Assume you are a Martian, wholly unfamiliar with the NFL. You crash landed last weekend in the Mojave Desert, just twenty miles from Las Vegas. You assess the damage and realize that without human assistance in fixing your space ship, there is no way you will get back to Mars. Harrah’s Entertainment, proprietor of the famous Race & Sports Book at Caesar’s Palace, sees your plight as a tremendous marketing opportunity. If you successfully guess the four winners of the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, Harrah’s will provide you with a brand new intergalactic-grade flying saucer—straight out of Area 51. But if you fail to properly identify the four victors, you instead will be turned over to Area 51 for God only knows what kind of scientific examinations.
Predicting who will win in professional football is easy, right?
Martians don’t get the NFL Network. Upon seeing your first highlights of the New England Patriots, you openly wonder whether the hooded shroud of Bill Belichick provides him with some sort of foreign technological advancement, or if it is merely just a fashion faux pa. You don’t even know Tom Brady from Wayne Brady. But you do know one thing: logic.
Presumably, the better teams will be favored against inferior teams. And in all likelihood, you assume that the favored, better teams will defeat the underdog, inferior teams. Without enough time and sophistication to more thoroughly analyze your Divisional Round playoff choices, you risk your probable livelihood on the New England Patriots over the Indianapolis Colts; the Denver Broncos over the San Diego Chargers; the Seattle Seahawks over the New Orleans Saints; and the San Francisco 49ers over the Carolina Panthers.
You like your picks. Fellow gamblers—the ones unafraid of approaching a space alien, anyways—are quick tell you that your picks make sense. The 49ers finished second in a loaded division featuring three teams over .500 and a combined 20 more wins than losses. Meanwhile, their opponent, the Panthers, played all year in a terrible division that in total lost two more games than it won. In similar fashion, the favorite 12-win Patriots are going against an 11-win Indianapolis Colts team lucky enough to get six easy wins throughout the season against the two worst teams in football—the Houston Texans and the Jacksonville Jaguars—and an overachieving yet abysmal Tennessee Titans team. Even your extra-terrestrial self knew to laugh when you learned that the 13-win Broncos were matched up against a nine win Chargers team that almost missed the playoffs due to nearly losing to the Kansas City Chiefs’ bench during Week 17. And the Seattle Seahawks, the one team that finished higher than the 49ers in the NFC West, are playing the New Orleans Saints, a team that finished lower than the Panthers in the NFC South. If the 49ers were going to beat the Panthers, then it only made sense that the Seahawks would defeat the Saints.
You are on cloud nine. Logic is in your favor, and you can almost feel that rusting iron soil of your home world between your tentacles and feelers. But then you run into a less optimistic gambler, a cigar-toting bearded man with a figure that has seen several hundred too many all-you-can-eat Las Vegas buffets. And he tells you that it has been over ten years since all four favorites in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs have advanced during the same year. The eyelid to your one large eyeball begins to flutter anxiously. You remember that logic is not foolproof. And your happy visions of Martian soil are replaced with thoughts of a cold Area 51 operating table and a series of indescribable probes autopsying your body.
There would be no autopsy. Nor would there be any probing. The favored Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos, and Patriots each defeated their respective underdog opponent, and logic prevailed. You were given that new space ship by Harrah’s, and you have since returned to Mars.
The concept of picking the favorites has a curious undertone to it. Some consider it too easy. Others find rolling with the favorites too good to be true. Many are instead drawn to the underdog story and the allure of a proverbial David versus Goliath outcome. Then there are the gamblers who simply prefer the underdogs due to the favorable money line payouts and seemingly generous against-the-spread opportunities.
Potential negative connotations aside, in a year where the NFL Conference Title games feature such balanced match ups, it is probably best just to take the favorites as opposed to trying to be the smartest guy in the room. Consider the apparent evenness of the teams playing in the AFC and NFC Championship games.
The San Francisco 49ers at the Seattle Seahawks. Jim Harbaugh versus Pete Carroll: two of the premiere coaches in football who just so happen to both respect and hate one another. Colin Kaepernick versus Russell Wilson: with apologies to Andrew Luck and his burgeoning interception proclivity, arguably the two most talented young quarterbacks in the NFL today—poised to battle one another for the next decade. A battle of two incredibly potent yet often marginalized offenses. A contest between two elite and downright terrifying defenses—with names like Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, and NaVorro Bowman going against guys like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Cliff Avril shutting down opposing offenses on a game-by-game basis.
Likewise, the New England Patriots at the Denver Broncos. Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning: a pantheonic battle of all-time great quarterbacks. With players like Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Ryan Clady, and Von Miller relegated to the sidelines, the Patriots versus the Broncos becomes a contest between two metaphorically wounded animals. A team looking to run the ball down the other’s throat versus a team looking to dominate via accurate passing and game breaking yards after the catch totals. Two elite coaches, Bill Belichick versus John Fox: the former looking to pad an already legendary resume and the latter chasing another shot at that elusive Super Bowl Victory. Finally, two defenses that at times are big play generators and at other times can best be described as “porous.”
It is both fair and easy to craft a narrative marketing the NFC and AFC Championship games as even battles with no obvious victor to be predicted. But such a narrative would be largely qualitative analyses masquerading in terms of quantitative analytics.
The Seattle Seahawks, with the help of The 12th Man, were 7-1 at home during the 2013 season; the San Francisco 49ers, although an impressive road team, were 6-2 on the road. Advantage Seattle. The USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin and his renowned computer rankings list Seattle as the best team in the NFL; San Francisco is ranked second. Again, advantage Seahawks. The Seattle defense only gave up an average of 14.4 points per game in 2013; the 49ers allowed 17 a game. Seattle again gets the nod. Football Outsiders lists Seattle first in weighted DVOA; San Francisco is fourth. The Edge goes to the Seahawks. The Seattle Offensive averaged 26.1 points per game this season; the 49ers 25.4. Once again, the Seahawks are slightly better. At the time of filing this article, Vegas pegged Seattle as a 3.5 point favorite at home over the 49ers.
The Denver Broncos, like the Seahawks, were 7-1 at home in 2013; the Patriots were just 4-4 on the road. Big advantage Denver. The Broncos are third in the aforementioned Sagarin Ratings; New England is sixth. Advantage Broncos. The Denver defense gave up 24.9 points per game this season; meanwhile, the Patriots gave up just 21.1. The nod goes to New England defensively. In turn, Football Outsiders lists Denver second in weighted DVOA; the Patriots are fifth. But offensively—and likely canceling out any possible Patriots defensive advantage—the Broncos put up 37.9 points per game in 2013; New England averaged just 27.8, admittedly still good for third in the NFL. Huge advantage, Broncos. At the time of filing this piece, Vegas penned Denver as a 5.5 point favorite at home over New England.
On November 6, 2012, voters passed Washington Initiative 502 and Colorado Amendment 64—legalizing certain elements of recreational marijuana use in the states of Washington and Colorado, respectively. Incidentally, the NFC Conference title game favorite Seattle Seahawks hail from Washington, while the AFC favorite Denver Broncos represent Colorado.
If you’re having trouble picking which teams will make it to the Super Bowl, there is no need to try to outthink the room. The Seattle Seahawks are definitively better than the San Francisco 49ers, albeit by a slender margin, and the Denver Broncos are objectively better than the New England Patriots, possibly by a slightly-wider margin. Can upsets happen? Absolutely! But bear in mind that all four favorites won in the divisional round of the playoffs.
If you were an alien forced to correctly choose which teams will win on Sunday or else suffer horrific consequences, would you get cute and trust in a LaMichael James runback here and a LeGarrette Blount bruising 15-yard carry there, or would you take your chances with the favorites? Personally, with a possible probing on the line, I am going to war with Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning every day of the week.
Regardless of your prediction, do not fall into the quasi-racist trap of associating playoff success with pot legalizations. Rest assured, this will be a major narrative if the Seahawks or Broncos win this weekend. And know that many a fan and writer will either directly or otherwise sloppily imply that a bunch of African American football players [66% of the league] are excelling due to being able to sit around smoking weed all day.
Whatever you do, don’t do that.