Unheralded Ball Efficiency Makes Pats Odds-On-Favorites For Super Bowl XLV
Last Sunday, a funny thing happened: The New England Patriots turned the ball over.
The normally elusive Danny Woodhead was not able to escape the grasps of Miami Dolphins defensive end Kendall Langford, who can now claim one of the few well executed hits on the generously listed 5'8" Patriots running back.
The turnover was inconsequential; Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter missed the ensuing 40 yard field goal attempt and the Patriots went on to rout the 'fins 38-7.
However, the hit was good enough to jar loose Woodhead's first career turnover in 97 total rushing attempts and 34 receptions.
Woodhead left the game with a concussion and did not return.
The fumble also marked the first turnover of any Patriots halfback all season long.
Leading team rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis touched the ball a total of 229 times for 1008 yards (16th overall) and 13 TD's (tied for second) this year. The "Law Firm" hasn't lost a fumble in 329 career attempts.
Despite a fiscally conservative and extremely productive season from the Green-Ellis-Woodhead Tandem, their inability to turn the ball over is just the tip of the iceberg of how well the Patriots have played this year.
In total, the Patriots committed just 10 offensive turnovers all season long—the lowest mark of any NFL team in history, regardless of schedule length.
If you had to bet, who would you take as your early Super Bowl favorite?
Their turnover margin of plus 28 was the best in the NFL (the Steelers came in second with plus 17), and is tied for fifth-best all time.
The 1983 Washington Redskins were the last team to eclipse a plus 28 turnover margin; their plus 43 is the highest all time. They are the only team since the NFL went to a 16 game schedule to surpass this year's Patriots in terms of ball efficiency.
And it's not as if the Patriots have played a bunch of chumps this year. Coming into the season, their schedule was ranked sixth-hardest in football. Eight of their games were against teams who finished the season over .500, including six playoff teams and three division winners.
The Pats were 7-1 in those games.
It's really been remarkable that despite a tough schedule, the Patriots have been blowing good opponents out. They own a 36-7 victory over the Chicago Bears (11-5) at Solider field, in a snowstorm no less. They utterly dismantled the Jets (11-5) 45-3 in Week 13, and the Steelers (12-4) 39-26 in Week 10 at Heinz Field.
The game against Pittsburgh wasn't even as close as the score suggests: The Pats were up 23-3 at the end of the third quarter. Everything else was just glorified garbage time.
The Patriots dominance on the offensive end came as a bit of a shock to many fans of the NFL. Pundits predicted the Patriots would struggle to move the ball following the highly publicized trade of WR Randy Moss. The move followed a 41-14 Week 4 smashing of the Miami Dolphins, and a game in which Moss caught zero passes.
The Patriots success in the regular season and in not turning over the ball has stemmed in a large part from the play of leading MVP candidate Tom Brady. Thirteen different receivers have caught a pass for the Patriots this year and 10 have scored.
Brady is comfortable throwing to anyone and no longer needs to force the ball down the field. Simply put, the Patriots have so many weapons that it became nearly impossible for opponents to account for everyone on the defensive end.
Also, Brady threw just four picks all season long, the last of which came in Week 6 against the Ravens. And it's worth a mention that pick number four was purely a last second end zone heave, as Brady tried to propel the Pats to a regulation victory (which they got in OT).
Also, Brady has set NFL records in most passes attempted without an interception (335) and games in a row with at least two plus TD's and 0 INT (nine).
Both streaks are still active.
Brady, along with Drew Brees, became just the sixth (or seventh, however you look at it) QB in NFL History to have at least one touchdown pass in each game of a 16 game schedule.
The Patriots offense averaged a league best 32.4 points per game. Their model of efficiency and offensive might is no doubt looked upon as the premier offense in the NFL.
However, popular to contrary to belief, the Patriots have been no slouch on defense this year.
Do they have a young group? Yes. Have they struggled at times? Of course. Are they the best or most intimidating defense in the NFL? No way.
But because they're so young, the Patriots defense is very, very fast. This has allowed them to severely stop the big-play syndrome which they were so prone to last year. They're quick to the ball, tackle very well and rarely give up extra yards after the catch or carry.
While they may not look great on the stat sheet, their defense has given new meaning to the phrase "any given Sunday."
Countless times, the Pats have come up with the big play on the defensive side of the ball, much like the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints defense last year.
The Patriots have also seen a number of great individual seasons on the defensive end. MLB Jerod Mayo led the NFL in tackles (175) and rookie CB Devin McCourty tied for second in the NFL with seven picks.
But most importantly, the Patriots were the beneficiaries of 38 turnovers, second only to the Giants (39), and led the NFL in interceptions (25). An inconsistent pass rush and injury ridden defensive line have been their most significant issues thus far.
Their secondary is well coached, with a number of emerging young players. They also often have the benefit of playing with a lead.
It remains to be seen who exactly will stop the Patriots come playoff time. Of all the AFC teams who might threaten their title hopes, i.e. the Steelers, Ravens, Colts and Jets, the Patriots own victories over each team.
The Patriots offense has played so well this year, that it's not out of line to suggest that the only way a team has a chance of winning is to force multiple turnovers.
The only problem? The running backs don't fumble, Brady has physically forgotten how to throw picks and the offensive line generally gives Brady enough time to straighten his hair in the backfield.
Nothing is a guarantee, but the Patriots have proven so far that they are the best team in football.
Let's hope they continue.
Dan is a Boston Red Sox featured columnist. For more news and stories, follow him on twitter at danhartelBR.
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