by Aaron Schatz (ATL-PHI) and Vincent Verhei (NO-MIN)
Divisional round weekend is usually considered the best weekend of NFL football for the entire season: two days, four games, and eight (hopefully) good teams.
This year, it's clear the two best games of the weekend are in the NFC. That's because the best teams of the year were in the NFC. In the AFC, 10-6 good enough to be the third-best team. In the NFC, 10-6 is the wild-card that snuck into the divisional round with a big road upset.
The strength of the NFC divisional round is hurt not because the Falcons are here instead of the Rams, but because Nick Foles is here instead of Carson Wentz. But while the quality of the Eagles is hurt, the question of how good Philadelphia can be with their backup quarterback actually makes the Saturday matchup a bit more intriguing. The Sunday matchup was intriguing already. New Orleans and Minnesota both finished the season ranked in the top eight on both sides of the ball, and will play a rematch of a Week 1 game that -- given the improvement of the Saints defense and the change the Vikings have seen at quarterback -- seems like it took place eons ago.
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. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA (which includes the wild-card round) and anything else specifically noted.
Atlanta at Philadelphia
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.
The Philadelphia Eagles were dominating the NFL for much of this season. They ranked No. 1 or 2 in DVOA for most of November, and they had the best record in the league. And they were an extraordinarily well-rounded team, ranked in the top ten of DVOA for both the run and pass on both sides of the ball.
Then Carson Wentz got hurt.
Backup Nick Foles had a strong game against the New York Giants in his first start. The game ended up close, a 34-29 win, but only because the Philadelphia defense had an abnormally bad day. Then against Oakland the following week, Foles completely fell apart. He managed just 3.5 net yards per pass against what was at the time the No. 32 defense in the league by DVOA. And with that game, most of America gave up on Philadelphia's Super Bowl chances.
So now the Eagles are a historic underdog in their first playoff game: the first No. 1 overall seed to be a divisional-round underdog since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Only five home teams were previously underdogs in the divisional round. The 2011 San Francisco 49ers were the only other home underdog in the divisional round in the 21st century.
And the 2011 San Francisco 49ers beat the favored New Orleans Saints, 36-32. In fact, four of the previous five home underdogs in the divisional round won their games, with the only loss coming when the 1981 Dolphins lost in overtime to the Chargers in one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
This is the easier part of the preview. We know who Philadelphia Eagles are on defense, and we know who the Atlanta Falcons are on offense.
But should we? The best strategy for the Falcons in this game might be to go away from their usual offensive scheme, spreading the field out and putting Matt Ryan in shotgun to hit more short passes instead of calling runnning plays.
The Falcons used Matt Ryan under center on 43 percent of plays this season, which tied them with the Rams in last place for shotgun rate. The Eagles were phenomenal against opponents who weren't using shotgun, leading the league with -28.5% defensive DVOA and ranking second with just 4.1 yards allowed per play. (Denver was No. 1 in the latter, at 3.7 yards.)
The main reason teams prefer a quarterback under center is the thought that it's better for the running game. But it will be difficult for either Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman to gain yards on the ground against this Philadelphia Eagles front. The Eagles led the league in adjusted line yards allowed and ranked second by stuffing 29.4 percent of runs for a loss or no gain. The Eagles also excelled at stopping second-level yards, first in the league preventing gains of 5-10 yards. The problem for the Eagles, and the reason they didn't lead the league in run defense DVOA, was that they let up once runners got into the open field. The Falcons may get a couple of those great highlight runs, but otherwise, there's going to be a lot of second-and-10s and second-and-8s after first-down carries. The Falcons ran best up the middle, where you'll find Pro Bowler Alex Mack, but the Eagles also were the best team in the league stopping runs up the middle.
The Falcons also have to stay away from their preferred zone blocking if they want to run on the Eagles. According to Sports Info Solutions charting, the Eagles have given up 5.1 yards per carry this year to runs involving pullers, compared to just 3.0 yards per carry on zone-scheme runs.
When the Falcons do drop back to pass, avoiding the Philadelphia pressure will be very important. The Falcons did not have particularly strong pass-blocking this season. They were only eighth in adjusted sack rate, but ranked 24th in offensive pressure rate. The good news for the Falcons is that the Eagles' pressure has dropped off in the second half of the season. They were sixth in pressure rate through Week 9 but rank just 19th since Week 10.
Jim Schwartz defenses are predicated on getting pressure with just the front four, and the Eagles ranked 28th in frequency of blitzes (17 percent of pass plays). When they did blitz, they tended to go big; the 2017 Eagles sent six pass-rushers almost as often as they sent five. That is not a wise strategy against Matt Ryan, who has killed big blitzes for two years now. In 2016, he averaged 9.3 yards per pass against six or more pass rushers. This year, his average was 9.1 yards per pass.
The Eagles generally keep their cornerbacks to specific sides, so there won't be anyone specifically covering Julio Jones. Ronald Darby is on the defensive right side, and Jalen Mills on the defensive left. Over the course of the season, the Eagles ranked seventh in DVOA against passes on the left side (defensive right) and second against passes on the right side, but they were 19th against passes up the middle. That split matches the split in DVOA vs. types of receivers. Philadelphia ranked seventh against No. 1 receivers and was the best defense in the NFL against No. 2 receivers, but ranked just 22nd against "other" receivers. This could be a good day for finding Taylor Gabriel or Mohamed Sanu out of the slot.
Both the Falcons offense and Eagles defense rank worse in the red zone than overall, so that's a matchup of weakness against weakness.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Make sure to also check out Charles McDonald's Film Room breakdown of the Atlanta defense in last week's win over the Los Angeles Rams.
And now, the hard part of the game to preview. Because what would be the point of going through all of the Philadelphia offensive splits with Carson Wentz when Wentz isn't going to be playing in this game?
Two games and a few plays in a third isn't really much to go on when it comes to Nick Foles. It's hard to split out his red zone numbers, or his numbers on specific downs. It's especially hard because the game against Oakland was so ridiculously bad. It has an outsized effect on all of Foles' 2017 stats as well as the conventional wisdom about this game.
Nick Foles is a passable backup. To act like he's suddenly the worst quarterback in the universe seems like a bit of jumping to conclusions over one bad game. After all, Foles had 23.0% passing DVOA in Week 15 against the Giants.
Part of the problem with Foles is that so many of his seasons have been so extreme that it's hard to tell how good or bad he really is.
|Nick Foles DVOA vs. Teammates, 2012-2017|
|Year||Team||Foles DVOA||Other QB||Other DVOA||Difference|
That 2013 season was a massive, massive fluke, and everyone pretty much knew it at the time. On the other hand, his poor performance with the 2015 Rams probably doesn't really represent what he's going to do with the Philadelphia offense either. And what is the meaning of "he was so much worse than Case Keenum" now that we've seen what Keenum was able to do with a much better offense? It seems like a conservative estimate to suggest that Foles is about 20 percentage points worse than the starter who plays ahead of him. We'll apply that to the whole offense, not just the passing game. (You'll see why in a few paragraphs.) The Eagles' offense was fourth in the league at 15.8% DVOA when Wentz was hurt, so a rough expectation for the Eagles with Nick Foles would be around -5.0%. The Philadelphia offense was better than that in Week 15, and not as good as that in Week 16. That number would have made Philadelphia the No. 21 offense in the NFL this year... a rank roughly the same as what the Atlanta defense ranked for the year.
Except, of course, that the Atlanta defense has improved in recent weeks. Over the last couple weeks, we've given the numbers a few times for Atlanta's split comparing the first half of the season to the second half. If we break down the season a little more, into thirds, you can see even more just how steady the improvement of the Atlanta defense was over the course of the season -- and just how much it was somewhat hidden by the quality of the offenses the Falcons had to face. In fact, Atlanta's yards per play allowed actually went up as the season moved along, though they were also forcing more fumbles and interceptions. The Falcons' DVOA improved steadily because Atlanta played an easier schedule at the start of the season: three NFC North teams plus Buffalo and Miami. Then things got tough starting with the Patriots in Week 7, and then they got really tough starting with Minnesota in Week 13. Four of Atlanta's last six games have come against NFC division winners who ranked in the top six of offensive DVOA this season.
|Atlanta Defensive DVOA by Week, 2017|
|*includes fumbles recovered by offense / **uses Green Bay DVOA through Week 5 only|
Dan Quinn is known for playing a Seattle-influenced Cover-3 scheme, but the Falcons also play a lot of man coverage; Sports Info Solutions ranked them 18th in frequency of man coverage this year, with most plays evenly split between Cover-1 and Cover-3. Foles averaged 5.7 yards per pass against zones this year, but just 4.0 yards per pass against man coverage. But again, small sample size. Do we really learn anything from those numbers?
The Falcons are sure to try to bring pressure against Foles, especially given the weakness of the Eagles offensive line against opposing pass pressure. Atlanta was middle-of-the-pack in defensive pressure, but the Eagles were a poor 29th in offensive pressure rate.
And on top of all the other questions about the passing game, the Eagles have to watch out for dropped passes. Philadelphia is one of only two teams (San Francisco was the other) where Sports Info Solutions marked at least seven drops by three different receivers: Torrey Smith (8), Zach Ertz (7), and Nelson Agholor (7).
The Eagles ranked No. 1 in red zone DVOA this year. As you might imagine, that dropped after Foles took over, although it stayed positive at 6.8% DVOA for Weeks 15-17. However, the Eagles' red zone DVOA splits into one of the best red zone passing DVOAs ever... and then a rushing DVOA that ranked 28th inside the 20. The quarterback has changed, but the running backs and offensive line are the same. Meanwhile, Atlanta's defense improved in the red zone, in bend-but-don't-break fashion similar to the Patriots. In particular, the Falcons were strong against the run, ranking fourth in the league in run defense inside the 20.
The inability to run inside the 20 is an even bigger problem without Wentz around, because opponents have stacked the box against Foles (and Nate Sudfeld). That has led to a total breakdown for the Philadelphia running game.
|Philadelphia Run Offense by Week, 2017 (scrambles not included)|
And unlike Foles' terrible passing numbers, these poor rushing numbers did start in Week 15 against the Giants, when the Eagles gained just 16 yards on 10 first-down carries. And the drop in first-down rushing yardage brings us to one of the strongest aspects of the Falcons defense this year: they win early in the series. As Scott Kacsmar pointed out Thursday in his ALEX season review, this game matches the top two defenses in ALEX; in other words, these are the two defenses that did the best job of forcing opposing quarterbacks to throw short of the sticks on third downs. Atlanta actually forced the most average needed yards (8.5) on third-down passes this year, and the Eagles were third (8.3).
But what's interesting here is that once we adjust for the fact that Atlanta faced more third-and-longs than other teams, the Falcons defense was actually bad at getting off the field on third downs. The Falcons were a dismal 29th in defensive DVOA on third and fourth downs: 14th on third-and-short (1-2 yards), but 27th on third-and-medium (3-6) and 29th on third-and-long (7+). Essentially, the Falcons faced a lot of passes in situations that were very favorable for them, and still allowed too many conversions.
OK, fine, but will they allow those conversions to Nick Foles? The Philadelphia offense was great on third downs, including No. 1 on third-and-long, but again... does that mean anything with Foles now at quarterback?
One other note: Even if the Eagles have trouble running the ball, the play-action game should be a good way to gain yardage through the air. The Eagles ranked fourth in play-action frequency this season, and the Falcons gave up 7.9 net yards per pass against play-action (24th) compared to 6.1 net yards per pass otherwise (11th).
For the most part, these were two mediocre special teams units this season and so special teams is unlikely to turn this game unless the issue is a last-minute clutch field goal. Even there, it's hard to say either team has an advantage. Matt Bryant may be the greatest clutch kicker ever but Eagles rookie Jake Elliott had a fine season as well and of course hit a 61-yard field goal on the final play to beat the New York Giants back in Week 3.
One thing to expect from both teams will be broken tackles. The Falcons ranked third with broken tackles on 12.7 percent of their offensive plays. The Eagles weren't as good at breaking tackles as Atlanta, but they ranked tenth with broken tackles on 11.5 percent of offensive plays. On the other side of the ball, the Eagles and Falcons tied for 24th in the league by allowing broken tackles on 11.2 percent of defensive plays.
Should they build an early lead, the Falcons will have to avoid the second-half letdowns that they are now famous for. The numbers agree with conventional wisdom here: Atlanta ranked third in offensive DVOA and 14th in defensive DVOA before halftime this year; that dropped to 17th and 25th after halftime, respectively. But there was no second-half letdown against the Rams a week ago.
The outlook for this game mostly comes down to just who Nick Foles is. Is he a run-of-the-mill backup, or is he a particularly terrible quarterback? As good as the Falcons offense is, the Eagles are currently No. 1 in weighted defensive DVOA. That defense has been excellent for the last couple months, except against the Giants. To offset both that advantage and home-field advantage, the Falcons' defense has to have a big advantage over the Eagles offense, not just a small one.
As I noted earlier, the Eagles' offensive DVOA when Wentz got hurt was 15.8%. Even if we penalize them extra for Foles... it's hard to fully make up the difference between the two teams. Let's penalize the Eagles 30 percentage points for Foles, instead of 20 or the standard "replacement level" of "13.3% below the starter." Add that to where the Eagles offense was when Wentz went out, plus the Eagles' current weighted defense and special teams ratings, and you end up with a team around 0 percent. Atlanta currently has a weighted DVOA of 6.0%. The typical home-field advantage is about 17 percentage points, and that doesn't even incorporate the fact that the Eagles had a week of rest while Atlanta had to play in the wild-card round.
Atlanta has a good chance to win this game. They're a good team and that defense is playing well right now. But the Philadelphia defense is playing even better. Both sides of the ball matter, even if Nick Foles is at quarterback. The line that favors the Falcons is simply wrong. At best, this game is a toss-up. But really, both Lincoln Financial Field and the bye week are enough to make the Eagles small favorites.
New Orleans at Minnesota
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.
The Minnesota Vikings debuted in the NFL in 1961, with the New Orleans Saints joining the league in 1967. In more than half a century since, the teams have met 29 times in the regular season, with the Vikings winning 19 games and the Saints ten. Some memorable performers in the series include Earl Campbell, who ran for 160 yards with New Orleans against Minnesota in 1985, the last 100-yard game of his career. In 2004, two Vikings had big days against New Orleans -- Mewelde Moore had 109 yards on 15 carries and 78 yards on seven catches, while Daunte Culpepper threw for 425 yards and five touchdowns. Drew Brees nearly matched those numbers with 412 yards and five touchdowns in a game in December of 2011. And way back in Week 1 of this year, Sam Bradford threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns, one of the best games of 2017.
Sunday's meeting between the two teams will be the fourth time they have played each other in the postseason. The Saints didn't make the playoffs until their 21st season in 1987, and after all that time, they rewarded their fans by taking a 44-10 thrashing at the hands of the Vikings. Minnesota also knocked New Orleans out of the 2000 playoffs, thanks in part to a pair of Randy Moss touchdowns that went for 68 and 53 yards. The most famous Vikings-Saints game was likely played in the 2009 season, when New Orleans intercepted Brett Favre in field goal range in the fourth quarter and then won 31-28 in overtime.
The winner of this weekend's game isn't guaranteed a berth in the Super Bowl, but otherwise it would be hard to overhype this matchup. By total DVOA, these were two of the four best teams in the league in 2017, and if anything that undersells them because both were mediocre on special teams -- on offense and defense, the Saints and Vikings were the best teams in the NFL this season. The Saints already have five wins against teams that made the playoffs this year. The Vikings only have three, but those three came against the Falcons, Rams, and these Saints in that Week 1 game. Both teams have changed drastically in four-plus months since. The Vikings lineup won't include Bradford, Dalvin Cook, or Nick Easton, each of whom started on offense in the season opener. For their part, the Saints are out seven starters from that game -- Adrian Peterson, Zach Strief, Andrus Peat, Alex Okafor, Alex Anzalone, A.J. Klein, Kenny Vaccaro. That's a lot of missing defenders, and yet the Saints have gotten dramatically better on that side of the ball over the course of the season. Remember, the Saints had been last or next to last in defensive DVOA five times in the prior six seasons, and it took a couple of games for them to find their mojo. By overall defense DVOA and pass defense DVOA, their games in Week 1 against Minnesota and Week 2 against New England were two of their three worst games of the year (the third was in Week 11 against Washington). The Saints were 31st with a defensive DVOA of 48.6% after Week 2; since then, they are third with a DVOA of -13.6%, behind the Jaguars and these Vikings.
We shouldn't be surprised if the Saints reverse their Week 1 fate and defeat the Vikings this time -- but we shouldn't be surprised if Minnesota pulls off a season sweep, either.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Make sure to also check out Ben Muth's breakdown of the New Orleans offensive line in last week's win over the Carolina Panthers.
If this game is the main event of the divisional round, then this matchup is the main event of this game, the best offense in the conference going head-to-head with the best defense. We covered the Saints offense in great detail in our wild-card preview last week, and some of what we wrote about came to pass in New Orleans' win over Carolina. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara had less consistent success running the ball than they had most of the season, but New Orleans won anyway by exploiting Carolina's thin secondary for multiple big plays for the air. Unfortunately for New Orleans, the Vikings are even better against the run than the Panthers, and unlike Carolina, they have no obvious vulnerabilities in the defensive backfield.
A scan through the year's individual defensive statistics finds Vikings among the leaders at almost all positions. Let's start on the defensive line. Only 46 defensive linemen had at least 35 successful plays this year (tackles, turnovers, or tipped balls that stopped an offense from gaining successful yardage), and three of them played for Minnesota. Linval Joseph was the terror on the interior, finishing second to the Giants' Damon Harrison among defensive tackles in total plays made and run tackles. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter set the perimeter, the only teammates among the 15 players with at least 40 hurries this season. The Vikings had another dynamic duo at linebacker; only 28 players at that position had 20 defeats (any play that resulted in a turnover, loss of yardage, or third-/fourth-down stop) this season, including Minnesota's Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. It was a similar story at safety, where Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo were both in the top 34 players in defeats at that position. The only defensive spot where the Vikings' individual numbers did not match up to their reputation was at cornerback -- and even there, Trae Waynes led all corners in successful run tackles, and Xavier Rhodes was a first-team AP All-Pro. Smith and Griffen joined Rhodes on the All-Pro team.
With all that talent, it's no surprise that the Vikings dominated in team statistics too. They were fifth both in overall rushing defense and in stopping opponents in short-yardage runs. They were fourth against the pass, and in the top ten in coverage against No. 1 wide receivers, No. 2s, tight ends, and running backs. Most worrisome for New Orleans is that the Vikings seem primed to take away everything the Saints do best. The Saints broke at least one tackle on a league-high 136 offensive plays this season -- but the Vikings defense missed a tackle on only 78-plays, second-fewest. New Orleans' running game was explosive, ranking third in second-level yards and first in open-field yards -- but the Vikings were third and second in those same categories on defense. The Saints threw 330 passes to receivers within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, most in the league, and they averaged 5.7 yards on those throws, seventh-best -- but the Vikings only allowed 4.7 yards on such plays, fourth-best among defenses. Kamara led all running backs in receiving DYAR -- but the Vikings were first in the league in pass coverage against running backs.
There's one thing, though, that Minnesota did better than anyone else this season -- in fact, better than anyone else in recent NFL history -- and that is getting off the field on third down. The Vikings allowed opponents to convert only 25.2 percent of third downs this year. That's the lowest such mark for any defense since at least 1991, and according to ESPN, just the 11th time that a defense has won at least 70 percent of the time on third downs. Minnesota was among the top ten defenses we've ever measured in overall third down and third-and-short DVOA.
|Minnesota Third-Down Defense, 2017|
|Yards To Go||Conversion Rate||Rk||DVOA||Rk|
|Also includes runs and passes on fourth down.|
That's troubling news for a Saints team that only converted 38 percent of its third-downs (19th) and went 2-for-9 on third- and fourth-down plays in the Carolina win.
Are there any cracks in the Vikings defense where New Orleans does have an advantage? A few, yes. First, they must realize that while Minnesota excels in making tackles, filling gaps, and preventing long runs, they were not especially good at hitting runners in the backfield; the Vikings ranked 13th in adjusted line yards, and just 26th in stuff rate. The Saints were second and first in those same categories on offense. Kamara and Ingram only combined for only 45 yards rushing against Carolina last week; they may not do much better this week in total yardage, but they should at least pick up enough small gains to keep New Orleans out of the third-and-long situations that are so hopeless against Minnesota.
Eventually, though, the Saints will have to pass. When they do, Brees should have some time to pass. The Vikings were a surprisingly low 10th in pressure rate on defense, and just 18th in adjusted sack rate. New Orleans' offense was second in adjusted sack rate and third in pressure rate allowed. (Remember, though, all those short passes that Brees threw -- it's hard to pressure the quarterback when he's dumping the ball off all the time.)
But just because Brees can pass does not mean that he will have any open receivers to throw passes to. Rhodes was an All-Pro this season, but Michael Thomas was a Pro Bowler, and that one-on-one matchup should be a lot of fun to watch. On the other side, Trae Waynes' matchup against Ted Ginn could be just as critical. The charting numbers for Minnesota's corners were nothing special. Rhodes ranked 27th allowing 6.4 yards per target, and 48th with a 54 percent success rate; Wayne's success rate of 56 percent was actually a little better than Rhodes', but he gave up more big plays, finishing 58th among corners with 7.6 yards allowed per target. "He gave up more big plays" is not the kind of thing you want to read about a corner who will be covering a wideout who scored an 80-yard touchdown. It's also noteworthy that Waynes was one of five cornerbacks this year to see 100-plus targets, while Rhodes was only targeted 84 times. Teams tended to pick on Waynes this year, and one mistake against Ginn can be disastrous.
The Saints haven't thrown a lot to their wide receivers behind Thomas and Ginn this season, but they may have to against Minnesota. The Vikings were just 15th in coverage against "other" wide receivers; nickelback Terence Newman (yes, he's still in the league) had his issues. The trio of Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis, and Willie Snead combined for only 41 catches, 572 yards, and four touchdowns this season. Brees' passing DVOA on throws to those three was 13.3%, compared to 54.5% on throws to Thomas and 86.2% on throws to Ginn. It's unusual considering how strong these teams are elsewhere, but this is a match of weakness vs. weakness.
There is one other hope for the Saints, and that is to burn the Vikings on a big blitz. Minnesota didn't use six or more pass rushers particularly often -- they called 33 big blitzes this season, one or two more than average -- but they were very effective on those plays, surrendering only 2.9 yards per play, best in the NFC. The Saints, however, killed big blitzes, averaging 10.2 yards per play against them, the second-best rate in the league. Teams seemed to know this was a bad idea, because the Saints saw a league-low 12 big blitzes all season. If Mike Zimmer and George Edwards get overly aggressive, however, Brees is certainly capable of making them pay.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
In many ways, the Vikings offense is a bit of a throwback. You won't see lot of read options or jet sweeps here. No hybrid players like Tyreek Hill or Tavon Austin, no tight ends disguised as slot receivers, no quarterbacks taking over the run game. What you've got here is a primary runner in Latavius Murray getting about 16 carries and maybe a catch per game, paired with a scatback in Jerick McKinnon who will add a dozen carries of his own, getting three or four catches to boot. With 47 more targets than any of his teammates, Adam Thielen is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver -- and a good one, finishing 11th in DYAR. Stefon Diggs is the ultra-efficient No. 2 man, finishing fourth in the league in DVOA and actually getting more DYAR than Thielen. He ran more super-short routes than Thielen, but more super-deep routes as well. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is a blocker first, receiver second, but he still gets more targets than the third wideout, second-year man Laquon Treadwell. Even fullback C.J. Ham gets a dozen snaps per game. The offense Pat Shurmur has put together isn't that much different than something you would have seen in the '80s or '90s.
With the roles in this offense so clearly defined, the one-on-one matchups on this side of the ball will likely be more important than any team-based numbers. Take Murray, for example -- how will the Saints match up with a running back who goes 6-foot-3, 225 pounds? There were five players this year who weighed at least 225 pounds and carried the ball 10 or more times against New Orleans: Jonathan Stewart (who did it twice), Samaje Perrine, Todd Gurley, Peyton Barber, and Jordan Howard. The Saints limited Barber to 3.8 yards per carry, but the other four each averaged 4.35 yards per carry or more. The averages for these six games against the Saints: 19.0 carries, 83.3 yards, 4.39 yards per carry. And this includes games when the Saints were healthy, with A.J. Klein and/or Alex Anzalone at linebacker. Murray hasn't been great this year, with negative rushing DYAR, but he's just the sort of runner who has typically given New Orleans trouble this season. McKinnon, meanwhile, was an even less effective runner than Murray, but he was one of 13 running backs this season to gain more than 400 yards receiving. You'll recall that the longest play the Saints surrendered to Carolina last week was a 56-yard touchdown catch where Christian McCaffrey made Craig Robertson look silly.
As for the receivers, Adam Thielen vs. Marshon Lattimore is nearly as good a matchup as Michael Thomas vs. Xavier Rhodes. The Saints did rank sixth against No. 1 receivers, so this will be no pushover for Thielen, despite Lattimore's modest charting stats -- the rookie did not make the top 40 in either yards allowed per target or success rate. Ken Crawley made the top 20 in both categories, but the Saints were still 17th in coverage against No. 2 receivers, giving up a league-high 63.5 yards per game. New Orleans was in the top six against both "other" wide receivers and tight ends, so it's unlikely that either Rudolph or Treadwell will have big days. But New Orleans was just 12th in coverage against running backs (we repeat: McCaffrey, 56 yards, touchdown), so the trio of Thielen, Diggs, and McKinnon should give New Orleans fits.
There are other trends here that favor New Orleans. Minnesota's offense was good at breaking tackles (11.6 percent of their offensive plays included at least one broken tackle, seventh-best in the league), but no defense missed fewer tackles than New Orleans. In the passing game specifically, the Vikings offensive line was greatly improved this season, but still ranked just 28th in pressure rate allowed. The Saints were ninth in pressure rate on defense, so the Vikings will have their hands full. However, like the Vikings, the Saints will have to be cautious with their blitzing, and that goes against their tendencies. The Saints used a big blitz with six or more rushers 12 percent of the time in 2017, more than any other defense, but they gave up 6.8 yards per play on those big blitzes, a full yard worse than average. Meanwhile, the Vikings absolutely destroyed big blitzes, to the tune of 12.2 yards per play, 2 full yards better than the second-best offense (New Orleans, if you've forgotten).
The Vikings also love play-action, using it more than anyone except the Rams. And it worked, as they averaged 8.7 yards with play-action (seventh) but just 6.4 yards without it (14th). Unfortunately for Minnesota, the Saints excelled against play-action. They gave up 6.3 yards on average with a play-fake (fourth-best), 6.6 yards without one (21st). They were one of four defenses to give up more yards without play-action, than with it. This bodes poorly for the Vikings, and for their quarterback. And this brings us to the big purple elephant in the room.
Case Keenum will be playing quarterback for Minnesota on Sunday. Whether you think he'll play well or poorly in that game, if you're confident in that opinion, you're a fool. The basics on the Vikings quarterback, if you're not familiar: Keenum destroyed the NCAA record book and won multiple awards at the University of Houston. He signed with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent in 2012, but never saw the field that year. He spent the next four years playing some awfully bad football for the Texans and Rams (24 starts, sub-60 percent completion rate, less than 7 yards per pass, 24 touchdowns, 20 interceptions). And then he signed with Minnesota as a backup, but ended up playing most of the season, as Sam Bradford was sidelined with a knee injury. He got off to a slow start, completing less than 55 percent of his passes and failing to throw a touchdown in two out of three starts. It seems like a lifetime ago, but Keenum was actually benched when Bradford returned to the lineup in Week 5 against Chicago. Thirty minutes later, though, it was clear that Bradford was in no condition to perform, and he hasn't played since.
With all that considered, it's not surprising that Keenum played his best football after the Vikings' Week 9 bye. Since Week 10, has completed 71.0 percent of his passes and averaged 7.8 yards per pass, with 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions. In that time, Keenum was second in the NFL in passing DYAR and DVOA behind Philip Rivers -- and since Rivers got off to his own slow start, Keenum actually led the league in DVOA by the slimmest of margins (Tom Brady, Brees, and Rivers were all within two percentage points of him). He was "only" fourth in DYAR -- which is still amazing, considering he was 19th in dropbacks. This kind of success for Keenum would have been unthinkable as recently as October.
And lest we forget, Sunday will be the 13th playoff start for Drew Brees, but the first for Keenum. The win-loss record for quarterbacks in their first playoff games has been less than stellar this century.
Keenum has been living a fairytale season, but which cliché fits him best? Is he the ugly duckling who turned into a swan? Or is his clock about to strike midnight, changing him back into a pumpkin? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining the winner of this game.
This is the Achilles' heel of both teams, which means neither should have much of an advantage this weekend. The Vikings were good at punting. Ryan Quigley actually had the worst gross average in the league, but he downed 29 punts inside the 20 without booting a single touchback all year, and only allowed 29 of his punts to be returned. Minnesota was also good at punt returns, where Marcus Sherels was third in the league with 372 return yards. They were bad at all other aspects of the kicking game. Kai Forbath missed six field goals (including two inside of 40 yards) and five more extra points. Neither Sherels nor McKinnon offered much help on kickoff returns. And on average, opponents started at their own 25.5-yard line on Vikings kickoffs, one of the ten worst figures in the league.
The Saints were almost able to remove special teams entirely from the Panthers game. Neither team returned a punt for more than 12 yards, or returned a kickoff at all. The Panthers and Saints both averaged 45-plus yards per punt. The Saints only attempted one field goal, and it was good; the Panthers attempted five, missing one (which turned out to be huge at the end). Considering how shaky their own special teams have been this year, if New Orleans could get a similar stalemate on the road in Minnesota, they would likely take it.
The Vikings are going into this game as a five-point favorites, and as our premium subscribers know, our projection system says that's just about right. I won't give out the pick against the spread here, but I will say that we are picking Minnesota to win straight up. That's what home-field advantage, a first-round bye, and an otherworldly defense will do for you.
In all likelihood, though, this game will still be very close in the fourth quarter. At some point, both quarterbacks will be called on to make a play that could win the game. When that happens, who are you going to trust? The guy who has been playing like an MVP for half a season? Or the guy who has been playing like an MVP for nearly 15 years?
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.