Super Bowl XXXVIII Preview

by Aaron Schatz

(Before we get started here, let's get this out of the way: I am a die-hard Patriots fan so while I've tried to be even handed here, it shows through.  This isn't like FOX News or the New York Times -- I'm letting you Panthers fans know up front where my bias lies so you don't think I have some hidden agenda against your team.  On with the article...)

All postseason, I have previewed each game using our innovative Football Outsiders statistics from the regular season -- DVOA, DPAR, line yards, and the like.  Now that we've reached the Super Bowl, we have a problem.

As I wrote recently, Carolina has simply not been the same team over the past three weeks when compared to how they played during the regular season.  The short version is that during the regular season, they were a mediocre team that won more games than they should have early on due to luck and fluke plays; during the playoffs, they have been the best team in football, playing the best three straight games of any team all season long.  The long version can be found in this article from last week, The Two Carolinas.

So this creates a dilemma.  If I'm going to run through a series of statistics to try to show each team's strengths and weaknesses, how do I make up for the fact that Carolina's regular season numbers might be relatively meaningless at this point?  I tried to go back and select a set of weeks that would deliver a better picture of how Carolina is playing now, but it was impossible to find enough games to really demonstrate statistical significance, while at the same time not watering down Carolina's recent performance with their mediocre in-season performance.  Go back to only include the games in Carolina's recent streak, and you are stuck judging the Patriots on a measly four games.  Go back more than five weeks, and you end up in the middle of Carolina's three game losing streak.

My final compromise was to track both the Panthers and Patriots back to Week 14, the first week that Ricky Manning Jr. entered the starting lineup.  Not that this is all Manning's doing, but his arrival seems to be the point where Carolina's pass defense improves dramatically when it comes to getting turnovers.  Going back to Week 14 means including in Carolina's totals both their horrible loss to Atlanta and a win eeked out against a far inferior Arizona team, but it also means getting a better picture of New England's final games by including their snowy win against Miami.  A number of the stats below are separated for Weeks 14-20.

Still, as you will see below, tracking things back to Week 14 doesn't really make a colossal difference in Carolina's numbers, except for pass defense.  The offense looks a little better compared to the regular season as a whole, the run defense is pretty much the same, and the special teams look worse (although all teams had worse special teams in the second half, since I have not yet figured out the way to normalize special teams numbers for the weather).  Then again -- and this is something most people do not seem to realize -- the Patriots run offense has improved significantly over the same period.

In some ways, Carolina and New England are similar teams.  Both teams base their strategy on strong defense and special teams, along with an unheralded quarterback who tries to make the right play rather than the fancy play.  On the other hand, these teams couldn't be more different.  Carolina has a plan and sticks with it; every game and every down they are doing the same thing, running, throwing long occasionally, rushing the quarterback.  The Patriots, on both offense and defense, are constantly changing packages within a game and changing tactics between games.

The Stats Explained

Since this article may get posted in places where folks have not yet heard of Football Outsiders and our new statistics, I'm going to do another explanation.  If you aren't new to the site, skip down.

VOA, which stands for Value Over Average, is the result of our detailed play-by-play database which compares every single play of the NFL season to the league average based on situation.  It takes into account a number of variables, including things like down, distance to go, current score gap, location on field, and quarter.  You'll find it explained further hereDVOA is VOA with an additional variable, the quality of opponents faced (which itself is sorted by variables like down and run vs. pass).  Since VOA measures ability to score, a negative VOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive VOA indicates a better offense and worse defenseDPAR, or Defense-Adjusted Points Above Replacement, is a measure for individual players that combines quality above average with durability so that average players who are constantly involved in the offense (thus keeping the defense from covering other players) have value.  You'll find it explained further here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. Because both teams are on the road, ROAD represents how much worse (or, in the case of the Carolina defense, better) this unit played when on the road during the 2003 regular season compared to when at home.  SPECIAL TEAMS are listed a bit differently.  The total is given in DVOA, but the other numbers represent how many points in field position that aspect of special teams has been worth compared to the league average, plus rank in parentheses.

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, separated into offense and defense.  Bye weeks are missing but playoff games are included.  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."

The other table represents line yards, which is all running back yards with runs in double digits truncated to 10 yards to try to measure the effectiveness of the line.  There are other stats as well, including POWER (conversion rate on third-and-short and similar downs) and adjusted sack rate to measure pass blocking.  All these stats are explained here.

Most stats below represent the regular season.  When I've used a number below that represents this period of Week 14 through the playoffs, I'll mention that, and when I use a number that represents the entire regular season plus playoffs, I'll mention that too.  When one team has a significant advantage over the other team, that segment will be in bold (example: Carolina's field goal kicker).

Extra Bonus Opinions from Actual Football Professional

I had a chance to talk to Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.  We're going to do a bigger interview later in the offseason with Jim, who is on the cutting edge of using statistics in the NFL, but for now I just got his impressions on the two Super Bowl teams.  He played both, with the Titans narrowly losing to the Patriots twice and completely destroying Carolina (it was the Panthers' first loss of the season).  His comments below are in red.

When Carolina is on offense

Panthers on offense
DVOA -9.1% (20) -20.0% (3)
PASS -9.4% (18) -28.7% (4)
RUSH -8.9% (22) -7.7% (13)
DVOA WK 14+ -2.1% (16) -45.9% (2)
PASS WK 14+ +1.2% (14) -74.8% (2)
RUSH WK 14+ -4.8% (22) -2.8% (13)
ON ROAD -7.4% (13) +3.8% (11)

Jim Schwartz's keys to stopping the Carolina offense (and boy, did he ever succeed back in Week 7):

Shut down the run, which is easier in theory than execution because of the talented running backs.

Force Delhomme to throw in predictable situations (2nd & 10+, 3rd & 10+).  This is where you could force some mistakes.

Get the lead and make them play from behind.  This is not a team suited to play catch up.  If they throw the ball 30+ times I wouldn't expect them to win.

Don't allow big play from Steve Smith - he is the most dangerous threat to take a short pass and go the distance.

I'm now going to proceed to disagree with Jim on a number of these points, which is probably silly, since he's the professional defensive coordinator, and I'm the guy at a computer.  But bear with me here.

The conventional wisdom among those who believe Carolina is going to win this game is that Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster are going to run over the New England Patriots defense.  I am here to tell you that the chances of Davis and Foster being the dominant players in the Super Bowl are small enough to substitute for Christina Aguilera's undergarments.  They are there, but you have to squint to see them.

There are two reasons for this.  First, strong passing is much more likely to win a game than strong rushing.  This is Bud Goode's whole "yards per attempt" principle (discussed by Allan Barra in the Wall Street Journal today) and it is reflected as well in the Football Outsiders DVOA stats.  Notice how the spread between the bad teams and the good teams in passing is much larger than the spread between the bad teams and the good teams in rushing, showing how a strong or poor passing game has a larger effect than a similarly strong or poor ground game.

Second, the reason for Carolina's dramatic offensive improvement in the playoffs is almost entirely the passing game.  Yes, Jake Delhomme passed only 14 times against Philadelphia.  More impressive were his passing performances against Dallas and St. Louis, both of whom had pass defenses highly rated by Football Outsiders and shredded by the until-now unheralded Carolina air attack.  Overall, just in the three playoff games, the Carolina offense garnered a mildly neato 10% DVOA rushing but an awesome 84% DVOA passing.

CAR PASS DVOA WK 1-13 WK 14-20
2nd down, 1-3 to go +21% -22%
2nd down, 4-9 to go +5% -24%
2nd down, 10+ to go -37% +87%
3rd down, 1-3 to go -141% -48%
3rd down, 4-9 to go -9% -20%
3rd down, 10+ to go +101% +157%

Carolina's season numbers -- yes, even the numbers from before their recent hot streak -- contradict Jim Schwartz's comment above about forcing Delhomme to face obvious passing situations.  The table to the left lists Carolina's passing DVOA on second and third downs, depending on the yardage to go.  You can see that all season long, Delhomme has been excellent on third-and-long and lousy on third-and-short.  Over the past few weeks, the same has been true of second-and-long and second-and-short.

In Jim's defense, the Titans were the one team to cause Delhomme fits on third-and-long.  No interceptions, but also no first downs on six passes.  On eight second-and-long passes, Delhomme passed for only one first down and coughed up a fumble on a sack.  I'm guessing Belichick and Crennel have been watching that film a lot over the past two weeks.

Surprised that the Carolina passing game has been so instrumental to their recent string of victories?  I have something even more surprising to tell you.  Despite the fact that Steve Smith has gotten most of the attention, it is Muhsin Muhammad who has improved significantly compared to his performance earlier in the season.  Not that Smith hasn't been good, but he was pretty good before the playoffs too, and Muhammad was not.  While Muhammad and Smith have been hot, third receiver Ricky Proehl's performance has declined:

  Yards/Pass Attempt Completion Rate DVOA DPAR
WK 1-13 WK 14+ WK 1-13 WK 14+ WK 1-13 WK 14+ WK 1-13 WK 14+
Smith, Steve 8.0 10.1 64% 64% +6.7% +18.4% 11.0 9.1
Muhammad, Muhsin 8.1 10.6 51% 65% -6.1% +48.4% 3.1 12.3
Proehl, Ricky 8.0 4.8 51% 43% -13.0% -26.8% 0.3 -1.0

How do the Panthers use their three wide receivers?  Proehl is used predominantly on short routes, Muhammad is used more for gains of 20 or more yards, and Smith does a little of everything -- including a lot of those yards after catch Jim mentioned.  Here's a table showing Carolina's receivers with what percentage of their completed passes went for different amounts of yardage.  I'm also including Carolina's tight ends on this table so you can see their strange propensity for getting receptions worth negative yardage.


Percentage of catches by gain <1 yd 1-10 yds 11-20 yds 21-30 yds >31 yds
Smith, Steve 3% 49% 33% 6% 9%
Muhammad, Muhsin 3% 35% 32% 20% 9%
Proehl, Ricky 0% 61% 18% 11% 11%
Mangum, Kris 11% 44% 33% 6% 6%
Wiggins, Jermaine 9% 55% 18% 18% 0%

One strange characteristic of Carolina's offense is how little they go to Steve Smith when they get close to the goal line.  Smith was thrown only seven red zone passes.  Compare that to eight red zone passes to Proehl and 17 to Muhammad.  Even stranger, the Panthers never once threw a pass to Stephen Davis in the red zone, and that includes the playoffs,.  In general, the Panthers' running backs do not play a particularly large role in the passing game, though Foster is used a bit more than Davis (even though Davis had a much higher DVOA, +70% compared to Foster's -40%).

So, how will New England's pass defense counter Carolina's red hot pass offense?  Well, they match up very well, and they are red hot themselves.  Over the same period that Carolina's pass offense has been on fire, the Pats' D has been impervious to pretty much every pass except those that resulted in a circus catch by Drew Bennett.

Carolina, we know, likes to go long.  6.7% of Carolina complete passes were for 30 yards or more, fifth in the league.  Jim feels this is a good strategy against the Pats, who "they are an excellent tackling team - it is hard to make a big play unless you put the ball up deep."  However, not many of these balls that go deep are caught.  Only 2.7% of completed passes allowed by the Patriots went for 30 yards or more; only Chicago allowed fewer.

The Pats defense had 39 turnovers, second in the league behind St. Louis.  While Davis does a good job of holding onto the ball, Delhomme's 21 regular season turnovers put him near the league leaders among quarterbacks who do not share the last names of wanted Massachusetts mob bosses.  I know Delhomme is playing with poise, but Belichick has a history of confusing the heck out of inexperienced quarterbacks, and Delhomme certainly falls in that category.  Jim on the Pats: "They have experienced, smart, multidimensional players who can execute any game plan.  They test you because they are going to disguise well and they use a lot of different personnel groupings." 

I noted last week that the Patriots sometimes had a weakness against third receivers, particularly Troy Walters of the Colts, but with Proehl not playing well I don't see that likely being an issue.

The one thing you probably won't see as often as you expect are Patriot sacks.  While the Pats were among the league leaders in sacks, they were middle of the pack in sack rate, while Carolina was very good at preventing sacks.

OK, all this talk about passing, and you're still smarting over what I said about Stephen Davis.  How can I say he won't be the difference maker?  He's the star of this Carolina team!  "The run is important," you say.  Yes, the run is important.  But it isn't as important as you think, and the Carolina running game has not been as god as you think, and the Patriots run defense has been better than you think.

A quality running game means you can run out the clock and protect a lead.  Of course, to get to that point, the Panthers will need to establish a large lead, and that's going to take, you guessed it, the quick-strike passing game.  That gives the MVP award to Smith, Muhammad, or Delhomme.

The run is also important to create balance, and to keep the defense from being able to set up entirely to stop either the run or the pass.  All season long the Panthers have been using the running game to set up single coverage so they could go up top with long passing plays.  The problem with using the run to set up the pass is that the Patriots automatically begin every play with nine men in the box because Ted Washington is three guys.  Tell me again why Chicago traded him?  Boy, I'd rather have a fourth-round pick than that guy.  Seriously, although the Patriots did not completely embarrass opposing running backs in the same way as the Ravens or Dolphins, and were about league-average on a per-carry basis, remember that they allowed a single 100-yard rusher all season.  One.  Clinton Portis.

Here's a closer look at the line yards stats for when Carolina has the ball (you'll find these stats all explained here):

Team Line Yards   Left   Middle   Right   Power   10+ Yd   Stuffed   Sacks Sack Rate  
CAR OFF 3.65 18 3.81 16 3.42 21 3.90 8 63% 19 17% 14 23% 13 25 5.2% 8
NWE DEF 3.52 13 3.57 9 3.57 18 3.34 8 62% 8 6% 1 25% 14 40 5.7% 20

Yes, the Patriots defense definitely seems to cancel out the Carolina offense, and may even be better.  The Pats led the league in preventing breakaway runs, and they seem to have a pretty good edge in power situations -- third or fourth down with 1-2 yards to go.  That's important because it goes to the heart of Carolina's main offensive strategy.

Here's what Jim Schwartz says: "It is evident that Carolina has a defensive head coach.  The offense is built around the run game for field position and clock management, shortening the game from the very beginning.  They are committed to the run game and the only way you are going to get them out of it is to take a big lead into the third quarter.  The offense is based on 1st-and-10, 2nd-and-6, 3rd-and-2."

OK, that sounds good, but it goes to the heart of why good passing usually leads to more success than good rushing.  Let's say four yards is a good rush, and you get it twice, and now you are in a 3rd-and-2.  You still have to convert that 3rd-and-2.  We saw above that the Panthers have not been very good throwing the ball on such downs, and we see from the line yards table that they are league average when it comes to converting those downs with runs -- while the Patriots are one of the best teams in the league at preventing such conversions.  Just ask Edgerrin James.

If you haven't read one of my previews before, and you are wondering just how the heck the Panthers can be rated so low in rushing, this is where I get to talk about DeShaun Foster again. Our rankings that show Davis as far superior to Foster -- to the point where Foster was the lowest-ranked running back in the league in terms of Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement.  And yes, I'm not trying to take anything away from Foster's awesome drag-four-guys-into-the-end-zone-with-me touchdown run against the Eagles.  One play does not a running back make, no matter how excellent the highlight or how gutsy the performance.

To show how Stephen Davis' performance differed this year from DeShaun Foster, I've broken down all our line yards stats for each one. I'm also including DVOA for Davis and Foster on first, second, and third down.  Because of the limited number of power runs for Foster, I've included the actual numbers instead of percentages.  These numbers represent the regular season only.

Player Line Yards Left Middle Right Power 10+ Yd Stuffed 1st Down 2nd Down 3rd/4th Down 
S. Davis 3.71 3.83 3.50 4.02 12 of 23 19% 21% -15% +22% +18%
D. Foster 3.44 3.74 3.12 3.60 4 of 6 13% 31% -15% -38% -40%*

I stuck that asterisk next to Foster on third down because his DVOA on third down is actually positive (+3%) if you don't count a lost fumble.  One turnover makes a lot of difference in your rating when you are only counting 20 plays.  In general, it seems Foster has one advantage over Davis, third downs, and even that is unsure due to low sample size.  He also, as noted two weeks ago, is much better on turf fields, which I thought gave Carolina an advantage until I learned that Reliant Stadium, despite being a dome, has a grass field.

There's one more important offensive player not yet mentioned.  I suppose I should wait for the special teams section below, but you may see an awful lot of him on Sunday, so I'll mention John Kasay here.  Why is he so important?  During the regular season, the Patriots had the second-best red zone defense in the NFL (-55% DVOA) while Carolina was #22 in red zone offense (-19% DVOA).  In fact, red zone offense is the one place where the Panthers haven't really improved in the playoffs.  With -34% DVOA, they've actually been worse.

When New England is on Offense

Patriots on Offense
DVOA -0.2% (12) -2.5% (14)
PASS +10.2% (10) +3.0% (17)
RUSH -11.2% (25) -8.8% (12)
DVOA WK 14+ +5.7% (12) -25.2% (3)
PASS WK 14+ +6.3% (10) -39.1% (4)
RUSH WK 14+ +5.1% (15) -8.9% (10)
ON ROAD -35.0% (31) -3.5% (8)

Jim Schwartz's keys to stopping the New England offense (Hey, he was better at it than most teams):

Must have a great day tackling.  They are going to force you into a lot of isolations.  You must not let short passes become long gains.

Take advantage of the chances you get because they are not going to give you many.  A tipped ball interception or fumble recovery for a touchdown will be huge.

Handle the no-back offense and be able to match up with all the different personnel groupings

Now we come to the place where the Carolina renaissance over the past few weeks really comes into play.  The dramatic improvement in the Panthers pass defense over the past few weeks is perfectly set up to counter New England's dependence on the passing game for both long and short gains.  You'll also notice that on our little DVOA graphs, the trends are good for Carolina's offense, Carolina's defense, and New England's defense... but the trend is pretty much level for New England's offense.

What that graph doesn't show, however, is the balance between ground and air.  Under the NFL's collective proboscis, the inferior half of New England's offense has undergone a renaissance of its own over the past few weeks.  If Charlie Weis is willing to use it more than he has in previous games, Carolina could be unprepared for the unexpectedly resurgent New England ground attack.

But we'll get to that in a bit.  Let's start with the part we all know.  The Carolina pass defense has undergone a dramatic improvement over the past few weeks and especially during the playoffs.  While this cannot be considered the only reason, the improvement generally tracks to the insertion of Ricky Manning Jr. into the starting lineup in Week 14.  Yes, the Panthers lost that Week 14 game to Atlanta, but the Falcons actually had -14% VOA passing in that game; Vick did it with his feet.

Over the first 14 weeks of the season, the Panthers had only 11 interceptions. That was tied for 24th in the league. Since then, the Panthers have had 13 interceptions in five games. Yes, they had four against Jesse Palmer, essentially a rookie, and three against Marc Bulger, who led the NFL in getting picked off. But two weeks ago, I wrote that Philadelphia had turned the ball over less than almost any other team in the NFL -- and the Panthers picked off McNabb and Detmer four times anyway.  That fact should worry Patriots fans who confidently feel that Brady's intelligent on-field decisions make him difficult to pick off.

On the other hand, I think Carolina fans are overestimating how much their defensive line will get to Brady.  Yes, the Carolina line is good -- as Jim Schwartz points out, "Peppers, Rucker, and Jenkins are Pro Bowl caliber, and the effectiveness of their four-man rush allows them to pressure the QB without blitzing much."  But the New England offensive line is just as good at pass blocking.  They don't give up many sacks, ranking #9 during the season in adjusted sack rate and not allowing a single sack in the playoffs.  And Brady makes his decisions quickly.  Back to Jim: "Brady is like a point guard, keeping everyone involved which makes it difficult to key on one or two players.  They use a lot of different personnel groupings, two tight ends or four receivers, to create favorable matchups.  A lot of good open field players -- Brown, Faulk, Johnson, Branch -- all have excellent run after catch ability, which allows them to utilize the short passing game.  Almost half of Brady's throws are less than five yards, and he relies on the run after catch."  Ugh, makes me wish the play-by-play logs kept track of yards on a pass vs. yards on the run afterwards, but alas, Football Outsiders does not have this data.

Since the Pats spread the ball around so much, it is worth looking at the different New England receivers.  The Pats don't seem to go to any one receiver more often than usual when in opponent territory or even the red zone (last year tight end Christian Fauria was used far more in the red zone than elsewhere, but that wasn't the case in 2003).  Although Deion Branch has been New England's top receiver this year (119 passes thrown to him), since Week 14 David Givens has been used just as often.  Including the playoffs, Givens has a higher DVOA than Branch (+19% for Givens, -2% for Branch) and catches many more of the passes thrown to him (65% completion rate to Givens, 52% to Branch) although part of the reason for the higher completion rate is that Givens runs a ton of those small pass routes.  61% of his catches were worth 10 yards or less, compared to only 42% of Branch's catches.

Let's turn our attention now to the running game.  Here's a look at the line yards stats for when New England has the ball (you'll find these stats all explained here):

Team Line Yards   Left   Middle   Right   Power   10+ Yd   Stuffed   Sacks Sack Rate  
NWE OFF 3.49 23 3.37 30 3.62 14 3.29 26 63% 21 11% 29 23% 11 31 5.3% 9
CAR DEF 3.63 19 3.42 7 3.55 15 4.03 27 61% 7 12% 9 27% 11 38 7.1% 5

Well, that clearly does not look good for the Patriots.  But that's the regular season.  If you split the Patriots' line yards into Weeks 1-13 and Weeks 14-20, you see a dramatic improvement in the running game -- particularly when running to the sides, where the Pats were abysmal in the first half of the season.  Even more important is that the artificial split of the season at Week 14, based on a lineup change in Carolina, sticks the Miami snow game into the "more recent" category.  Nobody was running anywhere that day, so a look at just the last five games really makes the advancement of the New England running game jump out at you.  Here are the Pats' line yards, along with Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk's rushing DVOA and DPAR numbers, split out for both the last seven weeks as well as just the last six weeks:

Adjusted Line Yards Power Over
10+ Yd
Stuffed A. Smith K. Faulk
Total Left Middle Right DVOA DPAR DVOA DPAR
Weeks 1-13 3.45 3.27 3.63 3.18 68% 11% 24% -15% -0.4 -27% -6.8
Weeks 14-20 3.64 3.61 3.62 3.74 52% 15% 22% +9% 9.2 -7% 0.8
Weeks 15-20 3.86 3.67 3.85 4.15 56% 16% 18% +17% 9.2 -20% -0.7

Nice.  Believe it or not, the Pats run offense has been slightly more successful than the Panthers run offense over the past few weeks, although it gets used much less.  I understand that the Patriots will want to grab a quick lead in this game, trying to take Carolina's offense out of their run-first comfort zone.  Mixing the run and the short pass with a couple of long bombs to Branch or Bethel Johnson is probably a good idea.  But I think Carolina will be looking pass all the way, from the first play of the game.  All the talk for two weeks has been about Brady, or about the Panthers defensive line.  These guys are thinking, "sack, sack, sack."  The Panthers run defense is good, but not as good as the pass defense has been over the past few weeks.  Meanwhile, Antowain Smith is running far, far better than he was earlier in the season.  I think that the Patriots, who so often open things up, might want to come out in the first quarter with a more conservative offense and more runs than usual.  As a Pats fan, the Panthers' recent run of interceptions has me worried about Charlie Weis' propensity to try to outsmart everyone.  He likes to pull something totally unexpected out of his playbook.  Sometimes, that something unexpected works beautifully.  More often, it seems, that something unexpected was unexpected for a reason.  It sucks.  Think about that five-wide set on the Colts goal line two weeks ago.  To quote one of the great men of our time, "I just threw up in my mouth."

The one place where the Pats running has not gotten better -- in fact, it seems to be a little worse, albeit in very few attempts -- is on third down.  But the Pats' passing game has made up for it by getting much stronger on third downs.  But is it enough to counter Carolina's dramatic defensive development on third downs?  Look closer, and you'll see that Carolina has really improved on third-and-long... and so has New England.  But the Patriots have taken a step backwards on third-and-short.  Here's a look at the Pats offense and Panthers defense by down over the past seven weeks compared to the beginning of the season.  The third down numbers will be larger than first or second down because success and failure on third down is more important than success and failure on first or second down.

WK 1-13
WK 14-20
WK 1-13
WK 14-20
1st down +5% +11% -16% -24%
2nd down -9% -24% +27% -7%
3rd down (all) -9% +27% +3% -73%
3rd down, 1-3 to go -5% -47% -42% -45%
3rd down, 4-9 to go -24% +71% +9% -99%
3rd down, 10+ to go +58% +287% +153% -120%

What about when the Patriots get near the goal line?  The Patriots offense had a pretty good +12% DVOA in the red zone.  I know, you are probably asking, how could we have the Pats offense rated so well in the red zone when the NFL statistics have them close to the bottom of the league?  Well, the Patriots were very good at getting into position for a short field goal, and not very good at punching it for the touchdown.  They had +53% DVOA from the 11-20 yard line, but -27% DVOA from the 10-yard line to the goal.  The Patriots also register as above average because they had a league-low one turnover in the red zone, meaning that while they had problems turning these opportunities into seven points, they always at least gave Vinatieri a shot at three.  (That's regular season; obviously, they turned it over in the red zone a second time in the playoff game against the Colts.)

The Panthers, meanwhile, were about average (-3% DVOA) on red zone defense, but this has been one of the strongest improvements in their late-season run.  Since week 14, the Panthers red zone defense has matched New England's with a -57% DVOA.

One more issue that is worth some thought -- the New England offense has been far, far better at home this year than on the road.  The Pats enjoyed the second-best home-field advantage in the league on offense.  At home, the Pats' offense plays like Minnesota or Seattle; on the Road, more like Buffalo or Detroit.  Gee, that sentence sounded awful familiar.  Even in the six Pats road wins, ignoring the Buffalo debacle and the Washington turnover-fest, the Pats offense totaled a -7.9% DVOA.  On the other side of the ball, the Panthers defense actually played better on the road in 2003, by a small amount.

I'm not quite sure if these trends are meaningful given that they are based on only eight games, and I'm less sure that these trends are meaningful given that in the Super Bowl both teams are road teams, but the numbers are worth mentioning.  Could it be that Brady gets rattled more easily without the home crowd behind him?  Or are these numbers simply the effect of two-and-a-half turnover-filled performances -- Buffalo, Washington, and the second half of the regular season Indianapolis contest -- that just happened to come on the road, but were not caused by it?

Special Teams

Special Teams
DVOA +0.8% (9) +0.8% (8)
DVOA WK 14+ 0.0% (16) -3.1% (25)
CAR kickoff +5.6 (7) +12.6 (4)
NWE kickoff +2.8 (12) +10.6 (6)
CAR punts -4.4 (24) +1.4 (14)
NWE punts -3.0 (22) -5.9 (24)
FG/XP +7.4 (8) -10.0 (28)

Equality!  Carolina and New England both had above average special teams, and their special teams were above average for pretty much the same reasons, with one glaring exception.

(When looking at the numbers for weeks 14-20, by the way, remember that I have not yet adjusted the special teams formula to take into account the effects of weather on the kicking game in the second half of the season -- that's part of the reason the Patriots seem to have declined so much on special teams.)

Jim Schwartz on the Pats and Panthers special teams: "Both head coaches realize the importance of the kicking game and commit the personnel and practice time to it. Carolina's special teams coach Scott O'Brien is THE best special teams coach in the NFL."

Our stats agree with Jim, at least when it comes to kickoffs.  The Patriots and Panthers were both very good on both sides of the kickoff.  For the Panthers, those returns are the legendary He Hate Me.  For the Pats, every team in the NFL knows by now to stay away from Bethel Johnson.  Johnson ranked third in the league in the value of his kickoff returns, behind Jerry Azumah and Dante Hall.  The average Johnson return was worth .40 points in field position; the average Faulk or Pass return was worth .06 points in field position.

The lower numbers for the punting game may be a surprise, at least when it comes to the Panthers.  Todd Sauerbrun is a Pro Bowl punter, while Ken Walter is the only punter in the league who is on the team because he's a good holder.  Part of the reason the Panthers are ranked so low in punting comes from the season's final game, when the Panthers punt unit was worth -11 points because the Giants blocked two punts.  Prior to that game, Carolina had one of the league's top ten punting units.  That's all Sauerbrun, however; There are 11 guys on the punting unit, and the Patriots did a much better job of preventing punt returns than the Panthers did.

The glaring exception when I say that these teams have equivalent special teams is the field goal kicking.  John Kasay, with the exception of one game against Philadelphia, was among the league's best kickers; Adam Vinatieri, after rating as the best kicker in the league in 2002, was one of the league's worst this year.  Here's another statistic that brings up the question, "How many events are needed to prove that a change in performance is not a fluke?"  Is Vinatieri in a slump, or is this just random chance?  And if he was in a slump during the regular season, is he still in that slump, or has he straightened himself out?  And how much does Vinatieri's reputation as a "clutch kicker" come into play here?

Not Really a Pick, Just a Summary

In my opinion, there are the four main issues in this game that will determine the winner.

1) Is the Carolina of the playoffs really Carolina?  I'll say the same thing here that I said at the end of the Two Carolinas article.  If the last three weeks are just part of the standard ups and downs of the regular season Carolina Panthers, just like the losses to Atlanta and Dallas, then we are probably headed for a New England rout. But if Carolina's playoff performance truly represents advancement to a higher level of skill, then we have one heck of a good game on our hands.

2) The Ty ballgameIf the Pats are going to bring more guys up to stop the run, that puts pressure on Ty Law and Tyrone Poole to keep Smith and Muhammad from making the one great catch that turns the game.  Carolina's red zone problems mean nothing if they can toss a 50-yard touchdown bomb.  Don't be surprised if that pass, if it comes, is in the hands of Muhammad and not Smith -- partly because Muhammad has been hot, partly out of respect for Ty Law.

3) Can Charlie Weis control himself?  A long pass or two to try to establish the lead early is good.  Don't get too kooky.  The Panthers have been picking off everyone the last few weeks, including quarterbacks who don't get picked off much, but they've been susceptible to the run -- the same facet of the game where the Patriots have improved greatly in recent weeks.

4) Is Adam Vinatieri still slumping?  The question of which Vinatieri shows up is as important as the question of which Carolina shows up because there are probably going to be a good number of field goal chances in this game.  Patriot fans have to hope that Vinatieri doesn't go from Super Bowl hero to Super Bowl goat two years later.


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