Conference Championships (1/22/13)

By Paul Bessire

Tuesday, January 22 at 4:00 PM ET

For this week's football blog, I am again stealing a page from our weekly football podcasts and ripping off the weekly GameChanger article featuring our Live ScoreCaster feature (free for every NFL playoff game) to review some interesting notes from the two conference championship games. The weekend also saw our picks go 1-0-1 ATS with a win on Baltimore +9.5 and a push with San Francisco -4. This keeps our record in conference championship games and Super Bowls unblemished (8-0-1 ATS) and secures a third consecutive non-losing NFL playoffs since the site launched. 

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Conference Championships:

San Francisco @ Atlanta 

Game Changer: Like we have said many times before, fumble recovery is essentially a random event in the NFL. Two fumbles occurred within three minutes of each other in the NFC Championship game Sunday. Here is a look at how each swung the projected win percentages for the recovering team.

With 1:00 left in the 3rd quarter, the Falcons are leading the 49ers 24-21 when Matt Ryan bobbles a snap that is recovered by Aldon Smith of the 49ers. Prior to the fumble, Atlanta’s win percentage is 64.6%, with a projected score of 31-28. When the Falcons lose the ball, their win percentage drops to 48.1%, with a projected score of 28-27 49ers.

Seven plays after Matt Ryan’s fumble, with 13:24 left in the 4th quarter, Michael Crabtree tries to extend his body to get into the end zone only to have the ball stripped away by the Falcons. Prior to the fumble, the 49ers win percentage was 65.6%. After the turnover on the Falcons' one-yard line, San Francisco’s win percentage drops to 46.8% with a final projected score of 27-26 Atlanta. Luckily for the 49ers, their defense forced a three-and-out and on the next series Frank Gore rushed for the game winning score.

Additional Notes: While I would not necessarily recommend doing it for a regular season NBA game, I have thoroughly enjoyed turning on all notifications in the free Live ScoreCaster app, including the Projected Lead Chang notification. Of all of the games that we have projected in-game with Live ScoreCaster, this was the most entertaining. The projected lead fluctuated back-and-forth throughout the third and fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game. While what we saw on the field was certainly quite the rollercoaster ride for those of us on San Francisco -4, seeing the 49ers have a strong chance to win the game after just about every play was uplifting (despite even having a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, Atlanta was never more than 78.5% likely to win). Over the course of the game, there were 28 plays while San Francisco was losing in which we still projected the 49ers to win the game outright. 

One of the more notable, unheralded plays of the game occurred with 12:00 to go in the fourth quarter when Ted Ginn returned a 48 yard Matt Bosher punt 20 yards to the Atlanta 38 yard line. Previous to that return, San Francisco was just 44% likely to win the game. With such great field position, the 49ers became the favorites (59% likely to win) and never looked back. Even though San Francisco did not score for five more plays, the 49ers spent the final 30 plays of the game as our projected winners. 

As it relates to covering the spread (or in this case, pushing versus losing ATS), one of the more important plays of the game may have occurred when San Francisco had a 3rd-and-15 from its own five yard line with one minute left. Frank Gore picked up ten yards on the play and the 49ers let the clock run down to 13 seconds remaining before punting the ball away. Had Gore been stuffed, Andy Lee would have been punting the ball from deep out of his own end zone (like feet butting up against the back line of the end zone deep). An intentional safety would have certainly been in play in that situation. Taking the safety could have taken a couple of seconds off the clock, shifted the score to 28-26 and allowed Lee to get off a free kick rather than potentially have his punt blocked in the end zone. With little opportunity for Atlanta (and an obviously hurt Matt Ryan) to receive/return the free kick, travel into field goal range and kick a field goal in essentially ten seconds, Jim Harbaugh may have preferred that route to the dangers of punting out of the back of the end zone. Fortunately, Frank Gore picked up enough yards to keep Lee out of the end zone entirely and render that logic invalid (though I'm sure Harbaugh told Lee that if had any problems with the snap whatsoever to just grab the ball and run through the back of the end zone)... These are things that run through the minds of those who are just as concerned with margin of victory as who wins.

One other lasting thought from this game is the 49ers' reliance on the pistol offense. It's become sports talk fodder to discuss the relevance and shelf life of the formation - especially in the context of formations like the "wildcat" that essentially thrived in the NFL for one weekend in 2008. First of all, discussing the potential shelf life of such a formation to me is akin to questioning whether teams will continue running out of shotgun or in single back formations, because that's exactly what the pistol offense is - a hybrid of the traditional under-center single back formation (though other pro-style formations with lead blockers can be run from it as well) and shotgun in which the quarterback is closer to the center than in typical shotgun formation and the running back is essentially as deep behind the line of scrimmage as he usually is. I don't know if that answers the question of whether or not the pistol is "here to stay," but it certainly is not a very radical concept.

That being said, Colin Kaepernick is not getting enough credit for what we have seen from the 49ers in the pistol formation this season. Yes, he is a physical specimen with the arm strength to make just about every throw on the field, the speed to outrun most defenders on the edges and the size to withstand hits. For all of that, we as football fans are appropriately in awe. However, Colin Kaepernick was already the greatest pistol quarterback of all-time when he entered the league. Playing under pistol innovator, Chris Ault  (again, not that innovative, but Ault has honed and stuck with the formation since returning to his alma mater in 2004), Kaepernick was a four-year starting quarterback at Nevada. In college, he took roughly 3,500 snaps during live game action in the pistol formation and accounted for on 14,210 yards on 1,871 passes and runs from the pistol over 51 games. Not only is Kaepernick as close to the most perfect physical athlete as one could be to run the pistol formation, he is its most experienced and knowledgeable signal caller ever. He's probably teaching Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman just as much about the offense as they are teaching him. Put that behind the best offensive line in the league, with the most athletic playmaking set of tight ends and add in weapons like Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree and LaMichael James and it should not be surprising to see Kaepernick and the 49ers' offense succeeding. Sure, Baltimore, especially with an extra week to prepare, may find a way to contain the 49ers, but this pistol offense actually presents one way in which Kaepernick has more experience than his defensive counterparts like Ray Lewis. 

See the chart that tells the story of 49ers @ Falcons

Baltimore @ New England

Game Changer: The Patriots played a conservative game; some would suggest they played not to lose. Here is one example of conservative play calling that could have changed the outcome for New England.

With 6:25 left in the first quarter, the Patriots opt to kick a 31-yard field on 4th-and-2 instead of being aggressive and going for it. There isn’t a large sample size of the Patriots going for it on 4th-and-2 but, over the last three years, the Patriots have converted 42 of their 65 attempts (64.6%) on 3rd-and-2 (Shout out to Bill Barnwell for this awesome stat). By converting the field goal attempt the Patriots win percentage becomes 72%, with a projected final score of 27-18. Had the Patriots attempted to convert the 4th down and been successful; their win percentage jumps to 79% with a projected final score of 33-21. Converting the 4th down would have been worth an extra 7% in win likelihood and three additional points in projected margin.

Also, with 6:49 left in the 4th quarter, the Patriots are trailing the Ravens 28-13. After a quick 36-yard pass and catch from Tom Brady to Wes Welker, the Patriots have the ball 1st-and-10 from the Baltimore 24-yard line. Tom Brady’s next pass gets tipped at the line, but instead of harmlessly falling to the ground, it rockets 30 yards into the air, which gives Dannell Ellerbe enough time to make the interception. After the interception the Ravens win percentage jumps to 99.9% with a projected final score of 31-16 (under the total line of 51). If the pass is not picked, the Patriots have it 2nd-and-10, the Ravens are still projected to win 97.9% of the time, but the projected score becomes 31-21, a cover on the over of 51.

Additional Notes: While the NFC Championship is noteworthy (to me at least) for its back-and-forth nature and projected lead changes, the AFC Championship between Baltimore and New England is notable for the exact opposite reason. There was just one projected lead change the entire game. The play that ultimately shifted the projections in Baltimore's favor (for good) occurred with 3:30 left in the third quarter. The Ravens were up 14-13 at the time and had a 2nd-and-14 from their own 33 yard line. At the time, they were 47% likely to win the game (they were playing a superior opponent, only up one point, in their own territory and facing a second-and-long). On the next play, Torrey Smith caught a 23 yard pass from Joe Flacco to give Baltimore a first down and put them in New England territory. At that point, the Ravens were 57% likely to win. About four minutes of game time later, Baltimore scored a touchdown to go up 21-13 and become 80% favorites to win the game, which they ultimately did after tacking on another touchdown. 

Having seen the Patriots five times in the last four years, Baltimore was as prepared as any team (with a realistic chance of winning) could be to face New England and its pace. While that certainly gave the Ravens an edge defensively that most teams lack, the Patriots ultimately suffered greatly from injury losses to play-making, matchup nightmare tight end Rob Gronkowski (his health issues also plagued their Super Bowl chances last season) and cornerback Aqib Talib (who exited late in the first quarter when the Patriots were blanking Baltimore 3-0). While I am definitely not disappointed in a Baltimore win (and cover as a 9.5 point underdog), the Ravens did not dominate this game the way that most NFL teams that win by more than two touchdowns should. But in a rare turn of events, Baltimore let New England beat itself and the Patriots obliged. 

See the chart that tells the story of Ravens @ Patriots

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