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» Seventh Day Adventure: Week 13

The biggest game this week is the Iron Bowl, where the playoff hopes of Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia hang in the balance.

22 Jan 2016

2016 NFC Championship Preview

by Aaron Schatz

Once upon a time in the early days of the 2015 NFL season, there were a lot of undefeated teams. You might remember those heady days, when we were debating if New England or Cincinnati or Green Bay was going to go undefeated. And yet, one of the teams sitting at the top of our DVOA ratings for most of the year was a team that started the season 4-2. The Arizona Cardinals ranked first or second in DVOA every week from Week 2 to Week 11. Yes, they had two inexplicable losses to the Rams and the Big Ben-free Steelers, but the rest of their season seemed to consist of dominating win after dominating win. When the Packers started losing in mid-October, it seemed clear that Arizona was the class of the NFC for 2015.

Except one other undefeated team, the one we couldn't believe was one of the best teams in the league, just refused to lose a game. As the other undefeated teams gradually fell off, the Carolina Panthers won week after week. Gradually, the Panthers stopped winning close and started winning by comfortable margins and then by dominant ones. Arizona stopped piling up blowout after blowout and won by closer margins. By the end of the season, the two teams seemed to be neck-and-neck. Our numbers may have loved Seattle more, but the Seahawks aren't around anymore. Besides, we got to see them play Arizona and Carolina twice each. We haven't gotten to see Arizona and Carolina play each other, and we've been waiting all season for this opportunity. Winner gets a trip to Super Bowl 50 and an opportunity to play second-fiddle to the national media's obsession with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.

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. Game charting data appears courtesy of either ESPN Stats & Information or Sports Info Solutions.


Cardinals on Offense
ARI OFF CAR DEF
DVOA 15.8% (4) -18.4% (2)
WEI DVOA 8.4% (10) -15.4% (5)
PASS 42.4% (3) -18.2% (2)
RUSH -8.0% (16) -18.7% (6)
RED ZONE -2.6% (19) 3.4% (18)
Panthers on Offense
CAR OFF ARI DEF
DVOA 9.9% (8) -15.6% (3)
WEI DVOA 14.0% (5) -10.1% (9)
PASS 23.8% (9) -9.4% (4)
RUSH 3.8% (6) -24.4% (2)
RED ZONE 32.3% (3) 10.6% (23)
Special Teams
ARI CAR
DVOA -4.0% (29) -2.4% (23)
ARI kickoff +0.4 (17) -1.8 (19)
CAR kickoff +0.5 (11) -5.1 (28)
ARI punts -12.7 (30) +2.8 (11)
CAR punts -6.3 (29) -6.3 (24)
FG/XP -1.8 (25) -1.5 (22)

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 CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL

For the most part, this matchup is strength vs. strength. The Cardinals enjoyed one of the best offenses in the league for most of the season. They have struggled in their last two games, but there's really no reason to believe this represents anything more than random variation. Carson Palmer's finger injury? Yes, I thought that might be part of it as well, until I realized that I was mis-remembering when the injury took place. Palmer hurt his finger in Week 15, and he didn't have any problems with it when the Cardinals destroyed Green Bay a week later.

On the other side, the Panthers bring one of the best defenses in the league. They excelled against both the run and the pass. However, the Carolina defense has also had some problems of late, and there is an actual, tangible reason why this is the case. It's now the biggest weakness of the Carolina defense and the perfect weakness for Palmer and his talented receiving corps to attack.

Put simply, the Carolina secondary that put up great numbers through most of the regular season is no longer on the field. We all know that Josh Norman was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL this season. The Sports Info Solutions charting backs this up, with Norman putting up a 61 percent success rate and 5.2 yards allowed per pass. Those are top-ten numbers in both metrics, and that's before we've had a chance to adjust for the quality of receivers being covered. However, the Panthers have lost their top two cornerbacks behind Norman for the playoffs. Bene Benwikere suffered a broken leg in Week 14 against Atlanta, and then Charles Tillman tore his ACL against Tampa Bay in Week 17. The new starter across from Norman is Robert McClain, who played primarily in the slot for the Panthers and Falcons for five years and was cut by New England before the season. He had been unemployed until the Panthers signed him on December 15, not even a month ago. At nickelback will be veteran Cortland Finnegan, who sat at home unwanted by any team until the Panthers got desperate near the end of the season. The only other active corners on the Carolina roster are Teddy Williams, a 27-year-old kick gunner who only played 50 defensive snaps this season, and Louis Young, a 24-year-old undrafted free agent who was promoted from the practice squad after Tillman was hurt.

In our game preview last week, Vincent Verhei predicted that the Panthers would avoid blitzing, "so as not to put McClain and Finnegan in one-on-one situations against a quarterback and receivers who specialize in deep passing." Well, that proved to be incorrect. The Panthers' blitz rate actually went up; Carolina blitzed 28 percent of the time during the season, very close to the NFL average, but 39 percent of the time against Seattle. And oh boy, did it not work. Russell Wilson had 8.9 yards per attempt and 6.9 net yards per pass against blitzes, compared to 7.5 yards per attempt and 6.5 net yards per pass otherwise. He had all three passing touchdowns against blitzes, while both of his picks against four-man rushes.

Watch the second half of the game again and you can see how the combination of extra pass rushers and poor secondary depth caused problems. On Seattle's first play of the third quarter, Carolina sent five, and Wilson completed a short pass to Kevin Smith, covered by McClain. Next play, Carolina sent five, quick slant to Doug Baldwin in the hole left by Finnegan blitzing from the slot. Two plays later, Carolina sent five, and Wilson found Jermaine Kearse in the end zone out-maneuvering McClain.

The next series, Carolina blitzed three times. Wilson scrambled for a first down on third-and-10, which isn't something the Panthers have to fear from Carson Palmer. But Wilson also completed a 16-yard pass to Kearse, who was wide open because of a huge cushion from McClain. Three plays later, another blitz, Tyler Lockett beat Kurt Coleman deep; the safety Coleman was covering in Norman's stead because Norman came on the corner blitz.

Not all the blitzes failed. On the last Seattle drive of the third quarter, Carolina got sacks on two straight blitz plays. And it wasn't always about picking on McClain and Finnegan; the final blitz touchdown was a crazy scramble play where Jermaine Kearse eventually got free of Norman and made a leaping touchdown grab on a ball that went over Norman's outstretched arm. However, for the most part, Seattle's passing game in last week's comeback was built around picking on McClain or zones behind a blitz. (Surprisingly, there wasn't a lot of picking on Finnegan, who was targeted only three times according to the SIS charting compared to five for Norman and 15 for McClain.)

The Arizona offense really isn't very similar to the Seattle offense when it comes to how the plays are structured, but there are two big similarities that feed right into this weakness for the Panthers. First, like Seattle, Arizona has three wide receivers with great numbers this year. The difference is that almost all observers believe that the Arizona receivers are more talented and difficult to cover. Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd all finished in the top ten for wide receiver DVOA this year. Josh Norman can only cover one of the three. And the Cardinals very rarely use their tight ends in the passing game -- only the Jets threw a lower percentage of passes to the tight ends -- which means Carolina's No. 1 ranking in DVOA against tight ends doesn't really help much.

So if the Panthers want to stop the Arizona passing game, they need to bring the pass pressure. That's something Carolina is good at, even without a blitz. Overall, ESPN Stats & Info reported Carolina with pressure on 28.7 percent of pass plays, which ranked tenth in the NFL. And the Panthers didn't need a blitz to bring pressure; without a blitz, they had pressure on 26.6 percent of pass plays, which ranked sixth. Meanwhile, despite improved overall play from the Arizona offensive line, Carson Palmer did feel pressure this year. He was pressured on 29.7 percent of pass plays.

However, while Palmer declined under pressure just like all quarterbacks do, he declined less than most. Palmer led the league with 9.4 net yards per pass when not under pressure, but he was also second in the league with 5.1 net yards per pass when he was under pressure. In particular, Palmer had no problem with blitzes. He actually averaged more yards per pass (9.4 vs. 8.4) and more net yards per pass (8.5 vs. 7.9) when opponents sent five or more pass rushers. Even last week, when he struggled with accuracy at times and made some bad decisions, Palmer averaged 10.7 net yards per pass when Green Bay blitzed. Sure, that's mostly because of Larry Fitzgerald's big 75-yard play in overtime, but even without considering that play Palmer was better against the blitz (6.1 net yards per play) than he was otherwise (5.6 net yards per play).

Of course, one way to break through pass pressure is to use the running back in the passing game, either on screens or as a safety valve. That may be where Arizona rookie running back David Johnson is most dangerous. In Weeks 13-17, after Johnson became the starter, he was second in receiving DYAR among running backs behind only James White of the Patriots. As you might expect, the Panthers face a lot of passes to running backs. In fact, our opponent-adjusted numbers have them facing more than any other team in the NFL, 9.4 targets per game. However, the Panthers were also very good against these passes, ranking seventh in DVOA.

What about Johnson as a runner? Well, Arizona is coming off a horrible day running the ball against Green Bay, with just 35 yards on 15 carries for Johnson plus another three carries for just 3 yards from Andre Ellington. But we know one bad week doesn't establish that the Cardinals can no longer run the ball. In the last five weeks of the regular season, Johnson was second in the NFL in rushing DYAR behind Matt Forte, and Arizona's run offense DVOA of 1.2% in those last five weeks would have ranked the Cardinals seventh in the NFL over the entire season. Johnson's elusive running will be less of a problem for a Carolina defense that was excellent at tackling. Sports Info Solutions charted Johnson with 39 broken tackles this season, or .244 broken tackles per touch, which ranks ninth among running backs with at least 100 touches. However, Carolina ranked fourth among defenses (and first among NFC defenses) with just .120 broken tackles per tackle.

Arizona's offense is not designed for downhill runs up the middle; the Cardinals ranked just 22nd in adjusted line yards up the middle but were top ten in our other four listed directions. They were also 29th in converting short-yardage runs, just 51 percent success. As you might expect, the Panthers' defense was very strong against runs up the middle. But what's really odd is that they were somehow the worst team in the league against short-yardage runs, allowing 87 percent conversion despite the team's strength at the defensive tackle position. Maybe this is just an artifact of small sample size, as Carolina only faced 23 short-yardage runs all season (defined as 1 or 2 yards to go on third down, fourth down, or at the goal line). But what's even more remarkable is that the Panthers allowed a lot of long runs in these situations instead of just giving up the yard or 2 needed for a conversion. Five different times an opposing running back lined up in one of these situations needing 1 or 2 yards and got 10 or more instead!

This is part of a strange Carolina problem with defending short-yardage situations. Not that Carolina opponents get into those situations very often, but when they do, Carolina ranks 25th on second-and-short and 28th on third-and-short. The Panthers also struggled when an offense was in the red zone and the Panthers' defense was backed up against the goal line. Carolina ranked 12th in red zone pass defense and was dead last in the NFL in red zone run defense. They allowed touchdowns on six of eight runs inside the 5, and the other two runs each gained 3 yards on first-and-goal from the 4. But would Arizona even be able to take advantage of that? The Arizona offense also slowed down once it got inside the 20, ranking just 19th in DVOA (13th passing, and 21st rushing).

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

And now, the good news for the Panthers: while there is reason to believe that Arizona's offense is set up to attack Carolina's defense better than most other Carolina opponents, there's even more reason to believe that Carolina's offense is set up to attack Arizona's defense -- or at least, Arizona's pass defense -- better than most other Arizona opponents.

Neither the Carolina offense nor the Arizona defense had a below-average DVOA in any down-and-distance situation this season. On each down, the Cardinals ranked a little better than the Panthers, but they tended to have the same strengths. For example, the Cardinals were No. 1 in defense on third-and-long, but the Panthers offense ranked No. 4 in those situations.

One thing Arizona is well-suited for is countering Carolina's run-first mentality. In the first half of games -- i.e. before building big leads -- the Panthers ran on 45 percent of plays, which ranked them seventh in the NFL. However, Arizona's defense was second in DVOA against the run as well as second in adjusted line yards. The Cardinals stuffed opposing runners for a loss or no gain on 27 percent of carries, also second in the NFL.

Arizona's defense did have one clear weakness according to DVOA, and it was the same weakness that the Cardinals had on offense: the red zone. The Cardinals' DVOA dropped from third in the league to 23rd once the opponent reached the 20. Arizona struggled in the red zone against both the run and the pass. On the other side of the ball, this is a battle of relative weakness vs. relative weakness, but the Carolina offense excelled in the red zone. Of course, part of that is Cam Newton's running ability, which really opens up a lot of options (including the option!) for the Panthers when they get close to the goal line. Newton was a big reason why Carolina finished second in converting short-yardage "power" runs this season. Newton had exactly half of Carolina's 50 power runs, and he picked up a first down on 23 of them, a conversion rate of 92 percent. His teammates converted only 64 percent of these runs. (Arizona, by the way, was slightly better than average defending short-yardage runs on the whole field.)

Yet as good as they are running in short-yardage situations, the Panthers were even better passing than running when they got inside the 20, ranking third in red zone pass DVOA but 11th in red zone running. It helps when your best receiver is your big tight end.

But the real reason why the Cardinals defense is not well-suited to stop the Panthers is not about one particular area of the field. It's about what the Cardinals do in every part of the field: they blitz, blitz, and then blitz some more.

The average NFL team sends five or more pass rushers on roughly 30 percent of opponent dropbacks. Not Arizona, though. The Cardinals sent five or more pass rushers on 45.1 percent of opponent dropbacks this year, to lead the league. That's not even the highest rate they've had in recent years; two seasons ago, in 2013, the Cardinals blitzed 49.6 percent of the time.

Arizona will blitz in any down-and-distance situation, and from any location on the field. The Cardinals don't just wait for obvious passing situations like third down. This year they blitzed more often on first down (46.3 percent of pass plays) than on third down (43.7 percent). They were one of only two teams (Denver was the other) to send at least five pass rushers on at least half the pass plays they faced in the red zone. Last week against Green Bay, they blitzed on a Hail Mary, which is unheard of.

In general, blitzing works. Quarterbacks hit longer passes, but that's more than offset by the rise in sacks. If we include both sacks and scrambles, the average play with three or four pass rushers gained 6.7 yards this season. That number dropped to 6.4 yards with five pass rushers, 5.8 yards with six, and 5.4 yards with seven or more. And yet, here's the remarkable thing about Arizona's defense: opposing quarterbacks don’t actually perform any worse against the Arizona blitz. Completion rates go down, but overall efficiency does not. When you add in yardage gained from scrambles or lost on sacks, the Cardinals allow roughly the same average of net yards per pass whether they send a regular pass rush, a blitz of five pass rushers, or a big blitz of six or seven.

The Cardinals allow a particularly high QBR on big blitzes because they allow so many third-down conversions. (As noted in earlier playoff previews, we're using QBR rather than DVOA here because we don't have the DVOA numbers lined up with the ESPN Stats & Info charting data.) Thirty-four times this season, Arizona sent six or more pass rushers on third down, and half the time opponents converted for a new set of downs.

It's not that the Cardinals aren't bringing pressure by bringing extra pass rushers; they are. ESPN Stats & Info recorded the opposing quarterback under pressure 29 percent of the time when Arizona brings four pass rushers, compared to 36 percent of the time with five pass rushers and 52 percent of the time with six or more. But the blitzes also leave more receivers open downfield, and surprisingly, given their reputation in coverage, the Cardinals linebackers and defensive backs are leaving a lot of those guys open. The Cardinals also don't actually bring quarterbacks down as much as you would expect given all this blitzing. Although the Cardinals ranked third in pressure rate behind Denver and Seattle, they still ranked just 27th in adjusted sack rate this year.

Arizona Defense by No. of Pass Rushers, 2015
Pass Rushers C% Yd/At NYd/P TD Int QBR
3-4 rushers 64.6% 6.89 6.14 10 11 50.2
5 rushers 54.1% 6.65 6.05 5 4 54.7
6-7 rushers 55.4% 7.77 6.25 9 4 74.9

This isn't just a one-year trend. In 2014, opponents averaged 7.3 net yards per pass when the Arizona defense blitzed, but only 6.6 net yards per pass when the Cardinals rushed just three or four defenders.

So what does this constant blitzing mean for this Sunday's NFC Championship game? Well, blitzing Cam Newton was a very popular strategy for NFL defenses this season, but "popular" is very different from "successful." Essentially, if the Cardinals hold to their usual modus operandi, they'll be playing right into Newton's strengths.

Newton was blitzed on 39.7 percent of dropbacks this season. Among regular starting quarterbacks, only Cleveland's Josh McCown was blitzed more often. Except when opponents blitzed Newton, he actually got better. Against five pass rushers, Newton completed just as many passes but threw them deeper for more yardage. Against a big blitz of six or more, Newton's completion rate went down, but his average yardage was still higher than it was against four pass rushers, and he did not throw a single interception.

Cam Newton by No. of Pass Rushers, 2015
Pass Rushers C% Yd/At NetY/P TD Int QBR
3-4 rushers 61.1% 7.48 6.53 16 7 68.9
5 rushers 61.6% 8.49 7.53 12 3 78.4
6-7 rushers 53.4% 7.78 6.62 7 0 84.5

The one blitz strategy that may work for Arizona is bringing at least one defensive back. The Cardinals blitzed a defensive back on 17.0 percent of pass plays, which ranked fourth in the NFL, and this strategy was a bit more successful than Arizona's other blitzes. Arizona allowed only 5.2 net yards per pass when rushing a defensive back, though with a still-high QBR of 74.4 because of third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Newton (comparatively) struggled when his opponents blitzed defensive backs, at least when compared to his performance on blitzes as a whole. He completed just 47 percent of his passes, averaging 6.6 net yards per pass with a 66.0 QBR.

One of the biggest problems with the blitzes might be offering the opportunity for Newton to scramble. The Cardinals have a fast, but smaller defense that uses a former safety (Deone Bucannon) at inside linebacker. That kind of defense creates plenty of havoc but also misses tackles, and there's a bit of a worry here that Arizona defenders are just going to bounce off Superman like bullets. According to SIS charting, Arizona had .146 broken tackles per tackle, which ranked 28th in the NFL -- although the player with the most missed tackles was the now-injured Tyrann Mathieu with 17. Bucannon was second with 10.

When Newton is passing, whether there's pressure or not, he's going to want to stay away from whichever receiver is being covered by Patrick Peterson. SIS charting had Peterson as the best cornerback in the NFL this year, by leaps and bounds. He was charted with a 73 percent success rate and only 4.6 yards allowed per pass. Both figures were the best for any cornerback with at least 40 targets. Dime corner (and nickel corner after Tyrann Mathieu's injury) Justin Bethel had pretty good regular-season stats as well, with 59 percent success rate and 6.0 yards per pass. Jerraud Powers' stats were more average, with a 54 percent success rate and 8.2 yards allowed per pass. However, last week against Green Bay, it was Bethel who struggled to cover Jeff Janis when Aaron Rodgers got scrambling.

There is some question about which receiver is best for Peterson to be covering. Ted Ginn was the Panthers' No. 1 wide receiver, but his game is built so heavily on downfield passes that it might be better to roll a deep safety his way and use Peterson one-on-one against one of the other receivers. (The average pass to Ginn went 16.1 yards in the air; only four receivers with at least 50 targets had a longer average pass distance.) Arizona ranked second in DVOA against deep passes this season, so even when they blitz, it's easier to find an open man short than to find one deep. Veteran Jerricho Cotchery was actually the best of the Panthers receivers by DVOA (14.9%), but Corey Brown was close to him (8.9%). Both receivers had 54 targets, though Brown is a more frequent target on first down and Cotchery is more frequent on third.

Greg Olsen is likely to get his share of passes and gains in this game, but he may not be there for the big third-down conversions. Arizona ranked seventh in DVOA against tight ends this year, and no tight end had more than 80 yards in a game against the Cardinals. And the Cardinals were really good stopping tight ends on third down, while at the same time Olson was not as good on third down as he was overall. (Note that some of the reason for Arizona's great DVOA against tight ends on third down is that three of their five interceptions on passes intended for tight ends came on third down, all early in the season.)

Greg Olsen by Down, 2015   Arizona Defense vs. Tight Ends, 2015
Down Passes DVOA Yd/Pass C% x Down Passes DVOA Yd/Pass C%
1st Down 53 15.4% 10.5 63% x 1st Down 44 1.5% 6.6 68%
2nd Down 45 18.2% 9.0 66% x 2nd Down 52 -5.4% 8.4 68%
3rd/4th Down 28 -17.9% 7.0 54% x 3rd/4th Down 38 -40.6% 4.6 55%

The Cardinals did show a weakness stopping running backs in the passing game, ranking 22nd in DVOA, but that's unlikely to be an issue in this game. Carolina threw only 12.9 percent of passes to running backs, the lowest rate in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS

One of the most interesting things about the final DVOA ratings this year was that the top teams were all really well-balanced. The top seven teams in total DVOA all came out as above average in all three phases of the game... except for Carolina and Arizona on special teams. The Panthers and Cardinals both ranked in the bottom ten, and neither team ranked in the top ten in any of the five parts of special teams we measure.

The best opportunity for the Panthers to get a field-position advantage will be on punt returns, where Ted Ginn did solid but unspectacular work this year. Thirteen of his 27 punt returns gained at least 10 yards, but none gained over 40. Arizona punter Drew Butler is not very good, and only two punters ranked below him in gross punt value (Minnesota's Jeff Locke and San Francisco rookie Bradley Pinion). Arizona's punt coverage was actually OK most of the year, before Tyler Lockett ripped it to shreds in Week 17. Joe Webb and Fozzy Whittaker rotate on Carolina kick returns and are mediocre.

Patrick Peterson's reputation as a punt returner is entirely based on his rookie performance. He's been below average every year since, including this year. Peterson had only three returns over 15 yards this year, and he had three muffed punts and a fumble, although Arizona recovered on all four of those miscues. Instead, the numbers suggest that Arizona's best opportunity to get a field-position advantage will come on kickoff returns, but the Cardinals' positive value there is all David Johnson and he stopped returning kicks when he became the starting running back. Last week, Arizona used a combination of J.J. Nelson and Brittan Golden on kick returns; neither returned kicks during the regular season. It won't matter when Graham Gano puts it out of the end zone, which he does about two-thirds of the time. That touchback rate, not including squibs or onside kicks, ranks eighth in the NFL.

Gano is a pretty average placekicker but Ron Rivera won't give him many opportunities to hit from over 50; he was 2-for-4 on field goals of 50 or more yards this year. A bigger fear than a miss might be a block; Gano actually had four field goals and an extra point blocked this year. (The Cardinals didn't block any field goals by opponents.) Chandler Catanzaro is even less likely to hit a long field goal. His only two attempts over 50 yards were both at home and both missed. In fact, Catanzaro only tried four field goals over 43 yards all season and only hit one of them. That might be the biggest special teams impact on this game: the Cardinals can't bring in Catanzaro until they reach the 30, maybe not even until they reach the 25. He didn't have any misses on field goals of 43 yards or less, though he did miss five extra points.

Justin Bethel was once again chosen for one of the Pro Bowl's two special teams spots. We counted him with 13 special teams tackles, which is actually down from his past totals but still was easily the highest total for Arizona. No other player had more than seven special teams tackles. Catanzaro was actually fourth on the Cardinals and led all NFL kickers and punters with six special teams tackles (not including onside kicks). Depth cornerback Teddy Williams and former quarterback Webb are Carolina's top gunners; all 10 of Williams' tackles counted as stops, bringing down a returner for a gain that was below average by FO baselines.

OUTLOOK

At first I was going to write that despite the strong defenses for both these teams, the NFC Championship Game sets up to be a likely offensive battle. Each of these teams is well built to attack the defense of the other. However, that doesn't mean the defenses aren't going to make their share of plays. So perhaps it is better to say that this game sets up to be a game of big plays: deep passes to the Arizona receivers and big runs by Cam Newton but also sacks that will give us long down-and-distance situations. This is not likely to be a boring game filled with constant 2-yard runs and slowly matriculating the ball down the field.

The idea of a game of big plays brings up questions about Carolina's inability to hold on to big leads this season, including last week against Seattle. In analyzing the numbers, it is difficult to figure out if these blown leads are more about random variation or represent a real issue in how Carolina plays when it gets a big lead. It is important to note that the offense has to share the blame with the defense when it comes to these blown leads. In fact, the offense probably holds more of the blame, because the Carolina defense still was able to maintain a good DVOA rating even when winning by more than three touchdowns. The offense was not. The average NFL team this year saw a big drop in DVOA with a huge lead of over 21 points, but not as big as the drop in offensive productivity from Carolina, especially when we look at yards per play.

The following table includes both the regular season and the playoffs. Remember that DVOA has adjustments so that over multiple years, the league-wide DVOA should be the same whether teams are winning big, losing big, or somewhere in the middle. But for a single season, there will be differences.

Carolina vs. Rest of NFL with a Lead, 2015 (includes postseason)
Lead CAR
DVOA
CAR
Yd/Play
Rest of NFL
DVOA
Rest of NFL
Yd/Play
Offense: Losing, Tied or Winning 1-8 Points 10.9% 5.99 -0.7% 5.57
Offense: Winning 9-21 Points 19.1% 5.07 5.6% 5.55
Offense: Winning 22+ Points -16.7% 3.86 -15.5% 5.07
Defense: Losing, Tied, or Winning 1-8 Points -23.3% 4.53 -1.2% 5.54
Defense: Winning 9-21 Points -12.0% 5.86 4.4% 5.76
Defense: Winning 22+ Points -5.4% 5.33 7.0% 5.67

Of course, it's important to note that Carolina hasn't actually lost any of these games with the big blown leads. We keep waiting for the game where they blow one, but the Panthers seem to get back to business once their big blown lead becomes a small one. Ron Rivera is 28-12-1 as a head coach when protecting a one-score lead in the fourth quarter, but that can be separated into 6-8 in his first two years and 22-4-1 after he became "Riverboat Ron" in 2013.

Then again, Rivera can't possibly match the magic of Bruce Arians when it comes to close games. Despite the drama against Green Bay, Bruce Arians is still a ridiculously good 31-1 as a head coach when protecting a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. His only loss was in his first game as head coach of the Cardinals, as Arizona blew a 24-13 fourth-quarter lead on the road in St. Louis.

A game with a lot of big plays also offers a lot of opportunity for lead changes or big comebacks. I think that's going to be the story of this game. If one team takes a big lead, the game is far from over. More likely, neither team will take a big lead and the two offenses will just throw big punches back and forth. But Carolina has a lot of small advantages that should add up to a better chance to win. The Panthers have home field. They have been trending upwards a bit while the Cardinals have been trending downwards a bit. They have the slightly better special teams, including a kicker who actually can be put on the field to attempt a field goal of longer than 45 yards if the Panthers need one. And most importantly, it just isn't in Arizona's mindset to change its strategy to account for Newton's success against the blitz. So while Carson Palmer is going to find big plays against those Carolina depth corners, the Panthers will find big plays both through the air and on the ground. They're also more likely to find small plays that score touchdowns when they get close to the goal line. Put those small advantages together, and the Panthers are rightly favored to move on to their second Super Bowl appearance.


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.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

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. 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. For the conference championships and Super Bowl, there are two charts, one for offense and one for defense. The defensive chart is reversed so that improving (i.e. lower DVOA) is on top and getting worse (i.e. higher DVOA) is on bottom.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 22 Jan 2016

7 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2016, 8:27am by Jerry

Comments

1
by Eleutheria :: Fri, 01/22/2016 - 4:23pm

I disagree with the argument that Arizona is faultering while Carolina is getting better.

The Cardinals defense is trending upwards while the Panthers is trending downwards.

It's the opposite for the offenses, but if we assume Palmers injury was a factor in the downward trend, and account for the fact that really his only bad game this season was vs Seattle, and prior to that game he was trending upwards, I don't really by the argument that his offense is trending downward.

I think on a neutral field, Arizona should be the favourite, but it's in Carolina, so I'm not sure who to pick.

2
by dafrk3in :: Fri, 01/22/2016 - 5:06pm

I feel like I've read a lot of this before. Perhaps on ESPN?

3
by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 01/22/2016 - 5:08pm

Sure, some of it. But not most of it!

4
by dafrk3in :: Fri, 01/22/2016 - 5:15pm

Great article, I just had to scroll through a bit of it. It will be really interesting to see if Arians changes the gameplan to account for Newton's strength against blitzes. Have the Cardinals faces any other QBs this season with performance against the blitz similar to Newton's? If not, that might be an indication that Arians is willing to step off the gas peddle when dictated by the matchup, but circumstances just haven't warranted it yet.

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by panthersnbraves :: Fri, 01/22/2016 - 6:40pm

How much of the AZ improvement is that huge GB game? What would the model look like with a "good" game of say -20/25 look like, I wonder. So much of this NFCCG is "yes, but.." Carolina is hurt by the Atlanta game where they had their top two RB's out and lost their speedster Ginn in the 2nd Qtr. How much of the collapse in the second half last week was Stewart getting his ankle sprained? This should be an interesting game...

6
by SBM :: Sat, 01/23/2016 - 3:04am

Really detailed article that asks as many questions as it answers. I think this is such a tough game to call. Maybe a slight advantage to Carolina given that it is in Charlotte but looking through the stats just tells me both teams have weaknesses that can be exploited by the other. With both coaches not being afraid to 'play to win the game' I'm hoping for a high scoring affair.
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Better to die on your feet than live on your knees

7
by Jerry :: Sat, 01/23/2016 - 8:27am

So Joe Webb is positioned to lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl...