Going the Distance
Ever since the Patriots edged out the Colts in one of the most-watched regular season games of the last decade, the question on everyone’s lips has been: will the Pats go undefeated this season? It’s easy to see what feeds all the speculation: the Patriots have completely dominated every team they’ve played that isn’t the defending Superbowl champion, and Brady is on track to break all kinds of NFL single-season records. It’s exciting to think maybe, just maybe, we’re witnessing some big history being made right now. (I got those goosebumps in a major way during the last couple of games of the 2004 ALCS championship, when the BoSox became the first team to rally from a 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees.)
But in all the hype about how much better the Pats are than all their remaining opponents, the enormous difficulty of completing an entire 16-0 season gets lost. Every opinion I’ve read, by sportswriters and forum trolls alike, spins the question as “if they’re NOT going to win, who do you pick to beat ’em? And do you really think that will happen?” The Steelers are the most popular choice, and probably represent the biggest single-game threat in the Pats remaining schedule. (It sure ain’t the 0-8 Dolphins.)
The problem is, it’s not as simple as winning a single game. Give me a single game next week against any of these opponents, and I’ll give you 2-1 odds on the Patriots, no problem. But let’s break down some math here:
- There are 7 games remaining
- The Pats should be favored to win all of them. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Pats have 4-1 odds to win each individual game (it’s probably not that high for the Steelers, but that’s fine.)
- So that’s saying the Pats have an 80% chance of winning each of the seven games.
- Just playing those odds, their chance of winning all seven is (0.8)^7, or about 21%.
Now you might argue that these aren’t truly independent events, and that each team the Pats knock off boosts the probability that they’ll beat the next. But I don’t buy that… NE already beat the Bills 38-7 at home. Will beating them again in Buffalo really boost the chances you’d give them against the Steelers? I doubt it.
So maybe you think the Pats are so good that 4-1 odds are actually conservative. Maybe you think it’s more like 9-1 for the Pats in each of these games. If you do, I’ll say two things: (1) please send me an email with your contact info so I can take out some bets with you, and (2) even if those are the right odds, it’s still less than a 50% proposition to win all 7 remaining games. And we haven’t even talked about injuries yet.
I absolutely love the Patriots. Even being traumatized in ’86 watching Super Bowl XX unfold before my eyes didn’t keep me from rooting for the poor losers. Now they’re on top of the heap, and I would love to see them dominate completely. Forget 16-0, let’s see 19-0 with another set of Super Bowl rings! But to win every single game in the season takes more than being the best team on the field each time out.
One last thought: how funny would it be if the Patriots finished 16-0, and the Miami Dolphins kept on pace to wrap up the season 0-16? If they do, maybe we should put an asterisk next to the ’72 Dolphins undefeated 14-0 run, too. How you like them apples, Don Shula? Punk.
Posted in The sporting life