Lock of the year

I recently read a book called Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini. It’s an old book — originally written in the early 80s I think — that details the psychological tendencies that allow us to be persuaded by others and by ourselves. I enjoy this sort of book because (1) I find the human mind fascinating and (2) I like to be aware of my own inherent psychological tendencies so that I might have a better chance to be aware of them and override them when appropriate. It can be quite eye-opening at times to realize how powerful these things are, even when we consciously try to override them.

One of these nasty little buggers is the cause of my current belief that the Seahawks are going to win the Super Bowl by three or four touchdowns. I don’t remember if it has a name, but the psychological tendency that has me in its grip is the desire for self-consistency.

The story starts on the Monday following the conference championship games. Aside from J.C. and I, there are approximately two people in this quiet little community who enjoy football. One of them has an office a few doors down from mine. That Monday, this guy came in and started claiming that the Steelers were going to win by 17 at least. At that point, I had no sense of who I thought would win, but my intuition told me that the two teams seemed very evenly matched. I simply pointed out that, while the Steelers had indeed had a very impressive playoff run, the Seahawks had too. He would have none of it. The Seahawks hadn’t beaten anyone, the Steelers were hot, the Steelers D was going to easily shut down Alexander, Roethlisberger is the chosen one, the whole bit. And this guy is not a Steeler fan. Far from it. During the ten-minute conversation that ensued, I made no effort to downplay the Steelers’ achievements. But I found myself repeatedly noting that the Seahawks were a very formidable squad in their own right.

Back to psychology. From a persuasion standpoint, there is something powerful about the physical act of expressing an opinion in voice or in writing. Once you make a statement, you’re on record. You have made it clear to other people, and to yourself, what you believe. Once that’s done, it’s tough to undo. Most humans want to think of themselves as consistent. I had just spent 10 solid minutes putting myself on record as being a Seahawk backer. When it started, I thought I was just playing devil’s advocate. But the longer it went on, the worse it got. By the end, I was a Seahawk backer.

That conversation formed the foundation for my belief that the Seahawks are an ubeatable juggernaut. But that’s a pretty shaky foundation — like three legs of a table. My desire for self-consistency had much more work to do. And work it did. From that point forward, everything I read, every stat I looked at, every bit of evidence I examimed was subconsciously run through a pro-Seahawk filter and came out the other side blue and green. All these bits of evidence formed the fourth leg of the table, then a fifth, sixth, seventh, and eigth, and several metal support braces. By the time it was over, you could have sawed off the original foundation — the original three legs — and I would still be a Seahawk backer.

All this happened, mind you, within about a 24-hour span a couple of weeks ago, and within three weeks of reading a book about how psychological tendencies can mislead us. I know I’m being duped. And yet right now, I truly believe — I truly believe — that the Seahawks are going to win this game.

Now that you have been sufficiently warned not to listen to me, I’ll briefly outline the case for putting your hard-earned on Seattle.

First let me embark on a brief tangent about markets. I am not fully informed on all the literature, but my understanding is that people who have studied it seriously have come to the conclusion that the NFL gambling market is an efficient one. This certainly matches with my intuition. Because lines are set to get equal action on both sides, many people believe — and I used to believe — that you don’t have to be smarter than the bookmakers. You just have to be smarter than the general public. When people hear “general public,” they get a mental image of their old fraternity buddy phoning in idiotic bets to his bookie at the last minute. But it’s not that general public that you have to outsmart. It’s a weighted average of the general public, weighted according to how much money they’re willing to bet. Your buddy’s $50 doesn’t move the line. It’s the big money that sets the line. And the big money knows what it’s doing.

I’ve heard many times this week that, since there are many more Steeler fans than Seahawk fans, the line is artificially tilted toward the Steelers, making Seattle the smart play. If this kind of thinking were true in general, then the Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders, and Fighting Irish would have significantly below .500 records against the spread over long periods of time. But they don’t. So I generally don’t put any stock in this argument.

However, this may be a special case. It’s the Super Bowl. Your buddy’s $50 doesn’t set the line on a week 9 Browns-Texans game, but the collection of people who bet on the Super Bowl is not the same as the collection of people who bet on that Cleveland-Houston tilt. It’s possible, just possible, that, while serious bettors set lines during the regular season, casual bettors set lines during the Super Bowl. In that case, the line probably would be tilted toward the Pittsburgh side. So it’s possible that, if you bet on Seattle, you’re getting a few free points. Or, more importantly, you’re getting better odds on the money line.

Still, better odds don’t help unless you the Seahawks actually win. Why do I think that’s going to happen?

It’s an argument Mr. Occam would approve of. Since 1990, the team with the better record is 8-2 in Super Bowls. The team with the better points scored vs. points allowed margin is 13-2. Generally speaking, the better team wins the Super Bowl.

So the argument for Pittsburgh must boil down to the fact that, despite the records, Pittsburgh is the better team. And that argument can be broken down into two sub-arguments: (1) Seattle played a very weak schedule, so their record is not indicative of their strength, (2) Pittsburgh is very hot and is thus better right now than their seasonal record suggests. This second one is often tied to the argument that PittsburghWithBigBenHealthy is a better team than PittsburghWithBigBenHurt, and thus the PittsburghWithBigBenHurt games should be ignored.

Both these arguments have some merit.

Seattle’s opponents’ winning percentage (after removing the games against the Seahawks) was .446, the lowest figure in the league. It is worth noting that, while they did have the weakest schedule in the NFL this year, .446 is by no means a historically low figure. In fact, three of the last four Super Bowl teams with weaker schedules — the 2000 Ravens, the 1999 Rams, and the 1992 Cowboys — won their big games. While Pittsburgh did play a tougher regular season schedule, they were 2-4 against playoff teams during the regular season. I don’t see why losing to good teams is more impressive than beating bad teams.

But then we come to Pittsburgh’s playoff run. It’s unclear how impressive the win over the Kitna-led Bengal team is. It’s unclear what to make of a Colt team that hadn’t played a good game in a month prior to facing Pittsburgh. The win at Denver was unquestionably impressive. And I also have to grant that, whatever you may think of a Palmerless Bengal team or a Colt team that seemed to be in a funk, the playoff run as a whole has to be considered pretty impressive. I don’t dispute that.

But before Pittsburgh was the hottest team in the league, that honor belonged to Washington, who had won six in a row before falling at Seattle. Carolina had gone on the road and dismantled two of the NFC’s best teams before being absolutely destroyed by Seattle. Carolina may not be as good as Denver or Indianapolis, but Seattle’s game against the Panthers was as dominant a performance as we saw in the 2005 playoffs. For most of that game, Seattle had as many scores as Carolina had first downs. Yes, Pittsburgh is hot. So is Seattle.

And if you want to adjust Pittsburgh’s record because of Big Ben’s injury, you have to remember that one of Seattle’s best offensive players missed half the season, and also that their record is skewed by the give-up game they played against Green Bay in week 17.

I’ve got more arguments for Seattle, but I’m trying to keep it simple and this post is almost unreadably long already, so I’ll cut it here.

It is to be understood that Lock of the Year should be interpreted in the sense of Smooth Jimmy Apollo: when you’re right 53% of the time, you’re wrong 47% of the time. It is also to be understood that when you pick one game per year, it’s necessarily got to be your Lock of the Year (either that or your Shoe-In of the Year). With those caveats, I offer you my Lock of the Year: the Seattle Seahawks straight up. Play it with confidence.

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