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15 Jan 2016

NFC Divisional Round Playoff Preview 2016

by Aaron Schatz (GB-ARI) and Vincent Verhei (SEA-CAR)

The NFC's divisional round kicks off this weekend pitting two teams that were great this year in the Panthers and Cardinals against the NFC's top two teams of the past five years in the Seahawks and Packers. The quarterbacks on display will have virtually unmatched pedigrees -- two are the favorites in the MVP race, and the other two have already won Super Bowls. Both games are rematches, with the Panthers coming from behind to beat the Seahawks in Week 6 and the Cardinals dominating the Packers just two weeks ago. And there's a very good chance the eventual Super Bowl winner will come from this set of games -- Cincinnati's loss in the wild-card round leaves Seattle, Arizona, and Carolina the top three teams remaining in our end-of-season DVOA rankings. As for the Packers, on paper they are the weakest contender remaining in the playoff field, but a win over Arizona wouldn't be the biggest upset we've ever seen.

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 of either ESPN Stats & Information or Sports Info Solutions.

Green Bay at Arizona


Packers on Offense
GB OFF ARI DEF
DVOA 2.5% (11) -15.6% (3)
WEI DVOA -6.1% (20) -11.0% (8)
PASS 14.4% (16) -9.4% (4)
RUSH -5.7% (10) -24.4% (2)
RED ZONE -12.3% (24) 10.6% (23)
Cardinals on Offense
ARI OFF GB DEF
DVOA 15.8% (4) -7.3% (9)
WEI DVOA 12.9% (5) -5.0% (14)
PASS 42.4% (3) -6.8% (6)
RUSH -8.0% (16) -7.9% (19)
RED ZONE -2.6% (19) -14.0% (6)
Special Teams
GB ARI
DVOA 0.4% (17) -4.0% (29)
GB kickoff -7.8 (31) +0.5 (11)
ARI kickoff +5.4 (5) +0.4 (17)
GB punts +4.7 (9) -6.3 (29)
ARI punts -5.6 (25) -12.7 (30)
FG/XP +5.0 (6) -1.8 (25)

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.

The best news for Green Bay Packers fans is that a rematch is not a replay.

When we think back to how bad the Packers looked just three weeks ago, when they got stomped 38-8 at University of Phoenix Stadium, our minds naturally think that the Packers have no chance in this week's game. Of course, that's not true. Recent history shows plenty of examples of teams that got blown out and then came back to beat that same opponent within the next few weeks. Take a look at sample games from the last decade where a team lost by four touchdowns or more and then had to play that same opponent within the next six weeks. Games where the other team won the second time are colored in gray.

Blowout Wins (28+ Points) with Rematches within Six Weeks, 2006-2015
Year G1 Week G1 Matchup G1 Score G2 Week G2 Matchup G2 Score
2006 9 TEN at JAC JAC 37-7 15 JAC at TEN TEN 24-17
2008 7 PIT at CIN PIT 38-10 12 CIN at PIT PIT 27-10
2008 11 CHI at GB GB 37-3 16 GB at CHI CHI 20-17
2009 7 SD at KC SD 37-7 12 KC at SD SD 43-14
2009 11 NO at TB NO 38-7 16 TB at NO TB 20-17
2009 13 KC at DEN DEN 44-13 17 DEN at KC KC 44-24
2009 17 CIN at NYJ NYJ 37-0 18 NYJ at CIN NYJ 24-14
2010 13 NYJ at NE NE 45-3 19 NYJ at NE NYJ 28-21
2012 14 HOU at NE NE 42-14 19 HOU at NE NE 41-28
2015 13 SEA at MIN SEA 38-7 18 SEA at MIN SEA 10-9
2015 14 ATL at CAR CAR 38-0 16 CAR at ATL ATL 20-13
2015 16 GB at ARI ARI 38-8 19 GB at ARI --

Look at that table, and you'll notice that the team that was blown out in the first game wins a rematch roughly half the time. (You can ignore the 2009 Bengals-Jets games since the Bengals already knew their playoff position and sat starters in Week 17.) An additional example of how blowouts don't predict a rematch is very familiar to Cardinals fans. It doesn't appear on this table because the rematch came seven weeks later instead of six, but the 2008 Cardinals lost 48-20 at Philadelphia in Week 13. Seven weeks later, in the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals beat Philadelphia 32-25 at home to advance to their first Super Bowl.

No, we shouldn't favor Arizona heavily in this game because of that Week 16 matchup. We should favor Arizona heavily in this game because the Cardinals have been better than the Packers all season long, and particularly for the last two months. Or perhaps it is better to say that Arizona's high points were more frequent than Green Bay's high points? The Cardinals actually finished 31st in the NFL in variance by mixing huge dominating victories with average performances and then one real stinker against Seattle in Week 17. Nine times this year, the Cardinals had a single-game DVOA rating over 20%. Green Bay's wild-card win over Washington was the eighth time the Packers have reached 20% this season... but only the second time since their Week 7 bye.

WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL

It's very strange to talk about a Green Bay offense that struggles so much in so many different situations, but that's where things stand in 2015. Meanwhile, the Cardinals defense was extremely well-rounded, successful against both the run and the pass with both a strong pass rush and a strong secondary.

The Packers did a lot of their damage against Washington with the running game, but this is going to be a different story. Arizona ranked second in run defense DVOA this year, as well as second in adjusted line yards allowed and second in stuff rate. The biggest problem will be when Green Bay tries to establish the run on first down. The Packers ranked 31st in DVOA on first-down runs, while the Arizona defense ranked seventh. The Cardinals defense also ranked better than the Packers offense on first-down passes, but at least that was a lot closer: Green Bay's offense ranked 20th, Arizona's defense ranked 13th.

In the Week 16 game, the Packers actually averaged 4.1 yards per carry on first-down runs, but mostly because of a single 25-yard run by Eddie Lacy that came with the Cardinals already ahead by 31 points. Only five of their 14 first-down runs gained at least 4 yards. But that was actually better than Green Bay's first-down passes, which averaged 2.6 net yards.

Of course, failures on first down lead to third-and-longs, and that's the worst possible place to be against the Arizona defense. The Cardinals were a bit above average on third down with 1 to 6 yards to go this season, but superb on third-and-long, with the best defensive DVOA in the league. That performance on third-and-long is what made the Arizona defense No. 2 overall on third downs this season. Rodgers dropped back to pass seven times on third-and-long in Week 16, and was sacked five times with two fumbles. Overall, Green Bay has struggled about as much on third down as it has on first down this year. The Packers are 23rd in offensive DVOA on third downs (and go-for-it fourth downs), ranking 25th with the pass and 15th with the run.

You're probably wondering, how was Green Bay's offense even average if the Packers were so bad on both first and third downs? The answer is that they ranked third in DVOA on second down. Unfortunately for Green Bay, so did the Arizona defense.

If Aaron Rodgers wants to attack the Cardinals defense, the cornerback he wants to look for is veteran Jerraud Powers, and he needs to stay away from Patrick Peterson. Sports Info Solutions charting Peterson as the best cornerback in the NFL this year, by leaps and bounds. He was charted with a 73 percent success rate and only 4.6 yards allowed per pass. Both figures were the best for any cornerback with at least 40 targets. Dime corner (and nickel corner after Tyrann Mathieu's injury) Justin Bethel had pretty good stats as well, with 59 percent success rate and 6.0 yards per pass. However, Jerraud Powers' stats were more average, with a 54 percent success rate and 8.2 yards allowed per pass.

The good news here for Green Bay is that if Arizona follows the same strategy as the first matchup, they won't try to specifically use Peterson to shut down either Randall Cobb. That's important, especially with Davante Adams out and Jeff Abbredaris likely to play his role as Green Bay's third receiver. The Cardinals seemed to move Peterson back and forth between the slot and the outside no matter where Cobb was. Sometimes Peterson would be on Cobb in the slot, sometimes he would be outside on Adams or Abbredaris with Powers on Cobb. Bethel was mostly on the outside covering Jones, but also moved around a bit.

Of course, Rodgers can't pick which cornerback he wants to try to target if he's under severe pressure, and part of the reason the Cardinals cornerbacks can have such great charting stats is that the Cardinals pass rush is getting pressure so often. Even with former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles gone to the Jets, nobody blitzes as much as Arizona. ESPN Stats & Info recorded the Cardinals sending five or more pass rushers on a league-leading 45.1 percent of the time. The Cardinals blitz no matter what down it is -- they actually blitz more often on first down (46.3 percent of pass plays) than third down (43.7 percent). Oddly, the Cardinals allowed almost the same yards per play with a blitz (6.11 net yards per play with, 6.14 without) and a higher QBR (60.4 with a blitz, 50.2 without). But in part thanks to all that blitzing, the Cardinals get pressure on the quarterback on 31.9 percent of dropbacks, third in the NFL behind Denver and Seattle. Every quarterback is going to play a lot worse under pressure, and of course Aaron Rodgers is no exception, especially during that first Cardinals-Packers game.

Rodgers wasn't that much worse against blitzes this year. He averaged 6.1 net yards per pass against a standard pass rush and 5.4 net yards per pass against a blitz. The problem is that Rodgers is much more likely than other quarterbacks to be pressured by a blitz. This year, ESPN Stats & Info listed Rodgers under pressure 42.9 percent of the time when opponents blitzed, which ranked fourth in the NFL. That went up even further, to 44.4 percent, after Green Bay's bye week when the offensive decline began.  (On average in the 2015 NFL, blitzes pressured the quarterback 35.7 percent of the time.)

A bit against form, Arizona's strategy in the first game with Green Bay was to drop more guys into coverage rather than blitzing early. The Cardinals sent a blitz on the first Green Bay pass attempt, then sent only four pass rushers on 17 of the next 19 pass attempts until halftime. ESPN Stats & Info only recorded pressure on one of those blitzes, a third-and-15 sack. But after halftime, the Cardinals let loose, blitzing on 16 of 24 pass attempts and getting pressure on 11 of those blitzes.

At least Green Bay won't have to watch backup tackle Don Barclay get run over by the Arizona pass rushers again, as starter David Bakhtiari should be healthy enough to finally return from the ankle injury that has cost him the last three games. Rodgers is going to get better protection with Bakhtiari in the lineup, but he'll still be under pressure plenty. Rodgers was pressured on an astounding 49.4 percent of pass plays in the last three games, including the wild-card win against Washington, compared to 30.9 percent of plays in Weeks 1-15 -- but that latter number still ranked him eighth in the league during that period.

One way to counter pass pressure is to dump the ball off to your running backs, and the Cardinals only ranked 22nd in DVOA against running backs in the passing game. This is actually a bit of a strength for the Packers this year, as James Starks had 20.6% receiving DVOA and Lacy was at 3.5%. However, running backs were a more popular outlet for Rodgers on first and second down rather than third. He threw to running backs (including fullbacks) 18 percent of the time on first or second down, and only half as often on third down.

There's one other clear weakness for the Arizona defense: the red zone. The Cardinals' DVOA dropped from third in the league to 23rd once the opponent reached the 20. Arizona struggled in the red zone against both the run and the pass. But the Green Bay offense doesn't look particularly well set up to exploit that weakness; the Packers also saw their offensive DVOA drop in the red zone both running and passing.

WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL

Make sure to also read Cian Fahey's Film Room column on how Dom Capers' defense can attack the Arizona offense.

Everyone knows that the Arizona offense was extremely powerful this year, primarily thanks to a passing game that stretched the field both horizontally and vertically with outstanding seasons from quarterback Carson Palmer and three different wide receivers who ranked in the top ten for receiving DVOA: Larry Fitzgerald (fourth in DYAR, tenth in DVOA), John Brown (fifth in DYAR, fourth in DVOA), and Michael Floyd (14th in DYAR, eighth in DVOA).

Most people may not realize that the Green Bay defense was also pretty good this year, and it didn't collapse in the second half of the year the way the offense did. The strengths of the Green Bay defense seem to match the strengths of the Arizona offense: very good against the pass, mediocre against the run. However, the Cardinals have an improved ground game since rookie David Johnson took over as the starter in Week 13. Only Matt Forte had more rushing DYAR than Johnson between Week 13 and Week 17, and Arizona's run offense DVOA of 1.2% in those last five weeks would have ranked the Cardinals seventh in the NFL over the entire season. Johnson may also cause problems because of his ability to break tackles. Sports Info Solutions charted him with 39 broken tackles this season, or .244 broken tackles per touch. That ranks ninth among running backs with at least 100 touches. And the Packers were charted with 120 broken tackles on defense, tied for the fourth highest total in the league. No single defender stood out: Clay Matthews actually had the most broken tackles charted with 12, followed by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with 11.

At least the Packers should be able to somewhat contain Johnson as a receiver, which has also been a big part of his productivity. Green Bay ranked fourth in DVOA against running backs in the passing game this year. They also ranked fourth against tight ends, but that won't mean much against a Cardinals offense that may throw to tight ends less than almost any other. (11.6 percent of Arizona passes targeted a tight end; only the Jets were lower.)

The Packers don't blitz as much as the Cardinals, but they do blitz a lot, sending five or more pass rushers on 39.0 percent of pass plays this season (fifth in the NFL). However, the Packers weren't particularly any better when they blitzed. And even though he was blitzed more than nearly any other quarterback (Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Josh McCown were ahead of him), Carson Palmer excelled against the blitz, with the same QBR that he had against a standard pass rush.

Blitz vs. Not Blitz, 2015
  Blitz Rate Rank Pressure Rate
(Blitz)
Rank Pressure Rate
(No Blitz)
Rank Yd/At NetY/P QBR Yd/At NetY/P QBR
Packers D 39.0% 5 34.0% 21 24.7% 10 7.01 6.30 50.2 7.22 6.13 46.6
Carson Palmer 36.9% 4 38.9% 20 24.3% 19 8.42 7.90 84.7 9.35 8.45 84.1

Even the ability to pressure Palmer doesn't mean as much as it does against other quarterbacks, because Palmer excelled against pressure this season. Palmer averaged 5.1 net yards per pass when pressured, second in the NFL this season behind only Jay Cutler. His 48.1 QBR when pressured was third in the NFL, behind two mobile quarterbacks who could put up a higher QBR under pressure thanks to their ability to scramble (Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick). And, of course, Palmer also led the NFL in net yards per pass and QBR when not pressured.

(Again, for those wondering why QBR here and not DVOA: we don't have DVOA numbers merged in with the ESPN Stats & Info pressure data yet.)

The Packers may be getting back their No. 1 corner on Saturday night; Sam Shields is listed as questionable after missing the last four games, including the first meeting with Arizona, due to a concussion. Without Shields, the Packers cornerbacks have been set up in a fairly consistent manner with Quinten Rollins on the offensive left, Damarious Randall on the offensive right, and Casey Heyward in the slot. It's hard to know what will happen if Shields returns, as he didn't play consistently on one side or the other before his injury and the Cardinals don't particularly have a No. 1 option you have to stop. You want to stop all three of them. Heyward had the best stats in SIS charting, 59 percent success rate and 6.1 yards per pass allowed, although that's partly a product of his position playing in the slot. Shields was charted with 56 percent success rate and 7.4 yards allowed per pass. Rollins had the better stats of the two rookies, with 55 percent success rate and 7.5 yards per pass allowed, while Randall comes out with 48 percent success rate and 8.7 yards per pass allowed but also played about twice as many snaps as Rollins.

A lot of the pressure in this game will be on the safeties as much as the cornerbacks, because the Cardinals love to go deep. Palmer threw 25 percent of his passes over 15 yards past the line of scrimmage this season, the highest rate of any starting quarterback. The Packers defense was third in DVOA against short passes, but 14th against deep passes.

One other interesting note: despite being an offense built primarily on the passing game, Arizona used shotgun on only 40 percent of offensive plays this season, the lowest rate in the NFL. Green Bay was one of the few defenses with a better DVOA rating against shotgun plays than under-center plays, though the difference was tiny (-8.3% vs. shotgun, -5.4% otherwise).

SPECIAL TEAMS

Well, here's something that the Arizona Cardinals were not particularly good at this year: special teams. For example, do you remember Drew Butler, who finished next-to-last in FO's gross punt values a year ago and averaged just 35 yards per punt in a miserable performance against Carolina in last year's playoffs? Well, the Cardinals kept him around, and he wasn't very good in 2015 either. The Packers were not a good punt return team for 2015, but as we pointed out in last week's playoff preview, Micah Hyde does have a good track record from past years, and he had returns of 12 and 17 yards against Washington. (Also, like the rest of the Cardinals, Butler was at his best in the Week 16 games against Green Bay, putting three of his four punts inside the 15 with no return.)

Punt returns are also a problem for Arizona and a place where Green Bay should get some field-position advantage. Patrick Peterson's reputation as a punt returner is entirely based on his rookie performance. He's been below average every year since, including this year. Peterson had only three returns over 15 yards this year, and he had three muffed punts and a fumble, although Arizona recovered on all four of those miscues.

The other problem for Arizona special teams was five missed extra points by kicker Chandler Catanzaro. Catanzaro actually didn't miss any field goals of similar length; his three misses came from 47, 51, and 55 yards.

Green Bay's one weakness on special teams this year was kickoff coverage, and only Chicago allowed more estimated field-position value on opposing returns. But it will be interesting to see who Arizona uses on kick returns. David Johnson did it most of the year and was worth 3.1 points of field position over average. Since he became the starting running back, Kerwynn Williams took over returns and has been worth minus-3.1 points of field position. His seven kick returns ended, on average, at the 14.

OUTLOOK

It wasn't very easy to tell given the 38-8 final score, but the underrated Green Bay defense really did a reasonable job of shutting down the Arizona offense in that Week 16 blowout. The Packers had 3.0% defensive DVOA for that game. That's the only defensive DVOA above zero for the Packers in the last seven games, but it's not a particularly poor performance. The Packers can't totally shut down Carson Palmer with the pass rush, and they'll probably allow a couple of big plays with either deep pass completions or broken tackles or both, but it's unlikely that the Cardinals will stomp their way to another blowout with non-stop offense.

On the other hand, the Green Bay offense is likely to struggle much more than it did against Washington. In last week's preview of the Green Bay-Washington wild-card game, I wrote that "Green Bay's offensive decline looks worse than it really has been because of the quality of the defenses the Packers have played." The Packers were likely to have more offensive success against a mediocre Washington defense -- and they did. But Arizona is not a mediocre defense. Arizona is one of those quality defenses that we've already seen shut Green Bay down during the second half of the season.

It's not guaranteed that the Cardinals can shut Green Bay down again, certainly not to the same extent. But even if the Packers defense can fight the Cardinals offense to a draw, the odds are pretty good that the Cardinals defense will limit the Packers offense enough to move Arizona on to the NFC Championship Game.

Seattle at Carolina



Seahawks on Offense
SEA OFF CAR DEF
DVOA 18.5% (2) -18.4% (2)
WEI DVOA 24.8% (1) -17.5% (4)
PASS 44.2% (2) -18.2% (2)
RUSH 7.4% (4) -18.7% (6)
RED ZONE 11.1% (12) 3.4% (18)


Panthers on Offense
CAR OFF SEA DEF
DVOA 9.9% (8) -15.2% (4)
WEI DVOA 12.1% (6) -23.9% (2)
PASS 23.8% (9) -9.8% (3)
RUSH 3.8% (6) -22.9% (3)
RED ZONE 32.3% (3) -8.8% (11)


Special Teams
SEA CAR
DVOA 4.2% (3) -2.4% (23)
SEA kickoff +0.8 (13) -1.8 (19)
CAR kickoff +7.6 (4) -5.1 (28)
SEA punts -5.4 (23) +2.8 (11)
CAR punts +11.3 (1) -6.3 (24)
FG/XP +6.6 (4) -1.5 (22)

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.

Sunday's matchup between Seattle and Carolina will be the sixth time in the regular season or playoffs that Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have faced each other since they were drafted in 2011 and 2012, respectively. If that seems like a lot, it is -- the only quarterback to have played Wilson more frequently is Colin Kaepernick, a division rival who also met Wilson in a playoff game. Wilson, meanwhile, is Newton's third-most common rival behind Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. The Seahawks and Panthers might as well play in the same division -- they will also meet in the 2016 regular season this fall, and quite likely in the playoffs again after that.

In fact, there could be many more Newton-Wilson games to come in the next decade. As long Wilson and Newton keep winning division championships (and between the two of them, they have five in nine combined NFL seasons), they'll be guaranteed to play in the regular season every year. That's what happens you put two young quarterbacks (Wilson is actually six months older than Newton despite being drafted a year later) on two solid rosters and let them loose in the same conference. It's not a stretch to say that this could be the NFL's dominant quarterback rivalry for the next decade-plus, in much the same way that the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry has headlined the AFC for the bulk of this century.

Really, the parallels between the two sets of quarterbacks are striking. Like Manning, Newton was a star in college and a first overall draft pick. Like Manning, he took a team that had won only a handful of games the year before his arrival and quickly made them a perennial playoff contender. Like Manning, Newton set a rookie record for passing yards in a season (since broken by Andrew Luck), and spent the next several years doing things no quarterback had done before, albeit usually with his legs and not his arm. Manning won his first MVP award in his sixth season; Newton is the favorite to win the award in this, his fifth year.

Meanwhile, Brady and Wilson had very successful college careers, but apparently not successful enough to appease their coaches. In 1998, his first year as a starter at Michigan, Brady led the Wolverines to a 10-3 record, a share of the Big Ten championship, and a Citrus Bowl win over Arkansas. Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr rewarded Brady for that success by platooning him in 1999 with Drew Henson, a sophomore who had played minor league baseball, even though the numbers showed that Brady was clearly the superior passer.

While Brady's career at Michigan was derailed by a baseball player, Wilson's career at North Carolina State ended because he was a baseball player. Wilson threw 76 touchdown passes and only 26 interceptions in three years with the Wolfpack, and in his junior year they went 9-4 with a bowl win, the school's best record in seven seasons. But then Wilson attended spring training with the Colorado Rockies, and N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien decided he'd had enough, pushing Wilson out the door so he could start Mike Glennon instead. Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, where he threw 33 touchdowns with only four interceptions, leading the Badgers to an 11-3 record, a Big Ten championship, and a shootout loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

Partly due to those shaky college careers, neither Brady nor Wilson went first overall in the draft, or even in the first round. New England took Brady in the sixth round, while Seattle grabbed Wilson in the third. Neither was expected to start as early as they did -- Brady only got a chance because Drew Bledsoe got hurt, while Wilson was expected to back up Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson before it became obvious that this notion was absurd. While Manning and Newton were expected to turn around moribund franchises, Brady's Patriots and Wilson's Seahawks had been successful in the past, with multiple playoff berths and even Super Bowl appearances in their recent histories. Still, those good teams quickly became great with their new quarterbacks, with Super Bowl appearances suddenly becoming regular occurrences. Manning and Newton were obviously the stars on their teams, while Brady and Wilson were sometimes viewed as supporting pieces to championship-caliber defenses. And just as Brady's Patriots tended to get the best of Manning's Colts, winning the first six games of that series, Wilson's Seahawks have usually outplayed Newton's Panthers, winning four of their five previous encounters.

The best thing about this rivalry? Both players appear to be at their very best right now. The following table shows what Newton and Wilson each did in the last eight games of the year. Their performances were remarkably similar, and if you combined those two half-seasons into one super-season, you get a quarterback who would have led the NFL in passing DVOA in 2015, with ten more touchdown passes than anyone else and another half-dozen scores on the ground, while throwing fewer interceptions in 16 games than Brian Hoyer threw last Saturday:


Cam Newton vs. Russell Wilson, Second Half of 2015 Season
Player Cmp Att C% Yds Yds/Pass TD INT Sack DYAR DVOA Runs RuY RuTD RuDYAR
Newton 164 250 65.6% 2017 8.1 21 1 20 481 16.3% 59 293 5 68
Wilson 168 249 67.5% 2146 8.6 25 2 14 1072 54.4% 45 250 1 48
TOTAL 332 499 66.5% 4163 8.3 46 3 34 1553 35.1% 104 543 6 116

Of course, there's more to football than quarterbacks, but that's just another reason this rivalry has gotten so fun -- both teams have young stars at some of the same positions. Who's the better linebacker, Bobby Wagner or Luke Kuechly? Has Josh Norman equaled Richard Sherman's status as a shutdown corner? It's too bad Kelvin Benjamin was injured this year, but in the long term he and Tyler Lockett have similarly bright futures (despite their radically different physical attributes).

This is all good news for football fans, because the prior five meetings between Newton and Wilson have all been excellent games. In four of them, the losing team had a chance to take the lead on its final possession. The fifth, last year's divisional round matchup, was a one-score game in the fourth quarter before Seattle pulled away late. Most recently, in Week 6 of this season, the Seahawks opened up a 23-14 lead in the fourth quarter, only to watch Newton lead a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives and leave Seattle with a 27-23 win. Let's hope this weekend's contest lives up the standard that these two teams have set.

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

We told you last week that Seattle was going run the ball no matter what condition Marshawn Lynch was in. OK, to be totally honest, we told you Lynch himself would get plenty of carries, and that turned out not to be true -- at just about the last possible minute, he determined himself unable to play, and ended up not making the trip to Minnesota with his teammates. Still, even down to their third-string running back, the Seahawks ran the ball 28 times against Minnesota, just as frequently as they passed. Obviously, the extreme cold weather in Minneapolis influenced that somewhat, but it's still a truism: no matter the personnel, no matter the weather, Seattle is going to run the ball a lot.

As far as Lynch goes, that leaves us back where we were last week. He is once again a full participant in practice this week, and is expected to play and start, but until the moment he lines up behind Wilson, there's no guarantee he'll be playing. The Seahawks may find themselves relying on Christine Michael again.

It's also unclear how effective Lynch will be if he does play. As we noted last week, he showed serious signs of decline in 2015, and he has not been an effective player against Carolina in the recent past. Lynch has played in all five games of the Newton-Wilson series, but he has only averaged 60.6 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry in those games. He has been even worse as a receiver, with only eight catches for 26 yards in 15 targets.

And Carolina's run defense has been very good this season -- sixth in DVOA, stuff rate, and second-level yards, and fourth in adjusted line yards. However, they have been vulnerable to big plays, ranking 15th in open-field yards, and they were shockingly last place in stopping power runs, so Seattle should flourish in third-and-short. Kuechly and Kawann Short (breaking out in his third season) tied for the team lead with 11 defeats in the run game.

Between Lynch's iffy status and Carolina's dominance against the run, it's quite likely that Wilson will need to carry the day again -- something he has done fairly regularly against the Panthers. In his five meetings with Carolina, Wilson has completed 68 percent of his throws for 8.8 yards per pass, with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He has been sacked 11 times in 153 dropbacks against the Panthers, which sounds like a lot, but on a per-dropback basis it works out to 7.2 percent, which is actually lower than his overall regular-season rate of 8.6 percent. Carolina has done a good job, though, of limiting Wilson's scrambling, holding him to just 25.8 rushing yards per game. (His career average: 38.0 yards per game.)

Those numbers reflect Wilson's performance over several years, though, and for this discussion it doesn't really matter how good Carolina's defense was in 2012 or 2013, only how good they are in 2015 -- and really, how good they will be on January 17, 2016. Wilson's numbers against the Panthers in Week 6 were good (18-of-30, 241 yards, one touchdown, no picks), but 140 of those yards came on throws to Jimmy Graham, who won't be available this weekend.

With Graham out of the picture, who will Wilson target in the passing game? Doug Baldwin, ordinarily Seattle's top wideout, has had mixed results with Wilson against the Panthers, with a catch rate better than 80 percent, but an average of just 50.0 yards per game. True, that includes games where he was a second-line receiver behind Sidney Rice and Golden Tate, but even in Week 6 he had only three catches for 23 yards. That's a credit to Carolina's defense as a whole (third in coverage against No. 1 wide receivers), and especially to Josh Norman, who blossomed in his fourth season. According to SIS charting, Norman finished just outside the top ten cornerbacks in success rate, and sixth at his position in yards allowed per target. As great as Baldwin has been this year, this is not the place to attack the Panthers.

The bad news for Seattle is that, based on season-long numbers, there is no obvious weakness in the Panthers' defense to exploit -- they were 12th or better against No. 2 wideouts, all other wideouts, tight ends, and running backs. The good news for Seattle (and the very bad news for Carolina) is that the Panthers have lost their top two cornerbacks behind Norman for the playoffs -- Bene Benwikere suffered a broken leg in Week 14 against Atlanta, then Charles Tillman tore his ACL against Tampa Bay in Week 17. Starting in their place will be Robert McClain, a fifth-year pro with 17 NFL starts with Carolina and Atlanta, but none this year, and never more than six in a season. He had signed with New England in April but was released before the season, and had been unemployed until the Panthers signed him on December 15, not even a month ago. At nickelback will be Cortland Finnegan, the former Titan/Ram/Dolphin who "retired" before the year but continued to work out for teams hoping for an offer, an offer he obviously received from Carolina. The only other active corners on the Carolina roster: Teddy Williams, a 27-year-old special teamer for the Cowboys, Colts, Cardinals, Bears, and Jaguars who has never started an NFL game and only played 50 defensive snaps this season; and Louis Young, a 24-year-old undrafted free agent who was promoted from the practice squad after Tillman was hurt.

It's never a good thing to take cornerbacks off the street and throw them into your starting lineup, but it's an especially bad omen against the only offense we've ever recorded that had three wide receivers finish in the top five in DVOA. That trio, though, was terribly ineffective in that Week 6 game. We already talked about Baldwin's struggles, but cohorts Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse failed to catch a single pass between them.

Lockett was used primarily as a kick returner earlier in the season; he averaged only 36.0 yards per game receiving in the first half of the season, an average that jumped to 51.4 in the second half. Jermaine Kearse's shutout was much more surprising, not just because the fourth-year player had already established himself as a key starter, but he had history as something of a Carolina-killer. In his first three games against the Panthers (he did not play in the 2012 game), he averaged 64.3 yards per game, he had a 100 percent catch rate, with a pair of go-ahead touchdowns. Given their production and efficiency and the ragged state of the Carolina secondary, it's hard to see Kearse and Lockett getting shut out again.

One other weapon could be available to Wilson: tight end Luke Willson. Willson missed the wild-card win over Minnesota with a concussion, but is listed as questionable to play against Carolina. Willson is not a high-volume player -- he has just 59 receptions in his three-year career, or 11 more than Jimmy Graham caught in 11 games this season alone -- but he has shown good efficiency, finishing 11th among tight ends in DVOA in 2013, 24th in 2014, and 15th this season. Willson has only six catches against the Panthers in his career, but they have been memorable -- his only catch in the 2014 game was also the game's only touchdown, a 23-yard game-winning score in the final minute of the game. And he led Seattle with four catches in the playoff win last year, including a 25-yard touchdown.

Considering how thin they are in the secondary, it's likely the Panthers will avoid blitzing, so as not to put McClain and Finnegan in one-on-one situations against a quarterback and receivers who specialize in deep passing. (Wilson's DVOA of 127.9% on deep passes was second among starting quarterbacks behind Andy Dalton.) Carolina was a moderate blitzing team this year -- according to ESPN Stats & Info, they blitzed on 28 percent of all dropbacks, 17th-most in the league -- but they were very successful whether they blitzed or not. They allowed 5.7 yards per dropback when they didn't blitz, the lowest such figure in the NFL. When they blitzed, that average dropped to 4.9, but the ranking also dropped, to third place. The biggest difference between Carolina's regular pass rush and their blitzes was in sack rate -- they got a sack on 10.4 percent of all blitzes (sixth-most), but just 4.8 percent of the time they used a standard rush (20th).

Assuming the Panthers do play it safe, it will be up to the front four to generate a pass rush on their own. That's easily doable -- Wilson was pressured on 36 percent of his dropbacks this season, second only to Teddy Bridgewater. Overall, Carolina had an adjusted sack rate of 7.1 percent, 11th in the league. They fared about as well in pressure rate, ranking 10th at 28.7 percent. Defensive tackle Kawann Short led the Panthers with 11.0 sacks, nearly double any of his teammates. The last time Carolina played Seattle, Short had two sacks and a tipped pass and was named defensive player of the week. However, it's veteran Jared Allen who might be the Panthers' top pass rusher. Though he had only two sacks (in part because he missed four games), he topped Short in knockdowns (15 to 10) and nearly matched him in pressures/hurries (six to seven). All told, Allen amassed 23 disruptions, or 1.9 per game; Short had 28, or 1.8 per game.

First downs will be critical in this game. The Seahawks had the best offense in football by DVOA on first downs, first rushing and fifth passing. However, the Panthers had the best defense on first downs, first in passing and second in rushing

Seattle has a track record for passing to score (well, passing while attempting to score) in the playoffs, but they would be much better served running in the red zone against Carolina. That goes against their own tendencies, because they were ninth in red zone passing this year and just 18th in red zone rushing. The Panthers defense, though, was 12th against the pass in the red zone, but dead last against the run. (Seattle's defense was 28th against the run in the red zone, so there might be a lot of rushing touchdowns in this game.

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL


If you're a fan of the running game, this Seahawks postseason is for you. They ran the ball 47 percent of the time in 2015, fourth-most in football; their wild-card opponents, Minnesota, were right ahead of them at 48 percent. At 49 percent, Carolina ran more than either of them, finishing a few decimal points behind Buffalo as the most run-oriented offense this season.

Of course, just because you run the ball often, doesn't always mean you run it well. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina's lead running back, failed to make the top 30 in DYAR, DVOA, or success rate at his position. Combining Stewart's efforts with those of his partners in the Carolina backfield (mostly Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whittaker, and Cameron Artis-Payne), and Carolina's running backs had a cumulative DYAR of 88, with a DVOA of -2.9%. They ranked 15th and 16th in those categories, the very definition of mediocrity.

As a team, though, the Panthers were sixth in rush offense DVOA, and that is due almost entirely to Cam Newton. Newton led all quarterbacks this year with 142 rushing DYAR, and though he was just 18th in DVOA at 8.1%, remember that Newton had 119 runs this season, 32 more than any other quarterback. Brandon Weeden led all quarterbacks this year in rushing DVOA, but he did it in only nine carries.

What really sets Newton apart as a runner, though, isn't just his volume, it's his reliability. Most quarterback runs are scrambles, semi-random plays that only happen when athletic quarterbacks are able to take advantage of breakdowns in a defense. As an offensive coordinator, you can't call a scramble, you can only wait for them to happen. Newton, though, isn't much of a scrambler -- he scrambled only 28 times for 53 DYAR this year. To put those numbers into perspective, Wilson led all quarterbacks with 55 scrambles this year, while Aaron Rodgers had a league-best 122 DYAR on scrambles. Newton, on the other hand, gets a lot of designed runs -- sneaks, options, bootlegs, or plain old power runs where he takes a shotgun snap and follows a pulling guard. Newton had 91 designed runs this year for 88 DYAR, both more than double any other quarterback in football. Thanks to that kind of reliability, offensive coordinator can frequently call on Newton's number when he's needed instead of sitting back and hoping for a scramble opportunity. That's a big reason Newton ran for 56 first downs this season, fourth in the league behind Adrian Peterson (71), Devonta Freeman (67), and Doug Martin (61), and the only quarterback in the top 30. This is also a big reason why Carolina finished second in power runs this season. Newton had exactly half of Carolina's 50 power runs, and he picked up a first down on 23 of them, a conversion rate of 92 percent. His teammates only had 16 power conversions, a rate of 64 percent. None of this is an anomaly. Since he was drafted in 2011, Newton ranks seventh among all players in the NFL with 257 first downs on the ground (Wilson is next among quarterbacks with 139), and fourth with 100 short-yardage conversions with 1 or 2 yards to go (Tom Brady, master of the sneak, is the second-ranked quarterback with 45).

The Seahawks have an excellent run defense, but it's hard to measure any team's ability to stop running quarterbacks because the sample size of effective runners is still so small. Seattle was one of ten teams to allow opposing quarterbacks to run 40 times this season, but those runs averaged 5.2 yards, fourth-lowest. Historically, the Seahawks have done a fine job of keeping Newton bottled up -- in five games, he has averaged 8.4 carries for 34.2 yards, or 4.1 yards per carry. That's more carries than Newton has averaged in his career (7.7), but substantially less production than his lifetime averages (41.1 yards per game, 5.4 yards per carry). Newton had six runs for 31 yards in Week 6, with a 2-yard score as his only first down. All six of those carries were designed runs. The Seahawks were not very good in short-yardage, ranking 26th against power runs. Newton and the Panthers have a big edge there.

While the Seahawks have limited the damage Newton has done on the ground, they have usually brought his passing game to a total stop. Newton has only completed 57 percent of his passes against Seattle for 6.5 yards per pass, with more interceptions (five) than touchdown passes (four). He has also been sacked 13 times in 159 dropbacks, a rate of 8.2 percent that is slightly higher than his career average of 7.1 percent. Even in Carolina's win in Week 6, Newton completed just 56 percent of his passes with one touchdown, two picks, and three sacks (though he did average 7.5 yards per pass that day).

Given his available targets in the passing game, it's not surprising that Newton has struggled so much against Seattle, and his wideouts this year might be his worst yet. His top wide receiver, Ted Ginn, qualified for our receiving tables this year for just the second time in the last six seasons. A top-ten pick in 2007, Ginn has never made the top 40 in either DYAR or DVOA. Remember, with Kelvin Benjamin injured, this is the best healthy wide receiver on the Carolina roster. Ginn is backed up by rookie Devin Funchess, second-year man Corey Brown, and journeyman Jerricho Cotchery. The Panthers' wide receiving corps has been in a state of flux lately, so none of these guys have much of a track record with Newton against the Seahawks. As a group, though, they've been a disaster, with a collective catch rate of only 47 percent, 11.1 yards per catch, and no touchdowns. Given the strength of Richard Sherman and the Seahawks' ability to cover wide receivers, this looks like a big mismatch in Seattle's favor. It sure was in Week 6, when Ginn was held to one catch for 18 yards, and as a group the Panthers' wideouts had a catch rate of 41 percent and 12.1 yards per catch.

By now you're probably wondering how Carolina won that Week 6 game, and the most obvious answer to that question is "Greg Olsen." The tight end caught seven passes for 131 yards in 11 targets that day, including a 26-yard game-winning touchdown in the final minute. On the one hand, that was something of an anomaly -- in Olsen's first four games with Newton against the Seahawks, he never scored, with a catch rate of 55 percent and only 41.8 yards per game. On the other hand, Seattle's biggest weakness all year has been covering tight ends. They were 26th in DVOA in coverage against tight ends, and tight ends were responsible for 23 percent of the total receiving yardage against the Seahawks' defense, the sixth-highest rate in the league. And Seattle has yet to fix this problem in the postseason -- tight ends Kyle Rudolph and MyCole Pruitt were responsible for 32 percent of Minnesota's receiving yardage last week, and if you include Rudolph's 19-yard DPI flag on the Vikings' final drive, that rate jumps to 39 percent.

It will be interesting to see if Seattle changes up its usual defensive strategy. According to ESPN Stats & Info, they blitzed only 21.9 percent of the time, the seventh-lowest rate in the league this year. Most defenses, though, chose to send the house at Newton -- he was blitzed on 39.7 percent of his dropbacks this season, second-highest among starters behind Josh McCown. The funny thing was, Newton was actually ranked higher against blitzes (7.3 net yards per dropback, seventh-best) than he was against standard rushes (7.5 net yards per dropback, 15th).

While first downs could be the most critical matchup for the Seattle offense, Carolina's offense will face a battle of strength-on-strength on third downs. The Panthers were fourth in third-down offense this year, finishing in the top ten in third-and-short, -medium, and -long scenarios. The Seahawks defense, though, was first on third downs, and in the top three in all yardage ranges.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Big edge for Seattle here. The Seahawks were better than Carolina this season at placekicking, kicking off, punting, kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, and punt returns. The Panthers were better at punt coverage, but even there, the Seahawks will have a bigger advantage when Brad Nortman punts than the Panthers will have when Jon Ryan punts. The Panthers were average in punt coverage, but they were called on to make tackles too often. There were 33 players this year with at least 10 punts, and Nortman was among the ten of them who allowed more than half their punts to be returned. That's bad news against Tyler Lockett and a Seahawks team that led the NFL in punt return value. Meanwhile, Seattle gave up a league-worst 13.3 yards per punt return, but only 29 total returns. That latter figure ranked in the bottom ten in the league, and it means Ted Ginn likely won't get many chances to make an impact. Ginn was efficient but not explosive as a punt returner, making the top 10 in yards per return, even though his longest return went just 37 yards.

The Panthers were 19th in kickoff return value this season, which is a little strange because they were dead last in yards per kickoff return. (This is partly because more than 10 percent of their total kick returns were onside or squib recoveries.) Fozzy Whittaker and Joe Webb split return duties during the season; with Whittaker out this weekend with a high ankle sprain, the burden falls on Webb to put Carolina in good field position. Webb has only 12 kickoff returns in his four-year career, none longer than 30 yards.

Graham Gano was perfect on field goals within 30 yards this year, but just 19-of-25 on anything longer than that. The Panthers were ahead so often that he didn't have many clutch kicks. He went 11-of-12 on kicks that would have tied the game or put Carolina ahead. Only one of those attempts came in the fourth quarter; the miss was from 53 yards. Gano's average kickoff traveled 65.7 yards, second-longest in the league (kicking in sunny Carolina helped), but opponents averaged 26.6 yards per return, fifth-highest. As we mentioned last week, Tyler Lockett is dangerous but inconsistent on kickoff returns.

OUTLOOK

Games between Seattle and Carolina are almost always close, low-scoring affairs, so expect another slugfest lasting into the fourth quarter on Sunday. Neither team looks capable of blowing the other out of the water. While the two clubs are very evenly matched overall, it seems like Carolina has more glaring weaknesses. The Panthers are the team more likely to suffer a breakdown in pass defense or kick coverage, or a critical drop on offense. While the big plays could go Seattle's way, though, the Panthers seem to have the edge on both sides of the line of scrimmage. That should be enough to secure a narrow win.


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 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 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.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 15 Jan 2016

10 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2016, 3:29am by votut

Comments

1
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/15/2016 - 10:11pm

The Panthers defense, though, was 12th against the pass in the red zone, but dead last against the run. (Seattle's defense was 28th against the run in the red zone, so there might be a lot of rushing touchdowns in this game.

What I got out of this is that red-zone run defense must be very good across the league if even two of the worst teams at it still hardly give up TDs. These two teams are 4th and 5th in points allowed per red-zone trip.

2
by Duff Soviet Union :: Fri, 01/15/2016 - 10:25pm

Looking at that first Seattle vs Arizona game, Arizona had a DVOA of about 25% and Seattle about 70% which leads to two questions:

1) What's the highest ever "combined DVOA" in a single game?
2) What's the highest ever DVOA by a team in a game they lost?

3
by borntorun87 :: Sat, 01/16/2016 - 12:23am

Should be NYJ winning 37-0, not CIN, as you referenced in the explanation.

Also, the first BUF/NYJ game wasn't 28+, not sure if you wanted it on there anyway because the rematch had the 28+ condition.

Good work as always with the detailed recaps.

The Separation is in the Preparation.

6
by Aaron Schatz :: Sat, 01/16/2016 - 2:38pm

Oops. Must have jotted that down wrong when I was putting the table together. Will fix now.

4
by Duff Soviet Union :: Sat, 01/16/2016 - 6:44am

The comment about Wilson and Newton's head to head meetings also got me wondering about which quarterbacks have faced each other the most. My first guess would be Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Does anyone keep track of his?

5
by JIPanick :: Sat, 01/16/2016 - 2:01pm

I dug up an old article about "best" rather than most numerous:
http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/12/brady-manning-no-2-on-qb-m...

Kelly/Marino met 21 times, but apparently Layne/van Brocklin had more at 23. I'll see if I can find something more comprehensive.

I know the most *playoff* meetings is 5 (Bradshaw v Stabler*) and Manning v Brady will tie it if they both win this weekend.

*Stabler didn't actually start the Immaculate Reception game, but led the Raiders in pass yards and scored their only points, so I'm giving him credit for it.

7
by Vincent Verhei :: Sat, 01/16/2016 - 5:26pm

I have wondered that too, and I don't know the answer, but it's hard to imagine anyone topping Kelly-Marino in the post-merger world.

8
by Duff Soviet Union :: Sat, 01/16/2016 - 5:32pm

Newton and Matt Ryan have a good chance.

9
by tuluse :: Sun, 01/17/2016 - 11:41am

If Cutler and Rodgers play 5 more years on their current teams and don't miss any matchups due to injury they'll hit 23.

Brees and Ryan are at 15 right now, so 4 years for them (seems unlikely for Brees).

10
by votut :: Fri, 01/22/2016 - 3:29am