The two conference championship games this weekend were both very interesting. The Patriots-Ravens game was interesting in that the Ravens won while the Patriots were big favorites – there were also a few interesting decisions that you may have read about in the meantime. The Falcons-49ers game was interesting not because the result was unexpected, but because I think the reaction to it almost ignores what actually happened in the game.
As a quick note, the models did well enough. The numbers I had put the 49ers in as a 4 point favorite, so that game was a push. The Patriots were 8 point favorites and while they thought New England would win, Luigi and Yoshi 2 were correct in picking the Ravens to cover. Yoshi 1 thought the Pats would win by more than 9, so it was wrong. So it was a good week for Luigi and Yoshi 2, not so hot for Yoshi 1.
On to the games. I think the biggest storyline to come out of the Patriots-Ravens game is the strangely passive decisions that Belichick made throughout. While they don’t go for conversions perhaps as often as a strict expected-points analysis would suggest, the Pats do go for it more often than most teams; that wasn’t true at all on Sunday. I won’t cover all of their decisions, since you can get it just as well from Advanced NFL Stats. But I’ll describe the first quarter since it’ll set the scene well enough. It started on the first drive when they punted on 4th and 2 from near midfield. They did at least show a fake and force Baltimore to use a time out, but that seems like a minor victory (and one that might be more valuable in the second half, if you anticipate being ahead and needing to run the other team out of time outs).
After forcing a three-and-out, the Patriots drove nearly 70 yards and ended up with 4th and 2 at the Ravens’ 12. This seems like a prime place to go for it and either stick the Ravens deep or get a touchdown, but the Patriots kick a field goal to go up 3-0. The Pats forced another short drive (a first down on the first play, then three plays and a punt) and drove to the Baltimore 35 to face a 4th and 9. This is classic no-man’s land, and 9 yards is a ways to go. They punted instead of try the 52 yard field goal or go for the first. I can kind of understand this decision, but why not call a deep pass play? Throw it up for grabs regardless and hope for a catch or pass interference, or maybe an interception that acts as a punt. As it stood, the play worked well enough since the Ravens were stuck on their own 8 and could only muster 14 yards before punting again. The Patriots took over on their own 47, but decided to punt again on 4th and 2 from the Ravens’ 45.
So in the first quarter alone, the Patriots faced four fourth downs and all of them had an argument for a conversion attempt. Instead they kicked a field goal and punted the other three times, never from farther away than their own 42. It was an extremely passive set of decisions. My guess is that the Patriots decided that with the cold and the wind, not only would field goals be difficult but that passing itself could be tough. If passing is hard, and you think that the Ravens would only win by being able to throw the deep ball (which I think was a fairly common perception), then it makes a certain amount of sense to play conservatively and win the field position game. It was going well enough for the Patriots after that first quarter (they were only up 3-0 but had been winning the field position battle and stifling Baltimore’s offense), but on their drive to end the first/start the second quarter the Ravens put that idea to bed by going 90 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, including passes for 11, 17, and 25 yards. At that point, maybe the Patriots should have opened it up. They did score a touchdown on the immediately following drive, but later on they would still settle for a field goal at the end of the half due to poor clock management (following their one successful fourth down conversion attempt) and punt on 4th and 8 from the Baltimore 34. From there on they didn’t face any more meaningful decisions because they didn’t have another 4th down worth trying for until they were losing by 15.
In short, the Patriots might have been playing conservatively to start, but they should have realized they needed to change tactics when they ended the half only up 13-7, or certainly when they were shortly later down 14-13 (following a drive where the Ravens ran 11 plays, 10 of them passes). Good teams should play conservatively, but that doesn’t mean passively. The Patriots are as good as they are in part because they take worthwhile risks; they didn’t take any of those risks on Sunday until it was too late.
Beyond that, the Patriots were done in by two things: drops and turnovers. I’m having trouble finding the actual number of drops in the game, but while watching it I felt like there were more than the Patriots usually have, and perhaps in more important places (e.g., third downs). And they turned the ball over three times to the Ravens’ zero; that’s a huge deficit to overcome. The first was Ridley’s fumble near the start of the fourth quarter after the Ravens went up 21-13 and the other two were interceptions, one after the game was effectively over and one off a tipped pass that wasn’t really Brady’s fault. The main surprising part of the fumble for me is that TMQ didn’t raise a fuss over it; he is typically all over head safety. He mentions it was a legal hit because ball carriers aren’t protected and because Ridley lowered his head when he was hit, but he has certainly complained in the past that blows to the head deserve many more penalties than they throw flags for.
On the other side, the Falcons and 49ers game was much more interesting. For the Falcons it was essentially a repeat of the Seattle game; go up big, blow lead, go for the comeback. However, this time the comeback came up short. If you want some interesting numbers for the weekend, how about this: the Patriots outgained the Ravens by 72 yards, ran more plays, and had more yards per play; the Falcons outgained the 49ers by 104 yards, ran more plays, and had the same (essentially) yards per play; both teams lost. Why? As with the Patriots, the Falcons turned the ball over more often.
The Falcons made it look easy early on; they finished the first quarter up 10-0 and with the ball at the SF 20 while the 49ers had run 6 plays for -2 yards. Remember, this is the 49ers team with a stout defense and an unstoppable offense. The Falcons scored on the first play of the second quarter to go up 17-0. Then we had something of a flashback to the week before as the 49ers put together two long drives for touchdowns, but the Falcons answered back with a two-minute drill touchdown to finish the half up 24-14. That’s when things really went sour.
The 49ers started the second half with a touchdown drive, then intercepted the Falcons near midfield. They missed a field goal try that would have tied it, but Ryan fumbled a snap that the 49ers recovered. The 49ers were inches away from converting that turnover into a touchdown, but Crabtree fumbled and Atlanta recovered. Of course, one of the benefits of being that close to scoring is field position even if you don’t; Atlanta had to punt from their own 10 and the 49ers had a short field after a good return and scored the go-ahead touchdown.
I think the interesting part of this game is that when it was over, the 49ers were immediately hailed as the winners they should have been before the game was played. As far as I can tell, no one is paying attention to how they were dominated for much of the first half and were losing for over 45 minutes; no one seemed to mind too much when Atlanta turned the ball over on downs at the 49ers’ 10 after a questionable no-call on a pass to Roddy White. The official closest to the play couldn’t make the call because he was almost directly in the way of the pass and so the play was behind him; later in the day, an official in the same spot would tackle Tom Brady by running directly towards him while Brady was scrambling. Not that I think either was done on purpose, but perhaps they should try to position officials where they won’t get in the way? The Falcons had a very winnable game (at one point, the ANFLS tracker had them at 94% to win) and were 10 yards away from back-to-back blown lead comebacks, yet the 49ers are the only thing I get to hear about this week. Maybe next week when most of the storylines have been exhausted and we’re into round 10 of the Harbaugh stories, someone will remember that the 49ers are somewhat fortunate to be in the Super Bowl.
I’ve already run the model for the Super Bowl, so the pick will come later this week. But beyond that, I won’t have too much to say about the game in particular. Unlike ESPN, I don’t have to fill two weeks of your life with mindless content. The game is set; I’ll make my pick and wait to see what happens.