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NFL Season Wrap-Up

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Let’s look at how the teams approached the Week of Shame. The Steelers and Bucs flat-out rested their starters. The Pack started Favre, but eventually realized they were playing the Lions so it didn’t matter and dropped all the way down to third string. The Jags rested their first, second, and third stings and recruited players from a homeless shelter. Seattle started with their A-team then put the scrubs in and gave up 44 pity points to Atlanta; you could almost hear them telling the sorrowful Falcons “Who’s Mommy’s the brave little boy?” The Cowboys played Romo most of the game but decided to roll over and die anyway, either that or they are looking at another ugly faceplant in the post-season. The Colts started Peyton, but then realized that the only reason to win was to save the Browns season and my gambling week, so we got a big dose of Sorgi time. On behalf of myself and most of northern Ohio, I present you the gift of my middle finger. Just about the only game played full out on both sides of the ball was the Pats/Giants Saturday night job.

It’s time for me to give the Pats their props. And I should be glad to. In my season preview many months ago I called their monster year:

…I think Moss is finally maturing just as a result of the natural aging process and realizing he could have been stuck trying to catch passes from guys like Aaron Brooks for a the rest of his career.

The Pats are not just at the top of the list this year; they are the 800 lb. gorillas. With apologies to Dennis Green, I say we crown their asses.

It’s good to be right and you can’t be much righter than that (although, I will grant you that it was not exactly an original opinion at the time). At the moment, there is no way any rational human being could not pick the Pats to win the Super Bowl. You may not want them to win (I don’t) and you may think they are beatable (I do), but you cannot reasonably have the expectation that they will lose.

I think the Pats can be beaten but it is going to take an incredible game to do so. Teams have had success when they can keep the pressure on Brady, but no one has been able to do it for a full game. At some point in the second half of all the close games, Brady suddenly found himself with lots of time. If you are going to win, that must never be. If your defense can keep the pressure on, your offense has a chance to exploit your running game. But you better not go three and out more than once. Even if you don’t score, you have to stay on top of the field position battle. Basically your strategy should be to play the best game of your life for four solid quarters. You can do it, but I don’t think you will.

The only valid post-season prediction to make is that the Patriots win the Super Bowl. Everything else is just noise. But let’s walk through everyone else in the post season, just for the sake of good form. I’ve indicated both full year DVOA and weighted DVOA listed as (DVOA/wDVOA); weighted DVOA is skewed towards more recent games. We’ll start with the largely irrelevant NFC.

Washington Redskins (7.7 / 10.1): After Sean Taylor’s death was followed by the Joe Gibbs timeout gack, I thought they were toast. I didn’t see any way they would recover their enthusiasm. Well, something happened. It may have been Todd Collins. It may have been a sermon from Joe Gibbs. Whatever it was, these guys are energized and fired up. Remember, Dallas started its A-team last week (less T.O.) and the Skins didn’t just win, they flattened them. They are as likely to emerge from Wild Card week as anyone.

New York Giants (-0.6 / -1.7): The only playoff team with a negative DVOA. That means on a play by play basis they have been a below average team. And it’s not all Eli’s fault. Anyone who has watched a Giants game will tell you that for every errant pass there have been a couple of pathetic drops. Close examination of the DVOA indicates they have been substandard on offense and special teams, and only slightly above average on defense. A trifecta of mediocrity. Also note their weighted DVOA is less that the full year DVOA indicating they have regressed a bit in the latest games. And yet here they sit with 10 wins having just given the mighty Pats a real scare. What do we make of them? You got me. How long can they last in the post season? As long as their luck holds out. They shouldn’t get out of the first round, but they shouldn’t have 10 wins either, so go figure.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (17.8 / 13.5): You know, I just haven’t devoted a lot of time to the Bucs this year. They were almost never on TV for me. They have been fairly reliable with a strong D and a good O. There are no real star players, with the marginal exception of Joey Galloway. They’re sending no one to the Pro Bowl. They faced a pretty easy schedule over the course of the year; it helped that the Saints regressed so much. They finished losing three of four, but they have been coasting the past couple of weeks. No scandals. Nothing flashy. But no obvious hope for anything special.

Seattle Seahawks (11.7 / 13.8): Ironically, Shaun Alexander’s struggles have allowed the rest of the team to blossom. But, as usual, Seattle benefited from a cake schedule (easiest in the league) in a third rate division. All their prospects have to be discounted in light of that. But in the NFC, who really has a tough schedule? This is actually one of the better Seahawks teams to emerge from the NFC West morass.

Green Bay Packers (21.0 / 19.4): Overall the Pack finished stronger than the Cowboys despite handing them first seed at the behest The Neck Beard of the Gods a couple of weeks ago. Stomping the Lions (and, more importantly, covering the point spread) counts as an uplifting finish. Somehow, the Bears had their number this year, but everyone else short of the Cowboys fell under their onslaught, and if the Cowboys fall down in the next three weeks, the NFC Championship will be run on the Frozen Tundra. The Pack are in good shape.

Dallas Cowboys (23.9 / 17.0): A truly flaky top seed, with memories of last year’s swoon still fresh. A week off to heal up will help a bit, and despite rumors, I think we can count on T.O. being ready to play. They better hope so because they didn’t score a touchdown in the six quarters he was out. In fact, in the month of December they 1) eked out a one point victory over the Lions, 2) lost to the Eagles, 3) beat dead-in-the-water Carolina by single touchdown, and 4) got disgracefully pantsed by the Redskins. Anyone with money on the Cowboys in December is a good deal poorer. Meanwhile everyone in the league is trying to poach their coaches and Jessica Simpson has her fingernails deep in Tony Romo’s mojo. This is not where you want to be going into the playoffs.

The NFC has really come full circle. At the outset of the season, it looked like a complete crapshoot. Anybody with half a roster of capable players seemed as likely as anyone else to win the conference. Then things coalesced. Dallas and Green Bay were romping from week to week leading up to their fractional Super Bowl. It began to look like there was a discernable pecking order. Since then, Dallas has softened perceptibly and Green Bay put up a suspicious stinker against the Bears featuring a re-appearance of Favre the Gunslinger. Now we’re back to the point where you could make a case for most of these teams. Who is hotter than the Redskins right now? Eli just had one of the best games of his career. What if I am wrong about the Giants record being a statistical aberration? (I’m not wrong, though.) If I had to pick a team at this point I’d go with the Pack, but the truth is, we’ve come full circle to a crapshoot.

But none of that matters because it’s not the AFC.

Tennessee Titans (8.8 / 2.2): Let’s face it, the Titans offense is as lame Vince Young’s quadriceps. The only exceptional ability Vince Young has is as a runner. Without his legs, you might as well be starting Dan Quisenberry. But we have to give credit where due and Tennessee finished with the top defense in the league, although it’s primarily because they were going all out against Indy’s scrubs while Pittsburgh (the #1 D in Week 16) was taking a breather. Still, when your best defensive player spends the year professional wrestling and chasing strippers, and you turn in the performance that the Titans D did, that’s impressive. I still hate these guys, though.

Jacksonville Jaguars (23.7 / 31.1): Since about week 10, the Jaguars have been the best team in football (excluding last week). On a play by play basis they have been outperforming every other team, including the Pats. Here is what I wrote about them in the pre-season:

What’s not to like? Byron Leftwich, maybe. But he is a serviceable QB and, really, he only needs to be steady, not stellar — with bar not set too high, he can probably reach it. The defense is all-round excellent, especially the line. The offense is all round excellent, including the line.

I do so love being right. Leftwich is a memory and David Garrard has pretty much redefined “steady, not stellar.” It just took them a little while to get there. Last week they played their scrubs and backup QB Quinn Gray threw for 4 touchdowns. Highly indicative of a good system, not just star players. That said, I don’t think they get past either the Pats or Colts, because I don’t think we’ve seen the top games from a rested Pats or Colts team in the past few weeks, but we will in a fortnight. Still, the Jags should strike fear in their opponents, no matter who they are.

Pittsburgh Steelers (17.5 / 5.6): Despite having uncharacteristically poor protection from his O-line (2nd worst except for San Fran), Ben Roethlisbergermeister had a good year — in the top ten QB performances certainly, which is amazing under the circumstances. The defense was probably the best in the league although they only finished second after taking last week off. But the Steelers were capable of putting up a real honker on any given week and they proved it more than a few times. Their probable path to the Super Bowl would require wins against the Jags, Pats, and Colts in three straight weeks. Even if they don’t put up a honker, their chances are practically zero.

San Diego Chargers (18.9 / 27.1): The Chargers have been nearly as hot as the Jags over the recent weeks. Even though Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson are arguably the best at their positions and two of the best offensive players in the League, the Chargers are stronger on defense than offense. Then there are these league-wide stats from Football Outsiders:

2005: 9 punt return touchdowns, 12 kickoff return touchdowns.
2006: 9 punt return touchdowns, 15 kickoff return touchdowns.
2007: 17 punt return touchdowns, 24 kickoff return touchdowns.

Something happened to make special team scoring take off this year, and the Chargers have the highest rated special teams of anyone in the playoffs. Despite all that, they are just another team in the Murderer’s Row that is the AFC top tier. And there is the ever-present Norv factor to worry about.

Indianapolis Colts (33.0 / 22.2): They’ve slipped in the rankings, but let’s face it. They have been running at half speed for a while now. They’ve already beaten the Jags twice. The barely lost to the Chargers in San Diego. It’ll be different if they play in Indy. I don’t think the hotness of the Jags and Chargers will keep Indy from the conference final game. The Colts had the second best offense this year which also happened to be the 8th best offense measured since DVOA has been measured (this year’s Pats are tops all time). A hidden development of this season is the Colts defense. It came on out of the blue at the end of last year, and it’s still there. Indy ends up with the 4th ranked defense despite laying down for the Titans last week. On the down side, they have the worst special teams in the league which means a field position battle with the Pats will work against them.

Bear in mind, as good as the Colts were last year, they almost got beaten in the final by a Pats team that was decimated. This year the Pats are the opposite of decimated. (That would be, what? Exponentiated?)

So that’s everyone who is unlikely to win the Super Bowl. I have to admit, I found this season to be on the dull side. That’s no surprise if you have been following along. There have been great stories — the undefeated season, Brett Favre’s rebirth — but there have been few surprises and the unintentional comedy is at an all time low. In fact, I find the stories of the teams that are now headed for the golf courses (or the strip clubs) to be more interesting.

My favorite story this year was the emergence of the Cleveland Browns. It took a combination of a Derek Anderson dookie and a roll-me-over-and-tickle-my-tummy game from the Colts to keep them out of the playoffs. Anderson may be leaving but I don’t think that is going to be the big deal everyone thinks. His performance this year was mostly because of the team and system coming together. Be wary of the marginal QB who suddenly puts together a good year. Joe Thomas got robbed of the rookie of the year award. Parcells is known to be looking to poach Romeo Crennel. All good signs. At the start of the year, Vegas had them at 125-1 to win the Super Bowl. Knock a hundred off that for next year.

Other teams found creative ways to be hopeless…

Attitude finally caught up with the Bengals. When the season ended, Marvin Lewis immediately made noises about blowing the team up, but quickly backtracked. His first instinct was right. Let the troublemakers go — that would be Ocho Sucko and T.J. Whosyermama — snag a couple of serviceable receivers from somewhere, devote a season or two to building up your atrocious defense, then go back and see what weapons Carson Palmer needs to go all the way. As currently formulated, they will never be better than a low level playoff team. You have gone as far as you can with this group — they lack the character to weather the bad times. Blow it up and regroup now before you’ve wasted any more of Carson Palmer’s productive lifespan.

The Falcons had what was probably the worst season any team could ever have. Arthur Blank must feel about three feet high right now. From Vick through Petrino — I feel for you Arthur, I’ve had trips to Vegas just like that. Where do you start to fix this mess? You need someone known for turning around dead franchises… someone like Bill Parcells! Oh snap, he changed his mind. Getting skunked on the Tuna by the Miami Dolphins was the gravy on a shit sandwich, the cherry on a sewage sundae, the cheese on a soiled-undies souffle. The poison from a season like this can seep down into the furthest reaches of team and fan psyche. I see no solution. Without a storied past to fall back on, the Falcons may never recover from this. Ever. Move the team to L.A., rename it, and start a new life from scratch.

The Lions came through in spades. After years of the perfectly revolting play, we all got desensitized. We knew they were destined for a three- or four-win season year after year and we came to terms with it. We found, not happiness, but peace. So when they realized we were becoming complacent, that we were feeling insufficient pain, they did the cruelest thing they could have done. They gave us hope. The combination of an easy first half schedule and some providential bounces of the ball provided the opportunity to stir within us the most unlikely of feelings: playoff hopes. From there, it was a small matter to plunge the knife in and cry “pwned!” Not me, of course — watching the actual numbers instead of staring slack-jawed at the won-loss column protects one against such spiteful behavior, but suckering in the masses like that was a work of evil genius. Future Lions teams that can do no better than a plain vanilla 3-13 season will look back on these guys with awe.

The Miami Dolphins don’t just need a house cleaning, they need the team scrubbed, sanitized and disinfected, with Parcells playing the role of Judge Smails. We know Jeff Ireland will be playing Dr. Beeper, but the Bishop Pickering role has yet to be filled. Hey, this is fun. Wayne Huizenga will have to be Al Czervik. Ronnie Brown as Danny Noonan (the only real talent). Jason Taylor as Lou Loomis (hopelessly trying to maintain some semblance of order). In light of getting himself kicked off the team for starting a fight over a game of dominoes (huh?), Keith Traylor gets the nod as D’Annunzio. Ricky Williams can be Carl Spackler — or better yet: Spaulding.

Last Week

2-2-1 versus the spread. 35-22-3 for the season, or $7650 back from a $6600 for a net gain of $1050. Rockin’ good news!

As expected, the Week of Shame hammered my money line record. For an $1100 layout we walked away with $784.30 for a loss of $315.70 bringing our annual net to $446.29. But only and ingrate complains about an up year, so I will stop going on about the Week of Shame.

This is the third year of our ongoing experiment of using DVOA to guide our picks. When it comes to the point spread, I can’t show any benefit. The annual payoffs for the three years have been +570, -1180, and +1050 respectively. Net positive, yes, but is it really any better than what could be expected using some irrational method. I don’t think so.

The money line is different; there our results are +621.71, +2546.92, +446.29. Three straight up years is not out the realm of statistical probability, but it’s getting there. The money line formula benefits from two things. First, it aligns the goals of the players with the goals of the gambler. Your wager is that the team you select will win; no point adjustment involved. You never get in a situation where your team does something suboptimal with respect to the point spread because they want to win instead of cover, like throw into the end zone for the win when they only need a field goal to beat the spread.

Second, it takes me out of the equation. Like every other homo sapiens I am a Bayesian animal. Confronted with making a decision in uncertainty, I take all the information I have, weigh it and discount it based on learned experience and whatever irrational preconceptions I have in my head, generate an expectation, and act on it. Calling this inexact is the understatement of the century. Football betting lines are set to get the most money out of a large population fat guys in throwback jerseys sucking down buckets of flat beer and buffalo wings while paying close attention to the comments of John Madden and a buddy of theirs who was a backup safety in Division III. Sound, detached, objective analysis should outdo these guys.

If I were smarter, had more time, and if I wasn’t so lazy, I would pour through the stats provided by Football Outsiders, run regression analyses on all sorts of statistical combinations, and come up with a formula that had the best measured predictive power, then go camp out in the sports book at Wynn Las Vegas. Maybe next year. For now, my little gut-level money line formula is doing OK.

Next Week

No more picks this year. I never pick the playoffs because there are too few games to leverage any statistical advantages. Plus, the betting lines on post season games are usually pretty accurate.

But if I were going to bet, well… Right now on Bodog you can get Washington +3.5 and New York Giants +3. I would be very tempted to take underdogs in the crapshoot conference.

So ends our regular weekly columns for the season. As is my tradition, I will be simply enjoying the playoff games and be back with a pre-Super Bowl column around the end of the month. I reserve the right to punch out a special edition, however, in case something totally unimaginable happens.

Like the Pats lose.

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About David Mazzotta

  • david mazzotta

    No sooner did I suggest that picking anyone other than the Pats to win is a clear indication of insanity, than Bill Barnwell over at Football Outsiders actually discovered a metric that not only projects the Colts as the favorites, but puts New England second to last (only ahead of the Giants).

    Even he says he wouldn’t put money on it, but it’s a fascinating read if you’re a football stats geek.

  • CallmeMaddy

    I am sad to say my Steelers are out of the playoffs.

    I see you can’t spell Ben’s name either. Sorry about your Browns. I really mean it too. We had a good rivalry going. I would have loved to play Cleveland in the Playoffs.

    You are probably right about the Patriots. They probably will win. It sucks. I am rooting for the Colts (AFC) or the Packers (NFC).

    Or pretty much anyone besides the Patriots.

    Hate them…

    Nice article.

  • nicolas

    i still cant help but think cam cameron basically got fired for not cleaning up the shitstorm saban left behind, which is rather unfair if true.

  • david mazzotta

    nicolas – I think that’s partially true. On the other hand, it’s not like Saban was handed a good setup and ruined it.

    There’s something truly rotten in Miami and it has been that way for a while, going back to when Dan Marino bailed on the GM position after a few days. What did he see there?

    There have been so many bad decisions — Culpepper over Brees, Tedd Ginn in the first round, Joey Porter. Lunatics have been running the asylum and even though some people are going to get the shaft, I don’t think Parcells has any other option but to pretty much empty the place and start over.