Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

NFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2021

Chicago Bears RB David Montgomery
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

The NFC playoffs start with Part III of an intense divisional rivalry, spiced up with a big question mark at the quarterback position. The other two NFC games present us with mismatches where the top two teams in DVOA this season will face two weaker playoff teams that play strong defense but struggle on offense.

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.


Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks

  LAR SEA
DVOA 15.4% (9) 20.1% (5)
WEI DVOA 14.1% (8) 22.0% (5)
Rams on Offense
  LAR OFF SEA DEF
DVOA 4.4% (10) 0.4% (16)
WEI DVOA -4.8% (17) -5.2% (11)
PASS 12.4% (20) 12.3% (20)
RUSH 3.5% (4) -20.1% (7)
Seahawks on Offense
  LAR DEF SEA OFF
DVOA -17.0% (4) 13.7% (6)
WEI DVOA -24.2% (1) 9.5% (6)
PASS -12.0% (4) 30.4% (6)
RUSH -24.1% (3) -1.4% (9)
Special Teams
  LAR SEA
DVOA -5.9% (30) 6.8% (3)

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 nine years since they drafted Russell Wilson in 2012, the Seattle Seahawks have won 107 combined regular-season and playoff games (plus one tie), second only to the Patriots. That entire time, however, the Rams have been a thorn in their side, winning 10 of 18 games against rivals in the Pacific Northwest. (Only one other team has posted a winning record against Wilson's Seahawks: the San Diego/L.A. Chargers, who are 2-0.) Whether the teams were meeting in St. Louis or California dreamin', the Rams have often said hello, Seattle, and come away with a win.

Seahawks-Rams games have often been ugly and tight. Twenty points are usually enough to win; the losing team has scored 17 or less 13 times, and less than 10 points seven times. Twelve games have been decided by seven points or less. Turnovers have often decided the winner; the Seahawks are 7-3 when they win the turnover battle, but 1-7 when they don't.

The rivals look quite similar to each other this year. Both are playoff mainstays -- the Seahawks have made the postseason eight times in nine years, while the Rams have done so three out of four. Both teams declined on offense but improved on defense throughout 2020. Both suffered humiliating losses to New York teams, the Seahawks to Colt McCoy's Giants and the Rams to Sam Darnold's Jets. If they had just taken care of business in those games, the Seahawks would be enjoying a week off right now, while the Rams would be headed to Washington to face a much weaker opponent. Instead they are here, ready to do battle one more time, with the loser's season coming to an end.

WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL

Chart 1

The Rams are very healthy overall, but not at the game's most important position. Jared Goff broke the thumb on his throwing hand against Seattle in Week 16 and missed the Week 17 win over Arizona after surgery. Goff has practiced this week without issue, but Sean McVay is playing things coy, refusing to name a starter before Saturday's game.

If Goff can't play against Seattle, it'll be AAF refugee John Wolford getting the second start of his career … and FO alum Doug Farrar is willing to argue that Wolford should start ahead of Goff no matter what. Wolford's greatest asset over Goff is his mobility -- he ran six times for 56 times against Arizona while Goff's career high in 69 games is 23 rushing yards. Wolford had five runs of 9 yards or more against the Cardinals; Goff only has four runs that long all season. The Seahawks defense saw 70 non-kneeldown quarterback runs this year, second only to San Francisco, but limited those quarterbacks to 4.9 yards per carry, 10th-lowest. And if you think the Rams can't beat Seattle with Wolford at quarterback, remember that they have beaten Wilson's Seahawks before with Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, and Shaun Hill taking snaps.

If Wolford's not running the ball, it'll likely be Cam Akers, who has emerged as the leader of L.A.'s backfield by committee. Akers has 86 carries in his last four games, while Malcolm Brown had only seven. (Darrell Henderson, who ran for over 600 yards this year, is out with a high-ankle sprain until at least the NFC Championship Game, should the Rams advance that far.) Akers missed the Week 16 game against Seattle with a high-ankle sprain. He returned last weekend and carried the ball 21 times, but maybe he shouldn't have -- he gained only 34 yards and fumbled at the goal line, the worst rushing game we've seen in over a decade. Akers finished 41st out of 47 qualifying runners in both DYAR and DVOA this season, but that's largely due to the Arizona game -- take that out historic outlier and he jumps to 32nd in DYAR and 29th in DVOA. Those still aren't dominant rankings, but they're a more accurate reflection of Akers' performance in a typical week.

Finally, McVay's rushing offense always includes the threat of reverses and end arounds -- Rams wideouts and tight ends had 32 carries this year, including 24 runs for 155 yards and two touchdowns by Robert Woods.

As for McVay's passing offense, it remains largely unchanged. The Rams are going to throw a lot of passes from under center (only Minnesota threw more), they're going to use a lot of motion (49% of the time, 10th-most, per Sports Info Solutions), and they're going to use a ton of play-action (32% of all passes, fourth-most, per SIS). Their most-targeted players were -- in this order -- wide receivers Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Josh Reynolds, followed by tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee. Only three teams threw fewer passes to running backs. Of those top five receivers, only Higbee had a positive DVOA. Both Woods and Reynolds fell outside the top 70 wideouts, while Everett was 30th among tight ends. The poor numbers of these players, who had collectively been so effective in the past, largely justify Farrar's argument that Goff should be benched. The good news for L.A. is that they don't give up sacks, ranking second in adjusted sack rate, but they're in the middle of the pack in SIS' offensive pressure rate. (They were much better in ASR than in pressure rate in 2019 too -- this may say something about Goff's ability to get rid of the ball under a heavy rush.) They could get a boost this weekend, however: McVay says left tackle Andrew Whitworth has a "good chance" to play for the first time since Week 10, when he tore his MCL against … Seattle. Whitworth's absence partly explains why L.A.'s offensive DVOA ranked fifth through Week 9, but 20th since Week 10.

Facing down this unit is a Seahawks defense that has made great improvements throughout the year, especially in December. Seattle's rise from 16th in overall defensive DVOA to 11th in weighted defensive DVOA doesn't do justice to their dramatic late-season improvement. As late as Week 12, following a Monday night win over Philadelphia, they ranked 26th in defensive DVOA; in the five weeks since, they rank third, behind only Washington and … the Rams.

Three personnel moves go a long way in explaining that defensive surge. The first is the trade for Carlos Dunlap, who arrived via trade from Cincinnati in Week 9 and proceeded to rack up five sacks in the next eight games. That same week, D.J. Reed took over as a starting cornerback opposite Shaquill Griffin. Reed (49% success rate in coverage, 6.7 yards allowed per target, per SIS) has been a significant upgrade over both Quinton Dunbar (46%, 8.5) and Tre Flowers (35%, 8.9).

Third, and most important, has been the return to health of Jamal Adams, who missed four games in the middle of the year. Though listed as a strong safety, Adams fills more of a 1970s monsterbacker role in Seattle's scheme, which is devoted to keeping blockers off Adams so he can seek and destroy ballcarriers. And that's just what he did, leading all safeties with 27 defeats (including a defensive back-record 9.5 sacks) in only 12 games. There was fear Adams might miss this game after a shoulder injury sidelined him late against San Francisco last weekend, but he has been fully cleared.

Adams is the most impactful defensive back the Seahawks have seen since the Legion of Boom, but he is a radically different player than Earl Thomas. You could count on one hand the number of deep-middle completions Seattle's Super Bowl teams would allow in a given season, but now they are ultra-vulnerable to those throws, ranking 28th in DVOA. They were also 30th in DVOA against throws to the short middle. The Rams didn't throw that way often -- they were 27th in throws down the middle of the field -- but they should consider changing that strategy on Saturday. They should also consider cutting back on play-action -- the Seahawks gave up 6.9 yards per pass on dropback passes, but only 6.1 yards against play-action, second-best in the league. That gap of 0.8 yards in favor of dropback passes was the most of any defense.

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

Chart 2

While the Steelers, Saints, and Buccaneers have gotten most attention for stellar defensive play this season, it's the Rams of Los Angeles who led the league in fewest points (296) or yards (4,511) allowed this season. They were also first in yards per play (4.6) and first downs (280) allowed, among other categories. And while that can somewhat be explained by a soft schedule -- they played only two games against quarterbacks who finished in the top 10 in DYAR, and five others against those who ranked from 11 to 20 -- they still finished fourth in defensive DVOA, and first in weighted defensive DVOA. Going into the playoffs, no defense is playing better than that of the Rams, which has had a DVOA of -20.0% or lower (meaning, better defense) nine times in their last 10 games.

You know all about Aaron Donald. He was second in the league with 13.5 sacks, his fifth 10-sack season, and the biggest reason the Rams finished second in adjusted sack rate. He has finished in the top 10 for tackles for loss in each of his seven NFL seasons. Safety John Johnson is the cleanup man, with nearly 30 more tackles than any of his teammates -- he's a big reason the Rams gave up only 38 plays of 20 yards or more, nine fewer than any other team. And then there's Jalen Ramsey, who was simply the finest cover corner in the pro football this season. SIS charted Ramsey allowing 4.7 yards per target, third-best among qualifying corners, and only 19.3 yards per game, fifth-best -- and none of the four men ahead of him made more than 10 starts.

Opposing this immovable object will be a Seahawks offense that is … what, exactly? Seattle's offense declined significantly in the second half of the season, especially in passing DVOA, where they fell from 42.7% (fourth) in the first half of the year to 16.4% (12th). No individual Seahawks player has seen a steeper drop-off than DK Metcalf, who averaged at least 23 yards per catch in each of his first four games, but under 11 in each of his last four. Metcalf scored seven touchdowns in his first eight games, but has just one in his last six.

And then there's Russell Wilson, who set career-highs in many categories in 2020 -- including interceptions, with 13. Eight of those interceptions came in Seattle's four defeats -- when they lost, Wilson's turnovers were usually a big reason why.

Through it all, Seattle's rushing offense has kept plugging along. They had a DVOA of -1.3% in the first half of the year, -1.5% in the second half. That's one reason Brian Schottenheimer's play calling has gotten so much more conservative lately. The Seahawks passed on 63% of all offensive plays in the first half of the year, but only 57% in the second half.

On paper, the Rams should have the edge here -- and when you look at weighted numbers, that edge starts to look insurmountable. Since Week 10, the L.A. defense has the best run defense DVOA in the league (-34.5%), and they're third against the pass (-22.9%). Are there any specific weaknesses here Seattle might be able to exploit?

Well, for starters, that dominant Los Angeles run defense is built on preventing long gains -- they were first in open-field yards and second in second-level yards, but just 15th in adjusted line yards. And they didn't hit many runners in the backfield, ranking just 23rd in stuff rate. In plain English, this means you won't get many 10- or 20-yard runs against the Rams, but if you're patient you can work them for 3 to 5 yards at a time. They were also relatively vulnerable to passes to running backs, giving up 37.6 receiving yards per game. That's not a ton -- league average was 36.7 -- but it's more than most teams, which you can't say about their coverage against wide receivers or tight ends.

And here the Seahawks have something of a secret weapon: Chris Carson, who ranked 12th in both rushing DYAR and rushing DVOA despite missing four games (including the loss to the Rams, when Seattle running backs only ran 13 times for 51 yards). Carson's not a burner, but he's consistent, leading all runners in success rate -- the perfect running back to hammer away at L.A.'s interior front. Carson was also eighth among running backs in receiving DYAR (though it should be noted that Carson was the intended target on four interceptions, most for any running back).

Seattle may be able to scheme its way into some deep completions, too. Third corner Darious Williams (who usually plays outside, with starter Troy Hill moving to nickelback against three-wide sets) had an average depth of target of 16.8 yards, a full yard deeper than any other qualifying cornerback, per SIS. It wasn't a reliable gambit -- Williams was third among all corners with a 64% success rate in coverage -- but the fact that teams were testing him deep so often tells us that there are opportunities for big plays there. Those opportunities will likely come via play-action. The Rams defense was the opposite of Seattle's in that they were much better against dropback passes (5.0 yards per play, first) than against play-action (8.4 yards per play, 24th). Seattle used play-action on exactly one-quarter of their pass plays, which ranked 18th; there wasn't much difference in their performance in play-action or dropback passing.

Finally, Seattle's going to have something else going for them in this game that they haven't had in a long time: a healthy offensive line. Due to assorted injuries and COVID issues, the starting quintet of Duane Brown, Mike Iupati, Ethan Pocic, Damien Lewis, and Brandon Shell have only played together for five games this season (Weeks 1 to 4, and Week 14 against the Jets). Seattle went 5-0 in those four games, scoring at least 31 points every time, with a total offensive DVOA of 25.3%.

SPECIAL TEAMS

In a game where both defenses have the edge, there figures to be a lot of kicking … and every time there's a kicker on the field, the advantage shifts to Seattle in a major way. The Rams were one of three teams, along with the Browns and Buccaneers, to finish with negative value in all five categories in the kicking game (punts and punt returns, kickoffs and kickoff returns, and placekicking). The Seahawks rank at least 10 spots higher in all categories. Their biggest edges come in placekicking, where Jason Myers didn't miss a field goal all season (though he did miss four extra points), and punting, where Michael Dickson was second in gross average and led the league in punts downed inside the 20. For the Rams, Johnny Hekker had another great season punting the football, but his coverage teams gave up 12.9 yards per return, including an 88-yard touchdown against Miami. And L.A. kickers nailed only 80% of their field goals and 91% of their extra points, though for current kicker Matt Gay those rates are 88% and 100%.

OUTLOOK

What does a Rams win on Saturday look like? Probably, it involves an offense that can get just enough big plays to build a lead, then a defense that can catch Russell Wilson playing hero ball and capitalize on his mistakes. This, however, requires that L.A.'s quarterback, whoever he may be, avoid his own mistakes … and Goff threw more interceptions this year than Wilson did despite missing Week 17. This should be a close, low-scoring game going into the fourth quarter -- Rams-Seahawks games almost always are -- but the Seahawks still have the better, more experienced quarterback, and that and their edge in the kicking game should be enough to get them into the next round.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team

  TB WAS
DVOA 31.5% (2) -2.3% (16)
WEI DVOA 33.6% (3) 3.6% (13)
Buccaneers on Offense
  TB OFF WAS DEF
DVOA 19.8% (3) -18.3% (3)
WEI DVOA 24.6% (2) -21.0% (3)
PASS 37.1% (5) -18.0% (2)
RUSH -2.0% (10) -18.8% (11)
Washington on Offense
  TB DEF WAS OFF
DVOA -14.6% (5) -21.8% (32)
WEI DVOA -11.9% (6) -20.7% (32)
PASS -5.4% (5) -26.7% (32)
RUSH -31.4% (1) -6.0% (14)
Special Teams
  TB WAS
ST DVOA -2.9% (26) 1.1% (15)

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.

When you have a heavy favorite such as Tampa Bay in this game, you always have to point out that it is possible for a heavy favorite to fall. In fact, there's a weird history of heavy favorites like Tampa Bay doing just that. The Buccaneers are the fourth team since the merger to be a road favorite of at least six points in the playoffs. The previous three all lost outright (2000 Rams, 2010 Saints, and 2011 Steelers). Washington's offensive DVOA of -21.8% is the worst ever measured for a playoff team. But five of the previous 10 teams with the worst offenses by DVOA won their first playoff game, including the 2010 Seahawks, who beat the aforementioned Saints. Those Seahawks, like this Washington Football Team, were a 7-9 division champion who were thought to have no business making the playoffs.

So it's certainly possible for Washington to pull off an upset here. But to figure out how that's going to happen, we need to figure out how the Washington Football Team is going to score some points. "Get a couple of pick-sixes" is probably not an adequate answer.

WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL

Chart 3

Here's the premier matchup of strength against strength for Saturday night. Not only are both of these units near the top of the league, but both have gotten stronger as the season has gone along. This is particularly true of the Tampa Bay offense, which ranked only 11th in DVOA through Week 9 but is second trailing only Green Bay in Weeks 10 to 17.

The focus is going to be in the trenches. The Washington front four gets a lot of deserved praise, while the Tampa Bay offensive line flies a bit further under the radar. Washington ranks ninth in SIS pressure rate and fifth in ESPN's pass rush win rate. Tampa Bay is second in SIS pressure rate but is a surprisingly mediocre 17th in ESPN's pass rush win rate. The reason might be the danger of a weak link on an otherwise strong unit. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs and left guard Ali Marpet will probably get All-Pro votes this year. Center Ryan Jensen is well-regarded and right guard Alex Cappa is reasonable. The problem is left tackle Donovan Smith. SIS charting has Smith tied for fourth with 26 blown blocks on pass plays. He's going to have to take on Montez Sweat, who had 9.0 sacks and 31 hurries this year, while Wirfs will be blocking likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young most of the time. Washington can bring pressure without blitzing, although they're also not afraid to blitz. Sportradar has them blitzing on 32% of pass plays this year, which is close to the league average.

When the offensive line holds up, Tampa Bay should be able to get the ball downfield with long-developing deep passes. Tom Brady was not the most efficient quarterback in the league on deep throws this year -- he had DVOA of 81.7% on passes with 16-plus air yards, compared to the NFL average of 63.8% DVOA -- but he threw downfield a ton. No risk it, no biscuit, right? Brady led the NFL with 820 DYAR on deep passes. He also led the NFL with a mind-blowing 23 defensive pass interference flags, setting a new all-time record with four more than the previous high mark. Twelve of these came on deep passes. Only two other quarterbacks had more than 12 DPIs total.

Washington's defense ranked second in DVOA against short passes this year but 17th against deep passes. However, they committed only eight DPIs, two of which were declined. Washington cornerbacks were pretty good this year in the SIS charting. Kendall Fuller had 6.3 yards per pass (10th) with 55.7% success rate (19th). Ronald Darby had 7.0 yards per pass (29th) with 57.6% success rate (11th). Slot corner Jimmy Moreland didn't have enough plays to be ranked but had just 5.3 yards per pass with 57.5% success rate. Fabian Moreau was the weak link, allowing 9.7 yards per pass with only 46.2% success rate. And free safety Troy Apke is listed with 10.9 yards per pass allowed in coverage, although it can be hard to know when to attribute a pass target to the free safety. He plays deep: the average pass target where he was listed in coverage was 26.6 yards downfield.

One thing you won't see Tampa Bay doing much: breaking Washington tackles. Tampa Bay's offense ranked last in the percentage of plays with broken tackles while Washington was fourth on defense in the lowest rate of plays with broken tackles. Tampa Bay's receivers generally beat you at the point of the catch, not by taking short passes and advancing them upfield with yards after the catch.

Watch for Rob Gronkowski on second downs rather than first downs. Gronk had 41.3% DVOA on second down and 36 targets, almost as many targets as he had on first and third down combined (41).

The quality of the offensive line in Tampa Bay extends to run blocking, where the Bucs ranked ninth in adjusted line yards. Washington had a fine run defense, ranking seventh in adjusted line yards and 11th in DVOA. But they had trouble in short-yardage situations, where Tampa Bay has a real advantage. Some of that is the Brady sneak, of course. Tampa Bay led the league with 88% conversion rate on short-yardage runs while Washington was 27th allowing a 72% conversion rate on these runs.

WHEN WASHINGTON HAS THE BALL

Chart 4

OK, so let's say that the Tampa Bay offense and Washington defense play to a standstill. Now we have to figure out how Washington scores against a Tampa Bay defense that also ranked in our top five this year.

First of all, you may be asking "isn't Dwayne Haskins responsible for Washington's offense being so terrible? Isn't Alex Smith better than he was?" Yes, Alex Smith is better than Haskins was, but he's not as good as Kyle Allen was this year. Washington's offensive DVOA this year in Smith starts (Weeks 10 to 14 plus 17) is -22.5%, slightly lower than its offensive DVOA overall.

Your first thought might be the running game. Antonio Gibson was excellent this year when he played, right? Yes he was, finishing sixth among qualified running backs in run DVOA. The problem is that the Tampa Bay run defense is suffocating. They rank No. 1 in the league in both DVOA and adjusted line yards. They stuff runners for a loss or no gain on 22% of carries, second in the league. They don't allow a lot of long runs either. And there's no particular direction where Tampa Bay is weak except maybe right end, where their ALY rank 15th. The only place the Washington running game may have the advantage over Tampa Bay is on third downs, where Washington was sixth running the ball while Tampa Bay was 13th on run defense.

Your next thought is Terry McLaurin. Here's the sad part: as good as McLaurin is, Washington was not particularly efficient when throwing to him. McLaurin had just a -10.9% receiving DVOA this year. That's not his fault, that's because of the quarterbacks throwing to him, but it's still notable that Washington couldn't even put up an average offensive efficiency when throwing to one of the most skilled receivers in the game. McLaurin had 134 targets while no other Washington wide receiver had more than 50. Cam Sims actually had the highest receiving DVOA of the Washington receivers at 0.3%.

Tampa Bay cornerback Carlton Davis should be back after missing two games with a groin injury. There's an interesting split on Tampa Bay's defense: Jamel Dean had better charting stats, but overall opponents had better results throwing to his side. Dean is on the offensive left, and Tampa Bay ranked 25th on throws to the left, but Dean is listed with just 5.8 yards allowed per pass which is sixth in the league. Davis is usually on the right, and Tampa Bay ranked second on throws to the right, but Davis was 40th with 7.6 yards allowed per pass.

The reason for this split is twofold. First, a lot of the successful throws came against holes in the Tampa Bay zones. Tampa Bay plays zone coverage 66% of the time, which ranks seventh in the NFL. Second, the weakness in Tampa Bay's defense is really the third cornerback, Sean Murphy-Bunting. Murphy-Bunting usually starts and then moves inside in nickel when Dean comes in the game on the outside. And Murphy-Bunting had very bad charting stats this year. Murphy-Bunting allowed 9.8 yards per pass (76th) and had 37.3% success rate (75th). So the best way for Washington to move the ball in this game is to move McLaurin around and get him matched up with Murphy-Bunting as much as possible.

The next-best way for Washington to move the ball is with tight end Logan Thomas. Thomas also had negative receiving DVOA this season but that's split into -19.1% DVOA in the first half of the year and 0.6% DVOA in the second half of the year. His catch rate has been 75% since Week 10. And Tampa Bay ranked just 25th in DVOA against tight ends this season.

Hopefully Smith has enough time to throw to McLaurin and Thomas. Like Washington, Tampa Bay brings a heavy pass rush. The Bucs will blitz more: 39.0% of pass plays, fifth in the league according to Sportradar. And their pressure gets home. Tampa Bay ranked third in ESPN's pass rush win rate, while the Washington offensive line ranked 14th in pass block win rate and 11th in SIS pressure rate. The gap is even bigger in adjusted sack rate, where the Tampa Bay defense was sixth and the Washington offense just 22nd; only Philadelphia actually allowed more sacks than Washington this season. The Bucs will be missing their inside blitz pressure, however, with Devin White (9.0 sacks) out because of COVID.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Tampa Bay had generally below-average special teams, particularly in kickoffs and punts, which both ranked 26th in our metrics. Washington was around the league average overall, but it's the split between specific parts of the unit that is interesting for Washington. Punter Tress Way had an outstanding year; only New England's Jake Bailey had more value either net or gross. However, Washington was poor on punt returns, with Steven Sims having a lot of returns that went nowhere plus three muffed punts and a fumble stripped away by Arizona. So special teams are most likely to give Washington a little bit of a field-position advantage, but Sims' poor hands could result in a catastrophic turn of events if he suffers the rare muffed punt recovered by the punting team.

OUTLOOK

Twice in NFL history, a team has won a division with a losing record. Twice, that team has gone on to win its first playoff game. But Washington doesn't get the benefit of the usual home-field advantage, not in this weird season where home-field advantage has been non-existent, and they don't get the benefit of playing against Ryan Lindley like Ron Rivera got when he led the 7-8-1 Panthers of 2013. Tampa Bay is simply the better team, Washington's equal on one side of the ball and far superior on the other side. Tampa Bay has played some weird close games this year, but even in those games they put up a positive DVOA. Check out the week-to-week graph above and you see that Tampa Bay's league-leading variance was essentially caused by just two games: a big win over Green Bay and a big loss to New Orleans. The league's least consistent team was actually kind of consistent in the rest of their games until the last couple of weeks when they were even better than usual.

The Bucs probably won't score 40 points like they have in their last two victories, but they should move on to the divisional round.


Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints

  CHI NO
DVOA -0.5% (15) 33.3% (1)
WEI DVOA 1.8% (15) 34.3% (2)
Bears on Offense
  CHI OFF NO DEF
DVOA -10.6% (25) -19.0% (2)
WEI DVOA -6.7% (21) -21.7% (2)
PASS 1.6% (23) -14.7% (3)
RUSH -18.3% (25) -25.6% (2)
Saints on Offense
  CHI DEF NO OFF
DVOA -7.5% (8) 10.7% (7)
WEI DVOA -3.8% (13) 9.4% (7)
PASS 3.4% (13) 16.6% (12)
RUSH -22.5% (4) 9.5% (1)
Special Teams
  CHI NO
ST DVOA 2.6% (8) 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.

Had the Bears beaten the Packers and the Panthers beaten the Saints in Week 17, then the Bears would have faced the Packers this weekend for the third time this season and 201st time in their franchise histories. That is an easy sale as a rivalry -- the NFL even chose it to kick off its 100th season in September of 2019.

The Bears and Saints may not share a division or storied history of games against each other, but their recent bad blood may have planted the seeds of a 2020s rivalry. I'm not sure when the feud started. It may date back to the 2006 NFC Championship Game, when Rex Grossman's Bears defeated Drew Brees in his first season with the Saints to reach the Super Bowl. I first noticed it in 2019 when Saints safeties Eli Apple and C.J. Gardner-Johnson taunted Tarik Cohen for being short. Gardner-Johnson continued that instigation in the teams' Week 8 matchup this year by ripping Javon Wims' mouthpiece out and poking a finger through Anthony Miller's facemask. It clearly reached a breaking point for Wims, who threw a pair of punches at Gardner-Johnson -- still in his helmet -- in the third quarter and was subsequently ejected and suspended two more games.

That tension could escalate if the Bears, the weekend's biggest underdogs, can keep things close in New Orleans. Brees will turn 42 years old next week and is rumored to be retiring when the season ends. This may be his last chance to win a second championship, and he and the Saints likely feel owed one after an infamous pass interference no-call put the Rams in Super Bowl LIII instead of them.

WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL

Chart 5

Since he reclaimed the team's starting quarterback job after a Week 11 bye, Mitchell Trubisky has produced some of the best statistics of his career. His 70.1% completion rate is his best ever, and his 7.1 yards per attempt and 2.9% passing DVOA nearly match his rates from his sophomore 2018 season when he made the Pro Bowl.

Mitchell Trubisky's Passing Splits
Season Comp% aDOT YAC YPA VOA DVOA
2017 59.4% 7.8 3.0 6.6 -19.5% -16.8%
2018 66.6% 8.9 3.3 7.4 6.5% 3.6%
2019 63.2% 7.8 2.8 6.1 -10.7% -11.0%
2020, Wks 1-11 59.3% 10.0 2.4 6.5 -16.3% -33.3%
2020, Wks 12-17 70.1% 6.2 4.2 7.1 9.2% 2.9%

Trubisky bookended that stretch with losses to the Packers but went 3-1 otherwise to rally Chicago to a postseason berth. Playing the results, one could convince himself that the Bears are a hot team whose current quality of play could offer trouble for the Saints despite the big disparity in their full-season efficiencies. But Football Outsiders readers likely know that full-season efficiency better predicts future results than shorter splits. For Trubisky and the Bears, that sample-size bugaboo is their schedule strength. After facing better than average defenses before their bye -- represented by negative DVOA rates -- the Bears enjoyed well below-average defensive opponents in their final six games and netted the second biggest decline in the difficulty of their schedule of opposing defenses behind only that of the Giants.

Biggest Drops in Schedule Difficulty for Offenses, 2020
Team Weeks 1-11 Weeks 12-17 Diff
NYG -9.9% 1.6% 11.5%
CHI -1.7% 8.6% 10.3%
TEN -0.5% 7.6% 8.1%
TB -2.7% 5.2% 7.8%
MIA -0.3% 5.7% 6.0%
Estimated by average opposing defensive DVOA ratings

The team's uneven schedule overstates the improvement Trubisky represented over midseason starter Nick Foles. Foles faced top-seven DVOA defenses in the Colts, Bucs, Rams, and Saints in his six games as starter while Trubisky faced three bottom-three defenses in the Lions, Texans, and Jaguars and no defense better than the Packers at 17th to close the season. And those benefits extended beyond quarterback. Running back David Montgomery ran for three 100-yard games in his final six, more than he had managed in his more-than-a-year-and-a-half career to that point. But Montgomery's disparate -16.1% and 13.4% VOA rates before and after the bye this season converge to similar -3.8% and -2.9% DVOA rates after their defensive adjustments. Like Trubisky, Montgomery was the same player. He just looked better because of the teams he played.

The Bears face a likely rude awakening from their December daydream in the Saints matchup this Sunday. Sean Payton's team is famous for its quarterback Drew Brees and a dynamic offense, but the Saints have survived extended Brees absences each of the last two seasons because of excellence and depth at every level on each side of the ball.

With Foles as their starter, the Bears did force overtime before their eventual loss to the Saints in Week 8. But that game was in Chicago, and the Bears owe more of its closeness to their defense that held Brees and company to 23 points in regulation than their offense. If they want a different result in the rematch, the Bears need actual offensive improvement, not just the illusory improvement of their schedule strength.

Trubisky has changed approaches since his return to the field, and if that is more than an artifact of small sample sizes, it offers the Bears some optimism for continued success. While never a passer one would confuse with Jameis Winston, Trubisky tended toward the aggressive with average aimed throw depths of 7.8 yards or more in his first three seasons. Since the bye, Trubisky has averaged just 6.2 air yards per aimed pass, a bottom-five rate that rivals that of the quarterback he will face this Sunday (Brees, 6.0). Throw depth and completion rate seesaw against each other, so Trubisky's descent in the former and ascent in the latter would not on their own suggest improved performance. But the Bears have improved, and I believe that is because a conservative approach better complements their newest skill talent.

Veteran receivers Allen Robinson and Jimmy Graham are big at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds and 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, respectively, and they continue to win contested catches seven and 11 years into their respective careers. But 2019 and 2020 draft picks Montgomery, Darnell Mooney, and Cole Kmet are twitchier athletes whose success after the catch explains how Trubisky has increased his yards per attempt while throwing shorter passes. For the season, Montgomery has a 23.9% broken tackle rate that is third-best among running backs with 100 or more touches. Mooney has a 21.5% broken tackle rate that is seventh-best among wide receivers with 50 or more receptions. And Kmet has a 13.8% broken tackle rate that is 11th-best among tight ends with 25 or more receptions. And as that trio has increased its target share since the bye, Trubisky has nearly doubled his early-season average yards after the catch from 2.4 to 4.2 yards.

That offensive makeover would scare a lot of playoff teams, but the Saints are likely the one best equipped to defend it. Overall, they allowed the fifth-lowest broken tackle rate of 9.1%. And linebacker Demario Davis and safety Marcus Williams had the second-best (7.5%) and best (4.8%) broken tackle rates among the defenders at their positions that made at least 50 and 25 respective tackles.

Davis and Williams spearheaded the Saints' top-eight DVOA defenses against tight ends and receiving backs. And with perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore poised to cover Robinson, Mooney may need to shoulder a disproportionate number of the Bears' shallow targets on Sunday. And despite his fifth-round draft status, I might have believed he could do it. Mooney ran a standout 4.38s 40 time at the combine but was underexposed in school at Tulane. It was a similar story and draft result as Tyreek Hill in Kansas City, and Mooney started to pay similar rookie dividends after he became a starter in the second half of the season. In fact, Mooney set season highs with 13 targets, 11 receptions, and 93 yards on Sunday against the Packers. But he also injured his ankle in the fourth quarter and has not practiced this week. If he misses Sunday's game or plays limited, the Bears won't have an obvious matchup advantage with any of their skill players. By rank, the Bears have a better pass-blocking (15th) than run-blocking line (25th). But that line will have a difficult time keeping Trubisky upright against the Saints' top-three pass rush if Chicago falls into unfavorable downs and distances and forces Trubisky away from those quicker throws.

WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL

Chart 6

For a team that was a Week 3 win against Green Bay away from the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Saints suffered a lot of quarterback drama. In the second half of the season, that centered on Drew Brees' rib injuries and Sean Payton's decision to start Taysom Hill over Jameis Winston. But now that Brees is three starts removed from his absence and Hill has returned to his pre-injury workload of five or six touches per game, attention should return to the September and October obsession with Brees' arm strength.

Brees may not look like a 2015 post-surgery Peyton Manning, but his throws seem to lack the zip they had several years earlier, and it is easy to paint a statistical picture that supports the eye test. As a Football Outsiders reader, you've likely seen the trend from the next table or something like it. Brees' average depth of target was just 6.0 yards in 2020, his lowest rate in recent seasons. And both that aDOT and his average air yards to the sticks on third and fourth downs have declined markedly in the back half of the decade.

Drew Brees' aDOT and 3rd/4th-Down ALEX
Season aDOT Rank ALEX Rank
2015 7.9 22 1.4 20
2016 7.2 29 1.5 14
2017 6.5 35 0.1 33
2018 7.2 28 0.1 27
2019 6.6 30 0.9 24
2020 6.0 35 0.2 30
Ranks are among QBs with 200-plus aimed attempts

I never disputed the difference. But I had been somewhat skeptical of its motivation. After all, deeper pass attempts are not necessarily better ones. Trubisky may have illustrated that in recent weeks. And Ben Roethlisberger did so more definitively all season, transforming from his dynamic prime into the quarterback with the quickest trigger in the league -- and, because of it, the one who takes the fewest sacks. Brees couldn't match Roethlisberger's 2.1% sack rate, but the former's 3.2% rate was second-best and easy to overlook with Hill's league-worst 10.4% rate inflating the Saints' adjusted sack rate to 6.1%, in the middle of the pack at 13th in football. As the Outsiders axiom goes, quarterbacks are more responsible for their sacks than their blockers. The Bears finished 15th with a 6.6% adjusted sack rate on defense. And so while Khalil Mack boasts the most star power on his top-10 DVOA defense, he isn't the defender that has my attention this week.

Brees had injury avoidance to motivate his shallow depths of target, and he also had his supporting cast. Star receiver Michael Thomas missed more than half the season (and all but two of Brees' healthy starts) with an ankle injury. That left the quarterback in an unusual position with a running back in Alvin Kamara as his best receiver. As such, an unusual passing profile seemed to me like a given. Brees targeted a running back on 30.0% of his aimed passes, the second-highest rate among quarterbacks with 200 or more such attempts behind just Alex Smith (32.6%). That was 2.4% higher than Brees had last year and more than 5.0% higher than in 2015 and 2016, when he last enjoyed a reputation as an aggressive passer.

Kamara ended up with a 0.7-yard aDOT that was the second-lowest of the 76 players with 75 or more targets. But he also led that group with 8.8 average yards after the catch, 1.4 yards ahead of Nyheim Hines in second place and 2.7 yards ahead of A.J. Brown, the leader among wide receivers and tight ends. Again, shorter, but not necessarily worse.

What have been clearly worse are the results of Brees' deep passes (20-plus air yards). Based on Sportradar catchability charting, Brees finished top-five in deep accuracy rate every year between 2015 and 2019, but he fell to 14th in 2020.

Drew Brees' Accuracy by Throw Depth
  Intermediate   Deep
Season Acc% Rank Acc% Rank
2015 65.4% 17 58.3% 3
2016 71.7% 2 58.6% 5
2017 61.3% 16 58.3% 1
2018 77.7% 1 52.8% 3
2019 74.4% 5 56.7% 3
2020 68.2% 14 47.1% 14
Ranks are among QBs with 200-plus aimed attempts

On the smallest depth split for a quarterback that missed time, that 47.1% accuracy rate is just a few good throws away from its typical range of 52% to 59%. Perhaps one could blame the small sample size. But Saints opponents seemed to trust the implication of the trend and packed their defenses closer to the line of scrimmage. And even though his 8.8 average yards after the catch looks like a positive outlier in certain contexts, Kamara illustrated that defensive strategy in the declining of his receiving success percentages the last two years. Kamara may have piled up yards in less favorable offensive downs and distances, but defenses rendered him an average-impact receiving back by daring Brees to beat them deep.

Alvin Kamara's Avg. YAC and Receiving Success%
Season YAC Rank Success% Rank
2017 8.4 17 53.0% 9
2018 7.9 26 50.5% 17
2019 6.8 37 44.3% 26
2020 8.8 5 43.9% 26
Ranks are among RBs with 25-plus targets

At full strength, the Bears are well-equipped to do the same. Roquan Smith allowed just 3.6 yards per target this season, third-best of the 61 linebackers that saw 25 or more passes thrown their way. He also limited Kamara to 4 yards on five targets as his primary defender in Week 8. But Smith injured his elbow in Week 17, and if he dislocated it, his season is likely over. The Bears don't have an appealing alternative to assign to Kamara. Safety Eddie Jackson earned Pro Bowl bids and a $58.3-million extension on the strength of top-10 rates of 6.0 and 5.7 yards per target in 2018 and 2019, but he was fifth-worst at his position allowing 10.2 yards per target this year. Danny Trevathan was just as bad by linebacker standards allowing 8.8 yards per target, third-worst at his position. Without Smith, Tashaun Gipson would likely be their best bet. But he was an average cover safety, allowing 7.9 yards per target this season. And Sean Payton has a knack for scheming Kamara into advantageous matchups, like the one against Mack in Week 8 that the back sprung for 47 yards and made him the team's leading receiver on the day.

Smith is a standout run defender, too. He was top-five among all defenders with 49 run stops and 13 run defeats. But defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is the keystone of the Bears' No. 4 DVOA run defense. Even missing a week, he racked up 33 run stops and eight run defeats, and his 100% defensive snap rate from Week 17 suggests he is fully recovered from late-season hamstring and ankle injuries. Hicks may be able to single-handedly disrupt the league's No. 1 DVOA rushing offense. He had an outsized impact in limiting the Saints to 4.1 yards per carry in their November clash that needed overtime to be decided.

Of course, the Saints may have rushing trouble independent of the Bears defense. Kamara tested positive for COVID prior to Week 17, and that and proximity rules knocked him, Latavius Murray, and Dwayne Washington out of the Panthers game. The Saints may have received a reprieve in their Sunday draw this weekend -- Kamara would not have been eligible to play on Saturday with his quarantine requirements. But Payton is unsure if Kamara can play in any case, and it is unclear if Murray and Washington are sick or if they are just close-contact victims that should be ready for Sunday's game.

Whether or not Smith and the Saints' primary backs can play, I expect Chuck Pagano's defense to frustrate the Saints' running and short passing games. That may not matter if the Bears offense fails to move the ball. But if things break right for Chicago, then the Saints' chances may rest on Brees' arm. And while he may not stretch the field like he did in his prime, Brees maintained his typical efficiency on intermediate throws, and he did that mostly without Thomas, who should return for this game. The veterans Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders would be difficult charges for rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson at his best. And Johnson injured his shoulder in Week 13 and didn't play in the Bears' final four games. He should return this weekend, but Johnson will need to play to his pre-injury standard (8.3 yards per target) for the Bears to keep a crowd at the line of scrimmage and not regret it.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Saints and Bears both finished in the top eight in special teams DVOA, but they reached those heights in different ways. Veteran Saints punter Thomas Morstead saw his average yards per punt drop to a career-low of 43.1 yards, but those punts allowed just 46 yards of returns, the lowest total for a full-time punter. And with a 12.2-yard return average, Deonte Harris outdid his All-Pro rookie rate of 9.4 yards per return and propelled the team to sixth in the league in punt return value. Harris has not played since November because of a stinger, but he returned to practice this week and should play on Sunday. Kicker Cairo Santos has added some much-needed stability to the Bears' kicking game. He missed just three of 69 kicks all season: one extra point and field goals of 46 and 50 yards. Meanwhile, kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson continued to set the standard at his position. He led all kick returners with 1,017 return yards and returned the eighth touchdown of his incredible career. A long Patterson return may be the Bears' best bet for an upset on Sunday.

OUTLOOK

The Saints have a defensive answer for everything the Bears want to do offensively, and their own offense could be better this weekend than its already excellent regular-season standard with Michael Thomas poised to return from his ankle injury. The Saints may not win the Super Bowl, but they seem unlikely to lose the first weekend playing in the dome in New Orleans, where their conservative and precise passing game will make takeaways difficult for the Bears defense to come by.


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 10 Jan 2021, 4:20pm

1 I could see all three of the…

I could see all three of the AFC games going either way. The only NFC game that looks at all like it could is LA/SEA.

3 NFC Factors:  I mostly agree…

NFC Factors: 

I mostly agree.  The one factor that sticks in my mind that could impact the results. Two 40+ year old QBs.  If they have off games, this could level the playing field significantly.  

Wash is very poor on offense, but they do have a + pass rush, which has been Brady's kryptonite in the past.  

Classic LA/SEA game, which will come down to the final 2 minutes.  

 

4 Yeah, if every team were at…

Yeah, if every team were at full strength, playing on a neutral field in a mild September afternoon, Tampa Bay and New Orleans ought to roll. But it's January, week 18.

Brady outside in the cold, against that defense? I have no trouble seeing Football Team winning something like 19-17 (most likely with some defensive scores and maybe a safety along with a bunch of FGs). Just glancing through the gamelogs, I think Brady's coldest game this year was at the Giants in early November, and they barely eked out a win against a worse team than the WTFs. Obviously he's done well in the cold in the past, but he's 43 now, and his late-season run has coincided with some pretty comfy passing conditions. The Washington game is expected to be at near-freezing temperatures. To be clear, I'd still bet on Tampa Bay winning outright, but it does not look like a total gimme to me.

New Orleans I'm more confident in, in no small part because they get to play in the dome, but man, I've seen about half of Brees' quarters since he came back and he just does not look right to me, even compared to his already-diminished early-season form. I'm not convinced he's completely recovered from the injury, and that Bears defense is capable of greatness, even if they don't always play like it. Like the writeup says, they generally match up pretty well against what the Saints like to do, so if they bring their A-game, keep Brees in check and give Trubisky et al. some short fields, I can see them winning too, even without takeaways or defensive scores.

2 LA vs Sea could go either…

LA vs Sea could go either way. Definitely favor the home team with the more proven qb, but it wouldn't surprise me either way.

No-Chi I could maaaaaaybe see Chicago win. But most of the time, I see No winning comfortably and even winning in some blowouts. You basically have to hope Chicago's defense stiffens enough times to keep the game close. But Mitch is not playing Detroit or Jacksonville this week.

Short of a meltdown from TB, I really can't see them losing. They could have a bad day on offense and defense and still win. Washington needs some turnovers/injuries/ random crap that swings the game in their way. I mean, Philly was mailing it in and Washington still had to wheeze through a win.  

5 Bears and Seahawks consistency

That week to week chart for Chicago was interesting. I always kinda thought they played the same week in and week out, and beat who they were expected to and lost to who they were expected to. They had the lowest variance for DVOA. That chart really shows that. Everything in that -40 to +40 range. Really not too far off from -25 to +25 just the first GB loss and the Houston win outside that. 

That's why they have a chance vs NO. They may not have a high ceiling, but they also don't crater. -35% isn't good (without premium access all I can see is the chart and that's what it looks like), but only the Seahawks haven't gone that low at least once. On the flip side even Washington has gone over 40% at least once. Though I really don't think they will be NO, but I at least can see a path (and not just from the overall, from the specific match-ups).

 

Seattle is similar just shifted up by 20 points to the -20 to +60 range. It's a nice visual of what 20% DVOA can mean.

 

Washington looked like they were trying to spell WFT using the rolling average for the second line of the F and the top of the T, but couldn't play quite well enough to pull that off. That made me chuckle.

 

So yeah I don't know about LA/SEA we've seen it twice before. Though I'll take end of season trends and go with Seattle.

I really want TB to lose because the 5 or 6 times I've seen them play this year, including the GB game, my eyes didn't see what DVOA did. So it would make me happy for them to lose to the Football Team. I don't see it happening though so going with TB.

As already stated I see a path for a Chicago victory, but again don't see it happening. I think DVOA holds serve. 

6 As a packers fan, I’m…

As a packers fan, I’m worried about playing against TB. I compare TB to the 2010 packers, though they aren’t quite as good.

They look really good on both sides of the ball. I don’t understand how they managed to lose as many games as they have, but they can beat every team in the NFL without needing any help or lucky bounces. particularly considering their pass rush, I think they’re a bit of a difficult matchup especially without Bakhtiari. I think DVOA basically supports what my eye test is saying. 

7 They had a rough schedule

The hardest of any playoff team. And I agree about being worried. I feel the same about the Rams, if healthy. Ramsey wiping Adams and giving Donald time to pressure. Meanwhile our defense would have to handle Kupp, Woods, etc. Wish Seattle would've won.