Blog by Richard Winer, M.D. for TonySoftli.com
Two weeks of postseason play have led to the NFL’s version of the Final Four. The matchups are compelling with two sets of quarterbacks representing the veteran as well as the younger, more mobile signal callers. It’s almost hard to believe that three of the four remaining teams play in the Mountain or Pacific Time Zones considering only six of the NFL’s 32 teams are based in those two time zones. When the early game is scheduled for Denver, that tells you something about the western tilt of the conference championships. Eight of the eleven playoff games are in the books and we have seen some trends that might be expected. However, there are some other stats that seem to go against conventional wisdom in determining the winners of the games already played. Let’s take a look.
There is no doubt that one of the most glaring trends thus far in the postseason is the run/pass play distribution area. Seven of the eight winning teams have rushed the ball at least 47 percent of the time in their victories while only one of the eight losing teams (Green Bay) has run the ball at least 47 percent of the time. If you look at first down play selection, six of the victors ran more than they passed while only the Chargers rushed the ball more frequently on first down in their loss to the Broncos. In fact, the Colts in their comeback victory over the Chiefs have been the only winner to be outrushed by their opponent thus far. The winning teams have averaged just over 64 yards more on the ground than the losing teams. And get a load of this one: the winning teams have a total of eight explosive running plays in the playoffs while the losing teams are yet to have one run of at least 20 yards.
After an opening week that saw 11 lead changes in the four games, the division playoff round settled down considerably. Only in the Niners-Panthers game which I covered was there any lead change last week. The four winning teams all scored on their first possession of the game while the four losing teams not only went scoreless on their opening drives, but two of the teams turned the ball over on interceptions. Every team that led at the half last week maintained that lead for the rest of the game as there were no second half lead changes. Compare that to last week when every losing team held a second half lead. In eight games, the winning teams have held the lead for nearly 300 minutes while only trailing for just under 70 minutes. Last weekend, every victorious squad led for at least 40 minutes while Seattle and New England both led for more than 55 minutes.
The scoreboard is the obvious place to look for which team is having the better day. If you break down the scoring quarter-by-quarter, you will find that the teams that won have had only four scoreless quarters in the 32 quarters played. By contrast, the losing teams have had 16 scoreless stanzas with five of the eight teams having at least two scoreless quarters. Not surprisingly, the winning teams with the exception of San Diego in their wild card round win over the Bengals have all had first quarter drives in the red zone that have accounted for 44 points. After the Chiefs had two first quarter red zone drives good for ten points in the first playoff game, the losing teams in the next seven games didn’t make a single trip into the red zone in the first quarter.
During the Wild Card Weekend, the winning teams all averaged more yardage on first down than their opponents by a margin of 2.51 yards per play. Last weekend, only half of the winning teams gained more yards on first down, but New England and Denver averaged 2.94 yards more than their opponents. The NFC West survivors were both outgained on first down as the Seahawks averaged 4.77 yards per first down play while the Saints gained 9.09 yards per first down play. The Niners won although their 3.93 yards per first down play has been the lowest by any winning team in the playoffs.
If we are going to be examining the first down yardage, we also need to explore some of the third down numbers. The eight winners are right at 50 percent on third down (52-104) while the losing teams have converted 37 percent of their 100 opportunities. On 3rd-and-1, the winners are an outstanding 16-19 for 84.2 percent after converting eight out of ten in the Wild Card games and succeeding on eight out of nine in Divisional play last week. The losing teams have only made good on nine of their 16 third downs for a 56.3 percent success rate. Even more striking are the numbers on third down with more than ten yards to go. The winning teams only six times have had third down plays with more than ten yards to gain and there have been two conversions, most notably Peyton Manning’s 3rd-and-17 completion on the game’s final drive. The eight losing teams did not convert a single one of their 21 third downs of more than ten yards to go.
A couple of surprises so far revolve around turnovers as three of the four Wild Card Weekend winners lost the turnover battle and were outscored on points after turnovers. The results were reversed last weekend as the Broncos were the only one of the four Divisional Playoffs winners to lose the turnover ratio, but the Chargers did not score after either of the Denver turnovers. Overall, the winning teams are plus-three in turnovers and have only outscored their opponents 37-31 in points off turnovers. Since interceptions markedly affect a quarterback’s passer rating, maybe we should not be so surprised then that only five of the winning quarterbacks have had a higher rating than the opposing quarterback.
One telltale stat pertains to the teams when they start a drive at their own 20-yard line or worse. The winning teams so far have scored on over 40 percent of their 36 drives beginning inside their 20-yard line. The losing teams, however, have scored on barely one-fourth of their 38 drives from no better than the 20-yard line. Failing to score when there is a legitimate scoring opportunity is always magnified in the postseason and there have been five missed field goals—only one by a kicker on a winning team.
Will the trends hold up at the Conference Championships? If this week is like the first two weekends of the postseason, we can probably anticipate a few surprises mixed in with our usual expectations of numbers and trends that typically help determine which teams will earn a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.