Thursday, November 29, 2012

NFL Picks Week Thirteen: So let's talk about that Giants-Packers game

Many of you (three or four) read about my emotional response to this season's Northwestern football campaign in one of my more depressing posts in a long while. It was so depressing, in fact, that it was almost more painful to write than it was to watch NU's debacle of a basketball game against Maryland later that night. Such is the case of being a Northwestern fan, but I am extremely fortunate in that the other football team with which I've cast my lot has had a remarkable habit in recent years of being, well, surprisingly dependable.

Sometimes.

Much has been made of the New York Giants and their annual November swoons, peculiar disappointments and then their remarkable ability to rise to the occasion. Of course, they haven't always risen to the occasion. Past seasons have seen them eliminated from postseason contention in stadium finales, lose win-and-in games on the road in blowout fashion and blow an essentially guaranteed division title in the most spectacular fashion I've ever seen anyone lose a game of anything ever. Those are pretty debilitating defeats, with that last one the first to spark and actual physical outrage from me in literally years. But considering the Giants have had a remarkable tendency to rise to the occasion when it wasn't expected of them -- something that has somehow won them two Super Bowls in the past five seasons, it's all the more baffling. It's almost as if the Giants become better when they face stiffer competition and worse when they don't.

So this past week, with the mighty Green Bay Packers coming to town and the Giants reeling from consecutive losses, one of which being an unbelievably surprising blowout defeat in Cincinnati, many had assumed New York's annual November swoon was in full swing. After all, this is a team that looked like world beaters with a 5-0 start in 2009 only to lose its next five games. But then something strange happened. The Giants didn't just win against Green Bay Sunday night. The beat the utter crap out of them. Oh, and did we mention that a Giant literally saved someone's life after the game?



Even for the most optimistic Giants fans out there, this was a surprise.

But should it have been? The Giants seem to have made a habit of playing up or down to their competition depending on the circumstances in recent years, and in the case of this season in particular that also seems to be the case. How else could Big Blue overcome its playing habits at its most middling to defeat the ultimate power of the Aaron Rodgers pornstache? Or is it just the 1980s policeman stach? Or the Tom Selleck stache? Or both? Either way, there seems to be plenty of evidence that the Giants get better with their competition. Look no further than week 5 when the Giants gave up an early 14-0 deficit to mediocre Cleveland and week 6 when they delivered a similar performance to this past Sunday night on the road in San Francisco. Most teams would seem more likely to struggle as the competition gets steeper, but for the Giants this appears to almost be the exact opposite.

My friend Chris, who has a keen interest in the Giants, a vague knack for statistics and entirely too much time on his hands set to take a graphical examination of this last night and the results are intriguing. Using terms that I don't really understand, he essentially plotted margin of victory against strength of schedule for every team in the league (I think), using some statistic called SRS that I'm also unfamiliar with which is created by pro-football-reference.com. It's all really quite technical, but the gist, as shown by this chart that I think I know how to read, is that every team in the league had a positive correllation with a shrinking margin of victory and the strength of its opponents. That is to say, the better the opponent got, the lower their margin of victory for obvious reasons.

Well, every team except one, really.

As you'll notice, the slope of the plotted graph for the Redskins and Cowboys goes down, implying a loss or a smaller margin of victory against better opponents. This is the same for 29 other teams in the NFL, but there's one outlier, and that is the New York Giants. Their graph shows a complete opposite correllation. As the quality of the opponent increases the Giants increase their margin of victory. This is not surprising to Giants fans, who have always seen a team that felt like it played better against better competition (and worse against worse competition) but that was no more than a subconscious, intangible assumption. At least it was on my part anyway. Those types of notions are silly to a logical person like myself, but the data appears to be unmistakable.

What Giants fans always assumed was true, essentially is, and that means that while the dominant victory against Green Bay Sunday night was surprising, it really shouldn't have been. Playing better against better teams is what the Giants do. Few teams in the NFL have been better since the start of last season than the Packers, and the Giants have played them three times, resulting in two blowout wins and a loss by three points.

This becomes all the more intriguing considering the Giants have a remarkably tough remaining schedule. Monday night they'll face an improving, upstart Washington team before facing New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore and an Eagles team that shockingly, and wonderfully, has seen its season go dramatically off the rails. That's a veritable murder's row of homestretch competition that would send most NFL teams scampering -- and most of their fans into a tailspin of worry. That kind of reaction isn't without merit, and I'm sure there are many Giants fans out there that feel the same way. If someone takes a few minutes to plot the data, however -- or has a friend who does it for them -- they might just feel differently. If the trendline continues as it has for the Giants in accordance with their competition, they probably shouldn't feel worried at all.

New York's home stretch will be tough as it hones in on a second consecutive NFC East title. And that just might be a good thing.

Last week: 8-8-0
Season: 88-84-5

New Orleans (+4) over ATLANTA
BUFFALO (-6) over Jacksonville
CHICAGO (-4) over Seattle
Indianapolis (+5) over DETROIT
GREEN BAY (-10) over Minnesota
Houston (-6) over TENNESSEE
Carolina (-3) over KANSAS CITY
San Francisco (-7) over ST. LOUIS
New England (-9) over MIAMI
NY JETS (-5) over Arizona
DENVER (-7) over Tampa Bay
Cleveland (+2) over OAKLAND
Cincinanti (-1) over SAN DIEGO
BALTIMORE (even) over Pittsburgh
Philadelphia (+10) over DALLAS
NY GIANTS (-3) over Washington

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