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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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New York Times: Post-Week 11, 2013

Eight teams fired their head coaches last year. How are those eight coaches doing in 2013? And will there be more firings next year because of the Reid effect? That’s what I’m writing about this week at the New York Times.

Andy Reid may be the worst thing to happen to struggling coaches. In 2012 under Romeo Crennel, the Chiefs appeared to be a talented team but finished 2-14. Even the biggest Kansas City optimists could not have expected the addition of Reid and quarterback Alex Smith to turn the Chiefs into a Super Bowl contender overnight. But Reid has all but locked up the coach of the year award and engineered one of the great turnarounds in league history. If general managers break close calls in favor of replacing their coaches in the off-season, call it the Reid effect.

Chip Kelly, who replaced Reid in Philadelphia, has done a superb job, too. The 2012 Eagles were a 4-12 team that relied on fourth-quarter comebacks to win each of those games. Philadelphia had an inconsistent offense and a terrible defense, which caused ownership to make the splashy hiring of the off-season by bringing in Kelly from Oregon.

The Eagles’ offense has come close to matching the hype that surrounded Kelly’s arrival. Philadelphia is in the top 10 in yards and points per game, and the Eagles are the only team to rank in the top three in both yards per pass attempt and yards per carry. Quarterback Nick Foles has 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions and leads the league in yards per pass attempt, and LeSean McCoy leads the N.F.L. in yards from scrimmage.

You can read the full article here.

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New York Times: Post-Week 10, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I talk about the shocking development that follows after a bad offensive line loses two of its starters:

Off the field, the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin dispute has dominated the headlines in Miami. On the field, the absence of the two allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line to dominate the Dolphins offense on Monday night.

Entering the game, no team in the N.F.L. had rushed for fewer than 18 yards this season, and no Dolphins team had ever rushed for fewer than 7 yards in a game. But those records were pushed aside Monday as Miami rushed 14 times for 2 yards against Tampa Bay in a 22-19 loss, the lowest production by an N.F.L. team on the ground since 2007.

Miami’s offensive line has been a weakness all year, making the team ill-prepared to replace the two men who started most of the season on the left side of the line. The absence of Incognito, a left guard, was particularly notable on one of the key plays of the game. Early in the second quarter, Miami called a run play to Daniel Thomas with the ball at the team’s 1-yard line. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David shot into the backfield immediately after the snap, running free between the center and the backup left guard to tackle Thomas for a safety.

Those 2 points, combined with the extra point Miami eschewed for a failed 2-point conversion attempt later in the game as a result of the safety, provided the final margin in the game.

The Dolphins had a chance to win the game in the final minutes, but the offensive line again let the team down. Trailing by 3 with two minutes left, quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked on consecutive plays, thwarting the team’s comeback. Those were the only two sacks of the game, but the team’s pass blocking has been a problem all year, even when Martin and Incognito were in the lineup.

You can read the full article here, which closes with a review of the playoff picture in both conferences.


New York Times: Post-Week 9, 2013

There are seven teams that have two or fewer losses this year. But that doesn’t mean those teams are without weakness: this week at the New York Times, I look at the biggest concern for each of the top teams in the NFL:

Seattle Seahawks (8-1)

Seattle has the best record in the N.F.C. and may have the most talented team in the N.F.L. The defense has allowed just 5.0 net yards per pass attempt and is tied for the lead league with 13 interceptions, thanks to a dominant secondary. A punishing running game is complemented by one of the game’s brightest stars at quarterback, Russell Wilson, who is 12-0 at home.

But … the offensive line could cost the team home-field advantage. The Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung has played in two games this year after injuring his foot; he is scheduled to come back at the end of the month. Right tackle Breno Giacomini, with a knee injury, should come back in December. The team’s other Pro Bowl lineman, center Max Unger, missed two games with an arm injury and left the game last week with a concussion. As a result, the Seahawks have been sacked on 10.2 percent of their pass plays this season, the third-worst rate in the league.

New Orleans Saints (6-2)

As long as Sean Payton and Drew Brees are around, the Saints will be defined by their offense. Tight end Jimmy Graham leads the league with 10 touchdowns despite playing with a partly torn plantar fascia for the last month. Darren Sproles and Marques Colston are battling injuries, but the long-term outlook is positive for both. Brees has thrown 21 touchdown passes, second in the league behind Peyton Manning. But that’s business as usual in the bayou. More notable is a revitalized defense that ranks fifth in points allowed per game.

But … New Orleans is allowing 4.9 yards per carry, the second-worst rate in the league. The defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can confuse quarterbacks, but he cannot cure the Saints’ tackling woes. The Jets rushed for 198 yards Sunday, providing a blueprint for Saints opponents. A path to the Super Bowl probably requires beating Seattle or San Francisco, or both, two of the league’s best rushing teams. And trouble may be just around the corner: the Saints have only a one-game lead in the N.F.C. South over the resurgent Panthers. In 2012, Carolina rushed for 492 yards in two victories against New Orleans; the Saints’ defense does not seem any better equipped to stop the Panthers this year.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times: Post-Week 8, 2013

It’s mid-season awards time at the New York Times!

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF (NON-QB EDITION) Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs. Honorable mention: LeSean McCoy, Jimmy Graham, Calvin Johnson.

No offense is as dependent on one player as the Chiefs are on Charles. He leads the league in carries on first-and-10 and has produced a higher percentage of his team’s offensive yards than anybody else. He has scored eight of the Chiefs’ 16 offensive touchdowns and gained at least 100 yards from scrimmage and scored a touchdown in each of his first seven games, making him the second N.F.L. player to do so (O. J. Simpson, 1975). In Week 8, he did not score, but picked up 120 yards in a victory over Cleveland.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER J. J. Watt, Houston Texans. Honorable mention: Richard Sherman, Robert Mathis, Justin Houston.

Watt had one of the N.F.L.’s best defensive seasons in 2012. He has been nearly as productive this year despite not capturing headlines. According to Football Outsiders, he has eight tackles for loss on running plays in seven games (and five more tackles for no yards); this time last year he had nine tackles for loss and four more on runs for zero yards. His sack totals are down this year — although 4.5 is respectable for a 3-4 defensive end — but Football Outsiders credits him with 12 hits on quarterbacks (not including sacks), compared with six at this point in 2012.

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Ken Whisenhunt, San Diego Chargers. Honorable mention: Adam Gase, Jay Gruden.

Coach Mike McCoy and the offensive coordinator Whisenhunt have revived the career of quarterback Philip Rivers. Before the team’s Week 8 bye, San Diego ranked second in points per drive and trailed only Denver in first downs per game. Rivers has completed a league-leading 73.9 percent of his passes. More impressive is that the San Diego offense has endured key injuries and succeeded with castoffs. Running back Danny Woodhead (a former Jet and Patriot) has 40 receptions, and the former Broncos receiver Eddie Royal has six touchdowns, easing the loss of the starting wide receivers Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd.

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Bob Sutton, Chiefs. Honorable mention: Rob Ryan, Dan Quinn.

The Chiefs (8-0) lead the league in points allowed (12.2 per game), third-down conversion rate (25 percent) and sacks (36). They are the first team since the 1977 Falcons to hold each of their first eight opponents to 17 or fewer points. This is Sutton’s first year in Kansas City after more than a decade with the Jets; in 2012, without Sutton, the Chiefs finished 25th in points allowed and last in passer rating allowed.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times: Post-Week 7, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I look at how the Chiefs have gone from worst to first:

The Chiefs have found success in an unusual way. In the modern N.F.L., the best teams tend to be the best passing teams, but Kansas City has managed to succeed with a mediocre passing attack thanks to a great defense, excellent field position, a dynamic offensive talent and an easy schedule.

Kansas City’s defense has been dominant, ranking first in both points allowed and passer rating allowed. Bob Sutton, a defensive coach with the Jets from 2000 to 2012, has done a remarkable job transforming a defense that struggled in 2012 into the league’s best in 2013.

Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons and has been strong again this season, but he is just the third best linebacker on the team, behind outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.

Houston has 10 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries. Hali has nine sacks and four forced fumbles, and he has returned an interception for a touchdown. Hali has 40 hurries, the most in the N.F.L., according to Pro Football Focus. No. 2 on that list? Houston, with 28.

Houston and Hali made the Pro Bowl last year, but they are reaching new heights this season in part because of a greatly improved defensive line. Dontari Poe, Tyson Jackson and Mike DeVito were question marks entering the season, but the three have produced remarkable results through seven weeks.

I also discuss how Alex Smith has the lowest average depth of pass this season, but still has a mediocre completion percentage:

Smith’s average pass has traveled just 6.23 yards past the line of scrimmage this year, the shortest of any passer. Quarterbacks who throw shorter passes tend to produce high completion percentages — Smith, who frequently checked down with San Francisco, too, completed 70.2 percent of his passes last year — but this season, Smith has completed only 58 percent of his passes with Kansas City.

You can read the full article here.


New York Times: Post-Week 6, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I look at the hard-to-read Carolina Panthers. Carolina has won six of nine games since I declared them a sleeping giant. On the other hand, the team has a losing record this season and has beaten teams with a combined one victory. In other words, as tends to be the case, you see what you want to see when looking at the Panthers.

We will have to check back in three months for the final answer, but there are signs that the Carolina Panthers, a disappointment at 2-3, could become one of the N.F.L.’s breakout teams.

First, Coach Ron Rivera, quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers will have to overcome a well-earned reputation as a group that cannot beat good teams; that cannot win close games in the fourth quarter; and that is too conservative on fourth down. As a rookie in 2011, Newton dazzled N.F.L. fans, but the Panthers finished 6-10. Carolina was 1-7 against teams that finished with a winning record, and the Panthers won once in nine tries when they had the ball and were trailing by one score in the fourth quarter.

The same issues cropped up last year. Carolina started 3-9, with an 0-7 record in games decided by 7 or fewer points and a 1-5 mark against teams that finished with a winning record. With the season effectively over at the three-quarters mark, the Panthers finished 4-0, ensuring that Rivera would be back for another season.

This season, the Panthers defeated the winless Giants, 38-0, in Week 3 and won in Minnesota against the 1-4 Vikings, 35-10, on Sunday. But the Panthers have blown two fourth-quarter leads. And after a loss to Arizona, Carolina was 5-15 since 2011 in games that were within one score entering the fourth quarter, the worst mark in the league.

But there is reason to be optimistic about the Panthers. Carolina has outscored its opponents by 41 points this season, the most by a 2-3 team since 1921. There has been a strong relationship between points differential and the future performance of 2-3 teams. Of all the 2-3 teams from 1990 to 2012, 11 have outscored opponents by 20 or more points, with an average points differential of 28.5. Over the rest of the season, those 11 teams won 64.9 percent of their games.

You can read the full article here.

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New York Times: Post-Week 5, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I fawn over Andrew Luck:

Luck ranks fourth in ESPN’s Total QBR metric, which includes two of the hidden areas where Luck excels: rushing and third-down passing.

Luck has produced the most value on the ground of any quarterback in the league, according to Total QBR, slightly better than Michael Vick. Luck has scrambled on third down five times in five games, and he has picked up a first down each time. That doesn’t include a designed third-down run for a touchdown to ice the game in San Francisco.

Luck doesn’t run often — excluding kneel-downs, he has just 15 carries — but he makes the most of them with an average of 9.3 yards per carry. Against Oakland, his 19-yard touchdown on third-and-4 was the game winner.

Another reason for the Colts’ success: Luck has played at his best in the biggest situations. According to Albert Larcada from ESPN Stats and Information, Luck has played extremely well but in some under-the-radar ways on third down.

His third-down pass attempts have led to six defensive pass interference or defensive holding calls — those are ignored by traditional statistics but help a team just as much as a completion, and no other other quarterback has drawn more than four such penalties.

Luck has been sacked just once on 47 dropbacks on third down, another underrated quarterback skill. Add in Luck’s excellent play on third downs generally, and Lacarda says that Luck has a league-leading (and near-perfect) 97.6 QBR on third down. To put that in context, Peyton Manning is second at 90.2. As a team, Indianapolis has converted on 50 percent of its third downs, the second-highest rate in the league behind the Broncos (58.3).

You can read the full article here, which also includes some Geno Smith trivia.


New York Times: Post-Week 4, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I examine the brothers Manning:

Twenty months ago, Eli Manning and the Giants won the Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis, the home stadium of his All-Pro brother, Peyton. This year, Peyton seems poised to return the favor. No team is hotter through four weeks than the Denver Broncos. Although five teams are undefeated, the Broncos’ scorched-earth pace makes them the front-runners for the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium.

At least, that is how it appears. The Broncos have outscored opponents by an average of 22 points. The Patriots are 4-0, too, but New England has won by 8 points a game. As it turns out, that differential means the Broncos are much more likely to be the better team over the rest of the season.

Consider that from 1990 to 2012, 66 teams began the season 4-0; on average, those teams won a more modest 61 percent of their games over the final three-quarters of the season. In other words, a perfect start to the season does not guarantee much, to which the 2012 Arizona Cardinals can attest.

By looking at points allowed and points scored, we can get more precise estimates of how many wins we can expect from a team over the rest of the season. Using the 66 undefeated teams to start the season since 1990, a linear regression model — using points scored and points allowed as the two input variables — has the Broncos winning 13.5 games this season, well ahead of the Patriots. (Of course, the regression model does not know that the Patriots will be getting Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola back from injury.)

You can read the full article here.


New York Times: Post-Week 2, 2013

My article this week revolves around how Phil Emery has reshaped the Bears. It’s too early to grade any general manager, but the early returns are promising in Chicago.

In January 2012, the Chicago Bears were looking for a new general manager. That search concluded with the hiring of Phil Emery, a relative unknown who had been serving as Kansas City’s director of college scouting. Emery did not make immediate splashes, but one year later, he made two bold decisions that could have easily turned the Chicago faithful against him.

The Bears went 10-6 in 2012, but Emery chose to fire Coach Lovie Smith. The move was not without controversy; Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Mariucci had been the only coaches in the last 20 years to be fired after winning 10 games.

Bears players liked Smith, and replacing him was going to be challenging no matter whom Emery hired. But Emery went a step further: he didn’t hire an aspiring young offensive coordinator or the next great college coach. Instead, he went to the Canadian Football League to find Marc Trestman, coach of the Montreal Alouettes.

The next decision might have been even more courageous. Emery and Trestman got into a public contract dispute with Brian Urlacher, the on-field face of the Bears for the last decade. Chicago could have re-signed Urlacher, whose contract was expiring, but new management offered (in Urlacher’s words) a lowball contract to retain him.

As it turns out, Emery and Trestman read the market correctly: Urlacher retired after finding that no team was willing to spend big money on an aging linebacker. The new leaders risked alienating fans and losing the good will that new hires typically receive. But no one is spending much time these days thinking about whether Emery should have retained Smith or Urlacher. That’s because the Bears are 2-0 and one of the more exciting teams in the N.F.L.

You can read the full article, along with some other bits of statistical trivia, here.

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New York Times: Post-Week 1, 2013

For the past few years, I have written a weekly in-season article for the New York Times’ football blog, The Fifth Down. The Fifth Down has been folded into the regular sports section, so you can find my weekly articles on the NYT Sports Page. The main subject in my article this week revolved around Chip Kelly’s NFL debut and the failure of the running game in week one. But since today is also game day, here is an excerpt about a bit of trivia for the Jets-Patriots game:

Belichick against Rookies

The Patriots defeated Buffalo and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel on Sunday, 23-21. On Thursday Night, rookie Geno Smith and the New York Jets travel to New England in hopes of pulling off a big upset. Rookie quarterbacks are now just 4-11 in games against Bill Belichick’s Patriots, although one of those wins came from the last Jets rookie to start against New England: Mark Sanchez. New York is a thirteen-point underdog in week two, which is par for the course. With the exception of a meaningless week 17 game against Vince Young and the Tennessee Titans in week 17, 2006, no team with a rookie quarterback has ever been favored to beat Belichick’s Patriots. At thirteen points, that makes Smith’s Jets the largest underdog of any of these rookie-led teams.

20131BUFEJ ManuelHomeBoxscore10Loss2123
20126SEARussell WilsonHomeBoxscore4Win2423
201211INDAndrew LuckRoadBoxscore10Loss2459
201213MIARyan TannehillHomeBoxscore9Loss1623
201217MIARyan TannehillRoadBoxscore10Loss028
20109CLEColt McCoyHomeBoxscore4Win3414
20092NYJMark SanchezHomeBoxscore3.5Win169
200911NYJMark SanchezRoadBoxscore11Loss1431
200617TENVince YoungHomeBoxscore-3Loss2340
20048PITBen RoethlisbergerHomeBoxscore3Win3420
200413CLELuke McCownHomeBoxscore11Loss1542
200420PITBen RoethlisbergerHomeBoxscore3Loss2741
200315JAXByron LeftwichRoadBoxscore6Loss1327
200213DETJoey HarringtonHomeBoxscore6Loss1220
200117CARChris WeinkeHomeBoxscore6.5Loss638

For his career, Belichick is 18-9 as a head coach or defensive coordinator against rookie quarterbacks.

You can read the full article here.


NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 17

At the New York Times Fifth Down Blog this week, I explain my choices for the major awards this season.

Offensive Player of the Year: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

Generally, the Most Valuable Player award is given to the best quarterback, while the Offensive Player of the Year is usually the player with the most impressive statistics. In the last five years, Tom Brady — first in 2007, and then again in 2010 — is the only player to take home both awards in the same season. Last year, Drew Brees won the award while Aaron Rodgers took home the M.V.P., but running backs Priest Holmes (2002), Jamal Lewis (2003), Shaun Alexander (2005), LaDainian Tomlinson (2006), and Chris Johnson (2009) have all won the award in the last decade. While Calvin Johnson will probably get some support for breaking Jerry Rice’s single-season record for receiving yards, Adrian Peterson has had this award locked up for a month, and finishing the season with 2,097 yards was the icing on the cake.

I don’t think you’ll find too many people arguing about this one. Peterson’s story is outstanding, and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t provide the single most impressive performance by an offensive player this year. Quarterbacks may be more valuable, but it’s hard not to just sit back and admire what Peterson’s done. Johnson’s also had a magnificent season, but he was greatly aided by the Lions also breaking the record for pass attempts in a season.

Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

The shine is off the Texans, but there’s no denying that their star lineman has been outstanding this year. If the stars were aligned slightly differently — say, the Texans were streaking towards the end of the year, and Watt had a monster primetime game late — he’d have a legitimate chance at the M.V.P. award. Last month, I talked about how this award was a three-man race with the stars all coming from the 2011 Draft. In that article I also mentioned Geno Atkins as a possible darkhorse, and he’s been ever better since. But Watt has 20.5 sacks and the national reputation as the Sultan of Swatt, so this award is pretty easy to predict.

And well justified. Watt’s production as a 3-4 defensive end is remarkable. He now owns the single-season record for sacks by a player at that position, but he’s far from one dimensional. We know that he is fantastic at tipping passes at the line of scrimmage and is excellent in run support. He’s a complete player in every respect, a dominant force at a position that rarely receives media attention.

I’d select Von Miller as my runner-up and give Atkins the bronze. While Aldon Smith gets more attention because of his lofty sack totals, he’s a one-dimensional player. While he’s outstanding at that one dimension, just being a dominant pass rusher only makes him the fourth best defensive player this year. He also disappeared down the stretch, which not coincidentally began when star defensive end Justin Smith went down with a triceps injury.

Comeback Player of the Year: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning missed the entire 2011 season, but as soon as he took the field in 2012 he became the favorite to win Comeback Player of the Year. A quarterback has won this award each of the last four years — Chad Pennington (2008), Tom Brady (2009), Michael Vick (2010), and Matthew Stafford (2011) — and the trend should continue in 2012. Comeback Player of the Year is a two-man race, and there’s no wrong answer when choosing between Manning and Peterson. If the voters could, surely the majority would pick that Manning and Peterson split the award. If ever an award called for a split, this was it.

Peyton Manning’s neck injury was considered career-threatening this time last year. Many questioned his arm strength in the pre-season and in September, but by the end of the year he was once again the best quarterback in the league. It’s simply splitting hairs picking between Manning and Peterson, who tore two ligaments in his knee just over a year ago and rebounded to rush for 2,000 yards. And let’s at least recognize Jamaal Charles, who in any other year would likely take home the award. The Kansas City running back tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last season, and rebounded to rush for over 1,500 yards in 2012. My guess is that those voters looking for a tiebreaker focus on the fact that Manning missed the entire 2011 season while Peterson ran for 970 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, making Manning more of a “comeback” story.

You can view the full post here.


NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 16

This week at the New York Times I looked at some record-breaking performances from week 16.

Sunday was a record-setting day in the N.F.L. In case you missed it …

  • The rookie Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh connected on a 56-yard field goal in the second quarter against the Texans, making him the first kicker with nine field goals of 50 yards or longer in a season. Even more impressive: Walsh is 9 of 9 from 50-plus yards this year.
  • Kansas City rushed for 352 yards against the Colts, easily breaking the record for rushing yards gained in a losing effort and also for rushing yards differential in a loss. How do you lose when you rush for so many yards? Brady Quinn threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and threw another pick in the Colts’ end zone. Another Chiefs drive ended on a fumble inside the Colts’ 20-yard-line. But the turning point of the game may have been when Quinn was stuffed on a fourth-and-1, one of the few times in the game that the Colts’ run defense won the battle at the line of scrimmage.
  • In the same game, Jamaal Charles recorded the 750th carry of his career, giving him enough rushing attempts to be eligible for the career yards-per-carry title. Jim Brown averaged 5.22 yards per carry during his Browns career. That’s now second highest among running backs in N.F.L. history. Charles has a mind-boggling 5.82 average gain over his five-year career.
  • Brown might take a back seat to another running back this season. Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller has averaged 6.48 yards per carry this year on 183 carries, the highest single-season average of any player with that many carries. The previous record holder was Brown, who averaged 6.40 yards per rush in 1963.
  • It’s been another remarkable season for Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, but he actually was nudged out of the record books this weekend. In 2004, Gonzalez set the single-season record for receptions by a tight end with 102, but Dallas’s Jason Witten caught his 103rd pass of the season in overtime against the Saints on Sunday.
  • The Seattle Seahawks have outscored their last three opponents, 150-30. That 120-point margin of victory is the largest differential in a three-game span in 70 years. In 1942, the Chicago Bears won three straight games and did it with a combined 127-7 score; the year before, Chicago outscored its opponents, 136-14, over a three-game stretch.

Mega Record for Megatron

Of course, the most noteworthy individual record to fall this past weekend was Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving record of 1,848 yards. Calvin Johnson needed only 15 games to break the record Saturday night, and with 1,892 yards, he has a good chance of becoming the first N.F.L. receiver to hit the 2,000-yard mark.

With 225 yards against the Falcons, he also became the first player to gain 100 receiving yards in eight straight games and to collect 10 receptions in four straight games. For Johnson, it was his fifth career game (including the postseason) with at least 200 receiving yards, tying him with Lance Alworth and Rice for the most 200-yard games since 1960.

Detroit has averaged 47 pass attempts per game, and will set the single-season record for attempts on its 12th pass attempt Sunday. Most of those passes have come from the right arm of Matthew Stafford, who threw 663 passes in 2011, (now) the fourth-highest number ever. On his seventh pass in Week 17 against the Bears, he’ll set the record, and he needs just 15 passes to become the first quarterback with 700 pass attempts in a season.

You can check out the full post here.

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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 15

A double post at the New York Times this week.

Did you know that Alex Smith is seven attempts away from qualifying for eligibility for certain rate-based statistics? If Jim Harbaugh wants to game the system — and this is Harbaugh — he could ptobably that Smith breaks the completion percentage record, set by Drew Brees in 2011.

I also looked at how the playoff field will be very familiar this year:

With two weeks remaining in the N.F.L. regular season, seven teams have clinched a playoff berth and several more can clinch this weekend. Chances are, two weeks from now, the teams in the playoffs will look pretty familiar to N.F.L. fans.

In the A.F.C. in 2011, the Patriots, the Ravens, the Texans and the Broncos won the East, North, South and West Divisions. New England, Houston and Denver have already clinched their divisions in 2012, and even the free-falling Ravens are still the favorites to win the A.F.C. North. That would give the conference four repeat division winners, a first since the league moved to the four-division format in 2002.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals were the two wild-card teams. Well, those two teams are currently battling for a wild-card spot, and it would be a surprise if both teams are left out of the playoffs. That would leave one spot in the A.F.C., which is most likely going to go to the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts did not make the playoffs in 2011 — in fact, the team had the worst record in the league — but they did make the playoffs every year from 2002 to 2010.

From 2009 to 2011, half of the conference — the Ravens (6), Jets (6), Patriots (5), Steelers (4), Colts (4), Broncos (2), Texans (2), and Bengals (2) — played in 31 of the A.F.C.’s 33 playoff games, and barring the miraculous (the 6-8 Dolphins are technically still alive), that won’t change this year. The last time a Tom Brady-led team didn’t make the playoffs was in 2002; the last time Peyton Manning’s team missed out on the postseason was in 2001. In the A.F.C., some things never change.

The N.F.C. features only slightly more turnover. Green Bay is going to the playoffs for the fourth straight season while Atlanta will be there for the fourth time in the five-year Matt Ryan/Mike Smith“>Mike Smith era. San Francisco has a good chance of securing a first-round bye for the second year in a row. That leaves just three remaining spots.

Seattle, winner of a playoff game just two years ago, is likely to be back in the postseason as well. The Giants, winners of two of the last five Super Bowls, will make the playoffs if they win their final two games. Chicago and Dallas are no strangers to the playoffs, and one might make it again this year. The real “surprise” teams in the N.F.C. are Minnesota — which did go to the N.F.C. championship game three years ago — and Washington. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were the first two picks in the draft and may power their teams to the playoffs this year. When it comes to the 2012 season, that qualifies as unpredictable.

Your weekly updates on Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson

At this point, it’s getting impossible to write a statistical column without talking about Adrian Peterson“>Adrian Peterson. The Vikings gained just 322 yards against the Rams on Sunday, but Adrian Peterson“>Adrian Peterson ran for 212, accounting for 66 percent of the Minnesota offense. It was the fourth time this season — and in the last two months — that Peterson has rushed for at least 8 yards per carry on 15-plus carries; since 1960, only Barry Sanders (5) and Peterson have accomplished such a feat in a season.

In one of the most incredible stats of this or any year, Peterson has rushed for 1,313 yards in his last eight games, the most by a player in an eight-game stretch since at least 1960. From 1960 to 2011, only four men rushed for 1,200 yards in that span. In 1977, Walter Payton rushed for 1,221 yards over an eight-game stretch; three years later, Earl Campbell rushed for 1,245 yards in half a season. In 2005, Kansas City’s Larry Johnson gained 1,244 rushing yards in the last eight games of the year. Before Peterson, Eric Dickerson held the record for rushing yards in an eight-game stretch; Dickerson rushed for 1,292 yards in the last five games of the ’84 season and the first three games of 1985.

For more on Peterson and Calvin Johnson, along with some interesting week 15 stats, check the full article here.


NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 14

This week at the New York Times, I take a look at how three defensive stars from the 2011 Draft have dominated the league and helped make their teams Super Bowl contenders.

The 2011 N.F.L. draft class was initially talked up for its star potential at quarterback: Cam Newton (the first overall pick), Jake Locker (8), Blaine Gabbert (10), Christian Ponder (12), Andy Dalton (35) and Colin Kaepernick (36).

Twenty months later, the  most dominant players have been guys named Smith, Miller and Watt. Those three are the front-runners for the defensive player of the year award:

Aldon Smith San Francisco took Smith, a Missouri linebacker, with the seventh pick in the 2011 draft. As a rookie, he was a role player who participated in fewer than half of his team’s snaps but recorded 14 sacks as the team’s designated pass rusher. This year, Smith is a full-time player and continues to be a dominant force. After sacking Miami’s Ryan Tannehill twice on Sunday, he has 19.5 sacks, the most of any player through 13 team games since the sack became an official statistic.

Smith has recorded more sacks in his first two seasons than Reggie White, Derrick Thomas or anyone else who has entered the league since 1982, the year the N.F.L. began officially tracking the statistic. Against the Bears on “Monday Night Football,” Smith recorded five and a half sacks against Jason Campbell, the most by a player in a game since 2007. He is within reach of Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5, set in 2001. But as good as Smith has been, he is arguably just the third-best defensive player from his draft class.

Von Miller The Denver Broncos selected Texas A&M’s Miller with the second overall pick. He had an eye-opening rookie season that was somewhat overshadowed by Tebow Time, but he helped transform the Bronco defense and rightfully earned defensive rookie of the year honors. In 2011, Pro Football Focus rated Miller as the second-best defensive player in the league, and ranked him as the top linebacker against the run and the best pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebacker.

He has only gotten better in 2012. Miller has recorded a sack in each of the team’s last six games, all wins, and now has 16. More impressively, according to Pro Football Focus, Miller’s 16 sacks and 45 quarterback hurries are more than triple the numbers produced by the second-best 4-3 outside linebacker. He ranks as the best pass-rushing linebacker and the best run-stopping linebacker in the N.F.L., and neither race is particularly close. Miller is arguably the best all-around linebacker in the league and perhaps one of the three or four best pass rushers in the N.F.L., too. But Miller still isn’t the most highly regarded member of the 2011 draft.

J.J. Watt The presumptive favorite for the defensive player of the year award remains Houston’s Watt. With an 11-2 record, the Texans are tied for the best record in the N.F.L., and Watt, drafted out of Wisconsin at No. 11,  is a huge reason for that. According to Football Outsiders, entering Week 14, Watt led the league with 41 “Defeats” (a turnover, a tackle for loss or a play that prevents a third- or fourth-down conversion); the next-closest player was Miller with 33. According to an e-mail conversation Monday with Aaron Schatz  of Football Outsiders, who has been tracking the metric since 1996, only linebackers Ray Lewis (45) and Derrick Brooks (42) have recorded more “Defeats” in a full season, both doing so in 1999.

Watt’s production is remarkable for any player, let alone a 3-4 defensive end. Generally, defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme are not expected to fill up a stat sheet; they are supposed to absorb blockers to enable the linebackers behind them to achieve the glory. But Watt has recorded 16.5 sacks this season and became the first player to officially record 15 sacks and 15 passes defended in the same season. Pro Football Focus ranked Watt just ahead of Miller, and says he’s more than twice as valuable as the next best 3-4 defensive end in football, the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson.

Looking for a darkhorse? To identify the  man who probably should win the underrated player of the year award — watch a Bengals game. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins was taken in the same draft as Ndamukong Suh but has delivered  more production with a fraction of the hype. Atkins was at it again on Sunday against the Cowboys, delivering a sack and two other tackles behind the line of scrimmage, to go with two additional hits and six hurries against Tony Romo.

You can read the full article here, which notes that Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson are both chasing the 2,000-yard mark and highlights one really, really sad bit of Lions trivia.


NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 13

This week at the New York Times, I blush when discussing Andrew Luck, praise the great Calvin Johnson as he tries to surpass Jerry Rice (but with a caveat), and take a look at some other random stats (including some absurd numbers from Adrian Peterson). Trivia: Brandon Marshall has gained over 1,000 yards on both the Bears and Broncos in seasons in which Jay Cutler was his primary quarterback both seasons. Can you name the only two other wide receivers to gain 1,000 yards with multiple teams but the same passer?

It’s not supposed to be this easy.

Sure, Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers followed Joe Montana and Brett Favre and excelled, but the fact that those examples are so memorable shows that they are the exception to the rule.

You’re not supposed to be able to replace a Hall of Fame quarterback with another star. In Indianapolis, the Colts got a taste of what life is often like for a team in the first year after a franchise quarterback’s exit: Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins earned every bit of their combined 2-14 record in 2011. But after the Colts bottomed out, Indianapolis’s fortunes changed dramatically. With the first pick in the 2012 draft, the team selected Stanford’s Andrew Luck, and the Colts appear set to be an annual contender for the next decade. Again.

Luck ranks fourth in passing yards this season, and he has shouldered the load for a Colts team that is below average in rushing, stopping the run and stopping the pass. Luck ranks “only” 19th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt and 14th in Net Yards per Attempt, unimpressive numbers only outside of the context of a rookie quarterback playing for what was the worst team in the N.F.L. a year ago. Luck passes the eye test and at least one advanced metric (before last night’s game, Luck ranked 6th in ESPN’s Total QBR), but part of what’s impressive about him is that even when he isn’t playing well, he remains capable of carrying his team to victory. Luck struggled for much of the game against Detroit on Sunday but still managed to pull out a most improbable victory.

In the first 56 minutes of the game, Luck was 17 for 39 for 279 yards with three interceptions. His team trailed the Lions, 33-21, with under three minutes remaining. At that point, Advanced NFL Stats calculated Indianapolis’s odds of winning at 2 percent.

But Luck led them on two scoring drives, and the Colts became just the seventh team to win a game despite trailing by 12 or more points with so little time remaining since 2000. Two of the other instances involved Peyton Manning with the Colts. In 2003, Manning led the Colts on a marvelous comeback against the Buccaneers on “Monday Night Football.” Six years later, Indianapolis trailed New England, 34-21, with 2:30 remaining. A Colts touchdown was followed by three Patriots plays that gained 8 yards, setting up Bill Belichick’s infamous 4th-and-2 decision.

It will be a long time before Luck could be considered anywhere near Manning’s class in terms of body of work, but his performance against the Lions is now alongside many of Manning’s memories in the annals of great Colts moments. Luck’s game-winning touchdown to Donnie Avery was just the 13th game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds of a game since 2000.

Statistically, Andrew Luck may not be having the best year, but he has played an enormous part in the Colts’ magical run. At 8-4, the Colts are almost certainly going to make the playoffs; if they do, they will join the 2008 Miami Dolphins and 1982 Patriots on the list of N.F.L. teams to make the playoffs a year after going 2-14 or worse.

Luck will also set a couple of rookie records. With the game-winning drive he led against the Lions, he tied Ben Roethlisberger and Vince Young for the most fourth-quarter game-winning drives (five) by a rookie quarterback. By defeating Detroit and earning his eighth win, he broke a tie with Sam Bradford and now has the most wins among rookie quarterbacks selected first over all since 1950. Luck’s next victory will give him nine wins this season, tying him with Chris Chandler for the franchise record for wins by a rookie quarterback.

Calvin Johnson and the Lions’ Passing Game

Calvin Johnson led the league with 1,681 receiving yards last season and was named a first-team All-Pro by The Associated Press for the first time in his career. His encore performance may be even better.

He has gained a mind-boggling 1,428 receiving yards this season, joining Elroy Hirsch (1,495 yards in 1951) on the short list of N.F.L. players to top the 1,400-yard mark in a team’s first 12 games (in the A.F.L., Charley Hennigan and Lance Alworth each reached that mark once as well).

You can read the full post (and the answer to the trivia question) here.

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