Sunday, January 27, 2013

AFC Championship Runback: Playing Not to Lose

Baltimore 28
New England 13

Let’s come to an agreement on one thing, shall we? From this day forward, the word ‘momentum’ shall be completely and forever eradicated from our football vocabulary. Under no circumstances will it be used. It will become as archaic as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’…and if you’re reading this and you happen to be Amish, then simply replace ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ with words that are archaic in your culture, such as ‘taxes’ and ‘progress.’ 

Why replace one of the league’s most used buzzwords, you ask? Easy…because it’s useless and stupid! Last year, the New York Giants rode the “momentum” of a terrific 3-5 finish to the season (sarcasm) all the way to an improbable Super Bowl victory over a Patriots team that had won 10 straight to that point. Momentum was pretty decisive there, I’d say (more sarcasm). 

This year, it was the Ravens’ turn to kick momentum in the teeth. After losing four of their last five – including a horrific loss to the ageless Charlie Batch – the Ravens looked as lifeless as the two guys who tangled with Ray Lewis back in the day. Flacco was terrible, Ray Rice wasn’t getting any touches, and the defense was an injury away from asking for volunteers from the stands. Things got so bad in Baltimore that they fired their offensive coordinator – WITH THREE GAMES LEFT IN THE SEASON! When has a playoff team ever made that kind of decision?!? Whatever the exact opposite of ‘momentum’ is, that’s what the Baltimore Ravens had.

Thankfully for the Ravens, momentum isn’t a real thing, as evidenced by their victory over a Colts team that finished the season 9-2, a Broncos team that closed their season with 11 consecutive wins, and a Patriots team that had won 10 of their last 11. So yeah, let’s throw that nonsense out the window and never speak of it again.

The truth of the matter is that the Ravens weren’t a very good team heading into the playoffs and have been unusually fortunate in their run to the Super Bowl. From Ray Lewis’ miraculous return from a torn bicep, to Corey Graham’s pick-six off an obvious pass interference, to Rahim Moore’s still unbelievable gaffe, the Ravens were lucky to even reach the Patriots. 

Make no mistake, Sunday’s AFC Championship game win was more of the same, as a Patriots night filled with bad breaks, bad mistakes, and bad decisions was largely responsible for the outcome of the game. That’s not to totally discredit the Ravens performance, because Flacco and company did a fantastic job of capitalizing on those mistakes, but there’s simply no way to ignore the 18th century musket Pat Patriot had pointed squarely at his own foot. Because he shot himself in the foot. The Patriots shot themselves in the foot, is what I’m trying to say. Get it? Good. Moving on.

Of course, some of their bad breaks were simply unavoidable parts of the game. Injuries happen in football, and it just so happened that the Patriots suffered some key ones before and during the game. Rob Gronkowski’s absence left a huge void in the offense, especially in the red zone where New England scored a TD at an absurd 70% clip. Without him, New England was only able to convert one of four red zone trips (Baltimore was 4-4!). If that weren’t enough, the Pats suffered a devastating injury during the game as well. Aqib Talib, the team’s best corner and a perfect matchup for Anquan Boldin, was lost in the first quarter. Afterwards, the Baltimore passing attack blew up, with Boldin specifically raining down terror on the likes of Kyle Arrington.

Dropped passes were also an issue, though I’m much less inclined to point fingers at Wes Welker than others. Was his drop bad? Yes. A catch in that situation extends an already impressive drive deeper into Baltimore territory and could have very well resulted in a two score lead for the Pats. But again, certain things are part of the game, and dropped passes happen. The Pats still had an opportunity to stay aggressive and go for it on fourth down (more on that later), so it’s not as if the drop ended any and all hope of a Patriots victory. Besides, Welker had a pretty impressive day, racking up over 100 yards and catching the team’s only TD of the day. 

What struck me as the most disappointing aspect of the Patriots performance and perhaps the biggest contributor to blowing that game wasn’t an injury or a single bad play, it was the mysterious lack of aggression. Belichick has always been known as an aggressive coach, a guy that isn’t afraid to take risks and go for it even when conventional wisdom says not to. And yet, time after time on Sunday, he chose to take the conservative route, failing to take the initiative and passing up opportunities to put a chokehold on the Ravens. Here are some specific examples from the play-by-play of what I’m talking about:

BAL 12
Gostkowski 31 yard FG good
BAL 35
Mesko punts 27 yards
BAL 45
Mesko punts 35 yards
BAL 34
Mesko punts 21 yards

The guys at Advanced NFL Stats (much, much, MUCH smarter than me) broke down the expected points and win probability left on the board by the Patriots, and I strongly encourage you to read it. There's no denying that mistakes in judgment were made, and I'm not even sure if the numbers arrived at by Advanced NFL Stats tell the whole story. In fact, they qualify as much at the end of their article. Being so conservative is a marked change for the Patriots, and it was obvious that the offense struggled to find a rhythm and quickly became frustrated, quite possibly as a result.

To put it quite bluntly, these mistakes are unforgivable…and we haven’t even mentioned the debacle that occurred just before half! How can something like that happen?! In the AFC Championship game?! With a coach like Bill Belichick?! And a QB like Tom Brady?! How does no one have the sense to call a timeout?!

Of course, we’ll never know for sure how many points the Patriots would have scored if they would have handled their fourth downs and timeouts properly. They very well may have screwed up every last fourth down play and cost themselves the game then and there. I very much doubt that, though. Looking back, I feel certain they left a substantial amount of points on the board. Would that have won them the game; who knows?. What we do know, however, is that according to Advanced NFL Stats' Win Probability Graph, the Patriots had an 80% probability of winning prior to their third quarter punt in Baltimore territory (10:11 left in third). All those missed opportunities, and still an 80% win probability. 

Again, we'll never know what could have happened if the Pats had converted one or both of their FG's into TD's, or it they had extended just one of those drives in Baltimore territory. It's just not possible to know. I'm gonna go out on a limb, though, and say it made would have made a BIG difference. As in, game changing. As Bill Simmons tweeted during the game, "Ravens playing to win, Pats playing not to lose." To me, that's the story of the game. Or you can believe Flacco is elite...your choice.


  1. Much to my chagrin, the ravens have NYG'd their way through this postseason, as you outlined. On the bright side though, I'm calling SF by at least two scores in the super bowl...thoughts?

  2. My goodness you read this fast! Were you literally sitting at your computer as I posted?

    And yes, seems like the 49ers should mow Baltimore down.