And then there were four.
It’s been a season of ups and downs, but in the end, one that was arguably more predictable than we’ve seen in a while.
I say that from the standpoint of where we are now. Plenty of pundits in August picked these four teams to represent their conferences in the championship, and seeing it come to fruition isn’t much of a surprise.
There’s no Eli Manning-led Giants team, and Joe Flacco didn’t hit a Jacoby Jones bomb to leap into the finals. Instead, we’ve got four teams that were supposed to be good this season here in the end. There were no surprises.
They're teams that the public already knows a lot about. After all, they all won 12 games and were featured in prime time matchups plenty of times throughout the year.
So instead of learning more of what everyone already may know about these four squads, I thought it would be appropriate to drop some analytical facts that are more surprising than obvious. Eight of them, to be exact.
Let's get at it.
1. Shane Vereen made a bigger impact on Tom Brady than Rob Gronkowski did this year.
I’ve mentioned this one quite a bit in previous articles, but I can’t say it enough: Tom Brady has been better – more efficient – since Shane Vereen’s return than he was when Rob Gronkowski came back.
What’s interesting is that, in the three games Brady played with Gronk and not Vereen this season, Brady averaged 1.64 Passing Net Expected Points per game. That not only was lower than what he’d averaged up until Gronk’s return, but that includes a monster game against Pittsburgh where he threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns.
Once Vereen stepped into the lineup, Brady began playing at a top-five quarterback level. With both Vereen and Gronkowski, Brady’s Passing NEP per game shot up to 10.98, an average that would have placed him with the elite passers of 2013. To close out the season without Gronkowski, Brady averaged 2.29 Passing Net Expected Points per game.
Though matchups and sample size certainly play a role here, the key takeaway is not that Rob Gronkowski is bad or valueless, but that Shane Vereen’s presence in the Patriots lineup has been huge for Tom Brady this year.
2. Seattle’s secondary was the 12th-best one we’ve seen since 2000.
This year, Seattle’s Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points total hit -93.84. In other words, they played roughly 94 points above expectation, where a team in their situation would have generated a 94-point swing in the opponents’ favor through the air across the season.
It was the best in the NFL – actually, the efficiency doubled the Bengals’ number two score of -44.57.
What’s more impressive is that Seattle’s secondary performed better than all but 11 pass defenses analyzed since 2000. Considering the NFL is more efficient at throwing the ball than ever, you could make the case that Seattle’s pass defense was even better than that when placed in historical context.
3. Frank Gore is the worst starting running back left.
Alright, maybe that title is a bit harsh and unnecessary, but the fact is that Frank Gore wasn’t and hasn't been Frank Gore this season. When you consider the 47 running backs with at least 100 attempts this year, Gore ranked 37th in Rushing Net Expected Points, while Knowshon Moreno was third, LeGarrette Blount eighth and Marshawn Lynch 13th.
Because of his bruising style of play, Gore traditionally has a low Rushing NEP total, but his -17.29 Rushing NEP in 2013 was the second-lowest mark he’s seen in his career, and the lowest since 2007.
4. Seattle and San Francisco ran the fewest pass plays in the league this season.
Folks who argue against the fact that this is a passing league will point to the fact that Seattle and San Francisco, the two teams representing the NFC in the conference finals, ran more running plays than they did passing plays in 2013. Seattle ran 464 passes to 509 runs (0.91 pass-to-run ratio), while San Fran went with 456 passes to 505 runs (0.90 pass-to-run ratio). They were the only two teams to have a ratio that was lower than 1.00.
It’s not time, however, to generalize that this is no longer a pass-happy league. From 2000 to about 2009, the number of teams with a pass-to-run ratio that was 1.00 or less typically hovered around five or six. Moreover, seeing a squad with a ratio of over 2.00 used to be unheard of, but we saw that twice this season.
Balance is always key, and using personnel based on matchups is how you win football games. But given the way the game has trended, it’s still a passing league. That just doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how you win.
5. Tom Brady was the least-efficient passer in 2013 amongst the four starting quarterbacks remaining.
Record-breaking Peyton Manning clearly tops this list with his 278.52 Passing NEP total and 0.41 Passing NEP per drop back average, but surprisingly, Brady had a lower per drop back average this season than both Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.
Wilson ended the year with the seventh-best (0.17 Passing NEP per drop back) mark among 200-plus pass quarterbacks, while Kaepernick was just behind him in the eight spot (0.14). Brady ranked 11th, averaging 0.10 Passing NEP each time he dropped back to pass. That was worse than Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger.
6. Julian Edelman is the highest targeted receiver left in the playoffs.
Edelman ranked 10th in wide receiver targets this year, totaling 151. That was 10 more than Demaryius Thomas, 16 more than Eric Decker, 22 more than Anquan Boldin and 52 more than Golden Tate.
Edelman didn’t translate the targets into points as well as some of the other receivers playing in the conference finals, as Boldin led the entire league in Target Net Expected Points, with Demaryius Thomas as a close second.
7. The best regular season offense to win the Super Bowl since 2000 was the Peyton Manning-led Colts.
In 2006 when the Colts (finally) won the Super Bowl, the team’s Adjusted Net Expected Points totaled 177.55. Including this season, that sum is the 11th-best one accumulated since the year 2000. It's the best offense during this time that's actually gone on to win the title.
The Broncos 248.90 Adjusted NEP in 2013 ranks only behind the 2007 Patriots (276.24) and the 2004 Colts (259.25) as the best offense we’ve ever seen. And if the Broncos are able to hoist the Lombardi this season, they’d become the best offense to ever do so.
8. The worst defensive unit remaining ranked 13th this season.
And who said defense doesn’t win championships?
Seattle was numberFire’s best defense this season, playing nearly 100 points above expectation over the course of their 16 games. San Francisco’s, by no surprise, is second best, and ranked as the seventh-best defensive squad in the league in 2013.
At the end of the season, New England’s defense ranked 12th, one spot ahead of Denver’s. The Broncos secondary was the main reason for the dip, despite New England’s rush defense being a bottom-five unit this year.