NFC Championship Preview

by Aaron Schatz

After the first few weeks of the season, when they piled on close win after close win, the conventional wisdom decided that the Carolina Panthers were the breakout team of 2003, a Super Bowl contender.  An author on another website wrote: "I have to admit I was one of the many who thought the Panthers were a mirage, not actually a real team at all. After watching them beat the Colts yesterday in a tough overtime game and coming away with another victory to remain undefeated, I am a believer... This is a team very reminiscent of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and they are going to be a tough team to beat. Tampa Bay may have the numbers over the last few years, but Carolina may have the best defense in the league when all is said and done."

After Tennessee spanked them in Week 7, the conventional wisdom said that the Carolina Panthers had been revealed as a fraud, overly dependent on their running game and unable to win without fluke plays.  An author on another website wrote: "Sometimes all it takes to beat a team is game film, and now the rest of the league has some good stuff to watch thanks to Tennessee. Prediction: Carolina does not even make the playoffs after such a strong start."

This was the same writer, by the way, exactly one week later.

For the entire season, the general outlook on the Panthers continued to swing up and down as their record began to move more in line with their actual performance -- and the feckless teams behind them in the NFC South continued to miss opportunity after opportunity.  They were underrated, they were overrated, they were underrated, they were overrated.

What's ironic about these massive mood swings in the general opinion of the Panthers is that the Panthers themselves were far more consistent than the conventional wisdom about them.  According to our statistic that measures the variance of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), the Carolina Panthers were the most consistent team in the NFL from pole to flag.  You'll notice some ups and downs on the graphs below, but generally when the Carolina offense had an off day, the defense made up for it, and vice versa.

Here at Football Outsiders, my attitude about the Panthers has remained as consistent as the Panthers themselves.  They are overrated, but after a few weeks it became clear that they were shoe-ins for the playoffs because their schedule was so easy.  I compared them to the 2001 Chicago Bears and the only other team in NFL history to match Carolina's feat of winning seven games by three points or less, the 1998 Arizona Cardinals.  That team went from 4-12 to 9-7... and back to 4-12.  I insisted that Carolina would get smoked in the first round and collapse next season.

Instead, when it matters most, the league-average Panthers have turned in their two best games of the season.

I am, apparently, an idiot.

Nonetheless, we are going to break down the numbers for Carolina and Philadelphia -- a team almost as consistent as the Panthers.  We are going to see if we can figure out what to look for Sunday night.  And at the end of the article, you will discover that I still haven't learned from my mistakes.

If you want to know a possible reason why our statistical system may underrate Carolina, read this article by Mike Smith on clock management.

Instead of going through an explanation of our stats for the 100th time, I think I'm just going to link to the Wild Card playoff preview, and you can read the stat explanation that starts off that column, or just go to the good ol' methods column that explains most everything.  All the line yards stats are explained here.

Some notes:

  • I've separated those fun DVOA week-by-week graphs into offense and defense, and I've added the playoffs to the graphs (so you can see what a hot streak the Carolina offense is on right now).  Remember, since a positive DVOA means more scoring, and defense is better when it is negative, improving defense has a downward slope.
  • Otherwise, the stats here are regular season only unless otherwise mentioned.. Stats here do not include the first playoff game last week.
  • HFA (home field advantage) represents how much better the Eagles are at home and how much worse the Panthers are on the road.
  • When one team has a significant advantage over the other team, that segment will be in bold (example: Eagles running up the middle).

When Carolina is on Offense

Panthers on Offense

DVOA -9.1% (20) 6.5% (23)
TREND -9.0% (18) 6.4% (20)
PASS -9.4% (18) 3.1% (18)
RUSH -8.9% (22) 10.3% (28)
HFA -7.4% (13) -0.7% (24)

Well, that doesn't exactly look like Battle of the Network Stars, does it?  Philadelphia's defense has been pretty overrated this year.  People are finally realizing how bad they are at stopping the running game, but they still don't quite grasp that the Eagles are not an above-average pass defense either.  It is worth noting that the Eagles were ridiculously consistent on defense with two glaring (good) exceptions.  Nearly every game had a defense DVOA between 0% and +20% except for great games against Green Bay in Week 10 (the Ahman Green zillion fumbles game) and Dallas in Week 14 (a.k.a. Philly's revenge).

On the other side, I don't think anybody is running on the assumption that the Panthers have a great offense that puts tons of points on the scoreboard.  But, relative to their season-long performance, Carolina's offensive execution over the past two games has been even more impressive than Indianapolis'.  Check out on the graph to the right how the top two Carolina offenses performances of the entire season have come in the playoffs.  Sure, we don't know much of that is Carolina playing well, and how much is St. Louis and Dallas playing badly, but the fact is that Carolina has dominated two of the best defenses in the game this year in successive weeks.

Yes, dominated.  DVOA says that the Carolina defense was average last week but the offense creamed the Rams.  The game may have been close thanks to St. Louis' last-minute fourth quarter comeback to force overtime, but DVOA says Carolina played like a team that should have won by a much larger margin.

Two weeks ago, in our Wild Card preview, I discussed Carolina's fondness for the deep bomb.  After two weeks of the playoffs, I think America is now fully familiar with Carolina's fondness for the deep bomb, particularly with a Mr. Steven Smith.  It is worth noting that, judged by our DPAR (Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement) statistic, Smith's best game of the regular season came in the previous meeting of the Eagles and Panthers.  He caught five balls of the nine thrown his way for 80 yards, three first downs, and a touchdown.

Can Carolina depend on the long bomb for a third week?  Well, Carolina's first opponent, Dallas, was one of the worst teams in the NFL at giving up long passes.  St. Louis was middle of the pack.  Philadelphia, however, has been one of the best teams at preventing long passes.  Only 3.9% of completed passes against the Philadelphia defense went for 30 or more yards, fourth in the league behind Chicago, New England, and Cleveland.  (How much Philly's ability to prevent the long bomb is hampered by the injury to Troy Vincent, I'm not sure.)

Much like Indianapolis sets up deep throws with the threat of Edgerrin James, Carolina sets up deep throws with the threat (and more often the reality) of Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster.  If you have not previously visited our site, you will be shocked to see that the Panther running game is ranked #22 in DVOA (total success) and #18 in line yards (offensive line-related success).  You're about to find out why, and unfortunately for Carolina fans, the reason is extremely pertinent to this weekend's contest.

Let's start with a look at the line yards stats for when Carolina has the ball (you'll find these stats all explained here):

Team Line Yards   Left   Middle   Right   Power   10+ Yd   Stuffed   Sacks Sack Rate  
CAR 3.65 18 3.81 16 3.42 21 3.90 8 63% 19 17% 14 23% 13 25 5.2% 8
PHI 3.92 25 3.92 19 3.84 26 4.06 28 69% 25 19% 19 22% 24 38 6.2% 15

The problem is that those numbers are dragged down by DeShaun Foster, and based on a game-time decision Foster may be starting instead of backing up Davis.  In last week's discussion threads, there was a lot of discussion of our rankings that show Davis as far superior to Foster -- to the point where Foster was the lowest-ranked running back in the league in terms of Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement.  Despite his great performance last week, I still maintain that the Panthers are at a disadvantage if Davis cannot go.  To show how Stephen Davis' performance differed this year from DeShaun Foster, I've broken down all our line yards stats for each one. I'm also including DVOA for Davis and Foster on first, second, and third down, plus receiving.  Because of the limited number of power runs for Foster, I've included the actual numbers instead of percentages.

Player Line Yards Left Middle Right Power 10+ Yd Stuffed 1st Down 2nd Down 3rd/4th Down  Receiving 
S. Davis 3.71 3.83 3.50 4.02 12 of 23 19% 21% -15% +22% +18% +70%
D. Foster 3.44 3.74 3.12 3.60 4 of 6 13% 31% -15% -38% -40%* -40%

I stuck that asterisk next to Foster on third down because his DVOA on third down is actually positive (+3%) if you don't count a lost fumble.  One turnover makes a lot of difference in your rating when you are only counting 20 plays.  In general, it seems Foster has one advantage over Davis, third downs, and even that is unsure due to low sample size.  After I had run those numbers, I read "part two" of the Scouts Inc. preview over at  They brought up an interesting point: "Davis is a north/south runner who can get yards in any weather condition and on any surface. Foster is a slasher-type runner who shows the ability to cut on a dime and make defenders miss. However, that is easier to do on Astroturf, like he played on last week, than it is on grass, which he will play on this week."  Well, it is easy enough to test if this is true.  Here are Davis and Foster's numbers split into turf games (@ATL, @DAL, @HOU, @IND, @NOR) and grass games (all others) -- remember, playoffs not included:

Player Line Yards
Line Yards
S. Davis 3.27 3.93 24% 20%  -1% +3%
D. Foster 4.28 3.21 20% 34%  +16% -43%

Hmmm.  I hate to say this as a Patriots fan, since they picked the Colts, but there may be something to this Scouts Inc. thing.  Not to mention that I now have something else to play around with in the offseason (turf vs. grass).  The question is, are Foster's problems on grass of any consequence when the Philadelphia run defense is so bad?  After ranking #28 in our ratings for 2003, they allowed Ahman Green 156 yards.  The only player on the field who could stop Green last Sunday was his own left guard.  (Yes, Philly fans, Corey Simon deserves credit for pushing Wahle back into Green.)

The good news for Philly fans is that, despite all the troubles against the run, there is one place where Philadelphia's defense stands out as one of the league's best: the red zone. Offenses had a -37% DVOA against Philadelphia in the red zone, ranking the Eagles as the fifth-best red zone defense in the league.  The Eagles allowed +11% DVOA over the rest of the field.

Carolina, on the other hand, had a weaker offense in the red zone.  In fact, no matter where they were in opponent territory, they had a worse than league average -- in their own territory, they were league average.  That's -1% DVOA in their own territory, -39% DVOA from the opposing 20 to the opposing 40, and -19% DVOA in the red zone.  Toss a long bomb from your own half of the field, however, and it doesn't matter how bad you are in the red zone.  I expect the same Carolina strategy as the last two weeks: run, run, run, and throw deep.  The numbers show that, no matter how bad the Philadelphia run defense, that strategy is going to work better if a close-to-100% Stephen Davis is the running back, and not DeShaun Foster.

When Philadelphia is on Offense

Eagles on Offense

DVOA 12.6% (7) -2.5% (14)
TREND 21.6% (2) -5.8% (12)
PASS 8.2% (13) 3.0% (17)
RUSH 17.9% (2) -8.8% (12)
HFA -10.9% (28) -3.5% (8)

This side of the game features a battle between two squads that have improved as the year has gone along.  The difference is that the Philadelphia offense peaked stronger, but earlier, than the Carolina defense.

For the Carolina defense, the word is "steady."  They rate as average against the pass and slightly above average against the run.  They don't stand out as being particularly better on any part of the field, except when they pin the other team deep in their own half.  They don't stand out as good or bad on any specific down, except third-and-short where they are very good.  They were actually slightly better on the road than they were at home.

Last week, the story was turnovers, but the Panthers defense should not count on interceptions being the difference in this game.  St. Louis turned the ball over more than any other offense in the NFL this year, 23 interceptions and 16 lost fumbles.  Philadelphia, however, was near the bottom of this category, with only 11 interceptions and 11 lost fumbles.  (Carolina's defense was around league average in getting turnovers, 16 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries.)

Philadelphia's offense, on the other hand, does stand out.  They are particularly strong on second down.  They are particularly strong in the red zone (+35% DVOA -- only Green Bay and Kansas City were better).  They actually play better on the road than when they are at home (not a good thing for this week's game).  And they run, run, run, better than almost anyone in the league.

How about a look at the line yards stats for when Philadelphia has the ball (you'll find these stats all explained here):

Team Line Yards   Left   Middle   Right   Power   10+ Yd   Stuffed   Sacks Sack Rate  
PHI 4.07 2 3.86 12 4.33 1 3.94 6 73% 5 20% 8 23% 10 42 7.6% 30
CAR 3.63 19 3.42 7 3.55 15 4.03 27 61% 7 12% 9 27% 11 38 7.1% 5

Wow, that's impressive.  The Eagles are near the top of the league running pretty much anywhere at any time.  On the long runs, the Philadelphia offense and Carolina defense are about even.  On the short runs, the Philadelphia offense and Carolina defense are about even.  It's the mid-range runs where the Eagles' good running game will probably come into play, turning four yard runs into five yard runs and five yard runs into six yard runs.  Hey, every little bit helps.

Since I broke down Carolina's running game into its two components, I might as well break Philly's into its three components.  Actually, four components, including Donovan McNabb, who finished near the top of our rushing stats for QBs.  Remember, Brian Westbrook, is out, he's just here for comparison.  No line yards stats on quarterbacks, but I can give you McNabb's DVOA on first, second, and third down:

Player Line Yards Left Middle Right Power 10+ Yd Stuffed 1st Down 2nd Down 3rd/4th Down  Receiving 
D. Staley 4.42 4.99 4.59 3.54 3 of 4 13% 16%  +46% -5% -72% +41%
C. Buckhalter 3.67 3.16 3.74 4.13 9 of 12 20% 24%  -8% +17% -73% +82%
B. Westbrook 4.16 3.71 5.02 3.93 1 of 2 26% 28%  +7% +38% +16% +40%
D. McNabb         10 of 14     +40% +36% +5%  

Remember to look at these splits with the knowledge that they aren't going to be quite as reliable because of a smaller number of attempts (for example, that great Staley number going left is only 23 runs).  Because of the limited number of power runs per person, I listed the actual numbers instead of percentages.

Those receiving numbers are ludicrous, of course, and a few times this season I discussed how Philadelphia has built its passing game on screen passes to running backs rather than successful throws to wide receivers.  Last week, I noted that Green Bay was better at defending passes to running backs than the average NFL defense.  Carolina, it turns out, is even better:

RECEIVING DVOA pass to RB pass to TE pass to WR
PHI OFF +42% +10% -11%
GNB DEF -24% +14% 0%

But Philadelphia has been moving away from this strategy in past weeks, throwing more and more to Todd Pinkston.  Last week, McNabb threw eight times to running backs for 39 yards, but threw 10 times to Todd Pinkston for 96 yards.  For the first 14 weeks of the season, only 38% of McNabb's passes to Pinkston were completed, for an average of 4.4 yards per pass and 11.6 yards per completion.  Over the past four weeks, including the first playoff game, 62% of McNabb's passes to Pinkston were completed, for an average of 13.7 yards per pass and 21.7 yards per completion.

So, how will Carolina defend against passes to the suddenly-hot Pinkston?  Well, McNabb can't throw to Pinkston if he's on his back.  The Carolina defense is known for hunting quarterbacks, and in Donovan McNabb they have a tasty target.  Like a lot of "mobile quarterbacks," McNabb gets sacked an awful lot.  The Carolina defenders will likely be spending a lot of time running around in the backfield.

There is a flip side to this, of course.  Perhaps because they were so good at sacking quarterbacks, Carolina was not very good this year at containing quarterbacks when they tucked it and ran.  Only Arizona allowed more success by quarterbacks running with the ball.  Of course, Carolina had to face Michael Vick, but even if you take him out their second-worst +30% DVOA allowed on the ground to quarterbacks becomes a fifth-worst +16% DVOA allowed on the ground to quarterbacks.  For crying out loud, they let Josh McCown rush seven times for 47 yards, two first downs, and a touchdown.  This could be an issue against Donovan McNabb, don't you think?

Sacks mean big losses, demoralizing the team, ruining drives, taking you out of field position. So it comes down to McNabb vs. the pass rush.  Will his happy feet lead to sacks, or to sizeable chunks of rushing yards and big completions to a single-covered Todd Pinkston?  The more 2nd-and-short situations that Staley and Buckhalter can deliver on the ground, the more options McNabb has to work with. 

Special Teams/Weather

Special Teams
DVOA 0.8% (9) 2.2% (4)
CAR kickoff +5.6 (7) -0.5 (13)
PHI kickoff +2.8 (12) +16.2 (2)
CAR punts -4.4 (24) +4.8 (9)
PHI punts -3.0 (22) -2.3 (21)
FG/XP +7.4 (8) +4.6 (12)

OK, we've come this far and other than a comment about Steve Smith I haven't mentioned the game these two teams played against each other in Week 13, when Philadelphia won 25-16 in Charlotte.  What does that game say about this game?

Well, both offenses played well above average in that game, and the difference came down to special teams.  In particular, to Carolina kicker John Kasay, who missed three field goals and an extra point.  According to my system that judges the how many points a kicker is worth based on how often the league hits from each distance, Kasay was worth -7.7 points that day.  The rest of the season, he was worth +15.1 points.  That would actually put him third among kickers, behind Vanderjagt and Wilkins.  He is not going to go 1-for-4 again this week, so scratch the idea of "Philadelphia will win this time because they won last time."

Carolina and Philadelphia both have good special teams, and they are pretty much even in most situations.  It looks here like Carolina is at a disadvantage when punting, but Todd Sauerbrun's punting rating looks much worse than his actual performance because of the two blocks by the Giants in the final week of the season.  That's another thing that won't happen again this week.  Before that, the Panthers had one of the better punting units in the league.

The one place where the Eagles have a significant advantage is when they kickoff.  The Eagles ranked second in the league in gaining field position advantage on kickoffs, and when you look at the other teams in the top five they look even better.  The only team that ranks higher is Atlanta, a dome team; the teams right behind Philly are the thin-air Broncos and the dome-dwelling Rams and Texans.

As for the weather, well, for all the talk about the weather here in Boston, it won't be much better in Philadelphia.  They are currently calling for upper 20s, possible chance of rain or snow showers.  Charlotte isn't exactly Phoenix, but it will be a little colder than the Panthers are used to.  Just something more to think about.  On the other hand, Philadelphia had almost no home field advantage this year, and Carolina's defense was actually slightly better in road games.

A Very Hesitant Pick

On one hand, the numbers say that Philadelphia is the better team.  On the other hand, the numbers have been going against Carolina all year, and they keep winning just to spite me.  Not only that, but they have improved as the year has gone along, playing their best games over the past two weeks.

On one hand, Carolina would seem to be the right team to exploit Philadelphia's weaknesses for giving up sacks to the defense and lots of running yards to the offense.  On the other hand, remember the Sports Guy rulesRULE NO. 1: Never, ever, EVER back a lousy QB on the road.  Delhomme or McNabb, who would you rather have?  RULE NO. 2: When in doubt, seek out the popular opinion and go the other way.  So many people have hopped on the Carolina bandwagon over the past two weeks that the horse needs back surgery.

Both of this weekend's games are likely to be close and both could be won by either team.  But, despite my best efforts not to pick against Carolina, I am going to introduce a new rule of my own: Andy Reid does not equal Mike Martz.  For that reason, I give a slim advantage to Philadelphia.

Of course, since I picked them, and Sports Illustrated stuck them on the cover, I think the Eagles are pretty much guaranteed to lose.

Addendum: That's a pick straight up.  If I was picking against the spread, I would take Carolina.


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