What happens if the Broncos and Manning don’t win?

I've never been much of a fanboy.  Even when the Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 90s, I didn't cry, get a tattoo, or walk out into the night and discharge any weapons.  Call it what you will. Perhaps I'd gotten it out of my system as a young kid when I'd get into fistfights with Steelers fans; perhaps I like to watch the human drama from the safety of my parents' basement; perhaps the idea of bringing down goalposts stirs fears of being trampled at a Slaughter concert as a teenager.  Who knows.

I'd rather like to think part of it is due to the fact that I'm just comfortable with randomness, which brings me to the real topic of this post (despite my inclination to talk spandex and hairspray): the Broncos could lose on Saturday, and after a little disappointment and complaining, I'll get over it--without shedding my orange and blue blood.   

That's because despite the Broncos being the far superior team, sometimes stuff just happens.  That doesn't mean that I think it will, mind you, but in a one-game sample, anything goes.

I have on my shelf a book that I highly recommend if you ever have the time, and although I've referenced it before, it's worth bringing up again.  It's called The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow.  In the book, Mlodinow writes:

For instance, if one team is good enough to warrant beating another in 55% of its games, the weaker team will nevertheless win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10.  And if the superior team could beat its opponent, on average, 2 out of 3 times they meet, the inferior team will still win a 7-game series about once every 5 match-ups.  There is really no way for a sports league to change this.  In the lopsided 2/3-probability case, for example, you’d have to play a series consisting of at minimum the best of 23 games to determine the winner with what is called statistical significance, meaning the weaker team would be crowned champion 5 percent or less of the time.  And in the case of one team’s having only a 55-45 edge, the shortest significant “world series” would be the best of 269 games, a tedious endeavor indeed! So sports playoff series can be fun and exciting, but being crowned “world champion” is not a reliable indication that a team is actually the best one.

You can probably guess where I'm going with this, but first, let's talk about Peyton Manning in the context of the quote.  Manning (9-10 in the playoffs) gets criticized frequently because of his playoff record, while Tom Brady (16-6 in the playoffs) gets routinely praised.  Such talk is simple cognitive bias (confirmation bias, really): one interprets a result after the fact in a way that fits a particular narrative at the expense of other possibilities.

In this case, both Brady and Manning's sample sizes are just too small to rule out a whole plethora of possibilities for their respective records--injuries, defense, special teams, turnovers, and yes, complete random events like fumble recoveries.  Even if the quarterback position is the most important on the field, it still can escape the faint clutches of random chance (tip drill anyone?).

Mlodinow provides plenty of real world examples that don't relate to football:

The confirmation bias has many unfortunate consequences in the real world.  When a teacher initially believes that one student is smarter than another, he selectively focuses on evidence that tends to confirm the hypothesis.  When an employer interviews a prospective candidate, the employer typically forms a quick first impression and spends the rest of the interview seeking information that supports it...the human brain has evolved to be very effective at pattern recognition, but as the confirmation bias shows, we are focused on finding and confirming patterns rather than minimizing our false conclusions.

In football, we take our pattern recognition and put it into overdrive.  Last year we saw this with the Denver Broncos.  How were the Broncos able to win six games in a row?  Everyone wanted to find a pattern; further, everyone was quick with an explanation, other than the most likely: randomness can happen.  Teams go on winning streaks frequently (as we've seen this year), just as I can flip a coin and have it come up "heads" ten times in a row, even if there's a 50/50 chance that my next throw will result in a "tails."

If I apply some confirmation bias to the situation, one might say I have some skill in flipping a coin.  One might even bring higher authorities into the equation.  But the truth remains the same--my sample space, as they say, is tiny.  I might very well have some skill in flipping coins (although the dice would have to be loaded), just as the Broncos might have been a damn fine team last year.  But a six-game winning streak didn't necessarily make it so.

This brings me back to Saturday's game.  According to our good buddy (and Ravens fan) Brian Burke, the Broncos have a 78% likelihood of winning on Saturday.  This is the highest of all probabilities going into the weekend.  Yet even under this rosy scenario, the Ravens are (in theory, at least) going to win 22 times out of 100.  If it happens (which it won't, because I really hate Terrell Suggs), it's not going to mean the Broncos weren't the best team.  It might mean Peyton Manning had a tipped interception returned for a touchdown, or the Broncos missed an extra point and two chip-shot field goals, or Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin got the flu before the game--you get the drift.  It will also mean the teams didn't have a chance to play a 20-game series.

If the Broncos lose, of course I'll be disappointed.  Of course I'll go off.  It's my part of my IAOFM job description.  Yet I'll also recognize that over the larger sample size (16 games, which is still rather small), the Denver Broncos were indeed the best team in football.  Further, over the even larger sample size--a decade or more certainly qualifies--Peyton Manning is already what John Elway wants him to be: the greatest quarterback of all time.

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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