by Vincent Verhei (DAL-LAR) and Bryan Knowles (PHI-NO)
If the home teams had won in the NFC last week, we would have been set for two really great rematches from the regular season, with the Bears in Los Angeles and the Cowboys traveling to New Orleans. Instead, the NFC divisional round brings us a Rams-Cowboys game we haven't seen before and a Saints-Eagles game that will be very boring if it goes the same way as this year's regular-season meeting. The Saints won that game 48-7.
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.
Dallas at Los Angeles Rams
|DVOA||-5.2% (21)||23.7% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||-1.0% (19)||18.9% (7)|
|Cowboys on Offense|
|DAL OFF||LAR DEF|
|DVOA||-6.5% (24)||0.8% (19)|
|WEI DVOA||-3.7% (21)||-0.6% (13)|
|PASS||-0.9% (26)||0.2% (9)|
|RUSH||-6.8% (19)||1.5% (28)|
|Rams on Offense|
|DAL DEF||LAR OFF|
|DVOA||-3.5% (9)||24.6% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||-4.9% (10)||17.3% (3)|
|PASS||7.4% (16)||32.1% (5)|
|RUSH||-17.6% (5)||22.1% (1)|
|ST DVOA||-2.1% (23)||-0.2% (17)|
If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
To a large degree, Dallas' 24-22 victory over Seattle in the wild-card round played out as we projected it would in our preview last week. The Cowboys dominated in terms of total yards, first downs, and time of possession, but still found themselves in a close contest because they lost the turnover battle and gave up too many explosive gains on play-action passes. The one area where we were wrong -- and, in hindsight, the biggest reason Dallas won the game -- was that the offense played well in the red zone. Yes, K.J. Wright did end one scoring drive with an end zone interception, but each of the Cowboys' other three trips inside the 20 ended in touchdowns. That was critical in a game that ended with such a narrow margin of victory.
The Los Angeles Rams know something about narrow margins of victory themselves -- they went 6-1 this season in games decided by eight points or less. Mind you, they also went 7-2 in games decided by nine points or more, so it's not as if they reached the postseason on a fluke. This comes on the heels of an 11-5 record in head coach Sean McVay's debut in 2017. No team has won more regular-season games than the Rams in the last two years, but the only postseason contest they have to show for it so far is a 26-13 loss at home to the Falcons in which they never took the lead. Now they're playing at home again, but even with a bye there's a sense of disappointment around this team -- they could have clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but came up short in back-to-back losses to the Bears and Eagles in December. Since McVay was hired, this has been one of the NFL's best teams, but in the minds of many onlookers they still have to prove they can win "when it counts."
In that aspect, McVay has something in common with Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. Though he has had just one losing record in nine seasons in Dallas (including a 5-3 record as an interim coach in 2010), Garrett didn't win a playoff game until his fifth year, and didn't win his second until last weekend's triumph over Seattle. The winning coach on Saturday night will be leading his team to the NFC Championship Game for the first time.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
The following statements seem contradictory, but they are both true:
- Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, led the league with 20.5 sacks.
- By DVOA, the Rams have the worst defense of the four remaining NFC teams.
That's not a ringing endorsement of Donald's teammates and coaches, but it's factual nonetheless. Donald had the most sacks ever by a player at his position (unless you want to count Reggie White or J.J. Watt as defensive tackles), and if anything that undersells his ability to disrupt opposing passing attacks. Donald also led the league with 62.5 pressures. Nobody else had more than 50. Donald was likewise tops in the league in both quarterback hits (41) and total tackles for loss (25). None of this is good news for a Cowboys team with two players -- Joe Looney and Xavier Su'a-Filo -- who were among the top 20 in blown blocks by interior offensive linemen according to Sports Info Solutions charting. (Su'a-Filo missed the Seattle game with an ankle injury and is questionable to play against the Rams.)
Yet despite Donald's nigh-unstoppable presence, the Rams finished just 19th in defensive DVOA, ninth against the pass and 28th against the run. Donald had exactly half of the team's 41 total sacks, and L.A. finished 19th in adjusted sack rate. They did lead the league with a pressure rate of 36.0 percent, but that's almost entirely due to Donald -- none of his teammates had even half as many pressures as he did. The Rams defense ranked 20th or worse in completion percentage, yards per pass, yards per completion, and touchdown rate by opposing quarterbacks. They did intercept 18 passes, tied for third-most, but in between the highlights this defense was nothing special when the ball was in the air.
If L.A.'s pass defense was erratic, their run defense was downright shoddy -- they failed to make the top 20 in any of our run defense metrics. Their worst category was open-field yards, where they ranked 27th, which means they were vulnerable to big plays.
If all of this sounds like doom and gloom for the Rams, let's remember that they are playing the Cowboys, not the Chiefs. The Cowboys offense had a DVOA of 8.0% in the Seattle game. That's good, but modest -- ten offenses had a better DVOA over the full season. For the Cowboys, however, it was excellent, a mark they reached only four times in the regular season. In this matchup between a resistible force and a moveable object, does either team have an edge?
The most obvious advantage the Cowboys have is Ezekiel Eilliot. Beyond the most obvious benefit of a handoff -- Donald can't harass Dak Prescott if Elliott has the ball -- it's in the running game where the Rams struggled most. Mind you, Dallas' own rushing attack was hardly overwhelming (19th in rushing DVOA), but this is still where the Rams are most vulnerable. Remember all those run defense stats where the Rams ranked in the bottom half of the league? Well, the Cowboys offense was in the top half of the league in those same categories. They were most effective running to the middle of the field, ranking sixth, 10th, and eighth in ALY on runs to left tackle, middle, and right tackle, respectively. Surprisingly, despite the presence of Donald and Ndamukong Suh, the Rams ranked 21st, 13th, and 14th on runs to those same areas.
When it does come time to pass, we might see a lot of Prescott outside the pocket. As we've established, the Rams have a clear edge on the interior, but their sack leader amongst perimeter players was Samson Ebukam, who had only three. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have good tackles, particularly Tyron Smith, who was just elected to his sixth Pro Bowl. Prescott is capable of playing well outside the pocket -- he averaged 6.5 yards per play outside the pocket this year, including scrambles and sacks -- so rollouts and bootlegs might be a good method to avoid Donald before he has a chance to get into the backfield.
The Rams' cornerbacks have some weird charting numbers, largely due to the injuries that knocked Aqib Talib out for half the season. Marcus Peters was their only player with enough targets to qualify for our pass coverage leaderboards, but his numbers were ugly -- he allowed 9.7 yards per target, 80th out of 85 qualifiers, and his success rate of 49 percent was just 56th. Talib's numbers (8.4 yards per target, 52 percent success rate) were nothing special either, but it's worth noting he was targeted just 23 times in eight games -- teams clearly avoided him. Troy Hill, who started when Talib was hurt, had a better success rate (56 percent) than either Peters or Talib, but when he did get beat, he was beaten savagely, giving up 10.6 yards per target. Finally there's nickelback Nickell Robey-Coleman, who had an exceptional year -- his 4.4 yards allowed per target and 67 percent success rate were both good enough to lead the league, but with only 39 targets he didn't qualify for our leaderboard. Regardless, his matchup against Cole Beasley could be a critical one.
While the individual numbers for L.A.'s corners paint a murky picture, their team totals show more strengths and weaknesses, and that could be good news for Amari Cooper. The Rams were 28th in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, and they gave up 82.7 yards per game against No. 1s; only two other teams gave up more. (Those two teams, the Saints and Eagles, are playing in the NFC's other semifinal, so a big game for Cooper here could lead to another big game next week.)
To get the most out of Cooper, Dallas should line him up to the left side of the field. The Rams were 24th against passes to the offense's left and 28th on throws up the middle, but second in DVOA on passes to the offense's right. The Rams shuffled their defensive backs all over the place, but it will likely be Talib holding down that side more often than not this weekend -- he was not listed as the primary defender on a single pass to the offense's left this year.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Fresh off a win over the Seahawks, the Cowboys must now prepare for an offense that is similar in some aspects, but clearly better. The Rams used play-action on 34 percent of passes, the only team to use it more than Seattle (and they were better with it too, 9.0 yards per play to 8.8). The Seahawks loved to throw it deep, but Jared Goff actually threw more deep balls than Russell Wilson did, 115 to 102. The Seahawks ran more frequently than anyone outside of Baltimore, but the Rams were better at it, finishing third in rushing yards and first by a lot in rushing DVOA. While Seattle used a rotation of running backs, the Rams leaned heavily on Todd Gurley -- until Gurley went down at the end of the season and C.J. Anderson ran wild in his place, to the tune of 7.0 yards per carry and a 40.1% DVOA. The biggest difference is that while most of Seattle's good passes were long bombs to Tyler Lockett, the Rams have a diverse arsenal of targets -- Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Josh Reynolds can all beat you at receiver, as can Gurley at running back or Gerald Everett at tight end. That will be a big help against a Dallas defense that ranked sixth or better against No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers, but 19th or worse against other wideouts, tight ends, and running backs.
The real stars, though, are on the offensive line, which is likely the best in the league. The quintet of Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe, and Rob Havenstein started every game for L.A., and the results were spectacular. The Rams were first in the league in adjusted line yards and second-level yards, and second in stuff rate; they deserve extra credit because the offense didn't miss a beat when Anderson took over for Gurley. They were also stellar in pass protection, ranking sixth in both adjusted sack rate and pressure rate allowed. Per Sports Info Solutions charting, the Rams did not have a single player in the top 60 in blown blocks. As we covered last week, the Cowboys are stout in the front seven, but they'll likely be outmatched here -- Dallas ranked third in adjusted line yards and fifth in stuff rate, but was in the middle of the pack in our other run defense metrics. They could also have a problem with missed tackles -- safety Jeff Heath was second in the NFL with 21 broken tackles, and linebacker Jaylon Smith was also in the top 10 with 18.
While L.A.'s rush offense was the best in the league, their pass offense was merely very good. They ranked fifth in team passing DVOA, and Goff was sixth in both DYAR and DVOA among quarterbacks. Considering the Cowboys were just 16th in pass defense DVOA, this looks like a total mismatch. If there's a concern for the Rams offense, it came in a three-game slump against Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia. By pass offense DVOA, they were three of the Rams' four worst games of the season. In that stretch, Goff completed just 55 percent of his passes for less than 6 yards per throw, with one touchdown, six interceptions, and seven sacks. In those three games, the Rams had a pass offense DVOA of -22.1%, 27th in the league for that timeframe.
Our old buddy Doug Farrar -- who knows so much about offensive football that he wrote a book about it -- said there were serious problems with the Rams offense when he wrote about them for USA Today in November:
When you have a quarterback making this many repetitive mistakes that basically amount to giving up, you have a major problem on your hands. Either Goff is playing scared, or McVay is telling him to throw the ball into the 300 section of the stadium whenever he doesn't get a read he likes, but at this rate, he'll have 20 throwaways a game. … And if it's true that opposing defenses have figured out McVay's machinations, it will be up to Goff to transcend that schematic battle with his own ability to improvise. Based on the evidence, there's not a great chance of that happening.
Since that three-game slump, the Rams rebounded with dominant wins over Arizona and San Francisco to close out the year. Goff and the passing attack were much better in those games (68 percent completion rate, 8.3 yards per throw, five touchdowns, no interceptions, two sacks), but does that mean all the Rams problems have been solved, or that they had more to play for in the last two weeks than a pair of going-nowhere teams that had already packed it in for the season? That's something to keep in mind as we go over some specific splits.
The biggest down-and-distance advantage belongs to L.A., which ranked second in second-down offense DVOA, while the Cowboys were 22nd in second-down defense. The difference is entirely due to passing -- the Rams were fifth in second-down pass offense, the Cowboys were 28th in second-down pass defense. The Rams used two tactics on second-down passes. About 30 percent of the time, they tried a play-action bomb, completing barely half of their passes, but averaging 16.0 yards per catch. The rest of the time they threw short without play-action, completing more than two-thirds of their throws, but for only 10.9 yards per catch. Either way, they were effective, with 11 touchdowns, only three interceptions, and exactly 7.0 yards per play.
When it comes time to pass, Dallas should avoid man coverage. Goff averaged 9.3 yards per pass against man coverage, most among any full-time starter. But he was just 18th with 8.3 yards per pass against zone coverage. The good news for the Cowboys is that they only played man coverage 35 percent of the time, so they might match up better with the Rams than a lot of other teams would.
Splits get interesting on third downs. The Cowboys have a big edge on third-and-short, where they rank fifth while the Rams are 17th. Things look even on third-and-middle, but the Rams have a big edge with 7 yards or more to go, where they rank fourth and the Cowboys are 25th. This doesn't necessarily mean the Rams should take a delay of game when third-and-1 comes up, but it does mean they will probably keep drives alive even if they fail on early downs.
Finally, don't be surprised if this is a close game at halftime, and then the Rams pull away late. Both the Los Angeles offense and the Dallas defense were second in the league in first-half DVOA. The Rams, however, were second in the second half and first in late-and-close situations; the Dallas defense fell to 23rd in both categories.
The Rams had a bad year on field goals, but that's largely because Greg Zuerlein missed five games early in the season with a groin injury. When he played, he was the same old Greg the Leg -- he didn't miss a field goal shorter than 40 yards, and his 87 percent conversion rate on field goals was higher than his career average. That edge should go to the Rams, as should the punting game, where Johnny Hekker and Jojo Natson outplayed the Dallas duo of Chris Jones and, uh, whoever was returning punts for them -- Cole Beasley and Tavon Austin have split that job pretty evenly.
The Cowboys' kickoff crew has struggled this year, but so has the Rams' kickoff return team, so that's a wash. It's a wash the other way too, where the Rams' kickers and Cowboys returners have both been middle-of-the-pack.
Sometimes, when a team slumps late in the year and appears to suffer from bad matchups against a specific opponent, it's easy to overthink things in search for reasons to pick an upset. But consider that in their very worst game of the year, the 15-6 loss to the Bears, Los Angeles still had a total DVOA of -11.5%. The Cowboys had eight games worse than that, as recently as Weeks 15 and 16 against Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the Cowboys only had two games with a DVOA of 20.0% or higher (wins over the Saints and Giants), while the Rams had nine. The Rams at their worst could certainly lose a home playoff game for the second year in a row, but the Rams at their best will blow the Cowboys off the field. Likely, we'll get something in the middle: a close game for a while that turns into a comfortable win for L.A. by the end of the night.
Philadelphia at New Orleans
|DVOA||0.0% (16)||20.7% (4)|
|WEI DVOA||2.7% (17)||25.2% (3)|
|Eagles on Offense|
|PHI OFF||NO DEF|
|DVOA||-0.3% (16)||-3.1% (11)|
|WEI DVOA||3.0% (14)||-10.2% (6)|
|PASS||18.1% (11)||10.2% (22)|
|RUSH||-13.5% (27)||-24.9% (3)|
|Saints on Offense|
|PHI DEF||NO OFF|
|DVOA||0.0% (15)||15.9% (4)|
|WEI DVOA||2.7% (19)||12.2% (7)|
|PASS||6.7% (15)||34.4% (3)|
|RUSH||-12.3% (9)||3.3% (8)|
|ST DVOA||0.2% (15)||1.7% (9)|
If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Playoff rematches often bring with them a little bit of extra anticipation. When two playoff-caliber teams meet in the regular season, they usually produce a high-quality game that we can't wait to see replayed in January. We would all love to see replays of the Chiefs-Patriots nail-biter, or the Rams-Saints game which determined the top seed in the NFC. This particular rematch, however, is slightly less palatable.
When the Eagles faced off against the Saints back in Week 11, Philadelphia was absolutely destroyed, 48-7. It was, by far, the worst game of the year for the Eagles, and the best for the Saints. Philadelphia's 196 total yards was their lowest total since a 2014 loss to the Seahawks, while New Orleans' 546 yards was their highest total since 2016. The game was essentially over by halftime.
The Eagles' total DVOA in that game was the worst single game for any of the playoff teams this year, beating out New England's -58.6% total against Miami in Week 14. The 48-7 loss is the third-biggest blowout directly preceding a matchup of the same teams in the postseason since 1970, per Stats LLC. You won't be surprised to hear that a blowout loss like this traditionally does not bode well for a postseason rematch. Teams that lost by 30 points or more in the regular season are 5-9 in playoff rematches. Only one of those five wins was by a team that lost by at least 35 -- the 2010 Jets over the Patriots. Even the Jets' loss "only" reached -72.9% DVOA, so an Eagles win in this rematch would be essentially unprecedented.
In many ways, though, the Eagles have become an entirely different team since that Week 11 loss, and the Saints have come somewhat back down to Earth. From Week 1 to Week 14, Philadelphia's offensive DVOA was -1.8%; since Nick Foles took over in Week 15, it has been 5.6%. In the same splits, their defensive DVOA has gone from 3.9% to -18.3%. The Saints, meanwhile, have come back down a little bit towards the pack. Even excluding their Week 17 rest game, the Saints have seen their offensive DVOA drop from 26.6% in their first 11 games of the year to -3.8% in their next five, with three of those games having a negative offensive grade. They seemed to have righted the ship in their last game in which they tried, Week 16's win over Pittsburgh, but there are certainly more questions today than there were in mid-November. Was it a three-game blip, or did the Saints peak too early? We'll begin to find out Sunday afternoon.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
The Eagles only ran eight plays in the first quarter the last time these two teams met; only one of them (a 6-yard zone read by Carson Wentz on second-and-10) was successful. Suffice to say, spotting your opponents at 17-0 lead before you have a second play that works is less than optimal, and spotting an offense as good as the Saints that sort of lead is catastrophic.
It's a little surprising that the first successful play against the Saints was a running play as the Eagles can't run the ball. At all. Since Foles took over, the Eagles are averaging just 3.23 yards per carry on the ground, and they're 30th in run DVOA since Week 9. Their best rusher in recent weeks has been Josh Adams, but Adams only received one offensive snap in the win over Chicago. Adams had received double-digit carries in the previous three games, so his absence last week was particularly surprising. Coach Doug Pederson called it a "game-specific" decision to use less Adams and more of Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood. That may have something to do with the fact that Adams has essentially no value in the passing game, whereas both Sproles and Smallwood have had success as receivers out of the backfield.
Adams burst onto the scene against the Saints with 53 yards on just seven carries, but we may see less of him against New Orleans this week. For one, Sproles wasn't healthy last time around; he's the most experienced back the Eagles have and is probably the most dynamic back on the roster when he's at 100 percent. That really hasn't been the case since 2016, but he does seem to finally be back from the hamstring injury that cost him most of this season. Secondly, like the Bears, the Saints absolutely clamp down on the rushing game -- they have the third-best rushing defense DVOA in the league. Unlike the Bears, however, the Saints can be gashed by running backs as receivers. Their 19.8% DVOA when running backs are targeted ranks 29th in the league, and we've seen big days against them from the likes of Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey. The Eagles don't have a receiving back of quite that caliber, but it's a potential area to attack, and that probably means more Sproles and Smallwood than Allen.
The running backs should lead the way in the short passing game, but the way to break down the Saints' 22nd-ranked pass defense is via the long ball. New Orleans ranks ninth in short-pass defense DVOA at -7.8%, but they are the worst team in the league at defending deep passes (16+ air yards), with that DVOA ballooning to 62.6%. They are in the bottom three in the league in covering both primary and secondary receivers, so the best strategy against them is to send your top two guys against Marshawn Lattimore and Eli Apple and just let it fly.
There are a couple problems here for the Eagles, however. First of all, they had little success with the long ball against New Orleans back in Week 11. They attempted eight deep shots. Four of them fell incomplete, three were intercepted, and the last one drew a defensive pass interference call. They are the only team this season to not complete a deep shot against the Saints' defense, despite trailing for the majority of the game and forced to go pass-happy early.
Secondly, Foles is not the Eagles quarterback you want in deep-ball situations. Foles ranks just 21st among qualified quarterbacks in deep-ball DVOA, five slots behind Wentz. During the regular season, the average Foles pass traveled just 6.7 yards downfield, the fewest air yards for any qualified quarterback; Wentz was at a more robust 7.8. Foles went all of Week 17 without throwing a single deep ball; he was 2-for-6 with an interception in the wild-card win against Chicago. Wentz is simply the more aggressive of the two Philadelphia passers, for better or for worse. Last year, Foles upped his deep-ball game during the Super Bowl run, going 8-for-19 with four touchdowns and just one interception, being particularly effective against the Vikings and Patriots. The Eagles will need to see a repeat of that if they're going to keep pace with the Saints' offense.
The big matchup to watch will be Alshon Jeffery, who has had greater success with Foles than with Wentz, up against Marshon Lattimore. Jeffery and Lattimore were matched up against one another almost exclusively back in Week 11; Jeffery ended up with a couple of first downs, but was stopped short on a third-and-4 and saw his pass tipped on a fourth-down play. The Eagles only took one deep shot with Jeffery against Lattimore, preferring to go to Golden Tate and Nelson Agholor when they did throw deep. I'd expect that to change this time around; Lattimore ranks just 75th among qualified cornerbacks in success rate and allowed a terrible 10.4 yards per pass attempt on balls headed in his direction this season, so this is a matchup the Eagles could win. The matchup will be especially important if Tate is at all hobbled; he was banged up on the game-winning touchdown against Chicago and has been limited in practice. Expect the Saints to give Lattimore plenty of help over the top to keep this one from getting out of hand.
The one member of the Saints' defense the Eagles need to account for is Cam Jordan; while players like Demario Davis and Sheldon Rankins are having very good seasons, Jordan's the force of nature. Jordan had four hurries and a knockdown in the last game against the Eagles, as Lane Johnson had significant issues keeping him in check. Johnson was charted with five blown blocks in Week 11, far and away his worst day of the season. It goes without saying that can't happen again, especially if the Eagles do go to a deep-pass oriented attack.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Drew Brees threw for 363 yards against the Eagles, though that does come with a small injury-related asterisk. The Eagles secondary was in a very poor shape for that Week 11 matchup. Ronald Darby had just torn his ACL and Jalen Mills was out with a foot injury that eventually put him on injured reserve. Sidney Jones was in and out with a gimpy hamstring as well, meaning none of Philadelphia's top three corners were able to go back in November. It's not that Darby or Mills are returning for this game, but the trio of Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox, and Cre'von LeBlanc have had some more time to mature and get experience working together this season since then. I wouldn't say they're ready for Brees -- no one is really ready to take on one of the most efficient passers to ever play the game -- but they should be more prepared this time around.
They'll need to be. Brees had eight completions of 20 yards or more against the Eagles in Week 11, creating chunk play after chunk play. Tre'Quan Smith had ten receptions for 157 yards and a score, Alvin Kamara burned Malcolm Jenkins for a long touchdown, and Michael Thomas caught every pass thrown his way. They're also adding Ted Ginn back to the lineup this week to add even more weapons to the passing attack. Looking at the year as a whole, you might wonder if yet more weapons are even necessary -- it seemed, at times, that Brees could line up with the Superdome janitorial staff and have a three-touchdown day -- but the last few weeks have been a different story for the Saints' passing attack.
From Weeks 12 to 15, the Saints averaged just 166 yards passing per game, with three of those four games ending up with a negative DVOA. After throwing just one interception in the first 11 weeks of the year, Brees threw one a week over that month. It's hard to pinpoint an exact cause for the decline. The absence of Terron Armstead hurt; he missed six and a half of the Saints' last seven games. It's not as if the Saints were getting destroyed at the line of scrimmage, though; Brees' six sacks were certainly more than he was getting when the offense was running at maximum efficiency, but it wasn't like he was running for his life every down. If that added pressure was the culprit, there's good news -- Armstead has returned to practice and is expected to give it a go on Sunday.
The Saints' two worst games were in back-to-back weeks against Dallas and Tampa Bay, and both teams played New Orleans entirely differently. Dallas was tough and violent, playing a lot of man defense and just whipping the Saints physically. The linebackers, especially, did a fantastic job of sniffing out screens and getting pressure in the backfield, forcing the Saints into a lot of third-and-long situations. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, played a much softer zone defense against pass coverage and selling out to stop the run. It's hard to stress how much the one-two punch of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara does for the Saints' offense; they are second and third in success rate this season. The Bucs, however, held the duo to just 3 rushing yards in the first half, again forcing the Saints into a lot of long situations where they just became more predictable, and easy (well, easier) to stop. Eventually, the Saints' greater talent allowed them to win that one, but if the worst defense in the league by DVOA can hang with New Orleans for a half, then there's hope for Philadelphia as well.
Having Armstead back in the lineup should help both the rushing game and the screen passing game, which should in turn keep the Saints' engine moving. And when the Saints are on schedule, they're pretty much impossible to stop. To win this one, the Eagles' defense will have to find ways to keep the Saints off-balance and prevent them from utilizing the sheer variety that Sean Payton's offense can bring to the table. That starts with the Eagles' edge rushers -- Michael Bennett, Chris Long, and Brandon Graham -- winning on the outside, with Fletcher Cox getting pressure up the middle. Few quarterbacks in the league get the ball out as fast as Brees -- he was fourth in the league with an average release of just 2.59 seconds -- so that fearsome foursome have their work cut out for them, but with Armstead and Andrus Peat coming off of injuries, the left side of the Saints' line is a little shakier than they'd like.
The Eagles should also throw out their coverage plan from earlier this year. In Week 11, the Eagles mostly played man coverage, double-covering both Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara when they lined up on the same side of the formation (which is the Saints' usual mojo). That slowed them down, but it allowed the rest of the Saints receivers to feast on one-on-one coverage on the other side of the ball, resulting in Tre'Quan Smith's 150-yard day. With Ginn back in town, the Eagles should go back to their more common Cover-3 zone strategy. Take away the short passes, get pressure, and force Brees to throw the ball deeper than he'd like to -- that's the Eagles' best shot at slowing down the potent Saints offense.
New Orleans has the better special teams, and field goals are the big reason why. The Eagles are here in large part because Chicago's field goal problems reared their head at the worst possible time -- yes, Cody Parkey's kick was blocked, but it was blocked in part because the kick was low. That's not likely to happen against Wil Lutz. The Saints ranked sixth in the league in our field goal/extra point ratings, and Lutz has only missed three kicks all year. Oddly enough, all were at home in the dome rather than out in the elements. If the game once again hinges on a 43-yard field goal at the buzzer, Saints fans will rest slightly easier than their Chicago counterparts; Lutz hasn't missed a field goal from within 44 yards all season long.
This will be the fifth postseason game in a row where the Eagles are underdogs per Vegas. They won their last four. It's clearly possible that the Eagles' magical postseason run will continue once again, as they seem invincible with Large Richard Nicholas under center.
They're not invincible, of course, and it's not that Vegas has been wrong by making them underdogs over and over again -- on paper, the Eagles are the less talented team. The logical pick, the pick going with the numbers, is for the Saints to win, and by more than the eight points by which Vegas currently favors them. Then again, if the end-of-season slump for the Saints is signal rather than noise, and the Eagles' resurgence since their Week 11 nadir continues, anything's possible. Still, when you have a rematch of one of the least competitive games of the year, the smart pick is to have the previous winner advance once again. The rested Saints should go through. Probably.
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.