AFC Wild Card Preview
by Scott Kacsmar (KC/IND) and Rivers McCown (SD/CIN)
The lords of injury-related regression rule Indianapolis and Kansas City, as both teams look to re-find their early season success on one side of the ball to overcome their demons on the other. Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals are playing in the Wild Card round once again, but they've traded out the Texans for the San Diego Chargers. Can the recent San Diego improvements on defense hold up in the postseason?
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 80 percent complete. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only.
Kansas City at Indianapolis
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It has been nearly 20 years to the date since the Kansas City Chiefs won a playoff game. If the Chiefs are to avoid extending their postseason losing streak to a record eighth game, they will have to beat the Indianapolis Colts, who are responsible for three of those playoff losses. More importantly, the Colts just won 23-7 in Kansas City in Week 16. Then again, postseason rematches often play out much differently and that's true for more than just the Patriots against teams from New York.
Excluding division games, since 2005 the regular-season winner is just 21-20 in the postseason rematch. Their average scoring margin drops from 10.6 points to 1.4 points. The team winning on the road in the regular season, like Indianapolis here, is 10-10 in the playoffs (6-4 at home). These are small samples and numbers can get distorted late in the season when one team throws in the towel, but everything about this screams coin flip. This playoff rematch was anticipated weeks before the first meeting with the teams seemingly on a collision course with the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds.
The parallels between these teams are plentiful. The Chiefs were the only team to really do the old Bill Polian strategy of resting their starters in Week 17 -- the backups nearly beat a desperate San Diego team too -- but I'm not going to hammer you with another late-season momentum study. Hint: it's no big deal.
Weighted DVOA prefers the Chiefs (17.4%, No. 9) over the Colts (-6.0%, No. 21) even more than regular DVOA, but both teams saw their seasons peak by enduring a difficult obstacle after the bye week. For the Colts, it was Reggie Wayne's torn ACL in Week 7. For the Chiefs, it was when they started playing teams who could actually score and had a franchise quarterback. We will detail below how those changes have impacted that side of the ball for each team.
Going from the No. 1 pick in the draft to 11-5 sounds like an incredible feat. It's actually happened three times in the past six years, with the 2008 Dolphins, 2012 Colts and 2013 Chiefs all doing it thanks in large part to three factors: a new head coach, a new quarterback and an easy schedule.
Last season, Chuck Pagano's battle with leukemia and the remarkable rookie season from Andrew Luck powered the Colts to 11-5, but they also faced the 32nd-ranked schedule based on the average DVOA (-7.4%) of their opponents. Sure enough, this year's Chiefs have also faced the 32nd-ranked schedule (-7.1% DVOA). If you were curious, the 2008 Dolphins played the 29th-ranked schedule (-6.1% DVOA) and won a Tom Brady-less AFC East. Both the 2008 Dolphins and 2012 Colts were eliminated by the Ravens, but they won't be around to take care of this year's Chiefs.
When the Chiefs started 9-0, their schedule consisted of several backup (third-string, even) quarterbacks. My piece for ESPN Insider suggested that this was statistically the worst 9-0 team ever. Sure enough, once the Chiefs played some top offenses and suffered a few key injuries, they became the first team in NFL history to start 9-0 and finish 11-5. Only one other 9-0 team (2006 Colts) even finished 12-4. Those teams usually always win 13-plus games. The Chiefs' last two wins were against bottom-feeders Washington and Oakland.
On the other side, the Colts have used a pathetic AFC South to boost their stats. Not only did they go 6-0 against their division, the Colts outscored their rivals by 90 points. The next closest team in division domination was Denver at plus-54. Since 2002 divisional realignment, the Colts' plus-90 mark ranks as the 12th largest. (No. 1: the 2007 Patriots dispatched the AFC East by 153 points.)
However, no team can boast as many impressive wins given Indianapolis' unexpected triumphs over San Francisco (27-7), Seattle (34-28) and Denver (39-33). That's the top team in each conference, and the 49ers finished No. 6 in DVOA. Even the 23-7 win in Arrowhead deserves praise -- it marks the largest margin of defeat for the Chiefs this season and their worst single-game DVOA (-37.6%).
Kansas City is 1-5 against teams with a winning record and the only win was Week 3 in Philadelphia. That's the second-worst record (0-3 Packers) among the 2013 playoff field in games against winning teams. The other AFC Wild Card game features the teams with the best records. Cincinnati was 4-0 and San Diego was 5-2, including a loss to Cincinnati.
The conventional wisdom will say the Chiefs can't beat a good team, while the Colts have played up to the competition. But is there any cause for concern when a team that's 1-5 against teams with a winning record takes on a team that's 4-3? I did a playoff study two years ago on the 1970-2010 seasons and found no evidence that being "battle-tested" helps in the playoffs. For this preview, I updated things for the last two years.
The team which had a higher winning percentage against winning teams went 229-158 (.592) in the head-to-head playoff games. That excludes 36 games where the teams had the same winning percentage. Keep in mind the home team wins roughly 65 percent of all playoff games, so it's less advantageous than that. If we compare the number of wins, since it's better to be 6-0 than 2-0, then the results are less impressive. The team which had more big wins was just 159-189 (.457) in head-to-head playoff games.
So while Colts fans have enjoyed the great wins all season, none of it really has any value in determining what will happen on Saturday.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Fittingly, the Chiefs offense (15th) and Colts defense (16th) rank as average units by DVOA. Even better is the fact that the Colts defense has the most variance in the league, confirming that we never know what we're going to get from this group. For example, the same defense that did such a respectable job against Denver's historic offense was given all it could handle against Houston's Case Keenum in the next game.
The one constant here has been running back Jamaal Charles carrying the Kansas City offense. In 15 games he amassed 1,980 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns. He even led the team in receptions (70), receiving yards (693) and touchdown catches (seven). Charles must have a big game against the No. 22 run defense for the Chiefs to be successful on the road. This doesn't have to be like 2006 where Larry Johnson was supposed to run for 300 yards against the Colts in the playoffs, but Charles needs to hit a good number.
Ironically, in Week 16 of 2012 the Chiefs rushed for 352 yards against the Colts, but lost 20-13. That's the most rushing yards in NFL history by a losing team. Charles rushed for 226 yards that day, but any game result involving Brady Quinn deserves to be discarded.
Two weeks ago against the Colts, Charles showed how dynamic he can be with a 31-yard touchdown run, but he only had 11 more carries the rest of the game. All 13 of his runs gained at least three yards. Alex Smith had triple the number of dropbacks as Charles had runs and that cannot happen again for the Chiefs. Even with Charles running well two weeks ago -- the 57.7% rushing DVOA was a season-best for Kansas City -- the Chiefs scored a season-low seven points against the Colts. They scored at least 17 in every other game.
Smith does not have to have a big game to win, but he can't have his worst game of the season like he did two weeks ago with -135 DYAR. The "game manager" had three fumbles -- Kansas City actually had six fumbles and were fortunate to only lose two -- and a bad interception in the red zone.
When the Chiefs are in the red zone, they should focus on running the ball. The Colts are only 22nd at red-zone run defense (10.7% DVOA) while the Chiefs are fourth at red-zone rush offense (37.2% DVOA). When it's first down, a run is a smart call given the Chiefs are No. 2 on first-down rushes and the Colts defense ranks 27th. Simply put, the run must be the constant strength of the offense given the lack of quality receivers and the inability to get big chunks in the passing game.
Dwayne Bowe has reached milk carton status. He is averaging career lows in catches per game (3.8) and receiving yards per game (44.9). He ranks 61st in DVOA (-4.6%) -- his lowest ranking since 2008 (66th). Yet he's still the best option at outside receiver. The Colts will have no fear in this "Donnie Avery Revenge Game." At least Avery has five catches on passes thrown 21-plus yards. Bowe has a whopping one (even Dexter McCluster has two).
Colts cornerback Greg Toler has been slowed by a groin injury. He only played seven snaps in the first meeting, but he should get more work in this one. He's not as good as Vontae Davis (6.6 yards/pass, 66 percent success rate in charting collected so far), who should match up with Bowe most of the day, but Toler (6.6 yards/pass, 51 percent success rate) is better than Darius Butler (10.2 yards/pass, 44 percent success rate).
Indianapolis' secondary is not likely the unit to decide this game. The Colts rank 13th against No. 1 receivers and that's even with the midseason mini-collapse when Andre Johnson and Tavon Austin annihilated them. They are 15th against receiving backs, but the Oakland Raiders probably reminded everyone to defend Charles on the screen pass. The Chiefs have run 75 screen passes this season (36 to Charles), but their overall success rate (57 percent) is actually below the league average of 60 percent.
This matchup is really about limiting Charles' big plays and getting after Smith. He was sacked five times and pressured 10 times total in the last meeting. Robert Mathis only had one of the sacks, but his league-leading 19.5 sacks have been huge for this defense, which does not feature many stars at all. This could be a game where Mathis comes up with a strip-sack -- something he is the master of doing. He should get some help against the run with the return of defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, who also missed the Week 16 game. Jerrell Freeman was the star last time with a sack, a pick and a fumble. He's the linebacker to watch in this defense.
The Chiefs will need to protect Smith better. Left tackle Branden Albert should be back, but rookie Eric Fisher, who has had his struggles, injured his groin in a Tuesday practice and is questionable. Still, one would imagine Albert and no Fisher is still a net plus for the line.
The Colts have strikingly similar success rates when rushing four (53.4%) versus rushing five (52.7%).* That difference of 0.74% is the second smallest in the whole league behind Arizona (-0.60%). Yards per play are no different with 6.9 for rushing three or four and 7.2 when rushing five. If bringing that fifth defender is really offering no benefit, then Chuck Pagano should dial it back even more and help his coverage or keep a spy on the mobile Smith who rushed for a career-high 431 yards this season.
But everything starts with Charles in this matchup.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
The other side of the ball is a much different story. The Colts started the season as a very efficient offense, but then Andrew Luck missed badly on a throw to Reggie Wayne and the star receiver's season was over.
The Chiefs, albeit against lesser competition, became the first team ever to go 9-0 and never allow more than 17 points in any game. Then they ran into Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, lost Justin Houston and Tamba Hali to injuries, and finished as a team that really needs the offense to pick up the defense. The Chiefs have allowed at least 23 points in six of the last seven games.
The table below shows the stark differences in performance after those key events this year.
Starting with the Colts, this had the potential to be an elite offense. The efficiency was there, the drive stats were great and they were getting it done on third down (42.7 conversion rate). Then Luck lost his security blanket in Wayne and the Colts had to figure out how to play a different offense. Converting T.Y. Hilton into Wayne worked for a couple of games, but when defenses realized how much of a non-factor Darrius Heyward-Bey (85th in DVOA) was, Hilton's numbers went down and the Colts trailed by at least 14 points in their next four games.
|Colts Offense - Reggie Wayne Impact|
|Weeks||W-L||Off DVOA||Rank||Pass DVOA||Rank||Run DVOA||Rank|
|Chiefs Defense - Schedule/Justin Houston Impact|
|Weeks||W-L||Def DVOA||Rank||Pass DVOA||Rank||Run DVOA||Rank|
The 38-8 loss at home to St. Louis infamously killed the Colts' DVOA. That game is really a huge outlier for the season as a whole. The Colts had five turnovers, but just nine in the other 15 games combined. No team protected the ball better in 2013. Luck cut his interceptions in half from his rookie season, but this improvement was already evident in the final quarter of last season. The Colts also led the league in fewest penalties, including the fewest on offense (66).
This team rarely beats itself, unless you count every hand off to Trent Richardson as trying to lose the game. The Colts really fell back in the running game, even after accounting for Luck's efficient scrambles. Even that part of his game was not as beneficial later in the season, and of course the "Trent 3.0" disaster has a lot to do with the decline of the run. He's actually down to 2.9 yards per carry in Indianapolis and for a good part of the season he was being outgained by Luck. The Colts tend to run the ball up the middle/guard 65 percent of the time (league average: 54 percent), but that may just be due to Richardson running into contact instead of cutting it back.
Practically every Colts back not named Richardson has ran it well this season, though it's surprising Richardson ranks 36th in success rate (43 percent). I personally expected lower. Donald Brown ranks second in success rate (54 percent) and DVOA (19.2%). He has done an excellent job this season with big plays and consistent gains. In fact, it was a 33-yard receiving touchdown and 51-yard touchdown run by Brown in Kansas City that fueled most of the scoring offense for the Colts. Those big plays are unexpected to repeat themselves, but Brown has that type of home-run ability.
Richardson jokes aside, the Colts are good in short-yardage situations too. They rank seventh on third-and-short plays (Chiefs defense: 23rd) and had a league-best 56.0% DVOA on red-zone rushes (Chiefs defense: 12th). If you need a yard, Richardson can get you a yard. If you need five yards, Richardson might be able to get you two. Needless to say, the more Brown touches the ball, the better it is for the Colts to stay in manageable down-and-distance situations. If you expect the Chiefs to stuff the Colts often at the line with Dontari Poe filling the middle, then this matchup may come as a surprise. The Colts actually rank 10th at best stuffed rate while the Kansas City defense is only 18th at stuffing runs.
With offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, tight end Coby Fleener and wide receiver Griff Whalen joining Luck, this really is the Stanford of the NFL. Throw in a young talent like Da'Rick Rogers and the Colts are in a better position to have success now offensively compared to a month ago. Rogers had 86 yards after catch (YAC) in his breakout game in Cincinnati. That's the most YAC any Indianapolis player has had in the last 33 games. He's young and may make some mistakes, but there could be opportunities for big plays against rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper, who allows 9.4 yards per pass. Brandon Flowers has also struggled, ranking 60th in success rate (51%).
The Chiefs learned the hard way that slowing down quarterbacks like Terrelle Pryor and Jeff Tuel is a bit easier than Manning and Luck. In Kansas City, Luck played quite well with Whalen coming up big, catching 7-of-8 targets for 80 yards. The Chiefs are No. 2 against tight ends (-36.9% DVOA), so it's likely going to take that kind of effort again from one of the young wide receivers to step up for Luck. Unlike the Chiefs, the Colts need a bit more from their passing game to be successful.
Luck may only be marginally better than he was as a rookie, but that's still pretty valuable. He does continue to take a lot of hits and it's crucial the Chiefs get a great pass-rush in this game. In Week 16, Luck was sacked once and pressured eight times. The return of Justin Houston should help when he gets paired up with Tamba Hali on the other end. Hali has been missing practice with a knee injury, so his status is another story to keep an eye on, but Houston had 11 sacks in 11 games and was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before suffering an elbow injury. We can't write it into Bob Sanders/Ray Lewis folklore yet, but obviously some big playoff runs in recent years have coincided with the return of an important defender.
Kansas City must bring pressure against this suspect offensive line. The Chiefs allow 5.2 yards per play when rushing five while the Colts average 6.5 yards per play against such rushes.* Big blitzes (six-plus) have worked well against Luck as the Colts average just 4.3 yards per play (28th). However, well that sounds enticing, the Chiefs defense allows 8.2 yards per play (30th) when rushing six-plus.
I was hoping to recycle some old writing about the Colts being awful on special teams, but they are dead average (-0.1% DVOA; ranked 17th) this season. But for the second postseason in a row, the Colts will play against the best special teams. Kansas City leads the league in special teams DVOA, thanks mostly to their kick and punt return production. Dexter McCluster has returned two punts for touchdowns while Quintin Demps and Knile Davis both averaged over 30 yards on kick returns (one touchdown each).
Now here's something from the recycle bin: the Colts may finish on the short end of the field position battle in the playoffs. The Chiefs' offense has had the best average starting field position (32.74). Based on just field position following a kick return, the Chiefs still rank No. 2 (24.22) and the Indianapolis defense is a mediocre 18th (22.56).
In what could very well be a close game, we have to make special note of the kickers. No one would choose Ryan Succop over Adam Vinatieri for a crucial kick, right? Succop just failed on one in Week 17. While Vinatieri's far from flawless -- Chiefs fans have witnessed it with their own eyes in 1999 -- he just completed a 35-of-40 regular season and has gone 10-of-16 from 50-plus yards since 2011. He's been 39-41 years old in that time and prior to 2011, he was just 10-of-22 (45.5 percent) from 50-plus yards. Granted, many of those were outdoors in New England, but this long-distance kicking boom from Vinatieri and practically every kicker in the league is a phenomenon we may not be paying enough attention to.
Kickers just nailed 96 field goals of 50-plus yards in 2013 and converted 67.1 percent of those long kicks -- both are NFL records. A lot of rules have changed on offense and defense, but there hasn't been nearly as much change with the kicking game. Yet the numbers go up and up.
In this game, Succop will just hope he does not channel the ghost of Lin Elliott.
These teams are hard to get a read on for how they will play on a given week. The Chiefs rank 23rd in DVOA variance and the Colts are even more inconsistent at 29th. I feel like this could be the week's closest Wild Card game with perhaps the fewest points scored (assuming the weather conditions are not overly brutal in Green Bay). In the highest scoring season in NFL history, that could mean 23-20.
The Colts used to play everyone close, but in their last eight games, only against Tennessee were there tight games in the fourth quarter. The Colts have managed to go 15-2 in games decided by one score in the Luck era. In those late/close situations, the Kansas City offense ranks just 28th in DVOA compared to sixth for the Colts offense with Luck, who has the most game-winning drives (10) in NFL history for a player through two seasons.
Kansas City is getting back some key players and is unlikely going minus-3 in turnovers again, which makes me think we will get that close game this time, but that still favors the team with the horseshoe attached to its head.
San Diego at Cincinnati
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These teams had very similar results this season. The Bengals finished with about an 9% overall DVOA edge, but each of them had one dominant unit and one that spent stretches of the season being hapless. The Chargers had lower lows -- their defense was in contention to be one of the worst we've ever tracked as of Week 12 -- but have been playing their best football of the season over the past four weeks.
The Bengals visited the Chargers in Week 13, and the surface results were ... well, similar. The Bengals won 17-10, and won the turnover battle 3-2. But each team had 19 first downs, there was a possession difference of 20 seconds, and the Bengals outgained the Chargers by 20 yards on two fewer plays. It was a game dominated by short passing attempts on both sides and a lot of pounding between the tackles for Cincinnati, though, as you'll see, each side had a different reason for doing that.
DVOA saw this a bit differently: it gave the Chargers a -8.6% game rating, and it gave the Bengals a 48.4% rating, one of their four best games of the season. Some of that can be attributed to special teams, but mostly it was a decisive win for Cincinnati's defense, which stole the show with a -26.6% DVOA against the third-best offense we tracked all season. Was this an accurate representation of San Diego's skill, or an off game? How you feel about that probably determines how you feel about the Chargers chances to steal this game on the road. Let's delve a little deeper.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
In the last year of the Norv Turner era, the Chargers were a well-below average offense, finishing 2012 with a -10.0% offensive DVOA that ranked 24th in the NFL. Not much changed in the offseason talent-wise. Philip Rivers returned after a sub-par season. The offensive line that allowed a league-worst 8.9% Adjusted Sack Rate in 2012 was bolstered with a first-round pick, but D.J. Fluker was considered to be a right tackle-only prospect that would have problems adjusting to NFL pass rushers. Ryan Mathews was coming off another year where he lost time to injury, and though he only had two fumbles in 2012, was thought of as a fumble-prone back after having five of them in his rookie season. The receiving corps added only third-rounder Keenan Allen after looking a bit lost without Vincent Jackson, and was looking at relying heavily on discarded players like Eddie Royal or unproven youngsters like Vincent Brown around deep threat Malcom Floyd. Even before the season there were plenty of experts that thought this time was heading for a long rebuild on that side of the ball, and after Floyd -- their only wide receiver with any recent history of success -- was lost early in the season to a neck injury, some wondered if they'd even be competitive.
Of course, we know now that this is not how it turned out. Allen blossomed after being buried on the depth chart early, Matthews finally played up to his talent, under-the-radar signing Danny Woodhead gave the Chargers a complimentary back that could actually make use of Rivers' tendency to check down in the face of pressure, and one of the greatest coaching jobs in the NFL this year took place as Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt built a successful offense with a practically immobile quarterback and an offensive line that heavily utilized former whipping boys like King Dunlap and Jeromey Clary. The answer was short passes. Lots of them. Strengthened an actual running game, the Chargers lowered their Adjusted Sack Rate from 8.9 percent to 5.9 percent, seventh in the league. They were able to isolate Woodhead and their slot receivers on linebackers often, which led to some astonishing numbers. Woodhead had 282 DYAR and a 41.2% DVOA on 87 targets. He'd always been a good receiver -- he was first or second in receiving DVOA among running backs two of the last three seasons -- but nobody had ever used him this much and he responded with one of the ten highest receiving DYAR seasons ever for a running back. Meanwhile, while everyone was (understandably) hyping Allen, and defenses were focusing on Antonio Gates, it was Royal that got back to his 2008 form by finishing fourth in DVOA among wideouts. By spreading out their receivers and forcing someone to follow Woodhead out of the backfield, the Chargers were able to exploit matchups to conceal the fact that their only gamebreaker in a traditional sense at this point is Allen. McCoy and Whisenhunt are going to force your team to cover their receivers sideline-to-sideline.
If there was a real turning point for the Chargers on offense this season, it came after Week 5's loss to Oakland in the twilight hours. San Diego's passing offense was productive from the start, but they started the year with five straight weeks of below-average run offense, including the nadir while everyone else was sleeping: a -68.9% rushing DVOA against the Raiders. Since then, the Chargers have had a below-average rushing offense by DVOA in exactly one game: Week 9 at Washington. In Weeks 1-5, Mathews had a -17.9% DVOA on 67 carries. Since then, he's had a 9.9% DVOA over 218 carries. Ronnie Brown was phased out of the offense as well, rushing just 24 times since Week 5 after 21 carries in the first five weeks, but the main reason for the improvement looks to be an offensive line that finally gelled.
Of course, if we are to infer that San Diego's offense still isn't the most talented group in the league, it only makes sense that they would have a weak point, and they do: things start to get constricted in the red zone and the offense loses some of its punch. The Chargers are only 13th in offensive red zone DVOA, at 10.1%, and fall all the way to 27th in goal-to-go situations at -10.1%. Some of this may be getting a little too creative with Woodhead -- his red zone DVOA is about 7% lower than Mathews and he's been given a pretty fair split of the carries -- but it's a bit logically strange that an offensive line group that finished fifth in Power Success rate and first in Stuffed Percentage would have so many problems punching the ball in. It should be noted that the Chargers have thrown the ball plenty: Only Denver, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta threw more in goal-to-go situations. Whether the mistrust of the running game at the goal line is fair or not, it has contributed to San Diego's struggles to put up points there.
Cincinnati's defense has been fairly good in goal-to-go situations this year -- they finished the season ninth in the league at -17.6% DVOA. In fact, Cincinnati's defense has been good practically top-to-bottom. Despite missing Geno Atkins and Leon Hall for most of the season, they finished fifth in the NFL with a -12.7% DVOA. They've been especially strong since Week 10. Only in Week 14 against the Colts -- a game where Indianapolis receivers seemed to be made out of rubber after they caught the ball -- did the Bengals allow worse than a 2.8% DVOA. They had five different games of -20% DVOA or better over that stretch, including the aforementioned Week 13 game against the Bolts.
The key storyline for Cincinnati is the potential absence of cornerback Terence Newman, who is listed as doubtful for this game with a knee injury and only practiced on a limited basis on Friday. We don't have our full charting database completed yet, but Newman looks to be around the middle of the pack in success rate and above-average in yards per pass allowed. Cincinnati has first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick ready to step in, but the fact that he wasn't even able to overtake Adam Jones to start after Hall went down is a sign that he could be rather exploitable. Former third-rounder Brandon Ghee is the fourth corner, and if he was as good as actual clarified butter, he too would've already made a bigger dent in this depth chart. Newman is far from an ascendant star, especially at his advanced age, but this could be a problem for the Bengals against a Chargers unit that has proven it can throw the ball.
Where the Bengals have a big talent edge is in the front seven. Rivers was sacked twice and hurried four other times in the prevous meeting between these teams. Cincinnati only finished 14th in Adjusted Sack Rate this season, but Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are clear mismatches for the San Diego tackles. Vontaze Burfict paced the front seven with 26 Defeats. Despite the frequent amoeba looks on third down, Mike Zimmer usually plays things pretty straight up: ESPN Stats and Information has them sending five or more rushers just 25 percent of the time, which makes them the sixth-least likely team to blitz.* That is basically the same percentage they blitzed last season. The key to figuring out Zimmer isn't accounting for extra rushers, it's figuring out which potential rushers are coming. Rivers did a fine job of this in the first matchup, and is generally regarded as very good reading defenses in the pre-snap phase. This metagame isn't going to be whether Cincinnati can show San Diego something new, it's going to be if they can hold off the more talented edge rushers of Cincinnati and give Rivers enough time to throw the ball in stride.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Andy Dalton, too, had a breakout year as far as getting rid of the ball on time. He took a big step forward this year by helping to cut his Adjusted Sack Rate from 8.3 percent (28th) to 5.2 percent (third). Give him seven more years of incremental improvements and he might actually be a franchise quarterback before the end of his prime.
Okay, okay, that was a cheap shot. Still, it's hard to come away from watching Cincinnati's tape without the sinking feeling that Dalton is holding this offense back. On paper, both the offensive line and skill position groups look championship-caliber. A.J. Green is one of the five best receivers in the NFL, Marvin Jones came into his own after a bust-out four touchdown game against the Jets in Week 8, Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham are regarded as multi-dimensional tight ends that should give this offense a lot of flexibility. Giovani Bernard is one of the most exciting running backs in football and finished fifth in receiving DYAR and DVOA among running backs. The offensive line has a pair of top-tier tackles, a third solid tackle in Anthony Collins, and a first-round guard in Kevin Zeitler. And yet, this unit is less than the sum of its parts on a regular basis. The Bengals had seven separate games with a passing DVOA under -10%, and 10 separate games with a rushing DVOA below -7.5%.
If you're frequent Football Outsiders often, you're blessed to read Word of Muth on a regular basis. He followed the Bengals this season. To summarize his negative conclusions: Zeitler's punch is anywhere from lacking to non-existent and neither of those multi-dimensional tight ends are all that good at blocking. (Especially Gresham.) The Bengals did end the year with an impressive game against a good Baltimore defense, but they frequently found their ground game to be a non-factor. Yes, some of that is about their utilization of BenJarvus Green-Ellis (-11.4% DVOA, -28 DYAR) as the No. 1 back over Bernard, but Bernard, too, had a negative DVOA (-4.6%) on the ground. This isn't something that can be explained away as a product of just one silly move. The fact that the Bengals had a 58 percent Success Rate on runs with one or zero tight ends* lends more credence to the idea that those tight ends were a major problem in the ground game. Turns out it's much easier to make a dominant multi-dimensional blueprint when your tight ends are actually multi-dimensional. Go figure.
As for Dalton, one paragraph in a playoff preview probably isn't the place to present a grand unified theory of his problems. One trend with Dalton is that he continually does better in the red zone. He had a 34.1% DVOA in 73 attempts in 2011, a 15.1% DVOA in 83 pass attempts there in 2012, and a 21.2% DVOA in 72 attempts there in 2013. It's nice and tidy to say that Dalton's biggest problem is his arm strength, but of the 220 incomplete passes we have charted for him this year, 84 were overthrown and only 19 were underthrown, and he had similar splits between the two last year. Dalton is more apt to send a pass screeching at high velocity over his target than he is to watch a wind-struck ball die in a safety's arms. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that he's just not capable of consistently hitting those throws. After all, consistency is the name of the game with Dalton. He torched good defenses like the Jets and Bills, yet was effectively stymied by Green Bay and Cleveland. There doesn't appear to be much rhyme or reason to which version of Dalton shows up, but the one that does will go a long way towards deciding this game.
Dalton will be dealing with a defense his passing offense put up a 12.8% DVOA against in Week 13: the much-maligned San Diego Chargers. It says a lot about both the Bengals offense and Chargers defense that Dalton spent most of that game targeting recivers on screens and quick slants. Cincinnati has some of the most talented skill position players in the league, and San Diego's secondary on passing downs is Eric Weddle and five guys who barely deserve to be employed. After coming over from the Jaguars in free agency, Derek Cox was supposed to be the steady veteran presence in a secondary that shed its top two cornerbacks from 2012, Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason. Instead he wound up getting benched on multiple occasions. Our unfinished charting results identified Cox and Shareece Wright as well below average in both yards per pass and success rate -- their highest ranking among qualifiying cornerbacks in either category was 72nd out of 88 players.
However, San Diego did finally turn things around near the end of the season on defense. From Week 13 on, they didn't allow a single offense a DVOA above 20%. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but they allowed a 20% DVOA eight separate times before Week 13. Moreover, over their last three games, they had three of their four negative single-game DVOA scores of the season. The only real personnel change over the last six weeks of the season was the return of Melvin Ingram from his preseason torn ACL, and Ingram has had just one sack in limited playing time since his return. Ingram was a fine player as a rookie, who got his share of hurries, but he was hardly a game changer. You have to squint really hard to see "Bob Sanders returning to the 2006 Colts" potential here.
On a seasonal basis, there really aren't many splits that don't make the San Diego defense look like a joke. They did have a -14.4% DVOA on third- and fourth-down passes, but other than that our splits for them are a sea of rankings in the 30's. The Bengals had a healthy 11.1% DVOA on third- and fourth-down passes, so no worries there. Still, there is the idea that the Chargers defense is playing their best football. There is the idea that this improvement has been sustained over multiple weeks and hasn't been fluky -- they even shut down the Broncos, memorably, on Thursday Night Football. If you haven't been watching the NFL playoffs lately, lightning in a bottle has proven to be an effective formula. Could it happen here again?
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Both of these teams finished the season just a smidge above average by special teams, so they shouldn't be a huge factor here. San Diego has below-average return units. But Mike Scifres is no stranger to swinging a Wild Card Weekend game with some devastating punts, and Nick Novak also finished in the positive on the season. The Bengals were barely below average on field goals, but were above average on returns and punts. If there is a unit that could hurt either team here, it's the Cincinnati punting unit. The two worst Bengals games of the season on special teams were Weeks 15 and 16, after regular punter Kevin Huber had his jaw broken on a return touchdown by the Steelers. Shaun Powell did not impress in his two-game sample, so Zoltan Mesko will be making his Bengals debut in a playoff game. A wounded duck here or there could really help San Diego's cause.
We have a lot of data to work with here. How you feel about this game, in my mind, comes down to two questions.
1) Did Cincinnati's defense prove it has an effective schematic answer to San Diego's short passing game in the first meeting between these two teams? (And, as a follow-up question, does Terence Newman's potential absence change that?)
2) Does San Diego's defensive surge at the end of the season actually mean something, or is it just noise?
My answers are: no, Newman sitting out is a big deal, and yes. I've just seen too many recent playoff games swung by one hot unit on either side of the ball to believe that the full-season numbers carry the same weight. If Newman does sit, San Diego has enough receiving depth to make the Bengals pay for it. Even if all three of those questions are answered in the opposite direction, there's still the fact that you're never quite sure which Andy Dalton will show up. He could make this prediction look really silly on Saturday, or he could throw for less than 150 yards. Neither outcome would surprise me.
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.