Sunday, February 1, 2009

Day of Reckoning

In honor of it being Super Bowl Sunday, I thought I'd take a look back at the few articles concerning NFL predictions that were posted here at this past season.

How well did everyone do? Let's find out!

First off, I went after Michael Lombardi for his three stats that will define the Super Bowl teams. Lombardi's first prediction:

I can promise you with a 99.0 percent degree of certainty that the final four teams in the playoffs will be ranked in the top eight of point differential in the first half.

This year's final four playoff teams were Philadelphia, Arizona, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. I responded to Lombardi's prediction at the time by showing that this prediction was wrong for the 2007 season. Also, why would first half scoring differential be more important than overall scoring differential? I then predicted that the Super Bowl participants would be in the top eight of overall scoring differential.

In 2008, Philadelphia (at #2, +82 in points) and Baltimore (#6, +58) were in the top eight in first half scoring differential. Pittsburgh was tied for 11th (+34), while Arizona was...28th (-53!!!). So Lombardi's first prediction--which he promised with "99.0 percent" certainty--was only 50% accurate.

For the overall scoring differential, Baltimore (tied for #1, +141), Philadelphia (#4, +127), and Pittsburgh (#5, +124) all ended up in the top eight. Arizona was 18th (+1). My "prediction"--that the two Super Bowl teams would be in the top eight--was 1 for 2, also 50% (if I had phrased my prediction like Lombardi had--saying that the final four teams would be in the top eight--I would have had that pick 75% accurate).

In any case, I think this supports my original point that first-half scoring differential is no more a meaningful predictor of playoff success than overall scoring differential. Arizona is a good case in point--the Cardinals were blown out in the first half of a couple of their games this season, which made their first-half scoring differential much worse than their overall scoring differential.

Let's see if Lombardi fared any better for his second can't miss Super Bowl prediction:

Throw the ball in the first half -- often

Lombardi's rationale here is that teams that establish the passing game in the first half are more likely to score in the first half, and therefore have a higher first-half scoring differential. Besides the obvious issue of Lombardi's second prediction being related to his first, my problem with his assertion is that it doesn't really tell you anything. Using 2007 statistics (since the predictions were made at the beginning of this season), 29 of 32 teams passed more than ran in the first half, so there's really no meat to his prediction.

Finding 2008 statistics regarding running/passing plays by half is like trying to find someone who still thinks Carrot Top is funny. After a couple hours of searching the Internet, the best I could compile were season totals for each team. Seven teams (out of 32) ran the ball more than they passed this season:

Atlanta (56% run/44% pass)
NY Giants (51%/49%)
Carolina (55%/45%)
Baltimore (58%/42%)
Minnesota (53%/47%)
Tennessee (53%/47%)
Oakland (52%/48%)

An interesting list. Discounting Oakland, the other six teams are all playoff teams, including Baltimore, who made it to the AFC Championship game running the ball 58% of the time. The remaining six playoff teams:

Indianapolis (39% run/61% pass)
Miami (48%/52%)
Whale's Vagina (47%/53%)
Philadelphia (41%/59%)
Pittsburgh (48%/52%)
Arizona (35%/65%)

So of the Super Bowl teams, Arizona was pretty pass-wacky, while Pittsburgh was more balanced. However, the league average was 46% run/54% pass, so most of the playoff teams (9 out of 12) ran the ball more often than the league average. Again, it's hard to analyze this directly without the first half statistics, but based on game statistics, I don't think Lombardi's prediction was valid.

What about Lombardi's third "stat that will define winning teams"?

Seven yards per passing attempt

The two teams that find their way down to Tampa for the Super Bowl will have above a 7.25 average per attempt passing for the season.

As I noted in the original article, 11 out of 32 quarterbacks were able to accomplish that goal in 2007. This season, only 10 QBs were able to do it. As far as the two teams in Tampa for the Super Bowl, Arizona averaged 7.42 yards per attempt--Pittsburgh averaged 6.5 (if we go by quarterbacks, Arizona's Kurt Warner averaged 7.66 YPA and Ben Roethlisberger averaged 7.04 YPA. Since I don't know if Lombardi was referring to individual or team stats on this, I'll include both).

Bottom line--sorry Hans, wrong guess! Would you like to go for double jeopardy, where the scores can really change?

I think it's pretty easy to say that Lombardi went 0-for-3 on his predictions.

From the same post, I also made some predictions. How did I do?

The Super Bowl participants will each be in the top 8 in the NFL in scoring differential.

See above. 3-out-of-4 for the teams in the championship games; 1-of-2 for the Super Bowl. For the final four teams, better than Lombardi; for the Super Bowl itself, the same as Lombardi.

Each Super Bowl team will be in the top 14 in offensive yards per game.

Arizona=4th (365.8 yards per game). Pittsburgh=22nd (311.9 ypg). Another 50% success, though Pittsburgh was pretty far down on the list.

Each Super Bowl team will have jerseys that don't read "Kansas City Chiefs."

Nailed that one!!

The takeaway here is that I did just as well as an NFL "expert" in making picks based on arbitrary criteria. My point is not to say how great a job I did in making picks; rather, it's to show how ridiculous it is to make these kind of picks at all. Year after year pundits make their picks, and year after year most of the picks are flat out wrong. And no one goes back and tells them how wrong they are.

Next up, an October prediction Zinglebert made concerning the Colts and Titans and the AFC South race (in an article critiquing the one and only Bob Kravitz):

I’m going to put on my Nostradumbass hat on and predict that the law of averages catches up with the Titans and they will come into Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 17 with a 10-5 record and either the division title or a playoff berth on the line.

Tennessee was 13-2 coming in, and the game was meaningless because both the Colts and Titans had clinched all they could clinch. If the Colts had won one more game early in the season, perhaps the division title would have been decided in the regular season finale. Instead, it was a chance to see Jim Sorgi in action!

To be fair, I had my own bad Colts prediction:

I'll make a prediction now: if the Colts win 10 games, they are definitely in the playoffs.

The Colts went 12-4 and easily made the playoffs. However, New England went 11-5 and stayed home. Obviously, 10-6 wouldn't have been good enough to get in. So another bad pick by me.

Finally, I'll wrap up with this little nugget: some of us here at participate in our own prediction contest at the outset of each NFL season (we do this despite knowing how lousy our picks will be). We pick each of the division winners and wild cards, then take a shot at the playoffs. Zinglebert took the time to compare our picks to the "experts" at and to see how we did. Here is the result (correct picks are in white, incorrect picks in red):

Click on the picture to see it more clearly.

The column on the right is the total number of division winner/wild card picks that were correct. Although I'm proud of the fact that I got 6 out of the 12 possible picks correct, what I find more interesting is that of the 25 "experts" making picks, none had more than 5 picks correct. And absolutely NO ONE (including myself) had the Super Bowl matchup right, or even close (though I have to point out that both Dr. Z of and Mike Sando of had Philadelphia going to the Super Bowl, so at least those two writers had Philly advancing in the playoffs--unlike the rest of us. Those picks are denoted in grey in the picture).

So does my success this season make me an expert? Far from it. My point is that come next year, you have as much of a chance of picking the teams who will play in the Super Bowl as the people you read online or see on TV do. And unless you actually put your picks online, no one will hold you accountable if you pick poorly--just like no one holds accountable the "experts" who get all of their picks wrong year after year. You'll be in good company.

Since I've had soooo much success this season picking games, here's my prediction for this year's Super Bowl:

Arizona 33, Pittsburgh 31 (3 OT). The game will be decided on a safety with less than 2:00 to go in the third overtime.

Yeah, that could happen!

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