February 1st, 2009

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Go Steelers!

I have traditionally not been much of a sports fan. But right now, I really care about the Pittsburgh Steelers--so much so that it surprises me. I've been reading articles about the Super Bowl obsessively, and worrying about details of the game. It's very unusual for me, but I've been having fun.

Pittsburgh is a great town in which to be a football fan. Even during the regular season, you'll often see grocery store clerks and restaurant waitstaff wearing game jerseys, and I can think of a couple of houses displaying more than twenty pieces of Steelers iconography. (I wonder what the celebration is like at those houses. It might be huge, or it might be no-celebration-see-you-when-we-return-from-Tampa.) It's certainly true that part of my present passion is fueled by watching the playoffs with friends.

My own guesses about the Super Bowl, based on all my reading:

I think that the Steelers are more likely to win than the Cardinals are, but it's not a sure thing at all.
The Cardinals do have a very strong offense, but their regular-season performance argues that it's not absolute.
I've read a lot of stories about the Cardinals being on a streak right now, but I'm skeptical of that argument because of selection bias--any team in the Super Bowl would have won at least two games in a row, so that in itself is not a solid argument.
The Steelers do have a lot more Super Bowl experience than the Cardinals do. I would be skeptical of that as a significant contributing factor, but Ben Roethlisberger has said that in his first Super Bowl, the Super Bowl nerves got to him--and he is in a better position to judge than I am.
Las Vegas is offering 6 1/2-point odds on the Steelers, but I think that might be a little high. I think there are more people who would bet for the Steelers than the Cardinals if they were evenly matched, so that would lead bookmakers to set the bar higher for the Steelers.

In RPG terms, I think that the game is likely to be decided by critical successes and failures.
In football, the crits are the plays that get shown over and over on highlight reels. For example, in the AFC championship game, I can think of two critical failures on the Steelers' part--letting the time run out without a field goal in the first half, and Limas Sweed's dropping a touchdown pass. I count Troy Polamalu's interception for a touchdown return as a critical success. These balanced out in that game.
In this game, there are several players who can generate noteworthy numbers of criticals: Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald have generated a lot of crits for the Cardinals; Troy Polamalu has gotten a lot of crits for the Pittsburgh defense.
Statistically, the crits probably balance out between the two sides, leaving Pittsburgh with the advantage predicted by the regular season record. But for a sample as small as one football game, there is a very high chance of unequal distribution of crits--and an unequal distribution of crits could easily skew the score substantially.

Hours until game time still to go.

Go Steelers!
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Crits in the Super Bowl

It occurs to me that I can be specific about what I mean by "the game will be decided by critical successes and failures", enough so to make some specific predictions to test this theory.

Premises of data gathering:
#1. I claim that criticals are fairly unambiguous. (There's some handwaving there.) If someone in the bathroom knows from the cheering that something big just happened, that's a crit.
#2. I claim that crits can be divided into four categories: good for the Steelers' score, bad for the Steelers' score, good for the Cardinals' score, bad for their score.

I'll try to record what I think the crits are, and which of those categories they fall into. Since I claim that crits are blatant and memorable, I think I can record the crits even if I don't have a notepad with me continuously.

Based on this methodology, I'll make these predictions:
#1. There will be 4 +/- 2 crits during the game.
#2. I predict that the "non-crit" score is 20 Steelers, 17 Cardinals, and that each crit is worth about 6 points. I claim that if you take that non-crit prediction of 20 and add or subtract 6 points per crit in the obvious way, the result will be within 4 points of the Steelers' final score.
#3. Ditto for the Cardinals.
#4. At least one of Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, or Troy Polamalu will score a critical success.
#5. Critical successes will outnumber critical failures.

I probably won't be correct with all five of these predictions, but if I score 3 out of 5, I'll regard this as a weak success, and if I score 4 out of 5, I'll regard this as a strong success.

Edit: I should add another claim: there will be at most one incident for which there's significant uncertainty over whether it's a crit or not. I think that I need to claim this separately from the 3 out of 5 of my previous claims; part of my claim here is that crits are qualitatively different from normal rolls.
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(no subject)

Holy cow, that was an insanely exciting game. I have a whole lot of extra adrenaline pumping through my system.

I think my prediction about the outcome depending on crits did not come true.

Here's my summary of the game with crit analysis:

First half:
- Steelers score on the first drive. Cardinals hold them to a field goal instead of a touchdown. No big critical successes or failures here.
- Cardinals fail to maintain the drive in a non-crit way.
- Steelers score a solid touchdown, again without crits.
- With 2 minutes left in the first half, Steelers' Roethlisberger bounces a ball off a helmet for an interception. Critical failure! With my analysis of good/bad for whom, I call this bad for the Steelers.
- In the last play of the half, James Harrison intercepts a touchdown and runs it back a full hundred yards for a touchdown. Holy cow! If this was just an interception, I'd call it a bad-for-Cardinals crit--but this is bad for the Cardinals and good for the Steelers. Can I call this a double crit, though I really didn't include those in my predictions?
(Side note: I looked at Wikipedia's article on James Harrison at halftime. It mentioned his record-setting return, but went on to say that the Steelers had won the Super Bowl (true) and that James Harrison was MVP (false).)

Second half:
- Steelers get down near the endzone again, but again settle for a field goal. I don't see any crits here.
- During a Cardinals drive in the third quarter, there's a fumble, which I'd call a bad-for-Cardinals crit--but it gets reversed because of a penalty. This too doesn't really fit my model of crits. Cardinals get a touchdown, but I don't see anything I'd call a big crit in that drive.
- In the fourth quarter, Steelers get a penalty in an attempt to get out of the endzone that turns into a safety. A safety?! I had not been expecting a safety at all. Is that a critical failure?
- Kurt Wagner throws a great throw to Larry Fitzgerald, who runs it in for a great touchdown. Is this a crit, or just a very solid run?
- In the last few minutes of the game, Roethlisberger completes a great long pass to Santonio Holmes, then completes a touchdown to Holmes just barely in the corner of the endzone. Are either of these crits, or just solid runs?
- The Cardinals make a tight desperation run to try to score with a minute to go, but fumble the ball with seconds to spare. I would call this a bad-for-Cardinals crit normally, but I'm not sure it really counts since they were in such a desperate position anyway.

So, I think that my prediction falls down because the crits aren't as clear as I predicted. But just for completeness, I'll see how the rest of my claims stack up. I'll call these the crits:
- Roethlisberger's intercepted pass; critical failure, bad for Steelers.
- James Harrison's interception and return. I'll even call this two critical successes, one bad for Cardinals, one good for Steelers.
- Kurt Warner's fumble just before the finish. Bad for Cardinals.

So, the claims:
#1. There will be 4 +/- 2 crits during the game.
This happens to come out right.
#2. I predict that the "non-crit" score is 20 Steelers, 17 Cardinals, and that each crit is worth about 6 points. I claim that if you take that non-crit prediction of 20 and add or subtract 6 points per crit in the obvious way, the result will be within 4 points of the Steelers' final score.
The good-for-Steelers crit and the bad-for-Steelers crit cancel out. Predicted Steelers score: 20. Wrong.
#3. Ditto for the Cardinals.
17 - 6 * 2 bad-for-Cardinals crits = 5. Wrong.
#4. At least one of Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, or Troy Polamalu will score a critical success. Wrong. You could fudge by calling Fitzgerald's great run a crit, perhaps.
#5. Critical successes will outnumber critical failures. Two each, so I'm wrong, but not far wrong.
So I'm one for five on these predictions.

In retrospect, I'd say a key factor for the game was the penalties. There were multiple cases when the Cardinals had to punt because of penalty yards, and the safety against the Steelers was caused by a penalty as well.