Secrets of the New England Patriots
NFL Week 13 - The New England Patriots lead the NFL with a 15.1-point "hidden" special teams advantage: opponent's missed field goals plus opponent's punt and kickoff distance, three almost entirely random factors that cannot be attributed to Bill Belichick's brilliance or Mac Jones' precociousness.
We don't point this out to invalidate what the Patriots have accomplished so far this season, but to reassure anyone who thinks they're a little overvalued right now that we haven't all gone mad.
You know what? We should probably insert the segment header here.
Leaderboard of the Week, Part 1: Hidden Special Teams Yardage
Every Thursday, Walkthrough examines a random (and usually obscure) leaderboard from Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, or elsewhere on the analytics Interwebs in search of deep truths and wisdom.
Here are the NFL leaders in hidden special teams points. The full list is a just a click away here within Football Outsiders.
The Patriots might have been upset by the Houston Texans if not for two missed extra points, a missed 56-yard field goal, and a zero-yard punt. The Titans missed an extra point and a 44-yard field goal in the first half last week;. they probably weren't destined to upset the Patriots, but it's possible that things might have turned out differently if the halftime score was 16-16 (or 16-13 Titans, because the Patriots got a field goal from a short drive after that Titans miss) instead of 16-13 Patriots.
The Broncos are clinging to the playoff chase despite not being particularly great at anything. Hidden special teams points help explain why. They blocked a pair of Chris Blewitt field goals in their 17-10 win over Washington. While blocking a field goal is a skill, blocking two of them in one game is probably a sign that you are facing the opponent's free-agent kicker of last resort. Lost to the mists of time are a pair of missed first-half Jaguars field goals in Week 2. Again, a Jaguars upset of the Broncos in that game sounds unlikely, but six-point first-half swings can snowball and bury an underdog's chances.
The Colts' "real" special teams rank fourth overall. Their Bills upset had a heavy special teams component, though fumbled kickoffs are not included in hidden points and the two missed Bills field goals were a 56-yarder and a 49-yarder after the rout was on. Overall, hidden points don't tell us much about the Colts.
The Buccaneers benefited heavily from hidden special teams against the Cowboys way back in the season opener: Greg Zuerlein missed a 31-yarder and an extra point (plus a 60-yarder before halftime) in a 31-29 Buccaneers win. Hidden special teams points become a handy compendium for close outcomes like this result and the Patriots-Texans game that can be forgotten over a long season. When Tom Brady meets the Patriots in the Super Bowl, I will be grumbling into my whiskey at Zuerlein and Ka'ami Fairbairn..
The Seahawks are the only losing team with a noteworthy hidden special teams edge, which is further evidence of the Seahawks' overall putrescence. No other team has an edge of more than five points.
Let's run through the bottom of the leaderboard quickly:
The Chargers and Raiders are the interesting teams here. Opponents are 18-of-18 on field goals within 50 yards and 31-of-31 on extra points against the Chargers, who have enough problems of their own on special teams without coping with the fact that opponents rarely make a mistake.
You might think of the Raiders as a team with a special teams advantage because punter A.J. Cole is having such a fine season. But opponents have made 5-of-6 50-plus-yard field goals and are netting 42.8 yards per punt against them. Interestingly, opponents have dropped 21 punts inside the 20 against the Raiders without a single punt for a touchback, which sure sounds like an outlier. The Giants loss springs to mind as a game that could have gone the other way if the Raiders weren't always pinned inside their own 20-yard line.
Based on the randomness of hidden points, I would expect the Broncos and, yes, the Patriots to fall back to the pack a little bit late in the season, while the Chargers and maybe the Raiders should catch an additional break now and then. But we're not quite done with leaderboard of the week. Let's visit Hidden Special Teams Points' Sister City.
Leaderboard of the Week, Part 2: Net Line of Scrimmage Per Drive
Sometimes, Walkthrough features two leaderboards in the same week, either because they are tangentially related or because Tanier feels guilty about turning Wednesday's Walkthrough into an obscure anime parody and wants to stat things the hell up.
When a team misses a field goal, two things happen: they lose three points, and they usually give their opponent better field position than they would have gotten from a kickoff (or punt). Hidden special teams points tabulate the opponent's missed field goals. Net line of scrimmage per drive keeps track of, among other things, all of the ensuing drives that start around the 40-yard line and such.
Net line of scrimmage per drive is also a repository of shanked punts and long returns of non-touchback kickoffs, which makes it a second cousin of hidden points. But there's much more simmering in the NLOS/drive stew: "real" special teams performance, turnover differential, the ability to sustain drives and stop them. NLOS/drive can be both evidence of three-phases team quality and a yellow flag that a team is benefitting from fortuitous bounces, penalty differentials, or—yes—missed field goals.
In the case of the Patriots, it's likely to be a little bit of both.
Here's the leaderboard for net line of scrimmage per drive, another metric that can be found here at Football Outsiders. You will notice how closely related it is to the hidden points leaderboard:
The Patriots also led the NFL in net LOS per drive with 7.47 yards in 2019, the year they lost to the Titans in the playoffs. The Patriots are frequently among the top five in this odd little category, which suggests that Bill Belichick prioritizes the manipulation of field position, especially when he knows Prime Brady and Randy Moss aren't available. That said, the 2019 and 2021 Patriots are the only teams to top 7.0 yards per drive since 2014: that kind of edge REALLY adds up over the course of a game.
Sunday's victory over Tennessee illustrated how advantageous a significant field-position edge can be. The Titans started the game at their own 11-yard line due to a holding penalty on the opening kickoff. They went three-and-out. A 59-yard punt was negated by another penalty. Brett Kern's second punt traveled just 47 yards and was returned to the Titans 37-yard line, setting up a short New England touchdown drive. Later in the same game, Jake Bailey pinned the Titans at their own 11-yard line again. A three-and-out led to a 48-yard punt, an 8-yard return, and a 56-yard touchdown drive (highlighted by Kendrick Bourne's low-speed chase up the right sideline).
You get the idea. The Patriots also embark on their share of 95-yard scoring drives. But during their recent run of victories over teams that look far better in the standings than on the field, field-position advantages have contributed to lopsided final scores. As with hidden points, it's logical to predict a little bit of regression here.
The Colts and Broncos once again find themselves with a minor advantage that's helping them remain buoyed above .500. The Broncos pinned the Chargers at their 1-yard line early in last Sunday's upset, forced a three-and-out, and turned a short field into a touchdown: a neat encapsulation of what has gone right for the Broncos and wrong for the Chargers so often this season. That said, there's no reason to anticipate that the Broncos or Colts will sustain their field-position advantage late in the season, or lose it for that matter (it's not way up in outlier territory).
The Buccaneers rank sixth in offensive yards per drive and ninth in defensive yards per drive. Their field-position advantage is just residue of all the other things they do well.
The Seahawks are once again the shocking team among the top five, because their offense does nothing but go three-and-out while their defense cannot get off the field. Punter Michael Dickson is playing well but isn't the sort of weapon who can flip field position by himself (you are thinking of A.J. Cole). The Seahawks have attempted just six fourth-down conversions all season, while Dickson leads the NFL in punts, which may be tilting the scales. A punt is better for field position than a failed fourth-down conversion. Of course, the Seahawks are 1-of-6 on conversions, so they still fail often enough to set up short opponent's drives. Their LOS advantage may be an illusion caused by the fact that the Seahawks rarely even have the ball.
Let's check out the bottom five:
The Chargers are again the most interesting team on this list. They rank 28th in defensive yards per drive but second on offense, which should balance out field position somewhat evenly. But the Chargers have a relatively low 51.7% touchback rate on punts and give up a large 5.6-yard net punting disparity to opponents, in part because their coverage and return units stink. A -119 net penalty yardage differential is also lurking among the Chargers statistics.
The inability to manipulate field position contributes to the Chargers' red zone woes, which sometimes are just the result of needing to matriculate 75 yards down the field. Special teams errors can also trap the Chargers in a field-position feedback loop. Because they are too good a team to be ranked this low, I believe that central tendency will guide them back to the middle of the pack. A few more yards per drive down the stretch would certainly help.
The Panthers rank 31st in offensive yards per drive but first in defensive yards per drive. They have also gone through three punters this season and rank last in the NFL in yards per punt, with two blocks (including one deep in their own end zone last Sunday). Add "complementary football" to the long list of things Matt Rhule needs to figure out in 2021.
The Jets are the Jets are the Jets.
Coming off the Bye: Kansas City Chiefs
Occasionally throughout the midseason, Walkthrough will spotlight a team coming out of its bye week. But you probably figured that out from reading the header.
The Chiefs Story So Far: Patrick Mahomes and company started the season 3-4 thanks to the utter collapse of their interior defense, some miserable fumble luck, a relatively tough schedule, and the Internet's favorite herbal remedy for preventing quarterback heroics: opponents playing two high safeties against them.
The Chiefs adjusted by moving Chris Jones back from the edge to defensive tackle and relying more heavily on their rushing and short game. They have not rebounded to 2019/2020 levels, but their early-season slump looks no different than the slumps other contenders have endured (or are enduring) this year.
What's Going Right: Most of the good news comes from the last few weeks.
- The Chiefs lost eight of 12 offensive fumbles through their first seven games. They have lost three of six since. Their defense recovered just two of seven fumbles through their first seven games but are 3-of-7 since. Their fumble luck hasn't quite "evened out," but it's heading that way.
- The Chiefs defense has posted an negative DVOA in four straight games (negative DVOA means good defense). Moving Chris Jones inside has helped. So has adding Melvin Ingram. So has replacing Daniel Sorenson with Juan Thornhill and getting Charvarius Ward back at cornerback (which rippled through the secondary). Because the defensive improvements are personnel-based, they're likely to be sustainable. Barring injuries, of course.
- The rebuilt Chiefs offensive line has never really been the problem. Creed Humphrey is a favorite among Offensive Rookie of the Year contrarians, while Joe Thuney, Orlando Brown, and Trey Smith have all played well.
- Despite all the hoo-hah about two high safeties (a formation which now cures male-pattern baldness), opponents have not really found an answer for the Mahomes/Tyreek Hill/Travis Kelce problem. The best they can do is drop back and hope the Chiefs running game and underneath routes don't kill them. That's really only a viable strategy when the Chiefs defense is allowing 30 points per game.
What's Going Wrong: Let's take this opportunity to look at a few odd DVOA splits:
- The Chiefs offense ranks 30th on third-and-long, while their defense ranks second. This is the opposite of what you might expect, particularly on offense.
- The Chiefs offense ranks 30th in red zone DVOA. They have scored touchdowns on just 59.5% of their red zone trips.
- The Chiefs defense ranks 31st in short-yardage power success. They ranked 32nd last year, so this is a persistent problem for them.
All of these splits scream "volatility." If the Chiefs get better on offense in the red zone and on third downs (a likely scenario, since those indicators are lagging behind the rest of their offense), they could rocket through the playoffs. If their third-down defensive success dips, it could take the whole defense back down with them. A few short-yardage stops or failures could turn the tide in critical games.
The safest thing to predict for the Chiefs through December is more mood swings as their extreme tendencies level out. Then again, the Chiefs are built on extreme tendencies.
Where They Stand in the Playoff Picture: The Chiefs have an 83.0% chance of reaching the playoffs, a 61.1% chance of winning the AFC West, a 9.0% chance at a first-round bye, and a 12.1% chance of reaching the Super Bowl. They're +330 to reach the Super Bowl, the lowest payout in the AFC. Our metrics like the Patriots and Bills better, but you cannot blame the house for wanting to suppress public action on the Chiefs: they aren't the sort of team that folks sleep on.
What's Next for the Chiefs: Their final schedule consists of six wild-card hopefuls: the Broncos this Sunday and in the finale, with the Raiders, Chargers, Steelers, and Bengals wedged in between. A 6-0 table run is certainly possible, though 5-1 or even 4-2 feels much more likely for a team that still has self-destructive impulses.
The Week 15 visit to the Chargers is a biggie: a win would likely clinch the AFC West, while getting swept could sweep the Chiefs into a very crowded wild-card pool.
Thursday Night Sportsbook: Dallas Cowboys (-4.5) at New Orleans Saints
Dan Quinn will coach the Cowboys due to a COVID outbreak among their coaching staff. Other assistants will likely be unavailable, including offensive line coach Joe Philbin. Philbin's absence is noteworthy because right tackle Terence Steele is out due to COVID and Mike McCarthy has been tinkering with a ridiculous offensive line rotation. The Cowboys have been meeting virtually all week, and we all know how well they handled that last season. Finally, Amari Cooper was apparently hit pretty hard by the virus and will likely be a game-time decision.
On the other side of the ball, Taysom Hill takes over as the Saints starting quarterback. Hooray? Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram may be back, but Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk probably aren't, and it's not like the Saints offense was operating at 2009 levels when their backs were healthy, nor that Hill is a threat to do more than run zone-reads and underthrow deep passes.
Quinn and a half-dozen of Jerry Jones' grandchildren should be able to coach the Cowboys past the current iteration of the Saints, but there is no way we can advise making a wager on it when writing over 24 hours before kickoff during a quarantine situation.
Ah, but that won't stop Walkthrough from making some sort of wager. The Saints have scored just 24 first-quarter points all season. They have scored ZERO first-quarter points in their last four games. Yet their defense remains relatively stout, especially early in games, and they'll face a Cowboys offense that's likely to at least start the game out of sync. So don't stress over The Lovechild Factor: hammer the Under of 9.5 points for the first quarter; root for punts, missed field goals, and missed extra points; and hope everyone gets healthy so we don't have to resort to wagers like this one ever again. (And because all of us are fundamentally good human beings who wish good health on everyone else. That too.)