Buck up, little camper. It’s not so bad.
Patriots fans are ready to jump off the Tobin Bridge after a string of dispiriting losses to the Colts, Saints and Dolphins, and after a truly rare phenomenon that’s possible only here in New England: a dispiriting December victory to maintain a lead in the race for the division title.
And to think, some say all the negativity in this town sucks. I say if winning ugly hurts that much, take the plunge.
In the meantime, the Cold, Hard Football Facts have been all over the Patriots and Bill Belichick for more than a year — as usual, we were way, way ahead of the local pigskin “punditry.” We called out Belichick’s floundering defenses, his poor free agent signings and his disastrous draft picks back in 2008, long before it became the hottest trend in Boston since creamy clam chowder.
But analyzing football is like managing money: By the time G. Gordon Liddy has convinced Aunt Mabel dump her life savings into gold, the smart guys are already on to some undervalued aspect of the marketplace.
And right now, the Cold, Hard Football Facts are on to something nobody knows about. You ready? Here it is:
The Patriots still have a shot to win it all. We wouldn’t bet Aunt Mabel’s gold bullion on it. But it wouldn’t shock us, either.
Here are 11 golden reasons why it’s time to step back off the edge of the Tobin and maybe walk down to the Warren Tavern to sip the soothing elixir of enlightenment called the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
The most recent victory — Sure, the Patriots played poorly Sunday. But last we checked the scoreboard, the Patriots had just doubled up another NFL team, 20-10.
A double-digit win is a good win in pro football. A 2-to-1 win is a good win in pro football. In fact, historically, nearly half of all NFL games are decided by a touchdown or less. So a 10-point win in December is a solid afternoon for any team, regardless of the beauty points.
The fact that the Patriots won by double digits on a day when they did everything wrong makes you wonder what they’re capable of if they, you know, don’t cough up the ball three times.
The passing game — We don’t care how many times Merril Hoge or your high school football coach talked about the need to “establish the run,” the NFL is about two things and two things only: passing the ball well on offense and stopping the pass on defense.
And believe it or not, despite RandyGate and the sloppy performance Sunday and the three losses in the last five games, the Patriots remain one of the most effective passing teams in football.
New England this year has averaged a rock-solid 7.31 yards per pass attempt (using the formula we employ at Cold, Hard Football Facts that accounts for sacks).
That’s pretty good, my fine depressed friends. Only New Orleans (8.29 YPA), San Diego (8.07 YPA) and Indy (7.50 YPA) are more effective advancing the ball each time the QB drops back to pass. That’s good company.
Passing well is the most important thing you can do in the NFL, and if the Patriots can work out the mental kinks, their passing game remains more than Super Bowl worthy.
A brutal gauntlet of defensive stalwarts — Tom Brady has a 95.4 passer rating this year, a mark slightly above his career rating (93.2) but good enough for only 10th this year.
But no quarterback in football has faced the caliber of pass defenses confronted by Brady week after week this year. Conveniently, we track Defensive Passer Rating at Cold, Hard Football Facts. It’s simply the most effective way to rate each pass defense.
And New England’s schedule, as measured by DPR, has been B-R-U-T-A-L.
The Bills are No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating (59.77). The Patriots played them in Week 1 and Brady torched the Buffalo D for two late TD passes. The Bills have surrendered just eight TD passes in the 12 games since that night.
The Jets are No. 2 in Defensive Passer Rating (59.83). The Patriots faced them twice and Brady connected for just one score in those two games. But the Jets have surrendered just six other TD passes all season.
The Saints are No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating (64.81). Brady didn’t play well that night, but nobody moves the ball effectively on New Orleans through the air.
Even the Panthers and their loud-mouthed DBs are pretty good: Carolina ranks No. 5 this year in Defensive Passer Rating and has surrendered just 13 TD passes all year — only the Bills and Jets have allowed fewer scores through the air.
Denver, Baltimore and Indy all rank in the top 10 in Defensive Passer Rating. So that’s the bulk of New England’s schedule against the league’s best pass defenses — and the Patriots still possess one of the best (though inconsistent) passing attacks in football.
The fundamental problem with eyewitnesses — Got any cop or lawyer friends? Ask them what they think about eyewitness reports. They’ll tell you that there’s nothing more unreliable than the human eyes. We see the same phenomenon in sports analysis, which is why we always side with the Cold, Hard Football Facts instead of the eye test.
Consider the respective performances of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady this year. The storyline this year is that Manning is having yet another MVP-caliber season, relentlessly chewing up defenses with his pinpoint aerial assault, while Tom Brady and the Patriots are struggling to rekindle the glory of 2007 as Randy Moss melts before our very eyes.
The numbers say otherwise: As many of you know, the Cold, Hard Football Facts put an incredible amount of stock on passing YPA, the single most reliable individual indicator of success in football (slightly different than the teamwide indicator mentioned above).
And right now, Brady is actually outperforming Manning — ever so slightly — in this area. It’s a surprising fact, given the storylines that have unfolded for each team this year.
• Manning has attempted 502 passes for 3,905 yards — an average of 7.78 YPA.
• Brady has attempted 490 passes for 3,830 yards — an average of 7.82 YPA
Obviously, Manning’s team is better this year: The Colts are 13-0 and beat the Patriots head to head. But the Colts aren’t better because they’re outplaying New England in the passing game. The Colts are better because their defense is more consistent and they’ve gutted out more close victories.
But Brady’s continued ability to get the ball downfield as well as any QB in football gives the Patriots more than a puncher’s chance in the postseason and, as we saw a few weeks ago, the margin between the Patriots and Colts is not very big.
The Missing Six Inches — The big difference between unbeaten Indy and 8-5 New England this year is that the Colts have made all the little plays they needed to make to win this year. The Patriots have not. But we’re talking a handful of plays over the course of the year that would have changed the season — none more so than New England’s fourth-and-2 attempt in the fourth quarter against the Colts.
Six more inches and the entire 2009 season in New England and around the NFL has an entirely different complexion, even with the losses to New Orleans and Miami.
The Patriots have come up short on a number of big plays all year — as we chronicled here last week. But those few plays, not all-around talent, coaching or statistical production, are the only things separating the Patriots from the game’s elite teams right now. The Patriots make those few extra plays in the postseason and the Super Bowl is within reach.
The defense — The Cold, Hard Football Facts have shredded Belichick and his defense for much of the past year. It’s hardly a shutdown defense. There are virtually no playmakers.
But the unit is fairly effective — the Pats surrender 18.0 PPG (seventh) and 320.6 YPG (11th). Both numbers make this unit more than good enough to reach a Super Bowl, especially by the low standards of the modern game.
For some reason, it’s never been easier to reach the Super Bowl with a sub-standard defense than it is in the modern NFL.
• The 2006 Colts won a Super Bowl with a unit that surrendered 22.5 PPG
• The 2007 Giants won a Super Bowl with a unit that surrendered 21.9 PPG
• The 2008 Cardinals reached a Super Bowl with a unit that surrendered an abysmal 26.6 PPG
Those are the three worst defenses that have ever reached the Super Bowl — and they’ve come in rapid fire succession in three consecutive seasons.
The trend is loud and clear: Teams with lousy regular-season defenses can reach and win the Super Bowl. And New England’s defense is better than the unit fielded by any of those three teams.
The running game — Few traditions in Boston are more revered than bitching about New England’s ground game. I don’t know why people waste their time: Running poorly or running well has little impact on a team’s ability to win.
Consider the Titans: They average a phenomenal 5.33 YPA — No. 1 in the NFL this year and one of the best running teams in years. They’re 6-7, they're out of the playoff picture and they were hammered by the Patriots 59-0 two months ago.
Now consider the Chargers: They average just 3.25 YPA on the ground — No. 32 in the NFL this year and one of the most ineffective running teams in years. The Chargers, of course, are 10-3, in the midst of an eight-game win streak and a popular favorite to reach the Super Bowl.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have a more-than-serviceable running game this year: They average 4.09 YPA — slightly below average this year but not by much. You know the mighty Minnesota ground game led by Adrian Peterson? The Vikings average just 4.19 YPA — 1/10th of a yard better than the Patriots.
New England’s ground game is more than capable of reaching the Super Bowl.
In fact, next time some guy bitches about New England’s running game, just walk away or change the channel. This person knows nothing about football.
The offense — The Patriots right now score 26.8 PPG (sixth in the NFL) and average 411.7 YPG (second).
It’s better to rank higher in PPG than YPG — it’s a sign of a more efficient team — but the Patriots possess an offense that’s more than capable of winning a Super bowl.
By the way, with 26.8 PPG, the 2009 Patriots are on pace to field one of the most prolific offenses in franchise history. Only a handful of Patriots teams averaged more points: the 1961 Patriots (29.5 PPG), 1976 Patriots (26.9), 1980 Patriots (27.6), 2004 Patriots (27.3) and, of course, 2007 Patriots (36.8 PPG).
The handicap of the dome — There’s little doubt the three best teams in football this year are New Orleans, Indy and Minny — in that order. Two are undefeated. All three are great. All three are led by quarterbacks who probably will end up in the Hall of Fame.
But all three have a devastating playoff handicap: All three play in domes.
There’s a certain mythology out there that some teams are “built for the dome” and that domes provide a certain advantage for their hometown inhabitants that outdoor arenas do not. Nice story. But not true.
In fact, playing in domes is a huge liability come January. Since the AFL-NFL merger, home teams win the playoffs 70 percent of the time. But dome teams win at home just 60 percent of the time.
The Saints, Colts and Vikings, meanwhile, are some of the worst home teams in postseason football history.
New Orleans is just 2-3 in home playoff games in the Superdome and, of course, the Saints never have reached a Super Bowl.
The Vikings are just 5-4 in home playoff games in the dome and never have reached a Super Bowl since moving indoors in 1982. They were perennial Super Bowl contenders when they played outside.
The Colts, meanwhile, are just 4-3 in home playoff games in their domes and have turned the one-and-done playoff appearance into an art form: spectacular in the regular season, disastrous in the postseason.
My theory is that outdoor teams thrive when they move out of the elements and into a climate-controlled dome in January.
Whatever the reason, all three of this season’s heavyweights are perennial underperformers in the playoffs.
Recent history — The Patriots are likely to go 11-5, assuming the season ends with expected wins over the Bills, Jaguars and Texans. That’s plenty good to win the Super Bowl, especially in recent years.
The 2005 Steelers were an 11-5 No. 6 seed that won three playoff games on the road and the Super Bowl. The 2007 Giants were a 10-6 No. 5 seed that won three playoff games on the road and the Super Bowl. The 2008 Cardinals were a 9-7 No. 4 seed that stumbled into two home playoff games and was one play away from winning the Super Bowl
None of these performances have any impact on the 2009 season. But they do tell us that it’s hardly a longshot these days for an 11-5 team and No. 3 or No. 4 seed — New England’s projected playoff spots — to have a legit shot at the Super Bowl.
The Randy Moss situation — Last I remember, the Patriots won three Super Bowls with Tom Brady throwing touchdowns to an anonymous collection of second-rate NFL receivers. And I’m pretty sure Moss himself has never won a Super Bowl. So Moss is not, and never has been, a make-or-break player, contrary to what the local pigskin “punditry” says.
The problem for New England is mental: The problem is the belief that the Patriots need Moss to win. If they can get past this ridiculous, statistically and historically indefensible mindblock of a position on Moss, they can overcome any future disappearances by the star wide receiver.
And, yes, the Patriots can reach the Super Bowl. Don’t bet on it. But don’t be shocked if it happens, either.