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Nuggetpalooza: Patriots vs Dolphins Preview!

09.12.11 at 9:10 am ET
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It’s football season and I hope you enjoy these weekly previews as much as I look forward to bringing them to you. Obviously, there are serious drawbacks to using 2010 stats at this point considering the massive personnel turnover experienced by every team in the league. But until the teams generate some stats for 2011, “it is what it is”.

For those of you that are new to these previews, when I refer to passing rating, I’m not talking about the NFL’s official (and convoluted) system. My rating takes average net yards per pass attempt (net yards equals passing yards minus sack yards lost) minus the league average net yards per attempt (for that particular situation). Then it adds 30 times the touchdown percentage and subtracts 50 times the interception percentage. If you think about it, throwing 20 touchdowns and 12 picks (1.67 TD/INT ratio) will cancel out that adjustment.

Enough with the mumbo jumbo. Go Pats!:

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* – Monday Night Magic: There have been 24 kickoff returns for touchdowns in the history of Monday Night Football, starting with Cleveland’s Homer Jones against the Jets in 1970. Of those 24, the Dolphins have allowed four of them. Only three other teams have allowed even two on Monday nights: Rams (3), Redskins (2), and Steelers (2). In their history, Miami has allowed eight kickoff return touchdowns on days other than Monday in 2,339 attempts (1-in-292 on average). On Mondays, four out of 281 (1-in-70).

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* – 4th Quarter Defense: The Dolphins allowed only seven touchdowns in the 4th quarter last season, tied for third fewest in the league:

6 – Titans
6 – Bears
7 – Dolphins
7 – Packers
7 – Redskins

On a related note: Miami and Seattle were the only two defenses that did not allow a passing touchdown in the 4th quarter of a close game last season (score within seven points either way). Seattle only defended 21 attempts (two games were close in the 4th quarter). But 12 of Miami’s 16 games were close in the 4th quarter and opponents tried 83 such passes.

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* – Mr. Catchable: New England’s Tom Brady was last season’s most accurate passer as 73.0% of his throws were considered “catchable”:

73.0% – Patriots
72.9% – Saints
72.9% – Colts
70.2% – Packers

However, Patriots’ receivers joined the Panthers and Cardinals as the only three receiving corps that dropped more than 10% of catchable balls last year.

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* – Location, Location, Location: Last year, the Patriots average drive started at their 32.1-yard-line while their opponents set up shop on average at their 28.2. Therefore, the Patriots enjoyed a net field position of +3.9 yards, third best in the league. Over the last half of the season, their average net field position was +6.9 yards. The Dolphins, meanwhile, had a net field position of -2.3 yards, ranked 24th. This was mainly due to their poor average offensive starting spot (28.6-yard-line, ranked 28th).

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* – Marching Down the Field: After leading the NFL in 2008 and ranking second in 2009, the Patriots offense ranked sixth in 2010 with 29 drives of 10 or more plays. However, they cashed those drives in at a high level, averaging 4.45 points per long drive, third best in the league:

4.65 – Colts
4.53 – Falcons
4.45 – Patriots

This is quite an improvement after averaging 3.71 in 2008 and 3.46 in 2009. New England’s defense was very poor in this regard, allowing 33 drives of 10+ plays (only Tennessee, with 35, allowed more) and gave up an average of 3.94 points on those opponent drives, ranked 26th.

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* – Secure That Football: New England fumbled only nine times last season, the second fewest in an NFL season since 1970 (only seven fumbles by 2002 Chiefs). They lost only five fumbles, breaking the club record of six, set in 2007. Big props for these records go to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who has now rushed for 1,397 yards in his career without ever losing the handle, the most career rushing yards with zero fumbles by any NFL player since 1970:

1,397 – BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2008-10)
1,267 – Scottie Graham (1992-97)
964 -  Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala (1998-2004)

Green-Ellis needs 36 carries to pass Graham for the most career carries without a fumble (364).

Another Fumble Note: The Jets recovered 71% of all fumbles in their games last season (70% of offensive fumbles and 72% of fumbles forced by their defense), the highest percentage in the league. Oakland ranked second (64%) and New England was fifth (58%). Tennessee was the most unlucky, coming up with only 16-of-45 total fumbles (34%), including just 4-of-20 over the second half of the season. This begs the question: Are those percentages pure luck? Or are teams “good” at recovering fumbles? Well… in 2009, the Jets ranked third best (63%), Tennessee was LAST again (38%), and New England was 28th (40%).

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* – Setting Up Second and Short: For the second straight season, the Patriots were one of the few teams that gained four or more yards more than half the time on first down (52.3% in 2010, ranked third). Unfortunately, they were one of the few that ALLOWED 4+ yards on more than half of opponent first down plays for the second consecutive season as well (50.4% last season, ranked 29th). Miami’s defense was rather stout in this facet last season, allowing a gain of 4+ yards on opponent first down plays just 44.3% of the time, ranked eighth.

Note this: Miami averaged only 3.45 yards per carry on first downs last season, the lowest such average in the NFL:

3.45 – Dolphins
3.49 – Packers
3.49 – Seahawks

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* – Moving the Chains: While the Patriots ranked second in third down conversions last season (48.2%, trailing only New Orleans’ 48.8%), New England was especially adept at converting 3rd-and-short (five yards or less), converting 72.3% of those tries and lapping the rest of the field:

72.3% – Patriots
61.4% – Saints
59.6% – Falcons

Miami was no slouch, converting 55.3% (ranked eighth).

Note this: As good as the Pats‘ offense was at converting on third down, they were that bad at stopping third down tries on defense, allowing 47.1% conversions overall (last), 60.4% on 3rd-and-5 or less (31st), and 34.9% of 3rd-and-6+ (last).

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* – Setting the Tone: New England was one of just four teams last season that never committed a turnover on their first possession of a game. This after committing five such gaffes (tied for the most in the league) in 2009. Furthermore, even with all their defensive shortcomings last year, the Patriots and Saints were the only two teams that did not ALLOW a touchdown on their first defensive series of a game.

Note this: The Patriots haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown on their opponent’s opening possession of a game since November 27, 2005, a streak of 85 straight regular season games. The second longest current streak? The Miami Dolphins (52 games). Miami might put pressure on that 85 game streak as they’ve run for a touchdown on their opening possession seven times in the past three years, second most in the league in that span (Panthers, 9).

Note this too: Miami was the only NFL team that didn’t commit a turnover last season on their opening possession OF THE SECOND HALF. New England’s defense picked off four passes on their opponents’ first second half possessions, tied for the most in the league.

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* – Cashing In: New England led the NFL with a whopping 144 points off turnovers last season, including four TD interception returns, a TD fumble return, and 109 points scored on offensive possessions following takeaways. Miami ranked 31st with 37 such points. That’s a +107 advantage for the Patriots, or 6.7 points per game.

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* – Bending…Over Backward: The Patriots allowed 348 first downs last season (21.8 per game), breaking the previous club record with room to spare:

348 – 2011
328 – 1981
326 – 2000
326 – 1983

They are only the fifth team since 1970 to have 330 or more offensive first downs and still end up with net first downs (first downs gained minus first downs allowed) of -10 or worse:

-26 – Packers, 1983
-24 – Chiefs, 2002
-13 – Patriots, 2010
-13 – 49ers, 2000
-13 – Colts, 1996

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* – Goal to Go: Miami had only 15 “goal to go” situations last season (only Carolina had fewer, with 11), but the Dolphins were one of only four teams that managed to score points on all their GTG opportunities, joining Houston (32-for-32), Oakland (26-for-26), and Cleveland (18-for-18).

Note this: Since 2000, the Patriots lead the NFL, averaging 5.71 points per “goal to go” opportunity:

5.71 – Patriots
5.69 – Chiefs
5.66 – Seahawks

I’m not at all surprised to see the Patriots up there over the last 11 seasons, but the Chiefs and Seahawks?

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* - Refusing to Settle: New England scored 2.55 touchdown drives for every FG they kicked last season, the highest/best ratio in the NFL and the second highest by a Patriots team since 1983 (3.19 by the 2007 Pats). Miami’s 0.83 ratio (25 TD drives vs. 30 FG) ranked 30th in the NFL and was the Dolphins’ second lowest/worst figure since 1970 (0.72 in 1999).

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* – Playing By the Book: The Dolphins were penalized only 4.5 times per game (second fewest in the NFL) for a league low 37 yards per game last season. It was the fewest yards penalized by a Dolphins team since 1991 and that was also the last time that they led the league.

Did You Know?: That the Dolphins had the league’s fewest penalty yards per game for eight consecutive seasons from 1977-1984? Since 1970, they’ve had the fewest penalty yards TWELVE times. No other team has led the league more than four times in that span (Patriots and Redskins).

Last item on penalties: Once you give it some thought, it makes sense that the Patriots accepted 92% of penalties called on the opposing offense, the highest acceptance percentage in the NFL last season. I guess you take advantage of any opportunity to give a porous defense a break. Which defense accepted the lowest percentage of flags on the opposing offense? Pittsburgh (72%). Shows what confidence the coaching staff had in THAT defense!

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* - Dink and Dunk?: Patriots’ wideouts were an average of 7.6 yards downfield when their catches were made last season, third lowest/shortest in the league:

7.0 – Rams
7.3 – Browns
7.6 – Patriots

All other teams were above 8.0 and Tennessee’s wideouts led the league at 13.2.

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* – Go to the Fridge: New England and Miami ranked first and second in the NFL last season in fewest points allowed in the last two minutes of halfs. The Patriots allowed 19 (none in the last two minutes of a second half), while the Dolphins allowed 33 (16 in the first half and 17 in the second). It’s the second time in the last five years that the Patriots have gone an entire season without allowing any points in the last two minutes of the second half (2006) and they’ve allowed an average of only 7.9 such points per season over the last EIGHT seasons, by far the fewest in the NFL in that span:

7.9 – Patriots
13.0 – Bears
14.9 – Jets

Also of note is the fact that Miami SCORED only two points in the last two minutes of second halves last year, the fewest in the league.

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* – Halftime Adjustments: Miami has led at halftime in just two of their last 11 home games, a big reason why they are 2-9 in those 11 games. Meanwhile, they’ve trailed at the half in just 5 of their last 12 road games, and are 7-5 in those 12.

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* – No Mistakes: New England (okay, Tom Brady) has not thrown a first down interception in 21 games. He’s not thrown a first HALF interception in 18 games. In the REGULAR SEASON. He did throw a first down, first half pick against the Jets last January, however. Sorry to dredge that up.

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