Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Patriots-Chargers preview

Sunday afternoon at 4:30, the New England Patriots will travel to San Diego to take on the Chargers in the AFC divisional round of the play-offs. The Chargers were the best team in football during the regular season, finishing with a 14-2 record and riding into the play-offs on the shoulders of MVP LaDanian Tomlinson, and a 10 game winning streak. They were the highest scoring team in football, and 7th best in points allowed. They're very scary.

They're also a team that I'm familiar with primarily from scores and highlights. I know what their strengths are. Presumably, they have weaknesses as well, but I'm far more aware of the Patriots' weaknesses than the Chargers', and so I start the week with a general perception of an unbeatable foe. I'm certain that they're not, but my gut reaction is to be very afraid of this game.

Do the Patriots have a chance? Let's look at a couple of things.

History:

Heading into Super Bowl XVI, I was very scared of the 2001 St. Louis Rams. The Rams were the highest scoring and best team in football during the regular season.



Patriots vs. Rams - 2001
WLPoints Scoredper gameNFL RankPoints allowedper gameNFL RankPythagorean

New England Patriots11537123.262721760.650

St. Louis Rams14250331.4127317.170.772


St. Louis was clearly the better team headed into that Super Bowl. But Bill Belichick's Patriots' defense, as his 1990 Giants defense had against the high-powered Bills, contained the explosive Rams, and the Patriots won the Super Bowl. Belichick has long been considered the greatest defensive mind in the game, and if there is anyone who can run a defense to contain a high-scoring offense, he's the man. So, the historical precedent certainly offers some hope, as the 2006 Patriots were a better team than the 2001 Patriots, and the 2006 Chargers don't appear to be quite as formidable as the 2001 Rams.


2006 Regular season:

The Chargers, as I noted, were the highest scoring team, and the best team in football, during the regular season. Does that sound familiar?



Patriots vs. Chargers
Points Scoredper gameNFL RankPoints allowedper gameNFL RankPythagorean %

New England38524.1723714.82.725

San Diego49230.8130318.97.725



But the Patriots were no slouches. The Chargers were 1st and 7th in points scored and points allowed, the Patriots were 7th and 2nd. Pretty comparable.

And if you look at that last column, you'll see something pretty interesting. Generally, the pythagorean winning percentage is applied to baseball, but the relationship between points scored, points allowed and winning percentage holds pretty much across sports. The Chargers outscored their opposition by nearly 12 points per game, while the Patriots outscored theirs by just over 9. But every point of difference is more valuable in a lower-scoring game than in a higher-scoring game, and their projected winning percentages are essentially equal.

If the project winning percentages were equal, why did the Chargers win 2 more games? Well, maybe some of it was luck. And maybe some of it was schedule. The Chargers' opponents were a cumulative 115-125 (.479) in non-Chargers games. The Patriots' opponents were a cumulative 125-117 (.513) in non-Patriots games.


Today:

Right now, the Patriots have played 17 games, the Chargers 16. The Patriots have averaged 24.8 ppg against opposition that has allowed an average of 20.1 (24% better) and have allowed 14.9 ppg against teams that scored 20.1 ppg (about 26% better). The Chargers have averaged 30.75 ppg against opposition that allowed an average of 20.1 ppg (about 47% better) and allowed 19.0 ppg against opposition that scored 19.1 ppg (less than 1% better.) So the Chargers offense has been better than the Patriots offense by a smaller amount than the Patriots defense has been better than the Chargers defense.

According to Jeff Sagarin's NFL ratings at USA Today.com, the Chargers (1) and Patriots (2) have been the 2 best teams in football. (Ratings are calculated through Sunday's games.) But there are some schedule differences. Sagarin has the Patriots with the 8th toughest schedule and the Chargers with the 27th toughest. New England is 5-2 vs. the top 10 teams, San Diego is only 1-1. According to the Pure Points standings ("PURE POINTS is also known as PREDICTOR, BALLANTINE, RHEINGOLD, WHITE OWL and is the best single PREDICTOR of future games"), New England is number 1, San Diego number 2.


Bottom Line:

You know what? I'm still scared of the Chargers. But the objective evidence suggests that a) they're not unbeatable, b) this is by no means a mismatch and c) it would not be an upset, certainly not a big one, if New England were to go west and win this weekend.

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