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Lessons Learned from Patriots vs. Broncos, 49ers vs. Saints

Here are some quick reactions to Saturday's division round games, with at least one statistical morsel from each game. Click the game header to see the graph and advanced box score.

NO at SF

This was the most exciting of the weekend's games, with a 7.6 Excitement Index. SF had an incredible 1st quarter, taking a 17-0 lead. They clung to those 17 points like life depended on it until Akers hit a 3rd quarter FG to make the game 20-14. Things didn't look so good for SF with 4 min left in the game. Yes, they were up by 6 against NO. But, they were only up by 6 against NO. That's when the explosion occurred. All football hell broke loose. There was one touchdown per minute in the final 4 minutes of the game, 2 per team.

Vernon Davis will be immortalized with his amazing catch on the goal line for the win, but he racked up huge chunks of WPA well before that moment. His 47-yard catch to get the NO 20 was a 0.45 WPA play, and his 37-yarder on the prior TD drive was a 0.39 WPA play. If I'm game planning for the Giants this week, I'm going to take away Davis.

Vernon Davis finished with an amazing 1.05 WPA and 13.6 EPA. Alex Smith shares the credit with a 0.98 WPA. This was Smith's career game to date. His next best game was a 34-20 game at Oakland in 2006, notching 0.46 WPA on 10.8 EPA. That looked like an odd game as a career best anyway. He only had one attempt beyond 15 yds that day, and totaled only 165 yds with 1 interception. He was simply methodically efficient against that season's 2nd worst defense in the league.

It was a high-drama end-game, to be sure, but it never needed to happen had Alex Smith slid before crossing the goal line. With 2:18 to play, SF was down by 1. Smith ran a naked bootleg 28 yards for the go-ahead TD. Instead of scoring the TD, had Smith taken a knee SF would have been able to run the clock down under 40 seconds before a chip shot field goal attempt. NO would have had a little over 30 sec and no timeouts to respond with their own FG. That might not be a 100% lock, but it's a better bet than leaving 2:18 plus a timeout to get a game-clinching TD.

NO didn't have that luxury. Being down by more than 3, they had to score the TD. But they scored too fast. NO took only 23 seconds to score the go-ahead TD, leaving 1:37 on the clock for SF. During games, I'm often asked, "Team X just scored a 30-yard touchdown, so why did their WP dropp according to your stupid model? It's obviously broken." No, it's not broken. It's that sometimes teams are better off burning clock on their way to a score than scoring instantly.

After scoring the TD, the 49ers smartly went for 2 to make it a 7 point game. A 7 point lead at that point is worth 0.86 WP, and a 5 point lead, should they fail, is worth 0.78 WP. Given a 45% conversion rate, that's a total WP of 0.82 WP for the TD. Running the clock down to 30 sec with a 2-point lead is worth a 0.91 WP--a much better bet. But hey, then we wouldn't have seen one of the most exciting endings to a playoff game in a long time.

Tebow at NE

The game was well over by halftime. Brady racked up 21.8 EPA in the 45-10 victory. It was apparent Brady had something to prove, and he was fighting for every touchdown well after the game was won, at least until that quick-kick in the 4th quarter.

Tebow's numbers were very poor: -5 EPA, 35% completion, 31% Success Rate, 5 sacks. His WPA was +0.01 however, thanks to the fact his worst plays of the night came well after the outcome was already decided.

NE's offensive line was stellar as usual, posting a  0.28 WPA while allowing zero sacks, zero sack yds, zero QB hits, and just 1 tackle for a loss. They had a 47% run SR on top of all that. How do you beat NE? You have to beat their o-line. In their 3 losses this season, they gave up an average of 2 sacks, 13 sack yds, and 4 QB Hits, and 2 tackles for losses. That's not a lot, but it's good enough to make Brady uncomfortable.


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