Philly being what it is, the overwhelming majority of Eagles fans believe Nick will give us a deer-in-the-headlights-in-the-playoffs kind of performance.  I suspect he will be better than that, but I too fear he will fall short of the performance necessary to get to the dance.  On the other hand, he does bear an uncanny resemblance to Jeff Hostetler.

Kidding aside, the real problem with the Eagles is that even with Wentz, the team’s offense was not good enough to get to a Superbowl.  The AYP, most of which is attributable to Wentz’s play, is only the fifth best of the six NFC playoff teams.  The Eagles played a weak schedule, won a lot of games with their defense, and had more than their share of highlight-reel plays from their quarterback.  That does not normally win you a ring.

But still…

THE CONTENDERS---New England, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, New Orleans, LA Rams
We will discuss these teams in more detail next week (they will all still be in the hunt). 


Tennessee at KC (-8).  The featured item on Tennessee’s resume is that they beat the Jaguars twice.  However, they have the worst AYP (4.7) in the AFC group, while KC is tied for first at 6.8.  KC will win the game, but to some extent they are limping into the playoffs, and it’s hard to get a sense of how good they are.  I don’t bet this line.

Atlanta at LA Rams (-5 1/2).  The Rams win the AYP battle 6.7 to 6.4, and they also have a superior defense.  With the Rams in the ascendant and the Falcons trying desperately to hang on to last year’s (sort-of) glory, I envision a game in doubt until the second half, but the Rams pulling away.  I lay the points.

Buffalo at Jacksonville (-8 ½).   Initially, you look at this line and think “Well, Buffalo’s not that bad.”  But they are.  Jacksonville beats them in AYP 5.6 to 4.9.  Defensive AYP also favors the Jags 3.3 to 4.9.  Finally, J’ville outscored their foes by 9.3 points per game while the Bills were outscored by 3.6.  My over/under for Buffalo points in this game is 6.  I think Jacksonville covers.

Carolina at New Orleans (-7).   New Orleans beat Carolina twice this year, and dominated them, so it’s tempting to take the contrarian bent that they can’t do it three times.  I reject that view.  The Saints have the best AYP (7.1) in either conference and the Panthers have the worst (4.5).  The New Orleans defense is also superior.  Carolina is probably the worst of the twelve teams in the playoffs this year and New Orleans has a legitimate shot to win it all.  I lay the seven points.