by Aaron Schatz and Scott Kacsmar
(12:00pm Saturday: Please note corrections below regarding Green Bay pass defense stats.)
While Saturday's games are more about defense, Sunday is about two of the league's best offenses trying to stay unbeaten at home this year. Dallas and Indianapolis bring plenty of firepower, but the uncertainty over the health of Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning will be something to watch for in each game.
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 85 percent complete. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
Dallas at Green Bay
by Aaron Schatz
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.
More than any game this weekend, this one is all about the offenses. When we previewed the Cowboys-Lions game a week ago, we wrote about how the Dallas offense was red hot in the second half of the season. Now the Cowboys have to face the only offense that was even better in the final eight games. From Week 10 to Week 17, Dallas had offensive DVOA of 24.1%, while Green Bay had offensive DVOA of 31.0%. But both of these teams are mediocre on defense and special teams, though the Packers are a little better when it comes to the former and the Cowboys a bit better when it comes to the latter.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Looking at the Green Bay defensive splits might lead you to believe that the Cowboys should put the game in DeMarco Murray's hands and count on Murray and the strong Cowboys offensive line trampling the subpar Green Bay run defense. But as I explained this week in a piece on ESPN Insider, this doesn't really tend to work as a strategy against playoff teams with similar defensive splits. Over the past decade, teams with good pass defense but poor run defense have continuously either a) gotten their act together come the postseason or b) had their problems against the run rendered entirely moot by horrifyingly bad performances by their own quarterbacks. That latter one isn't going to happen unless Aaron Rodgers' calf injury is really bad. But we'll get to that in a bit...
The Packers were average against the run up the middle and to the right but particularly susceptible to runs on the left side. However, there was one place where they were outstanding against the run: tackling in the secondary. The Cowboys were No. 2 in the league with 1.10 Open Field Yards per carry -- yards gained over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage -- but the Packers defense was No. 1 limiting opponents to only 0.42 Open Field Yards per carry. The Packers allowed only four runs over 20 yards by running backs, and none over 30 yards.
There was surprisingly little correlation this year between how well the Cowboys running game played and whether the Cowboys won or lost the game. Three of the four Cowboys losses came in the eight games where the Dallas running backs gained over 5.0 yards per carry. In each of those losses, the Cowboys running backs also had a Success Rate over 55 percent. The problem was that either Tony Romo didn't play well, or he didn't play at all. Murray and the run-heavy scheme surely have impacted the strategy that opposing defenses use against the Cowboys, but like almost all offenses in the NFL, the Cowboys still win or lose based on how the quarterback plays that day, not how the running back plays.
It's not even clear how much the move to a run-heavy offense has impacted opposing defensive schemes, given how little it has actually impacted the Cowboys passing game. For three straight years, 2011-2013, the Cowboys ranked 30th or lower in frequency of using play-action despite being hugely successful when Romo started the play with a fake. This year, they moved all the way up... to 28th, only using play-action on 16.5 percent of pass plays.* The Cowboys gain 9.4 yards per play with play-action, which ranks fourth in the NFL. Why on earth are they not using this strategy more often?
Actually, they might in this game. When these two teams played in 2013, the Cowboys used play-action more than twice as often as usual. Romo completed 5-of-7 passes for 93 yards on play-action in the first half, then only 2-of-6 for seven yards in the second half. By the way, for the entire 2014 season, the Packers allowed 7.0 yards per play with play-action, slightly better than the NFL average of 7.4.*
Romo will need to watch for blitzing defensive backs, which is a common strategy opponents use against him. Romo faced a DB blitz on 12.8 percent of plays, one of the highest figures in the league, and his net yards per pass dropped from 7.5 to 6.3 on these plays.* The Packers frequently sent a defensive back in a blitz (12.6 percent of pass plays) and allowed just 4.8 net yards per pass on these plays. Somewhat connected is Green Bay's success with the big blitz. The Packers sent six or more pass rushers roughly three times per game and allowed just 4.2 net yards per pass on these plays.
The Packers have been getting more sacks on defense over the second half of the season, but ESPN Stats & Information's charting numbers suggest that it isn't really because of more pressure overall. Their rate of bringing pressure has actually gone down while the sacks have gone up. The Cowboys' offensive line, so impressive blocking for the run, is actually only average or slightly better when it comes to pass blocking. Their numbers stay pretty much the same all year, so I've only included their full-season stats on this table:
|Pass Pressure for DAL O vs. GB D, 2014|
|GB defense (Weeks 1-9)||5.5%||22||26.9%||7|
|GB defense (Weeks 10-17)||8.1%||10||23.9%||19|
When Romo is not being pressured by the Packers, he needs to be looking primarily on the left and middle parts of the field, rather than the right. The Packers were the No. 1 defense in the NFL against passes on the offense's right, with exceptional DVOA ratings on both short and deep passes to that side. However, the Packers were 22rd against passes to the left and 29th against passes up the middle
The left/right dichotomy here seems to be all about the performance of specific cornerbacks this year. We've got 14.5 of Green Bay's games charted so far and the difference between the Packers' two starting cornerbacks is colossal:
|Green Bay Cornerbacks, 2014|
Yes, Sam Shields is almost always lined up as left cornerback (i.e. the offense's right, where the Packers excel). Tramon Williams is generally on the offense's left, but occasionally moves into the slot. Micah Hyde is in Charles Woodson's old strong safety/nickelback hybrid role. Davon House is the fill-in, who had a lot of his playing time filling in when Shields had a knee injury (Weeks 6-8) or was dealing with a concussion (Weeks 13-14) but also plays on the outside if Williams is moving inside. House has been out since breaking his right shoulder in Week 14 but is expected to return this week. He also seems to have a serious problem with falling down in coverage. Charters mentioned it in our "extra comment" column numerous times this season. Nonetheless, he doesn't seem to be anywhere near the problem that the once-great Williams has been this season. The one-time Admiral Armbar spent the last few months as Admiral Toasted Oats.
Edit: OK, I screwed up and somehow misread the charting data. Tramon Williams is actually the left cornerback (i.e. the offense's right, where the Packers excel) and Shields is on the other side (the offense's left). This means that the "DVOA by direction" numbers and the CB charting stats seem to make no sense in conjunction. Why are Williams' stats so bad if he's on the side of the field where the Packers excel?
Figuring out exactly what's going on here with the Packers' defensive scheme would require a lot more film work than I can do in the two hours before I get in my car and head to Gillette Stadium, but I did run a few more numbers. We need to keep in mind the limitations of CB charting stats -- we aren't marking who has safety help, we don't always read coverage correctly -- but it does look like the difference between Williams and Shields is more consistent than the difference between left and right. Here's that same chart with the charting stats for passes on the right side only, split into Williams vs. other players in coverage. Screen passes are not included, and for those wondering, the difference between "Hole in Zone" and "Uncovered" is generally about pass distance.
|Right-Side Passes vs. Green Bay, 2014|
|All Other Players||88||4.6||64%||9.6|
|Hole in Zone||14||7.6||29%||8.1|
|Not Yet Charted||11||4.1||73%||6.7|
Meanwhile, Williams is listed in charting on 17 other passes that are either left or middle, and he has 8.6 yards allowed per pass with just a 35 percent Success Rate on those passes. Again, I don't know why these splits are so strange, but if I were Tony Romo I would be thinking "throw at Williams" more than "throw to the left side, avoid the right." Back to the rest of the original preview...
It's harder to identify the problem with the Packers stopping passes in the middle of the field. Based on a cursory glance at charting, many of these completions seem to either come against holes in the zone or linebackers in coverage rather than safeties. The Packers really improved their coverage of tight ends and running backs after Clay Matthews moved to inside linebacker at midseason... except on passes to the short middle of the field.
|Packers Defense vs. TE/RB, 2014|
|Outside Passes||Middle of the Field|
|DVOA||Catch Rate||Yd/Pass||DVOA||Catch Rate||Yd/Pass|
|vs. TE, Weeks 1-9||-7.7%||58%||7.2||73.9%||100%||10.6|
|vs. TE, Weeks 10-17||-68.5%||45%||4.4||90.8%||81%||12.6|
|vs. RB, Weeks 1-9||33.4%||74%||6.4||-52.2%||67%||5.6|
|vs. RB, Weeks 10-17||-0.3%||67%||6.5||-35.5%||50%||4.6|
One other interesting statistical split to watch for: the Packers defense got successfully worse as the game went along, ranking fourth in DVOA in the first quarter, then 12th in the second quarter, 16th in the third quarter, and 30th in the fourth quarter. This doesn't seem to be an issue of the Packers loosening up while running out the clock, because their defense was actually at its worst late in the three games where they were losing by more than a score.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Any discussion of the Packers offense in this game has to start with the questions about Aaron Rodgers' current physical condition. Rodgers had to leave the Week 17 win over Detroit for a few plays after a calf strain, though he did return to finish the game. Rodgers missed practice on Wednesday of this week and nobody seems to know how injured he really is. For the purposes of this preview, we're going to assume that Rodgers is close to 100 percent so that we can analyze Green Bay's regular-season performance. Obviously, it will be harder for the Packers to win if Rodgers is limited in mobility, and even harder if he has to leave the game and be replaced by Matt Flynn.
Perhaps a gimpy Rodgers can be pressured in the pocket, but the Cowboys are probably not the right team to find out. The Cowboys had just 28 sacks during the regular season and ranked 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Looking more broadly at pressure, ESPN Stats & Information charting has them bringing pressure on 21.8 percent of pass plays, 27th in the league -- and even when they did bring pressure, the Cowboys allowed an above-average 3.7 net yards per pass.
The Cowboys' defense is a Cover-2 that tends to send just the front four in the pass rush. Dallas sent more than four on just 23 percent of pass plays, 26th in the NFL.* However, Dallas killed opponents when big-blitzing, which they only did a little more than once per game. It's a small sample size, but on 21 plays with six pass rushers -- not including screens and goal-line plays -- opposing quarterbacks went just 7-of-18 with three sacks, a pick, and just one touchdown for an average of 2.5 net yards per play.*
In general, Rodgers is better against less of a pass rush. Rodgers gained 8.0 yards per pass against three or four pass rushers this year, a mere rounding error behind Peyton Manning for the best figure in the league. He averaged 6.8 yards per pass against five or more pass rushers, still above average but a clear step down from what he did against the usual four-man rush.
However, it's worth noting that when teams did manage to slow down the Packers offense this year, they didn't tend to do it with pressure. They tended to do it with secondary play. The Packers had three games this season with offensive DVOA below 0%, which also happened to be their three games with total DVOA under 0%: Week 3 against Detroit, Week 8 against New Orleans, and Week 15 against Buffalo. All three were losses. The Packers only allowed pressure on 20 percent of pass plays this year, the fourth best figure in the NFL -- but in all three of those games, they actually allowed pressure on less than 15 percent of pass plays.
Detroit and Buffalo, like Dallas, are teams that like to send just their front four and depend on the back seven to play coverage. New Orleans, on the other hand, flummoxed Rodgers with seven blitzes in their Week 8 win over Green Bay; Rodgers was 2-of-6 with a sack and two picks on those plays. However, ESPN Stats & Information actually only recorded Rodgers being under duress on one of those seven passes, and that was a late-game completion on fourth-and-6. The offensive line was protecting against these blitzes; Rodgers just couldn't find open guys.
Of course, a strategy of sending four and depending on coverage is only as good as the coverage it is depending upon. In last week's game preview I pointed out that our game charting stats far prefer Orlando Scandrick over Brandon Carr, with Sterling Moore somewhere in between. Adding data over the last week hasn't changed things much. We currently have Carr listed with 10.7 yards per pass allowed and a 47 percent success rate, compared to Scandrick with 6.2 yards per pass allowed and a 60 percent success rate. Moore is at 7.5 yards per pass allowed with a 43 percent success rate.
Last week, I noted these numbers in saying that the Cowboys shouldn't be wasting Scandrick in the slot when Detroit went three-wide, because the Lions' best receivers were on the outside. This week, that's not the case. There's no such thing as a "great matchup" against Randall Cobb, but having Scandrick to cover Cobb in the slot is about as good as the Cowboys can ask for. This is where the Cowboys' No. 3 rank against "other receivers" comes in; Cobb is certainly not the No. 3 receiver on the Packers, but he runs the routes those guys generally run, and the Cowboys (and specifically Scandrick) have been very good against those routes this year.
Unfortunately, that leaves either Carr or Moore covering Jordy Nelson on the outside. There had better be safety help, and it had better be good. The Packers could also use a good game from rookie Davante Adams, who had a big-time second-half slump. The Packers have used Adams on deeper routes since midseason, which explains part of his drop in catch rate, but not all of it:
|Davante Adams, 2014|
|Rec||Pass||Yds||Yds/Rec||C%||DVOA||Avg Pass Dist|
Adams also has three drops plus a "dropped/defensed" pass (knocked out of his hands after contact with a defender) since Week 12, after not having any of either in the first ten games of the year.
The Packers won't run anywhere near as much as the Cowboys but their running game is just as efficient. And the Cowboys defense was just as mediocre against the run as the Packers defense was, although the Cowboys did improve over the course of the season. Dallas ranked 29th in run defense DVOA through Week 9, then ranked 15th in Weeks 10-17. The Cowboys were particularly weak against outside runs around right end, and they had trouble with long runs, finishing 19th in Second-Level Yards per carry and 30th in Open-Field Yards per carry.
The biggest weakness for the Packers running game comes in short-yardage situations, where they converted just 59 percent of "Power" runs, 25th in the league. On the other hand, things are certainly not over for the Packers when it is third-and-long, where they led the NFL in offensive DVOA while the Cowboys defense ranked 25th. The Packers converted 41 percent of the time on third/fourth down with 7+ yards to go, compared to the NFL average of 27 percent. The Packers also didn't have a single turnover on third-and-long; the average NFL team had 4.5 turnovers.
The Packers are lousy in pretty much every area of special teams except for when Micah Hyde is returning punts. Hyde split those duties with Randall Cobb this year, each player returning 14 punts, but Hyde averaged 15.8 yards per return with two touchdowns while Cobb averaged just 8.1 yards per return. Third-string running back DuJuan Harris generally returns kickoffs and doesn't do much with them. Mason Crosby is below average on both kickoff and field-goal value. Tim Masthay finished near the bottom of the league in our measures of gross punt value, ahead of only Michael Koenen (Tampa Bay) and Drew Butler (Arizona). Only once all year did Masthay have a punt that ended inside the 10 with no return.
Dallas wasn't particularly strong on special teams, but the Cowboys still look a lot better than the Packers. Dan Bailey gets to kick indoors half the time, but it is still somewhat impressive that he has the highest field-goal percentage in NFL history. He had a field goal blocked by Arizona in Week 9 but his other three misses this year all came from 48 yards out or more. Bailey is average on kickoffs, and but Dallas had good kickoff coverage. Kickoff and punt returns are handled by Dwayne Harris, who was nothing special in 2014 but ranked in the top ten for both kickoff and punt return value a year ago.
The Packers are 8-0 at home this season; the Cowboys are 8-0 on the road. Neither of those facts probably means much, because in the long run home-field advantage tends to even out for all teams. The Packers get that advantage, and they were the better team during the regular season, but these two teams may be closer than most fans think -- especially if Aaron Rodgers is truly hampered by his calf injury. Both teams should get steady gains on the ground, although it is the Packers, not the Cowboys, who would be more likely to have a big, game-changing run. Both teams have quality quarterbacks who will be looking to target weaknesses in the opposing secondary. The Packers need to find more pass pressure than they brought in the second half of the season; they will need either Davante Adams or Richard Rodgers to step up if Orlando Scandrick can control Randall Cobb; and they will need Aaron Rodgers to play as if he were close to 100 percent healthy. They should be able to get at least two of those three things; add in the subtle advantages of being at home, and that's why they're the favorites.
Indianapolis at Denver
by Scott Kacsmar
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.
One man's neck has led these teams down a path to this matchup. By now, the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts have to be satisfied with the pivotal moves in 2012 that led to Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck taking over as their respective quarterbacks. The Broncos have had three first-round byes and been to a Super Bowl, while the Colts have stacked three 11-5 seasons with two wild-card wins. Manning has broken NFL records while Luck is already breaking some of Manning's franchise records. This is the third meeting since 2013, with a home victory for each, but this is not the end. The Broncos will play in Indianapolis in the 2015 regular season and Manning has no plans to retire. Still, there's a decent possibility this is the only time he will play his former team in the playoffs.
”Team” is the operative word this week. While the quarterbacks get all the headlines, this is really about a Denver team that has continuously loaded up in free agency in an attempt to win a championship. Not all of those moves by John Elway have paid off yet, but this is without question a better roster than the one the Colts have built around Luck. The Broncos finished No. 2 in overall DVOA behind Seattle for the third year in a row. Manning can certainly relate to carrying overmatched Colts teams into playoff games, but for a change he doesn't have to be the focal point for Denver to have success, which gives the Broncos a big advantage on Sunday.
The impact of the schedule has been interesting on these teams this season. Denver was just the fourth team since 1999 to play five of its first seven games at home. The Broncos looked like the class of the NFL in that stretch with a 6-1 record, only falling in Seattle in overtime. They paid for that start with six of the next eight games on the road, including several games against playoff contenders with stingy defenses. Not surprisingly the Broncos struggled a bit, which was compounded by injuries and an early bye (Week 4). After earning a first-round bye in the playoffs, Denver had all 53 players practice this week for the first time in three months. The Broncos just have to hold serve at home where they have been excellent all season.
The 2014 Colts have been ridiculed for winning a weak division and only beating two teams of note: Baltimore in an ugly game, and a Cincinnati team twice without A.J. Green. When the Colts played better offenses like the Broncos, Eagles, Steelers, Patriots and Cowboys, they went 0-5 and allowed at least 30 points in every game. That is fair criticism for this year, but it was just a season ago when the Colts knocked off the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos. Then again, two of those games were in Indianapolis. Taking the show on the road is a different story, as Denver knows very well this year.
Including the playoffs, the Colts are 14-12 on the road in the Luck era, tied for the league's sixth-best record in that span. However, they are only 3-11 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. That includes a win this season in Houston (9-7 and 19th in DVOA) and wins last year over the Chiefs and 49ers where the Colts running backs stepped up and the defense allowed seven points. The Broncos have scored at least 20 points in all 27 home games with Manning, who is 24-3 in those games (9-3 against winning teams) with 77 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
So it's not an exaggeration to say this would be the biggest road win for the Colts in at least eight years, since the Manning-led Super Bowl squad knocked off the 2006 Ravens in the playoffs with unexpected contributions from the running game and defense. It takes a team effort to get a win like this, but it is hard to imagine the Colts bringing anything but a one-man show to Mile High.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
In 2013, Colts owner Jim Irsay talked about wanting more Super Bowl rings than the "Star Wars numbers" Manning used to put up in Indianapolis. Well, on Sunday he better hope Andrew Luck walks into the building like he's Luke f'n Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, ready to take down Jabba the Hutt in his own palace in the way only a Jedi master could. It will take nothing short of a brilliant performance from the quarterback to get the job done.
The best plan for the Colts is to ignore the run and put everything on Luck's shoulders right away, hoping he can jump out to an early lead and put the pressure on Manning to answer. That should sound familiar to Colts fans, because it's what Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers did to Indianapolis in the 2005 AFC Divisional round. Roethlisberger threw for 147 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter to build a 14-0 lead, allowing the defense to pressure Manning into a rare five-sack day. The Steelers also had a similar approach in Denver the following week, so Broncos fans know how a hot passer can knock a team off its game plan.
Let's flow this out so it does not sound hypocritical. When the Colts lose, it's easy to absolve Luck of much of the blame because of how poorly the team around him played. In their last nine losses, the Colts have allowed 39.9 points per game, and the running game averaged 2.95 yards per carry and 41.3 yards per game. Luck was the team's leading rusher in three of those games. In losses to the Cowboys and Patriots this year and to the Rams in 2013, the Colts combined for 33 carries for seven yards over the three games. That's not a typo. In Dallas in Week 16, the Colts finished with 10 carries for one yard and Dallas went ahead 14-0 before Luck even had a dropback. The Cowboys led 28-0 while Luck had three incompletions (one defensed and two dropped). This kind of stuff should not happen this often to an annual playoff team.
Even in Denver in the Week 1 matchup, Manning shredded Indianapolis for 24 points on four first-half drives while the Colts finished with nine carries for 35 yards. Luck had 61 dropbacks in his rally attempt. If the defense can play better against a Denver offense that has not been September sharp, then the one-man show just might work this time.
Much attention is paid to Luck's turnovers (22 this season), but a lot of those have come from the mindset of trying to do too much out of necessity. The 16 interceptions are really not that bad this year given his high number of attempts (616) and tipped balls, but the 13 fumbles are troublesome. If you thought Manning hated taking sacks, then Luck is even more reckless in trying to get rid of the ball when he should just protect it and live to fight another play.
This week, we promise not to criticize the Colts for a lack of a running game in Denver, because that should not even be a focus of the game plan. In January 2015, the Colts just have to acknowledge that the current team is incapable of running a balanced offense, so they must ride the quarterback. Ahmad Bradshaw is on injured reserve and not coming back. Don't even waste a play on Trent Richardson, whom the Colts wisely left on the bench in last week's win. This is on the passing game to deliver, but only Russell Wilson (7.59) and Shaun Hill (7.59) averaged better than 7.0 yards per attempt against Denver this year. At least Luck (6.98) was third, and he may even lead the team in rushing again given how effective he can be as a scrambler.
We looked at one-dimensional playoff offenses in last week's Ravens-Steelers game. We also saw it with the Colts against the Bengals, but a steady diet of runs with a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter concealed just how pass-heavy the offense was. That was also at home where Luck has the crowd's silence to work the hard count and communicate better with his teammates. The road is more challenging, but the Colts actually ranked better in offensive DVOA on the road (13th) than they did at home (20th) this year.
However, it's clearly preferable to execute the pass-heavy approach at home, especially if it is the product of playing from behind. In NFL playoff history, quarterbacks with 40-plus pass attempts are 23-46 (.333) at home, 3-17 (.150) in the Super Bowl, and 12-82 (.128) on the road. The craziest part about the 12 road wins is that seven were in overtime.
With linebacker Brandon Marshall eyeing a return to action this week, the league's No. 3 run defense should be close to full strength, so who would the Colts be fooling by pounding Dan Herron and Zurlon Tipton against that front? Spread out the defense and let Luck run the air show. The 2014 Colts are the seventh offense in NFL history to have at least nine players with 20 or more receptions in the regular season. The all-time record is 10, held by the 2010 Chargers and 2010 Saints. There are plenty of options for Luck, though not a lot of consistent threats. Last week the Colts showed a nice wrinkle with Herron catching 10 passes for 85 yards, which can replace a lot of the running game. Denver ranks 15th in coverage against running backs, but should be better prepared than Cincinnati was for Herron. Still, Herron probably has more value as an outlet receiver than he does in pass protection right now.
T.Y. Hilton is the Colts’ biggest threat, and even with a bunch of bad drops last week, he still finished with 103 receiving yards. He'll want to play better this week, but the Broncos rank fifth against No. 1 wide receivers. In Week 1, Denver held Hilton to five catches for 41 yards on 11 targets. Aqib Talib (four) and Chris Harris (three) were in coverage on seven of his targets, so he will move around and draw different defenders, though Harris may be the better matchup for Denver.
At this stage of his career, Donte Moncrief is really only a weapon if Luck decides to make a brilliant throw to him like the 36-yard touchdown against the Bengals. The rookie's not varied enough in his routes to give a cornerback like Talib a difficult matchup. Reggie Wayne had nine catches and 13 targets in Week 1, getting a lot of work against rookie cornerback Bradley Roby in his first regular-season game. Roby won the battle on fourth-and-6 to end the comeback. In recent weeks Wayne has really shown his age and is not a big part of the offense anymore. Sunday could be his last game should the Colts lose.
The Broncos rank 13th in DVOA against tight ends, but Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen have been all over the map this season. Both can be very good receivers, though Allen has had some injuries and both have struggled with dropped passes, which are really a theme in Indianapolis' offense this season. Our charting is incomplete this season and drops are always in the eye of the beholder, but STATS LLC credits the Colts with a league-high 40 dropped passes.
The fast start may be Indianapolis’ best chance for a win, but it may also be a pipe dream. Sunday was the first time all year that the Colts produced an opening-drive touchdown. The offense ranks 30th in first-quarter DVOA, and the Denver defense ranks second.
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Finally, we have the offensive line trying to keep DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller away from Luck. If you listened to Phil Simms and Jim Nantz during the CBS broadcast of the wild-card game against Cincinnati, they painted a very rosy picture of a unit that recently placed right guard Hugh Thornton and right tackle Gosder Cherilus on injured reserve. Cincinnati's lack of a pass rush failed to expose the line, which could be in trouble against Denver's talented rushers.
That's just another reason for Luck to throw on almost every play: tire out the Denver pass rushers. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio rarely blitzes, sending a four-man rush on 73 percent of plays this year (league average: 63 percent)*. If the Colts can wear out Miller and Ware, then that might make a fourth-quarter comeback against Del Rio's soft prevent defense more plausible. Denver's defense usually does rise to the occasion when it's a one-score game. Since 2012, the Broncos are 16-3 when the defense has to protect a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. Two of those losses were really on the special teams for allowing the game-winning drive to start in the red zone, leaving that one outlier on Denver's home record the last three years: Rahim Moore vs. Jacoby Jones.
The last thing Denver wants to see this week is Luck launching a bomb in the final minute with a chance to win, but this has been the most consistent defense in the league this year, ranked first in variance. The other side of the ball is more open to varied results.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Brace yourself: we might be on the verge of even more irrational Peyton Manning discussion than usual this time of year. You have probably heard by now that Manning threw three touchdowns against six interceptions in the final four games of the season. That touchdown-to-interception ratio, skewed heavily by a bad four-pick night in Cincinnati, seems to be the full source of his "struggles" down the stretch. Otherwise he still completed 63.6 percent of his passes with 8.18 yards per attempt in those games. Denver also tied Dallas for the league lead with seven rushing touchdowns in that span. Since transforming the offense into one that's more run-focused, the Broncos have scored at least 21 offensive points in all six games and have averaged 2.63 points per drive with Manning in the game. They averaged 2.49 points per drive in the first 10 games this season. So it's not 2013's record-setting pace (3.07 points per drive), but Denver played a tougher schedule this season and is doing better than the 2012 offense (2.40 points per drive).
The "Manning is struggling" narrative is so strong these days that even a Denver Post writer got in on the fun in Week 17. Mark Kiszla delivered the following tweet while Denver led Oakland 17-7 early in the second quarter and Manning had completed 8-of-10 passes for 132 yards. He also had a quick pass tipped at the line by Justin Tuck that was ruled a lateral and returned for a touchdown.
Only one thing has kept Raiders in this game: Peyton Manning.
— Mark Kiszla (@markkiszla) December 28, 2014
Yeah, the standard is that ridiculous these days, but if Manning and the Broncos are struggling, then what do you call the other AFC offenses still in the playoffs? The Colts have eight games with negative offensive DVOA this season and six of them came after the Week 10 bye, including some downright ugly performances against the Texans, Cowboys, and Browns. So many people want to ignore the first month of the season for the Patriots, and if we do that, their last four games are their four worst offensive games of the year. Funny how it's not a story that Tom Brady is only averaging 6.81 yards per pass attempt since Week 9. Baltimore yawned its way to 20 points against the Jaguars and Browns while Joe Flacco had one of the worst games in his career in Houston in Week 16 (QBR: 3.2). Denver looks pretty good in comparison.
The Broncos are so oddly constructed that they are almost as likely to blow the game this week as they are to win the whole damn thing. The Colts' best hope this week is that Denver is so committed to balance that neither the run nor the pass is overly great on Sunday, because we know this offense has the ability to be proficient with either style, especially at home.
Denver's offense finished with the fifth-highest DVOA (45.7%) at home since 1989. The Broncos' top eight games this season were all at home, each producing at least 16.0% DVOA. That home dominance combined with road mediocrity (-3.6% DVOA, ranked 18th) gives the Broncos the biggest drop in offensive DVOA percentage points from home to road since 1989 (-49.3%). They can worry about that next week if they make it that far, because it's home sweet home on Sunday.
However, the two lowest home games were the last two against Buffalo (30.2%) and Oakland (16.0%). Manning did not throw a touchdown in either, though Jacob Tamme lost a red-zone fumble against the Bills, Demaryius Thomas had a catch to the 1-yard line and later dropped a touchdown in the end zone, and Manning struggled in the fourth quarter trying to force the issue to throw his 40th touchdown of the season.
Manning's "struggles" may show up again this week, but only in the sense that the Colts are 26th against the run in the red zone and 14th against the pass. So this could be another game for the running backs to vulture some short touchdowns.
Given the strength of these teams, Manning shouldn't have to throw a lot of touchdowns this week to have a successful game. Sunday will be Manning's 24th playoff start, and it is only the third time he enters with the higher-ranked running game and higher-ranked defense as measured by DVOA, and never have those advantages been as significant on paper as they are here.
|Peyton Manning: Team Playoff History||Rushing Offense||Defense||Ranking|
|Date||Opp||Round||Result||DVOA||Rk||DVOA||Rk||DVOA||Rk||DVOA||Rk||Run Diff||DEF Diff|
|12/30/2000||@MIA||AFC-WC||L 23-17 OT||15.4%||4||4.2%||14||5.7%||23||-17.4%||3||+10||-20|
|1/3/2009||@SD||AFC-WC||L 23-17 OT||-10.4%||27||-1.0%||19||-3.1%||11||5.3%||22||-8||+11|
|1/12/2013||BAL||AFC-D||L 38-35 OT||-2.8%||15||7.5%||7||-13.8%||5||2.2%||19||-8||+14|
To play devil's advocate, the "he's got a defense now!" thing has never paid off for Manning. His top four defenses all flopped in January with a 0-4 record in games that were close. The 2006 defense (25th in DVOA) that everyone wrote off played great on its way to a Super Bowl title. In Denver, the 2013 defense was nothing special in the regular season, but kept the score down in the playoffs to help get to Super Bowl XLVIII. You just never know on that side of the ball.
The 2014 Colts are the first defense in NFL history to allow a 500-yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger) and 200-yard rusher (Jonas Gray) in the same season, so pick your poison. Denver's running game advantage may also not prove to be overly significant, at least from the perspective of what C.J. Anderson and company will produce. The Colts are not that poor of a run defense, as only the Patriots really dominated them, and that was after a bye week with little game film on Gray and a heavy use of six-lineman sets. Anderson can have a good game, but his value may be felt more in the red zone and with receiving as the Colts rank 31st in coverage against running backs.
Short passes should be the approach anyway since the Colts rank sixth against deep passes (thrown to receivers more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage) and 30th against short passes. When Manning struggled in the second and third quarters in Indianapolis last year, it was with vertical throws down the sideline to his wideouts. Part of the recent red-zone problems have been tied to the health of Julius Thomas, who had 12 touchdowns through Week 10. He destroyed the Colts in their weaker areas (linebacker and safety) in Week 1 when he had 104 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas has just 66 receiving yards since Week 11 due to injuries, so things are going to look a lot different from the opener. The Broncos like to line him up at wide receiver too, though he is more likely to do damage in this game against Jerrell Freeman or LaRon Landry rather than the cornerbacks.
Much like T.Y. Hilton, Demaryius Thomas failed to impress in Week 1 with four catches for 48 yards on 11 targets. He had three drops and was only targeted once with Vontae Davis in coverage. Davis is easily the best cornerback on the Colts, but unlike Manning’s Indianapolis teams, this is an offense where the receivers actually move around. Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders should get plenty of more favorable looks against Greg Toler and Darius Butler.
This is a game where the Colts really miss Robert Mathis, who sparked last year's win with a big hit on Manning. In Week 1, the Colts only pressured Manning four times, including two plays with a free rusher. They may have to creatively blitz to get pressure, which is always a risk against a savvy, quick-release quarterback. The Colts rush more than five defenders on 45 percent of plays, which is higher than the league average (31 percent), but allow 6.7 yards per play when they do that (league average: 6.4 yards per play)*.
The Colts have had a few games this season where they looked like the best defense in the league, and a handful of games where they looked like the worst defense. That's how you finish 29th in DVOA variance, though with the Colts it has been very opponent-dependent as well. The Broncos simply look like the best offense in the league at home, and there's no reason they should not perform well on Sunday.
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Here is an area where the Colts can make up some ground on the Broncos, who fell to 27th in the rankings this year after letting go of kicker Matt Prater and return specialist Trindon Holliday. However, some of their recent changes have led to improvement. There may not be many returnable kicks in this game given the Denver altitude and that both teams use a kickoff specialist who ranks in the top four in touchback percentage this season. All-Pro punter Pat McAfee ranks third with a 70.7 percent touchback rate. Denver replaced kicker Brandon McManus with Connor Barth, but McManus is still the kickoff specialist with a 70.3 percent touchback rate. If there are any returns, both teams have switched to a better returner. Denver safety Omar Bolden (33.0) and Indianapolis receiver Josh Cribbs (32.0) would have finished 1-2 in the league in kick return average if either had returned enough kicks to qualify for the leaderboard.
Neither team has been able to generate success on punt returns, but McAfee gives the Colts a big edge. He ranks third in net average (42.8 yards per punt) and fourth in percentage of punts inside the 20-yard line (43.5 percent).
Barth has made 15-of-16 field goals since taking over for McManus, but if this game comes down to a big field goal, obviously that favors Adam Vinatieri, the all-time leading scorer in postseason history. The All-Pro kicker has made 30-of-31 field goals this season and has converted 13-of-19 from 50-plus yards since 2011. Not to open a Barry Bonds-sized can of worms, but that latter stat is hard to believe given that Vinatieri started his career 10-of-22 from that distance. Not all of those kicks were outdoors in freezing New England weather either. He has aged like fine wine.
Andrew Luck has the stronger arm and is far more mobile than his veteran counterpart. He's the improved T-1000 model that has replaced Manning's T-800, the old prototype. If this was a Judgment Day-style battle, Manning would be terminated. But this is just a football game between two teams, and the Broncos are clearly better than the Colts on both sides of the ball. Practically all of Manning's past playoff struggles were the result of facing a team that was better than his own aside from the quarterback position. That is not the case against the Colts, as it is now Luck's burden to carry a flawed team.
A year ago Colts general manager Ryan Grigson compared Luck to Michael Jordan. After Sunday, he might be able to make another Jordan comparison: a young MJ dropping 63 points as a one-man show against the Boston Celtics in a 1986 playoff loss. Luck has the ability to make a jaw-dropping throw on any play, but when he's counted on to make every play, mistakes are inevitable.
I expect a similar game flow to Week 1, but with Denver stretching out its offensive efficiency beyond just the first half. Denver has a nasty habit of turning three-score leads into one-score games that require a late onside kick recovery or defensive stop to clinch the win. That could certainly happen again with the way Luck can quickly string together scoring drives, but with the Broncos at home, they deserve to be seven-point favorites. In Denver's last 27 home games, the Broncos won by at least seven points 23 times.
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.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
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.