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This week at the New York Times, a look at the most heartbreaking losses in Super Bowl history.

The Seattle Seahawks were a yard from history. Trailing by 4 points in the final minute of Sunday’s Super Bowl, Seattle had the ball, on second down, at the Patriots’ 1-yard line. According to the website Advanced Football Analytics, that gave the Seahawks an 88 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.

With a win, Seattle would have become just the ninth team in the Super Bowl era to repeat as champion, and the first since the 2003-4 Patriots. The defense, which had allowed the fewest points in the N.F.L. in each of the last three seasons, would have strengthened its argument to be considered the greatest in football history.

But it was not to be. Brandon Browner jammed Jermaine Kearse at the line, and Malcolm Butler shot in front of Ricardo Lockette to make a game-changing interception. For Patriots fans, it was a play to remember forever. For Seahawks fans, it was one they wish they could forget.

But where does Super Bowl XLIX rank among the most painful Super Bowl losses in history?

You can read the full article here.


Yes, Malcolm Butler sealed the win for the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX.  But if not for a great play by Brandon Browner, Butler never would have had a chance to be the hero.

With less than a minute remaining in the Super Bowl on Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks lined up in a three-wide-receiver set at the 1-yard line. To the right of quarterback Russell Wilson, Ricardo Lockette stood nearly directly behind another wide receiver, Jermaine Kearse, a yard back and on Kearse’s outside shoulder — an alignment commonly used on pick plays.

New England Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner stood across the line of scrimmage from Kearse, a couple of yards in front of Malcolm Butler, who was tasked with guarding Lockette.

For Seattle, the concept was simple. Kearse would run what is known as a clear-out route: With Browner and Butler aligned so close together (in response to the way the Seahawks’ receivers were set), Kearse’s job was to make Browner backpedal. That would block Butler from cutting across the field to cover Lockette, who was to run a slant to the inside.

You can read the full article here.


This week at the New York Times, a look at the Patriots trick formations, and how New England has creatively worked around the NFL’s rules on eligible pass receivers.

In the divisional round of the N.F.L. playoffs, the New England Patriots dived deep into their playbook for a series of trick plays. What the Patriots did surprised even rule book aficionados, to say nothing of the team’s opponent, the Baltimore Ravens. It was also entirely legal, and the result of Coach Bill Belichick’s limitless ingenuity and deep understanding of the N.F.L. rules.

The N.F.L. publishes a rule book each year titled the “Official Playing Rules of the National Football League.” Rule 7, Section 5 of the 2013 edition covers eligibility. It is that section that contains one of the most basic elements of N.F.L. play, a rule so commonly adhered to that it goes unnoticed by most observers: There must be at least seven players on the line of scrimmage at the snap of each play.

Of those seven players, only the two outside players are eligible to catch a pass on a play; the inside five players on the line of scrimmage are, by definition, ineligible. But not only are the two outside players the only ones on the line of scrimmage eligible to catch a pass, those players must be eligible receivers.

You can read the full article here.


This week at the New York Times, a look at the second straight “historically great offense vs. historically great defense” Super Bowl:

Last year’s Super Bowl pitted one of the greatest single-season offenses in N.F.L. history against one of the greatest single-season defenses. Using slightly different time frames, this year’s Super Bowl can boast similar claims.

Both the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks had slow starts in 2014. After New England’s 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4, pundits wondered if we were witnessing the end of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick-era Patriots. But since that game, the offensive line emerged as a cohesive unit, Rob Gronkowski’s health improved and Brady became red-hot. Since that game, New England has averaged 35.3 points per game, including the playoffs (but excluding the meaningless Week 17 finale, in which the Patriots benched many starters).

From Games 5 to 15 of the regular season, New England scored 379 points, the seventh most during such a stretch of any team since 1970. Then, the Patriots scored 35 points in the team’s first playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens, and 45 last weekend against the Indianapolis Colts. New England joins the 1994 San Francisco 49ers and the 1990 Buffalo Bills as the only Super Bowl participants to average 40 points per game through multiple playoff games before the Super Bowl.

You can read the full article here.


This week at the New York Times, a look at the two matchups this weekend, arguably pitting the most valuable quarterbacks against the most talented teams.

At Stanford, Andrew Luck was immensely hyped as the next great quarterback prospect. The Indianapolis Colts selected him with the first overall pick in 2012, and remarkably, Luck has managed to meet even the highest of expectations. After helping turn a 2-14 team in 2011 into a playoff team in 2012, Luck won his first playoff game during the 2013 season and has now guided the Indianapolis Colts to the A.F.C. championship game.

Just 25 years old, Luck threw for a league-high 40 touchdowns during the regular season. On Sunday, against the heavily favored Denver Broncos, he delivered another strong performance, throwing for two touchdowns and guiding an offense centered on the passing game.

Luck is perhaps the most important person to his franchise of any player in the N.F.L. But it is Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and not Luck, who is likely to be named the league’s most valuable player this month. Rodgers averaged 7.68 net yards per attempt during the regular season, the highest in football. Rodgers also led the N.F.L. in interception rate (a minuscule 1.0 percent) and finished second to Dallas’s Tony Romo in touchdown rate (7.3 percent).

You can read the full article here.


This week at the New York Times, an early look at the division round of the playoffs:

In 1990 the N.F.L. switched to its current playoff format, featuring six teams from each conference, with the top two seeds earning first-round byes.

For the first 15 years, this structure appeared to provide an enormous edge for the top two seeds: Teams coming off byes won 81.7 percent of all games in the division round of the playoffs from 1990 to 2004.

Then, over the next six seasons, the rested teams were 12-12 and it seemed as though being “hot” negated any advantage teams gained from a week off. In the last three postseasons the pendulum has swung back, with three bye teams winning each year. Last year, all four favorites were victorious in the division round of the playoffs, with the road 49ers winning at Carolina as 1-point favorites.

This year projects to mark a return to the old days. For the first time since 2007 all four home teams in the division round are favored by at least 4 points, and any more than one upset would qualify as shocking. So while the home teams are heavily favored this weekend, here is one tidbit to keep in mind for each game.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-17: Reviewing the Surprises

This week at the New York Times, a look at the bigger over- and under-achievers with respect to the pre-season Vegas lines:

Every year, Las Vegas sets forth a projected number of wins for each N.F.L. team. Most years, the majority of teams finish within a couple of games of that projection; this year, 20 of the league’s 32 teams finished within two wins of their projected wins total from before the season. But every year, there are also a few outliers; today, a review of the two biggest overachievers and two largest underachievers of the 2014 season.

Dallas Cowboys (Projected wins: 8. Actual: 12.)

Projecting an eight-win season for the Cowboys seemed like a safe bet: Dallas finished with an 8-8 record in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and there was little reason for optimism in 2014. The defense allowed the most yards in the N.F.L. in 2013, then lost three of its best players: DeMarcus Ware moved on to the Broncos, Jason Hatcher signed with the Redskins, and Sean Lee tore an anterior cruciate ligament in May. The expectation was that the offense would be good, but that the defense could be one of the worst in history.

But the defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli turned a unit short on talent into a respectable on-field product. Marinelli got the most out of linemen like Jeremy Mincey, Tyrone Crawford and Henry Melton. Inside linebacker Rolando McClain isn’t just a candidate for comeback player of the year: His production was one of the more shocking developments of the season. A former draft bust, McClain officially retired in May 2013. More than a year later, the Cowboys traded a sixth-round pick to Baltimore for McClain and a seventh-round pick. But he was the Cowboys’ most dependable linebacker in 2014 and finished as a top 10 inside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus.

You can read the full article here.

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New York Times, Post Week-16 (2014): Projected Award Winners

This week at the New York Times — the players I expect to win the major NFL awards.

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a pair of strong candidates in Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, as do the Dallas Cowboys with Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray. There will be a faction who vote for J. J. Watt, who is having another monster year at defensive end. Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (N.F.L. high 38 touchdown passes) or Tom Brady (New England has the best record in the league) could also wind up picking up some votes.

But the best player this year has been Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay star leads the league in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, an advanced metric that incorporates several aspects of quarterback play. Rodgers ranks first in interception rate (1 percent), second in touchdown rate (7.2 percent), and third in net yards per pass attempt (7.57), an across-the-board level of dominance that cannot be matched. Green Bay leads all teams in points scored per drive, while the Packers have punted a league-low 48 times. The Packers offense is a ruthlessly efficient offensive machine, and Rodgers is the driving force behind the team’s success.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-15 (2014): AFC Parity

This week at the New York Times: AFC and its (lack of) parity:

The New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos have the two best records in the A.F.C. The Indianapolis Colts are the class of the A.F.C. South, at 10-4, but no other team in that division has a winning record. The Cincinnati Bengals are first in the North, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, longtime division heavyweights, are tied for second.

The San Diego Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs cannot challenge the Broncos in the West, but both teams have winning records. The Miami Dolphins, despite some early optimism, have fallen to .500. On the other side of the spectrum, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Oakland Raiders are both again in line for a top-five pick. The Jets have scored the third fewest points among teams in the conference, and quarterback Geno Smith has the lowest passer rating in the N.F.L.

This is an accurate snapshot of how the A.F.C. looks with only two weeks left in the 2014 regular season. It also describes the conference at the conclusion of the 2013 regular season. Despite the perception that parity exists to a greater degree in the N.F.L. than in other major professional sports, that has not been the case over the last several years in the A.F.C.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-14 (2014): Under-the-Radar Ravens

I was on vacation last week, but the weekly New York Times posts are back! This week, a look at the Ravens, a team quietly positioning itself as one of the league’s best.

With three weeks remaining in the N.F.L. regular season, the cream is rising to the top.

The Green Bay Packers have scored 369 points over their last 10 games and Aaron Rodgers is the front-runner for most valuable player. The New England Patriots have won eight of their last nine games (with the only loss at Green Bay) and outscored opponents by a league-best 10.3 points a game. The Seattle Seahawks are the defending Super Bowl champions; after an uneven start they are starting to play like it. They have allowed 507 yards over the last three weeks, the fewest in the N.F.L. by any team in a three-game stretch in over three years.

But the Baltimore Ravens are the only team that ranks in the top quarter of the league in both points scored and points allowed. It is hard to imagine a team two years removed from winning the Super Bowl flying under the radar, but that is what is happening in Baltimore, with national coverage of the domestic violence episode involving their former player Ray Rice overshadowing the team’s performance.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-12 (2014): Total QBR

This week at the New York Times, I take my annual look at ESPN’s Total QBR:

In 2011, ESPN introduced Total QBR, or Total Quarterback Rating, a proprietary statistic intended to capture several of the hidden aspects of quarterback play. The next year, the Indianapolis Colts drafted quarterback Andrew Luck. And while he has helped revitalize the franchise, he has also served as one of the shining examples of how Total QBR credits players for positive plays that are otherwise ignored.

As a rookie, Luck ranked 26th in passer rating but ninth in Total QBR; last year he finished 18th in passer rating but eighth in Total QBR. So what was traditional passer rating missing when it came to Luck? In both years, he ranked in the top three in value added via penalties and on the ground. He did the little things — drawing a significant number of penalties (including value pass interference flags), making key contributions with his legs — that traditional passer rating ignored.

This year, though, Luck ranks slightly higher in passer rating (seventh) than Total QBR (eighth). Alok Pattani and Sharon Katz of ESPN Stats & Information, via email, shed some light on Luck’s season, along with other quarterbacks who have exhibited key differences between their Total QBR and passer rating numbers.

While Luck is having a breakout year via traditional metrics — he leads the N.F.L. in passing yards and is on a pace to set career highs in completion percentage, passer rating and touchdown percentage — he has taken a step back in some of the areas in which he used to excel. Luck picked up a first down on 78 percent of his rushes last year, but that number has dropped to 40 percent in 2014. Scrambles represent the majority of his rushes, and he gained a first down on 75 percent of them last year, compared with 29 percent of them this year. He also ranked third among quarterbacks in Expected Points Added via penalties in 2012 (+12.6), in part because he drew 13 defensive pass interference plays for 238 yards. This year Luck ranks 14th in penalty E.P.A. (+3.5), with five pass interference calls for 104 yards

You can read the full article here.

Finally, a Brian Hoyer note or two that made its way to the cutting room floor. Hoyer ranks 10th in ANY/A but 23rd in Total QBR. I was curious about that, and here is what Alok and Sharon were able to tell me:

  • Hoyer has really struggled on third downs. He ranks 2nd-to-last among qualifiers in completion percentage (49%), Y/A (5.7), and first down pct (32%) on 3rd downs.  Not coincidentally, the Browns rank 2nd-to-last in NFL in 3rd down conversion rate.
  • Hoyer has also been really bad at running, with 4 yards on 22 carries (only 4 1st downs).  Total rush EPA of -5.6 is lowest in NFL this season.
  • Hoyer’s also getting bad grades for the context of his interceptions: five of his interceptions cost his team 4+ EPA, including two of his picks against Falcons.  Only Cutler, Bortles, and Dalton have more “really bad” interceptions.

New York Times, Post Week-11 (2014): Time To R-E-L-A-X

This week at the New York Times, a look at the best quarterback in football.

When an athlete is having an excellent season, it is common for the home fans to break out into chants of “M.V.P.” from time to time. This year, in Green Bay, a five-letter cheer may be more appropriate.


That is what quarterback Aaron Rodgers told Packers fans after a loss to Detroit dropped Green Bay’s record to 1-2. One could understand the fans’ frustration: The Packers scored 16 points and looked overmatched in an opening loss to the Seattle Seahawks; looked inconsistent in a comeback victory over the Jets; then scored 7 points in the Week 3 loss to the Lions. Of course, a bad stretch for Rodgers looks like a great stretch for just about every other quarterback: Through the three games he had still thrown five touchdown passes against one interception.

But the Packers’ offense was struggling: Green Bay ranked 27th in scoring through three games. The passing attack ranked 24th in yards per attempt and the team was tied for 26th in rushing yards. The Packers gained 223 yards of offense against the Lions, the fewest in a game under Rodgers since the 2008 season. The 7 points were the fewest in any game that Rodgers had started for the Packers other than another 7-point effort against the Lions in 2010 when Rodgers left the game with an injury in the first half. For a fan base used to dominant offenses, the 2014 Packers were off to an ugly start.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-10 (2014): Kansas City Dominance

This week at the New York Times, a look at the surprisingly dominant Chiefs.

It was the most surprising result of the season. We just didn’t know it at the time.

In the summer, Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Kansas City Chiefs for eight wins this season. So in Week 1, when the Tennessee Titans visited Kansas City and won, 26-10, it was easy to acknowledge that it was going to be a down year for the team. After the loss, ESPN justifiably dropped Kansas City to 26th in its power rankings.

In Week 2, Kansas City lost a close game at Denver. Since then, the Chiefs are 6-1 and have outscored opponents by 89 points. They are tied with the Indianapolis Colts for the best point differential since Week 3, and no team has a better record over that period. The Chiefs’ 41-14 rout of the New England Patriots stands as perhaps the best performance by any team this season, and yet they continue to fly under the national radar. Is it still because of Week 1? The Titans have won only once since, and there is still no good explanation for the result. But there are a lot of reasons for Kansas City’s success.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-9 (2014): AFC North Dominance

This week at the New York Times, I look at the surprisingly successful AFC North.

At the midway mark of the season, the A.F.C. North is the best division in football. By the end of the year, it may be viewed as one of the strongest divisions in N.F.L. history.

The Cleveland Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens are a combined 14-5-1 when not facing one another, which includes a five-game winning streak (no A.F.C. North team has lost an interdivision game since Oct. 19). That equates to a 72.5 winning percentage; the next-best record in interdivision games belongs to the N.F.C. West, but at 15-9 (62.5) that division is a full 10 percentage points behind the A.F.C. North. Since 1970, only five divisions have won more than 70 percent of interdivision games over the course of a full season.

The numbers may overstate the case because the division has benefited from some fortuitous scheduling. Teams in every division play all four teams from two other divisions each year. This year, the A.F.C. North was lucky to land the A.F.C. South and the N.F.C. South, the two worst divisions in football in 2014. Still, all four teams have winning records. In fact, the 2014 A.F.C. North is only the third division in N.F.L. history in which all of its teams posted a winning record after nine weeks, joining the 2008 N.F.C. East and the 1935 N.F.L. West. This sort of success is close to unprecedented, especially for a division that was an afterthought to many only two months ago. So what has been the secret behind the success of each team in the division?

You can read the full article here.


This week at the New York Times, I look at what may be the greatest class of rookie receivers in NFL history.

In fact, through eight weeks, wide receivers from the class of 2014 have caught 38 touchdown passes. That number may not mean much out of context, but consider that no other class of receivers can match that total.

The class of 2010 receivers — players in their fifth season — are next. That group has 37 receiving touchdowns, and is led by Antonio Brown (seven touchdowns), Demaryius Thomas (six), Dez Bryant (five) and Emmanuel Sanders and Brandon LaFell (four each).

Third- and fourth-year wideouts, who entered the league in 2012 and 2011, are tied for third place with 30 touchdowns for each class. The third-year receivers are a deep group: Kendall Wright has four touchdown catches, while Mohamed Sanu, Travis Benjamin, Brian Quick and Alshon Jeffery each have three scores. The 2011 class is more top-heavy, and led by Randall Cobb (nine), Andre Holmes (four), Torrey Smith (four) and Julio Jones (three).

But no class can match what is being done by the 2014 rookies, at least when it comes to receiving touchdowns. And the performance of the group is not impressive only among current players; this level of production is a historical outlier, too. Last year, rookie wide receivers caught 58 touchdowns, the most by any class of N.F.L. rookies in history (excluding the 1987 rookies who were replacement players).

The 2014 class is on a pace to exceed that mark, but it is striking how far rookies have come in such a short time. It was just 2006 when rookie wide receivers were responsible for only 26 receiving touchdowns all year. That number increased to 28 in 2007 and 31 a year later, marks that have been eclipsed by this rookie class before the calendar hit November.

You can read the full article here.


This week at the New York Times, I look at some of Seattle’s struggles to win as defending champs.

Staying on top of the football mountain is often more difficult than getting there. That is a lesson the defending champion Seattle Seahawks have been painfully experiencing this season. The Seahawks often face each opponent’s best effort, and that reality was clear against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.

The Rams pulled off a 28-26 victory powered by a pair of special teams trick plays; these are the sort of plays that teams hold back for years before unveiling them at a key time against a significant rival, and Seattle played the guinea pig in Week 7.

In the first half, St. Louis called an unusual punt return fake, in which the team sent both Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey as potential returners. The punt went in the direction of Bailey, but Rams blockers crossed the field to set up for a return by Austin as if that was where the ball was heading. The Seahawks, following the blockers and not the ball, wound up out of position. The end result was an easy touchdown on a play St. Louis will not be able to use again for years.

As I’m wont to do, I end with a look at some quirky stats from the season to date. Including, of course, a depressing Jets stat. You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-6 (2014): Big D in Detroit

This week at the New York Times, I looked at the dominant Detroit defense.

It is a new football era in Detroit. For five years, the Lions were known as a talented but undisciplined squad that failed to reach its potential under Jim Schwartz. The defense, in particular, was high on names but low on production. And while the offense had its moments, it was asked to do too much: In five years Detroit won only two games when it failed to score 20 points, the second fewest in the N.F.L. over that span behind San Diego.

But this year the new-look Lions have already won a pair of low-scoring affairs against division rivals. In Week 3, Detroit held the Packers to 7 points, the fewest in any game that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers started and finished. The Lions also held Green Bay to 223 yards, the fewest in any game with Rodgers since 2008. On Sunday, Detroit’s defense was outstanding: It recorded eight sacks and three interceptions against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and forced five three-and-outs with a sixth drive ending in a four-and-out.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-5 (2014): From 0-2 to 3-2

This week at the New York Times, I look at a pair of teams that have gone from 0-2 to 3-2, a statistical rarity, and a league-wide passing trend:

About three weeks ago, you probably heard some variation on the following statistic: Since 1990, only 12 percent of teams that started 0-2 ended up making the playoffs. Seven teams started 0-2 this season, but two of those have rebounded with three-game winning streaks.

Andrew Luck leads the N.F.L. in passing yards and touchdowns while posting a 100 passer rating. His Colts lead the league in points scored, and Indianapolis has the second-best point differential in the N.F.L., behind the San Diego Chargers. The Colts, division champions in 2013, are back on top of the A.F.C. South, tied with the Houston Texans for the division’s best record. As a result, it is probably hard to even remember that only three weeks ago, the Colts were one of those struggling 0-2 teams.

The A.F.C. South was the worst division in football last year, and not much has changed in 2014. In interdivision games, A.F.C. South teams are 5-11, the worst record of any division. That is one of the biggest reasons the Colts were able to jump from last to first place so quickly. Indianapolis has feasted on its poor division.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-4 (2014): Statistical Superlatives

This week at the New York Times, I look at the best players from the first month of the season.

Most Valuable Player: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

The best marriage in football occurred one year ago in San Diego, uniting a coach and a quarterback. In 2012, Philip Rivers had the worst season of his career, prompting the team to fire Norv Turner and replace him with Mike McCoy. In 2013, Rivers was named the comeback player of the year by The Associated Press. He has been exceptional since McCoy arrived.

This year, Rivers leads the N.F.L. in passer rating despite facing Arizona, Seattle and Buffalo, three of the top pass defenses in football. Rivers is completing 70.1 percent of his passes, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt, and sports a sparkling 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Rivers was not only the best quarterback in the N.F.L. in September; he was also the most valuable one.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times, Post Week-3 (2014): Arizona Magic

This week at the New York Times, I take a look at the most underrated GM/HC combo in the league: Steve Keim and Bruce Arians. Keim probably should have been the GM of the Year in 2013, while Arians has been dominant against the spread.

In 2012, the Arizona Cardinals won only five games, prompting the organization to make significant changes. Steve Keim was promoted to general manager on Jan. 8, 2013; nine days later, Bruce Arians was hired as Arizona’s next coach. Keim and Arians immediately helped turn around the Cardinals: Despite being in the N.F.L.’s toughest division, Arizona surprisingly won 10 games in 2013. And with a 3-0 start this season, Keim and Arians are again exceeding expectations.

Entering this season, the focus in the N.F.C. West was on the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, a team that has played in the N.F.C. championship game in each of the past three years. Las Vegas set Arizona’s projected wins total at only 7.5, a result of a difficult schedule and the significant roster turnover experienced by the team in the off-season. The Cardinals were replacing four of the team’s defensive starters from 2013 — Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and Yeremiah Bell — while a fifth, Tyrann Mathieu, is still limited as he recovers from anterior cruciate ligament surgery. A sixth defender and the team’s best pass rusher, John Abraham, is already lost for the season after playing only one game.

You can read the full article here.


This week at the New York Times, I take a look at how Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick are relying on yards after the catch to produce great efficiency numbers.

Two 2-0 teams have ridden the short-passing game to success. For the Cincinnati Bengals and the Houston Texans, the best players in their passing attacks are not the quarterbacks. As a result, both teams have constructed offenses that focus on high-percentage passes and getting the ball into the hands of their best playmakers.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is averaging 9.1 yards per attempt through two weeks and 13.8 yards per completion; both marks are the highest in the league. But Cincinnati players have averaged 9.2 yards gained after the catch per reception, easily the highest mark in the N.F.L. Running back Giovani Bernard is responsible for 25 percent of Dalton’s passing yards, but most of the credit there goes to Bernard. On his 11 receptions, he has gained 141 yards, with 158 yards coming after the catch (Bernard’s average reception came 1.6 yards behind the line of scrimmage). For wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, 90 of his 120 receiving yards have come after the catch, with the majority of those coming on his long touchdown against Atlanta.

As a result of the efforts of players like Bernard and Sanu, 67 percent of Dalton’s passing yards this season have come after the catch. That is the second highest percentage in the league behind Minnesota’s Matt Cassel. While it is easy to be impressed by Dalton’s gaudy numbers, it is fair to wonder how much of the credit belongs to Dalton and how much belongs to his talented teammates.

You can read the full article here.


The weekly New York Times posts are back! This week, I look at how unusual it is for the Patriots to occupy the AFC East cellar.

After seven months without meaningful football, it is easy to overreact over the first week of the N.F.L. season. This does not mean Week 1 is unimportant; it is as important as any other week.

Still, what happened Sunday, at least in the American Football Conference East, was not any less extraordinary. For only the third time in a single week since 2001, the Patriots lost while the Jets, the Dolphins and the Bills won. The other times that happened were Week 6 in 2012 and Week 15 in 2004. New England ran away with the division title in both of those years, so do not declare the king dead just yet. But to put that statistic in perspective, consider that there have been 17 weeks since 2001 when the Patriots won while the Jets, the Dolphins and the Bills lost.

To understand the A.F.C. East is to understand its history. New York, Buffalo and Miami finished with a better record than New England in 2000. Since then, none of them has. Recent history shows this to be a remarkably stable division: in fact, the 2013 A.F.C. East had the fewest changes in wins of any division from one year to the next since the N.F.L. realigned divisions in 2002. The Patriots have long been the overlord of the division; most expected more of the same in 2014, but it may be time to re-examine that narrative.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times: Post-Week 17, 2013

In my final article of the year at the New York Times, I look at one key statistic for each team.

Denver Broncos: Quarterback Curse

Can Peyton Manning break the hex? Only four quarterbacks — Tom Brady (2007), Rich Gannon (2002), Kurt Warner (2001) and Dan Marino (1984) — have played in a Super Bowl in the season in which they won the passing yards title, with none of the four winning the game. Since 1950, only Johnny Unitas in 1959 and George Blanda in 1961 (in the American Football League) have led their league in passing yards and won a championship in the same season.

Some quarterback will become the first player to pull off this feat at a Super Bowl, and Manning seems as strong a candidate as any: he broke the single-season record for passing yards, a record which is under league review.

The last player to be named the N.F.L.’s most valuable player and win the Super Bowl in the same season was Warner, in 1999. Manning will almost certainly be named the M.V.P. for the fifth time in his career, which means he can end two streaks with one Super Bowl title.

Indianapolis Colts: Giant Killers Have Slain San Francisco, Denver and Seattle

Only six teams have ever beaten three teams in the regular season that won 12 or more games. Two of those teams, the 1990 Bills and the 1999 Titans, went on to play in the Super Bowl, while another, the 2003 Patriots, won the Super Bowl. The 2011 Ravens team that lost in the final seconds of the A.F.C. championship game, to New England, is also on the list. The 2002 Saints are the only outlier on the list: New Orleans swept the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers but missed the playoffs.

Indianapolis, of course, is the sixth such team. Few teams run hot and cold like Indianapolis: countering those mammoth victories were embarrassing blowout losses to St. Louis, Arizona and Cincinnati. The Colts would be wise to put the game in Andrew Luck’s hands and waste fewer carries on Trent Richardson, but Indianapolis will not lack confidence entering the playoffs.

San Francisco 49ers: Best Team Through Three Quarters

The 49ers followed an N.F.C. championship in 2012 with 1-2 and 6-4 starts this season. As a result, San Francisco is one of the more underappreciated 12-4 teams in recent memory. The 49ers have averaged 18.1 points through the first three quarters of every game, while allowing just 9.6; that 8.5-point differential is the best in the N.F.L. San Francisco has a habit of dominating teams early and letting up on them late: the 49ers have been outscored in the fourth quarters of games this season, 119-117. But will the team be more ruthless in the postseason?

Last year, Jim Harbaugh waited until the playoffs to unleash the full potential of the Pistol offense under Colin Kaepernick. Against the Packers, Kaepernick set an N.F.L. record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a game. San Francisco has operated conservatively this year, and easing up in the fourth quarter of games has hidden how dominant the 49ers can be. Does Harbaugh have another trick up his sleeve for January?

You can view the full article, and the statistics for the other nine teams, here.


A special bonus article this week at the New York Times, as I took a look at the incredible career of London Fletcher.

On Sunday, Fletcher, a Washington captain, will play in his 256th straight game, the third-longest streak in N.F.L. history for a player who was not a kicker, behind only Brett Favre’s 299 games and Jim Marshall’s 282.

Having somehow survived for 16 seasons without sustaining any kind of disabling injury, all while playing amid the chaos and attrition rates that are parts of an inside linebacker’s life, Fletcher has said he plans to call it quits after Sunday’s game while he is still ahead.

By the end of this week, though, he was hedging a bit, not quite sure he was truly ready to walk away.

Five weeks ago, Fletcher moved ahead of Eugene Robinson, a safety for 16 seasons, and became the career leader in games played by an undrafted defensive player. Earlier this season, he broke Derrick Brooks’s record of 208 consecutive starts at linebacker. On Sunday, Fletcher will start his 216th consecutive game. He has, in effect, dodged a million bullets in a game that is tough for any player to endure physically.

You can read the full article here. In addition, related readings on Fletcher can be found here and here.


New York Times: Post-Week 16, 2013

Black Monday is just four days away. This week at the New York Times, I look at which coaches are likely to be coaching their last games with their current franchises on Sunday.

Last season, seven N.F.L. coaches were fired on the day after the regular season, also known as Black Monday, with Jacksonville dismissing Mike Mularkey a couple of weeks later. This season, Houston has already fired Gary Kubiak, and as many as 10 more coaches could be fired Monday.

Likely to be Fired

After an 0-8 start, it seemed inevitable that Greg Schiano would not coach the Buccaneers in 2014. Then Tampa Bay won four of its next five games, becoming just the third team since 1978 to start both 0-8 and 4-9. But with two straight losses, Tampa Bay has lost any late-season momentum, and with it, any seeming justification for retaining Schiano.

After trading for Darrelle Revis and signing Dashon Goldson, the Bucs were a popular pick to win 10 games and contend for the Super Bowl. But with the Panthers and the Saints on the rise, and the Falcons just a year removed from an N.F.C. championship game appearance, Tampa Bay has quickly become an afterthought in the division. Even though he has been there for just two years, expect Schiano to be one of the first victims on Black Monday. The Buccaneers have won just 5 of their last 21 games.

When the Lions hired Jim Schwartz, the team had just finished an 0-16 season. Expectations were low and patience was high. Schwartz won 2, then 6, then 10 games in his first three years in Detroit, but the team has fallen apart since a playoff appearance in 2011. Last season, the Lions finished 4-12, and Schwartz drew criticism for fielding one of the least-disciplined teams in the N.F.L.

Detroit has become known for late-game implosions. Over the last two seasons, it is a league-worst seven games below .500 (6-13) in games decided by 7 or fewer points. This year, after a 6-3 start and injuries to the N.F.C. North quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, the division seemed to be there for the taking for the Lions. Instead, a 1-5 stretch has eliminated them before the final week of the season.

Minnesota Coach Leslie Frazier is low on job security, too. Adrian Peterson’s 2,000-yard campaign helped lead the Vikings to 10 wins in 2012, but the rest of Frazier’s tenure has been underwhelming. In fact, those 10 wins represent half of Frazier’s win total in three and a half seasons in Minnesota. With double-digit losing seasons in two of the last three years, bringing back Frazier would be tough to take for increasingly frustrated Vikings fans.

Perhaps the most puzzling part of the Minnesota decline has been in the secondary. Frazier was a defensive backs coach in Philadelphia and Indianapolis and a defense coordinator in Cincinnati before coming to the Vikings as the defensive backs coach in 2007. But Minnesota ranks last in points allowed, passing yards allowed and passing touchdowns allowed. If Minnesota allows two passing touchdowns to the Lions on Sunday, that will bring the season total to 38 and set a post-merger N.F.L. record.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times: Post-Week 15, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I look at the dominant Seattle pass defense.

As the passing revolution overtakes the N.F.L., football fans have become immune to the avalanche of falling records. Teams are averaging 239 passing yards per game and completing 61.3 percent of passes, metrics that would be single-season records. Peyton Manning is on a pace to break the single-season record for passing yards and passing touchdowns, and there was discussion last week that he was not even the most valuable player in the league. Josh Gordon set records for receiving yards in a two-, three- and four-game stretch this season, and the Cleveland Browns lost each of those games. You can forgive fans for not being impressed by gaudy passing numbers when Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles starts the season with 19 touchdowns and no interceptions.

The league average Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt this season is 5.97, which would also be an N.F.L. record. (The previous high was 5.93, set last season.) The Seahawks have allowed just 3.40 ANY/A, easily the best in the league (San Francisco and Carolina are second and third at 4.62 and 4.73). But since the ANY/A league average has been rising for years, we cannot just compare Seattle to teams of yesteryear. We also need to measure how far from the league average each pass defense has performed.

The simplest way to measure deviation from the average is to measure the standard deviation among all pass defenses in the N.F.L. In 2013, the standard deviation of the ANY/A ratings of the 32 teams is 0.93. As a result, Seattle’s pass defense is 2.76 standard deviations above the 2013 mean of 5.97. If the Seahawks can maintain that level of dominance, it will rank as the fourth best season since 1970.

By this method, the top pass defense was fielded by Tampa Bay in 2002, the year the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl. In 2002, Tampa Bay allowed 2.34 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt; that season, the league average was 5.35 and the standard deviation was again 0.93. As a result, the Tampa Bay pass defense was 3.22 standard deviations better than average. In the postseason, the Buccaneers allowed just three touchdowns while scoring four touchdowns on interception returns.

You can read the full article here. Below are the top 75 pass defenses from 1950 to 2012 using this formula:

2002Tampa Bay Buccaneers2.345.350.933.22
1988Minnesota Vikings2.155.020.893.21
1970Minnesota Vikings0.724.161.182.91
1982Miami Dolphins1.224.761.332.66
1985Chicago Bears2.744.860.92.37
1974Pittsburgh Steelers1.593.910.982.36
2008Pittsburgh Steelers3.
1977Atlanta Falcons1.093.551.062.32
1980Washington Redskins2.364.871.082.32
2005Chicago Bears3.375.340.862.28
1998Miami Dolphins3.575.310.762.28
1965San Diego Chargers2.443.920.662.26
1969Minnesota Vikings0.964.671.652.24
1973Pittsburgh Steelers0.583.891.482.23
1987San Francisco 49ers3.215.040.832.19
1965Green Bay Packers2.315.011.242.19
2003New England Patriots3.265.20.892.18
1963Chicago Bears0.814.871.872.18
1986Chicago Bears2.634.961.072.17
1952Los Angeles Rams1.313.120.862.1
2006Baltimore Ravens3.645.380.832.1
1997San Francisco 49ers3.525.160.782.1
1962Green Bay Packers1.395.011.742.08
2010Green Bay Packers4.095.730.792.08
2001Cleveland Browns3.35.190.912.08
1961San Diego Chargers0.913.851.432.06
1994Dallas Cowboys3.765.380.782.06
1956Chicago Cardinals0.653.881.572.05
1991Philadelphia Eagles2.995.181.072.05
2004Buffalo Bills3.665.630.962.04
2009New York Jets3.485.651.062.04
2007Indianapolis Colts3.985.520.762.03
1969Kansas City Chiefs1.764.231.232.02
1990Pittsburgh Steelers3.
1950Cleveland Browns0.493.151.331.99
1991New Orleans Saints3.
1971Baltimore Colts1.673.931.151.96
1996Green Bay Packers3.
2009Buffalo Bills3.575.651.061.95
1995San Francisco 49ers3.915.410.771.95
1964Washington Redskins2.314.61.181.95
2012Chicago Bears4.35.930.841.94
1997Green Bay Packers3.655.160.781.93
1967Green Bay Packers1.284.321.61.9
2008Baltimore Ravens3.645.71.091.9
2000Miami Dolphins3.
1999Tampa Bay Buccaneers3.495.180.91.88
1986San Francisco 49ers2.954.961.071.87
1960Buffalo Bills2.24.0611.86
1975Oakland Raiders1.214.041.521.86

New York Times: Post-Week 14, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I look at the questionable decisions of the man responsible for the struggles of the 2013 Colts.

After a 2-14 season in 2011, the Indianapolis Colts hired Ryan Grigson as their general manager, and his success was immediate. In 2012, the Colts made the playoffs and he was named executive of the year by two groups: Pro Football Weekly in conjunction with football writers, and The Sporting News.

But in the N.F.L., what worked one year often fails the next, and Grigson is receiving on-the-job training on that very fact.

Although the Colts won 11 games last season, they lacked the talent to compete with the top teams. The 2012 Colts were outscored by 30 points. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, Indianapolis had the easiest schedule in the N.F.L. in 2012, and with that taken into account, the Colts rated as the 24th-best team in the league.

It’s the job of the general manager not to get caught up in come-from-behind victories and shiny won-lost records when assessing the roster. To Grigson’s credit, Indianapolis aggressively tried to patch the team’s many holes; unfortunately for the Colts, that effort was mostly unsuccessful.

Indianapolis (8-5) has clinched the A.F.C. South with three weeks left. The two biggest reasons for that are Andrew Luck and the rest of the division. The A.F.C. South has an 11-25 record in interdivision games, a 30.6 winning percentage that is easily the worst in the league.

Indianapolis is not a great team. It may not even be a good one: the Colts have been outscored, 316-313. It is probably silly to dismiss the Colts — or any playoff team — as Super Bowl contenders after the Giants and the Ravens got hot at the right time over the last two years. But next off-season, Grigson will be challenged to cover up the weak spots on his roster. And despite the executive of the year awards on his shelf, some of the damage was self-made.

You can read the full article here.


Checkdowns: Tale of a Tailspin Graphic (NYT)

I contributed to this New York Times graphic regarding the Jets struggles.


New York Times: Post-Week 13, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I look at what offensive records may be set this season.

Peyton Manning remains on schedule to break the single-season touchdown and passing records. With 41 touchdowns in 12 games, he needs 10 in his final four games to break Tom Brady’s single-season record of 50 passing touchdowns. The tougher record will be the yardage mark, set by Drew Brees in 2011 with 5,476 yards. Manning is on a pace for 5,500, leaving little margin for regression.

But we have come to expect superlative performances from Manning. Much more surprising is that Philadelphia’s Nick Foles has several records in his sights:

■ Foles, the Eagles’ backup quarterback to begin the season, has thrown for 19 touchdowns with no interceptions. The record for most touchdowns to start a season without an interception is 20, set by Manning this year.

■ Foles has thrown for a touchdown on 9.7 percent of his passes, the highest rate in the league. Since 1970, only three quarterbacks — Brady in 2010, Steve Young in 1992 and Ken Anderson in 1981 — have led the league in both touchdown rate and interception rate in the same season.

■ The highest touchdown rate in a season was produced by Sid Luckman of the Bears in 1943 (13.9 percent). Foles will not be able to get to that record, but he could set a post-World War II record (10.0 percent, set by another Eagle, Adrian Burk, in 1954) or a postmerger record (9.9 percent, by Manning in 2004).

■ The single-season passer rating record was set by Aaron Rodgers in 2011 at 122.5; Foles, remarkably, has a 125.2 rating with four games remaining.

■ The record for most pass attempts without an interception is 127, set by the Colts’ Paul Justin in 1996. Even if Foles throws one interception, he can set the record for interception rate among qualifying passers as long as he throws 245 or more passes. That record is held by Damon Huard, who threw one interception on 244 passes in 2006 (0.4 percent).

One other quarterback has a possible record in view: San Diego’s Philip Rivers has completed 70 percent of his passes this season. He would need a strong finish to break the record of 71.2 percent set by Brees in 2011. Even if he falls short of Brees, if Rivers continues to complete 70 percent of his passes, he will join Brees, Ken Anderson, Steve Young, Joe Montana and Sammy Baugh as the only quarterbacks to complete such a high percentage in a season.

You can read the full article here.

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New York Times: Post-Week 12, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I analyze the Cardinals, the Steelers, and some record-setting points and yardage numbers.

Bruce Arians is doing it again. A year ago, he helped turn the Indianapolis Colts from the worst team in the N.F.L. in 2011 to a playoff team in 2012. Hired as the team’s offensive coordinator, he was named the Associated Press coach of the year for his work as the interim head coach after Chuck Pagano, who was found to have leukemia, took a leave of absence. The Arizona Cardinals hired Arians as their head coach after firing Ken Whisenhunt, and now Arians is a viable candidate for the same award with a different team.

After Kurt Warner retired in January 2010, Arizona’s passing attack crumbled. From 2010 to 2012, the Cardinals completed just 54.0 percent of all passes, the lowest rate in the league. Also, no team was sacked more often or threw more interceptions than Arizona. Arians was hired to fix an attack that was among the worst in the league, and while the team started slowly — Arizona began the year 1-2, then 3-4 — the Cardinals (7-4) have been red hot over the last month.

Over the last four games, quarterback Carson Palmer has completed 69.0 percent of his passes, averaged 8.9 yards per attempt and thrown 8 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. Over that time, the team is averaging 30.25 points a game and is 4-0. And while Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald remain the stars in the desert, two young players have provided the missing spark to the offense.

You can read the full article here.

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