Monday, December 23, 2013

The Way the Football Bounces

Still on a high after the Panthers’ big win yesterday versus New Orleans, with that last lightning-quick winning TD drive having played out so quickly I’m still not even sure it happened.

Carolina is now playoff-bound for the first time since Jake Delhomme was behind center, and folks are starting to recall to each other the big run from a decade ago that landed the Panthers in the Super Bowl where they were involved in one of the most memorable finales in NFL history. (The halftime show that year was pretty memorable, too.)

Was reading a few different pieces last week about the Panthers’ season, including an interesting one over on the Football Perspective website asking “How Good Are the Panthers?” The piece does a lot of comparing of numbers from this season and last for Carolina, ultimately concluding with the support of the stats what all of us who have been watching the games already well knew.

“In 2012, nearly all the breaks went against the Panthers,” writes the author, Chase Stuart, after having established that in most respects the team was essentially as productive in just about every area last year as it has been this time around. “On a per-play basis, Carolina was a very good team, and perhaps one of the best in the league,” says Stuart, yet somehow they started 2-8, ended 7-9, and missed the playoffs by a mile.

This year they started 1-3, are now 11-4, and with a victory next week against Atlanta can tie a franchise record for wins. And as Stuart notes, the difference can mostly be traced via a handful of plays that went the wrong way for Carolina in 2012 but have gone differently in 2013. “For the second year in a row, Carolina has found out that what happens on a few plays can make all the difference in a season,” he concludes.

I won’t specifically recite all of the plays. That stirring 14-yard pass completion from Cam Newton to Domenik Hixon in the endzone yesterday with 23 seconds left was certainly one of them. But it wouldn’t be hard to locate them among the several agonizing losses last year and the many dramatic victories this season.

As a kind of weird emblem for how things went for the Panthers in 2012, they lost the first 13 start-of-game coin tosses last year (!). Talk about bad bounces. Meanwhile I know this year they were enjoying a streak of winning eight straight coin tosses at one point (through the first nine games), which is similarly nuts. (And weirdly symbolic.)

It is uncanny the extent to which the Panthers’ results from last year to this can be likened to having played a hand exactly the same way twice, losing the first and winning the next. The same can be said for most of the league, though, with only a few exceptions. Every team heading into Week 17 can point to a handful of plays that decided their fate, just like only a few hands -- or even one -- tend to dictate a winning or losing session or tournament.

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