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Little Things, Week 10: Seahawks outslug Patriots

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Best game of the year between two heavyweight champs at the height of their powers

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at New England Patriots
not a touchdown (thanks Kam)
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The big plays are coming. They’re concentrated in the end of halves. One thing that made this Seattle Seahawks-New England Patriots showdown a real old-timey heavyweight championship fight were the uppercuts traded as time wound down.

There were body blows along the way too. Hit your opponent with a hundred body blows that make up with relentlessness what they lack in ferocity, and the final punch means a heck of a lot more.

For our analogical purposes, any play that added more than two expected points counts as a hit to the gut, a little play that shaped the result in subtle ways. Any play that added three or more counts as a knockout-level punch. The fourth quarter was somehow full of them. Which is why this game went down as one of the highlights of 2016. Too many wins last season were squeakers; too many losses were dispiriting. Week 10 in Foxborough was football as the football gods intended: smooth, physical, tense, captivating, and fun. Games are supposed to be fun.

So today’s “little things” are all the semi-important plays that happened before shit got real at the end of halves. That’s why you get a different format: we’ll cover all the little ones, note their exact impact on points and win probability, then conclude with a gif-filled recap of the unforgettable fourth quarter.

But first, a teaser. Earl Thomas’ rude but completely legal pulverization of Rob Gronkowski here doesn’t count as a big play by expected points or win probability. It counts as a big play by us, who can’t get enough of...

How Gronk managed to finish the game after witnessing his own death above is quite beyond me. That man is one tough frat boy.

little thing one: what is dpi?

circumstances: Kam Chancellor vs. Rob Gronkowski, all game long, but specifically the next-to-last play of the first drive

Expected points added: 2.52 / Win probability added: 4.8

Watch.

It sets the Patriots up with 1st and goal from the 1. It also sets the stage for an evening of tussling between Gronkowski and the Seattle secondary. And that’s where a little thing comes in — human nature.

Kam Chancellor is without a doubt guilty of defensive pass interference. He hits the receiver early, knocks his arms down, takes him to the turf, all before the ball arrives.

However, however, however. In the “Earl Impales Rob” gif above, if you’ll rewatch it, which is fun, try and do so focusing strictly on Kam. Admire his tight coverage; notice his ability to defense the pass with his left hand. What Chancellor shows the officials throughout the game is an ability to stay with Gronkowski anywhere on the field, and what the two ends of the spectrum look like. Clip 1), a foul; Clip 2), sound defense.

Chancellor spent the game building the benefit of the doubt. When the foes lock arms in the waning seconds, a referee can’t think, “well, that safety sure is overmatched.” Not after the two of them have gone toe-to-toe and split victories and defeats all game. It’s complete conjecture, but I think Kam’s moments of excellent defense allowed the officials to allow the players to decide the final play. While we cannot quantify the human element of football (which drives me crazy sometimes), we know it exists and plays a role. How much? Who knows. Let’s say “some” because that works whether you and I disagree.

little thing two: sack timing

circumstances: all game long, but specifically here at 6:49 of the second quarter, on third down

EPA: -2.14 / WPA: -8.0

Sacks are drive-changers whenever, but timing makes some of them bigger than others. (Expect later this offseason, a statistical research project designed to reward pass rushers more for sacks on third down. But we get ahead of ourselves here.)

Amazing to think of a single sack costing a team 8 win percentage points. But that’s the kind of swing Rob Ninkovich provides his “evil” team with, a mild-game changer in a moment they needed one. Karmically, though, the Seahawks will return the favor a quarter in the future, within “little thing four.” Read on.

little thing three: a smidge of pocket presence

circumstances: qtr 1, 10:14 left, first Seahawks drive

EPA: +2.92 / WPA: +6.1

When you step up in the pocket instead of bailing out at the first sign of doo-doo, good things happen.

Pressure comes from the right end, but Wilson, instead of spinning away from it or right into it, as we’ve seen him do countless times with varying results, neatly shuffles forward a step. Buys him half a second more. That’s all he needs to see that Tyler Lockett has beaten his man; the pass is on the money because interior protection is good and so is Wilson’s touch. Profit.

On your second (or twelfth) look at the film, let your eyes dance over to Jimmy Graham. Lined up on the right side, he glides to the left, to help block. It’s a good protection call, as it keeps pressure off Wilson from the free rusher. This is why you have your star tight end block sometimes.

little thing four: last of the medium plays

circumstances: qtr 3, 2:52 left, patriots driving

EPA: -2.37 / WPA: -11.8

Martellus Bennett puts three Seahawks on the ground.

And adds a little condescending lovetap for Thomas at the end. One is left to wonder if Gronk paid for that disrespect a quarter later. With his spleen.

The win probability gods really like this play, a field-flipper in a one-point game. Their like is justified, because the Patriots continue to drive, reaching third and goal from the Seahawks 7, when Frank Clark delivers a — wait for it — timely sack that forces them to settle for a go-ahead field goal instead of more. Toldja about those sacks.

The Fourth Quarter: A Moving Graphic Novel

Little things are covered. Now open this thick, beautiful best-seller. Grab a coffee/beer/plate of nachos. We’ll wait.

Prologue of touchdowns

Doug Baldwin scores two touchdowns in the second quarter alone. No. 2 comes on a high-stakes snap when the Seahawks are out of timeouts and clock stands at 0:13.

EPA: +2.05 / WPA: +4.2, then, EPA: +2.63 / WPA: +6.9

Baldwin’s just playing Jedi mind games with the Patriots secondary on the second gif.

But of course, LeGarrette Blount answers in the third, breaking contain to set up the wild finish.

EPA: -2.39 / WPA: -5.6

And now for the exciting conclusion Patriots-Seahawks III, in images.

All the plays above were worth 3 EPA or more, save for the Tom Brady run and the Blount stuff. (Just sneak it in from the one with Brady, amirite, that always works, amirite?) Remember Kam’s physics-defying leap-tackle of Blount inside the one? You don’t have to. It remembers you.

A surprise, maybe: C.J. Prosise’s catch above, another field-flipper, tops out at 4.79 expected points added, almost the worth of a pure touchdown. Leads me to one final little observation. Week 10 looks like the moment when Pete and the coaching crew started to fully trust Prosise. For evidence, we turn not only to his explosive plays that shaped the result, and not only to his final line of 24 touches for 153 total yards, but also to this sequence of play calls.

Prosise comes up inches short of the goal line on the last play, which is his fifth touch in five plays. Prior to the NE game, Prosise had accumulated 17 touches in his entire NFL career. Welcome to the bigs, C.J.

Amidst all the hubbub this season about Seattle’s stacked backfield, full of Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy, C.J.’s versatility and usefulness might get forgotten. That would be criminal, much as a flag — any flag — on the final play would have been.