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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.

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Season in review: AFC and NFC East

This season, I published power rankings after each week where I stated my updated projected number of wins for each team. The point of those posts was to put in writing my thoughts at that time, so that once the season was over, I could look back and see how I did. Over the next two weeks, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

The picture below graphs my projections for each team for each week of the season. I’ve also added the Vegas futures win totals for each team from the pre-season as the first data point in each graph and the final number of regular season wins for each team as the final data point. My projected win totals for each week N come following the conclusion of week N (i.e., my week 1 power rankings were released after week 1).

AFC East

New England Patriots

Pre-season Projection: 12 wins
Maximum wins: 13 (after weeks 1 and 14)
Minimum wins: 10 (after weeks 6 and 7)
Week 1 comment: Incredible offensive weapons, an improved defense and a cupcake schedule. Only injuries on the offensive line or to Tom Brady could derail them.

The Patriots started hot with a big win over the Titans, but managed to lose nail-biters to the Cardinals and Ravens the next two weeks. A loss in Seattle — which was an upset, at the time — dropped them to 3-3 and my projected total to just 10 wins. An overtime win over the Jets the following week was unimpressive and didn’t cause me to bump them, but I kept steadily increasing their win total after that.

In the end, it was another monster statistical season for Brady and the Patriots. New England broke a record for offensive first downs and finished with the third most points scored in a season. I was a little bumpy in my New England projections, but they ended up landing right on the Vegas number.

New York Jets
Pre-season Projection: 8.5 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 1 and 2)
Minimum wins: 6 (first after week 8)
Week 1 comment: The additions of Quinton Coples and LaRon Landry were easy to mock, but these two could make the Jets defense a top-three unit. So far, so good. Right tackle Austin Howard exceeded expectations by infinity against Mario Williams, and his play this year will be tied to the Jets success on offense.

The Jets best game of the season came in week 1, which inspired a glimmer of early-season hope. In the end, Coples and Landry had strong seasons, but the loss of Darrelle Revis and the disappointing years by Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, and Aaron Maybin prevented the Jets from having a complete defense. Mark Sanchez regressed, and injuries to Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller, and Stephen Hill didn’t help the offense. Rex Ryan lost control of the team, again, and the Jets struggled against good teams early before disappointing against bad teams late. For the second straight year, the Jets lost their final three games of the season, and it appears like they will fire the offensive coordinator again, too.
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Checkdowns: Patriots Passing Game Struggles

If there was one thing you can count on in New England, it’s that the Patriots passing attack would be more efficient than their opponent’s nearly every week. From 2003 to 2011, New England averaged 6.9 net yards per pass attempt while their defense allowed 6.0 NY/A. But this season, the Patriots passing offense is struggling by New England standards while the pass defense is worse than ever. Take a look:1

Year
Att
Yds
Sk
Opp_Att
Opp_Yds
Opp_Sk
NY/A
NY/A A
Diff
20122431758132191733116.97.5-0.7
20116125084326194703407.97.10.8
20105073847256114136367.26.40.8
20095924436185123355317.36.21.1
20085363569464743219316.16.4-0.2
20075864731215263041477.85.32.5
20065273400295183203446.15.70.4
200556441202852737033376.60.3
200448535882653834004575.81.2
200353734323261832324164.91.1
20026053577315313179345.65.60
20014823089465463497415.96-0.1
20005653181485443522295.26.1-1

Playing the Jets on Sunday is the perfect medicine for a NY/A-imbalance, but what do you make of New England’s struggles this year?

  1. Note that the table below lists team passing yards, which already deducts sack yardage lost []
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New England has had one of the most creative and flexible offenses for the last decade. From 2002 to 2011, the Patriots offense was always good but it was rarely predictable. On paper, the Patriots arguably have their best and deepest set of skill position players in franchise history. But with the addition of Brandon Lloyd to a group that includes Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, many are wondering what the breakdown will be in the passing game in 2012. Let’s not forget that Tom Brady passed for the second most yards in NFL history last year and then the team signed Josh McDaniels’ favorite Brandon Lloyd.

Before speculating on the 2012 season, we need to look at how the Patriots passing game has operated in the past. The chart below shows a breakdown of targets in the New England passing game for each of the past ten years by position:

Some thoughts:

  • Kevin Faulk used to get around 55 targets per season, but New England has essentially fazed the running back out of the passing game. I doubt that is by design, but more a reflection of New England’s failure to find the right replacement at the position. Note that New England signed ex-Florida Gator running back and Olympic silver medalist Jeff Demps last week, although he is unlikely to make an immediate impact.
  • From ’02 to ’05, the Patriots had a pretty consistent offense. Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch, and David Givens each spent time as the main receiver, and in ’02, ’04 and ’05, wide receivers as a group saw 63-64% of the Patriots’ targets. In ’03, Brown had fallen off while Givens and Patten weren’t main cogs in the offense, but otherwise, New England’s offensive philosophy didn’t vary. Then, after the 2005 season, the Patriots traded Deion Branch, who had seen 23% of the team’s targets in that season. The ’06 Patriots responded by throwing more to Ben Watson, which ultimately proved not to be the answer.
  • In 2006, Reche Caldwell led the team in targets, which prompted the Patriots to add Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the following off-season. Whereas the targets for the WR1 and WR2 had been declining from ’04 to ’06, in 2007, Moss and Welker received over 50% of the team’s targets, and the tight ends and running backs became less integral. In 2008, even without Brady, little changed with Matt Cassel running the offense, with the most notable decline being the lack of targets for the fourth, fifth and sixth wide receivers. 2009 resembled 2007, as Brady got the Sam Aikens and Joey Galloways of the world involved. By that time, the Patriots were running a full spread offense, and had almost entirely forgotten about the tight end. But much of that was out of necessity: Ben Watson was in his final year with the team and the Patriots wanted more speed on the field; New England had signed Chris Baker to be the backup tight end, but the long-time Jet had little left in his tank.
  • In that context, perhaps it isn’t surprising that New England added Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 draft. Moss had worn out his welcome, and New England struggled to find a true replacement. The Patriots turned to their young tight ends, along with Danny Woodhead, but still were weak at wide receiver as Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman were not competent as backup wide receivers. In the off-season, the Patriots signed Chad Ochocinco, which turned out to be a disaster. Outside of the WR1 and WR2, the other wide receivers and the running backs averaged 39% of the team’s targets from ’02 to ’10; in 2011, that number dropped to 18%, the first time that group failed to have at least 31% of the team’s targets. In ’03, for example, the backup WRs and the RBs had nearly 50% of the targets, but the talent was there: David Givens, Bethel Johnson, David Patten, Kevin Faulk, Larry Centers and Antowain Smith weren’t stars, but were competent in their roles. Last year, Ochocinco, Edelman and Tiquan Underwood added almost nothing, while only Woodhead was a threat in the passing game among the running backs.

So what can we expect for 2011? BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone, but New England doesn’t seem likely to give Shane Vereen many more targets. I think we can safely conclude that the Patriots won’t be depending on their running backs to gain yards through the air in 2012. But I do think the Patriots want more from their wide receivers, and the signing of Brandon Lloyd should increase the production of both the WR2 and the WR3, which is where Branch will now be. Assuming he isn’t cut, I doubt Branch is fazed out completely — Ochocinco saw only 5% of the Patriots targets last year, but usually New England will target their third wide receiver around 10% of the time. With so many mouths to feed, Welker is likely to see a small decline in attention. If we put Welker at 23%, Lloyd at 19%, Branch at 9% and the other wide receivers at 3%, that would mean Brady would target his receivers on 54% of his passes. Giving the running backs 10% — the same number as last season — would leave 36% for the tight ends. We’ll probably see both Gronkowski and Hernandez each up with 18% of the targets, as Brady hasn’t shown a significant preference for either player.

Assuming strong production per target, it’s certainly possible for Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez to all have monster years in 2011 *and* for Brandon Lloyd to improve on Branch’s numbers and for Branch to improve on Ochocinco’s performance. Of course, all of this assumes — or signals — that Tom Brady is going to have a monster year if things go according to plan. But to expect Brady to improve on last year’s numbers may be asking too much.

For fantasy purposes, the bigger question might be about the size of the pie rather than about its breakdown. If New England’s defense is better, the Patriots could certainly end up passing less this year. Brady may be more effective per pass, and could put up lofty touchdown numbers, but without a high number of attempts (aided by a bad defense) it’s unlikely we see Brady set his sights on 5,000 yards again. I think the Patriots offense can handle the addition of Brandon Lloyd, and think it’s clear that Belichick wants to incorporate that vertical threat on the outside into his offense. And let’s not forget, the offensive line is as unsettled as it’s been in years. From a fantasy perspective, though, it will be important not to chase last year’s numbers too much.

If Welker and Gronkowski each lose 10% of their targets, and then the Patriots also throw 5% less frequently, those small slices can add up. Welker with 100 catches is a lot less valuable than Welker with 122 catches. I don’t think any of the stars in New England bust, but if that defense can approach league average levels, all of the Patriots stars may end up failing to live up to their fantasy draft status. I suspect that Brady finds the open receiver and doesn’t lock on any of his targets, leaving Gronkowski, Welker, Lloyd and Hernandez with very similar receiving yards totals. Gronkowski should lead in touchdowns and Welker in receptions, but otherwise good luck predicting which player Brady will lock in on in any given week. One mark that could possibly fall: New England might be the first team to have four 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.

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Stanford makes terrible quarterbacks.

Twice in four years, the Buffalo Bills have teased their fans. In 2008, the Bills started 5-1, and Peter King named Trent Edwards his MVP after the first quarter of the season. Edwards had led fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives in the second and third weeks of the year, and he ranked in the top-five in AY/A after seven weeks.

The former Stanford Cardinal would rank 24th in AY/A the rest of the season while Buffalo finished the year with a 2-8 record.

Fitzpatrick was smart enough to shave before the game.

The Bills won just ten games the next two seasons, but made some noise at the start of the 2011 season. Going back to the nerd well at quarterback, Buffalo raced out to a 5-2 start. Fitzpatrick led two fourth-quarter comebacks/game-winning drives and ranked 11th in AY/A after eight weeks. Unfortunately, the former Harvard star ranked 32nd in that metric over the last nine weeks of the season, and the Bills finished the season 1-8.

How unusual is it for a team to have such a hot start and cold finish? It’s simple enough to look at first-half/second-half splits, but I prefer a more nuanced approach by weighing each team game based on when it occurred; e.g., game 1 counts 16 times as much as game 16, game 2 counts 15 times as much as game 16, game 3 counts 14 times as much as game 16, and so on. I looked at each team since 1990 and calculated their actual winning percentage and their “weighted” winning percentage.

The 2011 Bills had a 0.375 winning percentage last year, but by placing greater weight on games earlier in the season, Buffalo had a 0.507 weighted winning percentage. In 2008, the Bills had a 0.438 actual winning percentage and a 0.566 weighted winning percentage. As it turns out, those were two of the five “strongest-starting” teams of the last five years. The table below lists the “strongest-starting teams” since 1990, along with their actual and weighted winning percentages. The last column represents the difference between the two winning percentages.
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I spent the weekend in Cortland, New York covering Jets training camp. So what should we expect from the Jets this year? As the team enters its fourth season under Rex Ryan, it’s impossible to look at the 2012 season without putting it in the context of the Ryan’s other Jets teams. And while the Sanchez/Tebow stories will dominate the media’s attention, in reality, the defense and the running game will be the key elements of the 2012 Jets.

Defense

The table below lists the 15 major contributors for the Jets for each year since 2009. Ryan’s defenses are some of the most exotic in the league, and the Jets often have placed six or seven defensive backs on the field at one time. In addition to nickel corner and the third safety, I’m including a fourth defensive lineman slot and a “Designated Pass Rusher” position, a third down specialist and staple of the Ryan defense.

Pos
2009
2010
2011
2012
DEShaun Ellis (32)Shaun Ellis (33)Muhammad Wilkerson (22)Muhammad Wilkerson (23)
NTSione Pouha (30)Sione Pouha (31)Sione Pouha (32)Sione Pouha (33)
DEMarques Douglas (32)Mike DeVito (26)Mike DeVito (27)Mike DeVito (28)
4DLMike DeVito (25)Vernon Gholston (24)Marcus Dixon (27)Quinton Coples (22)
OLBBryan Thomas (30)Bryan Thomas (31)Jamaal Westerman (26)Bryan Thomas (33)
ILBBart Scott (29)Bart Scott (30)Bart Scott (31)Bart Scott (32)
ILBDavid Harris (25)David Harris (26)David Harris (27)David Harris (28)
OLBCalvin Pace (29)Calvin Pace (30)Calvin Pace (31)Calvin Pace (32)
DPRVernon Gholston (23)Jason Taylor (36)Aaron Maybin (23)Aaron Maybin (24)
CB1Darrelle Revis (24)Darrelle Revis (25)Darrelle Revis (26)Darrelle Revis (27)
CB2Lito Sheppard (28)Antonio Cromartie (26)Antonio Cromartie (27)Antonio Cromartie (28)
CB3Dwight Lowery (23)Drew Coleman (27)Kyle Wilson (24)Kyle Wilson (25)
S1Jim Leonhard (27)Jim Leonhard (28)Jim Leonhard (29)Yeremiah Bell (34)
S2Kerry Rhodes (27)Brodney Pool (26)Eric Smith (28)Laron Landry (28)
S3Eric Smith (26)Eric Smith (27)Brodney Pool (27)Eric Smith (29)

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