Dull Can Be Beautiful
The producers of the approximately 1,827 Sunday night NFL highlight shows must've been frustrated by the Patriots' 34-9 throttling of the Lions yesterday. They had to avoid showing the most important plays of the game at all costs.
Incomplete passes are TERRIBLE television.
Football's single snooziest play was the core of New England's lethal efficiency against Detroit. Twenty-seven of Matthew Stafford's passes hit the ground out of 46 attempts. Granted, a good number of those did so after they first hit a Lions receiver, but the hallmark memory of this game was a ball sailing past a Detroit player wearing one or more Pats defensive backs as a sweater vest.
All of that nothing happening represented a uniquely outstanding performance by New England's defense. As the NFL evolves towards its Madden 2050 destiny, the incompletion has become almost as endangered a species as its more flamboyant cousin the interception. Quarterbacks just aren't harassed into completing less than 50 percent of their passes anymore even in blowout losses. The rules do their best to forbid it.
In the Denver-Miami game, Peyton Manning and Ryan Tannehill combined for only 16 incompletions in 71 attempts. OK, that was a 49-36 shootout. But Colin Kaerpernick and RGIII had only 16 incompletions between them in a game were the final was San Francisco 17-Washington 13.
The Pats pass rush was solid but not what one would call terrifying against Detroit. New England's defense has become an outfit working from back to front. In the era of pass first and also second, that's logical. It's also fiendishly difficult to do.
As of this morning, there are only three starting quarterbacks in the NFL with completion percentages under 60 percent, Brian Hoyer, Stafford and Cam Newton. There's also whoever's playing quarterback against the Patriots, an imaginary QB clocking in at 58.1 percent and an NFL passer rating of a soon-to-be-benched 82.
New England is one of six teams holding rival quarterbacks to lower than a 60 percent completion rate. The others are the Eagles, Bengals, Colts, Browns and 49ers. Not coincidentally, their combined record is 45-20-1. If there's a prop wager in Vegas allowing you to take those six as eventual Super Bowl champs, it's a value bet.
What's most difficult to do is inevitably also the most worthwhile to accomplish.
The Other Team Has Something to Do With It When You Win, Too.
Jonas Gray deserves his moments in the sun for having had the best regular season rushing performance by a Patriot in over 40 years. It has to be gratifying for all the Pats, most of all Bill Belichick, that in the first half of Sunday night's win over the Colts Tom Brady positively stunk (10 for 19 for 90 yards and two interceptions) and New England still led 14-10 at the gun.
As I watched the rout unfold, however, it stirred cloudy recollections of football past. A bit of memory-refreshing research confirmed my vague impressions. In almost every particular, the most notable element of the Pats' 42-20 victory was its spittin' image similarity to the Pats' 43-22 thumping of Indy in last season's playoff game.
Gray is justly lauded for his 38 carry, 199 yard, four touchdown performance. But back in January, LeGarrette Blount, currently pouting himself out of a paycheck in Pittsburgh, had 166 yards in 24 carries and four TDs against the Colts. Brady's second half this year was as superior as his first was subpar. In the playoff win, he was very much the second banana to New England's running game once more, with a 13-25-198 passing line. The weather is always perfect in Lucas Oil Stadium, but at Gillette that January night, temperature at kickoff was a football-pleasant 57 degrees. Hell, Pete Morelli's crew officiated both games.
These parallels are most suggestive evidence that the 2014 Patriots are a superior team that has neared or reached its peak form since its narrow escape against the Jets. They are conclusive evidence that whatever form the Pats are in, they just offer a dreadful matchup for the Colts. The Pats can block the Colt front seven at a level which turns journeymen running backs into Emmett Smith. The Colts can't return the favor, which leads to Andrew Luck's arm getting very, very tired by the third quarter.
Diving a little further into the 2014 Colts, their dispiriting loss to the Pats stands as part of a much more dispiriting pattern. Simply put, any NFL team whose offense has a pulse is a horrendous matchup for Indianapolis.
The Colts have four losses in 10 games, having been beaten by the Broncos, Eagles, Steelers and Pats. In them, they allowed 31, 37, 51 and 42 points respectively. They couldn't stop Jonas Gray from running, and they sure couldn't stop Ben Roethlisberger from passing.
The concept is abroad in NFLland that Luck isn't all he's cracked up to be, that he's not "elite" because he has too many turnovers. Luck cannot offer his best defense from the charge, so I'll make it for him. Look at the other guys with the horseshoes on their helmets and note its likely that Luck will quarterback this bunch to the playoffs for the third time in three seasons.
Any quarterback who takes the field thinking "35 might not be enough points to win it for us" is going to wind up throwing interceptions. Luck also leads the NFL in pass attempts. That's becaus the Colts don't have many other ways of winning.
Volume Light on Curb Exchange
Not to sound too egotistical, not to mention deranged, but my garbage is an economic indicator. Perhaps that requires some explanation.
We're getting a new sofa this afternoon, and Thursday is trash pickup day in our suburban neighborhood, so last evening I hauled the old sectional out to the end of the driveway.We got it before Bill Clinton was elected for the first time. It's seen hard use from children who're now adults and a sadly gone unruly dog. It's faded, dusty, and there's a tear in the fabric of one section.
But it's still quire functional, comfy even. Took a last nap on it before I took it out. It'd be a major plus for any Allston student apartment/hovel.
Yet this morning when I awoke, it was still there. Scavengers had NOT removed it for resale or personal use. This is microeconomic evidence that in this neck of the woods anyway, the recession is over.
Back in 2008-2010, any piece of furniture, broken tool or object more substantial than orange peels which we put out as trash vanished before dawn, or sometimes before sunset. Once in 2009 I carruied a collapsing due it yourself bookshelf dating back to the big hair '80s. It was held together by the few nails which weren't pointing dangerously in all directions at who ever lifted it. And before I came back down with the regular weekly recycling, two chaps were putting it into their pickup truck, a free treasure from what was then a cruel market system.
In 2014, usable furniture is headed for landfill. Clearly things are looking up. As a further bullish sign, the rusting metal pipes which were part of a long vanished hammock that I put out for disposal the week before last were snaffled by a scavenger before suppertime that evening. This means demand for raw materials is up, too! I say, go long China!!!
Geography Is Destiny
Denver, Colorado is several thousand miles closer to Las Vegas, Nevada than is Boston, Massachusetts. That's the most plausible explanation which comes to mind as to why the Broncos have been made three-point favorites in a game to be played in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
The Patriots should NEVER be home underdogs as long as Tom Brady is ambulatory. The team's last home loss was in December of 2012. New England's regular record at Gillette Stadium in the last three and a half seasons is 25-3. including two wins over Denver since Peyton Manning decided orange would be the new Super Bowl title.
Move from history to the present. There is nothing at all to choose between the performance of these two teams over the past month. They're each undefeated since a September loss. Brady and Manning have been equally spectacular. Denver's played a tougher schedule, but the Pats have had more road games. Check down the line to the water boy level and this tile comes out as pick 'em personified.
So how come it's not? Well, NFL betting lines are not academic exercises in pure handicapping anymore than the Federal Reserve interest rates are academic economics. Real money is involved. And while people gamble on pro football everywhere in America, almost all oddsmakers are based in Vegas, where such gambling is legal. Hence, they are either employed by casinos or such casinos are their best customers.
People visit Las Vegas casinos from all over the world. But the closer they live to the remote place, the more of them come and they come more often. On any given day, the largest number of visitors in the city hail from Los Angeles, California, a city without an NFL team to call its own.
Minus a home team, Angelenos are exposed to the NFL through national hype. Nobody beats Manning there, not even Brady. And in Los Angeles, gamblers may have been deceived by the most dangerous factor in handicapping, the evidence from their own two eyes.
The Pats have been on three national TV broadcasts so far this season, in which they have one rousing victory over the Bengals, one horrible loss to the Chiefs, and one narrow escape against the dismal Jets. The Broncos have two national TV wins over the Colts and Chargers. In LA, they have looked to be the better team.
So if more money was expected to be plunked down on Denver this week, the spread will correspondingly be in New England's favor to narrow that imbalance. It has, too. The opening line was 3 1/2, which was just silly. The chances of this game being decided by a field goal strike me as very high.
Oddsmakers are right far more often than they're wrong, one reason why Las Vegas is a big city in the first place. But economics is a chancy science. In their effort to balance supply and demand, the books would appear to have created an overlay because they are located too close to the sources of Broncos money. If Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun were allowed to have sports books, I'd bet the Pats might be two or three-point favorites there.
The oddsmakers might be right and the Broncos way better than I make them. I still think geography best explains this anomaly though. The only other reason I can conceive for its existence is that Americans are really, really fond of Papa John's pizza.
I'd hate to think that of my fellow citizens.
Too Bad Tony Randall's Not Alive to Introduce Him at Canton
Peyton Manning found a flaw in the Bronco's 35-21 win over the Chargers last night. He was caught by national cussing out the Mile High Stadium scoreboard operator for inciting the crowd to cheer when Manning wanted to them to be quiet, forcing the quarterback to use a meaningless fourth quarter time out.
That's the heat of battle. In about the most Peyton Manningesque moment of his entire career, the quarterback went on to call out the operator in his post-game press conference. I'm sure that in his next public remarks, Manning will put on his Papa John's persona and insist he was just kidding, but we all know differently, don't we? Manning wasn't joking. Your true fusspot can never laugh at disorder, no matter how petty it might be. Manning is the fusspot incarnate on a football field. It's why he drives fans mad when he's calling signals. It's why he's one of the all-time greats.
Peyton Manning is Felix Unger with an arm.
Five, Two and Even
Bill Belichick allows Tom Brady a privilege he denies to every other New England Patriot including himself. The quarterback has the leeway to discuss a Pats' season in more macro terms than the next game on the schedule.
After last Thursday night's game against the Jets, a victory far closer than anyone in the NFL world including most Jets expected, Brady chose to exercise his right to take the long view.
"We lost our first game, and we're 5-2," Brady allowed. "That's not so bad."
Tough to top that for succinct and faultless analysis. Warts and all, the Patriots haven't been nearly as bad overall as they were in their two shoddy defeats. They are one of the six NFL teams with 5-2 records. Complaints are few among followers of the other five, the Colts, Chargers, Ravens, Lions and Packers. All are assumed to be what they are, strong favorites to make the playoffs, except maybe the Lions, whose history has left deep scars on its fan base.
I daresay that if one had tapped a random Pats fan on the shoulder in August and told them their team would be 5-2 after seven games, that fan would almost certainly have said, "I can live with that" or even "sounds about right." Continued success does jade fans, but a .714 winning percentage is not considered the mark of a team in crisis unless it plays in the SEC West instead of the NFL.
My summary of the 2014 Pats to date as viewed from the International Space Station goes as follows. The team remains vulnerable to problems in blocking and stopping the run. Those are serious vulnerabilities. They are far outweighed, however, by the team's success in maintaining three vital strengths, the ability to win at home, the ability to clobber the Buffalo Bills (the key element of its AFC East dominance) and the ability of Brady himself.
As long as the Pats can keep folding those ingredients into their omelet, they will serve up another division title and playoff berth, just as everyone in the world assumed would happen before the season began. In fact, in super macro NFL terms, the local home team is a prime example of what has so far been the defining trait of the 2014 pro football season -- an almost total lack of surprises.
Try as I might, I can only think of one, the Cowboys. Nobody, especially me, thought they'd be any good this season, and after their horrible Opening Day loss to the 49ers. most expected them to be terrible. Funny how a team gets better when it puts the functional equivalent of Jim Brown in at running back.
After that, the NFL has been "Ode to Banal Forecasting," a sonata played in chalk. What most people thought would happen, has. The teams forecast to be good have been, the ones expected to be dreadful have been so and then some. The Bengals were a mirage. Peyton Manning has continued to break records. Some might say the Seahawks' 3-3 record is a shock, but they're wrong. It's never a true surprise when the Super Bowl champ struggles the following season. It happens more often than not.
Season's not half over. Surprise may yet rule the NFL. Today's favorites may become December's disappointments. The Cardinals could keep on winning. Anything is possible, or so the theory goes.
Some things are more possible than others, however. I wouldn't advise Pats fans to be complacent, not with four of the other 5-2 teams plus the Broncos left on the schedule. But I wouldn't advise them to worry overmuch, either. During the regular season anyway, they root for a franchise that ought to be called Conventional Wisdom's Team.
Belated Advertisement for Myself
This will no longer be the only forum where my sports thoughts will appear. I will be found, on a weekly but no set day basis, on the Boston.com Website as well. I've already posted twice there, but since I am an idiot at self-promotion, it's now too late to link to them. I promise from here on in I will do so. Every click counts.