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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:

  1. @ Cleveland (35-14 loss)
  2. vs. Baltimore (23-20 win)
  3. @ 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.

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Just how bad are the Seattle Seahawks? Well, they’re probably the worst playoff team in NFL history.

Even at an embarrassing 7-9, the Seahawks are worse than their record would suggest. According to the Simple Rating System, the Seahawks were the third worst team in all of football. Jeff Sagarin’s ratings had them 29th after the regular season.

They are woeful by all offensive and defensive metrics as well. 29th in yards per play. 28th in total yards. 28th in 1st downs. 27th in yards allowed. Well, you get the idea.

Five of their seven victories came against San Francisco, Arizona (twice), Carolina and St. Louis. Combined record of those teams: 20-44. Even that number is misleading though, because 11 of those 20 wins came against each other — the four NFC West teams and Carolina — and only two of the 20 were against winning teams (San Diego and New Orleans). In other words, five of Seattle’s seven wins came against the other four worst teams in football.

To put into perspective just how bad Seattle is, here are the worst playoff teams by SRS in the 10 years since divisional realignment:

  1. 2004 Rams -6.0
  2. 2006 Seahawks -3.6
  3. 2004 Seahawks -2.9
  4. 2008 Cardinals -1.9*
  5. 2004 Vikings -1.7
  6. 2005 Bucs -1.0
  7. 2003 Panthers -0.9*
  8. 2008 Dolphins -0.5
  9. 2003 Cowboys -0.5
  10. 2009 Cardinals -0.3

*Reached Super Bowl

Half of those teams are from the NFC West, including the four worst. All of this tomfoolery is only made possible by the octet of divisions created by realignment. The fewer teams per division, the more mathematically likely it is to have a distribution in which a division winner is a really bad team. It’s darn near impossible to have 16 of the worst teams (of 32) in the NFC. It’s not that hard to have four of them reside in a single division.

(The obvious solution is to simply eliminate the automatic berth a division title provides. Unfortunately, the odds of Michael Vick playing for the Falcons again are greater than that ever happening.)

The scary part about Seattle is how much worse they are on the road. At home, they outscored opponents by 0.4 points per game. Away from Qwest, they were outscored by 12.2 points per game. That’s 0-16 Lions territory; Detroit was outscored by 15.6 per contest in 2008.

The win over New Orleans was borderline miraculous, but the Saints SRS was only slightly above average at 2.3, so we aren’t exactly talking Chaminade over Virginia here. Another win at Soldier this weekend would be a legitimate miracle.

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One of the talking heads on ESPN – I can’t remember which, they all look the same at this point – noted that Michael Vick should be the MVP of the league over Tom Brady because of…wait for it…Matt Cassell.

Matt Cassell you say!?

Here is the argument: Cassell won 11 games in 2008 when Brady was injured. So how valuable can Brady be to the Patriots if they just kept on ticking with some backup quarterback?

It’s a reasonable place to start, but as I will explore in many future posts, evaluating an NFL quarterback is just about the hardest task in sports analysis. It’s a complex interaction of 11 offensive players and 11 defensive players and the two respective coordinators playing chess with those pieces. So I won’t be too dogmatic here.

But let’s look at this claim more closely. The 2008 Patriots had an offfensive SRS of 2.3 (11th in the league) against a weak schedule (-2.4). They scored 25.6 ppg and averaged 5.3 yards per play…which happened to be the league average.

This year’s Patriots have the second highest offensive SRS since the 2000 Rams Greatest Show on Turf (12.6), behind only Tom Brady’s 2007 Patriots (a record 15.9 OSRS).

Here’s how the 08 Patriots stack up against the 07 and 10 Patriots:

The New England personnel was similar from 07 to 08, but the results weren’t in the same stratosphere. And Cassell’s rushing attack in 08 netted 142 yards/game on 4.4 ypg. That’s better than Brady’s running game from the previous year, which yielded 115 yards per game on 4.1 yards per carry.

Comparing 08 to this year, Brady isn’t throwing to Randy Moss anymore, but to Deion Branch and two rookie tight ends. There is no Kevin Faulk. Two former practice players – BenJarvis Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead – comprise the backfield. And they’ve all been quite good, but it’s pretty hard to argue that they’re better than the 07 or 08 supporting cast.

The real kicker is that Cassell isn’t just some backup. He’s emerged as one of the better QB’s in the league this year, posting a 96.2 QB rating (fifth in the NFL after week 15) with 24 TDs. He’s even fifth on Peter King’s MVP ballot this week. So, at least by these standards, Brady’s offenses are That Much Better than what an elite QB did in the same organization.

Matt Cassell isn’t evidence for Michael Vick’s MVP candidacy.* He’s evidence for Tom Brady’s.

*The case for Vick: Philadelphia’s 7.8 Offensive SRS and the Eagles are 8-2 in his full games, averaging 31.6 ppg, 414.7 yards per game and 6.5 yards per play (!). The case against: 2-2 v Sagarin’s top 10 and he missed almost a quarter of the season, which means he’d have to be 33% more valuable than Brady to exceed his contributions.

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