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Wednesday, January 4, 2012
How bad are Pats' 1st-quarter woes?

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPNBoston.com

Do the New England Patriots have a first-quarter problem?

On Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots trailed 21-0 at the end of the first quarter, but came back to win. That had happened only seven times in NFL history.

The Patriots were actually the first team to lose after leading 21-0 going into the second quarter. That was 37 years ago, when the Miami Dolphins climbed back to a 34-27 win.

New England's win on Sunday -- particularly by such a large margin -- helped mask a growing trend of falling behind early.

In the Patriots' eight home games, they led just once at the end of the first quarter. Overall, they've trailed in the first quarter in half of their games. In six of those, New England trailed at the end of the first quarter.

Yet, New England proved adept at coming back from early deficits. In those six games in which they trailed going into the second quarter, the Patriots went 5-1. To put that in perspective, the rest of the NFL was just 58-146.

Those five wins when trailing after the first quarter are the most in a single season in Patriots history. The last team with more wins when trailing after the first quarter? The 2009 Saints, who won six on their way to a Super Bowl title.

Yet, postseason history says the odds are against teams that fall behind early. The Patriots are just 2-8 all-time in the postseason when trailing at the end of the first quarter. Over the past 10 postseasons, the team that's winning after the first quarter is 57-24.

But is history a true indicator? As long as the Patriots continue to bounce back this season, should these early deficits be a concern? The answer may require a closer look at just how New England is falling behind.

At issue is not just a poor defense, but an offense that's slow out of the gates.

The Patriots were outscored 87-82 in the first quarter, a minus-5 margin that ranked 20th in the NFL. Those 87 points allowed were eighth most. But starting in the second quarter, the Patriots outscored opponents by 176 points.

That discrepancy was far more apparent as the season went on. Over the final seven weeks of the season, the Patriots were outscored by a combined 29 points in the first quarter. In the final three quarters, they outscored opponents by a combined 141 points.

Over the last six weeks, New England allowed 57 points in the first quarter, but won all six games. Only the Buccaneers (66) allowed more, and they went 0-6 in that span.

Defensively, the culprit is a familiar one in 2011. The Patriots allowed 1,209 passing yards in the first quarter. That's the most since the 1995 Atlanta Falcons gave up 1,236.

Meanwhile, the Patriots' rushing attack tended to start very slowly. They gained only 305 yards in the first half, third fewest in the NFL.

Despite these early deficits, the Patriots always clawed back into the game. The pass rush played a key role in this. When trailing, New England has 12 sacks on 117 opponent dropbacks. Compare that to 23 sacks on 432 opponent dropbacks when the Patriots are ahead.

Of course, the comebacks really come down to Tom Brady. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his fine season has been Brady's play when the Patriots are trailing.

When playing from behind, Brady connected on 14 touchdowns and just one interception, good for a 106.5 passer rating. Brady hasn't always been a great comeback quarterback. Just two years ago, he had four touchdowns and three interceptions when the Patriots trailed.

This season, he's turned to the tight ends when on the comeback trail. When behind, Brady is 53-for-81 with nine touchdowns when targeting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Impact of the Coin Flips It's easy to place blame on the defense or chalk it up to slow starts. But there may be a far more simple explanation for the early deficits faced by New England. Could it be as basic as the flip of a coin?

The Patriots received the opening kickoff only once all season. That's tied with the Packers for the fewest this season, while the 49ers got it just twice. Interesting to note: Those teams finished with three of the four best records in the NFL.

In 15 of 16 games, the Patriots' opponent started out with the ball. That certainly goes a long way toward explaining those early deficits.

This isn't a matter of bad luck. The Patriots won seven coin flips this season, opting to defer in each case.

In 2008, the league instituted a rule providing the option to defer the decision to kick or receive until the second half. New England has deferred all but once since. Overall, the Patriots have deferred 28 straight winning coin flips, last opting to receive on Sept. 7, 2008. In that span, only the Dolphins (32) have more deferrals.

During his news conference Tuesday, Bill Belichick addressed the philosophy of deferring the opening kick.

"I think obviously if you take the ball at the beginning of the game, you have a chance to get one more possession in the first half," he said. "If you take the ball at the beginning of the second half, you have a chance to get one more possession in the second half."

In short, he'd rather have the ball in the second half.

A quick look at the third quarter shows just how significant that has been. The Patriots have outscored the opposition141-50 in the third quarter. That means in the first and third quarters combined, the Patriots have a plus-86 scoring margin. Suddenly, complaints about the first quarter appear far less significant.

Belichick seemingly tried to downplay the significance of the strategy.

"Either way, if you get it this half, they get it that half," he said. "It's not like you're actually stealing something from somebody, it's just a question of if you win the toss and even have a preference then what's your preference? ... I don't think it's that big of a deal.

Belichick may say it's not a big deal, but that might be because his opponents give him what he wants anyway. Deferring isn't for everyone. The Colts have done it just once in the past four seasons, while the Falcons still haven't deferred since the rule was put in place.

Opponents have deferred just 15 of 41 times against the Patriots since 2008.

Does it matter? Since 2008, the Patriots are 11-5 when receiving the opening kickoff compared to 37-11 when receiving to begin the second half.

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