Monday Morning Hangover: final four

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 13, 2008



This week's Monday Morning Hangover was culled from notes scribbled on cardboard coasters soaked with Harpoon IPA and salty tears of lament. After all, this was the last full football weekend of the year, with just three games to play before the long, interminable night of the football off-season, a dark period filled only by Nascar, baseball and many other things we don't care about, such as you people.
 
VINTAGE COLTS
The football world was treated to a vintage Peyton Manning performance Sunday.
 
Which is why the Bolts – and not the Colts – are moving on to the AFC championship game in New England Sunday.
 
After a one-year hiatus that erased the painful yet incessant empty promises of Indy postseasons past, Manning was back in classic form: tons of pretty passes for plenty of yards ... and an empty result, a 28-24 loss, again in the playoffs, again at home, again to an underdog.
 
This loss might have been Indy's worst since the 41-0 drubbing to the 9-7 Jets back in the 2002 playoffs: the Chargers played much of the game without their No. 1 quarterback, their No. 1 all-world running back and their No. 1 all-world tight end.
 
Yet the 13-3 Colts – an 8.5-point home favorite – still couldn't find a way to get it done. Sure, our Quality Stats indicated San Diego might be an all-around stronger team. But this was a minority opinion (and, for the record, as you'll see below, we predicted San Diego to lose, though at least to cover the unseemly spread).
 
And, regardless, the Colts need to beat Norv Turner and San Diego's second string at home in the playoffs.
 
The story of Indy's postseason failures was so familiar before last year's defensive-dominated Super Bowl run that Indiana parents would recite the tale to their children at bed time: Given every seeming advantage, the Colts would invariably lose a game it should win.
 
We won't invoke the c-h word. But here's a look at some key numbers in the Peyton Manning Era:
  • Indy's regular-season record: 105-55 (.656)
  • Indy's post-season record: 7-7 (.500)
  • Manning's regular-season passer rating: 98.0
  • Manning's post-season passer rating: 84.4
  • Regular-season offensive PPG: 27.2 (playoff seasons)
  • Post-season offensive PPG: 23.2
For years, Manning apologists ignored the obvious decline in postseason production and blamed the losses on other factors, such as the inferior defense the Colts always seemed to put on the field (or the general falloff from regular-season numbers to postseason numbers that often happens when playing tougher competition).
 
Well, the Colts yesterday entered a home game in their beloved dome with a defense that ranked No. 1 in scoring (16.4 PPG) and No. 3 in yards (279.7 YPG).
 
The result was still the same: a loss in a game they should have won. The Colts have lost three home playoff games in the Manning Era:, two of them to clearly inferior foes.
  • In 1999, the 13-3 Colts lost at home to the 13-3 Titans, 19-16
  • In 2005, the 14-2 Colts lost at home to the 11-5 Steelers, 21-18
  • In 2007, the 13-3 Colts lost at home to the 11-5 Chargers, 28-24
They also suffered one of the most humiliating playoff defeats in recent years, as the 2002 Colts (10-6) lost to the 9-7 Jets, 41-0, at the Meadowlands. 
 
Three of Indy's seven postseason wins in the Peyton Manning Era have come in the wildcard round. Only two of seven victories have come on the road: a 2003 divisional round 38-31 win over defenseless Kansas City and last year's 15-6 divisional round win over punchless Baltimore.
 
The Colts will always have their remarkable 2006 Super Bowl run and Manning will always have his career-certifying moment: the amazing second-half comeback over New England in last year's AFC title game.
 
But that's an awfully small deposit in the postseason memory bank for a team that tears up the regular season each and every year.
 
Colts fans will point to Manning's 402 yards against the Chargers Sunday. But as you'll see below – and as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have long declared – passing yards are an empty, meaningless number. The four divisional-round winners this year all passed for fewer yards than the loser.
 
The NFL is all about passing efficiency, and Manning and the Indy offense were anything but efficient on Sunday with the game on the line. He completed just 2 of his final 10 passes – all 10 in San Diego territory – for 21 yards as Indy's final two drives and final two chances at victory sputtered to an inglorious, ignominious and inefficient end.
 
The Colts are the first team in history to win 12 or more games in five straight seasons (2003-07). But their performance in the playoffs has been utterly underwhelming, a thin, flavorless soup compared to their rich stew of regular-season success.
 
WE'RE WAITING TO HEAR FROM YOU, COWBOYS FANS
Each of the past two years the Cold, Hard Football Facts pointed out the obvious statistical holes in the Cowboys that the "pundits" overlooked in their desire to see America's Team rise again while declaring Tony Romo the second coming of Captain Cowboy himself, Roger Staubach.
 
Each time, we were buried by nasty, vile e-mails from a group of douche bags too pathetic to look at their own team with a critical eye. They were under the impression that we "don't like" the Cowboys, as if notions of "like" or "dislike" are relevant to what the Cold, Hard Football Facts tell us.
 
We simply look at the data and regurgitate in words what the numbers, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, are indicating.
 
Last year, we devoted an entire Mail Pouch to angry Dallas fans after we said the 2006 Cowboys were a fraud. Of course, the Cold, Hard Football Facts were correct: the Cowboys failed to win a single playoff game last year.
 
This year, one Cowboys fan suggested we "kill ourselves" after we declared the Packers a better all-around team than the Cowboys. Of course, the Cold, Hard Football Facts were correct: Green Bay is hosting the NFC championship game. Dallas once again failed to win a single playoff game, this time suffering a 21-17 upset at home to the Giants.
 
Romo has played a starring role in both performances. Last year, he botched a snap for what would have been a game-winning field goal for Dallas in its 21-20 wildcard loss at Seattle.
 
Yesterday, he had happier feet than Mr. Bojangles, running around, throwing reckless passes while leading the Cowboys to 17 points, the second lowest output of the season. Clearly, Romo is not rising to the moment and now stands as the next big-time regular-season hero who "can't win the big game."
 
So pay attention, Cowboys fans. Until further notice from us, you are to accept the following Cold, Hard Football Facts:
  • Wade Phillips sure ain't Tom Landry
  • the 21st century Cowboys sure ain't the 1970s Cowboys
  • and Tony Romo sure as hell ain't Roger Staubach
Staubach took over the Cowboys in 1971, gave us one of the single greatest passing seasons in NFL history and proceded to lead the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl championship.
 
Enjoy the memories, 'Boys fans. And we'll tell you when the good times are ready to roll again.
 
THE QUALITY WINS QUOTIENT vs. THE FIELD
Here's how the Quality Wins Quotient stacks up against other key indicators since we introduced it at the start of the 2004 postseason. These are the records in postseason games, from the 2004 playoffs through the 2007 divisional round. Interestingly, all four categories went 2-2 this week, as each indicator anticipated wins by Green Bay, New England, Indy and Dallas. Usually, there's a game or two in which each indicator is pointing a different direction.
  • Teams with better record vs. Quality Teams: 29-12 (.707)
  • Vegas favorites: 28-13 (.683)
  • Teams with better overall record: 25-16 (.610)
  • Home teams: 22-16 (.579)
THE SUREST THING in FOOTBALL: PASSING YPA
There are few things that are certain in life: namely death, taxes and the utter wisdom of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
 
For years we've been telling you that passing yards is the most useless stat in football – so unrelated to victory that they could legally marry in all 50 states.
 
But two passing stats do matter – that is, they have a direct correlation to winning football games.
 
Those two stats are yards per attempt and interceptions. The first is so important that it's spawned its own Quality Stat. The second is so important that we've dubbed it the Lord of Postseason Stats, the one stat to which all other stats must bow down and worship. We were given a textbook example of the importance of these stats this week.
  • The losing quarterback in every single game this weekend passed for more yards than his opposing passer(s).
  • The winning quarterback in every single game this weekend passed for more yards per attempt than his opposing passer.
Jacksonville's David Garrard out-passed New England's Tom Brady, 278 yards to 262. But Brady won the yards per attempt battle by nearly a full yard, 9.36 YPA to 8.42 YPA. New England won the game, 31-20.
 
Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck out-passed Green Bay's Brett Favre, 194 yards to 173 yards. But Favre easily won the yards per attempt battle, 7.52 YPA to 5.88 YPA. Green Bay easily won the game, 42-20.
 
Indy's Peyton Manning out-passed San Diego's tandem of Philip Rivers and Billy Volek, 402 yards to 312 yards. But Rivers-Volek easily won the yards per attempt battle, 13.57 YPA to 8.38 YPA. San Diego won in an upset, 28-24.
 
Dallas's Tony Romo out-passed New York's Eli Manning, 201 yards to 163 yards. But Manning won the yards per attempt battle, 9.06 YPA to 5.58 YPA. The Giants won in an upset, 21-17.
 
Interceptions also played a key role. Seattle's Hasselbeck and Green Bay's Favre each had a clean slate Saturday – no picks for either passer.
 
But in the other three games, the team that tossed more INTs lost the game.
  • Brady (0) beat Garrard (1)
  • E. Manning (0) beat Romo (1)
  • Rivers/Volek (1) beat P. Manning (2)
"WE WANT THE BALL AND YOU'RE GONNA SCORE!"
When the Seahawks and Packers went out for the coin-flip Saturday, memories of Matt Hasselbeck's infamous "We want the ball and we're gonna score" comment from the 2003 wild-card playoffs at Lambeau Field were vivid. The scene had been replayed countless times in the build up to this weekend's rematch, and when Hasselbeck and Favre were laughing together as the midfield confab broke up Saturday, it was assumed that some private joke had been passed.
 
What Favre actually said to crack everyone up, after the Packers had won the toss and decided to take the ball, was "And we're gonna score!", a nod to Hasselbeck's gaffe. Of course, they did the opposite of scoring, fumbling the ball in their own red zone and basically spotting the Seahawks seven points.
 
But it was still pretty funny stuff for Favre, who proves that you can be loose and still ready to play one hell of a playoff game.
 
And for those of you that picked up on the trend here, it also proves that maybe you shouldn't say "we're gonna score!" after you win the coin flip.
 
WHEN ANALYSIS GOES RIGHT ....
Our Friday Beer run number-crunching was accurate in three of the four games this weekend. Based on the Quality Stats, we picked New England by 17 (they won by 11), Green Bay by 14 (they won by 22) and the Colts to not cover the spread vs. San Diego (the Chargers won by 4). We were way off base in the fourth game, picking Dallas to beat New York by 14.
 
Some of the Quality Stat indicators were very Nostradamic in nature:
 
Our summary of the Seahawks-Packers game: "No team in the NFL this year is more balanced than Green Bay, not even mighty New England. The Packers rank in the top seven in all nine of our Quality Stats and show no weaknesses anywhere on the field. Seattle, on the other hand, is average offensively and on special teams, but with an excellent defense. But the Seahawks will find no mismatches to exploit, and mismatches are a requirement for winning in the January snow at Green Bay."
 
True, true and true. Even spotted two early fumbles, the Seahawks could do nothing.
 
Our summary of the Jaguars-Patriots game: "New England's offense should dominate against a Jacksonville defense that allowed 21.8 PPG to Quality Opponents this year. Jacksonville's offense is a bit better than the Patriots' defense, but it's a fairly close one on the stat sheet. And certainly not the gaping chasm we see between New England's offense and Jacksonville's defense. Special teams and Big Plays are two huge strengths for Jacksonville, but both are counteracted by New England. And as the final nail in the coffin, the Patriots are healthier, and playing at home. It all adds up to an easy win on the scoreboard, although the game may well be competitive throughout."
 
Sounds about right to us.
 
We said San Diego's Big Play ability would keep the Chargers-Colts game close: "With the exception of the first Chargers game, where Indy allowed eight Big Plays, the Colts were one of the stingiest teams against Big Plays this year (34 allowed, tied for third). But the Colts didn't make many Big Plays of their own, either (42, lowest of any remaining playoff team). San Diego allowed their share (40), but made a league-best 69 Big Plays (eight more than No. 2 Minnesota) and finished +29 on the Big Play Index (tops in the NFL) to Indy's +8 (ninth)."
 
The Chargers made four Big Plays to Indy's one, and they were the difference in the game. 
 
WHEN ANALYSIS GOES WRONG ...
Of course, some of the Quality Stat indicators were way off base.
 
From New York-Dallas: New York's strong Offensive Hogs (tied for 6th) will face a great match in the No. 7 Defensive Hogs from Dallas, and the Scoreability/Bendability matchup is a wash. But the Giants are at a big disadvantage in the passing game. They stand at 23rd in Passing Yards Per Attempt and are going against a team that ranks No. 5 in Defensive Passer Rating. 
 
Clearly we didn't consider the fact that Eli Manning has teamed up with the wizards from Hogwarts Academy to transform himself into a playoff genius.
 
And we gave San Diego an enormous edge in special teams over Indianapolis: This is a big mismatch, one that was illustrated vividly in the teams' regular-season meeting, a 23-21 San Diego victory: Indy's Adam Vinatieri missed a field goal while San Diegos' Darren Sproles returned two kicks for scores. Indianapolis finished tied for last on our Special Teams Index, and the Colts are pretty much bad across the board. The Chargers were second overall, great across the board, and  exceptional in field-goal kicking, the punting game and the return game.
 
The Colts special teams actually played a great game, silencing Sproles in coverage. And Vinatieri nailed his only field goal and knocked the cover off his kickoffs. Meanwhile, Nate Kaeding missed another playoff bunny for San Diego (although punter Mike Scifres did get off a clutch 66-yard punt from his own end late in the fourth to help the Chargers hold off Indy).
 
BRADY's GREATEST PLAYOFF GAMES
Tom Brady's 92.9 completion percentage  (26 of 28) against Jacksonville Saturday has been widely reported as a postseason record. It is.
 
But as we noted Saturday, it's also the highest completion percentage in any NFL game (min. 20 attempts), breaking the regular-season record of 91.3 percent (21 of 23) set by Vinny Testaverde when he played for Bill Belichick in Cleveland.
 
The record-setting assault got us to thinking about Brady's greatest postseason games. Here's a quick rundown.
 
5 – New England 20, St. Louis 17 (Feb. 3, 2002, Super Bowl XXXVI @ New Orleans)
Brady's numbers: 16 for 27 (59.3%), 145 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 5.4 YPA, 86.2 rating
 
The story: The numbers weren't brilliant, but Brady, in just his 17th NFL start, led the only walk-off scoring drive in Super Bowl history, driving the Patriots from their own 17 with 74 seconds to play and no time outs. In some circles they call this clutch.
 
4 – New England 31, Jacksonville 20 (Jan. 12, 2008 @ New England)
Brady's numbers: 26 for 28 (92.9%), 262 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 141.1 rating
 
The story: What can you say? Against a team that boasted the seventh-best pass defense in football, Brady was literally unstoppable with an NFL record 92.9 completion percentage. The two incompletions were both dropped by his receivers.
 
 3 – New England 16, Oakland 13 (Jan. 19, 2002 @ New England)
Brady's numbers: 32 for 52 (61.5%), 312 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT, 6.0 YPA, 70.4 rating
 
The story: Everyone remembers the "Tuck Rule" call. What they don't remember is that Brady, in just his 15th NFL start, completed more than 60 percent of his passes for 312 yards in one of the most memorable blizzards in NFL history. In the fourth quarter and OT, he completed 20 of 27 (74.1%) for 143 yards while the Patriots overcame a 10-point deficit.
 
2 – New England 32, Carolina 29 (Feb. 1, 2004, Super Bowl XXXVIII @ Houston)
Brady's numbers: 32 for 48 (66.7%), 354 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 7.4 YPA, 100.5 rating
 
The story: Brady completed a Super Bowl-record 32 passes for 354 yards (fifth-most in Super Bowl history) and earned his second Super Bowl MVP performance. He led the Patriots to 18 fourth-quarter points, including 11 points in the final two minutes, culminating in a last-second game-winning field goal.
 
1 – New England 41, Pittsburgh 27 (Jan. 23, 2005 @ Pittsburgh)
Brady's numbers: 14 for 21 (66.7%), 207 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 9.9 YPA, 130.5 rating
 
The story: This was Brady's definitive playoff performance. Pittsburgh boasted a 15-1 record, a raucous home crowd and the league's No. 1-ranked total and scoring defense. It was also the second-coldest game in Pittsburgh history (11 degrees, -1 wind chill). And, oh yeah, Brady was bed-ridden the night before the game in his Pittsburgh hotel room with a 103-degree temperature and an IV drip stuck into his arm.  These obstacles meant nothing as Brady tore apart the league's top defense for 34 offensive points and a comfortable 41-20 lead late in the game.

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