"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
07 Jan 2005
by Aaron Schatz, with additional analysis by Michael David Smith
It is generally said about the NFL that it is hard to beat the same team three times in a season. But, as often is the case with conventional wisdom, this is not the case. Ten times since the playoffs expanded in 1990, two divisional opponents have met in the playoffs after one team swept the other during the regular season. Seven of those times, the team with two wins came out with a third. This weekend in the NFC, Green Bay and St. Louis will try to join those seven teams and move on to face Philadelphia and Atlanta. 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, although I will refer to more general facts about home field advantage such as the fact that dome teams have problems playing on the road in cold weather. Instead, I've included the red zone DVOA for each team (you'll understand why in the AFC preview).
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. (Neat, huh? Discovered how to do that on Tuesday.) 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. That means we need a place for this week's Jason Beattie cartoon, so enjoy it here. It has a bit of an NFC playoffs theme.
The Seahawks had won their first three games of 2004 and were leading the Rams 27-10 with nine minutes left in Week 5 when their defense abruptly collapsed. St. Louis scored 23 unanswered points, and the Seahawks have been emotionally scarred ever since. When they faced the Rams again in Week 10, they played their worst game of the season, losing 23-12. Somehow they managed to get into the playoffs only to face their worst nightmare again.
By logical sense, there is no way St. Louis should be in the playoffs. According to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ratings - which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent - they have been the third-worst team in the entire NFL this season, better than only Chicago and San Francisco. And yet, here they are, thanks to pulling out a few close games in which they were outplayed and those two big wins over Seattle.
The Rams may be the worst team to ever make the playoffs (read about other bad teams here). Not only are they 8-8, but eight wins is actually more than a team of their caliber would usually have. The pythagorean projection (explanation) says their points scored and allowed would normally lead to only 6.1 wins, or a .380 winning percentage. Only two other teams have made the playoffs with a pythagorean projection of lower than .400: the 1978 Atlanta Falcons (9-7, outscored 290-240) and the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7, outscored 326-265).
Ready to hear something strange? While no 8-8 team has ever won a playoff game, both of these 9-7 teams with terrible records of being outscored actually won in the wild card round. And you may notice from the chart below that the three highest-rated St. Louis performances of the season were the last two weeks and the second game against Seattle. That's not a good trend for the Seahawks.
The 2004 seasons of the Rams and Seahawks are filled with countless oddities, but one of them is that the Rams declined this season despite improvement on offense. That improvement comes primarily from two players: quarterback Marc Bulger and running back Steven Jackson.
The Rams of 2003, contrary to public perception, had a great defense and a mediocre offense, in large part because the defense caused lots of turnovers while the offense gave the ball right back just as often. But this year Bulger has improved from an interception every 24 passes to an interception every 35 passes, and his throws have gone from 7.2 yards/pass to 8.2 yards/pass. 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.
The other improvement on the Rams offense comes from the emergence of rookie Steven Jackson as Marshall Faulk's rushing partner. It's a little sad to see how much Faulk has declined, but the playoffs are no time to be sentimental, and Mike Martz needs to acknowledge that Jackson is a much better runner and receiver right now. According to Football Outsiders' statistics, Jackson was worth 25.2 points more than a replacement-level back on plays where he carried or caught the ball, while Faulk was worth only 5.6 points more than replacement level despite 100 more plays. Every time Faulk touches the ball is a time Jackson should touch the ball.
Seattle looked like a strong defensive team in the season's first three weeks, but the Rams' big comeback exposed some major flaws. Free safety Ken Hamlin is supposed to be a hitter, but Steven Jackson ran him over. Strong safety Terreal Bierria is supposed to be good in coverage, but he gave up the Rams' overtime touchdown.
In case the emotional hit of blowing a 17-point fourth quarter lead wasn't enough, the Seahawks then then suffered a rash of injuries. At midseason they lost both starting outside linebackers, Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons, as well as their top backup outside linebacker, Tracy White. Brown is supposed to be back at full health this week, which would be a major plus for Seattle. Ex-Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom also hopes to return from injury to play against his former team this weekend.
The numbers say this is where Seattle has a significant advantage, although the emotions involved in this game confuse the picture. While Seattle's offense has declined from last season, the decline is nowhere near as big as people believe, while St. Louis has seen their defense completely implode after the departure of coordinator Lovie Smith.
Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is considered one of the great disappointments of the 2004 season, but this is really only true if you compare his performance to last season rather than to the rest of the league. Last season, he ranked as the third-best quarterback according to our numbers. This season, he ranks twelfth -- a drop, but still higher than the majority of other quarterbacks, including Aaron Brooks, Byron Leftwich, and Jake Delhomme.
The major change for the Seahawks has been third down conversions, in large part due to an injury-riddled season for slot receiver Bobby Engram. Last season Seattle was the number one offense in the league for third down DVOA. This season, Seattle is ranked 27th. Only one other playoff team, Atlanta, does not have an offense in the top half of the league in third down performance according to our DVOA ratings.
Of course, the Rams are one of the worst defenses in the league on third downs. In fact, they are one of the worst defenses of the league against any type of play on any down at any time. Last year, with Smith in command, they depended on turnovers and led the NFL with 46 takeaways, 24 interceptions and 22 fumble recoveries. This year they were at the bottom of the league, with six interceptions and nine fumble recoveries.
The Rams are equally bad against the pass and the run, but their defensive line is especially vulnerable against the Seahawks' running game. Seattle is the fifth-best team in the NFL running to the left, while St. Louis ranks 27th stopping runs in that direction. Seattle center Robbie Tobeck and the left side of the Seahawks' line, guard Steve Hutchinson and tackle Walter Jones, should win their individual matchups easily. Rams defensive tackles Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis, both former first-round picks, have shown that they shouldn't be starters in the NFL, while defensive end Leonard Little is good against the pass but lousy against the run.
Once running back Shaun Alexander barges into the Rams' secondary, watch out. Alexander ranks fourth in the NFL in the percentage of his yards that have come on runs of over 10 yards this season, and the Rams rank 27th in preventing such long carries.
According to our valuations, poor special teams performance this season has cost the Rams more than twice as many points as any other team in the NFL. They are terrible in nearly every area. It is ridiculous that a team with so many fast players is so abysmal on kick and punt returns. Jeff Wilkins, a good kicker in the past, has been merely average this season, but the coverage on his kickoffs has been terrible. They did improve things somewhat by waiving punter Sean Landeta in Week 12 and replacing him with rookie Kevin Stemke. Seattle does not have good performance on special teams either, but "below average" should be good enough to grab a few yards of valuable field position against the Rams.
Oddly enough, weather could be a bigger factor in Seattle, where rain and snow are currently forecast for Saturday, than in Green Bay, where it will be cold but clear. The Rams are terrible when playing outside -- they lost their final five road games by an average score of 33-12 -- and now must contend with the fact that dome teams generally struggle when playing outside from November on. (This calls for even more Steven Jackson, of course.)
The weather is against the Rams, their road record is against them, their defense is porous, and their special teams are the league's worst.
As much as objective statistical analysis is the hallmark of Football Outsiders, there are some games where analysis may be trumped by emotion and other "intangible" factors. I have a feeling this is one of them. St. Louis has been up-and-down all season, and they are currently up. The Rams have been inside Seattle's heads all season long. They have beaten them twice already. They certainly could overcome their statistical record to beat them once more.
As befits two teams with great offenses and terrible defenses, both previous meetings between these divisional rivals were high-scoring thrillers. Green Bay won both contests 34-31 on last-second field goals, yet 8-8 Minnesota rates as the better team according to DVOA. The slumping Vikings even rate better using our weighted trend measure that gives less consideration to early-season performance, and as I discussed after Week 16, DVOA believes that the Vikings actually outplayed the Packers over the course of their Christmas Eve matchup despite failure at the end. Does this auger a Vikings upset this weekend?
Probably not. The first two times these teams played each other, Minnesota safety Corey Chavous was on the field, and snow was not. Unfortunately for the Vikings, those situations are now reversed.
Given that both teams scored over 400 points this season, the appropriate question is not whether they can score but rather whether there is any way to slow things down just a tiny bit.
The Green Bay secondary has suffered through a difficult year. Mike Sherman sent his best corner, Mike McKenzie, to New Orleans because of a personality clash and a contract dispute. Veteran Al Harris has struggled with the increased emphasis on illegal contact. Safety Darren Sharper was banged up for much of the year.
Expect Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper to pick on the more inexperienced member of this unit. Rookie Ahmad Carroll has made some big plays, especially when the Packers use him as a blitzer off the edge. But while 6-foot, 3-inch cornerback Michael Hawthorne has the size to match up with the Vikings' Randy Moss, he doesn't have the speed. And safeties Bhawoh Jue and Mark Roman both struggled throughout the season.
Up front, defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has the quickness to rush outside but often gets manhandled by stronger left tackles. When Gbaja-Biamila fails to rush the quarterback, the secondary gets torched.
The game most frequently cited in discussing the struggles for Green Bay's defense is the 45-31 loss to Indianapolis. But getting torched by Peyton Manning is understandable. What's not understandable is that two weeks later the Packers lost 48-21 to Tennessee. In that game the Titans scored on five of their first six possessions, including Chris Brown touchdowns of 37 and 29 yards on the first two series. The Titans ended the game with 456 yards, 23 first downs, and zero turnovers.
Fans at Lambeau Field seemed to think the season ended that day, but the Packers actually did a nice job of recovering, at least against the run. A large part of that recovery was the return from injury of mammoth run-stopping defensive tackle Grady Jackson. But now Jackson's knees are hurting again, and recent opponents have enjoyed success by running wherever Jackson is not. That's why outside linebacker Na'il Diggs, whose athleticism enables him to chase running backs from sideline to sideline, is so important. In two games he missed with an injury, the Packers gave up 156 rushing yards to Detroit's Kevin Jones and 165 to Jacksonville's Fred Taylor.
The Vikings are unlikely to test the Green Bay run defense because their passing game is so deep and diversified. Nate Burleson emerged as a deep threat when Moss was injured, and remains one now that he has returned. Backup tight end Jermaine Wiggins, pressed into service when Jim Kleinsasser was lost for the year, has also played well.
Those Vikings drives that don't start with quick strike touchdowns end up lasting forever, because Minnesota's third-down DVOA was by far the best in the NFL this season (80.6% -- by comparison, Seattle led the league in 2003 with 48.1%). The Vikings' sole weakness on offense is their propensity for unfortunate turnovers in the red zone.
The Vikings' defense is even shoddier than Green Bay's. Their performance on third down was the NFL's worst this season -- and that was before Chavous broke his left elbow in the season finale against Washington. Chavous's knack for sniffing out where opposing offenses are going makes him the "quarterback" of the Minnesota defense. His absence will render Brett Favre's task even easier, and Favre will have plenty of opportunities to throw to one of the breakout receiving stars of 2004, Javon Walker.
The Packers will run more often than the Vikings even though Ahman Green has declined somewhat since last year's career year. He still runs behind one of the league's best run-blocking offensive lines, particularly when left guard Mike Wahle pulls to the right (more on Wahle here). Look for the Packers to also line up a run-oriented package that uses tackle Kevin Barry as a tight end. The Packers do not only run from this package. They also use it to force opposing safeties to stay closer to the line of scrimmage, and then surprise the defense with the long ball with Walker as the favored target.
There's another reason for the Packers to throw long: the Vikings defense actually becomes comparably stingy in the red zone. "Comparably" being the operative word here, because they go from horrible to average.
The one Viking defender to watch might be Vikings Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams. While Green Bay's offensive line is better as a unit than the Minnesota defensive line, Williams was fifth in the league in sacks and is plays the run far better than his linemates. He'll be matched against Packers Pro Bowl right guard Marco Rivera, and Williams clearly got the better of this individual battle during the Christmas Eve showdown.
The Packers hold key advantages in two areas: field goals and kick returns. Ryan Longwell is not only more accurate than the ancient Morten Andersen, he is also used to kicking in cold weather. And Minnesota's season-long difficulty covering kickoffs has particularly hurt them in the two prior games between these teams. In Week 10, Robert Ferguson had a 55-yard return that led to a touchdown and a 39-yard return that set up the game-winning field goal. In Week 16, Antonio Chatman set up a field goal with a 59-yard return late in the first half.
On paper, this game sounds even: two teams with great offenses and terrible defenses, likely to put up a ton of points in a game that ends close. The first two games between these teams followed that storyline exactly. But the most important results of the season when it comes to forecasting this matchup are not the prior two Green Bay-Minnesota games but rather two other games: Minnesota's 24-14 loss in Chicago December 5, and their 21-18 loss in Washington January 2.
Minnesota's problems when playing outside on grass are not a myth, and neither are the general problems that warm-weather and dome teams have playing on the road in cold weather. The Vikings are 2-20 in their last 22 games on grass fields, and both wins came when the temperature was over 70 degrees. Though there are exceptions, like Indianapolis' win over Kansas City in last year's playoffs, dome teams generally perform far worse than usual when playing outside from November on, especially in games that start in the late afternoon or nighttime. If the Vikings could not overcome these trends to beat injury-riddled Chicago and Washington teams, the latter in a game that they had to win to guarantee their playoff spot, it is difficult to expect them to overcome these trends to beat a Green Bay team that has already beaten them twice this season.