Eagles' Season Hinges on Jalen Hurts' Shoulder
NFL Divisional - The Philadelphia Eagles are a much better team than the New York Giants and should win comfortably in the divisional round. Join us next week as we look at Philadelphia's chances in the NFC Championship Game!
(Speaker walks offstage. Awkward murmuring breaks out in audience. Speaker soon returns to podium.)
I'm sorry, I have been informed that we are contractually obligated to explain why the Eagles are favored so strongly against the Giants, and how New York might be able to pull off the upset.
The "why" is pretty simple: almost everything a football team can do, the Eagles did it better than the Giants in 2022. They were better at passing and better at stopping the pass. They were better at rushing and better at stopping the run. They were better in the kicking game. On both sides of the ball, they were better in late-and-close situations and better on third downs. If you dig deep enough with your data mining, you'll strike some minutia that makes New York look like the superior team (the Giants offense ranked third in DVOA when pinned inside their own 20, but the Eagles were only 16th!), but Philadelphia's overall dominance is obvious and plain.
The "how," on the other hand, starts to get interesting, because the Eagles were not the same team in the second half of the year that they had been in the first half. On both offense and defense, they fared better on running plays, but much worse on passing plays. Their special teams improved, but in aggregate, they went from being the best team in the league to playing a clear notch below most of the other Super Bowl contenders.
|Philadelphia Eagles In-Season DVOA Trends, 2022|
|Category||Weeks 1-9||Rank||Weeks 10-18||Rank|
The task for Nick Siranni, then, is to get his team back to its early-season form, and a return to health from a variety of players would certainly help. Brian Daboll and the Giants, meanwhile, will try to make the Eagles play like they did after Halloween. Unfortunately, they already had two chances to do that and didn't come realistically close to a victory: Philadelphia clobbered New York 48-22 in Week 14, then led the Giants' backups 19-3 in Week 18 before a pair of Davis Webb fourth-quarter touchdowns gave New York a chance at an onside kick.
How can the Giants make the third time the charm? Well, that's what we're here to discuss.
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.
|DVOA||-4.3% (21)||25.2% (3)|
|WEI DVOA||2.6% (17)||21.9% (5)|
|Giants on Offense|
|NYG OFF||PHI DEF|
|DVOA||7.1% (10)||-9.7% (6)|
|WEI DVOA||13.1% (6)||-5.9% (10)|
|PASS||20.2% (10)||-15.5% (1)|
|RUSH||4.9% (7)||-1.9% (21)|
|Eagles on Offense|
|NYG DEF||PHI OFF|
|DVOA||10.2% (29)||15.1% (3)|
|WEI DVOA||10.2% (29)||11.6% (7)|
|PASS||9.2% (22)||23.9% (9)|
|RUSH||11.6% (32)||15.4% (1)|
|DVOA||-1.2% (22)||0.5% (13)|
If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Last week, we told you that the New York offense was built around quarterback runs and short passes. Sure enough, Daniel Jones ran 13 times for 81 yards against Minnesota in the wild-card round, and only four of his 31 passes qualified as deep balls (though he made them count, completing three of them for 88 yards).
Those rushing numbers are bad news for Philadelphia. The Eagles allowed opposing quarterbacks to run 74 times, sixth most in the league, and only Detroit and Miami allowed more rushing yards to quarterbacks than Philadelphia's 499. They were especially vulnerable to scrambles, giving up 303 yards; only Detroit gave up more. For his part, Jones has been effective this year on scrambles and designed runs alike.
The good news for the Eagles is that they fared much better against short passes, ranking 10th in DVOA. Mind you, they were even better against deep passes, ranking second behind (surprise!) Arizona.
Regardless, Jones is likely to throw a bunch of short passes, because that's what the Giants do. But who will he be throwing them to? By DVOA, the Eagles were sixth or better against WR1s, WR2s, and tight ends. However, they were 22nd against "other" wide receivers, and 24th against running backs. The Giants don't really have any "other" wide receivers right now though—Isaiah Hodgins had 105 yards against the Vikings, and Darius Slayton added 88, but the duo of Richie James and Lawrence Cager combined for five catches and only 35 yards.
This could mean a big day for Saquon Barkley, who caught five passes for 56 yards against Minnesota. Barkley's efficiency numbers weren't great (he was among the bottom 10 running backs in receiving DVOA), but he gets plenty of volume—his 76 targets in the regular season were sixth at his position and first on the team.
The other reason Barkley might have a big game is that Philadelphia's run defense, though improved, remains a relative liability; only one team left in the playoffs had a worse run defense this season. (Spoiler: we shall get to that team shortly.) The Eagles allowed seven of their last eight opponents to rush for 99 yards or more, a stretch that included losses to the Cowboys and Saints and uncomfortably close wins over non-playoff teams in the Colts, Packers, and Bears.
Does this mean the Eagles defensive line is a weakness? Of course not—it just means that they specialized in putting opposing quarterbacks on the ground, not stuffing runners at the line. Philadelphia finished with an adjusted sack rate of 11.2%, the highest in a couple of decades. Four different Eagles were at double-digits in sacks, led by the 16.0 of Haason Reddick, and they were the first defense to get 70 sacks since the 1989 Minnesota Vikings. For all those sacks, they were surprisingly low in pressure rate—outside the top 10, per SIS—but they still have a big edge here against a Giants offense that ranked 24th in adjusted sack rate and next to last in pressure rate allowed. Forget winning the game, the Giants should be handing off a lot just to keep Jones out of the blue tent.
As to the decline in Philadelphia's defense in the second half of the year, that can be explained by a series of personnel changes. The Eagles were 28th in run defense DVOA going into Week 10, and that was before they allowed the Washington Commanders to run for 152 yards in a 32-21 win, Philadelphia's first defeat of the season. That was enough for general manager Howie Roseman, who promptly signed veteran defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph. With the two combining for about 45 snaps per game, Philadelphia's run defense rose to respectability, if not dominance.
Unfortunately, that coincided with some severe injuries in the secondary that torpedoed the Eagles pass defense. Starting safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson missed five games with a lacerated kidney. Third corner Avonte Maddox, who averages more than 50 snaps per game, missed four weeks with a hamstring injury, then two more with a bad toe. (This explains some of Philadelphia's problems covering "other" wide receivers.) Josh Sweat, one of those four pass-rushers with 10-plus sacks, sat out Weeks 17 and 18 with a bad neck. Gardner-Johnson returned to the field in the season finale against the Giants, playing 100% of the snaps, while Sweat told the team's website that "I'll definitely be out there" for the divisional round. Maddox, however, has been ruled out for the game.
Taking all that in, the game plan for New York looks pretty simple:
- Run as often as possible, using Barkley, Jones, and Matt Breida (who had a better rushing DVOA than Barkley, albeit on only 54 carries).
- When they must pass, target Barkley and hope he can make something happen in space.
- Critically, avoid negative plays and penalties so they have a chance on third downs. The Giants offense ranked much better than the Eagles defense on third/fourth down with less than 3 yards to go (fourth vs. 24th), but much worse with more than 6 yards to go (19th vs. first).
If they can do all that, they'll eventually get to the red zone—and that's the one part of the field where the Giants have a legitimate edge. New York was the best offense in football inside the opponents' 20, ranking first on passes and third on runs. The Eagles were 10th on defense in the red zone, but with even more extreme splits than usual—first on passes, next-to-last on runs. A run-heavy game plan is suggested for New York this weekend, but it's practically mandatory when they want to score touchdowns instead of field goals.
And they'll need to score a lot of touchdowns, because their defense is going to give up oodles of points.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
If the Eagles are healthy on offense, they're likely to bulldoze the Giants off the field. Really, it's that simple. It's not just that they're much better than New York, though they certainly are—despite their late-season slide, they finished sixth in weighted DVOA, while the Giants defense ranked 29th—but this is an especially bad matchup because Philadelphia's strengths are perfectly suited to attack the Giants where they are weakest. To wit:
- The Eagles were by far the NFL's best rushing offense (the second-place Ravens were closer to the seventh-place Giants than they were to Philadelphia), while the Giants finished dead last in run defense.
- Specifically, the Eagles excelled at reeling off 10-yard runs, ranking second in second-level yards; the Giants defense ranked 29th in that same category.
- Philadelphia was most effective running right up the middle, ranking fourth in adjusted line yards between the tackles; the New York defense ranked next to last stopping those runs.
- Those offensive line stats don't include quarterback runs, and Jalen Hurts ranked fifth at the position in rushing DYAR. The Giants didn't face a lot of quarterback runs (only 51, which put them in the bottom 10), but the runs they did allow averaged 7.1 yards apiece, third worst. And they are well aware of how dangerous a healthy Hurts can be—he ran seven times for 77 yards and a touchdown against them in the Week 14 win.
- Should they choose to pass for some reason, the Eagles will have the edge their too, ranking ninth in pass offense DVOA while the Giants defense ranks 22nd.
- A.J. Brown finished fourth or better among all players in receiving yards, yards per catch, and receiving touchdowns. That came with a high target volume, and so he was "only" 11th in DYAR, but he's still going to be a problem for a defense that ranked 22nd in DVOA against WR1s.
- There's an even bigger mismatch at tight end, where Dallas Goedert ranked second at the position in yards per game as well as DYAR and DVOA. The Giants defense finished next to last in DVOA on targets to tight ends.
- New York had the worst defensive DVOA on throws down the middle, where Jalen Hurts made the top 10 in DVOA. There's a lot of overlap in these last two bullet points, but it's not just Goedert—DeVonta Smith actually led Philadelphia with 104 DYAR on targets over the middle, while Brown's 357 over-the-middle yards were 100 more than any of his teammates.
So who has been hurt, and what will their status be for the playoffs? In the past tense, the biggest injury was to Goedert, who missed five games with a sprained shoulder. Hurts actually had a higher passing DVOA on throws to Goedert (82.3%) than to Brown (56.1%) or Smith (60.2%). (If these numbers seem high, remember that they are passing DVOA stats, so sacks are included in the baselines. Also, the Eagles are really good.) But Goedert returned to the lineup in Week 16 and has played at least 94% of Philadelphia's offensive snaps every week since, catching a dozen passes for 158 yards in those three games.
More concerning is the status of right tackle Lane Johnson, who missed the last two games of the year with a torn adductor in his groin. The injury will require surgery to repair, but Johnson is delaying that surgery until after the season, and has vowed to play in the divisional round.
This brings us to the midnight green elephant in the room: Jalen Hurts and his bum wing. The quarterback suffered a sprained shoulder in Week 15 against Chicago, and though he finished that game, he missed the next two entirely. With Philadelphia needing a Week 18 win to clinch home-field advantage and a first-round bye, he played through the pain and returned for the season finale against the Giants. The Eagles got the win they needed, but Hurts' -35.5% passing DVOA was his worst of the year, and it came against a New York team that was resting most of its starters. (That was part of a prolonged slump for Hurts, who had negative passing DVOA in five of his last six games, but remember that Goedert was also out for most of that timeframe.)
Hurts was a high-volume rusher all year, officially leading all quarterbacks with 165 carries (though he falls behind Justin Fields when you remove kneeldowns) and joining Lamar Jackson in 2019 as the only players with 400 passes and 150 runs in the same season. That's an average of 11.0 carries per game, and he had nine in that Week 18 win, but again, that includes kneeldowns. When he was actually trying to go forward, Hurts had five runs for 17 yards—15 yards on four scrambles, and 2 yards (and a third-and-1 conversion) on one designed run.
That last number shows a serious change in Philadelphia's game plan; Hurts led all quarterbacks with 101 designed runs in 2022, with five games where he carried the ball on designed runs at least 10 times. Many of those designed run were sneaks; 39 of them came with 1 or 2 yards to go. But the read-option and RPO were also major parts of the Philadelphia game plan; Hurts had 29 designed runs on first-and-10, second at the position behind Taysom Hill (who barely counts as a quarterback, at least not in the conventional sense). Those elements were practically removed from the playbook in Week 18, and it remains to be seen how the Eagles will protect their quarterback with a week's rest.
For the sake of argument, let's assume everyone is healthy. Is there a reason for the Giants to bother showing up on Saturday? Well, they do like to blitz (a league-high 39.7% of the time, according to Pro Football Reference), and that's the best way to limit the Eagles passing game. Hurts has a -0.3% DVOA and is averaging 6.1 yards per play against blitzes, compared to 34.9% DVOA and 7.8 yards per play when not blitzed. If New York can survive first and second downs, the ensuing battle could be a stalemate—the Giants defense ranked seventh in third downs, the Eagles offense fifth, and the two teams were evenly matched in short-, middle-, and long-yardage third downs. And though they were only 22nd in adjusted sack rate, New York was awfully good at generating pressure, ranking eighth in pressure rate. Mind you, the Philadelphia offense was no pushover, ranking 11th in pressure rate allowed, but beggars can't be choosers.
This entire section may seem awfully harsh on a team that just won a playoff game, but it's not as if the New York defense played well last week. The Giants allowed the Vikings to score 24 points and failed to force a single turnover (which was a trend—they only forced 19 turnovers all season, including a league-low six interceptions). They finished with a defensive DVOA of 19.6%, their worst in the last five weeks, since a loss to … the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Giants had poor special teams in 2022, but they were essentially a non-factor in the wild-card round. Graham Gano nailed all four of his extra points and his only field goal try, a 25-yarder. (Gano was third in field goal value this year, the best part of the Giants special teams.) Jamie Gillan averaged 45.0 yards on a pair of punts. Between them, New York and Minnesota averaged 21.5 yards on kickoff returns and 5.7 yards returning punts. YAWN.
And speaking of yawning, the Eagles were 13th in our special teams rankings. Their best special teamer was Jake Elliott, who went 20-for-23 on field goals and 51-for-53 on extra points. (Philadelphia's numbers are boosted here by Cameron Dicker, who drilled two field goals and two extra points for the Eagles in Week 5 before joining the Chargers.) Their worst were Arryn Siposs (out since Week 14 with an ankle injury, but he could return for the NFC Championship Game if the Eagles get there) and Brett Kern, who combined for a net average of 38.2 yards per punt, second worst in the league. But returners Britain Covey and Boston Scott, as well as the kick coverage teams, were all pretty ordinary.
This has been a tremendous season for the New York Giants. Many experts predicted them to get the first overall draft pick (and some of those experts, including this writer, work for Football Outsiders), but here they are in the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since they won the Super Bowl in 2011. Full credit to them for overachieving, but overachieving seasons usually end in brutal fashion in the postseason. If the Giants can run effectively, convert third downs, and trade touchdowns for field goals, they can pull off an upset. But if they have trouble with any of those things, and they should fall behind, and Daniel Jones has to play catch-up, against this pass rush…
The Philadelphia Eagles, for all their issues, remain a much better team than the New York Giants, and they should win comfortably in the divisional round. Join us next week as we figure out if they are good enough to win in the NFC Championship Game.
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.