Conference Semifinal Sunday: Why Brady’s Deep Ball Got Good

Also, Robert Saleh the right hire for Jets, imagining a Bills-Browns AFC title game, and is it really hard to beat a team three times in one season? Plus, musical guest: Neil Young and Crazy Horse!
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1a. On Sunday in New Orleans, the quarterback matchup will be one old man who leans on a horizontal game and another old man who throws downfield.

Back in November, when the hot summer sun beat relentlessly on our weary backs, the narrative was that Tom Brady couldn’t throw downfield anymore, dooming his marriage with Bruce Arians. At the time, he was in an extended slump and, 12 games into the year (and going into a late-year bye week), hitting 28.1% of attempts that traveled 20-plus yards in the air. Over the final four games of the regular season, he hit 59.1% of those throws—an absurdly high rate—while upping his downfield attempts from 5.30 per game to 5.50 per game, and once every 6.18 throws from once every 7.41 throws. By the time the regular season was over, he had attempted more downfield throws (86) than he ever had in a season, and he completed them at a rate (36.0%) well above the mark from his New England career (30.9%).

NFL Divisional Playoffs preview

Brees's arm limits the Saints to a horizontal attack, but Brady’s arm strength—though diminished—is still good enough to push it downfield. However, what’s with that pre- and post-bye completion-rate jump of more than 30 percentage points? I’m glad you asked.

Part of it is sample size—four games is, potentially, just a hot streak. But mostly, it has to do with pass protection. During the last four weeks of the season, Brady was under pretty much no pressure. Most of those downfield attempts came against Atlanta (two games) and Detroit, two teams with impotent pass rushes. The season's first 12 games, however, featured a number of days and nights on which Tampa’s generally solid-to-very-good offensive line couldn’t hold up.

Brady’s physical decline shows up against pressure. When he can stand back in a clean pocket and step into throws, he’s as good as ever. But he doesn’t move within the pocket as well as he once did, and, yes, he gets a little more skittish than he used to after he’s taken some hits.

In the first two meetings with the Saints this year, the Bucs were absolutely incapable of blocking the New Orleans pass rush. Brady was sacked three times in each matchup (a lot, considering he was sacked 21 times total on the season) and pressured constantly. In the first matchup, they moved the ball exclusively through questionable pass-interference flags. In the second matchup, they didn’t move the ball. This time, they'll also be without Alex Cappa, their workmanlike starting right guard.

So, in short, if they make Cam Jordan and Trey Hendrickson look like vintage Reggie White and vintage Reggie White’s bigger, faster, stronger brother, they’re not going to score points.

1b. This is not only one of the most underrated lines in the history of the show (I think it gets some appreciation, but Martin steals the scene for many), but I have to think it was among the most fun to pitch and to perform.

(1c. The above was in reference to all the “old man” stuff. With Brady and Brees. To be clear.)

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2a. When my 5-year-old and I break out the Pokémon cards (or “deal the P-mon,” as I call it but nobody else does . . . yet) and I beat him in back-to-back games, and I can tell he’s getting a little upset as I pop-and-lock while singing the one snippet of what I understand to be the Pokémon theme song* in celebration, will I, perhaps, waste my Charizard in a show of mercy in the next game? Perhaps.

But other than that scenario or a similar one, the conventional wisdom that it’s hard to beat an opponent three times in a row is not only statistically false, but also doesn’t make sense when it comes to casual reasoning.

If you were to propose, before the season, These two playoff-caliber teams will play three times this year, will one of these teams win all three games? The answer would be, probably not—the most likely scenario is 2-1. But if a team has already beaten an opponent two times, it’s actually quite expected that they’d beat the team for a third time because in actuality they have proven that it is an advantageous matchup, or they’re just better, or both.

2b. Football Perspective has actual analysis, if you’re into that kind of thing.

*—There are 150 or more to see, to be a Pokémon Master is my destiny! Catch ’em, catch ’em, gotta catch ’em all, got to catch them all. Catch ’em, catch ’em, gotta catch ’em all, got to catch them all, Pokémon!

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3. This is your annual reminder that it’s dumb to continue to call this the Divisional Round. It should be called the Conference Semifinals. If, in casual conversation, someone refers to it as the Divisional Round, I encourage you to berate them in a tone that is angry and a volume that is disproportionate to any you’ve used during that interaction. And tell ’em Football Things sent ya.

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4. There isn’t much to say about the Chiefs-Browns game. Over the past 14 months, in games they were trying, Kansas City has lost once. The Browns are more than a delightful story—the offense has been excellent once they got out of monsoon season, and they’ll have pretty much their full complement of players and coaches back on Sunday. But they are, rightfully, double-digit underdogs.

Still, can you picture a Bills-Browns conference title game? I can. They would play in Buffalo. The Bills would wear their blue uniforms and the Browns would wear their white uniforms. The ball would most likely be the usual shade of brown with white laces on it.

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5. There are a lot of variables that go into whether or not a head-coaching hire proves to be the right one—personnel and staffing quality, personnel and staffing fit, injury luck, etc. So it’s foolish to say, Great hire! Reserve your Super Bowl tickets for three years from now! But Jets fans should go ahead and put a deposit down for the AFC title game three years from now. (Or at least block off the January 28, 2024, maybe they lose a tiebreaker and have to play on the road.)

Robert Saleh is the real deal. He’s beloved by his players and he put his own wonderful twists on the Seahawks-style Cover-3 in San Francisco. But, more importantly, as he showed this year, he's an excellent teacher and problem-solver. His unit was without Nick Bosa and a host of starters—rarely do you see a defense with that many uniform numbers in the 60s during regular-season games—yet the 49ers finished sixth in defensive DVOA this season. And three seasons ago, when they struggled, it mostly had to do with an absurdly unlucky lack of turnovers.

The Jets have the No. 2 pick, two others in the top-34, and a total of five in the top 100. They also have a ton of cap space and can, for instance, pluck from a deep receiver market to make up for letting Robby Anderson walk last offseason. I think we can all agree, a golden age of Jets football will soon be here. And if it isn’t? None of you will remember I wrote this anyway.

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6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Neil Young & Crazy Horse!

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