Sunday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015
by Vince Verhei (CIN-IND) and Aaron Schatz (DET-DAL)
The narrative that links the two Sunday wild-card games is four teams seeking long-awaited playoff success. Cincinnati has lost on three straight wild-card weekends. Dallas is just 1-3 in the playoffs with Tony Romo at quarterback. Detroit, of course, barely even gets to the postseason in the first place. Only Indianapolis has had any recent playoff success, and that took a ridiculous comeback against Kansas City last year... which was followed up a week later by a colossal egg-laying in Foxborough against the Patriots.
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. Any game charting data that appears with an asterisk appears courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information Group and is complete through the end of the season. Other game charting data (such as defensive back coverage stats) is roughly 80 percent complete. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for anything specifically noted.
Cincinnati at Indianapolis
by Vince Verhei
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The last time the Bengals traveled to the Colts was Week 7, and things went badly for the men in orange and black. Playing without A.J. Green, Andy Dalton dropped back to pass 41 times and gained just 109 net yards, an average of just 2.7 yards per play. He got little help from a running game that produced only 12 carries for 32 yards, and the Bengals' first eight drives were all three-and-outs. Though the Cincinnati defense somewhat contained Andrew Luck, they were trampled by the Colts' ground game. Indianapolis ran for 171 yards, with Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Dan Herron all topping 5.0 yards per carry. By the end of the day, the Colts had outgained the Bengals 506-135, beat them in first downs 27-8, and walked away with a 27-0 win.
It was a completely dominant victory, there's no doubt of that, but was it a sign that the Colts are a terrible matchup for the Bengals, or just a fluke? In some ways, that game must leave Cincinnati worried about this weekend's contest (Green's health is once again a critical concern, and the Bengals' run defense was a big problem all year), but by and large the two clubs could hardly be more closely matched headed into the playoffs. Indianapolis finished 12th in overall DVOA at 4.7%, while Cincinnati was 13th at 4.6%. This also looks like an even match in Weighted DVOA, where the Colts also have a slight edge (1.8% to 0.5%). It looks like the Colts' big win in October was simply an incident of one team catching the other on one of its bad days.
The Bengals were up and down all year, finishing next-to-last in variance. They were erratic on both sides of the ball -- 23rd in variance on offense, 31st on defense. When Cincinnati was good, it was very good, with seven games over 30% in DVOA. But the Bengals also had seven games with negative DVOA. (For comparison's sake, the top five teams in DVOA -- Seattle, Denver, Green Bay, New England, and Baltimore -- averaged 8.2 games over 30% in DVOA, but just 4.0 games each below 0%.) Though we are going to look at each team's strengths and weaknesses and what the key matchups figure to be, to a large degree the game will be decided by which version of the Bengals decides to show up.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
It's no secret that the Cincinnati passing game has been subpar this season, but the problem has not been in protection -- the Bengals gave up just 23 sacks this season, and only four teams were better in Adjusted Sack Rate. The Colts, as a team, have a decent pass rush (tied for ninth with 41 sacks, and also ninth in Adjusted Sack Rate), but that's a result of team pressure, not any specific dominant rusher. Jonathan Newsome, a fifth-round rookie linebacker out of Ball State, leads the team with just 6.5 sacks, a total that tied him for 40th in the league. So we shouldn't count on Indianapolis rushers winning one-on-one matchups with Cincinnati linemen.
The problems for the Bengals, though, haven't often come on sacks. No, they have come when Dalton has actually had time to throw the ball. The Bengals ranked 26th in DVOA on non-sack passing plays, and the six teams below them (the Jets, Vikings, Titans, Buccaneers, Raiders, and Jaguars) were a sorry lot indeed. A large part of that, of course, was due to Dalton's 17 interceptions, tied for third-most in the league.
The long ball was a particular problem for Cincinnati -- no offense in the league had a worse DVOA on deep passes (those thrown to targets at least 16 yards beyond the line of scrimmage). In fact, the Bengals were one of two teams this year (the 49ers were the other) with a higher DVOA on short passes than on deep balls. The good news for Cincinnati is that when you're playing Indianapolis, you want to throw short passes anyway. The Colts defense was sixth in DVOA against deep balls, but 30th against short passes. In particular, they were vulnerable on short passes to the offense's right, where they were 30th in DVOA. Not surprisingly, that's Greg Toler's side of the field. The charting data we have so far confirms what most have been saying about the Indianapolis cornerbacks: Vontae Davis (4.7 yards allowed per target) has been much better than Toler (7.8) or nickelback Darius Butler (8.7). Davis, though, rarely strays from the offense's left side of the field; so far we've only charted him on one target to the right side, and only six over the middle. We have only counted five missed tackles for Toler so far this year, so it's not a matter Toler struggling to make plays. Instead, it looks more like he has been giving up big cushions and allowing short stuff all day in an attempt to take away deep passes.
Cincinnati's most common receiver on short right passes this season has been A.J. Green, followed by Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham, and Giovani Bernard. This makes the health of Green critical. Green suffered a concussion in the Week 17 loss to Pittsburgh. He has been limited in practice this week, and under the league's concussion protocol, he must see a neuropsychologist Friday and a neurologist Saturday before being cleared to play.
The other weaknesses in the Indianapolis defense are related not to direction, but position. The Colts are in the top half of the league in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers, No. 2 wide receivers, and all other wideouts, but are 27th against tight ends and 31st against running backs. There were 12 players this season who gained at least 80 yards receiving against Indianapolis; half of them were tight ends, and one other was a running back. That's not great news for Cincinnati, though, because Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and Rex Burkhead were just average as receivers this year, and Jermaine Gresham was, as usual, one of the worst receiving tight ends in the league.
If there is a shot for Cincinnati to get some big plays in the air, it could come against blitzes. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Dalton is averaging 5.8 yards per play when opponents send four or fewer pass rushers, but that average jumps to 7.3 against five pass rushers, and 11.3 against big blitzes of six or more pass rushers. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, he might not get a chance to burn the Colts' blitzes. Indianapolis is only giving up 4.6 yards per play on big blitzes (as opposed to 6.8 yards per play with five rushers, and 6.4 with fewer than that). More to the point, though, they have only used big blitzes on 12 percent of opponents' pass plays. If we figure Dalton will get 40 dropbacks this weekend, then he'll probably only see four or five big blitzes all day. That handful of plays could be the difference between defeat and victory.
With all of that in mind, the more often Cincinnati can run the ball, the more likely their chances of winning. In particular, they need to keep giving the ball to Jeremy Hill, a lesson they had clearly learned by the end of the year. Over the course of the season, the rookie runner out of LSU split carries fairly evenly (222 to 168, to be precise) with Bernard. In the last three weeks of the season, though, that split jumped to nearly 3-to-1, as Hill got 70 carries to only 26 for Bernard. Hill has clearly been the better rusher this season, ranking sixth in both DYAR and DVOA.
The game plan for Cincinnati can be summed up in one word: patience. Pound away at the Colts, especially with Hill. When you must pass, don't try to force anything downfield, and avoid Vontae Davis; look for opportunities underneath the coverage, and target Greg Toler and Darius Butler.
And for god's sake, don't let Dalton turn the ball over.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
The Colts led the league in passing plays (Andrew Luck was fourth among individual quarterbacks), so the focus will be on the Bengals' pass defense. Ironically, Cincinnati's strengths and weaknesses in pass defense are exactly reversed from those of their pass offense: they have no pass rush, but their coverage is excellent. Justin Houston led the NFL with 22.0 sacks this season, and J.J. Watt was second with 20.5. That means both players had more sacks than the Bengals as a team, and Cincinnati was next to last in Adjusted Sack Rate. Carlos Dunlap led the team with 8.0 sacks; nobody else had more than 3.0. The Colts gave up only 29 sacks this year (eighth-fewest) and were ninth in Adjusted Sack Rate, so we shouldn't expect to see Andrew Luck on the turf much this weekend.
The good news for Cincinnati is that their secondary has been excellent. In fact, you could make a case that Terence Newman, Leon Hall, and Adam Jones have been the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL this year. That's a bold claim to make, especially given that all three are in their 30s, and none has ever made a Pro Bowl. But Newman (4.3 yards allowed per target on the games we've charted so far), Hall (7.2), and Jones (6.7) have all posted good to great individual numbers, and their cumulative effect on Cincinnati's defense has been even better. Cincinnati ranks first in DVOA on passes to No. 1 receivers, third on passes to No. 2s, and second on passes to all other wide receivers. They're fourth in coverage against tight ends to boot. Only running backs have given the Bengals trouble on pass plays this year; they rank 29th in coverage there.
Since Newman, Hall, and Jones have been so dominant, the Bengals have been able to practically shut down both sides of the field. Their defense had the best DVOA this year on passes to the outside of the field; and, likely as a result, they also faced the lowest percentage of throws to the outside. As a result, everything gets funneled into the middle of the field. So the Colts won't be able to count on out routes, corner patterns, or swing passes to win; they'll have to focus on slants, crosses, and posts. And, mind you, it's not as if the Bengals are soft up the middle; they were fourth in DVOA on passes to that region.
How much will that matter against Luck and the Colts? Well, Luck was 12th among qualifying quarterbacks in DVOA on passes to the outside, but 23rd on throws up the middle. However, the differences in results on throws to his two most common targets up the middle were striking. Throwing to Reggie Wayne up the middle, Luck went 18-of-35 for 191 yards with three interceptions; to T.Y. Hilton, Luck went 22-of-30 for 399 yards. Cincinnati doesn't need to worry about Wayne, but Hilton could kill them on middle patterns.
If the Bengals decide to blitz Luck, they had better bring the house. Luck averaged 8.4 yards per play against exactly five rushers.* That's better then he fared against four or fewer rushers (7.0), or against six or more (6.0). The Bengals, meanwhile, have given up 7.2 yards per play when they rush five. They have fared better with four rushers or fewer (6.2), and done much better when rushing six or more, giving up only 4.2 yards per play. That's not likely to matter much this weekend, though. Cincinnati has only blitzed opposing quarterbacks about 22 percent of the time this year. For the most part, they are content to sit back and play coverage. This partially explains their (relative) kevin vulnerability to passes up the middle.
Blitzes aside, we know that Luck is going to target Hilton (along with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen) on passes up the middle. Do they have any other options? Remember that Cincinnati's biggest problems in coverage have come against running backs. Well, it just so happens that Ahmad Bradshaw was second among running backs in receiving DYAR, and Dan Herron and even Trent Richardson have been effective receivers at times as well.
And speaking of Bradshaw and company, the other option for the Colts, obviously, is to run the ball, a tactic that has worked for Bengals opponents all year. In fact, it's almost impossible to beat Cincinnati without running on them. The Bengals have five losses and a tie this year, and in five of those games they've given up at least 147 rushing yards. The struggles for Cincinnati show up in almost every facet of run defense; they rank 23rd or worse in Adjusted Line Yards, Power Success, Stuff Rate, and Second-Level Yards. Only in Open-Field Yards are they even mediocre (ranking 12th), and that again speaks more to their secondary than to their front seven. Further, they rank 20th or worse in runs to all directions -- except, oddly, to the same direction where they fare best on the other side of the ball: the offense's right tackle, where they rank ninth.
Indy, though, may not be able to join that club. If anything, their running game might be even worse than their DVOA ranking (which is boosted by Luck's scrambles) would indicate. Richardson was one of the bottom-five running backs in rushing value this year. Herron and Bradshaw both had negative DVOAs as well. Their offensive line was actually middle-of-the-pack in most of our run-blocking numbers (except for Power Success, where they were 31st), but they were 29th in Open Field Yards, a sign that their running backs lack game-breaking speed (not that this is a secret).
Given the strengths and weaknesses of the Cincinnati defense, it only makes sense that the Colts will run the ball a little more often than they would against most opponents. Given the strengths and weaknesses of the Indianapolis offense, though, it also makes sense that in the end, the Colts will live and die by what Andrew Luck can do.
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On the whole, this is a very even matchup, with the two teams within one or two spots in the rankings in overall special teams DVOA, Bengals kickoffs, Colts kickoffs, and Colts punts. There are two big disparities, one advantage for each team. The Bengals have been great on punts this year, with Kevin Huber finishing fourth in gross average, fifth in net. Cincinnati's coverage teams have only allowed a 7.5-yard average on punt returns, tenth-best in the league. The Colts, meanwhile, have gotten very little from punt returner Griff Whalen, who is averaging 7.2 yards per return, with a long gain of just 22 yards.
Cincinnati basically gives that advantage right back, though, because they have clearly been the inferior team when it comes to kicking field goals. Mike Nugent is 0-for-3 on kicks from 50-plus yards this year, while going 10-for-12 in both the 30- to 39-yard range, and from 40 to 49 yards.
The DVOA numbers say neither team has been special on kick returns, but there's actually a dynamic returner on each team. For a good chunk of the season, Adam Jones was the leading the NFL in both punt returns and kickoff returns. (Between defense and special teams, this was probably Jones' best season since his days in Tennessee.) He wound up fourth in punt returns (averaging 11.9 yards) and second in kickoffs (31.3). Surprisingly, he didn't score a touchdown in either category, though he did reel off a 97-yard kickoff return in the Carolina tie. The Bengals' overall return rankings were dragged down by the radically inferior performance of Brandon Tate (9.7-yard average on punts, 22.1-yard average on kickoffs), who got about 40 to 45 percent of the return duties. Expect Jones to see more action here now that it's win or go home.
The only player who edged Jones in kickoff returns? He's on the other sideline: Josh Cribbs, who might be first player to lead the NFL in a major statistical category despite playing in only six games. After months on the shelf, the 31-year-old joined the Colts in November and proved he was far from washed up. He only returned 19 kicks this year, but his 32.0-yard average wasn't skewed by a big play or two; he has averaged at least 28.2 yards per return (on at least two kicks) in every game this season. He was a giant upgrade over Whalen, who only averaged 25.3 yards per kickoff return.
The Colts are 3.5-point favorites on most books, and considering they're playing at home, that means the two teams are basically a coin flip. Cincinnati's wild fluctuations in performance mean either team could win, by large or small margins. It could also come down to A.J. Green's health. For those of you in Las Vegas, assuming Green plays, this might be a case where Bill Simmons' mantra of "when in doubt, take the points" makes sense. For the rest of us, it's most likely that the Colts will be the team moving on to the Divisional round.
Detroit at Dallas
by Aaron Schatz
The headline here is the battle between rushing yardage leader DeMarco Murray and the NFL's best run defense of 2014, but there's a lot more going on below the surface. Like Saturday's NFC wild card game, Sunday's game also poses questions about whether a team's full-season performance is a better indicator than how it is trending going into the postseason.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
There's certainly a reasonable argument to be made that the Detroit Lions offense would rate higher in DVOA if Calvin Johnson had remained healthy all season. But when you take out the games without Johnson (Weeks 6-8), the numbers don't change as much as you might expect. The Lions' offensive DVOA without those three games is -0.7%, which would be 17th instead of 19th.
Where the Lions are likely to have success passing the ball depends in part on whether the Cowboys decide to change up the usual way they use their three main cornerbacks. Our game charting data is not yet complete, but on the games we have charted so far, we have Orlando Scandrick with a 57 percent Sucess Rate and just 6.7 yards allowed per pass. Brandon Carr, on the other hand, comes out with 46 percent Success Rate and 10.2 yards allowed per pass. Nickelback Sterling Moore matches Carr's poor Success Rate but also matches Scandrick's fine yards per pass number.
When you consider that Brandon Carr is listed in the starting lineup as "LCB" (offensive right) and Scandrick is listed as "RCB" (offensive left), those charting numbers seem downright kooky in conjunction with the other Dallas splits we have on the team defense page.
- The Cowboys excelled at covering "other" receivers this year, but were a dismal 29th against No. 2 receivers. They were average against No. 1 receivers.
- The Cowboys were the worst defense in the league against passes on the offensive left, but ranked 10th against passes on the offensive right and had the best DVOA in the league against passes in the middle of the field. The problem on the offensive left is primarily about short passes; the Cowboys 20th in DVOA against passes that are listed as "deep left."
The numbers don't quite match because Scandrick isn't really playing right cornerback. When the Cowboys go nickel, Scandrick moves inside and Moore comes in to play right corner. Scandrick is doing a great job of shutting down whoever the opponent sticks in the slot; thus, Dallas has great numbers against "other" receivers and passes in the middle of the field. At the same time, Brandon Carr is getting burned plenty, and Moore is really getting killed on short passes, which is why his yards per pass allowed looks okay but his Success Rate (and the Cowboys' DVOA against passes listed as short left) is poor.
The Cowboys can't be wasting Scandrick on the Lions' slot receivers because unless the Lions are moving Johnson or Golden Tate into the slot, they probably are not going to throw there. Detroit was one of only two offenses in the league this year that threw less than 10 percent of passes to "other" receivers. (Chicago was the other.) That might be Eric Ebron in the slot, but despite all we heard about Ebron's athletic talents, he struggled like most rokie right ends do, with -30.0% receiving DVOA and just a 52 percent catch rate. The Cowboys need to make sure Scandrick is covering Tate or Johnson and not being wasted on Corey Fuller.
Of course, Tate and Johnson will end up in the middle of the field anyway because of the types of routes they run. It's a strength of the Lions offense, which ranked No. 4 in DVOA on short middle passes and No. 6 in DVOA on deep middle passes. As noted above, the Cowboys were fantastic against passes in the middle of the field, ranking No. 1in DVOA against deep middle passes and No. 2 (behind New England) against short middle passes -- although these ratings are in part caused by some interesting splits on interceptions. The average NFL team threw four picks this year listed as "middle." Detroit had only two, while the Dallas defense led the league with ten, including five in just the last three weeks.
The Cowboys are more likely to depend on interceptions than sacks, since they have very little pass rush. The Cowboys ranked just 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate this year, and that got even worse on third and fourth downs where they had just 3.5 percent Adjusted Sack Rate. In their season-ending four-game winning streak, the Cowboys only had two sacks on third or fourth down, both of Mark Sanchez in Week 15.
For the most part, the Detroit ground game will be there to provide balance, not to really move the offense along, and we won't see too much of it. The Lions ran only 36.3 percent of the time; among teams with winning records, only Indianapolis ran less often. Although as bad as the Lions have been running the ball this year, the Cowboys haven't been much better stopping it. The best place for Detroit to find running room might be around right end, where the Lions ranked 10th in Adjusted Line Yards while the Cowboys were just 29th on defense.
The best use of the running game for Detroit might be in third-and-short situations, where they've had good success and the Cowboys defense has struggled. The conversion rates are similar: 65 percent (15th) for the Lions offense and 67 percent (20th) for the Cowboys defense, but the Cowboys also have allowed a few big runs by teams looking for just one or two yards. Seven times this year, running backs gained six yards or more against the Cowboys on third-and-1 or third-and-2.
The Lions ranked fifth in DVOA on third downs this season, while the Cowboys were just 28th in defensive DVOA. However, that Detroit rating is entirely built on early-season success. Detroit had an insane 56.0% DVOA on third downs in Weeks 1-9, with 45 percent Success Rate and 8.1 yards per play pumped by seven plays of 35 or more yards. Since Week 10, Detroit has -7.4% DVOA on third downs (18th in NFL), with 37 percent Success Rate and just 5.7 yards per play with just one play over 35 yards.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
This is where we're supposed to be seeing strength against strength, except one of the two strengths hasn't been quite so strong the last few weeks. The Detroit defense has declined significantly in the second half of the season.
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley sprained his knee against the Falcons in Week 8 and has not played since. With that personnel change, you might expect the decline to have come primarily against the run. Instead, it's been the opposite -- the Lions have fallen apart on pass defense but are still stalwart against the run. The Lions were third in the league with -29.8% run defense DVOA in Weeks 1-9, then first in the league with -33.0% run defense DVOA in Weeks 10-17. Their Adjusted Line Yards allowed also stayed virtually the same. So the biggest battle of strength vs. strength is ready to go.
|Dallas Offensive Line vs. Detroit Front Seven|
|Team||ALY||Rk||RB Yd/Run||Power||Rk||Stuffed||Rk||2nd Lvl||Rk||Op Field||Rk|
By the way, as good as the Dallas offensive line was this season, they aren't as strong historically as the Lions defensive front seven has been. Only three teams since 1996 had lower defensive ALY allowed than this year's Lions: Minnesota in 2006, San Diego in 1998, and Baltimore in 2000. The Cowboys' ALY on offense doesn't even rank them among the top 50 teams since 1996.
Of course, here at Football Outsiders we believe strongly that passing is almost always more important than running and pass defense is almost always more important than run defense, which brings us back to the decline of the Lions pass defense. Detroit led the league with -16.0% pass defense DVOA in Weeks 1-9, but in Weeks 10-17 they ranked 23rd with 8.7% DVOA. The problem is particularly bad on third downs:
|Detroit Pass Defense, Weeks 1-9 vs. Weeks 10-17|
|Weeks 1-9||Weeks 10-17|
(Brief aside: Yes, the Lions' pass defense DVOA ranked nine places lower in the second half of the year despite being slightly better. For some reason, pass defense around the NFL on second downs was kind of nutty crazy good in the second half of the season.)
Does this have anything to do with the Fairley injury? Well, the Lions Adjusted Sack Rate did drop from 7.5 percent in the first half of the season (eighth in the NFL) to 5.7 percent in the second half (29th). However, they were actually bringing more pressure overall; it just wasn't taking down the quarterback. According to ESPN Stats & Information charting data, in the first half of the season, the Lions brought pressure on 29.4 percent of pass plays, fourth in the NFL. In the second half, they brought pressure on 31.3 percent of pass plays, second only to Arizona.
So those numbers suggest the problems relate to the Lions' linebackers and defensive backs more than the defensive linemen. Specifically, it looks like the biggest portions of the decline came in covering No. 1 receivers and covering running backs in the passing game.
The Lions allowed 7.3% DVOA and 73 percent catch rate to running backs in Weeks 1-9. They allowed 22.0% DVOA and 85 percent catch rate to running backs in Weeks 10-17. This is very small sample size -- 22 plays -- but the Lions allowed 61 yards and one first down on 11 third-down passes to running backs through Week 9, then 134 yards and five first downs on 11 third-down pases to running backs after Week 10.
The Lions weren't bad against No. 1 receivers after midseason, just not as fabulous as they were in the first half of the year. The Lions allowed -56.1% DVOA to opposing No. 1 wideouts with 48 percent catch rate through Week 9. From Week 10-17, that became -3.7% DVOA and 59 percent catch rate.
Unfortunately, we don't have enough Detroit charting from the second half of the season complete to really be able to say whether there's been a specific decline from one of the Lions' cornerbacks. The stats based on location on the field suggest that Darius Slay has not been playing as well in the second half of the year, although the Lions tend to use deep safeties a lot so we don't want to strictly blame deep passes on cornerbacks. Nonetheless, the Lions have declined against both short right and deep right passes.
|Detroit Pass Defense, Weeks 1-9 vs. Weeks 10-17|
|Weeks||Left DVOA||Rk||Middle DVOA||Rk||Right DVOA||Rk|
While the Detroit pass defense has been struggling in recent weeks, the Dallas passing game has been on fire. At midseason, the Cowboys ranked 14th in pass offense DVOA. Since Week 10, the Cowboys are second, just a couple of tenths of a percent behind Green Bay. And nobody has been hotter than Dez Bryant, who is getting targeted less often but with far more efficiency.
|Dez Bryant Weeks 1-9 vs. Weeks 10-17|
|Weeks 1-9 (9 games)*||10.0||78.6||0.7||5.1%||58%|
|Weeks 10-17 (7 games)||7.1||97.9||1.4||68.5%||76%|
|*Includes four DPIs.|
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Things are not quite as bad for Detroit as the table above makes it seem. Of course, the Lions had massive problems in the kicking game early in the season, with Nate Freese and Alex Henery combining to go just 4-of-12 on field goals. But things have been better since Matt Prater took over in Week 6, as he's been 21-of-26. By our measures, he's been worth -1.85 points after adjusting for weather/domes, which is still below average but very different from Freese (-9.7) or Henery (-8.0). Taking out Freese and Henery's field goals would improve Detroit's special teams DVOA to -2.1% for the season, 21st instead of 31st.
However, the rest of Detroit's special teams have been nothing special either. Sam Martin has been good on kickoffs and very good on punts -- we have him worth an estimated 6.8 points of field position on gross punt value, fourth in the NFL -- but the coverage teams are lousy which cancels that out. Jeremy Ross has been a mediocre return man.
The Cowboys are more likely to make a big play on special teams. Dwayne Harris hasn't had a great year as a return man this year, but we know he made some big plays in 2013, so he's more dangerous than this year's numbers indicate. (Harris also leads the team with 12 special teams tackles.) Dan Bailey has been very good on field goals over the last two seasons; the Cowboys' kickoff value for this year is primarily in strong coverage, with Bailey's kick distance rating as average.
So, how do we judge these teams? Should we be only thinking of the Lions offense in the weeks when Calvin Johnson was healthy? Should we be only thinking of the Lions special teams in the weeks when Matt Prater was the kicker? And how much does it really mean that the Detroit pass defense as been in serious decline since the start of November while the Cowboys passing game is hitting on all cylinders?
On one hand, we keep doing research that shows that "late-season momentum" doesn't seem to predict playoff results as well as just using stats from the entire 16-game regular season. On the other hand, we have common sense. Certainly when it comes to the Lions defense, the idea that Detroit had the best defense in the league seemed a little weird in the first half of the season. We knew the defensive line was good, but there were so many questions surrounding their secondary. The second-half performance seems to match the personnel involved here more than the dominating first-half performance.
However, we don't have to depend solely on second-half trends to give us evidence that the Dallas offense seems to be better than the Detroit defense. Use stats from the whole season, and the Dallas offense still comes out a little better than the Detroit defense. Look at the trends from the last few weeks, and the Cowboys come out a lot better. Whichever of those statements you believe to be true, if you add the Cowboys' advantage on offense to their special-teams and home-field advantages, they are the clear favorites in this contest.
An added wrinkle suggesting a Dallas victory: the Lions may be too consistent to put together the huge performance they might need to win on the road. Only Houston had a lower overall DVOA variance than the Lions this season. Detroit also had the fourth lowest variance on offense and eighth lowest on defense. The Lions didn't really have a game where everything fell apart, but they didn't really have a game where everything suddenly clicked, either. And they will need a game like that to beat the Cowboys if Tony Romo and Dez Bryant continue to play as well as they have over the past two months.
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. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.