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Statistical Illusions

   by Bryan Leonard - 10/22/2008

That watering hole the caravan driver sees on the horizon turns out to be blazing hot sand. The beautiful girl across the room turns out to be far less so as you get closer. Our eyes can play tricks with our mind as there are mirages all over. The Detroit Lions nearly won their first game, in a crushing 12-10 loss at Minnesota.

Ah-ha! A new-look Detroit defense that was “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore?â€쳌 Let’s see, the Vikings still had 392 yards! That was more of an indictment of how deficient the Vikings red-zone offense is. The Lions have been outscored 40-0 in the opening quarter this season. Remember this Detroit defense was shredded for 474 yards against Atlanta, including 318 rushing to a team with a rookie QB playing in his first NFL game! Then they allowed 447 yards and 48 points to the Packers, and a 34-7 no-show home loss to the Bears. The bottom line: Don’t pay too much attention to the final score of the Lions/Vikings game, but the overall stats.

In the world of sports handicapping, teams and statistics can sometimes be an illusion. Take the Denver Broncos offense in 2007. The Broncos impressed after two weeks of the 2007 NFL season with the No. 1 offense in the NFL. Impressed, anyway, on the stat sheet. On the field they weren’t as hot, struggling to score 15 points on a bad/banged up Buffalo defense and needing OT to score 23 on Oakland. All that was rendered meaningless in Week 3, as a strong Jacksonville defense dominated them in a 23-14 win as a +3 road dog.

At that same time the Denver defense was ranked No. 3 in the NFL, allowing 256 yards per game, but it was deceiving. They played two teams with no offense, then played a weak Jacksonville offense. What is more revealing is that they hadn’t stopped the run, which ended up a major weakness last year and continues to be in 2008. Last season Oakland had 200 yards rushing on them and Jacksonville gouged them. They surrendered 186 yards against the Jaguars in a 23-14 loss and this season against the Jaguars they lost at home failing to contain the run.

In fact, a year ago at this time the Rams were ranked seventh in total defense. I noted in a column, “Forget about it, this is a poor defense team. Run defense is a better stat to look at, and the Rams are 28th allowing 158 yards per game on the ground. If teams can’t stop the run, their pass defense stats are going to be skewed as no one needs to pass, and that’s what’s happening with the Rams.â€쳌 Run defense continues to be a huge problem for St. Louis.

It's important that handicappers analyze games with the ability to look for mirages and illusions. It's not enough to simply say, “This is the No. 5 overall defense in the NFL, therefore they are very strong defensively.â€쳌 There are always more pieces of the puzzle to fit together concrete conclusions, especially when it means putting your hard earned money down on what you perceive to be a soft number.

I recall two years ago at this time when the Ravens were averaging 23.3 points per game, good for 8th in the NFL. Very impressive. But a closer look showed that the Ravens offense ranked 22nd overall, or tenth worst! Suddenly that offense didn't look so deadly anymore, which was evident in a playoff upset at home to the Colts.

What happened was that that high scoring average masked the real offensive production, which was sub-par. For instance, the Ravens were averaging just 109 yards rushing and 182 yards passing. That passing offense was 8th worst in the NFL. The defense was scoring and forcing turnovers, setting up great field position for the offense.

Here’s how handicappers can use information like this. There was a game where Southern Miss was playing at Central Florida. I noticed that the previous meeting the two combined for 83 points as the Golden Eagles dominated in a 52-31 victory. But the offenses didn't perform as well as the score would indicate. Southern Miss tallied 351 total yards and just 73 on the ground. The Knights managed just 356 total yards, 96 of those on the ground. Both teams prefer to move the ball on the ground based on the past history of their coaches, so I was anticipating far more rushing attempts and success in the next meeting.

The Golden Eagles were averaging a solid 5.3 yards per rush while UCF allowed just 3.7 ypr and Central Florida was averaging just 2.8 ypr. I gave out and played the game under the total and it sailed easily under in a 19-14 final. Again, mirages and illusions are sprinkled all over the sports betting world. The astute capper learns to distinguish the fog from what is real, and turn that into real profits!

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