18 Dec 2004
by Aaron Schatz
The weekend's top NFL contests will both get prime time, nationally televised attention as the NFL this week fills in the gap left by college football on Saturdays. In each contest, one team still fighting for a playoff berth will try to prove itself by going on the road to face a conference foe whose place in the postseason is already assured.
Saturday night's battle features two teams going in opposite directions, although you wouldn't know it from looking at Atlanta's record. By now most people are familiar with the fact that the Panthers have turned things around from a 1-7 start to make a run at the playoffs. But Atlanta has masked a recent decline with victories over some of the league's worst teams: New Orleans, Oakland, and the Giants.
A close analysis of this season's play-by-play shows that Carolina is the superior team, and the margin is steadily getting larger. Play-by-play breakdown shows Carolina as the #11 team in the NFL according to our DVOA ratings (explained here), while Atlanta is #16. WEIGHTED DVOA, our method which gives more weight to recent performance, puts Carolina at #9 while dropping Atlanta to #20.
When Carolina is on offense, the matchup will be fairly even. The Carolina offense is on a hot streak and well-balanced between quarterback Jake Delhomme and running back Nick Goings. But the Atlanta defense is also balanced and reasonably strong, although not spectacular.
The lopsided matchup comes when Atlanta is on offense, because their offensive strength, the ground game, is now crippled by injury. Michael Vick, of course, will always have a couple of spectacular scrambles for big yardage. The conventional rushing attack is usually a mix of T.J. Duckett as the inside power runner and Warrick Dunn as the shifty outside man.
Except Duckett, the far superior performer this season, is now out with an injury. So is fullback Justin Griffith, talented as both a blocker and receiver. So Dunn must carry the load. His weakness running inside will be exacerbated by the absence of Griffith, while his strength running outside is countered by Carolina's strong defensive ends, Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker.
Atlanta has been awful passing the ball this season -- according to our ratings, only Miami and Chicago have been worse -- and if Dunn can't get the running game going it puts even more pressure on the Falcons to throw successfully. But over the second half of the season Carolina's pass defense has markedly improved, and Peppers has been a pass rush nightmare. Atlanta's only dangerous pass receiver is tight end Alge Crumpler; in general, he'll be difficult for Carolina's linebackers to cover, but the Panthers have made a habit of intercepting passes intended for tight ends this season. Actually, since they lead the NFL in interceptions, they've made a habit of intercepting passes intended for everyone this season.
Sunday night features a matchup of two knowns, and a matchup of two unknowns. The former will get the attention, but the latter is more important in the long run.
The popular media angle on this game is clear: Will Peyton Manning break Dan Marino's passing touchdown record against a Baltimore defense whose ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses is exceeded only by their ability to boast and preen afterwards? Manning may be having the greatest passing season of all time, and he can truly be proud when he breaks Marino's mark. But he would trade it all for the opportunity to win a Lombardi Trophy, and that calls for championship performance from players who wear the horseshoe on their helmet and a name other than "Manning" on their backs.
Which is why, despite Manning's record chase, the other side of this game is the more fascinating side. The battle between the Colts defense and the Ravens offense will truly reveal how qualified these teams are to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
For Baltimore, the best news of the season has been the development of quarterback Kyle Boller. According to our numbers, Boller's passing performance in the season's first five games cost the Ravens -7.8 points compared to a replacement-level quarterback. Since the bye week, however, his performance has been worth 23.9 points over replacement level. While he's certainly not one of the league's top passers, Boller has become a quarterback who can actively contribute to victories rather than simply try not to ruin what the defense has accomplished.
A big part of Boller's improvement has been the emergence of rookie receiver Clarence Moore, particularly in the red zone. At 6-foot-6, Moore helps alleviate Boller's tendency to throw too high. Boller's receiver corps has also been bolstered by the return of injured tight end Todd Heap. Heap may be a bit overrated among the league's tight ends, but he nonetheless draws the attention of a defense and frees more of the field for other receivers.
Last year, with Jamal Lewis running for 2000 yards, the Ravens running game built a reputation far greater than its actual performance. This year, with Lewis spelled occasionally by Chester Taylor, the Ravens have been more quietly effective on the ground. The running game will be an important part of beating the Colts because the recent progress of the Indianapolis pass defense is not matched by similar a improvement in stopping the run.
The Week 10 whacking of Houston was the turning point for the Colts defense -- but only when it comes to stopping the pass. In the first nine weeks, Indianapolis gave up 7.3 net yards per pass play and 4.8 yards per run. In the past five games, they have given up only 4.8 net yards per pass play -- and 4.8 yards per run.
The Colts pride themselves on their strong pass rush. Defensive end Dwight Freeney leads the league with 13 sacks. Robert Mathis plays the opposite defensive end position on obvious passing downs, and is third in the league with 10.5 sacks. Freeney, in particular, requires double-teaming on every pass play.
But when your defensive ends are labeled "undersized" more often than Earl Boykins, it is not a good sign for stopping the run. Freeney will be matched up against Jonathan Ogden and Edwin Mulitalo, considered by many to be the best left side offensive line tandem in the league.
The Colts prefer to play zone coverage against the pass, but if they have to bring safety Mike Doss up to help stop the run, it leaves either Heap or Moore in one-on-one coverage against Indianapolis' mediocre cornerbacks. If the Colts jump to a big early lead, however, the Baltimore running game becomes a non-issue, and the Colts defense may get a chance to shine.
We know that the Colts can score against most teams, and we know that the Ravens can stop almost anyone. But if the Colts' defense can significantly outplay the Ravens' offense, it will be a very positive sign for their playoff hopes. Similarly, if the Ravens' offense can outplay the Colts' defense, the same hope will live in Baltimore.
This article originally appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
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