CINCINNATI AT PITTSBURGH
by Scott Kacsmar
The regular season concludes Sunday night in Pittsburgh with a battle for the AFC North and likely the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Bengals overcame some of their prime-time struggles with a big win over Denver on Monday night, but can they succeed on the road? Marvin Lewis is actually 5-6 at Heinz Field, but just 2-11 against the Steelers in Cincinnati. Ben Roethlisberger is 51-3 (.944) at home when the Steelers allow fewer than 21 points, but two of those losses were to the Bengals, including a 13-10 defeat that eliminated the Steelers from the playoffs in 2012. Roethlisberger's 7.8 QBR that day is his lowest in any game since 2008. The stage will not be too big for these Bengals, who opened the week as a three-point underdog.
In Week 14, Cincinnati was outscored 25-0 in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh's 42-21 victory. Both Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton arguably had their best-ever games in this rivalry, but the game turned on Dalton's fumble. For as much as we talk about the quarterbacks in big games like this, the rematch may be decided by which team runs the ball better.
Le'veon Bell rushed for 185 yards in Cincinnati, gaining 110 of those yards on seven carries in the fourth quarter on the same counter-left run with guard David DeCastro pulling. The Bengals, ranked 29th against the run, have to be better prepared this time, and Bell has actually been contained on the ground the last two weeks. Jeremy Hill has exploded for Cincinnati, but only had eight carries in the last meeting. That will change on Sunday. Pittsburgh's run defense ranks 17th, but has been solid lately and just did a really respectable job against Kansas City's Jamaal Charles.
The Steelers have the edge in this matchup for their ability to effectively run and pass. This is the No. 2 offense in DVOA for a reason. Roethlisberger is having his best season and leads the league in DYAR. His sack rate is a career-low 5.5 percent, and the Bengals were unable to take him down the first time. He has more weapons than Dalton with the unmatched consistency of Antonio Brown, the old reliable Heath Miller, and rookie Martavis Bryant, who has been an excellent deep threat. Bryant's 94-yard touchdown catch against Leon Hall is the longest play from scrimmage in the NFL this season.
The Bengals could be frustrated by this matchup since they will want to run the ball, but the best way to attack Pittsburgh is to throw at will against the 31st-ranked pass defense. A.J. Green had a career-high 224 receiving yards in Week 14, but he could be limited this week with a right arm injury. Mohamed Sanu has been a ghost, and Jermaine Gresham averages just 7.5 yards per catch. If Green is not 100 percent and Hill isn't very productive on the ground, Dalton could be in for a long night. James Harrison is back and did not play in the first matchup. The 36-year-old linebacker has been impressive this year, with 5.5 sacks in nine games.
The Bengals have not won a prime-time game on the road against a winning team since 1995 against the Steelers. We could see a role reversal on Sunday. The Bengals will try to win the old-school Pittsburgh way of playing great defense and running the ball. The Steelers will hope the No. 2 offense carries the No. 30 defense, which will rely on takeaways and field-goal attempts for its big stops.
A great finish to the season.
DETROIT AT GREEN BAY
by Andrew Healy
When the Packers lost to the Lions 19-7 in Week 3, their normally potent passing offense stalled. Aaron Rodgers averaged just 6 yards per attempt and threw for only 162 yards. As the Packers prepare to play the Lions for the NFC North title and a first-round bye, their struggles in that game against the NFL's fifth-best pass defense appear at first glance to be a cause for concern. Whether the Packers' passing offense has stalled or hummed this year has depended to an unusually large degree on the defense they're playing.
The Packers have faced four top-ten pass defenses (SEA, DET, MIA, and BUF) this season. Aaron Rodgers has thrown for fewer than 7 yards per attempt in each of those four games. In every other game, Rodgers has passed for more than that, usually much more.
|Against Top-Ten Passing Defenses||1-3||55.6%||3.4%||2.1%||5.56||21.0|
|Against All Other Defenses||10-1||68.9%||8.8%||0.6%||9.48||116.7|
The Packers have been beaten pretty easily in three games against those top-ten pass defenses, winning only against Miami with some late-game heroics. Fortunately for the Packers, there is little reason to think that Rodgers' inability to find more consistent success against the NFL's best pass defenses will continue. Over the last five years, Rodgers has fared well against top-ten pass defenses, and only a little worse than he has against the rest of the league. The four games from earlier this year look like a small-sample quirk.
In fact, most quarterbacks perform similarly against the top pass defenses and the rest of the league in terms of DYAR per game. That's not all that surprising since DYAR accounts for the opposing defense's strength.
The other quarterback in Sunday's game actually suffers from a bigger drop in performance against top-ten defenses than does Rodgers. Matthew Stafford generates 20.6 fewer DYAR per game against top-ten defenses than he does against the rest of the league. On Sunday, he faces the Packers' ninth-ranked pass defense. While splits are always a place to be cautious, we would want to be at least as concerned with the Packers' good pass defense causing Stafford to play below his normal level as we are about the impact of the Lions' pass defense on Rodgers.
[ad placeholder 3]
Instead of throwing, the Lions could consider trying to do what they did to beat the Packers back in September: use the run to control the clock. In that game, the Lions limited the Packers to just three second-half possessions. On their own three possessions, the Lions held the ball for just shy of twenty minutes on drives of 14, 10, and 12 plays, respectively.
But while their ball-control strategy succeeded in that game, the Lions are not generally well-suited to take advantage of the Packers with the run. They currently sit 27th in rushing DVOA. Even in the previous game against the Packers, the Lions averaged just 3.3 yards per carry on their 35 non-kneeldown rushes. The Lions grinded out some first downs back in September, but the odds are against them repeating that brand of success.
And just as the Packers' weakness against the run shouldn't hurt them too badly against the Lions, the Lions' top-ranked and historically good run defense shouldn't be a huge factor against the Packers. The Packers' second-ranked passing offense generates much more value per play than their fifth-ranked rushing offense, so the Packers should not repeat their Week 3 attempt at strategic equity, when they ran almost as often they threw. With even an average quarterback, the Packers would be smart to attack the Lions where they are merely good rather than great. With Aaron Rodgers, the proper run-pass balance shifts strongly towards the aerial end of the spectrum.
CAROLINA AT ATLANTA
Two flawed teams with losing records will face each other to decide who wins the NFC South. This is not a game to preview with a look at greatness. It's a game to preview with a look at weakness.
Atlanta's advantage in this game starts with special teams. (Actually, it starts with home field, then special teams.) Carolina has the worst special teams in the league this year according to FO ratings. The worst part of the unit, by far, is punting. It's not just the two blocked punts by Minnesota; the Panthers have also allowed 17 returns of over 10 yards, more than any team except Oakland. The Falcons have two strengths on special teams this year. One is field goals, where Matt Bryant has been excellent and ranks third in the league. The other is some dude named Devin Hester. Perhaps you have heard of him? He returns punts. Brad Nortman may have had his best game of the year in Week 11, keeping Hester from making a return with four punts that were downed and two that Hester fair caught. It's going to be hard to keep Hester from any returns a second time.
[ad placeholder 4]
Atlanta's big weakness, of course, can be generally categorized as "the entire defense," as the Falcons rank dead last in defensive DVOA. If you look at the "defensive vs. receivers" table, however, it suggests the Falcons kind of match up with the Panthers pretty well. The Falcons are ranked tenth against both No. 1 receivers and tight ends.
Dwight Lowery and Kemal Ishmael did a good job covering Greg Olsen during the first matchup of these teams in Week 11, holding him to five catches for 61 yards with four incomplete passes on third downs (one defensed, three overthrown) plus a pick by Ishmael on a first-quarter pass that tipped off Olsen's fingers after Cam Newton threw too high.
The Falcons also did an excellent job on Kelvin Benjamin for most of the Week 11 game. Desmond Trufant, by far the best defensive player for Atlanta this season, kept him to 2-for-5, 21 yards on the first half, and picked off a pass intended for Benjamin on a third-and-2 in the third quarter. However, when the Panthers were coming back from a 16-3 deficit in the fourth quarter, Newton completed seven straight passes to Benjamin for 88 yards, four first downs, and a touchdown. The first one of those was a screen; the next four were passes completed against Trufant; the last couple are less important, as they were desperation passes against zone with less than 20 seconds left.
Carolina may have a run-first scheme but the Panthers do better passing on first downs. The Panthers rank 13th in offense when passing on first down, but 20th running; the Falcons are 30th against first-down passes, 26th against the run.
The Carolina defense has been a lot better than the Atlanta defense this year... but then again, so has the Atlanta offense. The Falcons are a much stronger passing team (no. 7 DVOA) than running team (No. 20), but the Panthers have been a much stronger pass defense (No. 13) than run defense (No. 24).
Unfortunately for the Panthers, their pass defense has exactly the wrong strengths to face the Falcons. The Panthers rank third against running backs in the passing game and ninth against tight ends, but 20th or worse against each type of wide receiver. That strong defense against tight ends isn't going to do much good when Atlanta is the only offense in the league passing to tight ends less than 10 percent of the time this year. The Falcons do pass to running backs 21 percent of the time, eighth in the league, but the wide receivers are what really makes this offense dangerous.
Looking closer at where the Panthers are weak, they rank 31st against passes to the deep left portion of the field. As you may know, the Falcons don't throw deep anywhere near as much as you would expect from a team that has Julio Jones and Roddy White. Atlanta only tried two deep left passes against Carolina in Week 11, both overthrown by Matt Ryan. But it's worth trying a few times in this second matchup, because there are big plays to be found by sending Jones on a deep route down the left sideline against Josh Norman.
A matchup between Mike "Wuss Out" Smith and "Riverboat Ron" Rivera is going to have extra attention on fourth-and-1 decisions, so it's worth noting that these are two of the worst front sevens this season against short-yardage runs. The Panthers have allowed 78 percent conversions (28th) while the Falcons have allowed 79 percent (30th).