Any Given Sunday: Patriots Over Cardinals

Any Given Sunday: Patriots Over Cardinals
Any Given Sunday: Patriots Over Cardinals
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Sterling Xie

This is supposed to be a column about underdogs. While there have been many ways to describe the Patriots during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, rarely has the underdog label been an appropriate one. Headed into 2016, the Pats had been underdogs in just 50 regular season games since 2001, by far the lowest total in the league. New England had also posted the best winning percentage in games as underdogs, going 29-21. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have gone 35-31 in 66 such games (the second-lowest total in the league), also finished above .500 as underdogs.

Of course, the circumstances surrounding this win hardly match those of the previous 29. This wasn't a Brady-led behemoth traveling to Indianapolis or Denver to face a Peyton Manning-led behemoth. This was a short-handed team traveling to face a conference finalist from last season and one of the consensus Super Bowl favorites for this season. The Patriots closed as nine-point underdogs, the most points they've gotten since they were memorably two-touchdown underdogs in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams. (For those curious, only three of those 29 games with the Pats as underdogs came in 2008, the Matt Cassel year.)

In that context, this might be New England's most surprising win since the Patriots became the Patriots. And while we probably learned less about the Cardinals on Sunday night, failing to beat the undermanned Pats in Glendale won't quell the concerns some harbored about this team after last January.

The Kid is Alright

Starting Jimmy Garoppolo in place of Brady is one thing, but throwing Garoppolo out there minus Rob Gronkowski, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Jonathan Cooper, and Dion Lewis sounded like borderline endangerment. Based on the personnel, one might not have faulted Bill Belichick for dusting off his game plan from the Week 17 contest at Miami last year, when his primary goal was ostensibly to run out the clock ASAP and get out healthy.

Instead, Belichick and Josh McDaniels designed a game plan which was certainly kid-proofed but not entirely different from what you might expect from a typical New England offense. The Pats did run the ball on 13 out of 25 first-down plays (excluding the game-ending kneel down), and a few of those passes only came after penalties which put the offense in first-and-long situations. Last year, they ran the ball on just under 44 percent of their first-down plays, which ranked 28th. Additionally, we saw none of the hurry-up tempo which has become a fixture under Brady and which might have made sense against an athletic well-schemed defense like Arizona's. For lack of a better term, taking the air out of the ball was critical to New England's offensive game plan.

So against a more talented opponent, the Patriots took up the type of David strategy that always looks good on paper but in reality leaves a team with little margin for error. They significantly shortened the game, with each team receiving just nine possessions when you exclude the one-play drives that ended both halves. And they created and converted manageable third-down situations, going 10-for-16 on third downs, a better conversion rate than they managed in all but two games in 2015, including the postseason. Helpfully, seven of those third downs came with 6 or fewer yards to go, and that doesn't include a third-and-4 Garoppolo twice converted in the fourth quarter, only to have back-to-back Patriots penalties nullify each play and force them into a 3rd-and-14.

But dinking-and-dunking only goes so far, so Garoppolo certainly deserves credit for delivering the best and most important deep-ball completions of the evening. While it has become a widely held assumption that the deep ball represents the hole in New England's passing chart, Brady was successful when he did air it out in 2015. His 80.9% DVOA on passes charted as deep (16-plus yards through the air) ranked fifth among quarterbacks with at least 30 deep attempts. Staying on schedule with the underneath man coverage beaters is only part of the job. If the Garoppolo-led offense had hoped to sustain production close to the Brady-led version over these four games, hitting the deep balls was always part of the requirement.

Garoppolo only attempted four passes that traveled more than 15 yards in the air, but he hit two of them, which may have been New England's two most important offensive plays. The first was this touchdown on the opening drive to Chris Hogan, which gave the Patriots a cushion they maintained for most of the game. The second came after Arizona had taken the lead for the first time, when the Pats were backed up deep in their own territory and facing third-and-15 after a sack and incompletion. Inexperienced quarterbacks holding the ball for prolonged periods usually end up in trouble, but Garoppolo did a nice job of moving around in the pocket and scanning through his reads until he found the mistake in Arizona's scrambled secondary.

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The play itself also represented a high-water mark of sorts for the Cardinals. According to ESPN's win probability model, Arizona's win probability was 61.6 percent headed into the play, its highest mark in the second half. (The Cardinals' win probability technically peaked at the start of the game because the simulator, run by former Advanced Football Analytics creator Brian Burke, accounts for team strength in its model.) That 32-yarder under duress may have been the most important and impressive throw of the game.

From a Patriots perspective, the easy reaction is to start envisioning a 4-0 start, with Garoppolo serving as prime trade bait in the offseason if Brady maintains his Benjamin Button impression. Of course, there's no guarantee New England would even interested in shopping him in the first place. The Patriots haven't minded splurging on more expensive insurance policies behind Brady, spending (and often wasting) Day 2 draft picks every two to three years. It's just as likely the Pats decide to hang onto a promising quarterback in a league where there aren't enough of those to go around.

Garoppolo's cap hit is a paltry $1.1 million in 2017, and unless he implodes in the next three weeks, you can expect incalculable amounts of time, ink, and bandwidth being spilled on Garoppolo trade rumors. Although that bargain-bin cap hit comes in the final year of his rookie deal, remember that we live in a world where Sam Bradford just garnered a first-round pick, and Brock Osweiler makes $18 million annually.

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Let's also not discount the depleted offensive line, which held up against old friend Chandler Jones and the rest of Arizona's front. Jones and Markus Golden had their moments off the edge, but while reserve tackles Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon weren't particularly good, they also weren't disastrous. Ask Patriots fans who remember January's AFC title game how far merely mediocre offensive line play can go.

Out of Air

Garoppolo is the A-list story coming out of this game, but the secondary storylines are the ones that will impact this season most significantly. The Cardinals' mediocre offensive output was one of the weekend's most surprising developments, and certainly a perturbing one given how Carson Palmer's season ended in 2015.

Granted, Sunday night wasn't close to the level of the disastrous NFC Championship Game, or even the erratic divisional round win over Green Bay. The Cardinals did avoid turnovers, after all, and apart from a Justin Coleman near-interception on the final drive, Palmer didn't really come close to getting picked off.

But maybe that's just the point: a Cardinals offense known for being one of the league's most dangerous and vertically inclined was much more grounded. Last year, Palmer led the league in averaging more than 10.4 air yards per attempt, which helped him finish first in every per-attempt yardage statistic (yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, etc.). Last night, Palmer averaged 7.3 yards per attempt, which is hardly terrible but would have been his fourth-worst single-game figure in 2015, including the postseason.

It wasn't for a lack of trying. The Patriots' top priority was seemingly to sit back in zone coverage and eliminate as many deep balls as possible. According to the play-by-play, Palmer threw nine passes that traveled more than 15 air yards, and were thus marked as deep. He completed only two of them: a 39-yarder to Michael Floyd to open the second drive of the game and an 18-yarder to Jaron Brown on Arizona's final offensive play of the night. Speed demons John Brown and J.J. Nelson were totally invisible, combining to catch two of their six targets for just 19 yards. When Palmer did push the issue downfield, New England was typically there with safety help to bracket the receiver and squeeze the throwing window:

Palmer mostly stopped trying after halftime, attempting just three passes deeper than 15 yards downfield. The aforementioned completion to Jaron Brown only came in desperate circumstances, when the Cardinals had been pushed out of field goal range and were facing third-and-23. Overall, Arizona averaged just 5.8 yards per play, identical to what they averaged in their last home game against Green Bay. Stunningly, the Cardinals actually haven't been affected much when opposing defenses have gone on the road and limited big plays under Palmer and Bruce Arians. Including Sunday night, Arizona has averaged under 6.0 yards per play in 10 different home games since 2013. The Cardinals had somehow won the previous nine.

ARI ≤ 6.0 Yds/Play at Home Under Bruce Arians
Season Game Off DVOA Yds./Play Result
2013 Week 2 vs. DET -3.6% 5.27 W, 25-21
2013 Week 10 vs. HOU -12.8% 5.35 W, 27-24
2013 Week 12 vs. IND 11.5% 5.77 W, 40-11
2013 Week 14 vs. STL 31.1% 5.68 W, 30-10
2014 Week 3 vs. SF 10.0% 5.54 W, 23-14
2014 Week 10 vs. STL -16.7% 5.08 W, 31-14
2014 Week 14 vs. KC -8.2% 5.63 W, 17-14
2015 Week 14 vs. MIN 14.6% 5.95 W, 23-20
2015 Div vs. GB -18.0% 5.84 W, 26-20 (OT)
2016 Week 1 vs. NE 14.6% (as of now) 5.83 L, 23-21

There are a couple instances above where Arizona simply raced out to a huge lead and was running out the clock, plus one Drew Stanton start against the Chiefs. Still, although Sunday wasn't the first time a defense has gone into University of Phoenix Stadium and limited the Cardinals' big-play production, it was the first time an opponent managed to do so while also stealing the win.

The good news for the 2016 Cardinals is that Arizona should be much more successful when defenses do emulate the Patriots' top-down containment strategy. David Johnson was probably the best the player on either side, looking every bit like the No. 1 prospect he was pegged as in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016. Johnson totaled 132 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches, which is probably right around the weekly average he'll post this season as a high-volume back in a prolific offense. His remarkable 45-yard gallop after initially getting stuffed at the line was vaguely reminiscent of a similar run he made on Sunday Night Football last December against the Eagles, albeit without the touchdown to cap things off:

Sunday obviously wasn't a reaffirmation of Arizona's place as a top-tier Super Bowl contender, but neither did it indicate that the Cards will be condemned to disappointment in 2016. Brandon Williams was predictably picked on defensively, and if Tyrann Mathieu less than nine months removed from a torn ACL is closer to above-average rather than the most destructive defensive back in the league, Arizona's secondary looks a lot less formidable. While these problems certainly matter against the type of competition a team will see in mid-to-late January, it shouldn't necessarily prevent the Cardinals from getting there in the first place.

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The bigger loss might be in relation to the division rival Seahawks, who barely managed to take care of business in their own home game against an AFC East visitor. We'll see if the Russell Wilson ankle injury becomes a big deal down the road; regardless, if Week 1 is any indication, Seattle may have relapsed into its befuddling habit of starting seasons slowly.

But when picking the NFC West in the preseason, many (including Football Outsiders) pointed to this game as the differentiator between Arizona and Seattle. The schedulers handed the Cardinals what felt like a one-game head-start by gifting them with the Garoppolo-led Patriots at home, while the Seahawks drew the (presumably) Brady-led Pats at Gillette Stadium. Even if Seattle does lose in Foxborough, the Cards have already squandered the one advantage they held in hand coming into the season.

By the VOA

This is still a pure VOA table, as we won't have opponent adjustments for DVOA until after Week 4. The numbers appear to judge the Pats a little harshly, but keep in mind that the Week 1 numbers will look a little strange because of the normalization of league-wide DVOA around 0%. This works fine over the course of a few months, but is going to be a little hinky with only 14 games played. (For those reading this on Tuesday: these stats were computed before Monday Night Football.)

NE -15.5% 18.7% 9.6% -24.5%
ARI 14.6% -4.0% -15.0% 3.6%

One final side note: Readers may recall the "History of AGS" article that ran on this site before the start of last season, the 10th anniversary of this column. For those wondering, this is now New England's third appearance as a winner in AGS; the Patriots still hold an overall record of 3-13, with only the Saints (3-14) and Jaguars (0-6) holding worse "winning percentages" in these features.

So Jacksonville remains the only team still on the schneid, never appearing in Any Given Sunday as a victorious underdog. The Jags wouldn't have made it over the Sunday night game even if they had completed the comeback against Green Bay. Still, after hanging close with the Packers, Gus Bradley's squad should have opportunities in 2016 to finally appear on the winning side of things here.


18 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2016, 3:31am

#1 by RickD // Sep 12, 2016 - 10:06pm

"For lack of a better term, taking the air out of the ball was critical to New England's offensive game plan."

Don't quit your day job.

Points: 0

#2 by Kyndynos // Sep 12, 2016 - 11:50pm

How do the Patriots have a VOA of almost -25 after beating a heavy favorite, while the Cardinals have +4? Is there a typo in that table?

Points: 0

#3 by ammek // Sep 13, 2016 - 5:39am

As the text just above the table says, there are no opponent adjustments in the early part of the season.

I might be inventing this, but the Patriots seem to win an unusual number of games when their (d)VOA is inferior to their opponent's. Is there any evidence for that?

Points: 0

#5 by nat // Sep 13, 2016 - 6:32am

VOA is a per play stat. The Patriots ran a lot, and not very effectively. That meant a lot more plays for not much more gain. VOA hates that. Also, they fumbled three times. Also, their ST don't get much credit for the missed field goal.

Not a typo.

Points: 0

#13 by PaddyPat // Sep 13, 2016 - 8:11pm

The numbers are fairly irksome, as also reflected in the first DVOA table. You'd think that converting many clutch third downs would be worth more offensive VOA than they received, but they did often perform poorly on early downs, they had 2 terrible turnovers, and the VOA is not making any opponent adjustments at this point.

Points: 0

#17 by Eddo // Sep 15, 2016 - 2:59pm

I think you've just highlighted a key with DVOA that a lot of people don't quite grasp right away. By nature, long third-down conversions will at best be a 33% success rate, which DVOA, a per-play metric, doesn't like. That's also why third-down DVOA gets regressed to first- and second-down DVOA for preseason projections.

Points: 0

#4 by t.d. // Sep 13, 2016 - 6:28am

You know, I don't think we talk enough about the Patriots on this website

Points: 0

#8 by RickD // Sep 13, 2016 - 12:07pm

Fair point, but I think their selection for AGS is legitimate. There were 10 point dogs on the road, missing their top two marquee players.
It's not like there were other upsets this week.
If Miami had been able to hold onto their lead, they'd probably have been the AGS. But they didn't.

Points: 0

#11 by t.d. // Sep 13, 2016 - 5:34pm

Yeah, like the poster above me, I actually find the Belicheck Patriots continually fascinating, it's just funny how much oxygen they suck out of room. I thought Denver was probably a bigger upset winner, and their quarterback situation isn't inherently short-term, but YMMV. It's funny how static the AFC remains. The Pats were the overwhelming favorite to win the conference this season even with Brady's suspension, given the lack of proven challengers, although Denver, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati are on their level, in terms of talent. Either the Pats' defense is significantly better than expected or Arizona's offense is significantly worse (or some combination of the two)

Points: 0

#12 by Anon Ymous // Sep 13, 2016 - 5:49pm

Barring injuries, NE looks to have no worse than a mid-to-low top 10 defense. I'm not sure if that is better than expected, though, because that is pretty much what people around these parts thought at the start of camp.

Points: 0

#14 by PaddyPat // Sep 13, 2016 - 8:13pm

After one week, a lot of the teams look like train wrecks to me this season, which I think is actually a bit worse than usual. Legitimate contenders? NE, PIT, GB, and a lot of question marks. Presumably, BAL, CIN, SEA, and ARI get their acts together. Apart from that, it looks like a real mess.

Points: 0

#15 by dmstorm22 // Sep 13, 2016 - 10:47pm

How do the Bengals not have their act together. Got a nice road win against a good team. To me they looked better than the Packers.

Points: 0

#16 by theslothook // Sep 13, 2016 - 11:38pm

Yeah the bengals played well.

Its week 1 so its too early to declare contenders or pretenders at this point. Pitts offense certainly looks terrifying. The team that really intrigues me is baltimore. I suspect(and I put money on this already) - they turn out to be a pretty good team and we started talking a lot about their defense and some rising stars coming seemingly out of nowhere.

If there's a true counterpart to BB, its ozzie.

Points: 0

#18 by Winterguard78 // Sep 16, 2016 - 3:31am

Definitely the Kansas City Chiefs and probably Houston deserve spots on your AFC contender list (arguably over a couple of the teams mentioned) but the real AFC constants for more than 10 years have been the teams Brady/Ben/Manning have QBd and the Baltimore Ravens. I think that's gradually changed/changing but where I am starting to question a long held belief is that I've always believed that in the Brady/Belicheck equation it was at least 60/40% because of Tom. I'm under no illusions that Tomlin/Kubiak(ha! The genius is Wade)/or really Tony Dingy are Mt.Rushmore level coaches (Harbaugh has a better case to me because he doesn't have a HOF QB and doesn't have strings of mediocre years like Tomlin) But I don't know if Belicheck couldn't have close success without a great player under center.

Points: 0

#6 by Otis Taylor89 // Sep 13, 2016 - 8:20am

It would have been interesting to see how ARZ would have defended Gronk and Bennett playing at the same time as it doesn't seem like have two players with the size and speed to say with both of them.
If the 1st game is any indication, the rest of the league is in trouble when NE gets everyone back, including Dion Lewis.

Points: 0

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