by Aaron Schatz, with additional analysis by Michael David Smith
The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are used to playing in January. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals are not. But this isn't about who played better last year, or even who played better in September. This is about who will play better this weekend.
For those who may be visiting this site for the first time to read this preview, some explanations for our statistics. 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 VOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
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.) WEI DVOA is WEIGHTED 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). Red zone DVOA is also listed.
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.
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 third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice." Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense. Note: Though the tables and charts include Week 17 for all teams, the trendlines do not include Week 17 for Cincinnati or New England.
In past years, these preview articles have also served as the in-game discussion threads for playoff games. This year, we've created separate discussion threads for Saturday and Sunday on our open discussion threads page. You can also find the preview for the NFC wild card games here.
One more note. Offensive and defensive line stats here, as well as defense vs. receivers, are based on all 17 weeks even though the stats pages on the site currently only include 16 weeks. Those pages will be updated soon.
Jacksonville at New England
A few weeks ago, nobody would have favored New England in this game. Jacksonville beat a number of impressive opponents in the first half of the year, and the Patriots -- whose defense had completely collapsed -- were only stumbling to first place thanks to a weak division.
But then New England reeled off a series of impressive victories, with the defense suddenly looking as strong as ever. The talk went up around the league -- the defending champs were back just in time for the games that really mattered, and even the undefeated Colts should be afraid. And while the Patriots were making noise, the Jaguars put together a string of unimpressive performances, particularly on defense.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
There is no doubt that New England's defense was dominant during their four-game winning streak, but all the excitement ignores that the opposition in these games wasn't exactly top notch. The Patriots stopped the Brooks Bollinger-led Jets twice, along with the J.P. Losman-led Bills and a Tampa team playing its third straight road game.
The winning streak has been attributed to a number of personnel changes, but all of these changes were in place when the Patriots were slaughtered by Kansas City six weeks ago. Defensive end Richard Seymour and linebacker Tedy Bruschi were back from injury and Ellis Hobbs and Artell Hawkins had moved into the starting secondary.
Although Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich has missed five weeks with an ankle injury, he should be good to go this week. The receiver to look for is not veteran Jimmy Smith, who led the team in receiving yards, but Ernest Wilford. Wilford led the Jaguars in yards per catch and was one of the league's ten most valuable receivers per play according to DVOA -- and the Patriots have been burned by second receivers over and over again this season. They rank 27th in DVOA against number two receivers, but 15th in DVOA against number one receivers.
Though New England's improved pass defense isn't all it is made out to be, their improved run defense is. In the first half of the season, the Pats allowed 4.1 yards per carry. Since Seymour returned in Week 10, the Pats have allowed just 3.2 yards per carry. And the Patriots never, ever let the opposition break a long running play. The Patriots have led the league in preventing runs over 10 yards for three straight seasons. No other team has even been in the top ten all three seasons.
When the Jaguars do run, they will do it with three different running backs. Veteran Fred Taylor, while no longer a star, is still useful. The larger Greg Jones has been injured and will be limited. LaBrandon Toefield had a huge game against Tennessee last week but standard caveats about the meaningless last week of the season apply. No matter who is running, the Jaguars should never run to the right, as they are the absolute worst team in the league running either behind the right tackle or around right end.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
This is where the Patriots will win this game. Even when every other part of the team was struggling at midseason, the New England passing game never wavered. It is led by two Super Bowl MVPs, quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Deion Branch. Only Indianapolis had more success passing this season.
The Jacksonville pass defense, meanwhile, has fallen apart over the past two months. After 10 weeks, the Jaguars led the league in pass defense DVOA. In the period of the past seven weeks, the Jaguars rank 28th. They are giving up more yards and more completions to every position except tight end, and intercepting the ball half as often, and this decline has come against the easier half of the schedule.
The only part of the Jacksonville defense that hasn't declined is the pass rush. Jacksonville ranked number one in adjusted sack rate, which measures sacks per pass play adjusted for situation and opponent. But New England's offensive line ranked sixth, so this is strength against strength.
Could things get any worse for Jacksonville? Actually, yes, because while New England's offense is fairly healthy, Jacksonville's defense is badly hurting. Middle linebacker Mike Peterson will try to play with a cast on his wrist, and could be ineffective or unable to play at all. Defensive ends Reggie Hayward and Paul Spicer are questionable with a hamstring injury and a broken hand, respectively. Those happen to be the three players that lead the Jaguars in sacks. In addition, starting cornerback Kenny Wright left last week's game with a knee injury, though he is listed as probable.
The Patriots, with Corey Dillon slower than last season, are average running the ball, while the Jaguars are average against the run. Despite the notoriety of defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, the Jaguars do not stop runs up the middle as well as they stop runs around the ends.
Special teams are generally balanced for both teams. Jacksonville's Chris Hanson and New England's Josh Miller are both excellent punters, though Miller was often betrayed by his coverage unit. Of course, New England's Adam Vinatieri is the greatest postseason kicker of all time, while Jacksonville's Josh Scobee specializes in distance, not accuracy.
There's one more issue to discuss. No, not New England's January experience -- the issue is New England's January temperature. Home field advantage increases by roughly 15 percent when a southern team plays in a northern outdoor stadium after November 1, and the effect is even stronger when the game is played at night.
Hurting, shivering, and struggling to cover opposing receivers is not a recipe for playoff success. Jacksonville's passing game should make some big plays despite the cold, but New England's passing game will make more unless the Jaguars can somehow revert to the team that held Indianapolis and Seattle to a combined 24 points in two games way back in September, not the team that narrowly beat San Francisco and Arizona in recent weeks.
(Note: As always, I want to point out that I am a Patriots fan lest anyone think I am hiding my biases. Nonetheless, this website specializes in objective analysis. Trust me, a preview of the Patriots against Denver or Indianapolis is going to read a lot differently.)
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
This is the premier game of the weekend. Two bitter division rivals face off a third time, each one having beaten the other on the opponent's home turf. But this time, the loser heads home until September.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
In Week 7, the Steelers ran on the Bengals at will. Willie Parker gained 131 yards on just 18 carries, and Jerome Bettis gained 56 yards on 13 carries. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had to throw only 14 passes, and just two Steelers -- receiver Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller -- had receptions.
But in Week 13, Parker and Bettis combined for just 84 yards on 23 carries, and Roethlisberger ended up throwing 41 passes.
This is not an issue of the Steelers running when they had a second half lead. The Steelers had 14 first-half carries in the first game, 16 in the second. But they were getting 5.1 yards per carry in the first game, only 2.8 yards per carry in the second.
Two players made the difference, both named Smith. Pittsburgh left tackle Marvel Smith was injured for the second game, replaced by rookie Trai Essex. Essex struggled, and left-side sweeps broke down completely. Even All-Pro guard Alan Faneca looked lost. And moving the tight end to the left side to help Essex meant that right-side runs had problems as well.
Marvel Smith is back now, so the running game should be better. But the Bengals have been concentrating on stopping the run in recent weeks. Before their Week 10 bye, the Bengals allowed 4.9 yards per carry. From that point until Week 16 (they pulled the starting defense in the final game) the Bengals allowed just 3.5 yards per carry. Part of that is the other Smith, Cincinnati defensive tackle Shaun Smith. The Bengals only use Smith as a situational run-stopper, but he can provide a major impact in the middle of the line. He was inactive for the first game with the Steelers, but a big part of the run defense in the second game.
The problem is that by concentrating on the run, the Bengals hurt their pass defense, so they've gone from allowing 5.5 net yards per play to allowing 7.4 net yards per pass play. The Bengals pass defense leads the league with 31 interceptions, but they are also overly dependent on interceptions, and when they aren't picking off the ball they give up plenty of yards.
The Bengals also have a huge weakness defending passes to tight ends, ranking 29th in the league, so Steelers rookie Heath Miller could have another huge day against them. This is part of why the Bengals are poor against the short field, with DVOA ranking the defense 26th in the red zone -- while the Steelers offense ranks third in the red zone.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
One of the most interesting parts of this matchup is the way the Pittsburgh defense and Cincinnati offense are almost perfectly matched.
The Cincinnati offense is powerful and diverse. The Bengals are great on the ground and in the air, and they can beat you with multiple combinations of players. They have two great wide receivers in Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but they also have Rudi Johnson at running back -- and when you least expect it, the big play will be made by shifty third-down back Chris Perry or rookie receiver Chris Henry or even underrated tight end Matt Schobel.
The Pittsburgh defense is powerful and diverse. The defense is packed with All-Pros (linebacker Joey Porter, safety Troy Polamalu) and should-be All-Pros (defensive end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Casey Hampton). Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau invented the zone blitz and the pass rush could come from anywhere at any time.
The Bengals running game is best when Johnson is running up the middle or behind one of Cincinnati's outstanding tackles, Levi Jones or Willie Anderson. But the Steelers run defense is best at stopping runs up the middle or behind one of the tackles.
Weakness also matches weakness. In Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense, one linebacker usually drops back into deep coverage. That exposes Pittsburgh to big gains on passes to running backs. But Cincinnati doesn't throw to its running backs particularly well.
The biggest difference between the two games on this side of the ball? In the first game, Carson Palmer threw interceptions and Shayne Graham missed an easy early field goal. In the second game, Palmer threw touchdowns on three straight drives in the first half.
The second game also saw Cincinnati leaving tight ends or backs behind to protect against the Pittsburgh blitzers. The Bengals did an excellent job picking up the pass rush, and that led directly to some of their biggest plays, such as a six-yard pass to an open Houshmandzadeh for the third Cincinnati touchdown.
Each team has a particular advantage here. The Bengals ranked seventh in our kick return ratings while Pittsburgh ranked 20th on kickoffs. The Steelers ranked 12th in our punt return ratings while Cincinnati ranked 24th in punting. Of course, for Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El, every punt return is an adventure. He had two punt return touchdowns and a third long return for 72 yards, but also five returns that lost yardage and two lost fumbles.
Also, watch for undrafted rookie linebacker Andre Frazier, an excellent athlete. He'll play a few snaps on defense and a lot on special teams, and he'll have an impact on the game.
These two teams are evenly matched and basically tied in our statistics. The Bengals are trending down while the Steelers are trending up -- but this is partly because the Bengals wrapped up their playoff spot weeks ago while the Steelers were desperate for every win. Cincinnati has the home-field advantage, but that didn't seem to mean much in the first two meetings. The players are emotional, the crowd even more so, and the result is completely up in the air, so just sit back and enjoy the action.