The Patriots and Pythagoras
To be fair, the Patriots sole loss was a nail-biter, too: it wasn’t until Adam Jones intercepted a Tom Brady pass at the Bengals three-yard line with 26 seconds remaining that Cincinnati sealed the 13-6 win. Still, New England has “only” outscored its opponents by 28 points so far this year. That’s a pretty low number for a 5-1 team.
From 1920 to 2012, 222 teams started the season with a 5-1-0 record. In an odd bit of trivia, the only one of those teams with a negative points differential through six games was a Super Bowl champion: the 1976 Oakland Raiders, who were blown out by the Patriots in week four but finished the year 16-1 (including a controversial revenge victory against New England in the playoffs).
If we limit ourselves to just post-merger teams, there are 148 teams that started 5-1-0 prior to 2013. If we throw out the strike seasons, that leaves us with 139 teams. This is the part of the post where you’d expect the teams with the highest points differential to perform the best over the rest of the season, but that actually hasn’t been the case.
There were nineteen 5-1 teams that outscored opponents by 80+ points; on average, they outscored teams by 94 points, and won two-thirds of their remaining games, and four of them (the ’96 Packers, ’75 Steelers, ’02 Bucs, and ’73 Dolphins) won the Super Bowl. That’s the most impressive performance, but nearly all the 5-1 teams continued to do well, and the worst teams in points differential had the second best remaining regular season record (and in that group, in addition to the ’76 Raiders, the ’70 Colts also won the Super Bowl.)
I’m not sure if this means much, of course, as this goes against just about all research on the subject. But more to the point, the Patriots should be better once/if Rob Gronkowski is back. An optimistic view of the team would note that come playoff time, New England could have their star tight end along with a healthy Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen; on the other hand, the odds of those three all being on the field at the same time seem to diminish each week. If Gronkowski and Amendola fight injuries all year, it’s tough to see the Patriots doing much damage in the playoffs. If that’s the case, the reports of the demise of the Patriots offense will have been correct.
On the other hand, at least so far this year, the Patriots have been a defensive team. New England joins Kansas City and Seattle in the top three in points allowed per opposing drive. But before we start comparing this New England team to the defensively-led Super Bowl Champions of last decade, injuries have struck on defense, too, so who knows how long they can maintain that level of performance. Vince Wilfork and now Jerod Mayo are out for the rest of the year, and Aqib Talib went down against the Saints and [redacted by Bill Belichick.]
Week 6 Average Field Position
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the average field position data from week six.
|San Francisco 49ers||68||53|
|New England Patriots||82||52.2|
|St. Louis Rams||41||49.6|
|San Diego Chargers||72||48.8|
|New Orleans Saints||63||48.7|
|Kansas City Chiefs||61||47.9|
|New York Jets||57||47.6|
|Green Bay Packers||65||42.6|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||64||41.1|
|New York Giants||53||40.2|
Some interesting notes from the teams at the top and bottom of that list. Houston was embarrassed at home against the Rams, with a Game Script of -15.3. Yeah, the Rams scored on a pair of returns in the third quarter, but the lead was 24-6 before either of those plays. Posting a high Average Field Position without forcing any turnovers or having some great returns is usually the sign of a good offense. And believe it or not, the Texans actually posted some good offensive numbers.
Arian Foster rushed 20 times for 140 yards, and his production didn’t come in garbage time. Half of his carries came with score 0-0, 7-0, or 10-0, and Foster ran for 98 yards on those ten carries with a median run of 8 yards. And Matt Schaub completed 15 of 21 passes for 186 yards before getting injured in the third quarter (with the score 31-6).
So why did the Texans get blown out? It might seem odd to put the week’s most lopsided game of the week under the microscope, but bear with me. Houston’s second drive of the game went 74 yards on 8 plays, but DeAndre Hopkins lost a fumble after making a 12-yard catch. The third drive went 78 yards, but the Texans settled for a 20-yard field goal to cut the lead to 10-3 (continuing a trend of red zone struggles). The fourth drive was all pass plays — Matt Schaub took over with 2:43 left on his 20, and drove the team 63 yards before the half, settling for a 35-yard field goal.
Houston’s opening drive of the second half stalled, but after that, the next time the Texans were on offense they were trailing 31-6. That’s because the defense allowed touchdown drives of 65, 80, and 80 yards to the Rams on three of St. Louis’ first five possessions, with a Greg Zuerlein field goal ending a fourth drive. Throw in the Keshawn Martin kickoff return fumbles, and things got out of hand pretty quickly there. But Schaub and Foster played well enough to win, which might seem surprising given the final score. The Rams didn’t have great offensive stats, producing a boom or bust type of day: St. Louis had just seven drives, with three of them three-and-out punts joining the four scoring drives.
I talked about the Raiders yesterday, but Oakland’s low average field position is really just a jumping off point to talk about the Chiefs. In week 1, Kansas City’s opponent (Jacksonville) posted the lowest average field position. In week 3, the Eagles posted the third worst average field position against Kansas City. The Giants in week four posted the worst average field position when they played the Chiefs. So that’s four out of six weeks where Kansas City’s opponent has produced terrible AFP numbers; that’s no doubt strongly correlated with points allowed per drive, where the Chiefs easily lead the league at 0.8.
I’m not sure how consistent this will be, of course. But Kansas City does possess a great defense, Alex Smith doesn’t turn the ball over, and the Chiefs lead the league with a +12 turnover differential. As a result, Kansas City’s defense leads the league in average starting field position, which further helps their elite defense. And the Chiefs’ offense leads by a mile in average starting field position on offense, too. There’s little to be gained from trying to splice out causation from all of these metrics, but the Kansas City model is clear: rely on a great defense, and don’t do anything on offense that would make life easier for opposing offenses. Right now, the Chiefs are doing that as well as possible when it comes to field position.
Someone requested a list of remaining strength of schedule based on Pro-Football-Reference.com’s SRS ratings. Here are the results excluding last night’s game from both the SRS calculation and the remaining schedules of Arizona and St. Louis. I have given the home team three points in each game except the San Francisco/Jacksonville game in London. The Packers and Ravens have the easiest remaining schedules, while the Broncos and Rams have the toughest.
|1||Green Bay Packers||11||-3.8|
|14||New England Patriots||10||-0.8|
|17||San Francisco 49ers||10||-0.4|
|21||New York Giants||10||0.3|
|22||New Orleans Saints||10||0.4|
|24||New York Jets||10||1.3|
|25||Kansas City Chiefs||10||1.6|
|29||San Diego Chargers||10||2.1|
|30||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||11||2.6|
|32||St. Louis Rams||10||4.2|
In addition to two games left with the Chiefs and Chargers, Denver has to travel to Indianapolis, New England, Oakland, and Houston. The only two other home games left are against Washington and Tennessee. The Broncos are still the favorite to land the #1 seed in the AFC, but the schedule (which has been the easiest to date by SRS, which accounts for the fact that their opponents have played the Broncos) will be considerably tougher the rest of the way. Football Outsiders also ranks the Denver SOS as the easiest-to-date, but just the 12th hardest the rest of the way (although FO also puts the Rams’ remaining schedule as the most difficult).