Football is a numbers game, and not just because of gambling

The other day the New York Giants and New England Patriots won their respective NFL conferences, leading to a vague and simultaneous sense of déjà vu and malaise for the majority of the country outside of the Northeast.

Actually, most of the Boston area is probably feeling that, too, because they still have the sting of the Super Bowl following the 2007 season when the Patriots started with 18 consecutive wins only to finish with one Giant loss.

That 18-1 season hurts them almost enough to undo the glory of three championships in four years, and that comforts me, because I have hated New England now for a decade.

People sometimes as me if I’m a football fan. Indeed I am, but for two diametrically opposed reasons.

In the first place, I have an intrinsic need to hate things. Since jingoism and racism are out of fashion, my only salvation is sports.

For a species that has spent the last 100,000 years or so bashing people’s heads in because they painted their faces different, prayed at the wrong time of day, or couldn’t pronounce “shibboleth,” that’s an aspect of our tribal nature a lot of us need venting safely, myself included.

But the second reason I love football is just the opposite: numbers.

The thing that most upset me about the lockout this year was not the revenue splits or rookie contract structure, but the proposal of an 18-game season.

“B-but current schedule is a perfect square,” I whined.

It’s beautiful. Four sets of four games. Win three of each set (0.750), you’re 12-4 and likely win your division. To make the playoffs, most years the magic number is “0.625,” as in you need to go 10-6 or require a lot of help to get in i.e. Tebow.

(As an aside, the season probably should be 18 games, with two bye weeks. The 17-week season has always made me feel slightly uncomfortable.)

Nor is it just the schedule’s math. There’s also 16 teams in each conference, 32 in all (eight division of four teams). Only the top 12 teams (six per conference) make it in. Only just more than the top third get into the playoffs, or put another way: 0.375 (the opposite of our borderline-playoff number).

In the game itself, you have four quarters of 15 minutes: 1 hour, an inheritance of Sumerian attempts to quantify temporality. And theoretically, literally any score is a possible result except 1 because safeties are 2 points and field goals are 3; between the two of them you have every possible number.

More beautiful yet: a field goal is worth slightly less than half of a touchdown and presumptive extra point (7), so a team that kicks twice as many field goals as its opponent scores touchdowns is still set to lose. But the 2-point conversion means a score can be worth as much as 8.

And then, in a middle of all of these fantastic numbers, you have the fact that either team can score on any play (except extra points, where the NFL should follow college), meaning that swings in outcome of a given moment are that much greater. In the 2008 season’s Super Bowl, an interception in the endzone just before halftime was returned for a touchdown: a 14-point difference on one play, plus extra points.

This is something I try to explain, usually to foreigners and women, and usually with little success. That as fun as the game will be to watch, or more likely, pay attention to when a good replay or commercial comes on, underneath it all is an elegant dance in the language of the universe.

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