The Final Battle of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady
Disclaimer: I should have added “or so we fervently hope” to my title. But of course this is a website dedicated to all things Steeler, so the Manning/Brady battle is not a sight which gladdened our hearts.
The main reason I mention it at all is because it could have been quite a different game. It would have been a home game for the Patriots, of course, and Foxborough got 10 inches of snow on Saturday. The high on Sunday was 33 degrees.
By contrast it was a balmy 40-something degrees at Mile High Stadium, with sun and not a flake of snow in sight. And once again the home team prevailed. But I noted some things which interested me in comparison to last week’s contest.
First, it would appear the Broncos took a leaf out of Bill Belichick’s playbook. Strangely, the Surface tablets which are ubiquitous on the sidelines and are used to draw up plays and convey information stopped working—but only on the Patriot’s sideline. As reported by The Verge:
…the Microsoft Surface tablets on the Patriots sidelines all broke for a while. The tablets connect to dedicated private wireless networks for security, and are restricted to running a single app used to look at real-time photos of previous plays and study the opposing team…
CBS’ Evan Washburn originally reported that “they’re having some trouble with their Microsoft Surface tablets — on the last defensive possession the Patriots’ coaches did not have access to those tablets to show pictures to their players. NFL officials have been working at it. Some of those tablets are back in use, but not all of them. A lot of frustration that they didn’t have them on that last possession.”
But I was more thinking of the footbally kind of stuff which went on. My impression of the game was that last week neither Denver’s offense or defense played as well as they did today. (The defense did nearly come unglued near the end of the game as they lost multiple players.) There are, of course, various reasons why this might be so, but one which naturally occurs to me is, the Steelers were better last week than the Patriots this week, on both sides of the ball.
Clearly, there is no way to re-run the experiment, and there may have been other factors in play. For example, I’ve heard the commentators attribute the large number of dropped balls on the part of the Broncos receivers last week to the wind. This may be so, but the wind appeared to be blowing just as hard when the Steelers’ offense was on the field as when the Broncos’ offense was.
There is the possibility that the Steelers have some sort of secret weather control device that they use only when desperate, so no one will suspect. This would explain why it was only raining when the Bengals had the ball, according to AJ McCarron. But somehow I don’t think so. The Steelers had a few drops of their own last week, but there are always going to be a few.
But a quick look at the following drive chart, compiled for your viewing pleasure, will reveal the secret of the Broncos win last week:
The fatal flaw last week, created by a combination (in my opinion, of course) of injuries and weather conditions, was field position. This was pretty much entirely due to the problems on special teams. I knew the Broncos had some short drives, but the results stunned me—they started at an average of almost midfield. Basically, the Steelers spotted them and average of 17 yards on every single drive, and were still winning until the last three minutes of the game.
A quick study of when the Broncos scored was also interesting. Three of their six scoring drives BEGAN inside comfortable field goal range. None of them resulted in a touchdown. The other three scoring drives began at their own 47, their own 34, and their own 5. The only drive inside their own 20 which resulted in a score was right at the end of the first half, and they were still held to a field goal. The only touchdown was at the end of an almost 7 minute drive, well into the fourth quarter. I suspect the altitude was getting to the Steelers defense by that point. It isn’t just a breathing problem—your muscles don’t function as well when they are getting insufficient oxygen.
So let’s look more closely at the whole field position aspect. According to the Points per possession by starting field position chart, the probability of coming away with points goes up significantly as you get out of the shadow of your own end zone.
I added up the expected points per possession for the Steelers, as per the chart, and divided them by 13 possessions, for an average of 1.71. Making the same calculation for the Broncos, their “expected” points last week averaged out to 2.35, also in 13 possessions, a very significant increase over the Steelers.
Compare this to the same figure for yesterday’s game. New England averaged 2.06 “expected” points. The Broncos had much less of an advantage in these terms over New England, with an average of 2.17 expected points per possession. (This was in 14 possessions for both teams. In all cases I eliminated kneel-downs.)
In terms of the more ordinary sorts of game statistics, Ben Roethlisberger threw for more yards (339 yards on 37 attempts) than either of the other quarterbacks in either game. Manning threw for 222 on 37 attempts last week, 176 on 32 attempts this week; Brady threw for 310 yards on 56 attempts. In neither game did Manning throw a pick, surprisingly—nor did Roethlisberger. Tom Brady threw two picks. During the regular season Brady threw 36 TDs to 7 picks.
None of the teams managed much of any rushing yards until well into the second half of the game. (New England never did manage any to speak of.) The Broncos had the most rushing yards, but they, unlike the Steelers and the Patriots, were playing with both their starting running backs.
Both Pittsburgh and New England were down to the practice squad/waiver wire guys. And still the Steelers managed 85 yards. The Broncos ended with 109 against Pittsburgh and 99 against New England.
It’s also worth giving a shout out to the Steelers’ O-line. Tom Brady, the master of getting the ball out of his hand in a hurry, was nonetheless sacked three times, but more to the point was hit 23(!) times by the Broncos’ defense. By comparison it was a haven of peace in the Steelers backfield. Ben was sacked three times, but spent a lot less time on the ground than Brady, from what I could tell.
Admittedly the Patriots’ line has been hard hit by injuries—where have we heard that before?—but the Steelers were playing with a journeyman center and a rookie left tackle. Not just a rookie to the NFL, a rookie at the position. All things considered, the Steelers’ O-line was a revelation.
Of course, all of this is just a matter of interest, because it doesn’t matter how you get there, just that you end up with at least one more point than the other team. One thing I think it is fair to say—Denver has its special teams, and possibly the altitude at Mile High Stadium, to thank for last week’s victory over the Steelers. They have Von Miller to thank for yesterday’s win…
But things don’t look too promising for the AFC in the Super Bowl. Somehow, on a neutral field, it’s difficult to see the Broncos prevailing against the mighty Panthers. And honestly, given how easily the Panthers dispatched Bruce Arian’s high-flying Cardinals, perhaps the Steelers are well out of it. I’m pretty sure Mike Tomlin doesn’t think so, though…