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:
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.
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.