People often wonder what the Cold, Hard Football Facts are thinking.
We know this because people write to us every day screaming, “What the hell are you thinking?!!”
That question is usually followed by language that’s not fit for a decent, upstanding website … or this one, for that matter.
But if you do want to know, here are five deep thoughts from the Cold, Hard Football Facts as we tread water here in the dreaded Super Bowl bye-week.
Deep Thought: The NFL playoff system is so corrupt it could get a job in Obama’s cabinet
Patriots fans wilted like Peyton Manning in the playoffs when Tom Brady went down in Week 1. If they were in full throat, if they had truly been emotionally invested in the 2008 season, Patriots fans would be storming NFL headquarters today.
After all, the 9-7 Cardinals, a team that lost to the Patriots by 40 points in December, not only made the playoffs, but hosted two playoff games against teams with better records and are now heading to the Super Bowl.
The disparity lowlights a playoff system that’s broken and needs to be fixed. The main problem is that the requirement to reach the playoffs is so low: since the realignment of 2002, you simply need to be better than three other teams to get a postseason invite with a little home cooking to boot. For clubs that play in lousy divisions, like 8-8 San Diego or 9-7 Arizona, that’s not much of an accomplishment.
The NFL compounds the problem when it rewards those middling teams with home games. So you get the 9-7 Cardinals, who were much better at home (6-2) than on the road (3-5), hosting the 11-5 Falcons and the 9-6-1 Eagles. Even worse, the 8-8 Chargers were gifted with a home game against a Colts team that was not only four games better (12-4), but beat San Diego during the regular season.
The simple solution is to give the team with the better record the home game, whether they’re a division winner or wildcard team. Use the division title as the first tiebreaker when two teams have the same record.
Look for the NFL to make a move in this direction once they see the ratings from a Super Bowl or two that features mediocre small-market teams like the Cardinals – who barely sold out the first playoff game the state of Arizona had ever hosted earlier this month.
The better system is to get rid of tiny four-team division and create more compelling eight-team divisions. But a radical change like that is unlikely.
Deep Thought: Kurt Warner is better than Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning is universally proclaimed, with Brady, as the best quarterback in football today.
You won’t hear it from me.
Given a choice between the two, I’d take Kurt Warner over Manning seven days a week and especially on Sundays in January.
The two have performed quite similarly in the regular season: Manning is second in NFL history, with a 94.7 career passer rating; Warner is third at 93.8. It’s just about a statistical dead heat. Plus, both have had the advantages of playing much of their careers in domes while surrounded by great talent.
But in the playoffs it’s no contest, where Warner has produced a 97.3 passer rating – only Bart Starr (104.8) has been better in the playoffs.
Manning has produced a humble 84.9 passer rating – well below his regular-season mark.
More importantly, Warner wins: he’s 8-2 in postseason play and has reached Super Bowls with two different franchises. Only Starr (9-1) and Brady (14-3) won a greater percentage of their playoff games.
Manning, meanwhile, remains the Picasso of Choke Artists. He’s just 7-8 in the postseason and played his worst statistical game of the year in the playoffs in 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006.
Deep Thought: The Cardinals pass defense is the story of the 2008 playoffs
Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Tim Hightower, Edgerrin James and the Arizona offense have earned plenty of acclaim for their postseason play, and deservedly so.
But the real story of the postseason has been Arizona’s pass defense.
Donovan McNabb made some plays against them in the NFC championship game, and his stat line looked fairly impressive, but at the end of the day the Eagles couldn’t move the ball when needed.
But overall, no unit improved more dramatically from the regular season to the postseason than Arizona’s pass defense.
In the regular season, the Cardinals allowed opponents to complete 62.5 percent of their passes for 7.2 yards per attempt with 36 TD passes, just 13 INTs and a 96.9 passer rating.
Here in the postseason, the Cardinals have allowed opponents to complete 58.7 percent of their passes for 6.4 yards per attempt with 6 TD passes, 8 INTs and a 66.8 passer rating.
If the Cardinals are to have a shot in the Super Bowl, this pass defense that was so terrible in the regular season must show up one more time here in the postseason.
Deep Thought: The 2008 Steelers are as good as the Steel Curtain
While on the topic of defense, it’s hard not to be impressed by the play of Pittsburgh.
They physically knocked the snot out of the Ravens, as Willis McGahee can attest. The Steelers held rookie stud Joe Flacco to an 18.2 passer rating, forced four turnovers and held the Ravens to 198 yards of offense and just 3.4 yards per play.
The most impressive part, though, is that the 2008 Steelers stacked up well defensively against the 1976 Steelers, easily the best of the Steel Curtain defenses.
The 1976 Steelers pitched five shutouts over the last nine games of the year and surrendered a stunning total of just 28 points over that stretch. Here’s how Lambert, Greene & Co. stack up against Harrison, Polamalu & Co.
Against the Run
1976 Steelers – 3.22 YPA
2008 Steelers – 3.29 YPA
Against the Pass
2008 Steelers – 4.71 YPA
1976 Steelers – 5.0 YPA
Yards per Game
2008 Steelers – 237.2 YPG
1976 Steelers – 237.4 YPG
Those comparisons are amazing considering that offenses are so much more prolific today than they were in 1976. The 2008 Steelers had to work harder and perform better to get similar results.
The most important indicator, of course, is scoring defense. This is one area where the 1976 Steelers held a clear advantage: they surrendered just 9.9 PPG, compared with the 13.9 PPG surrendered by this year’s squad.
But it’s not a fair comparison: the average team in 1976 scored just 19.2 PPG, while the average team here in 2008 scored 22.0 PPG.
Plus, the 1976 Steelers played against field goal kickers who converted just 58 percent of attempts. Pittsburgh’s opponents in 2008 converted 89 percent of their attempts. It resulted in a difference of 2 PPG each way.
The bottom line: Pittsburgh’s defense is extraordinarily good, as good as any of the Steel Curtain squads and good enough to shut down Arizona’s prolific offense.
Deep Thought: I still have football’s most accurate playoff indicator
I wrote about the Defensive Hog Index here last week, which had gone 18-1 picking playoff winners over the past two seasons.
Well, it’s now a humble 19-2, after the Eagles, No. 2 on the indicator, fell to the Cardinals, who were No. 17.
The only other defeat for the Defensive Hog Index suffered came last year in the AFC title game, when the Patriots (No. 7) beat the Chargers (No. 5).
Long-time football writer Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union wrote to me Monday with an observation about what it takes to beat this tried and true indicator:
“The great QB beats the Hog Index – Brady and Warner.”
If he’s right, it presents a true battle of strengths in the Super Bowl, as Warner tries to overcome a Pittsburgh defense that finished the season No. 1 on our Defensive Hog Index this year.
Not for nothing, but the Giants finished No. 1 in the Defensive Hog Index last year.