The Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX, and whatever your thoughts on the end of the game, there’s no doubt that New England was one of the top teams in the NFL in 2014. But it’s not quite so easy to identify why, at least when looking at the traditional per-play metrics. New England ranked 17th in Net Yards per Pass Attempt and 16th in Net Yards per Pass Attempt allowed, hardly the stuff of Super Bowl champions. The Patriots didn’t stand out as particularly excellent as a rushing offense or a rushing defense, either.
But those passing statistics belie the fact that the Patriots did, in fact, have a great offense this year. Part of the issue was the slow start and a meaningless week 17 game. Beginning in week 5, and excluding the week 17 game, New England scored 487 points, a 34.8 points per game average. That matches what the team did in 2012, when the Patriots had a historically lethal offense. And it’s not too far off from even the heights reached by the ’07 team.
The Patriots passing attack ranked 5th in TD rate, 3rd in INT rate, and 4th in sack rate; as a result, they jump from 17th to 6th when moving from NY/A to ANY/A. But the Patriots were even better at pure scoring.1 That’s been a trend for the team: during the Tom Brady era, New England has fared better in points scored than it has in ANY/A, and fared better in ANY/A than the team has in NY/A. And New England has generally been improving in all three statistics, too.
There is one area where the 2014 Patriots stand out as special. New England had just 13 turnovers all season: 9 Brady interceptions, three Brady fumbles, and one Brandon LaFell fumble. That is tied for the third best ever, although that sounds better than it is. The record for turnovers per game is 10 turnovers per 16 games, a feat accomplished by the 2010 Patriots and then the 2011 49ers. In 2014, the Packers also committed just 13 turnovers, and the Seahawks had just 14. As you might suspect, yes, this does mean that turnover rates have declined significantly in recent history. Take a look at the following graph, which depicts turnovers per 16 games for the average NFL team since 1970. The purple line shows all turnovers; the blue and red lines are for interceptions and fumbles lost, respectively.
We know that interception rates have declined significantly; the graph above shows that even with significantly more pass attempts, raw interceptions are also on the decline. What’s also interesting is that fumble rates are declining as well. Part of this may be because of the NFL’s attempt to take special teams out of the game, along with a general emphasis on ball control for running backs and a decline in total sacks.
But here is your stark reminder in how much things have changed in the NFL. The 1979 Steelers were the defending Super Bowl champions, and finished the season as repeat champions. But while the 2014 Super Bowl champions committed just 13 turnovers, the ’79 champions had FOUR TIMES as many turnovers. That’s correct: in 1979, Pittsburgh led the NFL with a whopping 52 turnovers!2
As a general rule, there’s not a huge correlation between turnovers and winning the Super Bowl. The graph below shows where each Super Bowl champion ranked in turnovers.
The last 3 Super Bowl champions ranked in the top 4 in turnovers, but my hunch is that more short-term noise than evidence of a trend in the NFL.