Week 17: Eagles vs. Cowboys Pre-Game Notes

Win or go home; the playoffs start today for the Eagles.  As I wrote in my breakdown, the Eagles are, deservedly, significant favorites and are likely to win.  However, that doesn’t mean they will. Here’s where thinking probabilistically becomes difficult for many fans and commentators.

According to Vegas, if this game was played a very large number of times, we would expect the Eagles to win about 70% of the time.  That’s a LOT.  Moreover, I think the line is too low.  At my line, I’ve got the Eagles between 75-83%.  Very encouraging, but it raises an interesting question:

If the Eagles lose, did they “choke”?

Let’s assume for a moment that the Eagles do lose tonight.  The low-level analysis will involve “choking” and talk about things like cracking under the pressure or Chip Kelly not being ready for such a big game.  Mostly, it will revolve around one supposed fact, that the Eagles SHOULD win this game.   Read that again:

The Eagles SHOULD win this game.

It sounds right, but it’s complete bullshit.  That’s not how the sport (or the probabilities the sport is based on) works.  The correct way to say it is that, ex-ante, we know that the Eagles are LIKELY to win.  The problem with “should” is that it implies a level of control that the team simply doesn’t have, regardless of what generic sportswriters would have you believe.

Let’s use an analogy.  Imagine you’re playing poker (Texas Hold ‘Em).  You’re heads up, looking at the river.  There are no more strategic moves to be made, the outcome of the hand depends entirely on which card comes out.  Of all the cards remaining in the deck, 75% of them will result in a Win, 25% a loss.

If a Loss card comes out, did you “choke”?  Similarly, before the card is drawn, “should” you win?

Of course not, that’s ridiculous.  The fact is, the entire strategy of Poker (and many games/sports in general) is to shift the odds in your favor as much as possible (and maximize the expected payout when you do).  Unfortunately, that’s all you’re doing, shifting the odds.  As anyone who truly understands what that means knows, even after you’ve shifted the odds, there is still a chance for a loss.  In Poker, it’s sometimes called a Bad Beat.

Circling back to the game tonight, if the Eagles lose, it may just be a Bad Beat.  The Eagles are the better team, but if they played tonight’s game a large number of times, they’d STILL LOSE a decent percentage of the time (30% according to the spread).  Just as the Eagles MUST win a large majority of the games if it played a large series, they also MUST lose as well.  Unfortunately (when you’re a favorite), you don’t get a series, you get one game.

The ball takes lucky/unlucky bounces.  The refs don’t see everything correctly.  Players will have bad games, coaches will have bad games.  They are not robots, their performance varies.  If those bad games coincidentally happen to occur when the stakes are high, the knee-jerk reaction is to say the player/coach “choked”.  Or to somehow imply that the stakes themselves forced them into a sub-optimal performance.  I’m not ruling this out.  It’s possible, and it may even be probable (at the extreme margins).  However, it’s much more likely that they simply caught a Bad Beat.

As anyone who plays poker knows, when that happens, the “right” thing to do is to shake your head and check your calculations.  If they were correct, you don’t do anything different the next time (unless you really did screw up), even though the results this time were bad.  Process, not outcome.

Now, a few actual notes:

– The Eagles are 7 point favorites. E = R ((60 – T) / 60) + C.  That means, at least to start, they should be playing a relatively low-variance game.  Over any stretch of time, we expect the Eagles to outplay the Cowboys.  That puts the onus on Dallas to change the conditions.  Note though, that at 7 points, all that would take is an early TD from Dallas.

– Don’t let Dez Bryant beat you.  He’s the only elite weapon the Cowboys have.  Demarco Murray is having a good year, but if the Eagles offense performs anywhere close to expectations, Murray isn’t going to be able to keep the Cowboys in the game.

– Don’t get blitz-happy.  A frequent reaction to a back-up QB is to blitz him.  Yes, getting pressure on Orton is important, but when you blitz, you actually make it EASIER for receivers to get open, you just (hopefully) diminish the time the QB has to make that decision.  If I were calling the game, I’d want to see if Orton can move the ball against the base defense before dialing up an blitzes.  Remember, blitzing is a high-variance move.  If you’re a big favorite, you should blitz sparingly.

– Don’t get sloppy.  Penalties and turnovers can equalize a skill-advantage pretty quickly.  There’s no reason to believe either will be a problem, but that doesn’t mean the players shouldn’t be reminded to play under control (Cary Williams especially).  The Eagles have averaged 53.4 penalty yards per game this season, Dallas averages 57.5.    Similarly, both teams have averaged +0.7 turnovers per game, which is 4th best in the league (7-way tie).

– Watch out for “David” strategies.  We’ve looked at these from the underdog’s perspective, but since Dallas is in that position tonight, it’s a good chance to view things from the other perspective.  So, watch out for surprise-onside kicks or fake punts.  Expect a few 4th down plays.  Prepare to be blitzed.  I don’t think Garrett has the balls (or brains) to fully deploy these strategies, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see one or two instances. They’re high-risk/high-reward; the Eagles really want to focus on that high-risk part.

– Enjoy.  This has been a lot of fun, and regardless of what happens, Eagles fans should be pretty excited about the Chip Kelly era.  The team has already met my expectations (surpassed them in some respects), so it’d be silly to consider the season anything less than a great success, no matter what the outcome of tonight’s game is.

That said, it’s Dallas, the Eagles are the better team, and it’s for a playoff spot.  I think the Eagles roll.

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