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Owen Daniels and Gary Kubiak, Together Again

A couple of years ago, I wrote this post about Josh McDaniels and Brandon Lloyd. Well, with Owen Daniels reuniting with Gary Kubiak in Baltimore — lest you forget, Kubiak is the Ravens new offensive coordinator with Jim Caldwell now head coach in Detroit — I thought it might be fun to look at previous examples of a tight end playing with a head coach or offensive coordinator in two different cities. I’ve found nine examples since 2000 (minimum 400 yards by that tight end in at least one season of his career), including another Kubiak favorite.

Dallas Clark and Jim Caldwell in Baltimore in 2013 (after Indianapolis)

Clark was a productive tight end/slot receiver in Indianapolis for nine years, but he was released in the post-Peyton Manning makeover after the 2011 season.  Caldwell was with the Colts from ’02 to ’11, including as the team’s head coach in his final three years. After Dennis Pitta dislocated his hip in the summer of 2013, Caldwell — by then the Ravens offensive coordinator — decided to bring in Clark.  With Ed Dickson dealing with a hamstring injury, Clark made an immediate impact in week 1 with 7 receptions for 87 yards against the Broncos. Clark wound up finishing with the most receiving yards of any Ravens tight end last year, but still totaled just 343 yards in 12 games. [click to continue…]

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Predictions in Review: AFC North

During the 2013 offseason, I wrote 32 articles under the RPO 2013 tag. In my Predictions in Review series, I review those preview articles with the benefit of hindsight. Previously, I reviewed the AFC West, the NFC West, the the AFC South, and the NFC South. Today, the AFC North.

Marvin Lewis, Jim Mora, and the Playoffs, May 30, 2013

In this article, I noted that Marvin Lewis had coached the Bengals for ten seasons without recording a playoff victory.  That was pretty unique: Since 1966, only Jim Mora had coached a team for longer without notching a playoff victory, and he was fired by the New Orleans Saints in his 11th year after a 2-6 start. Well, Lewis now stands alone in the Super Bowl era, as the only coach to fail to record a playoff win in 11 straight seasons and then be brought back for season twelve.

Since I wrote that article, though, I’ve become much more sympathetic to Lewis.  For years, it was easy to take pot shots at his ridiculous use of challenges or his failure to be aggressive when the situation warranted it, but I now think Lewis is one of the better coaches in the league.  He seems to have a knack for connecting with his players, he’s surrounded himself with very good coaches, and you get the sense that he has more on his plate organizationally than the typical head coach.  He’s the de facto GM, unless you consider Mike Brown the real man building the franchise.  And he’s developed one of the most talented rosters in the league, even if Andy Dalton turns into a pumpkin every January.

Of course, that is just cold comfort to Bengals fans who have witnessed the team go 0-11 in the Lewis era when it comes to recording a playoff victory. On the other hand, Cincinnati didn’t win a playoff game in any of the 12 seasons immediately preceding the Lewis hire, either.  But Lewis’ streak is particularly notable for just how rare his tenure has been in today’s environment. [click to continue…]

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Analyzing every Joe Flacco interception this year

Flacco has had more downs than ups this year

Flacco has struggled to regain his Super form.

Over the course of his six-year career, Joe Flacco has generally done an excellent job at avoiding interceptions. Remember that quarterbacks are much more likely to be intercepted on deep passes, and Flacco tends to throw deep. Flacco has the 5th highest average length of pass this year according to NFLGSIS, after ranking 3rd in 2012, and 8th in 2011. But despite attempting more risky throws, Flacco posted better-than-average interception rates in each of his first five seasons. And he did that despite completion percentages that were often at or below league average.

Before the Super Bowl, I asked if Flacco was simply lucky to keep avoiding interceptions. That seemed like a good explanation for how an inaccurate passer who throws often downfield could have such a low interception rate. But other quarterbacks, like Donovan McNabb, sustained those traits for a long time.

This year, Flacco ranks in the top 7 in both interceptions and interception rate. So has lady luck simply switched allegiances? I looked at all 14 of Flacco’s interceptions this season to determine the cause.

1) Denver, 2nd quarter, 11:47 remaining, 3rd-and-9 from the Baltimore 16, trailing 7-0

Brandon Stokley is the primary receiver on the play. He’s lined up in the slot to Flacco’s left, and ends up running across the middle of the field at the first down marker. He’s in single coverage, but Flacco’s throw is a little short, and Chris Harris makes an outstanding play diving across for the interception. You can view the play here.
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Is Ray Rice Already Washed Up?

Rice is averaging just over five feet, nine inches per carry

Rice is averaging just over five feet, nine inches per carry.

In many ways, the post-Ray Lewis Ravens have flown under the radar. The defending Super Bowl champions are just 3-5, thanks mostly to a mediocre offense. But unless you have Ray Rice on your fantasy team, you probably haven’t noticed just how rough a season the star running back is having. Of course, “Ray Rice” is just a euphemism for “Ray Rice, running behind the Ravens offensive line, playing alongside Joe Flacco and the rest of his Baltimore teammates.” Rice is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry on 97 carries, well below the 4.5 YPC career average he produced prior to 2013. Backup running back Bernard Pierce isn’t doing any better, putting up the same average on 85 rush attempts. As a team, Baltimore is averaging just 2.78 yards per rush, making the Ravens one of just six teams since the merger to average fewer than 2.80 yards per carry through nine games.

As you might expect, much of the blame falls on the Baltimore offensive line. In particular, tackles Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie have been terrible, so much so that McKinnie was traded to Miami. Pro Football Focus also gives poor run-blocking grades to Ed Dickson, Dallas Clark (unsurprisingly), and Vonta Leach (very surprisingly). I haven’t watched enough of Baltimore to tell you why the Ravens have struggled so significantly to run the ball, but I can provide some perspective on how poorly Rice’s numbers are.

We don’t have play-by-play data going back to 1960, but we do have game-by-game data back that far. I went back and noted every running back who had a season-to-date yards per carry average below 2.80 following the game where he recorded his 97th carry. The table below shows the 43 players to do so from 1960 to 2012, sorted in reverse chronological order. The last player was former Raven Chester Taylor, and here is how his line reads: In 2010, playing for the Bears at age 31, Taylor had 105 carries for 252 yards, producing a 2.4 yards per carry average, following the game where he received his 97th carry of the year. The rest of the season, he had 7 rushes for 15 yards, a 2.14 YPC average.
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The new face of the Ravens

The new face of the Ravens.

No team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-2004 Patriots, which means the last eight champions have failed in their bid to repeat. Three of them — the ’06 and ’09 Steelers and the 2012 Giants — failed to even make the playoffs. Some writers have used this as a reason to suggest that Baltimore may be subject to a Super Bowl curse.

Of course, the idea of a curse — or a sample of data — doesn’t mean much in the abstract. Let’s look at some numbers on the 42 Super Bowl winners between 1970 and 2011. On average, those teams had a 0.676 winning percentage in Year N+1 (i.e., the year after they won the Super Bowl). Thirty of those teams made it back to the playoffs, one out of every six of those teams won the Super Bowl, and three more lost in the Super Bowl (the ’78 Cowboys, ’83 Redskins, and ’97 Packers). Some would use this as evidence of a curse — i.e., only 9 of 42 teams made it back to the Super Bowl — but again, we need some context.

I decided to compare Super Bowl winners since 1970 to three other teams: Super Bowl losers, the Simple Rating System champion from that season (which may or may not be a team that made it to the Super Bowl), and an average of all playoff teams from that year. On average, Super Bowl winners have the best winning percentage of that group in the following year. And Super Bowl winners are the most likely to win the Super Bowl. Super Bowl winners are less likely to lose in the Super Bowl the next season than the Super Bowl loser (thanks, Buffalo) or the SRS champ, but the defending champion is still the team most likely to make it back to the Super Bowl. The two Super Bowl teams and the SRS champ also make the playoffs the following season just north of 70%, well ahead of the average playoff team.

The chart below shows all of these results, which makes it pretty clear that being the defending Super Bowl champion is a good thing for future prospects (and it’s not too shabby on a resume, either):
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A year after having a sack in the BCS National Championship Game, Upshaw forced a key fumble in the Super Bowl.

A year after having a sack in the BCS National Championship Game, Upshaw forced a key fumble in the Super Bowl.

Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun pointed out an interesting bit of trivia today: Courtney Upshaw has now won back-to-back titles in college and the NFL. Back in October 2009, the Minnesota Vikings were 5-0, and new additions Brett Favre and rookie Percy Harvin were a big part of their success. Harvin had won the national championship with Florida and Tim Tebow in 2008, and I wondered: how often does a player win a national championship in college and then win the Super Bowl the next season?

As of that post, only three players had won a college championship their last season in college and then were starters on a Super Bowl champion the following year: Randall Gay (LSU 2003, New England 2004), William Floyd (Florida State 1993, San Francisco 1994) and Tony Dorsett (Pittsburgh 1976, Dallas 1977).

So, has that changed? In 2009 the Saints won the Super Bowl, but they had no rookies from Florida. Alabama won the BCS Championship in 2009 and had seven players drafted in April 2010, but none of them landed on the Packers.  The next year Cam Newton and Nick Fairley helped the Auburn Tigers win the championship, but none of their players found themselves as New York Giants a year later. In 2011, the Crimson Tide won another national title, and Courtney Upshaw was named the Defensive MVP of the game.  Alabama defeated LSU in the Super Dome, the site of where Upshaw’s Ravens just won the Super Bowl.

With nine starts, Upshaw qualifies as a “starter” on the Ravens, so he joins Dorsett, Floyd, and Gay as the only players to to start for a Super Bowl champion a year after winning the national championship. In an odd twist, if we require a player to start for the two teams, Gay drops off the list: he was a nickel back on the 2003 LSU Tigers, behind future NFL cornerbacks Corey Webster and Travis Daniels. Dorsett has the most impressive two-year run, as he ran for for 1,948 yards and 21 touchdowns and won the Heisman Trophy for the Panthers in ’76 and then rushed for 1,007 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Cowboys a year later.
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Super Bowl XLVII Preview

Before we get to my preview, I feel the need to point you to some excellent Super Bowl previews I saw this week:

The Ravens can stop the zone read, but at what cost?

In Colin Kaepernick’s nine starts, the 49ers have averaged 159 rushing yards per game on 4.9 yards per rush and have rushed for 14 touchdowns; at the same time, they’ve averaged 8.1 ANY/A through the air. That makes them close to unstoppable, much like the Seahawks when Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch were dominating defenses over that same stretch.

The Packers could not stop the Pistol offense.

The Packers chose to let Kaepernick beat them on the ground. He did.

For San Francisco, their dominance starts up front, and their offensive line needs only sustained success to rival what the lines of the ’90s Cowboys or ’00 Chiefs delivered. According to Pro Football Focus, left tackle Joe Staley is the best tackle in the league, while right tackle Anthony Davis is the second best run-blocking tackle in the league (behind only Staley). PFF ranks both Mike Iupati and Alex Boone as top-five guards in the league, and places both of them in the top three when it comes to run blocking. Center Jonathan Goodwin also ranks as an above-average center, and the 34-year-old veteran is more than capable of anchoring a line filled with Pro Bowl caliber players. As if that wasn’t enough, Vernon Davis is one of the top two-way tight ends in the league, while TE/H-Back/FB Delanie Walker and FB Bruce Miller provide excellent support in the run game.

Without any schematic advantage, the 49ers have enough talented beef up front to have a dominate running game. But add in what Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have been able to do with the Pistol formation and the zone read, and you have a running game that borders on unstoppable.

We saw that against the Packers, as Colin Kaepernick broke the single-game rushing record by a quarterback. The beauty of the zone read is that it gives the offense an extra blocker, an advantage the 49ers didn’t need. After the Packers were shredded by Kaepernick, the Falcons focused on containing the quarterback. Take a look at the photograph below, courtesy of Ben Muth of Football Outsiders.
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Ever wondered which Super Bowl teams were the oldest or youngest? I went and calculated the AV-adjusted age of every team to appear in the Super Bowl. (AV stands for Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value system, which assigns an approximate value to each player in each season; you can read more about it here.) You can probably guess who the oldest team was, but the youngest might be a bit of a surprise. Baltimore and San Francisco both come in roughly in the middle of the pack, with the Ravens slightly older than the 49ers. This also jives with Football Outsiders’ snap-adjusted ages article.

Bill Barnwell wrote a good article yesterday summarizing the success of Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens general manager. That made me curious to see what percentage (based on AV, not total players, naturally) of the players on each Super Bowl team had never before played for another team. Great general managers do more than build their teams through the draft (and Barnwell specifically praised Newsome for that, including the trade for Anquan Boldin), but the question of what percentage of the team is “homegrown” is still an interesting one.

For the Ravens, 73% of their players (as measured by AV) have never played for another team, with Boldin, Cary Williams, Jacoby Jones, Bryant McKinnie, Matt Birk, Bernard Pollard, Corey Graham, and Vontae Leach being some notable exceptions. On the other side, 75% of the 49ers have only worn the red and gold, although Justin Smith, Jonathan Goodwin, Randy Moss, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Mario Manningham (at least, in the regular season) were key contributors who are not home-grown 49ers.

When it comes to AV-adjusted age or measuring how ‘home-grown’ each team is, neither team really stands out from the pack. The ’78 and ’79 Steelers featured 22 starters that were all home-grown, although making placekicker Roy Gerela the lone outlier (and since AV does not include kickers, both Pittsburgh teams were at 100%).

In addition to the AV-adjusted ages and “home-grownness” of each Super Bowl participant, the table below includes where each team (since 1970) ranked in points for, points allowed, yards, and yards allowed, and whether or not the team won the game. The table is fully sortable and searchable, and the rows for San Francisco and Baltimore will remain highlighted after sorting.

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Flaccoing?

Flaccoing?

In September, I started a post by asking you to make this assumption:

Assume that it is within a quarterback’s control as to whether or not he throws a completed pass on any given pass attempt. However, if he throws an incomplete pass, then he has no control over whether or not that pass is intercepted.

If that assumption is true, that would mean all incomplete pass attempts could be labeled as “passes in play” for the defense to intercept. Therefore, a quarterback’s average number of “Picks On Passes In Play” (or POPIP) — that is, the number of interceptions per incomplete pass he throws — is out of his control.

After doing the legwork to test that assumption, I reached two conclusions. One, interception rate is just really random, and predicting it is a fool’s errand. Two, using a normalized INT rate — essentially replacing a quarterback’s number of interceptions per incomplete pass with the league average number of interceptions per incomplete pass — was a slightly better predictor of future INT rate than actual INT rate. It’s not a slam dunk, but there is some merit to using POPIP, because completion percentage, on average, is a better predictor of future INT rate than current INT rate.

So, why am I bringing this up today, at the start of Super Bowl week? Take a look at where Sunday’s starting quarterbacks ranked this year in POPIP (playoff statistics included, minimum 250 pass attempts):
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Even the mighty Lions couldn't stop Quan.

Yes, that's a picture of the Lions in a Super Bowl post.

Anquan Boldin is back in the Super Bowl. Four years ago, Boldin and the Cardinals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. That season, Boldin was one of the game’s best wide receivers, catching 89 passes for 1,038 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns in just 12 games. His production was slightly less impressive in 2012 — 65/921/4 in 15 games — but he was still a valuable member of the Ravens offense.

He signed with Baltimore in the 2010 offseason, and after a few heartbreaking post-seasons, Boldin and the Ravens are back in the Super Bowl. Since he was one of the team’s starting receivers this year, that makes him the 7th wide receiver to start for two different teams that reached a Super Bowl.

How many of the first six can you name (either with or without any hints)? For each receiver, the one hint shows the two Super Bowl franchises. Let us know how you did in the comments: as always, the honor system will be strictly enforced.

Trivia hint for WR1 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR1 Show

Trivia hint for WR2 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR2 Show

Trivia hint for WR3 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR3 Show

Trivia hint for WR4 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR4 Show

Trivia hint for WR5 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR5 Show

Trivia hint for WR6 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR6 Show

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When you think about the Ravens under John Harbaugh — or just about any time in their existence — you think of a defensive team. Under Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata, Baltimore has fielded dominant defenses for much of the last decade. Marvin Lewis, Baltimore’s defensive coordinator from 1996 to 2001, was rewarded with the head coaching job in Cincinnati after his years of excellent service. He was replaced by Mike Nolan, who after coordinating the defense for three years in Baltimore, was tapped to revive the 49ers. His replacement, Rex Ryan, excelled for four years in Baltimore, and was then chosen by the Jets to be their next head coach. The Ravens replaced Ryan with Greg Mattison, who was lured by his friend Brady Hoke to take the DC job at Michigan in 2011. He was replaced by Chuck Pagano, who coordinated the Baltimore defense for only a year (after spending three as the defensive backs coach) before the Colts selected him to be their next head coach. Dean Pees is the current DC in Baltimore.

Suffice it to say, with so many prominent names roaming the sidelines and coordinating the defenses in Baltimore, there are few fingerprints from either John Harbaugh or his predecessor Brian Billick on the great Ravens defenses. When you look at Baltimore’s offense under Harbaugh, you immediately think of Cam Cameron, who excelled so much in his role as OC in San Diego that he was hired by the Miami Dolphins in 2007. Cameron’s Dolphins went 1-15 and he was fired after only one year, but Harbaugh chose Cameron to be his first offensive coordinator. Then, with three weeks remaining in the regular season, Harbaugh fired Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell to OC.

That’s a long bit of background to say this: John Harbaugh isn’t in charge of the Baltimore offense or the Baltimore defense. At least when Brian Billick was around, you knew the offense would be crafted in his image, even if it wasn’t successful. But there’s a reason you don’t think of Harbaugh when you think of the specific offensive/defensive units in Baltimore: that’s because he made his name as a Special Teams coach.
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Is Joe Flacco elite?

Just a guess, but I think that question will be asked quite a few times over the next couple of weeks. While the inanity of the discussion that usually follows that question is not something I wish to emulate, there’s no particular reason not to take an in-depth look at Flacco’s career. The table below shows Flacco’s performance in six key metrics — all relative to league average (1.00) — for each season of his career:

Flacco career

As you can see, with the exception of his great interception rate — which justifies its own post during this pre-Super Bowl period — Flacco’s career performance has been rather average. His touchdown rate, like those of many quarterbacks, has bounced up and down throughout his career. His sack rate was below average during his first three years, improved significantly in 2011, and landed right at the league average in 2012.

ELITE

That is an elite Fu Manchu.

In the three main statistics — Y/A, NY/A, and ANY/A — Flacco has consistently finished in a tight window around the league average. His ANY/A has been slightly better than his NY/A thanks to that lofty interception rate, but suffice it to say Joe Flacco is, and has been for years, a league average quarterback.

If we look at ESPN’s Total QBR, Flacco ranked 27th as a rookie in 2008, 15th in 2009, and 12th in 2010, signaling a young quarterback improving and on the rise. In 2011, he ranked 14th, perhaps signaling a leveling off, and then this past season, he finished 25th. The positive spin would be that he’s a league-average quarterback, and the negative one (at least prior to this post-season) would have been that he was regressing.

On the other hand, here is how Flacco has performed in the playoffs in each game, as measured by AY/A:

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Super Bowl History

Now that the Super Bowl matchup is set, I thought I’d start the two-week period with some Super Bow history. The table below lists some information from each of the first 46 Super Bowls. With Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick facing off, that ends five-year streak where at least one of the two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl had previously won (or been in) a Super Bowl:

Year
SB
Winner
PF
Loser
PA
Location
ST
QB
Opp QB
MVP
2011XLVINew York Giants21New England Patriots17IndianapolisINEli ManningTom BradyEli Manning
2010XLVGreen Bay Packers31Pittsburgh Steelers25ArlingtonTXAaron RodgersBen RoethlisbergerAaron Rodgers
2009XLIVNew Orleans Saints31Indianapolis Colts17MiamiFLDrew BreesPeyton ManningDrew Brees
2008XLIIIPittsburgh Steelers27Arizona Cardinals23TampaFLBen RoethlisbergerKurt WarnerSantonio Holmes
2007XLIINew York Giants17New England Patriots14GlendaleAZEli ManningTom BradyEli Manning
2006XLIIndianapolis Colts29Chicago Bears17MiamiFLPeyton ManningRex GrossmanPeyton Manning
2005XLPittsburgh Steelers21Seattle Seahawks10DetroitMIBen RoethlisbergerMatt HasselbeckHines Ward
2004XXIXNew England Patriots24Philadelphia Eagles21JacksonvilleFLTom BradyDonovan McNabbDeion Branch
2003XXXVIIINew England Patriots32Carolina Panthers29HoustonTXTom BradyJake DelhommeTom Brady
2002XXXVIITampa Bay Buccaneers48Oakland Raiders21San DiegoCABrad JohnsonRich GannonDexter Jackson
2001XXXVINew England Patriots20St. Louis Rams17New OrleansLATom BradyKurt WarnerTom Brady
2000XXXVBaltimore Ravens34New York Giants7TampaFLTrent DilferKerry CollinsRay Lewis
1999XXXIVSt. Louis Rams23Tennessee Titans16AtlantaGAKurt WarnerSteve McNairKurt Warner
1998XXXIIIDenver Broncos34Atlanta Falcons19MiamiFLJohn ElwayChris ChandlerJohn Elway
1997XXXIIDenver Broncos31Green Bay Packers24San DiegoCAJohn ElwayBrett FavreTerrell Davis
1996XXXIGreen Bay Packers35New England Patriots21New OrleansLABrett FavreDrew BledsoeDesmond Howard
1995XXXDallas Cowboys27Pittsburgh Steelers17TempeAZTroy AikmanNeil O'DonnellLarry Brown
1994XXIXSan Francisco 49ers49San Diego Chargers26MiamiFLSteve YoungStan HumphriesSteve Young
1993XXVIIIDallas Cowboys30Buffalo Bills13AtlantaGATroy AikmanJim KellyEmmitt Smith
1992XXVIIDallas Cowboys52Buffalo Bills17PasadenaCATroy AikmanJim KellyTroy Aikman
1991XXVIWashington Redskins37Buffalo Bills24MinneapolisMNMark RypienJim KellyMark Rypien
1990XXVNew York Giants20Buffalo Bills19TampaFLJeff HostetlerJim KellyOttis Anderson
1989XXIVSan Francisco 49ers55Denver Broncos10New OrleansLAJoe MontanaJohn ElwayJoe Montana
1988XXIIISan Francisco 49ers20Cincinnati Bengals16MiamiFLJoe MontanaBoomer EsiasonJerry Rice
1987XXIIWashington Redskins42Denver Broncos10San DiegoCADoug WilliamsJohn ElwayDoug Williams
1986XXINew York Giants39Denver Broncos20PasadenaCAPhil SimmsJohn ElwayPhil Simms
1985XXChicago Bears46New England Patriots10New OrleansLAJim McMahonTony EasonRichard Dent
1984XIXSan Francisco 49ers38Miami Dolphins16StanfordCAJoe MontanaDan MarinoJoe Montana
1983XVIIILos Angeles Raiders38Washington Redskins9TampaFLJim PlunkettJoe TheismannMarcus Allen
1982XVIIWashington Redskins27Miami Dolphins17PasadenaCAJoe TheismannDavid WoodleyJohn Riggins
1981XVISan Francisco 49ers26Cincinnati Bengals21PontiacMIJoe MontanaKen AndersonJoe Montana
1980XVOakland Raiders27Philadelphia Eagles10New OrleansLAJim PlunkettRon JaworskiJim Plunkett
1979XIVPittsburgh Steelers31Los Angeles Rams19PasadenaCATerry BradshawVince FerragamoTerry Bradshaw
1978XIIIPittsburgh Steelers35Dallas Cowboys31MiamiFLTerry BradshawRoger StaubachTerry Bradshaw
1977XIIDallas Cowboys27Denver Broncos10New OrleansLARoger StaubachCraig MortonRandy White1
1976XIOakland Raiders32Minnesota Vikings14PasadenaCAKen StablerFran TarkentonFred Biletnikoff
1975XPittsburgh Steelers21Dallas Cowboys17MiamiFLTerry BradshawRoger StaubachLynn Swann
1974IXPittsburgh Steelers16Minnesota Vikings6New OrleansLATerry BradshawFran TarkentonFranco Harris
1973VIIIMiami Dolphins24Minnesota Vikings7HoustonTXBob GrieseFran TarkentonLarry Csonka
1972VIIMiami Dolphins14Washington Redskins7Los AngelesCABob GrieseBilly KilmerJake Scott
1971VIDallas Cowboys24Miami Dolphins3New OrleansLARoger StaubachBob GrieseRoger Staubach
1970VBaltimore Colts16Dallas Cowboys13MiamiFLJohnny UnitasCraig MortonChuck Howley
1969IVKansas City Chiefs23Minnesota Vikings7New OrleansLALen DawsonJoe KappLen Dawson
1968IIINew York Jets16Baltimore Colts7MiamiFLJoe NamathEarl MorrallJoe Namath
1967IIGreen Bay Packers33Oakland Raiders14MiamiFLBart StarrDaryle LamonicaBart Starr
1966IGreen Bay Packers35Kansas City Chiefs10Los AngelesCABart StarrLen DawsonBart Starr

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  1. Co-MVP with Harvey Martin []
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13-time Pro Bowler

Will Lewis go out on top?

According to the SRS, this is as lopsided as championship games get. The Patriots are 12.8 points better than average while the Ravens have an SRS of just +2.9; therefore, you’d put New England as 13-point favorites at home (in reality, they are 8-point favorites). I’ve been a Ravens skeptic for a couple of months now, and never thought they were one of the best teams in the league.

In my week 11 power rankings, when Baltimore was 8-2, I wrote: “According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore has the best special teams since 1991 through 10 weeks. Schatz tweeted that Baltimore’s the 16th best team based on just offense and defense.”

A few days later the Ravens defeated the Chargers in the famous 4th-and-29 game, which certainly didn’t change my outlook on Baltimore. Then the Ravens tanked down the stretch, seemingly fulfilling their reputation as an average team. And let’s not forget: had Ben Roethlisberger stayed healthy, it’s possible the Ravens don’t even make the playoffs. Without the 13-10 ugly win over Byron Leftwich and the Steelers, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh would have finished 9-7 with the Steelers holding the tiebreaker. To be fair, the Ravens did not compete in a meaningless week 17 game, but the point is that the Ravens were barely above-average team during the season that got a few breaks along the way.
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I was on vacation last week, so I provided just a bare bones set of NFL playoff predictions. Technically, my picks went 4-0 on Wildcard Weekend, but that doesn’t count for much when you pick the favorite in every game. With a little more time on my hands, here’s an in-depth preview of Saturday’s games. Tomorrow I’ll be previewing Sunday’s action.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) (+9.5) at Denver Broncos (13-3), Saturday 4:30PM ET

Manning looks for to win another Super Bowl

Manning points to his glove dealer.

Most of the signs in this game point squarely in the favor of Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Baltimore has wildly underachieved on the road the last few seasons, and in Denver does not seem like the optimal place for that trend to reverse itself. From 2002 to 2010, Manning went 8-0 against the Ravens, including a 2-0 mark in playoff games. If you double his numbers in those games (to approximate a 16-game season), Manning would have thrown for 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions, while averaging 7.8 Y/A and 7.9 AY/A to go with a 65.6% completion rate and a 97.7 passer rating. Manning was similarly lethal in Denver’s win over the Ravens in Baltimore earlier this year.
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Regular readers surely recall my “What are the Odds of That” post from this summer. In that article, I referenced an obscured Jacoby Jones stat: in 2011, he gained three times as many receiving yards against teams at the back end of the alphabet as he did against the teams he faced in the front of the alphabet. Then I asked, “what are the odds of that?”

This is a very good reason why it’s often inappropriate to apply standard significance tests to football statistics. Surely Jones’ splits would pass any standard significance test, signaling that his wild split was in fact “real” even though we know it wasn’t. With a large enough sample, you would expect to have false positives, which isn’t a knock on standard significant testing. If something is statistically significant at the 1% level, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect to see a false positive if you have 100 different samples…

Some in the statistical community refer to this as the Wyatt Earp Effect. You’ve undoubtedly heard of Wyatt Earp, who is famous precisely because he survived a large number of duels. What are the odds of that? Well, it depends on your perspective. The odds that one person would survive a large number of duels? Given enough time, it becomes a statistical certainty that someone would do just that. Think back to the famous Warren Buffett debate on the efficient market hypothesis. Suppose that 225 million Americans partake in a single elimination national coin-flipping contest, with one coin flip per day. After 20 days, we would expect 215 people to successfully call their coin flips 20 times out of 20. But that doesn’t mean those 215 people are any better at calling coins than you or I am. The Wyatt Earp Effect, the National Coin Flipping Example, and my Splits Happen post all illustrate the same principle. Asking “what are the odds of that?” is often meaningless in retrospect. If you look at enough things, enough players’ splits, enough 4th quarter comeback opportunities, enough coin flips, or enough roulette wheel spins, you will see some things that seem absurdly unlikely.

In December, I highlighted Matt Schaub’s struggles in night games compared to day games as yet another example. Well now, Ray Rice is the latest protagonist in What are the Odds of That? In case you missed it, Rice fumbled twice in Baltimore’s playoff win over Indianapolis, with the Colts recovering both times. Rice has struggled with fumbles in the playoffs in the past, but he’s always been outstanding during the regular season at holding on to the ball. In 2012, he lost just one fumble — which went harmlessly out of bounds — giving him a clean record for the season. So what’s going on? Here’s what Bill Barnwell wrote earlier this week:
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Season in review: AFC and NFC North

On Monday, I examined the seasons of the teams in the AFC and NFC East. Today I will do the same for the AFC and NFC North, starting in the AFC.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (after weeks 2, 5, and 9)
Minimum wins: 8 (after week 16)
Week 1 comment: Sunday Night was one of the best games I’ve seen from Ben Roethlisberger. An elite team that will be favored to win most weeks, although questions remain about the offensive line, the running backs, and the age of the defense.

Pittsburgh started off 6-3 and looked like a contender, but tanked in the second half of the season once Roethlisberger went down. Even when Roethlisberger returned, the offense never quite looked right. Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, and Rashard Mendenhall were unexciting plodders, which is an improvement over the 25 carries that went to Baron Batch. No Steeler finished the season with more than two rushing touchdowns. In the passing game, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both failed to match last year’s lofty numbers. The potential was there, but the results were not in Pittsburgh in 2012.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense performed well by conventional measures — through week 16 (which is when they were knocked out of the playoff race), they ranked 1st in yards allowed and first downs allowed, and ranked 2nd in net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards and rushing yards per carry allowed. But the defense wasn’t really up to Steelers standards — through week 16, they ranked 10th in points allowed and, more damningly, had forced more turnovers than just three teams. Pittsburgh allowed 5 4th quarter game-winning drives, which ultimately cost them the playoffs.

Baltimore Ravens

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (first after week 3, last after week 13)
Minimum wins: 9 wins (after week 15)
Week 1 comment: Great performance on Monday Night, but I have to imagine missing Terrell Suggs is going to hurt this team. He’s too good to simply expect business as usual in Baltimore, and their schedule (AFC West, NFC East, Houston, New England outside the division) is riddled with traps.

The schedule was riddled with traps, but the Ravens rode some late-game success and excellent special teams to a 9-2 record. At that point, I wrote: I still don’t believe in this team, because they aren’t going to have amazing special teams or amazing 4th and 29 conversions every week.

Joe Flacco had a solid but not great year, while Ray Rice continued to prove effective when given the carries. The big issue for Baltimore was defensively. Through 16 weeks, the Ravens ranked 20th in yards allowed, 18th in NY/A, and 24th in first downs allowed. While the Ravens won the North, 8 games out of Terrell Suggs, 6 games of Ray Lewis, and 6 games of Lardarius Webb simply wasn’t enough to give them the defense Ravens fans were used to seeing.
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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 12

My article for the New York Times this week takes a look at one interesting statistic for each of the eight division winners.
 

Atlanta Falcons – Record in Close Games
In 2010, Atlanta raced to a 10-2 record on the strength of an improbable 7-1 record in games decided by 7 or fewer points. How a team fares in close games has a heavy impact on a team’s final record, but statisticians agree that such a metric holds little predictive value. The Falcons earned the No. 1 seed in the N.F.C. thanks to their success in close games, but ranked only seventh in the Football Outsiders advanced statistical rankings and 21st in the Advanced NFL Stats efficiency ratings. Atlanta lost badly in its playoff opener, not surprising to those who felt the Falcons’ record was more mirage than reality.

This season, Atlanta has raced to a 10-1 record on the strength of an improbable 7-1 record in games decided by 7 or fewer points. Football Outsiders ranks the Falcons 12th, and according to its founder, Aaron Schatz, the Falcons have by far the worst efficiency rating of any of the 18 teams that have started 10-1 since 1991. Advanced NFL Stats is slightly more generous, placing the Falcons fifth, although the gap between the fifth and 12th teams in its rating is miniscule. The takeaway: Don’t get caught up in the Falcons’ record. It will give Atlanta a bye, but no other guarantees come with it.

San Francisco – Top Pass Defense in the N.F.L.

Last season, the 49ers’ reputation for having an elite defense was built on their superb run defense, which ranked first in rushing yards allowed, rushing yards per carry allowed and rushing touchdowns allowed. But the 49ers were not dominant against the pass, ranking ninth in net yards per pass attempt allowed. This season, the San Francisco defense is without weakness.

The 49ers (8-2-1) actually lead the N.F.L. in net yards per pass attempt allowed. In the process, the 49ers lead the N.F.L. in points allowed, and their defense ranks in the top three in both first downs allowed and Pro-Football-Reference’s Expected Points Added statistic. The run defense remains stout, ranking in the top four in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns allowed, but the improvement in the pass defense makes this an even better defense than the 2011 version. As long as San Francisco continues to shut down opposing passers, it won’t matter very much whether Coach Jim Harbaugh picks Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.

Chicago – 11th in Points Scored Without an Offense

As a technical matter, the Bears (8-3) rank 11th in points scored. Just don’t let anyone tell you that in the context of a story about how Chicago’s offense is underrated. The Bears have scored eight non-offensive touchdowns this season — seven on interception returns, one on a blocked punt — and their great defense and special teams consistently set up the offense for success even when those units aren’t scoring touchdowns. Chicago is in the bottom five in Net Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, total yards and sacks allowed. The Bears’ running game benefits from a high number of carries, but ranks below average in both yards per carry and PFR’s Expected Points Added statistic.

The defense is excellent, but a poor offensive line and mediocre wide receiver talent behind Brandon Marshall leave the Bears with one of the worst offenses in the N.F.L. — regardless of how many points they’ve scored. Advanced NFL Stats ranks the Bears’ offense as the second worst in the league.

You can read the full article here.

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Nine years ago today, Anquan Boldin dominated Week 1

Even the mighty Lions couldn't stop Quan.

Nine years ago today, Anquan Boldin became a household name in his very first game. Boldin gained 217 receiving yards, the most in week 1 of an NFL season since Frank Clarke in 1962 and the most by any player in his first game.

It was as amazing was it was unexpected. Boldin was a second-round pick who had an solid college career but one tarnished by an ACL tear that caused him to miss his junior season and struggle at the Combine. He wasn’t even the highest wide receiver drafted by the Cardinals, who selected Bryant Johnson in round 1 despite the fact that he never won a college football game. No one had high expectations for the Arizona offense, with Jeff Blake at quarterback and Dave McGinnis as head coach; the Cardinals would ultimately end up last in the NFL in points scored. As an unheralded rookie on a bad team, Boldin wasn’t one of the top sixty wide receivers drafted in fantasy leagues, and probably wasn’t even among the top 100. That makes his production even more incredible.

The table below lists the best fantasy performances by wide receivers in week 1 of the NFL since 2000, with 1 point per reception, 0.1 points per receiving yards, and 6 points per touchdown. The “Exp” column shows the experience level of the receiver; the last column shows the player’s Average Draft Position among wide receivers, if in the top sixty.
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The fountain of youth consists of two parts levitation and one part Matt Schaub

In a year where offensive fireworks dominated the headlines, here’s a piece of trivia on the other side of the ball: 36-year-old London Fletcher led the league in tackles. Fletcher, like Ray Lewis, is past the point where he can be referred to by his name alone. Instead, both get the honorific “ageless” before their names. The ageless Ray Lewis made his thirteenth Pro Bowl last season, putting him one behind Merlin Olsen and Bruce Matthews for the record. While it’s tempting to say Lewis is making Pro Bowl berths based on reputation now, I don’t think it’s his play is undeserving of such recognitiion. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis was the 5th best inside linebacker last season. As for London Fletcher, he also registered in the top ten according to PFF. And while Fletcher was never as dominant as Lewis, ‘ageless’ simply has replaced ‘criminally underrated’ for Fletcher, a moniker that preceded his name most of the time for the last decade.

I think most of us know that it’s pretty incredible that these two are 37-years-old and still playing at high levels (well, at least we expect them to in 2012). But do we really recognize how truly rare this is? There are eleven modern era inside linebackers currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The table below lists them chronologically based on the year they entered the league. The columns show the “Approximate Value” or “AV” score (as defined by Pro-Football-Reference) assigned to each linebacker for each season during his thirties.

Linebacker
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
Mike Singletary181213159000
Harry Carson71013149600
Jack Lambert1717200000
Willie Lanier95500000
Dick Butkus156000000
Nick Buoniconti91116149010
Ray Nitschke16151097220
Sam Huff118860600
Les Richter119200000
Joe Schmidt172190000
Bill George171415919609
Average13
10875201

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