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Friday, November 11, 2011
Patriots have schedule on their side

By Jeremy Lundblad
Special to ESPNBoston.com

The New England Patriots stumbled into the midpoint of the season with consecutive losses. On Sunday against the New York Jets, they look to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2002. With half the season in the books, several statistical storylines warrant attention in the next eight games.

An easy path

The road ahead favors the Patriots, at least from the perspective of scheduling. Having stumbled to a rare two-game losing streak, New England has the advantage of the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL.

The Patriots' eight remaining opponents have a combined .369 winning percentage. Outside of their divisional opponents, they won't face a team currently over .500. Compare that with the schedules of the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants, who face a slate of foes with a combined .615 winning percentage.

The remaining schedule takes on added meaning given the current state of the division. The Patriots, Jets and Buffalo Bills all enter Week 10 tied at 5-3. In part because of its schedule, New England is still in a good position to win the AFC East.

In 10,000 simulations of the remainder of the season conducted by AccuScore, the Patriots captured the division 69.1 percent of the time, followed by the Jets (18.3) and Bills (12.6).

Sunday's result against the Jets certainly will have a major impact on those odds, but New England could already hold a key advantage. The two teams have nearly identical remaining schedules apart from one key opponent. While New England has the 0-9 Indianapolis Colts ahead, the Jets must face the 6-2 New York Giants.

At the season's midpoint, the AFC playoff picture is quite unclear. Eleven of the 16 teams are between 4-4 and 6-2. At 5-3, the Patriots are tied for the fifth-best record in the conference. Yet, their inviting schedule remains an advantage. AccuScore gives New England an 85.9 percent chance at the postseason. Only the Houston Texans (92.6 percent) are given a more favorable outlook in the AFC.

Brady's pick problem

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's 2,703 passing yards are a Patriots record through eight games and put him on pace to shatter Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084. With 20 touchdowns, he's halfway to just the sixth 40-touchdown season in NFL history.

Yet it's hard to escape the feeling that Brady has had a disappointing first half. Perhaps that's a reflection of the high bar he's set.

Uncharacteristically, Brady has had problems with interceptions. His 10 picks are the most by a Patriots quarterback through eight games since 22-year-old Drew Bledsoe in 1994.

Consider that Brady is already four interceptions shy of matching his career high. Last season, he threw just four picks all season. He equaled that total in the Bills game alone.

So what has led to Brady's problem with picks? Some of the most logical explanations are refuted by the numbers.

Given his high-volume reliance on Wes Welker, one might assume that Brady has been caught forcing passes to his favorite target. However, the opposite is true. The turnovers are the product of spreading the ball around. Consider that Brady's 10 interceptions have come while targeting seven different receivers. Deion Branch, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have each been the target for two interceptions.

Although the Patriots lack a deep threat, Brady has been throwing more long balls this season. He's thrown 27 passes of more than 20 air yards compared with 35 all last season. His average pass attempt has been for 8.9 air yards compared with 7.7 in 2010.

Last season, three of his four picks were on passes longer than 20 yards. However, the deeper passes haven't been the cause of more interceptions in 2011. In fact, five of the 10 interceptions have been on passes thrown 10 yards or fewer. Last season, Brady had a 26-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio on those passes.

With three losses, the Patriots have been playing from behind more than they are accustomed to. However, Brady's interceptions aren't a reflection of aggressiveness while trailing. In fact, all 10 interceptions this season have been while tied or in the lead by seven points or fewer.

Welker's pace

With 66 receptions through eight games, Welker is on pace to break his franchise record of 123 set in 2009. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only Marvin Harrison (69 in 2002) and Rod Smith (67 in 2001) have had more receptions in a team's first eight games.

Welker's 132-catch pace would give him the second most in NFL history behind Harrison's 143 in 2002.

However, Brady hasn't been targeting Welker as much in recent weeks. Over the first four games of the season, Welker was the intended target on 57 passes. In the four weeks since, that has dipped to 36 targets.

Among wide receivers, Welker has been Brady's only consistent option. Still, Brady may want to focus on getting him the ball even more. Consider that in Welker's five seasons, the Patriots are 34-7 when he is targeted 110 or more times compared with 22-10 when he isn't.

Welker also figures to make history on Sunday, needing two receptions to reach 500 since joining the Patriots. It will be his 70th game in New England. The record for fewest games needed to reach 500 receptions with one team is 80 by Anquan Boldin.

Defensive concerns

Perhaps the biggest statistical storyline from the first half of the season has been the prolific yardage allowed by the Patriots' defense.

New England is allowing a league-worst 416.3 yards per game. The 3,330 total yards allowed by the Patriots are the fifth-most by a team through eight games since the merger.

The Patriots are on pace to allow the fourth-most yards per game in NFL history and the most since the 1981 Baltimore Colts. That team allowed 424.6 yards per game on its way to a 2-14 season.

From a yardage standpoint, New England is in the company of defenses from the early 1950s, before players wore face masks.

The Patriots have allowed 45 plays of 20 yards or more, tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for most in the league. That puts both teams on track to allow the most such plays in the past 15 seasons, according to Stats LLC. In 2004, the Chiefs allowed 85 plays of 20 or more yards.

It's the pass defense that has struggled the most for New England, allowing a league-worst 314.0 passing yards per game. Of those 45 plays for 20 yards or more, 42 were passes. That's three more than any other team this season. Amazingly, it's nearly the same total of completions against New England that went for 6 yards or fewer (44).

Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.