by Aaron Schatz, with additional analysis by Michael David Smith
For the past few years, the NFC playoffs have always consisted of "Philadelphia and..." Philadelphia and St. Louis. Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. Philadelphia and Carolina. Philadelphia and Nobody.
Not this year. This year, the NFC playoffs are far more balanced than ever before. Wild card weekend, in particular, gives us two NFC South vs. NFC East matchups where each team has an intriguing mix of strengths and weaknesses.
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.
In past years, these preview articles have also served as the in-game discussion threads for playoff games. This year, we will be creating separate discussion threads for Saturday and Sunday on our open discussion threads page. You can also find the preview for the AFC 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.
Washington at Tampa Bay
These are two similar teams, with strong defenses and strong running backs. Each offense uses many two- and three-tight end sets, with one tight end standing out as the sole alternative to a single veteran wide receiver specializing in spectacular deep grabs.
For Washington, the running back is Clinton Portis, the wide receiver Santana Moss, and the tight end Chris Cooley. Their counterparts in Tampa Bay are Cadillac Williams, Joey Galloway, and Alex Smith.
When the teams met on November 13, both defenses gave up their season high in points allowed. Tampa Bay won 36-35 on a controversial Mike Alstott two-point conversion which many Washington fans claim did not cross the goal line.
Now Washington is red hot, riding a five-game winning streak into the playoffs. The Redskins rank fourth in WEIGHTED DVOA, better than any other team playing this weekend. But they also suffered numerous injuries during that streak. Is Washington's statistical advantage enough to overcome Tampa's advantages in health and home field?
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
The hottest player on the Redskins is Portis, who gained 100 yards with at least four yards per carry in each of the five straight wins. He also gained 144 yards against Tampa Bay in that Week 10 meeting, the highest total Tampa gave up to any back all year. Although the Bucs led the league in run defense DVOA and allowed just 3.5 yards per carry, Portis gained 6.2 yards per carry against them.
Portis gashed the Bucs in the two places where they are most susceptible to the run: left tackle and right end. Tampa's strength is stopping runs up the middle, but the Bucs rank 24th against runs behind left tackle and 26th against runs around right end. Portis gained 70 of his yards on just seven carries in these two directions. This is the second year Tampa has been poor against right end runs and they must fix the problem because 21 percent of Washington runs went around right end, the highest percentage in the league.
The defensive right side is less of a problem for Tampa, especially on passing plays. Defensive end Simeon Rice was huge when these teams first met, with two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Redskins will try to help left tackle Chris Samuels double-team Rice, probably with blocking tight end Robert Royal. With his knee hurting, quarterback Mark Brunell cannot avoid a pass rush as well as usual.
Tampa is weak covering second and third receivers, but that's not a problem against Washington, because the receivers besides Moss are awful. Tampa ranks sixth in the league defending passes to top receivers, and they kept Moss to 79 yards and no touchdowns. Ronde Barber is a huge part of this success, of course, but strong safety Dexter Jackson is hard hitter over the middle and has the speed to help out against Moss on deep passes.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Jon Gruden is known for his intricate air attack, but you work with what you have, and what he has now is a team that specializes in power football.
Rookie running back Cadillac Williams set an NFL record with 100 yards in each of his first three games, but a foot sprain led to six straight games where Williams either did not play or managed fewer than 30 yards. The last of those games came against Washington, but Tampa's poor rushing that day cannot be blamed solely on Williams' injuries. Washington's front seven -- particularly defensive tackle Joe Salave'a -- dominated Tampa Bay's offensive line, never allowing Williams room to run.
Since then, Gruden has addressed his weak offensive line by keeping a tight end or even two back to help with blocking. So while Williams isn't quite as explosive as he was early on, he's gaining yardage more consistently. In the first three weeks of the year, Williams had eight runs over 15 yards, but only 30 percent of his runs went for 4-10 yards. In seven games since Tampa played Washington, Williams has just five runs over 15 yards, but 39 percent of his runs have gone 4-10 yards. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker is still the weak link despite tight end help, and the Bucs run much better to the left side than the right.
When quarterback Chris Simms does pass, he mostly passes to Joey Galloway. The 34-year-old wideout caught a career-high 83 passes for a career-high 1,287 yards. 131 of those yards came against the Redskins. But the game stood out because of the passes Washington allowed to other Tampa wideouts. Ike Hilliard gained 37 yards and caught his only touchdown of the season. Edell Sheppard had 87 yards and a touchdown, and he had just 16 yards the entire rest of the year.
This is where Washington's injuries come in. Cornerback Shawn Springs is questionable with a groin injury, and while they are not listed on the injury report, cornerback Carlos Rogers (biceps) and safety Matt Bowen (knee) have also been hurting. If Springs is clearly slowed, Gruden will send Galloway right at him. But Tampa Bay can either use extra tight ends to block for Williams or send out multiple receivers; it can't do both without the personnel changes telling Washington what is coming.
Washington has a very strong punt coverage unit which ranked second in the NFL. Although Derrick Frost's gross punt average of 40.4 yards is near the bottom of the league, he gets excellent hang time, and Washington kept half of opposing punt returns to three yards or less. Washington returns were poor early, but improved after the team resigned Antonio Brown in Week 12. Nothing stands out about Tampa Bay's special teams except for poor kick returns. The Bucs ranked 28th this year and of course have famously never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in franchise history.
This game will not be a shootout like the first. Williams should have a better day, but Tampa cannot count on Washington to throw two interceptions or fumble three times again. The Redskins are playing very well, and they are only a wild card because they went 0-4 against the AFC West. They were 10-2 against NFC teams. Tampa Bay dealt them one of those two defeats, but Washington should overcome its injuries to avenge that loss.
Carolina at New York Giants
Despite the similar records, the Giants are far superior to the Panthers on offense. Both teams had strong defenses -- that is, until a couple of weeks ago, when Big Blue's linebacking corps broke down.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
All three of New York's opening day linebackers are injured, as is backup middle linebacker Chase Blackburn. That leaves the Giants with the underrated Nick Greisen and two players who made their first starts of the season last week: special teamer Alonzo Jackson and veteran Kevin Lewis, who had been sitting at home since the Giants waived him before the season.
But Carolina's offense is not built to take advantage of this weakness. You can attack linebackers with the tight end, but only five teams threw fewer passes to tight ends than Carolina did. And you can attack linebackers with the running game, but the Carolina running game is horrible.
You can't blame the offensive line, which does a good job blocking against both the run and the pass and started the same five players in all 16 games. Carolina ranked 13th in adjusted line yards, a stat which attempts to separate blockers from rushing gains in the open field. Yet they ranked 27th in actual yards per carry. This was partly due to the struggles of veteran Stephen Davis, now injured, but things didn't get much better with the maddeningly inconsistent DeShaun Foster. Foster is constantly stuffed at the line, but every so often will break a huge highlight-reel gain. The problem is that there are very few of these, and most of them come against Atlanta. Against other teams, Foster dropped from 7.0 to 3.6 yards per carry, and scored zero touchdowns.
Carolina's offense is built around one thing: throwing the ball to gamebreaking wide receiver Steve Smith, and then throwing the ball to Smith some more. Smith led the league in receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and even percentage of passes caught. Given the way the Giants struggled against Santana Moss two weeks ago, it's hard to see them finding a away to stop Smith.
It's also worth noting that, while New York defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora have had great years, the Giants' total of 41 sacks is a bit of a mirage. That total puts the Giants ninth in the league, but they are just 22nd in adjusted sack rate. Only Denver and Seattle faced more pass plays this season, and the Giants played a number of the league's most sack-prone teams, including Oakland, San Francisco, Dallas, and Minnesota.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Luckily for the Giants, Tampa Bay and Dallas have provided clinics in the last month on how to beat the Carolina defense. But the Giants will need to change some of their habits to attack Carolina's weaknesses.
Four weeks ago, Tampa Bay showed how to beat Carolina with a non-stop barrage of short passes. Head coach John Fox favors a "play it safe" strategy that focuses on stopping big plays, but this leaves plenty of space open in the middle. Tampa completed 20 of 27 passes as part of four long scoring drives, but only one was over a dozen yards and only five were over nine yards.
A short passing game can also help neutralize Carolina's awesome defensive ends, Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, by getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly.
To take advantage of this, the Giants must shift their focus. Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas, for example, plays better against deep passes than he does against short passes, and will probably draw Plaxico Burress in most coverage assignments. The Giants need surprise the Panthers by sending Burress into slant patterns instead of depending on the usual sandlot play of "Plax, run far and I'll throw to you, jump for it." The more tight end Jeremy Shockey plays, and the less his high left ankle sprain hinders him, the more the Giants can attack Carolina where it is weakest.
Linebacker Chris Draft will cover Jeremy Shockey on some pass routes. Draft is good both in coverage and blitzing from the outside, although he struggles against the run and will leave the field in obvious running situations. On some plays, Carolina linebacker Brandon Short will go one-on-one against Shockey, which should be fun to watch. When Short played with the Giants, Shockey and Short got into a fight on Shockey's first day of training camp.
While Tampa showed how to beat Carolina through the air, Dallas showed how to beat them on the ground: run at defensive tackle Jordan Carstens. Over and over, Dallas left guard Larry Allen pushed Carstens back five yards, creating huge holes. David Diehl is not an All-Pro like Allen, but he will do the job, and the Giants happen to run the best behind the left tackle and left guard.
Tiki Barber is not only red hot right now, his talent as a pass receiver out of the backfield makes him the best player to attack all of Carolina's weaknesses. But just as important may be fullback Jim Finn. Carolina middle linebacker Dan Morgan is good in pursuit but has trouble when teams run straight at him, so Finn's blocks are key. Finn is also important in short-yardage downs. The Panthers are the best team in the league at preventing conversions on third-and-short, and the Giants had a hard time on those downs this season. They converted just 56 percent, and short-yardage back Brandon Jacobs had problems holding on to the football.
New York's special teams have slowed down since scoring two return touchdowns on opening day. Kicker Jay Feely, after missing just one field goal in the first half of the season, has missed six in the second half including the infamous three-miss game in Seattle. Carolina has gotten good years from punter Jason Baker and kicker John Kasay. They are weak in kick returns, ranked 26th in the league.
While both teams are known for their defenses, don't be surprised if this game has a lot of offense. Both of those defenses are poor at stopping third downs, compared to their overall rating:
Carolina was 6-2 on the road this season, so does New York's home-field advantage even matter? Yes, because Big Blue went 8-1 at home, and Carolina's only impressive road win came in Tampa Bay. Atlanta gave up on last week's game, and the other four teams Carolina beat on the road were 5-11 or worse.
If it weren't for the injuries to Shockey and the linebackers, the Giants would be an easy choice. But the Giants can overcome the injuries -- and Steve Smith -- as long as they attack Carolina's weaknesses instead of trying to impose their game on the Panthers. And a little help from the crowd won't hurt.