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The Better Team

With some bad bounces and unlucky timing, the better team didn't get the result they expected. They should have won more easily than they actually did.

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Stop the presses. The Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl, thanks to a sequence of events every bit as improbable as a randomly-selected lineman being named "Garry Gilliam". Which is to say, the external observer had no means of predicting it. But Garry never had a doubt.

A debatable, and herein to be debated, sentiment among some Green Bay players and fans is that "the better team" lost Sunday's NFC Championship Game. And they aren't referring to a team which is proven better over the course of the season having an off day (a distinction that clearly belongs to Seattle), they mean that the losing team actually outplayed the winning team.

Did they?

We interrupt this analysis...


Who is this man, and why is he jawing with the official immediately after Marshawn Lynch's 24-yard touchdown run? See if you can figure it out before we reach the end of the article.

Back to business...

Dominant Defense

The Seattle Seahawks field the best defense in the modern ("no headhunting") era, bar none. They've been first in scoring for three straight seasons, and topped the rankings this year in total yardage and DVOA as well.

Also by DVOA, Green Bay's defense ranked 16th and Seattle's offense ranked 5th. One would think that, to have a chance, Green Bay would need their top-ranked offense to at least come up with a league-average performance against their counterparts. But here's what they did on their first twelve drives:

Drive Start Plays Yards Points Result Hawk offensive
plays previous
1 GNB 20 9 51 0 Interception n/a
2 SEA 19 5 18 3 Field Goal 3
3 SEA 23 6 22 3 Field Goal 0
4 GNB 44 7 56 7 Touchdown 3
5 SEA 33 6 11 3 Field Goal 3
6 GNB 44 3 23 0 Interception 1
7 GNB 20 4 12 0 Punt 12
8 GNB 39 3 9 0 Punt 3
9 GNB 20 4 7 0 Punt 11
10 GNB 13 10 57 3 Field Goal 3
11 GNB 13 3 6 0 Punt 10
12 GNB 43 3 -4 0 Punt 1
League average Own 28 5.55 30.2 1.83 - 5.7
Game average GNB 40 5.25 22.3 1.58 - 4.5
GB 2014 average GNB 28.5 6.11 38.7 2.63 - 6.1

Fun fact: In last year's Super Bowl, the Broncos gained 306 yards of offense on 65 plays from scrimmage. In Sunday's NFCCG, the Packers gained 306 yards of offense on 65 plays from scrimmage.

The two performances aren't exactly comparable. In the Super Bowl, Seattle's defense enjoyed a respite as their offense ran 9, 13, and 7 plays on their first three drives, they were able to exploit Denver's one-dimensional attack thanks to a lopsided score, and the average starting field position was 75 yards away from the goal line.

The defense Sunday got no such help. You can find record of more lopsided scores, shutouts, and gaudy pick-sixes. But considering the quality of the Packers offense, field position, dual-threat capability, and the dire straits which required a near-perfect game, this was one of the greatest defensive performances in NFL playoff history.

Improbable Events and Leverage Distribution

"Literally one of 10 plays you can pick that if we get it, we win the game," said Packers guard Josh Sitton. Presumably, he would trade one of Green Bay's 5-yard runs on a drive that resulted in a punt in exchange for recovering the onside kick.

But if one looks at the game in its entirety, fortune favored the Packers.

Expected onside kicks are recovered by the kicking team about 20% of the time. To put that in perspective, it's roughly the same as your chance of winning the lottery and being struck by lightning in the same day scoring a touchdown on an offensive possession in the NFL (1187 TD's on 5911 drives).

By contrast, throwing four interceptions in a playoff game has happened four times in the previous 10 seasons, a frequency of 3.6%. For Russell Wilson, the prior frequency of 4-interception games was 0%.

Kickoff returns in 2014 were fumbled at a rate of just 1.3%. And the majority of these were recovered by the receiving team.

Heck, even Mason Crosby's perfect kicking day was less than probable. NFL kickers hit 212/274 field goals from 40-49 yards this season. That's 77.4%, which translates to just a 46.4% probability of going 3/3. The Packers were lucky they made it to overtime.

Sometimes it's not just about probability, though. Events can have more impact in high leverage situations. For example, the referees missed Byron Maxwell making contact with Jordy Nelson's facemask on Green Bay's fourth drive. That drive ended in a touchdown, so the impact was minimal. On Green Bay's final drive in regulation, Richard Rodgers got away with holding a defensive back on Aaron Rodgers' 12-yard run for a first down. If Richard hadn't held, Aaron would likely have been forced out of bounds a few yards back, setting up 2nd and 2. Even with a holding penalty called the Packers had timeouts and downs to spare, so the impact was likely minimal.

On the other hand...

Julius Peppers grabbed Russell Wilson's facemask on Seattle's second offensive series without being flagged, a missed call which helped set up a 3-and-out. The situational leverage may appear small, but Seattle's run-first offense gets much more efficient after achieving its first first-down of a drive, and Seattle's defense had been on the field for 20 out of 23 scrimmage plays prior to this drive. Following the punt, Green Bay scored their only touchdown of the game.


Then, facing 3rd and 13 (converted just one time in five) in the 2nd quarter, some clumsy hand-fighting caused the officials to mistake a forearm for a hand or else a shoulder pad for a helmet, resulting in a bogus "Hands to the Face" call against Cliff Avril. Green Bay finished that drive with a field goal.


I'm not claiming that the officiating was bad (it was pretty good) or even that it favored the Packers. Rather, as a measure of "luck", the timing of a few bad calls against Seattle had a disproportionate impact in contributing to the halftime deficit.

Line Drive into a Double Play

The fickle sport of baseball provides a good metaphor to show the occasional difference between quality performance and by-the-rules results. A batter sitting at two strikes who makes minimal contact can hit a foul ball, earning another swing. The same batter making better (but not perfect) contact will hit a ground-out or a fly ball.

When Green Bay kicked off following their first field goal Sunday, the Seahawks' DeShawn Shead prevented the Packers' Brad Jones from controlling his lane. But rather than resulting in a big return, Jones' off-center failed tackle coincided with a brief lapse in ball control by returner Doug Baldwin; and Shead's good positioning was "rewarded" with a collision that prevented both him and Baldwin from being able to scoop up the loose ball.


A great play can force a fumble, but this was not one of them. For an example of that, see Cliff Avril's sack of Aaron Rodgers:


That's a textbook strip-sack, and its a fingertip away from being a fumble. Crow all you want about Rodgers doing a good job of controlling the ball-- he had six fumbles on just 28 sacks in 2014, much worse than league average. Avril's play forces a turnover as often as not.

Which brings us to the flying elephant in the room-- the interceptions.

Wilson gave up not one, but two pop-fly interceptions on pass attempts to Jermaine Kearse. There's your perfectly-hit line drive that results in a double play. If either pass is too far in, it bounces off of Kearse's body and into the ground. If either pass is low, outside, or high by more than six inches, it's incomplete. If Kearse isn't paying attention and fails to get his hands in position, the pass is incomplete.

Going the other way...

First quarter action, Jordy Nelson runs an outside route, and Byron Maxwell defends it perfectly. Aaron Rodgers throws an errant pass that is too far to the inside.


If Rodgers gets that pass closer to his receiver (further outside), Maxwell has a good chance at a pick. If Maxwell had played worse coverage (giving up the sideline), he would have been in position for a certain pick.

Second quarter action, Randall Cobb runs down the opposite sideline, defended perfectly by Jeremy Lane. Again Rodgers throws an errant pass. Notice that it lands in-bounds; this was not a deliberate throw-away.


If Rodgers had been on target to his receiver, it's a likely pick by Jeremy Lane. If that had been a wheel route, it's a certain pick by Earl Thomas.

These are good plays with bad results and bad plays with good results, all favoring the Packers.

And for those who say that results are all that count, I refer you back to the final score.

Better for X minutes

Quoth Josh Sitton again, "We kicked their ass up and down the field... We kicked their ass up front, and the whole game. We handled them all day." The Packers were presumably the better team for 56 or 58 minutes of regulation.

Let's examine that claim, but with a bit more balanced approach.

For the benefit of the Packers, we'll cut out the onside kick and everything that followed, which includes two Seattle touchdown drives. That excuses 17 scrimmage plays, 6 special teams plays (including the onsider and the two-point conversion), 2:13 of regulation and 3:11 of overtime (5:24 total).

But for the benefit of the Seahawks, we'll cut out the four interceptions thrown by Russell Wilson. That excuses 4 scrimmage plays over minimal time. Of note, it should not affect yards/play as a measure of kicking anybody's ass up front. Here's what's left:

Team Comp Att pass
pass TD Int Rush rush
sack sack
Seahawks 11 22 140 1 0 29 145 4 -24 5 5.23
Packers 16 29 142 1 2 29 123 1 -7 4.24 2.17

That's some ass-kicking.

Onside Kick I: The Alternative

The Packers and their fans seem most perturbed by the onside kick, as if that alone destroyed their fortunes.

But what if Green Bay had recovered?

The Packers' previous possession started at their own 43, covered -4 yards, and concluded with a 30-yard punt. A repeat of that performance, starting from mid-field at 2:07 (and with the Seahawks holding a timeout) would've given Seattle the ball at their own 24 with about 1:15 remaining. Even with better running and a better punt, the danger of a touchback isn't going to push Seattle back much farther.

What would have happened?

Seattle drive prior to the onside kick: 69 yards, 103 seconds, TD
Seattle drive after the onside kick: 50 yards, 43 seconds, TD
Seattle drive in overtime: 87 yards, 6 plays, TD

The Seahawks would have needed to go 75-85 yards in 75 seconds, a comparable level of performance which they in fact achieved. What's more, they would have needed only the touchdown to win, almost certainly requiring neither a two-point conversion nor an overtime victory.

Better Teams with 2-score leads in the Real World

Seahawks at Eagles leading 24-14 (Philadelphia has 3 timeouts):

4Q 4:07: Lynch runs for 5 then 11 yards; first down. Christine Michael runs for 2, then 8 yards; first down. Christine Michael runs for 1, 3, then 11 yards. First down. Seattle kneels out the clock.

Seahawks at 49ers leading 17-7 (San Francisco has 3 timeouts):

More of the same

Seattle vs Green Bay leading 29-16 (Green Bay has 3 timeouts):

4Q 9:37: Seattle runs 12 plays (7 rush, 5 pass) for 5 first downs, consuming 6:54, covering 80 yards and scoring a touchdown. Game over.

Seattle vs New Orleans divisional playoff game:

4Q 2:40: New Orleans scores a touchdown on an 80-yard drive using 2:08 on the clock.

4Q 0:32: New Orleans kicks onsides, recovered by New Orleans.

Now step back two possessions....

4Q 2:57: Seattle leads 16-8 and New Orleans has just one timeout. Seattle has the ball on their own 45 facing 3rd and 3. The play? Russell Wilson pass complete deep left to Doug Baldwin for 24 yards. Lynch follows with a TD. The subsequent fast touchdown drive and onside kick by New Orleans are all for naught, because Seattle's offense did their job when they had the opportunity.

The Separation is in the Preparation

The Seahawks practiced the fake field goal. The Seahawks practice onside kicks every week. I don't know if the Packers practice onside kick recovery, but I'll hazard a guess that they don't practice well.

Carroll is so thorough about making sure that practice mirrors the game experience, the Seahawks have practiced weather delays. And, of course, they are well-prepared as anyone for a 2-minute drill.

I manually checked the time passage between plays during the Seahawks next-to-last regulation drive (starting from their own 31, trailing 19-7).

1st & 10 SEA 31: Lynch rush for 14 yards; 15 seconds between plays
1st & 10 SEA 45: Wilson to Baldwin for 20 yards; 13 sec
1st & 10 GB 35: Incomplete pass (basically a spike play with an added chance at the end zone); 0 sec
2nd & 10 GB 35: Wilson to Lynch for 26 yards, out-of-bounds (working the sideline); 0 sec
1st & 10 GB 9: Lynch rush for 4 yards; 13 sec
2nd & 5 GB 5: Wilson rush for 4 yards; 15 sec
3rd & 5 GB 1: Wilson rush for 1 yard, TD

Nobody but nobody can run the ball like the Seahawks do in the hurry-up offense. It's normally 10+ seconds to run up for a spike play, which means Seattle is spending at most 2-3 seconds per play to save a down. They save more time by cutting out multiple incomplete passes (at 5-6 seconds each) and near-worthless sideline passes for 3-4 yards. On top of all that, the threat to run opens up the typically preferred deep passes and medium-to-deep sideline passes.

This is no random occurrence. Seattle leads the league over the past two seasons in 50+ yard TD drives in the final 3 minutes of the first half (with six). What's more, the Seahawks' 10.43 seconds/play on those drives is 4th best, with none of the faster teams having more than 3 such drives, and this despite running the ball 40.5% of the time, twice as often as the average under the same parameters. You think the team is all Beast Mode and Legion of Boom, when it's got a legitimate first-class Legion of Zoom on call as needed.

Now the answer to our quiz. What is Russell Wilson saying?


Here's one more hint, the Seahawks lined up for a two-point conversion:


Did you get it? The NFL rules allow a team attempting a conversion to spot the ball pretty much anywhere they like. You can even back it up behind the 2-yard-line if, say, muddy conditions dictate a favorable spot for place-kicking.

Wilson is telling the official to spot the ball on the left hash mark, so that Seattle can run its best short-yardage play with a rollout to the right, giving more space for multiple receivers and quarterback running option. As it happened, the Packers covered that side, but the extra room allowed Wilson to scramble further and longer, keeping the play alive long enough for the heave to Luke Willson and the successful conversion.

The Separation is in the Preparation.

Onside Kick II: Brandon Bostick is a Green Bay Packer

With 2:13 remaining in the game and trailing 19-14, the Seahawks announce that they'd like to try an onside kick. Per procedure, the referees called for an impartial set of NFL onside-kick squads to run the play, thus meeting the league goal of ensuring a fair and consistent recovery rate in all games for all teams. Bad luck for the Packers when their assigned squad messed up and--

Hang on.

I don't think that's what happened.

I think those were actual Packer players on the line trying to recover the kick. And I think, just maybe, the Seahawks threw big money at Hauschka, have held on to Jon Ryan, and signed Garry Gilliam and Chris Matthews for the same reasons they sign and pay their big stars: The players are coachable, competitive, and they practice well.

Aaron Rodgers, like his teammate Sitton, seemed to think the better team lost. I mean, heck, look at these numbers:

NFC Championship Game (regulation only)

Player Yards TD Sack/INT FG/XP Fantasy
Aaron Rodgers 178/12 1 1/2 - 6
Eddie Lacy 73/0 0 - - 4
Jordy Nelson 0/71 0 - - 3
Randall Cobb 3/62 1 - - 9
James Starks 44/0 0 - - 2
Richard Rodgers 0/35 0 - - 1
Davante Adams 0/7 0 - - 0
John Kuhn 3/3 0 - - 0
Mason Crosby - - - 5/1 16
Green Bay defense 22 PA - 5/4 - 13
Russell Wilson 129/25 1 5/4 - -1
Marshawn Lynch 149/26 1 - - 16
Doug Baldwin 0/61 0 - - 3
Jermaine Kearse 0/0 0 - - 0
Ricard Lockette 4/25 0 - - 1
Luke Willson 0/11 0 - - 0
Will Tukuafu 0/8 0 - - 0
Robert Turbin 8/0 0 - - 0
Steven Hauschka - - - 0/2 2
Seattle defense 22 PA - 1/2 - 5

Admit it, Rodgers & bitter Packer fans. That's what you were thinking, isn't it? Richard Sherman has a message for you:


With two fewer interceptions, Green Bay's "1" (Rodgers) has the edge in regulation on Seattle's "1" (Wilson). And you can give Green Bay the advantage at, say, "4" and "6" (Randall Cobb vs Doug Baldwin, Jordy Nelson vs Jermaine Kearse). But 2, 3, 5, and 7 - 46 are part of the team, too.

So quit throwing Brandon Bostick under the bus. Bostick didn't throw two interceptions; Bostick isn't the one who failed to keep Seattle's offense out of the end zone four times in a row (3 TD's and a 2-point conversion). Bostick wasn't on the field when the Packers twice failed to get a first down in the fourth quarter. Bostick isn't the one who got trucked by Marshawn Lynch for 183 yards and couldn't stop the read-option without putting nine men in the box and getting burned on a deep pass.

The better team isn't Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb. It's Garry Gilliam, Jon Ryan, Steven Hauschka, Chris Matthews, Jermaine Kearse, etc. etc. etc. It's a staff and a bunch of guys who say "you'll get the next one" instead of lashing out in anger. It's Earl Thomas knocking the crap out of Eddie Lacy despite a separated shoulder. It's Richard Sherman fighting through pain, making a game-saving tackle, and contributing to a suffocating defensive performance, all after his quarterback dropped a four-interception-turd and Sherman would have been perfectly excused going to the sidelines and hoping for an extra two weeks recovery time in the off-season. And it's Russell Wilson (and everyone else) knowing it.

"If anybody gave the game away,
it was the Seahawks.
And then they took it back"

- MangoLiger