Eight point five percent.
Just seven weeks after they beat the Cowboys in Dallas and confirmed their third consecutive 6-2 start to a season, the New York Giants appeared to be a lock to win the NFC East. Their odds of winning the NFC East were estimated at 84 percent. Even though they would lose to the Steelers the following week, losses by the Cowboys, Eagles, and Redskins pushed their chances up to 86 percent, with their playoff odds exceeding 90 percent. Dallas and Washington were a combined 6-11, with an 8 percent shot of winning the division between them.
Since then, of course, those two dark horses have gone a combined 11-2. The Giants, as you already know, have capitulated in spectacular fashion. A 2-5 stretch has left them in desperate need of a post-Christmas miracle to somehow squeak their way back into the NFC playoffs. The odds of that actually happening in Week 17: 8.5 percent.
Big Blue’s path into the postseason is as clear as it is unlikely. For the Giants to make the playoffs, they need to beat the Eagles and have three other games go their way. The Redskins need to beat the Cowboys, giving them the NFC East and knocking the Cowboys out of the playoffs. The Packers need to beat the Vikings, pushing them out of the way, and the lowly Lions need to show up at home and beat the Bears. Using the log5 method I wrote about last year, I’ve estimated the odds of each event happening:
The Giants are lucky that the Redskins and Lions are both at home. In addition, San Francisco’s loss to Seattle on Sunday night has helped give the Packers further motivation to show up and play next weekend, as a win by Green Bay would now secure them a first-round bye. Even with those advantages, though, the Giants still only have less than a one-in-10 shot of making this all work.
There is, however, a recent precedent to which Giants fans might choose to cling. The 2008 Philadelphia Eagles faced a similarly steep climb to make it into the playoffs in Week 17 after losing to a Mid-Atlantic team (the Redskins) in Week 16. First, the Eagles needed the Raiders to travel to the East Coast for a 1 p.m. game without star corner Nnamdi Asomugha and beat the Buccaneers, who controlled their own playoff destiny. Somehow, JaMarcus Russell led the Raiders to a 31-24 victory, in a game that led to Jon Gruden being fired weeks later. Then, the 7-8 Texans had to beat the Bears at home, which they managed to pull off. With those two results in their back pocket, the Eagles hosted the Cowboys at 4:05 p.m. and played one of the most memorable games of the Andy Reid era, stomping Dallas 44-6 and beginning a run that would eventually take them to the NFC Championship Game.1 I estimated their odds of making the playoffs before the day at right around 5 percent. It’s possible, but boy, is it unlikely.
And quite possibly extending Reid’s tenure with the team four years.
The Giants are no strangers to late-season collapses, of course, but this one is different. In the past, New York’s declines have almost always been driven by a collapsing pass defense.2 Although the Giants were awful against a recently disappointing Ravens passing attack3 on Sunday, that really hasn’t been the cause of their problems this year. If you want to blame the pass defense, you can start wondering aloud where that dominant Giants pass rush has spent the season vacationing: In situations where one team leads the other by 14 points or fewer, the Giants sacked opposing quarterbacks 6.6 percent of the time during the first half, but have pulled off just three sacks in 108 drop-backs in those same situations in the second half, a grisly 2.8 percent sack rate. Jason Pierre-Paul is leading the team with just 6.5 sacks, a 10-sack dropoff from a year ago, while the Giants have only gotten nine combined sacks from stalwarts Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck.
Giants fans point to the absence of Plaxico Burress after he shot himself in the leg toward the end of the 2008 season, but the Giants actually didn’t lose anything in the passing game with Burress out; once you accounted for the increase in opposition strength, advanced metrics like DVOA suggested that there was nothing different about the New York passing game during those final few weeks of the year, just their running game (and defense). Advanced metrics also suggested that the passing game continued to improve without Burress in 2009 and 2010.
I don’t want to pay short shrift to the Ravens, who played a great game after three tough losses, but it’s easy to sum up their seemingly instant offensive turnaround in a paragraph. Against the Broncos in Week 15, the Ravens were 1-for-12 on third down. Against the Giants on Sunday, the Ravens were 11-for-18 on third down, including 10 of their first 13.
Instead, the blame for this second-half swoon should fall further upon the shoulders of the offense. While the defense has allowed 25.1 points per game during the 2-5 collapse after giving up 20.1 points per game during the 6-2 start, the offense has fallen off even further. After averaging 29.3 points per game through their first eight contests, Eli Manning’s crew is down to just 21.9 points per game, a difference of 7.4 points per tilt. There is a very clear line of demarcation with the Giants this year: When they score more than 21 points per game, the Giants are 8-0. When they score fewer than 21 points per game, as was the case with the Baltimore game yesterday, they are now 0-7.
The passing offense, in particular, stopped producing significant chunks of yardage. On first-and-10 plays in the aforementioned two-score situations, the 6-2 Giants averaged over 7.7 yards per pass, the 11th-best rate in the league. That figure is down to 5.4 yards over the seven ensuing games, which places the Giants 22nd. The Giants are picking up third downs about as frequently — 41 percent during the hot streak, 38 percent since, including an 0-for-4 performance during the two-score portion of yesterday’s game — but they’re averaging nearly three fewer yards per play on those third downs.
As you might suspect, those per-play declines are foretelling a dramatic drop in big plays from the New York offense. The Giants had 32 plays for 20 yards or more over their first eight games in those 14-points-or-fewer scenarios, which was the sixth-best rate in football. Over the next seven games, they produced just 12 such plays, a figure that places them with the likes of the Jets and Cardinals at the bottom of the league. And if you figure that Manning is getting shorter windows to throw in, you would be right, as the Giants’ sack rate on offense has climbed. While Manning was taken down just 1.9 percent of the time on drop-backs in 14-point games during the first half of the season, that rate has risen to 6.7 percent during the second half.
There’s one more factor that’s hurt the Giants, one that often comes up to bite them during the second-half malaises: strength of schedule. During the first half of the season, New York played a schedule with teams who were a combined 50-51-1 in games that didn’t involve the Giants. In the second half, the worst team they’ve played is the Saints, who aren’t all that bad. The seven teams the Giants have played in the second half have a combined record, excluding their games with New York, of 55-35. Basically, the Giants have gone from playing an 8-8 team every week to a 10-6 team. That’s going to make it harder to consistently win every time.
Of course, you’ll hear various soft factors thrown around as excuses for the Giants. You’ve already probably read that they didn’t show up for the Ravens game, an argument that sounds suspiciously like their famed propensity for quitting on Tom Coughlin. They might have the “Super Bowl hangover,” as Terry Bradshaw claimed yesterday, but that doesn’t really jibe with their performance; if they really had a hangover, why did they start 6-2 before struggling? I’ve also read that the Giants were tired after a year and a half of huge games, and maybe that’s true, but I tend to believe in the actual performance-based reasons for why the Giants are struggling over some vague funk.
If you’re going to be a contender in this league every single year, heartbreak is simply the price of doing business. You can’t always win the Super Bowl, and there will certainly be those out there who find the sorrows of Giants fans to be contemptuous after two Super Bowl victories in five years. Fair enough, but the Giants have gone from having a surefire home playoff game on Election Day to desperately seeking the help of the Redskins and Lions by Christmas. Even for one of the league’s most topsy-turvy teams, that seems like an unusually drastic fall, one that could reshape the future of the franchise as early as this offseason.
A New Champion of the Week
The Seahawks did more than lift the imaginary linear title of football away from the Niners when they blew them out on Sunday night, 42-13. They completed a three-game stretch of football that rates out as among the most remarkable in NFL history; one that suggests that Seattle has become a force to reckon with in the NFC, but one that has also portended doom in the past.
While the dominating win over the 49ers was certainly the most impressive and meaningful of the three, given the quality of the opposition, Seattle’s 29-point triumph was actually their smallest margin of victory over that three-game time frame. The Seahawks began the stretch by beating the Cardinals 58-0, then followed that with a 50-17 win over the Bills in Toronto last week. The Seahawks have therefore won their last three games by a margin of 120 points, exactly 40 per game. That is virtually unprecedented in NFL history; the last time a team won three straight games by a larger total was, as Chase Stuart noted on Twitter, when the Bears did it in 1942. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t even have an Adderall scandal to deal with.
A more interesting example in recent times is the team that previously held the post-merger record for three-game dominance: the 1987 49ers. That 49ers team, much like this Seahawks squad, produced their dominating run at the end of the season. In a 15-game strike-shortened season, the 49ers won 41-0, 35-7, and 48-0 during the final three games of the year, with two wins over pushovers and one over the 11-4 Bears. With all that momentum (and the combination of Joe Montana and Steve Young at quarterback) on their side, the 49ers promptly took their playoff bye and then lost to the Vikings, 36-24. Bummer.
There also seems to be a weird curse that’s developed around teams putting up enormous prime-time wins over the past few weeks. Remember those Giants from one section ago? They beat the Packers by 28 points on Sunday Night Football during Thanksgiving weekend and lost to the Redskins the following week. Two weeks later, the Patriots blew out the Texans on Monday Night Football, only to go down 31-3 to the 49ers in the ensuing Sunday night before launching a frantic comeback and coming up short. And then those Niners just got annihilated4 in front of our very eyes by the Seahawks in the rain on Sunday night. I don’t think this means that the Seahawks will lose at home to the Rams on Sunday, but it does show just how quickly things can change and how meaningless a “defining” win has been in the NFL this year.
Fun fact about the Niners: Over the first 14 weeks of the year, the Niners didn’t allow a single opponent to score more than 26 points. The 49ers then somehow allowed their opponents to score more than 26 points in consecutive halves, as the Patriots dropped 31 on them in the second half last Sunday, and the Seahawks followed with 28 of their own during the first half yesterday. If you noticed that Justin Smith’s absence roughly coincides with this period of uncharacteristic largesse from the Niners, you’re qualified to be an NFL player agent!
Those anecdotal notes from the past are useful for tempering our long-term expectations with regard to the Seahawks, but they shouldn’t take away from how great Seattle has been over the past three weeks. With Russell Wilson rounding into form as a franchise quarterback over the second half of the season, there really isn’t anything that the Seahawks can’t do at an above-average or better level. There are reasons to think that they might not last long in the playoffs — they could be without both of their starting cornerbacks if Richard Sherman’s Adderall suspension is upheld, and they’ll need to beat the Rams and have the Cardinals somehow upset the 49ers in San Francisco to get a playoff game at home5 — but Seattle’s future is extremely bright. They’ll go into 2013 with a young roster, a general manager who has proven himself to be a superb drafter, and a point differential befitting an elite team. The NFC West might be the toughest division in football next year, and the Seahawks might very well deserve to be the favorites to win it.
Sifting Through the Garbage for Megatron
Or have each of the top four seeds lose and host the sixth seed in an unlikely NFC Championship Game.
The one bright spot in Detroit’s loss to Atlanta on Saturday night was the record-setting performance from Calvin Johnson. Megatron caught 11 passes for 225 yards, and in doing so, he erased Jerry Rice’s 17-year-old record for most receiving yards in one season. With 1,892 receiving yards under his belt, Johnson would almost surely become the first receiver in league history to pick up 2,000 receiving yards in a single season by producing his ninth consecutive 100-yard game on Sunday against the Bears. After the record was set, though, the discussion started to shift toward another topic: Is it fair for Megatron to get so much of his yardage in the proverbial “garbage time,” when yards aren’t anywhere near as meaningful as they are in closer games?
I don’t think that’s the case, but it depends on what you define “garbage time” to be. My initial conception of garbage time was as those plays when a team trails by more than two touchdowns at any point during the game. If that’s your definition, Calvin Johnson has almost assuredly not benefited from garbage time. Through the first 15 weeks of the year, Megatron had just 104 receiving yards while his team was down by 15 or more points, which put him below dozens of other NFL receivers. He had 62 such yards on Saturday night, bringing his total to 166 yards, but that leaves him no higher than 12th among NFL receivers this year. Just 8.7 percent of his yardage has come down 15 points or more, which is actually below what you might expect: The average receiver, through 15 weeks, gained 11.8 percent of his receiving yardage while trailing by 15 points or more.
What if we change the definition of garbage time, though? Let’s say that garbage time is any point in the fourth quarter at which your team trails by more than one touchdown. By that definition, Calvin Johnson leads the league in garbage-time receiving, and it isn’t close: He has 416 receiving yards in that situation this year, and only Brandon Myers of the Raiders is approaching 300 yards in the same split. Solve for x and you can gather that Calvin Johnson has gotten a huge chunk of his yardage, 319 yards, this year in the fourth quarter while his team was down by eight to 14 points.
Was that yardage meaningful? I’ll let you decide. Those 319 yards including the following plays of 20 yards or more, sorted by yards gained:
- A 37-yard gain with the Lions down 16-6 and 13:08 to go against the Eagles in a game the Lions eventually won
- A 30-yard gain with the Lions down 24-10 and 9:26 to go against the Cardinals in a game the Lions would lose 38-10
- A 26-yard gain with the Lions down 20-9 and 14:00 to go against the 49ers in a game the Lions would lose 29-17
- A 25-yard gain with the Lions down 24-10 and 11:59 to go against the Vikings in a game the Lions would lose 34-24, but on a play that brought them down to the 2-yard line
- A 22-yard gain with the Lions down 41-27 and 0:55 to go against the Titans in a game that the Lions would memorably tie up with two scores in the final minute and send to overtime before losing, 44-41
- A 20-yard gain with 1:08 left in that same game
- A 20-yard gain with the Lions down 16-6 and 10:56 to go against the Eagles in a game the Lions would win 26-23 in overtime, on a play that brought Detroit to the 1-yard line
- A 20-yard gain in the aforementioned Vikings game with 8:06 left and a 31-17 deficit, but one where Johnson fumbled the ball away to Minnesota
Those eight plays count for an even 200 yards, or close to two-thirds of the yardage we would consider to be otherwise meaningless stat padding from Megatron. Well, two of those plays came in games the Lions actually ended up winning, two more came in games that produced a comeback and overtime, a fifth came with nearly the entire quarter to go in an 11-point game, and a sixth moved the Lions to the 2-yard line for a score that came on the next play, putting the Vikings down seven with 11:34 to go. The other two might not even qualify as garbage time, either. The case for Johnson padding his stats in garbage time there, even with his league-leading yardage total, is specious.
That’s the problem with making claims of stat-padding in garbage time: I suppose you can make “garbage time” mean anything you like, and eventually, you’ll probably come to some sort of split that tells the story you want to tell. You could make that argument about the two definitions I proposed above, and I suspect that somebody could eventually contort the play-by-play logs into some gerrymandered fit to prove the point about Johnson. By my definitions of the concept, though, I don’t see any evidence that Johnson is unfairly accruing meaningless numbers.
Of course, the flip side of this argument is that Rice wasn’t picking up every single one of his yards against the league’s best defense in the fourth quarter of tied games, either. I don’t have the play-by-play data for that year, but there are other arguments you can make regarding Rice’s total. For one, Rice’s starting quarterbacks were Steve Young (for 11 games) and Elvis Grbac; that’s a sight better than the sidearming wizardry of Matthew Stafford.
Furthermore, Rice’s big year came in 1995, a season that had a disproportionately high number of ridiculous yardage totals from top receivers. Even after Megatron’s big year, three of the top seven receiving yardage totals in NFL history came from the 1995 campaign. It was Rice’s best yardage total by a wide margin, something that was even more true for Isaac Bruce (1,781 receiving yards) and Herman Moore (1,686 receiving yards), both of whom failed to hit those lofty heights again. That seems like a far more damning quirk than whatever Johnson’s done late in games.
Thank You for Not Coaching
Let’s start with the weekend’s marquee game, the would-be playoff decider between the Bengals and the Steelers. And let’s skip straight ahead to those crazy field goal tries in the fourth quarter. Of the two, I think Marvin Lewis’s was worse. After going for it earlier on fourth-and-22 and failing from the 33-yard line, what made Lewis (or offensive coordinator Jay Gruden) decide to try a 56-yard field goal in Heinz Field with their injury replacement kicker in a 10-10 game with the season on the line? I’m almost never a fan of punting in opposition territory, but I think this is one of the rare situations where it made sense: Your defense is playing brilliant football, it’s an extremely difficult place to make kicks, and if you miss the kick, the resulting field position is excruciating enough that the Steelers might actually be able to kick a game-winning field goal without having to drive for more than 30 yards or so. If Lewis wasn’t punting, I think going for it on fourth-and-11 would have been preferable to the 56-yarder in Heinz Field on the road in December. Josh Brown actually got off a heck of a kick, but it wasn’t enough.
What made Mike Tomlin’s ensuing decision to try a 53-yard field goal on the next drive so interesting is that it was so reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s loss to Tennessee from earlier this season. There, the Steelers moved the ball to the 39-yard line and then basically stalled before trying a 54-yarder that Shaun Suisham missed, leaving the Titans enough time to drive and get a game-winning field goal from 40 yards out. Here, the Steelers never pressed their advantage. After a 12-yard run from Rashard Mendenhall moved the ball to the Cincinnati 42-yard line, Pittsburgh ran the ball twice for a total of two yards and then had Ben Roethlisberger scramble well short of the sticks on third down, forcing Suisham into a 53-yarder that he missed. I trust the home team’s ability to judge their kicker’s actual range on his home field more than the traveling team’s ability to gauge the kicker and the stadium conditions, but the Steelers also only needed four yards to get a first down here, not 11. Going for it is far more plausible.
In all, the Steelers and Tomlin didn’t have a great day. The Steelers chose to take the points early on with a fourth-and-1 from the 6-yard line, only to get a bad snap and a rare miss from Suisham on a 23-yarder. A Roethlisberger sack that pushed Pittsburgh out of field goal range in the third quarter led to a punt from the Cincinnati 37-yard line, coincidentally the same spot from which Suisham would eventually miss the fourth-quarter field goal. Tomlin also got off one of his famous no-reward challenges when he threw his flag to overturn a two-yard catch by A.J. Green on second-and-2 to turn a first down into third-and-1. It was a third-and-1 on the Cincinnati 29-yard line; the reward was minimal, and when Casey Hampton went offsides on that ensuing third down, the challenge was rendered irrelevant.
In the AFC East battle of not understanding how challenges work and what they’re good for, Rex Ryan narrowly beat out Chan Gailey on Sunday. Ryan challenged the spot on a Greg McElroy scramble in the first half that, unchallenged, gave the Jets first-and-goal from the 2-inch line. I’d really hesitate to use a challenge here on a play that was going to give me a sure touchdown, just because the odds of scoring with three cracks from the 2-inch line are so strong.6 Instead, McElroy’s challenge was denied. Two plays later, of course, the Jets punched it in from the 1-yard line like nothing happened.
Although, admittedly, the Texans chose not to challenge a would-be touchdown during their game with the Vikings (one that didn’t appear to be a touchdown upon replay) and then got stomped the rest of the way.
A more interesting strategic decision also lost to the tyranny of final scores was New Orleans’s decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 35-yard line with 1:45 left and the Cowboys, down seven, out of timeouts. The risk-reward is actually more heavily weighted in New Orleans’s favor than you might realize here. If the Saints get the conversion, they can kneel the clock out; their odds of winning are just about 100 percent. If they fail, well, they’re still up seven with 35 yards of field to defend. Dallas’s chances of scoring there are far from 100 percent; the advancednflstats.com fourth-down calculator suggests that Dallas only scores a touchdown and goes on to win the game after a missed fourth-down conversion 21 percent of the time, while they do it 10 percent of the time after a punt. And sure, Dallas’s offense vs. New Orleans’s defense is a better matchup than the model realizes, but the Saints have Drew Brees, Darren Sproles, and a bevy of options at their disposal. They were 1-for-5 last year on fourth-and-1 (with no plays this year), but that’s not enough of a sample to mean anything. I think Sean Payton would have gone for it, but Joe Vitt’s no Sean Payton. He punted the ball away and let the Cowboys drive down the field on him to set up a game-tying touchdown.
Finally, let’s all stare in awe at the Chiefs and their coaching staff, especially offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. With 4:00 left and 90 yards to go for a touchdown to tie the game at 20, the Chiefs decided to start treating the game like they had a lead. They ran the ball with Jamaal Charles on second down and didn’t get anything, which is fine; Charles has been brilliant, and it was worth a shot to see if that worked. On third-and-8, though, the Chiefs somehow called a running play for Peyton Hillis. Ninety yards away from the end zone. Clock running. Two timeouts. Seven-point deficit. What’s the point of playing a quarterback if you run in that spot? Heck, what’s the point of having an offensive coordinator if that’s what you’re going to do? Or a football team?