This past weekend saw a rarity in the NFL. All four playoff games went right down to the wire. Underdogs covered their Las Vegas pointspreads in all four matchups. In fact, underdogs won two of the games outright. The most lopsided final score as posted by an underdog, when Indianapolis upset Baltimore by nine points.
The weekend of thrillers had fans and analysts talking a lot about "clutch" ability. Some teams reportedly "choked." Others "rose to the occasion" with their seasons on the line. Close games are always seen as tests of will, with intangibles like guts and character determining who advances and who doesn't.
Can clutch ability be measured? Can we even agree on what it is? This is one of those things that people supposedly know when they see. Would you consider the following second half performance clutch?
*Only 30% on third down conversions
*Allowing 50% on third down conversions
That looks like a fade out to me. It's certainly not "clutch." Believe it or not, that's what the New England Patriots did in the second half of their dramatic come-from-behind victory over the San Diego Chargers. Rallying from behind to win on the road is about as clutch as it gets in the NFL playoffs. New England was able to do that DESPITE giving the ball away twice in the second half (San Diego gave it away three times), and DESPITE an inability to convert third downs.
Because we had four outcomes decided by second half execution (or lack thereof), I thought it would be interesting to see how all eight teams performed in a few key areas. I've selected stats that are generally accepted as being important for success in big games. Let's see if the winning teams really did get the job done in these areas...and let's see if we might uncover something in the numbers that will help us pick next Sunday's conference championship games.
The key areas:
*Third Down Conversions
*Yards per Possession
*Points per Possession
I've gone through the drive charts and play-by-play charts for each game on nfl.com to get the SECOND HALF numbers in these key categories. That's when the game was on the line for all eight teams. That's where we're most likely to see if "clutch" performance exists.
To keep things simple, I simply ranked the teams from top to bottom in each category. You'll get a sense of the standards just by looking at the data. The best efforts, and the worst, will jump off the page.
SECOND HALF GIVEAWAYS
New Orleans 1
New England 2
San Diego 3
This is just the first category, so there's no need to overanalyze this one particular area. You can see that San Diego gave away their spot in the championship round with constant miscues. Philadelphia was the only team to avoid giveaways, so this category in and of itself may not mean all that much. Let's see what the others are saying.
SECOND HALF THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
New Orleans 75%
San Diego 50%
New England 30%
Now some pieces are starting to fit together. Sure, Philadelphia didn't turn the ball over. They didn't convert any third downs either. They clearly played conservatively in hopes of staying in the game. It worked for pointspread players, but didn't get the team to the next round. San Diego was second best this weekend at moving the chains with the game on the line. It wasn't enough to trump the turnovers. New Orleans really shines in this category. They're clearly better than Chicago in this area heading into the NFC championship round.
SECOND HALF YARDS PER POSSESSION
New Orleans 36.0
San Diego 24.3
New England 23.6
Note: I excluded possessions that were just kneel downs to end a half or game.
Again we see New Orleans at the top, and again we see Chicago struggling. Was that because Chicago was playing a much tougher defense? No, both Philadelphia and Seattle have been vulnerable against good offenses this year. The Saints offense is just light years better than Chicago. We see it in these key categories. And, we also see why the Bears had trouble shaking the Seahawks in regulation. The offense can't do much, which places a big burden on the Bears defense.
I decided to rank from top to bottom to give a sense of the full weekend. In this particular category, it's informative to look at the matchups:
Indy 28.2 beat Baltimore 19.8
New Orleans 36.0 beat Philadelphia 31.0
Chicago 20.8 got by Seattle 23.4 despite the deficit
New England 23.6 got by San Diego 24.3 thanks to an extra turnover
The most one-sided result matched the most one-sided result on the scoreboard. Indianapolis had the best second half yards per possession mark in the AFC. Chicago and New England basically survived coin flips.
POINTS PER POSSESSION
New Orleans 2.8
New England 1.6
San Diego 1.2
New England makes a leap up the standings here because they found a way to get points on the board when it mattered. That's certainly an element of clutch play. Moving the ball in the middle of the field is useless if you don't score any points. The Patriots were the only AFC team to score more than 7 points in the second half this past weekend.
Performances in those categories help us set up some profiles for the coming weekend:
NEW ORLEANS: the Saints were great on offense. Their defense left something to be desired. The Eagles showed up very well in many of these categories, suggesting that the Saints defense is the weakest unit still alive in the playoff race. It should be noted that the Saints will be playing outdoors in a Chicago winter this Sunday, rather than inside their cozy dome on a fast track. That could be a bit of an equalizer. Still, Seattle took the Bears to overtime on that field. New Orleans has been playing MUCH better than Seattle the past several weeks. And, the fact that the Saints defense didn't allow any third down conversions in the second half to Philadelphia could bode well for their chances at victory too.
CHICAGO: the Bears were pretty awful on offense when the game was on the line. They managed just three second half points playing on their home field against a mediocre opponent. This is a team that's led by its defense. Their defense was far from overpowering against the Seahawks. Strong, absolutely. But, so strong that they'll make up for the weak offense? It's hard to see that. The Bears will have to pick up their game on both sides of the ball.
INDIANAPOLIS: the Colts did a good job of moving the chains and keeping their defense off the field. They could only put two field goals on the board though. That was enough to secure a victory. We have to admit that Indy's defense has sparkled so far in the playoffs. The offense is keeping them fresh, and they are wreaking havoc when on the field. That's a model that can work in this league.
NEW ENGLAND: the Patriots weren't quite as clutch as the glowing postgame stories would have you believe. The defense allowed San Diego to convert 50% of its third down tries. Two of the San Diego turnovers came without the Pats defense on the field. So, it's not like the Patriots stop-unit was making up for vulnerability by taking the ball away. They don't deserve credit for a muffed punt, or an interception by San Diego that got fumbled back on the same play. Tom Brady took advantage of his opportunities. Had he not gotten those bonus opportunities, the team would be sitting at home this week.
What does that mean for this weekend's conference championship showdowns?
*Chicago will have to lift its game to beat New Orleans. The Vegas line is assuming something that hasn't been visible to the naked eye yet. Don't forget that Chicago lost at home in its only playoff game last year. EDGE: NEW ORLEANS plus the points.
*New England is more vulnerable than everyone realizes based on a series by series look at the second half of its upset in San Diego. If the Colts don't spend the afternoon giving the ball away, their ball-control offense and fresh defense just might send Peyton Manning to his first Super Bowl. EDGE: INDIANAPOLIS minus the points.
We'll check on the clutch stats again next week to see if they correctly foreshadowed a New Orleans/Indianapolis Super Bowl. The fickle god of turnovers may have something to say about both championship battles. Even the deities love football!