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Know How To Win

   by Scott Spreitzer - 01/12/2009

We've reached the point in the NFL playoffs were TV pundits like to talk about quarterbacks who "know how to win."

Heck, we're down to the last four teams in the playoffs. Teams who have survived this far MUST know how to win, right?

I think there's some merit to this line of thinking, but it's generally overrated by the media and the average sports bettor in Las Vegas. Consider:

*Peyton Manning has had this said about him a lot since he finally won a Super Bowl. Remember, he was the guy who COULDN'T win the big one for many years! Tennessee didn't win a national championship in college football until the year after he left. But after taking out the Bears in the Super Bowl, Manning was now one of the special guys. Last year, his Colts lost in their first playoff game. This year, after a long regular season streak where "knowing how to win" got repeated ad nauseum, Manning lost the first time out again.

*Tom Brady knew how to win 18 times last year, but 18-1 wasn't very special when "knowing how to win" didn't work in the Super Bowl.

*Brett Favre was supposed to have a big edge over Eli Manning in this department when Green Bay hosted the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game last year. They got very friendly weather (if you're a Packer), yet the intangibles just didn't show up.

What's going on here? Is there an ability, or not?

What you have to remember is that there's a clear difference between being a top quarterback and being an average quarterback. But once you're limited to the subset of top quarterbacks, virtually nothing separates them. Big games are coin flips that come down to a few big plays here and there, or a turnover.

Simply put, guys who "know how to win" against inferior opposition are matched up against other guys who can do the same thing. It cancels out once you get to the later rounds of the playoffs. There is no edge there.

The mistake gamblers and many pundits make is that they assume that past victories when the elite play the elite reflects an extra level of greatness. Imagine a coin coming up heads a couple of times, and announcers raving about how great heads is for the next flip! Gamblers put all of their money on heads the next time because heads "knows how to win."

It's a coin flip. Heads doesn't know squat.

When top teams are matched up against lesser teams, there is an ability to execute and avoid mistakes that helps them separate. Once the top teams are playing each other, results are much more randomized. This may be the single biggest factor that separates professional wagerers from the general public. Sharp bettors focus on underdogs because teams are usually more evenly matched than is realized. The public focuses on favorites because they place too much weight on random occurrences and misleading victory margins.

Does that mean I'll be picking both underdogs in the NFL Conference Championship games this weekend? Maybe, maybe not. I'll stick with the fundamentals I've outlined many times before, then make my decisions.

*Who can move the ball consistently and effectively?

*Who can avoid mistakes on offense?

*Who can force opposition mistakes on defense?

*Does either team have an element of their attack that's particularly difficult to shut down?

*Will weather conditions favor one team over another?

I can tell you I WON'T be making a pick just because the quarterback supposedly has some magical powers that help him pull close games out of the fire.

And, this is a part of handicapping you'll see time and time again year round in all sports. TV pundits say the same things in all sports! You'd think Duke invented winning in college basketball the way Dick Vitale talks about them. When was the last time they played great in the Big Dance? USC's football team forgets how to win at least once a year as a big favorite in league play. The mystique of the Yankees has had that franchise overrated in baseball for about a decade right now, and for countless long stretches over the history of America's pastime.

I think it's very important that YOU look for the key factors that separate the best from the middle of the pack, while realizing that those factors usually don't separate the best from each other. Know an edge when you see it. Know a coin flip when you see it. This is going to be very important with championships on the line in the NFL, and virtually on a daily basis in college hoops and the NBA.

Master this ability, then YOU will KNOW HOW TO WIN!

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