New England’s secret advantage heading into the playoffs

One of the biggest advantages the New England Patriots have going into the AFC playoffs has nothing to do with their team.

Even though the Patriots lost to the New York Jets Sunday, the team still has a guaranteed first-round bye and a chance to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs next Sunday when the Patriots play the Miami Dolphins. And by losing Sunday, the Patriots made it extraordinarily difficult for the Indianapolis Colts to earn a playoff spot.  The Pittsburgh Steelers also have an uncertain future, needing a win in Cleveland and a Jets loss in Buffalo. It’s certainly possible, but not likely.

If the Steelers and Colts both don’t surmount the odds, that means the Houston Texans, Denver Broncos and Jets will squeak into the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals have already guaranteed spots.

If the Steelers and Colts don’t make the playoffs, with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, respectively,  then the Patriots will have a clear shot at the AFC crown and Super Bowl.

It’s well-known that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and, as we saw in the 2014 playoffs with the Arizona Cardinals,  starting someone other than your No. 1 option under center is a terrific way to end the season early. Ryan Lindley was thrust into spot last season for the Cardinals and imploded, partly because he didn’t have enough experience.

This season, if the playoff picture holds true, the Patriots will have the most experience in the AFC at quarterback — ever. Tom Brady will move into a tie for the most NFL playoff games played (30) all-time.

But the gap between Brady and his colleagues is stunning. Let’s break them into “categories.” (I know there’s one guy per category, but I like the idea so go with it.)

The “OK, you’ve technically been here before and I guess this is what you’ve got so let’s roll the dice” category

Only Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs has played in the playoffs, a one-and-done in 2013 with the Chiefs and two games in 2011 with the San Francisco 49ers when he game-managed a Frank Gore rushing attack. (I’m not even throwing undeserved shade. Smith was 20th in passing attempts that year and below No. 15 in yards, touchdowns and completions.)

Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick, never blossomed into a quarterback fitting of his draft position, but he excels at directing his offense and takes care of the football. His 18-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio is the best in the NFL. The only problem is: The offense around Smith isn’t good enough to hide his weaknesses. Charcandrick West is running the ball well out of the backfield, but he’s the not the game-changer the Chiefs had in Jamaal Charles, the initial starter who was lost for the season to an ACL tear. Smith’s offensive line has also let him down often. He’s tied for the league lead in sacks taken (44). The Chiefs are on a nine-game win streak, but aside from the Broncos and Steelers, they haven’t beaten high-caliber teams. Once Smith gets into the playoffs, he’ll be forced to do things he’s proven over the last decade that he cannot do.

The “Cinderella” category

You know three things about Ryan Fitzpatrick: He went to Harvard, got a near-perfect score (48 of 50) on the Wonderlic test, the NFL’s QB aptitude test and (this is the coolest) is nicknamed “The Amish Rifle.”

He seemed poised for success, but the off-the-field smarts didn’t translate. In his first nine NFL seasons with five teams, he sported a 33-55-1 record, threw 123 touchdowns to 101 interceptions and lead the league in picks in 2011 with 23. He never had a winning record anywhere, but finished 6-6 as the Texans quarterback last season. The Jets flipped a sixth-round pick for Fitzpatrick this offseason. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He started 5-5 with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, but suddenly something changed.

He won his next five games, rifling 13 touchdowns and just one interception. The secret: He shaved his big beard. Now, a trimmed Fitzpatrick has the Jets in position to win one game and make the postseason. The Jets beat the Patriots, its only quality opponent since the razor came out, and could ride Fitzpatrick’s hot hand into the playoffs. How far will they go before Fitzpatrick’s beard grows back out? Who knows.

The “Out the frying pan and into the fryer” category

Peyton Manning played so horribly that the Denver coaching staff had no choice but to make the switch to Brock Osweiler.

Andy Dalton’s right thumb injury (rumored to be season-ending) limited him, forcing Cincinnati to make the switch to A.J. McCarron.

Osweiler, Manning’s backup since the Broncos picked him in the second round in 2012, had thrown 30 passes before this season.

McCarron, Dalton’s backup since the Bengals picked him in the fifth round in 2014, had never thrown a pass before this season.

Yet they are the starters for their two teams heading into the postseason.

Both quarterbacks have turned in mixed results. Osweiler has thrown eight touchdowns to four interceptions, but never more than one in a game. He’s beaten New England, Chicago and San Diego while losing to Pittsburgh, Oakland and Kansas City. McCarron is completing 70 percent of his passes, but was intercepted twice in a 33-20 loss to division-rival Pittsburgh. He came back the next week and beat San Francisco 24-14 with one touchdown and no interceptions.

Both aren’t ideal candidates to direct a team into the playoffs, but both are seeing their first real action in the biggest times, so the front offices of both clubs will see what they have from their young guns sooner than expected. Don’t expect either to be a serious threat, though.

The “Uh-oh, we have to give this guy a start in a playoff game?” category

Remember that Lindley anecdote I was talking about? In that loss to Carolina, he completed 16 of 28 passes for 82 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. From watching that game, I can tell you that the stat line is generous because Lindley looked lost on the field and the Cardinals never had a shot.

The new Ryan Lindley might be the Texans’ Brandon Weeden. At 29 coming out of college, he always had a ceiling as an NFL prospect, but that didn’t stop the Cleveland Browns from drafting him in the first round anyway. Then he went 5-18 with 28 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in his first four seasons with the Browns and Dallas Cowboys. Then the Cowboys moved on, picking Matt Cassel instead. It should tell you something that Weeden was passed over for Cassel.

Dallas promptly dumped Weeden to the Texans. The Texans needed a replacement for injured starter Brian Hoyer. Weeden won his first start against the Tennessee Titans, more to due with the defense than anything he did, but still he has a winning record with a team (1-0) for the first time in his career. When he makes it to the playoffs, don’t expect him to have a winning record there.

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Boxes of Ziti and a Chinese Hardware Store: How I Did Gambling on Sports

There’s an episode of The Sopranos called “The Happy Wanderer” where mob boss Tony Soprano’s daughter’s friend’s father (follow that?) wants in on Tony’s high-stakes executive poker game. A game that Frank Sinatra’s nephew flies in from Vegas to play. The guy, David Scatino, is a respected local businessman, but he has a gambling problem. Tony knows that, so he warns his nephew Christopher not to let Scatino play too far past his limits because Scatino is already in debt. After Tony falls asleep on the couch, Scatino keeps buying back in each time for $10,000 — everyone calls it “10 boxes of ziti” — and Christopher doesn’t stop him. Spoiler alert: Scatino loses a bunch and Tony finds out he already owes multiple boxes of ziti to other area mobsters. Tony & Co. … lean on the guy. I won’t elaborate further than saying it isn’t pleasant for Scatino.

I think my mom envisioned me as Scatino when I told her I started gambling.

I came home in early September from school for my cousin’s wedding and whenever it was mentioned, she stiffened a little and told me once our initial deposit eventually (inevitably) ran out that I should stop. She worried I’d develop into a degenerate gambler. I had gone to my first race track two months prior and lost a little bit of money there, about 30 bucks. I didn’t know horses. I didn’t even know how to read the big book they gave out. I barely understood the terms “box” and “trifecta” then; I don’t really now. (As I type this, I realize how stupid I must seem here.)

… Maybe her fears were justified.

But I really wanted to try something out. I’d spent the summer in New York City without a sustainable income and emerging from that desert to see the mirage of my bank account was disheartening. I’d talked to an uncle who liked to play the stock market and had been reasonably successful. He played conservative. Not getting rich, but his money was making baby money. That appealed to me.

I tried to convince my mother (and myself) that what I was doing wasn’t like the race track.

First, I decided I wouldn’t play the stock market or horses or cards. I didn’t know enough about any of those things to be comfortable risking money. I decided on sports (more on this later). Second, I went into with a partner. My roommate Alex felt similarly about wanting to make a little side money, knew about sports and played a rational foil to my sometimes-overly-optimistic ideas. Third, we researched betting sites and read 20-plus reviews to find the most reliable and user-friendly site. (Our decision to forgo Daily Fantasy Sports like Fan Duel and Draft Kings ended up paying off later when it was found employees of those sites cheated users.) Fourth, we put a hard cap on spending. The site we chose, Bovada.com, offered a 50 percent registering bonus for the beginning of the NFL season. Alex and I mutually invested, splitting a $50 buy-in. Bovada chipped in a $25 credit. We decided that if — no, when — we lost that $75, then we’d stop. Fifth, another reason why I wouldn’t end up like Scatino: No mob involvement.

The way I rationalized it: This was a relatively low sum of money, it’d be fun, I’d learn about gambling and, if we won, I’d have a little bit of money. (Also in the back of my mind: There’s an article here whether we win or lose.)

Our first weekend, we bet conservatively in five-dollar increments across five football spreads. We stuck to point spreads and over/unders for college football and NFL games, preferring those to risking it with the volatility of a regular season baseball game. We won three of five that first weekend, making four dollars and change. Joey and Kyle, our other two roommates, laughed at us for stressing about bets which inevitably yielded such small returns.

A bit of foreshadowing: Six days after I registered for allegedly-trustworthy Bovada, my credit card statements showed a purchase of $100 in supplies from a hardware store in a small, northern Chinese province.

Things went really well. We started winning more, betting in higher increments on fewer games. The confidence rose; we researched more, trying to find the lucrative lines. I downloaded a podcast called “Behind the Bets.” One weekend, we went 5-for-5. I even got the $100 refunded (shout-out TD Bank).

In four weeks, we doubled our initial deposit.

I felt like this (except that first scene; Alex and I are just roommates):

But you know where this is going. The fall-from-grace narrative is nearly as cliche as dorky-dude-gets-girl.

It started slowly. We miscommunicated, bet the wrong side of the USC-Stanford spread. We lost a little bit, and it was particularly frustrating because I had learned a small advantage from the podcast. But no worries, right? We were still in it, and still confident.

To compensate, we tried a parlay for the first time, meaning we’d need to get two bets correct to cash in. The higher risk offered a higher reward. While we were placing the bet, Bovada seemed to freeze for a second, so we double-clicked “Place bets” again. The site registered both clicks and suddenly 40 percent of our assets were on the line for one bet.

We won the first game of the parlay, but didn’t come close on the second. The first domino.

And then I realized something. The reason I didn’t bet on horses, cards or stock is that I knew I knew nothing.  I thought this made me better than other gamblers, my awareness of what I did and did not know. While I thought I was playing to my strengths I really just set myself up with faux-confidence. “I don’t just know the roster of my hometown team,” I rationalized. “I pay close attention to the four major sports. I read and watch a lot more than regular fans. I can be successful.”

My biggest mistake was thinking I knew anything at all.

It took about six weeks, with small and sporadic wins, but we ran our account down to nothing. It’s been eight weeks. I hadn’t opened up the Bovada account since then until today to write this story.

When I came home for Thanksgiving, my dad asked how the “wagering” was going (he was always nice about it in that way), and I told him.

Cue my mom, sideways look.

“So,” she said. Lengthy pause. “Have you put any more money in?”

I laughed it off. No, I was not fulfilling her prophecy of becoming David Scatino. If anything, I had realized that by thinking I was any cleverer than anyone else, I had proven just the opposite.

When I logged on to Bovada today, I saw something. With our last bet, we had apparently triggered some sort of bonus. We’d surpassed a spending threshold. Bovada comp’d us $10.

That’s a box of ziti to me.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

The Democratization of Internet Sports Journalism

Perhaps the saddest moment in sports journalism came just weeks ago, on Oct. 30, when ESPN killed Grantland, its boutique sports-and-pop-culture site created to satiate megastar Bill Simmons (Sandomir, 2015). But, it was the not the most unforeseen plug-pull because, simply, Grantland wasn’t profitable because it employed around 50 people and brought in only $6 million in yearly revenue (Travis, 2015). Plus, personality conflicts between Simmons and ESPN management (Miller, 2015).

Still, Grantland’s shuttering is indicative of the upheaval of sports journalism — and journalism in general — at this moment. Money, right now, isn’t in the industry, Stone said, mostly because nearly all journalistic outlets are on an antiquated revenue model which relies heavily on advertising dollars, which rely heavily on page views (Van Meter, 2015). With social media (mostly Twitter), the democratization of the writing on the Internet (anyone can create MyHotTakes.com; I did in high school) and the new 24/7/365 news cycle, those page views spread out over the multitudes of landing sites offering news and opinion. The decrease in page views makes a site less valuable, which means the company earns less on ad sales, which makes the company less profitable, leading to downsizing then reduced production because of a smaller staff then a reduction in credibility because it can’t cover as much.
These major journalism issues (revenue generation, online vs. print, readers, staffs) may be doomsday scenarios but the fact remains: It’s nearly impossible to get whimsical readers to one site consistently (Mitchell, 2015). So how do magazines like Sports Illustrated, which formerly relied on circulation numbers, get people to realize it’s not just a magazine? “We don’t want people to be so caught up in delivery systems,” Stone said (Stone, 2015). “I understand why they would, but … it’s my job now to get people not thinking of Sports Illustrated as a weekly, but as a daily, hourly, up-to-the-minute experience through our Web site.” Stone focuses on bringing his readers, essentially, what they want. It doesn’t sound like a complicated task, but it is.

While adapting to the web, there’s a consumer base of three million subscribers (down from 3.2 million in 2009, he said, which isn’t bad, considering a recession was sandwiched in there) for which to account and provide stellar content. He does this by featuring his reader’s favorite writers online more, bringing the media ever-hungry “goat,” as S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications dean emeritus David Rubin puts it. That goat is always there, perpetually wanting new news and angles and stories. So Stone makes additional content available online for magazine subscribers, creates video and launches focused verticals to target specific readers. (SI just launched “Campus Rush,” a section of its Web site devoted to college sports.) He said a lot of what he does isn’t defined and involves constant thought — if it were easy he wouldn’t have a job. But he said they are issues I should consider. The job of sports journalists is to solve these problems, the largest of his right now being how to balance magazine production with online proficiency.
“You don’t just abandon (print),” Stone said. “But you find that right balance of, ‘OK, even as we’ve accepted the future of Sports Illustrated isn’t going to be built on the back of print … how do we develop a modern Sports Illustrated without compromising on what’s made us who we are?’”
Stone said that last part softly, at almost a whisper. He wasn’t asking me to answer.

Quick analysis of the Red Sox deal with the Mariners

Beyond David Price, a deal I didn’t like anyway, the Boston Red Sox traded away its most reliable source of innings Monday when it dealt lefty Wade Miley and righthanded reliever Jonathan Aro to Seattle. The Mariners sent back righthanded reliever Carson Smith and lefty starter/reliever Roenis Elias.

The trade is sensible for both teams. The Red Sox seemingly want to build a bullpen like the Kansas City Royals. It’s a fair model to build from, seeing as the Royals are the reigning world champions. So presumably the Sox will link the 26-year-old Smith with established setup man Junichi Tazawa and former closer Koji Uehara in a 6th-, 7th- and 8th-inning bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel, which the Sox added earlier in the offseason. Through 79 appearances in the past two seasons, Smith has a 2.07 ERA, 11.2 strikeouts and 2.8 walks per nine innings. Translation: He’s nasty. And the whole Sox bullpen is likely to be too.

If Boston can get five quality innings from its mostly-below-league-average starters (exception: Price), then Boston should have the pieces to string together shutout performances on a nightly basis.

Smith throws sidearm and delivers a two-seam fastball in the mid-90s and a devastating slider which he often used as an out pitch in 2015.

Elias, the second piece received, is 25 and a middling lefty. In two big league seasons, both with Seattle, he’s 15-20 with a 3.97 ERA. His 7.7 strikeouts and 3.5 walks per nine and more pedestrian. Still, Elias is relatively young and holds upside as a lefty with the potential to develop, as shown by his improving lefthanded hitter’s average against, just .227 last season. For the Sox, if Elias develops into a back-end spot starter on par with Brandon Workman, who filled the role last season, that should be enough.

Seattle’s angle in all this seems strange. Why trade a dominant reliever and possibly developing lefty for … Wade Miley? He of the 11-11 record and 4.46 ERA in 2015. However, something the 29-year-old gave Boston something it desperately needed: Innings. With a constantly-in-flux starting rotation of Clay Buchholz, Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello, Joe Kelly, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Steven Wright and Elias, Miley pitched 193 innings — his fourth straight season topping 190. He’s durable, all you can ask for from a No. 4 starter.

The last piece of the trade, Aro, 25, was a great story in Boston’s farm system. He started with a $10,000 international signing bonus and made an ascent to MLB. However, he allowed eight runs in 10.1 innings last season, his first in the bigs.

This trade, overall, was a huge win for Boston. The Red Sox have seemingly amassed talent which a club needs to make a deep postseason run while giving up minimal assets. Garin Cecchini, Deven Marrero and other high-profile prospects are still in the system while Manuel Margot is the only true top talent who left — and his young age of 20 made him a risky asset anyway.

Yes, the Sox lost Miley’s consistency, but an army of arms can fill its place and bridge of Tazawa to Uehara to Smith (in any order) is intimidating enough before considering Kimbrel is at the end of it.

And that’s worth more than Miley’s mediocre 190 innings could offer.