The NFL playoffs finally heat up, as a wild finish in Dallas and a tight game in Kansas City go some way to making up for the blowouts that preceded them.
10 Dec 2005
by Aaron Schatz
By now, most NFL teams know if they are going to be playing in January or not. But some teams are still on the bubble, making every game a must-win. That includes inter-conference matchups, because any tiebreaker with a division rival may come down to common games -- including the four against the other conference.
On the surface, Chicago and Pittsburgh are similar teams, but they could not be going in more opposite directions. The Bears have won eight straight games and hold the inside track on a first-round bye in the NFC. The Steelers have lost three straight and, after falling to Cincinnati last week, basically must win out just to have a chance at an AFC wild card spot.
Chicago's Kyle Orton is in the same position now that Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger was last year, leading a team built around defense and a running game to a succession of wins. But the comparison should end there, because while Roethlisberger complimented last year's Pittsburgh running game with precision passing, Orton has been one of the worst quarterbacks in recent memory.
Roethliberger last year completed 66 percent of his passes, averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. Orton completes just 53 percent of his passes, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. Orton also has 13 interceptions and 11 fumbles against nine touchdown passes.
Chicago's offense isn't entirely abhorrent. Thomas Jones has been surprisingly productive as the starting running back, and Muhsin Muhammad is still a talented wide receiver. But those strengths play right into the teeth of the Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers allow just 3.4 yards per carry, the lowest in the NFL. And according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) system -- which breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent -- Pittsburgh's pass defense ranks third in the league against number one receivers, even though it is just average against second and third wideouts.
Because Chicago is so good on defense, and so bad on offense, their recent run of glory has not featured many convincing victories. Although their eight-game win streak began with a 28-3 trampling of Minnesota, the Bears have won the other seven games by an average of just six points. Five of the wins came over teams that are 4-8 or worse.
The good news for the Bears is that Pittsburgh resembles Chicago's most impressive victim this season: the Carolina Panthers. Pittsburgh's offense, like Carolina's, is predicated on a strong running game which hasn't been so strong in 2005. After a fast start, Willie Parker has dropped to just 3.7 yards per carry in his last four games, while Jerome Bettis is averaging less than three yards per carry.
Like Carolina, Pittsburgh's passing game depends heavily on a single receiver who can beat one-on-one coverage (Hines Ward) but is rarely seeing such coverage because the team's other receivers have been subpar.
And with the running game unable to match its performance from last season, Roethlisberger has developed a nasty habit of forcing passes into coverage and throwing costly interceptions, much like Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme.
Add to this the disarray on the Pittsburgh offensive line, particularly injured left tackle Marvel Smith replaced by rookie Trai Essex, and the best offensive strategy for Pittsburgh might be to simply avoid offense, get into a field position battle with Chicago, and wait for a mistake either by Orton or a Chicago punt returner Bobby Wade, who has twice as many fumbles as any other returner in the NFL.
The precarious playoff position of these two teams is just one reason why this game provides an interesting matchup. In an odd twist, DVOA ranks Kansas City sixth in offense and 14th in defense, and Dallas the exact opposite, 14th in offense and sixth in defense. Each team has half a strong defense in 2005: Kansas City can stop the run, while Dallas is doing much better against the pass.
But for the second straight week, the Cowboys will be facing a team whose preferences in the passing game match their weaknesses. Like the New York Giants, Kansas City depends heavily on a star tight end (Tony Gonzalez) and a single wide receiver (Eddie Kennison), with other wideouts relegated to minor roles. Dallas ranks first in the NFL in preventing success on passes to number two receivers, according to DVOA, but is 20th against number one receivers and 23rd against tight ends.
Dallas must also deal with running back Larry Johnson, who is averaging five yards per carry and leading the league's running backs in DVOA on rushing plays. Dallas' run defense has been just average and particularly has problems in short-yardage downs, stopping just one of 13 runs on third- or fourth-and-1.
The Cowboys expected a similar breakout year from Julius Jones, but he was derailed by injuries for much of the year. Jones and his backup, rookie Marion Barber, are together averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Last year's Kansas City defense couldn't stop a crawling toddler from amassing 150 yards on the ground, but an improved front seven has turned that around. This year's Chiefs allow just 3.7 yards per carry, so long as the ballcarrier is not wearing a Denver Broncos uniform.
Of course, why try to run on the Chiefs if you can pass on them? The Chiefs play an aggressive style of defense, trusting their cornerbacks to play man-to-man. This leads to a lot of long pass plays, and the Chiefs give up 12.2 yards per reception, the third-highest average in the league. Those blitzing linebackers leave the middle of the field open, which presents Dallas with a dilemma. The Chiefs rank 29th in defending tight ends, and Jason Witten of the Cowboys is one of the league's best. But Drew Bledsoe only succeeds when he has time to throw, so the Cowboys want to leave extra blockers to pick up the Kansas City pass rush. Expect a lot of the two-tight end set with Witten as a receiver and Dan Campbell staying in to block.
The X-factor in this matchup is home field advantage. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this year Kansas City hasn't been much better at home than on the road. But for the Cowboys, the difference has been remarkable. At home, the Cowboys have gained 5.0 yards per play and allowed 4.7. On the road, the Cowboys have gained 4.7 yards per play allowed 5.0.
(Note to readers: I was originally going to run a table showing the top five teams with better offensive DVOA at home this season, and the top five teams with better defensive DVOA at home. But there were so many interesting little tidbits in the table that I decided to save it for next Tuesday's FOXSports.com commentary. Something to look forward to, but in the meantime I will tell you that the biggest total HFA this season belongs to San Francisco, and number two is Dallas. Kansas City is 18th.)
This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
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