Posted: Tuesday January 4, 2011 5:48PM ; Updated: Wednesday January 5, 2011 12:55PM
Kerry J. Byrne
Kerry J. Byrne>COLD HARD FOOTBALL FACTS

Cold Hard Football Facts (cont.)

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NEW ENGLAND

devin-mccourty.jpg
Rookie Devin McCourty has led the late-season resurgence of the Patriots secondary.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI

The Cold, Hard Football Facts: You might have whiplash if you followed the sudden and unexpected improvement in New England's pass defense.

As recently as Thanksgiving, New England ranked a dismal 27th in Defensive Passer Rating (94.7). No team in history had won a championship with a pass defense even close to that porous. The Patriots weren't going to win one either.

Here's the performance of QBs against New England's defense through 10 games:

• 275 of 396, 69.4%, 3,002 yards, 7.58 YPA, 20 TDs, 13 INTs, 94.7 rating

But look again. Here's the performance of QBs against New England's defense in the past six games:

• 114 of 216, 52.8%, 1,343 yards, 6.2 YPA, 5 TDs, 12 INTs, 56.5 rating

Wow. What a difference. As a result, the Patriots end the year a respectable 13th in Defensive Passer Rating (81.2), about the leaguewide average. And they finish second in Passer Rating Differential (+28.5). The average NFL champion, dating all the way to 1940, has posted a Passer Rating Differential of +27.0.

Dominate the air wars, dominate on the scoreboard. And over the past six weeks nobody has dominated the passing battles on both sides of the ball like New England.

NEW ORLEANS

The Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Saints are a shadow of their former Super Bowl-winning selves.

The 2009 Saints provided a textbook example of the importance of dominating the passing lanes on both sides of the ball. Drew Brees posted a league-best 109.6 passer rating, one of the most efficient seasons in history, and set an NFL record by completing 70.62 percent of his passes. The Saints defense, meanwhile, was third in the league in both INTs (26) and Defensive Passer Rating (68.6). New Orleans easily led the NFL in Passer Rating Differential.

The result was a Super Bowl title that was led by Brees' dominance over the Colts and the defense's pick-six off the prolific Peyton Manning.

The 2010 Saints fall far short of that winning formula on all counts. Brees has thrown 22 interceptions (second most in the NFL) and his passer rating has declined nearly 20 points from last year's standard. Defensively, New Orleans has picked off just nine passes all year, the fewest in the league, and its Defensive Passer Rating has tumbled from 68.6 last year to 83.2 this year.

N.Y. JETS

The Cold, Hard Football Facts: It's up to you, New York's Defensive Hogs.

The Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index is one of the most compelling stats in football, if we do say so ourselves. It rates each defensive front and it is a sterling 25-8 picking playoff winners since we introduced the indicator in 2007.

The Jets finished the season No. 4 on the Defensive Hog Index. Among playoff contenders, only the top-ranked Steelers -- a Defensive Hog dynasty -- were better.

New York's defensive front was great against the run, allowing just 3.57 YPA (third). They were 12th in the NFL at forcing sacks and INTs and were very good on third down. Opponents converted just 36.7 percent of attempts.

The 2007 Giants and the 2008 Steelers rode the league's best Defensive Hogs all the way to a Super Bowl title.

Considering the generally inept performances you get from Mark Sanchez and the passing game, the Jets will need the same kind of performance out of their highly rated D-Hogs if they want to be king of the hill.

PHILADELPHIA

The Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Eagles sure know how to kill a buzz.

Hard to believe it was just three weeks ago that the football world was buzzing about the high-flying Eagles, thanks to their explosive Big Play tour de force against the Giants. Philly scored 28 points in the final 7:28 to shock Big Blue and essentially wrap up the NFC East title.

The Eagles looked like world beaters on the field and in our Big Play Index, which tracks all those critical, game-changing plays on both sides of the ball that so often prove the difference between victory and defeat.

But those explosive Eagles disappeared in the final two weeks of the season, with punchless losses to the lousy Vikings and Cowboys. Philly produced five Big Plays and 28 points in the fourth quarter of the Giants game alone. They've produced just 27 points and four Big Plays in the eight quarters since.

The Eagles will need to return to Big Play form, and fast, if they have any shot of overcoming a defense that gave up a whopping 377 points.

PITTSBURGH

The Cold, Hard Football Facts: How many Super Bowls does a guy have to win to get some respect around here?

Ben Roethlisberger's name never comes up when it comes time to name the elite quarterbacks.

It should.

The truth is Big Ben is one of the most prolific passers in the history of football. The problem is many fans and pigskin pundits are obsessed with meaningless volume numbers and not the meaningful efficiency numbers -- such as average per attempt -- that have a high correlation to success.

Roethlisberger's career average of 8.04 yards per attempt is the fifth highest mark in the history of football. Three of the guys ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame (Graham, Luckman, Van Brocklin). He's topped 8.0 YPA in a season four times in seven years. Peyton Manning's done it twice in 13 seasons. Tom Brady? Just once.

The Steelers instantly became contenders the day Big Ben walked on the field. And they are a threat to win it all again. Roethlisberger's historic ability to puncture defenses with long passing plays is the biggest reason.

SEATTLE

The Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Seahawks should have the decency to cede their playoff spot to a more worthy team -- like the Lions.

Only two teams in NFL history reached the playoffs with a losing record before Seattle plumbed new depths for a division "champ" here in 2010. And those two teams had an excuse: the Browns and Lions each went 4-5 in the strike-shortened season of 1982 and reached the postseason only because the NFL adopted a 16-team playoff format for that one year only. Both teams were beaten badly in the first round.

Expect a similar fate for the 7-9 Seahawks. The team looks even worse than its 7-9 record when examined beneath the harsh klieg light of our Quality Stats: they fail to rank in the top half of the league in any one of our major indicators, and rank 25th or worse in five of them.

The usually moribund Lions, who closed the year with their first four-game win streak since 1999, would present a tougher challenge to the NFC playoff field.

ColdHardFootballFacts.com is dedicated to cutting-edge analysis and to the "gridiron lifestyle" of beer, food and football. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook. E-mail comments to siwriters@simail.com.

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