The Packers and Patriots are the top seeds in each conference.
They went a combined 28-4 in the regular season.
Green Bay chased a perfect season until Week 15, when it suffered its only loss.
New England closed with an eight-game winning streak. When they host a divisional playoff game Saturday night, it will be 63 days since the Patriots tasted defeat.
And neither team will win the Super Bowl.
At least that’s what history tells us.
Yards allowed per pass attempt have historically been one of the most accurate statistical tools when it comes to identifying a team’s chance at success. You have to defend the pass to win big in the postseason, and YPA is the truest measure.
This season, the Patriots finished 29th at 8.04 yards per attempt. The Packers were 27th at 7.83.
No team has ever gone to a Super Bowl with a YPA that high, let alone won one.
Only seven teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger have gone to the Super Bowl with a YPA above 7. Four have won it: 2007 Giants (7.01), 1980 Raiders (7.12), ’87 Redskins (7.15), and ’76 Raiders (7.32).
The highest YPA for a Super Bowl team was the 7.68 of the ’83 Redskins.
But this is all predicated on one huge, looming question: Can past statistics even be applied to the current pass-delirious NFL?
That’s what these NFL playoffs represent: a potential game-changer.
If the Packers or Patriots go on to win the Super Bowl, then what’s past is dead - and no longer prologue. The NFL that we knew will have ceased to exist. It will be an entirely new game. Passing offense is king, there is no queen, and defense is a joke that we tell stories about to our grandchildren.
You might as well just start building up your offenses, because who cares about defense?
It’s no secret that this season saw a passing explosion like never before.
Three quarterbacks - Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford - threw for more than 5,000 yards. Both Brees and Brady broke Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 passing yards in a season, a mark that had stood for 27 years. Aaron Rodgers’s passer rating of 122.5 set another record.
And the league set a record with an overall average of 7.20 yards per pass attempt. That’s actually an improvement from where it was after Week 5 (7.41), but it still represents a substantial 2.86 percent increase over last season (7.0) - the largest gain since it went from 6.64 in 2003 to 7.05 in 2004 (6.2 percent). Of course, that jump coincided with the rules on defensive contact being reinforced after the Patriots’ win over the Colts in the 2003 AFC Championship game.
So if you factor in the jump in YPA this season then, yes, the Packers have a shot at reaching the Super Bowl.
But the Packers or Patriots can’t win it. If numbers mean anything anymore.
We won’t get our answer on that until the Super Bowl is played in Indianapolis Feb. 5. In the interim, Packers and Patriots fans will argue that their teams are examples of how those rules no longer apply.
And they might very well be right.
One of the biggest bones of contention is that other recent teams with similar formulas, namely the ’06 Colts and ’09 Saints, won titles with awesome passing offenses and subpar defenses. But that’s incorrect. Their YPAs were markedly better. The Colts ranked seventh at 6.52. The Saints were 17th at 6.9. They could defend the pass reasonably well, a must to win big in the postseason - historically.
That’s also why the 2011 Saints are excluded. Despite conventional wisdom, their defense is at least average with a 7.05 YPA, which ranked 14th.
There are three other common reasons why Patriots and Packers fans feel their teams are different: quarterback play, turnovers, and points allowed.
The Packers have Rodgers, grabbed 38 turnovers (tied for league high), and allowed 22.4 points per game (19th).
The Patriots have Brady, took the ball away 34 times (tied for third), and allowed 21.4 points (15th).
But other teams have had similar formulas in the past, and their seasons did not end well:
1983 Redskins: The best example comes from the 1983 season, which is eerily similar to 2011. It was also the first full season after a labor battle (the ’82 player strike that caused the season to be nine games) and there was a large YPA bump, 7.02 to 7.18 - the largest until 2004, as well.
This Redskins team was a juggernaut. Washington had the best record in the league by two games at 14-2, won its final nine, and both losses (one in Week 1) were by 1 point. The Redskins’ defense led the league with an amazing 61 forced turnovers - third-most in NFL history - including 34 interceptions. They were even sixth with 51 sacks (this year’s Patriots and Packers have 69 combined) and 11th in scoring (20.8).
The offense scored a then-record 541 points. The Redskins outscored their opponents by a combined 209 points. Quarterback Joe Theismann, who was MVP, was fourth in the league with a 8.09 YPA, and, unlike the Packers or Patriots, the Redskins could run the ball (third in the league) with John Riggins, who set a league record with 24 rushing touchdowns.
Yet Washington ranked 24th out of 28 teams with a 7.68 YPA.
The Redskins demolished the Rams, 51-7, in the divisional round, and took a 21-0 lead on the 49ers in the NFC Championship. But Joe Montana and the 49ers scored the next 21 points and totaled 434 yards (347 passing) for the game. The Redskins kicked a field goal with 40 seconds left to survive. But they gave up 385 yards and were pummeled, 38-9, by the Raiders in the Super Bowl to become one of the greatest teams not to win a title.
2004 Colts: Indianapolis led the league in points (522) as Peyton Manning set then-records for passing touchdowns (49) and passer rating (121.1) as he won his second MVP. He also led the league in YPA by a good margin at 9.2.
The Colts were second with 17 turnovers. Defensively, despite being tied for third with 45 sacks and 36 takeaways, and 19th in scoring (21.9), they were 28th with a defensive YPA of 7.6. They went 12-4 and beat the Broncos, 49-24, in a wild-card game. Their season ended with a 20-3 loss at New England in the divisional round as the Colts lost the turnover margin, 3-0.
1976 Colts: They went 11-3 in the regular season as their offense ranked first in points, total yards, and YPA (9.05) behind MVP quarterback Bert Jones. But the defense, despite allowing just 17.6 points per game (13th) and forcing 36 turnovers, had a YPA of 7.54 to rank 26th out of 28 teams. The Colts were spanked, 40-14, at home by the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs after allowing a season-high 526 total yards (301 passing).
So there you have three prime examples of potent offenses, behind MVP quarterbacks, playing with defenses that limited scoring and took the ball away in the regular season, but failed to deliver in the postseason.
However, if there is one area where these Packers and Patriots far outdistance their predecessors, it’s turnover differential. They ranked second (plus-24) and third (plus-17), respectively, this season.
But it’s hard to compare that statistic historically because the game is different. In ’83, teams totaled 1,114 turnovers, and that number has consistently dwindled to where there were 809 this season. That’s a 27.4 percent drop over 28 years.
But there’s little doubt that the Packers and Patriots have triumphed so far, in spite of their defenses, because they take the ball away and take care of it far better than everyone but the 49ers (plus-28). Only two teams have made the postseason with a higher YPA than the Patriots, and three for the Packers. The best record was the 1981 Chargers (10-6).
They’ve accumulated their lofty win totals because of turnover differential. If the Packers and Patriots are to continue to go against history, they’re going to need to continue to win the turnover battle. That is a must.
If either team wins a Super Bowl with that formula, maybe that will be the key stat from here on out.
Or maybe we’ll find out that only throwing the ball matters. And then we’ll have ourselves an entirely new ballgame.
Or, maybe, if both fail to win a title, then things haven’t changed as drastically as we think. Maybe in the regular season, but not when it truly counts.
We’ll have our answer in less than a month.
TODMAN A VIKING
Running back makes a move
It’s probably safe to say that North Dartmouth native Jordan Todman didn’t envision this kind of rookie season when he left the University of Connecticut a year early after being Big East Offensive Player of the Year in 2010.
The 5-foot-9-inch, 203-pound running back lasted until the sixth round of April’s draft, when he was chosen by the Chargers. They released him Oct. 22, he cleared waivers, and he was signed to their practice squad.
That’s where he stayed until the Vikings offered him a spot on their 53-man roster for the final week of the season. Todman could have remained with the Chargers but decided to take the Vikings’ offer.
“A decision like this - it’s a life-changing decision,’’ Todman said. “We weighed our options and felt this would be the best decision for my career in the long run.
“When you’re in the league and you’re coming in as a rookie, you want to establish yourself and actually have a career somewhere. Hopping around year to year and doing all that is not ideal, but so far, so good here.’’
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was impressed with the limited amount they saw of Todman.
“He’s a very bright kid,’’ Frazier said. “He was a very good player in college. But his burst really separates him from a lot of players. I think he’s like a 4.4, 4.3 [in the 40]. So, he’s got some top-end speed.’’
Todman, who will turn 22 in February, will have to earn his spot on the team during offseason workouts.
“Shoot, it’s been a long season, I’ll say that,’’ he said. “It’s more so been like a learning lesson, just learning about the game, becoming a pro, learning how the NFL and the business itself works to just try to get comfortable and just play football.’’
Patriot mettle will be tested
A lot has been made of how mentally tough this particular Patriots team is. The thought that immediately came to my mind was, “Last year’s team wasn’t?’’
The 2010 Patriots went 14-2. This year’s team was 13-3.
Last year’s team played against the seventh-toughest schedule, according to FootballOutsiders.com. This year it’s 26th.
The 2010 team went 6-1 against teams that went to the playoffs. The Patriots beat the Ravens in overtime, handled the Steelers on the road, frustrated the heck out of Peyton Manning, embarrassed the Jets in the de facto AFC East championship game, killed the eventual NFC finalist Bears in a snow-swept Soldier Field, and was the last team to beat the world champion Packers.
This year’s Patriots went 1-2 against playoff teams, with the one win coming against quarterback Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos.
The Patriots have come back to defeat teams quarterbacked by Vince Young, Tebow, Matt Moore, and Ryan Fitzpatrick in recent weeks. Maybe that does say something. Vince Wilfork thinks it does.
“If you have a bunch of guys that love the game and have the passion for the game, you can fight with them, you can go to battle with those guys any day, against any team, so I love having this team,’’ he said. “This team never gets too down and never gets too high, so the character of this team is amazing. We haven’t had a team like this in a while.’’
It should also be pointed out that Wilfork said similar things at this point last year.
“You have a bunch of guys that love this game,’’ he said then. “You have a bunch of guys that respect one another, that have trust with one another on this field . . . They work hard every day. They just keep grinding, and that’s the special thing about this team is that no matter what happens . . . no matter what’s going on around us, we always find a way to keep going forward.’’
Wilfork didn’t say “love’’ last year, so maybe that’s the difference: a closer unit.
Personnel-wise, the team isn’t that different on the field. The offense is the same except Brian Waters and Nate Solder have replaced Dan Koppen and Sebastian Vollmer on the line. I don’t think their makeup can be questioned.
Defensively, seven of the top nine players in the playoff loss to the Jets are the same, with the exception of Brandon Meriweather and Gary Guyton, which is definitely something to point at. And Tully Banta-Cain and James Sanders have been replaced by Mark Anderson and James Ihedigbo, but that’s a wash in my view.
If Wilfork is talking about some changes in the 61-man roster, including the practice squad, then I think he has a point. The depth is more resilient on this team.
But will that make a difference?
I think the real improvement has come from Bill Belichick either jettisoning or sitting down players who weren’t able to execute the coaching points well enough. Guys like Meriweather, Guyton, Jermaine Cunningham, Darius Butler, Brandon Tate, and Jonathan Wilhite.
Pointing to something abstract like toughness is a way to avoid talking about how great the offense is - yeah, we know - or the shortcomings of the defense - yeah, we know that, too.
This team may well be tougher, but I’d have a stronger feeling about that if this year’s team proved it in some of the situations the 2010 squad did, as much as that did for them.
They’ll get that chance soon enough.
1. So signs point to Josh McDaniels coming back to the Patriots as offensive coordinator. Rams free agent receiver Brandon Lloyd has said he’s “tied to McDaniels.’’ A receiver who caught 147 passes for 2,414 yards and 16 touchdowns the previous two seasons and already knows the offense? Where do the Patriots sign up?
2. Stunning that Bill Polian, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, was let go as vice chairman of the Colts after a streak of nine straight postseason appearances was ended by a dreadful 2-14 season. The feeling is that owner Jim Irsay wanted his team back. Peyton Manning could be next.
3. Feel bad for Chris Polian, Bill’s son, who replaced him as general manager. He’s very bright, but he’s going to be tarred with this mess. That’s unfair, but that’s what happens when the sons of powerful men don’t make names for themselves on their own.
4. Packers director of personnel Reggie McKenzie got a long overdue chance to run his own ship when the Raiders hired him as general manager. Wonder if we’re looking at a repeat of the Matt Cassel situation. Scott Pioli left to Kansas City and acquired the Patriots’ backup quarterback. McKenzie is in Oakland, and Packers backup Matt Flynn will either be franchised and dealt, or go off into free agency.
5. Expect a fire sale in Oakland. The Raiders have no picks in the first four rounds of April’s draft, and they are like oxygen to those who have worked under Packers general manager Ted Thompson.