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Tossing around a theory on the Patriots

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 29, 2010 08:58 AM

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Stats are for losers, of course, and you are what your record says you are. But what if, for a moment, we choose to believe otherwise? What if we choose to ask, purely for the sake of argument, if the Patriots are 5-1 today as a result of their own good play or as the result of the ineptitude of their opponents, particularly as it pertains to the passing game?

In the end, none of it really matters as Brett Favre, Randy Moss, and the Minnesota Vikings arrive in Foxborough this weekend for a Halloween meeting with the Patriots. If the Patriots finish 15-1 this year, no one will ask for a review of their early-season victories before seeding the Pats in the playoff structure. Those wins are there forever, by hook or by crook, and how New England got them does not really matter for a young, developing team that should certainly be better at the end of this season than it was at the beginning.

Nonetheless, there is certainly some evidence to suggest here that the Patriots have benefited from some extraordinary good fortune thus far, which is hardly their fault. But if we’re going to take a truly objective look at things at any point in time, let’s acknowledge that the Patriots generally have played conservative, mistake-free football, especially since the Randy Moss trade, while their recent opponents, especially, have been throwing up on themselves.

Miami? The Dolphins were so inept against the Patriots on Monday night that they fired their special teams coach the next day. As for San Diego, would anyone have been surprised if head coach Norv Turner got the gate on Monday morning? The Dolphins and Chargers punted three times between them while converting 17 of 30 attempts on third down, a conversion rate of a whopping 56.7 percent.

So how did the Patriots win those games? Because the Dolphins and Chargers were careless with the football and downright stupid overall. Because after Chad Henne threw at least two bad interceptions, untouched Chargers receiver Richard Goodman literally put the football on the ground and San Diego stopped playing after a questionable lateral. For the Patriots, one or both of those games serve as the difference between 5-1 and 4-2 or 3-3, and that is an enormous difference in a league like the NFL.

Nobody is suggesting the Patriots vacate those wins. (Calm down, Pats loyalists.) But if we’re going to take honest stock of where the Patriots are entering a game against another mistake-prone quarterback, let’s acknowledge that the Pats haven’t won some games on their schedule so much as their opponents have lost them.

Last year, coldhardfootballfacts.com offered a compelling argument for the key statistic with regard to success in the NFL. The metric in question? Opposing passer rating, the simplest point being that the lower the rating, the more games you win. Using that barometer, the theory translates quite well to this season, with one glaring exception.

The Patriots.

As we all know, there are 32 teams in the NFL. If we break out the eight worst (25 percent) with regard to opposing passer rating, the Pats are the only team in the group with a winning record and a positive point differential. The other seven teams on the list are a combined 15-31 and have been outscored by 256 points.

So why haven’t those other teams been able to overcome their inability to stop the pass? Because they are also careless with the football. Last week, the San Diego Chargers fumbled as many times (three) as the Patriots have all year. In the Miami game, Henne threw almost as many interceptions (three) as Tom Brady has tossed all season. Certainly, it would be one thing if we could argue that the Patriots have forced all those turnovers, but we’ve already cited four occasions on which the Dolphins and Chargers effectively gave the ball away against the Pats this year.

Again, is that the Patriots fault? Of course not. In fact, it is a tremendous compliment to Bill Belichick, who is instilling a confidence in his team with the simplest of philosophies. Make the basic plays. Hold onto the football. Wait until the other guys screw up. The Patriots defense is tackling receivers when they catch the ball, playing conservative schemes that prevent big plays and forcing opposing teams to patiently march down the field. Inevitably, the other team has faltered and the Pats have been there to pounce, allowing Tom Brady to methodically go down the field and accomplish what the opposing quarterback could not.

Simply put, Belichick seems to be looking across the field, to the opposing sideline, and issuing a simple challenge.

I bet your quarterback will make more mistakes than mine.

And he’s been right.

Now come the Vikings and, presumably, Favre, one of the more careless tandems in the league this season with regard to protecting the football. On paper, for the Patriots, everything suggests that this game will produce more of the same. And yet, if the Vikings can do what the Dolphins and Chargers could not – namely, avoid stupid mistakes and make the simple plays – there is ample reason to believe that Favre and the Vikes could shred the Patriots the way that Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick did, right up until Fitzpatrick hit Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather with throws in the numbers.

Opposing teams can throw on the Patriots, after all.

And against New England, too, they have been proving that you can also throw it away.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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