The AFC Championship Game to be played on Sunday in Denver is being widely billed as Brady-Manning XV, and the illustrious careers of the two greatest quarterbacks of this generation are being diced and sliced into easily digestible, yet for these purposes, largely unenlightening morsels. The last I checked, very little that Manning did in Indianapolis applies to his post-neck surgery tenure in Denver, and Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark aren’t going to be wearing a snorting horse on their helmets Sunday. On the Patriots side, the numbers that Tom Brady put up over the years against the older of the throwing Manning brothers were aided greatly by the presence of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and a bevy of former Pats who are much more likely to appear on sports call-in shows than on a gridiron these days.
While one day we’ll dissect the mountains of career numbers these men will have topped off to place them accordingly on the list of alltime greatest signalcallers. That will give their complete bodies of work the retrospective they deserve in terms of Hall of Fame, and more importantly barroom arguments with people from other generations. However for the here and now, its all about this season, this game, this championship waiting to be won.
You may bill it as the greatest individual rivalry in the sport with each man trying to cement their legacies, but since they won't be on the field at the same time, it really is a case of the NFL’s single-season passing leader looking to validate all of the numbers, and for an old Super-Bowl-tested warhorse a chance to close out a season in which seemingly everything was stacked against him. Both wil play against defenses decimated by injuries and both have the same goal as every NFL player of the modern age, the Lombardi Trophy.
So here’s how Manning, the odds-on favorite to win NFL-MVP honors, stacks up against Brady, the never-say-die, field general extraordinaire, based solely on their 2013 seasons. The numbers greatly favor Manning but that's all part of the 2013 script. In November during "Manning-Brady XIV" at Gillette Stadium both men orchestrated phenomenal halves of football, yet it was Manning's lowest output of the season. We can only hope for a similarly thrilling show this time around. But also keep in mind they are simply the leaders of their teams. They’ll also be the first to tell you that individuals don’t win championships.
In Sunday's AFC Championship game history will be made between two old rivals. We're not talking about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning who'll be trying to outscore each other for the 15th time. No, this game marks the first time in NFL history that two coaches who squared off in the Super Bowl will be facing each other in a conference championship game. A decade ago John Fox and Bill Belichick were running opposing sidelines in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Staduim in Houston for New England's 32–29 win over Fox's Carolina Panthers. Adam Vinateri's second Super Bowl game-winning field goal in three seasons gave Belichick his second of three titles and denied Fox one of his own. Not before or since have two Super Bowl opposing head coaches met with the prize being a trip back to the biggest show in sports, until now.
Sunday at Denver's Mile High Stadium will be THE game everyone wanted to see since the preseason. The top two seeds in the AFC square off to punch their ticket to East Rutherford, NJ to represent the conference in Super Bowl XLVIII. These teams met in Foxboro on November 24, in a game that saw the Broncos score 24 unanswered points before halftime, after which the Patriots returned the favor with 31 straight points of their own.
New England held Peyton Manning to season-lows with 150 passing yards and 70.4 rating in that game but Knowshown Moreno set a Gillette Stadium record with 224 rushing yards, the second-most yards ever against the Pats after O.J. Simpson's 250 yards at Schaefer Stadium in 1973. However a special teams turnover on a punt return with time running down in overtime gave the Pats a thrilling 34-31 win and sent the Broncos to the second of their three losses on the season.
Fox's bunch recovered from the worst collapse in team history and went onto win four of their last five games, clinch home field advantage and smash multiple NFL records for offense, including most touchdowns (76), most touchdown passes (55), most passing yards per game (348.3) and most total points scored in a season (606) while placing second to the 1950 Los Angeles Rams in points per game (38.8 to 37.9). One of the reason the Broncos and Peyton Manning in particular were able to put up such gaudy numbers was the work of an offensive line that allowed No. 18 to be sacked just 20 times the entire season, the fewest in the league since Peyton and his brother Eli of the Giants were each brought down 16 times in 2010.
Defensively the Broncos will be dealing again with injury issues, missing five of their original starters on defense, including Chris Harris, the starting left cornerback who was placed on IR this week after suffering a torn ACL against San Diego. That further weakens a secondary that allowed 272.5 passing yards per game this season while placing in the bottom half of defenses in passing touchdowns allowed (29), big passing plays (37) and total touchdowns (44).
While this is the 15th meeting between Manning and Brady, its the seventh between Fox and Belichick, with the latter holding a 5–1 edge including the big one in 2004. Denver has the team to beat in the AFC. The question is, can they beat this generation's greatest tactician?
Here's how the AFC's 20013-14 heavyweights compared during the regular season.
Consider these curious stats about this weekend's slate of games and beyond:
- According to NFL Media Relations, since the NFL moved to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, No. 1 seeds in the NFC are 19-4 (.826) in the Divisional Playoffs. In the AFC, the No. 1 seed has compiled a 13-10 (.565) record. However since 2007 the NFC No. 1 seed is just 2–4 while the AFC top dog is just 3–3.
- Also if it seems like the Patriots always get a first-round bye, you’re onto something. Since the 12-team playoff system began in 1990, New England has made the playoffs 14 times and have been afforded a first-week bye an NFL-high nine times, to best the Steelers and 49ers (eight byes since 1990) by one.
- Tom Brady needs just three touchdown tosses to surpass Brett Favre (44) and tie Joe Montana for the most in NFL Postseason history at 45. Of his current crop of receivers, Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman (two each) have accounted for four of Brady’s 42 scoring throws.
- Brady is already the NFL’s alltime postseason leader in passing yards but likely needs to outlast Peyton Manning in these playoffs to keep the distinction. Manning trails Brady by 270 yards with both men ready for their first action of 2014.
- Manning hasn’t won an outdoor postseason game since his Colts defeated the Ravens 15-6 on January 13, 2007 in Baltimore. Here’s the difference a roof makes:
Indoors: 10 games, 6 wins, 4 losses, 321.9 yards per game, 21 TDs, 8 INTs, 66.7% completions
Outdoors: 10 games, 3 wins, 7 losses, 247.0 yards per game, 11 TDs, 13 INTs, 59.7% completions
- Carolina’s Cam Newton will be making his first career playoff appearance at home against the Niners. He is the only quarterback left standing in these playoffs who has never won a playoff game. The signalcaller with the longest drought of playoff wins? Manning whose last postseason victory was a 30-17 home win against the Jets in the 2009-10 AFC Championship Game on January 24, 2010. In all, 18 different quarterbacks—including Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and T.J. Yates—have led their teams to playoff wins since Manning’s last.
- Brady will surely be looking for these matchups: Colts defensive backs Antoine Bethea and Vontae Davis were thrown at a combined 129 times during the regular season and allowed a combined 14 touchdowns, a rate of a touchdown for every 9.2 throws, easily the worst of any teammates remaining in the playoffs.
- Three Super Bowl winning quarterbacks—Brady, Manning and Drew Brees—remain while only two Super Bowl-winning coaches—Bill Belichick and Sean Payton still have a chance at a title. Belichick and Denver’s John Fox (Panthers 2003-04) are the only elite eight coaches who have tasted defeat in the Super Bowl.
- A win against the Colts would put Belichick into a tie with former Colts and Dolphins legend Don Shula, with 19 career playoff victories as a head coach. That’s second only to the 20 Tom Landry won with the Dallas Cowboys. (Since one of his wins came with Cleveland, Belichick needs three to tie Landry for most playoff wins for a single team)
- All eight of the teams still alive in the playoffs have reached their respective Conference title games in the past decade, with the Chargers having the longest wait since the 2004-05 season. The Patriots and 49ers are the only remaining members of the NFL’s 2012-13 Final Four.
- Three of the remaining teams—the Panthers, Chargers and Seahawks—have never won the Super Bowl. Among the other five, the Patriots are in the middle in terms of most recent championship, with their 2004-05 title coming more recently than the 49ers (1994-95) and Broncos (1998-99) but not as recently as the Colts (2006-07) and Saints (2009-10).
Fresh off of their stunning and historic comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Colts travel to Foxboro on Saturday to take on the Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. While facing the Patriots in January at Gillette is a daunting task (road teams have won just three of 13 postseason games played there), the Colts have been one of the more successful road teams of 2013, posting a 5–3 mark away from Lucas Oil Stadium, making them one of three AFC teams to boast a winning road record (Denver and Kansas City were 6-2).
The Colts also had great success against better teams this season, boasting a 5-2 record against 2013 playoff participants, including impressive victories over the Broncos, 49ers and Seahawks. The Patriots were 2-2 against 2013 postseason teams, with wins over Denver and New Orleans.
Comparing the stats of the two squads you see that despite such disparate postseason experience, they're eerily similar in many ways. One category where they're diametrically opposed to each other was in average margin of losses. New England's four losses came by an average of 4.5 points, with no losses of more than one score. On the otherhand, when the Colts lost, they lost big, placing 30th among the league's 32 teams with an average margin of defeat of over three scores at 17.4 points per loss.
Bill Belichick's teams have prided themselves on not beating themselves, and that's one of the main reasons why the Pats' head man is so impressed by Chuck Pagano's team. Despite a rash of turnovers against Kansas City last weekend, the Colts turned the ball over the fewest times in the league during the regular season with 14 giveaways (10 interceptions, four lost fumbles). At the heart of Indy's ball security is former UConn star Donald Brown who has yet to lose a fumble in 649 regular season and playoff offensive touches. Indy also committed the fewest number of penalties in the league and were penalized the fewest yards, categories the Pats finished second and third in respectively.
Here's a tale of the tape between the two teams. Given these stats, you shouldn't be surprised if the game is considerably closer than the current nine-point spread the Patriots are currently favored by.
On Monday morning at Boston College’s Conte Forum Marty Walsh was sworn in as the 54th mayor of the City of Boston. He took the reins from Thomas Menino who headed up the city’s government since 1993. Not only did Boston undergo dramatic changes as a city during Mayor Menino’s 20 years in office (can you say “The Big Dig”?), but the city's pro sports teams enjoyed a period of unprecedented success. During Menino’s tenure all four of Boston’s major professional sports teams (taking the liberty of giving him credit for Foxboro’s Patriots) won titles, totaling a mayoral-high eight rings. For the purists who only count titles won by the teams that play within the city limits, Menino is the only man to preside over championships by the Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics (Kevin White, Celtics and Bruins—and James Curley, Braves and Bruins—are the only other men to be in office for as many as two different Boston teams’ titles)
On Friday morning my listing of Boston’s 2013 Sports Stats Heroes was rolled out with only a few days left in the year. However, you have to give credit where credit is due so I wanted to take this opportunity to commend three Patriots—one who was on the original list and two who deserve to be mentioned—for their Week 17 performances that put them into the record books.
First let’s recognize Julian Edelman, who originally came in at number 13 on the list. Dubbed “Minitron” by Tom Brady, Edelman closed out the regular season by grabbing nine passes against the Bills in the rain at Foxboro to raise his 2013 total to 105, thus becoming the Patriots most prolific single-season pass catcher not named Wes Welker. Edelman finished fourth in the NFL in receptions, trailing only Washington’s Pierre Garcon (113), Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (110) and Andre Johnson (109) of the Houston Texans. His catch total was a whopping 152% increase over his previous four-year career output of 69 receptions, while he increased his receiving yardage total by 148% (1,056 as compared to 714 previous yards).
Setting a significant franchise record on the season’s last day was kicker Stephen Gostkowski whose 14 points against the Bills gave him 158 for the season and enabled him to leapfrog 1964 AFL Player of the Year Gino Cappelletti’s franchise scoring record of 155 points set for the Boston Patriots. Gostkowski’s big day also saw his 2013 season surpass his two previous season highs (153 in 2012 and 148 in 2008) as well as Cappelletti’s 1961 when he scored 147 points. According to the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN Stats & Info), Cappelletti’s scoring mark was the second-most enduring for an NFL team, trailing only Paul Hornung’s Green Bay record of 176 points set in 1960.
Finally, New England enters the playoffs with a better handle on the backfield situation, following a yeoman’s effort by LeGarrette Blount whose 334 all purpose yards not only obliterated the New England record of 273 yards set by Larry Garron in 1962, it also was the most in the NFL since Adrian Peterson had 361 yards against the Bears as a rookie in 2007, seventh-most since the AFL-NFL merger (Denver’s Glyn Milburn set the standard with 404 yards against the Seahawks in 1995). Blount’s 189 rushing yards place fifth alltime in a game for the Patriots, were the most of the Belichick era, most for a New England runner since Robert Edwards had 196 against the Rams in 1998. Blount also set the home record for rushing yards at Gillette Stadium, which places him second only to Denver’s Knowshown Moreno who had 224 earlier this season.
Few Boston stars shined brighter in 2013 than Bruins netminder, Tuukka Rask.
Four major professional teams, four playoff appearances, two trips to the finals, one championship, a Heisman Trophy contender and a city that despite being attacked, rallied around their own and their teams during a year that no New Englander will ever forget.
We looked back at an amazing year in Boston sports, highlighting those stats stood out the most.
Here are mine . Tell us yours.
The Patriots other-worldly come-from-behind victory over the Browns marked the team’s 10th win of the season extending Bill Belichick’s streak of double-digit totals during the regular season to 11, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the second-most in NFL history.
Patriots: 11th straight 10-win season (2nd-longest streak in NFL history, 49ers had 16 from 1983-98)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 8, 2013
There’s little doubt however that this has been the most trying of those 11 seasons for the Pats franchise, weakened yet again on Sunday by the season-ending torn ACL and MCL suffered by tight end Rob Gronkowski, who as we pointed out last week is a complete game-changer when it comes to the New England attack. However now without Gronk for the rest of the year, Tom Brady will have to overcome mounting odds to somehow lead the Pats into and through the playoffs. If there’s one thing we have learned about these Patriots, it’s don’t bet against them, even when it seems like there’s no hope.
Using win probabilities calculated by the website advancednflstats.com, we looked at each game the Patriots have played this season and identified the degree of difficulty of each of their comebacks. The latest game against the Browns was a doozy, given the need for two touchdowns, a recovered onside kick and a fortuitous pass interference call in the game’s waning moments, yet it wasn’t the only game that saw the Pats’ opponents have a 99% chance of winning. The other was against New Orleans in week 6 trailing the Saints 27-23, but Brady overcame the odds, hitting Kenbrell Thompkins with a 17-yard scoring pass with just 10 seconds remaining.
Of those 10 wins, four (all occurring in the last five games played at Gillette Stadium) have come after New England’s probability of winning dipped to five percent or below—in the second half. The only outlier was the Steelers squashing when Pittsburgh’s biggest advantage came on their first drive.
Given these probabilities, arguments can be made that the Pats record could realistically have fallen anywhere between 12-1 (adding a 90% win Prob. at the Jets and 82% at the Panthers) and 4-9 (losses coming in those four plus Week 1 at Buffalo and Week 13 at Houston), given slightly different circumstances. But like the plays that landed Auburn in the BCS title game (miracle 73-yard tipped touchdown pass against Georgia and 100-yard-plus missed field goal return against Alabama), the Pats have proven that sometimes you also have to be lucky to be good.
Here’s a look at the highs and lows in win probabilities for the Patriots in each game this season, culled from the pages of AdvancedNFLStats.com.
With the Patriots trailing the Texans 10-0 in the first quarter of yesterday’s game, Tom Brady drove his team down the field on a six-play, 55-yard drive, ending in a 23-yard touchdown connection to his favorite receiver, Rob Gronkowski. The catch, a third-down, diving, fingertip grab just inches above the Reliant Stadium turf and then his subsequent roll into the end zone showed the incredible athleticism of the 6’6”, 265 pound All Pro whose return has been the shot in the arm that a previously languishing offense has needed. Then in the third quarter the Texans were so concerned about Gronkowski’s presence in the end zone that they allowed Shane Vereen to catch a ball in the flat and score virtually unscathed, further illustrating just how important his presence on the field is for the team’s outlook.
The Pats have now played six games with Gronkowski after enduring the first six games of the season without their star tight end. The missing piece to the offense has been obvious and the difference in performance since his return has been dramatic.
In the six games he was sidelined while recovering from back and multiple forearm surgeries, New England’s offense ranked 22nd in the NFL (behind division rivals Buffalo and Miami) by averaging just 20.8 points per game. Tom Brady’s completion percentage over that span was 56.9% ranking New England 26th. The team averaged 246.7 gross passing yards per game to place 20th and yards per completion was 28th in the league at 10.9. Brady ranked 17th in passer rating at 79.5
In the six games playing with Gronkowski, the turnaround has been startling. Only the Broncos have scored more points per game (33.2 to 32.8), the team’s 297.8 passing yards per game ranks fourth in the NFL, Brady has completed 64.7% of his throws, ranking fifth and yards per completion have increased by a full point to 11.9 to rank 13th.
On October 20 against the Jets, Gronkowski’s first game of the year, Brady threw to Gronkowski 17 times, which through yesterday’s games ranked first among targets for all NFL tight ends in a game this season, tied for eighth among all receivers and is just two shy of the aggregate total of targets thrown to all of the other New England tight ends through all 12 games. Despite playing just half of the team’s games, Gronkowski has nearly caught up to Julian Edelman for the team lead in receiving yardage (711 to 560), is in a four-way tie for the most touchdown catches (4) and has caught 27 of the 39 balls thrown to him over the past four games (69.2%).
The score in Houston also marked the fourth consecutive game in which Gronkowski has reached the end zone, tying Jimmy Graham of the Saints for the longest TD-scoring streak for a tight end this season and putting him two shy of his career-high streak of six set in November and December 2011. Despite Gronkowski missing half of the season, only Graham has more 100-yard receiving games among tight ends (six to three) only San Francisco’s Vernon Davis is averaging more yards per catch (16.8 to 15.1) and by averaging 93.3 receiving yards per contest, Gronkowski is ahead of second-pace Graham by 7.3 yards. He also places fourth among all receivers in first downs (29) since making his return, trailing only Calvin Johnson, Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall.
The Patriots historic come-from-behind victory over the Broncos at a frigid Gillette Stadium muted what was a din of outrage aimed at Stevan Ridley by seemingly the entire football community on social media during the first few minutes of what was shaping up to be a rough night in New England. After Ridley’s first-drive fumble was scooped up by Denver’s Von Miller and taken 60 yards for Denver’s first score. he wouldn’t see the ball again yet the Pats would fumble twice more in the first quarter, one by Tom Brady and the other by LeGarrette Blount, accounting for nearly as many lost fumbles (three) that they had the entire season to that point (five). In fact, Ridley (4), Blount (2) and Brady (2) account for all eight of the Patriots lost fumbles this season, a stat that ties them for sixth-most in the NFL (yet still half of the NFL-leading16 coughed up by the Broncos).
Ridley’s problems holding onto the ball have reached epidemic proportions, with him losing the ball in three successive games.Yet despite being benched for most of the Denver and Buffalo games and missing the Bengals game altogether, Ridley still ranks 17th among all NFL runners in rushing (576 yards), is tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns (7) and is 20th in first downs (29). Roll back the starting line to the beginning of 2012 and Ridley moves up to 11th in yards (1,839), third in touchdowns (19) and fifth in first downs (111). However he’s also first in among NFL running backs during that span with six lost fumbles and his 1.36 fumbles per 100 touches ranks as the most among all running backs with more than 310 touches, second to Willis McGahee (1.62) among those with more than 205 touches and 12th out of everyone with as many as 100 touches over the past two seasons (Blount ranks eighth at 1.61).
The most painful part of the Ridley situation is that his fumbles have been costly, and the damage has come quickly. Two of his four lost this season have resulted in long defensive returns for touchdowns (74 vs. Buffalo and 60 last night) while a third saw the Steelers offense celebrating in the end zone less than two minutes after the ball hit the turf. A common thread between those three however is that the Pats ultimately won the game. Although the fourth of those resulted in just a field goal, it was the most costly, killing a long New England drive at the Carolina 13, resulting in a likely six-to10 point swing, completely changing the complex of the eventual 24-20 loss.
Perhaps the social media pundits were right and Ridley should fall to the bottom of the depth chart. With him shackled to the bench, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden (zero fumbles on 260 combined career offensive touches) picked up the slack in the backfield combining for 160 yards on 32 flawless touches and were reminiscent of recent backfield committees fielded by Bill Belichick. They may not provide the pure running style of Ridley, but with a full complement of receivers back in full swing for Tom Brady, and a lack of turnovers, like Sunday night, they should give the Pats enough to win.
Here are the running backs who have fumbled with the highest frequency since the start of 2012 (minimum 100 offensive touches).
Following a Sunday off the Patriots are back at work getting ready for their Monday Night opponent, the surprising Carolina Panthers, fresh off of an impressive 10-9 win against the defending NFC Champion 49ers in San Francisco. The 2013 Panthers have become much more than the Cam Newton Show of the past couple of seasons, coupling a strong defense, led by Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, with an offense that has produced 30 or more points in five of the past seven games. With the New England defense decimated by injuries, especially in the front seven, the burden to win will fall more on Tom Brady & Co. more than it has at any point of the past few years. For Tom Teriffic, there’s no better time to start than on a Monday Night. Here are a few reasons why:
- The game in Charlotte will be the Brady’s 18th Monday appearance of his career, tying him with Danny White and Phil Simms for 10th alltime among quarterbacks, moving ahead of Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb (17) yet still 20 behind the front-running duo of Brett Favre and Dan Marino (38 apiece).
- The Patriots are 13-4 in Brady’s previous Monday Night games, a .765 winning percentage that places him behind only Billy Kilmer (.800) and Kenny Stabler (.781) among all QBs with at least 10 Monday appearances.
- The Pats’ signal caller enters the game just four yards behind Manning for fifth alltime in Monday Night yards (4,715 to 4,719). He trails fourth-place John Elway by 297 yards, a number Brady has topped for just the second time all season in the last game against Pittsburgh but has attained in six of his previous MNF games.
- Brady is fourth alltime in Monday touchdown tosses with 41 and with his first against Carolina will tie Steve Young for third alltime behind only Marino (74) and Favre (69). He's thrown for at least two scores in 13 of his 17 games and for at least three TD in nine (both trailing only Favre and Marino).
- Brady is one of just six quarterbacks with a MNF passer rating over 100.0, ranking fourth at 102.2. The only passers with at least 100 attempts above him: The NFL’s overall leader Steve Young (104.0), Jeff Garcia (103.5) and Stan Humphries (103.2).
- In five MNF games since the start of the 2010 season the Patriots are 5-0 and are averaging a staggering 40 points per game, with a low of 34 points scored against the Chiefs on Nov. 21, 2011 in a 31-point win.
- Earlier that season on Sept 12, 2011 Brady set a MNF record against the Dolphins by throwing for 517 yards in a 38-24 win, shattering Joe Montana’s old mark by 59 yards.
On Sunday Tom Brady fell two games short of Drew Brees’ alltime NFL record of 54 regular season games with at least one touchdown pass when he was shut out against the Bengals at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium. Here are 12 curious facts about No. 12’s streak.
- Brady’s 52 straight games came over the 52 games the Pats played over that span but Brees’ record includes the one game he sat out to rest for the playoffs on the final day of the 2009 season (Jan 3, 2010) against the Panthers. Coincidentally, that was the last day that Brady had failed to throw a TD pass during the regular season, a 34-27 loss in Houston.
- Curiously, Brees set the mark on October 7, 2012, exactly 364 days prior to Brady’s streak being broken.
- During the streak the Patriots won 43 games while losing just nine, an .827 winning percentage, easily the best in the NFL over that span. The Packers were second at 37-14 (.725)
- Brady’s 116 touchdowns during the streak ranks third in the NFL. Only Drew Brees (134) and Aaron Rodgers (121) threw more.
- Also during that time 103 players other than Brady threw touchdown passes, including four by punters, one by a kicker (David Akers), three by running backs and seven by wide receivers.
- Only one touchdown pass was thrown by another Pats player during the streak, that a 42-yard pass from Brian Hoyer to Brandon Tate against the Dolphins in the final game of the 2010 season. Tate had two TD catches from Brady during the streak.
- A total of 16 different receivers caught those 116 touchdown tosses from Brady during the streak. Rob Gronkowski was on the receiving end of the most with 38 while Wes Welker was second at 22.
- If you count postseason games, the streak actually ended at 35 on January 22, 2012, in a 23-20 win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
- Instead of throwing for a score in that game, Brady ran in a 1-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown which accounted for the game’s deciding points that sent the Pats to the Super Bowl.
- That game also ended his pursuit of Brett Favre’s alltime record of 20 consecutive playoff games with a touchdown pass. Like the pursuit of Brees, Brady fell two games shy of Favre’s record with 18.
- Eight of Brady’s 14 career rushing touchdowns came during the streak. Only the much more fleet-footed Cam Newton (23), Michael Vick (13), Tim Tebow (12) and Aaron Rodgers (9) and his slow-footed equal, Mark Sanchez (9), had more.
- Brady still shares the mark of 13 straight games with multiple touchdown passes, matching the record set by Peyton Manning and since also matched by Aaron Rodgers. He’s also tops on the list when it comes to games with at least three TDs with 10.
The natives were restless early in Sunday’s victory over the Bucs at Gillette, as Tampa Bay took an early lead and fans were getting that “here we go again” feeling against one of the NFL’s lower-tier teams. However Tom Brady, Kenbrell Thompkins & Co. righted the ship and by the final whistle everyone in attendance enjoyed a 20-point laugher.
Among the take homes from the game, besides the victory which kept the Pats among the league’s seven undefeated teams and in a tie for the lead in the AFC East with the upstart Dolphins, was that two Brady-to-Thompkins touchdown connections (and a Stephen Gostkowski field goal) bumped the Patriots out of the cellar in red zone points per game, and into 31st place, above only the pitiful Jacksonville Jaguars.
Only Green Bay and Seattle (14 times each) have been in the Red Zone more this season than Tom Brady’s 13 visits, however the Pats have produced only four touchdowns (and five field goals)—those two by Thompkins, and two more passes to Julian Edelman against the Bills—on those drives. That’s an average of 3.31 points per red zone invasion, barely ahead of the Jags and around half of the point production of the aforementioned Dolphins, the league leaders at 6.5 points per red zone incursion (seven touchdowns and a field goal on eight trips).
Twenty-seven NFL teams score on at least four of every five red zone excursions. The Pats scored on just three of five tries against Tampa Bay dropping their season average to 69.2%, also 31st in the league, obviously a far cry from where the Pats expect to find themselves in any ranking, let alone something as critical as red zone scoring. By contrast, Peyton Manning, who hosts the Raiders tonight, has produced the same number of touchdowns over two games...in just five attempts.
This can’t be sitting well in Foxboro as the Patriots had been one of the NFL’s most potent teams when it comes to scoring points in the Red Zone over the past few years. Last season the offense dominated inside their opponents’ 20 yard line, tallying points on an NFL-best 94.3% of their forays deep into enemy territory, scored touchdowns on 70% of those drives, also best in the league, leading to 49 touchdowns, 17 field goals, and a league-high 6.51 points per RZ raid. The year before that the average was 5.35 which placed third behind the Packers (5.42) and Lions (5.36).
The loss of two world-class tight ends and Shane Vereen’s wrist injury have been major factors in the decline, but every team has trials and tribulations to overcome. You can be sure that scoring deep in the opponents’ territory have been, and will continue to be, a point of emphasis as the season rolls on. To win games as the schedule gets considerably tougher, it has to.
Bill Parcells once famously exclaimed “You are what your record says you are” but maybe that’s not really the case. The way that a lot of folks have reacted to the Patriots first two weeks of the regular season you’d think the Belichick Bradys were 0-2 instead of being one of just eight teams that enter Week 3 with an unblemished 2-0 record. However those wins over the Bills and Jets— both strong contenders for last place in the AFC East that each started rookie quarterbacks —were awfully nerve-racking, and there might be good reason for you to have concerns going forward.
This is just the 12th time in 54 seasons that the Patriots have started the year with two consecutive wins (coincidentally only three of those seasons resulted in trips to the Super Bowl and only one resulted in a title). It also marks the first time that they, or any team since 1950 for that matter, has started off facing two rookie quarterbacks. However their combined point differential of +5 points, is lower than they had in six of the seasons they started 1-1. Only in 1999 when they began the year by beating the Jets 30-28 (a team that finished the season 8-8 under defensive coordinator Bill Belichick), and the Colts 31-28 (a 13-3 team in Peyton Manning’s second season), did they come away with two victories as narrow. And there’s virtually nobody who would contest, even after each has a win, that the 2013 Bills and Jets would be fortunate to finish the season at .500.
This year the Bears, winners by three points over the Bengals and one point over the Vikings, are the only undefeated team playing closer to the vest than New England, compiling a differential of +4 points. In fact, since 1950, the Pats and Bears are just the 16th and 17th teams to start a season 2-0 yet having outscored their opponents by a total of five points or less. Of the previous 15, just over half managed a winning record during the regular season, just a third made the postseason and just three could win a playoff game. However, before you get too far down, two of those, the 2003 Panthers and 1988 49ers made it to the Super Bowl, where the Panthers fell to the Patriots and the 49ers beat the Bengals.FULL ENTRY
Smith (right) hopes to join Sanchez (left) among Jets rookie quarterbacks who've defeated the Pats in their debuts against them.
With Mark Sanchez likely having taken his last snap for the New York Jets following news that his injured shoulder will require season-ending surgery, Gang Green is squarely under the control of rookie Geno Smith. The second-round pick from West Virginia hopes to continue a long tradition in the New York-New England rivalry tonight in Foxborough. Of the four rookies who have started for the Jets/Titans franchise against the Patriots, three came away with victories in their first meetings with the Pats.
•November 14, 1965 The glamour boy from Tuscaloosa, “Broadway Joe” Namath was outgained 275 yards to 180 by Babe Parilli, and while both threw two touchdown passes, the veteran was picked off three times while Namath was spotless in New York’s 30-20 win at Fenway Park.
•October 14, 1973 Schaefer Stadium played host to an ugly contest that saw Jets rookie Bill Demory complete just one of seven passes for 11 yards. But the entire scoring output for the Pats came on a Will Foster fumble recovery in the Jets end zone in New York’s 9-7 win.
•November 11, 1976 Starting in place of a hobbled Joe Namath at Shea Stadium, fellow Alabama alum Richard Todd connected on four of his six throws, but unfortunately two of those went to Patriots. Namath managed to get in the game but was not effective, getting picked off himself five times in a 38-24 New England victory.
•September 20, 2009 There was so much promise in the Jets, their new head coach, Rex Ryan and rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, especially when he led a second half comeback to defeat the Patriots 16-7. In that game Sanchez out-dueled Tom Brady, completing 63.6% of his throws with a touchdown compared to Brady’s 48.9% with a pick.
The news that Shane Vereen will be missing from the Patriots backfield for at least eight weeks on short-term injured reserve while recovering from a broken bone in his wrist is a serious blow to an offense already rife with question marks. The third-year man's opening week productivity — he was the only running back to gain 100-yards on the ground through Sunday's games—came mostly after he suffered the injury, which makes what he did even more impressive.
Playing in relief of Stevan Ridley who was benched the entire second half after fumbling issues, Vereen played a major role in the Pats’ come-from-behind victory against the Bills on Sunday in Orchard Park, rushing for 101 yards while picking up another 58 yards on seven catches to become just the second player in franchise history with as many as 100 rushing yards and seven catches in the same contest. The first was by Curtis Martin who ran for 120 yards with eight catches in a 41-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 16, 1995 at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium.
Vereen also joined Ridley among the six Patriots (in 54 opening games) to run for over 100 yards in Week 1. Three of the previous five did so at the start of a 1,000-yard season, something that the injury will make make virtually impossible for Vereen to achieve. Here’s the complete list:
At age 25, starting wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins isn't your average undrafted rookie
At 1 PM on Sunday in Orchard Park, N.Y. New England’s great rookie wide receiver experiment goes live as the Patriots take on the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The group of green wideouts in red, white, and blue make up a full half of the team’s complement at the position and have been the source of both consternation and optimism by the Pats’ faithful—especially in light of the events of the Aaron Hernandez saga—leaving Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce squarely in the crosshairs of Tom Brady’s rifle arm. But to their credit, the neophyte trio outperformed a band of veteran NFL journeyman types during the offseason and exhibition games to earn their place on the 53-man roster. Now it’s time for them to prove that they belong.
Over the years the Patriots haven’t had many outstanding rookie performers at wide receiver. In fact, since 1960, the inaugural season of the AFL, first-year wideouts have accounted for just 15.5 catches per season, with a high of 90 for Terry Glenn in 1996. In fact, only seven total rookie wide receivers have managed as many as 40 catches in a season for the Patriots, and just one of them, Deion Branch (43 in 2002) occurred during the Belichick-Brady Regime.
40+ Catches by a Patriots rookie wide receiver (since ‘60)
- Terry Glenn ‘96 (90 rec., 1,132 yards, 6 TDs)
- Randy Vataha ‘71 (51 rec., 872 yards, 9 TDs)
- Jim Colclough ‘60 (49 rec., 666 yards, 9 TDs)
- Hart Lee Dykes ‘89 (49 rec., 795 yards, 5 TDs)
- Vincent Brisby (45 rec., 626 yards, 2 TDs)
- Deion Branch ‘02 (43 rec., 489 yards, 2 TDs)
- Will Moore ‘95 (43 rec., 502 yards, 1 TD)
To say that rookie wideouts have been not much more than an afterthought during the Belichick-Brady era would be an understatement of colossal proportions. Relegated mostly to special teams duty with a occasional snaps on offense here and there when they even make the roster, the last time two rookie wide receivers even caught passes for the Pats during the same season was—get this—2002, when Branch and David Givens both entered the league. That’s correct, the Patriots haven’t had rookie two wideouts catch as many as one ball in the same season since Deion Branch’s rookie campaign, which is over a decade ago. In total since Belichick took the reins, first-year wideouts have accounted for 133 catches, 1,480 yards and nine touchdowns which barely outdistances Anquan Boldin’s solo rookie output in 2003 (101-1,377-8)
Only Catches by Patriots rookie wide receivers since 2000
- Deion Branch ‘02 (43 rec., 489 yards, 2 TDs)
- Julian Edelman ‘09 (37 rec., 359 yards, 1 TD)
- Bethel Johnson ‘03 (16 rec., 209 yards, 2 TDs)
- Chad Jackson ‘06 (13 rec., 152 yards, 3 TDs)
- David Givens ‘02 (9 rec., 92 yards, 1 TD)
- Curtis Jackson 00 (5 rec., 44 yards, 0 TDs)
- Brandon Childress ‘05 (3 rec., 32 yards, 0 TDs)
- Taylor Price ‘10 (3 rec., 41 yards, 0 TDs)
- Fred Coleman ‘01 (2 rec., 50 yards, 0 TDs)
- Shockmain Davis ‘00 (2 rec., 12 yards, 0 TDs)
And big games from a rookie wide receiver are even scarcer than a good season. Art Graham holds the mark for rookie receiving yards in a game with 156 against the Jets in 1963. Julian Edelman one of two holdovers in the receiving corps (with special teams ace, Matthew Slater), and Deion Branch are the only rookie receivers to gain at least 100 yards in a game since ‘00 And here’s a bar bet alert: the last rookie WR to catch a touchdown pass for New England? Bethel Johnson on November 23, 2003 at the Texans. With this group, that fact will have a short shelf life.
The current dean of NFL head coaches, Bill Belichick, has compiled quite a resume during his tenure with the Patriots. Here’s a look at some of the more outstanding streaks, feats, facts and figures during his 14 seasons in charge.
111 men that have made their head coaching debuts (either on a permanent or interim basis) for a team since Belichick was hired by Robert Kraft on January 27, 2000. While six teams have made just one head coaching move during that span (Eagles, Giants, Ravens, Steelers, Texans, Titans), seven others (Bills, Browns, Dolphins, Lions, Raiders, Rams, Redskins) have made at least half a dozen changes. In the AFC East alone the Bills (7), Dolphins (6), and Jets (4) average more than one coaching change per season during the Belichick era, a fact he can take some credit for.
26.9 points per game scored by the Patriots since Belichick took over the team, the highest in the NFL and 1.4 points per contest over the second and third place Colts and Packers (25.5). New Orleans is the only other NFL team to average over 25 points per game since 2000.
18.7 points per game allowed by New England since 2000, third lowest in the NFL. Only the Steelers (17.1) and Ravens (17.3) have been stingier. The Patriots are the only team to rank both in the top 5 in points per game for and against over that period.
5 seasons in which the Patriots average margin of victory exceeded 10 points per game.
3 quarterbacks—Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, Matt Cassel—who have started a game for Belichick’s Patriots. The only other team able to make the same claim is the Green Bay Packers (Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn). The Bears, Browns and Dolphins each had 17 different quarterbacks start for them over that time.
2 quarterbacks—Tom Brady and Matt Cassel—drafted by Belichick to go to the Pro Bowl. In fact, since 2000 they are two of the four quarterbacks taken in the fifth round or later to reach a Pro Bowl. Brady (6th) and Cassel (7th) are joined by Derek Anderson (6th) and Marc Bulger (6th).
3 individual 1,000-yard rushing seasons (Corey Dillon ‘04, Stevan Ridley ‘12, Antowain Smith ‘01) under Belichick.
10 individual 1,000-yard receiving seasons (Wes Welker [5 times], Randy Moss , Troy Brown, Rob Gronkowski) under Belichick.
21 straight regular season and postseason games won by Belichick’s team from October 5, 2003 to October 24, 2004, the longest string of wins in NFL history. The Pats also are tied for the third longest winning streak in league history, having won 18 straight games during the 2007 regular season and 2008 playoffs.
10 consecutive postseason games Belichick’s teams won from 2001 to 2005.
17 total playoff games Belichick has won for the Patriots, the most of any head coach since 2000. Andy Reid is the only other man in double-digits (10) while John Harbaugh (9) and Tom Coughlin (8) round out the top 4.
151 regular season wins for the Patriots under Belichick. That’s 26 more victories for any coach during that span, outdistancing Philadelphia’s (and now Kansas City’s) Reid. Mike Shanahan (106), Tony Dungy (104), Jeff Fisher (104) and Tom Coughlin (102) are next, yet well behind Belichick.
3 Super Bowl victories since 2000, making he and New York’s Tom Couglin (2) the only head coaches to take home multiple Lombardi Trophies during this era.
.822 winning percentage including the postseason, at Gillette Stadium since it opened in 2002. Overall Belichick’s home winning percentage in Foxborough is .788.
.661 New England’s winning percentage in regular season and playoff road games under Belichick.
.744 regular season winning percentage against AFC East opposition. Belichick is 17-9 against Miami, 18-8 against the Jets and 23-3 against Buffalo.
30 teams have a losing record against Belichick’s Patriots. Only the Denver Broncos (5-5) have been able to at least break even.
4 teams, the Cowboys, Eagles, Falcons and Jaguars have a combined 0-13 mark against the Patriots with Belichick.
3 former Belichick assistants with the Patriots—Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels—who became NFL head coaches.
As part of his keynote address at the Cynopsis Sports Business Summit yesterday in New York, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was boasting about how his league bounced back from a potentially catastrophic work stoppage by playing to 97% of capacity last year, the highest in the four major sports. Of the league’s 30 teams, more than half (16) played to at least 100% of their capacity, eight played over capacity (the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks led the way at 110.4%, thanks mainly to standing room at the United Center) while 26 played with at least 90% of the arena’s seats full.
The NHL was the leader for the 2012-13 season, but at nearly 95 percent full the NFL wasn’t far behind. The NBA placed third at just over 90%, and using data from the completed 2012 season, major league baseball, with it’s vast inventory, came in last among the Big Four at 71.4%.
The raw data enables us to take a closer look at the attendance figures, not only by league and team, but by region, and more specifically, metropolitan area, and gives us a metric by which we can measure fans rabidity. Given the success of the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox at the gate (granted the Red Sox “sellout streak” has been widely criticized), plus the well-known passion that Boston fans have for their teams, this area was sure to place high on the list, making it perfect fodder for this space.
To do a study like this fairly there have to be some ground rules in effect. Boston for example is a typical four-team, four-league town (apologies to the MLS). But limiting it to just regions where there’s four league participation would have eliminated places such as St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Atlanta and a little place known as Los Angeles. So instead, to qualify, the bar the city had to reach was three or four teams in at least three leagues (the Lakers and Clippers both qualify for LA).
Another problem facing this look was the onus put on a region to support either poor performing, or niche teams, when they have more popular and successful teams to gravitate to. To eliminate any bias against cities that have multiple teams in each league—and with apologies to the Mets, White Sox, Jets, Islanders, Devils, Angels, Ducks, A’s and Raiders—we’ll look only at the most popular team in the region in each league (unless they fall into the above category).
That said, we summed up all of the attendance and approximate capacity figures, and calculated the rate of approximate capacity by region from the most recent completed seasons for each league.
Not only did Boston come out on top, it was the only area in which attendance exceeded capacity in the 2012 and 2012-13 seasons.
With camp opening in Friday now is as good a time as any for people to stop underestimating Patriots lead back Stevan Ridley. Following the most tumultuous offseason in team history during which Tom Brady’s receiving corps was decimated, it’ll most likely be Ridley who will pick up the slack for the 2013 offense, and he’ll be up to the task. He’s answered every call thus far.
Dating back to the 2011 NFL Draft, when he was a third-round selection by New England Ridley has been the underdog. Not only was he just the seventh overall running back taken, he wasn’t even the first running back Bill Belichick pulled off the board (Shane Vereen, right went in the second round as the third running back). Thus far he’s been at the head of the class, leading every ‘11 draft alum in rushing yards, attempts and placing second to no. 1 overall pick Cam Newton in rushing touchdowns. In fact, a case can be made that the third-year man from LSU who was taken 73rd overall is one of the top 15 most talented players drafted that April, a group that includes superstars like Newton, Von Miller, A.J Green. Julio Jones, Colin Kaepernick, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman Aldon Smith and J.J. Watt, nearly all of whom were taken before Ridley.
As an NFL sophomore he was tied with Adrian Peterson for third in the NFL in rushing touchdowns (12), was seventh overall in rushing yards (1,263) and 10th in rushes of at least 10 yards. In 2013 he also has a very good shot at becoming one of the most productive runners through three seasons that the Patriots ever drafted, needing 1,292 yards to pass Jim Nance’s 2,995 yards from 1965 through 1967, second on the alltime list only to Curtis Martin’s 3,799 yards from 1995 through 1997. (He’s already ninth on the list). And like Nance, Ridley started just a fraction of the games he played during his first two seasons.
It’s safe to say that in these parts there’s no current athlete—and few throughout history—more revered than Tom Brady. Entering his 14th season as a Patriot, Tom Terrific has ascended to Boston überstar status, something shared only with the legendary likes of Ted Williams, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Bobby Orr. Not only has Brady won championships and set NFL records, he became an accidental star, overcoming the adversity of being virtually ignored in the 2000 NFL Draft, then stepping in for an injured Drew Bledsoe to silence the din of critics, leading the Pats to their first Super Bowl title. For all he’s done in what’s surely a career that will be punctuated someday with a gold jacket and a trip to Canton, OH, Brady will likely face his biggest challenge in 2013.
The Tim Tebow show rolled into Foxborough on Tuesday, just a day after the news of his imminent signing broke. The NFL’s most polarizing figure inked a bargain-basement two-year deal with the Patriots and took the field as Bill Belichick’s third-string quarterback, eager to continue his NFL career under the tutelage of his biggest proponent in the pro game, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Critics and supporters alike agree that Tebow’s throwing is substandard for a starting NFL quarterback, but barring a Tom Brady injury, there’s zero chance that he’ll start in New England. So are his statistics subpar for a backup? A quick look at his passer rating shows that Tebow ranks 46th among 77 active quarterbacks with NFL playing experience (no minimums) at a middling 75.3. That puts him among the poor-starter-yet-solid-understudy class like Dan Orlovsky (76.0), Chad Henne (74.9) and David Carr (74.9). If you trust the rating system as a QB quality indicator, you can do a lot worse among the league’s signal-callers, a list that includes his 2012 Jets teammate Mark Sanchez (71.9), former Patriots backup Brian Hoyer (72.2), Mike Kafka, the man cut to clear a roster space for Tebow, (47.7) and current New England No. 2 man Ryan Mallett (5.2, lowest among all active QBs).FULL ENTRY
The most recent report from our own Greg Bedard says that “the odds are strong [Wes] Welker will be back” with the Patriots in 2013, the latest in conflicting news regarding the 31-year old wideout.
I don’t think there’s any way to get a good read on what the New England front office is thinking outside of inside information—past history suggests they could go either way, offering Welker a new deal or parting ways with him for good. The Patriots have shown themselves to be decidedly unsentimental when making personnel decisions, especially with older players, even before age has started to take its inevitable toll. However, there is nothing the Pats value more than solid, no-nonsense production, and Welker has certainly brought that since coming over from Miami in 2007.
I decided to examine just how much Welker has meant to the Patriots offense using statistics pulled from Advanced NFL Stats. Though it doesn’t separate the contributions of a receiver from those of his quarterback, one of the best stats for evaluating a wideout’s production is Expected Points Added (EPA), which translates a team’s movements down the field into the points it can historically expect to score from that position, given down and distance. For a more thorough explanation of EPA, click here.
In the chart below, I’ve graphed Expected Points Added for wide receivers in the NFL from 2007-2012. Alongside Welker’s own production, I’ve plotted the league average, calculated from wide receivers that played at least half the regular season, and the NFL’s top performer for each season.
In every season he has played in New England, Welker has been above average, and in most of them he’s been excellent, regularly producing at least twice the amount of expected points as the average of his peers. Just two seasons ago, after completing a 122-catch, 1,569-yard season, he led the NFL in this category. The only years in which Welker did not lead the Patriots in EPA were 2010, his least productive season, and 2007, when he finished second in the league behind Randy Moss, who set an NFL-record for touchdown receptions.
It’s clear that Welker has been a high-usage player for Tom Brady and the New England offense; his target rate, a measure of the percentage of a team’s passes thrown a receiver’s way, has been about 40 percent higher than the league average from 2007-2012. But Welker has also made the most of his targets, catching them at a high rate. Once again, I’ve plotted below how Welker stacks up with his competition in this category.
Again, Welker ranks well above average in each season, often at the top of the league—though it’s worth noting that his catch rate has started to fall off slightly in recent years. If that’s an indication that he can’t get the same separation from defenders that he once did, you can be sure Bill Belichick has taken notice.
Whatever the fate of the Welker contract negotiations, there’s no denying the integral role he has played in the Patriots’ record-setting offense. It is difficult to know whether he can sustain his incredible rate of production for many more years, but team management will know the answer to that question better than anybody. For now, let’s appreciate the place that Welker—all 5’9” of him—has carved out in a league of giants.
For interested fan or gambler, the NFL playoffs can be infinitely maddening to comprehend. Those Cincinnati Bengals that had won seven of their last eight? Well, they’re out, held to just -6 passing yards in the first half by the team that allowed 68 points to the Jaguars and Lions in consecutive games. And let’s not forget the 2008 Super Bowl, in which probably the best team in history lost to the worst team ever to win a championship. If you’re skeptical of the influence game-to-game variance holds in the NFL, the playoffs have a way of making you a believer.
This post from Football Perspective lends further credence to the idea that playoff results have been getting even more random in recent years, edging closer to 50-50. We’ve long known parity is a very real phenomenon in the NFL, but is there a way to cut through all the randomness and noise to determine what makes teams win in the playoffs?
To start with, I considered upsets. In college basketball, an underdog stands the best chance of shocking a more highly rated team in the NCAA tournament if it employs a high variance style of play—pressing, shooting lots of three-pointers, etc. A strategy like this is termed “high variance” because it can lead to extreme outcomes; a hot shooting night and a sloppy opponent could lay the groundwork for a Cinderella story, but if the threes aren’t falling and the favorite takes care of the ball, the underdog is in for a blowout.
I adapted this theory to the NFL, hypothesizing that a team with a greater amount of variation in its regular season play stood a better chance of getting hot enough to pull off a few upsets. For every playoff team of the last ten years, I took the variance of a team’s point differentials (margin of defeat or victory) in its 16 regular season games. Next, I ran a few regressions to determine whether variance was a significant predictor of playoff wins or upset wins, which I defined as any victory by a team seeded two or more places lower than its opponent. In each test, I controlled for the teams’ point differentials per game from their respective regular seasons, as a proxy for team quality.
My results indicated no such relationship. The variance of a team’s week-to-week performance in the regular season had no measurable effect on the number of wins or upsets it pulled off, even when I split the data up into thirds and quarters, ordered by mean point differential. In other words, even for the worst teams to make the playoffs, regular season variance played no role in determining a potential Cinderella.
The difference I perceive in how variance affects college basketball and football upsets is that, generally speaking, variance in college basketball is more a product of a team’s style of play, which isn’t necessarily true for football. Few NFL offenses and defenses stray far from the mainstream in terms of concepts and schemes, which can’t be said for college basketball. In the NFL, game-to-game variance might be the result of a number of factors that aren’t necessarily predictive: turnovers, luck, etc.
I did find one variable that was slightly predictive of playoff success, however: team quality, as measured by mean point differential. Teams in the top third of mean point differential averaged about half a playoff win more than teams in the bottom third. This is about as hammer-to-the-head obvious as it comes—better teams do better in the playoffs. There are the NFL playoffs for you: the only things we can know for sure are the ones staring us right in the face.
It appears that, for another week, a Patriots opponent will not be without bulletin board material as it prepares for its trip to Gillette Stadium. This time, however, the responsibility lies not with an employee of this site, but with the oddsmakers in Las Vegas.
Depending on which online sportsbook you consult, New England currently stands as 9- or 9.5-point favorites over the Baltimore Ravens, a team that it lost to earlier in the season in a Week 3 thriller. No doubt Ray Lewis and crew will feel a little slighted by such a spread, which suggests they have about a 20 percent chance of victory, but the Patriots should find some encouragement in the history of large postseason lines.
Pro Football Reference has compiled point spreads for NFL games since 1978 and counts exactly 71 games in which a team has been favored by nine or more points in the playoffs. Of these 71 favorites, 40 ended up covering the point spread, comfortably advancing to the next round, and another 17 still won their playoff game, despite not covering. That means that the historical rate at which these heavy favorites won—57 out of 71, or 80 percent—exactly mirrors the theoretical win probability implied by the spread in Sunday’s game.
Yet I don’t anticipate the Patriots will be particularly overconfident when they take the field this weekend; they own two of those fourteen losses, both during the Belichick era. They were 12.5-point favorites over the Giants in Super Bowl XLII and 9.5-point favorites over the Jets two seasons ago, but each of their New York opponents produced a performance that belied the talent discrepancy on paper. New England enters much the same situation against the Ravens on Sunday, and as this year’s playoffs have proved, things don’t generally stick to the script.
Last week’s blowout win over the Indianapolis Colts was characteristic of this season’s Patriots: another game played, another opportunity to change one’s opinion of the team. Two weeks ago, a lackluster defensive performance against the Bills suggested an inevitable first-round playoff exit, though just one week earlier the Patriots had convinced two countries of their dominance with a blowout victory over the Rams in London. The picture wasn’t any clearer earlier in the season, with a convincing win against the AFC contender Broncos followed up by a fourth quarter collapse against the Seahawks.
From game to game, the “eye test” doesn’t seem a reliable way to evaluate this team; you just can’t be certain which Patriots are going to show up. For that reason, it makes more sense to look at the Patriots’ full body of work over the course of the season to get a sense of what their prospects are of playing into February.
The most distinctive feature of the team is quite clearly the offense, which has put up points at a historic rate. This year’s Patriots are one of nine teams in history to score 350 points through 10 games, and only the fifth since 1950. They have twice scored over 50 points in a game, something only one team since 1969—the 2007 Patriots—has accomplished. They even have a formidable running game, something that hasn’t been seen in Foxborough for some years.
The ever-present worry is, as always, on the other side of the ball. The defense has continued following Bill Belichick’s formula: give up truckloads of yards, limit teams in the red zone, and force turnovers. Though creating turnovers is generally not thought of in the statistical community as a skill—that is, replicable from year-to-year—the Patriots have finished in the top ten in turnover margin in ten of their 13 seasons with Belichick at the helm. But they need every takeaway they can get, as their 30th-ranked passing defense has been quite kind to the opposing quarterbacks they’ve played—which, by the way, is not a very impressive list. The Patriots have played only two top-ten passing attacks in the Colts and Broncos.
This all goes to say that the team is essentially a carbon-copy (if not slightly upgraded) of the group that came within a few plays of winning a Super Bowl last year. I could basically re-run this article a year later, and the conclusions would be about the same.
It’s hard to win without an elite unit on one side of the ball—which the Patriots have—but beyond that, the playoffs can be a crapshoot. They are currently second in the league in Football Outsiders’ team efficiency ratings and are listed as having the highest odds of any team to win the Super Bowl at 18.5 percent…but that still means the Patriots would fall short of their ultimate goal four out of five times.
To me, this betrays the danger of using a binary definition of success—championship or no championship—for a season. The Patriots have been the NFL’s most successful franchise for a decade, but all anyone wants to talk about as the playoffs approach is that they haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2004, as if that represents some historic drought. The breaks find a way to even out over the long run; they had the benefit of some good luck in winning three titles in four years and suffered some bad luck in losing their last two Super Bowl appearances. But once again, the Patriots are among the league’s best teams and are as well-positioned as anyone to make a run at the title, and that’s all a fan can really ask for.
A year and a half into the NFL’s amended kickoff rules, it’s safe to say they’ve achieved their intended purpose. In 2010, 16.4 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks; a year later, that number rose to 43.5 percent. The teeth were taken out of what was thought to be one of the most dangerous plays in the game by simply reducing the number of times it occurs.
The kickoff rule change—specifically, kicking off from the 35-yard line—interests me not as a safety regulation, but as a method to examine teams’ decision-making. Have NFL coaches properly accounted for it in the way they instruct their special teams units?
My gut reaction says no. On a number of occasions this season, I’ve watched returners take the ball out of the end zone from eight or nine yards deep only to be stuffed at the 15, needlessly hampering their offenses with poor field position. It seems like teams should be settling for even more touchbacks than they currently are.
Of course, gut reactions are worthless for evaluations of this sort, so it’s time to go to the numbers. Using play-by-play data for the first four weeks of the 2012 season, I picked out every instance in which a team kicked the ball deep (i.e. not a squib or onside kick) and noted the receiving team’s resulting field position following the return.
It turns out that NFL special teams units are not being so irrational after all. On all long kickoffs (defined as any kick fielded by a returner inside his own ten-yard line), the average starting field position of the receiving team is at their own 23.5-yard line. Admittedly, this doesn’t offer a comprehensive picture of the question, since I’m most interested in just kicks fielded deep in the end zone, so I broke the data down further. Even on kicks fielded five yards deep in the end zone or further back, the average kick return yields better starting field position (a team’s own 22.5-yard line) than simply taking the touchback and heading to the 20.
But the decision to encourage kick returners’ apparent greediness can be good or bad depending on the game situation. The variance in field position for kicks returned from five yards deep in the end zone or deeper is much higher than for kicks returned from further up, meaning that the set of outcomes is much more spread out. In other words, with a kick fielded deep, a team is relatively more likely to have a starting field position that is quite a bit different from the average. That means that if a team is behind late in the game, it’s probably worth while to take the risk of bringing a kick out of the end zone for the possibility of a big return and great field position. But if a team is protecting a late lead, it may want to simply take the touchback, instead of running the risk of starting its drive at its own 10-yard line and sacrificing ten yards of precious field position.
I have yet to examine the data for previous seasons to determine what the existing trend is here, but the verdict seems to be that, even with the new kickoff rules, a returner is usually better off bringing the ball out than settling for a kneeldown in the end zone—that is, unless he happens to be fielding a kick from Neil Rackers.
Yes, the Patriots lost last week. Yes, they blew a substantial fourth quarter lead. But before the "Brady's a choker!" train gets any momentum, I'd like to insert a word of reason.
To put it in the simplest terms I can muster, the Patriots are really good at football. They have been for over a decade, and they're even good in the fourth quarter, believe it or not. But to see just how good, we'll need to look beyond the dark memories of Week 6, soul-rending though it may have been.
More specifically, we'll examine the period from 2000 to the present, when Bill Belichick took the Pats' head coaching position, and the organization began to take on his personality. Certainly, if these occasional late-game lapses are something to fret about, we can pin them squarely on him and his personnel.
The bad news: since 2000, the Patriots have lost 11 games in which they were leading at the start of the fourth quarter. The good news: only two teams in the NFL have lost fewer of these games, the Falcons (eight) and the Ravens (nine). More good news: over this time span, the Patriots have played more games in which they started the fourth quarter with a lead than any other team in the league.
Far from being chokers, the Patriots have been among the best closers in the league over the last decade. They have had more chances to blow leads than anyone else, but they've actually done it at one of the lowest rates in the NFL. In fact, only the Ravens have been more efficient at preserving leads, by a few percentage points.
When the question is framed this way, the easy counterargument is to point out that, in many of those games, the Patriots were blowing teams out, and it's not very difficult to hold a 21-point fourth quarter lead. But when I limit the results to one-score leads entering the fourth quarter (8 points or less), the verdict is essentially the same. The Pats drop a few places to fifth, but the rate at which they preserve leads is still among the leaders in the NFL.
What about comebacks? By virtue of being an elite team for so long, the Patriots have had fewer chances at them than any other team; on only 45 occasions in 11-plus seasons, the Pats have been trailing entering the fourth quarter. Yet the Patriots have successfully come from behind for the win in 17 of those games, giving them the second-best comeback rate in the league, trailing only Indianapolis.
Admittedly, this "trend" is getting more attention because the Pats have been less steely is preserving leads in recent years, with seven of their 11 losses coming in the past four seasons and four in the 2009 season alone. However, conducting a quick binomial test shows that this is not a statistically significant difference; in other words, this is much more likely the product of random variation rather than a change in some fundamental quality of the team.
Instead of bashing Brady and company for giving one away in Seattle, let's marvel at the fact that it happens so seldom. The Brady/Belichick era has been one of the most decorated and successful periods in league history. It may be difficult to remember that when Russell Wilson snatches away victory from them in the fourth quarter, but that's why careers and trends need to be evaluated based on the big picture, not isolated, out of character incidents.
A road game in the NFL can be a daunting proposition. Facing a sufficiently amped home crowd, a team has to worry about things they normally wouldn't at home: snap counts, hearing play calls, and hey, what is that biker-looking gentleman doing with a blown-up picture of my family? Every NFL fan base would like to believe its savage passion is the most intense in the league, but there can't be 32 best home field advantages. To that end, I set about finding which team's home field gives them the largest boost.
First, I don't think it makes sense to attribute the effects of a team's home field advantage solely to the fans; you can't separate the noise they make from the environment in which they make it, the stadium. It's possible that fans in Seattle truly go bananas for the Seahawks, but the stadium's architecture (or even its PA system) likely contributes at least some part to pumping up the volume at CenturyLink Field. Similarly, Boston fans exhibit plenty of passion and noise at Celtics, Bruins, and Red Sox games. Why should they be so notoriously quiet for the Patriots, unless Gillette Stadium itself (or, I suppose, the commute there) muted them?
For that reason, I centered my analysis on which team's stadium—the combined effect of the building and the fans—produces the greatest home field advantage. Instead of using home and away win-loss records, I looked up teams' point differentials at home and on the road from the time they moved into their current stadium, using the ultra-handy Play Index at Pro Football Reference. (There is considerable evidence that point differentials provide a more reliable measure of team quality than do simple wins and losses.)
Next, I calculated the difference between each team's point differential at home and on the road, then divided that by the number of seasons the team has occupied its stadium. This gave me the average number of additional points per season provided by a team's home field advantage. The Chargers have played in what is now Qualcomm Stadium since 1967, but assuming the home field advantage effect it affords has been constant over that time, its per-season average should be as valid as that of Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, which began hosting NFL play in 2003. Finally, in order to ensure that I had a sufficient sample of games, I omitted teams who moved into a new stadium within the last five seasons, which included the Colts, the Jets, the Giants, and the Cowboys. I also counted the major overhaul to Soldier Field in 2003 as a “new” stadium, given the way it drastically altered the building's structure. My results are presented below.
This analysis bears out the conventional wisdom, at least at the extremes: Seattle enjoys the greatest home field advantage in the NFL, and Gillette Stadium ranks at the bottom of the league. Recently, the Ravens have borne out that M&T Bank Stadium is one of the hardest places to play in the country; they currently boast the NFL's longest home winning streak at 13 games.
It's surprising to see the Superdome so low, with its at least anecdotal status as one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL. The top ten features only three enclosed stadiums, and not necessarily the ones you expect—Ford Field, the Edward Jones Dome, and the Metrodome. Again, team quality over this time should have nothing to do with the final outcome, since we're comparing the same teams' home and away results.
So what's the deal with Gillette? As Chris Gasper noted a couple of years ago, the stadium itself is largely to blame: its open-ended architecture doesn't hold sound well, its location forces everyone to rush for the exits to avoid traffic once the result is assured, and it's one of the priciest stadiums in the NFL, especially when you factor in transportation costs to get there. Mr. Kraft may be happy with the money the place rakes in, but if he wanted to give an assist to his product on the field, he might consider phasing out the wine-and-cheese folks and drawing a slightly more populist crowd.
Here’s a look inside the final sequence of Sunday’s wild 20-18 loss to the Cardinals. For my numbers, I’m making use of the Win Probability Calculator made available by advancednflstats.com. Specifically, I’ll be investigating the Patriots’ decision to settle for a 42-yard field goal at the end of regulation rather than attempting to improve their field position.
Game situation: 1st-and-15 at the Cardinals’ 23-yard line, 00:46 remaining in the 4th quarter
At this point, things are looking awfully fortunate for the Patriots. They just recovered a miracle fumble, and though a couple of Gronk malfunctions (a holding penalty that nullified a touchdown and a false start) may have cost them a sure victory, they still hold a 76 percent chance of winning the game. Their expected points value here is +3.56, meaning that teams score touchdowns more often than field goals in this scenario. However, the Pats elect to take the conservative route, with Tom Brady centering the ball in the middle of the field, sustaining a one-yard loss on the play. The clock winds down to seven seconds before Brady spikes the ball to stop it.
Game situation: 3rd-and-16 at the Cardinals’ 24-yard line, 00:07 remaining in the 4th quarter
The game will be decided by a Steven Gostkowski field goal attempt. According to a separate bit of research from Advanced NFL Stats, kickers convert from this distance just under 80 percent of the time. The Win Probability Calculator concurs with this figure, giving the Patriots a 78 percent chance of victory—still comfortably in their favor and slightly higher than before, but not significantly so. Gostkowski misses the ensuing field goal try, and the Patriots lose a shocker.
Now let’s imagine a scenario in which the Pats continue their drive toward the end zone. Forty-six seconds is enough time within which to run two plays, and taking the Patriots’ average yards per play for the game (5.0), let’s assume they gained an additional ten yards before spiking the ball with seven seconds left.
Hypothetical game situation: 4th-and-5 at the Cardinals’ 13-yard line, 00:07 remaining in the 4th quarter
This is chip shot distance. From this range, kickers successfully make field goals about 90 percent of the time, again coinciding with the Win Probability Calculator’s figures, which give the Patriots an 86 percent chance of winning—a better outcome than the scenario in which they ultimately placed themselves.
The main takeaway here is not that the Patriots sacrificed exactly 0.08 points of Win Probability by playing it safe, but rather that a 42-yard field goal is far from a sure thing. Why settle for it when you have an incredibly competent quarterback—one with a miniscule 2.1 percent career interception rate, I might add—who’s more than capable of pushing the result closer to “sure thing”? A slide into the middle of the field is hardly the optimal use of Brady’s talents.
For the last decade, the beginning of a new Patriots season has brought with it the realistic prospect of a Super Bowl in a few months’ time. Much of the reason for this—and one of the only things remaining from those teams ten years ago—is, of course, Tom Brady.
You wouldn’t know it by his performance, but Tom Brady is 35 years old, and that fact has led to a slightly different air surrounding this year’s Patriots. The most successful franchise of the new millennium finds itself face to face with mortality. Life after Brady is no longer some vaguely unpleasant event to be dealt with in the distant future, but a reality that needs to confronted sooner rather than later.
For the present, however, that sense of hopeful anticipation remains. The Patriots are heavily favored to win the division and look like the smart pick to once again emerge from the AFC playoffs; Tom Brady is under center, and all is right with the world. But for how many more seasons will that be true? As the grey hairs proliferate, when will Brady’s performance slip?
To get some idea of the answer to this question, it makes sense to look at Brady’s peers, of which, admittedly, there aren’t very many. I took a list of career comparables for Brady from pro-football-reference.com—players who had careers of “similar quality and shape” through their first ten seasons—and examined how the ends of their respective football careers played out, hoping to find a hint of when we might expect age to finally catch up with number 12. The list is composed of nine (mostly) legendary quarterbacks: Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb (?), Trent Green (uh...), and Mark Brunell (eesh). I’ll dub those last three “worst case scenario.”
To measure each quarterback’s aging patterns, I calculated the percent change for each season from the previous year in a few key passing metrics: yards per passing attempt, adjusted yards per attempt (factors in touchdowns and interceptions), and quarterback rating (an imperfect statistic, but one that should reveal any significant underlying trends). If the quarterbacks suffered any sort of dropoff after ten years in the league, a trend of negative percent changes should be evident. Finally, I took note of playing time, as a low number of starts or games played wouldn’t be automatically obvious from looking at percentages.
As these quarterbacks entered their 11th, 12th, and 13th seasons, I found that, on average, their play didn’t suffer any noticeable decline. In fact, I didn’t find any pattern to suggest their performance differed at all; the fluctuation graphed below (up one year, down the next, then back up) looks more like the natural year-to-year variation in players’ statistics than any definite trend.
The reason I didn’t include any more seasons in this analysis is the same reason that the Patriots are likely to lose Brady, when he finally chooses to hang up the cleats: the number of players in my sample kept dropping as quarterbacks simply chose to retire. I can imagine that 14 years of NFL football isn’t exactly kind to the body, and it seems that, though the on-field product these quarterbacks delivered stayed at a reasonably high level, they felt the effort necessary to produce it wasn’t worth it anymore. Obviously, that wasn’t true for all nine of these players; I don’t think you’d hear anyone reminisce fondly about the golden twilight of McNabb’s or Green’s careers, but I also don’t think they’re the best comparables for Brady. I foresee the end of his career playing out like that of Roger Staubach or Brett Favre: capable from a talent standpoint of being a starting quarterback for another year, but physically unable or unwilling to bear the punishment of it.
The number of comparables used in this analysis is far too low to draw any firm conclusions, but it suggests that Brady will be just fine for at least the next few years. After that, however, anything is possible. He might decide that enough is enough and go out in fine form, or he could try to hang on past his expiration date, like Montana. Either way, there’s still time for Pats’ fans to appreciate what they have before it’s too late; as the 2011 Colts showed, there comes a time when the bill for prolonged dominance finally comes due.
The most telling statistic from Sunday’s devastating loss to the New York Giants was the time of possession for each team: the Giants held the ball for 37:05, more than 14 minutes longer than the Patriots (22:55). Excluding their kneel-down to end the first half, the Giants’ drives averaged nine plays and 4:37 each, none of which netted fewer than two first downs.Though early on, the Giants (average starting field position: NYG 25) were unable to convert their time-consuming drives into many points, they dominated the field position battle, severely disadvantaging Tom Brady and the Patriots offense (average starting field position: NE 16). Consider that the Patriots’ best field position to start a drive was their own 29-yard line, and it becomes clearer why they could only manage 17 points; it’s incredibly difficult to drive 80 and 90 yards on a consistent basis.
When the Giants’ drives stalled, punter Sam Weatherford — whose performance merited serious consideration for Super Bowl MVP — pinned the Patriots deep in their own territory with lethally precise kicks, three of which landed inside the 10-yard line. His first punt, a lob wedge that spun back to the New England six-yard line, contributed directly to the game’s first points, the safety forced by the Giants’ pass rush on the ensuing play.
The Giants exposed the true weakness of the Patriots’ “bend-but-don’t-break” defense; when they don’t force turnovers (which play an enormous role in swinging field position), the team becomes tremendously beatable, especially against teams with more than competent offenses. Ordinarily, Brady is able to counter the offensive output of the opposition, putting together his own long drives and effectively neutralizing the opponent’s field position advantage — the Patriots were second in the league in opponent starting field position this year — which makes the three possessions in which the Pats failed to register a first down all the more critical.
Yet, for all that, the Patriots were still in excellent position to win the game, their win probability as high as 80 percent with 4:40 left. But they failed to capitalize on two pivotal opportunities to extend their slim lead on their first two possessions of the fourth quarter: Brady’s underthrown bomb that was intercepted by Chase Blackburn at the Giants’ eight-yard line and Wes Welker’s drop at the Giants’ 20-yard line. Had either play been converted, it’s likely that the Lombardi Trophy would have returned to New England, and the Tom Brady-Joe Montana comparisons would have continued for the next seven months.
As it was, the Giants did convert their big chance, emerging from the shadow of their own end zone with a 38-yard heave from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham. In the words of Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”
If you’ve paid attention to the interminable television babble that is this week’s Super Bowl coverage, you’ve probably been forced to confront the following tired cliché at least once: “Defense wins championships.” All season, we’ve heard that the Patriots’ shaky defense will ultimately prevent them from claiming the NFL’s top prize, or perhaps even coming close.
Well, here we are. Both the Patriots and the Green Bay Packers (combined record: 28-4) proved that, in the regular season, defense is hardly a necessity when it’s backed up by an elite offense.But does this change when the stakes get raised? Perhaps, when the best teams face off in the most important contests, the ability to grind out a defensive victory is particularly valuable. Specifically, does defense win championship games? Using measures of defensive efficiency (DVOA) from Football Outsiders, I analyzed playoff and Super Bowl results from the last 20 years (1992-2011) to determine whether the Patriots are, in fact, doomed this coming Sunday.
I found little reason to fret. In the playoffs, teams with a ranking in defensive efficiency superior to their opponent won games about 53 percent of the time — almost exactly what we’d expect from random chance, given equal teams. The results were similar when limited to just the Super Bowl; just over half (11 out of 20) of the championship-winning teams possessed a better defense than the runners-up, again yielding an inconclusive result.
Further discrediting the adage is the fact that, in this sample of Super Bowls, teams were almost as likely to win while allowing the opposition to outgain them in total yardage. Eight times in the last 20 years, the Super Bowl champions allowed more yards than the runners-up in the big game, and in a few instances, it wasn’t close. On average, those eight teams were outgained by 78.25 yards, the most extreme example of which came in Super Bowl XXXVI; the St. Louis Rams accounted for 427 yards, yet were defeated by some no-name second-year quarterback whose offense only managed 267 yards.
So not only are the defenses’ established identities marginalized, but their in-game performance doesn’t even determine the outcome of the game. Except, that is, for one crucial component: turnovers. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, the occurrence of turnovers is generally unpredictable, but they play a large role in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Only once in the last 20 Super Bowls has a team won the championship despite losing the turnover battle: the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL, who defeated the Seahawks in one of the most contentiously officiated Super Bowls in recent memory.
Now, this analysis is not particularly rigorous; it does not consider, for instance, the quality of the teams’ offenses or the size of the disparity in defensive efficiency in each game. However, if defense truly were the decisive factor in winning a title, we’d expect to see more compelling results than the ones shown above. There’s just far too much variability in a one-game sample to make any one aspect of the game predictive of the final outcome (see Super Bowl XLII).
Even so, the Patriots are entering uncharted territory. Should they emerge victorious on Sunday, their 30th-ranked defense would be the worst to win a Super Bowl over the period I examined, displacing the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. If it hasn’t already been dispelled, the image of cornerback(!) Julian Edelman raising the Lombardi Trophy would retire this cliché for good.
A few significant matchups ahead of Sunday’s AFC Championship game:
In last week’s divisional round, the Patriots’ passing attack was keyed — as it has been many times this year — by its pair of rampaging tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The two were generally unstoppable all night, combining for 14 receptions, 200 receiving yards, 61 rushing yards, and four touchdowns.Enter the Ravens, whose defense against opposing tight ends has been downright stingy. During the regular season, Baltimore allowed a mere 3.9 catches and 41.6 yards to tight ends on a per-game basis, ranking sixth and second in the league, respectively. This wasn’t a product of weak competition, either; the Ravens faced seven of the top 20 tight ends (as measured by receiving yards), and didn’t allow more than four receptions or 42 receiving yards to any of them.
But they haven’t faced two elite tight ends at the same time, and Gronkowski (first among tight ends in receiving yards and touchdowns) and Hernandez (fourth in both categories) are just that. Only the Jets, who boast arguably the league’s strongest secondary, have been able to hold the pair under 100 combined yards, and the two still teamed up for 9 catches and 87 yards. The Ravens might be able to neutralize one of them, but not both.
Another crucial battle will occur at the line of scrimmage when the Patriots have the ball. This may be where the game is decided; in their four losses, the Ravens have accumulated only five sacks, as compared to 43 sacks in their 12 regular season wins. And when given time to throw, a big day from Tom Brady is almost inevitable, no matter who’s in coverage.
But that’s easier said than done. The Ravens’ pass rush, led by Terrell Suggs (14.0 sacks in 2011), amassed 48 sacks during the regular season, third-best in the NFL. They’re well aware of how surgical Brady can be with the football, so expect a complex package of blitzes and coverage designed to disrupt Brady’s rhythm. Though the Patriots have been slightly above average (11th) in preventing sacks, I can’t foresee the offensive line keeping Brady’s jersey completely clean.
Advantage: Ravens (slightly)
The Patriots have faced only one other elite defensive unit like the Ravens (top five in both scoring and yards allowed) this year, and the results weren’t pretty. The Pittsburgh Steelers held the Pats’ offense to 17 points and just 213 total yards, both season lows.
This offensive futility actually had as much to do with the Patriots’ defense as the Steelers’ D. Pittsburgh possessed the ball for nearly 40 minutes — converting ten of 16 third downs — and ran 28 more plays than the Patriots. When they did get the ball, the Patriots couldn’t sustain any offensive pressure, going 3-for-10 on third downs.
Which brings me to my final matchup: the battle of the much-maligned Patriots’ defense and Ravens’ offense. We’ve heard all about the Pats’ struggles to, in the eloquent words of Bart Scott, “stop a nosebleed,” but Joe Flacco is, well, Joe Flacco. Flacco submitted a Tebow-like performance last week against the Texans, completing 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards, taking five sacks, and converting only four of 16 third downs.
If the Ravens follow the Steelers’ blueprint — possess the ball for large chunks of time, force Brady into some three-and-outs, get to the quarterback, and avoid turnovers — they’ll be representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. I just can’t see Flacco playing the type of game the Ravens require to win the game. As they proved last week, the Patriots are capable of stifling a below-average quarterback, even with the threat of a dangerous running game. Hello, Indy.
The Patriots’ defense has extended the “bend-but-don’t-break” concept to its limit. Their mighty struggles to prevent opposing offenses from cruising up and down the field are well-documented, yet somehow they retain an average ranking (14th) in the one defensive category that truly counts: scoring defense. The bend-but-don’t-break defense is one that’s been ascribed to Bill Belichick at various times over the years, but it’s not clear that it’s a sustainable strategy; after all, how could a defense that’s bad on 80 percent of the field perform consistently better in the last one-fifth?
Over at Smart Football, analysis conducted by Chase Stuart may have uncovered the reasons for this discrepancy. Interestingly, the bend-but-don't-break defense might be best explained by another familiar cliché: "the best defense is a good offense."
Because of a great offense and a good punting unit, the Patriots defense is rarely placed in a bad situation. New England rarely turns the ball over (third fewest in the league) and gains so many yards (2nd most) that they’re not giving the opponent the ball in a position to score. In fact, New England’s opponents have the 2nd worst average starting drive position of any team in the league (#1 is San Francisco, a team that seems to have been teleported straight from the ’70s) — the 24-yard-line.
The offense’s influence on the D’s effectiveness is not limited to the ground they chew up, but also, just as valuable, the time. Opposing offenses don’t score as much as might be expected against the Pats in part because, with less clock with which to work, they simply get the ball fewer times.
Because New England goes on many long drives on offense and allows long drives on defense, New England’s defense has faced the 6th fewest drives against this year (and the 4th fewest drives on offense). The Patriots have allowed 38 yards per drive (most in the league by over two yards) and 1.91 points per drive, 23rd best. Points per drive allowed excludes non-offensive touchdowns, so a 23rd-place ranking in points per drive allowed is a better measures of New England’s defense than their 14th-place ranking in points allowed.
I covered recently that a defense’s ability to force turnovers is essentially random, but this also implies that we would expect more to occur as the number of plays increases (larger sample size). And as the Patriots’ defense has faced the fourth-most passing attempts this year — due largely to Tom Brady’s ability to turn games into shootouts, while limiting his interceptions — it’s no surprise the unit ranks 2nd in the league in interceptions forced.
New England’s often playing with a lead, which forces their opponents into riskier tactics, which explains why the Pats are [3rd] in the league in turnovers forced despite not having much individual talent on defense. And, of course, every turnover forced is a drive that does not require any more defense, and the Patriots are 3rd in turnovers forced per drive.
But what about the most important aspect of the bend-but-don’t-break defense: the “don’t break,” or red zone defense? Is the Patriots’ ability to stop teams before reaching the end zone a product of purposeful defensive scheming or the difficult starting positions in which they place opposing offenses?
As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Patriots’ red zone efficiency on defense has remained remarkably consistent over the last five years; their percentage of touchdowns allowed per red zone trip has held relatively firm around 56 percent.
The regularity of this number leads me to believe their red zone efficiency is indeed the result of a repeatable defensive strategy. Play your safeties deep, and you won’t get burned deep, but you’ll allow a ton of yards — until the red zone, that is, when those safeties get forced up by the goal line and involve themselves in the play.
The only problem is that the Pats’ red zone defense is not particularly good, consistently well below the league average. In reality, the Patriots are no better at “not breaking” than the majority of NFL teams. If the defense can’t take all the credit, then, it’s fair to acknowledge the Pats’ offense for helping to keep the opposition off the scoreboard. Bad field position, limited possessions, and a victory in the turnover battle can all make a defense appear much stiffer than it really is.
Luckily, the Patriots will not be exposed by an elite offense this postseason unless they reach the Super Bowl; opposing quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs include two guys still learning the position (Tim Tebow and T.J. Yates) and the mighty Joe Flacco. But looming NFC foes look much more frightening. It may be at the hands of Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers that the Patriots’ bending limbo act on defense finally collapses upon itself.
Bill Belichick and the postgame podium are notorious for being a lethally boring tandem. Week after week, the Patriots' coach stymies reporters with concise non-answers, vague summaries, and robotic praise of players, giving them nothing of substance to write about his team.
We started by looking at how long each of them is willing to stand in front of the podium. There's actually not much variation between the two; Belichick answers questions with an average of 72 words, whereas Brady's answers average 60 words. However, the difference in the two personalities becomes apparent when we split these averages up by wins and losses. Brady's answer length barely changes; after a win, his average response length is 59 words, as compared to 62 words following a loss. Belichick is quite a bit less eager to talk to the media after a defeat. Though he averages 82-word answers following a win, he cuts his responses to an average of 25 words after a loss, less than one-third of his post-victory average.
We also examined the word frequencies for each speaker. Of course, the most commonly used words were ordinary ones like 'a', 'the', and 'it'. It is more interesting to look at which words had the largest difference in frequency between the two (i.e. which words had the greatest ratio difference for the two speakers). Below are the top ten words used most commonly by Belichick and Brady in proportion to one another. (Note: words used less than three times by any one of the speakers were not counted.)
Unsurprisingly, the results for Belichick include a list of profoundly uninteresting words, matching his style at the podium. And Brady, though his list includes a few more syllables, isn't conveying much more meaning; "We gave them another chance" tells us just as much (or little) as "We didn't take advantage of our opportunities."
We also wondered if it was possible to determine the speaker at each press conference just by the style of their speech, examining the frequency of the various words used. Statistician Frederick Mostellar famously used this method to ascertain if Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, or John Jay was the author of the articles of the anonymously published Federalist Papers. At HSAC, we also used it last year to determine the authorship of sports articles, based on individual writing styles -- for those interested, an explanation of the math involved here can also be found in this article. Using these same probabilistic methods, we randomly selected four post-game press conferences (Brady's and Belichick's post-game press conferences from last season's victory over the Packers and loss to the Browns) and tested the question: can a set of equations detect the true speaker?
The answer is a solid affirmative. The model works by producing a probability that a given set of words belongs to either Brady or Belichick, given the speaking patterns analyzed above. In all four cases, the generated probabilities were lopsided (more than 99.9 percent in favor of one speaker), and in all four cases the model was correct in identifying the true speaker.
All in all, this underscores just how little can actually be learned from sports interviews, given the short, recycled nature of their content. Personally, we appreciate Belichick's approach. The Hoodie has no intention of giving comprehensive answers to anyone's questions, but at least he doesn't pretend to do so by dragging out the same timeworn clichés heard all over the sporting world. His concern is winning football games, and the less other people know about how he does it, the better.
You’d have to examine this year’s GOP field to find a frontrunner inspiring this much doubt. For the second consecutive year, the Patriots have earned the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and the overwhelming fear is that, for the third consecutive year, the Pats will bow out in their first postseason contest.
The cause of this agonizing is unquestionably the Patriots’ defense, which just finished a campaign in which it allowed more yards (6,577) than any team ever to make the playoffs. If, for some reason, Tom Brady and the offense should falter in concocting one of the blistering comebacks we’ve seen the past few Sundays, the Pats may be spending their February weekends on the golf course rather than the gridiron.
Burdened with this historically porous defense, the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes may hinge on a fickle, yet vital aspect of the game: the turnover battle. If you’re searching for a statistical trend underlying the Pats’ current eight-game winning streak, look no further: the Patriots have turned the ball over just three times on offense, while the defense has forced 20 turnovers over that same span, for a margin of plus-17, the best mark in the NFL over this period.
Recent history certainly testifies to the importance of the turnover battle. In two of the last three weeks, the Patriots’ early deficits were quickly reversed with the help of timely takeaways. Tim Tebow’s Broncos watched a 9-point lead evaporate into an 8-point deficit in the span of seven minutes after two fumbles in their own territory. Against the Dolphins, a third quarter fumble by quarterback Matt Moore positioned the Pats for their first touchdown and turned a game that had threatened to become ugly in the first half into a one-score game.
Just how crucial are turnovers to a game’s outcome? The chart below shows teams’ winning percentages in games with a given turnover margin, derived from a ten-year sample of games from 2002 to 2011. Assuming equally matched teams, forcing just one turnover more than the opposition boosts a team’s chances of victory 19 percent (50 to 69 percent). With a turnover margin of plus-2, a team’s chances of victory rise to 84 percent, and at plus-3 or above, they are virtually secured at 93 percent.
This would seem to favor the Patriots, whose plus-17 turnover margin this year ranks third in the NFL. However, analysis done by Football Outsiders suggests that, for as critical as turnovers are to a game’s result, they seem to be more attributable to random chance than to players’ skill.
A bit of clarification: if the ability to force turnovers were a skill, we’d expect to see it show up on a consistent basis, over multiple seasons. But the year-to-year correlations for turnovers, especially on defense, are actually quite weak, meaning the numbers from one year have very little ability to predict those of the next year. (For those interested, the exact figures can be found here.) Offensive turnovers are slightly more predictable, due largely to a quarterback’s ability to limit his interceptions, but on defense, takeaways essentially occur at random. In other words, the Patriots haven’t been “good” at forcing turnovers; they’ve been lucky.
The only real measure of control over turnovers lies with quarterbacks in avoiding interceptions, and fortunately for the Patriots, they have Tom Brady, whose 2.2 percent career interception rate is the third-lowest in NFL history. Even if the Pats’ luck runs out on defense, Brady gives them a better chance of maintaining a favorable turnover margin.
But it’s important to remember that much of the early-season panic surrounding this team — if it’s possible to panic after a 5-3 start — was a result of Brady’s uncharacteristically poor protection of the football. Brady’s four interceptions were almost solely to blame for the Patriots’ Week 3 loss to what has proved to be a considerably inferior Bills team, and the fact that two of them came on batted balls — which could just as easily have fallen harmlessly to the turf — underscores the role luck can play in swinging games.
Likewise, in the one-game, do-or-die format of the NFL playoffs, the best teams don’t always win. Flukes happen; sometimes Brady throws four picks. As cruel as it sounds, chance could easily determine the outcome of the Patriots’ playoff run. If the bounces continue to favor the Pats’ defense, they’ll be able to curb the scoring of the opposition (if not their total yards) and not overly disadvantage Brady and the offense. But an ill-timed deflection of a Brady pass could portend yet another early exit.
As 2011 comes to a close, so too does the “Year of the Quarterback,” ESPN's year-long investigation into the position and all its intricacies. Unlike other manufactured, hype-driven initiatives, this one actually turned out to be quite prescient; it’s been a record-setting year for NFL quarterbacks, who have been heaving the pigskin at an unprecedented rate. Most notably, not one, but two quarterbacks — Tom Brady and Drew Brees — are challenging one of football’s longest-standing records: Dan Marino’s single-season passing mark of 5,084 yards, set in 1984.
Whether it’s Brees (4,780 yards, with two games remaining), Brady (4,897 yards), or both, the record will almost surely fall sometime in Week 17. The two have indeed been outstanding this season, but their assault on the record books is somewhat overshadowed by the excellence of their peers. Six quarterbacks — Brees, Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers — have already broken, or are poised to break, the 4,500 yard threshold, a feat accomplished just 22 times in history, and no more than three times in the same year.
So unless this year’s passing explosion was an anomaly (and I doubt it was), Marino’s mark will soon be no more than a curiosity of history. But as with baseball, it’s impossible to truly understand the significance of such a record without examining the context in which it took place. When Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927, only one other player in baseball hit more than 30. When Roger Maris broke that record in 1961, 12 others joined him with 30 or more homers. In some cases, relative performance can tell us some things that absolute numbers cannot.
Likewise, what distinguishes Marino’s record is the era in which it was set.
Marino did not have the benefit of a rulebook that considered coughing on an open receiver a flag-worthy offense. In 1984, defensive backs could still maul and chuck receivers, particularly near the line of scrimmage. On a related note, Marino was one of only three players to throw for 4,500 yards in a season over the span of his career (Drew Bledsoe and Warren Moon were the other two). If he managed 5,000 yards in 1984, what might he accomplish in 2011?
To adjust for the difference in offensive environments, I’ll rate how the performances of these three quarterbacks — Brees, Brady, and Marino — compare to the league average during their respective (potentially) record-setting seasons. In other words, the question no longer concerns exactly how many yards they amassed, but how much better each quarterback performed than his peers. To better account for injuries, platoons, or other circumstances that caused quarterbacks to play less than a full season, I’ll use team passing yards to calculate the average in each year.
With this approach, Marino’s ’84 season looks even more prolific. His 5,084 passing yards were 2.42 standard deviations (a measure of the extent to which points in a data set differ from the mean) greater than the league average total. Relative to their peers, Brees’ (projected through Week 16) and Brady’s numbers do not look quite as spectacular; their passing yards are, respectively, 2.36 and 2.04 standard deviations above the ’11 league average.
Jargon aside, what this means is that, for his time, Dan Marino in 1984 put up more impressive numbers than those soon to pass him in 2011. Had a quarterback this season exceeded his peers to the degree that Marino did in ‘84 (2.42 standard deviations above the mean), he would have thrown for just over 5,150 yards — with one game still left to play.
This is not a perfect way to compare eras, as it assumes that the average talent level of NFL quarterbacks has remained generally static over the last 25 years, but it highlights the fact that Marino’s record deserves some recognition before it fades into the obscurity of second (or, more likely, third) place. Simply transporting Marino 25 seasons into the future wouldn’t automatically make him a better player, of course, but it’s safe to assume that, in the modern-day NFL, Marino’s ’84 season would look a lot more untouchable.
Enough exclamation points will be printed in the coming days regarding Tim Tebow's latest escape act, so I thought I'd let the numbers do the talking. Below is the wildly fluctuating win probability graph from advancednflstats.com, covering the entirety of the Broncos' ridiculous 13-10 overtime victory.
The biggest single-play swings (+/- refers to Denver's chances of victory):
+0.38 WP -- Matt Prater's game-tying 59-yard field goal at the end of regulation. I actually think this drastically understates Prater's chances of making the field goal; a win probability of 0.01 at the start of the play seems far too low. Conversion rates from this distance hover between 35 and 40 percent, and may be even higher for a kicker with a leg like Prater's. Regardless, it was still arguably the game's largest turning point and most unlikely play -- until the next one on this list.
+0.35 WP -- Marion Barber's fumble in overtime, derailing the Bears' potential game-winning drive. By the way, Barber had lost exactly five fumbles in 1,298 career touches entering this week, a rate of 0.39 percent.
+0.29 WP -- Matt Prater's 51-yard, game-winning field goal in overtime, extinguishing whatever doubt remained in the football world that this sport makes sense.
-0.23 WP -- Tebow's scramble for no gain on 3rd and 10, forcing the Broncos into Prater's desperation 59-yard attempt with 14 seconds left in regulation.
+0.18 WP -- Tebow's 19-yard pass to Matt Willis with 30 seconds left in regulation that advanced the Broncos from their own 40-yard line to the Chicago 41, putting Denver within Prater's range.
For all his late heroics, remember that, at one point, Tebow was 3-for-16 on his passing attempts; that is, until the Bears decided to extend Tebowmania another week by playing an extreme prevent defense, with two deep safeties about 30 yards from the line of scrimmage. Tebow took what they gave him, completed 18 of his next 24 passes, and set the stage for a crazy spectacle next weekend in Denver.
As great as I think the disparity in overall team quality is between the Patriots and the Broncos, the head-to-head matchup may be much closer than expected. Denver's problem has been scoring, especially in the first half; New England's problem has been stopping anyone from scoring. If the offense sputters early, with the Broncos' fierce, young pass rush in Tom Brady's face, the Pats may find themselves face-to-face with the prospect of more late-game Tebow magic -- and, as we've seen, that's when you can throw team quality and win probabilities right out the window.
Week 15 looms large among the games remaining on the Patriots’ schedule –– not because of its playoff implications or a meeting with a heated rival, but because New England fans will get an up-close look at the NFL’s biggest sideshow: the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos.
Tebowmania has inspired everything from “Jesus” jerseys to a ubiquitous signature pose. What it hasn’t inspired in anyone who has watched Tebow play is confidence that he can complete a pass 10 yards downfield.
As a traditional NFL quarterback, Tim Tebow looks lost. Take his first two starts this year: unable to make the necessary reads in time, Tebow lingered in the pocket interminably, drawing 14 sacks in 80 dropbacks. His 44.8 completion percentage ranks last in the NFL for quarterbacks with more than 100 passing attempts. His own coach, as justification for overhauling the Broncos’ offensive schemes, admitted “he’d be screwed” in a regular offense.
But Tim Tebow is not a traditional NFL quarterback, so it doesn’t make sense to evaluate him like one. Pure passing statistics won’t tell the whole story. To better assess the respective contributions of Tebow and the quarterback he replaced, Kyle Orton, we’ll use Expected Points Added (EPA), a statistic that records the result of each play –– given down, distance, and yard-line –– and converts it to a point value. (A more thorough explanation can be found here, at advancednflstats.com).
Without applying context to the numbers, the insertion of Tebow has actually hurt the Broncos –– his EPA this season (-13.4) is 13 points lower than that of Orton (-0.3). This includes his contributions on the ground; Tebow’s inadequacies in the passing game have been so pronounced that his overall statistics are still worse than Orton’s, despite also being the team’s second-leading rusher.
Yet inexplicably, the Broncos are 4-1 with Tebow at the helm. In fact, correcting for strength of schedule with Jeff Sagarin’s team ratings, the Broncos would have been expected to win, on average, only 1.9 of Tebow’s five starts. By what sort of heavenly magic has Tebow been able to conjure up those additional 2.1 wins?
Tebow has saved his best for the biggest moments. By examining his Win Probability Added (WPA), which measures the effect of each play on the odds of victory of a player’s team (much the same as EPA, except that it also factors in score and time remaining), we can see that his value has been greater than what his raw numbers indicate. Much of Tebow’s production –– his game-winning drives against the Dolphins and Jets, for example –– have occurred with the game’s result largely in doubt, when individual plays have a larger impact on a team’s chances of victory. As a consequence, his WPA, though still negative, is much higher than his EPA (-0.06) and also exceeds Orton’s WPA (-0.45). So while, on the whole, Tebow has contributed fewer expected points than Orton, the points he has generated have come at the most important times, making up for his otherwise inferior performance.
How long can Tebow’s remarkable stretch continue? As illustrated in the graph below, which plots the EPA and WPA for each season played by all NFL quarterbacks currently in the league, there is a strongly linear relationship between the two metrics. Over the course of a season, players like Tebow, who possess significant disparities between their EPA and WPA, tend to regress toward their expected means along this line, implying that Tebow’s current streak is unsustainable for any extended period of time.
It’s possible that the Broncos keep up their winning ways under Tebow –– he’ll just need to play a lot better. If he continues to rely on a series of coordinated miracles to bail him out, his record won’t look so spectacular in the long run.
Thus far, Tebow has certainly exhibited a knack for excelling in crunch time, but to overlook his flaws and simply anoint him as a “winner” is a drastic oversimplification. Excepting divine intervention, nothing related to Tim Tebow bears responsibility for the crucial plays that allowed for his late-game heroics on multiple occasions: the onside kick recovery in Week 7 against the Dolphins, or Andre Goodman’s pick-six against the Jets.
NFL defenses are simply too savvy to be bested by a gimmicky, one-dimensional offense like the read option for long (anyone seen the Wildcat lately?). If Tebow hopes to remain the Broncos' quarterback of the future, he’d better start watching some old Elway game film. Pretty soon, his guardian angel is going to need a vacation.
Pack away your foam fingers, head south for the winter, and tell Pat Patriot he’s free to spend his weekends however he pleases. According to a CSNNE interview with Kerry Byrne from Cold Hard Football Facts, it is “statistically impossible” for the Patriots to win a Super Bowl if their defense continues to play at their current substandard level. Good season, boys – we gave it our best.
Before we proceed, a word on hyperbole: a statistical impossibility implies that the probability of an event’s occurrence is zero – as in, under no circumstances could this event occur on planet Earth. The probability of the Rams playing the Dolphins in this year’s Super Bowl is not zero. The probability of John Lackey pitching a perfect game with his left arm is not zero.
All quibbling aside, the Patriots’ defense has certainly been a cause for concern, ranking last in the NFL in yards per play and yards per game, though, they do maintain a solidly average 16th in scoring defense. Is Byrne on the right track? How unlikely is it for a team with a defense as porous as the Patriots’ to make a deep run in the playoffs?
Here’s a look at all the Super Bowl champions since 1992, plotted according to their season ranks in offensive and defensive efficiency – measures which record the results of every play during a season, adjust for strength of schedule, and compare the figures to those of a league average team – taken from footballoutsiders.com. Though the sample size here is too small to reveal any robust statistical conclusions, the plot can yield a few practically significant insights.
It’s difficult to win a championship without an elite unit on at least one side of the ball. All of these teams except two possessed either a top-5 offense or a top-5 defense. Yet it is possible to win a Super Bowl when one of these facets is well below average. The 2006 Colts won it all despite a 25th-ranked defense, while the 2000 Ravens took home their rings on the strength of Trent Dilfer and a mighty 23rd-ranked offense. However, only three teams managed the feat with a defense ranking in the lower half of the league.
In Byrne’s defense, none of these teams’ defenses ranked as low as New England’s, currently 28th in defensive efficiency. But remember that the Pats are only six games into the season. The extreme degree of their poor performance may simply be an aberration that will diminish as the season wears on, regressing toward more moderate results.
The Pats meet the criterion of one exceptional unit; their offense is tops in the NFL in terms of efficiency. Even if the defense doesn’t improve significantly, the ’06 Colts provide a good parallel – their defense rated about one standard deviation below the league mean efficiency that season, approximately the same position the Patriots find themselves in now. And in each case, the offense usually had something to say about the final result.
So while a poor defense hampers a team’s chances at a Super Bowl, it does not render them nil. It’s certainly statistically possible that the Pats win it all, even with a defense playing this poorly. In fact, if you asked the folks offshore, or in Vegas, they’d tell you it’s not much of a long shot – the Pats are 4/1 favorites to win the Super Bowl on sportsbook.com.
There’s just no quantifiable measure of the likelihood of winning a championship, so categorical predictions don’t carry much weight. In the playoffs, anything can happen. It would have been much more justified to talk about the impossibility of the 2001 Patriots winning a title after Tom Brady stepped into the huddle for the first time – they weren’t among the best in the league on offense or defense. Let’s just not talk about the other outlier on the plot: the ’07 New York Giants.
Sunday was vintage Tom Brady. Two minute drill, down by three, the game on the line. And for the 32d time, he delivered a fourth quarter comeback victory.
Yet, had the previous two Cowboys possessions played out differently, Brady may never have had that chance. As Chad Finn pointed out on Monday, the choices of Dallas' coaching staff down the stretch "proved ripe for second guessing." Did the Cowboys’ conservative decision-making swing the game in the Pats’ favor?
With about 5:35 left in Sunday’s fourth quarter, the Cowboys faced the first of two critical decisions. Staring at 4th and goal on the New England 8 yard line, the safe choice was to kick the field goal, though it would mean giving the ball back to Tom Brady, up by only three. A Cowboys touchdown in this situation certainly would have put severe pressure on the Pats, who had managed only one touchdown the entire game.
One way to decide the optimal course is to compare the Expected Points (EP) of each decision, here measured according to the system compiled by advancednflstats.com. Every yard line on the field has an Expected Point value: the amount of points, on average, a team can expect to gain, possessing a 1st and 10 at that spot. For example, having a first down at midfield is worth two EP; in other words, averaging all the points scored on drives with a first down at the 50, a team can expect to score two points for each such trip.
On 4th and goal from the eight, the Cowboys’ probability of scoring a touchdown was about 30 percent, and the probability of converting a field goal was approximately 96 percent. Failing to convert either, and giving the Patriots the ball around their own 10, would yield an EP of -0.2; the Patriots, from that field position, can expect to score 0.2 points on average. We can find the total EP value of each decision by multiplying the probability of each outcome by its EP and adding them together.
(Note: under the Expected Point system, a touchdown (and extra point) is not actually worth seven points. The scoring team must also kick off to the opposition, giving them, in turn, about 0.4 Expected Points, which is the value of a possession beginning at their own 20 yard line.)
(Probability of TD)(EP value of TD) + (Probability of no TD)(EP value of no TD)
.30 * 6.6 + (1-.30) * (-0.2) = 1.84 EP
(Probability of FG)(EP value of FG) + (Probability of no FG)(EP value of no FG)
.96 * 2.6 + (1-.96) * (-0.2) = 2.49 EP
Since, in a tie game, it is in the team’s best interest to maximize Expected Points, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett made the right decision to kick the field goal.
The results seemed to vindicate Garrett, as the Cowboys’ defense again stifled Brady and the Pats, forcing a 3-and-out and a Zoltan Mesko punt. Less than four minutes remained on the clock, and Garrett once more had to make a game-changing choice: would he open up the offense and try to ice the game with a first down via the pass, or would he resign himself to three simple running plays and a punt, forcing the Pats to use their remaining timeouts?
This one is a little trickier to calculate, requiring a few rough estimates. Considering the outcome of this choice likely would determine the result of the game, it's better to use Win Probability (WP) here – the percent chance a team has of victory, given a certain game situation.
For a series beginning with a 1st and 10, a team has a 66 percent chance of earning another first down, assuming they use their regular offense, and not the “play it safe” approach of three runs. A first down for the Cowboys at this stage in the game forces the Patriots to use all their remaining timeouts and, in the best case scenario, the Pats get the ball back deep in their own territory with less than a minute remaining. For simplicity’s sake, let’s put the Cowboys' Win Probability in this case at 90 percent.
In running the ball three times, the Cowboys would essentially give up the chance of gaining a first down, especially against a defense that’s expecting the run. But the probability of a first down is not zero; there’s always a chance a running back could break a tackle and move the chains. Let’s put the chance of a first down here at 15 percent.
Now we need to figure out the Cowboys' Win Probability if they fail to get the first down – the outcome that was actually observed. According to this graph provided by advancednflstats.com, the Cowboys' chances of victory upon punting the ball back to the Patriots with just over 2:30 on the clock stood at 82 percent.
However, this estimate is based on a league-average opposing offense and quarterback, and Brady is anything but average. In reality, the Cowboys' Win Probability was much lower – let’s say, 65 percent. Had the Cowboys attempted to pass for the first down and thrown an incompletion, their Win Probability would be lower still – perhaps another five percent – as the Patriots would have held an additional timeout.
Now that we have all the appropriate probabilities, or at least reasonable proxies for them, we can calculate the relative merit of each strategy.
(Probability of first down)(WP) + (Probability of no first down)(WP)
.66 * .90 + (1-.66) * .60 = .80 WP
(Probability of first down)(WP) + (Probability of no first down)(WP)
.15 * .90 + (1-.15) * .65 = .69 WP
Again, this second series of calculations is based heavily on estimates. Tweaking some of the percentages might give you a narrower margin, but, for practical purposes, the conclusion remains the same: the Cowboys made a mistake in playing it safe the second time. Their strategy failed to maximize their odds of winning, and they ultimately paid for it with a heart-breaking road defeat.
There's a growing body of evidence that NFL coaches are far too conservative in the manner in which they manage games: they shouldn't clam up in the fourth quarter, and they should attempt more 4th down conversions, for example. Yet many coaches fear the sort of public backlash Bill Belichick received after his infamous decision to go for it on 4th and 2 against the Colts in 2009, even though the statistics supported his call.
If you asked Belichick about that choice, he'd probably tell you he'd do it again, if he had the chance. Sure, sometimes it comes back to bite you, but you'll come out ahead in the long run if you play the percentages. In the future, Jason Garrett would do well to learn from his example.
No matter what else might be occupying your time this fall, be sure to plant yourself firmly in front of a television on Sunday afternoons, popcorn at the ready. The Patriots' offense is putting on a show.
Nine-hundred-and-forty yards. That’s what Tom Brady has produced through the air in the first two weeks, shattering the NFL record of 854 set by Cam Newton only a few hours earlier. He’s been just as efficient as he has been prolific, ranking second in the league in completion percentage (71.6 percent) while leading the NFL in passing attempts. Not to mention that he’s accomplished these feats against solid defenses; the Chargers and Dolphins both ranked in the top half of the NFL in scoring defense and yards allowed in 2010.
He’s done it with a couple of old stalwarts at wide receiver. Wes Welker and Deion Branch have each totaled over 200 yards receiving, benefiting from a quasi-telepathic connection with their quarterback.
He’s done it with the liberal use of a pair of rhinoceros at tight end. Through two weeks, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have accounted for 337 yards and five touchdowns, including all three of Brady’s passing TDs against
Miami San Diego. Brady has targeted the two on 31 of his 88 passing attempts; only Tony Romo of the Cowboys has thrown to his tight ends at a greater rate (26 out of 69 attempts). With Hernandez expected to miss 1-2 weeks with an MCL strain, Gronkowski could become an even bigger threat.
Brady has done it behind a quick-striking no-huddle attack that’s left defenses gassed, unable to substitute the appropriate personnel. The Patriots have used the no-huddle at least once on 55 percent of their drives (12 out of 22), producing six touchdowns and three field goals.
He’s done it against every type of look defenses can throw at him. According to data compiled by ESPN Stats and Information, the Dolphins blitzed Brady on 42 percent of the plays following the injury to Dan Koppen in Week 1; against those blitzes, Brady completed 71.4 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns. Sunday, the Chargers took the opposite approach. On twelve of the Patriots’ pass plays, they rushed only three linemen, leaving eight men in coverage. Brady responded by completing 10 of 11 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Though there’s almost no chance Brady will sustain his current 470 yards/game pace, there’s also no reason to believe his workload will lighten any time soon. “Establishing the run” is probably not a phrase found anywhere in the Patriots’ game plans; the offense will continue to do the heavy lifting through the air.
And as long as the Patriots’ defense continues to make opposing quarterbacks look like…well, Tom Brady, you can bet we’ll be seeing plenty of shootouts. Sure, they made the plays when it mattered Sunday -- Vince Wilfork’s interception and the goal-line stand come to mind -- but a defense can’t consistently depend on timely turnovers to bail them out, especially when they allow opposing offenses to move the ball up and down the field at will.
So plan accordingly, folks. The next screening of the Tom Brady Show will be held in Buffalo, Sunday at 1 p.m. The Bills’ D allowed 35 points last week to the great Jason Campbell and the Oakland Raiders. Sounds like a blockbuster to me.
There was one key point lost in the general hand-wringing that followed the Patriots’ lackluster showing this preseason: it was the preseason. These are the games during which you fall asleep in the second quarter, not pull your hair out over a blown coverage. Granted, there’s nothing encouraging to be taken from a beating like the one received at the hands of the Detroit Lions, but there isn’t much to lament, either. Preseason results have almost no correlation to regular season success.
To support this assertion, I performed a regression analysis, which shows the extent that one or more variables (in this case, various measures of preseason success) predict another dependent variable (regular season win total). If preseason performance reflects anything meaningful about the true quality of a team, then this performance should correlate with how the team ultimately fares in the regular season, measured in wins.
First, I collected data from the past five preseasons and tested the significance of a number of variables measuring both total offense and total defense—yards/game, points/game, yards/play, penalties, penalty yards, total points, turnover margin, and third down percentage. I also included scoring margin and, to better gauge the effect of teams’ starters on preseason games, first quarter and first half scoring margin.
For the statistically minded, my regression results can be found here. The numbers aside, the conclusion is simple: just one of the preseason variables showed any statistical significance in predicting regular season wins, and only one other was even close.
The significant variable? Offensive penalty yards—and its counterpart, offensive penalties, is close behind it. This is in line with a finding by Football Outsiders: teams in the regular season that commit more penalties on offense usually lose more games, though, oddly, the same doesn’t apply for defense. It’s interesting that offensive discipline is the only element remaining consistent from preseason to the regular season. Perhaps tendencies to hold and jump at the line can’t be broken when the games get serious.
The Pats rank eighth in offensive penalty yards this preseason, and they’re tied with the Broncos and Texans for ninth in offensive penalties. That’s somewhat disconcerting, given that they’ve been in the lower third of the league in those categories the last five seasons. However, this could be more a function of their abbreviated training camp than an accurate predictor of what’s to come. The offense may just have used the preseason as a time to shake off the rust of an extended offseason. Oh, and the team ninth in penalty yards, and seventh in penalties? The New York Jets.
You may wonder why I didn’t include wins in my regression; after all, might not preseason wins correlate with regular season wins? For my purposes, there aren’t enough outcomes possible -- the totals only range from 0-4 -- to draw any solid conclusions.
But a 2004 study conducted by twominutewarning.com was able to provide some insight on the subject. The group found that preseason wins matter most for teams with poor to average records the year before. Three or four wins in this case can herald a successful regular season. For the Pats, their findings were largely insignificant; good teams with at least two preseason wins were just as likely to stay successful as they were to decline.
So the chorus of panicked voices that have arisen over the past few weeks -- should we re-sign Randy Moss? Can we block anybody? Our two defensive tackles weigh what? -- can be largely ignored. It’s useless to read anything into games like these in which the two teams have drastically different levels of urgency in their preparation and execution. Come Monday night, Tom Brady and crew will finally be playing a meaningful game. You can bet they’ll treat it like one.
Mark it down: Chad Ochocinco will have a comeback season in 2011. No, it’s not because of a voodoo brainwashing spell cast by Bill Belichick, nor will it be due to the homey wisdom of a hospitable fan, but rather the result of one seemingly obvious change: he’s now catching passes from Tom Brady.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Tom Brady is pretty good at throwing footballs, a quality from which his receivers are happy to benefit. Let’s look at Brady’s past with other new additions at wideout to see what we might expect from his partnership with Ochocinco.
Since Brady became the starter in 2001, the Patriots have picked up seven starter-caliber wide receivers from other teams -- players who, at some point in their New England tenure, were among the top three in the receiving corps in single-season yards. Ochocinco figures to be the eighth to fit this classification.
Here’s how these signings performed the year before their arrival in New England and in the following season, as a Patriot.
Most of these receivers dealt with middling to below-average quarterback play prior to their tenure with the Pats, catching passes from the likes of Andrew Walter, Joey Harrington, and a graying Matt Hasselbeck. Ochocinco ran routes in 2010 for Carson Palmer. Though once considered a top-5 NFL quarterback, the increasingly disgruntled Palmer, who spent much of the last two years trying to force his way out of Cincinnati, can’t be considered too much of an upgrade on those listed above.
Not surprisingly, the new signings, as a group, improved considerably -- their receiving yards rose by 51 percent and their yards/game by 42 percent after teaming up with Brady.
What does this mean for Ochocinco? None of the Pats’ previous signings is a perfect analogue to him. At 33, he ranks as the oldest of this group, but he’s also the most productive coming into New England; his 831 yards and 59.4 yards/game last season are first and second, respectively, on this list. When applied to Ochocinco’s 2010 stats, the average increases above project to over 1,200 receiving yards in 2011, a level achieved only by Stanley Morgan, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker in Patriots’ history.
The best parallel available here is Moss. Upon joining the Patriots, both were declining superstars with a history of disciplinary issues whose best years were thought to be behind them. Moss, 30 years old when he joined the Patriots, rediscovered his status as an elite deep threat and put up numbers in 2007 that Ochocinco will probably never approach this year, given the presence of a Pro Bowl incumbent in Welker, with whom he’ll have to split catches, and the reality that he may indeed have lost a step. He’s not quite the home-run threat who rips off 70-plus-yard catches anymore, like he did in each of the ’05, ’06, and ’07 seasons.
But if Ochocinco’s still got any of his superstar form left in the tank, Brady will bring it out of him. According to Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics, he’s been the top quarterback in the NFL in each of his last three healthy seasons, and there’s no reason to think he’ll slow down now. He’s made the likes of Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman into productive players, and he got 1,000 yards out of the tight end position last year from two rookies. We’ve seen what he can do with a legitimate superstar in Moss; if he can recreate even a fraction of that magic with Ochocinco, the Pats’ passing offense will look as destructive as Rex Ryan in a buffet line.
He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.