There are reasons why things happen the way they do in the National Football League.
When things go wrong, often the victim of a negative result will attribute the setback to bad luck or an unforeseen fluke. In fact, when logic based on what prior results generate are applied, both game finals and point spread results are most often unavoidable.
Last week, the Baltimore Ravens came into the postseason the favorite to win Super Bowl LIV. But, they had won their last game of the regular season with backups in a contest they didn’t need to win with the top seed in the AFC playoffs already secured. When a team does that, they are consistently overconfident in their first postseason action and I have never found an example where that favored team won the opening playoff game while covering the point spread.
If you needed any more evidence on how overconfidence can level even the best talent, just note that last week Lamar Jackson threw an interception on the Ravens first offensive possession and was called for a 15-yard penalty while tackling the interceptor. That play set the double-digit underdog Tennessee Titans up for the first score of the game, and what was Jackson doing on the sideline after the pick and penalty? Laughing with teammates.
A team fearful of losing, which is a great motivator, would have taken that play as a wakeup call to perform better. Jackson and his teammates considered it just a bump in the road on the way to an inevitable win. Which, of course, was actually an inevitable loss, 28-12.
When National Football League games are over, almost all winners seem as if no other result was possible. That is what makes my job so challenging, knowing that if I don’t get it right before the game, I’m not going to have any plausible defense after the contest.
In 1983, I was doing a live spot each week on television with a sportscaster, Gary Park, who had been a friend for more than a decade beginning with my work with Oakland Raiders. Coming from an NFL front office to handicapping the league for me carried the benefit of having a legitimate relationship with the media before entering into the, at the time, shady gambling world.
Around mid-season that year, Gary was uncharacteristically on me pretty hard about a game I picked the prior week that lost. That usually happens when someone loses a large wager and holds me responsible. In this case, I was taken back by Gary’s criticism, given we had a longstanding positive relationship and his wrath was over the top.
On live television, about 40 minutes later, Gary introduced me after giving that night’s sports scores and I responded by saying, “That’s it. After the games are over you just tell people what the scores were? Do you miss any of those?”
Initially taken back with the unexpected challenge, a moment later the lights went on in Gary’s eyes and he burst out laughing and our relationship was back on track.
Today, a parallel situation can happen with clients I work with on behalf of Qoxhi Picks. We don’t win them all, despite our best efforts, and sometimes we land on clunkers that one wonders how the heck we ever imagined that team was going to win?
The logic that dictates results is irrefutable after a contest is played, it is often in opposition to public opinion, and commonly requires courage to back in the face of what seems obvious.
In 1995, the defending Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49ers hosted the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Playoff round at Candlestick Park. The home team was favored by 10½ points, and the betting world backed them like they were a sure thing.
The Packers were under the direction of head coach Mike Holmgren, who had spent six years on the 49ers staff first as quarterback coach and later as offensive coordinator. Holmgren was familiar with the 49ers tendencies and their quarterback, Steve Young. His knowledge allowed him to devise a Packers defensive game plan that stifled the 49ers high-scoring offense and the double-digit underdog Packers pinned the favorites with a 27-17 home defeat.
Two years later, the Packers visited the 49ers again, this time as a road favorite and as the defending Super Bowl Champions. Again, Holmgren knew San Francisco tendencies and held the 49ers to ten points in a 23-10 Packers victory.
The following season, the Packers met the 49ers in the Playoffs again, and in a game that would prove to be Holmgren’s last as Packers head coach, the field goal favored 49ers got a last second win when Terrell Owens made a miraculous end zone catch from Young that provided the 49ers a 30-27 triumph.
It would be 14 seasons before these two storied franchies would meet again in the playoffs, and one more time the 49ers were facing a Green Bay head coach that was once the 49ers offensive coordinator, Mike McCarthy. The big difference, is that McCarthy was facing a 49ers team that he had left six years earlier and a squad that in no way resembled the team he had served as offensive coordinator.
The 49ers had a second-year quarterback running their offense that had replaced an injured Alex Smith early in the season and never relinquished the job. That was Colin Kaepernick, who in his first postseason game set a rushing record for a quarterback against Green Bay while slicing through the Packers defense for 181 ground yards and pacing the 49ers to a dominating 45-31 triumph.
On Sunday, the Packers and 49ers meet in the postseason for the first time since that epic performance by Kaepernick. This time, the home standing 49ers are favored by a touchdown or more, and the Packers come to town with a record that matches the 49ers 14-3 won/loss mark.
If these two teams have the same record, why are the 49ers such a heavy favorite on the point spread?
Because when logic is applied, a few chips fall San Francisco’s way. First, they have been the better team all year, their three losses suffered in close games against the Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons. When the Packers have lost, they have suffered lopsided defeats against the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers by margins of 15 and 29 points respectively. Their third loss was suffered at Philadelphia in fourth week action by a seven point margin, 34-27.
Historically, while point spreads affect nearly a quarter of games played during the Divisional Round, in Championship Games, only 13 of 100 contests played since 1970 have had the point spread come into play. Turning a dozen straight-up winners into point spread losers and one push.
Now, we’ve got logic and numbers on our side with the home team on Sunday, and when the final score is posted, the result will seem inevitable no matter who wins … but I’m banking on that being the 49ers.
Qoxhi Picks: San Francisco 49ers (-7½) over Green Bay Packers