By Jeff Goldberg
Cold, Hard Football Facts wingman
We take our statistics seriously at Cold Hard Football Facts, even more seriously than our beer and wings, if you can believe that.
So when our stats told us the 2010 Patriots led in more of the 13 quality stat categories (5) than any other team in football, we were confident that their 14-2 record was stone-cold legitimate. Tom Brady really was worthy of an MVP award. Randy Moss wasn't missed in Bill Belichick's offense. The Jets? In Foxboro? In the playoffs? Fuhgetaboutit!
A bad interception, botched fake punt and bizarre clock management later, and the mighty Pats were one-and-done for a second year in a row, and Cold Hard Football Facts were reminded of a cold, hard truth: Games are not won and lost on paper.
That, and we did pick the Packers to win it all back in September, so it wasn't a total loss.
The 2010 Storyline: Exhibit A why they still go out and play the games.
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 14-2 (32.4 PPG – 19.6 PPG)
Last five seasons overall: 63-17 (.786)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Defensive Passing YPA (23rd)
All Quality Stats
Defensive Passing YPA: 23rd
Quarterback Rating: 1st
Defensive Quarterback Rating: 9th
Offensive Passer Rating: 1st
Relativity Index: 1st
Statistical curiosity of 2010
Tom Brady set an NFL record by going 340 pass attempts without an interception, throwing just four during the regular season. But No. 5, in the first quarter of the divisional playoff against the Jets, is all it took to put the Pats into their graveyard spiral.
Best game of 2010
45-3 win vs. Jets (Week 13). Remember when it all looked so easy? Rex Ryan did all the talking and Pats did all the walking, all over the Jets defense in every which-way, turning this one-game battle for the AFC East title into a humiliating Monday night massacre of the Gang Green. Brady threw for four touchdowns and Mark Sanchez threw three picks as the Pats took a 17-0 first-quarter lead and never took their foot off the gas pedal, off-setting an earlier loss to the Jets in New Jersey.
Worst game of 2010
28-21 loss vs. Jets (divisional playoffs). Remember when it all looked so easy? Five weeks after dragging the Jets all over Foxboro Stadium, the Patriots got their comeuppance. Belichick benched Wes Welker for putting his foot in his mouth during the pregame buildup, and the Pats seemed off-kilter all day from there.
Brady threw that grisly interception to kill an early scoring drive, Alge Crumpler dropped a sure TD to blunt another drive and the botched fake punt right before the half put the Pats in a 14-3 hole they could never overcome, especially when inexplicably bleeding the clock in the second half despite being down two scores. It was eerily reminiscent of Super Bowl XLII, with a familiar outcome: New York wins, New England loses.
Tom Brady. In his second season removed from his knee injury – to quote the philosopher and Red Sox broadcaster Don Orsillo – Brady was back, and back big. It wasn't 2007-level greatness, but it was darn close, as Brady threw 36 touchdown passes against just four interceptions, and none after mid-October until the divisional playoff game.
Brady posted a QB rating of 111.0, the key reason why the Patriots ranked No. 1 in Real QB rating, Offensive Passer Rating, Offensive Hog Index, Scoreability and Relativity Index. The trading of Randy Moss was classic addition by subtraction, as Brady thrived by spreading the wealth to old friend Deion Branch, his rookie tight ends and Pedroia-esque running back Danny Woodhead. The Patriots didn't just lead the league in Scoreability, they dominated it, averaging 11.24 Yards Per Point Scored, almost two yards per point better than the next best teams.
Pass Defense. The Patriots defense was a question mark all season, and though rookie corner Devin McCourty had a solid season, and was a big reason why New England led the NFL with 25 INTs, the Patriots ranked 23rd in the league in Defensive Passing YPA and 22nd in the Defensive Hog Index. Failure to pressure the QB was a big problem for New England, as we noted this week on SportsIllustrated.com
The Jets exploited the matchup when it mattered in January, as the Pats could not get the defensive stops when they needed them in the second half. Mark Sanchez, for example, put the game away by completing 4 of 4 passes for 76 yards and a TD against the helpless NE defense in the biggest drive of the night
General off-season strategy/overview
Hogs and Hogs. The Patriots biggest needs this offseason are in the trenches, where the defense struggled on the field and the offense suffered off it. The Patriots were exposed on the defensive line, where Vincent Wilfork was often a one-man gang.
The Patriots fielded the best offensive line football last year (even during the very public Logan Mankins holdout). But the potential loss of Mankins and Matt Light to free agency this offseason could force Belichick to completely revamp his Brady protection issues.
Running back and wide receiver might need addressing, too, although the Patriots did run the ball surprising well with BenJarvis Green-Ellis and Woodhead. The Patriots averaged 4.35 YPA in 2010 (10th). But neither are the kind of lead back the Pats haven't had since Corey Dillon (or Curtis Martin, for that matter), and Branch and Wes Welker need a reliable third man. So far, Brandon Tate isn't that man.
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis
The Patriots still have the league MVP in Brady, who played some of the best football of his career in 2010 and isn't showing signs of slowing down. The offense was diverse and deadly and the key men will return, with Welker perhaps regaining his 2007-08 form two seasons removed from his knee trouble in 2011. The defense can only get better with experience and they still have Belichick to guide them. The Jets will remain a thorn in their side, but another division title remains well within reach. If the Patriots can get over their recent habit of gaffing badly in the playoffs, they appear to have the talent and depth to make a Super Bowl run.