Cold Hard Football Facts: Avoiding interceptions crucial for success
Dolphins had almost no chance to win after Chad Pennington's four INTs
Teams that have thrown two INTs have a .314 winning percentage in playoffs
Statistics show not throwing INTs is more important than throwing TDs
The official NFL gamebook says that the Ravens-Dolphins wild-card game ended last Sunday at 3:56 p.m.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts say it ended at around 2:15 p.m., with 2 minutes, 30 seconds to play in the first half.
That's when Miami quarterback Chad Pennington threw his second interception -- bad enough to throw picks in any playoff game, but this one was made even worse by Baltimore's Ed Reed returning it 64 yards for a touchdown.
Statistically speaking, the game was over.
In fact, throughout the Super Bowl era, teams that throw interceptions lose games -- and the second INT is the true killer, the one that should be charged with teamslaughter in the court of pigskin jurisprudence.
There is probably no play in sports, certainly not in football, that singularly impacts the outcome of a game as much as an interception. Whether it's a deep fourth-down lob that's as good as a punt, a Hail Mary that ends in an INT instead of a game-winning score, or an Ed Reed-style back-breaker that's returned for a touchdown, interceptions, in all their forms, kill the teams that throw them. It's always true in the NFL, but the devastating effects are heightened in the do-or-die maelstrom of playoff football.
We've chronicled the impact of interceptions with our Interception Ladder. It basically says this: With every interception your team throws, it takes one giant step toward defeat. In fact, on average, a team's chances of winning decline by about 20 percent with every interception.
Look at the below table. It includes the results of every playoff game in the Super Bowl era (through 2008-09 wildcard weekend).
The trend could not be more obvious: if you don't throw an INT, your chances of winning are pretty good. Let the other guy make the mistakes. Yet even with that first pick, the odds are still in your favor.
It's the second INT that really sends teams over the edge -- with just this one single play, a team's chances of victory drop by a devastating 25 percentage points. After that, it just gets ugly.
In Miami's case, it was as good as over when Pennington's second interception was returned for a score. But with his fourth pick, it became a statistical laugher. Teams that throw four or more INTs in a playoff game have a dismal 1-40 record.
Even the lone four-INT victory proves the point: Back in 1981, Buffalo's Joe Ferguson became the first and only quarterback to win a playoff game after throwing four or more INTs in a game. But he had a little help that day: his opponent, Jets quarterback Richard Todd, also threw four INTs. The Bills won 31-27.
The most interesting part of the interception ladder is not just that INTs are costly. Sure, chronicling the actual percentages is nice, but we all know that turnovers cost teams. The most interesting part is that throwing INTs -- or, more specifically, not throwing INTs -- is actually more important than throwing touchdowns in the playoffs.
Teams that toss more touchdowns than their opponents are 207-62 (.770).
Teams that toss fewer interceptions than their opponents are 258-56 (.822).
Last week alone, teams that threw more touchdown passes were 1-2; teams that threw fewer interceptions were 2-1. (The TD and INT numbers were even in one game each.)
It's a bit shocking, considering the name of the game is to get the ball into the end zone. So you would think that getting the ball into end zone is actually a pretty important indicator. It is, of course, as evidenced by the .770 winning percentage. But it's simply more important to keep the ball out of the hands of your opponent.
The importance of protecting the football is best exemplified by Green Bay Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr -- for our money, the greatest QB of all time -- and New England's future Hall of Famer, Tom Brady. They are the most successful playoff quarterbacks in history, based upon winning percentage: Starr went 9-1 (.900) in his postseason career; Brady has gone 14-3 (.824).
Starr and Brady also top the all-time leaderboard in one other key postseason category: they're the least-intercepted passers in playoff history.
Starr was picked off just three times in 213 attempts (1.41 percent).
Brady has been picked off just 12 times in 595 attempts (2.02 percent).
Other quarterbacks have thrown more touchdowns in the playoffs than Starr and Brady. But nobody threw fewer interceptions, and nobody was more successful.
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