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14 Jan 2005

NFC Semifinals Preview

by Aaron Schatz, with additional analysis by Michael David Smith

 

We appreciate those of you who link to our previews at team message boards and help us spread word about Football Outsiders. However, I've noticed some message boards where people have cut and pasted entire articles, sometimes game previews and sometimes Mike's Every Play Counts articles. Please only copy a few quotes and then link to our articles instead. Remember, your web clicks help feed my family. Meanwhile, if you are here for the first time to read this preview, or perhaps discovered our site recently through another of our articles, please do not hesitate to email me at aaron-at-footballoutsiders.com with questions about our statistical methods. I'll be running another reader mailbag during the two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, and questions asked in the discussion thread may get lost in the shuffle.

 

It is often said that home field advantage is key in the playoffs, but that's not quite accurate. The real advantage comes from a first-round bye. In the wild card round and the championship games, home teams win at the same rate as the regular season. But in the second week of the playoffs, home teams are 45-11 since the postseason expanded to 12 teams in 1990.

Making things even harder for the Vikings and Rams (as well as the Jets over in the AFC): No team has won on the road in the first two rounds of the playoffs since the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars. The six teams since 1996 that won on the road in the wild card round then lost their second round games by an average score of 34-13.

Just like in the wild card round, each playoff game this week is a rematch of a regular season game. All four of those games were won by the teams hosting this week's contests.

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, split into rush and pass, along with rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) I've also listed each team's red zone performance on offense and defense.

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). Weighted DVOA now includes playoff performance, and the weights for all teams were moved an additional week ahead whether they played last week or not. Except for TREND numbers, all DVOA statistics on this page are regular-season only unless otherwise noted.

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. These charts include the wild card game for the Rams and Vikings. 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.

Last week's NFC wild card previews are hereThis week's AFC semifinal previews are here.


St. Louis at Atlanta



Rams on Offense
  STL OFF ATL DEF
DVOA 4.8% (12) 0.6% (16)
TREND* -2.7% (17) 2.7% (19)
PASS 6.6% (13) 1.6% (19)
RUSH 2.4% (12) -0.5% (17)
RED ZONE -0.4% (16) -7.9% (15)


Falcons on Offense
  ATL OFF STL DEF
DVOA -6.2% (24) 21.0% (30)
TREND* -7.0% (22) 13.0% (26)
PASS -34.9% (30) 29.6% (28)
RUSH 16.6% (3) 12.0% (28)
RED ZONE -3.7% (18) 29.0% (29)


Special Teams
  STL ATL
DVOA -9.7% (32) 3.9% (6)
STL kickoff -14.2 (30) 0.7 (15)
ATL kickoff -3.6 (19) 10.1 (6)
STL punts -8.9 (31) 5.3 (5)
ATL punts -0.7 (24) 9.6 (11)
FG/XP 1.2 (16) -3.9 (28)

Welcome to the Overachievers' Ball, where two teams that would not rank in the AFC's top ten are two wins away from the Super Bowl. Atlanta outscored its opponents this season by only three points, which would normally lead to an 8-8 record. St. Louis was outscored by an incredible 79 points during the year, which would normally lead to a 6-10 record.  In total DVOA, they ranked 19th and 30th.  Let's play some football!

WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL

Atlanta's defense got a lot of press over the season's first half, but their improvement over 2003 somewhat dissipated during the final eight games, particularly against the run. In the first half, Atlanta allowed 3.8 yards per carry to opposing runners, a number that includes the 56-10 loss to Kansas City in which the Chiefs ran for 271 yards. Over the second half, the Falcons allowed 4.3 yards per carry. Although the decline started before defensive tackle Ed Jasper missed the final four games with a wrist injury, his return will certainly help.

There's no doubt that the Rams can score, and Marc Bulger was a much better quarterback this season than last season. In terms of Football Outsiders' ratings, he was ranked sixth in DPAR for 2004, after being 15th in 2003. Remove the three games where Bulger was injured and backup Chris Chandler threw an interception roughly every three seconds, and the Rams' offensive DVOA improves from twelfth in the league to sixth.

Atlanta's ability to stop the Rams will be keyed to their pass rush. Mike Martz's odd blocking schemes mean that Bulger can only do so much to avoid pressure. The Rams called plays as if they never noticed Seattle's Chike Okeafor spending all day in their backfield. Atlanta's defense led the league with 48 sacks, while St. Louis allowed 50, and the Falcons sacked Bulger five times back in Week 2 when they beat the Rams 34-17. The Falcons apply almost all their pressure with just the front four, particularly Patrick Kerney and Rod Coleman, and they need to get pressure without bringing a blitz that will leave the Rams' receivers in easy single coverage.

Third Down DVOA
  STL OFF ATL DEF
1-3 yards to go 3.9% 1.5%
4-6 yards to go 33.1% -3.3%
7-10 yards to go 94.1% -35.3%
11+ yards to go -162.1% -214.4%

More pressure on Bulger means more third-and-long situations, and that's where the Falcons have a definitive advantage. While the color commentators last weekend said that the high-powered Rams offense sees no difference between 10 and 15 yards to go, nothing could be further from the truth. Though the Rams were generally above average on third downs, they were among the league's worst offenses on third down with 10 or more yards to go. The Atlanta defense, meanwhile, is far better on third down (-19.8% DVOA) than on first or second (5.9% DVOA), and on third down gets better with every additional yard the offense needs. Top draft pick DeAngelo Hall is particularly talented, though still green, nickel back.

WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL

While nobody paid attention, the Rams defense went on a bit of a hot streak. According to our DVOA ratings, the Rams defense has put on an above average performance in four of its last six games. But Atlanta is a terrible matchup for them.

Against the Seahawks, the Rams did a lot of slanting at the line of scrimmage and kept their safeties close to the line. That explains why Shaun Alexander had a tough day, and they will probably do the same thing against the run-oriented Falcons.

But Atlanta has the perfect weapons to take advantage of inferior Rams linebackers. Seattle threw 11 passes to a receiver covered by a linebacker, gaining seven first downs and missing an eighth because of a dropped pass. (Read more about that here.) The Rams consistently allowed Seattle tight end Itula Mili to get open, and Atlanta's Alge Crumpler is a much more dangerous receiver. The Rams also have a problem stopping running backs in the passing game, and while the Falcons will miss fullback Justin Griffith (who took one pass 62 yards in the first game) they still have Warrick Dunn.

That other Atlanta weapon, Michael Vick's feet? Vick ran for 109 yards in 12 carries against the Rams in Week 2, and he eats bad linebackers for breakfast.  (As opposed to eating dub for breakfast like some of his Georgia neighbors.)

As for Atlanta's wideouts, they are horrible. Peerless Price, for example, caught only 5 of 21 third down passes intended for him this season. And two of those were thrown by Matt Schaub. On Vick third down passes, he was 3-for-14.

SPECIAL TEAMS

As noted in last week's wild card preview, poor special teams performance this season has cost the Rams more than twice as many points as any other team in the NFL. This will be a much bigger issue against Atlanta than against Seattle, as the Falcons were above average this season in every area of special teams except field goal kicking. (In the first game, the Falcons had 124 return yards, the Rams 56.) Allen Rossum is an excellent return man. Chris Mohr gets great hang time on punts. The Falcons used a first-round pick on receiver Michael Jenkins and then threw him only 20 passes all season -- and he only caught seven of them -- but instead of sulking Jenkins dedicated himself to outstanding play on kickoff and punt coverage. The most important thing about the field position Atlanta will gain from special teams is that every yard closer to the end zone that an Atlanta drive begins is one less yard that the Rams have available to catch Michael Vick when he makes his inevitable highlight scramble.

OUTLOOK

Not only were the Falcons and Rams both overachievers, they were both extremely inconsistent. The Rams beat playoff teams like the Jets and Seahawks, but lost six games by more than two touchdowns. The Falcons were the only NFC team to have a winning record against the AFC, but also were blown out 27-0 and 56-10. If the good Rams show up on the same day as the bad Falcons, St. Louis will move on; more likely, Atlanta will prevail. Either way, it should be a good show.


Minnesota at Philadelphia



Vikings on Offense
  MIN OFF PHI DEF
DVOA 28.0% (3) -3.5% (13)
TREND* 25.2% (3) -6.7% (11)
PASS 36.9% (3) -7.2% (10)
RUSH 14.6% (4) 0.7% (20)
RED ZONE -7.9% (20) -8.2% (14)


Eagles on Offense
  PHI OFF MIN DEF
DVOA 17.7% (6) 22.8% (31)
TREND* 11.0% (9) 9.8% (24)
PASS 21.8% (9) 30.7% (29)
RUSH 11.4% (6) 13.1% (31)
RED ZONE 31.1% (3) -2.5% (16)


Special Teams
  MIN PHI
DVOA -3.7% (28) 7.4% (3)
MIN kickoff -14.4 (31) -1.6 (20)
PHI kickoff -2.8 (18) 15.0 (1)
MIN punts 3.3 (18) -5.2 (16)
PHI punts 3.1 (19) 19.3 (2)
FG/XP -1.9 (21) 13.7 (2)

Are the Eagles the team that destroyed the rest of the NFC over the season's first 13 weeks, or the team that foundered over their last four games? The Eagles will say that their final two losses did not matter, since they rested many starters. But their decline really began with narrow victories over bad Washington and Dallas teams in Weeks 14 and 15.

The deficient Vikings defense presents an easy first test for the post-Terrell Owens Eagles, but they'll have to outscore the high-flying Vikings offense. Last week the Vikings overcame their dismal record in cold weather games to beat Green Bay, thus proving that a trend is not a guarantee.

WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL

The Minnesota offense is dangerous because they can gain yardage in so many ways. While everyone paid attention to Sideshow Randy Moss, Nate Burleson became Daunte Culpepper's favorite deep threat. Moss' gimpy ankle makes him seem less dangerous, but Green Bay learned that even a limping Moss can't be left one-on-one. Cover the receivers deep with a zone, and you leave holes for underrated tight end Jermaine Wiggins.

But Philadelphia is better equipped to handle the Vikings passing game than Green Bay was. The Eagles had a number of late-season defensive injuries but, with the exception of outside linebacker Mark Simoneau, those players will all be on the field Sunday.

Third Down DVOA
  MIN OFF PHI DEF
1-3 yards to go 47.6% -27.3%
4-6 yards to go 31.2% -2.7%
7-10 yards to go 104.0% 9.7%
11+ yards to go 422.0% 94.0%

Though they prefer to pass, the Vikings also have one of the league's best running games, including scrambles by the elusive Culpepper. Even after re-installing Jeremiah Trotter as middle linebacker at midseason, stopping the run is the weakness of Philadelphia's defense, particularly when the offense runs to the right side. Defensive end Javon Kearse is a dangerous pass rusher, but has trouble against the run. He's so fast that sometimes he catches running backs from behind, but by the time a defensive end as caught a running back from behind, it's a pretty long gain.

No matter how many yards they need for a first down, never count out the Vikings. Minnesota had the best third down offense in the league (80.6% DVOA -- by comparison, Seattle led the league in 2003 with 48.1%) and converted 38% of third downs where they needed ten or more yards, twice the NFL average. (Yes, that table really does say "422%.") The Eagles defense was stalwart on third-and-short, but below average on third-and-long.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL

I've kept Weeks 16 and 17 on the chart showing Philadelphia's game-by-game performance so you can see just how bad those two games are, and the strange shape of the Eagles' season, which reached a huge peak in Week 13 and then just divebombed.  If you take out the final two games, Philadelphia's offensive DVOA would move from sixth to fourth, just ahead of the Patriots.  (Their defense would stay pretty much the same.)

The biggest question hanging over this game is what the Philadelphia offense will look like without Terrell Owens. It is not hyperbole to say that no veteran wide receiver in the history of the NFL had more impact when traded to a new team. Despite the fact that Owens was often double covered, McNabb completed 61% of passes to Owens but only 53% of passes to other receivers.

The most dependable receivers in the absence of Owens are probably Philadelphia's two tight ends, L.J. Smith and Chad Lewis. Only Green Bay had less success than Minnesota preventing successful passes to tight ends this season. Most teams use the tight to get important yardage on third downs, but not the Eagles: Smith and Lewis together were thrown 53 passes on first down, 33 on second, but only 14 on third. With Owens gone, McNabb's preferred receiver on third down will probably be running back Brian Westbrook.

Westbrook will also probably run the ball more than usual, and that's a problem for Minnesota. Like the Vikings, the Eagles don't run very often but when they do, they usually do it well. Despite the reputation of right tackle Jon Runyan, the Eagles generally have more success running to the left. Tra Thomas is a solid veteran left tackle, and left guard Artis Hicks has quietly emerged in his first year as a starter.

This strength coincides with the weakness of the Minnesota front seven. According to our adjusted line yards statistics, Minnesota was average at preventing runs to the right but the league's second-worst defense preventing runs left or up the middle. Right defensive end Keneche Udeze in particular looks like he was never asked to tackle a running back at USC.

Also look for the Eagles to mix in a few carries for veteran Dorsey Levens, who gains consistent yardage while starter Brian Westbrook is more of a boom-and-bust runner. You'll notice from our running back stats that Levens was actually worth more than Westbrook on a per-play basis, and 55% of his carries were successful compared to only 43% of Westbrook's.

Minnesota's defense probably had its best game of the season against Green Bay, a surprise considering that their leader, safety Corey Chavous, was missing due to injury. (The fact that their weighted trend DVOA on defense is much better than their total season DVOA on defense is almost entirely due to the wild card game.) But a whole season is a better way to judge a defense than one game, and Minnesota's defense was generally awful all year, including the league's worst performance on third downs.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Neither team has been special in the return game, but the difference between these kickers is staggering. Year after year, David Akers of Philadelphia is the league's best all-around kicker: according to our measures, only Neil Rackers of Arizona had more value on kickoffs and only Adam Vinatieri of New England had more value on field goals. (Akers missed five field goals, but four of these were from 45 yards or more.) If that's not enough of a field position advantage, the Eagles ranked second in weather-adjusted punt value. The Vikings, meanwhile, have an old field goal kicker who can't hit from long distance and the worst kickoff coverage in the league.

OUTLOOK

Donald Rumsfeld once famously said that you have your known knowns, you have your known unknowns, and then you have your unknown unknowns. That's a pretty good description of the current Philadelphia Eagles situation. There are no answers to the questions about Philadelphia until they take the field, so for now we have to assume they are still the team that dominated the NFC for most of 2004. Even without Owens, the Eagles from the first 13 weeks of the season should score plenty of points on the Vikings while stopping Culpepper enough times to win. This is what happened back in Week 2, when Culpepper passed for 343 yards but the Eagles won 27-16. But if the Week 14-17 Eagles show up, Minnesota will grab the upset.

*TREND numbers are updated through wild card weekend, all other DVOA statistics are regular-season only unless otherwise noted.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 14 Jan 2005

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