Frankly Football: Three stats that will define the Super Bowl teams
There is nothing better than the start of "real football," but with the beginning of the NFL season comes the usual predictions of which teams will get to the Super Bowl. And with all due respect to my colleagues here at SI.com, 99.9 percent of the time those predictions are wrong.
I cannot think of a more difficult challenge than -- after watching basically three meaningless preseason games, (no starters ever play in the fourth) -- trying to predict which team will be lucky enough to stay healthy, get hot at the right moment and have the right chemistry.
I am sure there are some MIT students who can craft the right formula for the Super Bowl participants, but for me it's way too hard. Yet I do know several key statistics that are essential to the makeup of a Super Bowl-caliber team:
1. Have a successful first-half point differential
I can promise you with a 99.0 percent degree of certainty that the final four teams in the playoffs will be ranked in the top eight of point differential in the first half. For example, last year the Patriots lead the league in first-half point differential with 196. That means the Patriots, on average, went into each halftime with a lead of roughly 12 points. Rounding out the Top 10 in this category were the San Diego Chargers at 104, the Colts at 102, Tampa Bay at 76, Washington at 62, Pittsburgh at 59, Green Bay at 56, Seattle at 55, Jacksonville at 49 and the Cowboys at 23, all playoff teams last season. (The Giants had a plus-two point differential last season.)
Now, what is so important about halftime leads? Well, it forces the opponent to play a near-perfect second half. It also requires the defensive play-caller to not make one mistake, lest he limit his ability to be creative in attacking the passer. Calling a defensive game is a challenge in itself, but calling it from behind is very taxing. Every third down is crucial as your team needs to get the ball back to close the gap. So if the defensive coach makes one mistake -- like calling a blitz and giving up a big play -- then the 10-point deficit might turn into a 17-point deficit, essentially putting the game out of reach. Forcing a defense to play a cautious and conservative game is what most offenses thrive on to be successful.
On average there are slightly more than 13 third-down situations in every game. Teams that convert above 45 percent of their third downs are considered excellent. Every week coaches put tremendous time and energy into breaking down the third-down tendencies of their opponent's defense and learning how their foes plan their exotic blitzes on those downs.
But when a team falls behind and is concerned about not allowing the big play on third down, this reduces their blitzing and makes the game much easier on the quarterback. This is to not imply that if you get a lead, your team will never see any blitzes, but it does reduce the amount of blitzes and makes their predictability much easier to decode.
In 2007, home teams that had the lead at the half had a record of 112-29. Road teams had a 70-24 record. Combined home and away, winning at the half resulted in a 182-53 record, or a .774 winning percentage. I'm not suggesting you change channels or give up on your favorite team if they are behind at the half, just be aware of the odds your team faces trying to overcome the deficit and win the game. Here are the stats from the past 10 seasons:
2. Throw the ball in the first half -- often
Last year only three teams (Minnesota, Oakland and Jacksonville) ran more than they passed in the first half. Most of the playoff teams averaged a 44 percent run to 56 percent pass ratio before intermission. Seattle, Green Bay, Indy, N.E., Dallas, Pittsburgh and the Giants came out trying to establish the pass, therefore most of them had a positive halftime point differential. San Diego and LaDainian Tomlinson had a 48 percent run and 52 percent pass ratio.
There's a famous scene from the mid-80s frequently shown on NFL Films of Bill Parcells telling quarterback Phil Simms to take the air out of the ball in the middle of the third quarter. But even in Parcells' last year in Dallas, he was 43 percent run and 57 percent pass in the first half. Parcells understood that successfully throwing the ball early in a game meant scoring points.
Now, I know the famous Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once said: "Three things happen when you pass the ball, and two of them are bad." But with the utmost respect to Hayes, football has changed -- dramatically. The NFL is a passing league and this Sunday you are going to see the ball in the air more often and earlier than ever before. Because to score, you have to make big plays in the passing game. So each year we are seeing a trend that teams look to establish the pass first instead of the run.