Friday, January 20, 2017

Finishing First

Everyone was ganging up on 2016 as the year concluded, what with all of the bad news punctuating seemingly every week of the calendar year.

For your humble scribbler, the year seemed to involve an inordinate number of second-place finishes. My Carolina Panthers came up short in the Super Bowl in February, then my UNC Tar Heels also took runner-up in the NCAA finals in April. Then in May I finished second in a poker tournament in Monte Carlo, and came here to whimper a little at having come so close to winning only to have it snatched away.

The presidential election in November was hardly considered a victory here on the farm either, I’ll confess. It was right after that I remember messaging a friend and after listing all of the second-place finishes making a stubborn proclamation: “I am winning the gotdamn Pigskin Pick’em and that’s all there is to it.”

I was referring to the Pauly’s Pub football pool, of course, which I wrote about a bit during the course of the NFL season here although not as much as I have in past years. This was the eighth year running I’ve participated. I won it once before (in 2011), and this year managed to get off to a fast start to tie for the lead in Week 2, then take the lead all by myself in Week 3. By November I had built up a long streak as the frontrunner, and would remain in the top spot into the final weeks.

My largest lead over the chase pack was five games -- six, in fact, for a brief period halfway through one Sunday’s games -- but it had been reduced to just one game heading into Week 16. I was a bit of a basket case, I’ll admit, worrying that I was sadly, slowly careening toward yet another second-place showing.

Week 16 saw games happening all over the place as the NFL scheduled things around (and on) Christmas (which was a Sunday). I believe games took place on four different days that week. I enjoyed some great fortune in three games that mattered a lot, as in each I’d gone one way and my trailing opponent(s) went the other.

The first was the Atlanta-Carolina game where I took the Falcons, others took the Panthers, and Atlanta won easily. Then came the Cincinnati-Houston game the night of Christmas Eve. I had the Texans, my nearest foe had the Bengals, and while Houston led 12-10 in the final minute Cincy was driving for what seemed a certain winning field goal. With seconds left, Bengals kicker Randy Bullock tried a 43-yard field goal that somehow went wide right, and Houston won.

Then on Christmas Day I’d taken Pittsburgh over Baltimore (whom my closest challenger took), and after a crazy back-and-forth game the Steelers got a go-ahead TD with just over a minute left to win 31-27. I was up four games heading into the final week, a relatively comfortable place to be.

For Week 17 all 16 games were played on Sunday, and after making my picks I realized I could very well have it all locked up by mid-afternoon. But it didn’t go so easily.

Up four versus three opponents tied for second, two of them gained two games on me in the early afternoon games, cutting my lead to two. In the late afternoon games one of those two and I made identical picks for all six of them, which meant I’d automatically clinched beating that player as there was only the single night game left.

With the other opponent we’d picked five games the same, only differing in one -- the New York Giants (whom he picked) at Washington (whom I’d picked). The Redskins were playing to earn a playoff spot while the Giants had nothing to play for at all, having already clinched a seed that wouldn’t change with a win. But NY played their starters throughout, Washington struggled mightily, and the Giants won the game.

Now with only the Green Bay at Detroit night game left to go -- the 256th of 256 regular season games -- I had a one-game lead. And I had a strong suspicion my opponent was going to go with the underdog Lions in an effort to close the gap.

I was facing an interesting “game theory”-type situation, I realized. And I had about an hour before the kickoff to ponder it.

I had already chosen Green Bay, but could change my pick if I wished. That said, I had imposed on myself a strict “no-change” policy according to which I never changed a pick once I had entered it. I estimated the likelihood my opponent was taking the Lions to be at least 75%, perhaps even higher. If he did and I switched to Detroit, I’d clinch the title as soon as the game kicked off. But if I stuck with Green Bay and he took Detroit, I’d have to sweat one last game.

I decided not to change my pick, and when the game began I saw indeed he’d taken Detroit. Then the Lions led for the first half, and I was filled with misgivings for having let a superstition of sorts overrule my rational analysis of the situation. Green Bay stormed back in the second half, though, with Aaron Rodgers leading the Packers to three TDs in four drives to build a two-touchdown lead. I don’t think I finally exhaled, though, until after Green Bay covered up the onside kick at the very end after Detroit had made it 31-24.

I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking how I’d spent 10-plus hours during the first day of 2017 fretting about the pool, thinking all along how if things had gone just slightly differently I might’ve clinched things during the early afternoon and avoided all the stress.

Today the trophy arrived, which turned out to be a shiny bit of fun amid a dreary day in which a newly-inaugurated president is going on about “America First,” seemingly unable to understand the difference between national pride and jingoism. (Not to mention unaware -- or perhaps not -- of the term’s history and less than appealing connotations.)

In any case, I’ll say it was fun to be first nearly all year, and even more so to end up on top -- a nice finish to start a new year.

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