FanPost

Can the Patriots Win Close Games?

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Long-time (casual) Pats fan and frequent Pats Pulpit Reader here, but this is my first post. Thanks for looking. Also, I wrote this post on Wednesday, 10/17, but as a new account, couldn’t post for three days, so there have been some articles on the same topic during that time, but I thought there was enough different material here to list it anyway.

In the wake of the loss to Seattle, there’s been even more fan hand-wringing; occasionally neck-wringing gets called for. The human genome project has been expanded to include the search for the elusive "clutch-gene." Killer instinct has been labeled an endangered species. This piece explores whether the Patriots’ ability to win close games actually has declined.

First, I chose a definition of a close game, around which to investigate the data. Certainly different criteria could be selected, but I picked the idea of a one-possession game with five minutes to go in regulation. So I focused on those games where the Patriots and their opponent were separated by eight or fewer points when they reached five minutes left.

Next, I defined possible outcomes in close games

· Comeback Win – If Patriots had been trailing or tied with 5 minutes to go, and won the game

· Held Win – If Patriots had been ahead with 5 minutes to go, and won the game

· No-Comeback Loss – If Patriots had been trailing or tied with 5 minutes to go, and were unable to score (enough), so they lost the game

· No-Hold Loss – If Patriots had been ahead with 5 minutes to go and lost the game

There were occasional complications in applying these definitions, when there were multiple scores, lead changes and overtime, but I reviewed every Patriot regular season and playoff game from the 2001 season to the present, determined how many qualified as close, and noted how many of each outcome there were. I also separated things into three Patriot Modern Eras: 1) 2001 – 2007 seasons, 2) 2008 season, and 3) 2009 season to the present.

Here are the highlights of what I found:

The Comeback Kids. In the period from 2001 – 2007, out of a total of 129 regular season and playoff games, the Patriots had 14 Comeback Wins, or 10.9% of games. Even in 2008, Matt Cassell led the team to 2 Comeback Wins (23-16 regular season win over the Rams, and our last, more successful bout with the Seattle Seahawks, a 24-21 victory), or 12.5% of games. By contrast, for 2009 through the first six games of 2012, there have only been 3 Comeback Wins, all in the regular season – 25-24 over Buffalo in 2009, 23-20 over Baltimore in 2010, and 20-16 over Dallas in 2011. That’s 3 out of 59, or 5.1%.

Now I don’t remember much of my long-ago and rusty statistics, and perhaps the sample size is too small, but that seems like a statistically significant difference! In the fevered brain of Patriot Nation, that difference is magnified, because all of the recent Comebacks were in comparatively insignificant regular season games, while the earlier Comeback Wins include some of the near-mythic pillars of the modern-day Patriots. The snow game with Oakland. The Super Bowl with St. Louis. More of the same with the Super Bowl with Carolina. The 2003 regular season 30-26 victory over Denver, with the coaching brilliance of taking an intentional safety in order to provide time and opportunity for a winning touchdown. Comeback victories over Indianapolis and Baltimore in 2007, to keep the perfect season rolling. Even the 2002 season – hardly a highlight by Patriot standards – where the Patriots came back from double-digit margins in the last five minutes against both the Chicago Bears and the Miami Dolphins. (If only our politicians could so swiftly and effectively wipe out deficits!) And every single one of these comebacks except the Raider game was away from Foxboro, while all three of the recent comebacks took place in the friendly environment of Gillette. No wonder we think comeback abilities aren’t what they used to be – the stats bear it out.

The flipside of this goes with the games where the Patriots presumably had a chance to come back in a close one, but weren’t able to get the job done. Interestingly, the data here is reversed. From 2009 through the early part of the 2012 season, there have only been 3 games where the Pats were down 8 or less with 5 minutes to go and failed to win the game! Like the Comeback Wins, 3 out of 59 = 5.1%. The 2008 Patriots fell short on 2 such opportunities, so 2/16 = 12.5% of games. And the 2001 – 2007 Pats actually had 10 opportunities they couldn’t cash – 10/129 = 7.8%. I think, though, those situations are frustrating, but not as mind-searing as some of the other outcomes.

Hold On For Dear Life. What appears to get Pats fans homicidal or suicidal, depending on their inclinations, are the cases where the Patriots have the lead late, but are unable to hang on to it. Here the data is even more striking. In the period from 2001 through 2007, there were only 3 games where the Patriots let a lead slip away late. Two of those three are among the very memorable Pats games – the 2007 Super Bowl with the Giants, and the 2006 AFC Championship Game with the Colts; the third was a stunning but inconsequential 29-28 loss to the Dolphins in 2004, with two Dolphin TDs in the final 4 minutes. That’s 3/129 = 2.3%. The 2008 Patriots managed to avoid this plague altogether, so they get a gratifying 0%! But the 2009-2012 Patriots have had 8 cases; 8/59 = 13.6%. These include this season’s frustrating Seahawks and Ravens games, plus obviously the 2011 Super Bowl with the Giants, the 2011 regular-season loss to the Giants, and the Patriots-infamous "4th and 2" contest with Indy in 2009.

To really put this in perspective, you also have to note the cases where the Pats had a lead and managed to keep it and bag the win. For the 2001 – 2007 Patriots, that happened 30 times, compared with the 3 leads they coughed up during that period – 30/129 = 23.3% of games, the Patriots were preserving their slender margin! In 2008, the Patriots successfully clung to a narrow lead twice (Chiefs and 49ers) – 2/16 = 12.5% of games. The 2009-present Patriots have managed to preserve leads 10 times, the most important being 2011’s AFC Championship Game with the Ravens – 10/59 = 16.9% of games.

Note that maintaining a lead is not necessarily a defensive measure solely. You also have to look at what the offense can do to hold or even increase the lead. When leading at the 5-minute mark, the 2009 – present Patriots scored additional points in just over half of such games, and so did the 2001-2007 Patriots, while the 2008 Patriots added a FG in each of their close games. So offensive prowess regularly contributes to maintaining a lead, both by adding points and keeping the ball away from the opponent, and the recent Pats have been similar to their earlier counterparts in this.

Now to put together these sets of stats on the ability to hang on, you come up with the 2001 – 2007 Patriots accomplishing this 30 out of 33 possible times, = 90.9%. The recent Patriots – 10 out of 18 = 55.6%. I don’t think there’s any question that the data says the Patriots haven’t done this lately as well as they did in the earlier part of the modern-day Patriots era. Given that the offense added scores just as often in the 2009-present period as they had in the 2001-2007 period, it seems that the reduced ability to hold a lead recently comes primarily from a weaker defense.

Why have these changes occurred? Is there one major reason that accounts for much of it? Or a whole bunch of reasons, each one not that large or terrible in its own right, but having this effect cumulatively? And what do you do about it? Depending on what you think, maybe you don’t try to return to being able to hang onto a small lead 90+% of the time? How about instead looking to build up a larger lead, so your opponent has a bigger hill to climb over? You could say that’s what the Patriots actually have done with the high-scoring offense emphasis of the last few years. In 2010 and 2011, the Patriots won 6 games each year by a margin of 3 or more scores (17+ points). In the 2001, 2003, and 2004 seasons, the Patriots never had that cushion of victory more than four times during the season – in 2003, that Super Bowl winning squad only won by that much twice. With the data presented, at least in this particular form, I’ll let the collective wisdom of Pats Pulpit readers weigh in with their thoughts.

Before closing out, I have to say that while I lament the noticeable diminution of the comeback and hold on capabilities, I’m pretty optimistic about this year’s Patriot prospects. I believe the defense will improve as the season progresses – they definitely did last year, and this year’s version has perhaps even more opportunity to develop individually and collectively. The offense really is more versatile, and therefore even harder for good defenses to get all of it stopped. O and D have combined to lead the NFL (tied) in Giveaways/Takeaways, and I expect they’ll continue to be among the league’s best in this hugely beneficial area. Plus I think that even the AFC’s strongest other teams – Baltimore, Houston, and Denver in my opinion – have significant challenges that give the Patriots an excellent opening for a return to the Super Bowl. We’ll see.

Info Sources: ESPN Box Scores, www.footballdb.com

The views expressed in these FanPosts are not necessarily those of the writers or SBNation.

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