Before Sunday’s 10-point win by the Packers, the past six games between Chicago and Green Bay had been decided by seven points or fewer. In fact, that figure should have hit seven, but the referees called back a Johnny Knox punt return at the end of the game for a touchdown by penalizing a nonexistent player with a nonexistent hold. Ask a professional football announcer why this is and you’ll invariably be told about the Chicago-Green Bay rivalry and how divisional rivals play each other “tough.” Well, is that really true?
The mythology surrounding the idea of the tough divisional matchup is spread in many different directions. Teams with similar records know that they’re playing for a potential tiebreaker. That one’s pretty plausible. Terrible teams want to prove that the division leader can’t take them lightly, but division leaders want the bottom-feeders to know that they won’t take anybody lightly. Everyone makes sure to get an extra hit in after the whistle while the announcers note that “these guys know each other well,” even as a big-money free agent with two months in his team’s laundry takes on a practice-squad journeyman who’s renting, not owning, two blocks from the stadium.
So the definition of a team playing its divisional brethren “tougher” can be tricky to pin down. All the things we mentioned above might be true, but those things happen in nondivisional games, too. Our definition of tougher here is going to be related to the final score: Do teams play closer games against their divisional opponents (the variable) than they do against similarly skilled teams who aren’t in their division (the control)?
The key phrase here is going to be point differential. To find “similarly skilled” teams, we’re going to remove the game in question and then compare the relative difference between the two teams’ point differential over the course of a full season. Let’s use last year’s Week 17 game between the Packers and Bears as our example. If we ignore that game, the Packers had a +141 point differential on the year. The Bears were at +55 without their Week 17 loss to the Packers. Green Bay was, by this measure, 86 points better than Chicago. We’ll put this game, a seven-point win for the Packers, in a group with other divisional games since 1983 where there was an 81- to 90-point difference between the teams over the course of the season (without the game in question that pitted the two). And then we’ll compare the average absolute point differential in those intradivisional games to the same figure amongst teams with the same range of point differentials in the interdivisional games.
Absolute point differential? If you’re too far removed from your middle school math days, remember that the absolute value of a number is its value without regard to its sign, so the absolute value of -3 is 3. We’re using that here because we don’t really care whether the Bears win or the Packers win in this example. We just care that the final score differential is closer than it would be between the Packers and a similar team to last year’s Bears from a different division, such as the Jets.
The answer is that there really isn’t a big difference between the two sorts of games. Take that 81- to 90-point differential range. In divisional games since 1983, the average margin of victory in the games between such matched teams is 12.3 points. In games outside of the division, the average margin of victory is 11.9 points; they’re actually closer games. This is also true in games between the most similarly matched opposition, in which the average margin of victory is 10.3 points in divisional games and 10.6 points in games outside the division. That’s one touchdown of difference every 20 games or so.
In all, the average margin of victory goes from 11.6 points in divisional games to a whopping 11.7 points in contests between teams who don’t play in the same division. There might be something about the Bears and Packers that make the two teams play close games, but it’s the unique matchups and situations that come up in their games that make them tight, not anything related to their divisional status. And for every series like the Bears-Packers rivalry, there’s one like Broncos-Raiders, where the average margin of victory in their six games from 2008 to 2010 was a full 21 points. It’s safe to let this idea go. Familiarity might breed contempt, but it doesn’t produce tighter football scores.1
Breaking Down the Viking Funeral
One cool stat: The record since 1983 for most “close” games in a row is held by two divisional rivals. From 1991 through 1996, the Eagles and Redskins played 11 consecutive games that were decided by a touchdown or less, and the average margin of victory in those games was under four points. No other pair of teams has pulled off more than eight consecutive close games in a row over that timeframe, but those teams with eight in a row include legendary rivalries like, uh, Arizona-Detroit and Baltimore-Jacksonville.
Since Brett Favre threw that interception in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, the amount of fun involved with being a Vikings fan has declined at a seemingly constant rate. Blowing leads in three consecutive games has not stopped this inexorable march toward relocating the team to Los Angeles. Take heart, Vikings fans: You’ve had leads in three consecutive games heading into the second half, which is a pretty good sign that there are going to be some wins on the horizon. But don’t blame Donovan McNabb.
The biggest difference between the way the Vikings play during the first half of games and the second half has been the relative disappearance of their pass rush. During the first half of their three games so far this year, the Vikings have sacked opposing quarterbacks on 10.3 percent of their dropbacks. No team had a sack rate higher than 9 percent last season, so that would make the first-half Vikings pass rush just about the best unit in football.
During the second half, though, things change. The Vikings have sacked the opposing signal-caller on just three of their 75 dropbacks, which produces a miserly sack rate of 4 percent. The worst pass rush in football last year sacked quarterbacks 4.3 percent of the time, so that’s right — the Vikings have swung from an elite pass rush to a terrible one during the two halves of their games this year. If they can maintain their pass rush through a full game, well, they’ll start winning.
Watch Out For Sustainability
If you made it through our epic NFL preview before the season, you probably noted how frequently the issue of sustainability came up. This sustainability has nothing to do with carbon footprints, though; it’s about having the underlying statistics to back up your win-loss record. Those buzzwords like the infamous “Pythagorean expectation”? Those are measures of sustainability.
On a weekly basis, teams have outcomes that don’t match their performance. Last year’s Chargers dominated most of the games they were in and lost because their special teams couldn’t stop people from blocking punts. Or they’d go 90 yards and fumble twice in a row. The Steelers might have beat the Colts on Sunday night, but they can’t expect to face someone the caliber of Curtis Painter every week from here on out.
With all that in mind, we’ve looked over this week’s statistics and found a pair of events or trends that are particularly unlikely to recur — one positive, one negative. Consider this your warning.
The Jaguars nearly beat the Panthers in their monsoon game on Sunday, but they got some help from the fumble gods. The pigskin hit the deck five times during that game, and all five times, the Jaguars recovered. In all fairness, one of those fumbles ended up becoming a play where Jags punter Matt Turk had to run for it and produced no gain, but you would think that one of Blaine Gabbert’s three mishandled snaps would have fallen into Panther hands. Remember when the Bears did this in Week 1 and we mentioned how it had a dramatic impact on them winning?2 Well, the Bears backed that up by playing good football. Imagine how bad the Jaguars played if they recovered five fumbles and didn’t even win.
The Bears, by the way, recovered all three of the fumbles in their game against the Packers on Sunday. On the season, they’ve now recovered 10 of the 12 fumbles in their games.
The Raiders, meanwhile, were able to overcome the Jets despite failing to convert on a single third down with an offensive play all game. That only happened seven times last year, and in those seven games, the team with no third-down conversions went 1-6. That one win was a 36-14 Chargers shellacking of the Colts. In that game, Peyton Manning threw four picks, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and the Chargers got five field goals from Nate Kaeding. It all seems so long ago now. The only team to put up an oh-fer in this category twice last season was the Bears (Week 4 and Week 6, with Todd Collins in against the Seahawks), so the Raiders aren’t likely to pull off this disappointing feat again. And it will be to their benefit.
Five Up, Five Down
1. Ryan Fitzpatrick: I called Ryan Fitzpatrick a “going-nowhere retread” in the first part of our NFL preview. Well, the reason he’s going nowhere is because Buffalo’s probably about to sign him to a lucrative contract extension. Fitzpatrick was 27-of-40 for 369 yards in the Bills’ emotional comeback victory over the Patriots, and he was arguably better than the raw numbers. While the Bills were down 21-0 at one point in the first half, Fitzpatrick was producing consistently effective drives that marched down the field and flipped the terrible field position he’d been given. After throwing two interceptions (including one unlucky pick on a tipped pass) during Buffalo’s first two possessions, Fitzpatrick settled down and produced four drives of 66 yards or more, throwing in an additional 39-yarder for a touchdown from a short field.
Buffalo, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but things won’t always be this good. Eighteen-point comebacks don’t happen in consecutive weeks. Literally, according to the NFL, no team’s ever done that in consecutive weeks. Fitzpatrick’s been sacked just once in 111 dropbacks, an unsustainable rate that’s helped create time for Donald Jones, Scott Chandler, and company to get open. (And if you’re a Patriots fan, their inability to take Fitzpatrick down once in 40 dropbacks is the thing to be worried about this morning, not Tom Brady.) The schedule gets a lot tougher after Week 4, just as it did when the Bills started 4-0 in 2008 and finished 7-9. But Buffalo’s a better team than I think a lot of people, including me, expected.
2. Wes Welker: The Bills were able to contain Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco outside, but they had no answer for the combination of Welker and Rob Gronkowski in the slot. Two hundred seventeen yards for a guy who catches as many short targets as Welker is downright absurd. Even more impressively, Welker needed only 20 targets to catch those 16 passes; his short routes consistently produce a high catch rate,3 but 80 percent is a legitimately impressive figure, even for someone as frequently effective as Welker. By the way, with 458 receiving yards on the year, Welker has already reproduced more than half (54 percent) of his receiving yardage total from last season. And it’s Week 3.
Catches divided by targets.
3. Darren McFadden: One hundred seventy-one yards on 19 carries is an impressive enough performance against any run defense, let alone one as consistently dominant as the Jets. Those carries only produced four first downs, but McFadden also had two touchdowns by halftime, including a 70-yard scamper that was the longest run allowed in the regular season by Rex Ryan’s defense by a full 35 yards. Our favorite, though, was a 27-yard run in the second half where McFadden apparently had a pass read and decided to pump-fake while he was nine yards past the line of scrimmage. Who does he think he is, Brett Favre?
4. Torrey Smith: If the Ravens offense is going to work, they’re going to need Torrey Smith to serve as a viable deep threat against their wide variety of underneath options. They’ve needed someone who could stretch the field since Joe Flacco and his huge arm arrived, but options like Mark Clayton and Donte Stallworth have been incapable of getting past — or even occupying — opposing safeties. The former Maryland receiver caught touchdowns on his first three professional catches, each of which saw him blow by his assigned defender with a lethal dose of speed. It’s hard to imagine that a gimpy Lee Evans will be able to keep Smith off of the field when he comes back from his foot injury.
5. Jermichael Finley: Aaron Rodgers is incapable of avoiding his tight end in the end zone. After Finley went down with a knee injury last season, Rodgers found time to throw to Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree. If you weigh 240 to 270 pounds and are willing to wear a number in the 80s, Rodgers would likely find you for three or four scores a year if you suited up for 16 games. Of course, with a legitimately devastating weapon like Finley, Rodgers can pull that off in one game. Finley finished with three scores because the Bears simply don’t have anyone who can cover him in the red zone, and even outside of his money spot, Finley finished 7-of-8 for 85 yards with three additional first downs.
And with our compliments all used up, here are the five players who laid an egg on Sunday.
1. Kevin Kolb: This isn’t going very well so far. The numbers from Week 3 don’t look terrible: 25-of-39, 252 yards, a touchdown, two picks. But realize that this came against the Seahawks, who had allowed Alex Smith and Ben Roethlisberger to go 38-of-51 for 421 yards over the first two weeks of the year. And go look at the drive log: Kolb had 12 drives against this awful pass defense and produced just one that went more than 50 yards. Oh, and his touchdown pass was an awful decision that miraculously produced a positive outcome: Kolb escaped a sack and threw off his back foot into double coverage, but the ball managed to elude the outstretched hands of two Seahawks defenders before Larry Fitzgerald snatched it away. The Kolb experiment may very well end up working, but it sure wasn’t producing anything on Sunday.
2. Antonio Cromartie: You probably saw Cromartie’s muffed kickoff that led to a Raiders touchdown on the highlights. The Jets have an unsustainable record of recovering fumbles in their games over the past couple of seasons, but Cromartie’s muff was the perfect example of what not to do with a bouncing ball, even if there’s seemingly nobody around. Just fall on the damn thing. It works. Even without the muff, though, Cromartie’s day was disastrous. The Raiders produced 25 first downs and four of them came thanks to Cromartie penalties, including a pair of defensive pass interference penalties that gained 36 yards.
3. The Bears running game: During each of his tenures as offensive playcaller, Mike Martz seems to get in a situation where his offense is accused of lacking the vaunted balance required for success. It captures the effect of successful passing — the ability to perform a lot of run plays in the second half with a lead — and considers it to be the cause. Well, Mike Martz gave the public their offensive balance on Sunday, when the Bears ran the ball 10 times and produced a total of two rushing yards. Only three of those plays even went for positive yardage. Just let Mike Martz be. When you shake the beehive, you make no gains and losses fall out.
4. Michael Turner: Last year, the Buccaneers had the league’s fifth-worst run defense in football according to DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). In his two games against the Bucs, Turner had 48 carries for 195 yards and three touchdowns. Tampa Bay’s run defense was 19th through two weeks per DVOA, but Turner should have been able to make a dent in their front seven and push the pile for consistent yardage. Instead, he had 11 carries for 20 yards. One of those carries was for nine yards, so he otherwise had 10 carries for 11 yards. The problem with Turner is that he is a terrible receiver and marginal pass-blocker, so he needs to run the ball effectively to justify his role in the starting lineup.
5. Andy Reid: Remember the short-yardage disasters that pockmarked the final years of the Donovan McNabb era? They reappeared on Sunday. The Eagles ran six offensive plays inside the Giants’ three-yard line and didn’t punch the ball in. They ran the same nonsense that they used to run with McNabb — the fullback belly play that never gets any separation, the deep handoff, the poorly timed sneak — and threw in a stuff on fourth-and-1 for good measure. The Giants scored on the subsequent drive and took a lead they never relinquished.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part IV
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part III
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part II
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland
NFL Free Agency: Winners, Losers, and Who’s Left
Flash Over Substance: DeSean Jackson and the Eagles
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