AFC Conference Championship Preview

AFC Conference Championship Preview
AFC Conference Championship Preview
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Aaron Schatz

Looking solely at the season-long Football Outsiders stats, the New England Patriots have to be considered the favorites in this game. They get to play at home, and they rated higher than the Ravens over the course of the year. Look at our weighted ratings that give more strength to recent games, and the gap between the two teams becomes wider.

The argument against these overall ratings is to point at Baltimore's inconsistency this season. On the surface, it certainly looked like the Ravens played badly against the bad teams on their schedule but played well against their tougher opponents. The Ravens lost to Jacksonville and Seattle, but beat over-.500 teams six times, and then again last week in the playoffs. So now we have to ask ourself:

1) Is this true? Did Baltimore really "play down" or "play up" to the level of its competition?

2) Does this really matter for predicting who will win this game, or is it better to just look at overall performance in all games this season -- adjusted for opponent, of course, but including all opponents?

Let's start with the first question. The answer is "somewhat." The Ravens lost four games this year, but they were not all to bad teams. Yes, they lost to Jacksonville and Seattle, but they also lost to an average team (San Diego) and an above-average team (Tennessee). They escaped with a narrow victory in their second game against Cleveland, but they easily won their first game against Cleveland, and they sure didn't play down to the level of the St. Louis Rams. They stomped them 37-7.

Let's see if we can measure the concept of "playing to the level of competition" with more than just anecdotal evidence. I took each team in 2011 and found the correlation of single-game DVOA to the season DVOA of the opponent in that game. A team that plays its best games against teams with positive DVOA and its worst games against teams with negative DVOA will have a positive correlation. A team that plays its best games against its worst opponents will have negative correlation.

Baltimore's correlation for 2011 is .27. That's fifth in the NFL, so it does indicate that the Ravens tended to play to the level of their opponents. But you may be surprised which two teams are one-two in correlation for 2011: Green Bay and New Orleans. Did this help them in the playoffs? Apparently not. The Giants, 49ers, and Patriots are all very close to zero using this measure. The teams with the strongest negative correlation between performance and the quality of the opposition were the Jets, the Dolphins, and the Falcons.

One year ago, in 2010, Baltimore had the second-largest negative correlation between opponent quality and single-game performance, at -.38, with the same head coach and virtually all the same players. If there's something real to the idea that Baltimore plays down to the level of its worst opponents, it hasn't been real for more than one season.

Looking back at this metric for the last five years, does there seem to be any connection to how well teams play in the postseason? Not really. One of the strongest correlations in 2010 belonged to AFC Champion Pittsburgh, but the 2010 Packers are at zero. The Super Bowl teams in 2009 and 2007 are all between .20 and .30, which would seem to indicate that a positive correlation is good. However, in 2008, the two strongest negative correlations belonged to the two teams that met in the Super Bowl: Pittsburgh at -.50 and Arizona at -.51. The second-strongest positive correlation that same year belongs to the 12-4 Indianapolis team that was upset in the wild card round by an 8-8 San Diego team that had a slightly higher DVOA.

Meanwhile, that whole thing about the Patriots not beating an over-.500 team all season? You could also say that about the 1999 Rams. They won the Super Bowl anyway. It's important to adjust for opponent when you judge a team's performance, but evidence suggests that you don't get a better idea of a team's playoff future by only looking at how they did against the best teams on their schedule. You need to look at the whole picture. That's what we'll do below. 

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. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted. Game charting data is still incomplete, but represents most of the regular season.

Baltimore at New England

Ravens on Offense
DVOA 8.2% (13) 17.9% (30)
WEI DVOA 8.3% (13) 15.5% (26)
PASS 20.3% (14) 24.1% (28)
RUSH 8.1% (9) 8.8% (28)
RED ZONE 5.1% (8) -15.9% (8)
Patriots on Offense
DVOA 36.8% (3) -13.7% (1)
WEI DVOA 40.1% (2) -9.6% (3)
PASS 60.7% (2) -16.4% (1)
RUSH 17.1% (4) -10.5% (7)
RED ZONE 33.0% (3) -43.6% (3)
Special Teams
DVOA -4.7% (30) 3.7% (5)
BAL kickoff -7.4 (28) -3.7 (25)
NE kickoff -5.9 (29) 8.7 (3)
BAL punts -7.7 (27) -0.2 (18)
NE punts -1.6 (19) 15.2 (2)
FG/XP -5.0 (23) 1.5 (14)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.


In this era of multiple receivers and shotgun spreads, the Ravens actually run a fairly conventional, old-fashioned offense. Our charting lists the Ravens using two wide receivers on 56 percent of plays, the highest rate in the league. They run more often than they pass on first down. They like their play-action passes, although they used play action less this year than in past years. We've got them down with play fakes on just 15.2 percent of passes, which is actually below average.

We all know that passing is usually a more efficient way to gain yardage than running, but Ray Rice is a very good running back and there's a real opening for the Ravens to gain yardage on the ground in this game. The Ravens running game has improved significantly over the last couple months of the season, ranking 22nd in rushing DVOA for Weeks 1-9, then third in rushing DVOA for Weeks 10-17. Ray Rice went from 4.0 yards per carry and a 40 percent Success Rate in the first eight games to 5.27 yards per carry and a 49 percent Success Rate in the final eight. Meanwhile, the Patriots run defense was bad and got worse in the second half of the season, ranking 22nd in run defense DVOA for Weeks 1-9 but 28th for Weeks 10-17.

Looking at Adjusted Line Yards, there's a real opening for the Ravens to run Rice outside to the left, as they rank first in ALY on runs left end while the Patriots defense is 31st.

Fear of Ray Rice is supposed to open things up for the Ravens' play-action passing game, but here's where we get to the dirty little secret: The Ravens are not a good play-action passing team, and it has been this way for years. Most teams gain more yards per play when they use a play-action fake. The Ravens don't. In on our game charting so far, the Ravens average 5.3 yards per play with play-action, compared to 6.2 yards per play otherwise. This gap of .84 yards is the third-worst in the league for 2011. (Interestingly, two other run-focused offenses are worse: Jacksonville and Oakland.) Although the differences in yardage changed each year, the Ravens had a better DVOA without play action than they did with play action in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

The Pats were 26th giving up yardage with play action (8.2 yards per play) and 29th giving up yardage without play action (7.2 yards per play). This discussion of a Patriots defensive split, like a lot of discussion of Patriots defensive splits this year, ends up sounding a bit like Green Eggs and Ham. The Patriots defense sucked against play action, and it sucked without play action. It sucked on first down, and it sucked on third down. It sucked in the first quarter, and it sucked in the fourth quarter. It sucked on a boat, and it sucked with a goat.

Nevertheless, we can find some hints as to where the Patriots' worst defensive weaknesses are, and a few places where they were actually pretty good. For example, we know the Ravens like to use Ray Rice in the passing game, but the Patriots were very good against running backs in the passing game, ranking fourth in DVOA. That success is part of the reason why New England was actually pretty close to average on shorter passes, 15 yards or less through the air. Using the "defense vs. receivers" DVOA*, the Patriots come out with a -3.0% DVOA against these short passes. They allow an average of 6.47 yards per pass, slightly above the league average of 6.22 yards per pass.

However, the Patriots were the worst team in the league against deep passes. They had the worst DVOA against passes that went 16 or more yards through the air. They allowed 14.6 yards per pass on these throws, compared to an NFL average of 12.2. The longer the pass, the worse the Patriots were compared to the rest of the NFL. During the regular season, the Patriots gave up 21 completions or defensive pass interference calls on long bombs that went over 25 yards through the air. No other team gave up more than 16.

Were the Ravens a good deep passing team? Not particularly. Theoretically, these deep throws are the best part of Joe Flacco's game. He's got an arm like a howitzer. Unfortunately, Anquan Boldin can't get separation from cornerbacks, Torrey Smith is young and experienced, and Lee Evans couldn't stay healthy. The Ravens averaged 10.5 yards per pass on deep throws. Ravens receivers only caught 30 percent of deep throws, the lowest figure in the league. There's an interesting split here. The Ravens were pretty lousy at "deep but not too deep" throws, i.e. 16-25 yards through the air. However, they did really well with long bombs, and had 18 successful plays on those bombs. Most of those passes were to Torrey Smith, and the Ravens particularly took advantage when the defensive backs made contact. Joe Flacco threw six different passes to Smith that went 50 yards or more through the air; three were incomplete, and three led to huge DPI penalties.

Evans had a nice deep catch on the sideline last week against Houston, but that was one of only eight snaps he played all game. If the Ravens are going to take advantage of the Patriots' susceptibility to deep passes, they're going to do it with Torrey Smith. And who will likely be covering Smith deep? That's an interesting question. A lot of those successful bombs against the Patriots this year involved beating left cornerback Devin McCourty, who had an awful sophomore slump. However, in the last two games, the Patriots have mostly used a defense that switched McCourty to free safety and instead used safety Sterling Moore as the left cornerback. We don't have enough charting data on Moore to give any worthwhile stats on his coverage skills, and while McCourty-as-safety seems to be a huge success, most of that success came with Tim Tebow as the opposing quarterback. So McCourty will probably be near those bombs to Smith, but this time as the deep safety help, and we don't really know if that makes the Patriots a better defense against the bomb than they were during the season.

Of course, if Joe Flacco wants to launch it downfield, he needs to stay upright long enough to do it. We know that Flacco likes to hold onto the ball sometimes a little too long, although our own J.J. Cooper reports that this tendency wasn't quite as bad in 2011 as it was in 2010. Can the Patriots get to Flacco while he's trying to figure out where to throw it? Many people thought the Patriots pass rush was in trouble when defensive Andre Carter went down with an injury during the Week 13 game against Denver. But the Patriots' Adjusted Sack Rate has actually improved since then. Including last week's playoff game, the Patriots have gone from 5.9 percent ASR through Week 13 to 9.9 percent ASR in Weeks 14-19.

Speaking of trends, there are some interesting first half/second half trends when it comes to the Ravens receivers. In the second half of the season, Flacco threw to his tight ends less often but had more success when he did. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta went from 10.6 targets per game in Weeks 1-9 to 7.5 targets per game in Weeks 10-17. However, together their catch rate improved from 60 percent to 72 percent, and their DVOA improved from -1.9% to 29.1%. The other split to note is that since midseason, the Ravens have ended up using Ray Rice more as a safety valve for dumpoffs than on planned passing routes. His catch rate has gone from 68 percent before Week 10 to 79 percent since Week 10, but his receiving DVOA has dropped from 51.0% to 6.2% and yards per reception have dropped frmo 10.9 to 7.6.

* Are you wondering what makes "defense vs. receivers" DVOA different from regular team DVOA? Well, regular team DVOA -- which is also the numbers we're giving when we usually talk about a team's passing game or running game -- uses a baseline of all offensive plays including some penalties. However, "defense vs. receivers" DVOA is based on the same set of plays as a receiver's DVOA, so it only includes passes with an intended receiver. Defense vs. receivers, unlike the DVOA for receivers on offense, includes a bonus for defenses who get interceptions.


According to our DVOA ratings, the Ravens had the best defense in the NFL this season. The Patriots had the third best offense in the league this season. However, 1-32 rankings aren't necessarily the best way to compare units. When we say the Ravens had the best defense in the league, what we mean is "the Ravens defense was pretty good, and slightly better than the other pretty good defenses of 2011." When we say the Patriots had the third best offense in the league, what we mean is "the New England Patriots offense was historically powerful with a passing game light years ahead of every other offense in the league except for New Orleans and Green Bay, two offenses which were also historically powerful."

As you may notice on the chart to our left, the Patriots did not have a single game with an offensive DVOA under 0% all season. They haven't had a game with offensive DVOA below 30% since Week 11. The Ravens, on the other hand, had six games with a defensive DVOA above 0%, and three of those games were the final three games of the regular season.

If you are a believer that teams develop over the course of the season, you've got to be a little extra worried about the Ravens in this game. The Ravens defense has simply not been the same since beginning of November. During the first nine weeks of the season, the Ravens defense ranked second against the pass, second against the run, and first overall. Since Week 10 (including the playoffs), the Ravens defense ranks fourth against the pass, 15th against the run, and seventh overall. Those ranks would be even worse if we didn't include last week's playoff game, as the Ravens did right the ship a bit against the Houston Texans.

(The Patriots, by the way, have the exact same ranks in each half of the season: second passing, fourth rushing, and second overall. The only difference is that in the first half of the year, as you can see on the chart, their offense generally had higher highs and lower lows.)

The biggest strength of the Ravens defense this season has been the pass rush, and it's stayed strong over the last few weeks even as the rest of the defense faded a bit. It's a surprise because the pass rush was the Ravens' clearest defensive weakness going into this season. Last year, the Ravens were 27th in Adjusted Sack Rate at 5.5 percent. This year, they were second at 8.4 percent, and that's gone from 8.1 percent through Week 9 to 8.7 percent since Week 10. Terrell Suggs is the top pass rusher on the team, just as he has been for years. (He had 11 sacks in 2010, 14 sacks this year.) The big improvement has come from a couple of situational pass rushers: fifth-round rookie Pernell McPhee (6.0 sacks) and third-year veteran Paul Kruger (5.5 sacks), who played very little in his first two seasons. There are also more sacks coming out of more complex blitzes; the Ravens had just one sack from a defensive back in 2010, but six in 2011.

McPhee and Kruger primarily play in third-down sub packages, which is a big reason why the Ravens have the league's best Adjusted Sack Rate on third downs at 11.6 percent. Tom Brady is sacked almost twice as often on third downs, with a 4.4 percent ASR on first and second down but 8.7 percent ASR on third and fourth down, so we can expect a couple of drives to end when Brady is caught in the pocket with nowhere to go on third down. It will be interesting to see if the Ravens want to try to bring more consistent pressure on Brady by using those sub packages on first and second down too, giving McPhee and Kruger more time on the field -- especially considering the way the Patriots like to use the no huddle to keep their opponents from substituting in extra defensive backs and situational pass rushers. Tom Brady excels against big blitzes, so the Ravens want to limit those and bring just four or five pass rushers. Based on our current numbers, Brady was actually a little worse against five (7.4 yards per play) than he was against four (8.1 yards per play) and the Ravens bring five on 29 percent of passes (fifth in the NFL).

One reason the Patriots can go no huddle so often, of course, is the flexability of their two tight ends. In this week's Quick Reads, Vince Verhei covered the question of how the Ravens might possibly hope to cover both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Vince pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys did the best job of covering the Patriots tight ends back in Week 6, keeping them below 10 yards on 10 of their 15 receptions. Quick Reads goes into more detail on the specifics, but in general the Cowboys used a variety of zone coverages to avoid big plays, cut down on mismatches, and rely on their pass rush to force Tom Brady into errant throws. Sometimes we listed a linebacker on Gronkowski or Hernandez, sometimes a cornerback.

There's been so much talk about the Ravens' blowout of the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs that most commentators have completely ignored that these teams also played each other just last year. That game was also in New England, and the Patriots won 23-20 in overtime. Gronkowski and Hernandez didn't play quite as big a role in the Patriots offense then as they do now, but they were important. Hernandez had four receptions for 61 yards. (Some may think the idea of Aaron Hernandez in the backfield is a new one, but Hernandez caught a 30-yard pass out of the fullback position in an offset I in that game.) Gronkowski was only thrown two passes, but one was a 24-yard catch and the other was a 13-yard pass interference on Lardarius Webb. Both tight ends were open every time Brady threw to them, and only had incompletes because Hernandez dropped two passes in overtime. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell from last year's game who might cover the tight ends this week, because half the time we have coverage listed as "hole in zone" and no defender is listed in coverage more than once.

The Ravens' most common defender this year against tight ends was either strong safety Bernard Pollard or inside linebacker Jameel McClain. One of them was listed as the primary defender on 25 percent of passes to tight ends this year. (That may not sound like a high number, but remember that a lot of passes to tight ends will be marked "Hole in Zone.") In general, these defenders did well against tight ends, as the Ravens ranked third in DVOA against tight ends and allowed just 30.8 opponent-adjusted yards per game. The Ravens kept Antonio Gates to just two catches for 31 yards and kept Vernon Davis to four catches for 38 yards. That's probably good news for keeping the Gronk from another superhuman day, but does it really tell us much about how the Ravens could handle Hernandez, who is mostly split wide or coming out of the backfield?

The Ravens cornerbacks had similar charting numbers: left cornerback Lardarius Webb was at 6.9 yards per pass with a 57 percent success rate, while right cornerback Cary Williams allowed 7.0 yards per pass with a 52 percent success rate. The big statistical difference between the two was interceptions, as Webb had five and Williams zero. Webb did an excellent job all year playing wide receivers on short passes. The Ravens had the best DVOA in the league against passes to the "short right" area, allowing a league-low 4.3 yards per pass (the NFL average on short right passes was 5.7 yards). Nine of Baltimore's 15 picks came on the offensive right side of the field. However, Brady's passes to wide receivers tend to be on the left side or in the middle of the field, while his passes to tight ends tend to be on the right side or in the middle of the field. Wes Welker and Deion Branch combined for just 61 targets on the right, as opposed to 66 in the middle and 99 on the left. If the Ravens want to leave Webb at the left cornerback position, he's not going to spend much time covering Welker or Branch. The 5-foot-10 Webb will be giving up four inches and 70 pounds if he tries to cover a split-out Hernandez, and I don't even want to imagine the carnage if he has to cover a split-out Gronkowski.

Since the Patriots so often spread the field and go with an empty backfield, there's a general impression that they don't have a good ground attack. That would be incorrect. When they want to run, the Patriots are very efficient, in large part because they often have the defense on their heels expecting pass. The Patriots get steady gains, not long runs. They were second in Adjusted Line Yards, but 30th in Open Field Yards per carry. The Ravens had good run defense, but they weren't quite as stalwart when opponents were running out of the shotgun. They allowed 5.79 yards per carry to opposing running backs on runs out of shotgun, which ranked 21st in the NFL. That could be a problem against the Patriots.

The Patriots also do run enough to set up play action, and they really excel on these plays. The Patriots gained 3.5 more yards per pass attempt when using play action, the third-highest difference between play action and non-play action in the NFL. The Ravens defense was somewhat susceptible to play action, allowing 1.7 more yards per play when opponents used a play fake (tied for the ninth biggest difference in the NFL).


Now, here's a big difference between these two teams. The Patriots were one of the top teams in our special teams ratings this year. The Ravens, after a great year on special teams in 2010, plummeted all the way down to 30th. Part of the problem was a calf injury that hurt Bill Cundiff's accuracy on field goals. He was also down in kickoff value this season, although he still led the league with 5.6 estimated points worth of field position on gross kickoff value. However, the Baltimore coverage teams were lousy. The Ravens allowed 9.9 points worth of value on kick returns (second to Oakland) and 9.3 points worth of value on punt returns (third behind Carolina and Arizona).

The Patriots, on the other hand, were fantastic on kickoff distance, punt distance, and coverage on both, which helped them to shift field position even though their defense was giving up lots of yards. The special teams disparity didn't translate into a big difference between these teams in starting position on offense, but it mattered for starting position on defense. On average, the Ravens defense needed to defend 71 yards of the field every time the opposing offense started a new drive. By comparison, the Patriots defense got to defend an average of 76 yards of field.

Reader @FoxForceFlacco pointed out to me on Twitter that the Ravens overhauled their coverage teams for last week's playoff game, using more starters, so it is possible this may not be as big a mismatch as it seems, but it's hard to definitively make that statement after just one game of improved special teams against Houston.


This game is far from a slam dunk for the Patriots, but a lot of the matchups point their way. It's not hard for offenses to gain passing yards on the Patriots defense, but the Ravens' passing game just doesn't seem to be particularly suited to picking on the Patriots' greatest weaknesses unless Joe Flacco can hit a couple of deep bombs to Torrey Smith. Ray Rice should have a big day on the ground, but it is hard to outscore Tom Brady and this Patriots offense primarily with your running game. The Ravens can try to limit the Patriots offense somewhat, and the pass rush will get to Brady, but it's hard to imagine that the Ravens can cover everybody the Patriots can send out on pass patterns. Some of this year's numbers suggest that the Ravens could do better than expected against the Boston TE Party, but last year's Ravens-Patriots game suggests the opposite. Even if the Ravens can limit Gronkowksi and Hernandez, they still need to cover both Welker and Branch, and the Patriots' likely field-position advantage from special teams just makes it easier for Brady to reach the end zone with his steady diet of 10-to-15 yard passes. New England is the clear favorite to advance to Super Bowl XLVI.


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.

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. Those numbers are explained 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. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. There are separate charts for offense and defense for each team.


56 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2012, 5:40pm

1 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

I didn't see the Ravens enough this year to have any feel for their chances of keeping the Patriots' offense in check. I do know that if the Ravens get to play on Feb. 5th, with two starting offensive linemen that combined for about 20 years in a Vikings uniform, as the Vikings now wallow in the cellar, in good part due to crappy o-line play, I'm gonna go throw darts at my Brad Childress poster again.

2 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

No surprises here. But it looks really close. If you go by season long DVOA, the Ravens have a slight edge on plays from scrimmage, which the Patriots overcome with a stronger kicking/punting game. Add home field advantage, and it adds up to the Patriots favored, but not by a lot.

It should be a great game. Either team would be a good representative for the AFC in the Super Bowl.

21 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

That's my take also , but maybe I don't understand the relationship between the offensive DVOA and the corresponding defensive figure. It seems to me that the tables would have a third column , showing the "net" figures , which would show that both teams are about equal on total DVOA , passing , rush , and red zone. The Pats have a ST advantage , but I see that as a metric that's more useful over the course of a season than for a single game , due to the increased influence of random events on stats based on small sample numbers.

I think this game comes down to who wants it most. Both teams are comparably talented , if on different sides of the ball.

53 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

I mean, you're correct in that ST performance has a greater chance of straying from the mean tomorrow because of the small sample size, but that doesn't mean it's any less predictive than the offensive or defensive DVOAs. If the game was played 1,000 times, the ST ratings would average out close to their respective averages (adjusting for opponent).

So yes it's possible that Ravens win the ST game tomorrow because of small # of ST plays, but its also just as possible that Patriots blow out the Ravens in the ST game (like 9ers v. Saints last week) and it becomes even more of a factor than it appears it will be tomorrow.

3 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

I'm a Patriots fan and quite scared of the Ravens. I think Suggs and company will have Brady running scared all day, since I'm not confident that Light can handle him (and is looking to be a little dinged up, along with all three other tackles on the Pats roster). I don't seem them hanging 30+ points on the Ravens, and if the Ravens can keep it in the 20's or better, then the inevitable long DPI they get when Moore or Ihedgibo (sp?) runs into Torrey Smith 70 yards down the field will even out the game. Then I just see Rice grinding away and giving the Ravens a close win...

I would put the Pats chances no better than 50-50.

6 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

since I'm not confident that Light can handle him

Especially after reading Jackie MacMullan's piece on Ninkovitch today, where it turns out that the first thing Ninko did after showing up in camp in 2009 was blowing by Light three straight times. 1/2 :)

9 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

No dog in this fight (I like the Cowboys and the Broncos), but I think NE's chances are quite a bit better than that, especially in Boston. I think the POR overestimates their chances (it's a flat modifier for homefield, right?) but 60-40 sounds more accurate than 50-50 to me.

20 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Not to undermine your over-arching point, but Light has been nothing less than outstanding in pass pro since about mid-season. He had a three game stretch vs. Trent Cole, Dwight Freeney, and Brian Orakpo without giving up a single pressure, usually with no help, according to BB through Mike Reiss. Since I read that back then, I've been paying more attention to him watching the games, and he's playing better than he has in years.

4 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

I had sort of thought the Ravens were a match up nightmare for the Patriots... All great passing teams can succumb to great pass rushes, and the Ravens big offensive strengths are deep bombs and running (keeping the ball away from Brady).

I guess it's a matter of whether the Ravens are more like the Jets or more like the Giants.

I do think that Belichek is crafty and Home field of course are reasonable edges to the Patriots.

7 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

The reason the Pats are ranked higher against passing to running backs could be that teams could throw downfield so easily on them that they didn't need to check down to the backs much.


“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

8 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

The weeks don't match up exactly, but from the statements below, am I supposed to infer that the Patriots have had a more effective pass rush than the Ravens recently? (9.9% vs 8.7%) If we include hits and hurries, would that change things?

"the Patriots have gone from 5.9 percent ASR through Week 13 to 9.9 percent ASR in Weeks 14-19."

"This year, they were second at 8.4 percent, and that's gone from 8.1 percent through Week 9 to 8.7 percent since Week 10."

10 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

The "Pats not beating an over-.500 team all season" stat drives me nuts. They could have beaten a .500+ team . . . by losing one of their games to the Jets.

If we take the Patriots' opponents' result against the Pats out of the equation, then the Patriots played 9 games against teams over-.500 and went 7-2.

31 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Obviously, any team with a winning record can change that stat to look better. It's not an obvious point that is also a good one.
Saying only teams with "winning" records are any good is the real question. Can a team be 8-8 and be good? Maybe.

Look. The Ravens are 7-1 against teams with a winning record. If you take out games against the Ravens, they are 8-0 (Chargers become a losing record team). Yeah, it's a bit more pronounced with NE. But, argue that this isn't a bit damning of the Pat's schedule: they had the 26th easiest schedule this year according to DVOA. They haven't beaten a 9-win team (there, does that make it better?), and the stretch of QB's they have faced in the second half of the year hasn't exactly been murderer's row. Here are the opposing QB's with DYAR and DVOA rank in all their magnificent glory from midseason on (game 9+)

6/8 E. Manning (loss)
26/28 Sanchez
38/41 Palko
36/36 V. Young
24/20 Orlovsky
22/27 Grossman
39/37 Tebow
23/26 M. Moore
18/25 Fitzpatrick
36/36 Tebow 2.0

Granted, you can only play the opponents on the schedule, Flacco (ranked 14/18) this week doesn't scare anyone, and NE is likely to roll over Baltimore, but it's just dumb to deny that NE's had an easy road, particularly in the second half of the year. Or, let me put it this way: What team did NE beat this year do you think would have even a remote chance of beating any of the 4 teams still left?

33 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

What team did NE beat this year do you think would have even a remote chance of beating any of the 4 teams still left?

Well, actually, the Pats beat the Chargers, who absolutely spanked the Ravens on national television, they beat the Cowboys, who were one of the three teams to beat San Francisco this season, and they beat the Redskins, who swept their two games against the Giants this year.

35 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Yeah,and the Colts beat Ten., and Ten. beat Balt., so I am sure you would think Indy was better than Baltimore.

The Chargers, Redskins and Cowboys would all have no chance this weekend.

But, even so, what is your counter to the list of Hall of Fame QB's the Pats have steamrolled this year? No one has ever faced such a fearsome gang and lived, right? There is no possible way an observer could possibly think that NE had an easy road to this point. I mean, look at that gang -- Palko, and Orlovsky, and Matt Freakin' Moore -- how could anyone think NE isn't a team that has been through the fires of the ultimate challenges?

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Not my argument this go round. And your mouth-frothing undermines your case, anyway. Hence the somewhat mocking reminder. Try to separate your disappointed Colt fan nature from your analysis of good teams.

But, yes, any concept that punishes a team for winning is idiotic, and anyone who can't see that is just being dense. Or has an agenda.

45 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Huh? He was simply making the point that New England hasn't faced particularly good teams this year. So while the "they haven't beaten a .500 squad this year" argument is a weak one, it's also true that New England hasn't played a particularly dazzling array of opponents, which was the point he was trying to make.

Indeed, we can look at the OP and see a weakness already. dfalkoff says, "if we take the Patriots' opponents' result against the Pats out of the equation, then the Patriots played 9 games against teams over-.500 and went 7-2." Sounds good, but the reality is that of those nine games, the seven wins were all against teams that finished 8-8: The Jets (x2), Dallas, Philly, Denver, San Diego, and Oakland. In other words, that dazzling 7-2 record the OP talks about is 7 wins against teams that were 8-7 (or 8-6) playing teams not named New England.

None of this is to say that New England isn't good, etc., etc., etc. But I think it's fair to challenge the OP's assertion to some degree.

On an unrelated note, your own entry into this foray is a bit odd. Was Purds really frothing at the mouth? (Not literally, of course.) Because it doesn't read like that to me. Moreover, your snide comment really is a real non sequitur. Whatever rooting interest Purds may have certainly didn't come through in his replies to the OP. Thus, chiming in with some comment about how the Colts were so bad this year is sort of like interjecting a "your mother" retort-- which is to say, it's pretty lame.

47 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

I'm still not sold that the D in DVOA does a good enough job of doing that. To my knowledge, it's still only a "second order" DVOA, meaning it only corrects iteratively twice. I wonder if you'd need to iterate more to really converge...

49 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview


Can't say I am a mathematician. What do you think would be the outcome of what you suggest ("to iterate more")? Would that mean opponents would be more valued, or less, or differently? Please don't read into this what nat is reading into things. I really don't know from your comment what you think is the deficiency of DVOA.

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If you start with a zero order, that's just VOA. You score every play assuming it's against an average opponent.

Aaron's first attempt at DVOA was to then take the rankings you go there, say "we know some teams are better than others, by VOA, so we're going to use that information to give more credit to the plays against good teams and less credit to the plays against bad teams". That was first order DVOA. It worked fine until a few years ago, when the Colts incredibly easy schedule broke it.

So now FO is using (I think) what the call "second order" DVOA. I don't know the exact mathematical details of how, but the gist of it, I believe, is that you take what you did the first time, weighting some teams better based on their VOA, again, except that now you use the first order DVOA to come up with a second order DVOA. I'm pretty sure Aaron has said that second order DVOA correlates better with wins than first order DVOA.

To give an example, team A plays teams B and C and beats them both. VOA (zeroth order) thinks both wins are equally important. A ends up with a high VOA for these two games. It turns out at the end of the season that team B lost to almost everyone, and team C went about 0.500. I.e. team B's VOA is very low, and team C's VOA is about 0. So A's first order DVOA is lower than their VOA, because they had an "easy" schedule. That's first order DVOA.

But there's feedback. Both B and C got beat by a good team (A), so their VOA will probably be lower than their DVOA for those games. However, if we look at DVOA, we know that team A was not AS good as A's VOA implies. So you readjust everyone's DVOA again using your increased knowledge of their first order DVOA to do opponent adjustments, rater than just their VOA. This is second order DVOA.

Each time you iterate, the amount of change you have to do to correct should get less...i.e. the ratings should converge. (Note there's no guarantee of convergence...but many real systems do converge. It's mathematically possible to keep oscillating back and forth, in some specific cases). There's various mathematical methods for resolving ratings to convergence if you're just looking at wins and losses...the BCS computer models use some of them, some are called Maximum Likliehood Estimation, some use matrix methods to quickly converge.

I'm not sure if comparable methods have ever been applied to play-by-play ratings like DVOA, although in theory you could keep iterating the system until you have converged. However, I don't *think* that DVOA currently does this (FO staff can correct me if I'm wrong...) I think it's still just second order DVOA.

If you converged, then likely teams with easy schedules would end up ranked even lower by converged DVOA than by second order DVOA, and vise versa. Or perhaps not...VOA may overshoot, 1st order DVOA may undershoot, 2nd order DVOA may overshoot but not by as much, and you may oscillate around the true value. I'm not sure and would have to think about it a bit more.

But I am not confident that teams with extremely easy or hard schedules take the full effect of their schedule into account right now...

54 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

So, help me here. If I am reading this right, would it suggest that a team playing a bunch of 8-8 types like NE did this year, that that team's DVOA won't change too much even after several iterations, but a team that played some very good and very bad teams might not have fully taken into account those variations and their first or second iteration DVOA's might not reflect the team's correct strength or weakness? So, a team that played a bunch of above average teams and then a few absolute stinkers might appear on DVOA first or second iteration as better or worse than they really are, because the DVOA only looked at those extreme teams once?

Is there any danger that if you iterate too many times that every team's DVOA will start looking the same?

37 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Yeah but the Ravens toasted at home and edged out on the road the Steelers, who handled the Patriots pretty easily. It cuts several ways.

The Pats played a much more even schedule...almost every team was mediocre. The Ravens played a schedule of teams that mostly either sucked or were very good. Both teams did well against both schedules. But if you gave people a choice, would you rather be a good team playing all mediocre teams, or a good team playing about half great and half terrible?

To me, that's a very easy decision...

52 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Depends how good I am, and how consistent.

If I'm an above-average team with good consistency, I want the mixed schedule. An average team just has to have an ordinary good day to outplay me, while a good team on an off day will lose to me, and I expect to spank the bad teams regardless. My expected wins against the average schedule is 9-10, while I might go 8-8 against the mixed bag--but I also have a decent chance to win 11-12 games.

If I'm an elite (for the season, at least) team like New England or Baltimore, I'd favor playing a large number of good teams, all of whom I will be favored against. If I'm the New York Giants and have great highs and horrible lows, I'd MUCH rather have the mixed bag, and hope my own highs and lows match up with the quality of the opposition.

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Nice writeup, Aaron.

I dug into the play-by-plays of these two teams and this is what I found.

Baltimore's offense has scored a decent amount of points, but my eyes tell me that their defense might actually have been a big factor. On top of that, I've also had the impression that Baltimore's offense is reliant on deep passes. Ray, Ray, chuck it, so to speak. To test these theories, I went through the drive log of every Baltimore game checking for the following:

50+ yard, 7+ play TD drives
-50 yard TD drives and defensive TDs
50+ yard, -7 play TD drives

7 is somewhat arbitrary, but it felt right to me and ends up being very useful after crunching everything. On top of that, I checked for 40+/- FG drives, thinking that a FG drive of less than 40 yards is less a credit to the offense and more the defense and special teams. I included missed FGs into these numbers to get the most accurate picture of how the offense performed. This gave me 5 categories:

Long TD drives, Defense credited TDs, Big play TD drives and Long/Short FG drives. Here are the results for Baltimore:


Long TD: 17
Defensive: 11
Big Play: 11
Long FG: 21
Short FG: 13

Interesting, but not informative without anything to relate it to, so here is NE:


Long TD: 38
Defensive: 7
Big Play: 15
Long FG: 23
Short FG: 7

Now, it really isn't fair to only compare offenses to NE (or GB/NO) so we need another one. I settled on Pitt since they are similar in efficiency to Baltimore, per DVOA, as well as having an offense geared around big plays.


Long TD: 21
Defensive: 6
Big Play: 12
Long FG: 29
Short FG: 4

Pitt's problems in generating turnovers really jumps off the page when you view it from this perspective. Only 10 short scoring drives all season.

Based on this exercise, it appears that my suspicions were correct. Despite trailing NE 26-34 in total takeaways, Baltimore had 4 more defense related TDs. The FG numbers are even more dramatic. 33% of Baltimore's scoring drives were less than half the length of the field, neither Pitt or NE was over 15%.

Big plays accounted for 40% of Baltimore's long TD scores, compared to 36% for Pitt and 28% for NE. The distribution further illuminates Baltimore's reliance on the big play. Here are the plays-per-short-drive for all three teams:

3, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 3, 1, 3, 4, 3

1, 6, 2, 5, 1, 6, 3, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3

6, 1, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 6, 6, 1, 4, 5, 2, 6, 5

As I wrote before, the 7 play mark was arbitrary, but still illuminating. Baltimore didn't have a single 6 play 50+ yard TD drive all season, and only one lasting 5 plays. By contrast, Pitt and NE (especially NE) have more even distributions that would alter the numbers considerably had I chosen a different seperation point.

Even further, I randomly chose a couple 7 or 8 play "longer" TD drives to see if a big play still made an appearance, ignoring NE due to their obvious lack of reliance. Of the three chosen for Baltimore, two had plays of 35+ yards. By comparison, the only big plays in the Pitt selections were a fake punt and a 26 yarder that is specifically denoted "pass short" in the PBP.

So what does all this mean for Sunday?

The odds of Baltimore cracking the 20 point barrier without short fields or big plays is minimal. This is why this game ultimately comes down to pressure. NE is going to use their Marshall Faulk circa 2001 plan to take away Rice, while having a deep safety at all times to stop the long ball. Whether Flacco can make the intermediate plays is all a matter of time, because there will be receivers open.

On the flip side, NE isn't going to rely on the run too much to end up with 3 RB fumbles, so Baltimore going to need to get their turnovers via interceptions. Receiver fumbles are also possible, of course, though less likely to lead to short fields since the pass must have already been completed. This receiver corps is too good for Brady too have time and still feel the need to force the issue.

Pressure. The QB hit the least walks off victorious.

38 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Very interesting post.

One note: "NE isn't going to rely on the run too much to end up with 3 RB fumbles, so Baltimore going to need to get their turnovers via interceptions."

You underestimate the number of sack-fumbles the Ravens created. This isn't a perfect metric since it doesn't account for fumbles forced on RBs. But Ravens DL/pass rushers this year accounted for 12 of their 23 regular season forced fumbles (nothing on fumble recoveries, though those are random). Those tend to be bigger than INTs since the INT tends to be down field, whereas sack fumbles recovered tend to give teams a far shorter field.

Suggs accounted for 7 of those fumbles, and IIRC, I want to say all of them were on sacks.

- Chris

12 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Suggs excdllenr plaeyr. Look for him to sack t. Bardy at least one time. R. Rice going to have some good runs. Ravens 30, Pates 20.

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Why does Flake-O suck so bad? Well, historically Ravens QBs are simply awful since 2000 and Dilfer. Thanks in part to Brian Billick installing the system of defense holding up the offense which was carried on long after his ouster in 2007.

Someone go ask @CoachBillick on Twitter about his genius.

This is a Peyton Manning-esque scenario as in Indy where the offense propped up the defense for the past 12 years. Something will give sooner or later - multiple injuries to key players on defense, not just Ray Lewis, and Baltimore could experience a sobering reality as a cellar dweller for a season.

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Ravens Rank in Offensive DVOA, 2009-2011: 9, 12, 13. Clearly they are stronger on defense, but the numbers don't back up the idea that one side of the ball is "propping up" the other side. Comparing this offense to the 2000 offense (ranked 23rd) is ridiculous.

15 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

As a Ravens fan, I think the Patriots have nothing to fear. The Ravens defense has really tailed off since beating up on Indy. They've failed to close the door on Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Houston in successive weeks. The pass rush been non-existent in all of those games. The offensive line has really gone down the tubes. Sell out to stop Ray Rice, keep a safety deep to double Torrey Smith, don't do anything stupid on offense and you'll be fine.

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I'm amused that, so far, the Ravens fans seem to think the Patriots will win, and the Patriots fans seem to think the Ravens will win.

I think this speaks to both teams having flaws, that their fans are aware of, and both teams being overall pretty good, which fans of the other team are aware of.

Should be a good game!

25 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

I've been reflecting on the same realization; fans seem to be the same everywhere, I guess. For what it's worth, I agree with my fellow Ravens fans, albeit to a lesser extent than I've seen thus far. If the Mr. Hyde version of Flacco shows up, this could be a rout, but I think he'll be OK. I really hope that Pagano allows the "3rd down specialists" some more playing time as suggested in the article, but I've been hoping to see that all year (I understand why the coaching staff has played it this way, but I'm just curious to see if the rushers can keep it up for more than a play at a time).

If the Ravens keep Webb locked to Welker, and rotate either a Nickel safety or combo Pollard+Ellerbe, I can see some hope of containing the TE combo, but it will still be contingent on pressure. The football fan in me is really looking forward to this game, but the Baltimore fan in me is scared as hell!

19 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

In 2009, the Ravens beat a 10-6 Patriots team with no Welker and B. Watson playing TE. If the Ravens get to Brady early a couple of times, or get some turnovers they could make a game of it. If they don't, the second half could turn boring. Von Miller and Dumervil got to Brady twice, but overall the O-line shut them down, and Brady had time to get a sunburn. I doubt the Ravens pass rush will do a lot better.

22 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

All I want to know is how the Ravens stop Gronkowski, Hernandez, Welker, Branch, and the Patriots effective running game. Even if you double two of those guys, everyone else is single covered, and branch is your 4th option; seems like a pretty good 4th option to me. If you go 5 wide, Edelman is your 5th option; once again, not bad. The Patriots will score at least 4 TDs.

23 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Well, getting pressure is the obvious answer. But honestly, I think they can easily single Branch and live. The other three are trickier. Hernandez wasn't at full strength but the Jets were able to do it last year in the postseason by just flooding the middle zones, hitting Welker all the time. They keyed on Welker. It is definitely tough, and exponentially harder if the pressure doesn't get home, but it isn't impossible.

27 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

I was interested in last weeks NFC games especially since the powerful offenses were bested by powerful defenses. Keeping hope alive!

40 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

Well, the Saints offense wasn't really bested by SF's defense...they did put up 32 points. That should have been an insurmountable lead for a team like the Niners to overcome. And they would have put up more if their special teams hadn't fumbled twice, which had nothing to do with the Niners defense.

The powerful offense was more bested by itself and by Alex Smith cramming more heroics into the final 3 minutes than he's had his entire career.

28 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

I thought the Ravens should be favored heading into postseason, but last week gave me pause. Their offenses was so mediocre (admittedly against a great defense). Everything points to the public overrating New England and underrating Baltimore, but I think the public is right this time

34 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

I think most fans consider Houston a weak team because of all the injuries. But the injuries were mostly on offense, and the defense seemed to survive its hits. Thus we should not truly be surprised that Baltimore's offense struggled. Houston is really, really good. We're just not used to it.

48 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

The Ravens defense is aging, knows this might be its last chance to win another SB, and will presumably be highly motivated. There has never been a statistic that measured: "the team that wants it most". Well, maybe one: W's. But those are only measured AFTER the game is played.
Ravens have to hit Brady early, particularly on his left shoulder; and "Bounty" or not, Suggs vs Brady is one key to this game. We can beat the Pats on their home field, but we have to do it with 60 minutes of motivated football that no stats will completely measure.
One stat I really like, when Ben Grubbs plays, we are undefeated IIRC, and Grubbs is expected to play Sunday. Should be a great game!
Thanks for a terrific read.

50 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

One stat I really like, when Ben Grubbs plays, we are undefeated IIRC, and Grubbs is expected to play Sunday.

Um, no. Grubbs' turf toe did allow him to miss the Titans and Jaguars losses. He played in both the Seahawks and Chargers games though.

55 Re: AFC Conference Championship Preview

You talk about the match up last season as if it should be discouraging for the Ravens, but in fact it's very encouraging. The Ravens led 20-10 in the fourth quarter, and although Tom Brady came back and won the game, the Ravens had multiple chances to end it in the fourth and OT with just a field goal. Obviously, the fact that their offense couldn't move the ball is relevant, but the last two games suggest that this game will be close.

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"The Patriots defense sucked against play action, and it sucked without play action. It sucked on first down, and it sucked on third down. It sucked in the first quarter, and it sucked in the fourth quarter. It sucked on a boat, and it sucked with a goat."

Tom Brady would know something about that.