The final score of Monday night’s game was 54-51. It’s the only game in NFL history where both teams hit the half-century mark in scoring. When I talked about the game in the immediate aftermath, though, I immediately pointed out all the great plays in all phases, including the unsung booming punt by Johnny Hekker after the Chiefs forced a three-and-out, a punt that forced Patrick Mahomes to go for broke on the final interception.
I’m going to go a step further today. I’ve heard that the points allowed is a major concern for both teams and actually reaching the Super Bowl. I’m not sure we watched the same game. The Rams played probably the best defensive game against the Chiefs all year, with the defensive line driving at Mahomes all night. The Chiefs played the Rams pretty well on offense, compared to some other recent teams, and rattled Jared Goff plenty of times in the pocket.
The Chiefs only scored on half of their offensive possessions. The Rams scored on just over half of theirs. The defenses accounted for negative plays, and scored three touchdowns combined. It’s some world we live in where the defenses score 21 points and then that is used as a talking point against them.
Since 54-51 sounds more like a college basketball score, maybe we should talk about basketball. In basketball, more knowledgeable fans are aware of tempo-free stats. Some teams have low scoring games because they play at slower paces. Those teams may actually be better at offense than defense, but the pace just reduces the number of total scoring opportunities for both teams. Similarly, fast-paced teams can still be very good on defense, if we look at percentage of times they allow a score, but the total scores may be much higher. There is a lot of variation.
Well, the equivalent of that in the NFL is to look at points per drive. Generally, there’s not nearly as much variation in the number of possessions, but you need to start thinking that way about last night, and what’s to come in the future.
For the most part, teams try to combat the Chiefs and Rams by trying to control the ball, and limit the number of possessions. If you can keep it to a nine-possession game for each team, you have a better chance than if the Chiefs or Rams get 12. Opponents are doing the equivalent of trying to run as much of the shot clock as possible, and then hope for a couple of stops and turnovers. They try to put a governor on those offenses, not by stopping them, but by controlling how quickly they score, and how quickly they get the ball back.
Last night, the governor was off, the two thoroughbreds were not held back by opponents, and the teams combined for 27 total offensive possessions, back and forth at breakneck pace. If it felt like a NFL game on crack, and you can’t quite place why, it’s because there were just way more chances. You got like 40% more Chiefs and Rams than you are used to seeing, especially when you consider they often let off the pedal when winning big late.
In the first 10 games, the Chiefs averaged 9.8 offensive possessions per game and scored an average of 3.4 points per drive. Last night, they scored 3.1 points per drive, on a whopping 14 drives.
In the first 10 games, the Rams averaged 9.9 offensive possessions per game and scored an average of 3.2 points per drive. Last night, they scored 3.1 points per drive on an incredible 13 drives, excluding the kneel downs at the end of each half.
Then consider that the defenses scored points on some of those drives. Here’s a summary of the points per drive allowed, and net points per drive allowed including defensive scores and safeties, for both team offenses by game:
The Rams were roughly middle of the pack in points per drive against the Chiefs. But if you give them credit for creating two scores (and why wouldn’t you?) then there’s a decent argument it was the best defensive performance against the Chiefs.
If you just go by points allowed, meanwhile, you might think it was an awful performance. No, that was San Francisco, where the Chiefs scored 35 in the first half and ended the game with only eight possessions. That was the Pittsburgh game. That was Cincinnati getting blitzed, and Cleveland giving up 37 on nine possessions.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, had the 4th-lowest points per drive allowed against the Rams. If you account for the TD, I’m comfortable saying that the Chiefs had the third-best performance against the Rams offense, behind only what the Packers and Broncos did.
Yes, these defenses gave up big plays. They also made a lot of them besides the obvious touchdowns. The Rams forced a three-and-out on the first drive. The Rams forced a three-and-out right after they took a 40-30 lead, but then the Chiefs got a sack and put the Rams in a 3rd-and-30 and got the ball back. made a key tackle on a third down, when already trailing 40-30. With the score 47-44, the Rams stopped the Chiefs on a three-and-out, and Kansas City again reciprocated when Kendall Fuller made a shoestring tackle on Brandin Cooks on a play that could have gained a first down. The Chiefs gave the offense one more chance when they stopped the Rams after Patrick Mahomes threw an interception. Heck, the worst performers of the night–the all-star officiating crew–missed some bad calls in the red zone that led to points for both offenses.
That’s a lot of stops against these offenses, and it’s reflected in those points per drive numbers.
So welcome to the new age. Embrace drive stats. Because when two juggernauts get together, they remove all the restrictors and just go all out, and you just get way more offense, way more drives, and more chances to make plays both good and bad on defense.