Exactly how important is third-down efficiency for the New Orleans Saints?

Maybe more importantly; how pivotal will third-down efficiency be for the Saints in the playoffs?

One could make the argument that third-down efficiency is overrated. After all, the Saints finished number one in the league in third-down efficiency for the last three-consecutive years, 2014-2016, yet only managed 7-9 records each season.

This season, New Orleans finished 19th in the league in third-down efficiency, yet finished 11-5, and won their first division title since 2011.

Why did the Saints fall? Likely due to the lack of production at tight end, and the decline of slot receiver Willie Snead, who was fantastic on third down over the past two seasons.

Now, 19th, while certainly not good, doesn't sound horrible, until you compare them to other playoff teams. After all, these are the best teams, so how do the Saints stack up?

Well, only the Titans, who rank 25th, has a lower percentage rate on third down conversions than the Saints, among playoff teams.

Defensively, it's even worse, as the Saints rank 27th, worse among all playoff teams.

Now, there are ways you can overcome being poor on third down. Really, the easiest thing is to not get to third down.

The other thing that you can do is stop the opposition from doing well on third down. This isn't hard to figure out either; If you go only 5-of-15, limit them to 4-of-15.

I also think season statistics can be a little misleading, even though 8 of the top 10 teams, in terms of third down efficiency made the playoff this season.

I think, what you have to do, is see how a specific playoff team compares to other playoff teams.

It stands to reason that the better the team you play, the more third down conversions you'll face, so don't concern yourselves with games against the Jets and Bears.

The other thing is that the playoffs are different. Teams, whether they want to admit it or not, do become more conservative. Every play is magnified, and they don't want to make mistakes, so that's only natural.

But by being more conservative on first and second down, those teams will face more big third down plays in the postseason.

So, while I think teams can overcome not being a good third-down efficiency team, I do think the statistic is important, especially against good teams, and in the playoffs.

Want some evidence?

Well, this season, the Saints played 8 games against teams that are in the playoffs, and in those 8 games, the team that finished with the better third-down efficiency won 6 times.

Furthermore, there was one draw, and in the only game in which the team with the lower percentage won, it was because the winning team was just as bad.

Let's look at the games that the Saints played against playoff teams this season, and how both teams fared in third-down efficiency.

The Saints played the Minnesota Vikings in their 2017 season opener. In that match-up, a 29-19 loss, New Orleans went only 4-of-11 on third down conversions, while the Vikings went 9-of-14. Advantage to the winning team.

In Week 2, the Saints fell to the New England Patriots, 36-20, in a game in which New Orleans finished 4-of-12 on third down conversions, while the Patriots went 6-of-12. Advantage winning team.

In Week 3, New Orleans captured their first win of the year, defeating the Carolina Panthers, 34-13. This one was a draw, with the Saints finishing 6-of-12 in third down conversions, while the Panthers finished 7-of-14.

New Orleans didn't play another team that qualified for the playoffs this year until Week 9, when they beat the Buffalo Bills, 47-10. In that one, the Saints finished 6-of-12 on third down conversions, while the Bills went only 2-of-11. Advantage winning team.

In Week 11, New Orleans suffered a 26-20 setback to the Los Angeles Rams. Now, this is the one game in which the team with the better third down conversion percentage didn't win, but neither were good. The Saints went 3-of-13, while the Rams went 3-of 14.

One week later, in Week 12, the Saints defeated the Panthers for a second time, 31-21. New Orleans finished 6-of-15 on third down conversions in that game, which isn't good, but the held the Panthers to only 3-10. Advantage winning team.

The Saints spilt two games with the playoff-bound Atlanta Falcons, losing 20-17 in Week 13, before winning 23-13 in Week 15.

In the Atlanta win, the Falcons went 7-of-12 on third down conversions, while the Saints finished only 3-of-10. Advantage winning team.

In the New Orleans win, the Saints finished only 3-of-13 on third down conversions, but the Falcons converted only 2-of-13 on third down attempts. Advantage wining team.

So, the team that finished with the better third-down efficiency went 6-1-1, and in the only game the team with the better percentage lost, it was only because they were brutal, just like the losing team.

What does all this mean?

Well, I think it means that there is something to it. After all, this shows that the team that finishes with the better third-down efficiency is probably going to win.

But is that really bad for the Saints?

That may seem like a stupid question, being that the Saints finished in the bottom half of the league in third-down efficiency this season, but really, if you look at it, the Saints finished with a better third-down efficiency than 2017 playoff teams in 4 of the 8 games they played, with one draw.

I also think third-down efficiency could favor the Saints in the first two rounds.

The Saints swept Carolina this season due to, in part, holding the Panthers to a poor success rate on third down, so I like their chances on Sunday.

And while there is no guarantee the Saints will play Philadelphia if they beat the Panthers, I like their chances in that game, due to the fact that the Eagles lost starting Carson Wentz, and just shouldn't be expected to be the same team offensively, and haven't been, since he went down.

Third-down efficiency is a pivotal stat, but I don't think the Saints will be as much at a disadvantage as many think


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