AFC Wild Card Preview
by Rivers McCown (CIN-HOU) and Danny Tuccitto (PIT-DEN)
This year's AFC was a four-team race for the majority of the season: Baltimore, Houston, New England, and Pittsburgh were the only teams really vying for playoff byes. The AFC West, as a whole, had a season right on par with the recent history of the NFC West. The contenders for the final wild card slot looked decent before they came down the stretch, but only a pair of games against St. Louis and Arizona could deliver the wins the Bengals needed to outlast the rest of the fading field. Of the five teams vying for the last two AFC playoff spots on the last day of the season, not one of them could muster a better-than-.500 record in their last four games. Of the four non-Bengals teams in that group, only the Titans reached .500 in their last four games -- and they only really did that because they played a Texans team in Week 17 that had no real interest in winning.
However, quarterback injuries in both Houston and Pittsburgh have weakened those two teams severely. Since Matt Schaub went down against Tampa Bay in Week 10, the Texans have only topped 20 points once. Pittsburgh has been a bit better, and actually has Ben Roethlisberger ready to go despite his ankle injury, but there is still some question as to just how effective he will be. Will those injuries be enough to tilt the field in favor of the Bengals and Broncos?
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.
Cincinnati at Houston
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These two teams squared off in Cincinnati during Week 14, in what became an instant classic to Texans fans who saw the team clinch its first division title by rallying from a 16-3 halftime deficit. T.J. Yates led a dizzying 80-yard two-minute drill that ended on a Kevin Walter touchdown with two seconds remaining to give the Texans a 20-19 victory.
What has changed since Week 14? The Bengals sat pass rusher Carlos Dunlap for that one, and offensive tackle Andre Smith also missed the game. For Houston, the big change is the return of star receiver Andre Johnson, who has only played in two games with Yates so far. On a macro level, though? These teams aren't very far removed from where they were in Week 14.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
The main event in this game will be one Cincinnati star taking on a former one: A.J. Green versus Johnathan Joseph. The two played to what was essentially a stalemate in Week 14. Green had five catches for 59 yards, but also drew a 25-yard pass interference penalty against Joseph.
Green, of course, has had one of the greatest rookie seasons for a receiver in recent history. He accumulated 299 DYAR, good for 10th among all NFL wideouts -- and 285 of that DYAR came on passes that went 15 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. On the other hand, we have the Texans allowing just 4.67 yards per pass on throws to the right side, where Joseph normally plays, compared to 8.43 yards per pass over the middle and 6.95 yards per pass to the left side.
The obvious solution for Cincinnati is to motion Green around a bit and try to get him matched up on the other Houston cornerbacks, however, Wade Phillips essentially had Joseph shadow Green in Week 14. Of the eight passes in Green's direction in the first matchup, he was left uncovered once (on a wide receiver screen) and was covered by Joseph the other seven times. Should the Bengals find a way to isolate Green on bust-in-progress Kareem Jackson, who is noted for giving up a deep ball or 25 per season, that could be their quickest route to the scoreboard.
The other compelling battle on this side of the ball is the Texans pass rush against the Cincinnati offensive line. Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith led the Bengals to a fourth-place finish in Adjusted Sack Rate, while the Texans defense finished third in Adjusted Sack Rate. Houston sent five or more rushers on 52 percent of opponent passes this season, and despite Mario Williams going down against the Raiders in Week 5, they still have a plethora of players that can produce pressure from either the inside or the outside. Both Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt are dangerous penetrators from the 3-4 end position, and despite rookie Brooks Reed winding up with six sacks, Brian Cushing actually has more quarterback knockdowns than him since he added nine hits. Then there's Connor Barwin, who finished tied for third in the NFL with 17 quarterback hits, had 11.5 sacks, and strip-sacked Andy Dalton on the opening possession of the third quarter in Week 14.
One thing that a lot of offenses have done against Houston in the second half of the season is try to isolate their base 3-4 on second-and-long by running three receiver sets or motioning running backs and tight ends out wide. Jay Gruden, in fact, did a lot of that the last time these two teams met. Jermaine Gresham is his main chess piece for these types of formations, and despite the fact that no non-Green Bengals receiver finished with a positive DVOA, the Texans don't exactly have a cornerback crop worth crowing about either. With safety help sure to be on Green, a key factor for the Bengals offense in this game will be the ability for their secondary receivers to beat their assignments one-on-one quickly enough for Dalton to get them the ball.
Cincinnati's running attack hasn't been very productive this season, despite their adherence to it. Their rushing offense had just a -5.9% DVOA this season, good for 26th in the NFL, and they were in the bottom 10 in every statistical category we track on our offensive line pages asides from Adjusted Line Yards. Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott combined to notch five whole DYAR for the entire season on 385 combined attempts.
Despite that, they rolled all over Houston in the first half of their first matchup, in what was probably nose tackle Shaun Cody's worst game of the season. Once guard Bobbie Williams went down for the season with a broken ankle, the tide began to shift back in Houston's favor. As long as this matchup plays out like it does on paper (the Texans finished the season with a -10.7% defensive DVOA against the run), Cincinnati using their running game benefits Houston.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
The question for the Texans in this game will be: Can they rejuvenate their deep play-action passing attack? They attempted just two passes of 15 yards or longer in the humiliating Week 16 defeat in Indianapolis, and one of those was a game-ending Hail Mary. Against Carolina, they didn't throw one deep ball until they were trailing by 21 points going into the second half.
Andre Johnson's health will be a big factor for this game, as he is the only reliable deep threat the Texans can boast at this point. One of the big keys to T.J. Yates' biggest win to date, against Atlanta, was that he managed to find Johnson on a couple of deep bombs.
With Matt Schaub under center, Houston's offense was a reliable machine. Through their first 10 games, the Texans had only 6 interceptions and 7 fumbles. The funny thing is that with Yates, the interception rate has barely budged -- it's the fact that the Texans have 14 fumbles in their last six games that has really bungled up their plans on offense. Cincinnati forced four of those the last time these teams met, and that helped them accumulate the large lead they went into halftime with.
The Bengals defensive line generated very little pressure against Yates the last time these teams played, despite garnering five sacks. Two of those sacks were actually on blitzes by defensive backs. Carlos Dunlap, who leads the team in quarterback hits despite only having 4.5 sacks, will need to generate some pressure off the edge if the Bengals are to change that. At right tackle, Eric Winston is a great run blocker, but he can be beat in pass protection. Geno Atkins has been tremendous this year for the Bengals, but since the Texans carry a rather svelte offensive line that moves well, this isn't the best matchup for him. He split half of a sack after Robert Geathers ran Yates up into his arms, but otherwise generated just two hurries in Week 14.
Since Leon Hall went down for the season during Week 10's loss to Pittsburgh, the Bengals have been getting by with Kelly Jennings. They used a lot of zone coverage when they played Houston, and it will be interesting to see whether they change gears on that after watching Yates have some struggles with his secondary reads down the stretch.
While Cincinnati doesn't have an exemplary run defense by DVOA, they did finish fifth in Adjusted Line Yards. Rey Maualuga and Domata Peko are both deadly up the middle, and that helps explain why the Bengals limit opponents to just 3.63 ALY on runs up the middle, good for fifth in the league. Houston's run attack is still very good, if not as utterly dominant as it was with Schaub under center. Cincinnati did manage to limit Arian Foster when these teams last played, but the Texans still came away with 144 rushing yards as a team. Both Foster and Ben Tate are among the top 15 rushers in the NFL by DYAR.
One last factor to consider here: Clete Blakeman's crew was assigned to this game. Through Week 13, which includes 12 games since his crew had Week 9 off, we have that crew calling an average of 16 penalties a game, including approximately 2.4 offensive holding calls a game. The Texans offensive line has earned a "dirty" reputation from some divisional opponents, and it would not at all be surprising to see a few drives stall out purely on penalties simply because this team needs to stay "on schedule" to succeed.
Johnson's injury created a cascade effect as Houston had to give more offensive snaps to Jacoby Jones, which limited his effectiveness on punt returns. Kick returns have been a challenge for Houston ever since Danieal Manning was hurt against the Titans in Week 7 -- the Texans kept him off returns when he returned to keep him healthy. That will change in this game. Matt Turk has replaced injured rookie Brett Hartmann at punter, and is good for about one utter shank a game. Neil Rackers is adequate, but his leg strength is questionable at this stage of his career.
Mike Nugent had a terrific season for the Bengals, as he was stellar on both kickoffs and field goals. Brandon Tate has been decent on punt returns, but the Bengals are the second-worst team in the NFL by our numbers on kickoff returns. Kevin Huber was worth 0.7 points more than the average punter this year, but he lost the "definition of average" crown to Eagles punter Chas Henry, who was worth 0.1 points.
Neither of these teams has a whole lot of explosive potential, so this is going to be a game where one or two big plays could completely shift everything. Keep in mind that the last time these two teams played, the Texans were on the road, without Andre Johnson, watched the Cincinnati run game bite them a bit, enjoyed a -2 turnover differential, and still managed to win. DVOA jives with the betting public, in that it seems safe to call the Texans favorites in this one, albeit only slight ones. First team to 20 wins a date in the divisional round.
Pittsburgh at Denver
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Tim Tebow, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. On Thursday, the NFL released its TV ratings recap for the 2011 season, and, aside from two Thursdays -- Opening Week and Thanksgiving -- the Tebow-led Broncos were featured in two of the top six games. This Sunday's Wild Card Round matchup against Pittsburgh figures to be the third. After all, the idea of a polarizing figure in a weekend series finale with the potential drama of a miracle comeback story amounts to ratings gold, Jerry, gold!
Lost in the hoopla, of course, is the actual game being played. When I set out to analyze this matchup, I was expecting to find a ton of stats that were lopsided in Pittsburgh's favor. Much to my surprise, I actually didn't. It took some digging, but I was finally able to come up with a rational case for why one of these teams is likely to win, Tebowmania aside. (You'll have to keep reading to find out which one).
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
In Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, we highlighted the fact that Pittsburgh has gradually shifted toward more of a passing offense in recent years. That trend has continued this season. In 2010, the Steelers lined up with three-or-more wide receivers 54 percent of the time. In 2011, it's been 55 percent. In terms of play selection, their frequency of running plays in the first half of games has decreased from 40 percent in 2010 to 38 percent in 2011.
These strategic tendencies have at least two implications for Sunday's game against Denver. First, the season-ending injury to Rashard Mendenhall isn't likely to affect Pittsburgh's offense all that much. Further to this point, the DVOA dropoff this season between Mendenhall and his replacement, Isaac Redman, is negligible at best: Mendenhall ranks 22nd at 3.8% DVOA and Redman ranks 25th at 3.5% DVOA.
Second, because the Steelers don't focus on the run that much anymore, the ability of Ben Roethlisberger and Co. to move the ball against Denver's defense will be dependent primarily on matchups in the passing game.
Let's start with the protection. Overall, Pittsburgh's offensive line is a mediocre unit -- ranked 21st in ASR -- that will be tasked with slowing down the fifth-best pass rush in the league. Although that doesn't quite meet the threshold I like to use for strengths (top eight) and weaknesses (bottom eight), injuries could easily push this matchup into a distinct Pittsburgh disadvantage.
Center Maurkice Pouncey is questionable to play. If he doesn't, then left guard Doug Legursky, who sat out the season finale with a shoulder injury, would slide over to center, and backup guard Chris Kemoeatu would take Legursky's place on the left side. This would be significant insofar as our game charting data shows Kemoeatu and Legursky blowing nine blocks in pass protection through Week 14, compared to Pouncey's one. Now, add to this mix that (a) Roethlisberger's been rendered immobile because of his high ankle sprain, (b) tackles Max Starks and Marcus Gilbert have also combined to blow nine blocks in pass protection, and (c) Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller have combined for 21 sacks. All in all, this isn't a recipe for Pittsburgh passing success.
There are a few rays of hope, however. First and foremost, there's the overall DVOA advantage for Pittsburgh's fifth-ranked pass offense against Denver's 25th-ranked pass defense. A little more nuanced, though, is that, given his injury, the Steelers will likely use Roethlisberger more out of the shotgun, which is a situation that favor's Pittsburgh's No. 8 shotgun offense DVOA over Denver's No. 25 defense DVOA.
Furthermore, again because of Pittsburgh's injuries, Denver will likely blitz even more than they already do: According to our game charting data, the Broncos rush six or more approximately 20 percent of the time, which is second-most in the league (through 14 weeks). However, the Steelers offense has the third-highest success rate against six-or-more rushers, so the Broncos' pass-rushing tendencies might play right into their hands.
One final passing-related factor that bodes well for Pittsburgh is that strong safety Brian Dawkins will miss the game. He'll be replaced by third-year safety David Bruton, who also filled in when Dawkins missed Week 17. To put this downgrade in proper perspective, consider that, according to our advanced metrics, Dawkins had the best stop rate among Denver defensive backs this season. Per our game charting, he also had the best success in pass defense among the group. In contrast, Bruton doesn't even show up once in the NFL play-by-play this season, and our game charts through Week 14 indicate that he's been the primary defender on only one pass.
This is especially troublesome because, even with Dawkins in the lineup, the Achilles' heel of Denver's pass defense has been in the middle of the field: This season, they ranked dead last in deep-middle pass defense DVOA and 29th short-middle pass defense DVOA. Granted, Roethlisberger has only been mediocre to those areas of the field (23rd among QBs to deep-middle; 15th to short-middle), but it's nevertheless likely going to be an advantage that Pittsburgh attempts to exploit.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
For Denver's offense, there have been two main byproducts of the move to Tim Tebow. From a formation standpoint, they went from using shotgun 39 percent of the time with Kyle Orton at quarterback to using it 62 percent of the time since Tebow became the starter. Interestingly enough, though, their shotgun offense DVOA only improved from -5.1% to -1.6%. But I digress.
The other Tebow effect is that the Broncos run offense has gone from a 25th-ranked -9.2% DVOA through Week 5 to an 11th-ranked 7.3% DVOA from Weeks 6 through 17. Whether that's been due to his running ability opening up lanes for Willis McGahee et al., Denver devoting more practice time to the run, their option game confusing NFL defenses that don't normally have to face it, or plain ol' divine intervention is anyone's guess. The one thing we can say for sure -- and Vince did say it last week -- is that the improved running game hasn't been due to Tebow's own efficiency, as he ranks 34th out of 41 qualifying quarterbacks in individual rushing DVOA.
Because the Broncos have become so run-heavy, and because their 25th-ranked pass offense is going up against the Steelers fourth-ranked pass defense, we can pretty much discount the impact of Ryan Clark's absence in the Pittsburgh secondary. Similar to the Dawkins situation for Denver, Pittsburgh will also be turning to a backup that's basically been invisible all season, Ryan Mundy. However, in addition to Denver not being likely to pass the ball, the dropoff from Clark to Mundy isn't as bad statistically as the one from Dawkins to Bruton. Namely, whereas Dawkins has been Denver's best defender in the secondary, Clark has arguably been Pittsburgh's worst, having the worst stop rate among their starters, and the second-worst success rate in pass defense.
Of course, all of this is beside the point, really. We all know Denver doesn't actually have an offense until the fourth quarter anyway: With Tebow starting, the Broncos offense posted a -9.8% DVOA through the first three quarters of games, which ranked 24th. In the fourth quarter and overtime, however, the offense improved to 11th at 11.6% DVOA. And this isn't some sample-size anomaly either. We're talking about 483 plays through three quarters and 248 during the fourth quarter and overtime.
So, assuming everything goes according to plan, and the Steelers have a two-score lead going into Tebow Time, is history likely to repeat it itself? The stats suggest they won't. Overall, Pittsburgh's defense is No. 2 in DVOA during the fourth quarter and overtime.
More importantly, though, it's highly unlikely that the Steelers will fall into the same trap that previous teams did in the midst of a Tebow miracle. Much of his heroics have come when opposing defenses have sat back in soft zones, not caring much about a pass rush, and daring Tebow to beat them; and he's obliged. A look at our charting data, however, shows that Pittsburgh does quite the opposite. On all pass plays, they rush five or more 38 percent of the time. On pass plays when they're winning big (i.e., up eight or more) in the fourth quarter, their five-or-more rush frequency is -- wait for it -- 38 percent.
Except for when Denver is punting -- and that's likely to be most of the time on Sunday -- the matchups between special teams units don't stand out. Both teams are among the worst in the league on field goals and extra points. Both teams are mediocre when Denver's kicking off, but that probably won't happen much. Pittsburgh has the advantage when they're kicking off, but it's not a strength-versus-weakness situation, and the mile high air will likely preclude returns anyway. Through Week 14, Denver had the third-best punt return unit in the league, but then Quan Cosby forgot how to field punts against New England, and Eddie Royal hasn't done much in the two games since Cosby was unceremoniously released. Therefore, if any single special teams play is going to change the trajectory of this game, it's most likely to be a Steelers punt return.
If one didn't know better, it sure does seem like the stars are aligning for Tim Tebow to pull an upset over the defending AFC champions this week. He's at home. Ryan Clark became the first player I can remember to miss a game because of a recessive gene. The Steelers suffered injuries to their starting quarterback and starting running back just weeks prior. And yet, despite all of this, the betting public still hasn't seen the need to move the line on this game in Denver's direction. A cynic might say that's due to their collective disbelief in a higher power. A secular analysis of the statistical matchups, however, says that the Steelers middle-of-the-field passing offense and fourth-quarter defense will probably prove the public right this time.
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 rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.