Seattle Seahawks (14-4) vs. New England Patriots (14-4) at Arizona
Well, 266 games have come down to this. Two teams left standing at the end of 5 months, competing for the right to call themselves one of 49 Super Bowl champions all-time. Purely from a narrative’s perspective, this game couldn’t be better for the NFL. Not only would most agree these were the NFL’s two best teams this season, but they’re the two closest things we’ve had to a dynasty in the NFL in the new millennium. The Patriots won 3 times in 4 seasons from 2001-2004, but haven’t won a Super Bowl since, despite making another 6 AFC Championships and 3 Super Bowls (including this year) in the 10 years stretch from 2005-2014. The Seahawks won last year and are looking to become the first team since the 2003-2004 Patriots to repeat. Doing so would effectively be a passing of the torch in the NFL and establish a new NFL dynasty, if you buy all that.
Of course, we haven’t really been talking about any of that all that much, as the two biggest stories involving this game have been the Deflategate Scandal and the Marshawn Lynch doesn’t like talking to the media and wears non-NFL approved hats scandal. With the Deflategate scandal, there is really only one, maybe two parties that know what happened. The Patriots obviously know what they did or did not know and you can make an argument that the NFL knows what they did or did not do and are waiting for until after the Super Bowl to tell us, so as not to distract from the game.
The parties that don’t know what happened are pretty much everyone else and they’re the ones who have been doing all the talking over the past two weeks. The Patriots laid out their side of the story and the NFL has made some generic comments on their ongoing investigation, but other than that, everything that’s being said on the matter is being said by people who don’t know what happened and can’t possibly know what happened better than the NFL or the Patriots, on either side of the argument.
Here’s what we do know. 11 of the 12 balls the Patriots used in the first half were measured at the end of the half and did not have enough air in them, and at least one of them was 2 PSIs lower than the required amount. We don’t know how they got that way or what the refs measured the balls to be before the game or if the refs even measured the balls. We know Tom Brady, like every quarterback in the NFL, likes his footballs a certain way. We can presume that he likes them a little lighter, though some quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers specifically) enjoy them a little heavier. It seems to be more of a personal preference thing than a “having the balls this way definitely gives you an advantage” thing.
We know the balls the Patriots used in the 2nd half (when they outscored the Colts 28-0) were properly inflated. We know the balls the Colts used (when the Patriots held them to 209 yards for the game and 12 of 33 passing) were properly inflated. We don’t know how Andrew Luck likes his footballs, what those footballs were measured at before the game, or if those footballs were even measured before the game. We know that cold wet air can affect the pressure of a football, though the scientific community seems to be split on whether or not that could be the sole cause of the deflation. We know it was cold and rainy in Foxboro that night. Belichick says he spent 3 days researching the topic and concluded that the weather was the cause. Some scientists have refuted that claim, but some have said it’s plausible. The split in the scientific community on the matter hasn’t stopped random Joe Schmo from Twitter from claiming to be an expert on the matter, but that’s never stopped anyone before.
We know that multiple former and current NFL players have come out and said that everyone adjusts the footballs to their liking and not necessarily always within the rules of the NFL. There have also been former and current players saying that this is blatant cheating and that Brady and Belichick should be punished severely, but there have been enough former players say that everyone does this to suggest that, while probably not everyone does this, this does happen more than we would have thought 2 weeks ago.
We can easily assume that the Patriots would have beaten the Colts in the AFC Championship regardless of what balls they were using. Multiple Colts players have come out and said this and the margin of victory in that game was so massive that it’s easy to agree with them. It seems naïve to suggest that if the Patriots did in fact deflate the balls in the AFC Championship that it was the first time they had done that. We can’t easily assume that the Patriots would definitely have even been in that game regardless of whether or not they were deflating the footballs. We know this is against the NFL’s rules and that, by definition, if the Patriots are found guilty of this, it was cheating and they should be punished.
But, at the end of the day, we don’t know how the balls got that way. We don’t know if they were properly checked by the refs and if they weren’t, that’s on them. If a cornerback or an offensive lineman blatantly holds a player on every play, but it’s never called by the refs, that’s not cheating. That’s taking advantage of a ref who is bad at his job. This would be the same thing, if that is, in fact, what happened. At some point, we’ll get an explanation from the NFL and punishment will be handed down if the NFL deems it necessary.
The NFL doesn’t need to prove anything to punish the Patriots. As they’ve shown in the past, they kind of make this up as they go along when it comes to discipline. Innocent until proven guilty is generally a good idea though and ultimately I think, barring a confession, the NFL is going to have a hard time proving anything here. When an explanation comes out and when and if punishment is handed down, we can evaluate that based off of the explanation and any other facts we know. The NFL has certainly shown incompetence in the past and deserves to have their authority questioned in controversies they’re involved in, but let’s wait until the facts and explanations come out. Jumping the gun and pretending like you know what you’re talking about might be fun and it’s both easy and a good way to fill time in the 24-hour news cycle and the 24-hour social media cycle, but ultimately it can end with people looking stupid for jumping the gun.
On top of that, regardless of the outcome of this whole mess, I think it’s going to look like much ado about nothing. Enough former players have come out and said that either everyone does this or that it doesn’t make a huge difference to suggest that. 5-10 years from now, when we’re looking back at the Brady/Belichick era, it will be hard to have the discussion without talking about some of the gray areas and lines they might have crossed, whether it’s this situation or when they taped opponent’s public practices after the league told them not to. But anyone trying to convince you that the Patriots’ penchant for getting themselves into situations like this is the whole reason behind their success doesn’t understand how the sport works.
The NFL will also have to re-evaluate their ball inflation policies and processes this off-season, even if they don’t ultimately make any changes. Should they continue to allow teams to bring their own balls? Should they better enforce the rules and make sure that the balls are always inflated properly, not just at the beginning of the game, but in between quarters and during timeouts? Should they increase the range of acceptable PSIs and just let quarterbacks throw the type of ball they’re best comfortable with, to a reasonable extent? These are questions they’ll have to discuss.
Switching to the controversy on the other side to the Marshawn Lynch situation, we have a situation that we know has no impact on what happens on the field, but that ultimately could result in a bigger punishment. Some people have said that’s hypocritically, but it comes down to provability. It’s hard to prove that the Patriots intentionally deflated the footballs after they were approved by the NFL. It’s much easier to prove that Marshawn Lynch was wearing a non-NFL approved hat promoting his brand. That’s a clear rules violation. Brian Urlacher was fined 100K for doing it a few years ago. Lynch’s Beast Mode hats are apparently selling very well since he wore them during media sessions this week so it could end up still being profitable for Lynch, but it does seem like the man who said “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” will end up getting fined anyway.
Lynch is no stranger to getting fined, getting fined on multiple occasions this season for everything from not talking to the media to grabbing his dick in celebration of a touchdown. Some say this isn’t fair, but Lynch signed a contract with the NFL (and a very rich contract at that) and, under the terms of that contract, he can be fined for certain things and he has been. I don’t dislike Lynch. I actually find him pretty entertaining, but violating a contract results in fines. That’s how that works. Ultimately, it’s his decision to make. He knows the consequences. If he doesn’t like the NFL’s rules, he can pay the fines and if he doesn’t like paying the fines, he can retire (which it sounds like he might if the Seahawks win this game).
The other side of the debate from the “this is unfair!” crowd seems to be the “Lynch is a thug!” crowd. I think this is equally flawed, considering none of people know Lynch. It ties in with another recent NFL controversy, which is Josh Gordon’s newly minted season long suspension for 2015. As the terms of his DUI arrest bargain, Gordon could be tested for alcohol and a failed alcohol test would result in a yearlong suspension, as a result of his previous history of failed substance abuse tests. He failed a test after the season and will now be suspended for 2015.
This has elicited responses that have ranged from feeling sorry for Gordon and concerned for his future to feeling angry at Gordon for being a negative role model and wasting his talent. As is the case with the people criticizing Lynch or speculating on Deflategate, these responses have all come from people who have never met Gordon. Gordon wrote one of the best articles I’ve read in a while on the topic this week, calling out the media for pretending to know who he is.
Gordon also explained his side of the story, saying that his original failed test for codeine was as a result of not clearing a medication with the league, that his failed test for marijuana was as a result of secondhand smoke, and that his failed test for alcohol was as a result of not understanding the terms of his alcohol ban. I don’t know if those explanations are all legitimate. They make some sense, especially considering the THC count in Gordon’s failed marijuana test was at 16 and the NFL’s limit of 15 is significantly lower than even the military’s (which is at 50). But it’s possible that Gordon is a waste of talent and a failure and a thug and all that. We simply don’t know. And we shouldn’t talk about what we don’t know. I care what Gordon can do on the field, which, for 2015 at least, is nothing.
And now for things that can happen on the field in this game. As I mentioned, the football related narratives in this game are pretty juicy. If you said these were the best two teams in the NFL this season, no one would look at you funny and if you had an alternative opinion, they might look at you funny. In terms of schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains, at least in the regular season, I had the Seahawks and the Patriots as the 2nd and 3rd best teams, both behind the Broncos.
However, while the Broncos struggled down the stretch as Peyton Manning was playing hurt, both of these two teams got significantly better as the season went on. In terms of schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains over the final 8 weeks of the regular season, these two teams were 1 and 2. Seattle was #1, but, if you take out the week 17 game where the Patriots didn’t really try, the Patriots become #1. If you exclude the Patriots slow start to the season (up until week 4) and that week 17 game, the Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% this regular season, as opposed to 71.51% for their opponents. Meanwhile, in a 10 game stretch from week 8 to week 17, the Seahawks moved the chains at a 75.08% rate, as opposed to 64.48% for their opponents. At their best, both of these two teams have been fantastic and both have been at their best down the stretch.
In the playoffs, both teams have had one close call on the scoreboard and one blowout. The Patriots beat the Ravens 35-31, moving the chains at an 85.00% rate, as opposed to 82.05% for the Ravens in a game that literally could have gone either way. Against the Colts, it was a definitive victory, as the Patriots moved the chains at an 87.18% rate, as opposed to 66.67% for the Colts. For the Seahawks, they beat the Panthers 31-17 in a game that was closer than the final score suggested. The Seahawks moved the chains at a 79.17% rate, as opposed to 74.19% for the Panthers and, if it wasn’t for a 90-yard pick six, the final score of that game could have been a lot different.
However, while fluky turnovers can give, they can also take away, which was the case against Green Bay for the Seahawks, as they turned it over 5 times. Winning a game despite losing the turnover margin by 3 is very hard (teams with -3 turnover margins win about 11.7% of the time) and very impressive, even if it took an onside kick recovery and overtime to pull it off. The Seahawks moved the chains at a 70.59% rate in that game, as opposed to 62.50% for the Packers. While the scoreboard showed it to be a miraculous comeback, the fact of the matter is the Seahawks were the better team that day, particularly dominating on the defensive side of the ball.
At the end of the day, this is a very tough game to pick. Both teams are evenly matched (as is the line at New England -1) and both teams are going to be as motivated as can be, as it’s the Super Bowl. I’m taking the Patriots because of one trend: Tom Brady is 46-19 ATS in his career as an underdog or a favorite of fewer than 3 points. If this was a regular game, this would be a low or no confidence pick, but I’m moving it up to medium because I want to wager on this one.
New England Patriots 20 Seattle Seahawks 17
Pick against the spread: New England -1