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Don't be deceived by Patriots' defensive stats

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

USATSI_10509458
The Patriots' defense added James Harrison to a unit that showed dramatic improvement after a terrible starts in its first four games.
© USA Today Sports Images

Just how good or bad IS the New England Patriots’ defense? Plus, college hoops coverage includes estimated “market” Power Ratings and a preview from Greg Peterson for Wednesday’s Villanova/Xavier blockbuster.

NFL Playoff Tutorial: Getting the right read on New England’s defense 
The New England Patriots are current favorites to win the Super Bowl on the futures market. They’re already the betting favorite for the 2019 Super Bowl! They will be favored on their home field in every game they play in the AFC brackets. They will be favored in the Super Bowl unless they have to face the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis…and they might still be favored then. 

It’s common for pundits and analysts who are picking against New England to site the Patriots’ defense as a potential vulnerability. You’ll hear they were the fourth worst defense in yards-allowed-per-game, or tied for second worst in yards-allowed-per-play, or sixth worst in penalty yards because they were so undisciplined.

That’s all true. But those stats are very heavily influenced by “old news.” The most recent news is much better. And there are a couple of full season indicator stats that actually suggest the Patriots might have…gasp…an elite defense. 

Let’s start with the “old news/recent news” dichotomy. If you’ve been following the NFL this season, you surely remember that the Patriots had a horrible September defensively. They started the season allowing 42 points (all on long drives) in a home loss to Kansas City. They finished the month with a 33-30 home loss to Carolina. Since then, A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TEAM!

We’ve stacked New England’s games in order from start to finish, focusing on points allowed defensively (meaning we deleted any special teams’ points or opposing defensive touchdowns), yards-per-play allowed, and the number of touchdowns allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. You’ll see the Pats flip a switch after four games. 

Allowed 42 points to Kansas City, 8.3 YPP, 6 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 20 points to New Orleans, 6.8 YPP, 2 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 26 points to Houston, 6.2 YPP, 1 TD drive of 60-plus yards
Allowed 33 points to Carolina, 7.4 YPP, 4 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 14 points to Tampa Bay, 6.0 YPP, 2 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 17 points to the NY Jets, 5.4 YPP, 2 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 7 points to Atlanta, 6.1 YPP, 1 TD drive of 60-plus yards
Allowed 13 points to the LA Chargers, 6.7 YPP, 2 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 16 points to Denver, 5.6 YPP, 1 TD drive of 60-plus yards
Allowed 8 points to Oakland, 4.8 YPP, 1 TD drive of 60-plus yards
Allowed 10 points to Miami, 3.7 YPP, 1 TD drive of 60-plus yards
Allowed 3 points to Buffalo, 4.2 YPP, 0 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 27 points to Miami, 5.2 YPP, 2 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 24 points to Pittsburgh, 6.6 YPP, 2 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 9 points to Buffalo, 4.8 YPP, 0 TD drives of 60-plus yards
Allowed 6 points to the NY Jets, 4.2 YPP, 0 TD drives of 60-plus yards

*New England’s defense allowed 121 points in the first four games, but only 151 points in the last 12 games (12.6 points allowed per game the past dozen).

*New England’s defense allowed 13 long TD drives in the first four games, but only 14 long TD drives in the last 12 games

*New England’s defense allowed 6.2 YPP or more in each of the first four games. That only happened once in the last 12…on the road against very potent Pittsburgh. 

I think we’ve made this analogy before. If you time yourself in the 100-yard dash when you have a sprained ankle…then time yourself much more often when you’re healthy…future races are going to match your healthy times…not the misleading reads when you were hobbled. We’re not suggesting the Patriots were injury-riddled in September, then healthy afterward. BUT THEY DID SOMETHING! Maybe it was schematic. Maybe it was a matter of prioritizing different things. They certainly ran into a lot of mediocre or worse quarterbacks down the stretch, which can’t be ignored. But the whole league ran into crappy quarterbacks too. Handicappers need to know that New England has been playing quality defense for three months now. The Patriots temporarily had one of the worst defenses in the NFL. They don’t any more. Their full season defensive stats are polluted by old news.

Well, except for the next two, which are excellent even when counting what happened in September…

*New England ranks fifth best in the NFL in fewest points allowed this season
*New England ranks fifth best in fewest TDs allowed in the red zone. 

The point of defense is to not allow points! If you allow a bunch of yardage in the middle of the field, but you have skill sets and strategies that put up a stop sign in close, you’re going to do well. This is particularly important for the Pats, because their risk-averse offense led by Tom Brady doesn’t set up many cheap points for opponents. What the defense allows on long drives is what opponents get. And, this defense has exhibited an elite level of stinginess for three months. 

We’ve talked recently about devoting more space in our team analysis to finding the end zone on offense, and keeping opponents out on defense. If you’re into stats, it’s clear that yards-per-play isn’t catching reality the way it used to. Also true for a few other yardage counts. From the get-go, our boxscore recaps have logged TD drive lengths for you. For the playoffs, let’s also pay some attention to the red zone. 

You just read that New England ranked fifth in red zone TD defense. Here are the top five as tabulated by teamrankings.com. 

Best Red Zone Defense: TD percentage allowed
1…LA Chargers 36.1%
2…Jacksonville 37.9%
3…Minnesota 40%
4…New England 43.8%
5…Atlanta 44.2%

Likely some correlation between sharp affection in the marketplace for those teams and their red zone defense. Atlanta’s defense has closed the season well, and impressed on the road against the Rams last week. Let’s see what this weekend’s playoff matchups look like through this lens…

Red Zone Defense Rank/TD Percentage for This Week’s Playoff Matchups
Atlanta (#5, 44.2%) at Philadelphia (#20, 55.3%)
Tennessee (#12, 50.9%) at New England (#4, 43.8%)
Jacksonville (#2, 37.9%) at Pittsburgh (#28, 61.5%) (!!!)
New Orleans (#11, 50.0%) at Minnesota (#3, 40.0%)

Atlanta laying a field goal on the road makes sense in this light. Trying to win with Nick Foles against Atlanta’s stellar red zone defense might be a tougher task than some were thinking. How about that mismatch between Jacksonville and Pittsburgh?! The Steelers have shown a tendency to play very soft vs. bad teams, as if they were saving themselves for the biggest games. Maybe the awful showing is at least partly a “choice” rather than a skill set issue. Bettors who like “defensive dogs” are looking to bet the Jags. We should note that being fresh and rested might help both New England and Minnesota perform even more aggressively when their backs are to the wall. 

We’ll have expanded stat previews for the divisional round coming up Thursday and Friday in VSiN City. We’re back to our standard weekday schedule now that the bowls are over. So, we’ll have those NFL previews in your hands before the weekend.

Thursday: stat previews for Saturday’s Atlanta/Philadelphia and Tennessee/New England games
Friday: stat previews for Sunday’s Jacksonville/Pittsburgh and New Orleans/Minnesota games

Busy Tuesday night in college basketball. Let’s get to that…

College Basketball: Several ranked teams were tested Tuesday. Key stats and estimated “market” Power Ratings across the major conference landscape 
We’re going to take these in ascending order of the AP rankings. Note how many prominent teams failed to cover inflated expectations. Along the way we’ll post our current estimate for “market” Power Ratings in the major conferences. We used a standard three points for home court advantage. If the market seems to be giving a team a little extra boost at home (West Virginia for example), we’ll split the rating. 

#2 West Virginia (-9.5) 57, Baylor 54 
Two-point Pct: Baylor 34%, West Virginia 25%
Three Pointers: Baylor 8/21, West Virginia 10/25
Free Throws: Baylor 8/11, West Virginia 9/14
Rebounds: Baylor 44, West Virginia 37
Turnovers: Baylor 21, West Virginia 11
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Baylor 36-28-38, West Virginia 11-6-11

West Virginia sure seemed flat off the big Saturday win over Oklahoma. Horrible shooting inside against the Baylor zone. The Mountaineers made enough treys over the top to get the win, as 40% on three-pointers is the same as 60% on deuces. Biggest surprise is that West Virginia forced 21 turnovers but didn’t turn that into a blowout win fueled by cheap points. Guessing Baylor’s defensive length and speed had something to do with that. Good rebounding night for the Bears. So many “pretty good” teams this season that none of the perceived powers can just show up and coast. 

Big 12 estimated “market” Power Ratings: West Virginia 86 at home…85 on the road, Kansas 85, Texas Tech 84, Oklahoma 83, TCU 80, Texas 79, Baylor 79, Kansas State 77, Oklahoma State 77, Iowa State 72.

Tight at the top. Tech already has a win at Kansas. But you’ll see in a moment they didn’t impress Tuesday at OU. 

#3 Virginia (-9.5) 68, Syracuse 61 
Two-point Pct: Syracuse 44%, Virginia 42%
Three Pointers: Syracuse 6/21, Virginia 9/27
Free Throws: Syracuse 9/11, Virginia 19/22
Rebounds: Syracuse 41, Virginia 31
Turnovers: Syracuse 12, Virginia 7
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Syracuse 46-47-49, Virginia 3-5-4

Good example of how Virginia can play clean, but still keep opponents within striking distance if the shots aren’t falling, or if they’re not owning the glass. This one actually went Over the market total by double digits. More foul calls than expected, with Virginia scoring so much from the charity stripe. Typical script for Virginia. Legitimate power that’s constructed a ceiling over its own head with its ultra-slow style. 

ACC estimated “market” Power Ratings: Duke 86, Virginia 85, North Carolina 83, Miami 82, Florida State 81, Clemson 79, Syracuse 78, Virginia Tech 77, Notre Dame 75, Wake Forest 74, Georgia Tech 73, Boston College 82, NC State 71, Pittsburgh 65.

Amazing that Duke’s two league losses are to two of the three worst teams down at the bottom. They face the cellar dweller Wednesday. 

#5 Purdue (-2) 70, Michigan 69
Two-point Pct: Purdue 42%, Michigan 44%
Three Pointers: Purdue 12/21, Michigan 10/22
Free Throws: Purdue 4/7, Michigan 7/11
Rebounds: Purdue 29, Michigan 36
Turnovers: Purdue 8, Michigan 9
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Purdue 5-2-2, Michigan 32-21-23

Both teams shot better on three-point shots than two-point shots, which you don’t see often. Game was nip and tuck late…and tied in the final moments. Refs called a defensive foul on Michigan that had to be called because it was pass interference and holding all rolled into one (though refs in Kentucky DIDN’T call a similar foul as time was running out vs. the Aggies). Purdue made one of two free throws to eke out the win. If you watch a lot of basketball, it’s very hard to believe that Purdue is #2 in the country (Sagarin and ESPN’s BPI) or #5 in the country (AP poll and Ken Pomeroy). But its name is in a crowded hat for March glory. 

Big Ten estimated “market” Power Ratings: Michigan State 86, Purdue 84, Michigan 79, Penn State 78, Wisconsin 78, Ohio State 77, Maryland 77, Minnesota 75, Indiana 75, Northwestern 75, Iowa 73, Illinois 72, Rutgers 72, Nebraska 67.

Several teams have dropped a bucket or more from earlier levels. You know the conference got spanked in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Dance bubble might be overloaded with this one league. The market is respecting Purdue in a way that’s not too far out of line with the computer/poll composite. Not top two…but top 10. We’ll see. 

#9 Oklahoma (-2.5) 75, #8 Texas Tech 65 
Two-point Pct: Texas Tech 45%, Oklahoma 46%
Three Pointers: Texas Tech 6/25, Oklahoma 7/22
Free Throws: Texas Tech 9/14, Oklahoma 18/21
Rebounds: Texas Tech 44, Oklahoma 37
Turnovers: Texas Tech 15, Oklahoma 10
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Texas Tech 4-8-8, Oklahoma 13-16-24

Hard to see any boost from Tech’s experience. Five senior starters, but still 15 turnovers and an inability to get enough open looks from long range or draw fouls. Good bounce back for the Sooners from the loss at West Virginia. OU super-kid Trae Young was only 7 of 23 from the field, and is starting to play like he’s read too many of his own press clippings. Fatigue could be setting in. He’s trying to put on a show every night. At least his assist counts are staying high. 

Marquette (plus 1) 84, #13 Seton Hall 64 
Two-point Pct: Seton Hall 48%, Marquette 46%
Three Pointers: Seton Hall 4/13, Marquette 11/27
Free Throws: Seton Hall 8/10, Marquette 13/13
Rebounds: Seton Hall 33, Marquette 38
Turnovers: Seton Hall 12, Marquette 6
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Seton Hall 21-19-25, Marquette 45-49-45

Not a stellar debut in VSiN City for Seton Hall. It didn’t force many turnovers and lost the battle of the boards. Clearly not a team that can fall behind and come flying back with three-pointers. The Pirates only attempted 13 all night despite trailing for so long. Marquette won three-point scoring by 21 points in a game it won by 20. 

Big East estimated “market” Power Ratings: Villanova 87 at home…86 on the road, Xavier 81, Creighton 81, Seton Hall 78, Butler 78, Providence 74, Marquette 74, St. John’s 72, Georgetown 69, DePaul 66.

The market currently has Seton Hall as more of a bubble team rather than one that should be ranked in the top 15 (or top 25 in the computers). Disappointing how many storied programs have slid down below even Dance bubble level. Villanova hosts Xavier Wednesday night in a much-anticipated showdown that Greg Peterson will be previewing for you momentarily.

#21 Kentucky (-4.5) 74, Texas A&M 73
Two-point Pct: Texas A&M 61%, Kentucky 65%
Three Pointers: Texas A&M 7/21, Kentucky 4/12
Free Throws: Texas A&M 14/24, Kentucky 22/34
Rebounds: Texas A&M 27, Kentucky 28
Turnovers: Texas A&M 12, Kentucky 12
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Texas A&M 24-35-40, Kentucky 23-18-35

Weird to see such high percentages inside the arc for two teams in the same game. Might have been a case where refs were calling it tight and the bigs didn’t want to foul out. The Aggies haven’t been sparkling lately…so this is a disappointing result for Kentucky even if it’s a win. Not a vintage season for the Wildcats, who continue to slide down the polls and computer rankings. 

SEC estimated “market” Power Ratings: Kentucky 82, Florida 82, Texas A&M 80, Auburn 80, Tennessee 79, Arkansas 79, Alabama 78, South Carolina 76, Missouri 76, Mississippi State 76, Georgia 75, Vanderbilt 74, LSU 73, Ole Miss 71.

One of the most anticipated matchups of the college season arrives Wednesday night. Here’s Greg with a preview…

College Basketball: “Running the Floor” with Greg Peterson

Xavier (15-2 straight up, 12-5 ATS) at Villanova (14-1 straight up, 10-5 ATS)
8:00 p.m. ET on FS1
Early Line: Villanova -9

Villanova's line movement has seen very little fluctuation since the Wildcats played Saint Joseph's. Villanova has had just one market move of more than a half point since then, which says the bookmakers have a good idea of how Villanova games will be bet.

Xavier has been a similar story. Other than when the Musketeers were dealing with minor injuries and illnesses entering their game against Marshall on December 19th, Xavier has not seen a ton of action either for or against itself. The lone exception is when Xavier hit the road to play Providence on January 6, going from a 4-point favorite to open to a 5.5-point favorite on the closing line

On the Block: Key Analytics Rankings (out of 351 D1 teams)
Offensive Efficiency: Xavier 1.115 (14th), Villanova 1.212 (2nd)
Defensive Efficiency: Xavier 0.973 (107th), Villanova 0.951 (69th)
Pace: Xavier 74.1 (97th), Villanova 73.4 (139th)

Xavier is one of the best teams in the nation at not having to rely on the 3-point shot, as the Musketeers get only 26 percent of their points from distance. That ranks 293rd in the nation. Xavier shoots a respectable 36.8 percent from 3-point range, which is 93rd.

Villanova gets a lot more of its points with the deep shot, with 3s accounting for 37.1 percent of its points, which ranks 52nd in the country.

These teams are quite similar to one another in that both are highly efficient on offense and play good but not great defense. If this game comes down to free throws, Xavier has a slight edge as the Musketeers make 78.3 percent of their free throws overall and 81 percent when on the road. Villanova's 75.3 percent free throw shooting is nothing to scoff at either.

Villanova does a good job of not beating itself, turning the ball over on only 12.4 percent of its offensive plays. That mark ranks fifth in the country. With Xavier forcing 11.4 turnovers per game, which is 313th in the country, Villanova should not have a lot of wasted possessions if things hold to form.

Both teams also are among most efficient in the country on non-blocked 2-point shots. Xavier is fifth-best in the nation, making 65.3 percent of its 2-point shots that do not get swatted and Villanova is seventh, posting a percentage of 64.3.

For Xavier to hang with Villanova, the Musketeers have to take and make more 3 pointers than normal. In Villanova's lone loss this season, Butler shot 15-of-22 from 3, which allowed the Bulldogs to withstand a furious Villanova run that cut a 22-point lead with 8:37 left to play down to six in the final minutes.

As for Villanova covering a 9-point spread, the Wildcats need to get off to a strong start and not get careless. Jay Wright's team is outscoring opponents by an average of 10.7 points in the first half of games, which is 10th in the country. It will be hard for Xavier to mount a rally if Villanova can come out of the gates strong and continue to value each possession as it has throughout most of the season.

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