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24 Dec 2004

Indecision 2004: Race from the NFC Playoffs

by Aaron Schatz

Only four teams in the NFC have winning records, and two of them will face off this afternoon. The winner of the Packers-Vikings meeting will wake up tomorrow morning to find a shiny new NFC North division title in its stocking. On Sunday, two games determine which team (or teams) from the NFC South will emerge as the leader for the final playoff spot.

GREEN BAY (8-6) at MINNESOTA (8-6)

In many ways, these two bitter rivals have become identical twins. Both teams have trouble on defense but power offenses with heroic quarterbacks, unsung linemen, and depth in the backfield. Both teams have an important player who has trouble holding on to the football (QB Daunte Culpepper for the Vikings, RB Ahman Green for the Packers). The Vikings have been the slightly better team running the ball this season, and Green Bay hopes to counter this with run-stopping defensive tackle Grady Jackson. But the Packers run defense, which had been improving since Jackson's return from an early injury, has regressed over the past two games.

Two weeks ago, Detroit discovered that the Packers could be run on if Jackson was either double-teamed or avoided. In Green Bay's 4–3 formation, Jackson generally is lined up on the left side of the offense, so the Lions just sealed him off. As a result, Detroit running back Kevin Jones gained 92 of his 156 yards running to the right side.

Last week, Jacksonville tried the same strategy with less success, but they discovered the other weakness of Green Bay's run defense: tackling past the front four. Of Fred Taylor's 165 yards against the Packers, 119 came on just four runs. For the season, Green Bay has given up 28% of running yards on runs more than 10 yards past scrimmage; the league average is 15%. The Packers need linebacker Na'il Diggs, a strong tackler, to return from injury this week to help fix this deficiency, because the Vikings will start a running back, Michael Bennett, with a career average of 5.8 yards per carry against the Packers, and they have Pro Bowl center Matt Birk to assist in sealing off Jackson.

When Minnesota has the ball, most of the attention focuses on receiver Randy Moss, who finally seems recovered from hamstring problems with two straight 100-yard games. But watch for Marcus Robinson and Kelly Campbell, as well as Antonio Chatman of the Packers, because both teams have thin secondaries that struggle against multiple-receiver sets. The Vikings and Packers rank second and third in the league behind St. Louis in per-play success by opposing third receivers. The Packers will probably double Moss often and challenge Culpepper to beat them with throws to his other receivers, but that's a challenge the Vikings can meet.

Of course, the Vikings have to score plenty of points because they give up so many, and Green Bay will also have no problem spreading the ball around if the Vikings pay too much attention to emerging young star Javon Walker. The Packers also will enjoy a special teams advantage -- particularly because the Vikings have struggled on kickoffs and the Packers have been strong on returns. That means that every time the Vikings kick, the Packers offense will start their response just a little closer to the end zone, and that makes it easier for the Packers to match a Minnesota score with one of its own.

In the end, this game may come down to Minnesota's home field advantage. Over the past decade, Brett Favre has averaged only 228 yards and less than two touchdowns per game in the Metrodome. Not only is that roughly 20 yards a game less than his usual performance, it is worse when you consider that Minnesota's pass defense has been subpar for years. Since Favre became the starter, the Packers are only 3–9 at the Metrodome.

ATLANTA (11-3) at NEW ORLEANS (6-8)

In the blink of an eye and the twist of an ankle, Atlanta has gone from overrated team to NFC favorite. No other team this season has a greater disconnect between its win-loss record and its performance. According to our 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 (explained further here) -- Atlanta is a league-average team despite 11 wins. Now, in the wake of Terrell Owens's ankle injury, the Falcons look like favorites to advance to the Super Bowl.

But as much luck as Atlanta has had this season, it cannot match the serendipity that has blessed New Orleans. The Saints were 4–8 two weeks ago, and rank 25th in the NFL according to DVOA. They have since climbed back into the playoff race with wins over the uninspired Cowboys and the schizophrenic Buccaneers (who were having a “bad Tampa� day). Now they get to play a Falcons team that has nothing to play for.

Locked into the second seed in the playoffs, the Falcons may well hold both quarterback Michael Vick and tight end Alge Crumpler out to help heal injuries, although coach Jim Mora is publicly denying this. Since running back T.J. Duckett and fullback Justin Griffith were already missing due to injury, the Saints will be facing an exhibition offense. True, Warrick Dunn, Atlanta's other runner, enjoyed his best game of the season last week, and the Saints' run defense is terrible. But if Atlanta's passing game consists of rookie Matt Schaub throwing to the league's worst wide receiver corps, New Orleans will be free to load up the line to stop Dunn.

It's tempting to view the Saints as an inconsistent team, but nothing could be farther from the truth. When you adjust each game's performance for the strength of the opponent, they are the most consistent team in the NFC. They lose to good teams, they beat bad teams, they never win big, and they've only been blown out by the two best teams on their schedule, San Diego and Denver. But their consistently second-rate performance will be enough to win if Atlanta only plays half an offense.

CAROLINA (6-8) at TAMPA BAY (5-9)

The Panthers thought their dreams of going from 1–7 to the playoffs took a major hit when they lost to Atlanta in overtime last Saturday. But the next day, nearly every other team in the playoff race also lost, so Carolina still holds the advantage on the second wild card position.

DVOA ranks Carolina as the second best team in the NFC despite the loss. But right behind the Panthers and Falcons are the Buccaneers, ranked fourth in the NFC, and any difference between them and the Panthers is made up by home field advantage.

Like Green Bay and Minnesota, these two division rivals are very similar. Our defensive ratings have Carolina fifth and Tampa Bay sixth, and both teams are better against the pass than against the run. That means each team's defensive strength matches the other team's offensive strength, because both teams are mediocre on the ground but have seen steady improvement from the passing game since early in the season.

In the first meeting of these two teams, the Tampa Bay passing game won out over the Carolina defense. Brian Griese threw for 347 yards, but the Bucs lost 21–14 when Martin Grammatica (since replaced) missed three field goals. Tampa running back Michael Pittman could gain only 29 yards on the ground, but he caught eight passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns.

When Carolina has the ball, though Mushin Muhammad is normally the focus of the Panther offense, watch for rookie Keary Colbert. Tampa fields the strongest defense in the league against no. 1 receivers, but those double teams tend to leave other receivers open, and Colbert caught two long touchdown passes against the Bucs three weeks ago.

Unlike the Saints, these really are two of the NFL's least consistent teams. There's a possibility of either team crushing the other if only one is having a good day. More likely, this game will be decided by a single great play, a precipitous bounce of the ball, or -- like the first matchup -- a botched kick.

An edited version of this article also appears in today's edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 24 Dec 2004

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