washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Leagues and Sports > NFL > Super Bowl

Football Fans, Calling It as They Foresee It

Eagles or Patriots? Super Bowl Prophets Go Ape Over the Game

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page C01

Inji the orangutan looked over the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles T-shirts yesterday, contemplating which to put on.

It's a heady decision for the matriarch orangutan of the Oregon Zoo. In the five years she has put her predilection for prediction to the test, she has picked the T-shirt of the next Super Bowl champ four times.

_____NFL Basics_____
Team index
NFL Section
_____Mark Maske's NFL Insider_____
Weis Is Working Overtime (washingtonpost.com, Feb 4, 2005)
Thomason Settles Into Role With Eagles (washingtonpost.com, Feb 3, 2005)
E. Smith Retirement May Come as Cowboy (washingtonpost.com, Feb 2, 2005)

"She must know what she's doing," says zoo director Tony Vecchio.

The only time Inji fumbled was the 2003 Super Bowl, when the Tampa Bay Bucs upset the Oakland Raiders. She had the Bucs shirt halfway on until her grandson badgered her for it, says Vecchio, and she switched.

Inji got started when a Portland TV sportscaster gave the orangutans Oregon and Oregon State T-shirts before the big-rivalry football game. She grabbed one and put it on. The surprised sportscaster said Inji must be making a prediction. Turned out she picked the winning team -- and the rest is, well, predictable.

Conventional wisdom says punishing defense, turnovers and rushing yards win Super Bowls. But every Super Bowl, prodigious prognosticators employ all manner of methods to try to foretell which team will take home the trophy.

Like the mascot theory: When New England's Pat Patriot lines up against Philadelphia's Swoop the Eagle, this theory says the Pats will pluck the Birds, according to Wireless Flash News. In Super Bowls pitting human mascots against animal mascots, the human mascot has won 18 of 25 times.

Then there's the predicting nun.

Sister Jean Kenny of Chicago has a 16-3 record of predicting Super Bowls. "I'm looking for number 17 Sunday night," she says.

Since predicting that her hometown Chicago Bears would win Super Bowl XX in a Bears-fan poetry contest, she has become a Super Bowl celeb. She appeared on CNN yesterday -- her fifth time. "It's going to be in the parish bulletin this week," says Kenny of her prediction. "When you make the parish bulletin, USA Today and The Washington Post all in the same week, you know you're good."

She even envisioned the Patriots-Eagles matchup in early September in an e-mail to a reporter. She says the score will be 33-23, Patriots. And, as usual, she wrote a prediction poem, which starts: "Welcome football fans to the Sunshine State / See the focused Patriots dominate."

She's always asked whether divine intervention steers her picks. "God has more important things to do," says the nun. "I do it the old-fashioned way -- I do my homework. I read Pro Football Weekly religiously every week."

John F. Murray is the Freud of football. A sports psychologist in West Palm Beach, Fla., he devised the Murray Performance Index for quantifying how close a team comes to mental and physical perfection.

He has broken down every play of the Patriots' and Eagles' playoff games, assigning point values for factors ranging from "focused execution" to "pressure management." An MPI score of .600 is excellent and .500 is average.

Murray accurately predicted the blowout upset two years ago by Tampa Bay. Last year, he presaged an "extremely close game" but got the winner wrong -- he picked the Carolina Panthers, not New England. This Super Bowl looks like another tough call.

"The Eagles have a slight edge," he says. Their MPI score is .541, the Patriots' .525. "When you isolate out only those pressure situations, the Patriots are better. But given a relatively clean-played game, no turnovers or mistakes, Philadelphia has the advantage."

So which is it? "Total score, you have to say the Eagles," he says.

Software engineer David Holt has run 10,000 Super Bowl computer simulations for 16 straight years using team stats. Whoever wins the most simulations wins his prediction, and he's been right 12 out of 16 times. This year, "we're going to do it with Terrell Owens and without Terrell Owens, so we've got to run it 20,000 times," says Holt, from Hixson, Tenn. Owens, the star Eagles wide receiver, has been out with an injury but intends to play.

Results: The 10,000 simulations without Owens produced Patriots wins 70 percent of the time, outscoring the Eagles 31-17. With Owens, the Patriots still win but only 54 percent of the time, and by a tighter margin -- 30-24.

At EA Sports' studio last week in Maitland, Fla., 25 employees of the video game company watched a virtual Super Bowl XXXIX played using the latest edition of Madden NFL.

"We are not at the mercy of any orangutans here at EA Sports," says marketing director Jordan Edelstein. "We just ran the game. We have it play itself -- no tinkering and no bias."

Madden NFL is loaded with artificial intelligence using realistic player attributes and NFL-like playbooks. It has predicted the past two Super Bowl winners, but blew the call on the Pats' win over the Rams in 2002.

This year's prediction: The Patriots score with a minute left to win, 36-21.

Jon Robinson, editor of IGN.com sports, a video game Web site, played the Super Bowl twice (with and without Owens) on each of the two top NFL video games -- Madden NFL 2005 and ESPN NFL 2K5.

His scores: ESPN with Owens -- Pats, 31-17. ESPN without Owens -- Pats, 42-13. Madden with Owens -- Pats, 27-10. Madden without Owens -- Pats, 21-14.

"The Patriots are just that good!" says Robinson.

Larry Trusley of Newport Beach, Calif., has crunched 38 years of Super Bowl stats. A sports handicapper, he's better known to his clients as "The Wiz of Odds." His Super Bowl record is 10-4-2 against the spread -- a 71 percent success rate. Ask him who's going to win the Super Bowl tomorrow, and the answer's complicated.

"The oldest quarterback is 22-16 straight up in the Super Bowl. This year it's [Donovan] McNabb," he says of the Philly QB, who is eight months older than the Patriots' Tom Brady.

But the team with the highest-rated quarterback has lost more Super Bowls than they've won, 18-20. McNabb again. "And the team with the longest winning streak coming in has won 21 and lost 13," he says. "New England.

"Team with the better record has won the Super Bowl 25 of 34 times -- a 74 percent winner. New England. Team coming in with most regular season rushing yards has won 30 of 38 times -- or 79 percent of the time. New England. Super Bowl teams with a 1,500-yard rusher vs. one without have gone 6 and 0. New England. Super Bowl favorites are 23 and 13 with two ties [against the spread]. New England."

"I go strictly by the numbers," Trusley says. "I like New England."

But does a pro like Trusley trust other prognosticators, like Inji the orangutan or Sister Jean? "Only as amusement," he says, before suggesting that he might have a job for the Chicago nun. "If she can pick over 60 percent, the Wiz wants to find some religion."

You'd think Patriots and Eagles officials would be too busy to pay attention to such predictions. But tucked inside the T-shirt the Patriots sent to Inji was a banana with a note: "Hope Inji accepts bribes."

The Eagles confess they were thinking of sending their T-shirt with orangutan pheromones from Philadelphia's zoo.

In the end, zoo officials say the Eagles never sent a shirt, so they bought a cheapie one.

Oh, Inji's pick yesterday?

With cameras rolling and Inji making her choice, her troublemaker grandson, Kutai, stole both T-shirts and ran off. Zoo officials say Inji tried to wrestle away the Patriots shirt but failed. Eventually she snatched the Eagles shirt and slipped it on.

Could be a close game.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company