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The Lunacy of NFL Predictions From Small Sample Sizes

Gregg Easterbrook, who writes a column called Tuesday Morning Quarterback for ESPN, once said, "torture statistics and they will confess to anything."  But my favorite commentary on how dangerous statistics can be is from someone named Des McHale, who stated that "the average human has one breast and one testicle."

The problems with statistical analysis and the basing of predictions on them are augmented further the smaller the sample size gets.  Take, for instance, my mostest favoritest writer ever! (that was sarcasm, for those who wouldn't know it from their foot), Pete Prisco, who claimed today that defense no longer wins championships -- based on the "fact" that the two best teams in the NFL right now rank numbers 30 and 31 in total defense.  Those would be the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers.

Here's the problem, though: the advantages of a high-powered offense diminish as a season wears on.  Players are in their peak physical shape through the first quarter of a season, but the constant wear and tear on their bodies cause performances to drop with each game played.  That effect is augmented by the fact that the game slows down as temperatures drop, particularly for teams that play home games in a dome.  Road trips, particularly to northern stadiums, are harder on teams that play half or more of their games in a climate-controlled setting.

Granted, in this case the two teams atop the non-scientific rankings are cold-weather teams.  But it doesn't mean that they won't slow down.

Also consider the simple fact that the four teams that the Packers and the Patriots have faced have two things in common: they have pretty good offenses, and/or pretty bad defenses (exception: New Orleans).  All four offenses are in the top 10, and three of the defenses are in the bottom half.  That means a lot of scoring and a lot of throwing just to keep up or stay ahead.  It speaks little to what will ultimately decide the end result for either team when February rolls around.

Contrast that statement with the next five teams on Prisco's rankings: The Jets, Texans, Lions, Chargers and Ravens.  Mark my words when I say that the final outcome for each of those teams will be determined not by the quality of their offense, but of their defense.  For teams like the Jets and the Ravens, their strength is and has been in their defenses.  For the Texans and Chargers, their Achilles' heels have been their defenses.  And for the Lions, they have been refreshingly stout on defense this season, no doubt due to the development of second-year and all-world defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.  With a second-year quarterback who spent most of last season injured, they are likely to see a great degree of fluctuation in their offensive performances from week to week this year, and it will be the fate of their defense that carries them.

Two weeks is far too small a viewing window in which to see any real statistical trends.  For example, Mike Wallace is on pace to pick up more than 1,800 receiving yards after averaging better than 100 yards per game so far.  But to predict that he will actually achieve that is asinine because the number of variables that will be encountered between now and the end of the season is too great to allow for accurate forecasting.  Or, to use an example from outside football: if the local meteorologist in Houston, Texas claimed that the average temperature for the summer would be 78 degrees just because it was 78 degrees on June 21st, how long do you think he would last in that position?

Sadly, no one is going to fire Pete Prisco for being absurdly wrong.  Statistics have proven that.

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