2014 AFC Championship Preview
by Rivers McCown
Hi, this preview is all about the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry. The real Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry. This preview is awesome. My name is Rivers and I can't stop thinking about the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry. These guys are cool; and by cool, I mean totally good at football.
1) The Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry is a mammal. A living, breathing organism that subsists on your 30-second montages while other people who have played football pontificate on how great these players are, which one is more clutch, and which one is more Hall of Famey.
2) The Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry produces sound bites ALL the time.
3) The purpose of the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry is so that even though he's explaining the savage ballet that is professional football, Jim Nantz can sound just as regal as he does when he's broadcasting from Augusta.
The Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry can drown out anyone it wants! You don't even remember who LeGarrette Blount is anymore, much less Chris Harris! These quarterbacks are so crazy that they can flip out and throw touchdowns that swing the game ALL the time! I heard that there was this one game where Peyton Manning was up 24-0 at halftime, and when some began to count out Tom Brady, he rained touchdowns and won the game. My friend Mark says that he's seen these two quarterbacks play several times and sometimes the winner goes to the Super Bowl.
And that's what I call REAL Ultimate Power!!!!!!!!!!!
(Editor's note: This is where we smashed Rivers across the face with a brick and told him to write the actual preview.)
Oh, right. Sorry about that. It's just I turned my TV on this week.
Where was I? Oh yeah, I was on deadline. And I had to research things about the Patriots and Broncos that might be pertinent to their chances of winning the AFC. Over the course of my research I found out that there are other players that will play in this football game, and I'll try to remember some of them by the next paragraph.
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. Any game charting data that appears with an asterisk appears courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information Group and is complete through the end of the season. Other game charting data (such as defensive back coverage stats) is roughly 90 percent complete. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only except for WEIGHTED DVOA, which includes the playoffs, and where otherwise noted.
For this week and for the Super Bowl, we've got two different week-to-week charts for each team, one for offense and one for defense. Because defensive DVOA is opposite of offensive DVOA, the defensive charts are flipped upside-down; thus, the higher dots still represent better games.
New England at Denver
All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Yes, I started this preview by mocking those who would turn this into a game of two players. Yes, I'm going to start by talking about said players. No, I have no morals. Tom Brady did not play as well as Peyton Manning this year. The key words there, however, are "this year." From Week 7 on, Brady's passing offense has a DVOA of 38.8%, only a stone's throw from the 46.1% that Denver posted over the same time frame. (San Diego was actually better than either, but the Patriots and Broncos both actually featured the passing offense as more than an idea to take up on a lark.) As Scott Kacsmar pointed out via table in last week's Divisional Round preview, there has been virtually no drop-off for the Patriots late in the season despite losing Rob Gronkowski. New England managed a 24.0% passing DVOA against the Colts last week, which brings their Gronkless DVOA over the past four games down to a piddly 36.7%. In the face of all the (fair) talk about how Brady struggled at the beginning of the season, and the face of all the (fair) talk about how the Patriots don't really have a game-changing receiver without Gronkowski, the fact that New England has performed as well as they have throwing down the stretch is a testament to just how damn good their quarterback (still) is.
Of course, after last week, the talk has somewhat shifted to the indomitable New England running game. 234 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns tends to do that. Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Shane Vereen all look to be ready for Sunday. Unfortunately for New England, they won't be able to port the Indianapolis rushing defense with them. Indianapolis finished 22nd in regular season run defense DVOA, and if we add in their playoff games, they would fall to 26th. New England's run offense has been just as good as their pass offense of late, but this was a result that smelled of a hot unit running into a gas can.
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Denver's defense has not been very consistent, effective, or consistently effective this season. But the one area where they can claim otherwise is stuffing the run. No Von Miller. No Derek Wolfe. No problem. The Broncos finished ninth with a -14.4% DVOA against the run in the regular season. Then, against the Chargers' 12th-ranked rushing offense, which had a 11.0% DVOA from Week 6 through Wild Card Weekend, they punished the San Diego run game to the tune of a -31.2% single-game DVOA. Without Miller, they've actually been even better in run defense: -11.4% with him, -20.6% without. This is why you sign a nose tackle nicknamed "Pot Roast," folks.
The passing game, of course, is a completely different story. With Miller in the lineup, the Broncos' pass defense DVOA was -9.9%. With him out, it was 28.1%. That would project to the worst pass defense in the league over the course of a full season. And nobody who saw what happened when the Chargers actually tried to throw last weekend could subjectively take issue with that assertion. Unfazed by that showing, the Broncos decided to further up the difficulty level by losing cornerback Chris Harris to a torn ACL.
Harris was not the most successful cornerback Denver had by game charting stats -- that'd be Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was fifth in Success Rate -- but he was the most-targeted by virtue of being the only defensive back Denver had that's played more than 70 percent of their snaps. Harris was 17th in Success Rate, and allowed only one passing touchdown in coverage in the games we've charted: a 14-yard pass from Brady to Julian Edelman when these teams met in Week 12. His replacement against San Diego was Quentin Jammer, and Jammer was immediately picked on by a Chargers team that saw his deficiencies firsthand before letting him walk in free agency last offseason. What the Broncos will do on Sunday is anyone's guess. They signed Marquice Cole to take Harris' roster spot, but it's more likely that Tony Carter, Jammer, the clearly fading Champ Bailey, and third-round rookie Kayvon Webster will take turns trying to cover for Harris. Cole, of course, was just signed to make Pats fans overconfident.
Brady has continued to be demonstrably better against the blitz -- he averaged 7.1 yards per attempt against five or more rushers compared to just 5.9 against four or less* -- but was sacked more often than usual this year. The Patriots hadn't had an Adjusted Sack Rate above 5.4 percent since the Matt Cassel interregnum, and they climbed all the way to 6.1 percent this year. Denver, funny enough, actually hasn't taken any real dive in Adjusted Sack Rate without Miller. They were at 6.7 percent with him, and 6.3 percent without him. However, with the blitz being devalued a bit against Brady, Denver probably won't send five or more as much as their roughly league-average 33 percent regular-season rate*. That means there'll be a lot of pressure on Shaun Phillips, Malik Jackson, first-rounder Sylvester Williams, and Robert Ayers to come up with enough pressure to keep Brady honest. Sebastian Vollmer's absence should help, but with how banged-up the secondary is, Denver is going to be relying on their pass rush to end a few drives.
It would have been a major factor in determining who wins this game anyway, but the third-down calculus contains some fascinating numbers for this game. In Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, we wrote about how Denver had the second-best DVOA in the entire history of our database on third-down plays, at -47.8%. We projected regression there, as we would for any wildly obscene number like that. What we didn't project was that the regression would be more wild than the original number itself. Denver's pass defense is the worst in the league on third and fourth downs this year, at 40.0%. So, despite a third-down run defense DVOA of -14.9%, overall the Denver third-down defense is at 25.6%, 29th in the league.
However, despite New England's strong overall numbers, they are actually at their weakest on third down as well. They rank in the top 10 in DVOA in both run and pass splits on first and second down. On third down, they have a -32.6% run DVOA (31st), and a 0.7% pass DVOA (18th). If New England actually attempts to run the ball on third down in this game, the resulting collision of weird numbers will cause the DVOA computer to create a black hole that floods our world with clones of Trent Richardson.
So, to sum up: the numbers say that New England should throw early, throw often, and throw always. Points should come fairly easy in this game as long as they don't look at last week's results and conclude that they are solely a power running team. Rodgers-Cromartie should be a good matchup for Denver, but beyond that the New England receivers will have the upper hand on talent. And, if New England can create some interesting passes out of run formations to target Nate Irving and Paris Lenon (both had sub-40 percent Success Rates in small sample sizes), all the better.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Despite the fact that they have Peyton Manning and a record-breaking passing offense, Denver would be smart to remember the lesson from the first time these two teams played: New England has little in the way of run-stop ability. Vince Wilfork is done for the season, as is Tommy Kelly. As is Jerod Mayo. As is Brandon Spikes. The Patriots have allowed an 8.8% rushing DVOA since Week 9, fourth-worst in the league ahead of only the Bears, Cowboys, and Packers. Last week, the Colts couldn't take advantage because... well, I've already used of my quota of Trent Richardson jokes.
Denver put up a 25.6% rushing DVOA against the Pats in Week 12, racking up 280 yards on the ground. And that Patriots defense actually had a healthy Spikes. Denver's post-bye running DVOA split is only a little better than their season performance (5.9% to 4.4%), but the New England run defense had been such a sieve up until last week that it's hard to see Denver finding themselves in too many third-and-longs. Especially if, as Cian Fahey forecasts, Montee Ball is able to give the Broncos a little extra burst.
The last time these teams met, Aqib Talib did as good a job as anyone has done this year on Demaryius Thomas, holding him to three catches on eight attempts in man coverage. Logan Ryan shut down Eric Decker as well, ceding nothing on three attempts in man coverage. While Ryan and Talib don't have terrific Success Rates (58 percent and 55 percent, good for 27th and 39th, respectively) on the season, this is still one of the more talented pass defenses Denver has faced this year. Not many teams can throw a cornerback quadruplet as talented as Ryan, Talib, Kyle Arrington, and Alfonzo Dennard out against Denver's vaunted receiving corps.
However, there are plenty of reasons to dial back our emphasis on the results in Week 12. For one, New England has underperformed that talent regularly this season. Despite those corners and an eighth-ranked Adjusted Sack Rate on defense, the Pats allowed a passing DVOA of 24.7% or higher in five of their last seven regular season games. Second, Manning scholars like Nate Dunlevy will tell you that the cold is not what bothers Manning; it's the wind. We marked 10 passes from Week 12 as incomplete because of an underthrow or overthrow. He averaged about 6.6 of them in his 15 other games. The weather outlook for Denver on Sunday is well above freezing with mild winds, so if that truly is a narrative worthy of note, it won't be one that stops Denver on Sunday.
And, most importantly, Julius Thomas didn't play in that game. Denver's offensive DVOA dropped from 33.0% to 23.9% in the two games Thomas missed this year. Both Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty have decent charting statistics -- Success Rates of 57 percent and 60 percent, respectively -- but neither of them is a guaranteed lock to hold down the tight end with the fourth-best DVOA in the league.
Looking at the season that was with a retrospective view, you can begin to appreciate just how strange the first Broncos-Patriots game was. One thing that stood out in researching this game was that the Broncos had a 31.7% second-half offensive DVOA and a 36.9% DVOA when the game was late and close -- best and second-best in the league, respectively. Yet, matched up against a Patriots defense with the 25th-best second-half defensive DVOA (11.6%) and the 27th-best late-and-close defensive DVOA (10.8%), we witnessed a second-half shutout.
The one strategic element that's a little strange about Denver is how averse teams seem to be to blitz Manning this season. In FOA 2013 we noted that Manning struggled against the big blitz in 2012, and that opposing defenses blitzed him at an above-average rate on both five-man rushes and six-man rushes. Manning averaged 8.0 yards per pass on non-blitzes and 7.3 yards with five rushers*. (He did much better against big blitzes this year.) Except this season, despite all sorts of turnover at the tackle spots, defenses blitzed Manning on just 24 percent of snaps, the lowest number in the league*. Yes, it's pretty hard to play Cover-0 with the skill position depth the Broncos have, but it's still a little surprising that practically nobody dared to try it given how successful the Broncos were anyway.
The Patriots, for their part, probably aren't the team that'll be testing Manning with a lot of blitzes. New England sent five or more rushers on just 24 percent of snaps, well below the league average of 32 percent*. They sent only 31 defensive back blitzes, lower than any team but Seattle or San Francisco*. Denver's offense was well below-average on yards per pass on defensive back blitzes, but about average in Success Rate. However, when Bill Belichick decided to come after Manning, it was ridiculously effective. The Pats blitzed Manning on just eight of 39 dropbacks in Week 12, but Manning was 1-of-6 for minus-6 yards, with two sacks and an interception, on those snaps.
How you feel about the Patriots' chances probably depends a lot on how you feel about two games: Week 12, and last week's win over Indianapolis. The latter established the ceiling for this defense, and the former showed that they do have the ability to strangle down the Broncos in the right conditions. How much from each of those games ports over to Sunday will go a long way in deciding the victor.
Now here's an area that could swing a close game. While they put up a 9.0% special teams DVOA against San Diego last week, the Broncos' special teams have mostly been in decline over the second half of the season. Since their Week 9 bye, they had managed a positive special teams DVOA just twice before last week: Week 17 against Oakland (1.9%) and Week 15 against San Diego (3.2%). The altitude should save them from some of their problems on kickoffs -- it's worth noting that DVOA numbers are weather- and altitude-adjusted when we discuss how Denver led the league in touchbacks -- but the problem isn't Matt Prater's leg strength, it's the coverage teams. Denver's also been bleeding on punt returns all season, with Trindon Holliday finding that case of the dropsies and various fill-in returners like Eric Decker and Wes Welker not doing too much useful in his stead.
New England, as is their norm, has excellent special teams. Aside from whatever he was trying to do near the goal line last week, Ryan Allen has been solid. Stephen Gostkowski topped Justin Tucker by 0.1 points to be the year's most valuable kicker on field goals and extra points, and was second in the league with 10.5 points added on kickoffs. Patriots returners have been adequate, but nothing special.
Each team has a clear path to victory in what we're projecting as a very close game. Either team could conceivably ride its offense to victory. As weird as it is to say about a team that broke several single-season passing records, I feel like Denver's real edge in this game is the run game on both sides of the ball. New England probably won't be able to milk the clock, and Denver should be able to close the door on a late lead with their rushing attack.
In games like these, a bottle of cliches that are cliches for a reason are often dumped on the reader. The turnover battle will tell the difference. A few big plays here or there could swing the game. Last one with the ball wins. You don't need those things though -- you made it all the way to the bottom looking for an opinion.
And it's my opinion -- I'll note for the sake of our editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz and the frequent homerism accusations that seem to follow him that this is not his opinion -- that the Patriots are slight favorites in this game. Without Chris Harris and Von Miller the Denver passing defense is there for the taking. It would scare me as a theoretical Broncos fan that I'd be relying on the worst third-down pass defense in the NFL against Tom Brady. I don't think the Denver pass offense has been truly awe-inspiring since the first few weeks of the season, and, as odd as it is to say about a team that seems to have lost half its defensive stars, New England just looks to have more horses to ride on that side of the ball.
We're nearing the end of the Brady/Manning rivalry era. It's been around for nearly as long as I've consciously been aware of the internet. The good news is this game has all the makings of being another classic, especially given all the bad defense that figures to show its face here.
So let's have one more dance of it. Then, let's turn the TV off before it gets ruined all over again.
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. For the Conference championships and the Super Bowl, there are two charts for each team, one for offense and one for defense. Because defensive DVOA is opposite of offensive DVOA, the defensive charts are flipped upside-down; thus, the higher dots still represent better games.