Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features


» Weight and Injuries

NFL football is a violent game, and traumatic injuries are unfortunate but unavoidable. But are bigger players more likely to be hurt than their smaller peers?

07 Jan 2011

NFC Wild Card Preview

by Bill Barnwell

Another year of playoffs means another year of playoff previews. Aaron and I will be back this year with extensive game previews for each round of the NFL playoffs. I'll be handling the NFC, while Aaron takes care of the AFC.

For those of you new to the site, these previews are a little different than the ones you'll see elsewhere. If you skim through the preview to get to the pick at the end, you're wasting your time. These analyses focus more on the variety of situations you'll potentially see in the games this weekend and how each team might choose to attack the other. They include looks into our advanced metrics, Premium splits of DVOA, schematic information gathered from game tape, and the anecdotal aspects of analysis like injuries and changes in performance.

Please note that, unless otherwise specified, Game Charting data we discuss in these pieces is not yet complete. We have all charting data complete through Week 15.

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.

New Orleans at Seattle

Saints on Offense
DVOA 9.7% (11) 15.0% (29)
WEI DVOA 10.6% (11) 21.4% (32)
PASS 23.9% (12) 27.0% (29)
RUSH -4.6% (21) -0.1% (17)
RED ZONE -11.1% (25) -6.3% (13)

Seahawks on Offense
DVOA -14.3% (29) -2.6% (9)
WEI DVOA -12.8% (28) -4.7% (6)
PASS -8.2% (29) 3.7% (9)
RUSH -9.4% (28) -9.2% (9)
RED ZONE -24.7% (27) -33.9% (2)

Special Teams
DVOA -1.3% (22) 5.8% (3)
NO kickoff -0.1 (16) 19.4 (2)
SEA kickoff -3.0 (17) 11.2 (6)
NO punts 4.6 (14) 5.2 (9)
SEA punts -3.5 (24) -0.3 (22)
FG/XP -5.5 (30) -1.6 (26)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

It's no secret that the Saints are heavy favorites to defeat the Seahawks in Seattle this Saturday. Pick your favorite predictor of likely performance -- wins, DVOA, point differential, momentum, playoff experience, whatever -- the Saints are clear favorites. I don't need to enumerate just how bad the Seahawks are, but the idea that the Seahawks have absolutely no chance to win on Sunday is obviously wrong. The Seahawks' point differential is -97, while the Saints are at 77. That's a 174-point swing. Since 1994, there have been 60 instances of a team hosting a game in which they were at a point differential disadvantage between 170 and 180 points. Those teams won 15 of the 60 games, 25 percent. Perhaps that's a reasonable expectation for the Seahawks' chances.

With that in mind, I think it's most interesting here to look at how the Seahawks might actually win this game. What are people missing that would give the Seahawks a chance? In which aspects of the game do they have an advantage? And what about the Saints has changed from a year ago? The Saints blew out the Seahawks at home in Week 11; if Saturday is to end differently for Seattle, they'll need their few strengths to overcome a vastly superior overall team.


Among the components of their performance on offense and defense, the single biggest downward swing in the Saints' performance this year has been the decline of their rushing attack. The same team that led the league in rushing DVOA last year is just 21st in the league this season, although they've improved from 25th in the first half of the season to sixth in the final nine weeks of the year. They were able to run the ball consistently and effectively against the Seahawks in the first game between these two teams, and there's one very obvious reason why: The Seahawks weren't bothering to tackle anyone.

7.1 percent of run plays charted this year by our volunteers had at least one broken tackle. Outside of the Saints game, the Seahawks defense has actually only had broken tackles on 6.8 percent of run plays. In New Orleans, though, the Seahawks missed on tackles on five of the Saints' first nine running plays. They missed in power situations and on the edge, with whiffs from defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs alike.

Problematically, it also extended to the passing game, too. The Saints' third drive ended with a touchdown because of two plays with two whiffs. Drew Brees picked up 15 yards when Kelly Jennings and Lofa Tatupu can't take down Robert Meachem, and two plays later, Jennings and Earl Thomas collide while trying to defend a pass to Marques Colston up the seam for a touchdown. The Seahawks had a total of nine broken tackles through three drives, an absolutely stunning total. (They only had one more during the rest of the game.) The Saints also don't induce broken tackles at a particularly high rate -- on 5.7 percent of their plays versus a league average of 5.9 percent -- so even with the potential size mismatches of Colston and Jimmy Graham versus smaller Seahawks defensive backs, I don't think the tackling will be a noticeable issue.

All of the broken tackles on running plays in this game were induced by Chris Ivory. Both Ivory and the similarly-styled Pierre Thomas were placed on injured reserve this week, leaving the rushing workload to Julius Jones and Reggie Bush. Although it's a sample of just about 30 carries for Bush and 60 for Jones, they combined to put up a rushing DVOA of -12.8%, while Ivory and Thomas were at 10.0%. It seems reasonable to figure that the performance of the Saints' rushing attack will decline without Ivory and Thomas around. As the relatively bruising backs in the New Orleans arsenal, Ivory and Thomas got the bulk of the carries in power situations this year and did very well with them: the two converted 20 of their 25 chances for first downs or touchdowns. Surprisingly, though, the team shouldn't expect much of a dropoff with the two out, even if they end up using Bush in those situations. Since he arrived on the scene in 2006, Bush has gotten 36 carries in power situations. He's converted 26 of them, a 72.2 percent rate.

The league's fifth-ranked passing offense has also fallen off to 12th this year despite the fact that their quarterback, top four wide receivers, and five starting offensive linemen combined to miss a total of one game (Marques Colston last week). The biggest reason why? Interceptions. Drew Brees's 2.1 percent interception rate from last season was bound to regress towards the mean, but it got some big air and flew all the way up to 3.3 percent, well past his career average. Brees threw an interception once every 7.7 drives during the regular season, the second-highest rate in the NFL. Fortunately, only seven teams were less likely to end a drive with an interception than the Seahawks.

While the game between these two was still a contest, the Seahawks really struggled to contend with the presence of Colston in the slot. They tried all kinds of schemes. They went man underneath with their linebackers and a nickel back and put a single high safety up top. Didn't work. They put their linebackers in zones and had them chip Colston within five yards to throw off his timing. Didn't work. Eventually, they just went to Earl Thomas and basically stuck him on Colston's side of the field as a safety, sometimes in man, sometimes in zone. Thomas vs. Colston isn't a great matchup for the Seahawks, but it might be their best idea. They also ended up at times in the second half with backup cornerback Walter Thurmond (who filled in some for an injured Marcus Trufant) up against Jimmy Graham. Fortunately for the Seahawks, Graham has been ruled out with an injury.

There is actually one place in this game you'll be seeing the best versus the best, in a way. When the Saints go into the shotgun, they improve their average production by 1.4 yards. No team in the league improves their average yardage more. Unfortunately for them, the Seahawks are one of the rare teams who actually see their yards per attempt decline when the opposing offense moves into the shotgun. Seattle allows 0.4 yards less in the shotgun, which is also the best figure in the league. So when New Orleans moves into the shotgun, know that each team is in their most comfortable spot.


The Seahawks announced on Wednesday that they will start veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck against the Saints. Although Charlie Whitehurst was on the winning side of things last Sunday night, he showed a propensity for both holding onto the ball too long and making inaccurate throws to the flat. He did things that an inexperienced quarterback will do, in other words. Hasselbeck certainly has his limitations, but his -9.8% DVOA was far superior to Whitehurst's figure of -25.8% this year. There's one part of his game as a veteran that the Seahawks will need to rely upon against the Saints: Handling the big blitzes of Gregg Williams.

In 2010, Hasselbeck's numbers have gotten better as teams have brought more rushers. His yards per attempt and Success Rate are below league-average when teams rush him with three, four, or even five defenders. Against big blitzes, though, Hasselbeck has been wildly effective. Teams have brought six players against him 41 times in the data we have charted: He's averaged 8.8 yards per attempt on those plays, well ahead of the league average of 5.7 yards. His 63 percent Success Rate also blows away the 40 percent average figure. In the first matchup between these two teams, Hasselbeck faced a six-person blitz four times. He completed three of those passes for first downs, and a fourth throw was tipped at the line. All those completions came on third down, and each time, he threw a short pass to Tracy Porter's side of the field. The Saints didn't change anything about their tendencies heading into the game -- they blitzed five or more guys on 28.9 percent of the passing downs in this game, and have done that 29.7 percent of the time outside of the Seahawks game. If the Seahawks are to put together consistent drives that keep Brees off the field, Hasselbeck will need to remain excellent on third down.

While the team targeted Porter on third down, the cornerback they went after for big plays was the one on the other side of the field, Jabari Greer. You might remember Greer from our glowing testimonials during last season, in which Greer was the shutdown corner the pass defense desperately needed. That guy is apparently still partying somewhere in Miami, because he hasn't shown up this season. Greer's charting numbers have totally fallen off this season: The same guy who allowed 5.4 yards per attempt and had a 66 percent Success Rate last year is all the way up to 8.3 yards per attempt this year, while his Success Rate has fallen to 59 percent. He was able to stay in the hip pockets of receivers last year, but that's just no longer the case.

The Seahawks were able to get two big plays off against Greer in the first half of their first game. The first play, a 68-yard completion to Mike Williams, is exactly the sort of blitz-beater that the Seahawks will need to employ. The Saints rush seven and drop their four defensive backs into coverage. Seattle keeps seven in to protect and holds off the blitz just long enough for Williams to run a hitch-and-go; Greer bites on the hitch and ends up getting burnt. (If you click the "Film Room" button to get the All-22 film, the effectiveness of Williams's hitch is far more obvious than it is from the standard TV angle.)

On their next drive, they went deep to Ben Obomanu on first down, again on Greer's side of the field. There's no blitz here, and it's not a particularly complicated play. The Film Room view shows that the single high safety immediately goes for Williams's go route against Porter on the other side of the field, so Greer has no help, but it's not like Greer lets Obomanu release past him. He runs all the way downfield with Obomanu and just never looks up for the ball. They could even have had a third big play against Greer early; on the third play from scrimmage, they got Deon Butler matched up one-on-one with Greer on a deep post and Hasselbeck overthrew an open Butler for what would potentially have been a touchdown. (Game Rewind is not cooperating with me for the link, unfortunately.) In all, the Seahawks were 5-of-6 for 153 yards on throws against Greer, his worst game of the season. The Saints were without safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Darren Sharper, so the return of Sharper (Jenkins has been ruled out) may also improve things, but Greer needs to have a better game. Look to see if the Seahawks target the right side of the field with their deep plays.

Bringing up Sharper takes us to another shocking decline in the Saints' secondary. Sharper was the leader of an aggressive unit last year that seemed to get interceptions at will, including one very famous pick-six in the Super Bowl. Sharper had a league-high nine picks a year ago. This year? The entire Saints team has nine interceptions. Sharper's never had an impact, starting the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list and losing his job to the emerging Jenkins in the process. The move has been a net positive for the defense -- Jenkins is a better player, especially in coverage -- but nobody on the team has more than two picks. The Saints ended one out of every 7.2 drives with interceptions last year, the third-best rate in the league. This year, it's one of every 18.4 drives. That's the worst rate in football. They didn't force the interception-happy Hasselbeck into a pick in Week 11, although John Carlson should have ended the game with a pass defensed.

Although we generally suggest that teams run the ball frequently in short-yardage situations, this is a game where the Seahawks might want to consider going five-wide on fourth-and-1. Seattle has the league's fourth-worst Success Rate in Power situations and are stuffed more than any team in football. The Saints, meanwhile, have the best Power run defense in the NFL this season. The Seattle offensive line is still up for debate at the moment, as right tackle Sean Locklear is away from the team dealing with a "serious" family situation. Former Eagles lineman Stacy Andrews would step in at right tackle if Locklear is unable to play. The team placed left guard Chester Pitts on injured reserve with a severe concussion this week. Pitts will be replaced by the terrifying Tyler Polumbus. Polumbus's radius of danger is limited at guard, but Seattle needs all the help they can get with Pitts gone, Locklear potentially unavailable, and left tackle Russell Okung battling through injuries to both ankles. Okung is expected to start, but don't be surprised if he has to come out for a series or two during the game, forcing Polumbus to left tackle.


The one area of the field where Seattle has a clear advantage over New Orleans is here, where the Seahawks have a legitimately excellent set of special teams. While the biggest flaw in the Saints' unit has been the field goal kicking of Garrett Hartley, Olindo Mare hasn't been great, either. Both teams rank in the bottom seven for performance on field goals and extra points. New Orleans has gotten better work out of Thomas Morstead, ranking 14th on punts, while Seattle ranks 22nd.

In every other category, though, the Seahawks dominate. Mare continues to be excellent on kickoffs, ranking sixth in the league and producing 11.2 points of field position. The Saints are 16th. They particularly excel on returns, thanks primarily to the addition of Leon Washington. Washington's produced 19.4 points of field position on kickoff returns, the second-best figure in the league. He's combined with Golden Tate to push their punt returns up to ninth, while the Saints rank 17th and 24th, respectively, in those categories.

The end result of this advantage? The Seahawks should enjoy superior field position. Seattle's offense takes over with an average of 68.8 yards to go for a touchdown, the eighth-best starting point in the league. New Orleans needs an average of 71.3 yards, the seventh-worst figure.


Please don't mistake possibility for likelihood here. The Saints are clearly the superior team. Despite missing Thomas, Bush, Jeremy Shockey, Jenkins, and Sharper during their first matchup, they blew out the Seahawks in a game whose score (34-19) was closer than the actual contest itself. Brees threw two late interceptions inside the Seahawks' ten-yard line.

At the same time, don't mistake a slim chance for no chance. The Seahawks don't have to beat the Saints in a series. They just have to win on Saturday, and the case for how they could win isn't all that impossible to conjure up. If they pass protect well and make plays downfield, turn every drive into a series of third-and-eight's for Brees to figure out, and maybe get a kickoff return for a score, the Seahawks could very well win this game. Expect the Saints to win, but don't assume that it's preordained.

Green Bay at Philadelphia

Packers on Offense
DVOA 14.7% (7) 1.4% (14)
WEI DVOA 12.1% (10) 2.9% (14)
PASS 33.0% (6) 5.8% (11)
RUSH 1.7% (11) -3.8% (14)
RED ZONE -0.9% (17) 63.6% (32)
Eagles on Offense
DVOA 21.3% (3) -10.8% (2)
WEI DVOA 20.0% (5) -13.5% (2)
PASS 23.5% (13) -17.9% (1)
RUSH 29.2% (1) -1.8% (16)
RED ZONE 1.9% (15) -19.6% (8)
Special Teams
DVOA -2.2% (27) 2.1% (13)
GB kickoff -5.8 (27) -11.6 (30)
PHI kickoff -10.8 (28) 8.8 (7)
GB punts 4.1 (15) 1.5 (15)
PHI punts -1.2 (19) 9.3 (6)
FG/XP 0.4 (17) 4.5 (10)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

Although it seems like an eternity ago, the Eagles and Packers have played against each other this season. The Packers battered Kevin Kolb into incompetence and then knocked him out with a concussion, braving an impressive second half from Michael Vick to end up with a 27-20 road win.

Of course, a lot has changed since then. Vick's gone from curiosity to franchise quarterback. LeSean McCoy's emerged as the spitting image of Brian Westbrook, and a member of the Eagles' defense has had a career season. Meanwhile, the Packers struggled mightily to get to this point. The NFC favorites by acclamation struggled through a season with more close losses and a swath of injuries that took out two key skill-position players on offense and ravaged their front seven. The "Miracle at the New Meadowlands" comeback by the Eagles actually helped get them here, creating a way for the Packers to control their own fate in Week 16 and Week 17.

This is the first round's most evenly-matched contest. The Eagles have a slight edge from playing at home, even after the Week 1 loss there. 52 percent of Yahoo users are choosing Philly and 48 percent have gone for Green Bay; in the other matchups, the favorites are all being picked at a 77 percent rate or higher. With the slimmest of margins separating the two teams, let's try and identify the spaces where one of these two teams actually has a significant advantage.


Injuries have hit both sides of the ball here. Green Bay lost Ryan Grant in the Week 1 game against the Eagles and have lost Jermichael Finley and right tackle Mark Tauscher since. The Eagles are down Nate Allen, Brandon Graham, Ellis Hobbs, and likely Stewart Bradley for Sunday. If the game comes down to a big play, it could be a screwup from one of the replacements here -- a Bryan Bulaga holding penalty or a blown coverage by Dimitri Patterson. Each team has their own significant advantage to exploit, though.

The Eagles don't need to be encouraged to blitz. After the passing of Jim Johnson two years ago, Sean McDermott hasn't changed all that much about Johnson's scheme. Last year, although they kept blitzing just as much as they did under Johnson, the blitz wasn't particularly effective for Philadelphia. This year, though, things have changed. When the Eagles rush four, they've allowed 7.0 yards per attempt and a 44 percent Success Rate (versus league averages of 6.5 yards and a 45 percent Success Rate). Not very impressive. With a fifth man, their performance improves. They allow 5.1 yards per attempt (average: 5.9) and a 40 percent Success Rate (average: 46 percent). But five isn't enough for the Eagles. When they dial it up to six blitzers, the Eagles are downright dominant. They allow just 3.0 yards per attempt and a 28 percent Success Rate, well ahead of the league averages of 5.7 yards and a 40 percent Success Rate.

The only problem, though, is that the Packers are also good against big blitzes. They're good against any sort of coverage, truthfully; they average a full yard more than the league average against four rushers, 1.1 yards more than the average against five guys, and are at a robust 7.8 yards per attempt with a 47 percent Success Rate when the opposition rushes six. (They're below-average against seven, but that's in just eight attempts.) Their numbers are even better when you remove Matt Flynn's struggles against the blitz. In 33 dropbacks against a six-man rush, Rodgers is 18-of-31 for 288 yards with 14 first downs and two touchdown passes. He also has a 15-yard scramble for a first down against it.

The blitz works for the Eagles because they consistently produce an aggressive, talented secondary to operate behind it. This year, one player stands out as having had a dramatic impact on the success of that secondary: Asante Samuel. Samuel's missed four of the last six games with a knee injury, and that's been a huge problem for the Philly defense. During the first half of the season, when Samuel played in seven games, the Eagles had the sixth-best pass defense DVOA in the league. During the second half of the year, Samuel played in just four games, and the Eagles were 25th. While that's also attributable to other factors, Samuel's charting numbers suggest a player that is performing at an astounding level. With 35 passes charted in his direction, Samuel has allowed just 3.0 yards per attempt and put up a Success Rate of 77 percent. Those are filthy numbers. No other cornerback with 30 targets or more even comes within a yard of Samuel's rate, and the only other cornerback to hit even 70 percent in Success Rate this year is Darrelle Revis. The Eagles need Samuel to play at that lights-out level behind the blitzers if they're gonna be able to stop the Packers.

Fortunately for Eagles fans, the decline in the Philly pass defense has been mitigated by an improvement in their rushing defense. Their run defense has improved from 23rd in the first half of the season to 10th during the final eight weeks of the year. The absence of Bradley will leave rookie middle linebacker Jamar Chaney in the lineup; Chaney's been a nice surprise. Outside linebacker Ernie Sims is also day-to-day; if he is unable to play or goes down with an injury during the game, Philadelphia would be forced to use the very limited Akeem Jordan (or the gimpy Keenan Clayton) in the nickel. That could very well be a spot where the Packers exploit mismatches.

And, of course, Packers fans also deserve a fortunately. In this case, it's that they should be able to enjoy themselves when the Packers get inside the red zone. Even with the well-documented issues of the Green Bay running game in power situations (where they rank 25th), the Eagles just capitulate inside their own 20-yard line. Per DVOA, Philadelphia is last in red zone defense, last in red zone pass defense, last in goal-to-go defense, and a relatively impressive 30th in red zone run defense. The Packers went to the red zone twice in Week 1 and scored touchdowns both times.


It's not necessarily true that the Packers will defend Michael Vick the same way they did during the first game between these two teams. They're now missing a variety of defensive players they had during the first game, notably inside linebacker Nick Barnett. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins is a question mark as of Friday morning. The team has a week to prepare for Vick and watch film of how he works within this offense. In the first game, though, they tried to defend against Vick with a variety of different concepts. They mostly didn't work.

On Vick's first drive in the second half, the Packers showed off the Cover-7 look that was diagrammed at Cheesehead.tv earlier this week. The first play of the drive is an excellent example of how the Packers use it -- and how Vick can beat it. The Packers rush four and have their two cornerbacks, Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, responsible for the wide receivers split out on either side. They show a single-high safety before the snap and then motion back into two-deep at the snap. The Packers win at the line of scrimmage when B.J. Raji blows through a block and forces Vick to scramble ... which the Packers have no answer for. Vick breaks a tackle downfield and ends up scrambling for 23 yards.

Obviously, Vick scrambling is going to be a situation where the Eagles should be dominant. As much as Vick has improved as a quarterback, it's really his scrambling that has created the sort of big games that have become his calling card. The comeback against the Giants can be traced almost exclusively back to Vick's ability as a runner, with Vick picking up four crucial first downs (including a 33-yard run on a key third-and-10 with 2:50 left) and a touchdown on his five carries. It's backed up by the numbers. When Vick scrambles, the Eagles average 7.8 yards per play and have a 49 percent Success Rate; the league average is 5.4 yards with a 41 percent Success Rate. The only teams really in the same stratosphere, strangely, are Chicago and Minnesota. Probably owing in part to their four games against those teams, the Packers have downright terrible numbers against scrambling quarterbacks: They allow 8.2 yards per play and a 50 percent Success Rate when quarterbacks go for a stroll.

On the next drive, the Packers immediately began to change things up by employing their best player: Charles Woodson. Woodson blitzed three times in nine plays. The first blitz was picked up but forced Vick into a mistake, as he successfully recognized his hot read, but one-hopped the throw to Maclin. This seems like the sort of mistake Vick will be less likely to make after a full season of throws. Blitz number two from Woodson is uncovered and forces Vick to immediately scramble into the line for a short gain. The third blitz is different: Instead of coming off the edge like he did on the first two blitzes, Woodson starts in the middle of the field and tries to sneak onto the edge as Vick snaps the ball. Unfortunately for the Packers, Woodson might have been better off where he was originally; the Eagles run right where Woodson used to be, and the result is a touchdown.

The Packers blitzed Woodson at least two more times in the second half from what I saw, with Woodson coming off the edge both times. It seems likely that the Packers will blitz Woodson at least a few times during Sunday's game, which makes me think that he'll line up somewhat regularly in the slot. The Eagles will use DeSean Jackson occasionally in the slot, but when Woodson lines up in the slot and doesn't blitz, he'll end up spending a fair amount of his time against Jason Avant. He can shut down Avant, but that leaves the Packers with Sam Shields outside against Jackson or Jeremy Maclin.

Charting data suggests that big-blitzing Vick is the obvious right answer. Against a four-man rush, Vick has averaged 8.1 yards per play and a 49 percent Success Rate. Versus five, that falls to 6.6 yards per play and a 44 percent Success Rate, but the real difference comes when Vick sees a six-man rush. With 41 such plays charted, Vick has averaged just 2.5 yards per play and has a Success Rate of 24 percent. The only problem: Green Bay never rushes six or more. With 537 charted plays, they've rushed six guys just 14 times and seven just three. Last year, they rushed six or more just 5.4 percent of the time, the fifth-lowest rate in football. This year, they're even below that figure.

The Eagles also struggled in short-yardage against the Packers. On one drive, they resorted to the usual mix of shovel passes and passes that Andy Reid was known for near the goal line and ended up with a field goal. Their final drive ended with Vick getting stopped on fourth-and-1 on some sort of ugly shotgun draw play, with Clay Matthews shooting the gap. Although Philadelphia's currently third in power situations, I think they may have some trouble inside the Packers' 10-yard line. No team's thrown more passes in that situation than the Eagles (48), and they've produced a -36.2% DVOA and 29 percent Success Rate there. Ironically, the only other team in the neighborhood with them is the Packers, who have thrown 46 passes. They've done slightly better, producing a 0.9% DVOA and a 46 percent Success Rate.


The Eagles retain a significant advantage on special teams. They are competent while the Packers are dismal. Green Bay's 27th-place finish comes thanks to their dreadful performance on kickoffs (27th) and kickoff returns (28th). Jordy Nelson, Sam Shields, and Patrick Lee have each failed to produce very much in the return game. Tim Masthay has improved the Packers' punting work, but at 15th, that's their best asset. Simply not good enough.

Philly is above-average on everything special teams-related short one facet: Kickoff returns, where they're the third-worst team in the league. After Ellis Hobbs went down with his neck injury, the Eagles used rookie Jorrick Calvin on returns, but Calvin suffered a back injury and was placed on injured reserve Thursday. Gerard Lawson, who was playing in the UFL earlier this season and was only signed two weeks ago, will take over as their primary kick returner.


Having gone through game tape and all the numbers, it seems even more difficult to pick a winner between these two teams. They each have situations they can exploit and equally-important situations they have to hope they can skate through. Is the Philadelphia red zone defense more obvious a flaw than the Green Bay issue with scrambling quarterbacks? Is the absence of Jermichael Finley more important than the injury to Stewart Bradley?

The truth is that this game is likely to come down to one or two key mistakes. If you believe that teams have innate issues with being clutch or handling pressure, both these organizations are led by head coaches renowned for screwing up in close games. One of them has to win. The Eagles' home field advantage gives them the slightest of edges here.


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.

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 red zone DVOA and 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 third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice." Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 07 Jan 2011

32 comments, Last at 09 Jan 2011, 1:33pm by caruthers


by MCS :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 5:18pm

"Fortunately for Eagles fans, the decline in the Philly pass defense has been mitigated by an improvement in their rushing defense."

Bah! You think the Packers care to run the ball?

Why do the Packers go 5-wide in first and goal? Because the league won't let 'em go six!

by DGL :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 6:04pm

They could go six wide, but one of the six would be ineligible.

by MJK :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 5:32pm

If you believe that teams have innate issues with being clutch or handling pressure, both these organizations are led by head coaches renowned for screwing up in close games.

And this is probably the most prophetic statement we'll see in a playoff preview.

The 4th quarter of Eagles-Packers should be fun.

by jds (not verified) :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 6:05pm

I completely agree! This game has the potential to be an evenly matched affair, coming down to which coach makes the last bone-headed mistake.

by CathyW :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 7:55pm

Argh! I see some kind of horrible clock management screw-up by Andy Reid in our future. I might have to hide under the bed during the 4th quarter.

by gratif1 (not verified) :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 6:31am

The Packers have not trailed by more than 7 points all season so of course their losses will appear blundering. In close games each mistake is magnified.

by Tom W (not verified) :: Sun, 01/09/2011 - 12:15am

I really don't buy into that. I know a lot of NFL teams that would be more than happy to take Andy Reid off your hands, including maybe, the Packers. On the other hand, Mike McCarthy has gotten Green Bay to the playoffs three of the last four years, and that took some doing this year, with eight or nine opening day starters (I lost count) on IR, and Cullen Jenkins would've been on IR for the last three or four games, if the team wasn't holding out hope that he could play in the playoffs if they got there. Plus, let's not forget that McCarthy would've taken the Packers to the Super Bowl in his second season if not for the dismal play of their QB in the NFC Championship Game (including the obligatory game-losing pick). I think these are two solid, well-coached teams, and it should be an entertaining game. Besides, after the pain of Wisconsin's loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl, I'm innured to any more football-related disappointment.

by cfn_ms :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 5:40pm

did a just see a POSITIVE DVOA rating for New Orleans' double-digit loss at Arizona? WTF happened in that game?

Not to mention the Dallas-Cincy squeakers, which seem rated way higher than I'd have expected.

by Arkaein :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 6:19pm

Arizona had 2 defensive TDs in that game, and also recovered at least two of their own fumbles.

DVOA sees those as flukey, non-predictive plays, so New Orleans could have easily outplayed Arizona on the majority of snaps while letting a few bad plays cause enough damage to lose the game.

by mm (not verified) :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 6:25pm

I don't know that the Saints should have a positive DVOA for the Arizona game, but their luck was ridiculously bad. On 2 different occasions the Saints defense forced their QB to fumble; the Cardinals scored a touchdown the first time, and got a key first down the second time. In addition, 2 of Arizona's touchdowns were returns of Saints turnovers, which DVOA discounts.

The Saints really didn't deserve to win that game (at least, the offense didn't), but Arizona still would have lost if the luck had been just a little more even.

The game summary summed it up nicely: "Hall threw an interception that led to an early Saints field goal and fumbled twice, but both turned out to be key plays for Arizona (3-2)."


by LnGrrrR :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 9:32pm

The Saints defense forced Brees to fumble? That is pretty fluky. :)

by Arford (not verified) :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 6:15pm

"I don't need to enumerate just how bad the Seahawks are, but the idea that the Seahawks have absolutely no chance to win on Sunday is obviously wrong."

Given that the game is being played on Saturday, I don't think it's hyperbole to say that the Seahawks will absolutely not win on Sunday.

by tuluse :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 6:56pm

Great previews, but I do have one complaint/suggestion. Success rate for defenders should really be called stop rate. It can get confusing, particularly in the Eagles defense section where you transition from talking about success rate allowed to stop rate of specific corners. I've noticed it's now called stop rate on player pages, which is nice, but you should really use it everywhere.

by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 10:54pm

No, actually, Stop Rate and Success Rate are different stats.

Stop Rate is the stat based on play-by-play. It represents the success on plays where the defender is listed with a tackle, assist, or interception.

Success Rate is based on game charting. It represents success on plays where the defender is listed in coverage, no matter who gets the tackle or interception.

Make sense? I hope it does.

by tuluse :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 11:18pm

That does make sense, but it's still confusing to have both offensive and defensive success rate.

by akn (not verified) :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 9:46pm

Please stop fitting polynomial trend lines to the week-to-week DVOA data.

It's silly and takes away from the statistical authority of your claims.

by AudacityOfHoops :: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 10:21pm


by cfn_ms :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 12:54am

I disagree. It's a graphical tool that gives a VERY rough idea of the general shape of the data. I don't have a problem w/ it, especially since (I think) it doesn't go any higher than x^3 degree.

by akn (not verified) :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 2:53am

No, it gives the FALSE impression of a trend. Although R^2 values or confidence intervals are not displayed, I can't image them being anything near significant, so all the line is doing is reinforcing a subjective impression rather than any statistical truth.

In addition, there's no evidence that a polynomial is an appropriate model to use. This is reinforced by the fact that different orders of polynomials are used for different sets of data (x^2, x^3, etc). If, for example, you believe the Seahawks were trending downward before turning things around week 10 against Arizona, then perhaps a bilinear model could be justified and would probably be a more appropriate fit (one can then go on to try and explain what changed that week). But there's nothing to support the idea that a quadratic should explain their performance over the season (with any variation from the line representing noise).

The truth is that the polynomial fits are used because it's one click in Excel to add them. On a site like this one, there's no excuse for statistical laziness.

by mathesond :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 10:01am

So what's stopping you from submitting a more accurate model?

by akn (not verified) :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 6:03pm

That's the point: there currently isn't any good model for fitting the data, because we have no idea what may be explaining the (possible) trends. A model-driven fit (such as a polynomial) shouldn't be fit to the data. I mean, why not just fit an exponential or some other completely inappropriate model instead?

As has been suggested below, a data-driven fit, such as a moving average, would be more appropriate if the goal is to reduce noise. The question then becomes what kind of window/kernel should be used. Given the temporal nature of the data, a lagging window is probably most appropriate.

by cfn_ms :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 7:37pm

*shrugs* I really don't have a problem with it. Anyone who reads more into the lines than "hey that's an interesting pattern" has only themselves to blame.

by akn (not verified) :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 10:58pm

Football Outsiders: Innovative statistics, intelligent analysis (but only if you're smart enough to ignore the unintelligent parts)

by Russ Ramaker (not verified) :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 3:45am

I agree. Perhaps a weighted average would be better.

by Arkaein :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 10:55am

I agree. A moving average satisfies the goal of smoothing out the bumps and will preserve actual trends regardless of shape.

by Paul R :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 4:42pm

Hey, isn't there going to be an Open Discussion thread? It's almost kickoff time.

by nuclearbdgr :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 9:53pm

Four of the last six Packers playoff games have gone into overtime - which could be fun with the new rules.

by erniecohen :: Sat, 01/08/2011 - 10:26pm

In every other category, though, the Seahawks dominate. Mare continues to be excellent on kickoffs, ranking sixth in the league and producing 11.2 points of field position. The Saints are 16th. They particularly excel on returns, thanks primarily to the addition of Leon Washington.

Fine preview, but please have someone proofread your copy; the pronoun in the final sentence would normally refer to the Saints.

by cfn_ms :: Sun, 01/09/2011 - 12:06am

That was fun! Seriously, why the hell would ANYONE lay over 5:1 odds on any NFL team in any playoff game, much less on the road, much less a pretty shaky Saints team. That was a huge value line IMO.

by BJR :: Sun, 01/09/2011 - 10:46am


by cfn_ms :: Sun, 01/09/2011 - 1:17pm

Not really. I wrote the following in an email and posted online (not here), as to why I really liked Seattle +10.5 and $ line +450:

A couple things:

1) home field. big deal for both teams.

2) Saints have been pretty shaky on the road. In four of their games, they LOST at Arizona, and then barely held on against Dallas, Cincy and San Fran. If that Saints team shows up (and they have half the time), Seattle has a great shot at winning and should easily cover 10.5

3) 17-14. I'm thinking that everyone was WAY too impressed by that win at Atlanta, and that's one of the big drivers behind the public perception that the Saints are good (along with being defending Super Bowl champs). It was a meaningless game for the Falcons (even with the loss they still had the league's worst team up next - to blow the 1 seed they needed to lose that AND have New Orleans lost to Tampa... instead neither happened), which means that you really shouldn't read much of anything into that game.

Obviously Seattle isn't very good, but they'll have an incredibly fired up home crowd (like Arizona and San Diego a couple years ago), they'll have a shaky opponent that's probably over-confident (even more so than Atlanta and Indy were), and while they could certainly get blown out, they also could absolutely win this game. Over 4:1 on the upset is IMO an absolute bargain. I think a fair $ line is around 2.5:1 or 3:1, and that the spread shouldn't be anything more than 7.5 (and I could probably justify even less than that). This smells like a classic trap line where the money is going heavily on the wrong side and the books will clean up.

PS I sent an email about the game to ESPN's Chad Millman and he indicated Seattle was a fairly popular pick among sharps he's talked to. Take it for the 3rd-hand info if you want, but he did say it.

by caruthers (not verified) :: Sun, 01/09/2011 - 1:33pm

on espn's pregame show, cris carter just said, "Green Bay's special teams are really good."