With their Wild Card victory over the Chicago Bears, the New Orleans Saints advance to host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional round. A playoff battle between two All Time Greats; a meeting the NFL could have only dreamed for when Brady absconded from the AFC East.
Yet, the focal point of this week’s narrative is the likelihood of a three-game sweep. More accurately, that the probability of such feat by New Orleans is overwhelmingly difficult. As was the case in Week 9, the Saints are seen as the underdog by the national media; is there any legitimate basis to this cliché?
As Kay Adams of NFL Network’s Good Morning Football outlined on-air, not only is there no evidence that a three-game sweep is insurmountable, but the odds plainly favor the Saints.
Three-Game Sweep Fallacy: Laws of Probability
As Adams detailed, teams looking to beat an opponent for a third time have accomplished this in 14 of the 22 pertinent times in NFL history. Those odds raise from 64% to 75% when looking at the instances since 2008. The Pittsburgh Steelers swept the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, the Dallas Cowboys swept the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009, and the Saints are the most recent example in their sweep of the Carolina Panthers in 2017.
Numbers never lie; the idea that beating a team three times in a season is notably difficult isn’t even statistically supported. It’s simply a false narrative, unfounded in history, and in sheer inaccuracy with the laws of probability. Any sports gamblers out there familiar with the notion of independent events? When talking about probability, independent events are those of the past that have absolutely no influence on future outcomes.
If you flip a coin, as there are two possible outcomes, the probability of flipping heads is 1/2. Let’s say you get heads. If you flip the same coin again, the probability of flipping heads remains 1/2. No matter how many times you flip the coin, the probability of each coin flip does not change.
In line with the three-game sweep, let’s say you are asked to bet on the probability of flipping a coin, and landing heads three consecutive times. You should bet on a 1/8 chance. Why? Because you’re betting on a sequence — one in which each flip has no outcome on the next — versus a singular coin flip. Each coin flip is an independent event; the probability of getting heads does not change if you flip a coin once, or 500 times. But if you’re looking purely at a sequential sweep — meaning, this bet was made prior to any games played — those odds, as a whole, indeed are lesser.
Put simply, with each coin flip having two possible outcomes, flipping three times has 2x2x2= 8 possible outcomes. With that said, after flipping two times, and getting heads both times, the probability of flipping heads the third time is back to 1/2; the misunderstanding is that people often incorrectly assume the first two flips somehow influence the third flip. From a pure numbers’ perspective, this argument is frankly nonsensical.
The immediate counterargument, correctly at that, is that football games are never a 50/50 chance. But that has more to do with the game of football, and less with the unicorn narrative that a three-game sweep somehow holds any unique difficulty. When you view it through the lens of football, not only should the Saints not be viewed as the scrappy underdogs, but they should plainly be the clear favorite.
Super Bowl Winners: Divisional Records
It shouldn’t entirely be surprising that a team that swept an opponent in the regular season should be the favored opponent in the postseason. When a team sweeps a divisional opponent, there’s typically a reason for that: they were the better team in the regular season. In prior years, homefield advantage factored into the outcome; with the advantage all for naught this season (barring snowy outdoor stadiums up North), it really just comes down to the superior opponent. History shows that opponent is the New Orleans Saints.
The last seven Super Bowl winners had a similarly dominant divisional run. While only the Kansas City Chiefs pulled off the divisional sweep à la New Orleans, every winner had the opportunity to pull off a three-game sweep with at least one opponent, with four teams sweeping two divisional opponents. The issue is that the opportunity never presented itself.
For one, out of the past seven Super Bowls, the New England Patriots won three of them; prior to the AFC East collective Cinderella season this year, the division was a farce. Ironically, the dominator of the previous Super Bowl stats is now the topic of discussion in the NFC South. It’s safe to say this is not an absurdly lopsided matchup. Despite the 38-3 Saints victory, Brady’s NFL-all time playoff record cannot be discredited.
At the same time, as the most recent example of precedent, New Orleans illustrated in the 2017 NFL playoffs exactly why it’s more likely than not that the team pulls off the three-game sweep. Moreover, the earlier season contests with Tampa Bay, specifically, illuminate why the Saints are most poised to do so.
Key Difference-Maker: Adaptability
Teams evolve over the course of a season; injuries shuffle the lineup and position units, chemistry is developed, and — this year in particular with no preseason — early-season tweaks are corrected. Take the Saints defense evolution over this season as Exhibit A. No team responds to adversity, nor is as adaptive, as the New Orleans Saints.
Conversely, as the typical fatal flaw for the team unable to upset in a sweep, Tampa Bay failed to adapt through each previous contest. In Week 1, the Buccaneers gave up 24 unanswered points after scoring on the opening drive. Brady threw two interceptions — with one a pick-six, but the takeaways for Tampa were nonetheless promising. It was Tom Brady’s first game with a new group of receivers; surely by Week 9, with the addition of Antonio Brown to an already loaded arsenal, the corp will have greater chemistry.
Instead, New Orleans won their fifth consecutive victory, in turn snapping the Buccaneers three-game winning streak. Not only did Tampa Bay fail to adopt the earlier takeaways, but they rescinded all competitive edges they held entirely.
Containing Drew Brees and the Passing Game
Week 1: The Buccaneers considerably tempered the Saints passing game. Brees was just 18-of-30 for 160 yards, 2 TDs, one sack, and a 60% completion percentage. The league’s leading receiver, Michael Thomas, was held to just 7 completions for 17 yards. The offense was inefficient; New Orleans was 5-of-15 on third downs and 3-of-6 on trips to the red zone.
Importantly, Tampa Bay was 5-of-13 on third downs and 3-of-3 on red zone trips. Heading into Week 9, it was clear that red zone efficiency and containment of playmakers were keys to a Buccaneers victory.
Week 9: The score speaks for itself. Brees was 26-of-32 for 222 yards, 4 TDs, one sack, and an 81.3% completion percentage. The Saints were 9-of-14 on third downs and 5-of-7 on red zone trips. Thomas, with 5 receptions for 51 yards, was New Orleans leading receiver.
Comparatively, the Buccaneers were 1-of-9 on third downs, and 0-of-1 in their singular red zone ‘trip’, if you could call it that.
Winning in the Trenches
Week 1: Alvin Kamara was rendered fairly ineffective in the first contest. He rushed for just 16 yards with a 1.3-yard average, the lowest of his career — though he did rush for a touchdown. Latavius Murray found more success with 15 carries for 48 yards, while Taysom Hill hauled in 13 yards.
Both teams were relatively matched on the ground; the Saints rushed for 82 yards and one touchdown, while Tampa Bay rushed for 86 yards and one touchdown. The Buccaneers managed to shut down both the aerial and running game to a considerable degree. New Orleans was greatly aided in the opening contest by a pick-six and special teams’ touchdown.
Week 9: All three backs (at this point, might as well just call Taysom a true Wildcat) found moderate success; in total, the Saints rushed for 138 yards and one touchdown. As has been hilariously documented, the Buccaneers rushed a mere five times for 8 total yards. Not only did they lose their edge on both the Saints passing and run game, but Tampa Bay completely eliminated the running game from their own playbook.
Week 1: This certainly isn’t referring to the Saints. While Tampa Bay fared much better in the first contest, Brady still threw two interceptions; the team also lost a fumble.
Week 9: Tom Brady threw three lovely passes to his new teammates, David Onyemata, Marcus Williams, and Malcolm Jenkins.
Teams that have beaten one team twice during the regular season have won the third time they've played played 75 percent of the time since 2000.— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) January 11, 2021
If the Saints don't win it won't be because they beat Tampa 38-3 the 2nd game.
Have better talking points.
There’s no magic formula nor hidden phenomenon behind a three-game sweep. Teams sweep divisional opponents fairly often; as much as the opponent has intel on your game plan, the converse is the exact same. Both teams, essentially, remain at ground zero in each contest in terms of familiarity. The difference-maker is the ability to learn from mistakes and adapt in future contests.
As evidenced, Tampa Bay entirely failed to do so in the regular season, and it is exactly why they so embarrassingly lost that football game. They learned the Saints blueprint: aggressively attack the passing game and play lights-out third down defense, contain Alvin Kamara on the ground, Michael Thomas in the air, and eliminate turnovers. Instead of adapting, the Buccaneers backslided in an unprecedented fashion.
Meanwhile, the Saints did what they do best: parse out the exact strengths and weakness of the opponent, apply lessons from previous mistakes and adapt, and find a way to win just about every football game. With their dominant regular season performance, in spite of multiple key player injuries — most of whom are set to take the field Sunday — there’s no reason to think New Orleans won’t do anything in the Divisional round but just that.
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