Rematch!

There were no True Wins handed out yesterday. The Ravens, Patriots, Giants, and 49ers treated us to two extremely close football games. Close games generally come down to luck to determine the winner; indeed, I thought both games would be close but was fortunate to pick both winners last week. Regular season True Wins and actual wins both predicted the Patriots victory but failed on the Giants, who are underrated by wins measures due to their ridiculous strength of schedule. For the first time since 2007 (and only the fourth time since 2002), actual wins is going to beat out True Wins in predicting playoff games. Both measures suggest the Patriots will win the Super Bowl, since they have far more wins and True Wins than the Giants, and actual wins are a half game up going into the final (5.5 games correct to 5 games correct):

The two championship games had some common themes, actually. The “offensive” teams (Patriots, Giants), playing against good defenses, did not have their usual panache. However, they both stacked the box and shut down the “defensive” teams’ (Ravens, 49ers) vaunted running games. The defensive teams completed some important throws down field in response (unusual for them), which put both in a good position to win. The 49ers blew their chance with two untimely fumbled punts, and the Ravens blew theirs by dropping a TD pass and missing a field goal. (Check out Adrian the Canadian’s analysis of the drop if you’re unsure on the call; it was probably correct.)

It was clear that the Patriots were better than the Ravens in general play. Despite losing the turnover battle 3-1 (including a fumble that gifted the Ravens a field goal), the Patriots held on to win. As I noted yesterday, teams that lose the turnover battle only win 20% of the time, and fumbles are mostly driven by luck. Flacco was inaccurate as ever — even a completed deep ball to wide open Torrey Smith was well underthrown, letting the defense recover and make the tackle.

The Patriots had chances to blow the game open. Brady missed Gronkowski (wide open) for a touchdown early,  and Belichick failed to challenge a second quarter Gronkowski catch (called no catch on the field) that would have set up first and goal. The Patriots settled for field goals on those possessions instead, and the game stayed close because of it. (By the way, Gronkowski’s scary ankle injury seems to be no big deal.)

In the late game, the 49ers were probably better but had some really bad luck. Their pass rush dominated, as it did against New Orleans. Eli Manning took some sacks but did extremely well to not turn the ball over or get flagged for intentional grounding. He did fumble once, but it was recovered by the Giants). Ahmad Bradshaw also fumbled (recovered by the 49ers), but referees ruled that his forward progress had been stopped. The referee blew his whistle before the ball came out, so even if the play were reviewable (it’s not), Bradshaw may have justifiably relaxed before the fumble even occurred, ruining the legitimacy of a review (I see this inadvertent whistle as much more impactful than a whistle after a fumble).

Adrian the Canadian wrote about similar issues with referee and rule discretion for this blog after the Lions-Saints and Steelers-Broncos debacles in the wild card round this year. I’d say the 49ers got the short end of the review rules this time. Philosophically, how is determining whether forward progress had ceased different from determining whether the running was down before he fumbled? My best guess is that the forward progress decision is highly subjective, so the NFL is trying to keep attention off it.

The 49ers had poor fortune on their side of the ball too, losing turnovers on two punt returns by Kyle Williams. Who knew they would miss Ted Ginn so much? The Giants scored a tying fourth quarter touchdown and the winning field goal off of those miscues. Last week, I wrote about the 49ers dependence on turnovers. It’s difficult to run all the way to the Super Bowl with that method, since you are bound to get unlucky in at least one playoff game. The 49ers offense was too weak to overcome their bad luck against the Giants. As I’ve been arguing throughout the playoffs, the 49ers are probably a few offensive players away from a Super Bowl.

Two more areas worth mention from yesterday’s games:

Coaching Blunders

Belichick screwed up by not challenging the Gronkowski catch early in the AFC championship game, but the Harbaughs really bring home the bacon on coaching blunders this week. Their genetic similarity was on full display on Sunday. Down 10-7 in the third quarter, Justin Tuck ran into 49ers punter Andy Lee on fourth down and six. Instead of taking the penalty and going for it on fourth and one on the Giants 44, Jim Harbaugh let the Giants keep the ball on their own seven. The defense stopped the Giants, and the offense bailed out Harbaugh with two long passes for a touchdown from bad field position. In general, the 49ers do not sustain drives. Precisely because their defense is so strong, they should take chances whenever they reach the other side of the field. They might not get back there again anytime soon.

Up 14-10 in the fourth quarter, the 49ers had fourth and one in the same position, and surprise, surprise, they punted again. Eli Manning marched down field for a go-ahead touchdown. The 49ers got a nice kickoff return and tied it up with a field goal, but their offense struggled to move the ball for the rest of the game. After watching their abysmal offense all game, I was shouting for them to go for it on fourth and two rather than kick that tying field goal from the seven yard line. The 49ers never crossed midfield again, and Harbaugh turned down another fourth and one in over time (this time from his own 31, granted).

Now it’s John’s turn. The Ravens had fourth and one on the Patriots 3 yard line, down 3-0. I turned to my buddy Nate the Great and said, the Ravens are going to lose if they kick the field goal. Billy Cundiff boomed it through the uprights, and the Ravens did indeed lose. What did the Patriots do in the same situation early in the fourth quarter? They called a hurry up QB sneak and Brady heroically dove over the pile (nearly getting broken in half) for the touchdown. I also give Belichick/Brady credit for calling some crazy around end QB sneaks, which largely worked. Score one for Belichick over Harbaugh.

Perhaps John’s biggest mistake, however, came at the very end of the game. As explained by Stefan Fatsis at Slate, Cundiff was extremely rushed taking the kick. Whatever the reason for the rush, Harbaugh should have realized it and called a time out. Perhaps he was worried about icing his own kicker a la Jason Garrett, but we all know that doesn’t work. Cundiff missed the kick, and the Patriots are headed to the Super Bowl.

Unsung Heroes

For the Ravens – Patriots game, Vince Wilfork is my unsung hero. Mike Reiss at ESPN describes his performance well. From bull rushes to blowing up running plays, Wilfork was a monster in this game. He usually blows up blocks and disrupts plays but doesn’t make many tackles; yesterday he was making those plays and getting the tackles, in the running game and the passing game.

For the 49ers – Giants game, both punters deserve a lot of credit. Andy Lee was awesome all year for the 49ers. On a team with a horrible offense, the punter is extremely important. Lee and Steve Weatherford (for the Giants) had 10 and 12 punts, respectively, and neither shanked a single one. Both averaged over 45 yards a punt, without allowing any substantial returns.

More to come on the Super Bowl in the next week or two, but for right now, I’m taking the Patriots and I think they will win easily. It’s a revenge game, Belichick’s favorite.

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7 responses to “Rematch!

  1. Pingback: Part 2: did Lee Evans make the catch? | Causal Sports Fan

  2. Pingback: Part 1: did Lee Evans make the catch? | Causal Sports Fan

  3. I don’t know if the standard is the same in football as it is in hockey, but in hockey, the play is dead as soon as the referee makes the mental decision to blow his whistle. Whether the whistle is actually blown before the impugned play occurs is irrelevant. For example: say there is a scramble around the goal net and the referee loses sight of the puck. As a result, he believes it is covered by the goalie and decides to blow the play dead. However, as he is bringing the whistle to his mouth, a player knocks the puck into the net. Even though the goal is scored before the whistle is actually blown, the goal does not count. The play is dead the moment the referee makes up his mind to blow the whistle.

    Would the same principle would apply to the Bradshaw fumble? On replay, it seemed like the ball was stripped prior to the whistle actually sounding. It may have happened in that split second between the referee deciding forward progress was stopped and him actually blowing his whistle. Maybe the reason NFL rules prohibit review of this type of play is because a review would not be unable to capture a referee’s mental decision?

  4. Interesting – you’re right that the whistle was just after the “fumble.” It always struck me as odd that, in a goal review in the NHL, the referees have to figure out the moment at which they first conceived of blowing the whistle. This seems almost impossible to do on replay. I don’t think anything like this exists in the NFL, but it raises a great philosophical point about whistles. This makes a strong case for referee discretion with the whistle (see Adrian’s post that I link above), where the referee avoids blowing it if he’s at all unsure, since they can always go back and say the runner was down, but the often can’t award a fumble if the whistle blows. Of course, in hockey and football pileups, the whistle is blown partly for safety reasons, so there’s a trade off.

  5. The ESPN narrative after the AFC Championship (at least for podcasts/radio) was largely that Flacco had an incredible game. There was a huge focus on the Lee catch/Cundiff blunder that sort of discounted the other 58 minutes of this game. The ultimate theme was that basically, the Ravens won.

    I’m a biased Patriots fan, but I noticed your article seems to reflect the games I actually watched. Any ideas as to why the unusual coverage?

  6. Yeah, I noticed that too. I think the main reasons are sad ones: search optimization and trying to drum up controversy. I had my buddy Adrian the Canadian write about that non-catch at the end of the game, and I’m still getting hits every day on his posts (here’s part 1 https://causalsportsfan.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/did-lee-evans-make-the-catch/#more-679, be sure to read part 2 as well if you’re interested).

    The big takeaway from this game for me was that the Patriots have, yet again, built around a few superstars (Brady, Wilfork, etc.) and are finally getting everyone else settled in. In other words, who cares that they only beat one team with a winning record all year (the Ravens in the championship game)? They are peaking at the right time and had numerous chances to blow the game open against one of the league’s best defenses.

  7. Pingback: LOS LIIIIIINNNNNNKKKKSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! | Causal Sports Fan

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