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WELCOME to QuantCoach.com, the only site on the world-wide web that provides meaningful professional football coaching statistics. QuantCoach.com's revolutionary coaching statistics are derived from a peer-reviewed and generally accepted theory of competition known as Growth Theory. Veteran coach Bill Parcells once said, "If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries." But Growth Theory teaches us that success "springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking." In professional football, those "recipes" are the plays that coaches design. Simply, QuantCoach.com's coaching statistics separate the contribution of plays to pro football success from the contribution of players.

THE ARCHIVES (2012-Part 1)

The Anatomy of a Super Bowl Upset

Joe Flacco may not have the style of Broadway Joe, but according to coaching statistics Flacco now has a Super Bowl upset almost as big as Namath's toppling of the Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl 3.

Flacco and the Ravens 34-31 victory over the 49ers ranks as the sixth biggest upset in Super Bowl history when measured by the regular season play design edge that the loser/favorite held over the winner/underdog. In 2012, San Francisco was .0621 better (in other words, 6.21 percent better) designed than its opponents while Baltimore was only .0073 better (in other words less than 1 percent better) designed than its opponents. Thus, the 49ers held a 5.48 percent design edge (.0621 - .0073) edge on the Ravens.

In the Super Bowl, the team with the regular season design edge is 31-16 (.660 winning percentage). Thus, it's surprising when the team with this edge loses in the Super Bowl. Using QC's coaching statistics, here is a table showing the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history with the underdog's play design deficit, H A:

SB No.

Underdog

Favorite

SB Line

SB TO

Dog's HA Deficit

42

NY Giants 17

N. England 14

NE -14

E

-.0968

36

N. England 20

St. Louis 17

St. L -14

-3

-.0809

15

Oakland 27

Philadelphia 10

Phil -3

-4

-.0665

3

NY Jets 16

Baltimore 7

Balt -17

-4

-.0556

23

San Francisco 20

Cincinnati 16

Cin +7

E

-.0551

47

Baltimore 34

San Francisco 31

SF -4

-1

-.0548

19

San Francisco 38

Miami 16

Mia +3

E

-.0361

5

Baltimore 16

Dallas 13

Dal -1

+3

-.0352

4

Kansas City 23

Minnesota 7

Minn -10

-4

-.0244

32

Denver 31

Green Bay 24

GB -12

-1

-.0244

As you can see, Super Bowl teams with a big regular season play design edge tend to beat themselves with turnovers more than underdogs beat them with great game plans. Sure, there is more than one recipe for an upset. The Giants stunning victory over the unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl 42 was unaided by a turnover edge and a wacky touchdown pass that was deflected twice to Colts tight end John Mackey propelled Baltimore to victory in Super Bowl 5.

And it is surprising to see that Bill Walsh and Joe Montana actually had a significant play design deficit to overcome against Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason in Super Bowls 19 and 23, respectively. But it is not surprising that--with two weeks to prepare--they figured out how to do so even without the help of a turnover edge. (Although, they did not do so well enough in Super Bowl 23 to cover the 7 points of faith the books placed in them to do so.)

But in 60 percent of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, including three of the four biggest, turnovers clearly were the cause of the upset.

Another interesting fact about Super Bowl upsets is that such upsets are randomly scattered throughout the game's history. Generally, an upset is no more likely to occur today than it was in the first decade of the game 's existence.

Last week, in the aftermath of the Ravens upset, Aaron Schatz speculated that perhaps today the regular season doesn't mean as much as it once did.

"Once upon a time, the NFL playoffs were fairly predictable," Schatz wrote. "[I]f you made a list of the top five teams in the league by conventional wisdom, usually one of those teams would end the season with the Lombardi trophy.

"For some reason, it seems like regular-season performance [recently] has become useless in predicting which team will win a championship. All you have to do is get into the tournament, and you can toss everything else out."

Not so fast. As pointed out above, the Super Bowl team with the better regular season play design has won 2 out of every 3 Super Bowls consistently throughout history. Further, if you look at the teams with the least regular season design edge who have reached the Super Bowl, it becomes even more clear that the idea that the regular season is not worth as much today as it used to be is an illusion. Here is a list of those teams:

SB No.

Underdog (Record)

Reg. Season
HA Edge

SB Line

SB TO

SB Result

42

NY Giants (10-6)

-.0171

+14

E

W (17-14)

34

Tennessee (13-3)

-.0015

+7

E

L (23-16)

31

N. England (11-5)

-.0003

+14

-4

L (35-21)

35

Baltimore (12-4)

.0029

-3

+5

W (34-7)

14

LA Rams (9-7)

.0035

+11

+2

L (31-19)

29

San Diego (11-5)

.0044

+18

-3

L (49-26)

36

N. England (11-5)

.0054

+14

+3

W (20-17)

15

Oakland (11-5)

.0064

+3

+4

W (27-10)

47

Baltimore (10-6)

.0073

+4

+1

W (34-31)

43

Arizona (9-7)

.0108

+6.5

-1

L (27-23)

What this table shows is that the illusionary "devaluation of the regular season" is mostly nothing more than the product of NFL realignment and playoff expansion. Prior to Super Bowl 13, only one wild-card team qualified for the playoffs. Unsurprisingly, the first mediocre team to reach the Super Bowl as measured by regular season play design differential did not show up until Super Bowl 14 when the Los Angeles Rams took advantage of an unusually weak NFC to make it.

Moreover, under the pre-Super Bowl 13 playoff format and divisional alignments, the SB42 Giants (10-6), SB43 Cardinals (9-7) and SB47 Ravens (10-6) would not even have qualified for the playoffs, assuming that the Ravens were in the same division with either New England or Houston this year as they may well have been under the old alignment format. Thus, the only mediocre or worse team to "fluke into" the Super Bowl with less than 11 wins remains the SB14 Los Angeles Rams (9-7), who only had to win two games to do it.

What about the SB46 New York Giants you ask? The QuantCoach is glad you did.

The SB46 Giants had a mediocre 9-7 regular season record, but their .0330 regular season play design edge was better than 27 other teams that reached the Super Bowl and better than 8 other teams that won the Super Bowl (SB9 Pittsburgh; SB15 Oakland; SB18 LA Raiders; SB23 San Francisco; SB35 Baltimore; SB36 New England; SB42 NY Giants; SB47 Baltimore).

Through the lens of coaching statistics, the SB46 Giants were not a mediocre regular season team nor was their 21-17 win over New England in the Super Bowl an upset as New York enjoyed a slightly larger play design edge over their regular season opponents (.0330) than the Patriots did (.0272).

What got all 10 teams in the table above to the Super Bowl and enabled four of the five who prevailed in the Super Bowl to win football's ultimate game was their ability to avoid turnovers. The table below summarizes each team's regular season, NFC or AFC playoffs, and Super Bowl turnover differentials:

SB No.

Underdog (Record)

Reg TO +/-

Playoff TO +/-

SB TO +/-

SB Result

42

NY Giants (10-6)

-9

+5

E

W (17-14)

34

Tennessee (13-3)

+18

+7

E

L (23-16)

31

N. England (11-5)

+7

+2

-4

L (35-21)

35

Baltimore (12-4)

+23

+5

+5

W (34-7)

14

LA Rams (9-7)

-8

-1

+2

L (31-19)

29

San Diego (11-5)

+9

-3

-3

L (49-26)

36

N. England (11-5)

+7

+3

+3

W (20-17)

15

Oakland (11-5)

+8

+6

+4

W (27-10)

47

Baltimore (10-6)

+9

+5

+1

W (34-31)

43

Arizona (9-7)

E

+9

-1

L (27-23)

As you can see, all of these teams except the SB13 LA Rams, SB42 NY Giants, and SB43 Cardinals were solidly turnover positive during the regular season and the Giants and Cardinals were excessively turnover positive in their NFC playoff runs that got them to the Super Bowl. Moreover, when turnover subsidies ran out in the Super Bowl for SB29 San Diego, SB31 New England, SB34 Tennessee and SB43 Arizona, they lost. Only the SB42 Giants were able to pull the upset without turnover subsidies.

The final element that explains Super Bowl upsets is the diffusion of play design knowledge since Walsh's retirement after the 49ers "upset" of the Bengals in Super Bowl 23, the fifth biggest upset in Super Bowl history from the perspective of coaching statistics.

As you can see, mediocre teams reached the Super Bowl only twice (SB14 LA Rams and SB15 Oakland) in the first 28 Super Bowls (3.57% of Super Bowl participants during that period), but have reached the Super Bowl eight times in the last 19 Super Bowls (21% of all Super Bowl participants during that period). NFL playoff expansion, playoff realignment, and turnovers undoubtedly explain the vast majority of this increase.

But the spread of football knowledge also has played a role.

Counterintuitively, as the table below shows, 70 percent of the Super Bowl teams with the largest regular season play design edges over regular season opponents participated in Super Bowl 7 or earlier, the "run first, pass second" NFL era of Vince Lombardi. These teams included both participants in Super Bowls 1 and 2 and both participants in Super Bowl 7, the year the NFL moved the hashmarks closer to the center of the field and Miami's Larry Cszonka and Washington's Larry Brown ran wild.

SB No.

Team (Record)

Reg. Season
HA Edge

SB Line

SB TO

SB Result

3

Baltimore (13-1)

.1316

-17

-4

L (16-7)

2

Green Bay (9-4-1)

.1270

-17

+3

W (33-14)

1

Green Bay (12-2)

.1254

-13

E

W (35-10)

24

San Francisco (14-2)

.1068

-12

+4

W (55-10)

1

Kansas City (11-2-1)

.1015

+17

E

L (35-10)

7

Miami (14-0)

.0988

+2

+1

W (14-7)

26

Washington (14-2)

.0976

-7

+4

W (37-24)

19

Miami (14-2)

.0972

+3

E

L (38-16)

2

Oakland (13-1)

.0951

+13

-3

L (33-14)

7

Washington (11-3)

.0916

-2

-1

L (14-7)

The only two teams to make the list from the Post-Bill Walsh era are the SB24 49ers and the SB26 Redskins, generally considered the two teams in the discussion for the greatest team of the Post-Walsh Era.

But this is not the end of the story. As the table below shows, coaching statistics again reverse field and demonstrate that the five biggest Super Bowl differences between regular season play design edges over regular season opponents have occurred in the "pass-first, run-second" Post-Walsh Era, including the SB34 & SB36 St. Louis "Greatest Show on Turf" and the SB42 unbeaten Patriots.

What this shows is that Walsh's design, to some extent, commoditized the NFL and made it easier for mediocre teams to prevail in 3 or 4 straight games if they just avoided turnovers and were solid in the kicking game. This hypothesis is further strengthened by the fact that the great increase in mediocre teams reaching the Super Bowl did not begin until Super Bowl 29, approximately six years after Walsh retired and his knowledge had fully diffused throughout the NFL.

SB No.

Team (Record)

Super Bowl
HA Edge

SB Line

SB TO

SB Result

42

New England (16-0)

.0968

-14

E

L (17-14)

34

St. Louis (13-3)

.0839

-7

E

W (23-16)

36

St. Louis (14-2)

.0808

-14

-3

L (20-17)

24

San Francisco (14-2)

.0801

-12

+4

W (55-10)

29

San Francisco (13-3)

.0724

-18

+3

W (49-26)

15

Philadelphia (12-4)

.0665

-3

-4

L (27-10)

31

Green Bay (13-3)

.0651

-14

+4

W (35-21)

14

Pittsburgh (12-4)

.0620

-11

-2

W (35-19)

3

Baltimore (13-1)

.0566

-17

-4

L (16-7)

23

Cincinnati (12-4)

.0551

+7

E

L (20-16)

47

San Francisco (11-4-1)

.0548

-4

-1

L (34-31)

As you can see, in their loss to the Ravens, the 49ers had the 11th largest regular season play design edge ever in the Super Bowl. But if you look closer you notice something very interesting.

San Francisco's Super Bowl design edge is the first edge that is primarily based on innovation in the running game since the great Bill Walsh took off his whistle for the final time at the end of Super Bowl 23.

This delicious fact presents the question that will dominate the 2013 off-season: What is the shelf-life of this design edge? Will the edge be there in San Francisco (or Washington or Carolina or Seattle or Philadelphia or somewhere else) next year?

Is the NFL at the threshhold of its first sea change in design since Walsh's 49ers won Super Bowl 16 and launched the current era of NFL design that is based on throwing the football?

Time, of course, will provide the definitive answers to these questions.

So the QuantCoach hopes to see you back here the Sunday after Labor Day when we start to get the answers.

(Archives Home)

 

Super Bowl 47 Thoughts

"Battles between male siblings who are not separated by many years and who share nearly identical genetic codes rarely end in a decisive knockout for either. " -- QC's Super Bowl 47 Preview.

Baltimore's 34-31 win over San Francisco in Super Bowl 47 fit the script of a classic sibling rivalry perfectly.

The Ravens and their coach, John Harbaugh, played the role of the experienced older brother defending the natural famiy order. Playing mistake-free football Baltimore jumped to a commanding 28-6 lead early in the third quarter as quarterback Joe Flacco--as traditional a pocket-passer as you will ever see--threw three touchdown passes and Jacoby Jones returned a kickoff 108 yards for a score.

Flacco was quite productive. His 9.212 QCYPA was just about the same as the 9.089 that he has posted since Jim Caldwell took over as Baltimore's offensive coordinator. But, just as importantly, Flacco did not turn the ball over once. As so frequently happened, the latter statistic was obscured by the former and the TD passes.

Flacco has been remarkably consistent at minimizing turnover waste since he entered the league. In his five years, he has posted regular season interception totals of 12, 12, 10, 12 and 10. That averages out to between 0 and 1 interception per game. A team can compete very well and win a lot of games when its quarterback minimizes waste at that rate.

On the other side of the ball, Jim Harbaugh's young playmakers played the role of the impatient younger brother, hell-bent on turning familial status quo upside down. But, in their enthusiasm to establish a new order, they tried to do a little too much and mostly self-destructed for the first 30-plus minutes.

On their first drive, an illegal formation penalty nullified a huge 20-yard pass from Colin Kaepernick to tight end Vernon Davis that might have gotten the 49ers off to a fast start. On the Ravens first possession, San Francisco appeared to hold on third and nine at its own 18-yard line when Flacco threw incomplete. But a devastating offside penalty on Ahmad Brooks gave Flacco a second third down and he made little brother pay dearly by lasering a 13-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin that got Baltimore off to the fast start instead.

Much later, Jim Harbaugh and 49ers fans would complain loudly about two subjective pass interference penalties, one that was called on San Francisco's Chris Culliver and won that was not called on Baltimore's Jimmy Smith. But there was nothing subjective about the 49ers first two penaties and those infractions were just as costly as the subjective calls that went against San Francisco late.

And penalties were not the only player failures that hurt the 49ers. LaMichael James lost a fumble struggling for extra yardage and Ed Reed intercepted Kaepernick on a deep pass to Randy Moss. Flacco found tight end Dennis Pitta for a score after the James fumble and the 49ers only avoided further damage after Reed's interception when John Harbaugh got a little greedy and a fake field goal run by kicker Justin Tucker did not produce a first down deep in 49ers territory.

Still, despite all their gaffes, San Francisco kept coming like all younger brothers do.

When your natural position is second place, you have a tendency to relentlessly search for leverage. Jim Harbaugh is no exception and his relentless search has resulted in the discovery of Kaepernick and the most explosive running game that the NFL has seen since Vince Lombardi started cranking up the power sweep in Green Bay in the early 1960s.

For the game, the 49ers were infinitely productive. Kaepernick's QCYPA was 10.572. He was just the second quarterback in Super Bowl history to lose the Super Bowl while averaging more than a first down every time he attempted a pass. (Carolina's Jake Delhomme was the first.) Further, San Francisco's 6.28 yards per rushing attempt was better than the average pass attempt of four Super Bowl winners, inculding the unbeaten Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl 7.

In the end, the younger brother ran out of time in Super Bowl 47. But do not think that means that the older brother and traditional NFL design knocked the younger brother out. That did not happen, not by a long shot.

What Jim Harbaugh proved is that if you can keep your quarterback healthy and on the field, a highly leveraged option offense can be just as devastating in the NFL as it has been in college football since Darrell Royal started cranking up the wishbone at Texas in the mid-1960s.

With Kaepernick, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III already in the league and former Oregon coach Chip Kelly's flight scheduled to land in Philadelphia later this summer, these younger brothers will keep coming. They most certainly will keep coming.

And, if the older NFL brothers do not hurt their younger brothers' quarterbacks--as they did RG3 this year--in the end, the younger brothers ultimately will win the war for design supremacy.

It is not unusual for the older brother win an epic battle with a gallant last-stand as the Ravens did in Super Bowl 47 just before the status quo crumbles.

In sibling rivalries, the younger brother and the relentless search for leverage almost always wins the war.

(Archives Home)

 

SUPER BOWL PREVIEW

San Francisco (-3.5) vs. Baltimore

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: San Francisco 3rd; Baltimore 12th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: San Francisco 3rd; Baltimore 12th
TURNOVER MARGIN: San Francisco T8th (+9); Baltimore T8th (+9)

Do not be fooled by the boyish grin and prank phone calls of Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh.

Behind the closed doors of his meeting rooms, Harbaugh, defensive coordinator Dean Pees, and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell are designing like men possessed. They need to do so. You see, going into Super Bowl 47, John's younger brother, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh, has a decided design edge.

And you can bet John knows it. And you can bet that Jim knows that John knows it. And you can bet that John and Jim both know that their father, Jack, knows it. Heck, Jackie, the Harbaugh boys mother, probably knows it too. What can you do? It's hard to keep a secret in a family.

During the regular season, the 49ers ranked third in the NFL in play design differential (.0621) while the Ravens ranked twelfth (.073). The 5.48 percent design edge is something we have not seen in the Super Bowl in awhile. The last three years, the design difference has been microscopic.

The New York Giants were just .58 percent better designed than New England.

The Green Bay Packers were just .13 percent better designed than Pittsburgh.

The New Orleans Saints were just .30 percent worse designed than Indianapolis.

But San Francisco is simply much better designed than Baltimore. Indeed, the 49ers design edge over the Ravens is a little more than the edge they enjoyed over Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game and significantly more than their edge over Green Bay in the Divisional Round.

Further, as this table shows, during the regular season, San Francisco was clearly statistically superior in every coaching statistic to Baltimore except pass protection and the Ravens are not exactly spectacular in that area, ranking 18th in the NFL.

Category

San Francisco NFL Rank

Baltimore NFL Rank

Play Design (HA) Differential

3rd

12th

Player Productivity (HY) Differential

3rd

12th

QCYPA

4th

16th

D-QCYPA

1st

10th

Pass Protection

28th

18th

Pass Pressure

7th

11th

Turnover Margin

T8th

T8th

Many may think that the 49ers design edge arises almost entirely from the spectacular play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took over from an injured Alex Smith in Week 11 against Chicago and never relinquished the job.

While there certanly is some statistical truth to that, the table below demonstrates the 49ers' offensive design had improved dramatically over 2011 even when Smith was at quarterback. Jim Harbaugh credits offensive coordinator Greg Roman for the design, which combines trap and power recipes familiar to Chuck Noll and Vince Lombardi with option recipes familiar to former University of Houston coach Bill Yeoman and former Nevada coach Chris Ault, the father of the pistol offense.

"I think Greg Roman has done a job that is revolutionary in football," Jim Harbaugh said on Media Day. "I think the way he has mixed the trap, the power, the wham plays into the pistol offense and into our conventional offense has been revolutionary in many ways."

Year/QB

QCYPA

Play Design Differential

Player Productivity Differential

2011/Alex Smith

6.894

.0050

0.25

2012/Alex Smith

7.782

.0538

3.07

2012/Colin Kaepernick

8.266

.0672

5.09

On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defenders are taking their opponents' downs more efficiently than they did in 2011, although they have not received as many turnovers. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan torched Fangio's secondary in the NFC Championship Game, but San Francisco had the best pass defense in the entire NFL during the regular season (5.984 D-QCYPA).

So, clearly, John Harbaugh and his staff have their work cut out for them.

The 49ers design edge is the largest in the Super Bowl since the unbeaten 2007 Patriots came in with a massive 9.68 percent edge over the Giants. But we all know how that ended. New York defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo designed a legendary game plan that featured three natural defensive ends, Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck. Under heavy pressure, New England's Tom Brady averaged less than 6 yards per pass attempt and the Giants pulled off the epic upset, 17-14.

Look for the Ravens to take a somewhat similar approach.

History teaches that San Francisco's leverage begins with its insider runner. In other words, like all option-driven offenses, the 49ers offense runs through Frank Gore, not Kaepernick.

In the late 1980s, Oklahoma's Barry Switzer was using the wishbone and the traditional triple option to "hang half a hundred" on Nebraska and the other members of the then-Big 8 Conference who lined up in what essentially was a vanilla 3-4 defense. But the coach at Miami--Jimmy Johnson, who would go on to design a pair of Super Bowl champions in Dallas--decided to take a different approach.

Rather than play passive assignment defense, Johnson turned massive and quick defensive tackles like Cortez Kennedy and Russell Maryland loose to attack the option at its origination. Those defensive tackles destroyed the Sooners inside run and pushed the other options deeper into the backfield, which provided the Hurricanes speedy linebackers and safeties with precious seconds to get to the edge and shut down Oklahoma's quarterback and pitch back.

In the NFC Championship Game, Atlanta's relatively undersized, 300-pound defensive tackles, Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry, were overmatched against San Francisco's massive offensive line. Even when San Francisco fell behind 17-0, Jim Harbaugh fed the ball to Gore who gained 5 and 6 yards per carry at will as the 49ers patiently ground their way back into the game.

Baltimore will be much more difficult to move in this area with a pair of 340-pounders in Haloti Ngata and Ma'ake Kemoeatu. Also, don't be surprised if John Harbaugh and Pees take a page from Spaguolo's recipe book and play 315-pound defensive tackle Arthur Jones and just one inside linebacker, Ray Lewis or Dannell Ellerbe.

San Francisco ranks 31st in the NFL in pass attempts despite the fact that they are one of the lowest scoring teams in the league in the first quarter. In addition, Kaepernick had a perfect passer rating on play-action passes against the Falcons. Quite simply, if the the Ravens big fellas and Lewis can control Gore, John Harbaugh will negate most of San Francisco's design advantage as edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Paul Krueger and safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard seem capable of hanging with Kaepernick and tight end Vernon Davis, who destroyed Atlanta.

When Baltimore has the ball, Flacco must continue to play turnover free and to produce touchdowns in the red zone. Much has been made of John Harbaugh's decision to terminate offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late in the season and turn over play-calling to Caldwell. And Flacco's QCYPA since the change has been a phenomenal 9.089 with 12 touchdown passes. But those recent numbers are a little suspect as the highest rated defense he faced was ranked No. 21 in D-QCYPA (Indianapolis), except for Denver and his big game against the Broncos came in his second look at their defense.

San Francisco's Fangio is one of the best defensive designers in the NFL. For years, Fangio assisted Dom Capers, who together with Dick LeBeau designed many of the deceitful zone blitzes that are so prevalent today in the NFL. From 2006 through 2009, Fangio was John Harbaugh's assistant head coach in Baltimore. He then left to become Jim Harbaugh's defensive coordinator at Stanford. Fangio knows Flacco well and vice-versa.

There is one other thing that John Harbaugh and Caldwell should worry about. Usually, QC does not pay much attention to completion percentage. But while Flacco's efficiency has soared to over 9 yards per attempt, his completion percentage has been around 52 percent. It's very hard to maintain that kind of efficiency when a quarterback is only completing half of his passes.

Flacco has the weapons in wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta to keep the balls in the air for one more game and gouge Fangio's defense in big chunks as the Falcons' Ryan and Julio Jones did in the NFC Champioinship Game. But, eventually, Flacco's efficiency is going to come back to earth. With two weeks to prepare, San Francisco's pass defense may look more like the NFL's best as it was in the regular season than the slice of swiss cheese that it looked like in Atlanta.

There is one area where Baltimore has a clear advantage: Special teams. The Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker has been a metronome all year (30/33 field goals) and won the Denver game with a field goal in overtime. Although Baltimore gave up a pair of kick returns in that game, the performance was an aberration and it would be shocking if the Ravens suffered any such breakdown in the Super Bowl. On the other hand, the 49ers' kicker David Akers (29/42 field goals) is sketchy at best and his missed 38-yard field goal in the NFC Championship Game looked for a short while like it might sabotage the 49ers come back.

Of course, as in all playoff games, all of the design and analysis can be thrown out the window if one team or the other starts turning the ball over. San Francisco has overcome a brutal turnover in each of its playoff wins, Kaepernick's pick-6 to start the Packers game and Michael Crabtree's fumble at the Atlanta 1-yard line which delayed the 49ers from taking the lead. Baltimore has played nearly mistake free the last two weeks, although Flacco did botch a center snap against Denver in the divisional round. The teams were an identical +9 turnovers during the regular season

The point spread has ping-ponged between San Francisco laying 3.5 points to 4 points. At the former number, there is a sliver of value on the 49ers. At the latter number, there is a sliver of value on the Ravens. QC's exact number is San Francisco -3.76. If you were one of the few people who got the Ravens at +4.5 or better, this is a great game to play for the middle. But there probably are not too many people out there in that position, relatively speaking.

"I'm focusing on the talent level of the two teams, and on what I perceive to be a coaching edge for San Francisco," professional sports gambler Teddy Sevransky told David Purdum and the Sporting News Linemakers. "I think that's a legit edge for San Francisco in this game."

From the play design perspective, Sevransky is right. But there is something deeper and more basic here, somthing that should not be overlooked, something that every guy who grew up with an older brother learns at a very early age.

Older brothers are hard to subdue.

Battles between male siblings who are not separated by many years and who share nearly identical genetic codes rarely end in a decisive knockout for either. Rather, such encounters usually regress into relatively ugly wrestling matches that are ultimately decided by the judges (a/k/a parents) cards.

Expect Super Bowl 47 to be just such an encounter.

Call it San Francisco 20 Baltimore 16.

QC's Pick: San Francisco (SU and ATS)

(Archives Home)


 

2012 Year-End Awards

GAME PLAN OF THE YEAR: Atlanta 30 Seattle 28 (Divisional Playoff Round)
Mike Smith's plan to run the football even though Atlanta did not even average 90 yards rushing per game against the banged up Seattle defensive front in the divisional round of the playoffs was the equivalent of a classic poker bluff. The Falcons used the running game to take the lead against the better designed Seahawks and created the illusion in Pete Carroll's head that Atlanta was the better team. In turn, that illusion caused Carroll to raise when he should have checked and pass on an almost certain field goal in the second quarter. If Carroll had simply checked and acquired the 2.4 points that Advanced NFL Stats has calculated a field goal attempt is worth, the Seahawks would have won by .4 points. As Kenny Rogers sang long ago, "You got to know when to hold'em. Know when to fold 'em." Smith knew much better than Carroll and that's the main reason Atlanta advanced. No coach was more prepared and coached within himself even when the game turned against his team better than Smith did against Seattle.

COACH OF THE YEAR: Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco)

San Francisco's 11-5-1 record was a game and a half worse than its 13-3 2011 mark, but the 49ers were far better designed and coached this year. In 2011, San Francisco was +28 turnovers, but ranked only 15th in the NFL in play design differential (.0050) and 14th in player producivity differential (0.25). This year, Harbaugh's team ranked third in play design differential (.0621) and third in player productivity differential (4.13). But that only tells part of the story. San Francisco was much improved in design (.0538) and much more productive (3.07) with Alex Smith at quarterback during the first 10 weeks of the season than it had been in 2011. That improvement would have been more than enough for most coaches. But after Smith was injured, Harbaugh correctly recognized that San Francisco would be even better with Colin Kaepernick running the offense. If you just consider the 49ers performance with Kaepernick under center, San Francisco is the best designed and most productive team in the NFL.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER Peyton Manning (Denver)

It turns out you may not be able to teach an old P-rex new tricks, but it doesn't matter. If you take the P-rex out of one jungle and put him into another, he tears up everything around him just as effectively. As Grantland's Chris Brown pointed out earlier this year, Denver was 2-3 while Manning and Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy attempted to harmonize their designs. Then P-Rex took over and Denver roared to an 11-0 finish and finished first in all of QC's coaching statistics except pass defense. Brown summed it up nicely: "While the terminology Denver uses might be its own, both structurally and in its specifics, the offense is strikingly similar to what Manning did for years in Indianapolis. Despite some early protestations, that opinion has spread throughout the league. When asked how similar Manning's current offense is to what he ran in Indianapolis, New England coach Bill Belichick was typically candid. 'It's identical. It looks the same to me.'" That's smart football indeed.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Robert Griffin III (Washington)

Indianapolis asked Andrew Luck to do more designing--"fix things" as Peter King wrote in Sports Illustrated--than any other rookie quarterback and Seattle elevated once Russell Wilson got comfortable in the second half of the season. But RG3 narrowly beats out Wilson as QC's rookie of the year. Washington coach Mike Shannahan designed a system that blended RG3's unique talents and adaptations of his college offense with his zone run game and pro passing game. RG3 followed the directions and executed that system to near perfection. The result was lethal as Washington ranked number one in the NFL in offensive player productivity (7.89) despite the fact that injuries undermined RG3 in at least four games. Moreover, on the same number of passing attempts (393), RG3 threw half as many interceptions (5) as Wilson (10). And does anyone really think the Seahawks would have gotten out of D.C. with a win if RG3 had played on two legs?

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Matt Bryant (Atlanta)

ProFootballReference.com statistitics indicate Atlanta should have won 11 games or 2 games less than the 13 games the Falcons actually won. Bryant is the person who stole those two wins for Atlanta, which provided the Falcons with critical home field advanage in the NFC playoffs. Against Carolina, Bryant's last-second 40-yard field goal delivered a 30-28 win. Two weeks later, Bryant crushed a monster 55-yard field goal to beat Oakland, 23-20. Bryant capped a year in which he made 33 of 38 field goals by nailing a 49-yard field goal to beat Seattle, 30-28, in a divisional round playoff game. That kick easily would have been good from 60.

JERRY JONES PATIENT OWNER OF THE YEAR: Jerry Richardson (Carolina)

Carolina finished 2011 by winning two of their final three games impressively and with the NFL's new "It" player in quarterback Cam Newton. So it would be understandable if Richardson entered 2012 expecting good things. But 2012 did not start that way. The Panthers crawled out of the gate 1-6, including a brutally embarassing 36-7 loss to the New York Giants in a Thursday night game. After the fifth of those six losses, Carolina fired general manager Marty Hurney. But the Panthers again finished the year strong, winning four in a row and five of their last six, including a not as close as the score sounds 30-20 romp over 13-3 Atlanta. Moreover, Carolina finished the year as the fifth best designed team in the NFL (.0317). With a new GM (Dave Gettleman) coming on board, many thought Richardson might part ways with head coach Ron Rivera. But Richardson and Gettleman stuck with Rivera and also permitted Rivera to elevate quarterback coach Mike Shula to offensive coordinator when Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach in Cleveland. Maintaining coaching continuity clearly was the right move and should help Cam who, like most young quarterbacks, needs to become better at playing within himself and occasionally letting the game come to him rather than trying to always force the action. Moreover, the Panthers defense vastly improved as the season progressed and shaved a whopping 7 points off its defensive player productivity from 2011 (10.48 to 3.42). Look for Richardson's patience to pay off in an NFC South championship in 2013.

(Archives Home)


 

Championship Round Thoughts

QC cannot say it enough: The NFL playoffs are about turnovers. Both championship games were, in the end, decided by turnovers. The NFC Championship featured a classic infinite productivity shootout. Atlanta's Matt Ryan came out blazing and staked the Falcons to an early 17-0 lead with a pair of touchdown passes to Julio Jones. But San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh stayed patient. The 49ers mixed a heavy dose of running back Frank Gore with some timely Colin Kaepernick passes to tight end Vernon Davis to claw a little closer, 24-14, by halftime. According to those smart guys at Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick had a perfect 158.3 passer rating when using play-action passes, completing 6 of 7 passes for 88 yards and a score to Davis. After Gore pounded for a touchdown on San Francisco's first drive of the second half, all Harbaugh needed for his team to advance to the Super Bowl was for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to find a way to put out the Matty Ice fire. He did. Well, not really. The 49ers defense forced the Falcons to punt only once in the second half. But an interception, a fumble recovery and a fourth-down stop was just enough for San Francisco to overcome David Akers boinking a 38-yard field goal off the upright and Michael Crabtree losing a fumble at the Atlanta 1-yard line. When Gore ripped 9 yards for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, the better designed 49ers had just enough points get out of the Georgia Dome with a win.

**********
In the AFC Championship, Baltimore held tough in the red zone against New England and went to the half trailing only 13-7. Going into the game, the Patriots were 72-1 during the Bill Belichick era when leading at halftime. But there was an ominous sign. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was not playing brilliantly, but he was once again playing more efficiently than Brady. Then Flacco got hot and started playing brilliantly with about 10 minutes to go in the third parter. More specifically, Flacco and tight end Dennis Pitta got hot and started playing brilliantly. On their next two drives, Flacco and Pitta combined for 4 completions, including the touchdown that gave Baltimore the lead it would never relinquish, to stake the Ravens to a 21-13 lead. Pitta caught only 5 passes for 55 yards, but he made nearly all his plays at the game's most critical juncture and he opened up the field for wide receivers Torrey Smith (4-69) and Anquan Boldin (5-60-2 TDs). Still, the game was very much up for grabs when Ravens safety Bernard Pollard smashed Patriots running back Stevan Ridley and caused a fumble which set up Flacco's final touchdown pass to Boldin. Two Brady interceptions and a fourth down stop later, all that was left for John Harbaugh to do was to make travel arrangements to meet up with Jim Harbaugh in New Orleans on Super Bowl Sunday.

(Archives Home)

 

Championship Round Playoff Preview

Any coach looks good when his team is executing the plays like he drew them up on the blackboard and avoiding turnovers. As the QuantCoach often points out, the better designed and more productive team wins 75 percent of all NFL games. In other words, the better team wins about 3 out of every 4 games.

But it takes a special coach to win even when his team is not the better team. And every team left in the NFL playoffs has a special coach. Jim Harbaugh (4-1), Mike Smith (13-3), Bill Belichick (19-4) and John Harbaugh (8-3) are a combined 43-11 (.796) in games where the winning team is not the better (designed) team. They are currently by far the four best coaches in the NFL when examined in this context and quite possibly the four best coaches in the NFL period. They may be the four best coaches in the NFL because their teams are the least likely to beat themselves and they are more patient and willing to let the game come to them than any of their other colleagues.

Nothing is certain in the NFL. The NFC and/or AFC Championship Game could turn into a turnover-fest of sloppy play and special teams gaffes. But don't count on it. It's much more likely that the teams that prevail this Sunday will be the teams that earn the berth, because nobody is likely to give anybody else anything.

And nothing warms the heart of a coach--even a QuantCoach--more than that.

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Atlanta (+4) vs. San Francisco

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 10th; San Francisco 3rd
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 7th; San Francisco 3rd
TURNOVER MARGIN: Atlanta T5 (+13); San Francisco T8th (+9)

Fresh off a dominating coaching performance, Atlanta's Mike Smith finds himself right back in the exact same spot he found himself last week facing a better designed and more productive team from the West Coast and needing to find about 4 points somewhere to win. At least if you want to bet on Smith's team, the books in Las Vegas have figured it out and are giving you the 4 points. But neither the NFL nor San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh are so generous so the game will start with the traditional 0-0 score. In the Georgia Dome, neither Smith nor Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan can be underestimated. Moreover, the 49ers yielded some big passing yards in the second half of the season to Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. But this looks like a very difficult matchup for Atlanta. Ryan struggled mightily earlier this year when Arizona brought its stingy pass defense into the Dome and San Francisco brings the best pass D in the NFL per QC's coaching statistics (5.984 D-QCYPA). Look for 49ers master defensive designer Vic Fangio to make things very difficult for Matty Ice. In addition, it is unlikely that the Falcons will be able to run on San Francisco the way they did on Seattle. So Ryan probably will have to shoulder almost the entire load when Atlanta has the ball. But things look even bleaker when the Falcons are on defense. Defensive end John Abraham, the Falcons best pass rusher, played only 15 plays last week before retiring with a sore ankle. Without Abraham, Seattle's Wilson had as long as he wanted to throw the ball. Atlanta's defense also has been susceptible to the run all year. Now it will have to contain the bruising Frank Gore and elusive Colin Kaepernick. It seems unlikely that will happen. It's possible that Kaepernick will struggle to play within himself and turn the ball over. That is probably the Falcons only hope. But last week, after the Packers Sam Shields returned a Kaepernick pass for an early touchdown, Kaepernick decided that if the throw was not there, he would just take off on the ground and his scrambling destroyed Green Bay. Many people, including the QuantCoach, expected the 49ers to not be as good as they were in 2011 because their success last year was so dependent on Fangio's defense receiving turnovers (+28). The 49ers' opponents have not been as generous this year. But Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman's design has been far superior this year, whether Kaepernick or Alex Smith has been at quarterback. Kaepernick gives Harbaugh and Roman a wild-card on offense and in combination with the better design actually makes this San Francisco team (11-4-1) better than the 2011 version (13-3). The past four years, the Super Bowl champion has ranked first (Steelers), third (Saints), second (Packers), and fifth (Giants) in play design. The 49ers, who rank third in play design, are clearly the best designed team left in the tournament. It's asking too much of Smith to pull off a second straight dominant coaching performance, particularly against Harbaugh and Fangio. Look for San Francisco to win and cover and if Kaepernick gets rolling it might not even be close.

QC's Pick: San Francisco (SU and ATS)

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

New England (-9) vs. Baltimore

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 13th; Baltimore 12th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 13th; Baltimore 12th
TURNOVER MARGIN: New England 1st (+25); Baltimore T8th (+9)

Candidly, the QuantCoach cannot understand this line in the least. Other than turnover differential, these teams are perfectly evenly matched. And the turnover disparity is a little misleading because Baltimore did not play in a division with the Jets, Bills and Dolphins who were a combined -37 turnovers for the season. The Ravens opponents in the AFC North were a combined -4 turnovers (thanks to the Steelers -10). The teams have split the last four meetings, but, to be honest, the Patriots needed a good deal of luck to win the last two meetings at home by a field goal, including the 2011 AFC Championship when Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady and the Ravens were +2 turnovers and still managed to lose when Billy Cundiff could not put the game into overtime with a short field goal. Brady was magnificent in shredding Houston last week and he should be able to produce against the Baltimore defense even though he will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will miss the game after reinjuring his arm. New England running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vareen also are playing well and will be hard to contain. But Flacco shredded the Patriots defense back in Week 3 and led Baltimore to a 31-30 win despite 14 penalties and a -1 turnover differential. The Ravens will not be able to survive those kind of mistakes again and win. But the QuantCoach is not sold on the perception that New England's pass defense is significantly better than it was that night. Bill Belichick now has Aquib Talib at cornerback, which should help with Baltimore's physical wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. The latter torched the Patriot in Week 3. But tight end Dennis Pitta is turning into the middle of the field deep threat that wreaks havoc on defenses and the Patriots will have a hard time matching up with him. Moreover, Flacco has played at an infinitely productive level in his last 3 meaningful games against the Giants, Colts, and Broncos and its hard to imagine that New England's pass defense has improved enough to be considered on par with Denver's pass defense, which ranked fifth in D-QCYPA (6.161). The Patriots, on the other hand, finished 27th in that category (7.764). It is one thing to look good against the likes of Mark Sanchez, Ryan Tannehill (twice), Chad Henne and even the Texans' Matt Schaub. It is quite another to do so against Flacco who is as tested a playoff quarterback as there currently is in the NFL. Quite simply, QC thinks that Flacco is for real and that New England's pass defense is not. That is why QC is picking Baltimore to not only cover, but to win straight up and give QC and the media what they really want: Two weeks to talk about Mrs. Harbaugh's boys.

QC's Pick: Baltimore (SU and ATS)

(Archives Home)


 

Divisional Round Thoughts

Atlanta's Mike Smith and his staff turned in a masterful coaching performance in the Falcons dramatic 30-28 win over Seattle by shortening the game, coaching within themselves and never asking their players to do more than was needed to win the game. Seattle's Pete Carroll and his staff, on the other hand, did not.

According to QC's coaching statistics, coming into the game, the Seahawks were 4.6 percent better designed than Atlanta and--assuming that turnovers and special teams and other breaks were even--3 points superior. During the game itself Seattle enjoyed an even bigger design advantage (8.17 percent). For Atlanta to win, Smith simply had to find 4 points somewhere. To find those points, Smith needed the Seahawks to give Atlanta at least 2 more turnovers, special teams breakdowns, or the equivalent than the Falcons gave to Carroll's team.

The most obvious place to look for those turnovers and breakdowns that would result in the 4 points Atlanta needed to win was from Carroll and his preternaturally trustworthy rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson. This is how Smith found the 4 points he needed for the Falcons to win.

First, Smith had his team very prepared. As Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz pointed out during the game, the Seattle run defense had eroded during the second half of the regular season. Moreover, the Seahawks were without defensive end Chris Clemons, who had been injured the week before against Washington. Clemons' replacement was undersized rookie pass rusher Bruce Irvin, who before the game did not sound worried about Atlanta's ground game, which averaged a paltry 87.3 yards rushing per game during the regular season.

"People talk about me playing the run," Irvin reportedly said. "I could see if we were playing San Francisco, but we're playing Atlanta."

Smith and the Falcons offensive line (which graded out extremely well according to the blocking geniuses QC loves at Pro Football Focus) made Irvin eat those words by turning running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rogers loose for a season-high 167 yards. After an exchange of turnovers by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, the Falcons running game keyed Atlanta's surge to an early 13-0 lead.

Still even at that point, Seattle's Wilson was moving the ball easily through the air (9.75 QCYPA) and coaching statistics still indicated that the Seahawks were the better team, although trailing, when Carroll faced a 4th-and-1 decision at the Atlanta 11 yard-line with a little more than 5:33 to play in the first half. Rather than attempt a near certain field goal, Carroll instructed the Seahawks to go for it. After the Falcons stuffed Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson for a 1-yard loss, Smith had one of the breakdowns and a little more than half of the 4 points that Atlanta needed to upset the better team.

This is not an example of outcome bias as some incorrectly believe.

This is an example of an impatient coach who did not know whether his team truly was inferior on this day or superior and merely trailing.

If Carroll had known that his team was the latter, then he should have kicked the field goal because a better team--particularly a better team that is infinitely productive in the air as Wilson was at the time--will be back in the red zone again and again. It's just matter of time. So, unless little time is left in the game, the better team always should make decisions based on a long-run analysis because the longer a game goes, the more plays are run, the more likely it becomes that both teams will regress to their mean, and the more likely it becomes that the better team will win.

But Carroll was unprepared and unaware in that he did not know either before the game started or when his critical fourth-down decision suddenly emerged that his team was truly better. All that Carroll knew was that his team trailed by 13 points and it "felt" like going for the first down was the right thing to do. Carroll simply was not prepared to make the correct decision, which was to bet the game "long" by attempting the field goal and waiting patiently for time to work its magic in favor of his better, infinitely productive team.

Quite simply, Carroll's decision to make an impatient, short-sighted grab for the immediately gratifying first down while holding the better long-term cards, rather than fold the possession, attempt his field goal, and continue to wear down Smith's inferior team as subsequent hands were dealt was clearly the wrong move.

But neither Carroll nor analysts like Brian Burke of AdvancedNFLStats.com could see the forest for the trees.

Seattle "was down by 13 at the time and needed some breaks to get back in the game," Burke wrote in defense of Carroll's impatient, short-sighted decision, which he called "the slam dunk right call."

Wrong.

Burke cited no data whatsover to support his claim that the better designed and more productive Seahawks needed some "breaks" to "get back in the game." Moreover, coaching statistics show that Burke's belief that the Seahawks needed "breaks" to "get back in the game" is simply incorrect.

At the time Carroll became impatient and eschewed his field goal attempt, which Burke calculated was worth 2.4 points because success was "only" about a 90 percent probability, the "breaks" were even. At even breaks, a team with the design advantage Seattle enjoyed wins about 59.5 percent of all games.

The Seahawks did not need breaks to get back in the game; all they needed was patience.

But Carroll's first episode of impatience by itself would not have been enough for Atlanta. A team that is as superior as Seattle was to Atlanta can survive one bad break--whether it be an interception, fumble or impatience--and still win about 57 percent of the time. Even after Carroll gave him one break with his impatient fourth down decision, Mike Smith still needed one more break more than his team gave to find 1.6 more points.

It did not take Smith long to find those additional 1.6 points.

After Carroll's impatient fourth-down decision, the Falcons' Ryan led a quick touchdown drive that culminated in a 47-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White that staked Atlanta to a seemingly commanding 20-0 lead.

Smith found the points he was looking for on the Seahawks next possession. Only this time, it was Seattle's Wilson, not Carroll, who lost the points Smith needed to find.

Following Ryan's scoring pass to White, Wilson--who played brilliantly all day--quickly moved the Seahawks back to the Falcons 11-yard line. But with seconds to go in the half, Wilson made his only big mistake of the game. Rather than throw the ball away on third down to stop the clock, Wilson took a sack and Carroll could only watch as the first half evaporated and with it another 2.4 points from the field goal attempt that was never attempted.

So, at the half, Mike Smith was in great shape. The Seahawks were still better designed and more productive than the Falcons as they were at kickoff. But Smith had found his +2 breaks and his 4 points that his team needed. As Smith went to the home team's Georgia Dome locker room, he enjoyed not only a 20-0 lead on the scoreboard, but also, per coaching statistics, an 84 percent chance of winning if Ryan and his teammates could simply maintain their +2 break advantage. In other words, Smith had done his work and put himself and his team into position to coast into the NFC Championship Game if it just played mistake-free in the second half.

When Wilson got Seattle on the board quickly to start the third quarter, Ryan came right back and answered with an equisite shovel-pass to backup running back Jason Snelling for a touchdown to extend Atlanta's lead to 26-7. On the ensuing PAT, the Seahawks jumped off-side, which moved the ball a little closer to the goal line. Falcons' kicker Matt Bryant then kicked the "you've seen one, you've seen them all" conversion to make the score 27-7 with 2:11 left in the third quarter.

At that point, the QuantCoach's twitter feed went completely crazy.

Steve Fezzik, one of the best NFL handicappers in Las Vegas, tweeted, "WOW Atl coach needs to hire a game strategist, UP 19, extra point on the 1, and he KICKS. Mind Boggling dumbo."

Whoa, slow down there wise guy. Let's check the box score.

First, at this point in the game, PredictionMachine.com had the Falcons chance of winning at 99.7 percent. No team in NFL playoff history had ever rallied from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to win. So even if you think Smith's handling of the PAT was negligence, it certainly was not "mind boggling dumbo" negligence.

Second, no matter what Smith decided to do on the PAT and how that play turned out, if Seattle rallied to either tie the score at 28-28 or take the lead at 28-27, Atlanta would need a field goal to win either at the end of regulation or in overtime. So no matter what Smith decided on the PAT, he was not making the situation any harder on his team. As discussed above, the longer the game went, the more likely it was the Seahawks would win. Smith wanted a short game and an overtime game is not a short game. If Atlanta had to win a short game from a tie or from 1-point down really didn't make any difference. What the Falcons needed to do to win if the Seahawks rallied was attack aggressively and get a field goal as soon as possible becaue the longer the game went, the more likely it would become that the superior team--Seattle--would prevail.

Third, even if Seattle rallied and took the lead and won, 28-27, it would not have meant that Smith committed malpractice. It just would have meant that Smith only found 2 of the 4 points he needed to find to win. It would have been like that Seinfeld episode where the Kramer asked the Yankees' Paul O'Neill to hit 2 home runs for a boy in the hospital and O'Neill delivered a dinger plus a triple and then came home on a throwing error. That's not the same thing as failing even though O'Neill didn't deliver what Kramer needed to get out of his jam.

Holding +2 breaks, Atlanta was still in fine shape after the Seahawks scored to cut the lead to 27-14.

But then Matt Ryan got impatient and did not let the game come to him. On just second down, Ryan forced the ball deep to Roddy White and Seattle safety Earl Thomas intercepted and reduced the Falcons edge in breaks to just +1.

More importantly, per coaching statistics, the Thomas interception massively increased the Seahawks' probability of winning from 16 percent to 57 percent.

QC immediately recognized the change and tweeted, "Brutally bad decision on throw that was picked."

It took a little while longer, but after Wilson cashed in the intercetion for another touchdown to trim the Falcons lead to 27-21 with plenty of time to play (9:13), wise guy Steve Fezzik sensed the change in the odds too.

"I just bet Sea +425," Fezzik tweeted. "Very good bet," QC responded. "But you should have made it as soon as Earl Thomas picked Matty Ice." Still, usually better late to a party than to never arrive at all, QC always says.

At that point, everyone could feel the Seahawks coming like a freight train. Pete Carroll's locomotive steamed into the station when running back Marshawn Lynch cracked the front edge of the goal line with 0:31 to play and kicker Ryan Longwell's PAT gave the better designed and infinitely more productive Seahawks the lead that they were destined to take if they could limit Atlanta to just +1 break.

The situation that Mike Smith and Matt Ryan found themselves in was strikingly similar to the situation that Denver coach John Fox and quarterback Peyton Manning found themselves in the day before against Baltimore.

In that game, quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Jacoby Jones connected on a 70-yard touchdown pass to lift the better designed and more productive Ravens into a 35-35 tie with the Broncos with 0:31 to play.

Denver had come into the game ranked first in the NFL in virtually all of QC's coaching statistics, including play design differential and player productivity differential. But, on this day, Baltimore was the better designed and more producive team even before Flacco and Jones hooked up. The only reason Denver was even in the game was because return man Trindon Holliday had found a very opportune time to become the first player in NFL history to return both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same playoff game, which must have burned the britches of Ravens' special teams coach-turned-head coach John Harbaugh something fierce.

But, like Carroll on fourth down against Atlanta, Fox was dangerously unaware of the true state of his team on this day. While Carroll failed to recognize early in the game that he had the better team and thus could afford to be patient, Fox failed to recognize that his best-in-the-NFL in the regular season team was not the better team on this day and thus he could not afford to be patient. Because Baltimore was the better team on this day, Manning and the Broncos should have gambled aggressively in the last half minute in an effort to shorten the game by moving into field goal range in the thin Denver air to give kicker Matt Prater a chance to win the game on the last play or two.

Instead, Fox and Manning went fetal, took a knee and let the time in regulation expire. Then, late in the first overtime session, Manning got impatient and forced a throw that Ravens defensive back Corey Graham intercepted to set up Ryan Tucker's game-winning 47-yard field goal a few plays into the second overtime period.

Although they were not tied with Seattle, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan were not really any worse off than Fox and Manning were the day before because like Fox and Manning they were less productive than the Seahawks, but all they needed was a field goal to win the game. Again, there is no data or logic of which QC is aware that would suggest it is harder to get a field goal in the last half minute of a game when you are trailing by 1 point than it is when you are tied.

Unlike Fox and Manning, Smith and Ryan did not go fetal. Instead, as the "Cold Hard Football Facts" Scott Kacsmar pointed out, Ryan launched the fifth game-winning 1 minute drive of his career, the most in NFL history.

Ryan was in a tight spot and did not have any margin for error, but in reality all he and his teammates had to do was execute for 3 plays. In other words, no matter how the game turned out, Smith had succeeded in shortening the game to just a handful of plays. Ryan did his part completing passes to Harry Douglass and Tony Gonzalez to move the Atlanta into position for Bryant to try a 49-yard field goal with :13 to play.

Still, after Bryant's kick sailed wide of the goal post it looked like Smith was still short the 1.4 points he needed to pull off the upset.

But the ever-generous Carroll was still on hand to help out.

Rather than patiently wait for Bryant's kick to decide his fate, Carroll whipped out his last flashy-thingy timeout like Will Smith in "Men in Black" and erased Bryant's missed kick from the game.

Bryant thanked "Impatient Pete" for restoring Atlanta's +2 break advantage, giving Smith the last 2.4 points he needed, and transforming wise-guy Steve Fezzik's late, in-game bet on Seattle from winner to a loser by nailing the 49-yard field goal that gave the Falcons the lead, 30-28. After a squibbed kickoff and two more plays, Atlanta's Julio Jones intercepted Wilson's last desperation heave and the Falcons finished +2 breaks, 84 percent likely to win, and, most importantly, on top 30-28 on the scoreboard.

But, bizzarrely, in the aftermath of the Divisional Round excitement, the masterful Smith--who not only won but beat a clearly statistically superior team--somehow got lumped in with the impatient Carroll and the fetal Fox, who lost with the best team in the NFL and his pockets bulging with a windfall of NFL special teams history.

"Smith managed the situation poorly," the usually perceptive Joe Fortenbaugh said through the trees as he overlooked the forest. "Carroll made a tactical error and Fox checked when he should have been raising.... We're blaming coaches when, instead, we should all be realizing that the system is at fault. Nobody in the NFL has been willing to think outside the box and create a position within the organization specifically designed to prevent such blunders from occurring."

You will have to include QC as one of the cave men who does not think an NFL team needs a "blunder prevention coach."

QC is an old-fashion child of another age, like Phil Hartman's "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer." Your world of "blunder prevention" and short-sighted "slam dunk fourth down decisions" frightens and confuses him.

But QC does know this.

If you are thinking about submitting a resumé to an NFL team for the position of "blunder prevention coach," don't waste your time sending one to the 30303 zip code as long as Mike Smith is coaching the Falcons.

Arthur Blank is a nice guy. But he just doesn't have any need for your services.

(Archives Home)


 

Divisional Round Playoff Preview

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

San Francisco (-3) vs. Green Bay

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: San Francisco 3rd; Green Bay 4th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: San Francisco 3rd; Green Bay 5th
TURNOVER MARGIN: San Francisco T8th (+9); Green Bay 10th (+7)

You simply cannot find a bigger battle of design titans than Jim Harbaugh/Vic Fangio vs. Mike McCarthy/Dom Capers. Both teams are coached superbly. Its like a battle of Ph.d. graduates from F.I.T. (Football Institute of Technology). Getting a field goal, there is probably a point of value in Green Bay, but a better designed team like the 49ers is about a 51 percent bet to cover at even turnovers and San Francisco is at home. This game is pretty much straight speculation on special teams and turnovers. Both placekickers, Mason Crosby and David Akers, have struggled at times. The 49ers have had only one bad turnover game at home all year (-3 vs. NY Giants with Alex Smith at quarterback), but Green Bay has never provided more than 2 turnovers in any game this year. No matter how you look at this game, its 6 of one, half dozen of the other. But QC has to make a pick. If Colin Kaepernick avoids turnovers, he should hurt the Packers defense with both his legs and his arm and force Aaron Roger into a spot he does not want to be against the best designed defense in the NFL (5.984 D-QCYPA). It should be just enough for San Francisco to win and cover.

QC's Pick: San Francisco (SU and ATS)

Atlanta (-2.5) vs. Seattle

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 10th; Seattle 2nd
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 7th; Seattle 2nd
TURNOVER MARGIN: Atlanta T5th (+13); Seattle T5th (+13)

Seattle is the better designed and more productive team and clearly the value pick according to coaching statistics. But. The Georgia Dome has been a house of horrors for some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Peyton Manning threw 3 interceptions there early in the season, Drew Brees threw a career high 5 picks a little over halfway threw the season, and Eli Manning threw a pair of interceptions that paved the way to a Falcons 31-0 win later in the year. Now Pete Carroll brings a rookie passer to this funhouse. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. And it could happen. But Carroll and the Seahawks want to run the ball with Marshawn Lynch far more than Denver, New Orleans or New York wanted to run the ball. And Atlanta's defense has been susceptible to the run. When the Falcons have the ball, Seattle will have to pressure Matt Ryan--who should be given some consideration for MVP--without defensive end Chris Clemons who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week against Washington. And while Seahawks corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman match up physically with Falcons wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, don't be surprised if Ryan moves the ball effectively in the air even though Atlanta really cannot run more than to distract a defense. It would be brutal if Ryan and the Falcons lose at home right out of the shoot after finishing 13-3 for the second time in 3 years. But for Atlanta to win, Ryan and Mike Smith probably will have to be patient and hope Wilson brings the game to them because they probably just don't have the strength up front on defense to take it from the Seahawks. That could happen because Wilson is unlikely to light up the Falcons defense the way Green Bay's Aaron Rogers did a few years ago. If the Falcons can hold up enough against Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to force Wilson to attempt 30 or more passes, they should get some turnovers and be in pretty good shape. But if Lynch controls the game on the ground and Wilson maintains his recent unflappable level of play and avoids tunovers, the Seahawks should advance to the NFC Championship Game.

QC's Pick: Seattle (SU and ATS)

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Denver (-9.5) vs. Baltimore

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Denver 1st; Baltimore 12th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Denver 1st; Baltimore 12th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Denver T17th (-1); Baltimore T8th (+9)

P-rex Manning has won 9 games in a row against Baltimore, including a 34-17 drubbing of the Ravens just a few weeks ago. Denver as a team has won 11 straight games and the Ravens are just 4-4 on the road with no impressive wins away from their nest in Baltimore. So the Ravens have no chance, right? Right. Probably. The Broncos lead the NFL in every statistical category that QC tracks except D-QCYPA and they rank sixth in that category. So Denver really doesn't have any weaknesses. But the Broncos are not a great turnover differential team (-1). And the NFL playoffs are often about almost nothing but turnovers. While Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has struggled to be productive on the road, Baltimore is +7 turnovers on the road. And Flacco can, from time-to-time, make big plays even when his consistency and completion percentage is poor. Such was the case in the Ravens 24-9 domination of the Colts. Against the Broncos fierce pass rush led by linebacker Von Miller, it seems unlikely that Flacco will have time to hold the ball and wait for Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin to get downfield. But Ray Rice is a big threat in the passing game and if he turns a short something into a long something, particularly early in the game, Baltimore has a chance, albeit a slim one, to win straight up. Moreover, the Broncos rank only 17th in the NFL at -1 turnover for the year. At -1 turnover, the typical NFL team has only about a 10 percent chance to cover 9.5 points. It's probably too much to expect Baltimore to win the game straight up against a team so solid, but it will only take a couple of breaks for the Ravens to cover.

QC's Pick: Denver SU; Baltimore ATS

New England (-9.5) over Houston

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 13th; Houston 10th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 13th; Houston 10th
TURNOVER MARGIN: New England 1st (+25); Houston 7th (+12)

Just a few weeks ago, New England toyed with Houston, 42-14, even though Tom Brady was without All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. Thus, it would seem that the Texans do not have much of a shot with Gronk back in the lineup afer recovering from a broken arm. But it could be different this time around. Other than one play (a Matt Schaub pick-6), Houston's offense looked balance and strong last week against a very active and good Cincinnati defense. The Bengals' solid red zone defense limited the Texans to three Shayne Graham field goals of 27 yards or less or the Texans would have romped. Running back Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and tight end Owen Daniels caught 9 passes for 91 yards. If Houston head coach Gary Kubiak can get Daniels involved in the offense again, the Patriots defense will have a very hard time keeping up with Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson. Houston is still likely to have trouble covering Brady's receivers. But defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will have linebacker Brooks Reed, who missed the last game against New England , to help superstar defensive end J.J. Watt get pressure on Brady. The Patriots have feasted all year off turnovers, but Houston is not likely to provide much help in this area. It's hard to imagine enough things going wrong for New England for the Texans to win. But it's not hard to imagine Houston summoning up enough grit to cover the big number.

QC's Pick: New England SU; Houston ATS

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Wild-Card Round Thoughts

There is really not much to say here that was not said in QC's preview before the wild-card round. In Houston, Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense struggled mightily in a 19-13 loss to the Texans. Baltimore was much better than Indianapolis as Joe Flacco and Anquan Boldin were infinitely productive against the poor Colts pass defense in a 24-9 victory. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rogers carved up Minnesota, 24-10. The Vikings were without starting quarterback Christian Ponder, but it probably would have been the same result with Ponder in the game. And Washingon jumped Seattle early and nursed a 14-13 lead into the fourth quarter before succumbing to the superior Seahawks and the inability to mount any kind of offense after quarterback Robert Griffin III re-injured his knee and became virtually completely ineffective.

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Wild-Card Round Playoff Preview

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Green Bay (-7.5) vs. Minnesota

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Green Bay 4th; Minnesota 26th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Green Bay 5th; Minnesota 21st
TURNOVER MARGIN: Green Bay T9th (+7); Minnesota T18th (-1)

Adrian Peterson makes this a tough matchup for the Packers. But there again, Peterson makes it a tough matchup for every team in the NFL. To hang around, Minnesota will have to get something from others not named Peterson. The Vikings have a good pass rush that has a history of putting pressure on Aaron Rogers, so that might be part of the equation. But as QC watched these two teams slug it out last week, it seemed like every bounce of the ball went Minnesota's way. It seems unlikely that will occur again in Lambeau Field, particularly if Green Bay can hold Peterson down a little bit early and get out to a lead. The last time these teams met in Wisconsin, the Packers won 23-14 in a game that wasn't really that close. Peterson broke free for an 82-yard TD and other than that the VIkings didn't do much else as Christian Ponder could not make the plays that he magically made in the Metrodome last week. The thought here is that Ponder is out of magic, Green Bay comes up with 2 or 3 turnovers with Charles Woodson back, and wins by at least 10 points. But if Peterson gets rolling early and Ponder does not have to throw more than 21 passes or so, there could be an upset.

QC's Pick: Green Bay (SU and ATS)

Washington (+3) vs. Seattle

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Washington 8th; Seattle 2nd
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Washington 4th; Seattle 2nd
TURNOVER MARGIN: Washington 3rd (+17); Seattle T6th (+12)

Despite what you may be hearing, QC's coaching statistics have these teams as an absolute dead push even though Seattle enjoys a rather hefty design advantage. That is because while Russell Wilson has performed efficiently in offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's design, the Seahawks offense is not extremely productive. The Seahawks enjoy a more than 4 percent design edge, but are only 1 point more productive that Mike Shannahan's and Robert Griffin III's highly productive attack. Even with RG3 at less than 100 percent, QC expects the Redskins to be able to keep pace and to not turn the ball over. If Washington fails to do the latter, nobody will be singing "Hail to the Redskins." But if they do, the game will be determined by Wilson. It is true that statistically Washington has the worst defense in the playoffs. But did you watch the Redskins against Dallas' Tony Romo? Don't forget that Romo is a very productive veteran quarterback. But through near constant blitzing, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was able to goad Romo into some bad throws. It would be short-sighted to say that it would be impossible for that to happen to a rookie quarterback making his first playoff start on the road, even a rookie quarterback who has played as well as Wilson. And Washington doesn't need 4 or 5 turnovers from Wilson. Just 1 or 2 turnovers may be enough for the Redskins to eke out a 1 or 2 point win. This is a hunch bet, but with the books subsidizing Shanny and RG3 with a field goal, QC's hunch is that Washington will cover and if the Redskins can just manage +1 turnover, the band will be striking up "Hail to the Redskins" as QC is herding his kids toward bath time Sunday night.

QC's Pick: Washington (SU and ATS)

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Houston (-4.5) vs. Cincinnati

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Houston 9th; Cincinnati 7th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Houston 10th; Cincinnati 9th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Houston T6th (+12); Cincinnati T11th (+3)

Do you know what a sucker bet is? The Texans limp into the playoffs losers of 3 of their last 4 games and with genuine injury concerns in their secondary and linebacker units. The Bengals come into the game winners of 3 straight and 7 of their last 8. Moreover, Vegas is giving you and slightly better designed Cincinnati 4.5 points. But take a closer look, particularly at the Bengals on offense. Cincinnati cannot run the ball at all. The Bengals averaged less than 1 yard per carry in their win over the Steelers. In addition, they have a hard time catching it. Quarterback Andy Dalton holds the ball too long and has a scary tendency to throw it late over the middle. That explains why Cincinnati has given at least 2 turnovers in every road game this year except on its visit to hapless Kansas City. If you look at the Bengals second half success closely, you will see that they did not beat any team ranked higher than 20th in play design differential who was trying to win the game other than the mistake-prone Steelers. Heck, the Bengals probably would have lost to the awful Eagles if Philly had not gone super-nova with 4 turnoves in the third quarter. In the middle of that streak, Cincinnati could not even beat the other team from Texas at home and Dallas' play design and productivity was even lower than the Texans current play design and player productivity. Houston quarterback Matt Schaub may not be playing his most productive ball, but he still usually takes care of it. In addition, the Texans protect Schaub reasonably well and may be able to handle the Bengals fierce pass rush at least for stretches and get a little push for running back Arian Foster. QC does not expect Dalton to suffer the 3-interception nightmare than he endured in the Bengals 31-10 loss in Houston last year, but he also does not think that Cincinnati has made as much progress