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Niners Claim the NFL Crown

Why San Francisco is now the undisputed champion of football, plus the rest of the Week 15 news

Sunday night’s 49ers-Patriots game wasn’t just a string of ridiculous drives in the pouring rain. It wasn’t merely an attempt to force the entire East Coast to show up groggy to work Monday morning. It wasn’t even an announcement that the Colin Kaepernick era was here to stay in San Francisco (although I think it dashed Alex Smith’s slim hopes of getting the job back without an injury this season). It was a coronation, people, a title belt–winning victory in what was arguably the best game of the entire season.

A title belt? Yes, a title belt. If you look at the mantle of league leader as a title that has to be won and defended, the 49ers are now your reigning league champions. It’s difficult to find a path through the season, if you start with the Giants being “champions” at the beginning of the year, that doesn’t end with the Niners being at the top of the heap right now. I’m fond of the Unofficial Football World Championship, a title bestowed on the English national soccer team when it won a match between two international teams in 1873 — after a draw in 1872. It would lose the title to Scotland shortly thereafter, and it went on and on, defended in much the same way that a boxing title might be defended. This has led to a situation where the current champion of the world, amazingly, is the North Korean men’s national soccer team. It’s goofy, but not quite as goofy as it seems at first glance, especially in a smaller pool that consists of entirely competitive games, as is the case with the NFL.

OK. Let’s start by assuming that the Giants are the reigning belt-holders and champions by virtue of having won the Super Bowl last year. They lost the title to the Cowboys on opening night, 24-17, giving the Cowboys the unofficial title belt. If Jerry Jones knew that the Cowboys could be champions in Week 1, the parade would still be going on in Dallas. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they only held the title for a week, losing it to Seattle in Week 2, 27-7. You get the idea.

It goes on. The Rams beat the Seahawks in Week 4 to claim an unlikely spot at the top of the heap, but in true fashion for an unlikely champion who was crowned in a dome, they quickly lost their belt to a contender that was only slightly more suitable: the Dolphins in Week 6. The Dolphins partied all week through their bye, defended the belt once against the Jets, and then lost to the Colts in Week 9. After a victory over the Jaguars, the Colts brought the title to New England and left empty-handed after being blown out, 59-24. The Patriots then defended the title against the Jets, Dolphins, and Texans before losing to the 49ers on Sunday night. In terms of a linear title belt, the 49ers are now the kings of the NFL world.

Let’s be a little less linear now, and use a more arbitrary system of appointing a favorite, picking the league’s most impressive team at the time without dumping them from the mountaintop until they lose. Again, let’s begin with the Giants in Week 1. They lost to the Cowboys, and by the end of Week 1, the league’s most impressive team was these very same 49ers, who had beaten the Packers handily in Green Bay. They held this title for two weeks before losing to the Vikings in Week 3, which leaves two candidates for a new champion: the Falcons and the Texans.

In either case, the path ends with the 49ers on top. If you go with the Texans, they lose handily to the Packers in Week 6, at which point you would likely go with the league’s one undefeated team, the Falcons, or my pick at the time, the Bears. The Bears lost to the Texans in Week 10, turning the title back over (in my opinion) to Houston, who then lost to the Patriots last week, giving the title to the 49ers this week. If you prefer the Falcons path, Atlanta held on to the title until Week 10, when their 8-0 start ended with a loss to the Saints. Assuming that the title is again bestowed on the Texans, the belt follows the same path to the 49ers this week.

You can argue that the whole thing’s a bit silly, of course, and I might not argue all that much with you. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for how meaningful a win like this is. Since we’re 15 weeks into the season by now, we all have a much better handle on how good each of the league’s teams are, and it puts the impressiveness of San Francisco’s effort into context. Compare that to Week 1 and Week 2, when the 49ers came raging out of the gates with that impressive win over the Packers and a comfortable home victory over the Lions to start their season. We know now that beating the Lions by eight at home isn’t really a big deal at all, since they’re a 4-10 team that has also lost to the Titans and Cardinals on the road this year. Even the Packers win isn’t quite as shocking as it might have seemed at first glance, since the 49ers beat a 10-4 team with some obvious flaws on both sides of the ball, not the 15-1 juggernaut we remembered from the previous year that seemed to slip on a banana peel in the playoffs. We know that the Patriots were on a comfortable seven-game winning streak, that they had summarily dispatched the top seed in the AFC in a blowout at home the previous week, and that they seemed to be “peaking” at the right time for a playoff run. (More on that on Wednesday.) The 49ers saw all that and still managed to get out to a 31-3 lead before that incredible final 20 minutes happened.

How did the Niners manage to get out to that 31-3 lead and overwhelm the Patriots? And how did they hold on? Well, it takes a little bit of luck and a little bit of skill. The luck side would be our old friend: fumble recoveries. There were eight fumbles in this game, and the Niners managed to recover seven of them.1 Unquestionably, the Niners were lucky to recover seven of those eight fumbles.

How lucky? In the past, I’ve written about fumble recovery rates and how research has shown that there’s no team that shows consistent skill in recovering fumbles once they’ve hit the ground. What is true, though, is that different types of fumbles are recovered at different rates by the offense and defense, an idea to which Chase Stuart put numbers earlier this year. It doesn’t appear that there is any consistent ability to recover fumbles once you account for the fumble type — the Niners aren’t any more likely to recover an aborted snap on offense than any other offense, as an example — but to get the best idea of what a team “should” have been able to pick up from those loose balls, it’s a good idea to adjust for the type of fumble.

In Sunday’s game, four of the eight fumbles came on bad exchanges between Colin Kaepernick and 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin. Those plays were extremely meaningful — the 49ers ended one drive with an aborted snap on fourth down and had one basically end with a similar play on third down, with a third fumbled snap ending up in Frank Gore’s hands before Gore ran into the end zone — but the 49ers were very likely to recover those loose balls. According to Stuart’s research, 75.6 percent of aborted snaps end up sticking with the offense. They recovered two Patriots fumbles on running plays, which end up with the defense 60 percent of the time. A Ted Ginn muffed punt in the fourth quarter also fell safely back to the 49ers, which will happen for the offense 67.4 percent of the time. Finally, the Niners lost the ball inside the 10-yard line when receiver Delanie Walker put the ball on the turf and the Patriots recovered it. The 49ers had a 40 percent shot at that one. Once you put all those chances together, the 49ers would expect to recover 5.3 of the eight fumbles in the game, just about halfway between the number they actually recovered (seven) and the figure that a blind 50-50 expectation would expect them to grab (four). You can obviously picture how the game might have changed if the Ginn muffed punt, to pick one fumble, fell into New England’s hands. It doesn’t mean that the 49ers were lucky to win, just that they played well and some of the breaks of the game that had to go one way or the other went their way.

The skill, at least on the defensive side, came with stopping the Patriots on third down. New England entered into Sunday’s game converting 53.8 percent of their third downs on the year, the highest rate in the league by an almost comical fashion. The second-place Steelers were at 45.4 percent heading into Sunday, leaving them closer to 21st place than to first. The Niners, meanwhile, only allowed teams to pick up 32.0 percent of their third downs, which was the second-lowest rate in football. The Texans were atop the leader board at 30.5 percent, but the Patriots had brushed them aside and picked up six of the 12 third downs they faced when they played Houston last Monday night, for an even 50 percent rate.

When these two titans clashed on Sunday, the defense was the side holding its ground. The 49ers did a magnificent job against the Patriots on third down, only allowing them to convert on two of their 15 chances. The Patriots were able to mitigate that some by going 5-for-6 on fourth down,2 but they were forced into make-or-break fourth-down calls by virtue of the game situation and San Francisco’s effectiveness therein. The third-down prowess also helped the 49ers get out to that 31-3 lead, since the Patriots started the game by failing on their first seven third-down attempts. That’s just about equivalent to losing seven consecutive coin flips; the odds that a team that converts 53.8 percent of its third downs would fail to convert even one of seven attempts is over 222-to-1. That doesn’t consider how good the San Francisco defense is, of course, but the Patriots had suffered little resistance from a similarly talented third-down defense one week prior.

It wasn’t as if the 49ers were stoning the Patriots on early downs and forcing them into third and long, either. The Patriots needed to pick up an average of 5.9 yards to convert their third downs on Sunday. They’ve been picking up 53.8 percent of their third downs this year while needing 6.7 yards to go on their average third-down attempt. San Francisco simply came up with defensive stops when they needed to on third down. As the game went on, they found themselves unable to stop Brady once the Patriots decided to give him a second crack at most third downs.

The fourth quarter was also an interesting argument against the concept of momentum and actually caring about it in terms of winning football games. If any team has ever had momentum, it was the Patriots in the fourth quarter of this game. They had somehow just roared back from being down 31-3 in the course of less than 15 minutes of game time, awakening their home crowd while picking up every sort of play you can imagine. The bomb. The big penalty. The fourth-down conversion. The goal-line conversion. The Patriots had all that momentum … and it fizzled into nothing in two plays. LaMichael James returned a kick for 62 yards, and Michael Crabtree caught a 38-yard touchdown pass on the next play. Momentum gone.

After that onslaught of scoring, it seemed like there were still 17 or 18 more touchdowns left in the final six minutes, but that was the final touchdown of the game. Common sense would have suggested that a tired 49ers defense would have been overwhelmed by the momentum built up by the Patriots offense and found them irresistible, but the 49ers held up and got quick stops on each of the next two drives to basically end the game as a contest. If momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher in baseball, momentum is the next play in football. What an exhilarating game.

Cam Scam

When the Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron last Monday, the reaction from Ravens fans seemed to be mostly positive. Cameron had taken flak for both his play calling (seemingly avoiding plays that involved handing Ray Rice the ball and having some guys who are very fond of steak blocking for him) and his broader schematic choices (relying too heavily on low-percentage go routes, especially with struggling second-year receiver Torrey Smith). Although the Ravens had scored 28 points in the previous week’s loss to the Redskins, Cameron was pushed aside for former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, who had been serving as Baltimore’s quarterbacks coach this season.

Against Denver on Sunday, Caldwell certainly wasn’t the answer to whatever ails the Baltimore offense. While Baltimore eventually scored 17 points and Joe Flacco threw for 254 yards, virtually all of that made its way onto the scoresheet in garbage time. The Broncos went up 17-0 in the first half against a Ravens offense that went 0-for-6 on third down, split its run plays nearly 50-50 between Rice (seven carries) and backup Bernard Pierce (five), and mustered 43 of Flacco’s 77 passing yards on one play, a bomb to Jacoby Jones. The Ravens made their way to the 2-yard line, but Flacco threw an impossibly lazy out pattern that Broncos defender Chris Harris jumped and returned for a 98-yard score. New boss, meet the old boss.

It’s possible that Caldwell could be saving all his money plays for the playoffs and didn’t bother to make any meaningful changes mid-week. In all likelihood, though, Week 15 was a sign that the move from Cameron to Caldwell isn’t going to change very much about the Baltimore offense. And that’s a fact you probably could have guessed before the change was made.

What’s really interesting about the Cameron firing is that the Ravens offense wasn’t all that bad. I already mentioned that the Ravens were coming off of a 28-point game against the Redskins, but they had been scoring points at an above-average rate this season. Through Week 14, they were averaging 25.5 points per game, which was ninth-best in the league. If you prefer advanced stats, they were 16th in DVOA and 14th in points per possession. The Ravens certainly weren’t an elite offense, and they might not have been living up to the expectations of some Baltimore fans, but their offense was arguably the strength of the team, since the Ravens were 11th in points allowed and 19th in defensive DVOA (but 10th in points allowed per possession) heading into the week.

The move to replace Cameron with Caldwell was curious. I can’t speak to Caldwell’s specific abilities as a quarterback whisperer, but his NFL career doesn’t speak to some sudden ability to turn things around. After spending 2001 with Tony Dungy as Tampa’s quarterbacks coach, he spent the next decade in Indianapolis as the quarterbacks coach and eventual assistant head coach for the Colts. He was coaching Peyton Manning there, who essentially runs the offense and makes the decisions on his own. Caldwell eventually took the helm as head coach and made it to the Super Bowl, where he was outfoxed by Sean Payton, and he had one disastrous year without Manning before being fired. The one quarterback Caldwell had a chance to develop in Indianapolis, Curtis Painter, was one of the worst quarterbacks of the past decade. Flacco has shown few signs of improvement this year. Why was Caldwell ready to become offensive coordinator? What sort of changes he could offer?

It certainly feels like the change was made for some reason beyond what’s actually happening on the field, which hearkens back to the move that the Eagles made to fire defensive coordinator Juan Castillo during their Week 7 bye. Like Cameron, Castillo had received criticism from his home fans, who expected more out of the talent at his fingertips. Like Cameron, Castillo’s work hadn’t been shabby during his final year with the team: The Eagles had allowed 20.8 points per game with Castillo at the helm during their 3-3 start, and if you take out the Michael Vick–authored return touchdowns against the Eagles, that figure falls to 18.5 points per game. Since then, the Eagles haven’t just allowed more than 20.8 points per game; they’ve allowed more than 20.8 points per game in every single game they’ve played. Opponents have averaged a whopping 31.3 points per game since Castillo hit the bricks. A move that Andy Reid made to fire up his team will likely end up producing his firing. John Harbaugh’s job isn’t in danger, but it’s not impossible to imagine Caldwell’s ascension producing similarly disappointing results.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, their problems go beyond the play caller. Their offensive line, a strength during the early days of the Harbaugh-Flacco era, has been reduced to shambles by injuries and aging. Left tackle Michael Oher is a better fit on the right side. Center Matt Birk and right guard Bobbie Williams, starting for the injured Marshal Yanda, are both 36 years old. Jah Reid and the injured Ramon Harewood haven’t been able to replace the departed Ben Grubbs. Baltimore’s strange insistence on keeping Rice’s workload light — he’s on pace for 263 carries, his lowest total in three years — remains curious, but it’s also clear that they need to invest in their offensive line this offseason. That’s something neither Cameron nor Caldwell can fix right now.

Thank You for Not Coaching

Caldwell and/or Harbaugh erred at the end of the game by not going for a two-point conversion. The Ravens scored a touchdown to make it 34-16 with 4:32 left, pending the extra point, and chose to kick an extra point to make it 34-17. That leaves the game as a three-possession contest, which is downright impossible in 4:32. Had the Ravens gone for two and got it, they would be down 34-18, producing a 16-point margin that would be more plausible to overcome, thanks to two touchdowns and two two-point conversions. Their hopes were slim, sure, but why not try to make it a two-score game when you have nothing to lose? I posited at the time on Twitter that the Ravens had given up and weren’t really trying to win, but they followed that extra point by attempting an onside kick, so they were at least paying lip service to competing. It should have been a two-pointer.

The Pats-Niners game threw some interesting coaching wrinkles out there, but it’s hard to find much fault with the decisions each team made. The Patriots were rightly aggressive on fourth down, including on their final fourth-and-2 attempt at the end of the game. Down seven with 2:24 left in the game doesn’t leave you with many options, and while the Patriots could have punted the ball away and hoped for a muffed punt for a bad snap, they would have been giving the ball to the 49ers with the two-minute warning and two New England timeouts to stop the lock. That still essentially leaves the Patriots needing a stop on three running plays to get another shot at the ball, and then they would have needed to drive down the field with less than two minutes to go and no timeouts to score a touchdown, merely to tie the game up and have a shot at winning in overtime.3 If you think the Patriots were capable of driving that far without any timeouts, why would you believe that they wouldn’t be able to pick up one yard on fourth down and that it would be a smart decision to punt? Indeed, Brian Burke’s fourth-down calculator suggests that the Patriots should have gone for it if they thought their chances of succeeding were better than 5 percent. Five. They were, I promise.

Kaepernick, meanwhile, made a timeout mistake that a lot of veteran quarterbacks and teams also seem to fall for. With the 49ers backed up on their own 13-yard line and facing a third-and-23 in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick noticed that the play clock was about to run out and used San Francisco’s second timeout to stop the clock. Kaepernick undoubtedly just saw the clock winding down and reacted instinctively, but it becomes a question of asset management. You only have two timeouts left, and at the time of the call, the 49ers were clinging to a seven-point lead. A delay-of-game penalty would have turned third-and-23 into a more difficult third-and-28, but is the difference in conversion rates between third-and-23 and third-and-28 really worth burning a precious timeout? It seems very unlikely.

In the realm of Massachusetts undergraduate Schadenfreude, the Bills apparently failed to notify Harvard alum Ryan Fitzpatrick that they had picked up enough for a first down on the previous second-down passing play. As a result, Fitzpatrick got up to the line of scrimmage and promptly ran a quarterback sneak on first-and-10 from his own 45-yard line, gaining two yards in the process. No, I won’t go for the cheap joke that two yards on first down might be pretty good for the Bills if C.J. Spiller isn’t involved; I’ll go instead for the cheap joke that a Northeastern quarterback has never made that mistake in the NFL.

The best fourth-down attempt of the week belonged to Romeo Crennel’s Chiefs, of whom all of the following statements are true: The Chiefs went for it on fourth-and-1. The Chiefs completed a forward pass. The Chiefs did not pick up the first down. All of these things happened on the same play.

Mike Tomlin, the patron saint of the first-quarter challenge, threw out his flag to overturn a Miles Austin catch for 11 yards on first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 34-yard line with 9:38 left in the first quarter. It’s one thing to throw a first-quarter challenge flag that turns a third-down conversion into a punt, as Jason Garrett did on Pittsburgh’s ensuing drive. That’s pretty defensible. Throwing the challenge flag for an 11-yard gain on first-and-10, though? It just doesn’t materially improve your team’s situation. Even if the play is reversed, the Cowboys still get two more cracks at picking up the first down, and even if you don’t challenge, the Cowboys are still 21 yards away from the end zone. As it turned out, Tomlin’s challenge overturned the call, and the Cowboys didn’t get the first down on the ensuing two plays, but Dan Bailey kicked a 51-yard field goal, anyway, to open the scoring.

Even more curious was Tomlin’s decision to ice a 21-yard field goal attempt by Bailey to win the game in overtime. Think about that one for a minute. Now, I’ve already written in the past that icing the kicker doesn’t work, but we know that coaches do it because there’s little downside to it. If the coach succeeds in icing the kicker, he’s hailed for doing so; if the icing fails, nobody remembers it anyway. (It’s only a bummer if the coach ices a missed first attempt and then allows the kicker to hit on a second try, which only happens once or twice a year.) Coaches know this and they ice the kicker anyway on field goal attempts, but has anybody ever iced a kicker on an extra point?4 There aren’t many situations where you’d care enough to ice the kicker on an extra point, but let’s say that your team had just allowed a touchdown to go down 20-20 with 18 seconds left, pending the extra point. Under the dumb coaching logic of icing the kicker, wouldn’t they want to try to ice him there? NFL coaches never do that, but Tomlin had no problem icing Bailey on a kick that was of a similar length because it was worth three points as opposed to one. I think Mike Tomlin is a very good coach, but he gets some really simple, correctable things wrong way more frequently than he should.

Finally, there are moments where terrible process meets awful, dreadful outcome, which leads us to the comically bad cross-field lateral play that the Packers ran on a punt in the fourth quarter against the Bears. I can think of a lot of situations where it’s a good idea to run a fake punt: if you see something on tape and get a good matchup, like the one the 49ers ran against the Patriots last night. When you’re playing a team with great special teams who can’t move the ball whatsoever on offense, and you’re up 11 points in the fourth quarter with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, there isn’t a worse situations to call for a fake punt. Maybe if you’re in the supermarket and not actually playing football at all and your wife is yelling at you to go get some quinoa instead of repeatedly calling for a fake punt, that might be a slightly worse time to dial up a trick play. But if you’re talking about situations that happen in football games, the Packers called for a fake punt in what was probably the worst football context imaginable. Their reward was a turnover that let the Bears back into the game.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, NFL, People, Sports

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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