by Aaron Schatz
Every year I swear I'm going to get my playoff previews done earlier on Friday, and it never seems to happen. FO EIC FAIL. Anyway, we've finally got both your NFC Divisional Round previews right here. The summary: Both games are pretty much a toss-up, although Dallas has a slightly better chance of a road upset. Both games should be high-scoring. Both games should be fun.
(By the way, next week, we're going to solve this problem by having me and Bill Barnwell collaborate on both conference championship previews.)
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link.
In the charts we've included on this page, games where teams sat their starters are colored differently and are not included in the trendlines. In addition, we've calculated weighted DVOA without those "sit starters" games for those respective teams, and have included those numbers in this article.
Arizona at New Orleans
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The Saints started the season 13-0 and ended it 0-3. But if you look down below at our New Orleans week-to-week graph, you will see that the Saints' decline is not recent. Since their bye in Week 5, the Saints have generally been an average or slightly above average team except for a two-game span in Weeks 11-12 that included their nationally televised de-pantsing of the New England Patriots.
One thing to watch: Both of these defenses start out slow and get better. (Well, they did during the regular season; Arizona certainly didn't follow this pattern in last week's game.) Arizona's defense ranked 21st in DVOA in the first half, but eighth after halftime. New Orleans had the worst defense in the league in the first quarter, but ranked eighth in the league if we look at the second quarter on.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Most of our readers don't need another example of how lame it is for official NFL team stats to rank defenses by yards allowed, but here's another one anyway. Our stats say the Saints had the ninth-best pass defense in the league. According to the NFL, the Saints have the 26th best pass defense in the league. You think teams maybe were passing more often against the Saints when they were busy winning 13 games in a row?
How did the Saints improve so much on pass defense this year? Well, part of it was an improved pass rush, but new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams didn't improve that pass rush quite as much as you might think. The Saints ranked only 18th in Adjusted Sack Rate, better than their ranking of 25th in 2008 but nowhere near the best pass rushes in the NFL. No, a big part of the improvement was an improvement in the secondary. The Saints added two big free agents this year: safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Jabari Greer.
You already know about Sharper's ballhawking skills, as he defied the effects of age to slap away 15 passes and snag nine interceptions with three touchdown returns. There was no way to expect this when he signed; a year ago, Sharper started all 16 games for a Minnesota team that did a better job of harassing the quarterback, and had only one pick and five passes defensed.
You probably don't know about Jabari Greer, who was nothing special in Buffalo's Cover-2 defense but turned out to be the anti-Jason David. He blossomed in Williams' more man-based scheme and very quietly was one of the best cornerbacks in the league for half a season, until he missed Weeks 10-16 due to a sports hernia. Greer has a 69 percent Success Rate in the charting data so far, with 4.7 yards allowed per pass. In both categories, he's second among cornerbacks with at least 30 charted pass targets, behind only Darrelle Revis. The other starting cornerback, Tracy Porter, also missed time in the middle of the season, losing four games to a wrist injury, but he's been back since Week 15. His charting stats are slightly above-average, but far below those of Greer. These two injuries were a big reason why the Saints declined over the second half of the season, as the Saints' pass defense DVOA ranked third in Weeks 1-9 but 20th in Weeks 10-17.
As you keep going down the Saints' depth chart, the cornerbacks get worse. Randall Gay's numbers are below average, and rookie Malcolm Jenkins does awful in the charting numbers. He has the fourth worst average yards allowed per pass (10.6) among corners with at least 30 charted targets, and only Tennessee's Nick Harper had a Success Rate below Jenkins' 41 percent. The "DVOA vs. receivers" stats back the charting data: New Orleans ranked second overall in DVOA against number-one receivers, but didn't do well against second and third wideouts.
That's perfect for the Arizona Cardinals, who threw 23 percent of passes to non-starting receivers, the highest rate in the NFC. The best thing the Cardinals could do is to spread out multiple receivers, and force the Saints to go to their bench for extra defensive backs. No Anquan Boldin? No problem. Steve Breaston led the Cardinals last week with 125 receiving yards. I missed Early Doucet in last week's preview, and he was nice enough to point out my mistake with a breakout game, 77 yards and two touchdowns. Expect Larry Fitzgerald to make a few plays too, but you'll be hearing Breaston and Doucet's names as much as you did a week ago. You probably won't be hearing Ben Patrick's name much -- the Cardinals threw to the tight end less than any other team this season, but they threw Patrick a couple of passes to take advantage of the Packers' weakness covering tight ends. The Saints, on the other hand, ranked fifth in DVOA against tight ends.
The Saints will likely send some big blitzes after Warner -- they rushed six more than any defense except for Philadelphia -- but Warner averaged roughly the same yards per pass no matter how many pass rushers were sent on each play. And the Saints have particular trouble trouble getting to the quarterback on third down. New Orleans ranks eighth in Adjusted Sack Rate on first and second down, but 29th on third and fourth down.
The Cardinals have lots of weapons in the passing game and love to throw the ball -- during the regular season, 62 percent of plays were passes when the score was within one touchdown, a higher rate than all but three other teams. In this game, however, their best weapon is the running game. The Cardinals have been a pretty good running team the past few weeks, and the Saints can't stop the run at all. This fact was somewhat hidden early in the season, as the Saints high-flying offense would get a big lead and take the run completely out of the opponent's playbook. In a close game, the run defense is a serious problem. It's been a big part of the Saints' three-game losing streak, especially the shocking Week 16 loss to Tampa Bay where Cadillac Williams ran for 129 yards on 24 carries.
The Saints' struggles against the run start up front, where the numbers suggest that Saints defenders can always be dragged along for an extra yard or two. Sedrick Ellis had a 53 percent Stop Rate on runs, the worst of any NFL defensive tackle with at least 20 run tackles, and he made his average tackle after a gain of 3.5 yards, the second-worst figure among defensive tackles. Anthony Hargrove wasn't much better at 62 percent and 3.2 yards. (To give a comparison, Darnell Dockett had a Run Stop Rate of 73 percent and made his average tackle after a gain of 2.0 yards.) Things are probably better on the ends; while the Saints will miss Charles Grant's pass rush skills in the postseason, Bobby McCray is a better defender against the run.
I hope folks don't mind me repeating a little bit from last week's wild card preview, but the point still stands. The Cardinals went from a dismal 28th in rushing DVOA in 2008 to 22nd in the first half of 2009, and then 12th from Week 10 onwards. A big part of the change has been increased reliance on -- and improvement by -- rookie Beanie Wells, although Hightower has had a couple sweet highlight-length runs over the past few weeks and thus has a higher yards per carry average:
|Arizona Running Game, 2009|
|Beanie Wells Weeks 1-9||70||310||4.43||49%||-7.5%.|
|Beanie Wells Weeks 10-17||108||474||4.39||56%||7.1%|
|Tim Hightower Weeks 1-9||78||277||3.55||46%||-11.4%|
|Tim Hightower Weeks 10-17||65||315||4.85||42%||-2.9%|
Last week, Wells gained 91 yards on 14 carries -- that's 6.5 yards per carry against the run defense that ranked third in the league in DVOA. Sort of makes you wonder what he can do against the run defense that ranked 29th in the league in DVOA, doesn't it?
With Wells as the main back, the Cardinals have excelled at getting consistent medium-length gains that put their passing game in a strong position on second and third down. Arizona was second in the league in Second Level yards per carry, i.e. yardage gained 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
If the Cardinals want to run outside, they should aim to go left instead of right. The Cardinals ranked second in Adjusted Line Yards on runs marked left end, but 24th on runs marked right end. The Saints defense, on the other hand, was a poor 29th against runs marked left end but the best defense in the league against runs marked right end. (That's a surprise given Grant's poor numbers against the run, but likely reflects the difference between the outside linebackers, as Scott Fujita is a better run defender than Scott Shanle.)
The Cardinals' running game is especially (and surprisingly) strong in the red zone, where it ranks first in the league. The Cardinals are fifth passing in the red zone, and combined they are first in red-zone DVOA overall. You may notice above that the Saints defense also gets a lot better in the red zone, and leads the league in red-zone defense. However, that's because they've been absurdly dominant against passes in the red zone, with -89.1% DVOA. The Saints ranked 21st against red-zone runs.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The way the Saints have declined in recent weeks, you might think Drew Brees has somehow slowed down. That's not the case. The Saints' passing DVOA was 45.3% in the first half of the season, 41.0% in the second half, the difference caused solely by Mark Brunell's Week 17 game against Carolina. The defense has struggled, and the running game has declined slightly since midseason, but the passing game is still the one thing the New Orleans Saints have going full throttle.
For the Saints offense, this game is all about two things: getting yardage right off the bad on first down, and getting big plays in both the passing game and the rushing game.
The Saints have a big advantage in both areas. They rank first in offensive DVOA on first down, while the Cardinals are just 19th on defense. It won't matter if the Saints run or pass, as the Cardinals were equally mediocre against both on first downs.
As for the big play, only Houston had more plays that gained more than 10 yards this season -- and among defenses, only Detroit and Cleveland allowed more plays of 11+ yards than the Arizona Cardinals did. The Saints almost never go a whole game without hitting at least a couple big highlight plays down the field. They had the league's best DVOA both on passes marked "deep left" and on those marked "deep right," and were fourth on passes marked "deep middle." The Cardinals defense was average against deep passes in every direction, so the Saints should be hitting a couple of those plays in this game as well.
They'll also pick up some big-time highlight runs. In general, 3-4 teams tend to have lower Adjusted Line Yards stats but don't give up a lot of long runs. The Cardinals were just the opposite this season. Arizona ranked 10th in ALY, but 26th in Second Level Yards (1.25 per carry) and dead last in Open Field Yards (1.30 per carry). Ryan Grant only had 11 carries against the Cardinals last week, but six of them went for at least five yards and three went for at least 10 yards. The Saints are more likely to get these big runs if Pierre Thomas' rib injury isn't bothering him much, as Thomas and Reggie Bush are the guys who get the big plays while Mike Bell is the battering ram. Bush averaged 1.69 Open Field Yards per carry, Thomas 1.24, but Bell only 0.49.
The Saints don't get an advantage when it comes to the direction they run; the better side for the Saints to run on (right) corresponds with the better side of the Arizona run defense.
The play-action threat is a big part of the Saints' offense -- New Orleans ran play-action on 27 percent of passes this season, more than any other offense in the league -- but they don't get as many of those big pass plays out of play-action as you might think. The Saints were actually one of the few teams that averaged more yardage per pass overall (8.2) than they did with play fakes (7.6), although neither number is anything to sneeze at. It's hard to find a situation where the Saints aren't one of the league's better teams throwing the ball.
In terms of DVOA vs. types of receivers, the Cardinals defense is the opposite of the Saints defense: poor against number-one receivers, but very good against second and third wideouts. That's not a function of any particular cornerback. As I noted last week, the Arizona cornerbacks generally play left-right instead of either one of them concentrating on the opponent's best receiver, and the Saints switch their receivers from side to side a ton. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the better of the Arizona corners, and he'll get a chance to cover pretty much every receiver that the Saints have. That means not just Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem, but Jeremy Shockey, David Thomas and probably Reggie Bush as well. The Saints will fiddle with their formations to try to set up good matchups, splitting a tight end out wide to use a size advantage against DRC, or motioning receivers so the intended target ends up covered by nickel corner Ralph Brown, or getting Devery Henderson somehow in one-on-one against a linebacker.
(In a Saints-Jets rematch Super Bowl, it would be fascinating to see how many different formations Sean Payton stuck out there in one game in order to keep his best receivers away from Darrelle Revis, who hadn't fully developed his current reputation when these teams played in Week 4. The Saints might go the whole game without two plays that had the same guys in the same places, except for short-yardage situations.)
Like most 3-4 defenses, Arizona sends five pass rushers on a lot of plays, and they do well blitzing. The Cardinals allowed 6.6 yards per pass when rushing four, 5.0 yards per pass when rushing five, and a measly 3.5 yards per pass when rushing six or more. As for Drew Brees, he was a little worse than his usual against five-man rushes, a little better than his usual against big blitzes.
The Saints were generally poor on special teams all year, although a couple of players had good seasons. Courtney Roby was strong on kick returns, and rookie Thomas Morstead had value on both kickoffs and punts. However, the coverage teams are poor, and the Saints have been awful on field goals. A few weeks ago, the team ditched 45-year-old John Carney for last year's kicker, Garrett Hartley, but Hartley hasn't really been much better. The Cardinals have better special teams, although Neil Rackers has slumped a bit on kickoff distance. Ben Graham ranks third this year in our ratings for gross punt value, behind Andy Lee and Shane Lechler, but that won't help the Cardinals much in a game that nobody expects to include much punting.
You've read all the previews that joke about "first team to 50 points wins," and there's really nothing in the FO advanced statistics that disagrees with that idea. Both passing games are hitting on all cylinders right now. The quality of the Saints pass defense depends a lot on whether Greer plays as well now as he did in the first half of the season; the quality of the Cardinals pass defense depends on finding what they did wrong in the second half against Green Bay and fixing it. The Saints will depend on big plays to give them an early advantage, and then try to run out the clock with their underrated running game while forcing their opponent to abandon half the offense. That's a formula that got them 13 straight wins to start the season. Kurt Warner's not exactly afraid to put the team on his back and go out there and sling it, but the best thing the Cardinals can do is balance their offense with a healthy dose of Beanie Wells aimed right at the Saints' biggest weakness. The Saints were the better team for most of the season, but the Cardinals are actually slightly higher at this point according to our weighted DVOA ratings. Don't overrate the power of the Superdome -- it's going to get loud in there, but the Saints have lost their last two home games to Dallas and Tampa Bay. Their home-field advantage is no bigger than the usual, and that advantage is really the only reason they should be favored in an otherwise even matchup.
Dallas at Minnesota
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OK, let's get the emotional stuff out of the way first. There are very few people outside the state of Texas who can stand the Dallas Cowboys. There are very few people outside the states of Minnesota and Mississippi who can stand Brett Favre. So most fans are stuck with Sunday's game. Who to root for? Trust me, the answer is the Dallas Cowboys. Yes, it is hard to stomach Jerry Jones feeling smug, but do you really want to see Brett Favre crush every single heart in the state of Wisconsin? Which would you prefer to hear in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, stories about Miles Austin and DeMarcus Ware or Favre Favre Favre Favre Favre? That's right, it's no contest.
Nevertheless, while it may be this writer's humble opinion that the game in our hearts is no contest, the game on the field is a different story. Subjectively, the conventional wisdom says that the Vikings struggled down the stretch while the Cowboys may be playing better than any team in the NFL right now. Objectively, the Football Outsiders stats agree. And yet... when you look at the exact strengths and weaknesses of these teams, our picks against the spread formula gives Minnesota the edge. It specifically likes home teams that can run the ball and stop the run. (This is a big reason why the system also favors the Jets over the Chargers).
Let's go inside the numbers on each side of the ball to see what each team needs to do in order to win and anger at least 48 states worth of people.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
The Dallas Cowboys have an extremely well-balanced offense. The Minnesota Vikings do not have an extremely well-balanced defense. The Cowboys can run the ball and pass the ball, and they generally try to balance the two, but it is going to be hard not to favor the passing game because of Minnesota's weak secondary.
At this point, everybody knows that the Vikings have a strong run defense. They led the league in DVOA this year, but it is true that the run defense hasn't been the same since E.J. Henderson's season-ending injury in Week 13. Minnesota's run defense in the past four games has a -6.3% DVOA, which would have tied New England in 13th place for the whole season. However, the "decline" isn't quite that big; some of the difference comes because the Vikings forced runners to fumble five times in the first 12 games but zero times since.
The biggest weakness of the Vikings run defense matches one of the strengths of the Dallas running game. The Cowboys are best running around the ends -- they rank third in Adjusted Line Yards on runs marked left end, and sixth on runs marked right end. The Vikings defense is seventh in ALY overall, but 25th against runs behind left end.
However, the biggest weakness of the Cowboys running game also matches the biggest strength of the Minnesota run defense, a.k.a. The Williams Wall. Dallas has only converted 58 percent of runs in power situations, 26th in the league; Minnesota has allowed a conversion rate of just 44 percent, the second-best in the league.
The Cowboys had the best rushing DVOA in the league on first down, and a lot of their offense was based on good consistent runs on first down to put Tony Romo in strong position on second and third down. The Vikings run defense often shuts down opponents on first down -- but that's where the secondary problem really rears its ugly head. Stuffing Marion Barber or Felix Jones for a yard on first-and-10 doesn't help much if you are the worst defense in the league in long-yardage situations, and the Vikings are pretty close.
How do we know this is the secondary? Well, the problem certainly isn't the pass rush, as the Vikings led the NFL in sacks and finished fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate. The linebackers? Well, the Vikings were a below average team against passes to running backs, but they ranked 20th in the NFL -- that's their second best rank out of the five "receiving positions" we track. The game charting stats for linebackers are subject to sample size issues, but weakside linebacker Ben Leber has a 76 percent Success Rate in passes charted so far, putting him among the top five starting linebackers, and E.J. Henderson and Jasper Brinkley's combined Success Rate of 66 percent is also pretty high. Looking at the individual defense numbers from official play-by-play, Ben Leber stands out with a 52 percent Stop Rate on tackles made after complete passes. (The average for linebackers is 35 percent, and the other Vikings linebackers were around that.)
So, then, the secondary. The charting data isn't completely valid because the Vikings play a lot of zone (defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is a Tony Dungy acolyte) and we haven't gone through yet to assign half-credit for zone coverage plays where we split things between two defenders. However, Cedric Griffin is below average this season in both Success Rate (53 percent) and yards per pass allowed (8.5). Antoine Winfield is much better in yards per pass (5.8) but not Success Rate (56 percent). The nickel and dime corners are awful, with a 50 percent Success Rate for Benny Sapp and Karl Paymah and a 35 percent Success Rate for rookie Asher Allen. The Vikings also ranked 23rd in DVOA against tight ends, and they gave up 63.2 yards per game to tight ends (29th in the league according to our numbers adjusted for opponent strength).
On short passes, the Vikings defense was better against passes to the right than it was against passes to the left. But on deep passes, it was the opposite, with the Vikings giving up many more big plays on the right side of the field. This seems odd since Leber, the best linebacker in coverage, is usually on the offensive left. but the dichotomy is probably caused by Winfield (on the offensive right) generally playing closer to the line than Griffin on the other side. If guys got past Winfield, the safeties had serious problems. The Cowboys move their wide receivers around, but against the Eagles the last two weeks, they played Miles Austin on the right side much more often than the left.
The good thing about the Vikings zone is that is should help contain Cowboys receivers after the catch. Dallas led the league with an average of 5.5 yards after catch, and the Cowboys were even more impressive if we only look at wide receivers. Dallas wideouts averaged 7.1 YAC, and no other team's wideouts averaged more than 6.0.
The one place where the Cowboys offense has had trouble this year is the red zone. That's not what you expect out of a team that has a good running game, two good tight ends, and a wide receiver who comes with a legal mandate that requires announcers to say, "Watch for Roy Williams, this is a big reason why the Cowboys traded for him" every time Dallas passes the 10. The Cowboys had the best offense in the league between their own goal line and the opposing 40-yard line, but ranked 12th between the 40 and the 20 and then 22nd in the red zone. These red zone problems actually exacerbated the struggles of ex-Dallas kicker Nick Folk, as the team's inability to score six put him in position to blow a lot of important field goals. What's really odd is that the team's weakness in the red zone completely switched around midseason. In Weeks 1-9, the Cowboys had -47.2% DVOA passing in the red zone, but 37.0% DVOA rushing. In Weeks 10-17, the Cowboys had 43.0% DVOA passing in the red zone, but -16.8% DVOA rushing.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Let's start by blowing up the biggest myth in this game. The 2009 Minnesota Vikings do not have a great running game. They don't even have a good running game. What they have is a running back who is great when he's not having fumbling problems, and a seriously overrated offensive line that has steadily declined over the course of the year.
Like many people, I was fighting the idea of Brett Favre as an MVP candidate. Then at some point, I looked and realized the Vikings ranked fourth in passing DVOA and 23rd in rushing DVOA -- despite the presence of Adrian Peterson. Then I went to NFL Films for my annual visit with Greg Cosell and Ron Jaworski. Let's reprint what I wrote about the Vikings line after that visit:
The surprise may be which Vikings have the biggest problems run-blocking: multi-million dollar left tackle Bryant McKinnie and Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson. Hutchinson has really lost something and Cosell and Jaws seem to feel McKinnie never really had that something in the first place. These guys were getting pushed backwards and split on double teams. It was remarkable. Mike Tanier wanted to know: Who is that young unknown nose tackle number 75 from Carolina who was pushing them both backwards? It turns out that wasn't some young kid on the rise. That was Hollis Thomas, who has practically been around since the days of the Providence Steam Roller.
In the first eight games of the season, Minnesota's offense ranked seventh in passing DVOA and 16th in rushing DVOA. Since their Week 9 bye, the Vikings have improved to fourth in passing DVOA, and fallen to 28th in rushing DVOA. Fear of Peterson still dictates a lot of the defenses called against the Vikings on first down, but Favre has been the far more important player this year simply because of the strengths and weaknesses of the linemen.
However, while the pass-blocking has been better than the run-blocking, it still hasn't been as good as people think. The Vikings rank 14th in Adjusted Sack Rate on offense. Left tackle McKinnie has been the weakest link against the pass rush and he's going to face DeMarcus Ware for much of this game. Anthony Spencer, the Cowboys' other outside linebacker, has also been hot in recent weeks. The Cowboys pass rush dropped from the best in the league a year ago to just 12th in Adjusted Sack Rate in 2009. However, the Cowboys' ASR over the final five games of the regular season was 8.2 percent, which would have tied Pittsburgh for second if they had sacked the quarterback at that rate the whole season. The Cowboys added another four sacks in their first playoff game.
Not content to just bring Ware or Spencer (or both) in Wade Phillips' "3-4 that's really a 5-2," the Cowboys also brought a lot of big blitzes this season. They sent six or more on 14 percent of passes we've charted so far, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. And a big blitz can definitely get to Favre -- either for a sack or to force a checkdown. Favre averaged just 5.1 yards per pass against big blitzes of six or more, compared to 7.1 yards per pass the rest of the time.
One way to slow the rush down, of course, is a screen pass. Minnesota averaged 8.2 yards on running back screens, according to our game charting so far. That was third in the NFL. And the Dallas defense ranked 26th, allowing 8.0 yards per screen. That feeds into the biggest weakness of the Dallas defense: passes closer to the line of scrimmage.
The Cowboys were much better this year covering starting receivers than they were covering slot receivers, tight ends, or running backs. The problem isn't really nickel corner Orlando Scandrick, although he wasn't quite as good as he was his rookie year. But the Cowboys' safeties and linebackers aren't that great covering passes. In the Week 15 game against Carolina that Mike Tanier and I watched on film with the NFL Matchup guys, Brett Favre couldn't get anything going against the Panthers because they had both excellent coverage on receivers downfield and Jon Beason in the middle of the field anticipating Favre's every move and always in the right place against anything short. The Cowboys should be able to get good coverage with Michael Jenkins and Terence Newman, but they don't have anyone who can come close to Beason. Keith Brooking may be the awesome clubhouse leader that everyone in the media says he is, but we've been writing about his deficiencies in pass coverage for years. Bradie James is a little better, but sometimes Bobby Carpenter is in there, and he's even worse. Like most strong safeties, Gerald Sensabaugh is a better run defender than pass defender, and I'm not sure what's up with Ken Hamlin -- he's barely mentioned in the game charting data we've amassed so far, which is pretty strange for a starting safety. Right now, we have six times as many passes listed with Sensabaugh or Pat Watkins listed as the main defender than we do with Hamlin listed as the main defender, and we don't have a single deep throw or zone coverage play marked with Hamlin as "DEFENDER2." Don't be shocked to see Visanthe Shiancoe have a bigger game than Jason Witten. He might even lead the Vikings in receiving yardage overall.
Another way to take advantage of the Dallas defense is for the Vikings to use more shotgun formations. Dallas has the league's biggest gap between defense against shotgun formations (6.4 yards per play, 18th in DVOA) and defense against quarterbacks under center (4.3 yards per play, fourth in DVOA). However, the Vikings only went shotgun on 27 percent of plays this year, one of the five lowest shotgun rates in the NFL -- even though they had one of the larger gaps between performance in shotgun (35.8% DVOA, 7.2 yards per play) and performance in standard formations (9.2% DVOA, 5.4 yards per play).
If they do want to go deep, the Vikings should go to the right side. Only 28 percent of Minnesota's passes were thrown to the left side -- 30th in the NFL -- which means they will generally avoid the better side of the Dallas secondary. (Yes, Dallas fans, Jenkins was better than Newman this year.) Splitting the field into six zones (short/deep and left/middle/right), the Vikings had their worst offensive DVOA and the Cowboys had their best defensive DVOA in the same zone: deep left.
When the Vikings get into the red zone, don't necessarily look for them to pound the rock with Adrian Peterson until they get down to the goal line. Minnesota ranked sixth in red-zone DVOA when passing the ball, but only 23rd on the ground. The Cowboys defense, like the Cowboys offense, was surprisingly poor in the red zone -- especially against the pass, ranking 24th in DVOA. In all goal-to-go situations, the Cowboys were a miserable 29th in DVOA. Did I hear the name "Visanthe Shiancoe" a couple paragraphs back?
Minnesota led our special teams ratings at midseason, but the Vikings have struggled in recent weeks with -1.7% special teams DVOA since their Week 9 bye. That slowdown includes Pro Bowl returner Percy Harvin. His returns were worth an estimated 19.1 points of field position in the first eight games, but -1.3 points of field position since Week 10. He probably won't get many chances to affect this game anyway, since Dallas rookie kickoff specialist David Buehler led the NFL with 29 touchbacks. Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell is the only member of the Minnesota special teams who didn't experience a second-half decline. Once you adjust for weather, he was strong on field goals all year long -- and was poor on kickoffs all year long as well.
Beside Buehler, the Cowboys also got a strong special teams performance from Patrick Crayton on punt returns. Felix Jones was surprisingly non-explosive on kickoff returns, only getting one return past the Dallas 40-yard line. The biggest weakness of the Cowboys' special teams was placekicker Nick Folk, but that area hasn't been a problem since the Cowboys ditched Folk and signed Shaun Suisham.
One thing you can expect from this game is a high-scoring second half, as both defenses are better before halftime and both offenses are better afterwards. The Vikings offense ranks 17th in the first half of games, fourth in the second half. The Cowboys defense ranks seventh in the first half of games, 20th in the second half. The Cowboys offense ranks 10th in the first half of games, second in the second half. The Vikings defense ranks fifth in the first half of games, 29th in the second half. In fact, split up those second-half plays, and we find the Vikings defense ranks 10th in the league in the third quarter -- and dead last in the fourth quarter.
Another thing to expect from this game is a lot of flags. Dallas ranked sixth this year in total penalties, including those declined or offsetting. Minnesota ranked seventh. When Flozell Adams jumps the snap or Bryant McKinnie gets called for offensive holding, drink.
As to who will win? I know it annoys some readers who want a straight-out pick, but a toss-up is a toss-up. Both NFC games this year could easily go either way. However -- and I hate to say this -- it really is all about Brett Favre. It's hard to imagine that Tony Romo will have trouble passing the ball against the Minnesota secondary. It's also hard to see Adrian Peterson having a big game against the Dallas defense. So it comes down to whether the offensive line can protect Favre, whether his receivers can find openings against the Dallas defense, and whether he can accurately connect with them. The Cowboys have been one of the most consistent teams in the league this year. The Vikings were... until the last few weeks. You know the Cowboys aren't going to lay down like the Giants did to give Minnesota their mojo back in Week 17. Can Favre reach down for something extra? Or will the Vikings stumble like they did in their last three nationally televised games? Against Chicago, Favre reached down and found that legendary something extra... and the Vikings lost anyway.
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 DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
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. Those numbers are explained 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. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI 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).
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.