NFC Championship Preview 2017
by Aaron Schatz
You aren't going to find a controversial, counterintuitive take on the NFC Championship Game here. Pretty much everything you have read about this game is true. This is a battle of high-powered offenses, likely to be a shootout from the opening kickoff until the final whistle.
This year's NFC Championship Game opened with an over/under of 58.5 points. That was the highest ever for a conference championship, and it's gone up to 61 since the open. Atlanta and Green Bay ended the season as two of the four best offenses in the NFL according to our DVOA ratings. In the weighted ratings, including the postseason, they are the top two offenses. Since Week 12, and including the postseason, Matt Ryan leads all quarterbacks with 45.7% DVOA and 8.3 net yards per pass (including DPIs). Aaron Rodgers is second with 37.5% DVOA and 7.5 net yards per pass. Yes, we can argue that Ryan plays with better receivers and in a better scheme, so perhaps Rodgers is the better quarterback overall. It doesn't matter in this game because Ryan gets to bring his receivers with him and he's still playing in the better scheme until Kyle Shanahan decamps for San Francisco.
The offensive showdown here goes past just the offenses. Both defenses are below average, even when we consider that Atlanta's defense improved a bit in the second half of the season. Both defenses were even worse in the red zone than they were overall, making it even more likely we'll see Rodgers and Ryan trading touchdowns for 60 minutes.
There's a very good chance that this is the most offense-oriented matchup of the Super Bowl era for either a conference championship or a Super Bowl. It certainly is the most offense-oriented matchup of the DVOA era, going back to 1989. In the history of DVOA, there has only been one other conference championship where both teams had top-five offenses but below-average defenses. That was the 1993 NFC Championship Game, which Dallas won over San Francisco 38-21. However, the Cowboys defense was just barely below average that year (18th) and improved over the course of the season to finish 10th in weighted defensive DVOA.
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As with the divisional round, both conference championship games this year are rematches from the regular season. However, just as with the AFC Championship, this game will differ significantly from the first matchup because of injuries. No, there wasn't a backup quarterback involved when the Falcons squeezed by the Packers 33-32 in a Week 8 shootout, but there were a lot of other backups involved. The Packers played without their top two cornerbacks, Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall. They played without their top pass-rusher, Clay Matthews, who was out with a hamstring issue. On the offensive side of the ball, neither Randall Cobb nor Jared Cook was active for that game, and the Packers running game was in complete shambles. The Packers played the Falcons after Eddie Lacy's ankle injury but before they had officially moved Ty Montgomery to the running back position. Their running backs in this game were undrafted rookie Don Jackson and Chiefs refugee Knile Davis, who was cut the day afterwards.
Atlanta's injury situation was nowhere near as bad as Green Bay's at that point, but they did play this game without running back Tevin Coleman. Julio Jones was on the field for 84 percent of snaps but hurt his knee near the end of the first half and spent the second half as a decoy. He had three catches for 29 yards in the first half and only one target in the second half.
Once again for this game, the injury situation favors the Falcons. Yes, they have lost cornerback Desmond Trufant since the first Green Bay game, and Julio Jones was limited in practice this week. However, the Packers' wide receivers are a mess. Jordy Nelson (ribs), Davante Adams (ankle), and Geronimo Allison (hamstring) are all going to be game-time decisions on Sunday, and the Packers are also dealing with an illness that has swept through their locker room this week.
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 Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
This week, we're breaking out separate charts for offensive and defensive DVOA each week. The defensive charts are "reversed" so that better games are still higher on the chart even though they have negative DVOA.
Green Bay at Atlanta
All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Previewing this matchup presents an interesting quandry. Do we concentrate on the splits where the Falcons have an absurd advantage over the Packers, or do we focus on finding those few places where the Packers may be able to slow the Falcons down somewhat?
Perhaps the clearest problem for the Packers is right off the bat at the start of every series. The Falcons were the No. 1 offense passing on first downs this year, while the Packers ranked No. 31 against the pass on first downs. Ryan averaged 10.4 net yards per pass on first down, which means that the average Atlanta pass on first down gets a new set of downs. The Packers were surprisingly good against the pass on second down, fifth in DVOA, but then there's another big gap on third downs. The Falcons ranked seventh both passing and overall, while the Packers' defense was 25th against the pass and 26th overall.
Opposing defenses focusing on Julio Jones helps open things up for the rest of the Falcons' receivers, but they do their part as well. A number of other media outlets have pointed out that Ryan actually had better numbers this season throwing to receivers who weren't Julio Jones. DVOA doesn't quite agree, because Jones was so strong getting first downs, but it's close. When you remove sacks and other passes with no intended receiver, Ryan had 68.8% DVOA throwing to Jones and 59.6% DVOA throwing to everyone else. Jones had the highest receiving DVOA for any wideout with over 60 pass targets this year, while Taylor Gabriel (36.6% DVOA on 50 targets) had the highest DVOA for any wideout with at least a 20 pass targets. Tight end Austin Hooper finished second in DVOA among qualifying tight ends, while Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were both in the top six for receiving DVOA among qualifying running backs. Dropped passes can be hard to categorize and different sources will have different numbers, but SIS charting counted just five drops for Julio Jones while no other Falcons receiver had more than two.
The wide receivers are the biggest problem for the Packers. Green Bay ranked 31st in DVOA covering wide receivers, compared to seventh against tight ends and 15th against running backs as receivers. The Packers actually had the league's best DVOA against passes on the left side of the field, but this seems to be a complete fluke. With the constant movement of cornerbacks in and out of the lineup and all around the field due to injuries, this number certainly isn't related to an particular player. We've run a table with Green Bay's cornerback charting stats in each of the last two playoff previews, and to summarize, nobody stands out as very good. The only one of Green Bay's main cornerbacks to come out above average was Ladarius Gunter in success rate, where he ranked 32nd at 54 percent. However, add in the two playoff games, and he drops to 49th at 51 percent. Quinten Rollins has the worst charting metrics of them all, allowing 10.1 yards per pass with a 36 percent success rate.
That means that if Green Bay wants to slow down Matt Ryan, the Packers will have to do it with the pass rush. This should be a place where the Packers have an advantage. Both the Packers' defensive pressure rate (23.3 percent) and the offensive pressure rate allowed by the Falcons (23.1 percent) were close to league average, but the Packers pressure did a good job of getting home to force lost yardage. Green Bay ranked sixth in adjusted sack rate, while the Falcons' offensive line was just 23rd.
Charting stats suggest that defenses can slow down the Falcons with a lot of blitzes, and that happens to be a favored strategy for Dom Capers' defenses. Green Bay blitzed this year on 29 percent of pass plays, an above-average rate. And yet, in the first meeting between these teams, the Packers sent a standard four pass-rushers on almost every pass play. They only blitzed Ryan three times; Ryan completed two of those passes, both for first downs. And they only sent a limited pass rush twice, and Ryan completed both passes for 11 yards on third-and-6 and 9 yards on first-and-10. But the season-long numbers are really clear. Give Ryan time to pass by sending a limited pass rush, and the Falcons will destroy you. Blitz Ryan, and at least you have a better chance to stop them.
|Passing by No. Pass-Rushers, 2016|
|2-3 Pass-Rushers||4 Pass-Rushers||5+ Pass-Rushers|
|Freq||Yd/Pass||Rank||Suc Rate||Rank||Freq||Yd/Pass||Rank||Suc Rate||Rank||Freq||Yd/Pass||Rank||Suc Rate||Rank|
For Capers, it's not just about blitzing but about who's blitzing. The Packers sent more defensive back blitzes than any defense other than Los Angeles, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and allowed just 5.4 yards per play on these blitzes. That's the same average yardage Ryan gained on such blitzes this year, which ranked the Falcons 26th among offenses. So the recipe is not just blitzes but a lot of defensive back blitzes.
Of course, one reason the Packers send so many defensive back blitzes is that they essentially use 2-4-5 as their base defensive set, and almost always have at least five defensive backs on the field. The downside of that strategy is that it can open things up for the running game. The Packers' run defense started the season off like gangbusters and has slowly and steadily become more and more porous over the past four months. Here's a table we also ran last week; I've added a line for the playoffs, though that's obviously just a two-game sample that includes a game against the Ezekiel Elliott. Remember that these are team DVOA numbers and include all plays, so the average rushing play is below zero (because the average passing play is above zero).
|Green Bay Run Defense, 2016|
|Weeks||Run Def DVOA||RB Yd/Carry||Adj Line Yards||Stuff Rate|
The first game against Atlanta falls into the second period on that table. The Packers limited Devonta Freeman to 11 carries for 35 yards and a touchdown, but Terron Ward, playing in place of the injured Coleman, managed 46 yards on six carries. Complicating things for the Packers is that Atlanta's strongest run-blocking doesn't match the strength of the Green Bay run defense. Based on adjusted line yards, the Falcons were strongest on runs up the middle or behind right tackle, while the Packers were weaker on those runs and strongest on runs to the outside.
With the runs, of course, come the play-action passes, and the Falcons led the league by using play-action on 26 percent of pass plays. They were great with play-action, second in the NFL with 10.4 yards per play. But they were also great without it, leading the NFL with 7.8 yards per play. And the Packers' secondary was miserable whether opponents used play-action or not, allowing 9.2 yards per play with play-action (29th) but 7.0 yards per play without it (30th).
One thing the Packers defense does have going for it is strong tackling, as the Packers tied for the lowest number of broken tackles in the league (78). However, good tackling doesn't help you if you aren't in position to make a tackle, and that's part of why the Packers allowed an above-average 5.3 yards after the catch. The Falcons had 6.2 average yards after the catch, second in the NFL behind the Patriots. That's not just a function of the running backs, as wide receivers averaged 5.1 yards after the catch (third in the NFL).
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
First of all, the week-to-week graph certainly tells a powerful story about the Packers offense this year. People need to understand that even during the Packers' "down period," criticism that Aaron Rodgers was not playing up to his usual level was based on Rodgers' usual level. He was still playing better than an average NFL quarterback. Green Bay had only two games all year with an offensive DVOA below zero.
So, who's going to play wide receiver for the Packers on Sunday, and how much does it really matter? Our Film Room expert Cian Fahey has spent all season arguing that Aaron Rodgers makes his receivers, and not the other way around. The Packers receivers certainly seem to struggle to get open on their own. On play after play over the last few weeks, we've seen Rodgers holding the ball for five, six, seven seconds, scrambling around and waiting for someone to get open. The Packers receivers often need to be schemed open or they need to make contested catches when Rodgers makes amazing throws. Nevertheless, some of these receivers are certainly better than others when it comes to making those contested catches, and Rodgers' amazing throws have a lot less value if the receivers can't haul them in.
Nonetheless, there's a clear hierarchy of receivers for the Green Bay Packers, and the healthier the receivers at the top of that hierarchy, the more likely the Packers will be able to win this game. Jordy Nelson was third in the NFL in receiving DYAR this season, and ninth in DVOA. He may not be as fast as he was before his ACL injury, but he's clearly the No. 1 Green Bay receiver and the one the Packers most need on the field Sunday. Davante Adams comes next, and then Randall Cobb, who led the league in receiving DYAR back in 2014 but has seen his limitations as an outside receiver exposed over the past two seasons. Geronimo Allison had a good performance this year in limited time. Jeff Janis will see a lot more time on the field if two of the four receivers ahead of him can't play, and he made a couple of legendary plays in last year's playoff win over Arizona. But there's a reason they guy has barely gotten off the bench over the last three seasons, and he had -27.2% DVOA on 19 targets this season. Both tight ends (Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers) had below-average receiving DVOA.
The Atlanta defense has also improved in recent weeks, which is a bit of a surprise. Certainly, conventional wisdom said the Falcons would get even worse when Desmond Trufant was lost for the season after Week 9. Instead, the pass defense got much better. However, "getting better" doesn't really get it close to good enough to really stop Aaron Rodgers. The Falcons ranked 23rd in pass defense DVOA through Week 9, but rank 11th in Weeks 10-17. They've improved based on better coverage more than better pass rush; the Falcons have the same sack rate before and after midseason, but their adjusted sack rate has actually gone down (from 5.7 percent to 5.0 percent) because they've played an easier schedule of offensive lines since midseason.
The cornerback charting metrics back the idea that the Falcons' secondary got better without Trufant. Cornerback charting metrics are far from a perfect measure of cornerback play, and they often measure how teams use their cornerbacks as much as they measure how well those cornerbacks play. Nonetheless, this is the second straight year where Robert Alford's numbers came out much more impressive than Trufant's. Trufant did a strong job of preventing yardage this year, but allowed a number of shorter completions, and his success rate was lower than the player who replaced him in the lineup, 2015 second-round pick Jalen Collins. Meanwhile, although rookie nickelback Poole is a high-motor player with a great story, he's clearly a weakness. The Falcons ranked in the top ten covering No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers but were 29th against "other" wide receivers.
|Atlanta Cornerback Charting Metrics, 2016 (includes postseason)|
|Player||G||GS||Tgts||Yd/Pass||Rank||Suc Rate||Rank||Avg Air Yds||Rank||YAC||Rank|
|Desmond Trufant (out)||9||9||42||6.33||20||48%||62||11.7||51||1.6||27|
As the Falcons defense has gotten better against the pass over the last two months, it has gotten worse against the run. Certainly we didn't see this last week, when the Falcons kept Thomas Rawls to just 34 yards on 11 carries. But in the second half of the regular season, in Weeks 10-17, the Falcons ranked dead last in run defense DVOA. Even including last week's playoff game, the Falcons since Week 10 have allowed 5.4 yards per carry on first downs. That's just one reason why it's good for the Packers to run on first down; the other reason is that Atlanta was a surprising fifth in defense against first-down passes but 28th against the pass on both second and third downs.
Meanwhile, the Packers' running game has improved as much as the passing game in the second half of the season, going from 16th in DVOA through Week 9 to third in DVOA for Weeks 10-17. Since Week 10, Ty Montgomery has averaged 6.2 yards per carry on first downs with a 55 percent success rate. Packers adjusted line yards numbers don't really suggest one direction over the other -- ranking No. 2 on runs behind left tackle looks like a bit of a fluke since other left-side runs don't stand out -- but the Falcons numbers show there's more yardage to be had on the right side, where the Falcons tend to line up their better pass-rushers, rather than on the left side where Tyson Jackson and rookie linebacker De'Vondre Campbell are better run-stoppers. Montgomery will also have an opportunity to make plays in the passing game, as Atlanta ranked 26th in DVOA against running backs as receivers and allowed a league-high 53.5 opponent-adjusted receiving yards per game to running backs.
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Sack totals suggest that the Falcons' pass rush is almost entirely Vic Beasley, who had 15.5 sacks while the rest of the team had just 18.5 combined. However, charting hurries shows the pressure to be a bit more of a team effort. (Subscription required.) Beasley led the Falcons with 30, but the venerable Dwight Freeney had 19.5, Grady Jarrett had 16, Brooks Reed had 15, and Adrian Clayborn (now injured) had 14.5. Add in Jonathan Babineaux at 9.5 and the Falcons had as many defenders with at least eight pass pressures as the Packers had. However, Atlanta's pressure totals are high in part because the team faced a lot of passes; their actual pressure rate of 21.1 percent was just 22nd in the NFL according to SIS charting.
In In last week's preview, I noted that Aaron Rodgers had struggled all year against three-man pass rush with eight defenders dropping into coverage. Instead of using that strategy, the Cowboys completely switched things up and got surprising pressure on Rodgers using blitzes. The season-long stats for Rodgers still apply, but the Falcons would probably be better off following the Cowboys' strategy from last week instead of what I had suggested for them. The Falcons had the league's worst success rate on defense this year when sending three pass-rushers, and allowed 8.1 yards per pass, compared to 6.2 yards per pass with four pass-rushers and 6.7 with a blitz.
One other thing to watch for is Atlanta sending a defensive back on a blitz. It's not a tactic they used very much -- only 32 times all season, according to ESPN Stats & Info -- but they allowed just 3.9 yards per play . In the first Falcons-Packers game, Atlanta send a defensive back four times and Rodgers completed three passes for 20 yards plus an 11-yard scramble. During the regular season, Rodgers gained 7.5 yards per pass on defensive back blitzes, 10th in the NFL. Yet this is one tactic that has actually worked against Rodgers in recent weeks. In the first 10 games, Rodgers gained 9.0 yards per play against 49 DB blitzes. Since Week 12, he's gained just 2.8 yards per play against 42 DB blitzes. The Cowboys used this strategy against Rodgers on 13 different plays and Rodgers was 6-for-10 for just 32 yards with an interception and three sacks.
The other tactic the Falcons need to consider is a spy to make sure Rodgers isn't constantly gaining yardage with scrambles. The Falcons didn't have a particular problem with scrambling quarterbacks this season, except for two in particular: Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. I noted one scramble in the previous paragraph that came against a defensive back blitz, but in the Week 8 game Rodgers had five other scrambles and gained 60 total yards with four first downs. In last week's playoff game, Wilson scrambled six times for 49 yards with three first downs. It's bad enough when Rodgers gets outside the pocket to find receivers with seemingly impossible throws; it's even more demoralizing if he scampers for an 11-yard first down on third-and-long.
The special teams ratings listed in the box at the top of the page are from the regular season only, so they don't include the strong special teams game that Green Bay had against the Giants or the Atlanta's problems stopping Seattle kick returner Devin Hester in his final NFL game. Still, it's likely special teams will be a small advantage for the Falcons. Neither team had good numbers this year on kickoffs or kickoff returns, and both teams were a little better than average on both punts and punt returns. The difference really comes down to placekickers: Mason Crosby vs. Matt Bryant. Crosby's two long field goals in the fourth quarter were an impressive part of the win over Dallas, but Bryant has been the more trustworthy kicker both over the course of this season and over the course of their careers. Bryant was 7-of-8 on field goals of 50 or more yards this season, while Crosby only had two attempts (one missed) until last week. Don't worry about Bryant in a clutch situation, either. Bryant has hit 22 of 24 field goals during his career that would tie a game or give his team a lead in the final two minutes or overtime. Since 2000, that 92 percent rate is the best for any kicker with at least 10 such attempts.
"Last team with the ball wins" is a bit of a cliche. NFL playoff games rarely play out exactly as you would predict based on each team's average performance during the season. Two teams may play twice during a season and end up with completely different results, which is how we ended up with one Seattle-Arizona game this year finishing 6-6 and the other finishing 34-31.
There are plenty of possibilities for Sunday's NFC Championship. Maybe the offenses gain yardage but can't punch the ball into the end zone and have to settle for field goals. Maybe one team gets out to a big lead with a surprising special teams play or a random bounce of an unexpected fumble. Maybe Vic Beasley or Clay Matthews has the game of his life and single-handedly disrupts the other team's offense for four straight quarters. Maybe one of the quarterbacks simply wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and has a random bad game. Maybe each quarterback has one interception in him for Sunday, but one of them throws that interception on the would-be comeback drive in the fourth quarter.
On the other hand, even if cliches are not 100 percent accurate, they are popular because they are a good way to get across a basic theme. And so, with that in mind...
Last team with the ball wins.
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 two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive 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.