“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” – Business Professor Emeritus Aaron Levenstein
“He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts — for support rather than for illumination.” – Poet Andrew Lang
“Stats are for losers.” – New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
On the surface, the New England Patriots have quite the challenge in store for them on Sunday when they welcome the Detroit Lions to Gillette Stadium.
Statistically, Detroit is the best defense in the NFL, allowing only 15.6 points per game. That’s two whole points better than the second-place Arizona Cardinals (17.6), who beat these same Lions, 14-6 last weekend in Glendale, Ariz., and the Kansas City Chiefs (17.7), who fell to third place after their 24-20 loss in Oakland Thursday night.
“I think they’re one of the best defenses in the league,” New England quarterback Tom Brady said about the Lions this week. “They’re rated I think like top five in most every category. It’s a big challenge for us. I think we’re going to have to have a good week and really a good week of execution because that’s what it’s going to take to score points. They’ve shut out some pretty good offenses, so it’s going to be a tough week.”
Well, not really.
The overall numbers are indeed eye-opening. The Lions have allowed the fewest total yards (2,903), yards per game (290.3), total rushing yards (688), and rushing yards per game (68.8). The 156 total points the Detroit defense has allowed over the first 11 games of the 2014 season is 20 points better than the Cardinals, 24 fewer than the Miami Dolphins, who are third, followed by the Baltimore Ravens (181), San Diego Chargers (192), and Cleveland Browns and Chiefs (both with 195).
The Lions dip statistically against the pass, but not much, allowing 2,215 total yards and 221.5 per game, both fifth-best in the NFL. They have 12 interceptions, tied with Buffalo for sixth in the NFL, 26 sacks, 10th-best in the league, and have only allowed four rushing touchdowns, second only to Kansas City, which allowed its first two of the season to the Raiders.
“I think they’re statistical accomplishments on defense kind of speak for themselves,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They’re really at the top of the league in everything: points, yards, run defense, feeds over into time of possession, turnovers, red area, third down, pass defense, you name it.”
As far as NFL defenses are concerned, it’s a damned fine unit.
Even through the smoke and mirrors.
This isn’t to deny Detroit’s ferocity on the defensive side of the ball. The Lions have a play-making defense that can beat teams in a number of ways, and have a stalwart line anchored by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh that pretty much eliminates the opposition’s running attack, only one of the many reasons why it would be foolhardy to expect a Jonas Gray Redux on Sunday in Foxborough.
But let’s look at the recent resume for Jim Caldwell’s crew. Most recently, the Lions allowed 14 points to the Cardinals, 14th in the NFL with 23.7 points per game, 16 points to the Miami Dolphins, 11th in the league with 24.9 points per game, and 21 to the Atlanta Falcons, 13th with 23.8 points per game.
It’s not like facing Oakland, Jacksonville, and Tennessee, the three lowest-scoring teams in the NFL, over three consecutive weeks, but you get the picture; Arizona, Miami, and Atlanta are considered mid-level offenses which the Lions were able to control defensively enough to win two of the games by a total of five points (Detroit beat Miami, 20-16 and Atlanta, 22-21).
Now, let’s consider the New England Patriots, a team that has deservedly drawn rave reviews for its own defensive efforts this season. Yet, the Patriots are 15th in the NFL in total yards against (3,518) and 13th in points per game allowed (21.8). What many consider to be the best passing defense in the game with Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Brandon Browner in the secondary, is actually ranked 17th in passing yards per game (241.9). Against the rush, the Pats are only 14th in the league, allowing 109.9 yards per game.
Then again, the Patriots’ last three opponents? Indianapolis (third in the NFL with 31 points per game), Denver (fifth, 29.3), and Chicago (19th, 21.5).
Even when you try to manipulate the stats to find favor in the Patriots, things don’t necessarily add up either. If you take the average points per game for each team’s opponent’s this season, the Lions have faced teams that score an average of 22.7 points per game, the Patriots, 22.39, even taking into account the last two games against teams that average 30.15 points per game.
So, let’s take the last four games of the season, beginning in Week 6, which is the NFL equivalent of a true starting point for many teams with hopes of contention. With that being the cutoff, the Pats have faced teams (Indy, Denver, Chicago, and the Jets) that average 24.8 points per game over the last month. The Lions; 24.62 points per game.
That’s how badly the likes of the Jets and Bears can dip perception of the Patriots’ defense. Yet of the top 10 offenses in the NFL, the Patriots will have faced three of them (Denver, Indy, and Green Bay, No. 1 overall with 33 points per game, next weekend) over a four-game span.
Conversely, if the rankings remain status quo, the Lions will have played four this entire season; twice against Green Bay, with one showdown yet to come, the Patriots, and New Orleans, having beaten Green Bay and the Saints (without injured Jimmy Graham, and it’s fair to note both wins over the Packers and Saints were played at Ford Field). But the win against the Packers was on Sept. 21, a week after Green Bay nearly lost to the Jets in the infamous game in which a late touchdown was wiped out by a time out call in the New York sideline. Clearly, like the Patriots in September, the Packers were not quite the Packers yet.
In fact, the Lions’ only victory against a team that had a winning record at the time was against the Dolphins, a game in which Detroit needed a last-minute touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to escape with the win.
Of course, you could argue that the Lions merely faced middle-of-the-pack offenses ranked that way only because of the results of their meeting. True. After all, the Broncos and Colts, in the upper echelon of team defense most of the 2014 season fell to 16th and 22nd, respectively, after their encounters with the Patriots, who put up 51 against Denver and 42 more against Indianapolis.
Basically, it’s too simplistic to bill Sunday’s showdown as the No. 1 defense vs. the No. 2 offense, as your average Sunday morning preview shows want to do this weekend, especially when the level of competition definitely sways those statuses, no matter what the statistics tell you.
What’s more impressive, holding the Cardinals and Dolphins (combined, averaging 24.3 points per game) to 14 and 16 points, respectively, or limiting the Broncos and Colts (30.15 points per game) to 21 and 20 points, respectively?
The Lions defense may be No. 1, but is there any doubt the Patriots unit has been far more impressive?
“What we have to do is figure out how to play against Detroit and it’s hard,” Belichick said. “They’re good at everything. They’re good against the run, they’re good against the pass, they turn the ball over. Like I said, they’re good on third down, they’re good in the red area, they create a lot of negative plays so whatever we do, we’re going to have to do a good job of it and everybody is going to have to do a good job. You can’t just pick out one guy or one thing – we’re going to have to do a good job all the way across the board. They’ve played against a lot of good offenses. [They’re the] best team in the league: points, yards, you name it. However you want to look at it, they do a good job; no big plays or fewer big plays than any other team has given up this season in the league. They’re doing a lot of things well.”
True. But the Patriots might do them better.
No matter what the numbers say.