San Diego's baby-blueprint for victory

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 16, 2008



(Ed. Note: the author and Chief Troll will join Dennis & Callahan on WEEI 850 AM in Boston Friday at 7:20 a.m. to discuss San Diego's blueprint to beat New England.)
 
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Mike Brady wanna-be
 
New England's opponents this year – not to mention the pigskin "pundits" – have turned into amateur architects over the past few months, searching for the proverbial blueprint to beat the Patriots.
 
So far the effort has gone as well as O.J.'s quest for the real killers.
 
The best any team has been able to produce is a blueprint for remaining competitive midway through the fourth quarter. And that blueprint makes for a rickety row-house on Victory Lane.
 
The best the "pundits" have produced are a list of meaningless and misguided clichés about "aging" linebackers or a "vulnerable" defense. And that argument is imploded by the dynamite of actual evidence. The Patriots, for example, surrendered 288.3 YPG this season, the fewest by a New England team since 1979, while giving up just 8.4 second-half points per game (despite surrendering a lot of garbage-time points while sporting large second-half leads).
 
But leave it to the I.M. Pei of pigskin, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, to secure the necessary blueprints for beating New England.
 
The blueprint we uncovered tells us that if any team can complete the job, it's the Chargers. Let's call it San Diego's baby-blueprint to beat New England, in honor of the pigskin-pastel of their alternative togs.
 
Despite their slow start, the Chargers proved to be one of the most statistically dominant teams in the NFL this year. If you size them up across the board in our Quality Stats, only New England and Green Bay were stronger, and the margin between the three was so slim that O.J.'s buddies use it to jimmy open doors in Vegas hotel rooms.
  • The Patriots ranked an average of 4.44 in our nine Quality Stats
  • The Packers ranked an average of 4.56 in our nine Quality Stats
  • The Chargers ranked an average of 4.67 in our nine Quality Stats
The Chargers topped the entire NFL in three of our nine Quality Stats. Only New England itself led the league in more categories (four).
 
San Diego's statistical dominance offers us a pretty definitive guide to why the Chargers can beat the Patriots. We didn't say will beat the Patriots; we said can beat the Patriots.
 
And, certainly, the injuries to key San Diego players Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson (none of whom practiced Wednesday), can shatter the best-laid plans. But if the Chargers do win, only the Cold, Hard Football Facts will have outlined the pattern ahead of time.
 
Baby-blueprint: San Diego boasts the best pass defense in football
The Cold, Hard Football Facts measure pass defenses by Defensive Passer Rating, a "Quality Stat" because it has a direct correlation to winning football games: the top 11 teams in Defensive Passer Rating this year all reached the playoffs.
 
And the Chargers topped the list, allowing opposing passers a 70.0 rating this year. Their capabilities were most evident in their league-leading 30 picks, eight more than any other team in football. The 2007 Chargers are the first team in franchise history to lead the league in either category, let alone both.
 
The Cold, Hard Football Facts have proven time and again the devestating effect of interceptions in the playoffs. Teams that throw 0 INTs have won 78.6 of their playoff games in the Super  Bowl Era. Teams that throw two or more picks in the playoffs win just 23.5 percent of the time.
 
We've yet to see anybody truly shutdown Tom Brady's passing attack this year. And, of course, he absolutely shredded San Diego in their first meeting back in Week 2:
  • 25 of 31 (80.6%) for 279 yards, 9.0 YPA, 3 TD, 1 INT, 123.0 passer rating.
But these lightning Bolts need only strike once. And if any team in football this year has a shot at humbling New England's historic attack, it's San Diego.
 
Baby-blueprint: San Diego is the top Big Play team in football
The Cold, Hard Football Facts measure each team in its ability to make "Big Plays" on both sides of the ball.
 
Most NFL contests are wars of attrition in which one or two Big Plays typically prove the difference between victory and defeat (our definition of "Big Plays" can be found here). Our Big Play Index is a hugely important indicator with a high correlation to winning football games.
 
Teams that won the Big Play battle this year were a remarkable 180-34 (.841). (Forty-two games featured an even Big Play battle.)
 
The "pundits," of course, once again fail to understand even the most basic concepts of football, such as the omnipotence of Big Plays in the NFL. Their "blueprints" to beat New England typically call for teams to "grind out" those "long drives" and "eat the clock." Not only do these arguments represent lazy, cliche-riddled work, it's the equivalent of calling for a Pickett's Charge of pigskin: ordering an under-equipped army to launch a full front assault over exposed territory against a larger enemy force in an entrenched position.
 
In other words, the plan preferred by the "pundits" is pure suicide. Their "blueprint" calls for outmanned teams to overpower the Patriots in a war of attrition. Stupid "pundits."

Instead, the baby-blueprint to beat New England calls for gridiron guerilla warfare, a series of quick, unforeseen (and, yes, even lucky) strikes in the Big Play department: the team that beats New England will strike quickly with Big Plays, and at times and places you could not predict.
 
And no team was better in the Big Play wars this year than San Diego. The Chargers led the league in the number of Big Plays they made (69), eight more than second-place Minnesota. More importantly, the Chargers led the league in Big Play differential (+29), two ahead of second place New England.
 
All those interceptions, long runs and explosive special teams plays add up to a lot of game-winning moments for the Chargers.
 
But the Patriots certainly pose a difficult Big Play challenge. They allowed just 28 Big Plays, fewest in the NFL this year.
 
Baby-blueprint: San Diego is the most efficient team in football
The Cold, Hard Football Facts measure the efficiency of each team's offense and defense through our Scoreability and Bendability Indices. These Quality Stats have a high correlation to victory because they do not measure offenses and defenses in a vacuum. Instead, they measure how each unit on a team interacts to 1) put points on the board or 2) keep opponents off the scoreboard.
 
In other words, they are measures of team-wide efficiency.
 
And no team rated more highly than the Chargers: they defined the "bend-but-don't break" phenomenon on defense this year, with a No. 1 ranking in our Bendability Index. And they were second only to New England in our Scoreability Index. (It's actually quite a tribute to the widely-criticized Norv Turner that his team played so efficiently in 2007; poorly coached teams never rate highly in these indicators.)
 
The San Diego defense this year forced opponents to march 18.04 Yards Per Point Scored, or the equivalent of a daunting 126.3 yards for every 7 points they put on the board. It tells us that opponents churned up a lot of empty yards against the Chargers.
 
The 30 INTs were certainly a big reason why. And the win over Indy last week provided a perfect example of this "bend-don't-break" efficiency: the Colts cranked out 446 yards of offense, including 402 in the air. But they produced a measly 24 points – a pathetic number relative to the yards they generated. Two red-zone picks by San Diego were a big reason for Indy's lack of efficiency on offense.
 
The San Diego offense, meanwhile, was highly efficient throughout the year. The Chargers needed just 12.24 Yards Per Point Scored in 2007, or the equivalent 85.7 yards for every 7 points they put on the board. It tells us that the Chargers often find themselves in good scoring position, and then take advantage of those opportunities.
 
And we don't want to get any of those "yeah, but" emails that these arguments about scoring efficiency always generate. Yes, special teams and defense have played a large role in San Diego's scoring opportunities. Yes, we understand that argument. Yes, we understand that other teams were more spectacular on offense, if you compare only the production of those individual offenses.
 
But that's the point, folks. The scoreboard does not care where the points come from. The scoreboad does not care that a big kick return gave the offense a short field. The scoreboard does not care if points came off a pick-six instead of a long offensive drive. The scoreboard is a truly egalitarian place: it treats all points equally. And so should football fans.
 
San Diego's ability to score efficiently, paired with the most efficient defense in football this year – the one defense that makes opponents work harder than any other to put points on the board – spell out one very dangerous team.
 
It's a team that clearly offers a blueprint to topple the Patriots powerhouse.

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