Wild Card Weekend Preview

by Aaron Schatz

Playoffs are here, playoffs are here, time for joy, time for cheer.  I think the most wonderful time of the year is the playoffs, I do.  Don't you?  Of course you do.  Let's analyze the first four games in that special Football Outsiders way.

First, let's get the explanations of our innovative statistics out of the way for those who might be new to the website.  VOA, which stands for Value Over Average, is the result of our detailed play-by-play database which compares every single play of the NFL season to the league average based on situation.  It takes into account a number of variables, including things like down, distance to go, current score gap, location on field, and quarter.  You'll find it explained further hereDVOA is VOA with an additional variable, the quality of opponents faced (which itself is sorted by variables like down and run vs. pass).  Since VOA measures ability to score, a negative VOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive VOA indicates a better offense and worse defenseDPAR, or Defense-Adjusted Points Above Replacement, is a measure for individual players that combines quality above average with durability so that average players who are constantly involved in the offense (thus keeping the defense from covering other players) have value.  You'll find it explained further 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.  TREND is the WEIGHTED DVOA trend, adjusted to make games from Weeks 1-13 progressively lose strength as you move back towards September.  HFA represents how much better the team performed this year at home.  HFA will give the home-field advantage if this team is at home, and the road-field disadvantage if this team is on the road, ranked from #1 (better at home, worse on the road) to #32 (worse at home, better on the road, like the Denver and Dallas defenses).

SPECIAL TEAMS are listed a bit differently.  The total is given in DVOA, but the other numbers represent how many points in field position that aspect of special teams has been worth compared to the league average, plus rank in parentheses.

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA.  Yes, the bye weeks are missing, as is Week 17 for Denver.  In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a third-power polynomial trendline.  That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice." 

Tennessee at Baltimore

Titans on Offense
DVOA 17.1% (5) -32.7% (1)
TREND 19.5% (4) -39.1% (1)
PASS 43.4% (1) -41.3% (1)
RUSH -11.9% (26) -22.8% (1)
HFA -8.5% (17) -43.4% (1)

Ravens on Offense
DVOA -23.0% (32) -6.5% (11)
TREND -21.3% (32) -13.4% (8)
PASS -36.6% (32) -9.1% (10)
RUSH -12.8% (28) -2.6% (15)
HFA +14.8% (10) +17.2% (12)

Special Teams
DVOA -0.4% (22) 2.9% (2)
TEN kickoff -11.4 (27) 3.5 (10)
BAL kickoff -12.4 (29) 1.4 (13)
TEN punts 11.0 (4) 3.5 (11)
BAL punts 0.2 (16) 15.0 (1)
FG/XP 8.8 (6) 6.9 (9)

The irresistible force vs. immovable object.  For all your talk about old division rivalries, or Jamal Lewis, that's the story of this game.  Tennessee had the best passing offense in the league this year.  Baltimore had the best passing defense in the league this year.  Oh, did I mention they also had the largest home-field advantage on defense?

The mirror images go even deeper.  I commented earlier this year on Tennessee's remarkable ability to convert passes on third down.  They actually calmed down a bit in the second half, but they ended up the #2 team in the league in passing DVOA on third down, +46.3% (the top team was New Orleans, believe it or not).  Meanwhile, over in Baltimore, the Ravens were the #2 team in the league on passing defense on third down, allowing offenses -74.3% DVOA (Philly was just slightly more stingy).

Tennessee's pass offense only got better at the end of the game.  They were top of the league with +64.4% DVOA passing in the fourth quarter, almost twice as good as the next best team (Kansas City).  They also led the league with +65.6% DVOA passing in the second half when the game was within a touchdown either way.  Baltimore's defense?  A ridiculous -105.5% DVOA against passing in the fourth quarter, fifty percent better than the next three teams (New England, St. Louis, and oddly Detroit).  A ludicrous -93.5% DVOA against passing in the second half when the game was within a touchdown either way -- which split into a reasonable -48.6% in the third quarter and a preposterous -178.6% in the fourth quarter when the game was within a touchdown either way.  Are you kidding me?  That paragraph really gave Alt-F7 a workout.

So if the Tennessee passing offense and Baltimore passing defense cancel each other out -- and I think we can safely assume that Eddie George will be useless -- the game turns on the other side of the ball.  Now, it looks like Baltimore's offense is totally useless according to DVOA.  That's because that rushing number includes all Baltimore rushing, not only Jamal Lewis.  Lewis, of course, had a pretty good season, when he held onto the ball (I went into Lewis' fumbling problems two weeks ago).

Speaking of things I've talked about multiple times, let me remind you that the Titan rush defense is horribly overrated because of the fact that nobody ever runs against them.  The Titans faced only 333 rushing plays this year, and only 36.4% of the plays against them were runs.  The Pats and Packers were the only other teams below 40%.  When teams do run against the Titans, they are a league-average defense.  One of the reasons they are league-average is that they never strip the ball.  Tennessee caused only six fumbles by opposing rushers during the 2003 season and recovered only two (league average was 7.6 and 4.1).

On the flipside, Baltimore runs more than any other team in the league.  They ran on 54.1% of offensive plays.  The Panthers and Broncos were the only other teams above 50%.  And, of course, what is Baltimore's rushing Achilles heel?  Right, Jamal Lewis can't hold onto the ball.

(Oh, and Tennessee is susceptible to runs to the left, while Baltimore has the best left tackle in the league and were one of the league's best teams running left last year even though they were league average through Week 12 of this year.)

If I were the Titans defensive coaches, I would offer a $10,000 bonus to any player who stripped Jamal Lewis of the ball.  "Baltimore needs to avoid turnovers to win this game" sounds like the world's most obvious strategy, but it never rings more true than when a team backs up the best defense in the league with a ninth-string quarterback and a powerful-but-butterfingers running back.

Both Baltimore and Tennessee have been among the strongest upward-trending teams of the season, getting better as the year goes along.  But it should be noted that Tennessee's place as the #1 team in the NFL according to our WEIGHTED VOA statistic is built in most part on two games: Week 10, when Brian Griese channeled the spirit of Ray Lucas and treated the football the way Christina Aguilera treats clothing, and Week 17, when Tampa just plain didn't care anymore.  Subjectively, I don't think the second half of their season has not been as good as it looks.  Baltimore has been more consistent in the second half, even if it was against lesser competition.  They also have a very important advantage when it comes to field position, especially on kickoffs, that could make a big difference.

My pick: This one is pretty close, but I'll take Baltimore.  I just think Baltimore's defense is even better than everyone thinks, and Tennessee's defense isn't as good as everyone thinks.  Oh, and I hear those Baltimore crowds can be rowdy.

Dallas at Carolina

Cowboys on Offense
DVOA -9.3% (21) -2.5% (14)
TREND -10.5% (22) -5.8% (12)
PASS -13.0% (23) 3.0% (17)
RUSH -5.8% (19) -8.8% (12)
HFA -8.6% (16) +3.5% (25)

Panthers on Offense
DVOA -9.1% (20) -17.2% (5)
TREND -9.0% (18) -16.6% (4)
PASS -9.4% (18) -14.4% (5)
RUSH -8.9% (22) -20.6% (2)
HFA +7.4% (20) -21.8% (31)

Special Teams
DVOA -0.5% (23) 0.8% (9)
DAL kickoff 7.0 (7) 5.6 (7)
CAR kickoff -4.3 (22) 2.8 (12)
DAL punts 2.3 (16) -4.4 (24)
CAR punts -10.0 (28) -3.0 (22)
FG/XP 0.2 (18) 7.4 (8)


Ladies and gentlemen, the Jealousy Bowl. While these two lame teams play on Saturday night, Miami players will be sitting at home cursing the fact that they play in the AFC, San Francisco players will be sitting at home cursing their kicking game, and Tampa Bay players will be sitting at home cursing the Carolina kicking game and the referee who blew the onside kick call against Indy.

In one of our discussion threads, someone noted that they are looking forward to this game because they like to see defense.  Well, I am interested to see Baltimore play New England because that would be a matchup of great defenses.  This is not a matchup of great defenses.  This is a matchup of bad offenses.

The only people rooting for the Panthers more than Carolina fans are St. Louis fans.  The only people rooting for the Cowboys more than Cowboy fans are Philadelphia fans.  Philly fans rooting for Dallas, man, that's good stuff right there, even if it is just so the Eagles can crush the 'Boys next week.

Somebody has to win this thing, though, so let's figure out some things to watch for.

If you are expecting to see a lot of quality running in this game, you may be disappointed.  The first Dallas-Carolina game featured Stephen Davis going for 59 yards on 26 carries (-0.4 DPAR) while Troy Hambrick went for an exciting 26 yards on 12 carries (0.0 DPAR).

The two passing games actually scored positive that game.  Jake Delhomme completed only nine passes, but six of them were over 10 yards and three were over 35 yards.  Look for more long Carolina pass plays this weekend -- 6.7% of Carolina complete passes were for 30 yards or more (fifth in the league) while 7.9% of complete passes against Dallas were for 30 yards or more (second in the league behind Oakland).

When Dallas passes, meanwhile, look for Terry Glenn.  He has been, by far, the most successful Dallas receiver this year, with a positive 8.6% DVOA compared to -8.8% for Joey Galloway and -12.3% for Antonio Bryant.  Here's something odd: Dallas did not have another wide receiver with ten or more catches.  Part of that is the use of Richie Anderson, who has been a great receiver as usual (10.3% DVOA).  Unknown tight end Jason Witten also hasn't been half bad (-3.3% DVOA).

One thing Dallas needs to worry about is moving backwards in field position when Carolina punts.  Dallas' punt returns were pretty bad this year, and Carolina's Todd Sauerbrun is a very, very good punter.  The Carolina punt unit was worth -3 points because it was worth -11 points in the last week, when the Giants blocked two punts.  Frankly, that was a bigger shock than Arizona beating Minnesota.  Prior to that game, Carolina had one of the league's top ten punting units, and in 2002 they were the top punting unit.

If Dallas wants to get somewhere on offense, they should look for second downs.  That happened to be the one place where their offense had success, and the one place Carolina's defense did not:

DVOA 1st Down 2nd Down 3rd Down
DAL OFF -18.7% 8.9% -10.2%
CAR DEF -17.1% 18.5% -1.6%

I think this game is all about the Cowboys.  You'll notice that Carolina has been amazingly consistent all year, with nearly every game an average or close-to-average performance.  Dallas, on the other hand, has been up and down and all over the map this year.  Maybe that's a reason why the Cowboys should be the pick for this game.  If any coach can inspire his team to go out and play like Jekyll instead of Hyde on national television, it's the Tuna.

My pick: I have no idea.  Why pick a team if I honestly have no clue who will win?  Dallas is the better team, probably, but Carolina has home-field advantage.  Toss-up city here.

Seattle at Green Bay

Seahawks on Offense
DVOA 18.7% (3) -8.8% (8)
TREND 17.0% (5) -14.8% (7)
PASS 27.7% (4) -8.4% (11)
RUSH 8.6% (6) -9.3% (10)
HFA -4.7% (21) -20.9% (10)

Packers on Offense
DVOA 5.6% (11) -1.9% (15)
TREND 5.5% (11) 6.8% (22)
PASS 8.8% (12) 6.8% (20)
RUSH 2.8% (10) -12.6% (6)
HFA -13.5% (30) +14.6% (14)

Special Teams
DVOA -0.1% (18) 0.4% (12)
SEA kickoff -8.0 (24) 9.0 (5)
GNB kickoff -2.4 (19) -12.0 (29)
SEA punts 5.8 (10) 2.8 (13)
GNB punts 3.3 (12) -2.1 (19)
FG/XP 0.2 (17) 6.9 (10)

This game has two storylines.  One is Seattle's inability to win on the road vs. the Lambeau mystique.  The other is Green Bay's recent surge, due in part to Brett Favre playing out of his skull since his father passed away and his thumb got better.  In my opinion, the first is overrated, the second mistated.

(As an aside, coming from a culture where you shut your life down for seven days after the death of a parent, I have to admit that I find all this "Favre building another chapter in his legend by playing so well and dedicating it to his father" talk to be a little disturbing.  Honestly, can't we let the man mourn a little?)

Look up at those home field advantages.  Yes, Green Bay's offense was actually significantly better this year on the road than they were at home.  The defense had a more typical trend, far better at Lambeau.  Meanwhile, you are probably very surprised to see that Seattle's home field advantages are middle of the pack -- in fact, their road disadvantage on defense was rather small.  Seattle's road losses, for the most part, were a lot closer than people think.  Had they traveled to play fluky Carolina instead of surging Green Bay, I think they would have won.

As for that Green Bay surge, I think it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  Those two big Favre games have come against a team that is in shambles (Oakland) and a team that wasn't even trying (Denver).  No, the big trend isn't Green Bay getting better, but Seattle getting worse.  Seattle started the season with four very strong performances in their first five games, but have been inconsistent and somewhat average since then.  Their trend is particularly strong on defense -- the offense has mostly kept up the strong play, but the defense has faded.

If there is going to be scoring in this game, it will likely come in the first half.  Green Bay's offense has dropped from +12.3% DVOA in the first half to -2.1% DVOA in the second half; Seattle's offense has dropped from +18.1% DVOA in the first half to +7.0% DVOA in the second half.

Another interesting facet of this matchup is Seattle's league-best offense on third downs against Green Bay's strong defense on third downs:

DVOA  1st Down 2nd Down 3rd Down
SEA OFF 7.6% 18.2% 48.8%
GNB DEF -1.3% -8.9% -21.8%

(Wait, isn't Tennessee the best offense on third down?  No, only passing, because Eddie George is clinically dead.)

It's interesting that Seattle's offense was so good on third down despite the fact that Hasselbeck's completion percentage on third down was league-average (56%).  Only ten times on third down (or non-punting fourth down) did Hasselbeck complete a pass that didn't make a first down.  By comparison, Favre completed 32 different passes on third down (or non-punting fourth down) that didn't make a first down.  Hasselbeck threw two interceptions on third down, tied for fewest in the league; Favre threw 11, second to Joey Harrington.

The player to watch out for here is the underrated Bobby Engram.  He ranked as one of the top wideouts in our statistics, and he's even better on third down.  Only four players with at least 20 passes thrown their way on third down had a higher third down receiving DVOA than Engram's +47.6% (incidentally, one of them was Dallas' Richie Anderson).  16 of the 27 passes to Engram on third down were first downs or touchdowns; the other 11 were incomplete.

When Green Bay is on offense, they need to run Ahman Green up the middle as much as possible.  While our directional rushing stats haven't been updated since Week 12, I doubt much has changed since then, and Green Bay's offense line was #1 in adjusted line yards and #1 in running up the middle while Seattle's defense line was #20 in adjusted line yards and #31 in running up the middle.

My pick: Green Bay.  Seattle's road problems are somewhat overstated, but this is Lambeau in January.  The expected high on Sunday is 23 degrees.  Plus, the Seahawks haven't been as good as the Packers over the past few weeks.  The Sunday games seem a lot easier to call than the Saturday games.

Denver at Indianapolis

Broncos on Offense
DVOA 7.6% (10) 0.2% (17)
TREND 8.6% (10) 3.8% (18)
PASS 8.9% (11) -11.6% (7)
RUSH 6.5% (7) 12.0% (30)
HFA -12.1% (12) -7.3% (17)

Colts on Offense
DVOA 21.0% (2) -8.3% (9)
TREND 20.5% (3) -9.1% (9)
PASS 39.6% (2) -6.9% (12)
RUSH -1.1% (16) -10.1% (8)
HFA +8.5% (17) -11.1% (26)

Special Teams
DVOA 0.1% (15) 0.1% (14)
DEN kickoff 16.1 (3) 5.5 (9)
IND kickoff -5.1 (23) -9.5 (26)
DEN punts -19.6 (32) -17.8 (32)
IND punts 1.2 (15) 4.2 (14)
FG/XP 8.3 (7) 19.1 (1)

Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Portis Anderson Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Anderson Portis Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Portis Anderson Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis Portis Portis Griffin Portis.

Well, I think that pretty much sums it up.

For all the talk about how bad the Kansas City rush defense is, Indianapolis' rush defense was worse.  The reason?  Strength of schedule.  Kansas City's division includes Tomlinson and Portis.  Indy's division includes Eddie "The Corpse" George, Domanick "The Rookie" Davis, and Fred "The Bionic Groin" Taylor.

So, while Kansas City has the worst run defense in the NFL official stats -- and in VOA -- once you adjust for opponents the Colts are worse.  And now they will try to break their playoff jinx against the best offensive line in football, a team that can run at will with any back at any time (and also protects the quarterback pretty well, which goes a long way towards neutralizing the Colts' best defensive player, Dwight Freeney).

On top of that, Denver is a team that is clearly on the rise, while the Colts were generally a better team in the first half of the season than they have been in the second half (Week 14 against Atlanta aside).  To demonstrate the true trend of the Broncos' season, by the way, I removed the Week 17 game from their chart.  When you are picking guys out of the stands to play quarterback, it doesn't really represent the team's true ability.  You'll also notice that four of the team's five worst games came during Jake Plummer's injury, as I described last week.  When Plummer has been in the lineup, the Broncos have easily been one of the league's five best teams.

I noted this before the first game, so I'll say it again here.  The Colt offense, normally great on first and second down (+25.5% DVOA), becomes average on third downs (+5.9% DVOA), while the Denver defense, normally average on first and second down (-2.8% DVOA), becomes great on third downs (-24.7% DVOA).

The way to beat Indianapolis is very simple: keep Payton Manning off the field as much as possible, and when the Colts do put their offense on the field, make them face as many third downs as possible.  The best way to keep Manning off the field is to chew clock time with a running game.  Denver has a great running game.  For the Colts, the trick is to start fast and take Portis out of the game with a big early lead.  That's not likely, since the Colts offense is worse in the first quarter (+8.3% in Q1, +24.8% rest of game) and Denver's defense is better in the first quarter (-20.6% in Q1, -4.6% rest of game).

It might be a little closer, but I honestly don't see any reason why this game turns out any differently than the first one, other than the "any given Sunday" variable that says anything can happen at any time.  The only team better suited to beat the Colts is Baltimore, which would have been one heck of a fun revenge game: "The Mayflower Bowl."

Special added bonus: this game matches the league's worst punting unit against the league's worst punt return unit.

My pick: Portis.  Um, I mean, the Broncos.


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