By: John Vampatella
Super Bowl 42. The Patriots’ historic offense musters only 14 points against the Giants in a crushing loss, ending the dream of a perfect season. Wild Card round, 2009. The Patriots score just 14 points against the Ravens in a humiliating defeat at home. Divisional Playoff round, 2010. The Jets come into town and limit the Patriots to 14 points before a garbage time TD at the end gives a dominating offensive team 21 points in a loss. Super Bowl 46, rematch against the Giants. The Patriots’ dynamic offense can score just 17 against a far weaker Big Blue defense than the one they played four years earlier. Another tough loss in the sport’s biggest game. And then this year, in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots offense – the 3rd highest scoring unit in history – scored just 13 points in another discouraging defeat to the Ravens.
Just what is going on here? What happens to the Patriots’ offense?
First, let’s go back and see what happened to the Patriots during the 2001, 2003, and 2004 seasons.
- Regular season: 23.2 ppg, 305.1 ypg, 1.8 to/g
- Playoffs: 20.0 ppg, 297.0 ypg, 0.3 to/g
- Difference: -3.2 ppg, -8.1 ypg, -1.5 to/g
- Regular season: 21.8 ppg, 314.9 ypg, 1.5 to/g
- Playoffs: 24.3 ppg, 375.7 ypg, 1.3 to/g
- Difference: +2.5 ppg, +60.8 ypg, -0.2 to/g
- Regular season: 27.3 ppg, 357.6 ypg, 1.7 to/g
- Playoffs: 28.3 ppg, 326.0 ypg, 0.3 to/g
- Difference: +1.0 ppg, -31.6 ypg, -1.4 to/g
- Regular season: 24.1 ppg, 325.9 ypg, 1.7 to/g
- Playoffs: 24.2 ppg, 332.9 ypg, 0.7 to/g
- Difference: +0.1 ppg, +7.0 ypg, -1.0 to/g
From these numbers, what we see is that the offense, during these three playoff runs, performed at pretty much the same level it had during the regular season. The points and yards per game were very similar. But the one big difference was that these Patriots limited their turnovers. During these three championship seasons, they only committed six turnovers in nine playoff games. That was a major reduction in turnovers allowed compared to the regular season.
Now we know that turnovers hurt on so many levels. At worst, it produces immediate points for the opposition. Kurt Warner experienced that first-hand when Ty Law snagged his pick-six in the Rams-Pats Super Bowl. But even if it doesn’t produce immediate points for the opposition, turnovers can either kill scoring opportunities or create excellent scoring opportunities for the other team, or just change the momentum and field position of a game. Turnovers are the single biggest factor in winning and losing a game.
So what has happened during their non-SB-winning seasons?
- Regular season: 23.7 ppg, 352.0 ypg, 1.5 to/g
- Playoffs: 20.5 ppg, 363.5 ypg, 2.5 to/g
- Difference: -3.2 ppg, +11.5 ypg, +1.0 to/g
- Playoff Loss: 13 pts, 420 yds, 5 to
- Regular season: 24.1 ppg, 335.6 ypg, 1.7 to/g
- Playoffs: 31.7 ppg, 334.7 ypg, 1.7 to/g
- Difference: +7.6 ppg, -0.9 ypg, 0.0 to/g
- Playoff Loss: 34 pts, 319 yds, 1 to
- Regular season: 36.8 ppg, 411.3 ypg, 0.9 to/g
- Playoffs: 22.0 ppg, 341.3 ypg, 1.3 to/g
- Difference: -14.8 ppg, -69.9 ypg, +0.4 to/g
- Playoff Loss: 14 pts, 274 yds, 1 to
- Regular season: 26.7 ppg, 397.3 ypg, 1.4 to/g
- Playoffs: 14.0 ppg, 196.0 ypg, 4.0 to/g
- Difference: -12.7 ppg, -201.3 ypg, +2.6 to/g
- Playoff Loss: 14 pts, 196 yds, 4 to
- Regular season: 32.4 ppg, 363.8 ypg, 0.6 to/g
- Playoffs: 21.0 ppg, 372.0 ypg, 1.0 to/g
- Difference: -11.4 ppg, +8.3 ypg, +0.4 to/g
- Playoff Loss: 21 pts, 372 yds, 1 to
- Regular season: 32.1 ppg, 428.0 ypg, 1.1 to/g
- Playoffs: 28.3 ppg, 396.0 ypg, 2.0 to/g
- Difference: -3.7 ppg, -32.0 ypg, +0.9 to/g
- Playoff Loss: 17 pts, 349 yds, 1 to
- Regular season: 34.8 ppg, 427.9 ypg, 1.0 to/g
- Playoffs: 27.0 ppg, 442.5 ypg, 1.5 to/g
- Difference: -7.8 ppg, +14.6 ypg, +0.5 to/g
- Playoff Loss: 13 pts, 428 yds, 3 to
The more seasons’ worth of data we examine, the more the pattern emerges: the #1 key to the Patriots’ offensive failures in the playoffs has been the marked increase in turnovers. In their three Super Bowl winning seasons, the Patriots were +0.1 pts, +7.0 yds, and -1.0 to in the playoffs compared with the regular season. In their seven non-SB-winning seasons, the Patriots were -5.0 pts, -28.2 yds, and +0.7 to in the playoffs compared with the regular season. Notice the difference in turnovers. They went from -1.0 in their championship seasons all the way to +0.7. That’s nearly two full turnovers per game difference! In other words, the Patriots went from being extra careful with the football in the playoffs (and they won) to being extra sloppy with the football in the playoffs (and they haven’t won).
The Patriots’ offense is phenomenal, but it is predicated on moving the ball efficiently down the field, using runs and short-to-mid range passes. They do not stretch the field like some other teams do, but they rack up more first downs than anyone else because they are so efficient. In order to achieve this level of success with this strategy, however, the Patriots need to take care of the football. They are a low-risk, death by a thousand paper cuts kind of offense. But that requires them to keep possession of the ball. Against lesser teams, the Patriots can survive a few more turnovers because they will still score so many points. But against quality teams in the playoffs, lots of turnovers are crippling.
Why do the Patriots tend to turn the ball over more in the playoffs? Part of it is they play defenses that are hard-hitting.
- 2005 Den: 34 takeaways
- 2006 Ind: 26 takeaways
- 2007 NYG: 25 takeaways
- 2009 Bal: 32 takeaways
- 2010 NYJ: 30 takeaways
- 2011 NYG: 31 takeaways
- 2012 Bal: 25 takeaways
Those defenses averaged 1.7 takeaways per game. From 2005-12, the Patriots averaged 1.2 giveaways. So which would prevail: those takeaway-heavy defenses or the giveaway-free offense of the Patriots? Well, as it turns out, during those playoff losses, the Patriots had 16 turnovers, or 2.3 per game – twice their normal rate.
In other words, the Patriots, in each of the past seven playoff seasons, have had major problems with ball security.
But is that the whole story? As usual, stats can shed light on many different things. Yes, the above is all true. The Patriots have turned the ball over at a far higher rate in the playoffs (and especially their playoff losses) than during the regular season since their last Super Bowl title. But let’s look more closely at their last seven playoff losses. Here are their game stats in each of those contests:
- 2005 vs. Den: 13 pts, 420 yds, 5 to
- 2006 vs. Ind: 34 pts, 319 yds, 1 to
- 2007 vs. NYG: 14 pts, 274 yds, 1 to
- 2009 vs. Bal: 14 pts, 196 yds, 4 to
- 2010 vs. NYJ: 21 pts, 372 yds, 1 to
- 2011 vs. NYG: 17 pts, 349 yds, 1 to
- 2012 vs. Bal: 13 pts, 428 yds, 3 to
So in four of the seven playoff losses, the Patriots only had one turnover apiece. And yet in those games they averaged just 21.5 points and 328.5 yards per game, well under their normal averages. So it’s more than just turnovers, though turnovers obviously have been a very important factor.
It would be tempting to say that the Patriots are not built to handle physical, turnover-causing defenses, but that is just not the case. During the regular seasons against these defenses, here’s what they did:
- 2005 vs. Den – Reg Season: 20 pts, 388 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: 13 pts, 420 yds, 5 to
- 2006 vs. Ind – Reg Season: 20 pts, 349 yds, 5 to; Playoffs: 34 pts, 319 yds, 1 to
- 2007 vs. NYG – Reg Season: 38 pts, 390 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: 14 pts, 274 yds, 1 to
- 2009 vs. Bal – Reg Season: 27 pts, 319 yds, 1 to; Playoffs: 14 pts, 196 yds, 4 to
- 2010 vs. NYJ – Reg Season: 14 pts, 291 yds, 3 to; 45 pts, 405 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: 21 pts, 372 yds, 1 to
- 2011 vs. NYG – Reg Season: 20 pts, 438 yds, 4 to; Playoffs: 17 pts, 349 yds, 1 to
- 2012 vs. Bal – Reg Season: 30 pts, 396 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: 13 pts, 428 yds, 3 to
So compare their regular season performance against these same teams with their postseason performance:
- Regular Season: 26.8 pts, 372.0 yds, 1.6 to
- Playoffs: 18.0 pts, 336.9 yds, 2.3 to
They performed significantly better against the very same teams during the regular season than they did in the playoffs, in all three metrics.
Here are a handful of games they’ve played in recent years against similarly tough and hard-hitting defenses:
- 2012 vs. SF: 34 pts, 520 yds, 4 to
- 2012 vs. Hou: 42 pts, 419 yds, 1 to; 41 pts, 457 yds, 0 to
- 2011 vs. NYJ: 30 pts, 446 yds, 1 to; 37 pts, 389 yds, 0 to
- 2010 vs. Pit: 39 pts, 453 yds, 0 to
- 2010 vs. Chi: 36 pts, 475 yds, 0 to
- 2009 vs. NYJ: 31 pts, 410 yds, 1 to
They also struggled in some games vs. top defenses, but these games show that the Patriots are more than capable of big-time production against defenses that are tough, hard-hitting, and like to create turnovers.
So why does the offense suddenly have problems in the playoffs? Well, here are a few conclusions:
- The reason is not that these opponents necessarily represent bad matchups for the Patriots. After all, the Pats have proven that they can move the ball and score against these very defenses.
- The reason is not that there is a particular style of defense that gives them fits. The Patriots can move the ball and score against any scheme and any type of defense.
- A big reason is a marked increase in turnovers, though it is unclear as to why the Patriots turn the ball over more in the playoffs. But it is not the only reason.
- Key injuries have played a major role. In 2007, they had injuries along the offensive line and Brady’s shoulder was injured. In 2009, they lost Wes Welker the week before the playoffs started. In 2011, Gronkowski was a shell of his normal self thanks to the ankle injury he suffered in the AFCCG, and Logan Mankins was playing on a torn ACL. In 2012 they lost Gronkowski in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and played the Ravens in the AFCCG without him (and without Julian Edelman, a loss that should not go unmentioned).
The long story shorter is that there is no one factor as to why the Patriots’ defense has underperformed in the playoffs compared to the regular season. But it is nonetheless a clear fact that the offense has underperformed in the playoffs, against opponents that they have had success against in the past.
If you read this post (http://www.patsfans.com/blogs/vampatella/2013/01/28/big-challenges-come-in-threes/), you will see that the challenge of winning three (or four) straight games against quality opponents is very difficult indeed. In fact, in only 3 of 35 total possible scenarios have the Patriots won 3 straight games against elite opposition, while Brady played a quality game. In the regular season, if you have one off game, you probably lose, but you shrug it off and move on, just like the Patriots did this regular season. But in the playoffs, if you have one off game and you lose, your season is over, and every aspect is examined with a fine-toothed comb.
This is not to suggest that there is nothing wrong with the Patriots’ offense. Maybe it is just the kind of rhythm and timing and precision offense that can be frustrated. Maybe they lack other ways to win. In 2001, they had three playoff games where the offense scored 16 points or less:
- 16-13 win over Oakland – all 16 points were scored by the offense, but it took overtime to get them
- 24-17 win over Pittsburgh – 2 TDs were by the special teams; 10 points were scored by the offense
- 20-17 win over St. Louis – 1 TD was Law’s pick-six; 13 points were scored by the offense
So in those three games, the offense averaged just 13 points a game. And yet they won the Super Bowl. In 2011, the offense averaged 28.3 points a game and they lost one of them. And in that one loss they scored 17 points – one more than the offense scored in any of the three games during their 2001 SB-winning season!
The Patriots can get back to winning the Super Bowl by:
- Reducing their turnovers in the playoffs, or
- Diversifying their offense even more, allowing it to play better in different circumstances, or
- Being healthier, or
- Having the defense and/or special teams step up if the offense is struggling.
Those were the keys when they won Super Bowls. Time to go back to that winning formula.