The NFC final four is the home of veteran quarterbacks. In one game, two all-time legends will face off for the third time this year, each trying to win one more Super Bowl before the end of their careers. In the other game, a classic matchup of the year's best offense with the current best defense, with the likely MVP facing the probable Defensive Player of the Year.
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.
Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay
|DVOA||15.4% (9)||25.9% (3)|
|WEI DVOA||16.6% (8)||32.9% (2)|
|Rams on Offense|
|LAR OFF||GB DEF|
|DVOA||4.4% (10)||0.5% (17)|
|WEI DVOA||-6.7% (20)||-3.9% (15)|
|PASS||12.4% (20)||5.1% (15)|
|RUSH||3.5% (4)||-5.7% (18)|
|Packers on Offense|
|LAR DEF||GB OFF|
|DVOA||-17.0% (4)||29.1% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||-26.8% (1)||32.7% (1)|
|PASS||-12.0% (4)||52.0% (1)|
|RUSH||-24.1% (3)||3.0% (5)|
|DVOA||-5.9% (30)||-2.7% (25)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
In the half-century since the American Football League merged with the National Football League, the Green Bay Packers and L.A./St. Louis/L.A. Rams have been two of the most successful teams in the National Football Conference. The Packers are fourth in the NFC with 43 playoff games since the merger; the Rams are sixth with 39. (The Cowboys lead the NFC with 58; Pittsburgh leads all teams with 61.) Yet somehow, these two conference powerhouses have met in the playoffs just once in the past 50 years. In January of 2002, Brett Favre traveled to the Dome at America's Center and promptly threw six interceptions (including a pair of pick-sixes to Aeneas Williams) as the Rams won 45-17. Even before the merger, there was just one Rams-Packers playoff game: in December of 1967, Vince Lombardi's Packers beat George Allen's Rams 28-7, limiting L.A. to 75 yards on the ground and sacking Roman Gabriel five times.
That game was played in Milwaukee, not Green Bay, which means Saturday's contest will be the Rams' first-ever postseason appearance on The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field. They have not fared well there in the past, with an all-time record of 5-10. Their last trip was in October of 2015, when a Rams team coached by Jeff Fisher and quarterbacked by Nick Foles fell 24-10. Their last win was in October of 2006 -- and even then, Favre had the Packers in range for a tying field goal before Leonard Little came up with a strip-sack to seal a 23-20 victory. The last time the Los Angeles Rams won in Lambeau was a 34-7 triumph in 1988, when Green Bay quarterbacks Randy Wright and Don Majkowski combined for three interceptions and seven sacks. That game was played in Week 1 with 62-degree temperatures; Saturday's forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-30s with early snow showers. The Rams haven't won very many games at Lambeau Field; if they're going to do so this weekend, they'll have to overcome both the Packers and the weather.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
So which Rams offense is going to show up? The one from the first half of the year that ranked first in rushing, 14th in passing, and fifth in overall offensive DVOA? Or the second-half team that ranked 13th, 21st, and 20th in those same categories? Even in the wild-card win over Seattle, the L.A. offense was spotty -- 38% of their 333 total yards came on just four plays, and they went 3-for-15 on third downs (and 0-for-2 on fourth downs).
One thing is clear: Jared Goff will be starting at quarterback. Goff underwent surgery on the thumb of his throwing hand on December 28 and missed the playoff-clinching win over Arizona in Week 17. When backup John Wolford suffered a neck injury early against the Seahawks, Goff came off the bench and gutted his way through a 9-of-19 performance, the worst completion percentage by any quarterback against Seattle this season. (Second-worst: Wolford, who went 3-for-6 in that same game.) Wolford has been ruled out for the Green Bay game, and Goff will start, backed up by Blake Bortles.
In other injury news, offensive linemen David Edwards and Andrew Whitworth both left the Seattle game early. Edwards suffered an ankle injury; he is questionable for this weekend. Whitworth, who tore his MCL in November but returned for the wild-card round, has been limited in practice but is expected to play. Finally, slot receiver Cooper Kupp has missed practice with a knee injury and is questionable for Saturday.
The Packers, as you'd expect, are mostly healthy coming off the bye. Rotational defensive lineman Kingsley Keke has missed practice with a concussion and is doubtful, but otherwise they appear to be at full strength.
Let's give the Rams the benefit of the doubt and assume that Goff will improve an extra week removed from surgery and that the offense will play up to their full-season form. In that case, we would expect Los Angeles to have the edge here, especially on the ground. Cam Akers seems to have found his stride -- in three of his last four starts (throwing out the Cardinals game, when he had a bad ankle and probably shouldn't have been playing), he's rushing for better than 120 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry, and adding 22 yards per game as a receiver. A strong performance by Akers would help L.A. exploit their biggest advantage in this game: superior performance on third downs, where they ranked 10th in DVOA but the Green Bay defense ranked just 23rd. Los Angeles was better both running and passing on third downs then Green Bay's defense, and they were also better on third-and-short (ranking 10th, while the Packers rank 30th) and third-and-medium (12th vs. 25th). However, that edge shifts to Green Bay on third-and-long, where the Rams offense ranked 16th but the Packers defense was seventh.
Third-and-long, of course, is a passing down, which explains why it's a positive scenario for Green Bay: even ignoring the Rams' second-half decline and looking only at full-season numbers, L.A.'s offense ranked worse on passing plays than Green Bay's defense. What's interesting is that both teams were strongest in the same facet of the passing game -- the Rams were second in the league in adjusted sack rate on offense, while the Packers were 10th in ASR on defense. Even more interesting is that neither team looked as strong in pressure rate, where the Rams offense ranked 17th and the Packers defense ranked 25th. Essentially, the Rams gave up lots of pressure, but that pressure rarely resulted in sacks, while the Packers rarely achieved pressure, but when they did the quarterback went down.
Green Bay's defense was largely reliant on pressuring quarterbacks. When they got pressure, they had a DVOA of -114.3%, second only to Washington; when they failed to bring pressure, their DVOA climbed to 38.1%, 20th. That gap of -152.4% was second only to Philadelphia. Goff has historically seen his DVOA drop drastically under pressure, and that was true again in 2020; only three full-time starters (Tom Brady, Ryan Tannehill, and Cam Newton) saw steeper DVOA drop-offs under pressure than Goff. Za'Darius Smith led Green Bay in both sacks (12.5) and pressures (30); Rashan Gary, a 2019 first-round draft pick, was second with 5.0 and 19 despite only playing about 30 snaps a game on defense.
Smith is not the best defender in Green Bay, however. That would be Jaire Alexander, who made his first Pro Bowl this season two years after the Packers drafted him in the first round out of Louisville. Alexander's charting stats are sublime. He led all qualifying cornerbacks with a 65% success rate in coverage, and his rate of 4.4 yards per target was second only to Denver's Bryce Callahan. Alexander is the biggest reason Green Bay allowed only 6.4 targets and 48.4 yards per game to opposing No. 1 wideouts, both the lowest figures in the league. L.A.'s top wideout, Robert Woods, failed to make the top 70 wide receivers in either DYAR or DVOA and had only four catches for 48 yards (with one touchdown) against Seattle; on paper, he's no match for Alexander.
The Packers were relatively vulnerable, however, to "other" wide receivers, surrendering 51.1 yards per game. That's 2.7 more yards than they gave up to No. 1s, the biggest gap in the league; only four other defenses (including the Rams) gave up more yards to "others" than they did to No. 1s. The Rams are one of those teams where designating wide receiver positions is tricky -- we counted Kupp, the slot receiver, as No. 2, with Josh Reynolds and Van Jefferson as "other" -- but regardless, the conclusion is clear: avoid throwing at Alexander whenever possible, and target Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan instead. King's charting stats were particularly weak, as he failed to make the top 50 corners in either success rate or yards allowed per target.
There is another spot where L.A.'s passing game should have an advantage, but it's not a spot in the lineup, it's an area of the field -- specifically, the red zone. Green Bay's defense was 28th in DVOA inside their own 20, and 29th against the pass. The Rams were 12th in both overall offense and passing offense in the red zone; their most dangerous weapon there was tight end Tyler Higbee, whose six red zone targets included four touchdowns. Both teams ranked 14th on red zone rushing plays.
Finally, while Green Bay may well take an early lead, we should all beware of a Rams rally. L.A.'s offense ranked 20th in the first half of games but fifth in the second half; Green Bay's defense went in the opposite direction, falling from fifth in the first 30 minutes to 23rd after halftime.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for your main event of the weekend. According to weighted DVOA, this is the matchup between the league's best offense and its top defense. The Packers finished first in the league in points scored and total touchdowns, with the fewest turnovers. The Rams were first in fewest points, yards, or first downs allowed. By DVOA, Green Bay had the best offense on passing plays; on all second downs; in the red zone and the front zone (the area between the opponents' 20- and 40-yard lines); in the first quarter, the second quarter, and the second half of games; from the shotgun; and at home. DVOA also dubbed the Rams defense tops against first-down runs and second-down passes; all second-and-long plays; all second-down plays of any distance; and all plays with the quarterback under center. Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay is the favorite to win the MVP award, which would be his third; Aaron Donald of Los Angeles is a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, which would also be his third award. In a perfect world, this matchup would be as good as it gets.
Sadly, we do not live in a perfect world. Green Bay's former All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari tore his ACL in practice before Week 17 and is lost for the year. Swing tackle Ricky Wagner, who has started each of the last five games as the Packers have shuffled linemen around, has been limited in practice with a knee injury. Veteran tackle Jared Veldheer, who played two games for Green Bay in 2019, was signed off Indianapolis' practice squad following the Colts' wild-card loss to the Bills, but was promptly placed on the COVID list, costing him (for now) a chance to make history as the first player ever to perform in two playoff games for two different franchises in the same postseason. Yosh Nijman, who went undrafted in 2019 and played only 14 offensive snaps in 16 games this season, could be starting on Saturday afternoon.
The Packers will get no sympathy from the Rams, who are dealing with an even more critical injury on their line. Donald suffered a rib injury against Seattle while pressuring Russell Wilson in the second half (that right there tells you how dominant Donald was last weekend -- he was in the backfield so often, he hurt himself). He left the game in obvious distress and did not return, and has been limited in practice this week. Donald will play on Sunday and claims he has "no pain," but it's hard to imagine he'll be at 100%.
With the injury report out of the way, we can get on to the good stuff. If the Green Bay offense vs. the L.A. defense is the main event game of the weekend, then Davante Adams vs. Jalen Ramsey is the main event matchup of that game, a contest between what could be the NFL's very best players at both wide receiver and cornerback. Adams led all players with 98.1 receiving yards per game and 18 touchdown catches, and also led all wide receivers in receiving DYAR. Ramsey gave up only 19.3 yards per game, fewest of any corner with at least 10 starts (yes, including Alexander), and only three touchdowns all year -- and those three touchdowns gained a total of 7 yards.
Ramsey's stellar season helps explain L.A.'s absurd performance on throws to the offense's right, where they led the league in DVOA. (They were 18th on throws to the left, 21st on throws down the middle.) The Rams only allowed 4.7 yards per pass to the right side, with nine interceptions and all of three touchdowns. In the wild-card round, Wilson threw six passes to his right, completing just one, a 9-yard gain on second-and-10. Ramsey, however, was actually more likely to be targeted on throws to the offense's left (16% of all targets against L.A.) than to the right (9%). This shows us that Ramsey will follow receivers to either side of the field, and also that no matter where he goes, coordinator Brandon Staley's scheme is designed to take away throws that the NFL's quarterbacks (most of whom are right-handed) tend to favor. Rodgers, by the way, was third in DVOA and fourth in attempts among qualifying quarterbacks on throws to his right; Adams was sixth among qualifying wideouts in DVOA, tied for seventh in targets. They're not likely to just turn their backs and avoid those throws entirely.
That's assuming, of course, they have a chance to pass the ball at all, and the Rams may be able to avoid that with a heavy dose of big blitzes. The Packers were first in DVOA against plays with four pass-rushers and sixth against five, but fell all the way to 30th against big blitzes of six or more. Now, that's a sample of only 21 plays and hardly reliable, but when an offense as good as Green Bay's ranks 30th in anything, it's hard to ignore that as a weakness to be exploited. Unfortunately for the Rams, that's not their game -- they were second in DVOA with four pass-rushers and 10th when using five, but fell to 28th when rushing six or more. They only used 14 big blitzes all season. Instead they're more likely to rely on a four-man rush and hope that Donald (second in the league with 13.5 sacks, and also second with 45 pressures) can carry the day. Leonard Floyd, who quietly added 10.5 sacks (plus 2.0 more in the wild-card game) and 34 hurries, could also be in for a big day given Green Bay's shaky situation at tackle.
We are nearly 1,000 words into this section and have barely touched on the running game, another area of strength-on-strength. Aaron Jones finished in the top-five in both rushing DYAR and DVOA; Jamaal Williams also made the top 30 in each category, and they ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in success rate. The Packers allowed a stuff rate of just 13.5%, lowest in the league. They should be able to make some headway against a Rams defense that excelled at preventing long runs but has surrendered small gains most of the year. The Packers should be choosy about when they run, however. As noted earlier, the Rams led the league in DVOA against runs on first down, but they were 30th against first-down passes. The opposite was true on second down, when they were first against the pass but 19th against the run. For the Packers -- who had similar rankings run or pass, first or second down -- "pass on first down, run on second" should be the order of the day. That should help them get to third-and-short, where they have a monstrous DVOA edge, ranking fourth while the Rams defense ranks 31st.
Both teams are pretty lousy here. We covered the Rams' struggles last week. They had another subpar day against Seattle. Matt Gay hit all his placekicks and Johnny Hekker avoided disaster in the punt game, but their coverage teams allowed D.J. Reed to return a kickoff for 58 yards, leading to a field goal, and to return three punts for 26 yards. They did force a fumble on his last punt return, setting up the game-clinching score.
Green Bay had one obvious strength: Mason Crosby, who only tried 16 field goals all year, but nailed every one of them, including a 57-yarder. He did miss four extra points, but he connected on a league-high 59. They had negative value everywhere else, particularly on the punt team, which was worth -11.8 points, fourth-worst, on only 47 punts, fourth-fewest. The problem was less JK Scott's punts and more his protection (which gave up a blocked punt against Houston) and coverage teams, which gave up a shocking 17.1 yards per return, most since the Chargers (of course) gave up 18.9 in 2010. Jacksonville's Keelan Cole and Philadelphia's Jaelen Reagor both returned punts for touchdowns against Green Bay; four other returns gained 10-plus yards.
For all their strengths, Green Bay is a relatively flawed team as far as top seeds go. Over the course of the season, DVOA thought that New Orleans and Tampa Bay were both better in the NFC. This is a club that trailed Jacksonville in the fourth quarter for crying out loud. And when the Packers did lose, it's because they got steamrolled -- the Bucs, Vikings, and Colts averaged over 150 yards on the ground in wins over Green Bay. In that light, one can imagine the Rams taking a lead and riding Akers and their defense to a win.
That's probably just imagination, though -- reality isn't so kind. In Football Outsiders Almanac 2020, we wrote that "the Rams absolutely need Goff and Donald to deliver if they are going to advance far into the playoffs." Those two players are going into this game with a total of three healthy thumbs and less than the ideal number of intact ribs. It's doubtful that Donald will make his usual impact, and even more doubtful that Goff will be able to match Rodgers in a snowy shootout. The Packers are our favorite team to win outright this weekend; yes, even more than Kansas City.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans
|DVOA||31.5% (2)||33.3% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||30.7% (3)||30.5% (4)|
|Buccaneers on Offense|
|TB OFF||NO DEF|
|DVOA||19.8% (3)||-19.0% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||26.0% (2)||-20.3% (2)|
|PASS||37.1% (5)||-14.7% (3)|
|RUSH||-2.0% (10)||-25.6% (2)|
|Saints on Offense|
|TB DEF||NO OFF|
|DVOA||-14.6% (5)||10.7% (7)|
|WEI DVOA||-7.2% (9)||7.5% (9)|
|PASS||-5.4% (5)||16.6% (12)|
|RUSH||-31.4% (1)||9.5% (1)|
|ST DVOA||-2.9% (26)||3.6% (5)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
We go from two teams that have rarely met in the playoffs to two teams that have already met twice this season. It may strike you as strange that Vegas gives the Bucs-Saints game the second-lowest line of the weekend when their last meeting in Week 9 was a 38-3 New Orleans blowout that, even stripped of the randomness of things such as short-yardage conversions and fumble recoveries, stands out as the positive DVOA outlier for the Saints and negative DVOA outlier for the Bucs for the season. But that Bucs rout was a product of poor strategy as much as poor execution. Tom Brady took shots thrown 40, 34, and 13 yards downfield on third or fourth downs with just 3, 6, and 7 yards to gain and failed to complete them. He threw three more incomplete passes on the Saints' 1-yard line when runs were likely the higher-percentage plays. Bruce Arians strives for aggressive play calling, but there is a line between aggressive and impatient that his team crossed that week and it allowed the snowballs of bad bounces, penalties, and unsuccessful high-leverage plays to become an avalanche.
The Bucs looked that week like a team that hadn't practiced much, and they hadn't. The pandemic disrupted every team's offseason, but it probably hurt them more than most teams since they had a new quarterback. That quarterback has also reached the highest of heights in an offensive system that was very different from the one his new head coach prefers, which relies on he and his receivers making the same reads against the same defensive tells. Outsiders accepted that the Bucs would need some time to develop offensive chemistry, but that excuse had worn thin by the second Saints loss and even thinner by the Bucs' fourth and fifth losses of the year later that November. Anyone that dismissed the Bucs as a Super Bowl contender likely missed the fact that their offense matured into the second-best in football over the second half of the season. Overall, the Bucs are third in weighted DVOA, narrowly ranked ahead of their Sunday opponent. History aside, the Bucs can keep this game close and are as likely as not to win it.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
A 38-3 loss implies equal offensive and defensive blame, but the Bucs offense made life difficult on its defense that week with short series and turnovers. Tom Brady's unit went three-and-out on its first four drives, and he threw a pick off a batted pass on the fifth. For the season, the Saints scored touchdowns on 46% and 41% of their drives that started after forced three-and-outs and interceptions, respectively, but just 27% of the time on the rest of their drives. That day, the Saints built a 28-0 lead six minutes and 15 seconds into the second quarter, and the Bucs spiraled from there since they were too stubborn to change their offensive approach (or maybe too eager to erase their deficit quickly).
That was a problem for two main reasons. First, Brady couldn't complete his deep passes. November was the climax of the Brady deep-ball narrative that implied his skills had eroded with age. I think his dramatically improved deep accuracy in December and January refutes that theory. His November swoon may have been a small-sample quirk. It may have reflected an unreported injury that was not serious enough to make him miss games -- Brady's spike in short and intermediate poor-throw rate seems to support that suggestion. And it may have captured the truth of the tired narrative that the Bucs offense still wasn't on the same page. Week 9 was Antonio Brown's first with the team, and his inexperience with Brady caused the ugliest of the quarterback's three interceptions when he cut off a route just as Brady released a deep attempt aimed where he expected Brown to be. The only competition safety Marcus Williams had for that interception came from a Saints teammate.
|Tom Brady's Passing Splits, 2020|
|Deep passes are those of 16 or more air yards.
Poorly thrown rates based on Sportradar charting.
Since the team's Week 13 bye, Brady has eased those concerns. He is throwing more deep passes and throwing them more accurately than he has all season. And those trends manifested as 9.7 yards per attempt, more than 2 yards better than his rate from any of the first three months. It bodes well for Brady's chances in his third swing at his new division rival.
What doesn't bode well is the second reason for that Week 9 spiral: pass pressure. The Bucs owe much of their recent offensive success to opponents such as the Lions and Falcons in the bottom half of the league in defensive pressure rate. The Saints were first in defensive pressure rate, and they authored Brady's two most pressured games this season. The second one may have on its own suggested game script as the culprit -- the Bucs set a record low of just five carries in Week 9, and with little mystery as to whether their opponent would run or pass, New Orleans linemen could rush the passer without reservation. But since their more competitive Week 1 game was similarly pressure-packed, the Bucs should fear that the Saints have the defensive pieces to exploit their generally excellent offensive line.
First-round rookie Tristan Wirfs has delivered on his high expectations. As a Day 1 starter at right tackle, Wirfs has matched veteran right guard Alex Cappa, center Ryan Jensen, and left guard Ali Marpet with a blown pass block rate below 2%. But Donovan Smith has underwhelmed at left tackle, blowing 4.4% of his attempted pass blocks, the fifth-highest rate among the tackles who played at least 300 pass snaps. And his limitations often sabotage the Bucs' offensive efforts when defenses can bring pressure from both ends. Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, and Trey Hendrickson were three of the just 50 pass-rushers with 23 or more hurries this season. Hendrickson was one rusher too many for the Bucs and racked up three sacks in their two regular-season meetings. He missed the Saints' wild-card game with a neck injury, but his return to a limited Wednesday practice suggests he will likely play on Sunday.
In his last All-Pro season in 2017, Brady had the second-smallest differential between his passing DVOA with and without pressure. But that differential ballooned to the eighth-biggest in 2018, 12th-biggest in 2019, and fourth-biggest this year. And things could get even worse if the Saints bring extra pressure. For the second straight year, Brady struggled significantly with the blitz. Tampa Bay's team passing DVOA dropped from 41.8% with four pass-rushers (8.1 yards per play) to -4.0% with five or more pass-rushers (5.6 yards per play). Meanwhile, the Saints excelled when bringing the blitz. Their defensive DVOA went from -10.9% with four pass-rushers (6.5 yards per play) to -38.4% with five or more (5.2 yards per play).
Smith had six combined blown pass blocks in the first two Saints games; Brady will need him to block better than that to extend drives against the Saints this weekend, especially since Cappa fractured his ankle last week and will cede his starting job to an untested Aaron Stinnie. Smith did improve down the stretch, blowing just one block in the Bucs' final three regular-season games. He also helped keep likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young in check on Saturday night. The Bucs can point to that performance as a reason for optimism for a different outcome against the Saints this week: it was the first time they scored 30 points against a top-10 pressuring defense all season.
The Bucs may have a secret weapon as well. Rob Gronkowski returned to his touchdown-scoring ways during the regular season, but he has stayed in to block on increasing rates of 48%, 49%, and 67% of his snaps the last three weeks according to Establish The Run's Adam Levitan. That latter rate likely tips how Bruce Arians plans to deal with Cappa's absence and support Smith in a difficult matchup. Gronkowski can win against defensive ends, so don't be surprised if you see Cameron Brate catching more passes this weekend. Gronk is the more talented receiver, but he will likely have his biggest impact on this game at the line of scrimmage.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
As I detailed last week and as pretty much every analyst has detailed in his games this season, Drew Brees does not stretch a defense vertically the way Tom Brady does. At first blush, that seems to be boon for a Bucs defense that landed at fifth in DVOA due less to its secondary and more to a front that finished first in adjusted line yards (3.60) and sixth in adjusted sack rate (7.9%). But Brees puts pressure on defenses with his ability to read the entire field and distribute the ball quickly to his many playmakers. Brees targeted 12 different receivers in the Week 1 win against Tampa Bay, and nine different receivers in his Week 9 blowout. And even though those were the only two games Brees and Michael Thomas played together all regular season, secondary options such as Jared Cook, Adam Trautman, and Emmanuel Sanders were similarly productive as the star receiver.
Second- and third-year cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis played a major role in the Bucs jumping from 32nd in defensive DVOA in 2017 and 2018 to sixth and fifth the last two seasons. But the Bucs become dramatically worse in coverage the further down their cornerback depth chart you can target. Among the 79 cornerbacks that saw 25 or more targets this year, Dean finished sixth and 16th with 5.8 yards allowed per target and a 56% coverage success rate; Davis finished 40th and 38th with 7.6 yards per target and 51% success rate. But third corner Sean Murphy-Bunting was in the bottom five with his 9.8 yards per target and 37% success rate. And he may play an outsized role this week since Davis is fighting through a groin injury that sidelined him in Weeks 16 and 17 and contributed to the defense's decline from fourth in pass defense DVOA in the first half of the season to 13th in the second half.
Brees has been less than flawless since his return from his broken ribs. The Saints have produced negative offensive DVOA rates in two of those four games. That's more than Brady's Bucs have suffered the entire second half of the season. But Brees can just now enjoy the full benefits of the Saints' skill-position talent. Last Sunday, Thomas and Deonte Harris played their first games in five and eight respective weeks and turned their seven targets apiece into 156 total yards and a touchdown. Tre'Quan Smith is poised to play his first game in four weeks since an ankle injury landed him on injured reserve. Expect Harris and Smith to play significant roles this week as Brees hunts for Murphy-Bunting and the Bucs' other lesser talents in coverage.
Linebacker Devin White should return to the field after missing the last two weeks on the COVID reserve list. That would figure to help the Bucs in their efforts to defend some of the secondary Saints receiving options, but White was their biggest regular-season victim, seeing 12 targets in the two games, and his 7.4 yards allowed per target this season nearly doubled teammate Lavonte David's rate of 4.2 yards. Brees makes quick decisions and finished second at the position with a 3.2% sack rate, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles change things up and bring White on some blitzes. White did not hurry Brees in either regular-season game, but he led all interior linebackers with 9.0 sacks this season. Even a handful of disruptions would be better than the passive alternative from their prior matchups. At this point, Brees seems unlikely to make the Bucs regret the aggressiveness with big plays down the field. And if the Bucs could force the Saints into more third downs, they may gain an advantage. With Brees under center, even ignoring Taysom Hill's starts, the Saints had a third-down DVOA that would have ranked just 19th in the league over the full season.
The Bucs' other avenue to more Saints third downs is excellent run defense. They couldn't capitalize on that strength after falling behind by multiple scores in each of their first two meetings, but it could play a major role if their offense can avoid the turnovers that led to those deficits. Even as the league's best run defense, their -31.4% DVOA is not dramatically better than the Saints at -25.6%. But their efforts against the run should be more important than those of their opponent since the Saints are No. 1 in rushing offense and average close to eight more carries per game.
For as much fun as Tom Brady has had on offense of late, he undoubtedly misses the perennial excellence of his Patriots special teams. Few clubs can boast a regular top-10 ranking in the least consistent unit in football. Somehow, the Bucs have managed to be consistently terrible on special teams. They've finished in the bottom half of the league in nine straight seasons and were 26th this year. That could be a real problem this Sunday since the team's biggest special teams shortcomings are on kickoffs and punts, playing into a Saints strength in their return game. Deonte Harris was an All-Pro returner in his rookie season in 2019, and he bettered his 9.4 yards per return that year with a 12.2-yard average this year, albeit in five fewer games. The matchup at kicker is even. Wil Lutz of the Saints missed five of 28 field goals for a career-worst 82.1% conversion rate, although two of those kicks were over 50 yards. Tampa Bay's Ryan Succop missed just three field goals (one of which the Saints blocked in Week 1) but also missed five extra points (two of which were blocked).
The Saints may be the worst defensive matchup for a Bucs offense that has tended to beat its opponents with talent more than scheme. But some of Tampa Bay's subtle scheme and strategic improvements over the second half of the season have helped the Bucs turn the corner even if their passing attack has maintained the classic Arians deeper skew. Despite the results of their first two matchups, I think that could be the difference. The Superdome won't have its normal playoff teeth with the COVID attendance restrictions, and so Brady should be able to sustain drives if he remains poised and patient. The moment certainly won't be too big for him to do so.
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.