Stop Making Predictions About This Year's NFL Season

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.

Presented by

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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