All week long I have been attempting to gather information and analysis from a variety of perspectives on Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in order to make an informed opinion on how this game may turn out, and what the most likely result will be.

Sadly what I found was an overwhelming percentage of misinformed conclusions that were based on either flawed logic, or flat out mis-truths. With that in mind I will try to separate some of the facts from fiction, and some of the sane rationale from the pretzel logic.

 

The Ravens are more battle tested with a better winning record versus winning teams; therefore they will beat the Patriots.

Fact: the Ravens do indeed have a better winning winning record than the Patriots do in games against teams that finished the season with a winning record: 7-1 as opposed to 0-2. With that in mind many are concluding that this means that the Ravens will beat another team with a winning record and the Patriots will lose to another team with a winning record, right?

Though it sounds logical there is zero historical data to back up that hypothesis, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to refute it as well. This year’s Packers were 5-0 and last year’s Patriots were 7-1 versus winning teams, and both lost their first playoff game after a first round bye. The 1999 Rams and the 1974 Steelers both won Super Bowls without beating a single team in the regular season with a winning record. Cold Hard Football Facts performed a detailed analysis to determine if their was a correlation between a team’s record versus winning teams in the regular season and playoff success and found nothing to substantiate that claim.

Being “battle-tested” is largely a myth, at least when defined by playing against teams with winning records. Still, the results here are interesting, as people always thought the teams that get through the tougher schedules are better suited to win in the playoffs. Not true.

But as we’ve seen way too often, the one and done creates that “anything can happen” environment, which leads to unexpected results, upsets, or chokes (depending on your fan affiliation).

That’s the nature of the playoffs. Didn’t get your quality wins earlier this season? What’s stopping you from getting them now? Everyone’s a good team at this stage of the game.

Look at this one more way: what if the wording was changed just so slightly to ‘teams that do not have a losing record’ rather than ‘teams with a winning record’; practically the same thing, right? That minimal of a change shouldn’t create any monumental shift in the statistics if it was a significant indicator, would it? Check this out: the Patriots record moves from 0-2 to 8-2 while the Ravens 7-1 mark becomes 9-2. Is the difference between 8-2 and 9-2 even worth mentioning?

So why do we keep hearing this stat repeated? Is it because the football analysts on television, radio and print are that clueless, or is it because they are media savvy and realize this topic will generate interest? I would say that based on the number of fans that repeat this stat the answer is the latter.

 

The Ravens are better than their numbers indicate because they have played a tough schedule while the Patriots’ numbers are inflated due to playing an easy schedule.

This one is sort of a cousin to the first statement, which has already been shown to be untrustworthy. So let us take a look at each team’s offense versus the defenses that they faced, and each team’s defenses versus the offenses that they faced.

Baltimore Ravens Defense
Average Points Allowed: 16.6
Average Points Scored by Opponent’s Offense: 19.4
Points Differential: +2.8

Baltimore Ravens Offense
Average Points Scored: 23.6
Average Points Scored by Opponent’s Defense: 20.0
Points Differential: +3.6

Baltimore Ravens Total Point Differential: +6.4


New England Patriots Defense
Average Points Allowed: 21.4
Average Points Scored by Opponent’s Offense: 21.3
Points Differential: -0.1

New England Patriots Offense
Average Points Scored: 32.1
Average Points Scored by Opponent’s Defense: 22.9
Points Differential: +9.2

New England Patriots Total Differential: +9.1


The bottom line is that the stats show that the Patriots have a very good offense, and that the Ravens have a very good defense – and that both team’s statistical rankings were aided somewhat by playing mostly mediocre to subpar opponents. Here is some more information on those opponents, using the most important statistic: points.

Ranking of Ravens opponents offenses, based on points per game:
21.5, 21.5, 32, 13, 10, 28.5, 24, 21.5, 23, 18, 11, 30, 28.5, 5.5, 30, 18
total average: 21.0
average in games won: 21.5
average in games lost: 19.6

Ranking of Ravens opponents defenses, based on points per game:
1, 8, 26, 20, 4, 11, 18, 1, 7, 9, 2, 5, 28, 22, 5, 9
total average: 11.0
average in games won: 10.7
average in games lost: 12.0

Ranking of Pats opponents offenses, based on points per game:
20, 5.5, 14, 16, 13, 15, 21.5, 9, 13, 31, 8, 28.5, 26, 25, 20, 14
total average: 17.5
average in games won: 18.1
average in games lost: 14.8

Ranking of Pats opponents defenses, based on points per game:
6, 22, 30, 29, 20, 16, 1, 25, 20, 12, 10, 28, 21, 24, 6, 30
total average: 18.7
average in games won: 18.7
average in games lost: 18.7

The only real takeaway from all of the stats above is that the Ravens faced superior defenses than the Patriots did, and the Patriots faced superior offenses than the Ravens did. In other words it’s a wash; neither team had a ‘tougher’ schedule than the other one did.

 

That leads me up to the final oft-repeated factoid we all keep on hearing: “the 31st ranked defense”, which for most of the season was referred to as “the league’s worst defense” or “the worst defense in the history of the NFL”.

So is this statement fact or fiction? Well, the only way it can be construed as technically factual is if you include that word ‘ranked’; otherwise you are sliding from a factual statement to opinion. The NFL does indeed rank team offenses and defenses based on yardage, so it is indeed factually correct in that regard that the Patriots have the 31st ranked defense. As a result many jump to the conclusion that those rankings are a highly accurate portrayal of how well a team’s offense or defense is performing.

Excuse me, but exactly when was the last time a team won a game by a score of 421 yard to 345 yards?

So are yardage stats a relevant indicator to measure a team’s success? Let’s take a look at the top ten teams and bottom ten teams in yards allowed from this season.

Top ten: Steelers, Texans, Ravens, 49ers, Jets, Jaguars, Bengals, Eagles, Seahawks, Browns
Five playoff teams, five non-playoff teams

Bottom ten: Packers, Patriots, Bucs, Raiders, Panthers, Giants, Bills, Colts, Saints, Lions
Five playoff teams, five non-playoff teams

Essentially, you are just as likely to be successful with a team that gives up lots of yards as you are with one that does not. In addition you are just as likely to be unsuccessful with a team that gives up a lot of yards as one that does not.

 

So if yardage is not a good indicator of a team’s potential for success, then what is? Let’s take a look at turnovers.

Teams with a turnover differential of +6 or more:
49ers (28), Packers (24), Patriots (17), Lions (11), Falcons (8), Seahawks (8), Giants (7), Texans (7)
Seven out of those eight teams made the playoffs.
Protecting the ball and forcing turnovers is key in the NFL.

By contrast, teams with a turnover differential of -6 or more:
Bucs (16), Redskins (14), Eagles (14), Cardinals (13), Steelers (13), Colts (12), Broncos (12), Chargers (7), Dolphins (6)
Seven of these nine teams did not make the post-season, reinforcing the theory that turnovers are key to winning in the NFL.

 

Remember a few years ago when the media would constantly talk about time of possession and how important that was? You still hear that occasionally but for the most part that talk has quieted down. Why? Because time and again the team that ‘controlled the clock’ ended up losing. But how could this possibly be? For years we had been told how important that was. It’s pretty simple really. For one thing an eight-minute touchdown scoring drive results in the same number of points as a three-play TD drive – and all those additional plays make it more difficult to pull off. But more importantly TOP disregards the effects of turnovers. A pick six results in zero time of possession, and a turnover setting up a short scoring drive results in very little time of possession.

 

The other thing one of those turnovers does is skew yardage numbers. Team A drives forty yards and throws a pick 6. What happens next? They get the ball back and add more yardage to their stats! Team B eventually forces them to punt or maybe limits them to a field goal. At this point Team B is winning the game, but Team A is dominating time of possession and the oft-quoted yardage numbers.

 

It’s easy to see why time of possession has become an irrelevant statistic; isn’t it time for the same thing to happen to team yardage stats? Along with that, isn’t it time the media give more credit to offenses that don’t turn the ball over and to defenses that force turnovers? Don’t teams that do the opposite deserve more criticism – regardless of their yardage statistics?

 

Next: a look at actual relevant indicators to Sunday’s game, and who is most likely to win – and why.

 

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