For the sixth time in seven years - and the first time picking an underdog - EA Sports' Madden Simulation has correctly predicted the Super Bowl winner. But it's not as simple, or as complicated, as one might think.
It's a no-frills simulation, said Anthony Stevenson, senior product manager on the Madden NFL team. This year it was done on an Xbox 360; they loaded the latest roster update and depth chart, booted up a game with ranked-match parameters (basically, All-Pro difficulty) started it, then ran the game from kickoff to final gun in the Super Sim menu, which takes 23 seconds. (I timed it.) Last week, the Madden Sim spit out New Orleans as a 35-31 winner. In reality, the Saints won 31-17.
That's all there is to it. It's commercial code and currently available DLC. No tweaked gameplay sliders, no custom rosters or depth charts, no taking averages off of 100 simulations, no secret sauce. It's something you can run at home yourself with your copy of the game.
"We sim the game one time," Stevenson said. "That's what's unique about the NFL, and it's what the Saints proved yesterday, it's any given Sunday, you could see any team winning out. And the Saints did, despite being, what, five point underdogs?"
Now, yes, seven attempts is not a large sample size. One could hit six straight coin flips in a row. And, this is the first year that the Madden Sim picked the underdog to win straight up. (Only three underdogs have won the past 10 Super Bowls).
But a closer look shows that the Madden Sim, while not the kind of supercomputing that predicts weather or performs risk analysis in global thermonuclear war, isn't just getting lucky. In addition to being 6-1 straight up (missing New York's upset of the heavily favored Patriots in 2008), it's 5-2 against the spread, missing only last year and the Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl of 2005.
Granted, the Madden sim has gone with the overdog in six of its seven tries. Just not this year, making its Saints pick a little more impressive. Further, according to its own team ratings the Saints were the lesser team. New Orleans began the year at 74 (to Indianapolis' 87) and later improved to a 93 (to the Colts' 94).
That said, I wouldn't take the Madden Sim's advice on the over/under. It consistently returns higher scoring predictions than occur in real life. Over the past six years it's been over the actual point total by an average of nearly 22 points, and lifetime it is 3-4 against the over/under line.
Stevenson was proud that the Madden Sim delivered a game-changing special teams play that, while it did not happen in the real Super Bowl, mimicked the effect of New Orleans' shocking onsides-kick recovery to open the second half. In the Madden Sim, Reggie Bush returned a punt 46 yards to put the Saints on top 28-24. While the Colts briefly regained the lead in that sim, "it is cool that our game also predicted a pivotal turning point on special teams."
Actually, having run nearly a dozen sims of my own (all of them as unscientific as EA Sports') I can attest to the conspicuous impact of the Saints' special teams. I must have seen half a dozen kicks or punts returned for touchdowns, plus a couple recoveries off botched punt snaps or blocks.
One thing the Madden Sim did not get right: Saints QB Drew Brees' otherworldly accuracy, abetted by a short-gain passing strategy. The Madden Sim had him at 25 of 37 for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Brees was 32 of 39 (including 29 of his last 32) but he did have fewer yards (288) and touchdowns (two) than in the real game. Stevenson thinks he knows the reason why.
"When I was watching the game, it seemed like there were not more than one or two passes thrown (on the fly) for more than 15 yards," Stevenson said. "In our sim, you would have seen several deep passes at least attempted if not completed." That backs up the simmed Brees' reduced accuracy but greater results.
Whatever the case, with this kind of accuracy after seven years, the Madden Sim has emerged as a counterpart to the Madden Curse for reliably predictive if statistically unproven performance.
Not that Stevenson wishes the cover curse to continue. Brees is a leading candidate for inclusion on Madden NFL 11's cover, and Stevenson was pulling hard for him and the Saints.