It has been a long while since I have attempted a Sunzi Super Bowl assessment. My first foray was back in 2007 and, while the terms of the analysis were quite useful, my ultimate prediction came up short (damn you, Rex Grossman). The next year I did not venture a specific prognostication, but my Sunzi-guided investigation yielded this insight: "...the Giants will have to exploit their [Patriots] attention there [on Plaxico Burris] and find other receiver options. "
Of course, no one could have foreseen that the ultimate "other receiver option" would turn out to be David Tyree, but Sunzi pointed me in that direction.
So it seems clear that Sunzi can be applied to football predictions, and that is precisely what I did in my class - a short course on Sunzi and its various applications - today. The analysis yielded this outcome: Seahawks 21, Patriots 17.
The first step in using Sunzi to think about football is that which I took back in 2007:
....attack weaknesses, avoid strengths. When we consider the strengths and weaknesses of each side we notice that the Colts' strength, their offense, is matched by the Bears' strength, their defense. Thus, the best strategy for each side is not to expect the winning strike to come from that particular area. The Colts offense will move the ball and score points; but the Bears' defense will come up with some big stops. We have to assume that the Colts will score somewhere in the neighborhood of 28 points. The Bears will not stop them completely, though they might limit them at key moments. For all of its potency, however, the Colts offense will not be the key to the game.
The crucial factors will be the weaknesses of each side: the Bears' offense and the Colts defense. The team that holds the edge here, that is able to exploit the opponent's weakness, will have the advantage.
Remember: the Colts actually scored 29 points that year...
But what about now? It seems to me that the Seahawks defense is their greatest strength and the Patriots offense is their greatest strength. Since Sunzi tells us that strength versus strength is unlikely to be the central dynamic of a strategic interaction, we need to contemplate how the Seahawks offense matches up against the Patriots defense. But before getting to that, let's recall that when a strong Patriots offense (undefeated in 2008) twice matched up with a strong NY Giants defense, Tom Brady could only manage to score 14 points (2008) and 17 points (2012). My sense is that the Seahawks defense is at least as good, if not better, than those Giants defenses, so we can reasonably expect that the Patriots will not exceed 17 points of offense.
But that is not the key confrontation. I'm not alone in this way of thinking. Here is Greg A. Bedard over at Sports Illustrated: "The Super Bowl matchup will hinge on the Seattle offense against the New England defense..." His focus is correct, according to Sunzi, but his conclusions are wrong: he sees the Patriots winning 16 to 13 (notice that he, too, does not expect the Patriots to exceed their past performances against the Giants). Now, granted, this is a very closely matched contest. Things could hinge on a trick play or a fumble or the bounce of the ball. But here is why Bedard is wrong and the Seahawks will score at least three touchdowns.
Seattle had the best rushing offense in the league during the regular season (New England was 18th). Marshawn Lynch is, of course, a "beast." He, alone, would cause the Pats fits. But Seattle also runs the read option, and the Pats do not see this all that often; they are not used to having to account simultaneously for both an outstanding tail back and a smart and fast quarterback-as-running-threat. Yes, they will have practiced it all week long (when not worrying about how they will be able to survive without deflating their footballs) but that is not the same as actually facing it.
Handling the varied run options that Seattle brings will create problems for the Patriots secondary. While it is true that Seattle was a lowly 26th in total receiving yards (Pats were 11th) when you look at average yards per reception the Hawks jump up to 8th (Pats were a much less impressive 25th). We all know what these comparisons illustrate: the Pats rely heavily on the short pass (which they will have more trouble completing against the Hawks tight, pressing coverage) while the Seahawks utilize the run more. But when they do pass, Seattle passes longer because defenses are cheating forward to try to stop the run. I do not think the Pats secondary is good enough (18th in defending against the pass; a stat where Hawks are number 1) to be able to counter the inevitable onslaught.
It is still a close call. The Pats have some good players. Gronk may score a touchdown. But on the straight match up, the Hawks have the edge. As Sunzi might say: their weaker point (offense) is stronger than the Pats weaker point (defense).
Both sides will try trick plays, and this is perfectly in keeping with Sunzi, too. From chapter 5 of the Bingfa:
In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.
Instead of Giles's translation of zheng (正) as "direct" and qi (奇) as "indirect," we might go with "orthodox" and "unorthodox." The implication is the same, however: whichever side can pull off a surprise, an unorthodox trick play, could come away with a victory.
So, I think the Seahawks will win. They should win on the head to head competition. But if they fail to pull it off, it may well be due to some ruse that Belichick and company pull.
Let's end with a warm memory: