CHFF Game of the Week: Giants-49ers

The Giants (6-2) visit the 49ers (7-1), kicking off the second half of the season with a huge cross-country battle likely to have playoff implications. The winner will have an early leg up on a first-round bye in the top-heavy NFC.

Here are three Cold, Hard Football Facts you need to know about Giants-49ers before kickoff:

1. Jim Harbaugh is NFL coach of the year at the halfway pole

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Somebody notify the Vatican: first-year coach Harbaugh is performing miracles in San Francisco.

Just one year ago the 49ers struggled through a 6-10 season in a division so bad that the Seahawks claimed the NFC West title with a losing record (7-9).

The outlook was bleak:

It’s was the eighth consecutive season in which the 49ers failed to post a winning record
Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall picks in the 2005 draft, struggled yet again (3-7 record, 82.1 rating)
The team fired head coach Mike Singletary before the final game of the year
And, generally speaking, there was little reason for optimism for the once-proud organization.

Just eight games later it’s an entirely different outlook in San Francisco:

The 49ers are 7-1, the second best record in the NFL behind only the defending champ 8-0 Packers
They boast the NFL’s stingiest defense (14.8 PPG)
Smith is finally living up to expectations with a Pro Bowl-caliber season;
And San Francisco is a legit threat to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 17 years

What happened to this team that has struggled so badly for the better of a decade? Put most simply, the 49ers are suddenly the best-coached team in football.

We know they’re the best-coached team in football because the Cold, Hard Football Facts track each team in two critical measures of efficiency that we call Scoreability (offensive efficiency) and Bendability (defensive efficiency), which quantifies the bend-but-don’t-break phenomenon. These are two of our Quality Stats, indicators that have a direct correlation to winning football games.

Each indicator takes into account a variety of factors that go into winning football, including proficiency of special teams, field position, red zone offense and defense, penalties, third-down offense and defense and turnover differential, and spits out those performances in an easy-to-understand number.

Essentially, we measure how each team performs in so-called “situational football.” Put most simply, Scoreability and Bendability tell us which teams are smart and well coach and which teams are not.

And no team right now is smarter or more well coached than Harbaugh’s 49ers on both sides of the ball.

San Francisco is No. 1 in Bendability through Week 9.
San Francisco is No. 2 in Scoreability through Week 9.

Bendability measures how hard opponents must work to score points. The 49ers right now force opponents to march an incredible 22.1 Yards Per Point Scored . Put another way, opponents need a daunting 155 yards of offense to score the equivalent of a touchdown or extra point. That’s a dispiriting amount of work and it tells us that teams are not scoring cheap points against San Francisco.

Conversely, the 49ers are extraordinarily efficient when it comes time to put points on the board: they need just 12.1 Yards Per Point Scored – or 85 yards of offense to score the equivalent of a touchdown or extra point.

In other words, there is little wasted effort in the San Francisco offense. More importantly, the team finds ways to score in all phases of the game – and Scoreabiltiy treats all scores equally. In fact, it intentionally rewards teams for non-offensive scores. After all, the scoreboard does not care how the points get there – only that they do.

Keep in mind that these measures are much more than just intellectual exercises by stat geeks crunching numbers in mommy’s basement. Proficiency in these indicators is critical to team success: teams that win the Scoreability-Bendability battle of efficiency are an awesome 106-24 (.815) through Week 9.

In other words, smart, efficient teams win football games. Dumb, inefficient teams lose football games. (We track the Correlation to Victory of these and many other stats at CHFF Insider.)

Harbaugh’s 49ers are 7-1 and the surprise story of 2011 because they are the smartest, most efficient in football right now.

2. Eli is elite with the game of the line

Eli Manning(notes) caused a firestorm on the web-o-sphere at the start of the season when he compared himself to the game’s elite passers, such as Aaron Rodgers(notes) and Tom Brady(notes).

Eli Manning of the New York Giants celebrates after the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots on Nov. 6, 2011.
(Getty Images)

It was an especially controversial statement given the fact that Manning was coming off a poor 2010 season ruined by a league-high 25 INTs.

Manning has responded by putting his money where his mouth. In fact, he’s having a career year with clutch performances week after week.

Manning has helped lead four comeback victories for the Giants here in 2011, including five game-winning drives, according to researcher Scott Kacsmar, who writes the “Captain Comeback” column for Cold, Hard Football Facts.com and has created the nation’s most comprehensive database of clutch performances.

In other words, Eli has delivered a clutch drive in five of New York’s six victories this year.

None were better than his effort last week against the Patriots: Manning drove the Giants 80 yards in 81 seconds, passing for the game-winning touchdown to Jake Ballard(notes) with 15 seconds to play.

It came at the end of the day in which Manning had largely struggled (he completed just 20 of 39 passes). But with the game on the line he made one big play after another, including a 12-yard gain with his legs.

It was a performance eerily similar to his historic win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Elite numbers or not, fans should have learned to believe that Eli was “Eli”-te in the clutch back in that 17-14 win.

After all, Manning did something that day no quarterback has done before or since: he’s the only quarterback in NFL history, dating all the way back to the start of the league, to lead a game-winning touchdown in the final 2 minutes of a championship game when anything less than a touchdown meant defeat.

Other quarterbacks who have delivered legendary drives, such as Johnny Unitas (1958 title game), Bart Starr (the Ice Bowl), Joe Montana (Super Bowl XXIII) and Ben Roethlisberger(notes) (Super Bowl XLIII), all could have settled for field goals.

Manning is the only one who produced under the pressure of knowing that nothing less than a touchdown would do.

The fact that this singular drive also topped the only 18-0 team in NFL history elevates to yet another level unlikely to be matched again as long as they play the game.

And for these singular distinctions in NFL history, along with a proven clutch ability, Manning deserves elite consideration.

3. The 49ers are proving (yet again) that big volume passing stats do not win games

Pigskin “pundits” and football fans get a thrill up their spine by the big gaudy passing day.

Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers throws a pass against the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 30, 2011.
(Getty Images)

Those 400-yard performances may help fans win their fantasy football league. But they don’t help teams win games on Sunday.

In fact, let’s take a look at four notable quarterbacks this year:

Tom Brady is on pace for 5,406 yards. The Patriots are 5-3.
Drew Brees(notes) is on pace for 5,341 yards. The Saints are 6-3.
Cam Newton(notes) is on pace for 4,786 yards. The Panthers are 2-6.
Alex Smith is on pace for 2,934 yards. The 49ers are 7-1.

San Francisco’s Smith passes for just 183.4 yards per game – nearly half the average of Brady and Brees and far below the output o high-profile (but losing) rookie Newton. In fact, he’s 31st in average yards per game.

Yet clearly, Smith’s team right now is the best of the three.

One of the eternal truths of NFL history is that you do NOT need to produce a lot of yards through the air. You simply need smart, efficient play at quarterback and strong pass defense – the volume of yards on either side of the ball are largely irrelevant.

There are numerous ways we can measure this phenomenon.

First, the last quarterback to lead the NFL in passing yards and win a championship was Johnny Unitas way back in 1959. So that trend does not bode well for guys like Brady and Brees.

Second, we track the Correlation to Victory of many different stats at CHFF Insider – that is, how often you win games when you win certain statistical battles.

Teams with more passing yards are 59-71 (.454)
Teams with a higher passer rating are 96-34 (.738)
Teams with fewer interceptions are 71-24 (.747)
Teams better in CHFF’s Scoreability-Bendabilty are 106-24 (.815)
Teams better in CHFF’s Real Quarterback Rating are 112-18 (.862)

That data does bode well for Smith and the 49ers. His team is winning because they’re simply smarter and more efficient than their opponents.

Smith is a big reason why. He’s been extraordinarily efficient, even if the volume numbers are humble: 64.1 percent completions, 7.1 YPA, 10TD, 2 INT, 2 lost fumbles and a 97.3 rating.

In fact, Brady’s passer rating is just 2.7 points higher than Smith’s, despite the much greater volume numbers.

When you pair extraordinarily efficient play with the league’s top defense (14.8 PPG) you get a 7-1 record a team that’s an legit threat to win the Super Bowl halfway through the season.

The Cold, Hard Football Facts

The Giants have been known in recent years for a tough, wear-‘em-down ground game. But that’ s not the case this year.

The Giants have fought through injuries among its corps of ball carriers – homerun hitter Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) missed last week’s game against New England with a stress fracture in his foot and will reportedly miss Sunday’s game as well. With or without him, the Giants have struggled to run the ball all year along. They average just 3.27 YPA on the ground, 30th in the NFL.

The weak ground game is a big reason that the Giants are a mere No. 26 on our Offensive Hog Index, which rates each offensive line in the NFL.

Those numbers are both bad news against a stingy San Francisco defense that’s No. 1 in scoring (14.8 PPG), No. 3 in run defense (3.47 YPA) and No. 4 on our Defensive Hog Index.

The Pick

Look for the 49ers to shutdown what little there is to the Giants ground game and force Manning to carry Big Blue on his back and into the teeth of the NFL’s top defense. It might have worked last week in New England, against a terrible defense.

It won’t work against the 49ers. San Francisco’s defense is No. 1 even if you account for the quality of opposing offenses (as measured by our Relativity Index). Opponents under-produce their scoring average by 6.9 PPG when facing the 49ers defense.

San Francisco is also No. 1 in scoring defense against Quality Opponents – they’ve surrendered just 27 points in their wins over the Bengals and Lions.

The 49ers will counter New York’s one-dimensional offense with a more balanced and more efficient scoring attack.

Expect this to be a hard-hitting, very tight game. But in the end the smarter, more efficient team with the better defense playing at home will carry the day.

Pick: San Francisco 24, N.Y. Giants 19

ColdHardFootballFacts.com is dedicated to cutting-edge analysis and to the “gridiron lifestyle” of beer, food and football. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook. E-mail comments to contact@coldhardfootballfacts.com.

Season record: 6-3

Week 1 pick: Detroit 24, Tampa 20
Week 1 result: Detroit 27, Tampa 20

Week 2 pick: New England 27, San Diego 24
Week 2 result: New England 35, San Diego 21

Week 3 pick: New Orleans 30, Houston 23
Week 3 result: New Orleans 40, Houston 33

Week 4 pick: Detroit 26, Dallas 24
Week 4 result: Detroit 34, Dallas 30

Week 5 pick: Green Bay 34, Atlanta 24
Week 5 result: Green Bay 25, Atlanta 14

Week 6 pick: Detroit 23, San Francisco 20
Week 6 result: San Francisco 25, Detroit 19

Week 7 pick: Tennessee 27, Houston 21
Week 7 result: Houston 41, Tennessee 7

Week 8 pick: Kansas City 23, San Diego 21
Week 8 result: Kansas City 23, San Diego 20

Week 9 pick: Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 17
Week 9 result: Baltimore 23, Pittsburgh 20


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Updated Saturday, Nov 12, 2011