Scramble for the Ball: Flip the Script
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Well, Mike, four teams had their seasons cruelly ended this past weekend. Four more teams will have their seasons cruelly ended this coming weekend. Do you have any thoughts about this, maybe about how the NFL could be more compassionate than having seasons cruelly ended with postseason losses?
Mike: I get the feeling that Kansas City's loss was more of the Old Yeller variety after the unfortunate injury to Jamaal Charles. So less cruel, and more merciful. What is cruel to every other team is that New England gets to play Indianapolis.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Tom: I'm not sure I agree with you, but how is the Colts-Patriots matchup cruel to every other team? It's not like Denver or San Diego has a good defense either.
Mike: Yes, but Denver is first by weighted offensive DVOA. San Diego is fourth. Indianapolis is 20th. Bill Belichick must be over the moon.
Tom: Indianapolis has a highly talented quarterback who played very well, and the Colts showed last week they were too smart to be content trying to win by handing off to Trent Richardson 15 times.
Mike: Luck was a league-average quarterback this year. Yes, he had a big game last week. It was also against a depleted defense that, in the second half, was dragging the whole team behind it. It is far, far more likely that league-average Andrew Luck shows up this weekend than some magical playoff spell suddenly turning him into Peyton Manning
Tom: I know, we're not going to agree on Andrew Luck. He's a young quarterback. I like his abilities and skills. But you're right, he's not Peyton Manning. He'll make mistakes and take risks. They could have cost the Colts against the Chiefs. They're likelier to do so against the Patriots.
Mike: He will have the advantage of a less talented Patriots defense.
Tom: If I were Bill Belichick, I'm more worried about Luck's ability to attack defenses vertically than I am by Philip Rivers, whose success this year is largely a function of not trying to throw deep so much.
Mike: Luck will have the disadvantage of facing an exceptional defensive game planner.
Tom: One big thing about the Colts-Patriots game is it's the only non-rematch.
Mike: For which I am extremely thankful.
Tom: The two teams did play last year, with Luck turning the ball over four times (three picks, one fumble) in a 59-24 New England win.
Mike: Because it's less I need to hear about how Bill Belichick must only see his opponent once before he has devised every possible contingency to defeat him. Like he's some sort of shonen antagonist.
Tom: Ask the Giants. Or the Jets.
Mike: I think the Giants and the Jets are doing enough self-questioning for everyone at this point, thank you very much.
Tom: I was referring to the 2007, 2010, and 2011 postseasons, actually. Perhaps my reference was a little oblique.
Mike: And I was making a joke at the New Jersey teams' collective expense.
Tom: Whee, mutual joke-telling-past-each-other. Can we make that an unlockable video game card?
Mike: Anyway, Indy should be happy, because New England's defense is fairly mediocre this year, and Tom Brady has fallen back to the realm of "very good." Indianapolis, unfortunately, has been fairly bad against tight ends and non-primary wide receivers. Which is ... basically the entire Patriots passing offense.
Tom: Well, New England's slot receiver is kind of their primary wide receiver.
Mike: Yeah, they're weird that way.
Tom: But only in a truly progressive way. Belichick is as much of a week-to-week planner of offense as he is anything else, so you can be sure he'll be looking to take advantage of his specific strengths against Indianapolis. In short, (a) block Robert Mathis, (b) have fun!
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
Tom: Going to the other side of the AFC bracket, it feels like Denver is just a better version of San Diego. I know, the aggregate point total between the two games was only Denver by 1, but the game in San Diego felt like the 28-6 game it was when I switched away, not a 28-20 contest.
Mike: I agree. I think the primary difference is that Denver is significantly better on offense and much better on defense. Denver's defense, for instance, has been playing better of late, moving from roughly league average to the realm of respectability. San Diego's defense has also stepped up a bit, according to weighted DVOA, but that just made it the fourth-worst defense in the league instead of the absolute worst.
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Tom: So you don't believe in the "Something Happened in Week 13" storyline?
Mike: I believe something did happen! They went from the absolute worst defense to something less than the absolute worst defense! There is significant value in that, and it has turned into a ticket to the Divisional round.
Tom: The Derek Cox-Richard Marshall switcheroo does not strike me as a significant difference, and while Melvin Ingram adds a needed dimension, he's not a Von Miller-level player, whom I think would have made a big difference in Denver's defense were he still available.
Mike: Von Miller's lost season is definitely one of the more disappointing storylines from this year.
Tom: I'd also like Denver's defense better if they had Rahim Moore and Derek Wolfe, both of whom seem to have a shot at being back later in the postseason. Obviously San Diego can win, since we've seen them win in Denver this season. But they'll need some breaks and luck to do it, I think.
Mike: I agree.
Tom: NFC: blowout rematch or one-point game rematch?
Mike: Always save the one-point rematch for last.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Tom: Let's start with injury. Linebacker was Seattle's most questionable defensive position entering the season in terms of depth, I thought, and missing K.J. Wright, who did a fine job on Jimmy Graham in Week 13, is a loss. Week 13 was also Russell Wilson's best performance of the season by passing DVOA. That helped cover up Seattle's second-worst rushing performance of the season by DVOA.
. . . am I just trying to talk myself into a more competitive game?
Mike: Well, no. But I think the real issue is one that has been extremely difficult to quantify: New Orleans' extreme home-road splits.
Tom: The explanation that makes sense to me is that the Saints do so much at the line of scrimmage on offense. It's hard to do that in a noisy road environment, which is why they struggled so much in Seattle.
Mike: The Saints actually have a good defense this year. They have a good offense too, of course, and at home both are actually quite good.
I would agree if Drew Brees and Payton weren't so experienced. Yes, they change things at the line. Everyone does that to some degree, however, and teams always cut down on line calls and audibles when in a high-noise environment. I don't think that comes close to explaining the difference we've seen in effectiveness, even if a more streamlined offense is less potent.
Tom: The one thing I haven't seen anyone look at is whether those cut down calls and audibles have led to less offensive diversity, in terms of packages.
That sort of offensive diversity in terms of personnel and substitutions are maybe the hallmark of Sean Payton's creativity, and changing that might be the reason for the Saints' larger-than-normal home-road offensive split
Mike: The real problem for the Saints is that Seattle's defense was excellent this year, and actually finished the season with a major upswing.
So we look at the Saints and their Jekyll and Hyde routine and if we squint it's easy to see an elite team that can beat anyone anywhere, but yes, I think that's a bit optimistic. Especially considering the noise Seattle's faithful will generate, and how oppressive the Seahawks defense has been.
It's possible. It would also be interesting to see how, if at all, that feeds into the way the Saints offense changed during Payton's time in the wilderness.
Tom: Plus, it's not like Seattle has a specific weakness in the pass game. They're in the top seven against WR1, WR2, other WR, TE, and RB. The Darren Sproles-Jimmy Graham gameplan is not a clear formula for success, nor is Marques Colston in the slot or Kenny Stills deep or... anything, really.
Mike: There is no real way to plan around a defense this good. You just have to outperform them. Which the Saints could definitely do! At home.
Tom: Right, which is why I started talking about Russell Wilson's particularly good game. If he stumbles and mucks around, and Seattle's offensive line doesn't protect well, then maybe this is a competitive game long enough Drew Brees manages 3 good plays and those are enough to win.
Mike: Perhaps. I wouldn't put any of my fake money on that, however.
Tom: Jets-Patriots, 2010, went from 45-3 in the regular season to a Jets win in the playoffs. A Mark Sanchez road win in the playoffs. Stranger things have definitely happened than a Saints win.
Mike: Fair enough.
Tom: I did ask you if it sounded like I was trying to talk myself into a competitive game for a reason. I don't think it's as much of a blowout as the first time, but I do think the Seahawks win.
Mike: I agree.
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
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Tom: Maybe the two best front sevens in football. A highly competitive slobberknocker of a game in the regular season, with the Panthers winning in San Francisco.
Mike: I am really excited for this game.
Mike: Kaepernick has been a pleasant surprise this season. It's somewhat amusing seeing him and Wilson neck and neck in basically all of our statistics.
Tom: Which is weird, because my subjective feeling is Kaepernick hasn't played that well this season. Seattle and San Francisco finished last and next-to-last in terms of passing attempts, though interestingly both came out around average by Chase Stuart's pass identity method.
Mike: It is interesting, though. One of the questions I received in a radio spot this offseason was predictions for Kaepernick and Wilson. My thought was that Kaepernick would be extremely reliable and begin using his speed as mobility rather than to create big plays, whereas Wilson would generate a ton of value with his legs. That has largely come to pass, which should be a pleasant surprise for Niners fans.
I think a lot of our perceptions are fueled by narrative, since we don't really see the 49ers or the Panthers that much, live. The narrative is that Newton took the Panthers on his shoulders and dragged them to the playoffs, which isn't true at all, considering Carolina's excellent defense.
Tom: I've tried to watch Carolina a fair amount this year. San Francisco I find more attractive as a study object than I do a team to watch intently yet casually the way I do on Sundays.
Tom: That narrative needs to be slapped in the face. Newton's been just as good as he's been the past two seasons by our numbers, just in a slightly different way.
Mike: The narrative is that Kaepernick is mediocre because he has training wheels provided by his excellent defense. The funny thing is, The 49ers did not have a world-beating defense this year, finishing 13th by DVOA and 11th by weighted DVOA. Because of the expectations that have been set, success by San Francisco is credited to people other than Kaepernick, and success by Carolina is credited to Newton. When, considering the bonus of Frank Gore's collapse, the actual results have been largely the opposite.
Tom: Watching Gore right now reminds me of watching Gore in 2009. You see him run hard, have some really good runs. And you look at the box score and see he finished 21-66 and you think, "What did I just see, really?" The thing I keep coming down to in this game is two talented passers I can't trust to execute consistently against really good defenses, and the team that wins will have the quarterback that makes one more big play, whether it's a big scramble or key throw to convert on third-and-long.
This bugs me, because (a) it's a default "quarterback plays" metric in a league where passing efficiently and defending the pass are the biggest keys to winning and (b) it feels like I'm being lazy and/or weak, punting on making a difficult decision in favor of some wishy-washy answer. In fact, what I really should be doing is deciding which team has the matchup edge, and why.
Mike: I think that in the end it means we are going to be treated to another very close game between two good teams. I'm not even going to attempt to predict what will happen with any accuracy. I do like San Francisco, but only just.
Tom: I do like Carolina a little better, but it's very close. One of the reasons I keep doing back to my default answer is I expect the game to be close enough that any sort of minor break could be enough to swing it. And in a close game, you'll have three or eleven of those and predicting them is a fool's errand. If there are eleven, like Chiefs-Colts, you won't end up talking about more than one or two of them after the game anyway.
Mike: Except to complain about what a lucky break the Patriots received.
Tom: Which will be great, considering said break happened in the Saints-Seahawks game!
FO Staff Playoff Fantasy Challenge Update
Rivers takes the early lead with an impressive 103 points from Wild Card weekend. Alas for his chances, he is down his quarterback, both running backs, and two wide receivers. The plethora of players with byes chosen by the other staffers means this is still wide open. Aaron is currently in last with only 5 points, but has all of his players left. Mike Kurtz, next to last, lost only Eddie Lacy and Brent Celek. Tom, third from last, lost only Bengals defense. Which, it turns out, was nothing of value.
|FO Playoff Fantasy Update|
|Pos.||Sean||Mike R.||Mike K.||Rivers||Tom||Aaron|
|QB||Peyton Manning||Aaron Rodgers||Tom Brady||Nick Foles||Drew Brees||Russell Wilson|
|RB||Stevan Ridley||Jamaal Charles||Marshawn Lynch||LeSean McCoy||Frank Gore||Knowshon Moreno|
|RB||Donald Brown||Danny Woodhead||Eddie Lacy||Gio Bernard||DeAngelo Williams||LeGarrette Blount|
|WR||Eric Decker||Wes Welker||Demaryius Thomas||DeSean Jackson||Julian Edelman||Anquan Boldin|
|WR||A.J. Green||Marvin Jones||Randall Cobb||Jordy Nelson||Steve Smith||Golden Tate|
|WR||Riley Cooper||James Jones||Doug Baldwin||T.Y. Hilton||Michael Crabtree||Keenan Allen|
|TE||Vernon Davis||Jimmy Graham||Brent Celek||Coby Fleener||Julius Thomas||Gregg Olsen|
|K||Alex Henery||Phil Dawson||Stephen Gostkowski||Steven Hauschka||Graham Gano||Matt Prater|
Best of the Rest Update
The early lead belongs to puffbronfman with 69 points, thanks to being the only person to select Mark Ingram. In the longer term, the selection of Andy Dalton is likely to prove costly. In second place, with no Ingram but Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, is Sakic. Alex Smith, who put up a league-high for the position 37 points, went unselected. As with the staff league, Best of the Rest is still wide open. Full Best of the Rest results can be viewed here.
Our other big playoff game is the Football Outsiders Playoff Challenge. Click here to check out how your team is doing in that competition.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: One of these years, the Cincinnati Bengals may win a playoff game. One of these years, Andy Dalton may play well in the postseason or at least lead the Bengals offense to more than 10 points.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: An Andy Reid-coached team blew a game in which they refused to run the ball and used their second half timeouts badly? Every Philadelphia Eagles fan from the last decade just nodded, knowing from bitter experience what this kind of playoff loss felt like.