Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
08 Nov 2005
by Ned Macey
When the Patriots decided not to be announced as individuals before Super Bowl XXXVI and then proceeded to beat the star-laden Rams, sportswriters and fans everywhere admired the gesture as embodying the proper spirit of football. Football is the ultimate team game, where every play involves eleven different people working together. The introduction presaged the game, which New England won because it was, at least on that night, the better team.
On Monday night the better "team" easily beat the two-time defending Super Bowl champions. After years of frustration at the hands of the Patriots, Peyton Manning and the Colts finally won in Foxboro, defeating for the first time a Tom Brady-led Patriots team. The Colts players are deservedly happy about the win, but this victory is as much Bill Polian and Tony Dungy as Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
After spending the last two seasons scorching opposing defenses only to freeze in the cold January air of New England, the Colts were considered soft. People said they lacked the intestinal fortitude, a favorite term of sports analysts everywhere, to beat the tougher Patriots. Grit and determination overcame the flashy Colts when the chips were down.
But that neglects the fact that the Patriots were simply a superior team to the Colts. In fact, since Manning debuted in 1998, all the way back in the Pete Carroll days, the Patriots had been a better team than the Colts all but one season. Brady had famously gone 6-0 against Manning before last night's game, but those six wins all came in the Patriots' Super Bowl seasons. The weakest team of the Patriots' run, the 2001 squad, twice beat a Colts squad in disarray that struggled to a 6-10 finish.
Here is how each team has ranked by our overall DVOA metric during Manning's career.
|New England and Indianapolis DVOA Ranks|
This year, the Colts have been the number one team in DVOA for most of the season (and remember DVOA adjusts for the quality of competition), while the Patriots have consistently been ranked in the teens.
The reason is not that Manning is better this year, but that the other 52 members of the team are. The ability to find and cultivate talent on the margins is a testament to the Colts' impressive scouting and coaching. Of their top 12 defenders -- including the starters and pass-rush specialist Robert Mathis -- seven were drafted by the Colts on the second day of the draft or acquired as undrafted free agents. They are not a perfect group â€“ I think they are still trying to tackle Daniel Graham on his touchdown reception â€“ but they are a perfect complement to the high level of offensive talent they have assembled in a more conventional manner.
Despite the defense's growth, this win was all about the offense, which punted only once and rang up 40 points on a team that had held them to three just 10 months ago. The Colts have struggled with the Patriots in the past, not just because the Patriots had a good defense, but because the Patriots had devised a sound defensive game plan. They have emphasized aggressive cornerback play, linebackers dropping into coverage instead of blitzing, and deep safeties that prevent the big play.
The rest of the league has finally understood the true strategy that Belichick employs, and a maturing Manning has successfully set aside his ego for the good of his team. Manning's problem was not that he was stat-driven as many insist. Rather, he arrogantly assumed that the team would perform best with the ball in his hands taking shots down the field. If the defense is specifically designed to stop those throws, stubbornly forcing plays due to your own self-confidence is not sound football.
Fear of failure against this scheme ruined the Colts in the playoffs a season ago despite a battered secondary for the Patriots. For all of the responsibility Manning has in the offense, the game plan effectively took the ball out of his hands. Of Manning's 32 pass attempts before garbage time, only nine were directed at his star outside receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Everything was underneath, with the offense unwilling to take any chances.
On Monday night, against a similarly depleted secondary, the Colts were much more willing to take chances when they presented themselves. The Colts faced a pass defense that was bringing back Randall Gay from injury and had the struggling Duane Starks at cornerback. This time they decided to attack.
That Reggie Wayne had a big game against Starks and the still-recovering Gay is hardly a surprise. The bigger surprise is that Harrison abused Asante Samuel from the very first series. Covered predominately by Samuel in last year's playoffs, Harrison was basically a non-factor. Perhaps because of the absence of Rodney Harrison or perhaps because the Patriots felt Samuel could cover him one-on-one, Marvin had a multitude of opportunities.
He started his night with the big 48-yard catch on the first possession and ended it by beating Samuel in the corner for a 30-yard game-clinching touchdown. Even Samuel's best play of the night, a near interception in the end zone, came after Manning underthrew Harrison who had a step on Samuel.
The great irony of the game, of course, was watching Brady play excellent football and seeing his team self-destruct around him. Brady was on target most of the night, completing 22-of-33 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns against an Indianapolis pass defense that ranked third in the league in DVOA coming into the game. Brady repeatedly picked on Jason David, who may have had the worst game ever by a player whose team won by 19 points.
The Patriots' defensive struggles are deservedly drawing much of the blame, but the struggling run game is also a culprit. Corey Dillon, one of the best off-season additions in recent NFL history a season ago, has battled injury and ineffectiveness and was clearly hobbled last night. For all the very real gains made by the Colts defense, they still are susceptible to a solid ground game. In last year's playoff game, Dillon was able to put the team on his back and carry them to victory. This year, with nagging injuries, he was able to do nothing, leaving all the weight on Brady.
Brady's success in these circumstances emphasizes how good a quarterback he has become. Brady's most ardent supporters in the tiresome Brady v. Manning debate actually have undermined Brady with their insistence that only winning matters when evaluating a quarterback. The Brady of 2001 through 2003 was a solid quarterback who managed the game well. Like all great players, Brady has worked to improve, and last season, he saw a major spike in production. Much of that could easily have been attributed to the addition of Dillon. With Dillon rendered ineffective this season, however, Brady has shown no backslide and remains among the best quarterbacks from a purely statistical standard.
If you are only counting wins and losses, it's hard to measure real growth for a player who has won the Super Bowl three of his four years as a starter. At Football Outsiders, we love to measure performance, and by our DPAR statistic, which measures how many points a player contributes above a replacement-level player, Brady has matured from a mediocre passer, albeit game manager, to one of the very best quarterbacks in football.
|Tom Brady DPAR|
So far this year, Brady has been battling with Manning and Carson Palmer for top quarterback honors, and he took the top spot from Palmer last night by having a big performance against one of this season's top pass defenses. Unfortunately, the passing attack is the only real strength for the Patriots, and despite the best performance of Brady's career, the team fell to a disappointing 4-4.
Last night's game was a desperate one for the Patriots, a fact accentuated by Belichick's sneak onside kick and his seemingly random challenge of a sure touchdown catch. Still, the Patriots will be in the playoffs, and they will enter the playoffs on a hot streak. After playing six of their first eight games against teams with winning records, they have only two such games on the rest of their schedule.
While Rodney Harrison is not coming back, the Patriots will get back Matt Light and Richard Seymour, arguably two of their five best players. Corey Dillon cannot get worse, and Tedy Bruschi will get into better shape. This team, as outclassed as they have been in two of their last three home games, is far from finished. That they will not be the best team in football this year, however, appears abundantly clear.
The Colts have the Patriots' schedule in reverse, having played only one team with a winning record to this point in the season. Down the stretch they play five winning teams, including three on the road. Talk of an undefeated season is extremely premature, and the Colts will have done well to finish 13-3.
Nonetheless, the mantle of best team in football has been passed from the Patriots to the Colts. Backing it up in the playoffs the way the Patriots have the last two seasons is a challenge more daunting than winning a regular season game in Foxboro. The defending champs will likely have a shot at thwarting the Colts' ascendancy in the second round of the playoffs. Betting against Belichick and Brady in the playoffs has been a fool's errand the past few years, but I expect the better team to win that game, just like all the Patriots-Colts games of the last several seasons.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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