NFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2018
by Bryan Knowles (ATL-LARM) and Vincent Verhei (CAR-NO)
For the second straight year, the NFC got the two late-game slots, which are supposed to be the bigger-profile games that draw the higher ratings. This year, it's an appropriate decision. The NFC was the superior of the two conferences this year, and these are the superior games this weekend. Although the Rams and Saints were the top two teams in DVOA, there may be a better chance of an upset in the NFC simply because the Falcons and Panthers are better and more complete teams than the Titans and Bills.
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 Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
Atlanta at Los Angeles Rams
Offense/defense stats in the following tables do NOT include the Rams' Week 17 loss to San Francisco where they sat all their star players.
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In a season that saw old favorites bottom out and new franchises soar, the NFC returns precisely one playoff team from a year ago: the reigning conference champions, the Atlanta Falcons. To defend their crown, they're going to have to go through a veritable legion of upstarts, starting with the Los Angeles Rams.
Saturday night's main event is fascinating because the two teams contrast with each other in many different ways, not just in their playoff experience levels. Los Angeles was the second-youngest team on opening day, while Atlanta ranks among the oldest -- even new Rams head coach Sean McVay is younger than Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, making this just the fifth such postseason game ever.
The Rams have had a massive upswing in fortunes, with McVay's first year on the job seeing them shoot from 30th to second in DVOA, an increase surpassing even the wildest expectations of their biggest boosters (read: us). Meanwhile, blame it on the Super Bowl loser's curse, replacing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan with Steve Sarkisian, or just plain regression to the mean, but the Falcons have spent most of the year underwhelming fans compared to their 2016 run, falling from third to 15th in DVOA. The Rams have found success across the board -- one of the very few teams to ever finish in the top six in offense, defense and special teams DVOA. The Falcons get by with a good offense papering over some below-average defense and special teams play.
As a result, the Rams cruised to their playoff spot, resting their starters in a meaningless Week 17 game. The Falcons had to play hard all the way through, and has no margin for error: had Golden Tate been 6 inches further upfield in Week 3 against Detroit or Pete Carroll a little wiser with his special teams decisions in Week 11 in Seattle, the Falcons would be watching this week from home. That's two very different paths to this week's game.
The most interesting difference, however, may come in each team's consistency. This is technically a showdown between the most and least consistent teams in football, though that comes with an asterisk -- the Rams rank 32nd in variance only when you include the Week 17 game where they rested their starters; otherwise, they'd have finished 23rd. Half of Atlanta's performances this season ranged between plus or minus 15.0% DVOA, with nothing hitting plus or minus 40.0%. The Rams, on the other hand, could go from getting trampled by the Vikings one week to shutting down the Saints the next. The Falcons have looked like an average or slightly above-average team all year long, losing to playoff teams but with enough in the tank to get past moderate competition. The Rams have bounced between looking like an unstoppable force of nature and a very good but very young team which is still trying to put all the pieces together.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
The biggest question as of time of writing is which Falcons will be available at game time. Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, and Alex Mack all have injuries and have been limited in practice. All of them are expected to play on Saturday barring unexpected setbacks, but starting guard Andy Levitre will not be joining them -- Levitre aggravated an existing triceps injury in Atlanta's Week 17 win over Carolina, and has been placed on injured reserve. That's not exactly the news you want to hear when Aaron Donald is lining up across from you.
The other big name missing, of course, is ex-coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The Falcons' offensive DVOA has dropped from a league-leading 24.6% DVOA last season to 8.2% this year -- still good, but nothing like the powerhouse they were a year ago. Their passing game, especially, has dropped off. Matt Ryan had a career year in 2016, and expecting him to repeat his MVP season was always going to be a tough sell. His 19.2% passing DVOA is the third-highest mark of his career and ahead of everything he's done for the past eight years ... except last year's league-leading 39.1%. We have seen similar drop-offs for Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman … you name it, and they're not performing as well as they did last year, when they were setting the league on fire.
That has led to drop-offs all across the board on offense. The Falcons have dropped from 33.8 points per game to 22.1, and haven't scored more than 24 in their last five games. Their DVOA in the red zone has dropped from 14th to 22nd. They were great at staying on schedule last season, ranking fifth in DVOA in second-and-short situations; that's fallen all the way to 20th. Their explosive plays have become fewer and farther between; they had 84 plays of 20 or more yards last year and just 66 this season. Perhaps most damning of all to those who point to the Falcons' 6-4 record in one-score games as being some sort of sign of experience and veteran gumption, their DVOA in late and close situations has fallen from second in the league to 23rd. You can hear the 28-3 drums beginning to beat in the background.
When all the ingredients are the same but the dish isn't what you remembered, natural reaction is to blame the new cook. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has gotten a lot of heat for the (relatively) anemic performance in 2017. Critics point to the drop-off in the presence of running backs in the passing game (117 total catches in 2016, 96 in 2017) and say that he isn't as creative as Shanahan was; they look at the drop in big plays and call him more conservative; and they blame him for abandoning the run game too early when the team gets behind. To one extent or another, all of these are true, but it's not like he has Atlanta running the wishbone or the triple option out there. This is just a slightly more conservative version of the same basic stuff they were running last year, tweaked to fit Sarkisian's comfort level and the minor personnel changes they faced this offseason. It hasn't all clicked in Year 1, but that has as much to do with natural regression and lack of execution as it does with the time it takes for a new coordinator and offense to gel.
You can see Sarkisian and the passing game getting more comfortable with one another through the year-long trends. Atlanta ranked just 13th in passing DVOA in Weeks 1-9, at 21.7%. That has shot up to sixth and 34.3% in Weeks 10-17; not as good as last season's performance when everything went right, but still very good. Their overall offensive DVOA has gone down over that time period, however, as the running game has cratered. And that brings us nicely back to the subject of injuries.
Freeman missed most of three games with a concussion, and is dealing with a knee injury that kept him out of practice early this week. Tevin Coleman also missed a game with a concussion, meaning the Falcons only had their two-headed rushing attack active in four of the last seven games of the season -- and all four saw the absence of Andy Levitre. Coupled with Alex Mack's calf injury, it means we haven't seen the rushing game working as Atlanta intended for two months now.
Atlanta is going to want to find their first really solid rushing day in more than a month soon, because that's the closest thing this Rams defense has to a weakness. Wade Phillips has worked his traditional first-year magic in Los Angeles, with the Rams improving in nearly every metric. They've gone from 15th to third in DVOA; reduced their points per game from 24.6 to 20.6; picked up 17 more sacks than they did a year ago; and so on and so forth. This is the eighth straight time Phillips has come to town and immediately helped lead his team to a playoff berth. In all eight of those instances, his new team has given up fewer points in his first year there than they did the year before. Obviously, it helps having talent like Aaron Donald to play with, but you get the feeling that you could give Phillips 11 guys from the local Y and he'd find a way to get the most out of them.
Their Achilles' heel to this point, however, has been in the running game, where they rank just 18th in DVOA. It hasn't always lined up with their losses, but the Rams have had a few games this year where they have been regularly pushed back on their heels. They rank 31st in third-and-short situations and 22nd in red zone run defense -- when teams compress the field on them, their defensive line often fails to penetrate. This is where a healthy Falcons offensive line would really come in handy:
|Adjusted Line Yards, Falcons O v. Rams D|
|Team||Adj. Line Yards||Rank||Power Success||Rank||Stuffed||Rank|
Runs against the Rams very rarely pick up nothing, and they're successful no matter where you run, unless you swing it way outside -- the Rams rank in the bottom 10 in adjusted line yards on runs off right tackle, left tackle or up the middle. This is part of the reason why they drop to 28th in DVOA when tied or down by one score; it's not really a defense designed to stuff you, keep you from running out the clock and get the ball back for their offense. They want to force you into situations where you have to throw the ball, where they can pin Aaron Donald's ears back and let him go.
Donald has 52 pass pressures despite sitting out Week 17; that's 17 more than the second-place interior lineman (Cincinnati's Carlos Dunlap). Handling Donald would be tricky with a fully healthy interior offensive line, though Atlanta's pass protection is ranked eighth in adjusted sack rate. With a gimpy Mack and no Levitre, that's a serious problem -- the Falcons have been solid under pressure this year, but Falcons fans remember how second-half pressure destroyed them in the Super Bowl a year ago. Donald's the sort of player who, if left alone against a backup lineman, could cause that kind of havoc all by himself.
When Ryan does have time to throw, he'll find a solid secondary that takes advantage of some excellent deep safety play by Lamarcus Joyner and John Johnson to allow their cornerbacks to play more aggressively. One interesting matchup to watch will be in the slot, where Nickell Robey-Coleman ranks fourth in cornerback success rate. Coleman, however, is only 5-foot-8, while primary Falcons slot receiver Mohamed Sanu is taller than average at 6-foot-2. The Rams are generally very good at covering secondary and tertiary receivers -- ranked fourth and seventh in DVOA, respectively -- but the physical mismatch might be an avenue the Falcons can exploit. Tall receivers have given Los Angeles some problems in the past, with DeAndre Hopkins, Adam Thielen, and Larry Fitzgerald all finding room to work earlier this year.
Los Angeles ranks "just" 12th against top receivers, so Julio Jones will get his against Trumaine Johnson, but it might be best to try to attack the defense with tight ends paired up on linebackers; Alec Ogletree is far from the best coverage linebacker and Austin Hooper is an above-average tight end.
Still, the Falcons aren't going to win if they sit back and try to throw 50 passes. They need to stay in situations where they can run the ball and push back the Rams' defensive line. A big day from Freeman and/or Coleman seems like a necessary part of a Falcons victory.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
It's almost impossible to find the proper superlatives to describe the improvement the Rams' offense has seen this season. In 2016, they were one of the worst offenses we've ever recorded. Their -37.8% offensive DVOA was the fourth-worst since 1986, and they were worse than that when Jared Goff stepped into the starting lineup. Goff's -74.7% passing DVOA was the worst we've ever recorded for a quarterback with at least 200 pass attempts. He was one of only five players we've ever looked at who had a negative DVOA when he wasn't pressured, much less when opposing defenses got to him -- which they did 40.4% of the time, because the offensive line was a sieve, 29th in adjusted sack rate. They weren't any better in the running game, ranking 29th in adjusted line yards as well, which meant 2015's Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley spent most of 2016 getting hit in the backfield and not punching through holes with the same skill, struggling to just 3.2 yards per carry in a season he'd later call a nightmare. In short, it was a shambles.
What a difference a year makes. Out went Jeff Fisher, Rob Boras, and their plodding offense; in stepped Sean McVay and his open concepts that play to Goff's strengths and hide his weaknesses. In came Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan on the offensive line, major upgrades over Greg Robinson and Tim Barnes. They keyed a resurgence in the trenches -- the Rams shot up to third in adjusted line yards and ninth in adjusted sack rate. That means bigger holes and wider lanes for Gurley to run in, sparking an MVP-caliber season, as well an easier time in the pocket for Goff. With that extra time, Goff can find the new targets that came in this offseason -- Sammy Watkins, Cooper Kupp, and Robert Woods. They key, then, to sparking one of the largest offensive turnarounds in modern NFL history is to replace half your starters with better players, and replace your entire coaching staff as well.
We never said this was rocket science. Or particularly easy, for that matter.
Derrik Klassen covered the Rams with a fairly definitive Film Room piece, explaining how McVay has opened up the offense for Goff in all the ways Fisher didn't. It's a must-read, but to sum up, McVay relies heavily on bunch and stack formations, preventing defenders from easily pressing or picking up receivers right off the snap, and adding enough confusion so that receivers can create plenty of spacing and vertical pressure. This stretches the defense, which takes men out of the box and provides more room for Gurley to run. It opens up space in the flats, which has helped Gurley catch 64 passes and finish second in receiving DYAR among running backs. It forces the secondary to make tough choices on who and where to cover, providing easier reads for a still developing quarterback and allowing him to get the ball out quicker. Add to all that a massive improvement from the second-year quarterback, and you have the fourth-best offense in football.
The Rams are all about exploiting positive matchups, and there are quite a few to choose from against Atlanta. The Falcons' defense ranks 28th at stopping the run on first down, while the Rams rank sixth. Atlanta doesn't give up a ton of big runs thanks to solid tackling at the second level; this is part of the reason why they've given up the ninth fewest rushing yards in the league. They give up 4.5 yards a carry on first down, however, and 49.3 percent of carries picked up four or more yards. In short, Atlanta regularly lets opponents set up second-and-medium matchups thanks to a lack of push up front. Players like Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, and Takk McKinley are doing very good jobs in rushing the passer, but they struggle to produce anything positive on running plays.
It's quite the opposite situation on third down, where the Rams rank second in passing and the Falcons rank 27th. In fact, third downs in general have been a struggle for the Falcons; they rank 29th in third-down defensive DVOA and allow opponents to convert 38.8% of the time. That's only slightly above league average, but you have to take into account the fact that Atlanta's opponents averaged a third-and-7.8, the third-longest yards to go in the league. Even when the Falcons found themselves with the opportunity to defend third-and-long, they simply could not get off the field. They forced only 33 three-and-outs all year long, sixth-fewest in the league. They allowed 33 drives of 10 plays or longer, third-most in the league, and their 6.32 plays allowed per drive ranked dead last. They just simply let offenses stay out on the field too long.
We could go on like this. The Falcons ranked 21st in coverage against running backs and gave up 110 receptions to players coming out of the backfield; Gurley's a dynamic receiver who finished second to only Alvin Kamara in receiving DYAR. Atlanta ranked 24th in defending against play-action this season, giving up 7.9 yards per play; Los Angeles uses play-action more than any other team in the league. It's not quite a situation where anything will work for the Rams, but they aren't exactly starved for options when it comes to planning their offensive strategy.
The Falcons defense has simply been below average for much of this season, but there is a catch to everything mentioned so far: these are year-long stats, and the Falcons of today aren't the Falcons of Week 1. There have been plenty of signs of improvement along the way, and they've gotten better across the board defensively as the year has gone along.
|Atlanta's Defensive Improvement|
|Pass DVOA||Rank||Rush DVOA||Rank||Total DVOA||Rank|
The defense we've seen over the second half of the year has been above average. Maybe not much more than that, maybe not particularly excelling at any one thing, but much better than it was at the start of the season, and better than the defense Ryan and company dragged to the Super Bowl last year. While the Falcons don't really have any stand-out defensive superstars yet, they have some very, very good players.
Grady Jarrett, Adrian Clayborn, and Takkarist McKinley each have at least 25 pressures on the year. Desmond Trufant has a low success rate, but is tremendous in press coverage. Keanu Neal has set a record for most forced fumbles by a defensive back in his first two seasons. Deion Jones has helped keep Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey from running all over the Falcons the last couple games. They haven't allowed a 90-yard rusher since December 3. It has taken some time, but the defense is beginning to gel under new coordinator Marquand Manuel. This is still not a great defense -- or even a particularly good one -- but it's a better squad than the full-season numbers would indicate. They likely need to take another step forward to stop the Rams' attack on Saturday, but they're in a much better position to do so than they were in Week 1.
The Rams have ranked in the top 10 in special teams in each of the past five seasons, and this year is no exception. Johnny Hekker remains one of the best punters in football, though he's not quite living up to the otherworldly pace he set last year. Pharoh Cooper leads the league in return yards and yards per kick return, and has a 103-yard touchdown to his name. Together, they really help the Rams win tough field-position battles; the Rams' average drive starts from the 32.2-yard line, second-best in the league. They have also been very lucky in general -- they've accumulated 40.6 points of hidden special team value, the most we've ever recorded. Their opponents have made only 67.6 percent of their field goals, they've missed three extra points, and they've been unusually poor in both kickoff and punt distance, giving the Rams a significant advantage on top of their own skill. It's better to be lucky than good, but it's best to be both.
They will, however, be without their All_pro kicker Greg Zuerlein, who has a herniated disc and is on injured reserve. He's been replaced by Sam Ficken, who has missed a field goal and an extra point in his two games, and not attempted a field goal beyond 40 yards. So there's some unusual uncertainty in the kicking game for the Rams.
The Falcons, meanwhile, ranged from below-average to bad in every aspect of special teams except for field goals and extra points. Matt Bryant is 34-for-39 on field goals this year and perfect on extra points, though he has missed three attempts from less than 40 yards out.
Yes, the Falcons have been more consistent than the Rams have been on a week-to-week basis. And yes, they have the playoff experience and the veteran knowledge and the secret sauce and the mojo and any of those other intangibles you can think of. Yes, they're on a quest to defend their NFC Championship and fix their Super Bowl mistakes of a year ago. But unless a time machine is invented between now and Saturday night, it'll be the 2017 Falcons, not the 2016 version, taking the field.
The Falcons' highest single-game DVOA of the year was 38.8%, in their 27-7 win over Dallas back in Week 10. The Rams have had eight games higher than that. They've only had two games worse than Atlanta's worst performance, and one of those was the Week 17 quasi-bye against San Francisco. Consistency is a great skill to have, but skill is an even better skill. In 2017, the Rams have clearly been the better team. They're also the more rested team and get to play at home. That's all worth more than any secret sauce last year's playoff run could bring Atlanta.
However, we have seen what the Falcons' offensive playmakers can do; we know what they're capable of. Just because they haven't reached those heights in 2017 doesn't mean Matt Ryan and Julio Jones suddenly forgot how to play football. It wouldn't be the biggest shock of the 2017 season if they managed to find some of last year's rhythm at the most opportune time. All of this year's indicators, however, point to the Rams picking up their first playoff win in Los Angeles since the 1985 season.
Carolina at New Orleans
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The year was 2010. The Carolina Panthers went just 2-14, while their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints, went 11-5 and made the playoffs. The Atlanta Falcons actually won the NFC South that year at 13-3, and Tampa Bay went 10-6. Clearly, the Panthers had a lot of catching up to do.
And so they used the first overall pick in the 2011 draft on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. Newton paid immediate dividends and the Panthers went 6-10 that season, but still lost both games against the Saints. At that point, Carolina had lost five of its last six games against New Orleans, but then things turned around. From 2012 to 2016, the Panthers won seven of their next ten games against the Saints. (One of those wins came against Luke McCown, not Drew Brees, but McCown played well in defeat, completing more than 80 percent of his passes for 335 yards.) In 2017, however, the fortunes were flipped again. The Saints beat the Panthers 34-13 in Charlotte in Week 3, then 31-21 in Louisiana in Week 13. Those losses brought Newton and the Panthers' record against the Saints to an even 7-7.
In that light, picking a winner in this weekend's wild-card game seems difficult at first. Throughout the years, Newton's statistics in the series have generally been inferior to Brees' (and there is certainly no shame in that). When the Saints and Panthers have played, Brees has been the more active (43.6 dropbacks per game, to 32.9 for Newton) and more accurate (69.2 percent completion rate to 58.0 percent) passer. Their sack and interception totals have been nearly identical (28 and 12 for Brees, 30 and ten for Newton), but Brees has a big edge in touchdown passes, 32 to 21. Newton, however, has hit more big plays, averaging 12.4 yards per completion to Brees' 11.0. That's why Brees' edge in average yards per pass play (6.9 yards, compared to 6.2 for Newton) is narrower than you might expect. Then we must consider Newton's 35.8 rushing yards per game and seven rushing touchdowns in the series -- but then Brees has rushed for a pair of scores himself.
As for the runners and receivers, the most dangerous weapons in this rivalry have moved on -- we don't need to worry about DeAngelo Williams or Steve Smith or Jimmy Graham or Marques Colston this year. The holdovers have been pretty quiet, historically. Jonathan Stewart has played 12 games against the Saints, rushing for 59.9 yards per game with seven touchdowns. Greg Olsen has averaged 53.7 yards and scored four times in a dozen games against the Saints himself. On the other side, Mark Ingram has played against the Panthers 13 times, averaging 52.3 rushing yards per game and scoring seven touchdowns. Some of the younger stars have been more productive. Michael Thomas has averaged 75.8 receiving yards in four games against Carolina, with three touchdowns. And then we have the dueling rookie receiving backs. Christian McCaffrey had a career-high 101 receiving yards against New Orleans in Week 3, then caught a touchdown against them in Week 12. And in two games against Carolina, Alvin Kamara ran for 97 yards and three touchdowns -- on only 11 carries.
There have been defensive stars as well. Carolina's Luke Kuechly has 116 total tackles in 11 games versus New Orleans, while Mario Addison has 6.5 sacks in ten. For New Orleans, as usual, the top defensive player has been Cam Jordan -- the defensive end leads all Saints players with 58 tackles and 8.0 sacks against Carolina since Newton was drafted. Interceptions have been hard to come by in this rivalry; Carolina's Kurt Coleman is the only player to reel in more than one in the past seven years.
Saying this has been a matchup between New Orleans' dink-and-dunk attack and Carolina's run-and-bomb offense would be oversimplification, but not entirely inaccurate. Can we expect to see more of the same on Sunday? Let's find out.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Before we get any further, we must establish that there were two Carolina offenses this year. The first lasted from Week 1 to Week 8 and included Kelvin Benjamin; the second lasted from Week 9 onwards and did not. Benjamin, the team's leading wide receiver in both 2014 and 2016, got a big trick on Halloween when Carolina traded him to Buffalo. At the time, Benjamin led the Panthers with 475 receiving yards, nearly 100 more than any of his teammates. Teams rarely trade their top receivers away in the middle of the season -- especially not 5-3, playoff-contending teams like Carolina -- so we had little prior data to study, but it seemed only natural that the deal would cause dramatic changes in the Panthers offense. And it definitely did, as Carolina's offense got significantly … better?
Correlation does not equal causation, but it's a plain fact that the Panthers' offensive numbers exploded after Benjamin was traded away. At the end of Week 8, Carolina's offensive DVOA was -8.8% (1.7% passing, -16.3% rushing). From the Benjamin trade to the end of the season, that DVOA rose to 7.7% (13.1% passing, 9.9% rushing). There was still a lot of game-to-game fluctuation, and the season-ending loss to Atlanta was by far the offense's worst game of the season, but it's undeniable that the Panthers offense was much better in the second half of the year than it had been in the first.
Specific changes in the passing game were a little complex -- some individual receivers saw their DVOAs soar, while others plummeted. What's clear is that Benjamin averaged 6.4 targets and nearly 60 yards per game with Carolina, and that's a lot of production to try to replace on the fly. So the Panthers replaced it on the ground instead, running more (32.4 carries per game, up from 28.9) and passing less (30.5 dropbacks per game, down from 36.5). Basically, the Panthers took Benjamin's targets and turned them into runs. And the results were stunning. The team numbers actually undersell the changes in the rushing attack, because they include Newton's stats, which actually dipped slightly after the trade. Stewart's rushing DVOA, however, went from -28.1% to 0.9%; McCaffrey's, from -45.0% to 24.6%. The Panthers offensive line was 27th in adjusted line yards before the trade, but fourth afterwards.
For the sake of argument, let's assume the Panthers we saw in the second half of the season show up in the playoffs. (If the Panthers of September and October show up instead, the Saints will win by 20 points.) Now you're looking at a lead running back in Stewart who averages 4.0 yards per carry and 50.1 yards per game; a secondary runner, McCaffrey, who adds 39.8 yards on 8.5 carries per game, while also gaining 34.1 yards per game as a receiver; and a quarterback who outdoes them both, averaging 62.4 yards per game and 6.3 yards per play as a rusher.
This does not mean Benjamin's absence isn't felt, however. Yes, Carolina's pass offense DVOA improved drastically in the second half of the year, but that's almost entirely due to the elimination of negative plays -- their interceptions fell from 11 to five, and their sacks fell from 22 to 13. The Panthers were worse at actually moving the ball forward in the second half of the season. Newton completed just 54.1 percent of his passes after the Benjamin trade, averaging less than 6 yards per pass. Third-year pro Devin Funchess had his best season in 2017 and was effective all year. But no other target in the Carolina passing game scares you. McCaffrey is reliable and efficient, but defenses don't lose sleep about players who average 8.1 yards per catch. Ed Dickson had 237 total yards in back-to-back games against New England and Detroit in October, but has only 166 yards in 11 games since then. Greg Olsen had a terrible season, missing nine games due to injury and still finishing next to last among qualifying tight ends in both DVOA and DYAR. With Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd both on injured reserve, the Panthers are left with special teamers and journeymen like Russell Shepard, Kaelin Clay, and Brenton Bersin getting significant playing time on offense.
You could live with all this if the Panthers were playing the Saints of old, the team that finished in the bottom five of defensive DVOA five times in the past six years, but those teams are gone. This defense has been almost completely rebuilt. Thirteen players were on the field for at least 500 defensive snaps this year. Four of those players were new to the team this season (including rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams), and six more are in just their second campaigns with the club.
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The Saints did not have jaw-dropping individual defensive numbers this year. Cam Jordan was fourth in the league with 13.0 sacks and Lattimore and Ken Crawley were both in the top 20 for passes defensed, but otherwise nobody really blew up the stat sheet. It was a total team effort -- they did not have an individual player in the top 70 in the NFL in percentage of his team's run or pass plays made.
That team effort, though, produced some very good results. New Orleans' pressure rate of 32.2 percent was ninth-best in the league, and their adjusted sack rate of 7.8 percent was sixth. They were sixth or better in coverage against No. 1 wide receivers, third/fourth wideouts, and tight ends, and in the middle of the pack against No. 2 wide receivers and running backs. And what they did better than anyone else was tackle -- they had only 80 broken tackles, lowest total for any team in the league.
The question then becomes, with few individual stars, how will this defense match up against the Panthers? Let's start in the secondary, where someone will need to handle Funchess, Carolina's clear No. 1 receiver at this point. Marshon Lattimore has gotten all the press this season, but it was New Orleans' other corner, Ken Crawley, who had the better charting numbers. In 84 targets, Crawley allowed 6.0 yards per pass (19th among 81 qualifying cornerbacks in 2017) with a 62 percent success rate (10th). Lattimore was targeted 70 times this season, allowing 7.3 yards per pass (49th) with a 53 percent success rate (53rd).
The next question: how will the Saints fare in coverage against McCaffrey? Though their overall coverage numbers against running backs this season weren't bad, the Saints were vulnerable to big games by running backs as receivers. Tevin Coleman had 40 receiving yards in one game against New Orleans. Theo Riddick had 45. Todd Gurley had 54. When the Saints played the Patriots, Rex Burkhead had 41 yards and James White had 85 more. And we mentioned that one of McCaffrey's biggest games in his young career came against this Saints team. With Carolina's offensive options limited, New Orleans linebackers Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o will likely be tested often this weekend.
And now we get to the biggest question for the Saints defense: will they be up to the test against Carolina's steamroller of a running attack? Because for all of New Orleans' defensive improvements this season, they were still only 23rd against the run. Players who had big days running against New Orleans this year included such non-luminaries as Aaron Jones (131 yards, 7.7-yard average), Samaje Perine (117, 5.1), and Jordan Howard (102, 4.4). Also relevant, the Saints have often had problems with running quarterbacks. Newton himself had 51 yards on the ground in the Week 13 game, but he's not alone -- Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston, Brett Hundley, and Mitchell Trubisky each had at least 27 yards in a game against the Saints too. All told, the Saints gave up 316 rushing yards to quarterbacks this season, third-most in the league. (Atlanta gave up a league-high 354 and Tampa Bay gave up 305 -- playing Newton twice each doesn't help NFC South defenses in this category.)
The Panthers will likely need to convert a lot of third downs to win this game, and to do that, they're going to need to run the ball -- they were second in DVOA on third-down runs, 28th on third-down passes. This is not just a matter of forcing the Panthers into third-and-longs, however. With 1 or 2 yards to go, Stewart and Newton had 14 carries apiece, with 11 first downs for Stewart and a dozen for Newton. All other Panthers had two first downs on four third-and-short runs. With 3 to 6 yards to go, the Panther had five first downs on eight runs, including Newton converting four out of five plays. And with 7-plus yards to go, Newton still picked up seven first downs on 15 runs, with McCaffrey adding one conversion on two carries. The Panthers had mixed results in longer-yardage scenarios -- they were 27th on third-and-medium, ninth in third-and-long -- but they sure had a unique way of finding success.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
While the Panthers offense and Saints defense have undergone major changes, the matchup on the other side of the ball is refreshingly familiar. The Saints have a Hall of Fame quarterback and they let him do his thing, throwing pass after pass after pass. The Panthers rely on a stout defensive line and elite linebacker play to cover up a weaker secondary. Some things never change.
Well, they change a little. Brees "only" threw 536 passes this season. That was ninth-most in the league, his 13th year in a row in the top 10, but his lowest total (and the first time he didn't finish in the top three) since 2009. He still led the league in completions for the third time in four years, setting an NFL record by completing 72 percent of his passes, the third time in his career he has topped the 70 percent mark. And thanks in large part to that accuracy, the Saints had dangerous weapons all over the place. No. 1 wide receiver Michael Thomas was fifth at the position in DYAR, while No. 2 Ted Ginn was second in DVOA. (Really! Ted Ginn!) Rookie Alvin Kamara led all running backs in receiving DYAR. Injuries limited Coby Fleener to 11 games, but he still finished sixth among tight ends in DYAR. (Fleener has been placed on injured reserve due to concussions and will not return for the playoffs. Backups Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Hill both had negative receiving DYAR this season, a remarkable feat when playing with a quarterback like Brees.) And they all had a chance to show what they could do because the offensive line gave them excellent pass protection -- they were second in the league in adjusted sack rate, and third in pressure rate.
That same offensive line played a big hand in leading the league's best rushing attack. The Saints finished in the top three in adjusted line yards, stuff rate, second-level yards, and open field yards. Kamara came within a few decimal points of setting a record for rushing DVOA, and Mark Ingram was seventh in that same category this season. The numbers say this was not quite the best overall offense in the league this season, but you'd be hard-pressed to find another team that had so many different ways to beat you.
Are the Panthers up to the task? Their defensive line was often dominant -- you can see that in their run defense DVOA ranking, but they were also fifth or better in adjusted line yards, "power" success, and stuff rate. However, they were just 18th in second-level yards (shocking, considering the reputations of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis), and 27th in open field yards. That last number is particularly troubling, because the Saints offense was first in the same category. It's unlikely that the Saints will have the same consistent success on the ground that they have enjoyed all year, but if they're patient, you've got to figure that Ingram and Kamara will get their home runs sooner or later.
It's a similar story in the passing game. The Panthers have a scary pass rush, ranking fifth in pressure rate and third in adjusted sack rate. And they do that without a lot of blitzing -- five Panthers had at least 3.5 sacks this season, and all were defensive linemen. Kuechly and Thomas were effective in pass coverage, as the Panthers were fourth in pass coverage against tight ends, 13th against running backs. Carolina cornerbacks, though, consistently struggled. And I do mean consistently -- the Panthers were exactly 19th in coverage against No. 1 wide receivers, No. 2s, and all "other" wideouts. Opponents picked on James Bradberry; he was one of four corners this season to be targeted 100 times or more, and he fell outside the top 50 in both success rate and yards allowed per pass. Daryl Worley fared a little better, ranking 25th in yards per pass allowed and 42nd in success rate. The Panthers don't use nickel formations very much, because their linebackers have enough speed to hang with most slot receivers. But when Kevon Seymour hit the field, things got ugly. Seymour actually had a better success rate than either Bradberry or Worley, but when he failed, he failed spectacularly, giving up 10.7 yards per pass. The days when Josh Norman was shutting down receivers in Carolina are long gone. (Norman actually allowed 10.5 yards per pass this season, worst among qualifying corners, so his days of shutting down receivers in Washington are also gone.)
Don't expect to see a lot of play-action passing from the Saints, by the way. They used play-action on 20 percent of all passes this season, a little less than most teams, and they averaged 7.4 yards on those plays, right in the middle of the pack. However, they averaged an NFL-best 7.8 yards per play without play-action. Meanwhile, the Panthers gave up 5.3 yards on the average play-action pass, second-lowest in the league. But they gave up 6.9 yards without play-action, fifth-highest. That difference of 1.6 yards in favor of non-play-action passes was the highest in the league. (Only three other defenses gave up more yards per play without play-action. One of them, coincidentally, was the Saints.)
Is there any place where the Panthers defense has a clear edge over New Orleans? Well, yes -- the Saints were 25th in DVOA on third-down runs, while the Panthers defense was fifth in the same category -- but there's an easy workaround for that problem. Why run when you can let the league's most accurate quarterback throw for short conversions instead? The Saints were fifth in all third-and-short plays, while Carolina's defense was eighth. Any way you slice it, the Panthers look to be in over their heads here.
The Saints were very good this year in two special teams categories: punts and punt coverage, and returning kickoffs. Unfortunately for them, Carolina was almost as good at kickoff returns, even better at punting, and significantly better in punt returns, kickoffs and coverage, and kicking for points.
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We'll start with what New Orleans does well. They averaged 22.9 yards per kickoff return, sixth-best in the league, but that's probably underselling what they're truly capable of. Kamara had five kickoff returns in the first four weeks of the season, but when his role in the offense grew, New Orleans took him off return duty. That changed at the end of the year, however. Kamara was back returning kicks in critical games against Atlanta and Tampa Bay, and he averaged 36.0 yards against the Falcons and 38.9 yards with a touchdown against the Buccaneers. Presumably, Kamara will be handling the bulk of the return duties in the playoffs, which should make the kickers left in the NFC nervous. At punter, Thomas Morstead was eighth in the league in gross average (his seventh season in the top 10). The coverage teams had problems, though, one of nine teams to allow double-digit yards per punt return. Those same coverage teams allowed 24.6 yards per kickoff return, fourth-worst. The biggest weakness for New Orleans was in punt returns, where Tommylee Lewis averaged just 8.2 yards a pop, and Ginn was even worse at 5.4.
The Panthers, meanwhile, were better than average in all five assets of special teams: 13th in kickoffs and coverage, 10th in both kicking for points and punt returns, sixth in kickoff returns, and fifth in punting and coverage. Unfortunately, Damiere Byrd, who had a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, is out for the year. So is Curtis Samuel. That leaves Russell Shepard, Christian McCaffrey, Fozzy Whittaker, and Kaelin Clay to handle kickoffs. McCaffrey and Clay also split punt return duties.
The Saints and Panthers finished tied at 11-5 this season, but do not be fooled into thinking these teams are equal. The Saints allowed one point less than the Panthers did, while scoring 85 more. The Panthers have some advantages in the kicking game and in the defensive front, but otherwise the Saints have the better roster at virtually every position, and in most cases by a significant degree. The Saints were a better team over the course of this season, they're playing at home, and they're certainly the healthier club. The Panthers can pull off the upset, but they need a lot of things to go their way -- special teams, turnovers, a low score that allows them to maintain a run-based attack, and victory in third downs on both sides of the ball. Barring all of that, however, the most likely outcome is a Saints triumph, sending New Orleans into the divisional round.
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.