Colonel Comey's Title Game Megaprimerstravaganza
By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Title Contender
Ten points to ponder as we prep for the greatest Sunday in sports.
1. The Seattle pass rush is (relatively) silent but deadly.
The Seahawks have earned their reputation as pocket collapsors and pass-rush terrors this season, and you’ll hear a lot about it.
Just don’t expect a lot of backup on the stat sheet.
The Seahawks had 44 sacks in the regular season, which ranked them tied for eighth and was just 3.5 ahead of the league average. They didn’t have a single rusher with more than 8.5 (Michael Bennett). In the playoff game vs. a Saints team that dropped back 44 times, they added just one more.
Yet the peerless film assessors at Pro Football Focus graded the Seahawks as an easy No. 1 in pass rush this season, thanks to the hidden stats: QB hits and QB hurries.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index also had Seattle ranked as the best defensive front in football, though No. 3 at pressuring the passer.
The Panthers led the league with 60 sacks in the regular season, 16 more than Seattle, but they had 68 hits and 201 hurries – behind Seattle’s 71 hits and 205 hurries. While the 16 additional sacks certainly add up, Seattle made more impact in the back end with eight more interceptions than Carolina and 12.3 more than the league average.
Seattle didn’t have a single defensive lineman average more than 40 snaps a game in the regular season, and that approach has paid off big time.
2. Brady vs. Manning never gets old, but they really are old.
There have been a few matchups in title games between older quarterbacks – most recently 2008 with 37-year-old Kurt Warner vs. 32-year-old Donovan McNabb -- but 37 vs. 36 is definitely unprecedented.
Consider that of the 94 Super Bowl quarterbacks, only five quarterbacks were older than 36 – Johnny Unitas in 1970, Rich Gannon in 2002, Warner in 2008 and John Elway in both his Super Bowl-winning seasons (1997, 1998).
It’s worth noting that all of those quarterbacks were retired within two seasons of those appearances.
There will be a hill of Brady-Manning stuff this week, but despite any of the facts and figures, it feels all of the history, matchups, scouting reports and trends will add up to nothing when the game kicks off.
You might think the game will go this way, or that, but in the end it’s going to play out in a uniquely memorable fashion -- and either Brady or Manning will win, or lose, the game in the final seconds.
Note to self: despite all of the age talk, don’t watch that Matlock marathon this Sunday.
3. The most unimportant stat in the league this year: Time of possession.
Scrolling through our Quality Stats looking for overarcing trends this year, there were a few where all four teams were in the top 10 – quite a few, actually. All four teams placed in the top eight in our Quality Stats Power Rankings, no real surprise since they collectively had four of the five best win-loss records in 2014.
But there was one pretty telling number, and it was time of possession.
This was the only area where none of the final four teams was particularly good – San Francisco No. 13, Seattle No. 14, Denver No. 15, New England No. 18. It doesn’t get much more mediocre than that. Meanwhile, Carolina, Cincinnati and New Orleans were all in the top five, which they can all talk about at their next meeting of Playoff Losers Anonymous.
Over the course of the season, teams that won the TOP battle went 168-87 (.659) according to our Correlation to Victory table at CHFF Insider, and just 3-5 so far in the playoffs.
4. Colin Kaepernick’s resume is starting to get real impressive.
And while Kaepernick is a pretty clear No. 2 in their personal rivalry, he’s not exactly a bridesmaid.
The list of players to reach conference championship games in their first two years as a starter is pretty short (and pretty weird):
- Mark Sanchez
- Ben Roethlisberger
Is Kaepernick another Sanchez? Hardly, although he’s certainly the captain of a ship dominated by defense, as Sanchez was – and Roethlisberger was, for that matter.
Kaepernick certainly is more Big Ben than Mellow Mark, and has three wins on the road in the playoffs, more than Joe Montana (1) and Steve Young (0) combined.
His average playoff game is this: 16 of 27 for 244 yards, 1.2 TDs, 0.6 INTs (92.7 rating), with 75 yards rushing per game. For his career, he’s 21-7 as a starter – and it’s worth noting that when his passer rating is over 80 the Niners are 20-2. But three of his six games under 80 have come against Seattle.
5. The next person to question Bill Belichick’s personnel evaluation gets a slap.
Every year, when the Patriots release this draft pick or that after an unimpressive tenure, you hear it: “Belichick doesn’t know how to draft cornerbacks, or Belichick doesn’t know how to draft receivers,” followed by analysis that cherry picks Players A, B and C to prove Thesis A.
Our study from a few years back concluded that the Patriots were easily the most successful drafters of the decade, and they’ve added great crops in 2011, 12 and 13. In addition, no team with the exception of New Orleans has been better adding street free agent rookies to the mix.
The Patriots have notably lost four key starters on defense this year, all in the front seven, which would decimate most teams. Instead, against Indianapolis Sunday, their D was excellent, featuring five starters from the 2012-13 drafts: defensive end Chandler Jones, linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower and corners Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan. They also had a rotation at defensive tackle of three free agents: Sealver Siliga (stolen off a practice squad), Chris Jones (sixth-round pick cut after camp) and Joe Vellano (free agent signed by New England in camp).
While it is true that Belichick hasn’t struck gold with any of his receiver picks, he also has only chosen one of them in the top 50 over the years – and the New England passing game seems to be going fairly well.
6. Both quarterback matchups can be described as “fire vs. ice.”
There’ll be plenty of talk about these QB battles, and for good reason, but it’s interesting how different the demeanors of the quarterbacks are despite both sets being extremely similar players.
Wilson and Kaepernick are both read-option, low-turnover game managers with legs. Their numbers were nearly identical in 2013: both threw right around 26 passes a game, both threw fewer than 10 total interceptions, both ran for 500+ yards.
But Kaepernick is goofy and a little Hollywood off the field, an intense celebrator on it. Meanwhile Wilson always seems calm, always measured, rarely showing much emotion beyond happy support on the field.
The same could be said of Brady-Manning – they’re both basically the same quarterback at this point, two steps ahead of the game mentally and able to move.
7. Of the four losing quarterbacks this weekend, Philip Rivers came out looking the best.
Cam Newton was who we thought he was at home against the 49ers – a good quarterback still chasing greatness, with an emotional streak that seems to hold him back. Drew Brees had a chance to win a “legacy game” and couldn’t. Andrew Luck had his flashes of brilliance, but wears the scarlet “S” on his jersey for those seven interceptions in two games.
And then there was Rivers.
Other than Manning, he was the most consistently good QB in the league this year, and he matched Manning on a windy day in Denver. After a first half where the Chargers couldn’t do anything, Rivers made great throws throughout the second half to give San Diego a shot.
While NFL fans have always seemed to dislike Rivers for his passion, the tide seemed to turn in his favor this year – maybe we finally “get” him. His demeanor after the game, where he talked about the respect and love he had for his team, and the perspective he had on things, seemed to rub some the wrong way – but none of them were in the San Diego lockerroom.
Rivers took a team expected to do nothing – and a career assumed to be on the downswing – and at 32, he produced plenty of hope in San Diego for 2014 and beyond.
8. There's a whole lot of greatness on special teams in the final four.
Each of the four hopefuls remaining boasts something very ... well ... special.
For Seattle, it's punt coverage -- during the regular season, they allowed a total of 82 yards in punt returns (while amassing 579 of their own).
For New England, it's kicker Steven Gostkowski, who should be named "Mr. Start-at-the-20" for his ability to produce either touchbacks or returns that go nowhere (opponents averaged 20.8 a return).
For Denver, it's Trindon Holiday, who has six career return touchdowns in just 138 attempts.
And for San Francisco, it's ultimate punting weapon Andy Lee, who has been in the top five in net punting average seven years running.
9. But there’s not a lot of defensive greatness in the AFC title game.
One Pro Bowler. Of the 22 starters on both defenses Sunday, exactly one was granted the right to be drafted by Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice – New England cornerback Aqib Talib, who had a Pro Bowl outing against T.Y. Hilton and the Colts Saturday night.
There are some other guys who were close – Patriots defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were surely on the bubble, as was safety Devin McCourty. Denver’s Shaun Phillips put up some numbers, but probably would have trailed the N.E. duo on the defensive line; teammate Terrance Knighton might have deserved it inside.
But that’s about that. The biggest names for both teams – Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Von Miller and Champ Bailey – are either on I.R., or in Bailey’s case, gutting it out as a replacement-level slot corner.
This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some good defense played by both teams – they were both very sharp over the weekend – but with clear weather forecast for Sunday in Denver, it’s hard to imagine a final where the winner isn’t in the 30s.
10. A Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl would have plenty of nice angles – including the first matchup between 60-year-old coaches.
We started with talk of old quarterbacks, but the coaches are pretty old too.
Pete Carroll and Belichick were born within six months of each other (Carroll is 62, Belichick 61), although neither has the faintest air of being anything but fresh.
Bill Simmons wrote a column a few years back about the “speed limit corollary,” the idea that coaches over the age of 55 lose their fastball. We refuted it pretty thoroughly, and it looks even more ridiculous now with Belichick, Carroll and 58-year-old John Fox all coaching for the title.
Of course, Belichick also followed Carroll in New England – and Carroll followed Hall of Famer Bill Parcells. Seems like New England owner Bob Kraft has a pretty good eye for head coaches.
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