Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
07 Jan 2005
by Aaron Schatz, with additional analysis by Michael David Smith
Since we switched to a four-division format way back in the dark ages of 2002, no conference has ever had four division winners as strong as Pittsburgh, New England, San Diego, and Indianapolis. But only two of them get to take a week off. As for the wild card Jets and Broncos, either of them might be the favored team over in the NFC right now. Instead, they get to hope for an upset, but will likely go home unhappy and ready to hit the golf course on Monday for good. Both games are previewed below using a combination of our innovative Football Outsiders statistics and closer tape analysis by Michael David Smith.
For those who may be visiting this site for the first time to read this preview, some explanations for our statistics. DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative VOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) TREND is the WEIGHTED DVOA trend, based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Last year I included a number which represented each team's home field advantage for the season. Offseason research made me question whether that number really represented how a specific team played better at home, as opposed to being mostly random. Until I answer that question, I'm leaving off a specific rank of home field advantage for each team. Instead, I've included the red zone DVOA for each team. It is particularly applicable in this week's AFC games because of teams that score less because of problems in the red zone (Denver) and teams that are perceived to have problems in the red zone, but really do not (Jets).
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense.
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. Since every game this weekend is a rematch, the weeks where each team played the other one this season appears in the other team's color. I've removed Week 17 from the charts for Indianapolis and Denver, since they played each other in a game that was meaningless to the Colts (that game is still in the DVOA numbers, but I'll talk about that.) In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice." Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.
Rather than a separate open game discussion thread like we do during the season, this thread will also be the place to discuss the games as they happen on Saturday and Sunday. NFC games are previewed here.
Consider all 16 games equally, and these two teams have been of roughly equal quality. Yes, San Diego has more wins, but New York's losses were primarily close and to other strong teams.
San Diego and New York provide mirror images of the effects that schedule strength and recent history have on our perception of a team. The common belief is that the Chargers have had a high-powered offense and an average defense, while the Jets have been powered by a young defense even though the passing game has taken a step backwards this season. And yet, according to our Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ratings, the Jets are the team with the better offense, the Chargers the better defense.
(Note: Since this article is a preview of this week's game rather than a review of the season past, this will not be an exhaustive discussion of all the issues regarding the Jets brought up in this week's final season ratings discussion thread. I'll try to address these issues further at a later point.)
The main reason for the disconnect is simply strength of schedule. The Jets play in a division where all three rivals have strong defenses; they've played half their games this season against top-10 defenses. They've also faced a number of weak offenses from the AFC North and NFC West. The Chargers, meanwhile, play in a division built around offense, and their out-of-division games included offense-first teams like Indianapolis, Tennessee, and New Orleans. Adjusted only for situation, and not opponent, our ratings show the Chargers as the superior offense and the Jets as the superior defense as you would expect.
Furthermore, the Jets' offense rates better than you would expect simply because it was far better earlier in the year than in our recent memories. And while the Jets offense has gotten worse, the Chargers' defense has steadily improved.
To show the effects of the schedule, as well as the change since the first half of the year, this table shows the ratings for both teams with and without adjusting for opponent and split into the first and second half of the season at Week 9 (after the Jets loss in Buffalo where Pennington was hurt, and before the San Diego bye week):
|New York Jets||San Diego Chargers|
|Offense, Weeks 1-9||36.6%||27.6%||23.7%||26.6%|
|Offense, Weeks 10-17||11.1%||8.1%||7.3%||16.5%|
|Defense, Weeks 1-9||7.1%||-3.2%||1.9%||1.7%|
|Defense, Weeks 10-17||-1.6%||-3.5%||-17.7%||-2.8%|
From the table, you can see that the both defenses have improved over the course of the year, but it is difficult to tell because the Jets went from playing bad offenses to average ones, and the Chargers went from playing average offenses to strong ones. And both offenses have actually slowed down in the second half. But the Jets have declined more on offense while the Chargers have improved more on defense. Not a good set of trends for the Jets.
When Chad Pennington injured his rotator cuff against Buffalo in early November, many Jets fans felt the season was over. The Jets did stumble into the playoffs, but since his return -- with the exception of one strong game against Seattle -- he has looked nothing like the fantastic young passer that led the Jets offense for parts of the past three seasons. Pennington is clearly still injured and it has become a major issue as far as his accuracy and ability to throw for distance.
That means that the Jets have to depend on their running game and short-range passes, and that plays right into the strength of the San Diego defense, the linebackers. Donnie Edwards, perhaps this season's greatest Pro Bowl snub, has a knack for momentum-changing plays and is strong against the run and the pass. After five years in Cincinnati and one in Houston, Steve Foley looked like a borderline NFL player, the kind of guy who at 265 pounds was a little small for a defensive lineman but a little slow for a linebacker. But he became a force in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense, registering 10 sacks this year after having only 10.5 in his entire career.
The Jets have a great offensive line and two great running backs, but their running game did have late-season problems against Pittsburgh and New England. Like the Chargers, both those teams run the 3-4 defense and wield linebackers that are strong against the run. Pennington favored the short pass even before his injury -- in the AFC, only Oakland attempted more passes to running backs -- but San Diego's linebackers make that the strength of their pass defense. As Peyton Manning showed, the way to beat the Chargers is to spread the field and confuse the secondary, and Pennington just can't do that right now.
What about that high rating for the Jets red zone offense? While many Jets fans will dwell upon red zone failures both last week in St. Louis and a few weeks ago in Baltimore, the Jets have actually been quite strong in the red zone this season. The reason is not the ability to score a touchdown as much as it is the ability to avoid turnovers. It's important to come out of the red zone with seven points instead of three, but it is just as important to come out with three points instead of zero. The Jets turned the ball over in the red zone only twice this season; one of those was the LaMont Jordan halfback option against the Ravens, and you can bet Paul Hackett won't be calling that play again.
Of course, while the Jets are better in the red zone than people realize, so is the San Diego defense.
The shocking turnaround by the San Diego offense hinges almost entirely on the dramatic difference between 2003 and 2004 in their ability to convert on third downs. Last year, they ranked 27th in DVOA on third downs. This season, they ranked fourth. A huge part of that is the emergence of tight end Antonio Gates. Gates this season caught 29 third- or fourth-down passes that converted for a first down or touchdown. The rest of his teammates combined caught only 32.
The other change this year came from the San Diego offensive line. Not a single player on this line played a down for the Chargers in 2003. The Chargers traded for left tackle Roman Oben from Tampa Bay, and he made an immediate impact. Left guard Toniu Fonoti, who missed all of 2003 with an injury, finally showed the physical drive-blocking ability the Chargers expected when they drafted him out of Nebraska. From a run-blocking perspective, the Chargers are even stronger on the right side with quick-learning rookie right tackle Shane Olivea, a seventh round pick out of Ohio State who overcame early season struggles, and ex-Bengal right guard Mike Goff.
San Diego's offensive explosion ironically came despite a subpar first half from star running back LaDainian Tomlinson. He struggled with groin injuries, and according to RB Success Rate was successful on only 42% of his carries through the first nine weeks. But he has gradually improved over the season, successful on 49% of his carries since San Diego's Week 10 bye. His DVOA has increased from -15.5% over the first nine games to 7.0% over the last seven. And he is particularly strong on third downs, a trait he shares this year with both his quarterback and his opposite number Curtis Martin. The Jets and Chargers are the best and third-best teams in the league, respectively, running in what we call "power situations," third or fourth down with two yards to go or less.
Jets fans will look at Gang Green's league-leading +17 turnover margin and expect some San Diego turnovers. But that margin comes not from lots of takeaways but from the league's fewest giveaways by the offense, only eleven interceptions and five lost fumbles. (This is yet another reason why the Jets offense is better than people give them credit for.) For San Diego, Drew Brees threw only seven interceptions this season, and while the Jets defense had 19, six came against either the pitiful Miami Dolphins or Arizona Cardinals and three were Hail Mary attempts at the end of a half.
Though it won't get much attention, this is an advantage for the Jets. In fact, it is another reason for the mistaken public perception about the defense; part of why the Jets prevent other teams from scoring is that the opposing teams generally start off in poor field position after each punt and kickoff. Jets kicker/punter Toby Gowin is much better at kickoffs than rookie Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding. Kaeding kicked the ball out of bounds five times this year, Gowin zero. Kaeding had only two touchbacks, Gowin seven. The Chargers allowed eleven kick returns over 30 yards, the Jets only five. Doug Brien of the Jets has also been more accurate than Kaeding on field goals.
Like each game this weekend, this is a rematch, but things were very different when these teams first faced each other four months ago. The Jets controlled Drew Brees easily, and it took a fourth-quarter comeback by backup Doug Flutie to create a close score at the end of a 34-28 Jets win. Brees is playing far better now, and so is the San Diego defense, while Chad Pennington is playing far worse. Since Week 7, the Jets are 5-6, the Chargers 9-1, and these trends herald the end of the season for New York.
Indianapolis "only" went 12-4, but according to DVOA the Colts played at a level equal to the Patriots and Steelers this season. In fact, based on the weighted DVOA trend that gives stronger consideration to recent performance, the Colts are probably the best team in the NFL as of today.
It is easy for Indianapolis fans to believe that their team, by far superior to the other teams playing on wild card weekend, has an easy path into the second round. Sure Denver beat the Colts last week with Peyton Manning resting on the bench, but why should the Colts be worried about Denver when the Colts have been far better this season and also thrashed the Broncos during last year's playoffs, 41-10? The answer is that a handful of early plays can dramatically change the rhythm of a game, turning an upset into a rout or vice versa.
When the teams played during the 2003 regular season, Denver used the running game to keep Peyton Manning off the field. The Broncos held onto the ball for 45 minutes of possession time, and won 31-17, leading many observers to assume that they would easily win the rematch in the same fashion. But Broncos offensive lineman Dan Neil was called for two 10-yard holding penalties on one drive and a 15-yard chop block penalty on another, which kept the Broncos from using their running game. The Colts scored touchdowns on their first four drives, and that was the ballgame.
Just like there was no guarantee that Denver would be able to keep the ball from the Colts in last year's playoffs the same way they had in the regular season, there is no guarantee this week that the Broncos will cripple themselves with penalties the way they did in last year's playoffs. Denver's strength on the ground still directly matches the biggest weakness of Indianapolis, and that makes an upset possible.
As I noted above, the game-by-game graphs do not include Week 17, when a number of Colts starters rested. That game is, however, included in the DVOA ratings. If you remove the final game, Denver would drop to fifth on defense, eleventh on offense. Indianapolis would rise to 16th on defense and from astonishing to demigod-like on offense.
Denver's DVOA rating for rushing offense is lower than you might expect because of the struggles of Quentin Griffin in the season's first four games. Since Week 5, when Reuben Droughns took over as the starter, Denver rates in the top ten for rushing offense. And the running game has picked up even further in the past four weeks, since the Broncos began sharing carries between Droughns and rookie Tatum Bell. Our measures say Bell has been successful on 57 percent of his carries this season, the second-best among backs with at least 75 carries. Droughns has been successful on 51 percent of his carries, still above average; Griffin was successful on a pitiful 33 percent of his carries. (RB success rate explained here.)
One area where Droughns is clearly superior to Bell is blitz pickup. Droughns is a former fullback who levels on-rushing linebackers, while Bell gets crushed. That's important because the Colts pass defense depends on 2004 NFL sack leader Dwight Freeney and pass-rushing specialist Robert Mathis to cover up weaknesses in the secondary, particularly cornerback Nick Harper.
Freeney's main battle will be with left tackle Matt Lepsis, whose past as a tight end fits into Denver's preference for small, quick linemen. The elusive Freeney was able to out-rush huge left tackles like the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden and the Vikings' Bryant McKinnie, but the dexterous 290-pound Lepsis might be able to keep Freeney in check. While many mobile quarterbacks are actually sacked more than the league average because they prefer to scramble instead of throwing the ball away, the Denver line allowed Jake Plummer to be sacked only 15 times, third-fewest in the NFL.
Part of the reason why the Colts can have trouble with the run is that Freeney often takes himself out of the play completely with an undisciplined pass rush. The Colts are quite susceptible to runs up the middle, and it would be a good idea for Denver to run some draw plays.
The running game is not only the weakness of the Indianapolis defense, it is also key to avoiding its strength. Although average overall, the Colts defense was the best in the league this year on third and fourth downs according to DVOA. The better the Denver running game, the fewer third-and-long situations where the Indianapolis pass rush shines.
The Broncos will also need to remedy their problems in the red zone. Denver's offense gained huge chunks of yards all season but had problems ending drives with seven points instead of three. A parade of Jason Elam field goals won't be enough to keep up with Peyton Manning.
There's not much more to say about the Indianapolis offense. The Broncos must concentrate on keeping Manning off the field, because the Colts will score when they have the ball. They did not have a single game all season with a negative DVOA until the final game where they sat their starters. While Denver's defense is better than people realize, its weaknesses are clear and ready to be picked apart.
The fact that we rate Denver as the season's fourth-best passing defense is certainly in disagreement with public perceptions. Some of that comes from our opponent adjustments, since the AFC West is a division of strong offenses. But the issue in Denver is not whether the Broncos can stop the pass, but which pass. According to DVOA, the Denver was the second-best defense in the league on passes to running backs and tight ends, trailing just Buffalo in both categories. That -- as well as their success against the run -- is a sign of their quality linebacking corps, led by veteran Al Wilson in the middle and impressive rookie D.J. Williams on the weak side.
But Denver ranked 23rd in preventing success on passes to wide receivers. So the Broncos may take away Manning's fourth and fifth options, but they are likely to have problems with options one, two, and three: Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley. Depth in the secondary is important against the Colts, so the Broncos are hurt by having two cornerbacks, Lenny Walls and Willie Middlebrooks, on injured reserve. Safeties Kennoy Kennedy and John Lynch both made ridiculous statements this week calling the Colts receivers "soft" and boasting about their plans to play physical, which can only serve to bring increased attention from the referees and a few extra illegal contact penalties against the Broncos.
Another wild card is Champ Bailey. Many people remember Bailey getting burned by Cincinnati's Chad Johnson for two 50-yard receptions on Monday Night Football, but two weeks earlier Bailey kept 2004's top receiver, Mushin Muhammad, to just one catch for nine yards. In fact, based on variance of DVOA from game to game, Denver's defense was even more inconsistent than its Jake Plummer-led offense.
This is a problem area for both teams. Mike Vanderjagt not only was awful as usual on kickoffs, he has had an off-year on field goals. The Colts replaced him on kickoffs at mid-year, first with Jason Baker and then Martin Grammatica. Both were better but still below average. Baker, ironically, has now replaced Micah Knorr in Denver, improving Denver's punting but hurting kickoffs. Knorr had been the worst punter in the league for years when you adjusted for the fact that punts naturally travel farther at altitude.
The dominance of the Indianapolis offense makes this the greatest mismatch of the four first round games, but the Denver Broncos are not to be dismissed. Their strength in the running game matches the Colts' greatest weakness, and the same problem that relegated them to wild card status, inconsistency, is also a reason to believe that they could upset the Colts. You simply never know when they might just play their best game of the year.