With all due apologies to the once-great Al Davis, the 2009 Patriots seem to have stolen his most famous catch-phrase:
“Just Win, Baby!”
Davis and his Raiders are a joke today. But in his prime he was one of the great coaches and then one of the great front-office men in the history of the game. His 1976 team, which won the Super Bowl and was led by coach John Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler, was good, but not dominant, from wire to wire. That team suffered just one loss all year, a thorough 48-17 beating at the hands of your Patriots, but won a controversial playoff rematch with New England and then humiliated the perennial bridesmaid Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
Then came Oakland’s 1980 and 1983 championship teams — quarterbacked by former Patriots No. 1 pick Jim Plunkett — teams that had no business winning it all. None. These teams did little right statistically, except the most important thing: score more points than their opponents week after week and beat superior teams in Super Bowls XV (Eagles) and XVIII (Redskins).
“Just Win, Baby!”
Those last two Raiders champions are rarities in NFL history — teams that won when the key indicators of success said that they shouldn’t. It looks like the model that the Patriots intend to follow here in 2009.
Put most bluntly, the 2009 Patriots have done little well on paper but win games. They’re 3-1 when almost everything says they shouldn’t be.
In fact, here are seven reasons the “Just Win, Baby” Patriots should NOT be 3-1:
1. They can’t stop the run. The Patriots surrender an awful 4.5 yards per rush attempt (21st), worse than hopeless dredge-suckers such as Kansas City (4.1), St. Louis (4.1) and Washington (4.3).
2. They have no playmakers on defense. The Patriots have forced just eight sacks and one interception on 131 opponent dropbacks this year. That’s a big play on pass defense just 6.9 percent of the time, easily in the bottom half of the league.
The lack of playmakers is so bad that the Patriots will soon take the fossilized remains of Junior Seau and put them in the defensive lineup. It’s so bad that the average football fan in other towns couldn’t name two New England starting defenders if you put a gun to their head. Maybe, if you really did put a gun to their head, they’d scream out Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork in a panic reminiscent of the Russian roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter.” But it’s an anonymous group to most fans.
3. The Patriots don’t force interceptions. The inability to nab interceptions is shocking, because INTs = victories. It’s the simplest math in football. Each INT you grab increases your chances of winning by about 20 percentage points.
The one pick for a Bill Belichick defense (Leigh Bodden) is embarrassing. No team in the NFL has fewer. The team with the league’s best pass defense, New Orleans, has already grabbed 10 picks, including five from Defensive Player of the Year candidate and future Hall of Famer Darren Sharper, who’s returned two for long touchdowns. So, the Patriots are a long way from the top if they want to rock 'n' roll in this area.
4. The Patriots can’t get off the field on third down. Opponents convert 40.9 percent of attempts (23rd). Even the winless Bucs (40.4 percent) and the 0-16-in-waiting Rams (40.4 percent) are better than New England on third down.
5. The Patriots hang with some bad company on pass defense. They’ve surrendered a Defensive Passer Rating of 90.8, a gruesome number that puts them 21st in the league, right behind the 1-3 Dolphins (89.9) and just ahead of the 0-4 Chiefs (92.5).
However, the Patriots have improved greatly in this indicator in their last two games and they are on an upward trend that could put them in the top 10 in a couple of weeks.
6. The Patriots can’t run the ball. Despite some promising moments from Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris, not to mention the consistently clutch play of Kevin Faulk, the Patriots average just 3.65 yards per rush attempt — 24 teams are better, including USDA-certified Grade A losers like Tampa (4.31) and St. Louis (4.47).
However, the fact that the Patriots have made a concerted effort to run since the Jets debacle, regardless of the degrees of success, has helped them just win, baby, the last two games.
7. The Patriots still have trouble, in the words of AFL throwback Hank Stram, matriculating the ball down the field via the pass. Randy Moss has caught one TD pass. Wes Welker has missed two games. Tom Brady is mired in the middle of the stat pack with an 83.7 passer rating that would be the lowest of his career if it doesn’t improve.
More importantly, the Patriots average just 6.15 yards every time Brady drops back in the pocket (our measure of YPA includes sacks), a number that puts them smack dab in the middle of the pack at 16th.
Normally, the league’s most successful teams have a very high average per pass attempt. And, with the exception of New England, 2009 is, well, no exception. The Patriots are far, far behind the NFL’s top three in this key category: Indy averages a shocking 9.5 YPA that is on pace for a single-season record; the Giants average 7.7 YPA, and New Orleans averages 7.5 YPA. Those teams are a combined 12-0.
THEY MUST DO SOMETHING RIGHT
Yes, like Al Davis’s Raiders, the Patriots do one thing right: They just win, baby.
The shock to the system of the loss to the Jets has dissipated with the wins over Atlanta and Baltimore, and it’s started to look like that loss was just one of the occasional blips that happen among division rivals.
As we noted last week, Tom Brady’s Patriots are now a stunning 35-7 (.833) since the start of 2006 and have not lost a regular-season game outside the AFC East in three years. These are shocking numbers.
And, more importantly, this year, the Patriots are finding ways to win against tough teams.
The Patriots are not only 3-1. But they join the Saints as the only teams in the NFL with two victories already against what we call at Cold, Hard Football Facts “quality teams.” Basically, these are teams with winning records.
The Saints are 2-0 against quality teams, with impressive wins over the Eagles and Jets. The Patriots are 2-1 against quality teams, with wins over the Ravens and Falcons and a los to the Jets.
Only six teams have faced three quality teams at this point. Among these six teams, only New England has a winning record.
It’s a trend that has a strong taste of 2003 to it. The 2003 Patriots did not blow anybody out of the water. They were definitely better than the 2009 Patriots defensively (238 points allowed for the year) but they scored just 348 points on offense.
Yet that 2003 team went 17-2 and won the Super Bowl. More importantly, that team went 10-0 against quality teams — the best single-season mark against teams with winning records in the history of the NFL. That team did not do many things well. In fact, it ran the ball even worse than the 2009 Patriots.
But those Patriots did the one thing that mattered: They just won, baby.
THE STATISTICAL STORY OF THE 2009 SEASON
You wouldn’t know it from the 24/7 Brett Favre love-in over at ESPN and elsewhere, but the Broncos represent the greatest statistical story of the 2009 season.
Former Patriots assistant Josh McDaniels headed to Denver with a reputation as an offensive mastermind — he was the coordinator for the 2007 Patriots, after all, the highest-scoring offense in NFL history.
But what he’s done in Denver is oversee one of the most instantaneous and dramatic defensive improvements in league history.
You already know that the Broncos have surrendered just 26 points in four games (6.5 PPG), after giving up an awful 28.0 PPG in 2008.
But here’s how the improvement looks through the quality stats we use at Cold, hard Football Facts, each of which historically has a high correlation to victory.
Defensive hog index — our measure of each team’s defensive front. The 2008 Broncos ranked No. 31. The 2009 Broncos rank No. 1. This is huge for Denver: we introduced the defensive hog index in 2007. The team that topped the indicator each year has won the Super Bowl (Giants, Steelers).
Negative pass plays (sacks and INTs) — The 2008 Broncos were No. 31 in the NFL in forcing negative pass plays. The 2009 Broncos rank No. 2.
Third-down defense — The 2008 Broncos ranked No. 25 in third-down defense. The 2009 Broncos rank No. 2.
Defensive passer rating — The 2008 Broncos ranked No. 31. The 2009 Broncos rank No. 2.
Bendability — This is our measure at CHFF of defensive efficiency. The 2008 Broncos stood at No. 28. The 2009 Broncos stand at No. 1.
TAILGATE DENVER STYLE — Rocky Mountain oysters
If you have the cojones this weekend, or any other time the Patriots are playing the Broncos, you should try a true Denver specialty: Rocky Mountain oysters.
That’s right. Fried bull testicles. It’s a delicacy in Denver, ya know.
I wanted to know how it was done. So a couple of years ago I called The Fort, a landmark Denver restaurant where Rocky Mountain oysters are one of the specialties. They shared their recipe.
Assuming your local Stop & Shop doesn't offer a full selection of mammal testicles, there are online mail order companies that will ship a big set to you. Here’s how it’s done, Denver style.
The Fort’s Rocky Mountain oysters with chile dipping sauce
For the sauce:
• 2 cups red chile sauce (such as that used for enchiladas)
• 2 cups hot mango chutney, such as Major Grey’s
• ¼ cup yellow mustard seed
Mix all the ingredients and chill for at least several hours to give the flavors a chance to mellow and mingle. Makes 4½ cups.
For the Rocky Mountain oysters:
• 12 bison testicles
• 1 quart peanut oil
• 1½ cups all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons black pepper
• ½ teaspoon cayenne
• 1 teaspoon seasoned salt
Heat the oil to 325 degrees. Cut and peel the skin away from the testicles with a sharp peeling knife. They will peel and slice much more easily if they are slightly frozen.
Wash the testicles. Cut them into 1-inch pieces (we dare you not to grimace). Combine the flour, black pepper, cayenne, and seasoned salt, and roll the pieces in this mixture. Fry in the peanut oil for 3 minutes, until a light crust forms. Dredge on a paper towel, skewer each piece with a toothpick, and serve with the sweet chile sauce on the side. If cooking at home, keep the oysters warm in a 200 degree oven. Serves six as an appetizer or two as an entrée.