NFC Divisional Round Playoff Preview 2016
by Aaron Schatz (GB-ARI) and Vincent Verhei (SEA-CAR)
The NFC's divisional round kicks off this weekend pitting two teams that were great this year in the Panthers and Cardinals against the NFC's top two teams of the past five years in the Seahawks and Packers. The quarterbacks on display will have virtually unmatched pedigrees -- two are the favorites in the MVP race, and the other two have already won Super Bowls. Both games are rematches, with the Panthers coming from behind to beat the Seahawks in Week 6 and the Cardinals dominating the Packers just two weeks ago. And there's a very good chance the eventual Super Bowl winner will come from this set of games -- Cincinnati's loss in the wild-card round leaves Seattle, Arizona, and Carolina the top three teams remaining in our end-of-season DVOA rankings. As for the Packers, on paper they are the weakest contender remaining in the playoff field, but a win over Arizona wouldn't be the biggest upset we've ever seen.
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.
Green Bay at Arizona
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The best news for Green Bay Packers fans is that a rematch is not a replay.
When we think back to how bad the Packers looked just three weeks ago, when they got stomped 38-8 at University of Phoenix Stadium, our minds naturally think that the Packers have no chance in this week's game. Of course, that's not true. Recent history shows plenty of examples of teams that got blown out and then came back to beat that same opponent within the next few weeks. Take a look at sample games from the last decade where a team lost by four touchdowns or more and then had to play that same opponent within the next six weeks. Games where the other team won the second time are colored in gray.
|Blowout Wins (28+ Points) with Rematches within Six Weeks, 2006-2015|
|Year||G1 Week||G1 Matchup||G1 Score||G2 Week||G2 Matchup||G2 Score|
|2006||9||TEN at JAC||JAC 37-7||15||JAC at TEN||TEN 24-17|
|2008||7||PIT at CIN||PIT 38-10||12||CIN at PIT||PIT 27-10|
|2008||11||CHI at GB||GB 37-3||16||GB at CHI||CHI 20-17|
|2009||7||SD at KC||SD 37-7||12||KC at SD||SD 43-14|
|2009||11||NO at TB||NO 38-7||16||TB at NO||TB 20-17|
|2009||13||KC at DEN||DEN 44-13||17||DEN at KC||KC 44-24|
|2009||17||CIN at NYJ||NYJ 37-0||18||NYJ at CIN||NYJ 24-14|
|2010||13||NYJ at NE||NE 45-3||19||NYJ at NE||NYJ 28-21|
|2012||14||HOU at NE||NE 42-14||19||HOU at NE||NE 41-28|
|2015||13||SEA at MIN||SEA 38-7||18||SEA at MIN||SEA 10-9|
|2015||14||ATL at CAR||CAR 38-0||16||CAR at ATL||ATL 20-13|
|2015||16||GB at ARI||ARI 38-8||19||GB at ARI||--|
Look at that table, and you'll notice that the team that was blown out in the first game wins a rematch roughly half the time. (You can ignore the 2009 Bengals-Jets games since the Bengals already knew their playoff position and sat starters in Week 17.) An additional example of how blowouts don't predict a rematch is very familiar to Cardinals fans. It doesn't appear on this table because the rematch came seven weeks later instead of six, but the 2008 Cardinals lost 48-20 at Philadelphia in Week 13. Seven weeks later, in the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals beat Philadelphia 32-25 at home to advance to their first Super Bowl.
No, we shouldn't favor Arizona heavily in this game because of that Week 16 matchup. We should favor Arizona heavily in this game because the Cardinals have been better than the Packers all season long, and particularly for the last two months. Or perhaps it is better to say that Arizona's high points were more frequent than Green Bay's high points? The Cardinals actually finished 31st in the NFL in variance by mixing huge dominating victories with average performances and then one real stinker against Seattle in Week 17. Nine times this year, the Cardinals had a single-game DVOA rating over 20%. Green Bay's wild-card win over Washington was the eighth time the Packers have reached 20% this season... but only the second time since their Week 7 bye.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
It's very strange to talk about a Green Bay offense that struggles so much in so many different situations, but that's where things stand in 2015. Meanwhile, the Cardinals defense was extremely well-rounded, successful against both the run and the pass with both a strong pass rush and a strong secondary.
The Packers did a lot of their damage against Washington with the running game, but this is going to be a different story. Arizona ranked second in run defense DVOA this year, as well as second in adjusted line yards allowed and second in stuff rate. The biggest problem will be when Green Bay tries to establish the run on first down. The Packers ranked 31st in DVOA on first-down runs, while the Arizona defense ranked seventh. The Cardinals defense also ranked better than the Packers offense on first-down passes, but at least that was a lot closer: Green Bay's offense ranked 20th, Arizona's defense ranked 13th.
In the Week 16 game, the Packers actually averaged 4.1 yards per carry on first-down runs, but mostly because of a single 25-yard run by Eddie Lacy that came with the Cardinals already ahead by 31 points. Only five of their 14 first-down runs gained at least 4 yards. But that was actually better than Green Bay's first-down passes, which averaged 2.6 net yards.
Of course, failures on first down lead to third-and-longs, and that's the worst possible place to be against the Arizona defense. The Cardinals were a bit above average on third down with 1 to 6 yards to go this season, but superb on third-and-long, with the best defensive DVOA in the league. That performance on third-and-long is what made the Arizona defense No. 2 overall on third downs this season. Rodgers dropped back to pass seven times on third-and-long in Week 16, and was sacked five times with two fumbles. Overall, Green Bay has struggled about as much on third down as it has on first down this year. The Packers are 23rd in offensive DVOA on third downs (and go-for-it fourth downs), ranking 25th with the pass and 15th with the run.
You're probably wondering, how was Green Bay's offense even average if the Packers were so bad on both first and third downs? The answer is that they ranked third in DVOA on second down. Unfortunately for Green Bay, so did the Arizona defense.
If Aaron Rodgers wants to attack the Cardinals defense, the cornerback he wants to look for is veteran Jerraud Powers, and he needs to stay away from Patrick Peterson. Sports Info Solutions charting Peterson as the best cornerback in the NFL this year, by leaps and bounds. He was charted with a 73 percent success rate and only 4.6 yards allowed per pass. Both figures were the best for any cornerback with at least 40 targets. Dime corner (and nickel corner after Tyrann Mathieu's injury) Justin Bethel had pretty good stats as well, with 59 percent success rate and 6.0 yards per pass. However, Jerraud Powers' stats were more average, with a 54 percent success rate and 8.2 yards allowed per pass.
The good news here for Green Bay is that if Arizona follows the same strategy as the first matchup, they won't try to specifically use Peterson to shut down either Randall Cobb. That's important, especially with Davante Adams out and Jeff Abbredaris likely to play his role as Green Bay's third receiver. The Cardinals seemed to move Peterson back and forth between the slot and the outside no matter where Cobb was. Sometimes Peterson would be on Cobb in the slot, sometimes he would be outside on Adams or Abbredaris with Powers on Cobb. Bethel was mostly on the outside covering Jones, but also moved around a bit.
Of course, Rodgers can't pick which cornerback he wants to try to target if he's under severe pressure, and part of the reason the Cardinals cornerbacks can have such great charting stats is that the Cardinals pass rush is getting pressure so often. Even with former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles gone to the Jets, nobody blitzes as much as Arizona. ESPN Stats & Info recorded the Cardinals sending five or more pass rushers on a league-leading 45.1 percent of the time. The Cardinals blitz no matter what down it is -- they actually blitz more often on first down (46.3 percent of pass plays) than third down (43.7 percent). Oddly, the Cardinals allowed almost the same yards per play with a blitz (6.11 net yards per play with, 6.14 without) and a higher QBR (60.4 with a blitz, 50.2 without). But in part thanks to all that blitzing, the Cardinals get pressure on the quarterback on 31.9 percent of dropbacks, third in the NFL behind Denver and Seattle. Every quarterback is going to play a lot worse under pressure, and of course Aaron Rodgers is no exception, especially during that first Cardinals-Packers game.
Rodgers wasn't that much worse against blitzes this year. He averaged 6.1 net yards per pass against a standard pass rush and 5.4 net yards per pass against a blitz. The problem is that Rodgers is much more likely than other quarterbacks to be pressured by a blitz. This year, ESPN Stats & Info listed Rodgers under pressure 42.9 percent of the time when opponents blitzed, which ranked fourth in the NFL. That went up even further, to 44.4 percent, after Green Bay's bye week when the offensive decline began. (On average in the 2015 NFL, blitzes pressured the quarterback 35.7 percent of the time.)
A bit against form, Arizona's strategy in the first game with Green Bay was to drop more guys into coverage rather than blitzing early. The Cardinals sent a blitz on the first Green Bay pass attempt, then sent only four pass rushers on 17 of the next 19 pass attempts until halftime. ESPN Stats & Info only recorded pressure on one of those blitzes, a third-and-15 sack. But after halftime, the Cardinals let loose, blitzing on 16 of 24 pass attempts and getting pressure on 11 of those blitzes.
At least Green Bay won't have to watch backup tackle Don Barclay get run over by the Arizona pass rushers again, as starter David Bakhtiari should be healthy enough to finally return from the ankle injury that has cost him the last three games. Rodgers is going to get better protection with Bakhtiari in the lineup, but he'll still be under pressure plenty. Rodgers was pressured on an astounding 49.4 percent of pass plays in the last three games, including the wild-card win against Washington, compared to 30.9 percent of plays in Weeks 1-15 -- but that latter number still ranked him eighth in the league during that period.
One way to counter pass pressure is to dump the ball off to your running backs, and the Cardinals only ranked 22nd in DVOA against running backs in the passing game. This is actually a bit of a strength for the Packers this year, as James Starks had 20.6% receiving DVOA and Lacy was at 3.5%. However, running backs were a more popular outlet for Rodgers on first and second down rather than third. He threw to running backs (including fullbacks) 18 percent of the time on first or second down, and only half as often on third down.
There's one other clear weakness for the Arizona defense: the red zone. The Cardinals' DVOA dropped from third in the league to 23rd once the opponent reached the 20. Arizona struggled in the red zone against both the run and the pass. But the Green Bay offense doesn't look particularly well set up to exploit that weakness; the Packers also saw their offensive DVOA drop in the red zone both running and passing.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Make sure to also read Cian Fahey's Film Room column on how Dom Capers' defense can attack the Arizona offense.
Everyone knows that the Arizona offense was extremely powerful this year, primarily thanks to a passing game that stretched the field both horizontally and vertically with outstanding seasons from quarterback Carson Palmer and three different wide receivers who ranked in the top ten for receiving DVOA: Larry Fitzgerald (fourth in DYAR, tenth in DVOA), John Brown (fifth in DYAR, fourth in DVOA), and Michael Floyd (14th in DYAR, eighth in DVOA).
Most people may not realize that the Green Bay defense was also pretty good this year, and it didn't collapse in the second half of the year the way the offense did. The strengths of the Green Bay defense seem to match the strengths of the Arizona offense: very good against the pass, mediocre against the run. However, the Cardinals have an improved ground game since rookie David Johnson took over as the starter in Week 13. Only Matt Forte had more rushing DYAR than Johnson between Week 13 and Week 17, and Arizona's run offense DVOA of 1.2% in those last five weeks would have ranked the Cardinals seventh in the NFL over the entire season. Johnson may also cause problems because of his ability to break tackles. Sports Info Solutions charted him with 39 broken tackles this season, or .244 broken tackles per touch. That ranks ninth among running backs with at least 100 touches. And the Packers were charted with 120 broken tackles on defense, tied for the fourth highest total in the league. No single defender stood out: Clay Matthews actually had the most broken tackles charted with 12, followed by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with 11.
At least the Packers should be able to somewhat contain Johnson as a receiver, which has also been a big part of his productivity. Green Bay ranked fourth in DVOA against running backs in the passing game this year. They also ranked fourth against tight ends, but that won't mean much against a Cardinals offense that may throw to tight ends less than almost any other. (11.6 percent of Arizona passes targeted a tight end; only the Jets were lower.)
The Packers don't blitz as much as the Cardinals, but they do blitz a lot, sending five or more pass rushers on 39.0 percent of pass plays this season (fifth in the NFL). However, the Packers weren't particularly any better when they blitzed. And even though he was blitzed more than nearly any other quarterback (Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Josh McCown were ahead of him), Carson Palmer excelled against the blitz, with the same QBR that he had against a standard pass rush.
|Blitz vs. Not Blitz, 2015|
|Blitz Rate||Rank||Pressure Rate
Even the ability to pressure Palmer doesn't mean as much as it does against other quarterbacks, because Palmer excelled against pressure this season. Palmer averaged 5.1 net yards per pass when pressured, second in the NFL this season behind only Jay Cutler. His 48.1 QBR when pressured was third in the NFL, behind two mobile quarterbacks who could put up a higher QBR under pressure thanks to their ability to scramble (Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick). And, of course, Palmer also led the NFL in net yards per pass and QBR when not pressured.
(Again, for those wondering why QBR here and not DVOA: we don't have DVOA numbers merged in with the ESPN Stats & Info pressure data yet.)
The Packers may be getting back their No. 1 corner on Saturday night; Sam Shields is listed as questionable after missing the last four games, including the first meeting with Arizona, due to a concussion. Without Shields, the Packers cornerbacks have been set up in a fairly consistent manner with Quinten Rollins on the offensive left, Damarious Randall on the offensive right, and Casey Heyward in the slot. It's hard to know what will happen if Shields returns, as he didn't play consistently on one side or the other before his injury and the Cardinals don't particularly have a No. 1 option you have to stop. You want to stop all three of them. Heyward had the best stats in SIS charting, 59 percent success rate and 6.1 yards per pass allowed, although that's partly a product of his position playing in the slot. Shields was charted with 56 percent success rate and 7.4 yards allowed per pass. Rollins had the better stats of the two rookies, with 55 percent success rate and 7.5 yards per pass allowed, while Randall comes out with 48 percent success rate and 8.7 yards per pass allowed but also played about twice as many snaps as Rollins.
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A lot of the pressure in this game will be on the safeties as much as the cornerbacks, because the Cardinals love to go deep. Palmer threw 25 percent of his passes over 15 yards past the line of scrimmage this season, the highest rate of any starting quarterback. The Packers defense was third in DVOA against short passes, but 14th against deep passes.
One other interesting note: despite being an offense built primarily on the passing game, Arizona used shotgun on only 40 percent of offensive plays this season, the lowest rate in the NFL. Green Bay was one of the few defenses with a better DVOA rating against shotgun plays than under-center plays, though the difference was tiny (-8.3% vs. shotgun, -5.4% otherwise).
Well, here's something that the Arizona Cardinals were not particularly good at this year: special teams. For example, do you remember Drew Butler, who finished next-to-last in FO's gross punt values a year ago and averaged just 35 yards per punt in a miserable performance against Carolina in last year's playoffs? Well, the Cardinals kept him around, and he wasn't very good in 2015 either. The Packers were not a good punt return team for 2015, but as we pointed out in last week's playoff preview, Micah Hyde does have a good track record from past years, and he had returns of 12 and 17 yards against Washington. (Also, like the rest of the Cardinals, Butler was at his best in the Week 16 games against Green Bay, putting three of his four punts inside the 15 with no return.)
Punt returns are also a problem for Arizona and a place where Green Bay should get some field-position advantage. Patrick Peterson's reputation as a punt returner is entirely based on his rookie performance. He's been below average every year since, including this year. Peterson had only three returns over 15 yards this year, and he had three muffed punts and a fumble, although Arizona recovered on all four of those miscues.
The other problem for Arizona special teams was five missed extra points by kicker Chandler Catanzaro. Catanzaro actually didn't miss any field goals of similar length; his three misses came from 47, 51, and 55 yards.
Green Bay's one weakness on special teams this year was kickoff coverage, and only Chicago allowed more estimated field-position value on opposing returns. But it will be interesting to see who Arizona uses on kick returns. David Johnson did it most of the year and was worth 3.1 points of field position over average. Since he became the starting running back, Kerwynn Williams took over returns and has been worth minus-3.1 points of field position. His seven kick returns ended, on average, at the 14.
It wasn't very easy to tell given the 38-8 final score, but the underrated Green Bay defense really did a reasonable job of shutting down the Arizona offense in that Week 16 blowout. The Packers had 3.0% defensive DVOA for that game. That's the only defensive DVOA above zero for the Packers in the last seven games, but it's not a particularly poor performance. The Packers can't totally shut down Carson Palmer with the pass rush, and they'll probably allow a couple of big plays with either deep pass completions or broken tackles or both, but it's unlikely that the Cardinals will stomp their way to another blowout with non-stop offense.
On the other hand, the Green Bay offense is likely to struggle much more than it did against Washington. In last week's preview of the Green Bay-Washington wild-card game, I wrote that "Green Bay's offensive decline looks worse than it really has been because of the quality of the defenses the Packers have played." The Packers were likely to have more offensive success against a mediocre Washington defense -- and they did. But Arizona is not a mediocre defense. Arizona is one of those quality defenses that we've already seen shut Green Bay down during the second half of the season.
It's not guaranteed that the Cardinals can shut Green Bay down again, certainly not to the same extent. But even if the Packers defense can fight the Cardinals offense to a draw, the odds are pretty good that the Cardinals defense will limit the Packers offense enough to move Arizona on to the NFC Championship Game.
Seattle at Carolina
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Sunday's matchup between Seattle and Carolina will be the sixth time in the regular season or playoffs that Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have faced each other since they were drafted in 2011 and 2012, respectively. If that seems like a lot, it is -- the only quarterback to have played Wilson more frequently is Colin Kaepernick, a division rival who also met Wilson in a playoff game. Wilson, meanwhile, is Newton's third-most common rival behind Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. The Seahawks and Panthers might as well play in the same division -- they will also meet in the 2016 regular season this fall, and quite likely in the playoffs again after that.
In fact, there could be many more Newton-Wilson games to come in the next decade. As long Wilson and Newton keep winning division championships (and between the two of them, they have five in nine combined NFL seasons), they'll be guaranteed to play in the regular season every year. That's what happens you put two young quarterbacks (Wilson is actually six months older than Newton despite being drafted a year later) on two solid rosters and let them loose in the same conference. It's not a stretch to say that this could be the NFL's dominant quarterback rivalry for the next decade-plus, in much the same way that the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry has headlined the AFC for the bulk of this century.
Really, the parallels between the two sets of quarterbacks are striking. Like Manning, Newton was a star in college and a first overall draft pick. Like Manning, he took a team that had won only a handful of games the year before his arrival and quickly made them a perennial playoff contender. Like Manning, Newton set a rookie record for passing yards in a season (since broken by Andrew Luck), and spent the next several years doing things no quarterback had done before, albeit usually with his legs and not his arm. Manning won his first MVP award in his sixth season; Newton is the favorite to win the award in this, his fifth year.
Meanwhile, Brady and Wilson had very successful college careers, but apparently not successful enough to appease their coaches. In 1998, his first year as a starter at Michigan, Brady led the Wolverines to a 10-3 record, a share of the Big Ten championship, and a Citrus Bowl win over Arkansas. Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr rewarded Brady for that success by platooning him in 1999 with Drew Henson, a sophomore who had played minor league baseball, even though the numbers showed that Brady was clearly the superior passer.
While Brady's career at Michigan was derailed by a baseball player, Wilson's career at North Carolina State ended because he was a baseball player. Wilson threw 76 touchdown passes and only 26 interceptions in three years with the Wolfpack, and in his junior year they went 9-4 with a bowl win, the school's best record in seven seasons. But then Wilson attended spring training with the Colorado Rockies, and N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien decided he'd had enough, pushing Wilson out the door so he could start Mike Glennon instead. Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, where he threw 33 touchdowns with only four interceptions, leading the Badgers to an 11-3 record, a Big Ten championship, and a shootout loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Partly due to those shaky college careers, neither Brady nor Wilson went first overall in the draft, or even in the first round. New England took Brady in the sixth round, while Seattle grabbed Wilson in the third. Neither was expected to start as early as they did -- Brady only got a chance because Drew Bledsoe got hurt, while Wilson was expected to back up Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson before it became obvious that this notion was absurd. While Manning and Newton were expected to turn around moribund franchises, Brady's Patriots and Wilson's Seahawks had been successful in the past, with multiple playoff berths and even Super Bowl appearances in their recent histories. Still, those good teams quickly became great with their new quarterbacks, with Super Bowl appearances suddenly becoming regular occurrences. Manning and Newton were obviously the stars on their teams, while Brady and Wilson were sometimes viewed as supporting pieces to championship-caliber defenses. And just as Brady's Patriots tended to get the best of Manning's Colts, winning the first six games of that series, Wilson's Seahawks have usually outplayed Newton's Panthers, winning four of their five previous encounters.
The best thing about this rivalry? Both players appear to be at their very best right now. The following table shows what Newton and Wilson each did in the last eight games of the year. Their performances were remarkably similar, and if you combined those two half-seasons into one super-season, you get a quarterback who would have led the NFL in passing DVOA in 2015, with ten more touchdown passes than anyone else and another half-dozen scores on the ground, while throwing fewer interceptions in 16 games than Brian Hoyer threw last Saturday:
|Cam Newton vs. Russell Wilson, Second Half of 2015 Season|