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?
01 Feb 2008
by Aaron Schatz
Super Bowl XLII is the biggest mismatch in Super Bowl history.
If you have been reading Football Outsiders for the last couple of weeks, this statement will not come as a surprise. I've written about it a few times, both here and at ESPN.com. There's no reason to go through all the numbers again.
Nonetheless, "Biggest mismatch" does not mean "no chance at victory." Only an idiot thinks the Giants have a zero percent chance to win this game. After watching them play at a higher level over the past month, we know the odds of an upset are much better than anyone would have imagined five weeks ago. So now it is time to look at the actual matchup. What should we expect from the Patriots, and how will it be different from what we saw in that dramatic Week 17 game? If the Giants pull an upset, what will be the key? How can they take advantage of New England's weaknesses? What has specifically changed about the Giants over their past four games -- both for better and, in some cases, for worse?
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Due to the Giants' improvement over the past four games, we're going to run our little stats tables for offense and defense with the Giants listed twice. One column lists their regular-season numbers. The other column lists their numbers solely from the last four games, along with where that number would rank if compared to how the other 31 teams did during the regular season. The Week 17 game against the Patriots shows up in both columns. The Patriots numbers (and Giants special teams numbers) are regular-season only; adding the postseason wouldn't change things much. When you look at the weekly DVOA charts, remember that defensive DVOA gets better as it gets lower -- so on the two defensive charts, the better games are the ones on the bottom.
Football Outsiders tracks so many stats that I can guarantee I missed something. Probably a few things. Nevertheless, there is a lot of information here. Giants fans are not going to be pleased with most of it. The main focus of this website is objective analysis. The numbers simply do not favor a Giants victory. There is no way around this. (Our game charting statistics are a bit subjective, so I went and checked: 13 different people charted Giants games this year, and 14 different people charted Patriots games.)
In an effort to keep the discussion of this game civilized and intelligent, I will make this request: Before you post a comment, go back and re-read the section you want to discuss. This time, wherever the Patriots are mentioned, imagine that the team going for a perfect season is actually the Jacksonville Jaguars. When the Giants are mentioned, imagine that we are instead talking about the Arizona Cardinals. If you still feel the same way about the game, go ahead and post.
If you want to talk about the Super Bowl during the game, make sure to visit our Open Game Discussion Board.
|TOTAL||-2.5% (19)||29.3% (2)||-6.1% (8)|
|PASS||-10.1% (24)||56.4% (2)||-6.9% (6)|
|RUSH||5.6% (7)||3.5% (8)||-5.2% (15)|
|1st DOWN||3.2% (12)||26.3% (2)||-7.4% (9)|
|2nd DOWN||-3.6% (19)||30.4% (4)||5.5% (19)|
|3rd/4th DOWN||-11.3% (24)||33.8% (4)||-22.1% (3)|
|RED ZONE||3.0% (16)||71.7% (1)||3.3% (16)|
|LATE & CLOSE||-3.4% (18)||13.1% (8)||0.0% (17)|
How did the New York Giants go from a mediocre wild card team to NFC Champions in the space of four weeks? The answer is actually quite simple. The Giants aren't any better stopping the pass, and they've only improved slightly against the run. Their ground game is actually gaining fewer yards per carry. The difference is almost entirely the passing game, especially the performance of quarterback Eli Manning.
Starting with the final regular-season game against New England, Manning has been dramatically more accurate. In his first 15 games, he completed just 55 percent of his passes; in the last four games, his completion rate is 64 percent. During the regular season, he led the league in interceptions. In three playoff games, he has not thrown a single one.
Conventional wisdom says that Manning has improved by "taking what the defense gives him," rather than trying to force the big play when it isn't open. That's true, somewhat, but don't confuse "taking what the offense gives him" with "dumping the ball underneath." Manning is throwing more midrange passes, and fewer short ones.
|Eli Manning by Pass Distance|
|Distribution, Weeks 1-16||47%||32%||21%|
|Distribution, Weeks 17-20||39%||45%||16%|
|Completion Percentage, Weeks 1-16||63%||56%||37%|
|Completion Percentage, Weeks 17-20||76%||67%||39%|
|(Does not include passes with no intended receiver.)|
Because of the increased consistency, with more midrange passes and no interceptions, Manning is having more success, even when he isn't gaining as many yards per pass. Through Week 16, for example, the Giants were averaging 6.5 net yards per pass on first down, with a passing DVOA of -0.7%. Over the last four games, they are averaging just 5.4 net yards per pass, but their passing DVOA is 30.7%.
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is also calling fewer deep passes, and the ones he does call are of a different nature: curls and outs that sacrifice yards after catch for a higher completion percentage. Over the first 15 games, Giants receivers averaged 4.5 yards after catch on deep balls (more than 15 yards through the air). In the last four games, they've averaged 0.6 yards after catch.
Another change over the past month is that the Giants are favoring the sidelines instead of the middle of the field. The average team this year threw 35 percent of passes to the left, 25 percent to the middle, and 40 percent to the right. Giants passes were split evenly between the three directions instead (33%/33%/34%). Since Week 17, however, the Giants have thrown 34 percent of passes to the left, 25 percent to the middle, and 41 percent to the right -- almost exactly the league average.
Gilbride wants to avoid those deep, middle of the field post and seam routes against this defense in particular. The Patriots were the best defense in the NFL against passes to the "deep middle." They led the league with a 66 percent Success Rate, and allowed 8.9 yards per pass, second in the league to Arizona. The Giants offense was average on passes to the deep middle during the regular season. During the playoffs, Eli Manning has thrown only four deep middle passes, all incomplete.
However, the Giants are probably going to throw more to the left side in this game, simply because of Asante Samuel. Patriots opponents threw 42 percent of passes to the left side, the highest percentage in the NFL, and only 34 percent of passes to the right, the lowest figure in the league. Ellis Hobbs is usually on the offensive left, with Samuel on the offensive right. Based on the game charting we've collected so far, Samuel allowed just 4.7 yards per pass, which ranked second in the league among all cornerbacks with at least 40 charted passes (behind Fred Smoot, who had a shockingly good comeback season, but that's another issue for another time).
The Giants tend to move Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer around, rather than each receiver generally sticking to one side of the field, but it is no accident that in Week 17, Burress was on the left side more, and Toomer on the right. Ironically, the left-side passes to Burress went 1-for-5 with Manning's only interception of the game. The three passes listed as middle or right included two touchdowns and a 52-yard bomb in the middle of the field that was 16 yards longer than any other "deep middle" completion against the Patriots this year.
Manning discovered his newfound accuracy against the Patriots, but most of his success came during the first half of the game. The Giants only scored on one of their last four drives. The Patriots improved by switching to the one weakness Manning does not seem to have conquered over the last four weeks: the big blitz.
Big-blitzing Manning was an important part of Minnesota's game plan when they whipped the Giants 41-17 in Week 12, and Washington also used it to beat the Giants in Week 15. In the past four weeks, Manning has improved significantly against four or five pass rushers, but he still has problems if the defense sends six or seven. Over the last four weeks, Manning averaged 7.3 yards per play against four pass rushers and 6.2 yards per play against five, but just 4.3 yards per play against six or more.
|Giants Passing Game, by Number of Pass Rushers|
|Weeks 1-16||Weeks 17-20|
In the first Patriots-Giants game, the Patriots sent six pass rushers only once in the first half, but six times in the second half. On those seven plays, Manning completed three passes out of six, with a sack, for a net average of 0.7 yards per play. (The last Patriots big blitz did result in a three-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress, which made the game 38-35.)
There's one other place where the Giants' offense hasn't improved over the past few weeks: protecting Manning. In the first eight games of the year, the Giants had an Adjusted Sack Rate of 3.8 percent, sixth in the NFL (1.1 sacks per game). In the final eight games of the regular season, the Giants had an Adjusted Sack Rate of 6.2 percent, 18th in the NFL (2.4 sacks per game). In the playoffs, the Giants have an Adjusted Sack Rate of 6.1 percent (2.0 sacks per game). The Patriots defense ranked second in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate -- right behind the Giants.
We've gotten this far without even mentioning New York's running game, which for most of the season would have seemed completely backwards. The Giants ranked seventh in the league in carries by running backs, and had one of the league's top ground games during the regular season. The passing game is more interesting because of the complete turnaround over the past month; the running game has stayed pretty much the same. The Giants have actually dropped from 4.8 yards per carry to 3.7 yards per carry, but DVOA has stayed roughly the same because Giants are running more consistently, and faced harder run defenses over the past four weeks.
The Giants are particularly strong running up the middle, which has often been a weakness of the Patriots defense this season, but the Giants actually don't run up the middle that much. Only 39 percent of runs by Giants running backs were listed as middle or guard, making them just one of five teams below 40 percent. The Giants have also been very good running around both left and right end, and the Adjusted Line Yards numbers show that left end runs have a lot more success against the Patriots than right end runs do. After the Ravens nearly beat the Patriots, they told reporters that they knew they could run at their old teammate Adalius Thomas. The Adjusted Line Yards numbers suggest the Ravens are onto something, but the trick may be to seal Thomas off and run around him, not straight at him. (The Patriots are pretty good against left tackle runs.)
The Patriots also may have trouble with rookie big-play threat Ahmad Bradshaw, who missed the first Patriots-Giants game with an injury. The Patriots generally had trouble with smaller, shiftier running backs this season. They gave up 124 yards to Willie Parker on just 21 carries, and 56 yards to Lorenzo Booker on eight carries. Leon Washington had that 49-yard run when the Jets trotted out the option in Week 15, and of course, it took the Patriots roughly six hours to tackle Marion Barber, even though he was trapped in his own end zone. Remember Darren Sproles two weeks ago? It is a pretty safe bet that no matter the score of this game, at some point Bradshaw will have at least one highlight-reel big run.
A final note: Unlike in the NFC Championship game against Green Bay, the Giants can't count on the New England defense to hand them tons of free yardage with penalties. The Giants and Patriots finished 27th and 28th in penalties this year, respectively.
|TOTAL||42.8% (1)||-2.9% (14)||-8.1% (6)|
|PASS||61.9% (1)||1.5% (15)||-3.5% (10)|
|RUSH||18.2% (1)||-8.4% (10)||-13.9% (5)|
|1st DOWN||30.8% (1)||-4.5% (12)||-14.8% (5)|
|2nd DOWN||52.4% (1)||-0.5% (12)||-29.0% (1)|
|3rd/4th DOWN||49.6% (1)||-3.5% (9)||41.0% (32)|
|RED ZONE||40.2% (1)||23.5% (27)||25.6% (29)|
|LATE & CLOSE||38.0% (1)||-12.1% (8)||-42.0% (1)|
There are a lot of reasons why the Giants almost beat the Patriots in the final game of the regular season, but very few of them have anything to do with defense. The greatest offense in NFL history still scored on seven of their nine drives.
A good defense will take away what the offense does well, but that's impossible with the Patriots, because they do everything well. In the playoffs, San Diego and Jacksonville concentrated on taking superstar receiver Randy Moss out of the game -- but if you double-team Moss, you can't blitz quarterback Tom Brady. If you do try to blitz Brady, you'll leave slot receiver Wes Welker wide open. And if you just hang back to play zone, protecting against the big play, the Patriots will flip it to Kevin Faulk underneath. If they don't feel like throwing, they can always use the running game that led the league in DVOA. Laurence Maroney finished second in the league in Success Rate and sixth in DPAR, with 5.2 yards per carry over the last five games. As I said earlier this year: Even if you get to pick your poison, it is still poison.
The Giants defense needs to be worried about two trends: one that didn't change in the playoffs, and one that did. Both trends play right into the strengths of the New England offense.
The Patriots were the NFL's best offense in the red zone, while the Giants had a poor red-zone defense: 23rd in DVOA against the pass, 30th against the run. This has not changed in recent weeks. New England, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay got past the Giants' 18-yard line a total of 10 times. Eight of those drives ended in touchdowns, two in field goals. (Apparently, the way the Giants stop offenses in the red zone is to stop them right at the door to the red zone: the Patriots and Packers each kicked two field goals from the Giants' 18- or 19-yard line.)
To keep the Patriots out of the red zone, the Giants have to get stops on third down against the league's best third-down offense. But over the past four weeks, while everything else was going right for the Giants, their third-down defense deteriorated significantly.
During the regular season, the Giants allowed a third-down conversion rate of 35 percent, fifth in the NFL. However, over the last four weeks, the Giants have allowed a third-down conversion rate of 49 percent. That would have been the worst figure in the league during the regular season.
If we're supposed to assume that Eli Manning's dramatic improvement over the past four weeks is for real, isn't it also reasonable to assume that Giants' sudden problems getting off the field on third down are equally for real? This is perhaps the worst weakness that a defense can have against the New England Patriots, who converted a league-best 48 percent of third downs during the regular season and are 13-of-23 in their first two playoff games.
(By the way, this logic also works in reverse: If you think that Manning's past performance suggests that he really isn't as accurate as he has been in the last four weeks, and eventually he's going to have to throw another interception, then it also makes sense that the Giants defense is really nowhere near the bottom of the league on third down.)
Even if the Giants can stop the Patriots on third-and-short, don't forget that Bill Belichick is the most aggressive coach in the NFL on fourth downs. Although the NFL conversion rate on fourth down is less than 50 percent, the Patriots converted 15 of 21 opportunities this year, while the Giants defense allowed conversions on 10 of 16.
The Giants' pass rush was a major reason why the Giants' defense was so strong on third down during the regular season. The Giants led the league in sacks, and were one of just three teams with more sacks on third down (27) than first and second downs combined (26). (The other two were the Ravens and Jets.) The Giants were 14th in Adjusted Sack Rate on first down, eighth on second down, but first on third down by a colossal margin (12.6 percent -- no other team was above 9.5 percent). Of course, the Patriots also have one of the league's top offensive lines, finishing fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate.
It looks like the Giants' secondary has played much better during the postseason, but the numbers don't really support that idea. In general, the charting stats for the Giants corners show similar Success Rates over the past four weeks, with a bit of a drop in yards allowed per pass. Even Corey Webster, that favorite whipping boy of Giants fans, did very well in (a limited sample size of) regular-season charting data.
|Game Charting Stats for Giants Cornerbacks|
There's been a lot of talk on ESPN about how the Patriots linebackers and safeties need to watch out for play-action fakes by the Giants. Well, the same goes double for the Giants linebackers and safeties. Patriots average 11.1 yards per play on offense, best in the league. The Giants defense allowed 7.0 yards per play, which was league-average. Over the last four weeks, they've allowed 7.3 yards per play, including two huge plays: the 90-yard touchdown by Donald Driver, and the 49-yard bomb dropped by a wide-open Randy Moss. (The following play, where Moss and Brady broke the touchdown records, was not play-action.)
The linebackers and safeties also need to watch out for passes to tight ends and running backs, an area of weakness for the Giants during the regular season. The Giants ranked 29th in DVOA against passes to running backs, 31st against passes to tight ends. During the regular season, the Patriots only threw to running backs on 14 percent of passes, the lowest figure in the league -- but in their last three games, they've thrown to running backs twice as often. Over the last three games, Kevin Faulk has 21 catches (no incompletes) for 182 yards, including nine first downs.
Faulk may get a couple carries too, but the Patriots' ground game is mostly about Laurence Maroney. Actually, it is mostly about the offensive line, which ranked first in the league in Adjusted Line Yards and was missing half its players when these teams played for the first time. Starting right guard Stephen Neal, starting right tackle Nick Kaczur, and blocking tight end Kyle Brady are all healthy now, and it will make a big difference. Maroney has gained 100 yards and at least four yards per carry in four of his past five games. The only exception was the game against the Giants -- partly because the Giants have a good run defense, but partly because Neal, Kaczur, and Brady were out.
The Patriots run best up the middle or behind the tackles, and they run up the middle a lot more often than the Giants do: 58 percent of the time (ninth in the league). One reason why the Patriots have so many runs up the middle is that they run more draw plays than any other offense in the league. (We charted 50 during the regular season.) That could be trouble for the Giants; after all, teams usually run a draw to take advantage of an aggressive pass rush, and the Giants have the best pass rush in the NFL. Overall, the Giants ranked third in the league against runs up the middle, but they were actually below average against draws, allowing 5.9 yards per carry. (NFL average on draws was 5.2 yards per carry.)
|DVOA||2.9% (7)||-1.0% (20)|
|NE kickoff||7.3 (3)||3.5 (10)|
|NYG kickoff||11.0 (5)||-6.0 (26)|
|NE punts||0.2 (13)||-4.1 (22)|
|NYG punts||-1.0 (18)||3.7 (8)|
|FG/XP||-0.2 (19)||-2.9 (24)|
Conventional wisdom points to Domenik Hixon's kickoff return touchdown in the first Giants-Patriots game as evidence that the Giants have the advantage on special teams. That conventional wisdom could not be more wrong.
Hixon's touchdown kept the first game close, but it was an aberration: the only kickoff the Giants returned for a touchdown all year, and the only kickoff return touchdown the Patriots allowed all year. It certainly didn't hurt Hixon that New England's Stephen Gostkowski had to kick off from the 15-yard line because of a celebration penalty on the preceding touchdown. If we combine Hixon's stats from New York and Denver, the Patriots kickoff return men averaged more yards per return (25.2) than Hixon did (24.9).
The Giants game was a major aberration for Gostkowski, normally one of the top two or three kickoff men in the league. For the season, Gostkowski averaged 64.5 yards per kickoff, giving the Patriots 6.2 points worth of field position compared to an average kicker. Tynes averaged just 61.8 yards per kickoff, costing the Giants 1.0 points worth of field position. (These numbers are different from the ones in the table because they assume an average return on every returnable kick, thus filtering out the coverage team.)
Gostkowski averaged only 60.5 yards per kickoff against the Giants, his second-worst game of the year. He's almost guaranteed to be better in the Super Bowl, particularly when we consider the effect of the thin Arizona air. Add a few yards onto the average Gostkowski kickoff, and Hixon has to take a touchback. Add a few yards onto the average Tynes kickoff, and you still have a kickoff that Ellis Hobbs can return.
At some point, Joe Buck will assuredly mention that Giants punter Jeff Feagles holds the all-time NFL record for punts that land inside the 20-yard line, and there's no doubt Feagles is better than the Patriots' Chris Hanson. However, the Giants had poor punt returns all season, so neither team really has an advantage in the punting game.
Over the past two weeks, many observers have compared the Giants and the Patriots -- not this year's Patriots, but the Patriots from six years ago. The 2001 Patriots were 14-point underdogs against the St. Louis Rams, but they slowed down the "Greatest Show on Turf" and pulled off a shocking 20-17 upset. Now the Patriots are the juggernaut with a high-scoring offense, and the Giants are the scrappy underdog trying to prove they belong on the big stage.
It's not the best comparison. The 2007 Patriots might have an offense similar to that of the 2001 Rams, but that Patriots team wasn't coming from the same place as this Giants team. New England had the second seed in the AFC that year. They ranked 12th in DVOA, but ninth in weighted DVOA -- in fact, the only AFC team with a higher weighted DVOA was Pittsburgh. The Giants did not gradually improve over the course of the season, the way the 2001 Patriots did. They actually were going through their fourth straight second-half collapse until they suddenly flipped a switch and turned it on over the last month.
Another Patriots team is a better comparison for this year's Giants: the 1985 Patriots. That was the first team in NFL history to win three road playoff games on its way to the Super Bowl, a feat the Giants duplicated this year. Like the Giants, they had to beat the top two teams in their conference, including the archrival Miami Dolphins (read: Cowboys). That team was also led by a promising but inaccurate first-round quarterback, Tony Eason. Eason threw 17 interceptions during the regular season, but just like Eli Manning, he went three straight postseason games without a turnover. Like the Giants, the 1985 Patriots were massive underdogs against one of the greatest teams in NFL history. The Chicago Bears crushed them 46-10. Eason did not compete a single pass.
Most likely, the Giants won't pull a shocking upset like the 2001 Patriots, and they won't get blown off the field like the 1985 Patriots. (They certainly won't be pulling Eli Manning for Anthony Wright, the way the Patriots pulled Eason for Steve Grogan.) Instead, they'll end up like a third team from New England's Super Bowl past: the 1996 Patriots, a good team outclassed by a great team. The Patriots kept Super Bowl XXXI close for a while, but in the end, the Green Bay Packers were simply better, and they won by two touchdowns. This year's Patriots will probably dispatch the Giants in a similar fashion, completing their historic 19-0 season.
Not definitely. Just probably.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We've also listed each team's rating split by down, as well as performance in the red zone.
In some cases, we'll simplify things by referring to "success rate." This removes some of the adjustments, and just looks at how often the offense gains 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third or fourth down.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense.
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice."
Numbers from the Football Outsiders game charting project are unofficial and are missing a handful of regular season games.
205 comments, Last at 08 Dec 2012, 2:14pm by Consuelo