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What's the Matter

   by Scott Spreitzer - 12/10/2007

In the coming weeks, you’re going to be handicapping a lot of NFL
games that really matter.

Teams will be trying to clinch playoff berths. Once the playoffs start,
teams will be battling to win a championship. With that in mind, you
should be focusing on the key stats that determine who wins those kinds
of games. Picking pointspread winners at this level is about
understanding what works and what doesn’t when both teams are at peak
intensity with everything on the line.

Here's what matters:

*DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS: It’s always been true, and it will
always be true. The quarterbacks get the glory. But great quarterbacks on
teams with bad defenses don’t win many championship rings. They just
do a lot of commercials and get TV jobs when they retire. If you want to
know who’s going to win the big games the rest of this season, you
need to focus on the teams who have established that they can stop opponents
right now. It doesn’t matter if they could stop them in September or
October. Can they stop them now?

Look at yards allowed per game; per possession; per play; whatever you
prefer. Look at how many touchdowns have been allowed in recent games.
Make sure you’re adjusting for the weather. Some teams look good
defensively in bad weather, but get exposed in good conditions. Teams
who are stopping people in good conditions are most likely to keep
winning through the playoffs. Don’t decide ahead of time who you
like, then try to find stats that back it up. Run all the contenders through
a gauntlet to see which defenses really have what it takes to go the
distance. I think you’ll be surprised how many teams are more
vulnerable than you realized on that side of the ball.

*EFFICIENT OFFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS: The media tends to focus on
volume. Smart handicappers focus on efficiency. You have to move the
ball and put points on the board WITHOUT TURNING IT OVER! Champions
aren’t the teams that win high scoring shootouts. They’re the teams
that move the chains, keep their defenses rested, and then find the end zone
at the end of the drive. This formula has always been the secret to
championship success in the NFL. You can go all the way back to the
first Super Bowls, through the Terry Bradshaw years in Pittsburgh, the
Joe Montana years in San Francisco, and the Troy Aikman years in
Dallas. Other quarterbacks made headlines for passing volume, but those guys
won championships because they moved the ball without making mistakes that
would set up the other team for cheap points.

Look at the teams fighting for playoff spots now, and those that will
be playing for a championship a month or so down the road. How many have
what you could call “efficientâ€쳌 offenses? Some obvious choices jump
out at the top. Do any of the superpowers strike you as being more turnover
prone in pressure situations? That could be the difference in
determining who wins the Lombardi Trophy. Many of the borderline
wildcard contenders have very inefficient offenses. The public will be
betting them as favorites because they “needâ€쳌 to win in these final
weeks. Sharp handicappers will be going against them because those
teams don’t really have what it takes to win a big game on command.
They’re mistake-prone to begin with, (which is why they're in a "must win" spot),
and they’re likely to make even more mistakes when the pressure is on.

*FAMILIARITY WITH CONDITIONS CAN TRUMP EVERYTHING:
If you watched last year’s New Orleans/Chicago game for the NFC championship,
you remember that the Saints couldn’t get any traction on the horrible Soldier
Field turf. The Bears were used to it, and had no trouble getting things
done. Had that game been played in the Superdome in New Orleans, the Saints
might have been able to run away and hide because of speed advantages.
Once the Bears were out of the frigid North, and had to play on grass
that wasn’t torn up, they had trouble competing with the Indianapolis
Colts when the league title was on the line.

Defense matters, efficient offense matters, then the game conditions
come along to magnify the importance of those factors. Often, they
magnify an advantage in a way that leads to a very one-sided
pointspread cover. Think back to how many postseason games have missed the
Vegas spread by a mile. It happens all the time. One of the main reasons is
that the conditions of a big game are comfortable to one side, but
foreign to the opponent. You’ll find that those conditions directly
tie into either the strength or weakness of one of the teams involved.

In the games that matter the rest of the way, you have to do analysis
that matters! Focus on these key elements and you’ll consistently be
on the right side in the big games.

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