Chargers, Patriots a showdown of the statistically dominant
Despite an explosive offense, San Diego's biggest obstacle is limiting mistakes
Tom Brady's exceptional Week 1 was the ninth-best game of his career
The stats make a strong case that Philip Rivers is a better passer than Brady
ColdHardFootballFacts.com breaks down Sunday's San Diego at New England game (4:15 p.m., CBS).
The Chargers travel cross country to face the Patriots in a test of manhood between two statistically dominant pigskin powers. Each team harbors legitimate dreams of a refreshing confetti shower in February.
1. Stupid is as San Diego does. The Cold, Hard Football Facts refer to the Chargers as the Forrest Gump of the Gridiron: physically gifted, but a little slow upstairs.
If only they had the war hero turned shrimp entrepreneur's flair for being in the right place at the right time.
Year after year, San Diego fields talented clubs, especially on offense, that fail to live up to expectations. There was no better example than the 2010 Chargers. They were a statistical dynamo in most phases of the game, but came out of the gates slow, kissed away a few games along the way, ended the year 9-7 and failed to reach the playoffs.
The campaign ended in disappointment despite the fact that San Diego was a 2010 leader in many of the Quality Stats that we use to measure teams:
No. 1 in Passing Yards Per Attempt
No. 1 in Defensive Passing Yards Per Attempt
No. 1 on our Defensive Hog Index (i.e., best defensive front), tied with AFC champion Pittsburgh
No. 2 in Offensive Passer Rating
No. 4 in Defensive Passer Rating
No. 3 in Passer Rating Differential
Year after year, teams who dominate those indicators win Super Bowls, or at least compete for them. San Diego barely topped .500. Few teams in history boasted a greater disparity between prolific statistical domination and on-field success.
The problem with the Chargers is they play poor situational football and make huge game-costing mistakes time and again with penalties, turnovers and on special teams. The beauty of the Cold, Hard Football Facts is that they can prove what we need to otherwise judge only with the eye test.
San Diego, for example, finished No. 28 last year on what we call the Bendability Index, our measure of defensive efficiency. It tracks the "bend but don't break" phenomenon. Opponents scored 7 points for every 94.2 yards of offense. Only the Bengals, Broncos, Panthers and Cowboys were worse.
In other words, the Chargers surrendered a lot of cheap points.
For a little perspective, Super Bowl champion Green Bay finished No. 1 on the Bendability Index (AFC champion Pittsburgh finished No. 2). Packers opponents scored 7 points for every 144.2 yards of offense -- a much more difficult road than the one San Diego forced teams to march.
The 2011 season began ominously, too: Minnesota's Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown in San Diego last week. The Chargers came back to win 24-17 at home -- but the win was a lot tougher than it should have been. Those cheap points (and two turnovers) were a big reason why.
Against a powerful team like New England, those mistakes will be much harder to overcome and the prolific Patriots offense certainly needs no help finding cheap points.
2. Tom Brady is at the absolute peak of his game. New England's future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback is in the midst of the most prolific period of his career -- and it has little to do with his historic 517-yard effort against Miami last week.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts put virtually zero stock in volume indicators such as passing yards. We put all our stock in efficiency indicators, such as passing yards per attempt. You should, too. We don't care how often you pass the ball -- just how well you get it downfield when you do pass.
Year after year, teams win not when they pass for more yards, but when they're more efficient in the passing game. It's a historic truism that dates back to the dawn of the T-formation in 1940.
Week 1 of the 2011 season was no exception: teams that passed for more yards went 6-10; teams with a higher average per pass attempt went 13-3. You see this phenomenon week after week, year after year.
So it's through this prism of efficiency that Brady is playing better than ever.
Brady has topped 10.7 yards per attempt in a game 10 times in his career. Four of those performances have come since Thanksgiving, a period of just seven regular-season games. It's either a curious statistical coincidence -- or evidence that New England's passing game has never been more productive than it has been over the last half season or so of football.
Here's a look at the 10 best games of Brady's career based on Passing Yards Per Attempt -- a critical Cold, Hard Football Facts Quality Stats because it has a direct correlation to winning football games.
|Tom Brady: Passing Yards Per Attempt|
Wow! As prolific as Brady was Monday night in Miami, he boasts eight games in his career when he was actually more productive and efficient -- three of them in his previous six regular-season games. The hits have come in a sudden flurry that makes Brady, right now, more dangerous than he's ever been.
3. San Diego's Philip Rivers might actually be a better passer than Brady. New England's quarterback is always at the top of the list when it comes time to name the game's best quarterback. And it's hard to argue that he's not the best at this point in his career.
NFL players certainly agree: they named Brady the No. 1 player in the NFL this past off-season. Rivers was No. 26 -- and sixth among quarterbacks.
Nobody will argue that Rivers is a better quarterback than Brady, certainly not the Cold, Hard Football Facts. Hell, we told the football world that Brady was the best QB in the game back in 2004, long before it was politically correct to do so (the statistical markers were already there if you look at the right indicators).
With that said, you can make a legitimate argument that Rivers is a better passer than Brady.
Let's look at some key career Cold, Hard Football Facts for each quarterback, especially those that measure efficiency and not volume (where Brady has a clear lead because he's played so many more games). The better numbers are in bold.
|Quarterback Efficiency Numbers|
The general public might assume that Brady's numbers are vastly superior across the board. But, as you can see, they're not. Brady is slightly better at getting the ball into the end zone and at avoiding mistakes. His TD-INT ratio, meanwhile, is No. 2 all time, behind only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (2.81 to 1).
Rivers is not far behind in any of those three indicators. Meanwhile, he's been slightly more accurate, his average per attempt is more than a half-yard better, and his passer rating is higher.
Rivers, in fact, has put up some historic numbers. He's No. 2 all time in passer rating, behind only Rodgers (99.1). Brady is No. 5 in career passer rating. It should be noted that passer rating is a deceiving historic list. It's dominated by contemporary quarterbacks who enjoy playing in a QB-friendly era: modern offensive style favors high-efficiency passers while the modern rule book handcuffs defenses more and more each year.
Average per pass attempt is a much better way to compare passers across eras. And in this area, Rivers is joined by Tony Romo (8.07) and Ben Roethlisberger (8.02) as the most productive passers of the past half century.
None of this is to say that Rivers is a better quarterback than Brady. It's merely to point out that Rivers is quietly putting together Hall of Fame numbers. Now he just needs to win a Super Bowl or two for more people to notice.
Love line play? Of course you do. You're a pigskin purist.
Well, San Diego-New England offers the promise of one of the great statistical clashes of the 2011 season.
The Patriots boasted the best offensive line in football last year, No. 1 on our Offensive Hog Index. The Chargers boasted the best defensive front in football last year, No. 1 (tied with Pittsburgh) on our Defensive Hog Index.
Each indicator measures NFL teams in three key areas of success: How well they run (or stop the run), how well they avoid (or create) Negative Pass Plays (sacks, INTs) and how well they convert (or stop) third downs.
New England's Offensive Hogs raced out of the pen with a dominant performance against Miami in Week 1. In fact, they enter Week 2 No. 1 again on our Offensive Hog Index.
San Diego's Defensive Hogs did not live up to their lofty 2010 standards in Week 1. They were gashed for a brutal 159 yards and 6.12 YPA on the ground. But they are No. 1 after Week 1 in one key area, forcing Negative Pass Plays. The Chargers forced Donovan McNabb into two sacks and one INT in just 17 drop backs -- a rate of a Negative Pass Play on 17.6 percent of dropbacks.
Certainly, it's a small sample, so you can't read too much into it. But if the Chargers can keep up that pace, it bodes well for them long term. The 2010 champion Packers, for example, were No. 1 at forcing Negative Pass Plays; the 2009 champion Saints were No. 6; the 2008 champion Steelers No. 1; the 2007 champion Giants No. 2. Forcing sacks and INTs, in other words, is critical to championship hopes.
The Chargers will need to force plenty of sacks and INTs on Sunday to mitigate the historic production of the New England passing attack. But it's no small feat against a club whose Offensive Hogs have been the best in football for more than a year.
The Chargers and Patriots have met five times since the 2006 playoffs. The Patriots have won four of those five games.
The games usually follow a similar pattern: San Diego gives New England's normally dominant offense a hard time and forces Tom Brady into more mistakes than normal; San Diego moves the ball consistently; but then the "stupid is as stupid does" Chargers lose the game because they commit bad penalties, make mistakes on special teams and/or fail to convert most of their red zone opportunities on offense.
Expect that pattern to continue in Foxboro on Sunday.
Pick: New England 27, San Diego 24
Last week's pick: Detroit 24, Tampa 20
Last week's result: Detroit 27, Tampa 20
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