by Andrew Healy
Through 12 games, the Carolina Panthers were 3-8-1 and just as bad as their record would suggest. They were 28th in DVOA and in the bottom ten in offense, defense, and special teams. Even the Panthers' strength from last season, their front seven, was no longer dominant. In 2013 they led the league with 60 sacks and finished second in adjusted sack rate, but through 12 games of 2014, they ranked 18th in sacks, and a little higher in adjusted sack rate (12th). They weren't bad at getting after opposing quarterbacks, but they were no longer in the running for the best front seven in football.
On Sunday against Atlanta, Carolina's old front seven looked like they were back. Facing an offense that ranked sixth-best in both sacks allowed and adjusted sack rate coming in, the Panthers sacked Matt Ryan six times, hitting him 12 more times. Before the Panthers game, the Falcons had gone nine quarters and 98 Matt Ryan throws without allowing a sack. The Panthers hit Ryan more times on Sunday than he had been hit in the previous four games combined (two sacks and 13 other hits).
It wasn't just the sacks and hits. The Panthers also pressured Ryan into a first-half pick-six that ended up marking the end of the competitive phase of the default NFC South championship game. On two-thirds of Ryan's non-screen dropbacks before the Panthers' defense made it 34-3 with another pick-six, the Panthers put Ryan under pressure. That interception was the only real mistake Ryan made when given a clean pocket. In fact, Ryan was about as good as a quarterback with a 15.3 QBR could be. The Panthers' front four made it impossible for Ryan to do much more than just survive, though. On his non-screen throws under pressure before the game was 34-3, Ryan's stat line was still Manziel-esque even with a few great escapes.
The Panthers swarmed Ryan with their front four, which accounted for all but one-half of their six sacks. Per ESPN Stats & Information, they blitzed on just seven of Ryan's 49 dropbacks. The Panthers' star linebackers were also all over the field. Luke Kuechly had two passes defensed, including a key third-down stop. Thomas Davis had his own diving pick-six overturned (correctly) on a penalty.
Watching the Panthers' front seven destroy a very good offense made it possible to think about their potential path through the playoffs.
- Wild-card round vs. Arizona: The Panthers' front seven just held Matt Ryan to the lowest point total of a seven-year career. Ryan Lindley's expected points versus Kuechly and Co.: -3.
- Divisional round at Seattle: The Panthers' strength is up front, while Seattle's is at the back, but both teams would have dominant defenses to go with versatile quarterbacks on offense. Marshawn Lynch would have a tough time against the front seven from Sunday. Call it a low-scoring Panthers' win.
- NFC Championship at Green Bay: Revenge for Kerry Collins from the 1996 championship game. Law of averages says Carolina gets through.
- Super Bowl vs. New England: Revenge for Jake Delhomme from Super Bowl XXXVIII. Again, law of averages says the Panthers win. Also, no team with a losing record in the regular season has ever lost a Super Bowl.
Seriously, are at least the first two pieces of this all that crazy? Just three years ago we saw a team that gave up more points than they scored in the regular season win a Super Bowl. A 7-9 team won a playoff game the year before that. And the Panthers' defensive turnaround goes back further than just the last four weeks. After being the 24th-best defense in football through Week 9, the Panthers are fifth-best since Week 10. The only team to have a negative defensive DVOA every game going back to Week 11 is not Seattle; it's the still Greg Hardy-less Carolina Panthers. The recent Panthers could be a poor man's Seahawks: dominant defense with a passing game held back by below-average receivers. Like the Seahawks, the Panthers have relentless defenders in Kuechly and Davis who can will a win.
But no matter how overwhelming the Panthers were against the Falcons, it is extremely unlikely that the Panthers will have a deep playoff run, and even less likely than the run that the Giants went on three years ago. Those Giants were outscored over the course of the season, but they also played a difficult schedule and were 12th in DVOA, 14th in weighted DVOA. They are only the second-worst team to win a Super Bowl in the DVOA era, however. The worst regular-season team to win a Super Bowl since 1989, was -- yes -- the 19-0-stopping, Patriots-killing Giants team of 2007, who were 14th in total DVOA and 17th in weighted DVOA. Overall, evidence seems to suggest that teams with momentum towards the end of the regular season do not actually do better in the postseason than teams that played well over the entire regular season. This trend holds true even if we only look at this century instead of going all the way back to 1989.
|Conference Championship Participants, 1989-2013||5.84||6.36|
|Super Bowl Participants, 1989-2013||4.96||5.78|
|Super Bowl Winners, 1989-2013||3.84||4.84|
|Conference Championship Participants, 2001-2013||6.15||6.82|
|Super Bowl Participants, 2001-2013||5.88||6.96|
|Super Bowl Winners, 2001-2013||6.00||7.00|
The average DVOA ranking of Super Bowl-winning teams is just under 4.0, a full spot higher than the weighted DVOA ranking of championship winners. Looking at all teams to make the conference championship games, the overall DVOA ranking is a half-spot higher than the weighted ranking.
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In other words, the best teams tend to make deep runs and there's basically no reason to think that teams ending the season on a roll are more likely to stay hot in the playoffs. The 2009 Saints are a great example of this, getting off to a 13-0 start, then finishing the regular season on an 0-3 run before going on to win the Super Bowl. Those Saints were sixth in overall DVOA and just 13th in weighted DVOA, and it wasn't just a case of sitting starters. The last two wins came by just three points apiece, and the Saints lost at home in Week 16 to the 3-13 Buccaneers despite playing all their usual stars.
If we look at not-so-awesome teams to at least get within a game of the Super Bowl, it is clear how much the odds are stacked against the Panthers. Since 1989, 23 teams than were ranked outside the top 10 in either overall or weighted DVOA have made the conference championship games.
|1991||DEN||3.5%||12||-1.8%||18||-6||Lost AFC Champ|
|1991||DET||-1.2%||17||3.5%||15||2||Lost NFC Champ|
|1992||MIA||8.9%||11||3.4%||13||-2||Lost AFC Champ|
|1993||BUF||8.7%||12||-2.9%||19||-7||Lost Super Bowl|
|1995||IND||-9.8%||23||-7.3%||20||3||Lost AFC Champ|
|1996||JAC||-0.2%||17||-2.8%||18||-1||Lost AFC Champ|
|1999||TB||12.3%||8||12.5%||11||-3||Lost NFC Champ|
|2000||MIN||-6.3%||22||-3.6%||19||3||Lost NFC Champ|
|2000||NYG||9.3%||11||14.1%||10||1||Lost Super Bowl|
|2001||NE||7.9%||11||15.4%||9||2||Won Super Bowl|
|2002||TEN||9.2%||11||20.6%||7||4||Lost AFC Champ|
|2003||CAR||0.6%||16||1.2%||16||0||Lost Super Bowl|
|2004||ATL||-4.8%||17||-7.2%||18||-1||Lost NFC Champ|
|2006||NO||6.4%||12||5.8%||13||-1||Lost NFC Champ|
|2007||NYG||1.9%||14||2.6%||17||-3||Won Super Bowl|
|2008||ARI||-5.0%||21||-11.5%||22||-1||Lost Super Bowl|
|2009||IND||16.5%||8||9.7%||14||-6||Lost Super Bowl|
|2009||MIN||18.5%||7||14.2%||11||-4||Lost NFC Champ|
|2009||NO||21.3%||6||12.3%||13||-7||Won Super Bowl|
|2010||CHI||2.4%||14||11.0%||10||4||Lost NFC Champ|
|2011||NYG||8.5%||12||6.0%||14||-2||Won Super Bowl|
|2012||ATL||9.1%||10||2.4%||13||-3||Lost NFC Champ|
|2012||BAL||9.8%||8||8.3%||11||-3||Won Super Bowl|
Of those 23 teams, 15 were better in overall DVOA than weighted DVOA. Just seven were better in weighted DVOA. Not-so-great teams occasionally get lucky and go deep into the playoffs. But teams surging in December are no more likely to do so.
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For the Panthers, their 25th ranking in overall DVOA tells us more about their chances than their recent rise, particularly on defense. This would be the worst team to reach a conference championship game since at least 1989. The Panthers looked so insanely good on defense against the Falcons that it was hard not to picture them making some noise, but what happens most recently always gets too much weight in our memories. The Panthers are the team that went 3-6-1 outside the NFC South, the 25th-best team in football, one that caught every break to make the playoffs and has now emerged as a 5.5-point favorite in Round 1 primarily because of injury to the opposing quarterback. The numbers for 16 games will likely override what we saw from the Panthers on Sunday.
Breaking Your Back to Quarterbacking Success
Since fracturing two vertebrae in his back three weeks ago, Cam Newton has gone 2-0. He threw just 16 passes on Sunday, but was decisive and very accurate. His six incompletions included two absolutely brutal Kelvin Benjamin drops on well-thrown balls. The first one was a beautiful deep throw that came down for Benjamin as easily as an apple falling out of a tree.
Benjamin aside, the Panthers' offense was efficient against the Falcons, although their dominant defense drove the win.
Counting Tony Romo's seven starts since fracturing his back against Washington, quarterbacks with fractured backs this season are now 8-1. They have thrown for 21 touchdowns and four interceptions. Will back fracturing follow German knee regeneration and become the next rejuvenation craze? Is this how the Browns can save Johnny Manziel?
Yes, you always get hard hitting analysis here. Happy New Year, everyone.