by Rivers McCown (IND-HOU) and Scott Kacsmar (LAC-BAL)
This year, the NFC was supposed to be dominant over the AFC, but it didn't turn out that way. The AFC ended up with seven of the top 11 teams in our DVOA ratings, and four of those teams play this weekend in the wild-card round. Both games are rematches of very close regular-season games. The Chargers nearly came back to beat the Ravens before a late fumble-turned-touchdown resulted in a 22-10 final. Houston and Indianapolis played two games separated by just three points each, one of which went to overtime.
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 and anything else specifically noted.
Indianapolis at Houston
|DVOA||12.6% (8)||7.1% (11)|
|WEI DVOA||22.1% (4)||7.9% (13)|
|Colts on Offense|
|IND OFF||HOU DEF|
|DVOA||8.2% (10)||-7.1% (7)|
|WEI DVOA||15.9% (5)||-5.2% (10)|
|PASS||21.3% (10)||8.8% (18)|
|RUSH||-3.2% (13)||-30.1% (1)|
|Texans on Offense|
|IND DEF||HOU OFF|
|DVOA||-3.4% (10)||-3.6% (21)|
|WEI DVOA||-5.8% (8)||-1.4% (20)|
|PASS||8.8% (20)||17.8% (13)|
|RUSH||-18.8% (4)||-13.0% (26)|
|ST DVOA||0.9% (12)||3.5% (5)|
If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
The Indianapolis Colts are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, and betting has already reduced this game to just about a Pick 'em in Vegas after opening as HOU +2. There's a lot of history to consider between these two teams, division rivals that have essentially co-owned the AFC South since Peyton Manning's neck injury handed the early 2010s to Houston.
On the other sideline, the Texans are a team of contrasts. Stars have carried their ascent back from 0-3 to AFC South champions. This was the first time we got to see a healthy Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt in the same season. Deshaun Watson's second verse was not as statistically good as his first, but he continued to grow as a quarterback in less-familiar systems and circumstances. DeAndre Hopkins had the best year of any receiver in the NFL, in my opinion.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
They will not be running the ball effectively. At all. The Texans have one of the best rush defense DVOAs of all time. Three teams all season were able to generate positive single-game rushing DVOAs against the Texans: Miami in Week 8, Washington in Week 11, and Cleveland in Week 13. The Browns ran for just 31 yards.
The last meeting between these teams saw the Colts run just 23 times, and most of those came in the fourth quarter, with the Colts clinging to a 10-point lead and draining clock. Frank Reich opened up the final drive of the game, with the Colts up three and 2:34 on the clock, with three straight passes. Even in Week 4, before we knew the full extent of how good this run defense was. Andrew Luck threw for 464 yards. Left defensive end Brandon Dunn has been injured, but he hasn't been a huge cog in Houston's rushing defensive success. D.J. Reader is the war daddy who leads that charge -- that, plus the negative plays generated by J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney when they penetrate the line. Clowney has been used as a stand-up linebacker on interior linemen often this year, and the Texans generate a lot of havoc with that look on both run downs and pass downs. I would not completely discount Indianapolis' chances of running the ball because they've got great blockers up front, but it also wouldn't surprise me if runs became only a goal-to-go or grind-the-clock strategy.
Houston tends to play a lot of zone coverage because their cornerbacks are old veterans or journeymen. They don't have a lot of short-area quickness to work with, and have problems keeping up with corners with deep speed. SIS has charted them as 50 percent zone coverage, one of the eight highest rates in the NFL. When these two teams have played this year, Luck has shredded their zone coverages. It was so bad that Luck converted seven different third downs of 10 yards or longer in Week 4. Houston made some adjustments in Week 14, but can't play man on every down with Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson both lacking recovery speed. The problem is that, at some point, somebody is going to have cover T.Y. Hilton.
Hilton is one of the fastest receivers in the NFL, and he has destroyed the Texans over the course of his career. In 14 career games against Houston, Hilton has nine touchdown receptions and 1,445 receiving yards. Even in leaving the Week 4 game early because of injury, Hilton still managed 115 yards on just six targets. He caught rookie safety Justin Reid in quarters coverage in Week 14 and had him bite on a move to the corner only to run a post for 60 yards. Jackson and Joseph, similarly, have huge burn marks put on them this year by Hilton. While Hilton has been injured all season, and is still on the injury report with an ankle, I wouldn't worry much about his ability to torch this secondary. If he can make it onto the field, he'll have a good chance.
More man coverage might be Houston's best chance in this game because, outside of Hilton and Nyheim Hines, the receiving corps in Indy hasn't exactly been dominant. Eric Ebron is a big body and offers a lot of catch radius, but his DVOA on the season is 2.0%, 22nd among qualifying tight ends. The only Colts receiver with a positive DVOA besides Hilton is Dontrelle Inman, who only had 39 targets.
The heavyweight matchup will be Luck's pocket presence and his improved offensive line against Houston's pass rush. Watt and Clowney have both gotten theirs at various points against the Colts this season, with Clowney getting a strip-sack touchdown in Week 4. But neither of them has been the kind of consistently dominant force that's been necessary to get the Colts off the field. In fact, most of the best Houston pressure against the Colts this year has come from bringing safeties or nickel players into the box and blitzing with them, catching Luck off guard. The Colts have allowed just 18 sacks all season between Luck's skill at maneuvering the pocket and big years from Anthony Castonzo and Braden Smith.
All in all, I see Houston's problems defending Indianapolis as systemic and unlikely to be fixed. You can't create a corner that can stay with Hilton. You can't make the quarterback be more susceptible to a rush-four pass play. There are creative ways that they can attack those areas, but they are change-up looks, and Romeo Crennel has not exactly been aggressive in trying to change things up this year. I would expect another 24 points, at least, from the Colts in this game.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
The Texans have had to experiment with a lot of different offensive combinations this season, mostly because they don't have a lot of top-tier offensive talent outside of Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins. The offensive line is one of the league's weakest. Lamar Miller is functional rather than a plus player. Will Fuller tore his ACL in Week 8. The tight ends have barely been integrated into the game. The essential flow of the offense has been Bill O'Brien realizing that his best-laid plans have gone bad after a few bad weeks, then changing something. At first, the line was too worthless to handle Watson making three- and five-step drops every play. Then, towards the end of the season, teams started beating up on the line at the line of scrimmage, culminating in 81 rushing yards for their running backs from Week 14 to 16. In Week 17, O'Brien came out and ran Watson on option-esque plays 12 times after Watson had ran just 19 times all season.
Another issue coming into this game is the state of the receiving corps. DeAndre Hopkins is going to get his, of course. But with Fuller and Demaryius Thomas done, the Texans don't have a lot of depth at the position. Week 17 saw Vyncint Smith and Steven Mitchell, a pair of undrafted rookies, playing outside. DeAndre Carter somehow became the second receiver -- after being picked up on waivers from the Eagles during Houston's bye week.
The big X-factor to this game will be the health of Keke Coutee. The 2018 fourth-rounder has struggled with hamstring injuries all camp and all season, but in Week 4's debut, he torched the Colts for 10 catches and gave the Texans a boost of talent even being used as a gadget player. I know it's odd to talk about a player who had less than 500 snaps like this, but Coutee has been that good in his small samples, and I think a healthy Coutee would completely change the way that the Colts are able to approach the Texans as a defense. Coutee was listed as questionable, but had full practices all week through Thursday.
The last time these teams met, Watson missed a couple of deep balls that were open, and the Colts were able to mostly silence the Houston running game. One way they were able to keep pressure on Watson was by bringing defensive back blitzes. The Texans under O'Brien don't really scheme very often for ways to win early in the down, and that sort of instant pressure worked wonders for the Colts. Ryan Griffin caught a deep ball on an adjustment play for the slot corner blitz, but otherwise, Houston's tight ends are rarely involved in their offense. Third-round pick Jordan Akins has looked ready to be a bigger part of this offense for a few weeks now, but hasn't been able to get much traction because of his looks as a blocker. The Colts are 29th in passing DVOA allowed to tight ends, at 21.2%. They're 25th in passing DVOA allowed to running backs, at 12.3%. But neither of those areas are really big focal points for the Texans' default offense.
Indianapolis' defense doesn't really jump out at you as an uber-talented unit, but they're well-coached and aggressive, with Darius Leonard stating a big case for defensive rookie of the year honors. The first-year linebacker has speed in spades, reads a defense well, and is an excellent pass rusher. Houston's offensive line is going to struggle against anybody -- left tackle Julie'n Davenport finished second in the NFL with 27 blown blocks, per SIS -- but Leonard's fast enough to impact this game in a number of ways, even as a blue dog rusher. Houston especially struggled to deal with defensive lineman Denico Autry in Week 14. At one point, he swam right past the interior of the line and destroyed Watson in the backfield before Watson could even finish a play-action fake.
I suspect we find out pretty early just how much the Watson-led read-option plans matter against the Colts. Fourth in rush defense DVOA, Indianapolis stifled Miller and Alfred Blue in Week 14, and O'Brien's bread and butter this year has been to call running plays to keep rushers from teeing off on their offensive line. We'll probably know before the first quarter ends exactly what shape each side is in.
Well let's see, we know the Texans are bad at special teams so … wait, they aren't? The unit actually became good under new special teams coach Brad Seeley? WHAT?!!? Yes, that is your fifth-place special teams unit-having Houston Texans. Above-average in every area of special teams. I can't believe it either.
The Colts have been relatively solid as well, with great punts boosting them to average status. Neither side really has much in the way of a good return game, but perhaps a fumble somewhere on the field could shift things. DeAndre Carter has coughed up a lot of balls already this season.
DVOA has this as the closest game of the weekend, projecting things close to the current 1-point line.
I think it will all come down to the adjustments the Texans play with. If the Deshaun Watson-focused running game works, and Keke Coutee is able to play effectively, things shift towards the Texans. I don't see any way the Texans will get more than a few cursory stops of Indianapolis' offense just based on what we've seen from both units so far. Maybe one of them is a defensive score or something, but otherwise I expect the Texans will have to score 27 to win this game.
If Houston's changes on offense don't change much, don't be surprised if the Colts continue their hot play and roll on to Arrowhead next week.
Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore
|DVOA||22.7% (3)||17.0% (6)|
|WEI DVOA||23.7% (3)||18.7% (7)|
|Chargers on Offense|
|LAC OFF||BAL DEF|
|DVOA||20.8% (3)||-13.1% (3)|
|WEI DVOA||17.1% (3)||-14.1% (4)|
|PASS||41.7% (2)||-10.6% (3)|
|RUSH||4.1% (6)||-16.9% (6)|
|Ravens on Offense|
|LAC DEF||BAL OFF|
|DVOA||-4.7% (8)||0.9% (15)|
|WEI DVOA||-5.9% (7)||-1.3% (19)|
|PASS||1.2% (10)||15.7% (14)|
|RUSH||-12.0% (10)||-1.9% (10)|
|ST DVOA||-2.8% (25)||2.9% (6)|
If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
In Week 16, the Chargers were 39 yards away from scoring a touchdown that potentially could have earned them the AFC's No. 1 seed and kept the Ravens out of the playoffs. All it took was a holding penalty and an Antonio Gates fumble returned for a touchdown to squash that dream in a 22-10 upset, setting up this rematch 15 days later in Baltimore with the Chargers having to make the long travel for a 10 a.m. body clock game. While this could be the start of a revenge tour, it's a tough opening spot for a team that tied for the conference's best record and finished third in the NFL in DVOA.
Both of these teams know all too well how thin the margin between winning and losing is in this league. This is the Chargers' first postseason since the 2013 season after years of blown leads that were often inexplicable in nature. Now Anthony Lynn will coach his first playoff game after the Chargers (12-4) only blew one fourth-quarter lead while making big comebacks on the road in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Meanwhile, Baltimore had to hold off Baker Mayfield and the Browns to avoid missing the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. The Ravens (10-6) are rolling along at 6-1 since their bye week, with only an overtime loss in Kansas City in that time. This run also coincides with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson replacing Joe Flacco, who was injured before being officially benched for Jackson. Since then the Ravens are running the ball a staggering 45 times per game while still playing great defense and special teams under head coach John Harbaugh.
At a time when most of the league is opting for quick passes, Baltimore's old-school approach is not only a refreshing sight, but it could lead to the type of playoff success we haven't seen from a No. 4 seed since the 2012 Ravens won the Super Bowl. While the Chargers won't be intimidated by playing on the road, Baltimore has historically had one of the best home-field advantages in the league. Perhaps more troubling than the venue, the NFL really did not do Los Angeles any favors by scheduling this game for 1 p.m. on the east coast. In his career, Philip Rivers has done a respectable job of keeping the Chargers competitive in such games. He is 24-25 as the Chargers' starter in road games with an early start time (including 2-0 this season with wins in Buffalo and Cleveland). The record when the Chargers were an underdog, as they are this week, is 12-14, but Rivers did lead one of his best comeback wins against the last Baltimore playoff team in 2014.
Despite the recent success for both teams, neither has been blowing away the competition in recent weeks. The last five games for the Chargers have all been within one score during the fourth quarter, and the same can be said of all seven of Jackson's starts for Baltimore. We could be in store for another tight one here, but it's more important for the Ravens to take the lead than it is for the Chargers, who are better built to come from behind. Baltimore is the only team in this year's playoff field that has not won a game after trailing in the fourth quarter or overtime.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
It would be a lie to say the Chargers are humming along offensively going into the playoffs. Philip Rivers was having a potential career year while turning 37 years old, but he has thrown three touchdowns against six interceptions in the last three weeks (two picks in each game). The Chargers have scored at least 20 points in every game this season except for a season-low 10 points in the Week 16 Baltimore matchup. That's a little misleading too, since the offense only pitched in 14 points in the season finale in Denver while the defense scored the other nine points on returns, including a pick-two by Casey Hayward. So it's not a good thing that the Chargers have had their two lowest yardage and offensive scoring outputs of the season in the last two weeks against the Ravens and Broncos, and will be playing one of those teams again on the road this Sunday.
Unlike the other side of this matchup, we won't spend much time talking about the running game. Sure, the Chargers definitely need to get more than 13 carries for 40 yards out of their running backs, which is what they had in Week 16. Some holding penalties really hurt in that game as the offensive line was overwhelmed by the Ravens, but running is something the Chargers are generally good at this year. Los Angeles' rushing offense finished sixth in DVOA, seventh in yards per carry, and fifth in adjusted line yards. It's not a path to dominance for the Chargers here, but they'll need to continue running well in the red zone where they finished second in DVOA, and they need to be better than their mediocre rankings this season in power situations (18th) and avoiding stuffed runs (16th). Baltimore's defense was just 16th at stuffing runs, but the Ravens were very good at limiting gains in the second level (fifth) and open field (second).
The Chargers didn't have a run longer than 41 yards this season, but they were good at chunk plays. The Chargers tied Seattle for the league lead with 36 runs of 15-plus yards, and unlike with Russell Wilson's Seahawks, none of those were quarterback scrambles. The Chargers were also one of three offenses (joining the Rams and Giants) to not have a fumble on a rush this season. Melvin Gordon leads an impressive trio of backs, but he has been banged up recently. He's expected to play, though it's unclear if Austin Ekeler, who might be the team's best receiving back, is good to go with a groin problem. Seventh-round rookie Justin Jackson has also flashed at times, but these are the names unlikely to make or break the day for the Chargers -- unless they cough up the ball in a way they haven't all season.
The game is going to be on Rivers to handle Baltimore's pressure defense, which is the blitz-happiest unit in the league this year (36.8 percent) according to Sports Info Solutions. On the season, Rivers devoured three-man rushes and big blitzes, but against five-man rushes he dropped to 7.2 yards per attempt and threw more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two). In Week 16, Baltimore didn't go out of its normal range to blitz him (35.7 percent), but the pressure was effective in producing four sacks. That's despite the fact that Rivers took a conservative approach that night with his third-lowest aDOT (6.22) and his shortest average time in pocket (1.95 seconds) of the season according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The Chargers face some interesting dilemmas in attacking this defense, because they're not a top-tier offense at manufacturing long drives. The Chargers relied on chunk plays for much of the season. Baltimore's run-heavy offense led the league with 40 drives of 10 or more plays, while the Chargers had just as many of those drives (26) as offensively challenged Oakland and Denver. On third down, the Chargers are a mediocre 16th in DVOA and 16th in conversion rate (39.5 percent). Rivers has been great on first downs this season and the Chargers are No. 1 in passing DVOA on first down, and that's also their best running down, where they rank fifth in DVOA. They're not always perfect though -- Rivers threw an interception to Brandon Carr on the first play of the game in Week 16.
Rivers needs to get wideouts Keenan Allen and Mike Williams heavily involved, but this is a matchup where Rivers would love to have Hunter Henry at tight end. That actually might happen, as Henry has been practicing this week after missing the whole season with a torn ACL. It's really hard to project Henry to do much of anything in this game, but covering tight ends is a weakness in Baltimore's defense (22nd in DVOA). The Ravens are top eight in DVOA against all wide receiver types and No. 1 against receiving backs.
Baltimore is also second against short passes, but 16th against deep passes. No matter what the Chargers want to try in this game, they'll need to at least threaten deep more than they did in Week 16, when Rivers on deep throws was 1-for-5 for 17 yards, two picks, and a 15-yard DPI drawn by Allen. Play-action may not be the answer either; the Chargers are only 20th in frequency of using it, but also rank third in yards per play (7.6) without play-action. Baltimore's defense is third in yards per play against play-action (6.4) and second in yards per play against traditional passes (5.7), according to Sports Info Solutions.
Ozzie Newsome is stepping down as Baltimore's general manager, but he has built an impressive defense again that's a collection of veterans, players in their prime, and promising youngsters. Baltimore was one of four defenses to have three defenders with at least 29 pass pressures this season, according to Sports Info Solutions. Terrell Suggs still led the way with 35 pressures at age 36, but Matt Judon (30.5) and Za'Darius Smith (29) were right there with him and either matched or surpassed his sack total as well. Linebacker C.J. Mosley made his fourth Pro Bowl and had the game-clinching interception off Baker Mayfield in Week 17. Veteran safety Eric Weddle would love to get his first interception of the season against his former team.
The cornerbacks should be on display again considering how much of the Chargers' passing game goes through the wide receivers. While cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith don't have their best charting metrics this season, they handled Allen and the other receivers well in Week 16. Second-year corner Marlon Humphrey ranks third in yards per pass (5.3) and second in success rate (65 percent) this season according to Sports Info Solutions. The Ravens played man coverage on 47 percent of plays compared to 41 percent zone coverage this season. They may want to keep up the man coverage this week. According to Sports Info Solutions, Rivers averaged 7.99 yards per attempt against man, but shot up to 9.55 against zone coverage.
Not all the numbers are sterling for Baltimore's defense. It only ranked 24th in takeaways per drive and 24th in touchdowns per red zone trip. As a counterpoint, that makes some of their other numbers in scoring (second in points per drive) and yards (third) more impressive since it means they don't just let offenses drive long distances before relying on a fluky turnover or holding a drive to a field goal. This defense can get genuine stops, forcing offenses to punt on a league-high 50.9 percent of drives. Not being strong in the red zone isn't as important if you don't let the opponent get that far in the first place. In Week 16, the Chargers had 12 drives, and the only one that reached the red zone was one that started in the red zone after the Ravens offense fumbled.
It may sound cliché, but if the Ravens can protect the ball and not put the defense in bad field position, then the Chargers could have a tough time scoring again. Rivers will have to maintain his patience and not dig an early hole; Baltimore shouldn't score a ton of points in this game against a defense that ranks top 10 against the pass and run.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
We normally wouldn't advocate ignoring nine games of a team's season, but the Ravens are clearly a different offense with Lamar Jackson at quarterback than they were with Joe Flacco. In fact, it might be the biggest in-season transformation for an offense since the 2011 Broncos turned from Kyle Orton's pop-gun arm to running the ball with Tim Tebow. Perhaps it's fitting that Jackson broke a Tebow record in his first start when he ran 26 times against the Bengals. He hasn't done that since, but Jackson has logged 147 carries on the season, with 119 in his seven starts alone. The 147 quarterback runs are already a single-season record for the modern era (Bobby Douglass had 141 runs in 1972).
It's an understatement to say the Ravens are running the ball a lot. We haven't seen running like this in the NFL in decades. Over Jackson's seven starts, the Ravens are averaging 45.1 carries per game, which would put them on pace for 722 runs in a 16-game season, which would be a record. Jackson's unique ability to handle a heavy workload of designed runs and scrambles obviously is the catalyst for this approach. It's not like the Ravens added an All-Pro running back in Week 11 after losing Alex Collins to injured reserve. Gus Edwards had 15 career carries prior to his breakout game with Jackson in Week 11. Kenneth Dixon, who missed 10 games, just had his best game of the season with 117 rushing yards against Cleveland last week. Baltimore also isn't merely doing this the old-school way with fullbacks and big formations. Since Week 11, Baltimore's designed run percentage while in shotgun is 38.2 percent, which only trails Seattle (45.7 percent) in that time according to ESPN Stats & Info. Throw in the option looks with Jackson and it's a modern way of running the ball.
Just how effective has this approach been? We compiled some statistics with help from Sports Info Solutions to look at how the offense has fared under Flacco through Week 9 and under Jackson since Week 11 (remember, Baltimore had a bye in Week 10). Rankings for the league are included when applicable.
|2018 Baltimore Ravens: Offensive Splits|
|Games (Record)||9 (4-5)||7 (6-1)|
|Points per drive||2.07 (13th)||2.01 (15th)|
|Offensive DVOA||4.3% (12th)||-3.4% (19th)|
|Pass DVOA||21.6% (12th)||2.4% (22nd)|
|Run DVOA||-7.6% (17th)||2.6% (11th)|
|Rushes per game||25.7||45.1|
|Yards per carry||3.61||5.09|
|Third down conversion rate||45.5%||44.4%|
|Play-action usage rate||20.8%||34.4%|
|Passer rating -- play-action||74.6||100.6|
|Passer rating -- no play-action||86.6||75.7|
First, the offense hasn't improved at scoring, and thanks to an easy schedule of defenses down the stretch, the DVOA has actually gotten worse, especially in the passing game. The running game is obviously more effective, and with almost 20 more carries per game, but passing is still king at driving efficiency and scoring. At least the third-down offense has sustained well, and Jackson has made better use of play-action passing than Flacco did. It is traditional passing where Jackson hasn't been sharp, but that's to be expected given his development stage. According to ESPN Stats & Info, only Buffalo rookie Josh Allen held the ball longer and threw more off-target passes than Jackson this year. Jackson has also fumbled 12 times (four lost) this year, which explains why his rushing DYAR (-112) is the worst in the league. This is the kind of offensive approach that would never work without a strong defense and special teams, but much like how the Broncos stepped up for Tebow in 2011, the Ravens are playing sound team football with Jackson at quarterback.
How this offense fares against the Chargers again is very interesting, because Jackson had a career-high 204 passing yards in Week 16, but a career-worst 39 rushing yards as a starter. Baltimore's rushing success rate was only 33 percent in Los Angeles compared to 54 percent in Jackson's six other starts. The Chargers defended this running game well enough, but Jackson's money drive was after the Ravens fell behind and he threw a 68-yard touchdown to rookie tight end Mark Andrews. Baltimore never trailed again, but it remains to be seen if Jackson can consistently deliver with his arm if needed to.
On the injury front, the Chargers have since lost linebacker Jatavis Brown, so the defense is a little thinner after already losing Corey Liuget and Denzel Perryman late in the season. At least the Chargers still have Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram to lead the pass rush, and rookie safety Derwin James has already made the Pro Bowl. Casey Hayward doesn't have an official interception this season, but he had a pick-two in Denver last week and has good ball skills. The Ravens have a deep threat in John Brown, a slot receiver in Willie Snead, and an inconsistent veteran in Michael Crabtree, but it's hard to say that Jackson has developed a good rapport with any of them so far. Crabtree hasn't hit 40 receiving yards since Week 7 and Brown hasn't even cracked 30 yards in that time. The Chargers have more than enough talent on defense to contain this offense.
Given Jackson's inexperience and lack of quick decisions, it will be interesting to see if the Chargers break some tendencies and blitz him while playing man coverage more. No defense blitzed less often than the Chargers (12.6 percent) this year and only the Colts played more zone coverage. It's small sample stuff from Sports Info Solutions, but Jackson was just 15-of-30 for 144 yards against the blitz this season. He averaged 4.83 yards per attempt against man coverage, but 8.62 yards per attempt against zone coverage. Making the rookie uncomfortable and forcing him into mistakes might be the easiest way for the Chargers to throw the Ravens out of their game plan that has worked well for seven weeks.
If you assumed based on the history of these teams that the Ravens had a significant advantage on special teams, you would be right. Baltimore finished sixth in special teams DVOA, which was actually the team's lowest ranking since 2011. The Chargers finished 25th, marking the fifth season in a row they finished 23rd or worse in special teams DVOA. However, that's not to say everything went Baltimore's way and everything went wrong again for the Chargers. Justin Tucker can still vie for the title of the league's best kicker, but he showed some mortality when he missed a game-tying extra point -- the first of his career -- in a 24-23 loss to the Saints in Week 7. Desmond King had a huge 73-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to help the Chargers come back in Pittsburgh in Week 13. The Chargers also seem to have found a decent kicker in Michael Badgley, who has made 15 of his first 16 field goals and 27 of his 28 extra points.
Punting wasn't a strength for either team, as both finished in the bottom eight in punting value. The Chargers allowed a punt return touchdown and had another punt blocked for a score this year, but those plays both happened in September. Both teams were among the top seven in punt return value. We mentioned King for the Chargers, but Cyrus Jones also had a return touchdown for the Ravens after they picked up the former Patriot during the season. He has handled the majority of punts for the team since. In Week 16, the Chargers actually won the special teams battle by a small margin in DVOA (5.1% to 0.8%).
One of the most cited concerns for a West Coast team playing early is a slow start. It's one thing to come back from a two-touchdown deficit against the likes of Pittsburgh and Kansas City, but the Baltimore defense is a different beast, and the Chargers will not survive a big road deficit this time around. Still, experience at quarterback and an overlooked defense give the Chargers a fighting chance to pull this one out. John Harbaugh has coached 15 playoff games (10-5 record) and he has had a fourth quarter lead or tie in 13 of them. This will only be his third home playoff game. Home-field advantage is a fine reason for Baltimore to be a 2.5-point favorite, but the Chargers have not been an easy out this season.
The Ravens are more limited in the ways they can win this game, but the style they play best is so tough for teams to deal with. It's also a style that is hard on the team itself, as any false start or holding penalty can really make the drive difficult when Baltimore wants to run more than anything. As long as Baltimore avoids early setbacks, the Ravens should be able to play their game with Jackson not having to throw many passes and allowing the defense to attack Rivers. Remember, the only Los Angeles touchdown in Week 16 came on a 17-yard drive after a fumble by Dixon. Baltimore just cannot afford to be its own worst enemy on Sunday. Besides, that's usually the role the Chargers play in games of this magnitude.
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 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.