On The Numbers: Rivers's 500-yard game, Olsen's breakout and more
Welcome to Week 6 of “On the Numbers,” a weekly column which mines for statistical oddities, numerical fun facts and analytics observations from around the NFL.
Feats of Strength
You probably saw that Philip Rivers threw for 503 yards Sunday (albeit in a losing effort) at Green Bay. Rivers notched the 16th 500-yard game in NFL history, and the seventh this decade. He racked up those 500 yards the hard way, more a function of a high-volume passing game than a matter of padding the numbers with a few long plays. His full stat line was 43-for-65 with two touchdowns and—perhaps most impressively—zero interceptions.
That 500 is the round number that will receive attention, but some of those other numbers are actually more rare. Rivers is just the fourth player to complete 43 passes in a game, falling two shy of the record Drew Bledsoe set in 1994. Bledsoe also set the record that day with 70 passing attempts. Rivers had the eighth game in league history with as many as 65 attempts, but Bledsoe is the only other player to throw that many passes without having any of them intercepted.
It was an impressive display from a quarterback whose 2.5% career interception rate is among the top 25 quarterbacks in NFL history (though behind several of his notable peers).
As for his primary pass-catcher, Keenan Allen nearly had his own record-setting day, until it was disrupted by an injury in the third quarter.
Allen tied a franchise record with 15 catches in the Chargers’ Week 1 win over the Lions. Had he hauled in one more pass Sunday he would have been the first player ever with multiple 15-catch games in one season. In fact, Brandon Marshall, Wes Welker and Jason Witten are the only players with two games of at least 15 catches in their career, let alone one season.
The number 14 doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but Allen joins Reggie Wayne (2010) as only the second player with 14 catches in a game twice in one season.
Throw in his 12-catch performance in Week 3 and he’s already just the fourth player to catch that many balls three times in one season, joining Terrell Owens (2002), Wes Welker ('09) and Cris Carter (1995), who is the only player to catch 12 passes four times in one year.
The Chargers are no doubt disappointed to be 2–4, but their next five opponents own seven total wins combined. If the passing game keeps clicking, those yards could translate into more points and wins, and an appearance at least in the playoff race if not the tourney itself.
Two of the big winners in Week 6 were the Jets (34–20 over the Redskins) and the Dolphins (38–10 over the Titans). Those two AFC East foes were coming off their bye week, and the last time we saw them on the field they were playing against each other in Week 4 in London.
The NFL has now staged 12 games in the UK since launching the International Series in 2007, with games No. 13 and 14 coming later this season. All 24 teams were given bye weeks immediately after the London game. And while the Jets’ and Dolphins’ Week 6 wins were among the most lopsided for a team coming home from the UK, it’s not uncommon to see those teams collect a win. The 24 teams are 14-9-1 in their first game following the London/bye-week portion of the schedule, with the average point differential in the 14 wins about nine points and the average point differential in the nine losses about the same.
|YEAR||TEAM||LONDON||NEXT GAME||PT. DIFF|
Keep in mind 24 games don’t make for the largest sample size. I resisted the urge to break the teams down into smaller subcategories (teams coming off wins or losses, teams coming back to the U.S. to play at home or on the road, etc.) because then the samples get really small.
That 14-9-1 record comes out to a .604 winning percentage (if we count the tie as a half a win). According to the stats at TeamRankings.com, the entire league is 160-131-3 coming off of a bye since 2007 (including the playoffs), which is a .549 winning percentage. So the winning percentage for teams coming off the London trip is slightly higher, but basically in line with the overall numbers—within a game of looking extremely close to that .549 mark.
So what conclusions can we draw? Well, we should still take all of this with a grain of salt.
But for now the bye week seems to be enough for teams to recover to normal performance levels by the time they hit the field the following week. If you expected to see a noticeable drop-off in expected performance in those games, at least there’s no evidence of that.
Sunday was a breakout day for a few pass-catchers. Calvin Johnson and Jimmy Graham both finally topped 100 yards receiving for the first time this season. Alshon Jefferey and Martavis Bryant were both back on the field, and topping 100 yards. And Julius Thomas had his first productive game as a Jaguar.
Graham’s day will receive plenty of attention, because of how the Seahawks’ season has gone and their inability (to this point) to get him involved. But another guy who cracked triple digits in receiving yards is the tight end on the winning sideline in that game: Greg Olsen.
It seems like Olsen has been underappreciated for much of his career. All-time greats Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates passed the torch to Rob Gronkowski and Graham as that position’s elite. Meanwhile Jason Witten and Heath Miller chugged along as consistent presences, and Olsen has just never been a guy who comes to mind as a top receiving tight end.
Leaderboard Movers usually focuses on players who leapfrog over historical comps, but this week the spotlight shines on Olsen largely for passing one of his peers: Vernon Davis. Davis, the sixth pick in the 2006 draft, was shut out Sunday, getting just one target in the 49ers’ win over the Ravens. Olsen caught seven balls for 131 yards, including the final score in unbeaten Carolina’s huge win at Seattle. In addition to passing Davis on the career receiving list, he also passed five-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro Ben Coats.
|Greg Olsen||31st (2007)||131||489||5,562||45||1|
|Vernon Davis||6th (2006)||137||431||5,555||55||2|
|Ben Coates||124th (1991)||158||499||5,555||50||5|
Olsen is 21st in receiving yards among players designated tight ends by Pro Football Reference. By the end of the season, he could pass recognizable contemporaries like Dallas Clark, Todd Heap and possibly Jeremy Shockey. So rather than look up in a season or two to be surprised how far he has climbed, we can look now while he’s the leading receiver on an undefeated first-place team.
For two years we’ve heard plenty about the lack of weapons around Cam Newton in Carolina, but Olsen has steadily been there as an important safety valve.
Great Moments in Vegas
There were a few games this week made more exciting by having a wager down on the line. Some of those games, like the overtime contests featuring the Broncos vs. Browns and Lions vs. Bears, also had the outcome of the actual game in doubt to the end.
But for sheer absurdity, the flurry at the end of the Patriots vs. Colts game is hard to top.
As good as the Patriots have been en route to their 5–0 record, they have let a few teams back into games late. On Opening Night the Steelers scored in the final seconds for a miracle push. The following week, the Bills scored 19 fourth quarter points to make the score look much closer at 40–32.
This week the Patriots closed at -8.5 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, though that number was lower earlier in the week. They were -7.5 in the Westgate’s famous SuperContest, which freezes lines on Wednesday. The Patriots looked comfortably ahead until the Colts drove down in the final minutes with a chance for the backdoor cover.
Andrew Luck’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Griff Whalen with 1:19 left cut the lead to seven, appearing to all but clinch the cover for the Colts. But remember that the new extra point rules include the provision that the defense can return a blocked kick for a single point. Jamie Collins leapt over the entire offensive line to block the extra point. Had the ball bounced a little differently, he could have scooped and scored two points that would have changed the outcome for everyone who bet on either side of Patriots -7.5.
Even that wasn’t the end of the story though. The Colts’ ensuing onside kick attempt found itself in the hands of Rob Gronkowski, with daylight along the sideline. He went out of bounds after five yards, though it looked like he had a chance for more.
In other words, we nearly saw Gronk score a kickoff return touchdown to put a final bow on the game and cover the spread. Sadly (for some) we were deprived of this moment.
A partial listing of teams with a better point differential than the 3–3 Colts, who sit at -21:
There are others, but these are the most… interesting. Fortunately for the first-place Colts, the four teams in the AFC South are a combined 7-16 with a -128 point differential, and one of them will get a home playoff game anyway.