The first NFC wild-card game on Sunday sees perhaps the conference's best playoff team looking to avoid an upset. The second game sees perhaps its worst playoff team looking to defend its home turf. Drew Brees and Russell Wilson each begin the hunt for their second Super Bowl ring, while Carson Wentz looks to escape the specter of Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins hopes to justify his fully guaranteed contract. Other stars you'll see on Sunday include such great wide receivers as Michael Thomas, Stefon Diggs, and Tyler Lockett; defensive studs including Cameron Jordan, Danielle Hunter, Bobby Wagner, and Malcolm Jenkins; and a whole bunch of beat-up running backs. Let's get you ready.
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.
Minnesota at New Orleans
|DVOA||15.4% (7)||29.3% (4)|
|WEI DVOA||16.2% (7)||38.5% (2)|
|Vikings on Offense|
|MIN OFF||NO DEF|
|DVOA||4.6% (10)||-4.3% (11)|
|WEI DVOA||2.7% (13)||-6.7% (10)|
|PASS||18.2% (10)||1.7% (13)|
|RUSH||-1.8% (15)||-14.4% (5)|
|Saints on Offense|
|MIN DEF||NO OFF|
|DVOA||-9.9% (7)||21.3% (4)|
|WEI DVOA||-11.3% (7)||27.8% (2)|
|PASS||-7.6% (7)||43.7% (3)|
|RUSH||-13.1% (9)||-0.1% (12)|
|DVOA||0.8% (14)||3.6% (3)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
On paper, this is the biggest mismatch of wild-card weekend, and not because the Vikings are a bad team. The Saints are only the third 13-3 team to ever play on wild-card weekend. With a 29.3% DVOA, they are one of the ten best teams to ever have to play in the first round of the playoffs, and their 38.5% weighted DVOA is third behind only the 2012 and 2015 Seahawks. Teams this good simply do not miss out on the bye all that often, and Minnesota is extremely unlucky to have crashed into them so early in the bracket. No one gives the Vikings much of a chance; Vegas' current line is New Orleans -8, which just misses the 15 largest favorites in wild card history. Most people have moved on to wondering how Drew Brees and company will handle Lambeau Field next week.
But games aren't played on paper -- it's a terrible surface. The Vikings are a good team without many glaring weaknesses who just happen to be going on to the road to play a great one. While a Minnesota upset would be the most surprising result of the wild-card round, it's certainly not inconceivable, nor would it be the biggest upset of the Saints this season. We're not predicting a Vikings win, but they aren't a wild-card sacrificial lamb, either; the Saints will have to work to put away the NFC's sixth seed.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
You may remember the Vikings firing offensive coordinator John DeFilippo last season, with head coach Mike Zimmer arguing that Minnesota needed to stick with the run game more going forward. Well, they certainly have achieved that in 2019. In situation-neutral game states (i.e., early and close, before the score or clock starts dictating strategy), the Vikings run the ball 61% of the time on first downs -- seventh-most in the league, and third behind Baltimore and Tennessee among playoff teams. Some of this is due to Adam Thielen missing five games with a hamstring injury, but not all of it. This is their offensive identity -- run the ball early, set up short distances for later downs, and then hit people with play-action for deep shots when they creep up. As Zimmer said earlier this season, "you're calling a first-and-10 run and the next thing you know it's second-and-3, that just keeps your whole playbook available to you. … The key is staying ahead of the chains where they have to call defenses that load the box, so that we can take shots and be successful."
Slight problem -- this isn't actually working for them.
While the Vikings' -1.8% DVOA rushing the ball puts them squarely among the league average, their down-by-down splits vary tremendously. Baltimore and Tennessee run a lot on first down because they are good at it, ranking third and fourth in the league in DVOA. Minnesota, on the other hand, has just a -15.0% DVOA when running the ball on first down, 22nd in the league. They're also 21st in the league when rushing on third and fourth downs, with a 1.8% DVOA. Instead, their rushing DVOA is being buoyed by second-down runs, where they're fourth-best at 13.4% -- and it's worth noting that their average second-down run comes with 7.4 yards to go, third-longest in the league. Like many teams, Minnesota is good at running the ball when opponents expect them to pass, and struggle when opponents expect them to carry it. Their play calling just hasn't been varied enough to fool many opponents this season. When you're running more than 60% of the time on first down, you'd better be able to generate more than Minnesota's 35% success rate.
The good news for the Vikings' rushing attack is that Dalvin Cook is coming back after missing the last two weeks -- though that shouldn't be considered a green light to keep going with the same strategy. Before Cook was first injured against Denver in Week 11, all of Minnesota's rushing splits were better, true, but the gap was still there -- they were up to 22.2% on second downs, but still at -14.1% on first. A fully healthy Cook is a tremendous weapon, but he's not a panacea for Minnesota's early-down woes. Add in the fact that New Orleans has the sixth best first-down rushing defense, and it becomes pretty clear -- the Vikings are most likely to have success by taking to the air early and often.
Derrik Klassen did a great job breaking down Minnesota's play-action offense and how teams have tried to handle it this season. Kirk Cousins has always been a very good play-action passer, and the Vikings hade made a very wise choice in centering their deep passing game around it, going from 25th-most in the league to right up among the league leaders. Cousins' 89.4% DVOA on deep passes ranks eighth in the league, and he has at least 95 DYAR on deep shots to all three of Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and (surprisingly) Laquon Treadwell. New Orleans has an above-average pass defense, but not much more than that, and they rank 20th in DVOA against the deep ball. If Minnesota is going to pull off an upset, it's probably going to because Diggs and Thielen (hopefully rested and healthy) get the better of Marshon Lattimore or Janoris Jenkins on at least one or two big deep shots -- think the similarly play-action-happy 49ers hitting four deep shots against the Saints in their Week 14 victory. It should be noted that the Saints actually fare worst against "other" wide receivers, so perhaps this is Bisi Johnson's time to shine. One way or another, the way to beat New Orleans is through the air.
The other concern the Saints have are injuries along the defensive front, with both Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport on injured reserve. Those two combined for 45 pass pressures, and the Saints have seen their pass defense fall from -0.3% to 10.3% in the three weeks they've missed. Most of that came against Tennessee, another run-first, play-action team that used the reduced pressure up front to score the third-most points against the Saints all year long (albeit still in a 38-28 loss). Minnesota's only 14th in adjusted sack rate, but not having to deal with Davenport and Rankins will allow them to breathe that much easier.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
You don't need numbers to tell you that Drew Brees is really good, but we have them anyway. Since returning from his thumb injury, Brees leads the league in DYAR with 1,228, is second to only Lamar Jackson with a 43.0% passing DVOA, has completed 75% of his passes, and has thrown just two interceptions to go along with his league-leading 25 touchdown passes. If he doesn't get hurt against the Rams, the Saints are likely the top seed in the NFC.
There is no easy answer to "how do you stop Drew Brees." The Rams beat the Saints because Brees got hurt. The 49ers beat the Saints because they touched the ball last; Brees led the league in both DYAR and regular YAR that week, each by substantial margins. The Falcons beat the Saints because Andrus Peat went out midgame, the offensive line collapsed, and Brees was sacked a season-high six times.
The third of those seems the most replicable on paper, but the Vikings have had trouble generating pressure this season. They rank 15th in pressure rate at 30.2% (subscription required), though they do have a high adjusted sack rate of 8.2%. They're tied for fifth in the league with 48 sacks, but their 54 hurries and 41 QB knockdowns both rank near the bottom of the league. In other words, when Danielle Hunter or Everson Griffen get there, they usually bring the quarterback down, but they're too often kept out of the backfield entirely -- hence a fantastic sack rate, but middling overall pressure stats. A sack is obviously more valuable than a knockdown or hurry, but it would be nice to have more of those consolation pressures to go along with the highlight-reel plays.
At this point in the season, the Vikings have a hard time generating pass rush without blitzing. That's no good against Brees, however. Per SIS' charting numbers, Brees is completing 70% of his passes for 7.4 yards an attempt against the blitz, with two sacks and no interceptions. This is less than ideal for Minnesota. It may be best to just rush four, and try to take advantage of Peat, who has 18 blown blocks in 537 snaps this season; he's the liability on the offensive line. Erik McCoy and Larry Warford have been better, but they have also blown a combined 45 snaps up the middle. The Vikings must be able to generate pressure up the middle, or they are going to have a long afternoon.
Things don't get much better for the Vikings when you look at what happens when Brees can throw the ball. Xavier Rhodes is dead last in success rate among qualified cornerbacks by a wide margin (subscription required), hence why he's become something of a part-time player over recent weeks. But both Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes (who just went on injured reserve Friday morning, joining Mackensie Alexander on the ever-growing list of 'iffy Minnesota corners missing the game') miss the top 60, and the Vikings rank just 21st covering top wide receivers (subscription required). Enter Michael Thomas, the best receiver in the league this season by a wide margin. No matter who Minnesota matches up against him, that's a massive mismatch. They're going to have to play a lot of zone, not because New Orleans is weak against it, but because they simply can't match up one-on-one with Thomas.
The Vikings do have three amazing defenders in their back seven in Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, and Erik Kendricks (who looks like he will play despite his quad injury), and it should be noted that the Vikings do many, many things well on defense. They have the lowest rate of broken tackles in the league (subscription required). They're tops in the NFL in coverage against tight ends, fifth against No. 2 receivers, and 11th against running backs, so it wouldn't surprise me if Thomas is the only Saints player to have a huge individual receiving day. They have the second-best defensive DVOA in second-and-short; they're fourth in thirrd-and-short. They have the second-best red zone defense in football and lead the league in goal-to-go situations, both areas with which the Saints struggled earlier in the season. They're sixth in the league defending the short passing game, which is the Saints' bread and butter. This is a good defense with a lot going for it. But the Saints' offense is so good, and the Brees-to-Thomas connection such a problem, that there's every chance they get blown out of the water.
If you're looking for an intriguing special teams battle, watch the Vikings when they line up to punt. Britton Colquitt and the Minnesota punting unit rank sixth in the league, while Saints rookie returner Deonte Harris ranks second by our numbers. Harris leads the league in punt return yards, and is the NFC Pro Bowler at the position. Obviously, the Vikings don't want to be punting very much -- no one has beaten the Saints while punting more than four times in the last three years -- but they definitely don't want to be putting the Saints in short field positions when they do punt. Minnesota, meanwhile, has the second-lowest punt return score in the league this year, as Mike Hughes hasn't done much of anything in his opportunities.
Wil Lutz is fourth in the league in field goal/extra point value, only missing five kicks all year and making the Pro Bowl because of it. On kickoffs, however, the Saints have issues, ranking second-worst in the league behind only the Lions. Lutz boots plenty of touchbacks, but when kicks are returned, the Saints are giving up an average of 27 yards, third-worst in the league.
If the Vikings are going to win this game, it's going to have to be in a shootout. The Saints have scored 30 points or more in each of their last four games, and haven't been held to under 26 since November 10. The Vikings, meanwhile, laid an egg in their huge game against the Packers two weeks ago, and have only topped 20 points once in their last four games. I can see the Vikings' offense putting points on the board; a healthy Cook and Thielen open up so many potential offensive avenues, and we haven't even mentioned Kyle Rudolph yet. It is going to take the defense standing on their heads to slow down that New Orleans offense enough to keep up, however. If Minnesota can generate constant pressure without taking too much help away from their beleaguered corners, then Minnesota can be in this game at the end. It might not even take a Miracle for them to come out on top. But it's just too easy to see Brees, Thomas, Kamara, and the Saints' offensive excellence overwhelming a good defense and leading to a multi-score win.
Seattle at Philadelphia
|DVOA||13.8% (8)||6.5% (11)|
|WEI DVOA||11.8% (9)||5.2% (12)|
|Seahawks on Offense|
|SEA OFF||PHI DEF|
|DVOA||17.4% (5)||-4.0% (12)|
|WEI DVOA||11.8% (6)||-4.7% (14)|
|PASS||43.6% (4)||5.5% (16)|
|RUSH||2.7% (6)||-18.3% (4)|
|Eagles on Offense|
|SEA DEF||PHI OFF|
|DVOA||2.7% (18)||2.6% (14)|
|WEI DVOA||0.6% (17)||-0.2% (14)|
|PASS||3.9% (15)||10.8% (17)|
|RUSH||0.9% (26)||0.4% (10)|
|ST DVOA||20 (-0.9%)||19 (0.0%)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Since the Seattle Seahawks returned to the NFC in 2002, they lead the conference with 24 playoff games, reaching three Super Bowls. In that same time, the Philadelphia Eagles have been postseason regulars themselves, playing in 20 playoff games with two Super Bowl appearances. Yet somehow this will be the first time the two teams have ever played in the postseason.
Recent history in this matchup has favored the Seahawks. Russell Wilson has won all four of his starts against the Eagles, throwing seven touchdown passes (and catching another!) and just one interception. One of those victories came against Mark Sanchez, but Carson Wentz lost the other three, with four touchdowns and five interceptions. (Weirdly, he has thrown exactly 45 passes in all three games.) Their most recent contest was in Week 12, when the Seahawks came out of Lincoln Financial Field with a 17-9 victory.
Six weeks later, each team looks radically different. Injuries have hit these clubs hard. The Seahawks have literally lost their entire running back depth chart, as Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and C.J. Prosise are all out for the year. (Penny had a 58-yard touchdown run to lock up that Week 12 win.) The situation is so dire that they have turned to a twice-retired veteran in hopes of saving their season. But they will get no sympathy from the Eagles, who have been playing second- and third-stringers at wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and in the secondary for a good chunk of the year.
By DVOA, the Seahawks were the slightly superior team in 2019, but the Eagles flew to greater heights. Seattle's best single-game DVOA was 44.1% in the Monday night win over Minnesota. The Eagles had four games better than that: early wins over the Packers, Jets, and Bills, plus the Week 16 triumph over Dallas that made the difference in the NFC East race. However, the Eagles had eight games with a negative DVOA. Seattle was only in the negative range five times.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
If you're reading this, you're probably aware that the Seahawks have a long history of running more often than most teams, even though their particular strengths and weaknesses suggest they'd be better off passing more often. This year was no different. Only the Chiefs and Saints had a bigger gap between pass offense DVOA and rush offense DVOA than Seattle this season. But while Kansas City and New Orleans both passed more than 60% of the time, both in the top half of the league, the Seahawks only passed on 55% of their offensive snaps, fifth-lowest. They didn't deviate much from that strategy in Week 17 against San Francisco; despite their decimated running back depth and the deficit they faced for most of the game, they still passed just 58% of the time, not much higher than their season average.
The Seahawks take this handoff fetish into Philadelphia against an Eagles defense that ranked much better against the run (-18.3% DVOA, fourth) than against the pass (5.5%, 16th). At full health, the Philadelphia secondary is vulnerable to big plays, and they come into this game far short of full health. Four Eagles cornerbacks qualified for our pass coverage leaderboards (subscription required), and only one made the top 70 in yards allowed per target (Avonte Maddox was 23rd.) Among the other three, Ronald Darby is out for the season, while Jalen Mills is day-to-day with an ankle injury. If Mills can't go, the Eagles will be left with Maddox, Rasul Douglas (73rd in yards allowed per target, although he was 26th in success rate) and Sidney Jones (a healthy scratch at points this season) at cornerback. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod finished first and second on the team in tackles on completed passes, cleaning up a lot of the messes their teammates had left behind.
Seattle's passing game was focused mostly on its two outside receivers. Tyler Lockett had 113 targets this season, and DK Metcalf had 101. Nobody else had more than 60. Lockett is, quite simply, one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, full stop. He led the league in receiving DYAR in 2018, then proved that was no fluke by finishing fourth this year. Before the draft last April, Metcalf was best known for his superhero physique, but we have since learned that his abs are better than his hands -- he was among the league leaders with eight drops (subscription required) and his three fumbles after receptions were tied for most in the league. Still, his DVOA was right around average, he finished 39th in DYAR, and he was Wilson's preferred target on third downs.
The depth at wideout behind those two is minimal -- Josh Gordon is suspended, and Jaron Brown (knee) and Malik Turner (concussion) may be out for this weekend. David Moore has caught only 43 passes the past two seasons, but he has made the most of them, averaging more than 17 yards per catch with seven scores. John Ursua, a seventh-round rookie out of Hawaii, has just one career catch: a critical fourth-down conversion in the red zone against San Francisco last week. Elsewhere, tight end Jacob Hollister was waived in training camp but promoted from the practice squad after Will Dissly tore his Achilles. He had a negative receiving DVOA, which is hard to do when you're catching passes from Russell Wilson, but still finished 22nd in DYAR at the position. Travis Homer, the current starter at running back by default, saw all of 13 targets during the regular season, catching 11 of them for 56 yards. He was one of two Seahawks to finish the year with negative receiving DYAR. The other was George Fant, the offensive lineman who failed to catch his one target on a tackle-eligible play.
It's not an ideal situation, but Lockett and Metcalf should give Seattle the edge in the passing game -- assuming, that is, that Wilson is able to get said passes off. Due his chronic habit of holding on to the ball, Wilson subjects himself to a lot of pressure, and that was certainly true this season. The Seahawks offense was 24th in adjusted sack rate, which was their highest ranking since their last Super Bowl team in 2014, but that doesn't tell the whole story -- only the Jets allowed a higher pressure rate in 2019 (subscription required). Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the last two games after surgery on his meniscus, and Pete Carroll has said it would take a "miraculous recovery" for Brown to play on Sunday, but he has not technically been ruled out. Without Brown, Seattle gave up five sacks to Arizona in Week 16, but just two against San Francisco in Week 17.
The Eagles, however, don't field the kind of terrifying pass rush that can make the most out of that weakness. They ranked 16th in adjusted sack rate and 13th in pressure rate (subscription required). Brandon Graham led the Eagles with 8.5 sacks and 37.0 hurries (subscription required), failing to make the NFL's top 20 in either category. Graham is part of a rotation of Eagles pass-rushers that also includes Derek Barnett and Vinny Curry, not to mention interior force Fletcher Cox. Cox has largely been a one-man show on the inside for Philadelphia, as injuries have limited Timmy Jernigan, Hassan Ridgeway, and Malik Jackson to a total of 18 games played. Ridgeway and Jackson are both out for the year, but Jernigan will play on Sunday.
When Seattle does choose to pass, they'd be wise to use play-action. That's something they tended to do anyway, ranking 10th in play-action usage (subscription required), but they really didn't need to. They actually ranked higher in yards per play without play-action (seventh) than with it (10th). The Eagles defense, however, ranked 26th in yards per play against play-action, but 13th against all other passes. Only three other defenses had a larger gap with and without play-action, and none of them made the playoffs.
The Eagles prefer to use a four-man rush and didn't blitz much this year. When they did blitz, however, they preferred big blitzes with six or more pass-rushers. They were one of four defenses to use big blitzes on at least 10% of all dropbacks. Wilson's numbers against big blitzes were like the most extreme version of Wilson's numbers in general -- he was sacked eight times in 56 dropbacks, but when he was able to pass, he averaged 8.4 yards per throw with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
You'll note that we haven't said much about Seattle's running game, other than that they'll probably use it more than they should. That's because there's really not much to say -- we have little evidence of what Homer or the 2020 version of Marshawn Lynch have to offer. Homer, a sixth-round rookie out of Miami, had only 18 carries this year, all in the last five games of the season. He did have a 19.9% rushing DVOA and averaged 6.3 yards per run, thanks in large part to a 29-yard run against Minnesota on his first carry of the year. Lynch had a -10.1% DVOA in his one game this season, carrying the ball 12 times for 34 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers. Wilson's running was also nothing special this year, with a negative DVOA.
The Eagles were below average in terms of short-yardage run defense and surrendering long runs, but they excelled in hitting runners for no gain or a loss, ranking third in stuff rate. McLeod led the team in run tackles, while linebacker Nate Gerry (who started the year on the practice squad) led them in successful run tackles, and Graham led them in defeats. And of course, though his name didn't always show up in the stat sheet, Cox deserves a lot of credit for wreaking havoc in the middle of the field.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Before we get into the numbers and schemes in this matchup, we need to discuss who will be playing for each team -- or rather, who won't be. The Eagles fantasy-position players have been virtually wiped out by injuries. The following table shows the current status for every man who has notched a carry and/or a catch for Philadelphia in 2019. Only two of the starters listed here will go into Sunday with a clean bill of health, and one of those is the quarterback.
|Philadelphia Eagles 2019 Yards From Scrimmage Stats with Current Status|
|Player||Pos||YFS||Will He Play?||Notes|
|Miles Sanders||RB||1327||Maybe||Did not practice this week (ankle)|
|Zach Ertz||TE||916||Maybe||Not cleared for contact (ribs, kidney)|
|Dallas Goedert||TE||607||Yes||The one healthy starter at RB, WR, or TE|
|Jordan Howard||RB||594||Yes||One game, zero touches since Week 9 (shoulder)|
|Alshon Jeffery||WR||492||No||Out for season (Lisfranc)|
|Boston Scott||RB||449||Yes||Promoted from practice squad in October|
|Nelson Agholor||WR||370||No||Has not played or practiced since Week 13 (knee)|
|Greg Ward||WR||259||Yes||Promoted from practice squad in November|
|Carson Wentz||QB||243||Yes||Played with better talent at North Dakota State|
|JJ Arcega-Whiteside||WR||169||Yes||17 snaps, zero targets in Week 17 (foot)|
|DeSean Jackson||WR||159||No||Eligible to come off IR in divisional round|
|Mack Hollins||WR||125||No||Waived in December, signed by MIA|
|Darren Sproles||RB||90||No||Retired after tearing his hip flexor|
|Joshua Perkins||TE||87||Yes||Promoted from practice squad in November|
|Deontay Burnett||WR||48||Yes||Promoted from practice squad on Christmas Eve|
|Jordan Matthews||WR||33||No||Cut in November, signed with SF|
|Jay Ajayi||RB||30||No||Cut on Christmas Day|
|Robert Davis||WR||6||Yes||Promoted from practice squad in December|
|Josh McCown||QB||-2||Hopefully not||40-year-old who played in the UFL|
Who will be available for this game? At running back, the Eagles will be handing off to Boston Scott, promoted from the practice squad in October, plus (hopefully) Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard, who have been dealing with respective ankle and shoulder issues. The wide receivers will be a gimpy JJ Arcega-Whiteside and practice squadders Greg Ward and Deontay Burnett. The tight ends will be Dallas Goedert, the one healthy weapon on offense; Joshua Perkins, promoted from the practice squad barely a month ago; and maybe Zach Ertz if he can convince the Seahawks to play flag football.
It should be noted that those three active running backs have been very effective this year. Howard was sixth in rushing DVOA and eighth in success rate. Sanders had negative DVOA as a runner, but was seventh at the position in receiving DYAR. Scott ranked seventh in receiving DVOA, and his 22.8% rushing DVOA in 61 carries would have ranked second if he had reached the 100-carry minimum for our main tables. The questions are whether Howard and Sanders will be able to meet that standard with their current ailments, and whether Scott can be more than a late-season fluke who feasted on the rotten defenses of the NFC East.
We haven't even gotten to the offensive line injuries yet! Brandon Brooks, a three-time Pro Bowler at guard who hasn't missed a start in three seasons, separated his shoulder in last week's win over the Giants and is out for the year. Right tackle Lane Johnson has missed the last three games with an ankle injury and did not practice on Friday. Per Sports Info Solutions, Johnson had nine blown blocks in 709 offensive snaps. His replacement, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, had exactly twice as many blown blocks in only 441 snaps.
The Seattle defense has its own share of injury concerns. Jadeveon Clowney, who had twice as many pass pressures as anyone else on the Seahawks (subscription required), missed three of the last six Seahawks games and has been held out of practice this week with a core injury. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks tore his ACL last week against San Francisco. There is good news for the Seahawks, however: safety Quandre Diggs is likely to return after missing two weeks with an ankle injury. This is critical for a Seattle defense that is completely dependent on quality safety play. After Earl Thomas left in free agency and Lano Hill and Tedric Thompson both struggled badly in his spot, the Seahawks traded for Diggs in midseason, and his impact on the defense was gigantic.
|Seahawks Defense With and Without Quandre Diggs, 2019|
Having established that who is playing in this game is far more important than how, we should discuss tactics each team will use on Sunday and what sets them apart from the rest of the league. In the Eagles' case, that's easy. As Chase Stuart has pointed out, Eagles wide receivers produced a league-low 41% of Philadelphia's receiving yardage. Obviously, the injuries at wideout had a lot to do with that, but they had been right around 50% in each of the last two years, including the Super Bowl-winning team in 2017. For their part, the Seahawks have eschewed nickel and dime sets, largely sticking to zone coverage out of base 4-3 personnel groups. Per Sports Info Solutions, they only used man coverage 19% of the time, less than anyone except the Chargers. By DVOA, they were 17th in coverage against tight ends this season, 12th in coverage against running backs (subscription required).
Given all of that, specific one-on-one matchups aren't likely to matter in this game as much as Wentz's ability to diagnose open receivers in zone coverage, and Seattle's ability to pressure the quarterback with a four-man rush. The first of those categories is largely a wash. According to Sports Info Solutions, Wentz completed 68.6% of his passes against zone coverage, which was a little better than average; his 6.8% sack rate and 7.6 yards-per-pass average were a little worse. Pass protection, however, gives a big edge to Philadelphia. The Eagles offense allowed a pressure rate of 28.4%, 11th-lowest, while the Seattle defense generated pressure just 23.7% of the time, tied with the Dolphins for worst in the league (subscription required). "Tied with the Dolphins" is about the worst thing you can say about a defense in 2019, and keep in mind that Seattle's best pass-rusher is probably out for this round.
There is another area where the Eagles offense should have a huge advantage, and that is on first downs. The Eagles were quite solid in DVOA on first downs, ranking ninth overall, ninth on runs, and 11th on passes. The Seahawks, however, were manhandled on first downs, ranking 29th overall, 27th on runs, and 28th on passes. The edge flips to Seattle on second downs, where they rank seventh and the Eagles are 25th, then back to Philly somewhat on third downs, where they beat the Seahawks ranking, seventh to 14th. It's those first downs, though, that could be most critical.
Also critical will the Philly's trio of running backs. Seattle's defense ranked much lower against the run than against the pass, and that's especially true in the red zone, where the Eagles were deadly. The Philadelphia offense was fifth in red zone DVOA, eighth passing, and third rushing. And they were second behind the Titans in goal-to-go offense. The Seahawks defense was eighth against the pass in the red zone, but 30th against the run, and only the Panthers were worse on goal-to-go plays.
These two teams had very similar special teams ratings on the whole, but their specific kicking units had wildly different results. The Seahawks and Chargers (of course) were the only two teams to have negative value in all five phases of the kicking game (placekicking, kickoffs, punts, and returns on kickoffs and punts). But they ranked between 15th to 23rd in each of those categories -- basically, they were C- at everything. For the Eagles, Cameron Johnston's punt team made the top 10, and Jake Elliott just missed for placekicks. But they were bottom-10 in kickoff coverage and kickoff and punt returns.
The story of this game may be told by Seattle's defensive trends. The Seahawks defense had radical splits by quarter, going from 28th in DVOA in the first quarter to 10th in the second, second in the third, and then next to last in the fourth. This could be a game where the Eagles grab an early lead and lose it around halftime before staging a furious rally late. Remember: all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually.
If Seattle wins this game, it will likely because Wilson and his receivers get just enough big plays downfield to generate points, while their defense takes away big plays hoping the Eagles drives will bog down around midfield. If Philadelphia wins, it should be because they played station-to-station football with runs and short passes, finished drives in the red zone, and got enough pass rush to cover up for their holes in the secondary.
Of those two scenarios, the first seems slightly more probable. The Seahawks were the better team over the course of the season, and they are the healthier team going into this weekend.
UPDATE: Just as we went to press on Friday afternoon, the Seahawks confirmed that Duane brown and Malik Turner would be out this week, but Jadeveon Clowney and Quandre Diggs would play.
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.