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» OFI: Blowouts, Upsets, and Narrow Escapes

The College Football Playoff field narrowed on Saturday. Some teams got upset, some barely escaped an upset, and a few had big record-setting blowouts.

31 Jan 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII Preview

by Aaron Schatz

By now, you've read plenty of articles around the Internet about how this year's Super Bowl is a historic pairing of great offense and great defense. Football Outsiders stats agree, of course. This is the first Super Bowl to ever match the No. 1 team in offensive DVOA (Denver, the sixth-best offense since 1989) with the No. 1 team in defensive DVOA (Seattle, the seventh-best defense since 1989). It is only the third Super Bowl to match the top two teams in total DVOA, and only the fourth Super Bowl to match the top team from each conference in total DVOA.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted. All game charting for these two teams is now complete; any game charting data that appears with a asterisk appears courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information Group. This preview has two different week-to-week charts for each team, one for offense and one for defense. Because defensive DVOA is opposite of offensive DVOA, the defensive charts are flipped upside-down; thus, the higher dots still represent better games.

Denver vs. Seattle



Broncos on Offense
DEN OFF SEA DEF
DVOA 33.7% (1) -25.8% (1)
WEI DVOA 29.6% (3) -29.3% (1)
PASS 60.7% (1) -34.3% (1)
RUSH 4.3% (10) -15.1% (8)
RED ZONE 51.5% (1) -70.5% (1)


Seahawks on Offense
SEA OFF DEN DEF
DVOA 9.4% (7) -0.2% (15)
WEI DVOA 6.6% (9) -4.2% (13)
PASS 27.7% (8) 10.2% (21)
RUSH 6.2% (7) -14.4% (9)
RED ZONE -1.2% (20) 15.2% (25)


Special Teams
DEN SEA
DVOA -1.1% (21) 4.8% (5)
DEN kickoff -11.7 (29) -3.7 (22)
SEA kickoff +4.8 (5) +5.6 (7)
DEN punts -1.9 (22) +7.2 (6)
SEA punts -7.6 (28) +10.4 (4)
FG/XP +10.8 (3) +4.4 (8)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL

The first important thing to note is that like the 2007 New England Patriots, the 2013 Denver Broncos don't quite come into the Super Bowl as the juggernaut that we imagine them to be. Four of Denver's top five single-game offensive DVOA ratings came in the first four weeks of the season. This is not in any way supposed to be an argument that the Broncos aren't a great offense. The Broncos have still gone over 40% DVOA in three of their last seven games, and their only game all year with a negative offensive DVOA came with 20 mile-per-hour winds in New England. If we take out the first four weeks of the season, the Broncos still lead the league in offensive DVOA. But they wouldn't be a historically great offense, just the best one of the current season.

The Seahawks are as historically great on defense as the Broncos are on offense, and unlike the Broncos they've played their best football in recent weeks. Seattle's best single-game DVOA this year was in Week 2 against San Francisco, but their four best games since then have all come since Week 13. And as Evan Silva did a good job of pointing out in this Rotoworld column, one of the few defenses to give Denver problems this season was Jacksonville, where Gus Bradley runs the same system as Seattle with dramatically inferior players.

These two units are spectacular in so many different ways, often in ways that counter each other. For example, the Broncos led the league with 51.5% DVOA in the red zone, including 80.3% DVOA on passes. That's very good. Seattle's defense was even better: the Seahawks led the league with -70.5% DVOA in the red zone, including -104.1% DVOA against red-zone passes. Both figures are the best in DVOA history. (The only teams in the same ballpark: the 1993 Oilers, 1999 Cowboys, and 2003 Dolphins)

The Broncos led the league this year with 51.5% DVOA on third or fourth down. They were great on third down both passing (62.7% DVOA, third) and running (31.6% DVOA, eighth). The Seahawks' defense also led the league on third or fourth down, with -55.5% DVOA. That included an incredible -78.9% DVOA against passes on third or fourth down, again the best figure in DVOA history. The Seahawks' defensive rating on third down was tempered by the fact that they were only average against the run, allowing 7.5% DVOA (17th in the NFL) and allowing 70 percent conversions (24th in the NFL) on short-yardage runs.

The splits suggest that the best opportunity to pass on Seattle may be on first down, not in a "passing situation" like third down. Seattle's defense was seventh in the league against the run on first down, while Denver's offense ranked just 18th running the ball on first down. However, the Seahawks ranked only 12th in DVOA against the pass on first downs this season, before improving to the become the best defense in the league on second and third downs. One reason for this change is that their pass rush didn't bring as much force on first downs, with an Adjusted Sack Rate of just 5.0 percent compared to 9.2 percent on second and third downs.

Manning's quick release and ability to disect defenses before the snap make him very difficult to sack, and Denver led the league with 3.7 percent Adjusted Sack Rate this season. However, Manning will go down against a very good pass rush. Manning did not face any of the top five defenses in Adjusted Sack Rate this season, but with the Super Bowl, he will have faced all six of the defenses ranked between sixth and 11th. Somehow Manning made it out of two games against Kansas City (sixth in ASR) without taking a sack, but he took 13 of his 20 sacks (and his only intentional grounding of the season) in the five games he played against the teams ranked between eighth and 11th: New England, Indianapolis, Oakland, and Baltimore. That leaves us Seattle, which ranked seventh.

Most defenses believe that the best strategy against Manning is not to blitz, but to try to pressure with just the front four and drop as many players into coverage as possible. Believe it or not, this has not really been the best strategy since Manning arrived in Denver. In 2012, Manning was awesome against four-man and five-man pass rushes but actually struggled against big blitzes of six or more. This year, Manning was better against those big blitzes, but not quite as good against a five-man rush, gaining 8.3 yards per pass with three or four pass rushers but 7.2 yards per pass against both five-man and six-man blitzes.* (This is Peyton Manning, so "not quite as good" still means "pretty good.")

Seattle doesn't blitz much, although when they do, they bring it home with force. The Seahawks only sent a big blitz of six or more pass rushers on 4.5 percent of pass plays, but they gave up a measily 3.1 yards per play.* However, the key to pressuring Manning may not be how many men the Seahawks bring, but who they bring.

Looking over numbers compiled by ESPN Stats & Information and augmented by Football Outsiders game charters, Manning displays a clear weakness. Given his legendary ability to read a defense and adjust the play at the line, it's a bit of a shocking one. Manning only averaged 5.1 yards per play during the 2013 regular season when opponents blitzed at least one defensive back, which ranked 20th in the league. This was not a one-year fluke, either; in 2012, Manning averaged 5.4 yards per play on DB blitzes, which ranked 24th.*

(It's worth noting that Manning has been a bit better in the playoffs, completing 9-of-10 passes against DB blitzes for 6.9 yards per pass.)

However, defensive back blitzes would require Seattle to really go away from their usual tendencies. The Seahawks sent a DB blitz on just 4.3 percent of pass plays this season, less often than any defense except San Francisco, and they actually allowed 7.2 yards per pass on these 24 plays.* In no game this season did Seattle send more than three DB blitzes. They have only sent two DB blitzes in the playoffs, both in the fourth quarter against New Orleans; one resulted in Drew Brees overthrowing Jimmy Graham, but the other resulted in Richard Sherman giving up a touchdown to Marques Colston on fourth down.

The cornerbacks are almost always in coverage in part because they are among the best in the league. Here are the cornerback charting stats for Seattle; ranks require a minimum of 42 charted passes, with 85 cornerbacks ranked.

Seattle Cornerback Charting Stats, 2013
Cornerback Tgts Yd/Pa Rk Suc Rate Rk Avg PYD Avg YAC
25-R.Sherman 67 7.0 34 57% 24 14.5 3.3
41-B.Maxwell 44 6.4 14 55% 33 13.6 1.9
28-W.Thurmond 43 4.7 1 65% 3 6.4 3.7
39-B.Browner 40 7.4 -- 55% -- 13.8 2.0
20-J.Lane 17 8.5 -- 47% -- 9.1 7.9

Don't let Sherman's seemingly "good but not great" charting numbers confuse you into thinking he's somehow overrated. Cornerback charting stats have a small sample size, so a couple of bad plays (or plays misattributed by our game charters) can move a guy 10 or 15 places in the rankings. "Overrated" is a Pro Bowl player who ranks in the 70s, not in the 20s. (Brandon Flowers, for example, ranked 69th in both Yards per Pass and Sack Rate this season.) And Sherman may have more targets than any other Seahawks corner, but that's because he's been the one constant starter all season. Sixty-seven targets is not a lot; Sherman is currently tied for 40th among cornerbacks, and in reality would rank lower than that because we're still missing a few halves of charting from teams other than Seattle and Denver.

The Seahawks generally play cornerbacks by side, so Sherman will always be on the offensive left and Byron Maxwell will always be on the right, with Walter Thurmond in the slot. (Browner has been suspended indefinitely for positive drug tests.) Don't get fooled by Thurmond's numbers either, as we've learned not to fall in love with nickelbacks who have one year of spectacular charting stats. His great stats also make sense because he never has to cover deep; that's what happens when you are nickelback on a team that plays a lot of Cover-3. Thurmond was one of only two corners this year with at least 40 charted targets whose average pass in coverage came less than nine yards downfield. (Trumaine Johnson of the Rams was the other at 7.8 yards.) However, even though he was covering short all the time, most of these passes were still on the outside, which is why Thurmond can't be held responsible for the hole Seattle had in the short middle of the field.

Yes, as I pointed out in both the Divisional Round preview and the NFC Conference Championship preview, the Seahawks ranked just 13th in DVOA on passes to the short middle. They were even worse by standard stats: 21st with 7.8 yards allowed per pass, and 26th with a 73 percent catch rate allowed. That means we can expect a lot of crossing routes and pick plays, and a lot of Wes Welker. Thurmond on Welker will be an excellent test of how real those great Thurmond charting stats were. It also means that the Broncos should use Knowshon Moreno in the passing game. Moreno had 22 short middle targets, second on the team behind Welker, and had an excellent year as a receiver, finishing third among running backs in DYAR and fourth in DVOA.

The Seahawks led the league by allowing just 4.1 average yards after the catch, so even when Manning completes passes to open receivers in the middle of the field, they are unlikely to rack up big gains in the open field. It helps to have the best free safety in the game.

A few other interesting notes about this matchup:

  • The Broncos used shotgun or pistol formations on 78 percent of plays this season, which would have blown away the all-time NFL record just a couple of years ago but wasn't even enough to lead the league in 2013. (Philadelphia was at 85 percent.) What's interesting there is that Seahawks opponents were so afraid of the Seattle pass defense that they used shotgun formations a league-low 45 percent of the time, even though they were usually playing from behind. Even when losing by more than a touchdown, Seattle opponents only used shotgun on 53 percent of plays, compared to the NFL average of 71 percent.
  • Denver averaged 11.0 yards per pass with play action; no other offense in the NFL was above 9.5. However, Seattle allowed just 5.3 yards per pass on play action, second to Cleveland.*
  • Denver averaged 9.5 yards per pass on running back screens (second in the NFL) while Seattle allowed just 3.8 yards per pass (tied for third). The Broncos gained 8.5 yards per pass on wide receiver screens (also second in the NFL) while the Seahawks defense allowed just 2.3 yards per pass, which led the league.*
  • The Broncos are slightly better running the ball outside than up the middle, and may want to concentrate at running right end, where they rank seventh in Adjusted Line Yards and the Seahawks' defense is just 24th.

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

An analysis of Seattle's offense against Denver's defense is a bit wrapped up in a question we often ask around here: how recent is "recent?" How much time do you need to judge that a team has improved or declined. Two weeks? A month? Two months?

It's true that Russell Wilson has struggled over the past few weeks; Cian Fahey wrote a scouting report on that here. He's played fast, made some poor decisions, and left plays on the field. He's also been less accurate, particularly on passes down the right sideline.

A statistical look at Russell Wilson's slump will look very different depending on whether or not you consider the slump to have started in Seattle's Week 14 loss to San Francisco, as Wilson actually had a pretty good 25.0% passing DVOA that day. Nonetheless, that's where a lot of people seem to believe it started, and that's the first game that Cian Fahey focused on when charting Wilson's passes, so we'll split things up there. Here are Wilson's stats before and after Week 14.

Russell Wilson, Weeks 1-13 vs. Weeks 14-20
Weeks Games DVOA DYAR/G Yd/Pa C% TD/G INT/G Sacks/IG per G Avg Pass D Faced
Weeks 1-13 12 22.9% 60.5 7.65 65.5% 1.8 0.5 2.6 3.5%
Weeks 14-20 6 -2.8% 13.8 5.24 57.9% 0.8 0.5 3.8 -4.5%

As you can see, Wilson's slump is real, but it also isn't quite as bad as it looks from standard stats because a) five of his last six opponents, including the Giants (!), ranked in the top 10 in DVOA pass defense this season and b) at least he isn't suddenly giving the ball away to the other team with a rise in interceptions. He hasn't been getting away with near-interceptions, either; we've only logged three dropped interceptions for Wilson this year, with only one since Week 14 and none in the two playoff games.

(OK, do you want specifics? The three plays were Desmond Trufant in Week 10, Corey White in Week 13, and Patrick Peterson in Week 16. The first two passes are actually listed with the intended receiver "defensing" the near-pick, rather than being outright drops. Peyton Manning also had only three dropped interceptions this season; two in the regular season and one by San Diego in the playoffs.)

Wilson's slump has really only been short-term, but the idea that Denver's defense is peaking right now is based on an even shorter term. It's based on just two games. In fact, if you believe in Football Outsiders numbers, it's really based on just one-and-a-half games, as the Denver defense only controlled the San Diego offense during the first half of the Divisional Round game. Yes, much of Philip Rivers' production came in the fourth quarter, but that wouldn't have really been garbage time if the San Diego defense could have gotten the ball back for Rivers to try a game-tying drive. Those yards given up matter, and they tell us something about the Denver defense. (For example, they tell us that Quentin Jammer has very little left, which the Chargers already knew for themselves.)

At Football Outsiders, we generally believe in looking at the longer-term rather than the short term. Even weighted DVOA, our rating which drops the strength of older games to get a better idea of how good we can expect teams to be now, still gives either 100 percent or 95 percent strength to the last eight weeks of games. So despite Wilson's recent struggles, a look at his entire season is probably a better guide to how well we can expect him to play on Sunday, and the same goes for the Denver defense.

In fact, a more important guide to how this game might go is not how Denver has played in one or two recent games but how much talent they do or do not have on the field. All four of the AFC division champions this year were devasted by injuries and for Denver, those injuries have mostly come on the defensive side of the ball. Over the last few weeks the Broncos have lost five members of their original -- well, original "if not for suspensions" -- starting defense: Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson, Von Miller, Rahim Moore, and finally Chris Harris. The Seahawks' offense, on the other hand, is healthier than it has been all year. Percy Harvin will be on the field for only this third game this season, although he's always an X-factor and nobody ever knows how many snaps he can stay on the field for. Seattle's offensive line is also entirely healthy, and a healthy Russell Okung means that the line is at least one-fifth not horrible.

The injury to Harris leaves Denver with only one trustworthy cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, plus a lot of weakness and a big veteran question mark in Champ Bailey. Here are the Denver charting stats from the regular season:

Denver Cornerback Charting Stats, 2013
Cornerback Tgts Yd/Pa Rk Suc Rate Rk Avg PYD Avg YAC
25-C.Harris 80 6.8 29 64% 7 11.6 3.2
45-D.Rodgers-Cromartie 68 7.5 44 65% 5 14.8 7.3
36-K.Webster 57 8.2 57 53% 44 14.1 4.0
32-T.Carter 34 9.9 -- 53% -- 17.0 6.6
24-C.Bailey 21 7.0 -- 52% -- 11.0 3.1
23-Q.Jammer 21 8.4 -- 52% -- 12.9 1.5

DRC's average of 7.3 yards after catch allowed was third highest among ranked corners, but that average is boosted by two huge plays early in the season where the bigger problem wasn't DRC's coverage but rather blown tackles by Duke Ihenacho: a 73-yard touchdown by Denarius Moore in Week 3 with 52 YAC -- Ihenacho literally collided with DRC to ruin that play -- and a 79-yard completion to Dez Bryant in Week 6 featuring 46 YAC. Without those two plays, DRC drops to just 3.9 average YAC allowed, and without the yards after catch on those two plays, he would drop to 6.1 yards allowed per pass.

The Broncos tended to move DRC around all year to cover the opponent's best (and more importantly, fastest) receiver, so you have to figure that defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will have him on Percy Harvin whenever Harvin comes into the game. Because otherwise, oy.

It's great to see future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey finally appearing in a Super Bowl, but he had to hobble his way here. A foot injury kept him off the field for all but three regular-season games this season. He played a little bit as the fourth corner against San Diego, but the Harris injury thrust him into the starting lineup against New England. Bailey primarily stayed in short zones against the Patriots. We only charted two passes thrown at Bailey in that game, but that's because there were a number of plays where he passed a receiver on to a safety downfield, and a few plays where Bailey was sort of close but we marked "hole in zone." The one time Bailey was caught one-on-one deep, Aaron Dobson was wide open, but Tom Brady overthrew him on a deep play-action bomb.

Rookie Kayvon Webster was Denver's nickelback for most of the season, but broke his thumb in Week 15. He missed Weeks 16 and 17 and played just one defensive snap against San Diego, then 11 against New England. The only pass we charted against him in the AFC Championship was a screen. If Webster isn't healthy enough to play regular snaps as the nickelback, that leaves Quentin Jammer and Tony Carter. Jammer got lit up during San Diego's fourth-quarter comeback, giving up a 30-yard conversion on third-and-4, a 16-yard touchdown on third-and-4, and a 49-yard conversion on fourth-and-5. The Broncos basically pulled him off the field in the AFC Championship; he played only nine snaps, all on special teams. They replaced him with Tony Carter, who was very good in 2012 but had problems this season. Carter had been a healthy scratch against San Diego but played 33 defensive snaps against New England. Our charting has him giving up four completions on seven passes, all of which moved the chains.

The Broncos got away with this two weeks ago when Tom Brady overshot a couple of receivers open deep. They're going to have to hope that Russell Wilson continues his inaccuracy of recent weeks and has the same problem. It's hard to imagine the Broncos putting DRC on deep-threat fourth receiver Jermaine Kearse, but if I was a Broncos fan, seeing any of these other guys on Kearse would give me a heart attack.

As Vince Verhei wrote for ESPN Insider this week, the strongest element that tied together Denver's worst performances this season was poor pass coverage, particularly on deep throws (defined as passes that travelled 16 or more yards past the line of scrimmage). Overall, the Broncos had an average DVOA against deep throws, allowing a better-than-average 35 percent catch rate but getting too few interceptions and allowing too many third-down conversions. This is a big reason why the Broncos were 29th in defense on third down despite ranking fifth against the run. They were dead last in third-down defense against the pass (40.0% DVOA). That third-down defense has been better recently, but again, "recent improvement" only qualifies if you think two weeks is enough sample size. Denver's third-down defense was actually at its worst in the final six weeks of the regular season, allowing 60.0% DVOA on passes. Denver opponents had an average conversion rate on third and fourth down, but they hit a number of huge plays, making Denver one of just three defenses to give up more than seven yards per pass on third down. The Broncos also haven't gotten a turnover on third down since Week 8. 

However, to really pick on the Denver defense, Wilson is going to need to go somewhere he has barely gone this season: the deep middle of the field. The safeties may be a bigger weakness than the non-DRC cornerbacks, especially with Rahim Moore out, and the Broncos allowed 13.7 yards per pass on deep middle passes this season compared to 10.5 yards per pass on deep passes to the outside. As we've noted numerous times during the postseason, Seattle somehow made it through the entire season throwing just two deep middle passes, neither of which was complete -- although they did throw a third against San Francisco in the NFC Championship and Wilson connected with Doug Baldwin for a huge 51-yard gain.

Deep passes are just one half of Seattle's surprisingly old-school offense, which features deep passes and a big dose of Marshawn Lynch. Seattle and San Francisco were the only two teams in the league to run more than they passed the ball this year. Like the Broncos on offense, the Seahawks are also better running the ball to the outside rather than the inside, despite Marshawn Lynch's tackle-breaking abilities. That's the proper strategy against the Denver defense, which ranked No. 1 in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards against runs up the middle but was just 19th against runs marked left end and 26th against runs marked right end. The Broncos also allowed 4.8 yards per carry against 40 zone read runs this season, which ranked 13th in the NFL. (Half of those runs belonged to the Eagles way back in Week 4; the rest of the year, the Broncos allowed 4.2 yards per carry on zone reads by Kansas City, Oakland, and Washington.)

Seattle will want to run a lot on first down to get Wilson into good down-and-distance situations to break out the deep pass on second down. Denver's run defense ranked 15th on first down this year, but fifth on both second and third down. The Seahawks' running game, on the other hand, got progressively weaker by down, ranking fifth in DVOA on first down but 12th on second down and 17th on third or fourth down. And that ranking of 17th on third or fourth down is a bit deceiving, as many of the positive plays were actually Russell Wilson scrambles, not designed runs. When the Seahawks needed just one or two yards, they struggled to get it. Even with Mr. Beast Mode at running back, the Seahawks were dead last converting short-yardage runs, at just 49 percent. That's just one of the many ways in which the offensive line was the clear weakness of this team. Russell Wilson gets sacked a lot, last in the league with 9.6 percent Adjusted Sack Rate, and there really was no improvement near the end of the season as the original starting offensive linemen returned from injury. The Seahawks were also second in the league in offensive penalties, behind only Oakland, with 22 offensive holding calls and 21 false starts over the course of the regular season.

One way the Broncos improved their pass defense this year was by blitzing. Denver allowed 6.7 yards per pass with four pass rushers, but 6.1 yards per pass with five and 5.3 yards per pass with six or more.* The problem with this is that Russell Wilson absolutely killed the blitz in 2013. Wilson gained 6.7 yards per pass against four pass rushers, but 7.9 against five and 8.2 against six or more.* He also had a league-high 9.8 yards per pass on plays where opponents blitzed a defensive back.* As Vince Verhei pointed out earlier this week on ESPN Insider, when Wilson had trouble against teams like Houston, Arizona, and St. Louis, the pressure generally came from just the front four, and the biggest problems were caused by edge rushers such as Whitney Mercilus and Robert Quinn. That makes Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers very important players in this game.

Against San Francisco in the NFC Championship, the Seahawks finally covered for the weakness of their offensive line by bringing in Alvin Bailey as a sixth lineman. They used six linemen on 18 plays after doing so by our count only 10 times in the entire regular season. Phillips and Ayers aren't quite Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, but Bailey could play a big role if the Broncos are getting to Wilson early.

Unfortunately, if you don't take Wilson down once you pressure him, you are in serious trouble. Wilson averaged 7.6 yards per play when forced outside the pocket, including sacks and scrambles.* That was second in the NFL behind Ben Roethlisberger, and actually slightly higher than the 7.2 yards per play that Wilson averaged from inside the pocket. The Denver defense was pretty good against quarterbacks outside the pocket, allowing 4.6 yards per play (tenth in the NFL), but of course that number isn't adjusted for opponent and includes a lot of Terrelle Pryor (27 of the 103 out of pocket plays we have listed against Denver) as well as quarterbacks who aren't particularly known for their mobility such as Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, and Joe Flacco.

Other interesting notes about this matchup:

  • Seattle gained 8.5 yards per pass on play action, fourth in NFL, and led the league by using play action on 34 percent of pass plays. However, this was one place the Denver secondary didn't show particular weakness. The Broncos ranked fifth allowing just 6.1 yards per pass on play-action passes.*
  • Another play to watch is the wide receiver screen, especially with Harvin healthy again. Although the Seahawks only ran a couple dozen wide receiver screens, they led the league with 8.7 yards per pass on these plays. Denver's defense was slightly above average at 4.9 yards allowed per pass.*

SPECIAL TEAMS

This may be the biggest mismatch in the game, and the one that nobody seems to be talking about. On the surface, it doesn't look like there's a big difference between these two teams, until you consider the way Denver's altitude gives the Broncos' kicking stats a huge boost in home games. Over the past two regular seasons, for example, Matt Prater kicked 95 touchbacks at home (an 86 percent rate) and just 51 on the road (a 54 percent rate). As for Prater's field-goal numbers, there's no doubt that he had a fabulous year in 2013. He not only broke the NFL record with a 64-yard field goal, but also went 9-for-9 on all attempts of 45 or more yards. Even after we adjust for weather and altitude, Prater comes out as the third-most valuable kicker in the league on field goals. However, like most field-goal kickers, Prater has been inconsistent from season to season, and he doesn't have a history of making (or even attempting) long field goals in cold weather. In 2011 and 2012, Prater was just 7-for-14 on attempts of 45 or more yards. Over that entire three-year period, Prater only attempted three field goals of 45 or more yards on the road with a temperature below 60 degrees, hitting one (a 47-yarder with the roof open in Indianapolis this season) and missing two (in Kansas City and Baltimore last season). In none of those games was the temperature below 50 degrees.

The Broncos do have value on returns, at least. We know Trindon Holliday can break a big play, and while the Broncos finally got tired of playing fumble roulette with him on punt returns, he's still dangerous on kickoffs. Eric Decker has taken over punt returns and while it's hard to say whether he's particularly good or bad, he did have a 47-yard punt return in the Divisional Round game against San Diego. Denver's top gunners are Jacob Tamme (nine special teams tackles), David Bruton (seven), and Nate Irving (seven).

Seattle, on the other hand, was in the top 10 in four of the five areas of special teams we measure, with excellent years from kicker Steven Hauschka and punt returner Golden Tate. Although Jon Ryan wasn't particularly good on gross punt distance, the Seattle punt coverage team was excellent; they allowed only four returns over eight yards all season, although three of those were in Week 17 against St. Louis. The one weak spot for Seattle was on kick returns, with a variety of players doing very little, but a healthy Harvin gives them a much stronger weapon to set field position after Denver scores. Seattle's top gunners are Jeremy Lane (12 special teams tackles) and Heath Farwell (10).

OUTLOOK

The current Vegas line on this game is Denver -2.5. That line properly suggests that this Super Bowl presents an extremely close matchup, but the favorite is just plain wrong. You can't blame the oddsmakers for that, though; they actually opened with the Seahawks as slight favorite, but a lot of money quickly came in on Denver and moved the line. This is one case in which our numbers suggest that the oddsmakers knew better than the public.

A great defense does not necessarily neutralize a great offense, because in general, the best offenses are better than the best defenses. Nonetheless, if the Seattle defense plays at the level it has maintained all season and the Denver offense plays at the level it has shown since Week 5, these two units do basically cancel each other out. Peyton Manning will get some points, he'll move the ball, but he won't do as well as usual and he won't dominate the game. That leaves things up to the other two matchups, and the Seahawks have the edge in both. Their offense is better than Denver's defense, and healthier as well; one strong game against New England doesn't mean the Broncos suddenly won't miss Chris Harris. Special teams should also give the Seahawks a field-position advantage, although that's harder to trust, since special teams can turn the game with a single play and even the best coverage team will give up a big play every so often.

Could this be wrong? Of course. Other than the usual random fluctuation, there are two reasons to believe that Seattle's higher DVOA rating is illusionary. First, if Russell Wilson's struggles from the last few weeks continue. Second, if Seattle's huge home-field advantage means that we are overestimating how good the Seahawks are away from Qwest Field with a neutral crowd.

My guess is that neither of those will be a big issue. Russell Wilson won't be Peyton Manning, but he will play better than he did against New Orleans three weeks ago. The Seahawks won't be quite as dominant as they are at home, but they were the best defense in the league on the road as well, and Denver doesn't get a home-field advantage either. I doubt this game will be like Super Bowl XL where the stands seem to be 80 percent stuffed with fans of the other team.

The Seahawks have now led the league in DVOA for two years in a row. They were better than Denver this year, they didn't decline in the second half of the season, and they are healthier than their opponents. I picked Seattle to beat Denver in the Super Bowl before this season started and I'm sticking with that pick. I'm not looking forward to having to spend the next few months constantly writing about how losing a second close Super Bowl shouldn't damage Peyton Manning's legacy, but I expect I will have to.


STATS EXPLAINED

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 DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

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. Those numbers are explained here.

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.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is 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).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. There are separate charts for offense and defense. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games.

All third-down stats include the occasional play on fourth down as well.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 31 Jan 2014

77 comments, Last at 04 Feb 2014, 11:24am by The Ancient Mariner

Comments

1
by Bobman :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 3:07am

If HFA is worth about 17 DVOA pts, I would guess that both teams have HFA's worth more than that--Denver with altitude and SEA with crowd noise. So I wonder who performed better on the road (Aaron, in future, could your charts indicate road games with an @?). And I wonder which team will suffer less from not having the HFA. I read a couple weeks ago that after the NFCCG Richard Sherman instantly made 90% of the non-committed fans un the USA Broncos fans. That may be, but will that reflect the crowd in the stadium? I know four couples from my Seattle suburb alone who are going to NJ, and I bet the actual number will be many more. And they will be loud. But will they be enough?

Also, just based on veteran hearsay, I suspect the Broncos with SB vets at HC and QB (key positions, as well as a few others like Tamme and Welker) will handle the weirdness of SB week and pregame (and halftime) better than the Seahawks, who have no SB experience on the roster (and maybe not on the coaching staff?). The main thing is probably adrenaline spikes too early in the day, leaving guys drained later.

Which adds up to, if Aaron is right, our first OT Super Bowl.

I know the charts over-simplify things (chime in, Wall Streeters), but if you look at the trend lines, Den's O is on the upswing and about the same level as SEA's D, which is fading slightly. (both high 30s but going in opposite directions relative to zero). Similar story for the Sea O and Den D: with Den's D about 5% and improving with Seattle's O at NEGATIVE 10% and slipping. So, do the trend lines mean anything? Ignoring ST, those O/D, D/O trend lines point directly to the 2.5 pt Vegas line favoring Den (which is, of course, based on where the money is going, not who they think will actually win). Will Harvin make any actual impact before his obligatory injury departure? Will Seattle's starters on OL outperform their replacements? Can Den's D do what it did to what looked like an unstoppable NE rushing attack? And will I get home from skiing early enough to catch any of the pregame? (The joys of living in Seattle--the slopes better be empty.)

6
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 4:56am

Considering that NE "unstoppable" rushing attack (that only lasted 3 games) got stopped dead by Denver, I'd say any kind of trend line analysis is bunk, especially analysis of trend lines that go up despite a bad performance (Denver's defense) and down despite a good performance (Seattle's defense) due to the discrete nature of moving averages.

2
by Bobman :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 3:11am

One more thought not reflected in this data--the Bronco O has been notoriously savage in the 3rd quarter. Not sure why, but if it's half-time adjustments, that might imply that giving Manning 15 minutes makes him more dangerous, but 30 minutes in the SB could make him lethal. (Or does it just give the other team more time to get up to Manning's level of adjustments?) Okay, I'm just talking myself in circles here.

5
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 4:51am

Savage? Denver averaged 9.7 points in the second quarter, 8.1 in the third, and 10.9 in the fourth. Now, 8.1 led the league, but there wasn't some sort of noticeable point explosion there.

24
by Bobman :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 3:30pm

Yikes, I was going by memory. There must have been a few-game stretch where they averaged about 21 per 3rd quarter after semi-slow starts (I'm probably basing this off a TV in-game graphic, which may be my first mistake). My fault in assuming that was a bigger thing than it was. Okay, throw out the halftime effect.

13
by CBPodge :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 11:34am

Manning will spend the first 15 minutes making adjustments, then 15 minutes making adjustments to the adjustments that he assumes the opponents will make to the adjustments that he's just made.

14
by jacobk :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 11:47am

But you are not a great fool, so clearly I can't throw to the receiver in front of me...

16
by The Ancient Mariner :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 12:39pm

Score one for you. :)

22
by jacobk :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 1:16pm

Fortunately for the Seahawks, Richard Sherman has spent the last three years developing an immunity to fade routes.

55
by jebmak :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 2:29pm

I love these comments.

56
by jacobk :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 2:51pm

Glad you enjoyed them; I need something to do to take my mind off the nervous jitters I'm getting from the upcoming game.

25
by Bobman :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 3:34pm

Inconceivable! (or, to be more accurate, incontheevable!)
I think Wallace Shawn took elocution lessons from Sylvester the Cat.

68
by TomKelso :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 11:37am

Truly, you have a dithying intellect.

3
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 3:47am

"Although the Seahawks only ran a couple dozen wide receiver screens, they led the league with 8.7 yards per pass on these plays."

"Seahawks defense allowed just 2.3 yards per [wide receiver screen], which led the league."

Man, I'd really like to see the Seahawks defense go up against the Seahawks offense on receiver screens now. Harvin, with Tate and Baldwin blocking, versus Wright, Thurmond and Sherman. What a sight that would be.

36
by bluereloaded :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 6:17pm

I think that is called Wednesday.

4
by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 4:15am

Yeah, that's pretty much the way I see it. Seattle should be slightly favored, but it's close enough that any number of random events could decide the winner. I just hope it isn't a random close referee decision.

If Harvin has a big day, of course, the Seahawks odds of winning jump by a lot. On the other hand, Knighton looks like that phenomena we see once in a while in the playoffs; a defensive lineman who gets on a late season roll, becomes pretty unblockable, and has the best 6-8 weeks of his career. If that trend continues (and let's face it, Seattle has some real fish in the middle of their offensive line)then there is going to be some real havoc sown when the Seahawks snap the ball, and havoc usually translates into turnovers.

Regarding the special teams, y'know, if Harvin is fielding kicks, the Seahawks have a good chance of getting at least one long return, and the Seattle return unit may be jumpy to help get him one. If the Broncos have seen anything encouraging on film, it'd be a blast to see them try to steal a possession with an onside kick, even perhaps on the opening kickoff.

Of course, I'm not the coach who would get called a dummy for next 10 years if it failed, so my definition of what is a blast is likely different than John Fox's.

12
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 10:38am

The only Super Bowl prop bet that matters -- in which quarter will Harvin be concussed?

Because Denver's stupid if they don't do it, as savage as that sounds.

37
by EricL :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 6:46pm

To be fair, Chancellor vs. Welker on a crossing route could likely generate the same result.

42
by formido :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 3:16am

Jesus the comments here are getting dumber. You realize Harvin has no history of concussions right? If it's so smart and easy to knock out football players, why aren't they getting targeted a lot more? Why don't teams just late hit Manning in the head and knock him out of the game? I mean, they'd be stupid not to, right?

Maybe it's because it's not that easy and intentional late hits to the head lead to ejection? Hmmm.

The opportunity to head shot someone in the normal course of a game is not as frequent as your imagination apparently says it is.

71
by justanothersteve :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 3:52pm

Harvin left the Saints-Seahawks game with a concussion which is why he missed the NFC Championship game. I'd call that a history.
http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap2000000311962/article/percy-harvin-left...

7
by t.d. :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 5:20am

Too much of the consensus seem to be that the Seattle D-Denver O will be a wash. Not sure which side will have the advantage, but I bet the winner will be the team that wins this matchup decisively (low scoring means Seattle wins, high scoring Denver). Neither team has face anything like what they're in for

8
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 5:34am

Well, when the #1 scoring offense faced the #1 scoring defense last year, it turned out to be a wash (New England versus Seattle). The Patriots scored 34.8 points per game and the Seahawks gave up 15.3 per game, and New England scored 23 that day, right near the average.

Really, this game is pretty near identical to last year's game, except that it's on a neutral field and Denver's special teams are worse than New England's. I mean, even Denver's offensive and defensive DVOA ranks are the same.

23
by t.d. :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 1:23pm

Last year, neither of those teams were historically great, and the differeces between the five headed monster that is the Denver attack and the New England two tight end attack are significant enough not to consider this a fill in (and the last #1 O vs #1 D matchup in the Super Bowl, Tampa vs Oakland, was a one-sided slaughter decided by the key matchup)

29
by RickD :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 4:22pm

The Bucs vs. Raiders Super Bowl is the kind of data point that would be "censored" in any serious statistical study, since one team had a huge advantage of knowing all the signals being used by the other team.

27
by Bobman :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 3:54pm

The rankings are always deceiving and I suspect if you look at their relation to the average you might get a better sense of what #1 vs #1 means. Also, if you just look at away games for each unit, you can remove their HFA, which is considerable for both teams. If you prorate their away stats, Seattle is #2 in pts allowed and #5 in passing YPG, while Den is still #1 with the #1 passing game. In rushing they both look middling on the road. Those rankings still make it look like a relative wash.

Based on ordinary stats, Denver's O in all its away games, scored 13 pts or 55% above the league average (36.3 vs 23.4 PPG). In terms of scoring D, Seattle in away games led the league by 8 pts or 35% (15.1 vs 23.4 PPG). Passing yards, Den averaged 105 YPG (45%) more than the league average in its away games, while Sea D averaged just 28 yards less (12%) than league average in away games. On the road, Seattle's D beat the NFL average by 3% in rush YPG (a 3 yard advantage) while Denver ran for 13 more YPG (12%) than league average in road games.

Advanced stats will no doubt tell a more reliable story, but it suggests to me that on the surface, Denver's O does better on the road than Seattle's D, when compared to league averages. No opponent/weather adjustments, of course. I am not sure if DVOA is measuring Seattle's HFA accurately. I guess we'll see.

31
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 4:58pm

Denver's road stats are considerably skewed by the fact that they had 10 more drives than at home (1.25 drives more per game), whereas Seattle had the same number of drives in their splits.

9
by jacobk :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 9:58am

Mr. Beast Mode? Please don't tell me you guys are piling on the media scrum and stripping Sir Beast Mode of his knighthood.

10
by jonnyblazin :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 10:08am

I might be mistaken, but doesn't Seattle use a lot of sub-packages on the DL to generate a pass rush on 3rd down plays? If so Manning might be able to take advantage with the no huddle.

26
by EricL :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 3:54pm

That's a key facet of the major matchup I'm looking at. Denver would be silly to not run no-huddle as much as they can. Does Seattle counter with a hybrid d-line?

11
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 10:32am

"So despite Wilson's recent struggles, a look at his entire season is probably a better guide to how well we can expect him to play on Sunday, and the same goes for the Denver defense."

We don't need to consider DEN offense's entire season because [reasons] and should only consider their recent stretch of 35% DVOA, but we should neglect Seattle's second-half slump because [reasons] and neglect their current -10% DVOA. Also, Denver's defensive improvement has been a mirage (started in week 6) and should be ignored in favor of a whole-season analysis.

Consider fitting your narrative to your data, and not the other way around.

15
by DEW :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 11:53am

There is a valid point there. Now, it's not impossible to say that the short-term is more predictive in some cases and the long-term more predictive in other cases. But if so, I'd like to see the reasons why, particularly when the choice of break points appears to exclusively favor Seattle in the analysis: removing Denver's early-season offensive explosions as outliers, including Denver's early-season defensive failures as predictive, and dismissing Wilson's recent struggles as non-predictive. Those may all be analytically correct decisions, but I'd like to know the reason why.

17
by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 12:47pm

Weighted DVOA accounts for the last 14 weeks of games, which is why I felt more comfortable with the idea that you can judge Denver's offense better without Weeks 1-4. There's a big difference between "decline consists of one month" and "decline consists of three months," especially when the latter decline is smaller than the former.

That being said, I totally forgot to talk about how the Denver defense improved when Von Miller returned from his suspension. That's because the recent talk about how the Denver defense has improved has not focused on a change in October; it has focused on a change in January. That's the change that I was writing off as being small sample size and recency bias -- the fact that the Denver defense has been better for just two games in the postseason.

However, it is true that if you take out September, Denver's defense looks better just like their offense does not look quite as good. Of course at that point, we have to ask: does improvement that was timed to Miller's return still mean as much without Miller in the lineup? Certainly the Broncos defense hasn't *declined* since Miller's injury, which would suggest that the improvement in October has not gone away.

18
by The Ancient Mariner :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 12:49pm

There are certainly a lot of 'Hawks fans very concerned that the Russell we'll see in the SB will be the same Russell we saw against Arizona.

19
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 12:59pm

I read the article several times, and don't see anywhere where the article asks us to ignore the first few games of Denver's season. I think the point is that other media have mentioned numerous times that Wilson is slumping, but haven't mentioned that Denver has had two of their worst offensive games in recent weeks as well. In the same vein, it'd be fine if the outside narrative was that Denver's defense started improving mid-season, but instead it's that their defense has completely stepped up their game in the post-season.

32
by Hummingbird Cyborg :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 5:23pm

The Denver offense has scored more per drive against San Diego and New England per drive than they did in the regular season. They haven't scored as much because they only had eight drives in each game. But, 60+ yards per drive in New England is nothing to sneeze at.

34
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 5:36pm

Well, sure, but against two poor defenses. Committing two turnovers against a team that barely gets one a game is not very good, and both were on Denver's receivers. One underrated matchup is how much Denver's receivers, already known for their drops, will be intimidated by Seattle's hard hitting. Of course, you could say the same for Denver's approach with Harvin.

35
by JIPanick :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 6:16pm

"Committing two turnovers against a team that barely gets one a game is not very good"

Well, the second involved receiver error but was really a fantastic defensive play.

The first was an officiating blunder, plain and simple.

47
by Hummingbird Cyborg :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 11:04am

What I said absolutely discredited your previous statement. They have played against weaker defenses in the playoffs, but in an absolutely dominating fashion. To expect that to continue in the same vein against Seattle would be unrealistic, but that doesn't mean that you should go out of your way to diminish fantastic play.

57
by Perfundle :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 7:16pm

What they did against San Diego was not fantastic play, or domination. Domination would not have required them to convert a 3rd-and-17 on their own 20 to prevent the opponent getting the ball with a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter.

38
by Rick_and_Roll :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 7:49pm

While Denver hasn't scored as many points as they had been, I'd argue that Denver's offense is playing better in the post-season. They have changed their philosophy from trying to run as many plays as possible, to one that controls the clock. It's no coincidence that Denver's defense has improved since they adopted a ball control mentality.

Denver has had the ball for approximately 35 minutes in each game, with 8 drives in each game for a total of 16. A summary of their drive results.

5 Touchdowns
5 Field Goals
1 punt total in two games
1 missed FG
1 INT on a tipped pass in the end zone
1 Fumble (that could have easily be ruled otherwise) that occurred in opponents territory
2 'Four Minute' drives where Denver ran out the clock to end the game

They have declined in terms of red-zone efficiency in the playoffs, but otherwise, their offense has been dominant and in the big picture is just as good if not better because it protects their defense. Also, don't forget that Denver's defense has played very well against teams with better offenses than Seattle's.

77
by Pen :: Mon, 02/03/2014 - 8:00pm

So which is it? Wilson's being carried by a cast of heroes or Seattle doesn't have much of an offense? Luck carries his team, but Wilson is carried by his team with the not so great offense - that put up 27 points on Denver?

78
by The Ancient Mariner :: Tue, 02/04/2014 - 11:24am

To give the man his credit, his narrative was right, and your view of the data was wrong.

Which, as a lifelong Seattle fan, still floors me.

20
by The Ancient Mariner :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 12:59pm

It's important to note that Carroll's defensive strategy is to try to force teams to live on passes to the short middle and then level whoever makes the catch. See http://www.fieldgulls.com/football-breakdowns/2014/1/29/5349446/super-bo...

21
by pm :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 1:10pm

" It's based on just two games. In fact, if you believe in Football Outsiders numbers, it's really based on just one-and-a-half games, as the Denver defense only controlled the San Diego offense during the first half of the Divisional Round game."

This is so wrong. How do you have the Broncos defense with a +20% rating against the Raiders when they allowed 0 points until midway through the 4th quarter when the score was 34-0 and they had backups in? DVOA is flawed since it gave so much credit to garbage time yards.

28
by Bobman :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 4:05pm

Opponent adjustments? i.e. allowing the Raiders to score anything at any time in any conditions is still a major negative? I don't know that that's true, but it's the only explanation I can think of.

Also, when you rest your first stringers on offense, the replacements (who control the ball/clock/field position less efficiently) put more pressure on your D that it normally would not have--so the Den D had a double burden late in that game and a 34 pt lead. Seems like the very essence of garbage time.

30
by RickD :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 4:24pm

About the weather, the current forecast calls for temperatures in the high 40s on Sunday, with a low probability of precipitation.

It seems likely that any cold-weather stats will be irrelevant.

33
by Hummingbird Cyborg :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 5:29pm

Overall, this article comes off as an article trying to showcase why Seattle should be favored and they should, but it also overstates the point. Also, all of the splits are interesting, but most of them are tiny sample sizes, so you can't read too much into them.

In the case of a situation like last year when there is a clear favorite, (Even though they won) the article should be written to showcase that fact. In a situation in which both sides are fairly evenly matched, the article should showcase that.

39
by intel_chris :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 12:45am

Hummingbird Cyborg wrote:
In the case of a situation like last year when there is a clear favorite, (Even though they won) the article should be written to showcase that fact. In a situation in which both sides are fairly evenly matched, the article should showcase that.

The article was written to stress the author's opinion, which is as it should be. You hire an analyst to take the data and formulate an opinion based upon what the analyst decides are the most influential and reliable pieces of data, and to explain why those are (in the analysts opinion) the most influential and reliable data points. Aaron did just that. Expecting him to showcase an opinion he doesn't have, hmmm you could be my management....

By the way, I saw the article as fairly hedged. Aaron may consider the Seahawks to be slight favorites, but he gave plenty of reasons why the game might go the other way, at least that's my impression from reading it.

40
by formido :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 2:30am

Rewatch Colston's TD and explain how you think it was on Sherman.

44
by whateverdude :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 4:10am

Yeah, I'd attribute that TD to Earl Thomas if anyone. Sherman was clearly covering Lance Moore on that play and came over at the last second.

41
by formido :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 3:06am

> Other than the usual random fluctuation, there are two reasons to believe that Seattle's higher DVOA rating is illusionary.

Um, and on the other hand, Percy Harvin, a consensus MVP candidate last year, is playing in this game and Seattle's offense has been far more efficient this year on drives with Harvin on the field.

> Percy Harvin will be on the field for only this third game this season, although he's always an X-factor and nobody ever knows how many snaps he can stay on the field for.

Uh, what? This sounds a lot less like rational analysis and a lot more like a Facebook comment on ESPN. What precisely do you think is going to keep him off the field? His cleared concussion is going to magically come back? Does that happen? Or are you pretending that most players return to the field after a sprinting shoulder to the helmet?

Harvin has played 47 games and gotten a serious injury in 3: aggravation of his hip surgery, sprained ankle, and a concussion. I'm no math whiz, but by my calculations, odds of Harvin playing a normal workload are "very high".

43
by Will Allen :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 3:43am

What's 47 out of 80?

45
by Jerry :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 7:32am

You mean XLVII out of LXXX, right?

46
by Will Allen :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 10:58am

One of these years, one of the teams is really gonna get into the spirit of the Ancient Language Bowl, and ride elephants Hannibal-style, in conquering fashion to the stadium, as Terry, Howie, Jimmy, Curt, Pam, and Erin flees in terror. It'll be awesome.

49
by JIPanick :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 12:32pm

"Percy Harvin [was] a consensus MVP candidate last year"

Let's not get carried away here.

63
by Vincent Verhei :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 3:26am

Um, and on the other hand, Percy Harvin, a consensus MVP candidate last year, is playing in this game and Seattle's offense has been far more efficient this year on drives with Harvin on the field.

What? I mean ... what?

69
by Led :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 1:25pm

Most Valuable Percy.

48
by Bruce Lamon :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 12:02pm

Great analysis, Aaron, especially re the overlooked special teams advantage Seattle has.

Another overlooked Seattle advantage is coaching. Carroll is maddeningly conservative but at least he is not a troglodyte like Fox. But is this advantage already built into DVOA? E.g., how if at all does DVOA penalize a team that punts when it should go for it?

51
by The Hypno-Toad :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 12:51pm

For what it's worth, the Seahawks have attempted 11 fourth down conversions and the Broncos have attempted 9 both very near the bottom of the league. I don't see this specifically stated anywhere on the page, but I am assuming that these are regular season-only stats.
http://www.sportingcharts.com/nfl/stats/4th-down-efficiency/2013/

For comparison, the Broncos punted 65 times (http://espn.go.com/nfl/player/_/id/12773/britton-colquitt), so the Broncos went for it on roughly 12.2% of fourth down opportunities, disregarding field goals. The Seahawks punted 74 times (http://espn.go.com/nfl/player/_/id/10238/jon-ryan)so they went for it on roughly 12.9% of fourth down opportunities, disregarding field goals. I agree that these coaches need to work on their aggressiveness, but I find it hard to believe that the dividing line between conservative and troglodyte is placed somewhere between 12.2 and 12.9 percent.
Of course that leaves out the settling for field goals component (while simultaneously ignoring factors like yards needed for a first down, game situation and basically all relevant context, because this is a half-assed rebuttal) Bringing field goals into it (I'm assuming that no one other than Prater and Hauschka attempted FGs for these teams and limiting it to regular season stats):

Broncos:
Fourth Downs Faced: 100
Punt: 65 (65%)
Conversion Attempt: 9 (9%)
Field Goal Attempt: 26 (26%)

Seahawks:
Fourth Downs Faced: 120
Punt: 74 (61.7%)
Conversion Attempt: 11 (9.2%)
Field Goal Attempt: 35 (29.2%)

Other than Seattle apparently facing a slightly higher percentage of their fourth down plays in field goal range, I'm not quite sure that there is any meaningful difference between the aggression level of these two coaches this season.

53
by The Hypno-Toad :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 12:59pm

I'll also point out that there is potentially yet another layer of inaccuracy in there because I didn't check for non-fourth down field goal attempts.

58
by Perfundle :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 7:19pm

Conservativeness extends to more than simply whether they go for fourth downs or not. Look at last year's playoff game for Denver, when Fox decided to run out the last 30 seconds instead of giving Manning a chance to win the game. Other examples could involve running futile draw plays on third-and-long near the endzone, or designing routes that land short of the first-down marker.

59
by The Hypno-Toad :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 7:38pm

Agreed, I was primarily responding to this part of the original post, "E.g., how if at all does DVOA penalize a team that punts when it should go for it?"
And while the kneel out to end regulation and the drive previous to that where the Broncos ran it three straight times with Ronnie Hillman(!) knowing that Baltimore could stop the clock twice on that series are pretty much the gold-standard of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot conservatism, I would say that the Broncos have not shown much approaching that level of awfulness in their playcalling in four minute situations this season.
My argument was that while Fox is notoriously conservative, he has been better this season, and the perception that he is currently meaningfully less aggressive than Carroll is not well borne out by the numbers.

61
by The Hypno-Toad :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 8:26pm

I should rephrase that last line. "...is not well borne out by the numbers associated with the specific benchmark that the original poster brought up." That seems more nuanced and more accurately summarizes my earlier posts.

54
by The Hypno-Toad :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 1:55pm

The New York Times' Fourth Down Bot seems to agree with most analysis about these two teams (and NFL coaches in general), their fourth down decisions are mostly reasonable, but when the model disagrees with their decision, it is almost always because the coach in question was not aggressive enough.
Here's Denver's season from the robut's perspective:

http://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/11/28/fourth-downs/team.html?te...

Here's Seattle's

http://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/11/28/fourth-downs/team.html?te...

62
by Bruce Lamon :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 9:33pm

Thanks! 27 "I would have gone for it"s for Carroll, 17 for Fox. Even considering that Seattle had more fourth downs, it's another suggestion that the numbers tell a different story from my subjective impressions. Oh well, on to the next lame hypothesis.

52
by Lido997 :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 12:59pm

However, like most field-goal kickers, Prater has been inconsistent from season to season, and he doesn't have a history of making (or even attempting) long field goals in cold weather. In 2011 and 2012, Prater was just 7-for-14 on attempts of 45 or more yards. Over that entire three-year period, Prater only attempted three field goals of 45 or more yards on the road with a temperature below 60 degrees, hitting one (a 47-yarder with the roof open in Indianapolis this season) and missing two (in Kansas City and Baltimore last season). In none of those games was the temperature below 50 degrees."

This seems a little disingenuous. I know the point is about road games, but I do think it should be mentioned that Prater broke the field goal record in sub 20 degree weather (if i remember correctly).

60
by Scott Kacsmar :: Sat, 02/01/2014 - 7:58pm

My Super Bowl preview: http://captaincomeback.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/super-bowl-xlviii-predic...

I like Denver by 4 points, which means I see a lot of ways for Seattle to win too.

64
by The Hypno-Toad :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 7:04am

I was hoping to have something intelligent to say about this game eventually. But it's only 13 hours away, and in the words of the great Phillip Fry, time makes fools of us all... So in place of intelligent I guess I'll settle for wordy and the tone of "blowhard". I'm a very dedicated Bronco fan. I've been watching since before I can remember, and I've been attending home games for 28 years. I don't even remember watching the Broncos first Super Bowl win, all I remember is being so nervous that I couldn't even drink a beer (And for me as a high school kid to turn down free beer, those must have been pretty outlandish nerves).
But I try to come at my fandom from a rational place as much as possible, as I think most FO readers do. I think Seattle is a better team than the Broncos. I don't think they're a *whole* lot better, I've been using 55% Seattle - 45% Denver for the shorthand of my feelings about this game in discussions with friends, family and coworkers, and that's close enough to how I actually feel. I think it is entirely reasonable to pick the Broncos to win this game, but I do think something out of the ordinary would need to happen. I think that for the Broncos to win this game they are going to need a special teams score or a return deep into Seattle territory, a defensive score or a forced turnover within Seattle's 35 or so. And then the rest of the game would have to go pretty well with conventional wisdom or also break in the Broncos favor.
This is not a game I would ever bet on even though I am basically predicting the underdog to win outright, but even if I wasn't a fan of one of the teams involved, I would make damn sure that I watched it happen. This should be a fun one, everybody.
Thanks for either reading my nonsense or skipping it and not excoriating me for the level of crapulence.

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by zzyzx :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 9:02am

Speaking from the Seahawks point of view, I was confident until I started reading the constant more homery Broncos will roll posts and now I'm terrified again. I do think we are the better team but also know that the Broncos are pretty darn good and it wouldn't take that much to have one of my favorite teams fall short again. 10 hours! Go Hawks!

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by The Hypno-Toad :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 5:16pm

It's funny, I felt a lot better about this matchup before I started reading overconfident (to my way of thinking) Bronco fans' predictions and even moreso reading articles from people on ESPN picking the Broncos. It's hard to feel like you're on the right side of something when you notice that the sort of people who talk seriously about "clutch" and "swagger" are arguing the same position that you are.
The most terrifying thing I saw was that Skip Bayless (The King of Being Wrong) picked the Broncos "Because of Denver's defense." And then Colin Cowherd said basically the same thing. I cannot conceive of a situation where those two agree on something and it winds up being true.

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by Will Allen :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 10:06am

I see the relative strengths about the same way you do, but it seems, to me, that the most certain path for a Broncos victory lies in not giving the Seahawks any short fields. If they don't turn it over in their own territory, don't give up any big special teams, and don't have three and outs while pinned deep, I think they'll win. I don't think they'll be able to manage that, however.

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by EricL :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 10:48am

I am certainly a Seattle fan, but have always enjoyed watching Manning play. To understand the game that well, at that level, well... he's the best overall quarterback I've seen play (The arguments over Marino, Brady, and Montana another time...)

I think for Seattle to win, they're going to have to force a turnover in Denver territory. And I don't think that turnover is going to come from a bad Manning throw. I think it's going to come from alligator arms on a crossing route in the 2nd half, after a couple big hits in the first half. Nearly half of Seattle's picks during the season were tipped balls, and that's what's going to happen here. That pick will give Seattle initiative (I will NOT use the word momentum), and they'll begin to dictate terms from there.

If Seattle doesn't get a crucial turnover of that nature, they're not going to win. I don't see Seattle being able to out-score Denver with relatively equal drives. (If each team gets less than 10 drives, Denver wins, if 11 or more, Seattle does.) I think the return game will end up being a wash, so it's going to be that TO that does it.

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by The Hypno-Toad :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 5:06pm

That's definitely true. Short fields for Seattle would turn this from a pretty even matchup that favors the Seahawks to a potential bloodbath that favors the Seahawks. The factor that I just can't quite talk myself around is the Seahawks' red zone defense. That is just production at an otherworldly level. My concern is that even if the Broncos get one of the breaks I mentioned above, a turnover or return deep into Seattle territory, that they won't be able to capitalize against that defense. Whereas if the Seahawks get a similar break, I have trouble thinking that they don't get into the end zone.

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by Led :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 1:33pm

I hate to say it, but the officiating is going to play an even bigger role than usual this year. If Seattle is allowed to assault and batter receivers as they have much of the year (not that there's anything wrong with that!), then I think the Broncos are going to have a very hard time scoring points. Their receivers are a little soft anyway, even Thomas (who shouldn't be). On the other hand, I could see the Seattle DBs drawing a bunch of flags if the game crew decides to call it close. I'm not sure I can handle another several years of whining from Seahawk fans if that happens. Either way, I'm predicting controversy.

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by justanothersteve :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 4:06pm

I think this is the biggest variable. Nobody knows how the game will be called when one team essentially dares the officials to throw a flag. If it's called closely, I favor Denver. If Seattle is allowed to mug the receivers, I favor the Seahawks.

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by Cythammer :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 6:28pm

I think Seattle should obviously be favorites for this game, though a Denver win wouldn't be a huge shock. I think the Broncos are being overrated because in the past few games they've played relatively well on defense, while over a similar time span Russell Wilson has struggled. That's caused a lot of media members to perceive the matchup of Seattle O and Denver D as being closer than it really is.
I know they've had a few solid games, even after their late season injuries, but it's most likely that the Denver defense has been playing over its head in those games. It's also more likely that Russell Wilson is the quarterback we saw in the first 13 games than the one we've seen more recently. On the other side of the ball it might be a wash. When Seattle has the ball, they should have a significant advantage. They're also better on special teams. I think it's even possible that all those Denver injuries finally come home to roost and the Seahawks win with relative ease. For the Broncos to win they need their defense to continue to play over its head, and/or Peyton to have the game of his life.
If you look only at the past two or so games, it's easy to think this is an even matchup. It really isn't, though. As Aaron mentions above, the Seahawks have been better all season and are now much healthier. They should be favorites in any case, but thrown in the fact that they have Percy Harvin back (he can't hurt, at the absolute least) and that the refs may very well aid the Seahawks by swallowing their whistles, and Seattle should be getting picked to win by most media members.
Instead the Broncos appear to be the consensus favorite. That's too bad, because Peyton is going to be labeled a massive choker if he struggles at all in a loss to a team that was supposedly inferior to his own. Oh well. I'll be cheering for the Broncos, but I expect to have listen to arguments 30 years from now about how Peyton might've been the best even, if only he hadn't blown that second Super Bowl title against the Seahawks…

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by The Hypno-Toad :: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 7:22pm

This may be a little odd, and the timing almost certainly is, but I just want to say thank you to the whole football outsiders team and the commenter community. I love having a place on the internet that I can find great analysis, intelligent dialogue, passionate fans with the ability to think critically about their favorite teams and none of the things that make the comments on mainstream sites so painfully unreadable. I love the fact that the articles and the comments come from people who are smarter than me, that the arguments are clearly articulated and are more likely to be about things like data fitting or confidence intervals than the ad hominem attacks and thinly veiled (or openly stated) racism that defines so much of the sports discussion on the internet. You all have made me a better-informed (and just better overall) fan of the game. I appreciate the contributions of everyone in here. Regardless of what happens today, I look forward to reading what you all have to say about it.