The Cold, Hard Football Facts: Matty Ice could throw a Big Chill over Hotlanta's Super Bowl hopes.
Matt Ryan led the NFL with six game-winning drives in 2010, he's one of the sport's bright young stars and he played pitch-and-catch all year with Roddy White (115 receptions).
But Ryan was largely ineffective getting the ball down field, especially by the standards of elite playoff quarterbacks. His average of 6.49 yards per pass attempt was 27th in the NFL and nearly 2 yards per attempt below effective downfield passers such as Aaron Rodgers (8.26 YPA), Ben Roethlisberger (8.23) and Michael Vick (8.11).
The history of championship football has been written by efficient passers with a high average per attempt, from Sid Luckman of yesteryear to Ben Roethlisberger of today. Even Atlanta history proves the importance of passing yards per attempt. The 1998 Falcons went a franchise-best 14-2, set a team record with 442 points scored and captured the club's lone conference title.
The 1998 Falcons, not coincidentally, boasted the most effective passing attack in franchise history (8.83 YPA).
Ryan's ability to get the ball down field, at least so far, falls well short of championship standards.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: Ravens fans need to show a little love for The Dilf -- and the style of play that carried them to a title 10 years ago.
No Super Bowl-winning quarterback is more widely criticized than Trent Dilfer. But he did everything he needed to do to help lift the Ravens to a title in the 2000 postseason. He threw TD passes of 38, 58 and 96 yards. And most importantly, he threw just one INT in four games. Picks kill, especially in the playoffs, and Dilfer avoided them. Coupled with the best defense (10.3 PPG) of the Live Ball Era, which intercepted opposing passers 10 times in the postseason, Baltimore had a winning formula.
The Ravens have just the guys to follow that road map again this year.
QB Joe Flacco has thrown just 34 picks in three NFL seasons -- an incredibly small number -- and his INT percentage has declined each year (just 2.0 percent this year). Meanwhile, spectacular safety Ed Reed led the NFL with eight interceptions -- and he played just 10 games. It's the third time in the past seven years Reed has led the NFL in picks.
The Ravens can win a Super Bowl again if they show some Dilfer-esque dominance in the battle for those all-important interceptions.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: Olin Kreutz & Co. should buy quarterback Jay Cutler a nice watch at the end of the year.
It's something of a tradition in football for highly paid quarterbacks to reward their offensive lineman with an end-of-year gift. But if any team should turn that tradition on its ear, it's the 2010 Bears.
Chicago earned a first-round bye in the playoffs despite fielding the worst offensive line in football (No. 32 on the ColdHardFootballFacts Offensive Hog Index).
The Bears struggled to run the ball (3.89 YPA) and they were truly bad at protecting the passer. Chicago suffered a Negative Pass Play (sack or INT) on 14.6 percent of drop backs, the worst rate in football, mostly due to a league-high 56 sacks (Cutler on the receiving end of 52).
Cutler played fairly well through it all, considering he was knocked around like a pigskin piñata. If the Bears do make noise in the playoffs, it will be despite the league's worst offensive line.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: There's something wrong in the state of Wisconsin.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers boasts the best career passer rating in history (98.4) -- normally a sure sign of success. Defensively, Clay Matthews was among the league leaders with 13.5 sacks. The Packers ranked No. 2 in scoring defense (15.0 PPG), No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential, just ahead of the 14-2 Patriots.
All Green Bay has to show for its statistical dominance is a 10-6 record, the No. 6 seed in the NFC and a road game Sunday at Philadelphia.
Green Bay should be a 13- or 14-win team. But something's just not clicking in key moments on the field.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: Indy's decade of playoff woes begins and ends with the offense.
It's trendy in most circles of football analysis to credit Peyton Manning every time the team marches through the regular season with 10, 12 or 14 wins -- and then blame everybody else when it all falls apart in the playoffs. But the fact of the matter is that Indy has struggled in the playoffs because the offense consistently fails to show up in the biggest games of the year.
The Colts are 9-9 in the postseason in the Manning Era. The mighty Indy offense, which terrorizes regular-season foes, has averaged a Jimmy Clausen-esque 14 PPG in those nine losses. Peyton and pals have scored more than 18 points just once in those nine games.
If not for these annual offensive failures, which stand in such sharp relief to the team's regular-season scoring success, we might be talking about the Colts of the past decade as one of the NFL's great dynasties. But it's hard to win playoff games when you don't score points.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: Kansas City's schedule was really easy.
Kansas City won as many games this year (10) as it had in the previous three, quickly rebuilding what Herm Edwards had torn apart during his brief and destructive tenure (2006-08). It's a nice happy story. But the fact of the matter is the Chiefs built their comeback against the softest schedule in the NFL.
ColdHardFootballFacts.com tracks the performance of each team against what we call Quality Teams -- that is, how you do against teams with winning records: 26 NFL teams played at least six games against Quality Opponents. The Chiefs played three -- the fewest in the league.
The Chiefs were 1-2 and they scored an average of 10 points in those three games -- tied with Carolina (0-10 against Quality Teams) for the lowest average in the league.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: You might have whiplash if you followed the sudden and unexpected improvement in New England's pass defense.
As recently as Thanksgiving, New England ranked a dismal 27th in Defensive Passer Rating (94.7). No team in history had won a championship with a pass defense even close to that porous. The Patriots weren't going to win one either.
Here's the performance of QBs against New England's defense through 10 games:
• 275 of 396, 69.4%, 3,002 yards, 7.58 YPA, 20 TDs, 13 INTs, 94.7 rating
But look again. Here's the performance of QBs against New England's defense in the past six games:
• 114 of 216, 52.8%, 1,343 yards, 6.2 YPA, 5 TDs, 12 INTs, 56.5 rating
Wow. What a difference. As a result, the Patriots end the year a respectable 13th in Defensive Passer Rating (81.2), about the leaguewide average. And they finish second in Passer Rating Differential (+28.5). The average NFL champion, dating all the way to 1940, has posted a Passer Rating Differential of +27.0.
Dominate the air wars, dominate on the scoreboard. And over the past six weeks nobody has dominated the passing battles on both sides of the ball like New England.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Saints are a shadow of their former Super Bowl-winning selves.
The 2009 Saints provided a textbook example of the importance of dominating the passing lanes on both sides of the ball. Drew Brees posted a league-best 109.6 passer rating, one of the most efficient seasons in history, and set an NFL record by completing 70.62 percent of his passes. The Saints defense, meanwhile, was third in the league in both INTs (26) and Defensive Passer Rating (68.6). New Orleans easily led the NFL in Passer Rating Differential.
The 2010 Saints fall far short of that winning formula on all counts. Brees has thrown 22 interceptions (second most in the NFL) and his passer rating has declined nearly 20 points from last year's standard. Defensively, New Orleans has picked off just nine passes all year, the fewest in the league, and its Defensive Passer Rating has tumbled from 68.6 last year to 83.2 this year.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: It's up to you, New York's Defensive Hogs.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index is one of the most compelling stats in football, if we do say so ourselves. It rates each defensive front and it is a sterling 25-8 picking playoff winners since we introduced the indicator in 2007.
New York's defensive front was great against the run, allowing just 3.57 YPA (third). They were 12th in the NFL at forcing sacks and INTs and were very good on third down. Opponents converted just 36.7 percent of attempts.
Considering the generally inept performances you get from Mark Sanchez and the passing game, the Jets will need the same kind of performance out of their highly rated D-Hogs if they want to be king of the hill.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Eagles sure know how to kill a buzz.
Hard to believe it was just three weeks ago that the football world was buzzing about the high-flying Eagles, thanks to their explosive Big Play tour de force against the Giants. Philly scored 28 points in the final 7:28 to shock Big Blue and essentially wrap up the NFC East title.
The Eagles looked like world beaters on the field and in our Big Play Index, which tracks all those critical, game-changing plays on both sides of the ball that so often prove the difference between victory and defeat.
But those explosive Eagles disappeared in the final two weeks of the season, with punchless losses to the lousy Vikings and Cowboys. Philly produced five Big Plays and 28 points in the fourth quarter of the Giants game alone. They've produced just 27 points and four Big Plays in the eight quarters since.
The Eagles will need to return to Big Play form, and fast, if they have any shot of overcoming a defense that gave up a whopping 377 points.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: How many Super Bowls does a guy have to win to get some respect around here?
Ben Roethlisberger's name never comes up when it comes time to name the elite quarterbacks.
The truth is Big Ben is one of the most prolific passers in the history of football. The problem is many fans and pigskin pundits are obsessed with meaningless volume numbers and not the meaningful efficiency numbers -- such as average per attempt -- that have a high correlation to success.
Roethlisberger's career average of 8.04 yards per attempt is the fifth highest mark in the history of football. Three of the guys ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame (Graham, Luckman, Van Brocklin). He's topped 8.0 YPA in a season four times in seven years. Peyton Manning's done it twice in 13 seasons. Tom Brady? Just once.
The Steelers instantly became contenders the day Big Ben walked on the field. And they are a threat to win it all again. Roethlisberger's historic ability to puncture defenses with long passing plays is the biggest reason.
Only two teams in NFL history reached the playoffs with a losing record before Seattle plumbed new depths for a division "champ" here in 2010. And those two teams had an excuse: the Browns and Lions each went 4-5 in the strike-shortened season of 1982 and reached the postseason only because the NFL adopted a 16-team playoff format for that one year only. Both teams were beaten badly in the first round.
Expect a similar fate for the 7-9 Seahawks. The team looks even worse than its 7-9 record when examined beneath the harsh klieg light of our Quality Stats: they fail to rank in the top half of the league in any one of our major indicators, and rank 25th or worse in five of them.
The usually moribund Lions, who closed the year with their first four-game win streak since 1999, would present a tougher challenge to the NFC playoff field.