The Patriots 28-21 bouncing last week at the hands of the Jets wasn’t quite as surprising as many made it out to be. No, this has nothing to do with Tom Brady’s broken foot. (Or feet of any kind, Rex.) Sure, Football Outsiders pegged the Pats as an all-time juggernaut and the Jets as merely this year’s 6th-best team. But this loss is a lesson in two of the simplest elements in football: stopping the run and winning the turnover battle.
Turnovers are often cited as a good in-game predictor of victory. Win the turnover margin and more often that not you will win the game. Which was the first potential red-flag for the Patriots, since so much of their success and efficiency was predicated on turnovers. In its last eight games, New England was +23 in turnover margin. They set the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season with ten.
The only problem with relying too heavily on turnovers is that it doesn’t take much for even the best teams to eventually fumble or have a tipped pass intercepted. The Patriots had three games this year in which they turned it over more than their opponents:
- @ Cleveland (35-14 loss)
- vs. Baltimore (23-20 win)
- @ New York Jets (28-14 loss)
And in each case, they were at least -2 in turnover differential. That’s 19% of their games in one of the best turnover seasons of all-time. In a single-elimination tournament, it’s not the best predictor of victory. Instead, that seems to be rush defense. According to Burke, from 1998 to 2008 (121 playoff games) 66% of the time the team with the better run defense wins. Note the relatively small correlation between the turnover-based factors.
This year, the Jets defense ranked third in rushing yards per attempt. The Patriots 16th. Ironically, just as the Jets won the turnover battle — the Patriots botched punt was effectively a second turnover — the Patriots actually averaged more yards per carry in the game than New York. But much of that was allowed by the Jets in time-consuming drives during the second half. The Patriots averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in the first half.