Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Streak

Suicide football pools (or, 'survival football pools,' if you're one of the more politically correct folks at Yahoo Sports) have a seemingly simple premise. You must pick the result of just one NFL game per week, for all 17 weeks of the NFL season. No point spread, just a straight winner. The catch is that you can't pick the same team twice, so a top team like the Patriots is only useful to you for one week. If you get your game wrong, you're out of the league. The last player standing wins.

These leagues have grown in popularity in recent years because it's the kind of deceptively hard challenge that still appeals to even casual football fans. Anyone can pick just ONE correct result per week, right? One sure thing? Obviously, though, it's harder than it seems, especially in this age of a parity-driven NFL. I used the Pats as my example earlier and while they were a safe bet for most of the season, their Week 9 loss to Cleveland surely ended thousands of runs in survival leagues the world over. There's no such thing as a surefire, deadbolt lock in the NFL. You never know when a star player might get injured, or a bad team might return a couple of kicks and/or get a few lucky tipped interceptions, or when a good team might just plain stink one week.

For a suicide pool, you might as well make a random crapshoot of it, like one year when my pal Dave (who isn't a big football fan) just decided bask in his lack of NFL knowledge and just made his picks via alphabetical order. In Week One, he picked Arizona. In Week Two, Atlanta. Week Three, the Baltimore Ravens. So and so forth and I'll be damned if Dave didn't somehow win that league in a complete slap in the face to the rest of us. Ye gods.

So now that I've gotten over just how difficult it is to carry on a long run in a suicide league, I'll brag about the near-record setting streak that led me to victory. My pal Kyle ran a six-person mini-league (I like to think of it as the Premiership) that, to make things interesting, gave each player a second 'strike,' so you had to get two games wrong before you were eliminated. This second strike proved to not matter a whit, since I managed to pick 15 correct games in a row, winning the league and nearly running the table entirely before Philadelphia's upset loss to the Vikings last Tuesday.

Fifteen weeks. The majority of suicide leagues usually have a winner decided by around the midpoint of the NFL season, so the eighth or ninth week of games. A multi-strike league could conceivably have a winner that survives deep into the season, but 15 weeks? That's getting into 2007 Patriots or 1986 Bears territory.

My strategy was simple: ride the good teams early and pick on the bad teams. Many an eliminated survival league player tries to be clever and 'save' the best teams for later in the season. This adds unnecessary risk to the game, in my opinion. It usually takes a month or so to suss out which NFL teams are truly good, bad or average, but even from the preseason, you can identify one or two teams that will be really solid (if not great) and one or two that will really suck. Until you've had a few weeks to get a feel for how the NFL will stack up, why handicap yourself by not picking one of the few surefire good teams? Get the locks out of the way early and go from there.

For instance, I came into this year knowing that the Patriots, Packers, Ravens, Saints and Colts were all going to be pretty good. Ergo, they were my picks over the first five weeks of the NFL season. All five were playing at home, and all five were playing bad teams --- the Bengals, Bills, Browns, Panthers and, the one exception, the Chiefs, who are a great home team but an average club on the road. I'm not saying these were all no-sweaters (the Saints edged the Panthers by two points, and the Chiefs gave Indy a tough game), but still, five wins in the books to start.

The next step was to pick some teams that had proven themselves as solid as the season had progressed. For instance, as I mentioned about K.C., they were a terrific home team, so they were the pick in Week Seven over Jacksonville since the game was held at Arrowhead Stadium. The lowly St. Louis Rams were also a good home side, so they got the pick in Week Eight, especially since they were hosting the godawful Panthers. The Panthers, incidentally, were the opponent I targeted the most. I picked against them four times, and that fourth one was nearly the killer, since Cleveland eked out a 24-23 win over Carolina in a terribly-played game that both teams seemed to want to lose. But, nonetheless, Cleveland still won, extending me past Week 12.

The most remarkable part of the streak, however, wasn't just that I was pulling it off week after week, but also that Kyle was keeping pace. Through 14 weeks, NEITHER of us had gotten a game wrong. It was stunning. It was like if Ted Williams had a consecutive-games hitting streak going at the same time as Joe DiMaggio's in 1941. The other four players in the league had all gotten their two strikes by Week 10, so it was just Kyle and I battling for the championship of each other down the stretch. Finally, Kyle succumbed in Week 15 and in ironic fashion --- his beloved Lions picked up their first road win in three years by beating Tampa Bay. It would've been a proud moment for a diehard Lion fan like Kyle, were it not for the fact that he'd picked the Bucs as his sure thing for the week. This was Kyle's first strike, and he would take his second strike the very next week, watching Jacksonville lose in overtime to Washington and clinching me the league title. The fact that my perfect run ended that same week was of no consequence, since I had just the one strike to his two. Game over, man, game over.

Good lord, I've really gone on and on about this, haven't I? I'm hardly a savant at these survival leagues; this might be the first one I've ever even won, let alone had a streak of any significant length. Some years I've been knocked out in the very first week of the season, so needless to say, my strategies are hardly foolproof. But man, a 15-week perfect streak deserves a bit of boasting. This is my version of Edwin Moses not losing a 400m hurdles race for a solid decade. This is my version of the UConn women's basketball team winning 90 straight games. This is my version of CSI Miami being on the air for nine seasons and never having a well-acted episode. When old men take their grandsons on their knees and tell them tales of survival football leagues, they will forever whisper the legend of the near-perfect season. Then, the grandsons will wonder why Pop-Pop is wasting everyone's time with such an inane story and think it's time to contact a nursing home. But still....LEGEND.

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