Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

NFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2019

by Vincent Verhei (SEA-DAL) and Bryan Knowles (PHI-CHI)

The NFC wild-card round brings us storied franchises trying to live up to their legacies.

Sometimes those legacies are older. Can another league-leading Chicago defense live up to the great Chicago defenses of years like 1985 and 2006? Can the new Dallas triplets (Dak-Zeke-Amari) possibly match the greatness of the old Dallas triplets (Aikman-Emmitt-Irvin) for just one postseason?

But sometimes the legacies are more recent. Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl with the help of the Legion of Boom; can he do it with help from the less impressive Legion of Whom? And the most recent legacy belongs to Nick Foles. Can he possibly march the Philadelphia Eagles all the way to another Super Bowl title, just as he did when he stepped in for Carson Wentz a year ago? On the way to the Super Bowl, it's a lot harder to win three road games than two home games.

The Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints have been the two best teams in the NFC for the entire 2018 season, and they'll be sitting at home waiting for this weekend's winners.

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.

Seattle at Dallas

SEA DAL
DVOA 6.7% (12) -5.2% (21)
WEI DVOA 6.1% (14) -2.5% (19)
Seahawks on Offense
SEA OFF DAL DEF
DVOA 8.8% (9) -3.5% (9)
WEI DVOA 11.3% (9) -3.9% (11)
PASS 27.4% (6) 7.4% (16)
RUSH 4.1% (7) -17.6% (5)
Cowboys on Offense
SEA DEF DAL OFF
DVOA -0.2% (14) -6.5% (24)
WEI DVOA 3.0% (19) -4.1% (23)
PASS 5.0% (13) -0.9% (26)
RUSH -7.7% (17) -6.8% (19)
Special Teams
SEA DAL
ST DVOA -2.2% (24) -2.1% (23)

If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

When the Seattle Seahawks beat the Dallas Cowboys 24-13 in Week 3, it left both teams at 1-2, and there was little sign then or in the following weeks that it would be a playoff preview. The Seahawks fell to 4-5 before winning six of their last seven, while the Cowboys got as bad as 3-5 before winning seven of their last eight. There were some ugly wins for both teams in those streaks, and the losses were brutal -- Seattle dropped an overtime game to a going-nowhere San Francisco team, while Dallas got waxed 23-0 by the Colts -- but there were also flashes of greatness. The Seahawks beat the AFC's best team, the Chiefs, while Dallas beat the NFC's best team, the Saints.

Who will win this battle of hot teams that still have glaring flaws? Seahawks fans will say they beat Dallas handily once and could do it again, but Cowboys supporters will point out that since that game was played, Seattle lost Earl Thomas while the Cowboys added Amari Cooper. Will those personnel changes be enough to make up the difference?

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

The Seahawks finished last in pass attempts and second in runs, so stopping the run will be critical for Dallas on Saturday. As a team, Seattle finished seventh in rushing DVOA, and they did it with a trio of running backs. Chris Carson is the workhorse; he led all running backs with 58 broken tackles on running plays. He's going to get most of the carries in any situation, but especially in the first and third quarters and in the red zone. Mike Davis, the No. 2 back, had a pretty even distribution of carries; he led Seattle's running backs with 42 targets (though his teammates had higher receiving DVOAs in smaller sample sizes). Rashaad Penny, the first-round rookie, almost never got the ball on third down or in the red zone; his usage spiked in the fourth quarter after Carson had theoretically worn the defense down. All three were effective, averaging at least 4.6 yards per carry. Carson was 17th in rushing DVOA but Davis and Penny were actually better in that metric, though Penny didn't get enough carries to qualify for our main tables. Carson and Davis were both in the top 20 in success rate. Penny's success rate would not have made the top 40, but he had the highest average gain at 4.9 -- he's the boom-and-bust player here.

That trio benefits from running behind one of the most improved offensive lines in the league. A year ago, the Seahawks were next to last in adjusted line yards, with the highest stuff rate allowed in more than a decade. This year, they're in the upper half of the league in all our run blocking stats.

Fortunately for the Cowboys, their defensive front seems up to the task. They ranked fifth in run defense DVOA and third in adjusted line yards and better than average in most everything else. The one weakness for Dallas could be in short yardage, where they rank just 20th in stopping POWER runs, but the Seahawks offense ranks fifth in converting them.

It goes without saying that Russell Wilson is also a big part of Seattle's rushing attack. He chipped in 376 rushing yards at 5.6 per carry. Those numbers are below his career averages -- his 67 runs were the fewest in his career -- but he was still sixth among quarterbacks in rushing DYAR. (And that's just what happens when he keeps the ball; even as a decoy, Wilson is a big reason the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing yards on option plays.) Here again, though, the Cowboys seem well-suited to limiting what Wilson can do -- only three quarterbacks ran for 30 or more yards against Dallas this year, and none averaged even 5.0 yards per carry.

Seattle will stick with the running game whether it's working or not -- they have at least 28 carries in every game since Week 2 -- but when it is time to pass, there are two things they do very frequently and very well. The first of those is play-action passing. They used play-action on 32 percent of all pass plays, second only to their division rivals, the Los Angeles Rams. They averaged 8.8 yards on those plays, sixth-best. Teams only used play-action against the Dallas defense 21 percent of the time (ninth-lowest), but those plays averaged 7.9 yards apiece, which was in the bottom half of the league.

Seattle also loved the deep ball, and they absolutely destroyed teams with it. Twenty-one percent of Wilson's dropbacks (including sacks) resulted in deep passes (16+ yards past the line of scrimmage), sixth-most among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass plays. His DVOA on those throws was 150.8%. Philip Rivers was second at 115.8%, and Drew Brees was the only other quarterback in triple-digits. Wilson averaged 15.6 yards per play on deep balls, second only to Ryan Fitzpatrick -- but Fitzpatrick threw seven interceptions in 66 deep passes, while Wilson only threw one in 102. (The league average interception rate on deep passes was 5.9 percent.) The Dallas defense was eighth in DVOA against deep passes, which would be good enough against most teams, but probably won't be against Seattle.

While the team-level passing numbers favor Seattle, the individual matchups swing things back towards Dallas. Doug Baldwin is still Seattle's top receiver when healthy, but his 6.0% DVOA this year was his worst since 2014. Tyler Lockett broke the single-season record for wide receiver DVOA, but he is clearly Seattle's second receiver -- in games when Baldwin was healthy (specifically, those in which he caught at least one pass), Lockett averaged less than four targets per game.

After those two, the receiving options for Wilson get thin in a hurry. Third receiver David Moore averaged 17.1 yards per catch and scored five touchdowns, but had a catch rate south of 50 percent; in his last five games, he has four catches for 32 yards. Nick Vannett, the top receiving option at tight end, averaged less than three targets per game. He frequently came off the field in favor of George Fant as a sixth lineman. The running back trio of Carson, Davis, and Penny combined for only 78 targets; there were ten individual runners with more targets than that this season.

This is all bad news against this Dallas defense. The Cowboys were sixth in pass coverage against No. 1 receivers, and third against No. 2s, but they were 19th or worse on throws to other wide receivers, tight ends, or running backs. The way to beat these Cowboys is to spread the field with multiple receiving targets, but these Seahawks aren't built to do that.

There is another way to defeat the Seattle passing game, and that is to put Wilson on the ground before he ever has a chance to throw. Thanks in part to Wilson's penchant to hang on to the ball in search of big plays downfield, the Seahawks always rank near the bottom in pass pressure allowed, and this year was no exception -- the Seahawks were 30th in pressure rate allowed and Wilson was sacked a career-high 51 times. The Cowboys defense was sixth in pressure rate, but only 27th in adjusted sack rate. This looks like a team that will get in Wilson's face all day, only to see him escape the pressure and deliver passes anyway. Well, it wouldn't be the first team he's done that to.

Our last piece of advice for the Dallas defense is to avoid man coverage like the plague. Wilson threw 25 touchdowns in only 192 throws against man coverage; that touchdown rate of 13.0 percent was by far the best in the league (Fitzpatrick, at 10.7 percent, was the only other player in double-digits). Meanwhile, Wilson threw only two interceptions against man coverage, a rate of 1.0 percent that was among the five lowest in the league. On all other throws, Wilson threw nine touchdowns with four interceptions. Fortunately for Dallas, they rarely play man coverage anyway -- just 35 percent of the time, which put them in the bottom five. (Seattle's defense was even lower at 30 percent; man and zone coverage stats come courtesy of Sports Info Solutions.)

WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL

Let's not beat around the bush here: yes, Cooper has made Dallas a better team, and the Seahawks have played worse since Thomas broke his leg, but the differences are not as drastic as you might think.

DAL Offense DVOA, Before & After Cooper Trade
Weeks Run Rk Pass Rk Total Rk
1-8 0.8% 10 -14.1% 29 -9.7% 25
9-17 -12.6% 24 7.7% 19 -4.4% 21
SEA Defense DVOA, Before & After Thomas Injury
Weeks Run Rk Pass Rk Total Rk
1-4 -10.2% 19 -2.7% 10 -6.2% 11
5-17 -6.7% 19 7.4% 18 1.9% 16

Seattle's defense wasn't great before Thomas' injury and it has not been horrible since, but either way, the halcyon days of the Legion of Boom are gone -- this defense is not going to win many playoff games on its own. As for Dallas, since acquiring Cooper, the passing offense has climbed from "time to draft a quarterback" bad to "hey, we can work with this" mediocre. The rushing offense has fallen off at the same time, but that probably has less to do with Cooper himself, and more to do with the fact that starting linemen Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, and Zack Martin have all missed several games with injuries in the second half of the year. All three should be healthy for this game.

Cooper is obviously Dak Prescott's most reliable weapon in the passing game, and more than that, he has helped everyone else fit into a defined role in the offense. Here's a look at Dallas' top receivers by targets, before and after the trade:

DAL Receivers, Before & After Cooper Trade
BEFORE
Name Targets DYAR DVOA Catch% Yards aDOT
11-C.Beasley 44 75 10.1% 77% 358 7.9
21-E.Elliott 36 -44 -37.9% 69% 175 1.0
17-A.Hurns 27 -46 -33.9% 48% 158 10.6
87-G.Swaim 24 9 -1.8% 79% 205 4.6
13-M.Gallup 23 -1 -13.3% 45% 200 14.7
AFTER
Name Targets DYAR DVOA Catch% Yards aDOT
19-A.Cooper 77 120 6.8% 70% 738 9.7
21-E.Elliott 59 96 17.8% 88% 392 -0.1
13-M.Gallup 47 -7 -14.8% 50% 340 13.9
11-C.Beasley 44 25 -5.4% 73% 322 6.9
89-B.Jarwin 30 86 41.7% 83% 280 8.1

Before the trade, the Cowboys' weapons were a mish-mash, with slot receiver Cole Beasley miscast as a top wideout. With Cooper on board, Beasley has returned to the slot, where he's a better fit. Rookie Michael Gallup has played a bigger role as the designated deep threat. Ezekiel Elliott has found more room on screens and checkdowns. At tight end, Blake Jarwin has surpassed Geoff Swaim, though the difference between the two is probably not as great as it looks here. Take away Jarwin's three-touchdown day in Week 17 and his post-trade DVOA plummets to 1.4%.

This also makes it clear that Seattle's first job in the passing game is shutting down Cooper -- and that's a problem, because No. 1 receivers have had big days against the Seahawks all year. Seattle ranked 25th with a 13.1% DVOA allowed to opposing No. 1s, and they gave up 78.9 yards per game to No. 1s, fifth-most. The list of No. 1 receivers who have gained 80-plus yards against Seattle includes Keenan Allen, Brandin Cooks, Davante Adams, Marvin Jones, Dante Pettis (twice), and Robert Woods. Not every No. 1 has lit Seattle up, however. When Cooper and the Oakland Raiders played Seattle in London, he was held to one target and zero catches.

As you might imagine, Seattle's cornerbacks do not have great charting numbers. Out of 85 qualifying corners, starters Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers both failed to make the top 60 in either success rate or yards allowed per target. Slot corner Justin Coleman was exceptional, ranking fifth in both categories, but the Cowboys will live with a quiet day from Beasley if Cooper and Gallup are making big catches downfield.

The next assignment for Seattle's pass defense is limiting what Elliott can do. The Seahawks ranked 13th with a -3.7% DVOA on passes to running backs, and gave up 52.5 yards per game on those plays, seventh-most. Christian McCaffrey, Jeff Wilson, Kerryon Johnson, and Aaron Jones each gained 60-plus yards on receptions against Seattle.

Speaking of Elliott, we should probably discuss what he can do as a runner -- which is a lot. Elliott led the NFL in rushing yards per game for the third straight year, the first player to do that since Eric Dickerson with the Rams and Colts in the late 1980s. Just because Elliott runs a lot, however, doesn't mean he has been particularly brilliant at it. He finished 18th among runners in both DVOA and success rate. The Dallas offensive line was third in POWER runs, but just eighth to 14th in all our other run-blocking metrics. These are good numbers, but not great ones.

Seattle will counter this with a defense that ranked 17th against the run. They did rank fifth against POWER runs, so short-yardage runs will be a battle of strength-on-strength. In every other category, however, the Cowboys have the edge -- the Seahawks ranked 19th to 22nd in adjusted line yards, stuff rate, second-level yards, and open-field yards.

So if Dallas has the advantage on the ground and should win the matchups in the air, we can expect them to light up the scoreboard, right? Well, no. There are still some obstacles they will have to overcome. One of those is on third downs, where the Cowboys offense ranks 20th at -8.3%, but the Seahawks defense ranks seventh at -15.1%. It won't be enough for Dallas to stay out of long yardage either, because the Seahawks were at their best on third-and-short (-18.9%, third) and third-and-medium (-29.0%, fourth). With that in mind, we should expect the Cowboys to struggle to put long drives together. And even if they do, they will have to finish those drives with points -- and that, gentle reader, has been Dallas' biggest weakness all year. Even worse, it's where Seattle has excelled.

Cowboys Offense vs. Seahawks Defense in the Red Zone
Team RED Rank RED Pass Rank RED Rush Rank Goal to Go Rank
DAL OFF -34.3% 31 -61.6% 32 -4.5% 18 -53.8% 32
SEA DEF -26.0% 4 -38.2% 2 -11.9% 8 -29.1% 6

Prescott, especially, struggled inside the opponents' 20. He completed barely half his passes and threw only 12 touchdowns (22nd in the league) while being sacked eight times, more than anyone except Deshaun Watson and Matt Ryan. He did make up for that somewhat by rushing for six scores, but the overall results for the Cowboys offense were still disastrous.

It's not likely that Dallas will beat Seattle in the red zone, so to win this game they will need to either reach the red zone more often, or bypass it entirely with long touchdowns. That will be difficult through the air -- only 39 Cowboys receptions gained 20-plus yards, fewer than anyone except Tennessee, Miami, and Arizona. They had 12 20-yard runs, which was right in the middle of the pack. On the other hand, Seattle ranked 25th allowing 58 20-yard pass plays and tied for 22nd giving up 14 20-yard runs, so they have been vulnerable to chunk plays this season.

Our final note involves Dallas' ability to hold off Seattle's pass rush. Overall this looks like a wash -- both teams ranked in the low 20s in preventing and generating pressure, respectively. But Prescott's numbers against four-man rushes bode poorly in this matchup. Prescott was sacked 35 times in 356 dropbacks against four-man rushes. That's a sack rate of 9.8 percent; among full-time starters, only Deshaun Watson's was worse. This is bad news against Seattle, a team that rushes four just over three-quarters of the time, 10th-most in the league. Defensive end Frank Clark led the Seahawks with 13.0 sacks and 31.0 pressures, but they also got a lot of interior pressure. Jarran Reed and Quinton Jefferson, the defensive tackle tag team Seattle drafted in 2016, combined for 13.5 sacks (10.5 for Reed, 3.0 for Jefferson) and 44.0 pressures (26.0 and 18.0).

SPECIAL TEAMS

Three weeks ago, this department would have gone to Seattle in a cakewalk -- the Seahawks were eighth in special teams DVOA at the end of Week 14, while the Cowboys were 20th. In the three games since then:

  • San Francisco's Richie James scored a 97-yard touchdown on a kickoff return.
  • A week later, Tremon Smith returned a kickoff 61 yards for Kansas City.
  • Michael Dickson, kicking off in place of an injured Sebastian Janikowski, put a kickoff out of bounds.
  • Dickson had not one but two punts blocked in Week 17 against Arizona; another punt resulted in a 45-yard return by Pharoh Cooper.
  • Sebastian Janikowski missed an extra point and a field goal.

And just like that, Seattle finished the year with a worse special teams DVOA than Dallas. Whether this three-game debacle is a sign of things to come, a wake-up call for the Seahawks kicking teams, or just random noise remains to be seen.

At least the Seahawks could lay claim to being good at one aspect of special teams: they were above average in kickoff returns, where Lockett averaged 25.9 yards with a long of 84. Also, while Seattle's punt unit had negative value, their punter was exceptional -- Michael Dickson was second in the league in gross average and a first-team All-Pro.

Dallas had negative value in all five phases of the kicking game (punts, kickoffs, punt and kickoff returns, and kicking for points). Rookie kicker Brett Maher has a big leg, going 6-of-7 on 50-plus-yard field goal tries, but he's unreliable, hitting only 23-of-29 on kicks shorter than that.

OUTLOOK

There is one statistical facet of this game we haven't mentioned yet, because it's relevant no matter who has the ball: turnovers. The Seahawks were outstanding at ball security, with only 11 turnovers all year. (The single-season record is 10, held by the 2010 Patriots and 2011 49ers). Their defense forced 26 takeaways, 10th-most, and overall they had a league-best +15 turnover margin. The Cowboys didn't have a ton of turnovers (17) or takeaways (20), finishing at +3.

And that's part of why this contest, win or lose, figures to be frustrating for Dallas and their fans: they are probably going to make the most plays in this game, but Seattle is likely to make the most big plays, be they deep bombs down the field, critical goal-line stands, or field-flipping turnovers.

Seattle has been a better all-around team than Dallas over the past 17 weeks, but many of the specific matchups favor the Cowboys. It's also significant that the game is in Texas -- neither offense has been affected much by location this year, but Seattle's defense has played worse on the road, while Dallas' defense has been better at home. It all points to a closely fought game.

Philadelphia at Chicago

PHI CHI
DVOA 0.0% (16) 19.0% (5)
WEI DVOA 3.6% (16) 19.9% (5)
Eagles on Offense
PHI OFF CHI DEF
DVOA -0.3% (16) -25.6% (1)
WEI DVOA 3.7% (14) -26.2% (1)
PASS 18.1% (11) -24.5% (1)
RUSH -13.5% (27) -27.3% (2)
Bears on Offense
PHI DEF CHI OFF
DVOA 0.0% (15) -3.4% (20)
WEI DVOA 2.9% (18) -2.3% (21)
PASS 6.7% (15) 7.4% (20)
RUSH -12.3% (9) -5.8% (16)
Special Teams
PHI CHI
ST DVOA 0.2% (15) -3.2% (26)

If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

The final game of wild-card weekend sees the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles return to defend their crown, with their backup quarterback -- and reigning Super Bowl MVP -- once again under center. Once again, they're underdogs in their first playoff game, this time up against a Chicago Bears team making their first playoff appearance since 2010. On paper, this is the biggest mismatch of the week -- a top-five DVOA team versus one firmly in the middle of the pack. That doesn't necessarily mean the defending champs are destined to be one-and-done, however; in a year where no team in the NFC ended up heads and shoulders above the rest, why couldn't the Eagles go on another magical playoff run?

Despite the superficial similarities, however, it's important to realize the key differences between last year's championship Eagles team and this year's edition. In 2017, the Eagles were one of the top teams in the NFL before Carson Wentz got injured, with a 29.9% DVOA and a top-five ranking on both offense and defense. The 2018 Eagles could be called the "Mean Green Machine," but only in a statistical sense. They are the most average team ever recorded in DVOA's history. We're not just talking about their 0.0% total DVOA, either -- they are the first team ever to come within 1.0% of average in all three phases of the game. They faced a league-average schedule and had a league-average amount of variance. They ended the year with 8.0 estimated wins. They are the new standard for mediocrity, the benchmark by which all other teams can be measured. Expecting Playoff Nick Foles to bring back last year's playoff squad is unrealistic.

On the other hand, the Eagles have improved since Foles has entered the lineup; they were sitting at a -6.0% DVOA through Week 14 and have rebounded back to average over the past few weeks. Over the last three weeks, Philadelphia ranks ninth in offensive DVOA (5.6%) and fifth in defensive DVOA (-18.3%). While three weeks is too small a sample size to really call them the "hottest team in football," the Eagles are playing their best football at the best possible time.

They may have run into a juggernaut, however. In a year when offenses have shattered records, the Bears have put together a stifling, dominant defense -- the best we've seen since the 2015 champion Denver Broncos. Opposing teams manage less than a point and a half per drive against the Bears, and nearly 20 percent of those drives end up with the ball in the hands of a Bears defender. Coupled with a significant second-year bounce from Mitchell Trubisky and the creative mind of new head coach Matt Nagy, the Bears are second in the NFC in weighted DVOA. Chicago doesn't look much like the rest of the cream of the NFL in 2018 -- they're one of only two teams in the top ten overall with a negative offensive DVOA -- but if defense really does win championships (it doesn't, but roll with us here), then no team is better positioned to walk away with the Lombardi Trophy than the Monsters of the Midway.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL

Let's not sugarcoat this -- the Bears have the advantage here, no matter how you slice and dice things. Nearly every split we have shows the Bears' defense ranking higher, and usually much higher, than the Eagles' offense. Even where the Eagles have had some success -- they rank sixth in DVOA on third-and-long, for example -- they run into a dominant Bears defensive performance -- the Bears' -133.5% defensive DVOA in third-and-longs is not only the best this season, but the best we've ever recorded. It's not an easy nut to crack by any means.

It is vital to stay on schedule against this Bears' defense and avoid long down-and-distance situations. You are not going to make miracle conversions here; when you're backed into must-throw scenarios, the Bears pin their ears back and demolish you. The Bears' defense is strong at all times, but it goes to another level when they know you're going to pass. On short and medium plays -- situations with 6 or less yards to go for a first down -- the Bears' defensive DVOA is only -4.5%, 13th best in the league. When you need 7 or more yards, however, it drops to -39.2%. That's far and away the best in the league; the gap between first and second is larger than that between second and 22nd. Considering you start on first-and-10, that means you start behind the eight ball when lining up against the Bears.

The Eagles are going to need to rely on the passing game to get out of those long situations, because the matchup in the running game leans way too heavily in the Bears' direction. The Eagles rank 27th in rushing offense. Leading rusher Josh Adams is just 35th in DVOA, and neither Wendell Smallwood nor Darren Sproles has added much on the ground, either. The Bears' are second in rushing DVOA, have allowed the fewest rushing yards this year and have allowed only two teams to go over 120 rushing yards against them this season, both in overtime. Only 37 percent of rushes against Chicago's defense were successful, the second-lowest rate in the league. The Bears allowed a league-low 28 rushes of 10 yards or more, and five of those were on quarterback scrambles rather than designed plays. Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman might be the best pair of interior run defenders in football, and Khalil Mack and Aaron Lynch aren't exactly schlubs coming off the edge, either. The Bears only rank 14th in stuffed percentage -- carries will generally get a yard or two against them -- but that just sets you up into second- or third-and-long situations. This is not the path to victory for Philadelphia.

If the Eagles are going to win, it's going to have to be with Foles' arm. Remember when we said "nearly" every split favored the Bears? Here's one that doesn't: while Chicago has the best pass defense in the league, they actually rank only 23rd on second downs with an 11.0% DVOA. Even when you just look at second-and-long situations, the Bears' pass defense still is just at -8.5% -- tough, but not unbeatable.

The Eagles are fourth in the league with a 35.1% passing DVOA on second downs. Much of that number was set with Wentz and not with Foles, but they're still in the top 10 even if you only look at the past three weeks. Chicago especially has trouble -- or, at least, isn't quite as dominant -- when dealing with a running back who can catch passes out of the backfield, and Smallwood has had some success as a pass-catcher this year. Against a defense that is third in the league in pressure rate, it might make a lot of sense to use that against them, using running back screens and delayed routes out of the backfield to neuter the pass rush and keep things in third-and-manageable situations. Mack is going to be a hassle for both Jason Peters (if he can play) and Lane Johnson all day long; it makes sense to give them every advantage they can have by using scheme to take that pass rush out of the play as much as possible.

According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, Foles ranks dead-last this year in air yards, dinking and dunking his way to just 6.7 yards per pass attempt. When he tied the NFL record with 25 consecutive completions in Week 17, it was nearly all on dink-and-dunk passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Generally speaking, this isn't the world's greatest strategy ... but it just may work against the Bears. On passes of 5 air yards or less, opposing quarterbacks have a 16.4% passing DVOA against Chicago. When airing it out beyond that, that DVOA drops to a -26.0%. A similar keep-it-short strategy was employed by Brock Osweiler in Week 6 and Eli Manning in Week 13 in their wins over Chicago; while neither had the most efficient days possible, they did just enough to keep their teams moving. The Bears' secondary has been dominant this season; passing against Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith is a lot more inviting than challenging Kyle Fuller downfield. Keep the passes short, keep out of long situations, find ways to get Smallwood and Zach Ertz into positive matchups, and the Eagles might have a fighting chance. Yes, the Bears rank 10th in passing DVOA against running backs and third against tight ends, but it's preferable to the No. 1 ranking they have against top receivers.

One interesting thing to note is Foles' splits against zone and man coverage. When challenging man-to-man, Foles is averaging 10.6 yards per attempt and completing 72.3 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, no interceptions, and just one sack taken. He is having a much, much harder time reading zones, however, as all those numbers plummet. It's just 6.9 yards per attempt with a 70.2 percent completion rate, no touchdowns, three interceptions, and five sacks when opponents run the zone against him. Admittedly, this is a small sample size, but it's quite a noticeable difference, the second-largest gap in yards per attempt this season behind Lamar Jackson. The Bears have a slight bias towards man coverage this year, using it 12th-most in the league, but don't be surprised if they end up rushing four, dropping everyone else back into a zone, and daring Foles to try to pick them apart.

All of Foles' interceptions and four of his six sacks (through Week 16) have come against three- or four-man rushes, and the Bears have had plenty of success getting pressure without bringing extra guys this season. Foles' greatest success comes when a defense gambles; he has the experience and poise to find his hot-read receiver or to find the one-on-one coverage on Alshon Jeffery downfield. The Bears' defense is good enough not to have to gamble; even with their seventh-best pressure rate on offense, the Eagles are going to have their hands full keeping the pocket clean. Things will get worse if Jason Peters and Jason Kelce, both questionable with lower-body injuries, are unable to go. It is likely going to be a long afternoon for the Eagles no matter what their offensive game plan is.

WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL

Injuries may play a significant role here. While Philadelphia's secondary has been somewhat suspect, it remains to be seen if Chicago will have the horses to take advantage. Allen Robinson missed the Bears' Week 17 game with a rib injury, while Anthony Miller left with what looked like a significant shoulder injury and Taylor Gabriel left with a rib injury of his own. All three are listed as probable, as is guard Kyle Long, who has dealt with an ankle injury all season long, but it remains to be seen just how healthy all will be on Sunday. The Eagles have troubles of their own, with Sidney Jones and Michael Bennett both listed as questionable as of time of writing, but I'd say on the whole, the Eagles are the healthier offense here.

The Bears' offense has seen a notable jump forward from 2017 to 2018. Some of that is Matt Nagy coming to town, rather than the uber-conservative John Fox. Nagy's a much more creative playcaller, using a much wider selection of formations and concepts than Fox ever did. The biggest upgrade there, though, isn't in the attention-grabbing highlight plays, like sticking five defensive linemen in on offense. It's that Nagy comes from the 21st century, while Fox was running a dead ball-era offense in an Arena League world. Nagy's offense ended up below average this season, but it was leaps and bounds more successful than last year's model.

Another key step in the improvement has been the development of Mitchell Trubisky. Trubisky only started one year in college before entering the NFL, and that lack of experience really was apparent as a rookie. His extra service time, a modern NFL scheme brought in by Nagy, and a vastly upgraded receiver corps helped Trubisky's passing DVOA jump from -16.8% in 2017 to 2.5% this year. That's not a total that will earn you a ton of Pro Bowl berths or anything, but it helped move the Bears' offense from remedial to so-so. When you have a defense as good as the Bears have, "so-so" can be good enough to win plenty of games.

One of the things separating the Bears from their playoff rivals, and one of the key things holding their offense back from being more than it is, is a lack of big plays. The Bears had just 98 plays this season gain 15 yards or more, by far the fewest for any of the playoff squads. The Chiefs, Rams, and Chargers all had over 140 such plays; the Bears were more down with the Raiders and Bills of the world. Chicago's in the middle of the pack when it comes to yards and points per drive, and they don't really turn the ball over much so it's not like the offense is particularly inefficient. They're just don't have those quick strikes which have become par for the course among good teams in 2018. Of all the playoff teams, they are probably the most reliant on getting good field position from their defense and special teams, because they simply have to work harder on offense. It will take them two or three plays to get what many of the other playoff teams can get in one. That means it's easier to knock them off schedule, because they're less likely to come up with a huge play to make up for failures on early downs.

Assuming all those wideouts are healthy, expect Nagy and Trubisky to spread the ball around. The Bears have five receivers this season with 400 or more receiving yards, including former Eagles Trey Burton and jack-of-all-trades Tarik Cohen. Cohen, in particular, might be a tough out for Philadelphia, as they rank just 24th in passing DVOA against running backs and Cohen is fourth among backs in receiving DYAR. He'll be lined up all over the formation to find matchups against linebackers and safeties. He's the best Bears receiver with the ball in his hands, so expect him to play a significant role on Sunday. Burton will have a harder time against his old teammates; the Eagles are seventh against tight ends.

The Eagles only rank 20th on third and fourth downs throughout the year, but they've performed significantly better the last few weeks. The Eagles have held their last three opponents to seven third-down conversions in 31 attempts and seen their DVOA improve from 0.4% to a league-leading -66.8%. The Bears have not exactly excelled at converting third downs; they rank 19th in the league overall and 22nd when it comes to third-and-long situations. They only have 22 third-and-long conversions this season, and they have the fewest third-and-8 or more conversions in the league this year. Again, this is not an offense designed to pick up chunk plays, so if the Eagles can consistently force the Bears into third-and-longs, they're going to force plenty of punts and turn this into a special teams and field position sort of game.

The big question the Eagles need to answer is how much to use the blitz. Only the Lions and Chargers sent extra rushers less often than the Eagles did this year, and Philadelphia ranked firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of defensive pressure. There's an argument to stick with what they've been doing all year long. On the other hand, the Bears' offense has struggled when passing against five- and six-man rushes this season. Trubisky is averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt against five-men rushes, dropping to 4.5 against six. Those numbers would encourage a team to rush more to further limit any big-play possibilities the Bears might dig up, but there are two caveats. The first is that those five- and six-man rushes haven't delivered much in the way of turnovers; all but one of Trubisky's INTs have come without extra pressure being brought by the defense. The other is that Trubisky has shown the ability to scramble out of pressure and generate positive plays which aren't included in those passing numbers; Trubisky has the second most rushing DYAR in the league among quarterbacks. With that in mind, and considering that Chicago's top receivers are at least somewhat banged up, it likely makes more sense to sit back and force Trubisky to break down a loaded secondary than it does to bring the house at him, lower yards per attempt or not.

The key matchup, then, will be Fletcher Cox against the Bears' interior line. Cox is fifth in the league with 45 individual pass pressures; he's also a force in run defense and a substantial part of the reason Philly has the second-best run stuff percentage in the league. Remember that Kyle Long has just now gotten off of the injured list; last week was his first game since Week 8. You have to wonder about both his health and his conditioning entering this one; he only played 40 percent of the Bears' snaps against Minnesota. It's a tall ask to handle Cox in his full return to action. If Cox can regularly come out on top in that battle, he's going to make it very hard for the Bears' offense to get into a regular rhythm.

SPECIAL TEAMS

This is one area where the Eagles have a clear advantage. In all aspects of special teams except punt returns, Philadelphia grades out better than Chicago, often significantly so. It's most obvious when it comes to field goals and extra points. Jake Elliott's had an average season; not quite as accurate on 50-plus-yard field goal attempts as he was as a rookie, but fairly reliable and drama-free. Not so Cody Parkey, who has shown a remarkable ability to hit the uprights and crossbar this season. Parkey has missed at least one kick in three of Chicago's last four games and has yet to go more than three games in a row without a whiff. That leaves the Bears with the fourth-worst field goal performance this year, and I don't think any Chicago fan will be comfortable if Parkey is lining up to try a 40-yard field goal to win this one.

OUTLOOK

There's a reason the Bears are the biggest favorites this weekend; they've been both the better and more consistent team throughout the year. On average, they should win by a touchdown or more against an inferior Philadelphia team; they are the superior squad. They also, however, are the less experienced team. If the Eagles are able to keep the Bears' offense from getting into a groove on the ground, generate some turnovers to create some short fields, and avoid making back-breaking mistakes themselves, there's a path to victory here. The typical Bears loss this season involved two or three turnovers, generally leading directly to at least one score, and at least 340 yards of offense for the opponent. The Eagles are entirely capable of pulling that off, especially the way they've looked the past three weeks.

Still, there's no need to overthink this. The Eagles have only scored more than 24 points on the road twice this season, and they haven't come up against a defense nearly as good as this Chicago machine. The Bears have only lost one game at home this season, to a Patriots team with much more firepower than the Eagles can bring to the table. The Eagles' December run to get into the playoffs was a fantastic turnaround story, but it's likely to end here.


STATS EXPLAINED

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.

Comments

7 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2019, 4:10pm

1 Re: NFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2019

“but the differences are not as drastic as you might think...”

Their passing DVOA increased 21.8 % with Cooper; I would call that a drastic improvement.

2 Re: NFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2019

Love seeing the DVOA splits. Chicago's (relative) struggles against short passes matches my perception that the secondary is incredible at covering, but not good at tackling.

On another note, the Bears receivers are not a good group. That's why they spread the ball around so much. That said they will get even worse with top guys missing. With the salary cap, you can't be good at everything so maybe weak receivers makes sense.

5 Re: NFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2019

Great article. In the annual projections one thing that is usually focused on is a team with great DVOA on 3rd down is expected to regress and their sucees is downgraded. The article mentions DVOA splits on downs a few times, are these thought to be real (e.g. result of strategy or personnel groups) or another case of "splits happen"?

7 Re: NFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2019

I don't know why you thought Mack would give Lane Johnson trouble when:
1) Lane stoned him last year when they played,
and
2) Lane and Peters just held Watt and Aaron Donald to zero sacks combined the past 3 weeks.

I guess some people still don't realize that Lane Johnson is an awesome OT.