AFC Wild Card Playoff Preview 2016
by Scott Kacsmar (KC-HOU) and Andrew Healy (PIT-CIN)
The NFL set up the schedule in a new way this year, splitting the wild-card games so that each conference gets its own day. Saturday is for the AFC, and figuring out if two long-suffering fanbases can finally get some joy out of the postseason. Kansas City hasn't won a playoff game since 1994; Cincinnati hasn't since 1991.
However, each of these teams is in a different position coming into this game. The Chiefs have won 10 straight games, one of the hottest teams in the NFL over the second half of the season, but they have to go on the road to face Houston. The Bengals have gone 2-2 with a backup quarterback over the last month, but at least they get home cooking against their archrivals from Pittsburgh.
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. Game charting data appears courtesy of either ESPN Stats & Information or Sports Info Solutions.
Kansas City at Houston
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Kansas City and Houston met in Week 1 to little fanfare, with the Chiefs winning 27-20. Now they open up the postseason after taking unusual but similar paths to success. Both teams are led by their defenses, which feature two of the best players in the game in J.J. Watt and Justin Houston. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Chiefs have the sixth-highest pass pressure rate (29.7 percent), and the Texans (29.2 percent) are seventh. Both teams lost their star running backs before November, so we will see committee approaches instead of Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster. Jeremy Maclin and DeAndre Hopkins steal the show in the passing game, as each has over 600 receiving yards more than the No. 2 wideouts on their teams.
Then there is the abyss both teams had to crawl out of to make a remarkable turnaround. Houston started 2-5 and actually trailed by deficits of 42-0 (in Atlanta) and 41-0 (in Miami) against teams that did not even finish with winning records. Since that point, the Texans are 7-2 despite starting four different quarterbacks. Brandon Weeden even led a rare fourth-quarter comeback in Indianapolis in Week 15. Five times this season the defense has allowed a mere six points, including dominant efforts against Drew Brees' Saints and on the road against the Bengals (8-0 at the time). Over the last nine games of the season, Houston allowed a league-low 114 points. The Chiefs are right behind them at 115 points, 32 points ahead of third-place Cincinnati.
Left for dead at 1-5 with only that Houston win under their belts, the Chiefs rallied to win 10 straight. No 1-5 team had ever done that before. The closest turnaround should be a team very familiar to both cities. In 1993, the Houston Oilers started 1-4 with only a 30-0 win over Kansas City before entering the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak, holding every opponent in that streak under 21 points. As fate would have it, the Chiefs were their playoff opponent, and Joe Montana led a classic fourth-quarter comeback, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter alone. That was January 16, 1994, a day neither city has really moved on from football-wise. That was the last playoff win for the Chiefs and the last hurrah for those Oilers. In the era of the Texans, fans have entered the playoffs with the dread of starting a third-string rookie quarterback (T.J. Yates in 2011) and the disappointment of a No. 3 seed after leading the AFC for 16 weeks in 2012.
Another opportunity awaits on Saturday, but that game from 22 years ago serves as a reminder of how deceitful "momentum" can be this time of year. The last four teams to enter the playoffs on a winning streak of 10 or 11 games all went one-and-done. For reference, here is how all 300 playoff teams have fared since 1990 based on the kind of streak with which they ended the regular season. The sweet spot for playoff success looks to be teams on a win streak of five or six games. Only six of the last 25 Super Bowl winners were on a winning streak of three games or more.
|NFL Playoff Teams Based on Streak Entering Playoffs (1990-2014)|
|Won 16||1||1-0 (1.000)||2-1 (.667)||0|
|Won 14||1||1-0 (1.000)||1-1 (.500)||0|
|Won 12||1||1-0 (1.000)||3-0 (1.000)||1|
|Won 11||3||0-3 (.000)||0-3 (.000)||0|
|Won 10||1||0-1 (.000)||0-1 (.000)||0|
|Won 9||2||1-1 (.500)||2-2 (.500)||0|
|Won 8||5||4-1 (.800)||5-5 (.500)||0|
|Won 7||6||3-3 (.500)||6-5 (.545)||1|
|Won 6||8||7-1 (.875)||13-7 (.650)||1|
|Won 5||13||11-2 (.846)||18-11 (.621)||2|
|Won 4||20||12-8 (.600)||18-19 (.486)||1|
|Won 3||24||12-12 (.500)||15-24 (.385)||0|
|Won 2||52||25-27 (.481)||47-46 (.505)||6|
|Won 1||69||41-28 (.594)||66-63 (.512)||6|
|Lost 1||68||38-30 (.559)||59-62 (.488)||6|
|Lost 2||19||11-8 (.579)||13-19 (.406)||0|
|Lost 3||6||5-1 (.833)||7-5 (.583)||1|
|Lost 4||1||0-1 (.000)||0-1 (.000)||0|
Sometimes, a 10-game winning streak is just a stretch of 8-2 performance level where you got lucky twice. That is not to say the Chiefs deserved to lose a few games here, but they certainly caught some breaks along the way. It sure was nice to get Landry Jones in his first start instead of Ben Roethlisberger in Week 7 to start this streak. Of course, Houston may not be here at all if Andrew Luck had been healthy enough to suit up in December, but real life only gets one simulation.
Both teams clearly have played better as the season has gone on, but should we just ignore those first six or seven games? That usually is not a good idea, but teams like this complicate the value of full-season stats when such a split is obvious. We are starting to see this more often since the new CBA in 2011. These two teams and the Redskins make it eight playoff teams since 2011 that started with no better than three wins through eight games. There were eight such teams from 1981-2010.
|NFL Playoff Teams: Worst 8-Game Starts Since Merger|
|Team||Year||Start||Final||Pts Diff||DVOA||Rk||Playoff Result|
|CIN||1970||2-6, 3-6||8-6||+57||-||-||Lost AFC-DIV (0-1)|
|CHI||1977||3-5||9-5||+2||-||-||Lost NFC-DIV (0-1)|
|CHI||1979||3-5||10-6||+57||-||-||Lost NFC-WC (0-1)|
|MIN||1980||3-5||9-7||+9||-||-||Lost NFC-DIV (0-1)|
|DET||1982||3-5||4-5||+5||-||-||Lost NFC-WC (0-1)|
|DET||1983||3-5||9-7||+61||-||-||Lost NFC-WC (0-1)|
|NO||1990||3-5||8-8||-1||-12.5%||22||Lost NFC-WC (0-1)|
|NE||1994||3-5, 3-6||10-6||+39||5.6%||10||Lost AFC-WC (0-1)|
|DET||1995||3-5, 3-6||10-6||+100||9.1%||10||Lost NFC-WC (0-1)|
|JAC||1996||3-5, 3-6||9-7||-10||-0.2%||17||Lost AFC-C (2-1)|
|NYJ||2002||3-5||9-7||+23||16.1%||6||Lost AFC-DIV (1-1)*|
|SD||2008||3-5||8-8||+92||15.3%||7||Lost AFC-DIV (1-1)*|
|DEN||2011||3-5||8-8||-81||-11.8%||24||Lost AFC-DIV (1-1)*|
|CIN||2012||3-5||10-6||+71||6.1%||12||Lost AFC-WC (0-1)|
|WAS||2012||3-5, 3-6||10-6||+48||9.3%||9||Lost NFC-WC (0-1)|
|PHI||2013||3-5||10-6||+60||15.2%||8||Lost NFC-WC (0-1)|
|CAR||2014||3-4-1, 3-5-1||7-8-1||-35||-8.5%||24||Lost NFC-DIV (1-1)*|
|*Won a home wild-card game vs. team with better record|
These teams were only 6-17 (.261) in the playoffs. The 1996 Jaguars had an incredible run with two road upsets, but the other four wins have all come at home (two in overtime) by a division winner playing a team that had a better record (and one with Ryan Lindley at quarterback). Houston will hope home-field advantage helps this week, though note that the Chiefs have the best record and metrics on this list.
This is the 22nd time since 1970 that two teams will meet in the playoffs after meeting in Week 1 of the regular season. So far there have been 15 sweeps (ignoring division rematches in between) and six reversals of fortune (with no venue change in the last five). You have to keep an open mind about rematches in the NFL, but expectations for a low-scoring, defensive battle are warranted here.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
It would be more accurate to classify the 2015 Chiefs as a "modest" passing offense rather than a run-heavy offense. The Chiefs are the most YAC-based passing offense in the league, averaging a league-high 6.3 YAC per reception. (Interestingly enough, Houston's offense is dead last in that category at 3.8 YAC per reception.) Andy Reid has always been a fan of using screens and the short passing game as substitutes for more called runs. Alex Smith has not thrown more than 32 passes in a game since the Chiefs started their winning streak, and they only have exceeded 250 net passing yards in one of the last 10 games, with 255 yards against Buffalo in a game where Smith was uncharacteristically aggressive throwing down the field. The safe approach helps keep turnovers down -- Kansas City had just 15 all season -- but you also get a lot of sacks (46) and settle for a lot of field goal attempts (37), and you are unlikely to see this passing offense take over a game.
The surprising part is that the Chiefs rushing DVOA of 14.0% this season is the best in the league even though they lost a talent like Charles in Week 5. That DVOA has climbed to a league-best 15.8% since Week 6. It must be noted that Smith's rushing has had a big impact, whether it is his scrambles or designed runs catered to the type of offense he ran in college many years ago. Since Week 6, if we remove Smith's runs, then the Chiefs rank fourth in rushing DVOA at 6.7%, which is still very good. Spencer Ware's physical style of running has served the offense well, and Charcandrick West finished 15th in DVOA.
For as great as Charles is, he rarely moves the needle for Kansas City. Since 2009, the Chiefs are 36-50 (.419) with Charles, averaging 20.5 points and 133.8 rushing yards per game. Without Charles, the Chiefs are 18-10 (.643), averaging 19.9 points and 129.3 rushing yards per game. (We excluded his 2008 rookie season when he carried the ball 67 times on a 2-14 team.) It's as if his absence forces the rest of the offense to play better, be more creative and share the ball more. Even when Charles left Kansas City's last playoff game with an injury on the first drive, the Chiefs still scored 44 points in that epic loss to the Colts two years ago. The area where the Chiefs have not replaced Charles well is as a receiver. Ware and West have just 26 catches for 219 yards, with 80 of those yards (65 YAC) coming on one blown-coverage touchdown in Denver. That one play is also the only time all year Smith threw a pass to a running back more than 10 yards down the field.
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Houston's run defense has allowed 112 yards in its last three games combined, though those were all rematches against AFC South offenses with bad running games. Still, the Texans have been solid against the run this year as they were expected to be with the addition of Vince Wilfork to go along with Watt. Kansas City has started Eric Fisher and Donald Stephenson at both tackle spots, so it is hard to say how much each player is responsible for the Chiefs ranking 30th in adjusted line yards/a> off right tackle and first in runs off left tackle. Houston's defense matches up well here, ranking first against runs off left tackle. What stands out most is that 71 percent of the Chiefs' runs were marked as middle/guard, compared to a league average of 53 percent. Houston ranks ninth against such runs.
Kansas City's running game will not fail for a lack of trying, but Smith may have to use his legs a few times. He is also going to have to get more out of Jeremy Maclin, who had 52 yards in his Week 1 debut with the Chiefs and comes into the game with a sore hip. Houston has the No. 8 defense against No. 1 wide receivers this year. Johnathan Joseph should be up to the challenge, as should Kareem Jackson when Maclin goes into the slot.
Tight end Travis Kelce is really the only other threat in this passing game. His "Baby Gronk" reputation got off to a great start in Week 1 when he had 106 yards and two touchdowns in Houston, but he scored just three touchdowns the rest of the year and never had more than 88 yards in any game. His 42-yard touchdown was a badly blown coverage by the Texans. Houston finished with a No. 9 ranking against tight ends. One of the big changes the defense made at the turnaround point was benching safety Rahim Moore for Andre Hal, who leads the team with four interceptions. Moore had a brutal game in Miami, taking bad angles that led to touchdown plays of 53 and 85 yards. Since then, Houston has only allowed two plays of 50-plus yards (two bombs from Tyrod Taylor to Sammy Watkins). That is not something you worry about with the Chiefs and Smith -- his four longest completions in the air were all to Maclin in the 31- to 36-yard range, and three of them came against Buffalo.
We can talk about Whitney Mercilus, the AFC's Defensive Player of the Month, coming on strong with 12.5 sacks this year, but obviously Watt is the most important player for Houston. After leading the league in sacks and quarterback hits again, Watt has shed that cast on his hand and should be ready to deliver another big game on Saturday. Even when Houston's defense fails to generate pressure, opposing quarterbacks have a league-low 59.5 QBR according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Third down is where Houston's defense should succeed big time in this matchup. That kept Week 1 from being a blowout since the Chiefs were 3-of-13 on third down. The Texans rank second in DVOA on third-and-long, where we know the Chiefs love to throw short of the sticks for negative ALEX. Smith finished 2015 with the lowest ALEX (minus-3.4) on third down of any quarterback since 2006. He only converted 35.2 percent of his third-down passes and just 21.7 percent on third-and-long, when he throws them more than 7 yards short of the marker on average. Smith's average distance to go on third-down passes is 8.4 yards, the third-highest of any quarterback. Houston's defense, on average, has forced opponents into most yards to go on third-down passes (8.3 yards) and allowed the lowest conversion rate (29.2 percent). As long as Houston has a good tackling day, Smith's screens and checkdowns should not be effective here.
Houston's defense is unlikely to lose this game for the Texans. The problem lies in trusting the rest of the team to manage the field position battle. In Week 1, two early turnovers by Brian Hoyer led to touchdown drives of 7 and 13 yards for the Chiefs. Even the best defense in the league would struggle when starting inside its own 15, let alone against an offense that ranks second in the red zone and first in red zone rushing.
Kansas City has made this a season-long trend too, since the Chiefs have the best average starting field position (their own 31.3-yard line) in the league. Kansas City's average touchdown drive is 59.8 yards, shorter than anyone but Minnesota (58.0) this season. That could be trouble again since the Houston defense has allowed the shortest touchdown drives (60.5) on average. The Chiefs also have six return scores and a safety, so it makes sense why this offense is ninth in points per drive and only 19th in yards per drive.
The Kansas City offense is averaging 24.9 points per game during its 10-game winning streak, but has not cracked 21 points since the 34-20 Oakland win in Week 13. Even in that game the Chiefs had a pick-six after touchdown drives of 2 and 13 yards in the fourth quarter set up by Derek Carr interceptions. If you do not help the Chiefs with turnovers and field position, then this offense will not score many points.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Bill O'Brien has put together back-to-back 9-7 seasons despite never starting the same (middling at best) quarterback for longer than nine consecutive games. Is this the time to credit him, or point out that half of the wins have come against the AFC South, including zero against Andrew Luck? I lean towards credit, because I doubt a coach like Jeff Fisher could do that with such an unstable quarterback situation. O'Brien went from coordinating an offense with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to starting Brady's backups in Houston. Most of the quarterback changes have been through injury instead of self-inflicted drama, though O'Brien did bench Hoyer for Ryan Mallett in the Week 1 game against Kansas City.
When you go through that many quarterbacks and watch Arian Foster miss 15 games over the last two years, it is hard to build any offensive identity or consistency. Four quarterbacks threw at least 42 passes for Houston this year, and four running backs had at least 56 carries. Their numbers were all over the place. We can feel confident in knowing Hoyer is the starter this week and Alfred Blue seems to have taken over as the lead back with two 100-yard rushing games in the last three weeks, but what about the rest of the season's data? How much is Houston's ranking of 32nd in first-half offense DVOA created by the play of Hoyer versus O'Brien's preparation of the game plan?
It is my job to do the analysis to answer such questions, but I think I will just go with the simplest explanation: this is not a good offense. The DVOA rankings for the run and pass support that, as do the splits. The only down and play type where the Texans fare well are runs on third/fourth down (ranked seventh), but the Chiefs are third on defense against those same runs. The only down-and-distance split where Houston ranks higher than 16th is third-and-short (ranked eighth), but the Chiefs are second against those plays on defense. The Houston offense does improve to 10th in second-half DVOA, but the Chiefs are still 10th in that category on defense. Believe it or not, but the Texans' offense is fifth in DVOA in late/close situations, but the Chiefs' defense is fourth, and it has held up six one-score leads during this win streak.
There was really no stretch this season where the Houston offense was consistently good. The Texans struggled to move the ball against better defenses like the Patriots (189 yards), Bengals (256 yards) and Panthers (300 yards), which does not bode well in another tough matchup with Kansas City. I said the Chiefs rarely score a lot of points, but Houston has yet to top 27 offensive points in any game this year. There was a return touchdown in all three games where the team hit 30 points. With Houston's defense, scoring 24 should be enough to win most games, but you really have to question the ability to get to 24 with any consistency.
No matter the quarterback, one thing this offense understands is that you have to force the ball to DeAndre Hopkins often. I studied his catch radius a few weeks back and was underwhelmed with his abilities after the catch, which is partly why this offense has the least YAC in the league. But Hopkins can make some great contested catches, and he is a good fit for a quarterback with spotty accuracy like Hoyer. A huge game from Hopkins could be necessary to beat Kansas City, but more than just big yardage, he needs to make some of those contested catches against tight man coverage to extend a few drives. In Week 1, Hopkins had 98 yards and two touchdowns, but rookie Marcus Peters was only making his NFL debut and Sean Smith was suspended. Hopkins will have to deal with that duo and won't be beating up on Jamell Fleming at cornerback this week.
Granted, Hopkins beat Peters in the end zone for two touchdowns, which is really the only area where Houston has a statistical advantage. The Texans rank eighth in red zone passing thanks to Hopkins' leaping ability, and the Chiefs are only 19th in red zone pass defense. But the rookie has had that kind of big-play season. According to SIS charting, Peters has been targeted 119 times, 23 more than any other cornerback. He is bound to give up some yards and scores, but he is also 12th in success rate among corners (minimum 40 targets) and has eight interceptions with two scores. The first pass he faced against Houston turned into a Hoyer interception. Still, Hoyer has to be much sharper when throwing against these cornerbacks, because you know the ball is going Hopkins' way at least 10 times on Saturday.
Veteran wideout Nate Washington had a 100-yard game in Week 1 and has had a few big games for the Texans this year in Hopkins' shadow. Cecil Shorts has battled injuries, but is probable to play as the slot receiver this week. It is not a bad receiving corps, but the fact that Foster is still fifth on the team with 22 catches despite playing in four games tells you about the lack of depth. Not only is it surprising to see an O'Brien offense lacking in YAC, but the tight ends are very unproductive as well. Ryan Griffin missed seven games, but only has 20 catches, while 2014 third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz has 17 catches this season. The Chiefs rank second in coverage against tight ends, but this is one matchup Houston won't mind conceding before kickoff. The tight ends doing much of anything would be a huge wrinkle.
Blue, Jonathan Grimes, and Chris Polk will likely share the backfield touches just as they did in Week 1 when Foster was out. They each had a gain of at least 11 yards in that game, combining for 92 yards on 20 carries. Houston has rushed for at least 82 yards in each game since the bye week, and at least 120 yards in six of the last seven games. Sometimes this goes unnoticed when the touches are dispersed so much instead of going to one big-name back, but Houston does not want to get one-dimensional in this matchup.
Unfortunately, this game's big injury was suffered by left tackle Duane Brown, who tore his quad in Sunday's win over Jacksonville. He will be replaced by Chris Clark, known best for his job of replacing Ryan Clady in Denver's 2013 Super Bowl season. Clark had already started four games for the Texans this year, but edge pressure is something that can get to him, and that's a problem in this matchup with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston on the other side. Houston is making his return from a five-game absence due to a hyperextended knee. The Texans will hope he is not 100 percent or has to shake off the rust. Kansas City has racked up the sacks without him and has the fourth-highest adjusted sack rate (7.7 percent) in the league.
Ultimately, this side of the matchup comes down to how well Hoyer handles pressure without his franchise left tackle. Overall this season Hoyer has just been bearable, ranking 20th in DVOA and 19th in QBR. When you consider how the Chiefs have improved and that they forced O'Brien to bench Hoyer in Week 1, you really start to like the Chiefs in this matchup given the following data from ESPN Stats & Info. Hoyer's 1.5 QBR when pressured was the second-worst number in the league ahead of only Nick Foles' 1.2 QBR. When getting pressure on a quarterback, the Chiefs allowed a 3.8 QBR, the second-best figure in the league. Even when the Chiefs do not blitz, quarterbacks have a league-low 37.7 QBR.
On the bright side, Hoyer usually gets rid of the ball quickly. He had the third-lowest pressure rate (20.9 percent) in 2015. Hoyer's QBR when he is not pressured is 81.1, ranked ninth in the league. Avoiding those disastrous pressures will be key to avoiding turnovers. Houston only has four games with multiple giveaways this year and ranks ninth in turnovers per drive, so it's not like this has been a huge problem, but all it takes is one or two big mistakes to lose a game like this.
In a game where scoring may be at a premium and field position so valuable, the Chiefs have a big advantage, ranking seventh on special teams compared to 32nd for Houston. As great as that difference sounds, it actually comes down to one very favorable area for Kansas City: punting, which could be a frequent event on Saturday afternoon. Houston's defense ranks second in punts per drive while its offense has the fourth-highest rate of punts per drive.
Houston punter Shane Lechler has had a great career, and to the naked eye his 47.3 yards per punt still sounds like a respectable number for the 39-year-old. It is higher than Dustin Colquitt's average of 44.4 yards per punt, but this is why we have advanced stats even for punters. Colquitt, who has been the highest-paid punter in the NFL, has definitely outplayed Lechler this year.
- Houston's gross punt value has been worth minus-15.1 points of field position, the second-worst figure in the league.
- Kansas City's punts have added 16.2 points of field position, the best figure in the league.
- Lechler is tied for the lead league with 10 touchbacks, and a league-high 63.2 percent of his punts have been returned.
- Colquitt has half as many touchbacks and only 34.7 percent of his punts have been returned, the second-lowest average in 2015.
- Lechler has the third-lowest rate (25.3 percent) of placing punts inside the 20, while Colquitt (49.3 percent) has the highest.
- The difference between Lechler's average punt and net punt is 8.5 yards, the largest difference in 2015.
- Colquitt's drop is only 3.6 yards, the third-smallest difference in the league.
Once you get past that punting mismatch, these two have been equally unimpressive on special teams. Cairo Santos and Nick Novak are solid field goal kickers, but both leave a lot to be desired on kickoffs. In 2014 with San Diego, Novak had the worst kickoff value of any kicker in the last three years, and Santos ranked 30th in touchback rate. Things were not nearly that bad this season, though these teams rank 27th and 28th in touchback rate on kickoffs. You can get a return against them. Fortunately, these two return units are nothing special. The player most likely to deliver a big return, Kansas City's De'Anthony Thomas, has been placed on injured reserve with a concussion.
Seriously, how long has it been since the Chiefs won a playoff game?
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 7, 2016
After losing eight straight playoff games, you have to think this one is favorable for the Chiefs to win. They have the better team, and a head coach and quarterback with playoff experience. Winning the turnover battle will be more important than usual in this game, with neither offense really equipped to make a big comeback. The Chiefs are simply better at taking care of the ball and taking it away.
The Chiefs being a 3.5-point favorite makes sense, and you can easily see them holding onto a 20-16 lead with Houston having a chance to win it late. Of course, if the Chiefs open up a 42-0 lead, then we will just say the Texans are who we thought they were, but I really do not see a high score in this one. You also cannot discount home-field advantage. In a better playoff system, the Chiefs would be rewarded for going 11-5 with a home game, but instead the AFC South gets a shot to win a playoff game for the fifth year in a row.
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
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If you're finishing up work and reading this at about 5 p.m. Eastern on Friday, you could rev up the DeLorean to 88 MPH and go back exactly ten years to find Kimo Von Oelhoffen shattering Carson Palmer's knee, ending the Bengals' best chance at a deep playoff run since Boomer Esiason was behind center. This Saturday's game already qualifies as ominous for the Bengals just for that memory, but the location (Paul Brown Stadium), the round (wild card), the seeds (No. 6 Pittsburgh versus No. 3 Cincinnati), and even the point spread (Steelers -3) are all reprises of the 2005 wild-card game. This time, though, the Steelers injured Cincinnati's quarterback weeks before rather than on the first offensive play of the playoffs. Ten years after the Kimocalypse, the Bengals not only find themselves back in the wild-card round that has sunk them four years running, but in a time warp that has tweaked every variable for maximum queasiness leading up to the game.
Only two parts of the history are relevant for Saturday night. First, Saturday night's Bengals crowd may be the most ready-to-panic in NFL history. Think the Red Sox playing the Yankees in the playoffs before 2004, except in a sport where the crowd's sense of impending disaster matters far more. After a couple of A.J. McCarron interceptions, it could be close between whether the Bengals fans' boos are louder than the Steelers fans' "Heath" chants. In addition to the crowd, there's Big Ben. Roethlisberger is one of just three current players who played for either team in 2005 (the other two, Heath Miller and James Harrison, are also Steelers), and as in that year injuries kept him out of four games. These Steelers also scraped into the playoffs due to Roethlisberger's absence and enter as the AFC wild-card team that nobody wants to play.
Entering these playoffs, Roethlisberger is in better condition. In 2005, Roethlisberger played through a broken thumb that contributed to his historically awful Super Bowl performance. This year, Roethlisberger enters the playoffs healthy and called upon to carry a team that is driven by its offense rather than its defense.
While the Bengals have no players remaining from 2005, the coaching staff's key faces return. Not only head coach Marvin Lewis, but also offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther were on the Bengals' staff in 2005. This time, they get to prepare knowing that they won't be able to rely on their MVP-candidate quarterback to get past the Steelers. That helps to make the Bengals' situation this time far from hopeless. Jackson has been one of the most creative schemers in the league this season. The Steelers' defense presents some appealing weaknesses for him to attack. Nobody may play a more important role in determining whether the Bengals finally get past wild-card weekend than Jackson.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
The Steelers have their own offensive injury that brings back ominous memories of previous postseason failure. Before last year's wild-card loss to the Ravens, running back Le'Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee in Week 17 that caused the Steelers to rule him out the day before the Saturday night game. In Bell's absence (and in a victory for the opponents of running back fungibility), the Steelers went nowhere on the ground against the Ravens, totaling 52 yards on 17 carries by running backs. Their leading rusher that day might not be one of the five most well-known people named Josh Harris. The undrafted 2014 rookie had 25 yards on nine carries, which still surpasses the rest of his career total (currently sitting at 16 yards). Harris is not presently on an NFL roster.
This year, it's DeAngelo Williams in the Bell role and Fitzgerald Toussaint playing Harris. A sprained ankle in Week 17 will keep Williams (who ranked third in the NFL with 184 rushing DYAR) from playing Saturday night. (He was officially declared out Friday morning.) His prospective replacement is another 2014 undrafted free agent. Toussaint has averaged a half-yard per carry more than Harris did entering his wild-card game (2.3 versus 1.8) on 24 career carries, and he likely is the most notable person named Fitzgerald Toussaint. (A Wikipedia search turns up no notable half-Irish/half-French beat poets with that perhaps perfect name, at least.) But the Steelers likely have as little desire to see Toussaint take the field as they did Harris last year. In recent weeks, Williams had been the increasingly rare back who almost never leaves the field, having played more than 90 percent of the snaps for each of the five games preceding Week 17. That means fewer reps for his backup.
Without Williams, the Steelers' running game shapes up to be a shadow of the third-ranked unit it was over the season, and the opposing run defense is almost as stingy as the No. 5 Ravens unit (-19.3% DVOA) that shut down the Pittsburgh backs last January. Running on third and fourth down proved almost impossible against this Bengals defense, who compiled a league-best DVOA (-35.4%) against runs on those downs. If the Steelers confront third- or fourth-and-short, they should be more willing to throw than they would ordinarily be, as much for the opponent they're facing as for their red-alert backfield.
While the running game may be tough sledding, Pittsburgh at least has a passing game that is even better than its lofty DVOA suggests. Over the course of the 12 games where Ben Roethlisberger saw action (including his relief appearance in Week 8 against Cleveland), the Steelers' offense ranked first with a DVOA of 21.7%, and their passing game ranked third at 39.5%. If the Roethlisberger-and-Williams offense is the league's best, the Roethlisberger-without-Williams offense rates to be in the neighborhood of the team's season-long rating.
With the Steelers likely to focus more on the pass than they would with a healthy Williams, the Bengals find themselves in about as good a position to deal with Roethlisberger and his weapons as a team could be. A year after ranking 31st in adjusted sack rate, the Bengals this year finished 12th at 7.0%. In the third quarter of the Week 14 game against the Steelers, defensive end Carlos Dunlap exploded off the edge, getting one of his career-high 13.5 sacks. Three years after his All-Pro season, defensive tackle Geno Atkins fully returned to be the player he was before his 2013 knee injury and tied for second among tackles with 11 sacks.
Just as important as the pass rush, the Bengals are unusually well positioned with talent throughout the secondary to at least contain Pittsburgh's pass catchers. Per charting data from Sports Info Solutions, the Bengals have three cornerbacks who rank in the top 30 in the league by success rate: Adam Jones (18th), Dre Kirkpatrick (22nd), and Leon Hall (28th). Now that Kirkpatrick has progressed, the Bengals have the three cover options to at least attempt to deal with Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton. The necessary over-the-top help on Brown in particular can come from excellent free safety Reggie Nelson, who had three of his eight interceptions (tied for the league lead with Chiefs rookie Marcus Peters) against the Steelers, two on passes intended for Brown in the Bengals' 16-10 win in Week 8.
Nelson is particularly important because the Steelers throw deep (defined as throws that travel more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage) more often than almost any other team in the league. In the 12 weeks with Roethlisberger, only the Giants threw deep more often. Looking just at the first half of games (controlling a bit for teams that throw deep because they are trailing in the second half), the Steelers threw deep more often than any other team. They succeeded on those deep throws against the rest of the league, but failed completely in 19 attempts against the Bengals.
|Steelers' DVOA on Deep Passes, Excluding Weeks 4-7|
|Opponent||DVOA||Att||Cmp Pct||Int Pct||Yds Per Play|
|Rest of NFL||84.1%||104||51.0%||8.7%||17.0|
And this pattern is no small-sample phenomenon. No team deals with the deep pass better than the Bengals. Nelson and Co. led the NFL with a DVOA of -7.8% against those deep throws, far ahead of the second-place Oakland Raiders (11.8%) and their own ball-hawking safety. Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers often beat teams with deep throws to Brown and Bryant, but the Bengals secondary usually closes off that route.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
As I wrote about yesterday at ESPN Insider, the Bengals did not just repeat the same playoff ending each of the last four years, they remarkably repeated almost exactly the same offensive efficiency in each season. From 2011 to 2013, they ranked 17th in offensive DVOA every year. In 2014, they dropped to 18th. They were 19th in 2009 and 17th in 2010, too. So over a six-year period, the Bengals' offensive DVOA never fell below -1.8% and never rose above 1.7%. Andy Dalton's arrival in 2011 continued a pre-existing trend of relentless mediocrity on offense. This year, however, that changed in a big way. Even with Dalton missing most of four games, the Bengals finished first in offensive DVOA. Over the last four weeks without Dalton, however, the Bengals offense returned right to where they had been over the previous four years. After posting a league-best offensive DVOA of 24.4% through Week 13, the Bengals were at 0.3% (ranked 17th, again) over the last four weeks. With A.J. McCarron, the Bengals enter Saturday again looking very average on offense.
But they are average in a way that could work against the Steelers defense should the Bengals call their plays right. Breaking plays down by down and type (pass versus run), the Steelers rank in the top half of the league in every situation save one: first-down passes. Pittsburgh has a defensive DVOA of 27.7% (ranked 24th) against first-down passes compared to a rating of -19.3% (ranked 11th) against first-down runs. First-down passing plays not only into the Steelers' weakness but also the Bengals' strength on offense. Cincinnati posted a DVOA of 43.8% (ranked first) on first-down passes and -6.4% (ranked 13th) on first-down runs. That gap has remained over the past four weeks. Since Week 14, the Bengals have posted a DVOA of 21.9% on first-down passes and -10.5% on first-down runs. Passes are the better option on first down against most teams, but this has been particularly true against the Steelers.
Over the season, the Bengals passed on first down in the first half (looking at the first half limits the impact of game situation of decisions) 50.7 percent of the time, close to the league average of 49.4 percent. They were a little more conservative in McCarron's small sample, passing just 44.9 percent of the time in 49 plays. Hue Jackson did call a few more passes against the Steelers on first down than against other teams in the first half of games. Across 22 plays, Jackson called passes 13 times. Even with McCarron behind center, Jackson should look to shift the balance even more towards first-down passing. The success that the Bengals have had comes in part from teams respecting the Bengals' ability to run, but this week is the time to cash the dividend from all those previous first-down runs. Passing off of play-action could be the first-down play call again and again, with just enough runs to keep Pittsburgh honest.
The Bengals have a very favorable matchup at receiver to exploit when throwing those passes, too. In his first three seasons, A.J. Green often struggled when covered primarily by Ike Taylor. Over the last two seasons, it has been a very different story for Green, as the cornerback opposition has gotten easier. Last season, Green torched a then-34-year-old Taylor in Week 14. This year, Pittsburgh has been playing a combination of William Gay, Russ Cockrell, and Antwon Blake at corner. In Week 8, it was mostly Cockrell playing on the offensive left and Blake playing on the offensive right, with Gay working inside. In Week 14, the Steelers again opened that way before doing better after switching out the ineffective Blake and playing Cockrell wide with Gay. For some unclear reason, Blake returned to again play the right boundary in the fourth quarter.
Even with Blake always getting help over the top, usually from Mike Mitchell, Green has destroyed the fourth-year undrafted corner this season. In two games against the Steelers this year, Green has 17 catches on 26 targets for 250 yards and two touchdowns. Almost all of that damage has happened on Blake's side of the field. To the offensive right of the formation -- where he has mostly gone up against Blake -- Green has caught 11-of-15 targets for 190 yards and a touchdown (along with a 22-yard defensive pass interference flag) against the Steelers. In the second quarter of Week 8, they threw back-to-back quick hitches to Green against Blake that were so easy it left you wondering why they couldn't just do it a third time. Blake's struggles against Green in part reflect the size mismatch -- Blake gives up 7 inches to the 6-foot-4 Green -- but in part show the Pittsburgh corner's problems covering, well, anyone. Per charting stats from Sports Info Solutions, Blake ranks 81st in success rate (42 percent) out of 83 cornerbacks who faced at least 40 targets this season. Those failures come over a very high volume. His total of 95 targets trails only two rookies (Marcus Peters and Ronald Darby). Blake can play the run effectively, but he can't cover average receivers, much less A.J. Green.
Reflecting Blake's struggles, the Steelers have finally started to make a change that could make a difference on Saturday against the Bengals and deeper into the postseason. They haven't entirely solved the Blake problem, but he is no longer seeing the second-most snaps at corner and neither is Cockrell, whose charting stats (49 percent success rate, ranked 66th) are not much better than Blake's. Brandon Boykin, long mired on the bench, has seen the second-most snaps each of the last three weeks. Boykin still has only faced 14 targets this year and with only a 43 percent success rate, but was a charting favorite in much bigger samples each of the past two years. With Blake unable to cover anyone and Cockrell only marginally better, the question is why Mike Tomlin didn't make the move to Boykin earlier. The pattern of recent weeks -- Gay playing almost every snap and Boykin playing most of them, too, with Blake or Cockrell rotated in -- gives Pittsburgh their best chance of containing the Bengals' passing game. Look for lots of help, either from a safety or the type of zone, for either Blake or Cockrell.
As the Bengals look to attack the Steelers secondary, they should be looking to throw deep. The Steelers rank 24th in DVOA on deep passes (traveling more than 15 yards downfield) compared to ninth on shorter ones. On just 27 throws, McCarron ranks first in DVOA on deep passes among quarterbacks with at least 25 deep throws (Dalton ranked third).
Beating the Steelers with long throws is even more important given how hard breaking through the Pittsburgh defense in the red zone has proven to be. The Steelers rank second in defensive DVOA (-37.1%) inside their own 20-yard line. The Bengals have a better chance with runs in goal-line situations than most teams would. Jeremy Hill only gained 87 yards in 40 red zone carries, but he made them count. His 11 touchdowns led the league and gave him a better DVOA inside the red zone (22.8%) than outside (-7.2%). More importantly for their chances in the red zone on Saturday, the Bengals have the league's best offensive line by adjusted line yards.
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In Week 4, Pittsburgh kicker Josh Scobee missed two field goals in the closing minutes of a 23-20 overtime loss to the Ravens. The next week, the Steelers replaced him with undrafted rookie Chris Boswell out of Rice. In the last 12 weeks, Boswell missed fewer kicks (three field goals and one extra point) than Scobee did in the first four (four fields goals and one extra point). While the Steelers' field goal/extra point rating works out to slightly below average for the season, that number is weighed down by Scobee's misadventures in the first month of the year. Since Boswell took over, the Steelers rank fourth in field goals and extra points with +7.2 points added. With Bengals kicker Mike Nugent's kicks over the last six years adding up to an almost exactly average total of -0.8 expected points added (these numbers correct for the difficult environment in which Nugent has to kick), the early returns on Boswell give the Steelers the edge at kicker.
While the Steelers were average on special teams, they were one of the unluckiest teams by how well opponents happened to kick against them, particularly opponents' success rate on field goals. The Steelers lost 11.8 points worth of field position by that hidden part of special teams over the course of the season. For the Bengals, punter Kevin Huber has been one of the league's best in recent years. The Bengals' punting unit ranked third in 2012 in expected points added with +18.0 and third again last season with +12.1. This year, the Bengals rank 13th, but the larger sample of recent seasons points to a clear punting advantage for Cincinnati.
The weather forecast on Saturday night calls for rain. Because of course it does. The only way more storm clouds could emerge for the Bengals is if Ki-Jana Carter and Akili Smith get named honorary captains for the coin toss. But long runs of futility seem interminable until the day they stop, when we quickly forget how inevitable the outcome once seemed. Ask the Red Sox and the Yankees.
The mostly irrelevant historical baggage is moving the line for this game by a couple points. Even without Dalton, the Bengals' deep throwing strength matches up with the Steelers' weakness in the secondary. On the other side, the Bengals have been clearly the best team this year at stopping the deep passes the Steelers love to throw. Add in a potential Mike Tomlin head-scratcher strategically and call it a tossup. And if the Bengals finally get Marvin Lewis the first playoff victory he deserves, and Dalton can return at close to full strength, the Bengals instantly become very dangerous.
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.