We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Daniel Engber
To: Seth Stevenson, Barry Petchesky
Seth, I loved your preview of Saturday's Patriots-Broncos matchup. As a New Yorker, there's nothing better than reading about "anxious Pats fans" searching for signs "of possible comfort" going into a game their team is virtually certain to win. There's really no way Belichick and Brady could lose to Tim Tebow at home (despite my fervent prayers for an upset), but at least you and your friends are suffering for now.
That's some bitter Jets-fan talk, of course, coming from someone who's trying to ignore the stabbed-in-the-quarterback scandal in his local papers. But I guess that's one of the advantages of being a home-team slut: I can push all that aside today and focus on my other great love, the New York Giants, and what will surely be the greatest game ever played in any sport in the history of the world.
If I sound crazy, it's only because I've been listening to New York sports-talk radio again, and doing it late at night as I'm falling asleep. This is how I used to consume sports media as a teenager, and guess what? The hypnagogic brainwashing effect of WFAN is just as strong today as it was 20 years ago: I doze off in a blur of facts and opinions, callers from Staten Island and analysts from Fox Sports, ex-players and ex-coaches and ex-referees and Victor Cruz.
As the week of blather has colonized my dreams, I've noticed a funny idea creeping across the landscape of Giants boosterism, until it's enveloped both callers and talk-show hosts alike. What started last Sunday, after New York's 24-2 victory over the Falcons, as an earnest optimism about this week's game has now been inflated into certainty. A few days ago, they—we, whatever—were saying that the Giants might actually have a chance this weekend, that we could maybe possibly eke out a win at Lambeau. It would take an A+ game from all our regulars, to be sure, and a sub-par performance by the Packers, but who knows?
Then the psychosis began to set in. First came the comparisons to 2007, when the Giants went on the road to beat Green Bay with pure mojo and a dangerous pass-rush. We've got Jason "as special as they come" Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck, a healthy Osi Umenyiora, and the return of Chase Blackburn—all of a sudden the Giants defense, which ranked 27th in the league this season, would be unstoppable. New York's ground game, too—ranked dead-last by the most recent accounting—looks like a major advantage in cold weather. And the insanity only built from there. Don't get me wrong, and forgive me for asking, I'll take my answer off the air, but do you think the Packers offensive coordinator's personal tragedy might have an impact on the game?
National sportswriters seemed to catch the bug, too—a chronic case of underestimating the overdog. A few started to frame the contest in terms of what the Packers had to do to win, instead of how badly they would have to screw up to lose. "The Packers must be strong under pressure," read a game headline at NFL.com. It was as if the analysts had talked themselves into being irrational doubters. Or maybe they're just victims of what behavioral economists call the "favorite-long-shot bias," which has bettors at the horse track throwing away money on would-be Seabiscuits. By week's end, picking Green Bay was starting to look like a #slatepitch: "It seems like the whole world thinks the Giants will upset the Packers this weekend," warned one writer.
It's easy enough to come up with the counterarguments. Too easy, in fact: Green Bay has won 13 straight at home, averaging 40 points per game. They're the best team in the league and the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl. Tackles Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga and wide receiver Greg Jennings are rested up and recovered for the game. And even after making their best effort at home in the beginning of December, the Giants still couldn't beat the Packers.
All of which led me to discover a simple fact that I hadn't noticed in years and years of watching sports: You can think your team will win a big game, or you can worry that it's going to lose—but it's close to impossible to keep your expectations anywhere in between.
So I'm not sure what difference it will make if I give my fellow anxious Giants fans the good news, something of possible comfort in the next 48 hours: According to our dialogue compatriot Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats, careful modeling of team efficiency numbers gives the Giants "a better shot than most" to beat Green Bay. That is to say, the Big Blue has a 42 percent chance to win the game.
I'm not sure where that fits in the spectrum of sports-talk insanity that runs from "They've got an outside shot" to "But can they beat the Saints?" To connect up Burke's numbers with the feelings of Giants fans everywhere we'd need to figure out some way of translating probabilities—and building a bridge between what the great 19th century mathematician Siméon-Denis Poisson called chance and raison de croire. Does a 42 percent chance of victory mean that we should feel good about Sunday's game or not? In the meantime, we're no more confused than the players themselves. Last Sunday, Pierre-Paul guaranteed a win at Lambeau. Then on Tuesday he corrected himself to say that the Giants "should" win. The day after that he explained that the Giants would win "if" they played like they were supposed to play.
What's my take? I'm feeling good. I mean, really—42 percent? That sounds winnable to me. It's absolutely a winnable game, no question about it.
Daniel Engber is a senior editor at Slate, and writes for the magazine about science, culture, and sports.