Who had the best second quarter of the NFL season? The Chiefs and the 49ers both went 4-0, and the Packers could add to that list with a win over Chicago tonight, but the team that unquestionably boosted its stock more than any other is the Carolina Panthers. Their 34-10 victory over the Falcons on Sunday marked a fourth consecutive victory for the league's most rapidly improving team, and with the Saints losing for the second time in three weeks, the Panthers are now just one game out of the catbird seat in the NFC South.
That's a pretty remarkable turnaround, considering the Panthers were all but left for dead a month ago. After a 22-6 loss to the Cardinals dropped Carolina to 1-3, the vultures were circling around the often-frustrating Panthers. It seemed likely that Ron Rivera was going to be out of a job by the end of the season, if not earlier. Speculation even surrounded the future of Cam Newton, to the point where Rodney Harrison actually suggested during the Sunday Night Football pre-show that the Panthers should bench Newton for Derek Anderson.
Since then, the Panthers have won all four of their games, but it's not just that they've won; it's how they've won. Carolina has won those four games by a combined 82 points, vanquishing each opponent by two touchdowns or more in each contest. That's rare. Like, really rare. Like, "I'm going to throw in this table of teams that have outscored opponents by 80 points in a four-game stretch with at least a 14-point margin in each game since 1990, and it's going to set Panthers fans' hearts aflutter" rare:
Now, obviously, the definition of this group is entirely arbitrary, and the Panthers played a pretty easy schedule during the past four weeks; the teams they beat are a combined 6-27 this year. That being said, I could expand the sample and it would still be chock-full of teams that made the playoffs. And teams that have been this dominant over a short stretch are almost always playing a really, really easy schedule; you can't beat good teams by two touchdowns every week.
What has changed for the Panthers since that rough start? Well, let's remember their biggest problem at the time: They couldn't win close games. Since the beginning of Newton and Rivera's second season in Carolina, 2012, the Panthers had played 20 games and roughly battled the opposition to a draw, scoring 431 points while allowing 421. In games decided by eight points or more, they were 7-3. In games decided by seven points or fewer, which a team historically will win about 50 percent of the time, the Panthers were 1-9. They were a staggering 2-14 in one-touchdown games since Rivera and Newton had arrived. That's nearly unprecedented.
Carolina's solution was, apparently, to stop playing close games. It's no surprise the Panthers' defense has stayed airtight; a group led by star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly allowed only 14.5 points per game during that 1-3 start, while the Panthers' offense was averaging just 18.5 points per contest. The defense has stayed hot, holding the opposition to 12 points per game over this four-game winning streak, but it's the Panthers offense that has risen up. Newton & Co. have scored at least 30 points in each of the last four games, averaging 32.5 points per game during this winning streak.
Front and center in that change is Newton. He didn't really have his best game against the Falcons, throwing a pair of interceptions while missing an open receiver here and there, but he also had his fair share of dropped passes, too. In the broader picture, though, he has been brilliant. It's hard to believe the same guy produced these quarter-seasons:
Newton's cumulative numbers — 64.4 percent completion percentage, 7.5 yards per attempt, 13 touchdowns against seven interceptions — say the most about where he is as a quarterback right now. Given that his receiving corps is limited at best, and that he offers additional value as a runner, he's an extremely talented, valuable football player. That should have been obvious a month ago, but if it took a four-game winning streak to remind people of how good Cam Newton can be, so be it.
I would be remiss if I also didn't mention how aggressive "Riverboat Ron" Rivera has become in short yardage. The turning point for Rivera actually came two weeks earlier, in Week 2, when his Panthers lost yet another close game to the Bills. There, Rivera skipped an opportunity to end the game with a fourth-and-1 conversion, kicking a 39-yard field goal that put his Panthers up six. Just as they did against the Falcons the previous year, Rivera's defense then blew that lead, as EJ Manuel drove the Bills the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown. Some time that night, Rivera snapped. Since then, the Panthers have faced fourth-and-1 six times and gone for it all six times.1 Those plays have worked out pretty well:
- Week 3: Carolina goes for it on fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line against the Giants in a 0-0 game. Mike Tolbert punches it in for a touchdown.2
- Week 5: The Panthers go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 15-yard line late in the second quarter of a 3-3 game. A play-action pass finds a wide-open Brandon LaFell, who drops the pass.
- Week 6: In a scoreless game, Tolbert bursts through the line for a first down on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 32-yard line to extend a drive …
- Week 6: … that ends when the Panthers go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line and Newton finds a wide-open Steve Smith off play-action for an easy touchdown.
- Week 8: With a 14-6 lead in the third quarter, Tolbert busts through the line on fourth-and-1 from the 20-yard line for another conversion. The Panthers score a touchdown four plays later.
- Week 9: Perhaps exorcising his Falcons demons, Rivera goes for it on fourth-and-1 from the 14-yard line with a 7-3 lead in the second quarter. Again going play-action, Newton finds a wide-open Greg Olsen for a touchdown.
In summation: That's three touchdowns and two plays continuing drives that would eventually produce touchdowns in six tries. The one failure was a drop that might have resulted in a touchdown itself, if not simply continuing a possible touchdown drive. The three runs have been relatively simple conversions, and the three passes have each produced wide-open receivers. Rivera would be right to go for it in those situations regardless of the outcomes, but he has been rewarded handsomely for his decisions.
For all its brilliance over the past four weeks, Carolina's moment of truth is about to arrive. After playing just one team with a record above .500 during the first half, Carolina's schedule is far less welcoming in the second half of the season, and that starts now. The Panthers travel to San Francisco on Sunday to play the 49ers, who have outscored their opposition by 22.6 points per game during their five-game winning streak. After that, they host the Patriots before traveling to Miami. They also still have the home-and-home series with the Saints.
Furthermore, the Panthers need to prove that this change in their level of play will stick over time. Can Newton keep his sack rate down and his completion percentage up? Can the defense remain one of the league's most stifling units with a no-name secondary? And, if the Panthers face fourth-and-1 with the option to kick a field goal or punt late in San Francisco, will Rivera keep going for it? There's a lot to like about these Panthers, but there's also still a lot to prove. We'll know a lot more about them four games from now.
Chain of Strength
In fact, there's a lot more to be said about how drastically some teams' schedules are about to change. I'll be spending a lot of time this week reviewing things at the halfway point of this NFL campaign, but now seems like a good time to start by considering how strength of schedule has affected the first half of the season. More importantly, we'll also get to find out which teams will face the league's easiest and toughest slates during the run-in to the playoffs.
Skip ahead a paragraph if you really don't care about the methodology. Hey, people who stuck around. You're the readers I really like. Those people who skipped ahead are poseurs. You're looking really handsome/pretty today! Did you do something to your hair? Anyway, I generally don't like using win-loss record for strength of schedule for a number of reasons, but mainly because it's too broad of a measure of performance. Point differential is better, but I also don't want to include the performance of a team in that given game as part of the strength of schedule calculations, because that's circular logic. So for each game played by each team, I calculated their opposition's Pythagorean winning percentage in points scored and points allowed in all their other games from the season. Then I used each team's average opposition Pythagorean winning percentage as the measure of their strength of schedule. OK?
Phew. Nice to have you guys back. Have you done something to your hair? Never mind. So, let's start with the first half of the season. As it turns out, the Panthers faced the third-easiest schedule in football to start the season; their average opponent had a Pythagorean expected winning percentage of .420, roughly that of a 6.7-win team over the course of a 16-game season. The only teams with easier schedules were, as you might expect, the Chiefs (.392) and the Chargers (.411). The Patriots (.438) and Broncos (.451) rounded out the top five. Those five teams are a combined 32-10.
The teams with the five hardest schedules? They're a combined 11-30. Bummer. Last night's hard-luck losers have faced the toughest schedule in football; the 2-6 Texans have faced teams playing .598 football, roughly the equivalent of a 9.6-win team every week. They've already faced the Seahawks, 49ers, Colts, and Chiefs, who might be four of the five best teams in football. (They also lost three of those four games by a combined seven points.) Behind them are the Bills (.592), Giants (.588), Cardinals (.577), and Jaguars (.570).
So, remember how the Chiefs and Chargers had the two easiest schedules in football during the first nine weeks of the year? That changes going forward. San Diego faces the toughest schedule in football over the final eight weeks of the year, which makes its narrow loss to Washington on Sunday even more disappointing for Chargers fans. (More on that later.) The Chargers have two games each against the Chiefs and Broncos to come, plus games against the Dolphins and Bengals. Kansas City has the fifth-toughest slate remaining, with two games against the Broncos to go along with the Colts and two games against the Chargers.
They're not the only contenders with tough slates over the final half of the season. While the Panthers face the league's ninth-toughest schedule, division rival New Orleans has the second-toughest schedule ahead. The Broncos are sixth. And in the "We Don't Need the Help" department, the Rams (third), Falcons (fourth), Vikings (seventh), Buccaneers (eighth), and Giants (10th) all have difficult schedules from here on out.
The team that gets to enjoy the flip side of that Chargers slate? The Bills, who showed signs of life at home before losing to the Chiefs on Sunday. The good news is that Buffalo faces the league's easiest schedule the rest of the way after facing the second-toughest slate in the NFL during the first half; they get the Steelers, Falcons, Buccaneers, Jaguars, and might even have their toughest opponent — the Patriots — resting guys in a meaningless Week 17 game. The Titans (second), Browns (third), and Jaguars (fifth) are relative non-contenders who will also enjoy friendly slates.
Detroit is the playoff contender with the friendliest upcoming slate; it faces the league's fourth-easiest set of opponents, and that doesn't account for the likelihood that Jay Cutler won't be ready to return for the Bears next week. Games against the Steelers, Buccaneers, Giants, and Vikings still loom on the calendar for Detroit. Unfortunately for the Lions, the Packers have the league's seventh-easiest schedule, including their game against the Bears tonight. Seattle (ninth) and Indianapolis (10th) also have it easier moving forward.
The Lions also project to have played the league's easiest schedule by the end of the season, which will come up a bunch if they make the playoffs. The Titans, Chiefs, Patriots, and Seahawks join them in the top five. The Giants are projected to have faced the toughest schedule in football, finishing ahead of the Buccaneers, Falcons, Rams, and Vikings. The seven toughest schedules in the league, at the moment, will belong to NFC teams. If you know what that means, please tell me.
Oh, and if you know when a relatively anonymous backup quarterback is going to have a seven-touchdown day, feel free to share that info with me, too. Nick Foles imprisoned the Oakland defense on Sunday, going 22-for-28 for 406 yards with a whopping seven passing scores in a 49-20 defeat of the Raiders. In his first game back after missing most of the last two contests with a concussion, Foles posted a perfect passer rating of 158.3 while cementing his stake to the Philadelphia job over the rest of the season.
The Eagles didn't pull out any new tricks to win this game; they just got better execution on the plays they were running. Take their first big play of the game, a 42-yard pass to the suddenly competent Riley Cooper. Look down at the bottom of the screen:
That's a bubble screen with three receivers against two defenders. The Raiders have a single-high safety on the play and seven men in the box to defend against the run. The Eagles execute a run play up front at the snap, but the ball has already been thrown to Cooper, who has two blockers on the only two defenders on his side of the field. By the time the safety gets over to make the play, Cooper has picked up 42 yards. We'll know more about what the Eagles did when the coaches' tape comes out in midweek.
Where Foles really shined statistically was on deep throws. His effectiveness on downfield passes has been his most notable impact on the Philadelphia offense. On passes traveling 15 yards or more downfield, Foles is 12-of-25 for a whopping 415 yards with five touchdowns; that's 16.6 yards per deep attempt. Foles went 7-of-9 for 241 yards with two scores on deep throws against the Raiders. He was also 3-for-3 for 100 yards and two scores on bombs against the Buccaneers, but, weirdly, 0-for-8 on those same throws against the Cowboys. He has been a much better deep thrower than Michael Vick, who has gone 17-of-42 for 462 yards with two touchdowns and a pick on 15-plus-yard attempts. (Matt Barkley is 5-of-13 for 104 yards.)
Foles's numbers are pretty hard to argue with at this point. After his day in Oakland, Foles has thrown for 13 touchdowns against exactly zero interceptions. He's completing 62.7 percent of his throws, and thanks to those bombs, he's averaging 8.7 yards per attempt; Vick's at 8.6 yards per attempt, and he's obviously a better runner than Foles, but he's completing only 54.6 percent of his passes. He's not throwing seven touchdowns again, but if Foles stays healthy and exhibits the sort of functional accuracy and quick decision-making that Vick has struggled to display, he's not going to hand this job back anytime soon.
Oh, and one more thing to put those numbers into perspective. Pro-Football-Reference.com tracks the fantasy points gained by every player in an NFL contest since 1960. Using the NFL.com scoring system that PFR uses, Foles finished with 45.6 points on Sunday. That is the sixth-best fantasy football performance by a quarterback since 1960. If you had Y.A. Tittle on your fantasy team in Week 7 of the 1962 season, I bet you couldn't stop refreshing StatTracker to see if he had thrown the record-setting eighth touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.3 The best performance by a quarterback in fantasy football history, though? Vick's six-touchdown day against Washington in November 2010. Maybe Foles just can't beat out the guy after all.
The line between winning and losing was impossibly narrow for the Chargers on Sunday. It seemed like they had pulled off a comeback victory in Washington when a Danny Woodhead touchdown gave Philip Rivers & Co. the lead in the game's final minute, but the touchdown was overruled on review, giving San Diego first-and-goal from the 1-foot line. The Chargers then failed to score on three plays, and on fourth down, coach Mike McCoy chose to kick a field goal and push the game into overtime. Unfortunately for McCoy, Washington won the coin toss and promptly drove the length of the field for a touchdown, ending the game without ever letting the Chargers touch the ball again.
Without using hindsight, should McCoy have tried to essentially end the game by attempting to score a touchdown on fourth down? On one hand, it's a really simple question. If the probability that the Chargers would score on fourth down was higher than the probability that they would win in overtime, they should have attempted the try. Estimating those probabilities is tougher.
Let's start by estimating the Chargers' chances of winning in overtime. The good news is this was basically seen as a coin flip of a contest, as the Vegas line opened as a pick 'em with both San Diego and Washington taking turns as one-point favorites during the week. There's no reason to think that would be materially different in overtime. The outcome of this game reminds us how important winning the coin toss can be, but there's obviously no way to predict that the Chargers would win or lose the toss.
It's fair to say San Diego's chances of winning the game in overtime are equal to Washington's heading into the final period. So, are the Chargers' chances of winning the game 50 percent? No, because of that one complicating factor:4 the tie. What are the chances that an overtime game will end in a tie? It's hard to say, because we've been playing under the new overtime rules only since last year, and there hasn't been anywhere near the sample of games needed to get a glimpse of the true likelihood of a game ending in a tie. From 1990 to 2011, just 1.3 percent of the games that went into overtime resulted in a tie, but that came under the old rules. The new rules are likely friendlier to a tie because teams can no longer kick a field goal on the opening possession of the game and immediately win, which was likely the most frequent scoring play in those overtime games. Let's estimate there's a 2 percent chance of a tie. So, if the Chargers go to overtime, they have a 49 percent chance of winning and a 2 percent chance of tying.
Now, regarding their chances of making it: If you want to believe the pressure of trying to convert on fourth-and-a-foot with the game on the line is worse than your typical fourth-and-a-foot, that's fine, but the pressure falls on both teams. And on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line since 1999, teams have converted 51 percent of the time. If we limit that to plays when a team trailed by eight points or fewer in the second half — trying to mirror the San Diego situation — the conversion rate falls all the way to 43.5 percent, but in a sample of 46 plays.
That figure is the league average in these situations. The league average might very well not be the Chargers' average. For one, of course, the Chargers had been stopped on each of their first three attempts from the 1-yard line, failing to convert on a Woodhead draw, a fade to Antonio Gates, and then on a Rivers rollout with nobody open. Does that mean they were sure to fail on fourth down? It's not so clear. The plays are independent events. I don't have data on the likelihood one way or another, but I can tell you that the Chargers have not been a particularly bad team in short yardage, despite what happened on this drive. Before this week, San Diego had converted on 15 of its 23 attempts on third or fourth down with two yards or fewer to go for a first down; that 65.2 percent figure was above the league average of 59.3 percent. (Washington had allowed teams to convert 61.5 percent of the time.) They had converted a third-and-1 earlier in the game with a pass to Gates, their only short-yardage try before the final possession.
Personally, I don't see anything in the numbers to make me think the Chargers' chances of success on the conversion are notably higher or lower than 49 or 50 percent. In other words, I think McCoy is well within the margin of error regardless of what he decided. If you believe that every play is entirely independent and that the context doesn't make it harder to succeed on offense, you'll probably think McCoy should have gone for it. And if you believe that Washington had proven it could stop the Chargers on the first three plays and that you should try to give your team a chance to win on a less stressful play in overtime, you'll argue that McCoy should have kicked.
So, while it's easy with hindsight to suggest McCoy should have tried to win the game in regulation, I don't think it's really all that clear whether he should have done so.