by Vincent Verhei (SEA-MIN) and Aaron Schatz (GB-WAS)
As we stand on the precipice of the playoffs, it's fun to look back at where this all started. Here's a look at what we said about the NFC's wild-card participants in FOA 2015:
Minnesota: "So it's plausible that the strong finish was more indicative of the team's talent and future than the overall 16-game picture. Our projections certainly think so, forecasting this to be the best Minnesota team since Brett Favre's last stand in 2009."
Nailed it, even though we were skeptical they would win the division.
Seattle: "It's a long road to redemption, but they clearly enter the season as the best team in football."
Four months later, the Seahawks are again the top team in DVOA and are arguably the best team in football.
Green Bay: "Importantly, [Aaron] Rodgers is not alone. His phenomenal connection with Jordy Nelson is a constant threat to opposing defenses. The re-signed Randall Cobb may be 'just' a slot receiver, but he is the NFL's best and a deep threat in his own right. Heading into just his second season, Davante Adams has already shown signs he could supplant Nelson the same way Nelson once supplanted Greg Jennings."
Hmm. We might have underestimated Nelson and overestimated everyone else here.
Washington: "All teams rely on multiple coaches, players and execs for success, of course. Only Washington is relying on so many people with an obvious capacity for failure."
Surprise! Those people with an obvious capacity for failure instead succeeded. It wasn't spectacular success, just a 9-7 record and the championship of a bad division. But Washington will happily take it. Now we find out if they can follow in the footsteps of their division rivals from New York and go on a surprise postseason run.
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Game charting data appears courtesy of either ESPN Stats & Information or Sports Info Solutions.
Seattle at Minnesota
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In some ways, the Seahawks and Vikings have been very similar this year. Both offenses feature run-heavy schemes with quarterbacks who are frequently forced to operate under heavy pressure. Both defenses are capable of rushing the passer without blitzing very much. And both squads boast excellent special teams, highlighted by dynamic returners who are among the very best at what they do.
The biggest difference between the two clubs, obviously, is that Seattle has clearly been the superior team for most of the 2015 season. Though the Seahawks and Vikings try to do many of the same things, Seattle usually does them better. This was quite evident when the Seahawks beat the Vikings in Minnesota 38-7 in Week 13. Russell Wilson averaged more than 10 yards per pass and produced four total touchdowns that day, while Seattle's defense shut out Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings' offense. (Minnesota's only points came on a Cordarrelle Patterson kickoff return.) From Seattle's point of view, it was just another Sunday, one of the five games they won by at least two touchdowns in the second half of the year. From Minnesota's point of view, it was a fluke, the only time all season they allowed an opponent to score more than 30 points, and not coincidentally a game played mostly without three of the Vikings' biggest defensive stars.
Which of these viewpoints is most accurate? The truth, as usual, is likely somewhere in the middle. Seattle is not as good as they looked in that game, and Minnesota is not as bad. Though the Seahawks are the favored team, and likely the more talented group, they should not just expect to travel to Minnesota to play a game that kicks off at 10 a.m. Pacific time and beat an 11-win team by 31 points again.
The elements may play a key role in the game. Forecasts call for a high of 1 degree (yes, ONE), which would make this the coldest NFL game since the 2007 NFC championship game when the Giants upset the Packers in Green Bay. Only two games in league history were colder than that: the 1981 AFC championship game between Cincinnati and San Diego, and the famous Ice Bowl between Dallas and Green Bay in the 1967 NFL championship game. The effects of the weather in those games were painfully clear: the six teams involved had a combined 19 fumbles, they averaged just 32.8 yards on 31 total punts, and they connected on only 8-of-14 field-goal attempts. Loose balls that take funny bounces can only help a home team that is looking for a big upset.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
(EDITOR'S NOTE: News broke late Friday night that Marshawn Lynch had not traveled with the Seahawks to Minnesota. Christine Michael will start at running back for Seattle. Michael has averaged 4.9 yards on 32 carries since re-joining Seattle for the final three games of the season.)
It's hard to get too excited one way or another about the Vikings' defense. Their overall numbers are pretty mediocre, and breaking things down incrementally, there's not a lot they do significantly better or worse than most other teams. The front four is very good at rushing the passer (pressuring the quarterback on 30.7 percent of all dropbacks, fourth-highest rate in the league), which means they don't have to do a lot of blitzing (doing so 26.6 percent of the time, 20th). That's thanks mostly to Everson Griffen, who had 10.5 sacks, and was also in the top ten with 21 non-sack knockdowns. Their cornerbacks have done fine work against wide receivers, though they have been vulnerable to running backs and tight ends in the passing game. They have been outstanding in the red zone. Recent injury woes have raised concern throughout Minneapolis -- defensive tackle Linval Joseph, linebacker Anthony Barr, and safety Harrison Smith have all missed time lately, and Joseph is questionable for the wild-card game with a foot injury -- but the Vikings have done just fine without their stars. All three of those players started every game in the first 11 weeks of the year, and Minnesota's defensive DVOA was 1.7% in those 11 weeks. Since then, Joseph has missed five games, Barr two, and Smith three -- and the Vikings' defense has actually improved, with a DVOA of -7.6%. This is not to say that the Vikings are really better off without these three, just that there are so many other factors in winning and losing football games that their absence has not meant the end of the world.
With all that in mind, the story on this side of the ball is really about the Seattle offense, and two questions about their performance: How will the return of Marshawn Lynch change their scheme? And can Russell Wilson and the passing game continue to dominate the way they have for most of the past two months?
In a way, the first of those questions is easy to answer: Lynch is going to get his carries. Sidelined since Week 10 with a sports hernia injury that required surgery in late November, Lynch has been a full participant in practice this week, and is expected to play and play a lot against Minnesota. For all of Russell Wilson's recent passing success, the Seahawks are still primarily a run-first team. In each of Wilson's first three seasons, the Seahawks ranked first or second in runs, and last or next-to-last in passing plays. And through the first 14 weeks of this season, the Seahawks were again second in runs and next-to-last in passes. Then rookie running back Thomas Rawls broke his ankle against Baltimore. With Lynch already sidelined, the Seahawks were forced to re-sign Christine Michael (who was let go by both Dallas and Washington this year) and Bryce Brown (his third stint on Seattle's roster this year alone). They passed a lot more than usual after that, and by the end of the year they were merely third in rushes and 27th in passes. This is Pete Carroll's version of an Air Raid offense. With Lynch back in action, look for Seattle to return to its typical ground-based attack.
But which version of Lynch will they get -- the violent runner who led all running backs in DVOA in 2014, or the broken-down veteran who was barely average this season? Lynch is nearly 30 years old, the point where most running backs decline, and he has taken a lot of abuse -- since 2010, the year he joined the Seahawks in a trade from the Bills, he has a league-high 1,681 carries between the regular season and the playoffs. If Lynch doesn't show flashes of his 2014 self early, the Seahawks might continue to rely on Michael (who had 16 carries against Cleveland in Week 15 and 17 against Arizona in Week 17).
No matter who is carrying the ball, the Vikings will not be pushovers. Yes, overall they rank just 18th in run defense DVOA, but those numbers are skewed by a late Monday night game at San Francisco in Week 1 that kicked off 9:20 p.m. Minnesota time. In that game, Carlos Hyde rumbled for 168 yards and Colin Kaepernick added 41, and Minnesota's run defense DVOA was 58.3%. The Vikings haven't had a run defense DVOA worse than 6.9% since (that was the Seattle game), and since Week 2 they rank 12th in run defense DVOA at -14.4%. Joseph's presence here would help Minnesota a lot -- even though he missed four games, he still made 51 run tackles. That tied him with Eric Kendricks for the team lead and put him in the top five among defensive tackles in this category.
As for the second question and Seattle's passing offense, this is likely what will determine the game. If Russell Wilson and friends play like they have the last two months, there may not be a defense in the league that can stop them, or an opposing offense that can keep up. While they prefer to run the ball, passing is what the Seahawks have done lately like few teams ever have before. Their pass DVOA was just 9.3% in the first half of the year, a number that jumped to 81.0% from Week 10 forward. That makes Seattle one of the best post-Halloween passing attacks we have ever measured, and no team on record has ever made a bigger in-season improvement. Here's a look at where Seattle ranks in both those categories, along with the eventual fates of other teams that had similar success:
|Best Second-Half Passing Offenses, 1989-2015|
|2010||NE||93.6%||Lost wild card||0-1|
|2009||SD||82.5%||Lost divisional game||0-1|
|1991||WAS||81.2%||Won Super Bowl||3-0|
|1990||KC||72.3%||Lost wild card||0-1|
|2002||NYJ||69.7%||Lost divisional game||1-1|
|2011||NO||69.5%||Lost divisional game||1-1|
|1994||SF||65.5%||Won Super Bowl||3-0|
|2011||NE||65.2%||Lost Super Bowl||2-1|
|2012||SEA||62.6%||Lost divisional game||1-1|
|Best In-Season Passing Offense Improvement, 1989-2015|
|1993||LARD||-34.7%||36.4%||71.1%||Lost divisional game||1-1|
|2003||PHI||-13.8%||53.8%||67.6%||Lost NFC championship game||1-1|
|1990||KC||9.5%||72.3%||62.8%||Lost wild card||0-1|
|1993||BUF||-47.1%||13.0%||60.1%||Lost Super Bowl||2-1|
|2005||CIN||-22.8%||33.7%||56.5%||Lost wild card||0-1|
|2002||NYJ||17.2%||69.7%||52.5%||Lost divisional game||1-1|
|1994||MIN||-23.9%||28.6%||52.5%||Lost wild card||0-1|
|2010||NE||42.9%||93.6%||50.7%||Lost wild card||0-1|
As good as Seattle has been, this shows that nothing in the postseason is guaranteed. The results here are fairly mixed. The teams in the first table put together a combined playoff record of 11-7, while those in the second table went 5-8 in the postseason.
What spurred Seattle's improvement? The biggest personnel change was at center, where Seattle began the year by experimenting with former defensive tackle Drew Nowak. After that blew up in their faces, they waived Nowak (then re-signed him to the practice squad) during their Week 9 bye and promoted veteran Patrick Lewis. Since then, Wilson's yards per pass have made a small improvement, from 8.0 to 8.6, but his completion rate has actually gone down slightly, from 68.8 percent in the first half of the year to 67.5 percent in the second. The difference has come in the big plays -- his sacks have been cut in half (from 31 in his first eight games to 14 in his last eight), his interceptions have been all but erased (from six to two), and his touchdown passes have nearly tripled (from nine to 25).
Thanks largely to this surge, Wilson's wide receivers all had great efficiency numbers, even if they didn't get the opportunities that wideouts on other teams did. Wilson's DVOA when throwing to wide receivers was league-high 84.4%; the next best qualifying quarterback was Carson Palmer at 61.3%. Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, and Jermaine Kearse had only 178 catches between them (remember that Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown had 136 by himself), but all three finished in the top five at the position in DVOA, the only time three teammates have done this since 1989, the first year in our database.
Do the Vikings have any hope against this attack? As mentioned earlier, they're very good at generating pressure without blitzing. And for all his success, Wilson remains susceptible to a strong pass rush, getting pressured on 36 percent of his dropbacks. (The only quarterback under more pressure this year was… Teddy Bridgewater.) Like all quarterbacks, Wilson plays worse under pressure -- he averaged 8.8 yards per unpressured dropback, but 4.3 yards per dropback when the pass rush made an impact. That put him among the NFL's top five quarterbacks in both categories, but it is still a dramatic difference that the Vikings will need to exploit. And on that note, Minnesota might consider blitzing more than usual. Wilson was less efficient against blitzes (6.8 yards per dropback, 12th-best) than against other plays (7.3, sixth). That's largely because blitzing Wilson is the best way to put him on the ground -- he was sacked on 12.0 percent of all blitzes, but just 7.1 percent of the time otherwise. It is a high-risk gambit, though, because Wilson is capable of beating the blitz, averaging 14.6 yards per completion against blitzes compared to an 11.5-yard average against standard rushes.
If Wilson does have time to pass, do the Vikings have cornerbacks capable of containing Seattle's trio? Terence Newman (8.8 yards allowed per target) seems like a more vulnerable player than teammates Xavier Rhodes (6.6) or Captain Munnerlyn (7.0). On a related note, the Vikings were ninth in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers, and second against third/fourth/fifth wideouts, but they had trouble with No. 2s, where they ranked 25th. Baldwin is clearly Seattle's No. 1 guy, but it's not immediately clear whether Kearse or Lockett is No. 2.
However, the Vikings are far better in coverage on passes to the offense's left (where they rank third) than against passes to the middle (21st) or right (24th). And though the Seattle receivers move around quite a bit, Kearse lines up on the left side (48 percent of his targets came on that side of the field) more often than Baldwin (32 percent) or Lockett (35 percent). With Baldwin drawing the bulk of Minnesota's focus and Kearse lining up where the Vikings are strongest, it looks like Lockett is the guy most likely to have a big day for Seattle.
The Vikings face a huge challenge in Seattle's wideouts, but if they are able to contain that trio, the Seahawks don't seem to have the weapons to exploit Minnesota's other vulnerabilities in pass coverage. Wilson's DVOA when throwing to tight ends and running backs was 23.5%, which sounds good but was actually below average for starting quarterbacks. (Remember that the baselines here include sacks, so just looking at plays where quarterbacks actually got passes off will inflate the numbers of all players.) Again, though, Wilson's numbers there have soared in the second half of the year. Since Week 10, Wilson has been among the top five qualifiers in DVOA on throws to backs and tight ends even with Jimmy Graham going down for the year in Week 12. Just ask the Cardinals, who watched Wilson throw touchdowns to Will Tukuafu and Chase Coffman last week.
Since his wide receivers have been his primary targets, it's no surprise that Wilson excels at deep passes. His DVOA on throws that traveled more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage was 127.9%, second among starters to Andy Dalton. Minnesota's defensive DVOA against deep passes was 19th at 83.7%, but they do a good job of preventing those shots from being taken in the first place -- they only faced 99 deep passes this year, making them one of six teams to face fewer than 100 long balls.
Wilson is more than just a thrower; he's also a dangerous runner, a weapon of which the Vikings are well aware after Wilson ran nine times for 51 yards in the first game between these two. In general, though, the Vikings have not allowed quarterback scrambles to hurt them too badly. Even including Wilson's big day, they allowed 31 quarterback runs this year for 181 yards, both among the ten fewest totals in the league.
Seattle's passing offense has been so strong that it should be able to overcome the occasional negative play or penalty. In fact, you could almost argue that Seattle would be better off looking for big plays and ignoring station-to-station football. They have been just OK in third-and-short (1 or 2 yards to go) offense, with a DVOA of 2.7% (11th). But third-and-short is where Minnesota excels, ranking fourth with a DVOA of -32.8%. The advantage swings to Seattle on third-and-medium (3 to 7 yards to go), where their offense ranks sixth at 19.8% while the Minnesota defense falls to 23rd at 11.2%. And then things get interesting on third-and-long. With their fearsome pass rush, they have played very good with 8-plus yards to go on third down, with a DVOA of -38.0% that is fifth-best in football. Unfortunately for them, the Seahawks' offense had a third-and-long DVOA of 157.8%. That's not just the best this season, it's the third-best we've ever measured, behind only the 1991 Redskins and 2004 Vikings.
If there is a place where Minnesota's defense appears to have an edge over Seattle, it's in the red zone, where they rank third against the pass and 17th against the rush. Over the course of the season, the Seahawks' offense is ninth in passing inside the 20 and 18th in rushing, but as in most phases of the game they have been nearly unstoppable recently. Since Week 10, the Seattle leads the league in overall and passing offense inside the red zone, while ranking 10th on the ground. With a healthy Lynch on the field, Seattle should be even more effective in scoring range.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
With the Seahawks passing more than usual this year, the Vikings took their place as the league's most ground-based offense, finishing fourth in the league in runs and last in passes. And in an age when most playoff teams go with a backfield-by-committee, the Vikings are riding their star running back as far as he'll take them. Adrian Peterson was the only player to average 20-plus carries per game this year, with 327 runs in 16 games. That's 39 more carries than anyone else in the league, and 275 more than anyone else on the Vikings. As has been the case for the better part of a decade now, beating Minnesota usually means beating Adrian Peterson.
Since he is such a dominant part of the Vikings' offense, the team's offensive line stats are very much a measure of Peterson's effectiveness as well. Overall, they have been good-but-not-great in efficiency, ranking 10th in adjusted line yards and 12th in stuff rate. Those occasional stutters also explain why Peterson was just 17th in rushing DVOA and 24th in success rate. However, the Vikings fared very well in short-yardage running, and Peterson's game-breaking speed made him a very dangerous weapon -- Minnesota was among the league's top five offenses in power runs, second-level yardage, and open-field yards. And when the Vikings run, they usually go up the middle or to the right -- only 18 percent of their runs went to left end or left tackle, among the bottom five rates in the NFL.
Seattle has been excellent on run defense this year, and though they haven't shown the same improvement as their counterparts on the offensive side of the ball, they were certainly at their best late in the season. Through Week 9, they ranked seventh with a run defense DVOA of -7.3%. Since Week 10, that DVOA has improved to -23.2%, better than anyone in that timeframe except Denver and Houston. The strength of that run defense, though, is in preventing big plays, not hitting runners in the backfield or down-to-down efficiency. The Seahawks are 12th in adjusted line yards and 15th in stuff rate, and a woeful 26th in stopping power runs. However, they are third in both second-level yardage and open field yards. If ever there was a defense vulnerable to a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-snowflakes attack, this would be it.
The best players on that run defense are in the middle of the field, especially linebackers K.J. Wright (who made a team-high 63 run tackles) and Bobby Wagner (56) and strong safety Kam Chancellor (36 in only five games). Thanks in large part to that trio and a constantly rotating cast of defensive linemen, the Seahawks had the best line yards in the league on runs up the middle of the field. They were average or worse, however, on off-tackle or end runs to either side of the field, including a 29th-place finish on runs to left end. So either Peterson will need to run to his left more often than usual to exploit Seattle's weakness there, or he'll need to make hay on runs to the right, because he probably won't find a lot of daylight on interior runs.
It may seem odd that a team that was so stout up the middle would struggle as badly in short-yardage situations as Seattle did, but it's easy to explain: the Seahawks stopped opposing running backs six times in 16 short-yardage carries up the middle, but failed to get a single stop on seven short-yardage runs that went off tackle or to the ends. (That includes a play against the Rams when Benny Cunningham was hit for no gain and fumbled, but St. Louis recovered the ball for a first down.) There's a clear lesson here for Minnesota: when it's third-and-1, forget the dive or the sneak and attack Seattle on the edge instead.
At some point in this game, the Vikings will have to pass, though it will probably be with some reluctance. When it does happen, you can expect plenty of harassment for Teddy Bridgewater. As mentioned earlier, Bridgewater was pressured more than any quarterback in football this year, feeling the heat on 36.6 percent of his dropbacks, and the Vikings were 29th in adjusted sack rate. This makes Seattle an especially bad matchup for Minnesota, for while they don't get a ton of sacks (just 15th in adjusted sack rate), the Seahawks get pressure on 32.7 percent of opponent's dropbacks, higher than any defense except Denver. Worse, Seattle does that largely with a four-man rush (they blitzed only 21.9 percent of the time, seventh-lowest), which means they're not giving up easy outlets or bad one-on-one matchups to get that pressure. That would be bad news for any quarterback, but it's especially bad for Bridgewater -- he averaged 7.4 yards per dropback against blitzes this year (sixth-best), but only 5.2 yards against standard rushes (last among qualifying quarterbacks). Seattle's top pass rushers are Michael Bennett (10.0 sacks, 19 knockdowns, 14 pressure/hurries) and Cliff Avril (9.0 sacks 21 knockdowns, 10 pressure/hurries), both of whom shift around all over the defense but spend most of the time as bookend edge defenders. Bridgewater figures to spend a good chunk of the game on Sunday running for his life.
And when he does have time to pass, where exactly is he going to throw? The Seahawks have moved Richard Sherman around the field a lot more often in 2015 than they have in years past, and partly because he has been facing opponents' top wideouts more often, his individual per-target stats have taken a hit. He had a success rate of 58 percent and gave up 7.4 yards per target, failing to make the top 30 in either category. However, considering that he was targeted only 57 times in 16 starts, that means he only surrendered 1.5 successful completions per game on average. And that's a big reason Seattle was the best defense in the league against No. 1 wide receivers by both DVOA (-33.3%) and yards per game (46.8). Their DVOA was not as good, however, against No. 2 wideouts (-21.5%, fifth) or third/fourth/fifth guys (-9.5%, 10th).
It's hard to tell how that applies to Minnesota, though, because it's very hard to define who the No. 1 wideout on the Vikings is -- or if they even have one. Fifth-round rookie Stefon Diggs led the team with 6.5 targets per game, but since breaking out with 419 yards in his first four games, he has only 301 yards in his last nine:
Stefon Diggs' game-by-game yardage chart is sad and depressing. pic.twitter.com/3MSYhIOHRq
— Vincent Verhei (@FO_VVerhei) January 7, 2016
Mike Wallace is second in Vikings' wideouts at 4.5 targets per game, but he hasn't gained more than 85 yards in a game all year, and hasn't even hit 50 since mid-October. That leaves third wideout (I guess?) Jarius Wright at 3.1 targets per game; his best performance this year was a two-catch, 69-yard game against Kansas City back in Week 6. None of these wideouts made the top 40 in DYAR or DVOA. So really, it barely matters where Sherman lines up -- Seahawks corners will have a dominant edge over the Vikings' receivers regardless.
Fortunately for Minnesota, tight ends can catch passes too. And it's not as if Kyle Rudolph is the second coming of Steve Jordan, but he was an adequate starter, which is more than you can say for Minnesota's wide receivers. Rudolph was 18th at his position with 49 catches and 19th with 495 yards. His advanced stats were worse (he was 33rd in both DYAR and DVOA), but given the shaky nature of the Vikings' passing attack in general, he is clearly their best downfield target. That's especially true against Seattle, which for all its merits has struggled to cover tight ends all year (and really, for longer than that). Among the tight ends who had big games against Seattle this season: Greg Olsen (seven catches for 131 yards and a touchdown), Tyler Eifert (8-90-2), last-among-tight-ends-in-DYAR Jared Cook (5-85-0), and Vance McDonald (4-65-1 in just four targets).
Another key factor in this game will be pass direction. The Vikings don't pass much up the middle (only 17 percent of their passes were thrown to the middle this year, third-fewest), and they really don't throw to the deep middle (just six passes in all of 2015). And with Earl Thomas patrolling centerfield for Seattle, the Vikings are even more likely than usual to work the perimeter. There's not a lot of weakness on the outside for Seattle -- they have the league's best DVOA on passes to the short left area of the field, and they're also eighth in short right passes and 11th in deep right passes. The one area they have had trouble with is the deep left zone, where they rank 20th. The statline they have allowed on passes in that direction: 19 completions, 45 attempts, 549 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions, plus a 29-yard DPI for 12.6 average yards per throw. That's somewhat similar to the statline Bridgewater has when throwing to that part of the field (14-38-364-2-3, plus 24- and 34-yard DPIs for 10.6 average yards per throw), so it's fairly likely that Minnesota will find a big play or two in that zone. If so, it will probably be produced by Diggs (15 deep left targets this year) or Wallace (10).
Barring those big plays (and any explosive runs Peterson can produce), we can expect that Minnesota will need to convert a lot of third downs to win this game. And thus, while it barely matters what distance Seattle will face on third downs, it is vital for the Vikings that they avoid long-yardage situations. And really, those third-and-short plays are going to be a key contest of strength-on-strength, pitting the league's best offense on those plays in Minnesota against the league's best defense in Seattle. (Yes, Seattle somehow led the league in third-and-short DVOA despite being quite bad in power runs. They forced three fumbles and an interception on third-and-short plays, and also gave up only six conversions in 17 third-and-short pass plays.) Seattle's defense was stellar on all third downs, ranking second on third-and-medium and third on third-and-long, and first in third downs overall. Minnesota's offense, however, had some problems with more than 3 yards to go, ranking 17th on third-and-medium and 10th on third-and-long. Here's another, simpler way of looking at things: Seattle's defense is second in DVOA on third-down runs and first on third-down passes. Minnesota is first on offense on third-down runs, but 16th on third-down passes. If Minnesota is going to win, it is critical that they do not fall behind the chains.
If all of that goes Minnesota's way, they should find themselves in the red zone, and at that point I would give them the following advice: Do not pass unless absolutely necessary. The respective strengths and weaknesses of this offense and defense only intensify inside the 20. The Vikings' red zone offense is only 20th rushing, but that's still better than their 27th-ranked passing attack. Seattle's red zone defense, meanwhile, is fifth against passes, but 28th against rushes.
Both teams have been excellent in the kicking game, and that has played an especially key role in Minnesota's success this year. The Vikings' average touchdown drive this season has only traveled 58.0 yards, the shortest in the league. Meanwhile, Minnesota opponents have had to travel an average of 73.2 yards per touchdown drive, the longest in the league.
And a big part of that is a conservative approach to punting that emphasizes strong coverage over booming kicks. Jeff Locke averaged a league-low 41.6 yards per punt, and by punts alone no team was worse in our metrics. Those short kicks, however, rarely gave opponents a chance to return the ball, and the Vikings limited opponents to a league-low total of 152 punt return yards, only 5.2 per return. That could go a long way in neutralizing Tyler Lockett. The Seahawks were the best punt return team in the league by our metrics, and though part of that is due to Richard Sherman's 64-yard return on a trick play earlier in the year, Lockett did manage returns of 31, 42, and 66 yards in one quarter last week against Arizona.
Blair Walsh is nothing special on kickoffs and Minnesota is below average in coverage. Lockett is dangerous on kickoff returns (witness his 105-yard touchdown against Chicago, his 54-yarder against Pittsburgh, and his 47-yarder in the first Minnesota game), but he is not the consistent threat there that he is on punts.
Seattle's kicks could get interesting. Steven Hauschka was third in the league in kickoff value, but the Seahawks were 20th in kickoff coverage. That should mean opportunities for Cordarrelle Patterson, who led the league in kickoff return average for the second time in his three-year career and scored Minnesota's only points in the first Seattle game.
Marcus Sherels handles punt returns for Minnesota, and while he hasn't been as dangerous a returner as Patterson, the Vikings are in our top ten for punt return units -- witness his 65-yard touchdown against Chicago. And that's bad news for Seattle, because covering punts is the one aspect of special teams where they have struggled this year. Jon Ryan has been average as a punter, but the Seahawks are fourth from the bottom in our punt coverage numbers and gave up a league-worst 13.3 yards per return. Tavon Austin had a 75-yard touchdown in the first Rams win and a 21-yarder in the second. Patrick Peterson, Adam Jones, and Kaelin Clay also had 20-yard returns against Seattle.
Hauschka had an excellent year kicking for points, perfect on field goals inside 40 yards and going 13-of-15 on anything longer than that. He did miss four extra points, though. Walsh was nearly as good for Minnesota, going 22-of-24 inside 40 yards and 12-of-15 on longer kicks. Like Hauschka, he missed four extra points.
And of course, there's a good chance Old Man Winter shows up and wreaks havoc throughout the field, rendering this entire discussion moot.
Considering the statistical gap between these two teams, it's surprisingly easy to find a blueprint for a Minnesota upset. With good kick returns giving the offense short fields and Peterson finding room to run on the outside, the offense could manage some long drives to move the ball into scoring range, where the Seahawks are vulnerable to the run. The Seattle offense is likely going to manage long drives of its own, but if the Vikings can take away the big play and play some strong red zone defense, they can win by limiting the Seahawks to field goals instead of touchdowns. Throw in a weather-induced shanked punt and a funny bounce or two, and the Vikings could win a tight one.
However, it's just as easy to see Seattle eventually forcing Minnesota into third-and-long and then smothering Bridgewater and his receivers. Wilson has put up dominant numbers against better defenses than this, and those funny bounces on special teams are just as likely to go Seattle's way as they are Minnesota's. Seattle has been the superior team here in almost every way for most of the season, and especially for the past two months. There is a reason the Seahawks have finished first in DVOA for four years in a row. (And as Pete Carroll will tell you, that's "a pretty cool stat.") Road or home, hot or cold, early or late, they should be expected to get the win and advance to the divisional round.
Green Bay at Washington
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The storyline for this game is all about trends, and when to believe in them. There's no question that the Green Bay Packers have struggled substantially over the last half of the season, while Washington has played better overall. Green Bay started out 6-0, but was 4-6 after its Week 7 bye. Washington started out 3-4, but went 6-3 after its Week 8 bye, including four straight wins to end the season. Green Bay finished the year 10th in total DVOA, but 19th in weighted DVOA. Washington was 15th in total DVOA, but rises to 12th in weighted DVOA.
However, the trends here are actually a little bit more complicated than just "Green Bay has been worse and Washington has been better." For one thing, these trends are basically just about the two offenses. Neither defense has particularly improved or declined over the course of the season. Green Bay's defense had some struggles at midseason, particularly in that Week 8 blowout loss to Denver, but then improved again in December despite the loss of No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields to a concussion in Week 14. (Based on DVOA, three of Green Bay's four best defensive games since the bye week have come in Weeks 14, 15, and 17. Shields is listed as doubtful for Sunday's game.) Washington's defense, on the other hand, has been inconsistent but generally below average all season.
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Green Bay's offensive decline looks worse than it really has been because of the quality of the defenses the Packers have played. Actually, Green Bay's entire season on offense looks worse than it really has been because of the defenses the Packers have played. Green Bay's schedule included six of this year's top seven defenses by DVOA. The top three defenses (Denver, Carolina, Arizona) represent three of the six losses since Green Bay came back from its bye week. In the last ten games, Green Bay has played only one defense ranked lower than 20th (Chicago). Washington's offensive improvement, on the other hand, looks better than it really has been because they've drawn most of the league's worst defenses over the last few games. The six Washington wins since the bye week include victories over the three worst defenses this year by DVOA (New Orleans, Chicago, New York Giants). Washington has only played one of the league's top ten defenses since their bye week (Carolina in Week 11).
The other issue is that there's a difference between a gradual decline and kind of up-and-down performance that Washington's offense had over the second half of the 2015 season. Look below at the week-to-week graphs for the two teams. You can see Green Bay's decline was extremely steady, with only a couple of real outlier games. On the other hand, Washington's improvement hasn't actually been steady improvement. The Washington offense essentially went from always being a little bit below average to ping-ponging between really strong games and games where they were back to being a little bit below average. The ping-pong effect looks even stronger in that chart because Washington's best defensive game of the season, keeping New Orleans to just 14 points, came in a week where the offense was good but not great once we adjust for playing the Saints' horrible D. Looking at total DVOA for each game, Washington was one of only seven teams with at least five games over 40% -- but also the only one of those seven teams to have three games under -40%, along with two additional games below -30%. At least Washington fans looking to figure out which inconsistent team is showing up this week can take heart that four of the five games over 40% came at home, while four of the five games under -30% came on the road.
The issue of trend vs. full season is pretty important for trying to figure out who should be favored in this matchup. Despite the second-half fade, Green Bay was the better team over the course of the entire season. We've written a few times in these last couple weeks that weighted DVOA actually isn't particularly better (or worse) than total DVOA when it comes to predicting the postseason. On the other hand, some of the changes which have powered these trends are real. Washington's best wide receiver, DeSean Jackson really did miss the first half of the season except for one target in Week 1. It's not a fluke that most of Washington's best offensive games came after his return. And there's definitely something to the idea that Green Bay opponents took a few weeks to finally figure out how to take advantage of the absence of Jordy Nelson and better defend the Green Bay defense.
In addition, total DVOA being as predictive as weighted DVOA certainly hasn't been a positive indicator for teams such as Green Bay in past years. As noted in this week's Any Given Sunday, Green Bay is the 14th team since 1989 to make the playoffs with negative weighted DVOA but positive total DVOA. Nine of these previous teams went one-and-done, and none of the 13 teams won a single playoff game on the road. The other four teams -- the 1991 Broncos, 1993 Bills, 2012 Texans, and 2013 Colts -- combined to win five games, all of them at home.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
So, let's look closer at Aaron Rodgers' slump in the second half of the season. What's been going wrong here?
Aaron Rodgers has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league for years. He was still one of the best quarterbacks in the league for the first six weeks of the season, with 31.8% passing DVOA and 8.21 net yards per attempt. Those numbers are in line with Rodgers' career numbers. But since coming back from the bye week in Week 8, Aaron Rodgers has put up -15.3% passing DVOA with a ridiculously low 6.07 net yards per attempt.
Rodgers has seen his DVOA drop on first, second, and third downs. He has seen his DVOA drop in the red zone, but also every other area of the field except between the 40s. It didn't drop there in part because it was already low there in the first six games.
Yards after catch from Rodgers' receivers has dropped substantially since the bye week, from 6.6 YAC on average in Weeks 1-6 to 5.1 YAC in Weeks 8-17. However, it isn't any one particular receiver who has led to this drop in YAC. Randall Cobb's YAC has dropped from 6.7 to 4.8. James Jones' YAC dropped from 6.9 to 2.1. Richard Rodgers' YAC has dropped from 5.2 to 3.4. Davante Adams' YAC were never high to begin with, because he doesn't get separation from defensive backs, but it has dropped from 3.2 to 2.9.
Rodgers isn't really throwing more interceptions. He still ended up with only eight on the season, two before the bye and six afterwards. However, he's taking a lot more sacks. Green Bay's adjusted sack rate on offense has gone from 5.7 percent before the bye to 8.2 percent afterwards. That might be on Rodgers himself rather than his offensive line, because ESPN Stats & Info charting says Rodgers hasn't actually been pressured more often in the second half of the season. For the year, Rodgers has been pressured on 33.4 percent of dropbacks, fifth in the NFL. That percentage is 33.1 percent since Week 8, but it's a little lower without the game against that phenomenal Denver pass rush. Since Week 9, Rodgers has only been pressured on 31.4 percent of dropbacks.
However, ESPN Stats & Info numbers show that Rodgers has declined both when he's under pressure and when he's not under pressure:
|Aaron Rodgers with and without pressure, Weeks 1-6 vs. Weeks 8-17|
(For those wondering, we don't have the ESPN Stats & Info charting data merged into the database with DVOA yet, which is why some of the pressure-related stats in our playoff previews have QBR listed for an advanced metric instead of DVOA.)
Like almost every quarterback, Rodgers is a lot worse when he's under pressure. And an injury will play a critical role in Rodgers' protection on Sunday. Left tackle David Bakhtiari has missed two games and is questionable for Sunday. Backup Don Barclay was destroyed so badly by the Cardinals in Week 16 that the Packers tried to move Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton to left tackle in Week 17. He struggled playing out of position, so it's unclear what the Packers will do if Backhtiari can't play.
If the Packers can keep Rodgers protected, however, this matchup sets up as an opportunity for him to break out of his slump. In our minds, we all have a picture of Rodgers in decline and a Packers offense that no longer seems able to get anyone open. But consider that mental picture in the context of the difficult schedule the Packers played in the second half of the year. Even some the games that looked at the time like the Packers struggling against bad defenses turned out not to be. Detroit's pass defense ranked 25th when Green Bay only scored 16 points in Week 10, but the Lions ranked 16th in pass defense in Weeks 10-17.
On the other hand, there's no excuse for how badly Rodgers played against Chicago on Thanksgiving night. But if Rodgers has been looking for his opportunity to prove that was a fluke, and to prove that he can pick on a bad pass defense, this is it. Washington's defense ranked 19th against the pass by DVOA, including 28th against No. 1 wide receivers and No. 30 against No. 2 wide receivers. There are also depth problems at the cornerback position since Chris Culliver tore his ACL during practice on Thanksgiving. The No. 1 cornerback is now Bashaud Breeland, who did not do well in the SIS game charting stats. His 48 percent success rate allowed ranked 71 out of 83 cornerbacks with at least 40 targets; his 8.9 yards allowed per pass ranked No. 72. The No. 2 cornerback is now Will Blackmon, who was primarily a special-teamer for seven seasons until he was pressed into starting duty in Jacksonville a couple years ago. Blackmon has a surprisingly high 64 percent success rate, but on just 50 charted targets, and he's allowed 8.0 yards per pass. The third cornerback now is either the aging DeAngelo Hall, moving back over from safety where he played most of the season, or an undrafted rookie named Quinton Dunbar who played wide receiver at Florida before Washington moved him to cornerback in training camp just a few months ago. If you've been waiting for the game where the Packers receivers finally get open, this looks like it's going to be it. If you've been waiting for the game where Davante Adams is open but doesn't drop passes, I can't promise you anything.
Rodgers told reporters this week that maybe he "needs to let it fly a little more." This is a defense you can let it fly against. If you want to throw deep, you need to be protected. Well, Washington ranked 28th in the league in pressure rate according to ESPN Stats & Info, pressuring the quarterback on just 24.0 percent of dropbacks -- although when Washington did manage to get pressure, they limited quarterbacks to 4.52 yards per attempt, third-best in the league. However, because of the problems at cornerback combined with the lack of pressure, Washignton overall ranked 24th in DVOA against deep passes (16 or more yards in the air) compared to 14th against short passes. However, this is not because of yards after the catch: Washington is roughly average with 5.2 YAC allowed on passes this year.
Rodgers may need to go deep to get touchdowns, because Washington's defense has been surprisingly strong in the red zone this year. Washington is awful when the opposing offense has a long way to go, but they ranked eighth in defensive DVOA in the red zone as well as 12th when the offense was in what we call the "front zone," between the 21 and the 40.
What about the other part of Green Bay's offense? We know the Packers have always been a pass-first team under Mike McCarthy, and we all know Eddie Lacy didn't live up to expectations this year. So it might surprise you to know that the Packers actually ranked higher in run offense DVOA (10th) than pass offense DVOA (16th) this season. The Packers did see their run DVOA decline after the bye week from 3.2% to -11.1%, but when you break it down that had nothing to do with Eddie Lacy. Rodgers' DVOA on scrambles didn't decline either. Instead, the problem was James Starks, whose yards per carry went down (though his success rate went up).
|Packers RB, Weeks 1-6 vs. 8-17|
|Eddie Lacy Weeks 1-6||67||-11.6%||3.88||49%||1|
|Eddie Lacy Weeks 8-17||120||-6.4%||4.15||48%||2|
|James Starks Weeks 1-6||63||0.7%||4.54||40%||0|
|James Starks Weeks 8-17||85||-26.9%||3.71||45%||4|
Lacy's numbers look even better if we look only after he missed the Week 10 game against Detroit with a groin injury. Since Week 11, Lacy has averaged 4.33 yards per carry with a 50 percent success rate and -4.2% DVOA.
And if Green Bay has been waiting for a matchup to get the running game going, guess what, Washington fits that bill too, ranking 22nd against the run by DVOA. Washington's biggest issue is allowing big long runs once the running back gets into the secondary; Washington ranked 30th in both second-level yards per carry and open-field yards per carry. However, Green Bay's not going to want to try stuffing it up the middle when they get into third-and-short. Washington ranks No. 1 in preventing these short-yardage runs this year, allowing just 49 percent conversions, while Green Bay is 21st with 61 percent conversions.
WHEN THE FANCY LITTLE POTATOES HAVE THE BALL
Unlike with Rodgers' decline, it is pretty clear where Kirk Cousins' improvement over the second half of the season came from. It sounds obvious to say that to win this game, Green Bay needs to bring as much pass pressure as possible -- but seriously, to win this game, Green Bay needs to bring as much pass pressure as possible. Because in the second half of the season, when he's not under pressure, Kirk Cousins has been the best quarterback in the game. When he is under pressure, he's been the Kirk Cousins of every other year.
Since Week 9, Kirk Cousins has averaged 9.77 yards per attempt when ESPN Stats & Information charters did not record him as being under pressure. That's the best figure in the league over that time period. Russell Wilson (9.42) was the only other quarterback listed above 9.0 yards per attempt. But when Cousins is pressured, he's back to being a below-average quarterback:
|Kirk Cousins with and without pressure, Weeks 1-7 vs. Weeks 9-17|
Why was Cousins so good without pressure? In part because that's when he could find DeSean Jackson downfield. Jackson is only listed with eight targets on plays where ESPN marked Cousins under pressure. He caught one of those for 13 yards against Dallas in Week 13, with four passes listed as overthrown and three charted as "thrown away" even though the NFL listed Jackson with a target. Not counting screens, Jackson is listed with 36 targets where Cousins was not under pressure. Cousins connected on 24 of those passes, for an average of 21.2 yards each and four touchdowns. Three of those touchdowns were over 50 yards apiece. (By comparison, completions to Pierre Garcon when Cousins was not under pressure averaged just 10.4 yards.)
The Packers do not have a great pass rush, but they do have a good one. The Packers pressured the quarterback 28.5 percent of the time, 12th in the NFL, and had an adjusted sack rate of 6.7 percent, which ranked 14th. However, Washington was outstanding at keeping Cousins away from pressure this year. Cousins was pressured 21.8 percent of the time, the fifth-lowest rate among NFL starters, although that number is not adjusted for strength of schedule. Adjsuted sack rate is, and Washington ranked tenth there on offense (5.4 percent). In case you are curious, the pressure rate on Cousins was roughly the same before and after midseason.
Jackson becomes an even more important player to watch here because Green Bay ranked 22nd in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers but second in the NFL against No. 2 wide receivers. Alshon Jeffery had two big games against them. Amari Cooper had twice as many yards as Michael Crabtree. Demaryius Thomas had a huge game while Emmanuel Sanders did very little. Back in Week 2, Doug Baldwin had 92 yards while Jermaine Kearse didn't have a catch. This seems to be an issue of how they set up coverage, rather than any specific cornerback. The Packers seemed to move their cornerbacks around a lot, but they didn't specifically put Sam Shields on the opponent's top receiver. Casey Heyward does tend to play in the slot, which is probably why he has the team's best charting stats: 59 percent success rate, 6.1 yards per pass allowed. Assuming Shields is out, the outside corners will be rookies Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall. SIS charting has Rollins 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.
However, Jackson is not part of one of the other big improvements in Cousins' game this year, converting third downs. Washington ranked sixth in passing DVOA on third downs, but that came with a weird split. Washington was first on third-and-medium (3-6 yards to go) but 20th in third-and-long (7+ yards to go). Overall, Jackson had only 10 targets on third or fourth down, compared to 41 on first or second down. Slot receiver Jamison Crowder, on the other hand, had 21 targets on first down, 26 on second down, and 32 on third down. That's what you expect from a guy who had one of the lowest figures in the league for average pass distance. The average pass to Crowder went just 5.9 yards past the line of scrimmage; among receivers with at least 50 targets, only Eddie Royal and Cole Beasley were lower. Green Bay ranked fourth in DVOA against tight ends this year, so this won't be a great matchup for one of Cousins' other favorite third-down targets, Jordan Reed. Reed had the highest DVOA of any Washington receiver on third downs.
Early in the season, there was a sense that Washington wanted to be a smashmouth, run-first offense. Washington ran the ball 37 times for 182 yards against the lauded St. Louis defensive front back in Week 2, but as the season went on it became clear that performance was a fluke. For most of the season, the Washington ground game was pretty awful. For the season, Washington had the worst run offense DVOA in the NFL. The most significant split came on first down, when Washington ended up No. 1 in the league in passing DVOA but dead last in rushing DVOA. And so, part of the second-half surge on offense has been getting rid of the run-first mentality. In Weeks 1-7, in the first half of games, Washington ran on 62 percent of first downs. In Weeks 9-17, that dropped to 49 percent. On second downs (before halftime only), Washington went from 51 percent runs in Weeks 1-7 to 40 percent in Weeks 9-17.
The downside of this is that Washington is poorly equipped to take advantage of the weakness of the Green Bay defense, which once again this year is stopping the run. (This was the sixth straight year the Packers ranked better in pass defense DVOA than run defense DVOA.) The Packers actually do a good job of stuffing runners at the line (25 percent, third in the NFL) but give up a lot of long runs. And they particularly struggle to stop the run on third down, where they rank 30th in DVOA -- but again, Washington's run offense ranks dead last there.
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Something very strange happened with the 2015 Washington Redskins. Well, actually a lot of strange things happened, starting with Washington actually winning the NFC East. But this is the special teams section, so the strange thing we're talking about here is that Washington actually had good special teams for the first time in roughly forever. Washington had ranked 28th or worse in special teams DVOA for three straight years, and 20th or worse in special teams DVOA for seven straight years. But this year, Washington ranked sixth, the franchise's highest rank in special teams since 2005.
Washington ranked higher than Green Bay in overall special teams DVOA, but the two teams were very close in four of the five categories. Both teams had excellent kick returns (mostly Rashad Ross for Washington, and Jeff Janis in the second half of the season for Green Bay). Both teams got negative value from punt returns but could surprise in the playoffs. (Jamison Crowder had a poor year for Washington, but you never know if they might put DeSean Jackson back there in an important situation; Micah Hyde had a poor year for Green Bay but has been a good punt returner in the past.) Both teams were a little bit above average on field goals, and a little bit above average on punts.
The big difference comes from kickoffs, where Washington ranked fourth in the league and Green Bay was 31st. Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins managed touchbacks on 62 percent of kickoffs, compared to 51 percent for Green Bay's Mason Crosby. Meanwhile, Washington coverage teams allowed only four returns of more than 25 yards, while Green Bay allowed 10. That gives Ross a bigger chance of making a big play than Janis.
RANDOM DEPARTMENT OF RESISTIBLE FORCES VS. MOVEABLE OBJECTS
One of the items Sports Info Solutions tracked for us this year was broken tackles. Ranking both stats from best to worst, Washington ranked 24th in fewest broken tackles per touch on offense, and 27th in most broken tackles per touch on defense. But Green Bay was actually worse on both sides of the ball: 27th on offense and 30th on defense.
It's wrong to look at this game and simply say that Washington is hot and Green Bay is cold, and therefore Washington should be the favorite. Home-field advantage may a good reason to declare Washington the favorite, but over the course of all 16 games, it is Green Bay that has been the better team. Even over the last 10 weeks the difference between the two isn't that large once we adjust for strength of schedule. Yes, the Washington offense has been better than the Green Bay offense over the last two months, but over the course of the year, they've been about the same. And there's no question that Green Bay has the better defense, whether we're looking at the whole year or just the last couple months. The Packers will probably play without their top cornerback, but so will Washington.
The Packers can bring pressure, but Washington has excellent protection for Kirk Cousins, and there's no reason to believe that Cousins won't have opportunities to get the ball downfield to DeSean Jackson. But the Washington offense is really one-dimensional. Does Washington have the ability to run out the clock with a small lead late in the game? Aaron Rodgers should look more like the Rodgers of old attacking a Washington defense that is much more porous than most of the defenses he has struggled against in the second half of the season, but he still can't quite be the Rodgers of old because he still doesn't have Jordy Nelson to catch his passes. Nonetheless, the Packers offense should be better, in part because the Washington defense is worse. That advantage Green Bay has on the defensive side of the neutralizes the offensive trends and probably even the Washington home-field advantage, making the Packers slight favorites.
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.