AFC East: ESPN Stats and Information

The New England Patriots are arguably the most disciplined, well-coached team in the NFL. But one area where they struggled mightily last year was tackling in the secondary and preventing yards after the catch.

New England was 27th in the NFL with 1,845 yards allowed after the catch last season, according to ESPN's Stats and Information. The Patriots struggled to cover. But once receivers made the catch, they were oftentimes able to run freely and/or break tackles from New England's secondary. The Patriots were 29th against the pass last season.

The New York Jets, even without star cornerback Darrelle Revis (knee) for most of the season, led the NFL with the fewest YAC in 2012. Here are the YAC totals for all AFC East defenses last season:
  • No. 1: Jets, 1,301 yards
  • No. 27: Patriots, 1,845 yards

Tackling receivers and tight ends must become a huge priority for New England’s defense this year. The Patriots’ top-ranked offense carried the team most of last season, but personnel changes and injuries may force this group to take a step back. Therefore, New England's defense must make major strides and fix its weaknesses.

This further explains why New England signed physical, hard-hitting safety Adrian Wilson in free agency to add an intimidating presence on the back end of the defense. The Patriots also were wise to bring back No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib, who was a midseason acquisition last year.
The New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady dominate the NFL on first down.

The rest of the AFC East? Not so much.

If there was ever one stat to clearly explain the large gap between the Patriots and their three AFC East rivals, it's how all four teams perform on first down. New England was immensely successful in 2012 and led the NFL in first-down offense, while the rest of the division finished no higher than 15th.

It is no secret that success on first down makes it much easier for offenses to convert on second and third downs. The Patriots were able to have success on first down both through the air (2,151 yards) and on the ground (1,198 yards), making New England's offense very tough to defend.

Here are the total yardage numbers on first down according to ESPN Stats and Information:
  • No. 1: Patriots, 3,316 yards

New England’s offense gained 892 yards more on first down than Buffalo, which finished second in the division in first-down yardage. Those yards add up over the course of a season and one reason why New England was the only AFC East team to finish with a winning record.

The Patriots were very balanced on first down. New England called 277 pass plays and 273 run plays on first down in the regular season, according to ESPN Stats and Info, which made its offense unpredictable. The Patriots also were sacked just five times on first down all last season, which kept the offense out of bad spots.

Not surprisingly, New England led the NFL in total offense in 2012. The Patriots made a lot of changes at wide receiver and have injury concerns at tight end entering this season. But it’s clear that play calling under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is not a concern.

Ryan Tannehill excelling in play-action

December, 29, 2012
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If you give Ryan Tannehill an effective running game, he will carve up opposing defenses with his arm. That is one of the biggest lessons the Miami Dolphins should take from Tannehill's solid rookie season.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Tannehill has completed 67.1 percent of his passes off play-action this season. That is the highest completion percentage in the AFC East, which includes Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady.

Tannehill also has six touchdowns off play-action passes compared to just one interception. His QBR is an impressive 90.2, and Tannehill averages 10.33 yards per attempt.

Miami's running game has picked up down the stretch, which is why it's no surprise the same can be said for Tannehill's numbers. The 2012 first-round pick is a good athlete who can make all the throws. Tannehill is simply lacking experience and a better supporting cast.

The Dolphins have plenty of cap room and draft picks to fix their problems. The biggest issue for Miami should be to make sure Tannehill gets all the support he needs next year to be successful.

Final Word: AFC East

November, 30, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Tom terrific: Even at 35 years old, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is playing some of the best football of his career. The Patriots have won five straight games and Brady put up monster numbers in that stretch, including throwing for 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has had five consecutive games of at least two touchdowns and zero interceptions, which is the second longest streak of his career according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Patriots lead the NFL in total offense and scoring, and Brady is the primary reason. He’s justifiably one of the favorites for the NFL MVP award this season.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireQuarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots take on the Dolphins in a Week 13 matchup that Miami is desperate to win.
A wild card: New England’s opponent Sunday, the Miami Dolphins, is in the thick of the wild-card race. Miami (5-6) is one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (6-5). All three teams have tough games. The Steelers are on the road against the Baltimore Ravens (9-2), while the Bengals travel to play the San Diego Chargers (4-7). It’s possible that both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati could lose their road games Sunday, which would open the door for Miami to gain a game. But the Dolphins upsetting the Patriots is a tall task.

No shotgun for Sanchez: New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is having a poor season all around. But it may be wise for the Jets to keep Sanchez out of the shotgun as much as possible in the final five games. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Sanchez has the NFL’s second-lowest completion percentage (56.6) from the shotgun formation. Sanchez also has six interceptions and has been sacked 15 times from the formation. New York is a ground-and-pound team that’s not adept at using multiple wide receivers and airing it out.

Jets need sacks: A lot of the focus has been on the Jets’ struggling offense. However, New York’s defense also has been inconsistent. This was a group expected to finish in the top five in the NFL. But injuries and underachieving have kept New York’s defense back. One big issue has been New York’s inability to pressure the quarterback. The Jets are 30th in the NFL with only 17 sacks. Look for New York to attack the Arizona Cardinals with different blitz looks Sunday. The Cardinals are starting struggling quarterback Ryan Lindley.

Bills could face Babin: The Philadelphia Eagles created national headlines earlier this week when they released Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Babin. He was claimed 24 hours later by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who will travel to Buffalo to face the Bills on Sunday. Babin is expected to make his Jacksonville debut against Buffalo in some capacity this weekend. The irony is Buffalo tried to claim Babin, who was one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers last season. The Jaguars (2-9) are last in the NFL with 13 sacks.
The general rule of thumb is that rookie quarterbacks struggle in the NFL against the blitz. The disguises, exotic looks and increased speed of the game often make it tough on rookies to throw well under pressure.

However, Miami Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill is not having a traditional rookie season. The area where Tannehill is struggling the most is against base defenses. It is part of the reason Miami is 4-6 and has lost three straight games.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Tannehill has the NFL’s second-worst completion percentage (55.2) against four or fewer rushers. When defenses do not blitz, it throws Tannehill off his game. He’s been sacked 10 times and thrown five interceptions against base defenses this season.

Opponents frequently blitzed Tannehill at the beginning of the season, which is normal for rookies. But Tannehill showed the ability to make quick and accurate throws in Miami’s West Coast offense, and had early success. Then, opponents adjusted around midseason by not blitzing as much and dropping a lot of defenders back. That is where Tannehill hit a wall.

The early book is out on Tannehill now that teams have enough film on the rookie quarterback. It will be up to Miami’s coaching staff and Tannehill to make the adjustment in order to have success when teams do not blitz.

I rarely lean solely on statistics. I think emotion, streakiness, matchups, injuries and other factors play into who wins and loses in the NFL on a weekly basis.

But sometimes statistics and trends are too hard to ignore. That is certainly the case when it comes to Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills (3-5) and New England Patriots (5-3).

ESPN Stats & Information is always on top of its game. Its talented research staff put together some harrowing statistics if you’re a Bills fan.

Here are several stats to ponder:
  • For starters, the Patriots have won 17 of the past 18 overall meetings with the Bills, including 11 straight in New England.
  • Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is 19-2 in his career against the Bills. It’s the second-best record of any quarterback against one team since the NFL merger in 1970.
  • Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown an interception once every 8.6 attempts on throws 15 yards or longer, which is the worst in the NFL. Brady has just three interceptions in 209 attempts.

Based strictly on numbers and trends, the Bills don’t have a chance Sunday. Buffalo has gone to Gillette Stadium for more than a decade and left with a loss every time.

But games are decided on the field, not by statistics. Buffalo will be huge underdogs but has a chance to change its misfortunes Sunday.

Mark Sanchez struggling in play-action

October, 4, 2012
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New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez has been up and down in his four-year career. But one of his biggest and most consistent strengths has been his ability to throw on play-action passes.

Unfortunately for the Jets, that hasn't been the case this year. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez is ranked 30th in the NFL with a 45.8 completion percentage on play-action. Sanchez has thrown for 140 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Play-action passing is Sanchez's bread and butter, but there are various reasons his numbers are down. For starters, New York has a sputtering running game. Defenses do not have to respect the play-action if the Jets cannot run the football. Second, tight end Dustin Keller (hamstring) and now receiver Santonio Holmes (foot) are both injured. Finally, Sanchez’s overall accuracy (49.2) has been down this year.

The Jets need to figure out their offensive identity. Opposing defenses have been one step ahead because the Jets have yet to zero in on their strengths.
Tom BradyJim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesHistory is against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots returning to the Super Bowl this season.
The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots have the talent, experience and depth to get back to the Super Bowl in February. Many football pundits agree the Patriots -- led by quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick -- are one of the safest picks to represent the AFC in New Orleans.

But history suggests New England is better off not showing up this season. The Patriots were runners-up in Super Bowl XLVI -- and historically that is an awful position to be in.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, it's been 39 years since a team bounced back from a Super Bowl loss to win a championship. The Miami Dolphins won Super Bowl VII in January 1973 after losing Super Bowl VI the previous year. In fact, it's only happened twice in the Super Bowl's 46-year history.

New England is trying to become just the third team to accomplish the feat -- and the first in nearly four decades. Thirty-eight consecutive teams have tried and failed. That is a ton of history against the Patriots as they chase their fourth Super Bowl title in the Belichick-Brady era.

Mathematically, only 4.3 percent of NFL teams have been able to accomplish what New England is trying to do this year. Those are long odds, indeed.

"The Patriots played more games than any other team but one last year and I think that takes a toll," Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson said of difficulty of getting back to the Super Bowl. "Those playoff games are really intense and you have to do more physical damage to your roster than teams that didn’t make it deep into the playoffs. So I think it’s a little more difficult to be fresh when your season comes around. Your offseasons aren't as long and you're more beat up."

To Williamson's point, the Patriots are still ailing from last year's playoff run.

Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins tore his ACL in the postseason and had surgery in February. He is questionable for Week 1 and could begin the year on the physically unable to perform list. Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski needed ankle surgery this offseason after getting injured in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. He continues to rehab and hopes to be back by training camp. Neither star was able to participate in offseason workouts.

The numbers are a little more in New England's favor in terms of getting back to the big game. Seven Super Bowl runners-up have repeated as conference champions in 46 years, which is 15.2 percent. Most recently, the Buffalo Bills bounced back from three Super Bowl losses to return to the title game in the 1990-93 seasons. The Denver Broncos also lost Super Bowl XXI in the 1986 season and made it back to Super Bowl XXII the following year. But 17 consecutive Super Bowl runners-up have not returned to the big game. The Patriots will try to end the drought this season.

History is not on New England's side, but there are reasons to believe the Patriots can shake the runners-up curse.

For starters, New England is stacked this year. There is depth at nearly every position, and the defense should be much improved from the 31st-ranked unit we saw a year ago. Second, New England has the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL. The Patriots play just four teams with winning records in 2011. A 12- or 13-win season appears very attainable for the Patriots.

Finally, New England's offense is a juggernaut. Brady is playing some of the best football of his career and he has a supremely talented supporting cast that includes Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd, Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker, dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez, veteran receiver Jabar Gaffney and a young, exciting group of running backs.

"They would be No. 1 on my power rankings. I'm not saying they will win the Super Bowl, but if I had to pick one team, they would be my pick," Williamson said. "The key to me is you can't outscore them. The Patriots were one of the two or three best offenses last year and they had some flaws. They had nothing outside the numbers and no deep-ball capabilities, and they went out and changed that with Brandon Lloyd. That's a big step forward on offense, and now you're going to have to score 40 to beat them."

The AFC appears to be the weaker conference, which also plays into New England's favor. There are only a handful of serious contenders. Besides New England, the list includes the Ravens, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and maybe the Broncos if future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning can return to full strength.

But the first step for the Patriots is conquering the AFC East. New England has won the division nine of the past 11 years under Brady and Belichick. Williamson does not see any reason the Patriots cannot win their 10th AFC East title in 12 years.

"I think the Jets are declining and the Bills are rising, but I don't think either one is close to the Patriots’ level," Williamson said. "I don't think the rest of the division is that good. The Bills have come a long way -- for the Bills. But I still think they're an 8-8 or 9-7 team if everything goes well. No one in the division has a quarterback close to Brady. No one has the big-game experience, and none of them have a coach on Belichick’s level."

Barring significant injuries, the Patriots are a safe bet to make the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. But when it comes to getting to the very top of the NFL mountain, history suggests New England's 2012 journey will fall short.
Vince WilforkAP Photo/Elise AmendolaVince Wilfork, right, and the Patriots' defense dominated Saturday's playoff game against Denver.
Trick question: Which team has the top-rated defense in the NFL playoffs? If you answered the New England Patriots, you are correct.

The much-maligned Patriots' defense had the best performance of the playoffs thus far in a 45-10 win against the Denver Broncos. A group that was mostly on its heels during the regular season attacked Denver and quarterback Tim Tebow, allowing just 252 total yards. Whether the one-game performance was a fluke or a sign of things to come is a subject of intense debate.

We will find out Sunday when the Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. When it comes to defense, the Patriots stand out in a group that includes the Ravens, the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants in the conference championships. Baltimore and San Francisco were both top-four defenses. The Giants were injured on defense all season, but are finally healthy and playing like the talented unit most expected.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, New England is trying to become, by far, the worst-rated defense ever to win a Super Bowl. New England was ranked 31st in total defense in the regular season. Only the Green Bay Packers -- who were 15-1 but one-and-done in the playoffs -- were worse. Is this Patriots' defense good enough to win a championship?

"Everyone is real easy to jump on the Patriots' defense and say they're so terrible and they can't win a Super Bowl being this bad. But I don't agree with that," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "I don’t think it's great. It's clearly the worst defense still in the playoffs. They allow all these passing yards, but they don't allow that many points, and that's more important."

The Patriots continue to challenge the longstanding theory that "defense wins championships." Three of the past four Super Bowl champions -- Green Bay, New Orleans and Indianapolis -- were led by dynamic offenses. But this season, defense is making a comeback.

The Patriots have the best offense and worst defense remaining in the field. Yet they are the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.

"Big defenses will stand up in playoff situations. So it's still relevant," NFL analyst Steve Young explained in a conference call this week. "It's just not quite as relevant as the old days, in my mind. It's a big deal, and I think the Giants and 49ers playing each other is interesting, because [they have] two really great defenses. The Patriots will have to be proven wrong, that they can't go the distance in this pass-happy era. ... I think the question is going to be answered on the field. Phenomenal offense against a great defense and we'll see in this era who can pull off championship football.”

The matchup between Baltimore's offense and New England's defense is an intriguing one. Both groups have been the weaker links of their respective teams. With Baltimore's passing game inconsistent, the key to slowing the Ravens will be corralling Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice. In many ways, Rice is to Baltimore what quarterback Tom Brady is to New England. Rice led the Ravens in rushing (1,364) and receptions (76). Patriots head coach Bill Belichick usually attempts to take away an opponent's best weapon and force a team to win with its second and third options. Similar to last week, expect New England to gear up heavily against the run and see if Baltimore can keep up with New England's high-powered offense by passing the football.

But stopping Rice won't be easy. He had six 100-yard rushing games this season, including 204 yards against the Cleveland Browns and 191 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I'll tell you what, he’s probably one of the toughest guys to bring down in this league because he always keeps those wheels spinning," Patriots Pro Bowl defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. "He always comes up with big plays for his team, if it’s in the pass game or the running game. When you have a running back like that, you can do anything with him. I think the Ravens do a good job of using him. That’s first on our list; we have to slow him down if we want to be successful as a defense."

If things go as planned for New England, there will be a lot of pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to keep up. Flacco's performances in the playoffs have been inconsistent. Last week he completed just 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards in a 20-13 win against the Houston Texans. Flacco also was sacked five times. That also happens to be the same amount of sacks New England registered against Tebow last week. You also cannot ignore the "Brady Factor" when talking about New England's defense. The future Hall of Famer is playing some of the best football of his career, and is coming off a six-touchdown performance against Denver, which tied a playoff record.

New England's high-scoring offense is averaging 40.5 points in the past four games and has complemented the defense well. Despite all of New England's defensive issues, the team is pretty solid in the red zone and is 15th in points allowed (21.4) per game.

"The Patriots are not great [defensively], but they don't need to shut teams out either with Brady and the offense that they have,” Williamson said.

For months many have wondered if the Patriots' struggling defense can step up in the playoffs if the offense cannot light it up against an elite defense. This is probably the week we find out against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game.

Perhaps no group in the playoffs has more to prove this week than New England's defense, which might or might not be turning the corner.

"It's playoff time," Patriots starting cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "Our records, our stats go out the window this time of year. We're fully committed to play for one another."
How do you view Tom Brady's postseason record?

Overall, it's impressive. But lately Brady hasn't done so well with the season on the line.

Brady is a stellar 14-5 in 19 career playoff games. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Brady is tied with Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and John Elway for the second most playoff wins in NFL history.

But Brady is winless in his past three playoff games. This includes two consecutive one-and-done postseasons following the 2009 and 2010 seasons. New England also lost Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants.

In fact, Brady hasn't won a playoff game since the AFC Championship following the 2007 season. Four years is a long postseason drought for Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who are the NFL's winningest quarterback-coach tandem.

There are no excuses for New England not to win a playoff game this year. The Patriots (13-3) are huge favorites and got the easiest possible draw for the divisional round with Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos (9-8).

Brady, who won 14 of his first 16 playoff games and three Super Bowls, needs to get back on the winning side of the postseason starting this Saturday. If the Patriots, Brady and Belichick lose their fourth consecutive playoff game, expect a ton of offseason criticism in New England.
Say what you want about Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. But one thing he does pretty well is throw the deep ball over top of coverage that's trying to stop the run.

Tebow had a career day Sunday throwing deep in a wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tebow was had three completions over 50 yards and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the most yards per completion (31.6) in NFL playoff history.

The Steelers made the mistake by stacking the line of scrimmage too much and showing little respect for Tebow's deep ball. New England's pass defense, which is notorious for giving up big plays, has to be more balanced in its approach in order to avoid getting "Tebowed."

"Really one of the best things that he did or better things he did among a number of things at Florida was he threw the ball down field really well," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Casario said Monday. "He has good arm strength, real accurate with the football, and I think there have been a lot of examples this year in Denver, not only in yesterday’s game against Pittsburgh, but where they’ve thrown the ball down the field and been able to get the ball behind the defense. They have players on the perimeter that they’re able to get vertical into the defense and down the field."

The opportunities will be there for Tebow to make plays with his arm. The Patriots were 31st in the NFL defending the pass. New England also led the league in giving up an astounding 79 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season.

Tebow's accuracy isn't great -- he was 10 for 21 last week -- but he proved against Pittsburgh that he's not afraid to "pull the trigger." His 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime to Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas was the biggest play in Denver's season.

Do not blitz Tom Brady

December, 22, 2011
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The consensus in NFL circles is the best way to beat Tom Brady is to constantly pressure and blitz the New England Patriots quarterback.

But according to ESPN Stats & Information, that theory couldn't be more incorrect.

This season Brady has the highest completion percentages (67.1), yards (1,582) and passer rating (135.6) of any NFL quarterback when teams bring five or more rushers. Brady also is tied with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the most touchdown passes (16) this season against the blitz.

The emergence of second-year tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez helps tremendously in this area. Most blitzes leave the middle of the field exposed or in one-on-one coverage, which both tight ends have been able to exploit. Wes Welker also does most of his damage in the middle of the field.

Brady, 34, is at the point in his career where he's seen every defensive scheme. Chances are, you're not going to surprise him with a blitz, and his receivers are talented enough to beat single coverage. The best route for opponents is to just sit back and hope Brady makes a couple mistakes.

Patriots playoff scenarios

December, 20, 2011
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The New England Patriots (11-3) clinched the AFC East Sunday with a 41-23 victory over the Denver Broncos. But the division was in the bag weeks ago. New England is seeking bigger things, like a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

With only two games remaining, here are the Week 16 playoff scenarios for the Patriots via ESPN Stats and Information:

New England clinches a first-round bye if...

1) NE win + HOU loss or tie

2) NE win + PIT loss or tie + BAL loss or tie

3) NE tie + HOU loss

4) NE tie + PIT loss + BAL loss

New England clinches home-field advantage throughout playoffs if...

1) NE win + HOU loss or tie + PIT loss or tie + BAL loss or tie

For those wondering about the New York Jets (8-6), they cannot clinch this week. The Jets have to win their final two games to get the final wild card in the AFC.

Jets' comeback by the numbers

October, 24, 2011
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Tim Tebow wasn't the only quarterback who led a big second-half comeback in Week 7.

The New York Jets and quarterback Mark Sanchez rallied from 11 points down in the second half to take a 27-21 victory against the San Diego Chargers. The win was the second in a row for the Jets (4-3), who remain in the playoff hunt.

Here are some statistics on the comeback, courtesy of ESPN's Stats and Information:

17-0: The Jets outscored San Diego in the second half to pull off the win. New York's defense put the clamps on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who had just one passing first down in the second half.

112: Jets running back Shonn Greene notched a season-high in rushing and gained more than 100 yards for the first time this season. Ground-and-pound was back. New York as a team rushed for a season-best 162 yards.

25: New York controlled the tempo offensively with 25 first downs to keep the chains moving. The Jets also were an efficient 8-for-13 on third-down conversions.

3: Jets receiver Plaxico Burress scored a trio of big touchdowns. All three scores were in the red zone.

4-0: The Jets remain undefeated this season at Met Life Stadium. It's just the second time in 25 seasons that New York won its first four games at home.

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