Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 06, 2010
Our realms of expertise are well documented. We know beer. We know football. And we know classic 1970s skin mags. In fact, for the collectors among you, and we know you're many, we're about to sell the world's largest collection of first-edition Oui on eBay.
We also know movies with cool sound tracks and flawed characters: we have plenty of movie soundtracks and character flaws ourselves, if we're being very honest with you.
So it is that we thought of our own humble life experiences and our favorite flawed movie characters as we studied the 2009 playoff contenders. It's a wide-open field this year. Nobody, by the end of the year, looked unbeatable and each team has its own critical weakness.
In fact, we haven't seen a postseason this statistically curious, this wide open, since we gave up collecting Chic in 2004 and began collecting Cold, Hard Football Facts.
The leading teams when measured by our Quality Stats do not have very good records – surprising AFC Quality Stats leader Baltimore is 9-7 and the No. 6 seed. NFC statistical powerhouse Green Bay is 11-5 and the No. 5 seed.
The red-hot favorites among the punditry, like the Colts, Chargers and Vikings, all have very, very critical flaws in one key area that usually spells doom. These flaws put the Colts and Chargers surprisingly low on our list below. In fact, we were a little shocked that they failed to measure up statistically.
And then there are the Saints: they end the year dominating our stats and with the NFC's No. 1 seed. But anybody who's watched football this year knows that the Saints of December were a much different team than the Saints of September through November.
It adds up to one very interesting group of postseason contenders and the widest open field we've seen in years. With the exception of the Bengals, it wouldn't surprise us to see any team in the playoffs reach the the big game in Miami.
And there are a lot of hungry fans out there: six of the 12 postseason contenders this year have never won a Super Bowl.
Teams are listed here by their average score across the board in our Quality Stats, from New Orleans through Cincinnati (see the chart here).
New Orleans (13-3)
Franchise playoff record: 2-6
Last playoff win: 2006 divisional playoffs
Super Bowl champs: none
Symbolic flawed movie character – Tony Manero. Used to strut down the street like he owned the place. Then reality hit.
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Strength: Dominance of the passing battle. The Saints remain No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential, though obviously the trend, as noted here and everywhere, has been on a rapid downward slope. The Saints are also the only team this year No. 1 in more than one indicator, but all are on the offensive side of the ball. New Orleans, in other words, enters the playoffs as what looks like a one-dimensional, and even that one dimension is struggling suddenly.
Weakness: Run defense. The Saints are No. 15 overall on our Defensive Hog Index, but their true weakness is that the defensive unit that ranks No. 27 against the run (4.52). They're actually quite good at forcing mistakes (No. 6 in Negative Pass Plays). New Orleans will likely face some very good running backs in the playoffs: Dallas is the NFL's No. 2 team running the ball and Adrian Peterson will be out there lurking. It's a potential bad match-up, and the Cowboys already handed the Saints their first loss of the season, while their loss in the season finale came against a Carolina team that's dominant running the ball.
Overview: If the trends in New Orleans were any worse they'd be wearing white leisure suits, listening to the Bee Gees and dancing at Brooklyn night clubs. We don't track the upward and downward movement of stats late in the season. It overwhelms the beer-bottle-cap abacus we use to track our Quality Stats. But we've had a number of requests this year to do so. And it makes sense. Consider it on the list of discussions for 2010. In the meantime, the Saints are not as good right now as the season-long numbers indicate.
New Orleans is also the least successful team in the postseason, with just two playoff wins in franchise history. The playoffs woes might continue this year after what was a spectacular ride in 2009: if the Packers get past the Cardinals on Sunday, for example, they would pose a very, very formidable challenge for the Saints next week.
Franchise playoff record: 7-4
Last playoff win: 2008 divisional playoffs
Super Bowl champs: 2000
Flawed symbolic movie character – Jerry Mitchell from Three O'Clock High. Doesn't look like much. But capable of punching out the big boys.
Strength: Defensive efficiency. Dominance of the passing battle. The famous Ravens defense looked iffy early in the year, but once again has lifted the team. Baltimore ranks No. 3 in scoring defense and No. 3 in our Bendability Index. They've made it very difficult for opponents to score. Most interestingly, though, is the team's No.4 ranking in Passer Rating Differential. In what was widely perceived as a down year for both second-year QB Joe Flacco and the Baltimore D, the Ravens were one of the best teams in football when it came time to win the all-important passing battles.
Weakness: Passing offense. Ability to close games. Baltimore ranks just 13th in Passing Yards Per Attempt, which means the team is merely mediocre when it comes time to matriculate the ball down the field via the pass. A bigger concern is the team's inability to win tight games this year, a factor which goes a long way toward explaining the team's statistical dominance but ho-hum 9-7 record. The Ravens lost by six at New England early this season, with a dropped fourth-down pass the difference between a potential win. They lost by three to Cincy, two to Minnesota, two to Indy and three to Pittsburgh. That's five very winnable games that, if they had gone the other way, would have made Baltimore a favorite to win it all.
Overview: We were as shocked as you were to find a 9-7 team and the AFC's No. 6 seed as the conference's best team when measured by our Quality Stats. Such a paradox is unprecedented in the short but glorious history of the Cold, Hard Football facts, but also part of some wider paradoxes we discussed elsewhere this year, both in our tremendous breakdown of the Defensive Hog Index this week and in our AFC preview for Boston's WEEI.com. We believe this is a very, very formidable team that has what it takes to reach the Super Bowl, despite the record.
Green Bay (11-5)
Franchise playoff record: 25-15
Last playoff win: 2007 divisional playoffs
Super Bowl champs: 1966, 1967, 1996
Symbolic flawed movie character – "The Kid" from Purple Rain. Great talent but still tortured by the memory of his alcoholic father figure.
Strength: Defensive Hogs. Dominance of the passing battle. We devoted an entire piece here on CHFF and on SI.com a couple of weeks ago to the fact that Green Bay was our Super Bowl dark horse. The across-the-board strength of their Defensive Hogs is inspiring: No. 2 against the run (3.59 YPA), No. 1 forcing Negative Pass Plays (11.61%) and No. 9 in third-down defense (36.02%). That's a tough trio.
Perhaps more impressive, though, is the dominance of the passing game: the Packers ended the year No. 4 in Offensive Passer Rating, behind only the Vikings, Saints and Chargers. Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, ends the 2009 season as – this is the good part – the highest-rated passer in NFL history (97.2 career rating). However, with just 1,136 career pass attempts, he's still a full season away from qualifying in the "official" NFL record books (min. 1,500 attempts).
Weakness: Bendability. Jared Allen. The Packers, for all their defensive strengths, are a mere 18th in Bendability, which explains why the team that ranked second in total defense was a mere seventh in scoring defense. That's too many points on too few yards for Green Bay opponents. Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, meanwhile, was a one-man wrecking crew in Minnesota's two wins over the Packers this year: he accounted for 7.5 of his NFC-leading 14.5 sacks this year in those two outings, including a career-high 4.5 in their Monday night meeting back on Oct. 5. (Allen had produced just one three-sack game in his career before facing the Pack this year.)
To reach the Super Bowl, the Packers might have to face the Vikings again. Green Bay seems to have worked out its pass protection problems, but a third meeting against Allen and his mates would put that protection to the test.
Overview: Like their symbolic movie character, the Packers must emerge from the purple-hued shadows of their own history. With wins by the Packers and Eagles this weekend, Green Bay will visit Minnesota next weekend in the biggest game of the 2009 postseason and with a chance to purge the past once and for all.
Franchise playoff record: 32-24
Last playoff win: 1996 wildcard
Super Bowl champs: 1971, 1977, 1992, 1993, 1995
Symbolic flawed movie character – The paperboy from Better Off Dead. Jerry Jones wants his f!ckin' two dollars, and he's not taking no for an answer.
Strength: Defensive efficiency. Running the ball. The Cowboys rank No. 1 this year in Bendability, our measure of defensive efficiency. It's actually part of one of the more remarkable statistical turnarounds of the 2009 season. The Cowboys ranked No. 29 in this indicator last year. It's a sign that the Cowboys are finally playing smart, well-coached football and that the big-name defenders drafted in recent years are starting to live up to expectations. The league's third-best Offensive Hogs, meanwhile, have paved the way for the second-best ground attack in football (4.82 YPA), a nice counterweight to balance the prolific play of quarterback Tony Romo.
Weakness: Offensive efficiency. Pass defense. Interestingly, for a team that boasts the most "Bendable" defense in football, the Cowboys also field one of the league's least efficient offenses (25th in Scoreability). Usually, the two go hand in hand, so this is just another one of those statistical paradoxes that seem to be defining the 2009 postseason contenders. Dallas's mediocre pass defense, meanwhile, (16th in Defensive Passer Rating) could prove a critical handicap against the collection of quarterbacks in this year's tournament. Dallas defenders hauled in just 11 INTs this year. Only the Raiders, Rams and Lions collected fewer picks.
Overview: Jerry Jones has not been paid in quite some time. He's put a lot of work into it, too. He's pedaled his little butt off each morning: he brought in big-name coaches (Bill Parcells) and quarterbacks (Drew Bledsoe). He built a new pigskin pyramid in honor of his memory and the greatness of his paper-route empire. But he hasn't been paid with a playoff win in 13 years and hasn't been paid with a Super Bowl victory in 14. He wants his Goddamn two dollars.
New England (10-6)
Franchise playoff record: 21-13
Last playoff win: 2007 AFC championship
Super Bowl champs: 2001, 2003, 2004
Symbolic movie character – Danny LaRusso from The Karate Kid. Wounded warrior. If he can tap his mental reservoir of knowledge and superior technique, might still emerge All Valley champion.
Strength: Defensive efficiency. Pass protection. Bill Belichick's Patriots have mastered the art of the bend-but-don't break defense over the years, and the 2009 season is no exception, as evidenced by New England's No. 11 rank in total defense but No. 5 rank in scoring defense, leading to a No. 4 spot on our Bendability Index. The Patriots also make fewer mistakes in the passing game than any team in football, suffering a Negative Pass Play on just 5.08 percent of dropbacks.
Weaknesses: Run defense. Fourth-quarter collapses in the pass defense. The Patriots rank just 18th in our critical Defensive Hog Index and, specifically, they can't stop the run, surrendering 4.44 YPA (23rd). But the bigger issue is that the team simply cannot hold a lead this year, as evidenced by almost every loss they suffered in 2009. The postseason collapses, meanwhile, are already well chronicled: surrendering 32 second-half points to the Colts to the 2006 AFC title game after holding them to six in the first half; giving up two long touchdown drives to the Giants in Super Bowl.
Overview: If the Patriots are going to recapture their Super Bowl glory, they'll have to do it like Danny LaRusso at the All Valley Karate Championships: on one leg. Wes Welker, of course, suffered a catastrophic knee injury last week against the Texans, which means the Patriots will limp through the playoffs without the game's most prolific pass catcher. And, depending upon which reports you read, Tom Brady is suffering a broken finger, three broken ribs, the gout, bubonic plague, the vapors and a vicious attack upon his injured knee by the Cobra Kai. But the best big-game quarterback of his generation (14-3 in the postseason) gives the Patriots a fighting chance to sweep the leg on the postseason pack.
Franchise playoff record: 17-18
Last playoff win: Super Bowl XLI (2006)
Super Bowl champs: 1970, 2006
Symbolic movie character – Terry Malloy from On the Waterfront. Boss man told him to take a dive. Lived to regret it.
Strength: Peyton Manning. Overall efficiency. The future Hall of Fame quarterback pulled one magic victory rabbit out of his hat this year for a team that was not nearly as statistically prolific as its record indicated. The Colts were dominant in no area this year, despite toying with a 16-0 record. That's actually a credit to the team, in our book. They found ways to wins. Indy was also an extremely efficient team this year: No. 5 in Bendability, No. 6 in Scoreability. This is just a smart, well-coached team that does a lot of little things well.
Weakness: The Defensive Hogs. Momentum. We talked about the critical weakness of the Defensive Hogs in great detail earlier this week. Only the two of the worst teams in football this year, and two of the worst teams in modern history, fielded weaker Defensive Hogs than Indy (Detroit, St. Louis). It's the worst ranking in any category by any postseason participant. The Colts are average against the run (4.33 YPA) but they can't pressure the quarterback (8.1% Negative Pass Plays) and they can't get off the field on third down (opponents convert 45.02% of attempts). In a league where Defensive Hogs have ruled the postseason in recent years, this is not an encouraging sign.
As for momentum, the Colts enter the postseason with less than any team in recent memory: they not only took the foot off the gas entering the playoffs, they purposely slammed on the brakes. As noted before, when they step on the field Jan. 16 or 17 for the divisional playoffs, they'll have gone an entire month without playing to win (a 35-31 victory over the Jags on Dec. 17).
Overview: The Colts were not a dominant statistical team in 2009. They were a very good team that toughed out one close win after another all year. But then, like Malloy, they took a dive when ordered by the big boss Johnny Friendly. Whether they can regain the magic after a month off will be one of the biggest stories of the 2009 postseason. We fear Colts fans will wake up Feb. 7 to find two strange teams fighting for the title, crying "We coulda been a contenda!"
Franchise playoff record: 18-25
Last playoff win: 2004 wildcard
Super Bowl champs: (ahh, that'd be none)
Symbolic flawed movie character – That sap Gary from The Last American Virgin. Never been laid. Spent all his time wooing the wrong girl.
Strength: BrettFavre. Offensive efficiency. Third-down defense (34.5). Led by their geriatric ironman of a quarterback, the Favrkings ended the year with the best Offensive Passer Rating in football (107.25). Minnesota also put points on the board as easily as anyone, as evidenced by its No. 3 ranking on our Scoreability Index (12.92 Yards Per Point Scored). Only the Saints and Chargers were better this year. That speaks to a number of factors, from the ability of BrettFavre to limit turnovers (seven INT all year; first 30-7 man in NFL history) to the team's proficiency on third-down offense (fifth) and defense (third). Defensively, the Vikings have allowed opponents to convert just 34.5 percent of third-down attempts. Only the Colts and Dolphins were better.
Weakness: Awful pass defense. We discussed in great detail two weeks ago the statistical weakness that was going to cripple Minnesota's playoff run this year. The Favrkings simply can not stop anybody through the air, as evidenced by their No. 27 ranking in Defensive Passer Rating. It's the second worst ranking in any indicator of any playoff team this year (Indy's Defensive Hogs are 30th).
Overview: Like that sap Gary in The Last American Virgin, the Favrkings still haven't popped their Super Bowl cherry, despite the fact they've recently fallen in love. Gary fell in love with Karen and thought she was "The One" with whom he'd finally close the deal. In reality, she was bopping his best buddy. The Favrkings fell in love with BrettFavre, believing he's the one with whom they'll finally close the deal. They may wake up later this month with an early playoff exit, only to find that that BrettFavre been making goo-goo eyes with another team willing to do anything to get laid – like the Bears, for example.
Statistically, it's hard to believe that one of the league's worst pass defenses will not cost them somewhere along the way: the Vikings will host either Tony Romo, Kurt Warner or Aaron Rodgers in the divisional playoffs, with Drew Brees waiting in the wings in the conference title game and perhaps Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers or Tom Brady sitting across the way in the Super Bowl. You have to think that any of those passers would lick their chops at the prospect of biting into Minnesota's tender pass defense.
Franchise playoff record: 19-18
Last playoff win: 2008 divisional round
Super Bowl champs: none
Symbolic movie character – Meat from Porky's. They have one great statistical weapon and they're gonna try to hammer people with it.
Strength: Defensive Hogs. For the second year in a row, the Eagles ride into the playoffs on the strength of the league's second-ranked Defensive Hogs. Last year, the sloppy little pigskin piglets carried the 9-6-1 Eagles all the way to the NFC title game. This year's 11-5 squad, however, is not quite as statistically stout all around as last year's team, despite the better record. Philly is not particularly stiff against the run (4.06 YPA, 12th), but they get after the quarterback (11.06 NPP%, 3rd) and they get off the field on third down (33.03%, 2nd).
Weakness: Defensive efficiency. Offensive Hogs. If there's an opposite of the bend-but-don't-break defense, that's what the Eagles have: 12th in total defense, but 19th in scoring defense. That adds up to a No. 20 spot on our Bendability Index, the least efficient D of any postseason contender. And while they dominate in the trenches when the other team has the ball, the Eagles are a mediocre 16th on our Offensive Hog Index.
Overview: Philadelphia has one overwhelming tool in its arsenal, its Defensive Hogs. Coupled with its collection of young game-breakers, that might be enough for the organization to nail its first Super Bowl championship after years of, ahem, coming so close.
San Diego (13-3)
Franchise playoff record: 10-15
Last playoff win: 2008 wildcard
Super Bowl champs: none
Symbolic flawed movie character – Eddie Wilson from Eddie & the Cruisers. Brilliant tortured artist. But fears success and disappears at the end.
Strength: Philip Rivers and the passing game. The Chargers came on strong over the last two months, as evidenced by their rise up the Passing Yards Per Attempt list. San Diego ended the season No. 1 in its average per attempt (7.96) while Rivers ended the year with the third-best passer rating in the NFL (104.4), his second straight year topping 104, and an outstanding personal average of 8.8 YPA. More importantly, as Colonel Comey has noted several times this year, Rivers has not produced a single mulligan all year: in his worst game, he posted an 84.5 rating – way back in Week 1 against the Raiders.
Weakness: The Defensive Hogs. Ground game. You know the story here about the Defensive Hogs. The running game, meanwhile, is the worst in football (3.33 YPA). A bad ground game hasn't cost them yet. Bad ground games rarely do, when a team has an elite quarterback. But against a great pass defense, a team like the Jets, Ravens or Packers, for example, this could prove an issue. In fact, the Ravens made Rivers look merely mortal back in Week 2 (85.0 rating) and the result was a 31-26 Baltimore victory. San Diego's inept ball carriers produced just 43 yards on the ground that day.
Overview: The Chargers are essentially a reflection of the Colts: They both have a very good record and both are considered Super Bowl favorites, despite rather humble Quality Stats. Both have outstanding quarterbacks – the most important thing you need to win big games. But they both have the same critical weakness, the one weakness that has proven a giant killer over the past two years: their Defensive Hogs. And both teams have dreadful running games.
Rivers has been nearly flawless this year, and he'll have to be flawless throughout the postseason for San Diego to overcome its critical weaknesses against the cream of the league.
Franchise playoff record: 5-6
Last playoff win: 2008 wildcard
Super Bowl champs: none
Symbolic flawed movie character – Otter from Animal House. Seems like he's got his shit together, but only because everybody else in the dysfunctional Delta House of a division that is the NFC West is fat, drunk or stupid (and in the case of the floundering Rams, all three).
Strength: Kurt Warner. The Cardinals have done little well this year: they have no true glaring weaknesses. But they have few overwhelming strengths, other than the fact that their quarterback is one of the most successful postseason passers in history. His career postseason passer rating of 98.9 is the second best of all time, behind only Bart Starr, and he's won 8 of 11 career playoff games, while carrying two franchises to three of the four Super Bowl appearances they've enjoyed in their collective histories. That's a pretty impressive resume. But Warner has not been the same player this season, with relatively humble numbers by the inflated standards of 2009 (93.2 passer rating, 7.3 YPA, 26 TD, 14 INT).
Weakness: Offensive Hogs. The Cardinals are No. 18 overall and below mediocre on the ground (4.09 YPA) and on third down (36.32%). Not awful. But they're not going to blow away any of the league's top Defensive Hogs this year, starting with Green Bay's No. 1 unit Sunday.
Overview: Wouldn't bet the house on them. But stranger things have happened: like the 2009 Cardinals reaching the Super Bowl.
N.Y. Jets (9-7)
Franchise playoff record: 8-11
Last playoff win: 2004 wildcard
Super Bowl champs: 1968
Symbolic movie character – Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Goofy dim-wit. Needed a crash course and Mr. Hand's generosity to pass the regular season.
Strength: Pass defense. Ground game. We covered it all here earlier this week. The Jets are No. 1 in total defense and No. 1 in scoring defense. But it's the shutdown pass defense that gives this team a chance to blow up the scoring machines led by the game's elite passers that the Jets will face in the postseason if they get past Cincy (Manning, Rivers or Brady). The Jets are No. 1 in traditional pass defense (153.7 YPG), No. 1 in touchdowns allowed (8), No. 1 in passing yards per attempt allowed (5.4) and No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating (58.8). Offensively, the Jets enter the playoffs with arguably the best ground game in football: No. 1 in YPG (172.2) and No. 6 in YPA (4.53).
Weakness: The rookie quarterback. Fan intelligence. Even Jets fans realize that no rookie quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl. Mark Sanchez has certainly limited the critical mistakes during the stretch run, but his numbers are simply not Super Bowl caliber. Jets fans, meanwhile, continue to be the most inbred, dysfunctional Trolls in all of Trolldom. For example, we get these Google alerts everytime somebody writes about the Cold, Hard Football Facts. So we're familiar with the monosyllabic grunts that pass for analysis by the average Jets fans. And we got plenty of Google alerts from Jets boards and elsewhere this week in the wake of our ABSOLUTELY GLOWING report on the team. But boot-sucking, lick-spittle praise from us was not good enough for mentally deficient Jets fans, who ripped us for mentioning Rex Ryan's personality quirks in the piece.
One fan called our beloved Chief Troll (paraphrasing here) "an annoying, fat, lisping retard." Sure, that's a very accurate description. We don't deny that. Hell, his own mother probably wrote that.
But the fact that Jets fans are so dim-witted and defensive that they react angrily to the greatest thing written about their team's fortunes in years tells you all you need to know about these hideous troglodytes. Remember, these are the same fans who couldn't spell their own names without the aid of Fireman Ed.
Overview: To be honest, we really, really like the Jets as a dark horse, despite the fact that their fans are ordering pizza on our time and their quarterback is eating hot dogs on their time. The shutdown pass defense is a huge weapon considering the quarterbacks they must face. The effective ground game, meanwhile, will come in very handy against teams like the Patriots, Chargers and Colts, each of whom field poor run defenses.
It all comes down to Sanchez: If he can pull off a Trent Dilfer or a Brad Johnson, the Jets actually have a shot to win it all. Dilfer and Johnson are often criticized as second-rate champions carried along by top-ranked defenses. But the truth is that both played incredibly efficient, mistake-free football during their Super Bowl championship postseasons – and without this kind of mistake-free football, neither the 2000 Ravens nor the 2002 Bucs would have won it all. Sanchez simply needs a late-semester crash course with Mr. Hand: avoid INTs, and he could graduate a Super Bowl champ.
Franchise playoff record: 5-8
Last playoff win: 1990 wildcard
Super Bowl champs: none
Symbolic flawed movie character – Duckie from Pretty in Pink. Happy to get just one dance with the girl. Doesn't expect much more out of life.
Strength: Pass defense. The Bengals are easily the worst statistical team in the postseason. They rank in the top 10 in one single Quality Stat: they're No. 7 in Defensive Passer Rating. But they're hardly what we'd call a shutdown pass defense. And up against the league's elite quarterbacks, and paired with an underwhelming offense, it probably won't be enough to pull off any upsets.
Weakness: Passing game. The Bengals rank No. 20 in Passing Yards Per Attempt, while Caron Palmer's numbers this year are mediocre across the board. We discussed his underwhelming production this year with Paul Daugherty on SI.com and on Cincinnati.com.
Overview: Barring a sudden, 2007 Giants-style turnaround of fortunes in the postseason, the Bengals to us are a one-dance team. Chances are it will be "If You Leave" ... or, more appropriately, when you leave.
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