Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
22 Dec 2013
by Rivers McCown and Andrew Potter
Andrew Potter: Never mind the potential wild card spot -- which I still morbidly expect to go to Baltimore or Cincinnati -- after last week's win over New England, Miami still has a chance of winning the AFC East. It's a very remote chance -- New England would need to lose three straight, which would be unheard-of -- but considering what's gone on with this franchise this season, to even have that faint chance is remarkable.
Rivers McCown: For this game specifically, I feel like the Bills can exploit the Dolphins biggest weakness: their run defense. Miami is 29th in the NFL in run defense DVOA -- which is more than a little fishy given the fact that they brought in two new linebackers this offseason and have Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, but that's a true fact. Buffalo's run offense has not been good on a seasonal basis, but they have dealt with injuries to both EJ and CJ this year, which has sapped their strength. Last week they ran all over the Jaguars, who have a better run defense than Miami does. Does that trend continue, or is it outweighed by things like "EJ Manuel's inability to lead a receiver"?
Andrew Potter: Midweek news is that Manuel will miss out with a knee injury, so Thad Lewis will start for the Bills. That's bad news for a Bills pass offense which was already planning to be without Steve Johnson. (Johnson is expected to be at home over the weekend following the death of his mother.) I still think they'll be able to run effectively, but Miami will certainly be able to focus a little more on stopping that.
The Bills surprisingly lead the NFL in sacks, so they should provide a test for the improved Miami offensive line. The matchup numbers suggest a pretty low-scoring affair here.
Rivers McCown: I watched that game last week. I'm honestly not sure it's bad news. Manuel struggled to even complete screen passes. He didn't have one throw that really stood out as appreciably good. There were a lot of floaters. I'm not saying the book is closed on him ever being a good product, but he needs appreciable improvement this offseason. (I grant that I have not closely followed the Thad Lewis experience, but I would guess any downgrade comes in the run game.)
Andrew Potter: I freely grant that Lewis may be less of a downgrade from Manuel than most other backups are from the starter, but I do think he's still a downgrade. There's a sizeable difference between the Jaguars pass defense and the Dolphins equivalent too, even when the latter is down to midweek practice squad snaffles. Given that Miami is better than Buffalo and appears to be improving, I'm leaning toward a Dolphins win, but this being a divisional game I'm not staking much on that outcome. Buffalo is a dangerous team on defense and in the running game, so there's no reason to think they can't win it -- I just don't expect them to.
Rivers McCown: Well, I think we all expected Matt Cassel to start dropping bombs all over the Eagles last week. I think Vikings fans may wish that he didn't, when it comes time to draft a quarterback, but instead he made the both of us looks like chumps for our prediction that the Eagles would stomp out the Vikings without Adrian Peterson.
Andrew Potter: That Matt Cassel hasn't been the Vikings starting quarterback since the Wembley game is one of the great mysteries of this NFL season. It's doubly damning for the Vikings: Matt Cassell is a clear upgrade over the guy they drafted in the first round and have been starting all year, yet they've persisted with the other guy anyway. Against Cincinnati though, let's just say I'm not expecting Cassel's lightning to strike twice.
Rivers McCown: I dunno if I'd go that far. There's a greater chance that Christian Ponder or Josh Freeman was the quarterback of the future here than Cassel was – that's like 2 percent to 0 percent, but still. Now, that may make you wonder "then why sign Cassel in the first place?" That is a fairer question to me, and one that makes me think the Vikings misread their playoff aspirations versus where they were numerically. We predicted them to have the best chance at the No. 1 pick in the league preseason.
Andrew Potter: There's a greater chance that Leslie Frazier isn't the coach of the future than that Ponder is the quarterback of the future. I think Frazier would have to be crazy to stake his job prospects beyond this season on the worse of two quarterbacks, which suggests either it wasn't his decision or he genuinely thought Ponder gave his team a better chance to win. That's mystifying, at best, to me. I don't expect any of this trio of quarterbacks to be here for the long haul though, nor Frazier for that matter.
All of which leads tentatively toward my next question: what do you do at that position, if you're managing the Bengals? You clearly aren't an Andy Dalton believer, but as Cincinnati's opponent this week, to my lyin' eyes at least, demonstrates that they could do much worse.
Rivers McCown: I can't believe that coaches always have complete control of the personnel decisions. You can't tell me, for instance, that Leslie Frazier wanted to play Freeman after two weeks on the roster or whatever it was. That's not to say Frazier deserves to keep his job or anything – I think he's a fine coach, but not irreplaceable.
If I'm the Bengals I would definitely let it be known that I'd consider moving Dalton for an offer equivalent to Alex Smith. I do think he can be a little better (and more consistent) than he has been under a different offensive coordinator, mostly because I think they focus way too much on the short game. But I don't think his ceiling is getting much higher.
Andrew Potter: If this game goes anywhere close to expectations, it will almost guarantee Houston the first overall pick. We're in an odd run of first overall selections here -- being picked first overall tends to imply joining a talent-starved, perennially bad franchise (well, it used to mean hiring a Detroit realtor), but Andrew Luck went to a Colts franchise only a year removed from a decade of consecutive playoff appearances and Eric Fisher joined a Kansas City franchise with a lot of talent but previously poor coaching. Houston looks to me like a little bit of both, in fact if I'm Teddy Bridgewater -- or any other potential first overall quarterback -- I can hardly think of a better situation to walk into than this Houston Texans team.
Rivers McCown: Last week the Texans decided that they'd try to make Case Keenum throw short passes from the pocket. Suffice to say, that was silly. Is it important to see if he can do this? Sure. Is it so important that you're willing to risk being completely uncompetitive? The sad thing is that the Texans are earnestly not tanking. They honestly thought that was a good idea.
So, yeah, new coaches would help. Also new players.
Andrew Potter: In a painful slice of irony, after Gary Kubiak was canned in part for his intention to start Matt Schaub over Case Keenum for the last three games, Schaub starts this week anyway because Keenum is injured. Oh, and Ben Tate cracked another rib last week so is now on injured reserve. And that's all she wrote, for the Texans.
Both Any Given Sunday and Clutch Encounters this week featured discussion of San Diego's approach to defeating Peyton Manning. Do you believe the Chargers demonstrated a sustainable blueprint other teams can look to follow in the playoffs, or was it a fairly fluke good defensive performance on a short week against an offense which failed to adjust to the loss of a key component (Wes Welker)?
Rivers McCown: Tate should have been tabled weeks ago. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that he showed off his pain tolerance, but the Texans weren't re-signing him anyway, and auditioning some new running backs makes all the sense in the world.
I don't put too much emphasis on either of those ideas. The thing is: bad games happen, even for great teams. There's a reason that going undefeated isn't common. Not having Wes Welker hurt. Not letting Trindon Holliday do his job is hurting. The defensive injuries continue to take their toll. But I don't think we learned anything new about how to beat the Broncos – they lost a close match to a game opponent that didn't turn the ball over once. It happens.
Andrew Potter: Alas, the Texans can only dream of being such an opponent.
Rivers McCown: #FearTheBeard works great for the Rockets, not so much when it's just Matt Schaub trying to be rebellious.
Rivers McCown: When Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't throw wacky interceptions, the Tennessee offense is actually pretty fun to watch throw the ball around. Chris Johnson can operate more effectively with extra space, Kendall Wright is technically precise with his routes, and Justin Hunter has flashed superstar ability.
...So naturally the last time these two teams met, the Titans spent the entire first half trying to run the ball, fumbling, and looking generally hapless.
Andrew Potter: The key phrase there is "when Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't throw wacky interceptions". The performance late against Arizona was encouraging, but less encouraging is the hole they'd dug themselves beforehand. Still, they performed better than I expected, and wins in the last two weeks of the season against the bottom two teams in the divisions would let them finish a mediocre season with a mediocre 7-9 record.
On the other hand, if Jacksonville wins this game they'll be ahead of Tennessee for second place on tiebreakers, and 4-1 in the division. That's a bit silly, even in the AFC South.
Rivers McCown: Jacksonville's biggest problem last week was Jacksonville. Denard Robinson fumbled into the end zone for a touchback on a long run, and Chad Henne threw a puzzling game-losing interception on goal-to-go. Not to mention the rest of the turnovers and near-turnovers. I enjoy that Robinson was supposed to be the "offensive weapon," yet it's Ace Sanders being used in more multiple and creative ways.
Tennessee's biggest problem is also Tennessee, but that's their biggest problem on a weekly basis because their offensive identity is a very poor choice for their talent. Not just in the weeks where they get sloppy and careless with the ball. Ultimately I think the Titans are more talented, but coaching does matter in this league.
What did you think about Mike Munchak not going for two at the end of regulation last week?
Andrew Potter: I think regular-season overtime sucks way more than tied games. I'd like to see more coaches attempt game-ending two-point conversions, especially when the team has nothing to gain from going to overtime. I'm realistic enough not to expect Mike Munchak to spearhead any such campaign. While there's also a much broader analytical point to be made about underdogs pursuing high-variance strategies, this for me comes down to something much more basic: your season's pretty much over, Mike. End the game one way or the other and move on.
I agree that the Titans are more talented right now, but I'll be watching with interest to see how much changes for these two franchises between now and their first meeting in 2014.
Rivers McCown: I feel like if I were a head coach I'd take the 60 percent chance I can win now over going to overtime, even if I wasn't completely sold on my offense to convert.
Of course, given that Tennessee's running game is pedestrian at best, it's hard to really get riled up about it.
Andrew Potter: It's hard for me to really get riled up about much for these teams. Maybe next year.
Andrew Potter: The Jets are finally eliminated from the playoffs, sparing us the potential agony/hilarity (delete as applicable) of a Geno Smith playoff win in New England to pair with Mark Sanchez's from 2010. They face a Cleveland team minus its best cornerback, as Joe Haden probably misses out with a hip pointer. Will anybody notice, or will Geno and the Jets cover admirably for Haden's absence?
Rivers McCown: It's these games that are the true test of your fandom. Your team is eliminated from the playoffs. They are playing a bad team that, save Josh Gordon, could not be any more excruciating to watch play football. It's Week 16. You're not getting the No. 1 overall pick unless a few major shifts happen.
Yet, somehow you watch anyway. Probably because in ten weeks there will be nothing but mock drafts and free agent updates.
...So, the Jets passing offense has actually been above-average by DVOA the last few weeks. Jeremy Kerley's return appears to have helped despite his relative ineffectiveness (-9.7% DVOA) over the last few weeks. Instead it's been David Nelson, Kellen Winslow, and Bilal Powell that have been big boons as receivers. And, well, it's not like Cleveland was a good pass defense with Haden...
Andrew Potter: Well David Nelson, Kellen Winslow, and Bilal Powell are almost passable when they're the fourth, fifth, and sixth options in the passing game. It's when they're the first, second, and third options, like they were a few weeks ago, that you have big problems. Cleveland isn't a good pass defense, however, and is weakened further with Haden's injury. Much as I mocked it in my opening paragraph, you're right to point out that the Jets offense is much improved with the return of Kerley.
Rivers McCown: I really wish we were able to turn around the charting faster, because I'd love to know how Antonio Cromartie has fared as compared to the last few seasons, when he was among the best in the league. The consensus seems to be he isn't playing as well, but I think he's in Josh Gordon's league. With the skill position players the Browns have to work with, clamping down Gordon in any way is pretty devastating for that offense.
Andrew Potter: The Jets signed the charred remains of Ed Reed ... then put him straight into the starting lineup. That says something about the Jets secondary, and may give some hints about why Cromartie isn't perceived to be playing as well. Bad safeties make life much more difficult for good corners.
In other news, Jordan Cameron entered the concussion protocol on Monday, which means he misses out this weekend. It really does look like Gordon or bust for the Browns.
Rivers McCown: Don't try to get me to say bad things about Ed Reed. I don't really need provocation there.
Rivers McCown: This game is vital in playoff positioning, as the winner looks like they'll grab a seat as the No. 2 seed. The two of them make up 98.7 percent of all possible No. 2 seeds, anyway.
So, what has changed for these teams since last week, and is New Orleans' dome-field advantage as big of a deal as it's being made out to be? New Orleans has a 31.4% offensive DVOA at home, and a -3.9% offensive DVOA on the road. ...But in 2012, that split was 11.0% home, 12.8% road. In 2011, it was 47.5% home, 18.7% road ... but 18.7% road was still fourth in the league. In 2010, the offense was 2.5% at home, 10.9% on the road.
On the other hand, the defense ... -20.3% home, 8.8% road in 2013 and 7.9% home, 22.6% road in 2012. ... then 8.4% home, 11.9% road in 2011, and 1.7% home, -9.8% road in 2010.
It feels like this is more random chance than something like Seattle's home/road splits, which are more demonstrable over the course of however many seasons.
Andrew Potter: I don't think much has changed for either of these teams, despite New Orleans' second road blowout defeat in three weeks. I was surprised to see how well the Rams defense handled the Saints offense, but I'm not sure it translates into something Carolina can use to their benefit. They could always try covering Marques Colston this time, and see if that helps.
Home field advantage is always a big deal right up until it isn't.
Let's see ... outside their division (where they face the same teams whether at home or on the road), this year the Saints (16.9%) have travelled to face the Bears (12.4%), Patriots (17.0%), Jets (-13.8%), Seahawks (40.4%), and Rams (2.3%), average DVOA 11.7%, median 12.4%. Allowing the oft-cited 17.0% for home field, DVOA would seem to expect that they win one of those games, at the Jets. They did win one, but it was at the Bears instead of the Jets.
They've hosted the Cardinals (10.9%), Dolphins (-1.4%), Bills (-6.2%), Cowboys (-1.8%), and 49ers (17.9%), average DVOA 3.9%, median -1.8%. Allowing the same 17.0% for home field, DVOA would expect them to win all of those games, which they did. They've faced better opponents on the road than they have at home.
I appreciate that doesn't account for the individual unit disparities you cited, but it's a start.
Rivers McCown: Won't somebody PLEASE think of the narrative?
So, does that mean you're firmly in the camp that the Saints win this game then?
Andrew Potter: I'm seldom firmly in any camp when it comes to divisional games, especially when both are clearly good teams, so I'll just say I think it will be closer than the reverse fixture was. I think the Saints are usually a bad matchup for Carolina, specifically because they can handle that pass rush and exploit an underwhelming secondary, but I said much the same about the Rams last week and that didn't materialize. The Saints have also just inserted third-round rookie Terron Armstead into the lineup at left tackle, which is a variable given his lack of professional playing time.
I'm not sure Carolina yet really has the offense to win a game if the defense struggles; but of course, like home field advantage, that's the kind of concern which is a big deal right up until it isn't. I do think it will continue to be true here, however: if the Panthers defense can shut down the Saints offense, Carolina wins. If it can't, New Orleans wins.
Rivers McCown: I do think there's something to Carolina being a more effective team when the game script plays their way. When they have to pass to catch up, and those passes are going at Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell, things inevitably go awry.
Andrew Potter: Both are better than I expected this season -- 65 and 75 DYAR, respectively -- but yes, neither scares anybody, and I don't expect either to be the key to a Panthers victory. That responsibility rests firmly on the Panthers defense.
Andrew Potter: Is it time to be actually concerned about Kansas City's pass defense? Sure, most of the recent points allowed have gone to Denver and San Diego -- still the number one and number two pass offenses by DVOA -- but they just gave up 31 points to Oakland.
Rivers McCown: ...and yet, the Raiders offensive DVOA for that game was -10.2%, largely due to five interceptions and two lost fumbles.
I mean, it's clear that without Justin Houston the Chiefs are not the same defense. But I don't know if concerned is the right word for me. Take a player like him off any defense and throw them against those top two teams and the DVOA results will not be pretty.
Andrew Potter: Is Houston really that good? Sure, he's a good player, but he isn't a guy I think of as the difference between a struggling pass defense and the best pass defense in the league. Then again, I wouldn't have thought of Greg Toler as a critical loss for the Colts, but look at what happened to their pass defense when they lost him.
Rivers McCown: I think that viewpoint undersells Houston by a significant amount. He's not DeMarcus Ware or J.J. Watt, but I think he's firmly in that second tier of front seven defenders that make an impact in the passing game. Not to mention, you know, you have to look at who replaces him when he's not on the field. The Chiefs don't have a stable of budding edge rushers; they have a stable of Green Bay rejects backing him up.
Andrew Potter: That's true. It's not just that they've lost Houston, it's that they've had to replace him with Frank Zombo. Tamba Hali has also been playing hurt, and there's no reason to push him here.
We haven't mentioned that this is probably a playoff preview: Indianapolis has an 84.1% chance of being the fourth seed, and Kansas City a 73.6% chance of being the fifth seed. That said, are you expecting especially conservative game plans even by these teams' standards, or for these teams would being especially conservative actually be giving away the game plan for a playoff rematch?
Rivers McCown: Now that the Chiefs still have a chance to backdoor their way to the No. 1 seed, I don't think they have the incentive to try and play that way. The Colts need to worry about being effective against a team not from the AFC South before they can worry about masking that effectiveness.
Rivers McCown: This is the part of Romocember where they try to instill belief in their fans with a nice, convincing, win over the Redskins, right? But Cowboys fans know better. They've seen this show before. How do you feel about coaches "throwing players under the bus" so to speak, as Jason Garrett supposedly did to Romo by discussing the call on the last play publicly?
Andrew Potter: There's a good reason most coaches give bland answers to that type of question. The issues Dallas had in that game go far beyond Romo -- which is not to say that Romo doesn't have issues -- and coaches have to know how comments like that will be perceived, even if that wasn't the intention. The game was not won or lost in one play. A bland, Belichickian "we all have to execute better, as we shouldn't have been in that situation in the first place" is the right call there.
Still, it could be worse. They could be Washington.
Rivers McCown: See, the openness is refreshing to me as … a pseudo-journalist(?) … but I agree that there's no way saying what Garrett said can possibly help the team. If they want to start pointing fingers, maybe it's time to look at their run-pass ratio in the second half. You know, despite the fact that DeMarco Murray was tearing up the Packers in the ground game.
Andrew Potter: I feel like that's been an issue for Dallas all year. The Cowboys have the second-most efficient ground game in the league by DVOA, but you'd never know it from their game plans. Stopping the run is somehow apparently the strength of the Washington defense, but even that's only 19th in the league and, subjectively, I have no idea how it's that high as their tackling is atrocious. Oh, and they haven't exactly been playing the most determined, motivated football the past few weeks.
Jordan Reed has finally, sensibly, been placed on injured reserve. Kirk Cousins gets a shot at another bad defense this week. Did you see anything from Cousins against Atlanta to suggest he's better or worse than you thought?
Rivers McCown: To be honest, I didn't watch any of it at all. I don't think there's any reason to believe much in him based on tearing up Atlanta's defense, though. Nor Dallas, really.
Andrew Potter: And if ever there were two defenses you'd want to let him loose against, it's those two. It's almost like this was orchestrated or something.
Andrew Potter: An average team with a struggling offense but an above-average defense faces an average team with a struggling offense but an above-average defense. Neither team has playoff aspirations, and while the Rams have the chance at the number one pick it has absolutely nothing to do with this game. Is the epic clash between Mike Glennon and Kellen Clemens must-watch for any reason (Lavonte David? Gerald McCoy? Robert Quinn? A bizarre fascination with Jared Cook?) or should we prompt Ben to remove this game's longform header from Audibles in advance?
Rivers McCown: This isn't exactly Browns-Jets. There are some stupendous individual seasons involved between David and Quinn. Mike Glennon could use a good game to reverse the narrative on his struggles of late. Am I going to be watching it? No, that spot is reserved for watching the Broncos kick Houston's ass, but as an objective observer I'd much rather watch this game.
Andrew Potter: What I've read of Mike Glennon suggests he does not respond well to pressure. In this specific game, that is a decidedly unfavorable trait. If the Rams defensive line performs as we know they can, this could be another very awkward game -- continuing the narrative rather than defying it. Vincent Jackson can dominate this secondary in his sleep, but that's no use if Glennon's a nervous wreck.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Tim Ryan opined on air last week that Kellen Clemens is fun to watch. I expect Buccaneers fans to agree wholeheartedly after this game. Rams fans, not so much.
Rivers McCown: Maybe Tim Ryan's sole offseason NFL reading was Pro Football Prospectus 2007, which featured Kellen Clemens on the cover. Not the Lewin Career Forecast's finest moment.
Clemens falls into the breed of backup quarterback I'd call "vaguely competent." You can find a stretch of decency from him for a quarter or two. Then he remembers that he's Kellen Clemens.
Andrew Potter: Ah, so the incentive is to watch as David and McCoy race to remind him...
Rivers McCown: Detroit, the Dallas of the North, tries to hold on for their playoff lives against a team that is used to foiling things for the actual Dallas. You may remember the Giants from last week's game against the Seahawks, where they played ... I would say, a "form" of football. Detroit's defense is not Seattle's, but it would not surprise me if Eli Manning was getting battered all game by the Lions front four. Or if that led to some ill-advised throws into traffic.
Andrew Potter: They could always try attacking Detroit with the ru... um, they could always try hoping Matt Stafford Romocembers them some pick-sixes of their own? Such a frustrating situation for Lions fans, to have a quarterback this talented, with one incredible receiver and several other useful options around him, a solid line, and a defense capable of completely dominating the line of scrimmage ... and yet have it all squandered by preventable randomness, indiscipline, and poor coaching when the division is there for the taking.
Rivers McCown: I think what is holding the passing game back, and what I'd disagree with you on, is the characterization that Stafford and Johnson are surrounded by other useful parts. Kris Durham has -21 DYAR on the season. The Lions have zero receivers outside of Johnson with an above-average DVOA. Jeremy Ross is on the field half the game and he can barely catch a football. Brandon Pettigrew is one of the most disappointing first-round tight ends of all-time. He's got a -15.3% DVOA this year and more drops than any receiver not named Wes Welker or Brandon Marshall from 2010-2012. Joseph Fauria has been a nice red zone weapon, and certainly someone who should see some more time, but I have a hard time thinking of him as extraordinarily useful.
Which, as I tried to allude to in Calvin Johnson's player comment in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, is why his numbers are even more impressive to me.
Andrew Potter: Nate Burleson's back from pizza purgatory. 44 DYAR and -0.4% DVOA aren't great, but aren't awful either. By other useful options though, I primarily meant Joique Bell and Reggie Bush. Brandon Pettigrew was certainly not my comment's intended recipient, and neither should he be for Stafford's passes. I agree that without Johnson they're in dire straits, but he isn't their only guy who can catch a pass without fumbling it.
The Giants, however, have a competent defense. so it may simply come down to which offense avoids the preventable mistakes. Which, in this game, could well be neither.
Rivers McCown: Casting Nate Burleson as your No. 2 receiver is like actually believing that Digiorno is equivalent to real delivery pizza. Real delivery pizza, by the way, is something like Brian Hartline. Then, you know, there is delivery pizza that is actually good. The Lions should try ordering some of that again this offseason. Or they could wait for Ryan Broyles to begin rehabbing his third consecutive year lost to injury. Their call.
Andrew Potter: Despite what Tennessee did in the last seven minutes of Week 15, this game still pits our No. 1 and No. 2 defenses head to head. Both teams also have competent offenses, but this being Seattle they have the edge in both phases and on special teams. In any other division, the Cardinals are a possible division champion, but this is the NFC West so they're a two-touchdown underdog likely to finish third. It's crazy how much this division has changed since 2010.
Rivers McCown: It's crazy how much Arizona has changed since 2012. While they didn't pay as much for Carson Palmer as the Chiefs did for Alex Smith, I thought it was a move that reeked of that same aspiration to mediocrity. There's still time for it to play out that way, of course, but it'd be daft to not acknowledge that Palmer has been better than I'd thought.
Of course, Seattle bludgeoned the Arizona offense when these teams met in Week 7. And they weren't playing at home then. And Bruce Arians can only put so much duct tape on that offensive line. So I guess what I'm saying is that I find this line to be fair.
Andrew Potter: Mediocrity was a lofty aspiration for the 2012 Cardinals. I still don't think Palmer's anything other than a quick fix, but even if his sole function is to allow them to assess the rest of their offense, he's served them pretty well. It's now clear that they have at least two good receivers, and it's equally clear what they still need to improve. They aren't far away from being a good team, but only in this division would a fairly solid 9-5 team be justifiable two touchdown underdogs. Seattle is in a class of its own.
Rivers McCown: One wrinkle I did like that Arizona played with last week was using Andre Ellington as a pure slot receiver ala Darren Sproles. If the Cardinals can go empty effectively with Carson Palmer, that theoretically gives them a look that Seattle could have troubles with given the injuries in their secondary. It should also be noted that Arizona's run offense has been above-average by DVOA for three straight weeks. Seattle's run defense is not exactly weak … but it is easier to hit them there than through the air.
Andrew Potter: That's where the loss of K.J. Wright could have an impact. New York doesn't really have the backs to attack Seattle's linebackers as receivers, whereas Ellington can do so for the Cardinals. Seattle's defense is second against receiving backs though, and third against other receivers, so it's far from guaranteed that he'll be successful.
Last week against the Giants was Seattle's worst passing DVOA performance since Week 8's Thursday night game against the Rams. The Cardinals are in the top quarter of the league against every type of receiver except tight ends (19th, 4.0%), which entertains me after my eulogy to their linebackers last week. Can they make it two mediocre weeks in a row for the Seahawks passing game?
Rivers McCown: Sure, I could see a Week 7 vintage Russell Wilson game where he completes two passes to Luke Willson for 78 yards and throws for like 80 yards beyond that while running all over the yard.
But I wouldn't exactly be worried about it.
Andrew Potter: Nor do I think it would be enough on its own. For Arizona to win, I expect something spectacular will have to happen. Seattle is far more likely than Arizona to benefit from the spectacular, just as they are from the mundane.
Rivers McCown: San Diego's win against Denver was a lot more meaningful on Thursday. They saw their playoff hopes go from 17.3 percent on Friday to 3.0 percent Monday as the Dolphins and Ravens both were able to take games from opponents DVOA considered better or equally skilled. Nonetheless, there's still the puncher's chance, as they call it.
While Knowshon Moreno has gotten a lot more of the spotlight for his post-hype bloom, Ryan Mathews is the one that has been more shocking to me. I could not have been more wrong about him in the preseason. He's 14th in DYAR, 16th in DVOA, has only two fumbles all season, and has done that behind an offensive line that has been shuffled often and, in my opinion, wasn't that good to begin with.
Andrew Potter: It's a pity it took them so long to patch up their defense, which hasn't been that bad since Week 10 other than Week 12's shootout against KC. With even mediocre defense against Washington and Oakland, San Diego would be a lock for the sixth seed in an unexpectedly strong division. Alas, what they got was bad defense in both, and I really don't see them making the playoffs now.
Oakland, meanwhile, is busy mismanaging its quarterbacks in a fashion unusual even for bad franchises. Dennis Allen is reportedly on the hot seat, presumably for more than just hoping Terrelle Pryor isn't a Jets quarterback in disguise, but with something like a quarter of their salary cap in dead money is it fair to judge this franchise on a season in which they're running at a budget tens of millions of dollars below the rest of the league?
Rivers McCown: If you can measure it, it will be measured.
I'm really not sure what to make of Oakland's management at this point. I think Reggie McKenzie has done a good job adhering to the budget and not making things worse, but I also don't know that he's actively made things better. He was a Matt Flynn believer. He picked Tyler Wilson in the fourth round, then didn't even have him on the active roster. It's way too early to evaluate D.J. Hayden, but that pick was sort of out of the blue as compared to the consensus of draftnik nation for a long time, and it did come with risks. The Raiders have been decent at finding linebackers later in the draft, but there's really nothing that Allen or McKenzie have done that screams "keep me."
Andrew Potter: Some of that, I'd guess, comes from a justifiable belief that Terrelle Pryor is not "the guy". If you don't have "the guy", it's worth slinging some muck against a wall and seeing what sticks. Flynn and Wilson evidently didn't turn out better than they'd expected, but I think it's fair to say that Matt McGloin did -- even if he's not exactly setting the heather alight. This was also a bad team for a long time, and not only a bad team but a poorly-managed team as evidenced by the cap situation.
There are some signs of progress, and the late, late game against San Diego last time out was probably the highlight of their season. I certainly don't expect a repeat of that here, but I do think there's enough to suggest at least another season is reasonable. I'd add that at some point, Oakland really needs to pick a coach and stick with him for a reasonable period unless he's a McDaniels-in-Denver disaster.
Rivers McCown: If they're going to be bad anyway, my vote is for someone to create a Strangers With Candy homage where the coach is frozen in one gesture for the entire season. Tell me Art Shell couldn't pull that off. He was practically trying to last time around!
Andrew Potter: Aaron Rodgers practiced this week, but with the second team. He was formally ruled out on Thursday. Pittsburgh has improved over the past seven weeks, with the Baltimore game their only negative DVOA performance since Week 9. Matt Flynn picks up another start for the Packers. Green Bay's terrible defense remains, regardless of the quarterback.
Rivers McCown: My read of this game is kind of like my read of last game: I think Pittsburgh is going to score points, and I think I'm going to continue to be surprised if Matt Flynn can catch up. It certainly happened last week, of course. Perhaps I'm undervaluing just how good Jordy Nelson is. But I would not be betting money on Matt Flynn to Andrew Quarless.
Andrew Potter: Since being slaughtered by New England in Week 9, Pittsburgh's defense has posted above-average DVOA in four of six weeks. Its only poor performance against both pass and run came against Baltimore. Even with opponent adjustments, is that because of who they've played? Matt Flynn isn't Tom Brady, but can he outperform EJ Manuel and Brandon Weeden?
Rivers McCown: Well, we know that Matt Flynn is at his worst when under pressure, and (looks up Steelers pass rush numbers) ... sure, Flynn can probably outperform those guys. Why not continue making fools of all who doubted him in Oakland and Seattle?
Andrew Potter: ...and Buffalo. Whaddaya mean you forgot he was in Buffalo?
Rivers McCown: I guess Terrell Suggs is still around, but I'm really going to miss the conspiracy theories provided by Ray Lewis about the Patriots. Really a shame this one couldn't have been flexed to Monday night given the matchup currently there.
Andrew Potter: From one extreme to the other for Baltimore's running game. After gaining 90 yards on the ground against Detroit's excellent run defense, they now get to attack New England's injury-ravaged equivalent. New England has two healthy wide receivers -- and even one of those is Danny Amendola, for whom healthy is not entirely accurate given the condition of his groin -- but will probably have to pass anyway as Baltimore has a stout run defense. Baltimore's offensive line is a mess, but New England's defensive line ran out of players weeks ago and is now flying in replacement parts from Utah. Not your classic Patriots-Ravens clash, this looks to be weakness against weakness more than strength versus strength.
Rivers McCown: Is Justin Tucker having one of the best kicker seasons in recent memory? 35-of-37 this year, and he's missed one field goal from beyond 50 yards in his entire career. Last year Oakland had the best FG/XP points added in our special teams rankings, at 11.8. Tucker is already at 12.5. Sebastian Janikowski was at 16.5 in 2011, and Rob Bironas was at 13.7. Interestingly, Baltimore's kick coverage has been much worse this season, though Tucker is on roughly the same pace with touchbacks.
Andrew Potter: Judging kicker seasons is hard. How much of the impressive percentage is actual improvement? How much do kickers ever improve or decline as their careers progress? Is it just a hot streak? How much is kicking in favorable situations? (For example, I doubt he makes that 61-yarder in Cleveland rather than Detroit.) I've never seen analysis of that; I don't even know if it exists. If not, it could be an interesting offseason project.
That said, yes, if there was a Kicker of the Year award, Tucker would be the runaway favorite.
Thoughts on our first true look at the post-Gronkowski Patriots last week? How different was it from the pre-Gronkowski version?
Rivers McCown: I don't know that I think of kickers talent levels as moving targets so much as I think of them like the WPA added stat in baseball that retrospectively measures the impact they had on certain games. Tucker has had a damn good year whether he hits from 60 in Cleveland or not.
I was a little surprised at how easily the Dolphins were able to snuff Shane Vereen from the game plan. If that continues going forward, New England will not scare anyone when the chips are down.
Andrew Potter: I don't think they scare anyone now, and Baltimore has more reason than most not to be afraid.
Andrew Potter: Philadelphia and Chicago are the number three and number four offenses by DVOA. Their respective defenses just allowed a total of 79 points to the Vikings and Browns. The over/under for this game is 56.5. That seems awfully low to me. I wouldn't be shocked to see the Eagles hit that mark themselves, blizzards be damned.
Rivers McCown: Lance Briggs might play in this game.
I know that sounds like a silly thing to throw out in the face of all the statistics, but waaay back at the beginning of the season, the Bears actually had a pretty good defense. They started out the year with five consecutive games with a negative run defense DVOA. They've clearly missed their star linebacker. And their other linebacker. And Charles Tillman. And their defensive tackles. But hey, you were begging for a Devil's Advocate argument there. Here you go.
Andrew Potter: Thanks for that. I don't think it's silly at all to point that out when looking at the statistics, as we know that one of the limitations of DVOA is separating individual performances and their impact upon the unit. It's clearly reasonable to expect the return of Briggs to improve the Bears defense, but I'm sure neither of us expect Briggs to fix all of the team's problems. Against this run offense, those problems are only likely to be magnified.
Then there's the Eagles defense, which doesn't even have the injuries excuse.
Rivers McCown: This was always going to be an evaluation year for the Philadelphia defense, was my read on it. Connor Barwin gives them some interesting flexibility, but that secondary is just brutal. When Roc Carmichael is getting consistent playing time somewhere, that's a sign to seek help. Nate Allen has played 977 snaps this year.
Andrew Potter: They have been tried. They have been tested. They have been found wanting.
Is there a clear strategy to use against either of these offenses? Other than playing the game in a howling blizzard, which is slightly harder for either coach to control.
Rivers McCown: I think they both present unique problems. Chicago's two top receivers are so hard to match up with that they can dictate the game even when they are covered smartly. Philadelphia's offense is more death by a thousand hyperactive papercuts, in so much as Chip Kelly's scheme will create exploitable matchups somewhere down the line.
I think there are definitely teams that are better equipped to take out one of these offenses. But they aren't in this game.
Rivers McCown: So not only does Arizona need to win out to make the playoffs, they need someone to lose out. And the easiest way for that to happen would be against the 49ers, since they have a head-to-head game against them still. Unfortunately, that plan relies on Arizona beating Seattle on the road, then San Francisco losing to Atlanta at home. That's a bold strategy, Cotton, let's see how it works out for them.
Andrew Potter: This is one of those Monday Night Football matchups that must have looked great to ESPN when the schedule was released ... then the season happened. Now, we get to see a terrible team who barely scraped past the Redskins against one of the best all-round teams in the league, with Jon Gruden telling us why he gives Joplo Bartu a lot of credit. It's the last game ever at Candlestick Park, however, so we should get plenty of great 49ers nostalgia to distract us.
Rivers McCown: Who could forget the salad days of Ken Dorsey?
Actually, no kidding, I'd love to watch Gruden try to sell Ken Dorsey's NFL career to us.
Andrew Potter: Thanks, Rivers. I try to sell you 49ers nostalgia, you head straight for 2005. Something tells me that year will not feature prominently in ESPN's montage.
128 carries, 449 yards, 3.5 yards per carry, -17 DYAR (33rd), -11.6% DVOA (34th). Is it (sadly) time to stick a fork in Steven Jackson, or is his season the unfortunate product of a really bad situation for the run game in Atlanta? Something tells me this isn't what he expected when he moved here.
Rivers McCown: You have to remember that I am a Houston-based fan and that we have no real football glory days. Our glory days are when the expectations are so low that you can't really be mad at anyone. So I tend to latch on to abysmal teams and love what they gave us.
Anyway, Steven Jackson. The thing is, it's really hard to discern blame without careful watching on backs that suddenly fall off a cliff. The offensive line in Atlanta is not one I'd purposefully go to war with. Jackson has been hurt. I'm willing to give a mulligan and say he has a rebound shot next season ... but I wouldn't be willing to bet on it as a starting back coming into training camp. If he earns it, he earns it.
Andrew Potter: He's certainly used to having to earn everything he gets, on every team he plays for. That isn't going to change one bit here.
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