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The epidemic bringing down the NFL's best teams

The Broncos and Cowboys both lost this weekend, and there's a very specific problem at the heart of those losses.

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From a purely mathematical perspective, the first half of the 2014 season has not definitively resolved anything. Every team is still alive in the playoff hunt, and no team has guaranteed its appearance in the postseason. The realistic perspective is much more grim, however, for some franchises. Take, for example, the 1-7 Buccaneers. In the first half of the last three seasons combined, the Bucs are 5-19, the second-worst record in the league behind the Jaguars. Or consider the Raiders, who have guaranteed that they will not finish above .500 for a 12th straight year, the fourth-longest streak in league history (Tampa Bay and Cincinnati are tied at the top of that list with 14 straight non-winning seasons).

But you could have proclaimed Tampa and Oakland out of the playoff picture three weeks ago without raising any eyebrows. So let's look at a closer case: the 2014 New York Giants and how they compare to previous teams after eight games.

Last night's loss to the Colts dropped the Giants to 3-5, a midway record from which they have never recovered to make the playoffs. (Their historic chances wouldn't have been greatly improved at 4-4, but they would have some precedent, at the very least). All indications suggest that this 3-5 start will lead to a 10th season without a postseason game. Nor is this a predicament unique to the Giants. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only 15 teams have come back from a 3-5 record to make the playoffs.


Entering Week 9, the following three facts appeared to be solidly true:

1. The Vikings did not have a second-half offense, ranking near or at the bottom of the league in yards per play (4.76), touchdowns (five) and sacks allowed (16).

2. The Broncos were one of the NFL's best teams on third down, converting 46.7 percent of the time.

3. Dallas fielded an excellent third-down defense, especially on third downs with 10 or more yards to gain, where they'd only allowed three conversions in eight games.

In Week 9, all three facts disintegrated.

1. In the second half of their win over Washington, the Vikings gained 206 yards on 34 plays (6.06 yards per play), scored three touchdowns and did not allow a sack.

2. New England stopped Denver on eight of 11 third-down attempts, and the Broncos did not convert a single third down in the first half.

3. The Cowboys doubled their third-and-long conversions allowed against the Cardinals, getting burned for a new set of downs three times (an interesting aside to this game: the last time Dallas entered the fourth quarter with three points or less was a 2012 game against the Browns. Cleveland's starting quarterback that day? Brandon Weeden).


We've previously discussed the long-term effects of being on the wrong side of a shutout. The Chargers joined that group after a 37-0 loss to Miami, the first time San Diego hadn't scored in a game since 1999, which had been the second-longest non-shutout streak going (Denver hasn't been held scoreless since 1992).

That makes four different teams shut-out in the 2014 season. We are likely due for at least one more; in seven of the last 10 years, five or more franchises have lost a shutout in a single season. The only question remaining is who that unfortunate fifth team will be.


Rather than give you mystery patients this week, we will lift the veil and give fans of the Jaguars, a team that is improving but still not particularly good, a reason for optimism by comparing the first six starts of Blake Bortles and Blaine Gabbert.

Gabbert got his first start in Week 3 of the 2011 season and went 1-5 as a starter over those first six games. Bortles didn't start until Week 4 of this year, but his record is the same through his first six starts. Their numbers, however, suggest major differences.

Completion % Passing TDs Interceptions Yards/Pass Attempt Yards/Rush
Gabbert 44.3 5 4 5.1 1.81
Bortles 64.5 6 11 6.5 5.35

Interceptions are the sole metric where Gabbert was a more promising young QB, and his completion percentage and yards per rush and pass are so comparatively low to what Bortles has done. Keep in mind that Gabbert was also working with Maurice Jones-Drew in the midst of his best rushing season. The leading rusher for the 2014 Jaguars is Denard Robinson.


Pittsburgh hadn't scored 40+ points on two occasions in the same year since 1996, and the Steelers hadn't done it in consecutive games since 1966, but they blew up the scoreboard against the Colts and the Ravens and are now tied for third in the league in passing touchdowns.


Houston won the turnover battle against the Eagles by a margin of three but lost the game; the Texans became the first team to lose a game this year with a turnover margin of plus three or higher. Generally speaking, it's remarkably difficult to not win those games. Since 2000, the winning percentage of teams forcing three (or more) turnovers than they give up in a game is .926.

The Jets continue to collapse on defense, having now allowed 24 passing touchdowns this season. That puts them on pace to give up 42 scores through the air, which would break the all-time record of 40 in one season, set by the 1963 Broncos (though it should be noted the '63 Broncos only had to play 14 games.)

We'll end with the Win Probability Graph for the 49ers against the Rams. You can probably spot the moment when Colin Kaepernick fumbles at the end of the game; the visual here is far more powerful than any words could convey.

11/2/2014 St. Louis Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers box score at