Stop Making Predictions About This Year's NFL Season

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As the Giants' unlikely Super Bowl win proved, it's almost impossible to guess how pro football will shake out.

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Reuters

For the past few weeks sports fans have been inundated with preseason NFL predictions. Everyone has one, with thousands of words devoted to analyzing each team and picking division leaders, conference champs, and, finally, the Big One—the winner of the Super Bowl. It's fun—especially if your team is picked to do well—but here's the reality.

Did you think the New York Giants were going to win the Super Bowl last season? Really? None of the pundits did.

That means you thought that a team that was outscored by its opponents (400 to 394) over the course of the season was going to go all the way even though that had never happened before the Giants did it last year. It also means that you thought a team with the lowest total of rushing yards in the league was going to win it all. That had never happened before, either.

It also means that you thought a team that lost four straight games in its ninth, 10th, 11th, and 12th weeks of play—just four games before the end of the season—would take home the Lombardi Trophy. And guess what? That had never happened before either.

Sports fans have notoriously short memories. Football fans are the worst of the lot. Most of them remember the final game and judge the season by how that went. Last February 5, the Giants beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, 21-17. What else matters?

Nothing, really. Except that the Giants' victory indicated that there's something new going in football, something the analysts have yet to pin down. Simply put, no team as mediocre as the Giants—let's make this clear, I mean mediocre by the yardstick of the regular season—has gone on to win the Super Bowl.

How mediocre were they? Not only were the Giants just one loss away from having the same 8-8 record as their NFC East rivals, the Eagles and the Cowboys, New York won five games by a total of just 17 points. A single play gone wrong in any of five contests would have sent them home for the postseason. The second-place Eagles outscored their opponents by 68 points while the third-place Dallas Cowboys beat theirs by 22 points. If you saw just those numbers without the accompanying won-lost column, you'd have sworn that it was Philadelphia and Dallas who were 9-7 and the Giants 8-8.

Luck, Branch Rickey famously said, is the residue of design. True, but sometimes it's just luck.

Last December 11, in a game the Giants had to win to have a crack at the playoffs, they were down to the Dallas Cowboys, in Dallas, 34-22 with 5:41 left. Eli Manning capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive by throwing an eight-yard TD pass to tight end Jake Ballard. But that's not how the officials saw it, as Ballard was on his knees when he scored and his knees weren't in the end zone. After a tortuous eight-minute investigation, the call was reversed and the Giants had their TD.

Then, with 2:12 on the clock, Dallas punter Mat McBriar, who was averaging nearly 50 yards a kick for the season, booted an anemic 33-yarder which gave Manning excellent field position, the Giants 42-yard line, to begin the final, winning TD drive. For all that, Cowboy QB Tony Romo nearly pulled it out with just 46 seconds left, hitting on consecutive 22 and 23-yard completions. The Cowboys rookie kicker, Dan Bailey, then split the uprights with a 47-yarder to send the game into overtime—except it didn't because Giants coach Tom Coughlin had called a time out just before the ball was snapped. On Bailey's second try, Jason Pierre-Paul got a hand up and deflected the ball. And the Giants had their miracle win.

Did you pick the Giants to win the Super Bowl when the postseason started? Then you weren't surprised during the NFC conference championship game when San Francisco '49ers Kyle Williams fumbled a punt, twice. In the fourth quarter, a punt brushed Williams's knee—or so it looked to officials, who reviewed it—and the Giants were awarded the ball, which gave them the opportunity to run a 29-yard, 7-play drive for a TD. Then, in overtime, Williams fielded a punt cleanly but let it get knocked out of his hands. The Giants promptly kicked a field goal, won the game, and were Super Bowl-bound.

Then, in the Super Bowl, every Giants fan remembers, with the Patriots leading 17-15 and four minutes to play, Wes Welker, possibly the most sure-handed receiver in the game, went into the air for a Tom Brady pass near the Giants' 17 ... and came down with nothing.

New York's entire season was like that—an incredible mix of grit and fluke. Without plenty of both, they never could have won. Eli Manning led six fourth-quarter come-from-behinds, throwing an NFL record 15 fourth quarter TDs. You have to be a great quarterback to do that, but you also have to be very lucky.

When you're behind six times over the season in the fourth quarter, you really don't deserve to win—the better team almost always has the lead by that point. Yet, in six games the Giants and Manning not only got the winning score, they didn't fumble it away, they didn't get called for holding, nobody dropped a pass, and no instant replay of a challenge went against them. That Eli led them to six fourth-quarter wins proves he is very good, but the rest proves that being good doesn't matter if you're not lucky as well.

In the NFL season opener tonight at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands, the Giants are favored by four points over the hated Cowboys, and many in the local media seem to think that Big Blue is better this year than last. Maybe they are, but they're going to have to be a lot better than they were last year if their luck is just average this year.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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