Wildcard Game Notes

Wow. Good match-ups and exciting games all weekend.

Arizona 30 Atlanta 24

I had the Falcons as the much stronger team going into this game. A Matt Ryan TD pass going into halftime gave Atlanta the upper hand, but a botched hand-off by the rookie QB early in the 3rd quarter handed the Cardinals a touchdown. It was a freakish play to say the least, and it turned out to be the difference in the game.

Part of the key for Arizona was its pass protection. Warner wasn't sacked once. Don't be fooled that the Cardinals have all of a sudden found a running game. They gained 3.1 yards per rush. I figure they'll be big underdogs going into Carolina next week.

San Diego 23 Indianapolis 17

I had San Diego highly rated all year and as the favorite in this game, so I'm happy to be vindicated. They appeared to be the stronger all-around team. The Chargers had 26 first downs compared to 17 for the Colts. But 6 of the Chargers' first downs were from overtime when Indy didn't get to touch the ball. (More on that below.)

The Colts seemed to have the game completely in hand. Up by 3, with 7 minutes left in the 4th quarter, Indy had a 1st and 10 from the Chargers 46 yard line. Normally, this gives a team about a 90% chance of winning. A field goal is only a pass or two away, and a touchdown is fairly likely. Either one would have put SD in a desperate situation.

Instead, the Colts were flagged for holding, eventually leading to a 4th and 21. The ensuing field position battle gave the ball back to the Colts on their own 1. They were forced to punt, and SD got the ball and basically started the game-tying drive already within FG range. Tony Dungy, plus several analysts, are crediting SD punter Mike Scifres as the difference in the game. But that holding call on the Chargers 46 was truly pivotal.

Traffic for my site is through the roof since Saturday. A lot of it is coming from Indiana looking for how often the coin-flip winner is victorious in OT. Long time premium subscriber 'Borat' and I were discussing this after the game Saturday. I pointed out that the 'lose the coin flip never touch the ball' scenario happens 30% of the time. He countered and said, that means it doesn't happen 70% of the time, so what's the big deal? Plus, the other team has the chance to make a stop on defense.

So I said, let's play 1 on 1 basketball for a hundred bucks. First person to make a basket wins...oh, and I'll start with the ball. (You do have the chance to make a stop...)

The reality is the NFL OT rules gives far too much advantage to the coin flip winner. This is partly an unintentional consequence of the rule change that moved the kick-off line from the 35 to the 30. An easy fix would be to move the OT kick-off back to the 35, which would drastically increase touchbacks and greatly reduce the advantage.

Baltimore 27 Miami 9

The Ravens dominated this game. A lot has been made of Joe Flacco's steady calmness and Baltimore's new-found offensive mojo. And true to form, Flacco had zero sacks and zero interceptions. But after the game I couldn't believe what I saw when I looked at his line in the box score: Flacco was 9 for 23 (39% completion) with a 59 NFL passer rating. So it was the defense that again won for Baltimore.

Ed Reed is a freak. He had two interceptions to add to his 9 regular season picks, one for a 60-yard TD return. It was his late-2nd quarter TD that gave Baltimore the upper-hand in the game for good.

Freak isn't exactly a proper scientific term. Perhaps I should say 'outlier.' My research last off-season strongly suggested that defensive interceptions were not consistent within a season. They appeared to have everything to do with 1) randomness, and 2) who was passing, and not with the defense on the field. Baltimore and Reed are making me re-think this. It could be that 90% of defenses are at the mercy of the passer, but there can be a few outliers that do have a knack for generating takeaways. I'll have to dig deeper into the data on this.

Philadelphia 26 Minnesota 14

This was a very close game except for a single play. The score was 16-14 for what seemed like all game until a 71-yard TD reception by Brian Westbrook with 6 minutes to go in the 4th quarter. It was an incredible effort by the entire Eagles offense. The downfield blocking was unbelievable, by both the o-line and both wide receivers.

This is the kind of stat that irks me, however. McNabb gets credit for a 71-yard TD pass, but it was a simple screen any practice-squad QB could throw. The combination of Westbrook's speed and the team's blocking is what broke open the game. In reality, it was a zero-yard pass, essentially a glorified lateral, and a 71-yd run. I think it's time for me to revisit the Air Yards concept.

Looking forward to this Saturday.

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9 Responses to “Wildcard Game Notes”

  1. Aaron says:

    It was definitely a nice weekend and really looking forward to some pretty awesome match-ups next weekend.

    As far as the screen-for-long-TD sorta thing goes, my defense has always been that the QB also gets credit for an INT when they make a nice pass and the receive tips the ball into the air instead of making a catch and the defense comes down with it. Hmmm...wonder which happens more often or they somehow actually offset.

    Anyway, the Air Yards is a very interesting concept.

  2. mike says:

    michael westbrook is retired.

  3. Edward says:

    I agree with what Aaron says above regarding QB passing yards, and I'd also like to add that the QB still has to make a good pass to get YAC. Had McNabb thrown that screen pass behind Westbrook, he still would have caught it, but it would have given the Vikings defenders more time to sniff out the play and evade blockers before Westbrook could make his first move. This goes for all YAC, as well, I would think; would it be possible to see if the same QBs tend to lead the league in YAC?

  4. Brian Burke says:

    My apologies to Brian.

  5. Dave P. says:

    About the DEF INT thing: in baseball, there are some stats that vary mostly randomly, and are said to be out of the player's control. A pitcher's BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is an example: if a pitcher has logged an unusually high or low BABIP in a season, an analyst might note that the pitcher's BABIP is likely to regress to league average going forward, and we can therefore expect the pitcher's performance to improve/deteriorate as a result.

    That isn't to say that controlling balls in play isn't a skill, per se, only that it's a skill that is fairly consistent amongst MLB pitchers, and what few variations exist (signal) are drowned out by the much larger influence of variance (noise). Some pitchers, however, show some ability to sustain a higher or lower BABIP (Barry Zito is an example), but it takes a large sample size in order to tease this ability out.

    My guess is that generating defensive interceptions is a skill, just one that is usually drowned out by the far more important influences of offensive interception rates and variance. An exceptional turnover-generating team - such as Baltimore, perhaps - could have such a strong influence over their defensive interception rate that their skill could be discerned. Like BABIP, it's a question of the degree of control over the skill, and the influence of the skill relative to other factors.

    So yeah, all that as a way to say that I'd be very interested were you to re-visit your research on defensive interception rates, looking for Zito-like outliers.

  6. Brian Burke says:

    Dave P.--Very interesting analogy. Speaking of SABR stuff, I liken the air yards thing to DIPS--Defense Independent Pitching Stat.

    I'm not making the case that QBs have zero effect on YAC. It's just that we'd be getting a lot more signal and less noise about a QB's abilities/performance. We're throwing a little signal out with the bathwater, but overall, it's a much better S-N ratio.

  7. Derek says:

    I defend the current overtime system this way: if you don't want to risk the game on a coin flip, go for the touchdown/2-point conversion, you freaking wimps. Recalling a specific example, last year, the Ravens were driving down the field late against Miami. A touchdown would have won it. Instead, they run up the middle a couple of times and kick the FG to tie. Then Miami gets its only win of the season.

    How many games have you seen where a coach forces the kicker to kick a 40- or 50-yard field goal just to send it into overtime? How many times have you seen a team drive down the field against a prevent defense, only to kill the drive with a draw?

    We all know the risks involved with overtime. Hell, the ref could even screw up the coin flip call. Why not challenge your team? The one smart thing the college overtime system does is ban field goals after the first OT (and XPs shortly thereafter, correct?). They force teams to take risks.

    Of course, all of this is solved by ending the game only after each team has had a possession and one has scored.

  8. Tarr says:

    Allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment. You say, "[The Chargers] appeared to be the stronger all-around team. The Chargers had [20 regulation] first downs compared to 17 for the Colts."

    That's an awfully narrow standard; you're basically penalizing the Colts for having more yards on their successful plays. How about this (regulation only) comparison:

    * The Colts gained 366 yards from scrimmage, to the Chargers' 282.

    * The Colts gained 7 net yards per passing play, to the Chargers' 4.7. That's an enormous gap. The Colts were above their top-10 season average, while the Chargers, the #1 regular season team, put up a number that one would expect from the Cleveland Browns.

    * The Colts committed zero turnovers and had zero fumbles. The Chargers committed two turnovers.

    Now, the Chargers were drastically more effective running the ball than the Colts were. But even when we throw that into the mix, the Colts had more net yards per play from scrimmage, by a large margin. And besides, we both know full well that passing efficiency is a better predictor of success. The Colts made a conscious decision to clamp down on the Chargers deep passing game, and it was a great success.

    Besides rushing, the Chargers were better in a few basic ways:

    - Their punter had an otherworldly (and franky, a flukish/nonpredictive) game.

    - Darren Sproles was incredible in the return game.

    - The Chargers won the coin toss.

    - The Chargers were better at getting flags thrown. (Whether you think they are good calls or not, the sequence of calls and non-calls going their way was unusual and remarkable.)

    While the second of those things is certainly notable and deserving of credit, it does not make me thing that the Chargers appeared stronger overall.

  9. Tarr says:

    Let me put that in a much simpler way. Among things which I consider repeatable/predictive, the Chargers were better at:

    - Running the ball.
    - Returning kicks.

    ...and the Colts were better at:

    - Passing the ball.
    - Avoiding turnovers.

    I think this, on the whole, suggests the Colts were the stronger team.

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