Patriots fans find no nit too small to pick

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 08, 2008



The Cold, Hard Football Facts crew has received so many questions from concerned Patriots fans this year that we're starting to wonder if they just witnessed the same record-setting season that we did. Last we checked, the Patriots were 16-0 and fresh off the most dominating NFL season since World War II.
 
You wouldn't know it by the tenor of some of these concerns, which prove that:
  • Nobody frets over nothing quite like a New Englander, and
  • Few fans can find smaller nits to pick
Here's a pretty representative sample of the questions and concerns we've received about the 2007 Patriots as they prepare to extend their undefeated season into the playoffs, along with the answers etched in the stony gridiron granite of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
 
Q: Just how good are the 2007 Patriots?
A: Better than any team football has ever seen – at least through the regular season.
New England's unblemished 16-0 season, record 589 points and record +315-point scoring differential speak for themselves.
 
But as loyal readers (Hi Uncle Jessie!) are aware, the Cold, Hard Football Facts put a lot of stock in our Quality Wins and track the NFL's Quality Standings each year.
 
You probably know that New England's 7-0 record vs. Quality Teams this year has never been surpassed. And it's been matched only once, by the 2003 Patriots. And only one other team has matched the seven wins over Quality Teams in a single season. The dynastic 1979 Steelers went 7-3 vs. Quality Teams.
 
But you may want to know how the 2007 Patriots stack up against the very best teams in history.
 
We don't have Quality data yet for each team in history (we're working to build the historic database). But the Cold, Hard Football Facts tracked the record vs. Quality Opponents of every Super Bowl champion, along with the most legendary teams of the post-World War II Era.
 
Here's how the Patriots stack up against the all-time greats since 1960. This list includes the single most dominant teams of all the great dynasties, along with some other notable teams that dominated the regular season and went on to win championships.
  • 2007 Patriots (16-0 overall): 7-0 vs. Quality Teams, +19.3 PPG
  • 1985 Bears (15-1): 5-1, +17.9 PPG
  • 1962 Packers (13-1): 3-1, +17.5 PPG
  • 1991 Redskins (14-2): 6-2, +15.0 PPG
  • 1984 49ers (15-1): 4-1, +12.0 PPG
  • 1972 Dolphins (14-0): 2-0, +10.0 PPG
  • 1975 Steelers (12-2): 4-2, +6.9 PPG
  • 1992 Cowboys (13-3): 3-2, +0.6 PPG
  • 1999 Rams (13-3): 0-1, -3.0 PPG
Q: Can the Patriots match up against the "big" and "tough" Jaguars?
A: Yes. Now spare us the clichés.
ColdHardFootballFacts.com routinely advises readers to employ the "Merril Hoge Rule" of analysis, which is this: if some pigskin "pundit" spits out a mindless, factless cliché, just change the channel, put down the newspaper or click to the next website. (The factless cliché that inspired the rule is the constant reminders from ESPN's Hoge that teams need to "establish the run" to win, despite mountains of Cold, Hard Football Facts and decades of evidence to the contrary.)
 
The useless cliché circulating around the Jacksonville-New England playoff game is just how "big" and "tough" the Jaguars are. When you hear this, employ the Merril Hoge Rule and move on to a more important activity, like diving into dumpsters to collect empty beer cans.
 
We don't know if Jacksonville is bigger and tougher than New England. We'd contend that all NFL teams are big and tough. (In fact, the folks at WEEI in Boston reported earlier today that New England's defensive front seven is, man for man, quite a bit bigger than Jacksonville's defensive front seven.)
 
Regardless of the relative size, we do know this:
  • the Jaguars went 11-5, scored 411 points, allowed 304 points, faced seven Quality Teams and beat four of them.
  • The Patriots went 16-0, scored 589, allowed 274 points, faced seven Quality Teams and beat all seven of them.
The Jaguars could be the biggest, toughest team in football history. The Patriots could be the biggest collection of man-bag-toting, pink-dog-case carrying, skirt-wearing sissies ever to step on a football field.
 
But all the actual, you know, evidence tells us that the skirt-wearing sissies are a much better team.
 
If the Jaguars do win, it will be because they played the games of their lives, forced New England into uncharacteristic mistakes, found ways to frustrate the highest-scoring offense in history and benefitted from an unsual flurry of Big Plays on both sides of the ball. They won't win because they're "bigger" or "tougher."
 
Q: Can the Colts beat the Patriots?
A: Yes, absolutely.
As noted elsewhere this week, the 2007 Colts may in fact be the single best team in franchise history.
 
The 2007 Colts:
  • went 13-3 and would have been 14-2 (and matched the franchise-best mark of the 2005 Colts) if they had put up any kind of fight in the finale against Tennessee.
  • scored 450 points, second highest total in franchise history (2004 Colts, 522). 
  • boast a +188-point differential, also second best in franchise history (2005 Colts, +192).
Here's a look at the other contenders for "best ever" in Colts franchise history:
 
The 1958 and 1959 Colts
Johnny Unitas's championship teams each went just 9-3.
 
The 1968 Colts
Don Shula's greatest club was one of the single most dominant teams in football history. In fact, their +18.4 PPG scoring differential was No. 1 in the Super Bowl Era until the Patriots surpassed that mark this year (+19.7 PPG). But the 1968 Colts, of course, screwed up their legacy on the Orange Bowl turf in Super Bowl III.
 
The 1970 Colts
The organization made amends for its 1968 failure with an 11-2-1 team that beat Dallas in Super Bowl V. But the 1970 Colts were hardly dominant, with a point differential of just +87. Compare that differential to the +188 of the 2007 Colts.
 
The 2005 Colts
The 2005 team won a franchise record 14 games and outscored opponents by a franchise record +192 points. Then they failed to win a single playoff game.
 
The 2006 Colts
The 2006 champions were just 12-4 and highly flawed defensively, as evidenced by the 360 points they surrendered, most ever by a Super Bowl champion, and mere +67 scoring differential.
 
The 2007 Colts may have been the most impressive, all-around team in franchise history. They certainly deserve the honor of "best Colts team ever" if they go on to win the Super Bowl.
 
And that's good for football fans.
 
A Colts-Patriots AFC title game rematch will give us a postseason meeting of teams that went a combined 29-3 in the regular season. Only two games in history could match that mark: Super Bowl XIX, which pitted 15-1 San Francisco vs. 14-2 Miami; and the 2004 AFC title game, which sent 14-2 New England to 15-1 Pittsburgh.
 
The potential historic rematch is a reason for neutral fans to root for both teams to hold serve this weekend. And it's a game in which the Colts are very capable of tearing the prefix "undefeated" away from the 2007 Patriots.
 
Q: Do the Patriots need to run the ball better to win?
A: No.
We looked at the run-pass balance of every New England game this year and it's hard to find any kind of correlation between the team's ability to run the ball and the team's ability to score or – more importantly – to win.
 
The Patriots rushed for 134 yards or more in their first five games. The output fell below 100 yards over each of the next two games – and New England responded with its greatest scoring output of the season (to that time), with a 48-27 win at Dallas (29 rushes for 75 yards) and a 49-28 win at Miami (22 rushes for 84 yards).
 
New England had its lowest offensive output of the season, 20 points against the Jets, in a game in which it ran more (35 attempts for 131 yards) than it passed (28 dropbacks for 134 yards).
 
Passing effectively, as usual, is the main difference between success and failure. Or, in the case of a New England team that found success in all 16 game, passing effectively was the difference between scoring a ton of points and scoring two tons of points.
 
The Patriots scored 34 points or fewer in eight games this year. They scored 38 points or more in the other eight, giving us two even-sized test groups to consider.
 
2007 PATRIOTS OFFENSE (low-scoring games vs. high-scoring games)
 
Rush ATT
Yards
YPA
Pass ATT
Yards
YPA*
PPG
Low
203
912
4.49
312
2068
6.63
29.0
High
248
937
3.78
295
2663
9.03
39.7
* To give a true measure of effectiveness passing, we included sacks in the equation on both the attempts and yards side, as we do with Passing Yards Per Attempt, a ColdHardFootballFacts.com "Quality Stat"
 
The key figures that jump out:
  • The Patriots averaged 9.03 Yards Per Pass Attempt (a Quality Stat) and 3.78 yards per rush attempt in the eight high-scoring games.
  • The Patriots averaged 6.63 Yards Per Pass Attempt and 4.49 yards per rush attempt in the eight low-scoring games.
But no surprise there. You'd find the same correlation between passing effectively and winning with any team this year, or ever.
 
New England did, however, display more balance in the high-scoring games, but only marginally. The greatest difference, clearly, was in the ability to pass the ball effectively.
 
Bottom line: the Patriots scored more points when they passed better, regardless of how well they ran the ball.
 
Q: Yeah, but, New England's running game was much different after Sammy Morris went down in Week 6. Can Laurence Maroney carry the load?
A: Yes. Now chill out. Seriously. Take a drink. Pop a pill. Anything.
Over the past 20 years, only two New England running backs have carried the ball at least 100 times in a season and averaged more than 4.5 YPA.
 
The first was Corey Dillon in 2004 (345 for 1,635 and 4.74 YPA).
 
The second was Laurence Maroney in 2007 (185 for 835 and 4.51 YPA).
 
You have to go all the way back to Craig James in New England's Super Bowl 1985 season to find a Patriots ball carrier who ran as effectively (with 100 or more attempts) as Dillon and Maroney. James that year rushed 263 times for 1,227 yards, an average of 4.67 YPA
 
Oh, and the comparisons between Morris and Maroney this year?
  • Morris rushed 85 times for 384 yards, an average of 4.518 YPA.
  • Maroney rushed 185 times for 835 yards, an average of 4.514 YPA.
And four one-thousandths of a yard is a pretty small nit to pick.

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