The Patriots’ Greatest Enemy

Once christened as God’s team[1], the Patriots have fallen to the status of adequate. Their season record is actually a euphemism that cleverly belies an obvious but ignored fact: it’s not their opponents that beat them, but themselves, and they do it by playing like retards in the second half of every game.

Very rarely do I succumb to the sports fan geekery of statistics. I know stats mean a lot to many sports fans, and they can be helpful, but on any given Sunday, the very worst team can knock the very best team off the planet, and the precious stats junkies wind up looking like a cast iron skillet planed them between the eyes.

However, my little hypothesis requires a bit of stats, and the stats pretty much point where I thought they would.

The Data

I pulled the scores for every Patriots game since the start of the 2009 season. That’s 16 games, plus 1 godawful wild-card game, plus weeks one and two of the 2010 season.

Then I omitted the week 6 2009 game: a 59-0 rout of Tennessee. The game is simply anomalous: they scored 45 points in the first half, 14 in the second and gave nothing. If you score that well in the first half, you won’t be looking to match it after half time. It pads my theory, and it isn’t fair to the opponents in the other 18 games.

Also, I included the Pats’ 35-7 win over Tampa, because it doesn’t follow the same logic as above. At halftime, the score was only 21-7. While the Bucs did look like a bunch of retards trying to hump a doorknob, the scoring actually would help disprove my theory. The Pats scored a touchdown in every quarter (plus another in the first), but more importantly, the game was not a done deal at the half, so I kept that data.

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At first glance, this can look like the Pats are doing okay: they score an average of 24 points, and give up 20. Ergo, they win. But the issue isn’t so much when they win, but how they win, or more importantly, how they lose. These are averages, and when the scores are lower, the averages lower as well, and that makes for much closer games.

Consider this:
When the Pats score more in the first half, it’s a difference of 10.9 points. When they score equal to or more than they did in the first half, it’s only by an average of 2.4 points. Only in two of their games did they score more than 2 points better than in the second half. They scored 5 points more vs. Buffalo (a 6-10 team) and 6 points more vs. Carolina (an 8-8 team).

Check this out:
Number of games when the Pats score more of their points in the first half: 12.
Number of games when the Pats score equal or more in the second half: 6.

God watching his favorite football team in any second half

So you might be thinking, when you come out of the locker room after the half and you’re winning, you’re not looking to score as much as you did in the first quarter. You’re just trying to keep the lead. All that really matters is that when the game is over, you have one more point than the other team.

That argument does hold water. However, don’t just focus on the Pats offense, but also look at the difference in defensive performance between halves. They’re not simply outscoring in the first half; they’re preventing the other team from scoring.

Common sense says your defense keeps kicking ass, you burn the clock, and short of some weird collection of turnovers, you win. But that’s not what’s happening. The other teams are coming out with adjustments, and either the Pats’ defense is:

  1. Lazy/retarded,
  2. Not doing whatever was working in the first half or literally doing the same thing they from the first half (whichever clearly isn’t fucking working) and/or
  3. Expecting that the other team also spent halftime like they did: by drinking tea and debating whether to get wool or flannel sweaters for their beagledoodles before the next Nor’easter.

Here’s a graph of the games from my data set (and I promise I’ll stop with the stats after this):

Of the six games when they didn’t have the lead at the half, they won two. That’s two games where they adjusted over a long period of time and came back.

So, one moral of the story: if you’re playing the Pats this year, kick the shit out of them in the first 30 minutes, or just keep the score tight, and your odds of winning are damn high.

Fuck the Stats

Let’s put the stats aside and look at the first two games of the 2010 season.

NE goes into the half stomping the overhyped offensive juggernaut Cincinnati 24-3. This has the makings of a rout. Second half: the Patriots return the opening kick for a touchdown and don’t see the end zone again until the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Bengals, who couldn’t get near the end zone, put up two touchdowns in the third quarter.

In the third quarter, the Pats had five plays on offense (one of which was a repeat due to penalty.) So the Pats offense got stymied, and the defense just watched the Bengals run the field. From 9:04 in the second quarter, the Pats didn’t score a point on offense until 7:45 in the fourth quarter. That’s more than 30 minutes. Final score: Cincinnati 24 – New England 38.

So, even if the Pats didn’t run the clock in the second half, and even if they did hold a decent lead, my point is that the Bengals made some offensive (and even some defensive) adjustments, and the Pats did not. In fact, the only thing the Pats’ defense did was make the Bengals take a long time to score, but they did anyway. In fact, the Bengals scored a touchdown every drive in the second half, excluding the drive in the final 1:10 of the game, which was too late to catch up anyway. (So the Bengals suck at clock management, among other things.)

Patriots Defensive Coaches Meeting

Pats Defensive Coach Corwin Brown discusses second-half strategy with the defensive coaching staff

Week 2: The Patriots visit the Jets. Long story short, the score with 53 seconds left in the second quarter has the Patriots ahead 14-7. The Jets have a good defense going, and it’s a tight game, but watching so far shows the Pats having a better game on both sides of the ball.

Since 0:53 left of the second quarter, the Jets score 21 unanswered points. Final score: NE 14, Jets 28. Many good things can be said for the Jets defense. I won’t get into it with anyone who wants to argue they have the best defense. That said, if there are three offenses that you would safely bet on to hold their own against the Jets, it’s probably (in this order) the Colts, Saints and Patriots. To think that the Pats don’t score again isn’t totally inconceivable, but at least six points isn’t too much to ask either (and that doesn’t include the two useless field goals they screwed up in that game.)

On the other hand, no sane man would bet that the Jets would score 21 unanswered points against the Patriots. This is not a scoring team. Just the prior week, the Ravens held the Jets to nine points. Mark Sanchez is still a second year QB, and not even a good one at that. Actually, he sucks. The Patriots are supposed to have an above average defense. Against a below average offense, the odds plainly favor New England. Nonetheless, during the half, the Jets clearly adjusted… something, and the Patriots clearly… did not.

They prove that they can score like a French whore on Bastille Day and shut down the best of offenses. Then they prove they can reverse that just as readily. Once upon a time, Tom Brady was the scariest two-minute nightmare to even the best of opposing defenses.

When’s the last time you saw Tom Brady get the team in the red zone in the last seconds of the game to score that winning field goal or touchdown? When’s the last time you watched a Patriots opponent get just on the threshold of beating them, only to watch the last pass of the game bounce off the turf like a disgraced skipping stone across a parking lot? It’s been a long goddamn while.

A lot of this can be said for many once-great teams that eventually fade into obscurity. But the Patriots prove time and again that they still have everything they need to kick the shit out of any team, and they still can… in the first half. They just don’t bring it in the second half.

Sure, you can argue that the Pats still had a good winning record last season. They did, until they got stomped in the wild card game. My bigger concern isn’t so much wins, but versatility. You can win a lot by racking up the score in many games. But if that’s the only way you can win, then you’re setting up for a world of pain when the game is tight. You need to win a variety of ways, and every Superbowl champion (including prior Patriots teams) prove that.

When the Steelers played the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, I said that if the Steelers get an 8 point lead, the game’s over. That sounds like a soft and obvious prediction, especially in hindsight. My point had less to do with the Steelers than the Seasquawks. The Steelers proved all season that they could either dominate or come back and win games, many that they weren’t supposed to according to the bookies. On the other hand, Seattle (and specifically Mike Holmgren) were really bad at managing the clock, mostly because they didn’t have to through most of the season. When they had a clear lead (most of the time) they held it, but they didn’t have a lot of experience turning the tables when they had a deficit.

Unless the Patriots start balancing their wins, or at least stop their opposition, they’re only going to win most of their games when they have a dominating lead. Their greatest nemesis may not be a Rex Ryan or a Peyton Manning. It just may be themselves.


  1. by me. God, too, but his blog sucks.       (back to post)

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