by Aaron Schatz, with additional analysis by Michael David Smith
This week, four teams will fight it out for a place in the NFL's "No Brady or Manning Championship Game." Do you like defense and hate offense? Well, then, the NFC playoffs are clearly for you -- as long as you go to the bathroom or raid the refrigerator whenever Seattle has the ball.
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.) Red zone DVOA is also listed. These numbers are all regular season only.
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). This is the same formula used in this week's FOXSports.com power rankings, which means that it includes last week's playoff games but does not include portions of meaningless Week 17 games for Seattle and Chicago.
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. While all the games are on the charts, the trendlines do not include Week 17 for Seattle or Chicago.
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.
Washington at Seattle
It's been quite a ride for the Washington Redskins. Six weeks ago they were 5-6 and seemingly done for the season. Six wins later, they are headed to Seattle, hoping to knock off the NFC's number one seed.
But all those hard-fought games have taken their toll on the health of the Washington players. Numerous starters on both offense and defense are either out of action or playing hurt. And the Seattle Seahawks are "not only healthy, they're almost pristine," according to our injury reporter Will Carroll. The well-rested Seahawks wait at home, ready to avenge their 20-17 loss in Week 4 -- a game where Seattle kicker Josh Brown missed a last-minute field goal to win the game, and the Seahawks never saw the ball in overtime.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Washington kept that game close by converting 13 of 18 third-down opportunities, a 72 percent rate. On the winning drive in overtime, Washington converted two third-and-10s and a third-and-9.
Don't expect that to happen again: this was both the best third-down conversion rate for Washington in any game this year, and the worst third-down conversion rate for the Seattle defense. Washington only converted half its third downs in two other games, and Seattle allowed an opponent to convert half its third downs only one other time -- in Week 17, with the starting defense on the bench.
The Washington offense has been dominated this season by Santana Moss, who had 1,483 receiving yards during the season while no other Washington wide receiver had more than 217. Moss has been tough to stop because the offensive scheme uses motion and multiple-receiver formations to prevent double coverage. The only other Washington receiver of note is H-back Chris Cooley, with 774 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
For Moss and Cooley to gain yardage, however, Brunell has to find them, and he's looked terrible since re-injuring his knee in the penultimate game of the regular season. Last week, Brunell only threw to Cooley twice, and while he threw to Moss six times, four were incomplete. The Seattle pass rush, which led the league in sacks and ranked sixth in adjusted sack rate, will make his job even tougher. The Washington offensive line is playing 43-year-old Ray Brown at right guard, and he began to show his age against Tampa Bay -- particularly on stunts, when his lack of quickness was apparent. Left tackle Chris Samuels is also hurting, though he will play despite a knee injury.
If Brunell struggles, the offensive load falls on the shoulders of running back Clinton Portis. But Portis is also banged up, with two shoulders and his wrist hurting. Injuries put him on the sidelines during important parts of last week's game, and Will Carroll's contacts say Portis has even reported "losing the feeling in his arms." The Seattle defense is stronger against the run than the pass -- in fact, it is number one in adjusted line yards, but slightly lower in DVOA because it gives up some long runs.
Portis gains the most yardage when he runs around right end. That's where the Tampa Bay defense was weakest -- but it is also where the Seattle defense is strongest, ranked second in the league according to adjusted line yards. You probably don't know the name LeRoy Hill, but you will after Portis runs into him a few times. He's the other rookie linebacker who starts for the Seahawks, alongside the heralded Lofa Tatupu.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle's offense starts on the ground, with 2005 MVP Shaun Alexander running behind a line that includes two Pro Bowlers. The Seahawks excel no matter where and when they run: they are the top team in converting carries on third-and-short, and they are second in the percentage of their yards gained over 10 yards. The latter is more important in this game, because Washington, despite being strong against the run overall, is the league's worst team at preventing long runs. You can guarantee that Shaun Alexander will break at least one huge run. (In the first game, he had a 34-yarder and a 17-yarder.)
Seattle's passing game is just as good, led by crafty and accurate quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. With the addition of veteran Joe Jurevicius and the promotion of Bobby Engram to the starting lineup, Hasselbeck no longer is stuck watching his receivers drop his perfectly placed throws. Last year Seattle wideouts caught just 56 percent of passes; this year, that number is 66 percent. And Seattle's offensive line will fight off the Washington pass rush much better than Tampa Bay could.
Seattle's offense dominated the NFC without its number one receiver, Darrell Jackson. Jackson injured his knee against Washington and missed the next nine games, but he's back healthy. The same can't be said for Washington's defense. Top cornerback Shawn Springs missed the last two games with a groin injury, but will try to play. Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin has a sore shoulder. Defensive end Renaldo Wynn is out after breaking his arm against Tampa Bay.
Washington's defense is above average against every kind of receiver except number two receivers. The first game between these teams provides an example, as Bobby Engram set season highs in catches (9) and yards (106). The Seahawks don't often go to three- or four-receiver sets, but with all their receivers healthy and the Washington secondary banged up, they might want to consider it.
Josh Brown missed two 47-yard field goals when these teams first played, but he's actually one of the better long-distance kickers in the league, hitting 5-of-7 field goals this year between 50 and 55 yards. He was also very good at kickoffs this year, but Washington was strong on kickoff returns. (Meanwhile, Seattle was poor at kickoff returns, and Washington was poor at kicking off.)
Washington would seem to have an advantage when punting, as Seattle was 24th in punt returns and the Redskins were second in field position gained from net punting. Derrick Frost doesn't kick it far, but he kicks it high, and the Redskins get great coverage. On the other hand, Frost also shanks it every so often, with horrible punts like last week's 14-yarder and the seven-yard punt he launched from his own two-yard line when he was on Cleveland last year.
If Washington was at full strength, this would be an intriguing matchup between powerful offense and powerful defense. But after the wounded Redskins managed just 120 yards against Tampa Bay, it is hard to see them scoring enough points to overcome the Seattle offensive juggernaut, playing in front of an excited home crowd that hasn't seen a playoff win in 21 years.
Carolina at Chicago
You also may want to read Any Given Sunday's original review of the first Chicago-Carolina game.
When the Bears topped the Panthers in Week 11, they announced to the football world that their stifling defense and their 7-3 record were for real. Now the Panthers are back, and they are red hot. In the last two weeks, Carolina outscored the Falcons and Giants by a combined 67-11 and outgained them by a combined 395 yards. They picked off four interceptions and caused five fumbles, not turning the ball over themselves a single time.
Can Carolina use this momentum to overcome the problems they had in their first visit to Chicago?
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
For most of the year, Carolina's offense has consisted of one player: wide receiver Steve Smith, who led the league in receiving yards and touchdowns. Chicago's solution to the problem posed by Smith was to let him have his yards, while completely shutting down everything else.
On eight of Smith's receptions, he gained seven yards or fewer, and only one of those was good for a first down. The Panthers offense had become so futile that they simply threw Smith short passes and screens in the desperate hope that he could single-handedly create a big play.
When the Bears got an early led, the Panthers abandoned the ground game, running just four times in the second half. Chicago defensive ends Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye embarrassed Panthers tackles Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton and ended up with a five sacks between them. Brown and Ogunleye both have very good first steps when rushing around an opposing tackle, whereas Gross and Wharton have more success when they're able to engage in a sustained block and overpower their opponent. In the rematch, look for Panthers tight end Michael Gaines, a 280-pound blocking specialist, to help out on double-teams.
Carolina has finally had a running game recently, with DeShaun Foster gaining over 130 yards in three of his last six games. But this week he's not facing the porous Atlanta defense or a Giants defense missing its top four linebackers. Remove their meaningless final game, and the Bears allowed just 3.7 yards per carry to opposing running backs.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
But while you can question the improvement of the Carolina offense against a bad defense and an injured one, it is hard to question the improvement of the Carolina defense that has shut down two of the league's best running backs in successive weeks. Tiki Barber and Warrick Dunn each ran for over 1,400 yards this season. Against the Panthers, they combined for on 66 yards on 22 carries.
Carolina also led the league in preventing success on short-yardage runs, while the Bears converted just 55 percent of these carries, 28th in the league.
Don't be surprised if second-string running back Adrian Peterson has more success against Carolina than starter Thomas Jones. Peterson looked tremendous when he got on the field for one series the first time these teams met, with 37 yards on just four carries.
The Panthers already ranked third in pass defense DVOA for the season, so this improvement by the run defense makes them the stingiest defense this side of, well, the Bears. And the quarterback they face, Rex Grossman, is one of the least-experienced quarterbacks to ever start a playoff game. He has just seven career starts.
We know that Chicago's passing game was completely impotent with rookie Kyle Orton at the helm, squandering all the great field position provided by the defense. Does Grossman improve things? He seemed to bring a spark when he entered at halftime against Atlanta, but he's played a total of six quarters this season, so it is impossible to gauge his influence. Our best estimate is based on previous years. In bits of playing time over the last two seasons, Grossman was a replacement-level quarterback, and since Orton's 2005 season was worth roughly 39 points worse than replacement level according to our calculations, Grossman should be worth about a field goal per game.
Offensive success is often decided by what happens on third down, but that is especially true in this game. DVOA ranks the Carolina defense sixth on first down, first on second down, but 25th on third downs. Chicago's track record doesn't suggest they can take advantage of this, since the Bears ranked 28th in offensive DVOA on third down. But third down is when you bring in your multiple-receiver packages, and Carolina is a top five defense against starting receivers but 20th against slot receivers. If any Chicago receiver makes a big play in this game, it is likely to be the little-used speedster Bernard Berrian.
A clear advantage here for Carolina. The Bears rank last in field goals above average because Doug Brien was so poor early in the year, but rookie Robbie Gould would still be just 23rd if ranked by himself. Gould has hit just two of seven field goal tries above 40 yards, and has yet to try a field goal of 50 yards or more. The Bears defense may rival great defenses of the past, but those teams had great field goal kickers, so that the team could still put three points on the board when the offense inevitably stalled out after being given good field position. The Bears don't have that luxury -- they need to get the ball at least to the 25-yard line to feel comfortable.
Carolina's defense is playing better now than it was a few weeks ago, so this will be a defensive battle, probably decided by a timely turnover or the lucky bounce of a fumble. When the game-changing break goes your way, you want the best field position possible, and a field goal kicker you can trust. Special teams rarely decide a postseason game, but this could be the exception, and that means Carolina has the best chance of the four road teams to pull an upset victory this weekend.