They call it the fog of war: the swirl of chaos that makes it hard to tell fact from fantasy in the aftermath of battle.
Not that football is like a real battle — that’s disrespectful to those who have served and who serve now. But the football-war metaphor works as a literary device. It also works to explain the fog of information and misinformation that’s polluted cyberspace in the wake of the Colts' epic yet controversial 35-34 win over the Patriots on Sunday night.
But there’s always one forward observer that keeps their cool amid the chaos: the Cold, Hard Football Facts. We try to separate fact from fiction in the wake of the game, with a quick look ahead at the Jets on Sunday.
MYTH OR FACT: The Patriots suffered a crushing defeat Sunday night
Myth! There’s no doubt that the manner in which New England lost Sunday night was crushing for Patriots fans.
Cough up a 17-point lead by surrendering three fourth-quarter touchdowns against your arch-nemesis, waste a classic performance by your Hall of Fame quarterback and stir in a coach who makes the most controversial decision since Roe v. Wade, and it all adds up to a swift kick in the midsection.
But the loss in and of itself was no shock. The Cold, Hard Football Facts, not to mention most outside observers, expected a Patriots loss, and they lost. We still expect the Patriots to go 6-1 over the final seven, we still expect the Patriots to finish 12-4 and we still expect a shot at the No. 2 seed.
It’s not what it could have been with a win over Indy, but the 2009 season is still on schedule. The Patriots will be favored in every game except their Nov. 30 visit to New Orleans, and should win every game but their Nov. 30 visit to New Orleans.
MYTH OR FACT: Tom Brady is back and playing as well as ever
Fact! Brady has been absolutely en feugo the last four games, completing 73 percent of his passes with 13 TD, 4 INT, a sky-high average of 9.6 YPA and a spectacular 121.5 passer rating.
Those numbers compare pretty favorably to any four-game stretch in his 2007 season, and one of the unfortunate facts about fourth-and-2-gate and the loss to Indy was that it overshadowed a fairly spectacular Brady performance against arguably the league’s best pass defense.
- The Colts entered the game with the league’s No. 4 pass defense (70.1 Defensive Passer Rating). Brady torched it with a 110.7 passer rating.
- The Colts entered the game No. 1 in the NFL with just four pass touchdowns allowed in eight games. Brady nearly doubled that total in a single evening, with three touchdown passes.
- The Colts entered the game No. 1 in the NFL, allowing a meager 5.8 yards per pass attempt. Brady torched that unit for 8.9 yards per pass attempt.
The problem, of course, is that Brady came up six inches short on the biggest play of the night, essentially wasting the best performance any quarterback has produced against the Colts in more than a year.
MYTH OR FACT: New England’s defensive failures are wasting the prime years of its Hall of Fame QB
Fact! While the rest of the football world obsessed about the minutiae of fourth-and-2-gate, the Cold, Hard Football Facts have been obsessing for two years now about New England’s troubles on pass defense, the years of failure drafting big-time defensive players, and the consistent defensive failure in big games.
It all unfolded before our very eyes again Sunday night.
In fact, we’ve talked about this problem here on WEEI.com a number of times over the past two years. And it was another big-game, fourth-quarter defensive capitulation, not a single fourth-and 2 play, that was most responsible for New England’s loss Sunday night.
The inability of the Patriots to make a critical fourth-quarter stop already cost the team Super Bowl championships in 2006 and 2007.
Yes, we know that the offense put up just 14 points against the Giants in the Super Bowl. But Brady did produce what would have been a truly amazing, fourth-quarter, Super Bowl-winning drive.
The bigger problem was the Patriots defense twice allowed Eli Manning — Eli Manning! — to rip off long, fourth-quarter TD drives of his own. The Patriots are also fortunate that their fourth-quarter defensive failures didn’t cost them victories in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII, too.
We may look back on 2009 as yet another lost opportunity — another year in which a defensive capitulation ruined another year of greatness at the QB position.
MYTH OR FACT: If Peyton Manning had Brady’s defenses over the years, he’d have won a gazillion Super Bowls
Myth! The pigskin “pundits” seem to believe that Brady has benefited from playing with consistently great defenses while the Chosen One would have won eight Super Bowls had he not been handicapped by second-rate defenses and piss-poor running games.
Even ex-quarterbacks fall for this myth: At the start of its broadcast Sunday night, NBC ran a graphic in which it asked 20 Hall of Fame quarterbacks who they’d rather have run their team: Manning or Brady. Four abstained, Joe Montana split his vote, 13 chose Manning and just two chose Brady.
This mythology surrounding Manning — the belief that he does it all alone on undermanned teams — is a large reason for this disparity. People continue to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that this is a one-man team and that Brady is part of “the system.”
You certainly can’t explain this disparity in perception by looking at anything that’s actually transpired on the football field. The truth is that, for the past five years, Manning has played with defenses consistently as good or better than any that Brady has ever played with.
The Colts ranked No. 2 in scoring defense in 2005, 23rd in 2006, first in 2007, seventh in 2008 and first again here in 2009. (Brady, for his part, has played with the league’s No. 1 defense only once, in 2003.)
Does that sound like a quarterback handicapped by bad defenses?
But now that the Colts consistently produce one of the league’s best defenses, the storyline has changed. Now Manning has to do it all alone because he has no running game. It’s true the Colts average just 3.9 YPA (25th). But the 2003 Patriots averaged just 3.4 YPA and still won a Super Bowl. In fact, only the 1970 Colts (3.3 YPA) won a Super Bowl with a ground game worse than the 2003 Patriots.
The problem for the Colts has never been the defense:. It’s always been a quarterback and an offense that tanks in big games. In their eight playoff losses, for example, Manning’s Colts have averaged 13.5 PPG.
It’s Indy’s offense, in other words, that has prevented the Colts from winning more Super Bowls. It’s New England’s defense that’s prevented the Patriots from winning more Super Bowls.
The popular storylines conflict with the evidence and the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
MYTH OR FACT: The No. 1 seed and a cozy home dome make the Colts instant AFC champions
Big, Big Myth! Actually, outside of the belief that teams need to “establish the run” to be successful, this is the biggest myth in all of football.
For some reason, fans and pigskin “pundits” are obsessed by the notion that playing at home in the dome provides some sort of magical advantage to the home team that other home arenas do not.
We hear this pabulum incessantly anytime a dome team has a great regular season, and right now three dome teams (New Orleans, Indy, Minnesota) are having stellar regular seasons, 26-1 between the three of them. Rest assured that the gang at ESPN will spend much of the next two months spitting out the tired old BS about how these teams are “built for the dome” and will play high-scoring football on “the fast track” of the dome.
It’s also become a drum beat of doom among Patriots fans as the Colts essentially locked up the No. 1 seed with their win Sunday night.
But let me tell you once and for all that domes do NOT provide some sort of magical advantage. Quite the contrary: Domes are a handicap in the postseason. Let’s look at how these three Super Bowl contenders historically perform in their domes in the postseason:
- The Colts are 4-3 at home in the RCA or Lucas Oil domes.
- The Vikings are 5-4 at home in the Metrodome (they were 7-3 at home in the old outdoor Met)
- The Saints are 2-3 at home in the Superdome.
These are shocking numbers: the home team typically is the superior team to begin with, and the home team historically wins nearly 70 percent of NFL playoff games (232-108, .682, since the 1970 merger).
So, the actual evidence proves in fairly definite terms that domes are not an advantage. All anybody has to do is look at the numbers, but that’s too hard for most people.
These three teams in particular are known more for the postseason failures than successes. The Colts have produced six one-and-dones in the Peyton Manning era. The Vikings reached four Super Bowls when they played outdoors at the old Met. They have never returned to a Super Bowl since moving into the Metrodome in 1982. The Saints have never been to a Super Bowl, period.
My theory is that the dome is actually a bigger boost for the visiting team coming in out of the elements than it is for the home team. Three of Indy’s six postseason one-and-dones, for example, have come at home to outdoor teams the Colts should have beaten (1999 Titans, 2005 Steelers, 2007 Chargers).
Whatever the reason, the truth is that dome teams historically underperform at home in the playoffs.
MYTH OR FACT: Punting on fourth down is just the way it is and the way it always will be
Myth! Punting is a curious decision when you step back and take the big-picture view of the game. It obviously has its place in the game: Sometimes you need to boot yourself out of trouble.
But the truth is that the concept of punting has changed dramatically over the years. Before the 1950s, when defenses still ruled, teams would often punt on third (or even second) downs. It was a tactical decision to put the other team at a disadvantage when your defense could reasonably be counted on to swarm all over the offense. You wanted to be on defense! Punting early was the way to get your defense on the field.
It was only in the 1950s, really, that punting was limited to fourth down. Offenses became better, and it became tactically advantageous to give your offense all three opportunities to gain a first down.
We may be at a tipping point in football strategy once again, and Belichick’s fourth-and-2 decision, even though it failed, might come to be the symbol of that change.
Offenses today rule the game like never before. Offenses have never had an easier time piling up yards and points. So there is less incentive than ever to put your defense on the field.
A series of statistical studies (which most fans have seen this week) show, statistically at least, that teams are often better off going for it on fourth down than punting. Finally, there are plenty of anecdotal examples, too, such as the Arkansas high school team that never punts. The school spit in the face of conventional wisdom and won a state championship in the process.
Offenses rule the game today. So it’s quite possible that we’ll see the game evolve to the point where punting is an option on fourth down, not the default position of every coach in every instance that it has been for the past half-century.
MYTH OR FACT: If Brady played in a dome, he’d have Manning-type numbers
Fact! Do you want to know something pretty amazing? No visiting team lights up the scoreboard in Indy like the Patriots.
- They scored 38 points at Indy in the 2003 regular season (a 38-34 win)
- They scored 34 points at Indy in the 2006 postseason (a 38-34 loss)
- They scored 34 points at Indy Sunday night (a 35-34 loss).
Those are the three highest point totals by any visitors to Indy over the past seven seasons. You have to go all the way back to 2002 to find another team that scored as many as 34 points against the Colts in Indy. The Patriots, however, are 3-for-3.
MYTH OR FACT: The Rex Ryan love affair is over in New York
Myth! Sure, the New York media eats its young more quickly than primitive jungle beasts. Sure, the Jets coach hasn’t quite lived up to his own hype after a 4-5 start in his rookie year at the helm. And, sure, crying in front of your team will make you the object of ridicule.
But the truth of the matter is that Ryan has actually inspired a great turnaround in New York’s pass defense. The Jets rank:
- No. 3 in the critical Defensive Passer Rating category (68.7)
- No. 1 in pass TDs allowed (six)
- No. 1 in passing yards per attempt against them (5.8)
They supplanted the Colts in the latter two categories, after Brady torched Indy Sunday night, and they will pose a formidable challenge for Brady and the Patriots this weekend.
New York was a meager 22nd in Defensive Passer Rating last year (88.1). So, the Jets have improved rather dramatically in this area and they’re showing they can get it done on pass defense, the most critical component of defensive success in the NFL.
So, the biggest problem with the Jets is not their bombastic, teary-eyed coach. He’s actually delivered the promised improvements on defense. The biggest problem with the Jets is that they have a rookie quarterback who’s not quite ready for prime time.
In fact, failing to live up to the hype is a phenomenon that plagues the typically overrated players out of habitually overrated USC, and Mark Sanchez is just the latest example.
He’s completed jus 53 percent of his passes with 9 TDs, 12 picks and a 66.5 passer rating — all numbers that put him well near the bottom of the league.
Of course, he’s still a rookie, and most rookies struggle mightily in their first season. If Sanchez does come around and prove to be a capable quarterback, the formidable pass defense will make for a powerful 1-2 combination and the Rex Ryan-New York media love affair will be splashed once again across the tabloids of Gotham.