I’m not going to do it again. This time last year, I thought I wrote a very good preview of the Denver/Baltimore game. I looked at both teams, decided that Denver was much, much better, and ended with this:
I think it’s best not to over think this one.
Prediction: Denver 31, Baltimore 13
A year later, and we’re in the same boat. The Broncos just had another marvelous run, again capturing the #1 seed in the AFC on the back of a spectacular season by Peyton Manning. The opponent looks overmatched, at least on paper: the 2012 Ravens had an Simple Rating System score of +2.9, while the 2013 Chargers are at +2.7. The 2012 Broncos had an SRS grade of +10.1, a number that has risen to +11.4 this year. About the only good thing we could say about the 2012 Ravens (relative to Denver) was that they were getting healthier. About the only good thing we can say about the 2013 (relative to Denver) is that they’re getting hotter. And, I suppose, they’re healthier, too, at least compared to a Broncos team that is missing Von Miller, Ryan Clady, Rahim Moore, and Dan Koppen. So no, I’m not just going to assume Denver will win and move on.
I suppose some of you out there are thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. The Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver in the regular season. Doesn’t that mean something?” Well, tell that to the 1934 Bears, who went 13-0 and beat the Giants in the Polo Grounds in the regular season only to lose 30-13 at that same spot in the playoffs! Okay, presumably Denver/San Diego won’t flip on the shoe selection of the competitors, but the larger point remains: road teams that played a rematch in the playoffs against a team they beat at that same venue in the regular season are just 18-32.
Here’s how to read the table below. In 2010, the Seahawks went on the road to play the Bears after beating them in the regular season, 23-20. Seattle met in Chicago in the Division Round of the playoffs, and the Seahawks were 10-point underdogs. Seattle lost, 35-24.
From 1978 to 2012, these road warriors are 14-23 in these situations, giving them a 0.378 winning percentage. Some of that is to be expected: just 9 out of the 37 road teams were favored, although even that group went only 4-5. Perhaps the more relevant stat for this game: teams that were underdogs of 5+ points in this group were just 6-13.
Playing keep away
Did you know the Bills led the NFL in drives this season? Buffalo operated an up-tempo offense and had a very good defense, which in turn led to a lot of drives. The team with the fewest drives in 2013 was the San Diego Chargers. Not coincidentally, San Diego also led the league in number of plays per drive (6.6) and average drive length (3:13), and also recorded the fewest three-and-outs. The Chargers operated at a very methodical — and very slow — pace this season.
How methodical and slow? San Diego finished the season 12th in points scored…. and 2nd in points per drive. Keeping your own number of possessions down isn’t inherently good or bad, but it also keeps your opponent’s number of possessions down, too. The Chargers defense faced the fewest number of drives this year, too, although some of that is because San Diego’s defense wasn’t very good (the Chargers were 2nd in plays allowed per drive). As a result of the glacial pace of whomever possessed the ball in San Diego games, the Chargers ranked 11th in points allowed but 23rd in points allowed per drive.
Of course, this is a pretty good strategy for an underdog. If we assume that Team B is better than Team A, it’s easier for Team A to beat Team B in a game where each team has 9 possessions than in a game where each team has 12 possessions. Unlike most teams, Philip Rivers and the Chargers don’t need to change their strategy to play “keep Manning off the field” against Denver. Of course, this strategy is not necessarily as successful as you might think.
By now you’ve probably heard that when San Diego won in Denver one month ago, the Chargers won the time of possession battle, 38:49 to 21:11. That sounds important, but it really isn’t. To be fair, the Chargers did limit the Broncos to just ten possessions, but it came at the expense of San Diego only having nine real drives on offense (San Diego took possession inside of 30 seconds at the end of each half, which is how Denver ended up +1 in the drives category). But the key wasn’t how long each team possessed the ball, but what they did with it. Take a look at the drive charts, courtesy of NFLGSIS:
On the team’s first seven drives (excluding the end-of-half drive), San Diego gained 351 yards and 23 first downs. Over the course of a season, no team can average 50 yards per drive or gain 3.3 first downs per drive or, for that matter, score 3.4 points per drive. Ryan Mathews rushed 24 times for 111 yards (4.63 YPC) and seven first downs, and Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown chipped in with 12 carries for 41 yards (3.4 YPC) and two first downs. Rivers was 12 of 20 for 166 yards and 2 touchdowns, with half of those passes turning into first downs. In other words, the Chargers sliced through the Denver defense the way Alabama treats a lesser SEC foe. Rivers didn’t even attempt a single pass in the fourth quarter, which is a line stolen straight out of many A.J. McCarron post-game notes.
And the Chargers defense had an out-of-nowhere good performance. Coming into the game, Football Outsiders had San Diego with the #32 defense. But the Chargers limited Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball to just 18 yards on 11 carries. Manning produced a stat line of 13/21 for 147 yards, 1 TD, and 0 INT through three quarters. That’s not bad, but combined with an ineffective running game and the Chargers long offensive drives, left Denver with just 10 points through three quarters. In the fourth, Manning went 14/20 for 142 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT, but the Broncos offense failed in its furious comeback. More amazingly, Denver was limited to just one first down in the second and third quarters. Combined.
Playing “keep away” worked for San Diego, in the sense that the Chargers held the ball for 38 minutes and won the game. But “keep away” isn’t a strategy by itself. When the two teams met earlier in the year, did you know that San Diego held the ball for…. 38 minutes and 3 seconds? Each team had 11 drives that day:
In that game, San Diego had drives of 4:45, 9:20, and 5:00 in the first half. But after Denver’s first drive of the second half, the Broncos had already scored 28 points. Through the Denver’s first six drives, Manning was 20/26 for 292 yards and 4 touchdowns, which means the real amazing part is that the Broncos were actually stopped on two of those drives. Moreno and Ball chipped in with 38 yards on 7 carries, but obviously, the story of this game was simply Manning’s ruthless efficiency. On just the first six drives, Demaryius Thomas had 80 yards and 3 touchdowns, Julius Thomas had 92 yards and a touchdown, and Eric Decker caught all three of his targets for 52 yards.2
But these two games show that playing “keep Manning on the sidelines” is only a strategy if it’s “keep Manning on the sidelines by limiting him to 1 first down over four consecutive drives.” That’s a very good strategy, of course, but not one that’s easy to implement. Sure, it’s easier to make Manning look bad over a small number of drives than over a large one — that’s why milking the clock is an effective David strategy — but the effects are largely overstated. The Broncos didn’t lose in Denver because San Diego held the ball for 38 minutes. The Broncos lost because instead of scoring 4 touchdowns on their first 6 possessions like they did in San Diego, they were limited to 7 first downs and just 10 points on their first seven possessions in Denver.
The other side of the coin is the Chargers offense. One Chargers drive stalled at the Denver 8-yard line, after taking roughly 35 plays and two hours to gain 74 yards. A drive that began on the Chargers 41 netted them just three points, and Nick Novak missed a 37-yard field goal. The Chargers went 2/4 in the red zone in both games, but struggled early in the red zone in the game in San Diego. Neither the running game — 29 carries for 122 yards (4.2 YPC) by the three backs — nor Rivers were bad, but both were better in Denver.
And that’s the real moral of the story. If San Diego’s defense forces three-and-outs, and the offense gains three first downs every drive, the Chargers have a great chance of winning. They’ll also dominate the Broncos in time of possession and keep Manning off the field, but those will just be byproducts of the team’s success. “Play good football” is obvious from a strategic standpoint, but it somehow gets put behind “keep Manning off the field” when it comes time to create a narrative. You’ll surely hear a lot about time of possession on Sunday, but you’d be wise to ignore it.
Stat of the Day
If you want to use a time of possession stat when talking about this game, use this one: Denver spent 305 minutes and 45 seconds with the ball while leading, the most in the league (San Francisco was 2nd at 297:55).
Prediction: Denver 34, San Diego 24