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Football Fantasy! Wild Card weekend and NFL standings in the upside down

Old Man McCoy, Baby Marshon, Chiefs and Titans running wild in Kansas City and the cruelty of being the Chargers

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Note: If you came looking for fantasy football recommendations, I don’t have anything for you. This season, Football Fantasy! here at Field Gulls will offer a recurring daydream considering the weekly football schedule from a perspective of entertaining narratives and wished-for results across the non-Seattle Seahawks landscape. Here, we welcome storylines and silliness to topple other interests from week to week as we deliver the lowdown on the rest of the league from the land of make believe. For more detailed explanation of the picks, look here.

The NFL regular season ending grants us an opportunity to examine the Football Fantasy! portfolio here no longer as a week by week update on our fortunes as dreamers, but as one full run of the simulation on our imaginary neural network. If you’ve been following the simple totals aggregated at the bottom of our column all year, you know the sum records of these picks. It looks like this:

My choices (straight up): 96-144

Sharp picks (against the spread): 113-109-8

(The 10-game difference between the final numbers of games chosen and games picked accounts for the contests when point spreads were not available at the time of publishing.)

Neither of these records are outstanding, but let’s check them against the hypothesis I posited when describing the ambition for this project back in Week 2: The “fantasy” outcomes will do poorly, and the touted picks will be close to break-even.

Meeting such a low bar may not be much of a challenge, but the confirmation brings several insights into the gully of desire we’re marking here.

First, the wished-for results aren’t actually as bad as I might have expected. Indeed, the 40 percent final rate outcome is something of an improvement after a 41-49 “recovery” in those choices since Thanksgiving—before that point the good news ratio was a much lousier 55-95. Which is, well it’s like going 3-4 after starting 3-6. Not great but not as embarrassing, and because 90 games makes a much larger sample of results it doesn’t come with the same margin of error as the misleading +/- presenting the illusion of parity at that scale I described after seven weeks of real football. (Few people ever revisit and test these midseason cries of parity, but 2017 in fact turned out with fewer teams bunched around 8-8 than usual).

What does it mean that my choices improved late in the year? Could be some adapted preferences fashioned around several surging good teams, like my adoption of the Jacksonville Jaguars as a younger, fiestier recollection of Seattle’s recent football renaissance. Or it could be, contrary to my last paragraph, an increase in parity during the last few months, as more top tier teams suffered injuries and ceded heretofore hopeless games to underdogs. Or it could be that ordinary change of luck known as regression to the mean.

Yet no luck or regression overcame the experience we captured, in slow motion, of absorbing such frequent damage to our hopes.

When I set out to write this series of posts, I had the lifelong suspicion the sporting world was set up to disappoint me. Now I have to math to prove it. Having 60 percent of games go against my preference doesn’t seem altogether extreme—after all facing 3-2 odds is only about the same longshot as a straight draw in poker, and people hit those frequently enough to feel comfortable betting them.

However the reason it’s not a profitable play at the card table is the same reason its a disastrous emotional investment here: We’re not talking about one deal for all the chips now, with a broad class of outs and some chance; we’re talking about the repeated drain of hanging our heads more often than not over 240 separate events. That’s how the heart goes broke watching ball, while remaining so tantalized and optimistic for the next kickoff.

Of course I stack the odds against myself by hoping most frequently for upsets, and the relative success of the Seahawks balances this throbbing deficit—even moreso the explosive results of the recent decade. But no matter how great our beloved team plays, these data show that even they’re still beating wings against this lifetime storm of progress, as we watch it piling wreckage over our memories of 2013.

Anyway speaking of profit and loss the sharp bets came in slightly better than coin flip, which might be the source of my smile. However that’s not within the margin necessary to break even against a sports book, where placing 10 dollars each time at typical Vegas odds of -110 would have lost 63 dollars over the course of the year. Again not terrible, across 230 such plays. And actually, if you were wise enough not to bet a wacky Week 17, the picks would have cost only eight dollars while buying four months of fun. Hooray!

Now tracking all the ways I hoped for games to fall week by week gives an unusual opportunity for something I’ve never done in my life, which is see what a whole football season’s rooting interests would look like expressed in the league standings. Several fans during the year who didn’t read instructions wondered in the comments why I never picked the Seattle games, but of course the implication is that we wanted the Seahawks to win every week. So those wins, and their opponents attending losses, are added together with the picks in the following tables:

NFC West AFC West
Seattle Seahawks 16-0 Oakland Raiders 15-1
Los Angeles Rams 7-9 Los Angeles Chargers 10-6
San Francisco 49ers 5-11 Kansas City Chiefs 8-8
Arizona Cardinals 1-15 Denver Broncos 5-11
NFC South AFC South
Carolina Panthers 9-7 Tennessee Titans 14-2
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8-8 Jacksonville Jaguars 10-6
Atlanta Falcons 5-11 Houston Texans 8-8
New Orleans Saints 5-11 Indianapolis Colts 4-12
NFC North AFC North
Chicago Bears 13-3 Cincinnati Bengals 15-1
Detroit Lions 13-3 Cleveland Browns 12-4
Minnesota Vikings 6-10 Baltimore Ravens 7-9
Green Bay Packers 1-15 Pittsburgh Steelers 0-16
NFC East AFC East
New York Giants 12-4 Buffalo Bills 15-1
Dallas Cowboys 5-11 New York Jets 10-6
Washington Redskins 5-11 Miami Dolphins 10-6
Philadelphia Eagles 2-14 New England Patriots 1-15

This is wild to look at, and obviously even more inconsistent with how 2017 truly went than the 40 percent choice rate might suggest. The divisions are almost entirely upside down—even the Browns are good, while the Patriots, Steelers and Eagles are all abjectly terrible (although four of the 12 playoff teams still qualify, albeit in rather different fashion than reality).

The only teams whose records this chart gets “right” are the Broncos, Jaguars and Colts. Probably the strangest artifacts are how Seattle’s battle with the Rams didn’t result in more ill-wishes directed toward Los Angeles. But it goes to show I wasn’t much threatened by that team until too late. Just as queer might be how Pittsburgh ended the only squad unable to escape my baleful wrath, smoldering below even New England and the Cardinals and Green Bay.

Mostly of course the elite organizations in this vision are the sentimental favorites, like sad sack franchises Buffalo and Cincinnati. Other exceptional results are more a product of a team harmless in reality (Giants) being propped up as an imaginary spoiler, while the same incidental current demanded an opposite hitch to snare the true Eagles away from homefield advantage.

Spoiler is the right word because the truth is it’s just a spoiled child’s version of the NFL. Because of the generally extreme divide between teams I supported and teams I disliked, a season that actually produced these results would be super boring to watch and rather quite predictable, once you could grasp which were the “favored” teams. But it’s not meant as a portrait of anybody’s dream season at a whole.

What it is is a year’s long accumulation of the grief of wanting something other than what we got. Let’s see if the playoffs go any better?

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs

I think we all burnt out on the Chiefs during their hot start—especially after they were on national television five of the first eight weeks of the season. Then of course K.C. contracted all the way back to 6-6 and seemed ready to give up the AFC West before winning four straight to escape into a postseason home game. What keyed the turnaround has been what stayed reliable for the Chiefs as they alternated between blowouts and wrestling matches, the multifacted run game.

It should be glorious to watch two clubs so committed to rushing play against inconsistent defenses in the brisk daytime cold, until the lights turn on and Marcus Mariota tries to spin Tennessee out of that grip with the kind of throws that get raw quarterbacks ruined in the rugged playoff environment.

My choice: Titans

Sharp pick: Tennessee (+8.5)

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams

A throwback NFC West encounter will be the first time January football gets played in L.A. since 1993 when the Raiders hosted the Broncos in this same stadium. I’d hope the next one isn’t till the Super Bowl arrives in 2021, but that’s being cruel to the Chargers.

My choice: Falcons

Sharp pick: Los Angeles (-6)

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars

LeSean McCoy is still questionable to play for the Bills Sunday with a sprained ankle, but is McCoy even the a difference-maker for Buffalo anymore? Or rather, I should point out that the Bills scheme, with Rick Dennison calling the plays, hasn’t offered the same environment for McCoy to flourish that Anthony Lynn cultivated for both McCoy and Mike Gillislee a year ago. McCoy covers Buffalo’s deficiencies with reliability—Mike Tolbert carried 66 times compared to McCoy’s 287—but has been one of the least efficient full-season starters in DVOA in 2017 after he and Gillislee finished 1-2 in 2016.

So whether banged up or inadequate, a poor running game pits Tyrod Taylor against the league’s best pass defense in the Jaguars, so Taylor better hope BB makes him look TT in his own first playoff start.

My choice: Bills

Sharp pick: Jacksonville (-8.5)

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints

Regular readers will remembering me cheering against New Orleans most of the latter part of the season because I felt the Saints emerging rushing attack and defensive backfield made them the scariest team on the table—and Seattle without the same chance it had against Philadelphia or the Rams to subvert that inertia. So at last it’s liberating to finally get to cheer unambiguously for Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore, the (ahem) latter of whom achieved something that hasn’t been done in his lifetime.

My choice: Saints

Sharp pick: Carolina (+7)

On the year:

My choices (straight up): 96-144 (9-6 last week)

Sharp picks (against the spread): 113-109-8 (5-10 last week)