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Overblown? Peyton, Broncos Can Still Win It All

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Peyton Manning has struggled mightily in 2015 and is off to his worst start since his rookie year. Watching him play, it is evident he is no longer the laser rocket-armed passer he was in Indianapolis. Even when he was more successful in Denver, though, he did not have that same great arm strength. How much, then, do arm strength woes explain his 2015 struggles? Is he throwing the ball downfield less than he did back in 2012 and 2013, when he was still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL? Is he throwing the ball downfield less efficiently? Or is the explanation more complicated?

Peyton’s Deep Pass Frequency

The simple explanation would be that Manning is throwing fewer deep passes, those thrown 16 or more yards downfield. Table 1 shows this is not the case.

Table 1. Peyton’s Deep Pass Frequency in Denver

Season Deep Pass Pct.
2012 18.9%
2013 18.7%
2014 19.9%
2015 19.7%

Thus far in 2015, 18.5 percent of passes league-wide have been thrown deep, so Peyton has ranged from around average to a bit above it in terms of deep-pass frequency while in Denver.

The story is similar if you look just at particularly deep passes, those thrown more than 25 yards downfield. Leauge-wide average so far this season is 6.6 percent. Numbers here are more variable than the overall deep pass numbers, but the same trend is present.

Table 2. Peyton’s Bomb (PYD >25) Frequency in Denver

Season Bomb Pct.
2012 6.9%
2013 6.1%
2014 7.6%
2015 6.7%

In the modest sample of six games, he is throwing the ball far downfield less than he did last year, but still at a rate slightly above the league average. Whatever declining arm strength has done to affect Manning’s performance is not apparent in these numbers.

Peyton’s Short Pass Distribution Numbers

Instead, what stands out in 2015 is the percentage of passes he is throwing particularly short distances, those not even past the line of scrimmage. Table 3 shows this picture.

Table 3. Peyton’s Thrown At or Behind Line of Scrimmage Frequency in Denver

Season Very Short Pass Pct.
2012 13.9%
2013 13.6%
2014 12.7%
2015 17.2%

The league average percentage of very short passes is just 18.9 percent, so Peyton has still not thrown as many as the average quarterback has. But for a passer who has spent his entire career attacking defenses aggressively, the difference is striking.

Peyton’s Newly Inefficient Passing Areas

So, Peyton Manning is throwing just as many deep passes, including bombs, and more very short passes this year. We still have not explained his performance decline. To do that, we have to look at his efficiency in throwing particular distances, and how those have changed for this season. Two stand out.

The first is bombs, those passes thrown more than 25 yards downfield. Manning may not be throwing fewer of them, but he is throwing them much less successfully. A simple comparison using success rate, which evaluates offenses based on progression toward gaining a first down, makes the difference clear.

Table 4. Peyton’s Success Rate on Bombs in Denver

Season Bomb Success Rate
2012 49%
2013 49%
2014 52%
2015 19%

Even in 2014, when his problems with arm strength seemed to start, Manning had the second-best success rate in the league on bombs, behind only Aaron Rodgers. This year, he has plummeted to third-worst, ahead of only Joe Flacco and Ryan Fitzpatrick among passers with at least 10 bomb attempts.

The other area where Peyton’s efficiency has fallen is on another form of short passes, those thrown between one and five yards downfield. Table 5 shows this difference, and adds an important piece of information.

Table 5. Peyton’s Success Rate on Passes 1-5 Yards Downfield in Denver

Season Success Rate Yards After Catch
2012 58% 4.6
2013 56% 5.1
2014 53% 4.7
2015 40% 3.5

One to five yards downfield has been the most popular distance for Peyton’s passes the entirety of his time in Denver. This year, 40.3 percent of his passes have gone that far, up a bit from 36.4% over the previous three years.

That has generally been an efficient area for Peyton Manning. One Broncos staple has been the shallow crossing route, often with a natural rub element designed to create yards after the catch. This year, players have not gotten nearly the same yards after catch on short passes. It would be tempting to ascribe the difference to personnel changes, like replacing athletic tight end Julius Thomas with Gary Kubiak veteran mainstay Owen Daniels. Looking just at wide receivers, though, the difference is even bigger, from 4.7 yards after catch in 2014 to just 3.0 despite Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas remaining the primary receivers.

What It Means, Now and Going Forward

Peyton Manning is not throwing fewer deep passes. He is throwing more passes at or behind the line of scrimmage than he has in the past, but still less than an average quarterback. His biggest problems come from the passes he is throwing less efficiently. Deep downfield throws are not being completed nearly as often. Short downfield throws are not nearly as successful, largely because they have included fewer yards after the catch.

It seems likely diminished arm strength is a major contributor to the deep ball problems, and it is probably doubtful Peyton again becomes a great bomb thrower. Reduced ball velocity may be limiting yards after catch opportunities for receivers on short passes, or that may be a result of offensive line issues, defenses crowding the line of scrimmage because of the lack of deep threat, and/or the awkward forced marriage between Peyton Manning’s offense and Gary Kubiak’s offense.

Manning is still just as efficient as he has been in past seasons on intermediate throws, those between 11 and 20 yards downfield. That gives reason for optimism that the problems with short throws might yet get fixed. If they are, combined with the great defense, the Broncos will have the offense to be one of the Super Bowl favorites in a top-heavy 2015 NFL.

Eagles fly to first Super Bowl win with memorable victory vs Patriots

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As their delirious fans sang their theme song and their owner lifted the Lombardi Trophy, the Philadelphia Eagles’ finally could breathe freely.

Yo, Philly, you really did beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a thrilling Super Bowl that rewrote the offensive record book.

Nick Foles guided the drive of a lifetime, Zach Ertz made a bobbling touchdown catch that had to survive replay review, and an exhausted defense came up with not one but two stands in the final moments Sunday for a 41-33 victory. For the first time since 1960, the Eagles are NFL champions.

“Fly Eagles Fly,” indeed.

“We’ve played this game since we were little kids, we dreamed about this moment,” game MVP Foles said. “There’s plenty of kids watching this game right now dreaming about this moment and someday will be here.”

In a record-setting shootout between backup QB Foles and five-time champ Brady of the favored Patriots, Foles led a pressure-packed 75-yard drive to the winning touchdown, 11 yards to Ertz with 2:21 to go .

Then Brandon Graham strip-sacked Brady and Derek Barnett recovered, setting up rookie Jake Elliot’s 46-yard field goal for an 8-point lead.

Brady got his team to midfield, but his desperation pass fell to the ground in the end zone.

“For us, it was all about one stop we had to make. We went out here and made that one stop,” Graham said.

The underdog Eagles (16-3), even injured starting quarterback Carson Wentz, came bolting off the sideline in ecstasy while Brady sat on the ground, disconsolate.

It was the first Super Bowl title for Philadelphia (16-3), which went from 7-9 last season.

“If there’s a word (it’s) called everything,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “That’s what it means to Eagles fans everywhere. And for Eagles fans everywhere, this is for them.”

Super Bowl MVP Foles orchestrated the victory with the kind of drive NFL MVP Brady, a five-time champion, is known for. The drive covered 14 plays, including a fourth-down conversion.

“I felt calm. I mean, we have such a great group of guys, such a great coaching staff,” Foles said. “We felt confident coming in, and we just went out there and played football.”

The Eagles had to survive a video replay because ball pop into the air as Ertz crossed the goal line.

The touchdown stood — and so did thousands of green-clad Eagles fans who weren’t going to mind the frigid conditions outside US Bank Stadium once they headed out to celebrate. But not before a rousing rendition of “Fly Eagles Fly” reverberated throughout the stands once the trophy was presented to Lurie. Later, fans danced along with the “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from “Rocky,” the city’s best-known fictional underdog.

The Patriots (15-4) seemed ready to take their sixth championship with Brady and coach Bill Belichick in eight Super Bowls. Brady threw for a game-record 505 yards and three TDs, hitting Rob Gronkowski for 4 yards before Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point gave New England its first lead, 33-32.

Then Foles made them forget Wentz — and least for now — with the gutsiest drive of his life.

“We couldn’t make a play to give the ball back to the offense,” Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said.

Foles has been something of a journeyman in his six pro seasons, but he has been spectacular in four career playoff games. He finished 28 of 43 for 373 yards and three TDs.

The combined 1,151 yards were the most in any modern NFL game, and Brady’s 505 were the most in any playoff contest. The 40-year-old master finished 28 of 48 and picked apart the Eagles until the final two series.

It was such a wild game that Foles caught a touchdown pass , and Brady was on the opposite end of a Danny Amendola throw that went off his fingertips.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson brought home the championship in his second year in charge. Belichick is 5-3 in Super Bowls and his teams have only a plus-4 overall margin in those games.

So this one was in keeping with that trend: breathtaking and even a bit bizarre.

Brady and the Patriots looked ready for another comeback by opening the second half with a 75-yard touchdown drive. Gronkowski was unstoppable, grabbing four passes for 69 yards, including the 5-yard score.

Philly didn’t flinch, answering with a precise 75-yard march and three more third-down conversions; the Eagles were 10 for 16. The last was on Foles’ perfect pass to Clement over double coverage. The rookie’s reception was upheld by review, and the Eagles were back on top by 10.

Brady shrugged and, getting steadfast protection, connected with Chris Hogan from the 26 for another touchdown.

When all the Eagles could manage was Elliott’s 42-yarder for a 32-26 lead, it seemed inevitable the Patriots would go in front, then become the first repeat Super Bowl winner since they did it in the 2004 and ’05 games.

Foles, Ertz, and — at last — a revitalized defense said otherwise.

The weird image of Brady ambling downfield on a pass pattern came three plays after New England lost receiver Brandin Cooks to a concussion on a vicious but clean hit by Malcolm Jenkins in the second quarter. Amendola’s pass required an over-the-shoulder grab and the ball fell off Brady’s outstretched hands.

Brady got back to passing after a wild interception. Alshon Jeffery nearly made a spectacular catch near the Patriots’ goal line, only to juggle the ball into the air. Duron Harmon picked it off at the 10. Moments later, Brady was connecting with Chris Hogan for 42 yards.

James White broke several tackles with a brilliant 26-yard run and it was 15-12. That gave White seven touchdowns in his past three postseason games, including the overtime winner in last year’s Super Bowl.

But the Eagles still had 2:04 left in the half — and some more magic in their bag.

A short third-down throw to rookie Corey Clement on a circle route turned into a 55-yard explosion down to the Patriots 8. Philly got to the 1 and on fourth down, it was Foles’ turn to morph into a receiver.

He did better than Brady. On fourth down, Clement took a direct snap, pitched to tight end Trey Burton, and the former Florida QB hit an uncovered Foles. The Eagles were up 22-12 at halftime, the most points New England has allowed in the opening half of a Super Bowl under Belichick.

Each team started with 67-yard drives to field goals — New England had never scored a first-quarter point with Brady in a Super Bowl.

Each kicker later faltered, with Elliott missing the extra point, his fifth failed PAT this season, after Jeffery’s 34-yard touchdown. Then Gostkowski hit the left upright with a 26-yard field goal after holder Ryan Allen mishandled the snap. Gostkowski also missed an extra point.

When LeGarrette Blount, who won the title last season with the Patriots, scored on a 21-yard burst, Pederson went for 2, but the pass failed, making it 15-3.

The Eagles and Pederson brushed it off and stayed with their usual aggressive approach. Breathtakingly, it eventually paid off.

Eagles’ rush could be key vs. Patriots’ Brady

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MINNEAPOLIS — Neither New England nor Philadelphia is a tropical paradise, so for the Patriots and Eagles, the Minnesota winter weather has been pretty normal for them. That’s a good thing as both teams head into their Super Bowl LII meeting on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium trying to treat it like just another 60-minute game.

After the media circus they endured Monday in St. Paul, the players for both the Patriots (15-3) and the Eagles (15-3) welcomed the opportunity to get back to some semblance of normal game week preparation and to focus on the football, even if it’s in a new place.

“We’ve got to go out and practice and kind of get away from the madness,” said Philadelphia defensive end Fletcher Cox on Wednesday after the Eagles practiced at the University of Minnesota. “I just treat it as a regular game week. Things I would do at the facility, I’m doing here.”

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

One thing the Eagles did successfully at home and on the road all season was pressure the opponent’s quarterback, and when the Patriots have faltered in two Super Bowl losses to the Giants in the past decade, a relentless pass rush has contributed. But the highly touted Eagles defense, which did not allow a point after the Vikings’ opening drive of the NFC title game, is wary about putting too much of their attention on Patriots star Tom Brady.

“It’s Tom plus 10 guys on the field. We can’t just focus on one guy, if we’re going to be real about it,” Cox said. “I think we have to focus on their whole offense, because they’ve got a lot of great players. We have to go out and be ourselves. We’ve got to go out and do the little things right and not beat ourselves in order to be victorious.”

New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the second half of the AFC title game win over Jacksonville due to a concussion, is slated to play.

“Rob’s a tough guy. Obviously, this isn’t something you can just fight through,” said Brady.

While the Patriots offense has revolved around Brady since their first Super Bowl win in 2002, the defense has been one of constant evolution, and the unit adopted yet another new look late in the regular season when linebacker James Harrison came on board after he was jettisoned by the Steelers.

“When you’re in a system for as long as he’s been, there are a lot of things that are habits that get ingrained, which they should be. Some of those things carry over. Some of them kind of don’t,” Belichick said of Harrison, who has played 178 of his 193 NFL regular-season games for Pittsburgh. “He’s done a great job of trying to separate them and do what we’ve asked him to do.”

While the Eagles will be looking for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, having lost the big game after the 1980 and 2004 seasons, there may be more pressure on the Patriots, who will be seeking their sixth title and their second in a row, knowing that the coaching staff will look significantly different next season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are both widely expected to be head coaches in Indianapolis and Detroit, respectively, next season.

“I realize and I understand and I appreciate the talent in the coaches in our building. I’m grateful for the opportunity to even be coached by them,” said Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola, sounding very much like he was saying goodbye. “Whatever their opportunities are in the future, I’ll be excited for them.”

There’s one more opportunity for them on Sunday. And it sounds plenty exciting.