NFL Playoffs Statistical Preview: Conference Round

After an awful performance last week, my playoff records are now 4-4 straight up, 4-4 against the spread, and 3-5 against the total. Some of the - shall we say - less stat-loving members of Niners Nation might view last week as proof that you can't trust the stats. Indeed, last week seemed like a perfect manifestation of Benjamin Disraeli's oft-used quote: "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics." However, it turns out that the divisional round games were far worse for my reputation than they were for the stats. Here's why:

  • BAL and PHI were underdogs according to the odds makers and the NFL standings, but they were favorites according to total DVOA. It turns out that I got these games wrong because I adjusted DVOA for game location...despite saying throughout the article that home/road wasn't all that important in divisional round DVOA upsets. So you see...it was my fault, not DVOA's. Again, it's not the stats, it's how you (in this case, I) apply them, ala Disraeli. The measurement point here shouldn't be lost either. If you wanted to know who the better teams were last week, you couldn't listen to Las Vegas or the NFL standings. They got it wrong, and DVOA got it right.
  • Very, very, very, very few people, if any, picked ARI to beat CAR. I'm not going to go into great detail, but, according to total DVOA, that was the 4th-largest divisional round upset in the past 14 years. When you consider that the game wasn't played in ARI, and, alternatively, was played in CAR, the ARI win makes absolutely no sense. Therein lies the defense of stats here. As I've said before, statistics help you identify the most likely outcome, not the unbelievably unlikely outcome. Again, the stats predicting a CAR win was far less of an issue than my hyperbolic advocacy of it.

Now, with that mea culpa out of the way, here are a couple of overall observations:

  • Aaron and the Football Outsiders crew really killed it this year. Despite getting sh*t all season for PHI being at or near the top of the DVOA rankings, they're getting the last laugh. The top 4 DVOA teams this season were PHI, BAL, NYG, and PIT. 3 of the 4 are left, and the only one who isn't had to play the #1 team last round. At the beginning of the playoffs, having the two 6th seeds as their #1 and #2 ranked teams looked like stupidity. Now it looks like wisdom.
  • 3 of the 6 playoff teams with above average defenses are still alive (PIT, BAL, PHI). In fact, the top3 DVOA defenses are still alive.
  • The 2 remaining teams with below average special teams (ARI, PIT) are still alive.
  • Only one of my DVOA-based Super Bowl contenders is still alive (PHI).

Here are several conference round observations:

  • DVOA underdogs are only 8-18 (.308) in the conference round since 1995, which is far worse than their 46-58 (.442) record in the previous rounds. Only 1 of the 8 DVOA upsets was accomplished by a home team (IND over NE in '06, -3.7%). Put another way, road DVOA favorites are 4-1 in the conference round. This week, PIT is a home DVOA underdog (-3.3%), while BAL and PHI are road DVOA favorites. Translation: BAL and PHI are likely to win.
  • The biggest conference-round DVOA upset happened last season (NYG over GB, -21.2%). Other double-digit upsets were TEN over JAC in '99 (-19.0%), CAR over PHI in '03 (-15.4%), and NE over PIT in '01 (-12.2%). This week, ARI over PHI would easily eclipse these games to become the biggest conference round upset in the history of DVOA (-32.2%). Translation: PHI is likely to win.
  • Teams with DVOAs above 30% are 9-2 in conference championship games.1 of the 2 losses was by DEN (30.7%) in 2005, who lost to a PIT team that had a DVOA of 28.1%. Road teams with a DVOA above 30% are 3-0. This week, PHI and BAL are above-30% road teams. Translation: BAL and PHI are likely to win.
  • Teams that are #1 in DVOA have never lost a conference round game (7-0). DVOA #1s are 2-0 on the road in conference championship games. PHI is ranked #1 in DVOA. Translation: PHI is likely to win.
  • No team with a negative total DVOA has ever won a conference round game. ARI (-0.5%) is the first team to host one, and would become the first to win one. Translation: PHI is likely to win.
  • No team with a total DVOA ranking below 17 (CAR in '03) has ever made it to the Super Bowl. ARI is ranked 20thTranslation: PHI is likely to win.
  • Home teams are 15-11 in conference round games during the DVOA era. Translation: I won't be considering game location in my game previews this week. Fool me once...

After the jump, I'll preview the two Conference Championship games...

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES @ ARIZONA CARDINALS (PHI -4.5, 47)

Here's how the two teams stack up in terms of team DVOA:

Team

Total

Rk

Offense

Rk

Defense

Rk

Special Teams

Rk

PHI

31.7%

1

9.3%

12

-20.7%

3

1.6%

13

ARI

-0.5%

20

11.9%

10

9.3%

21

-3.1%

28

Team

Rush Offense

Rk

Rush Defense

Rk

Pass Offense

Rk

Pass Defense

Rk

PHI

5.4%

11

-19.1%

3

12.2%

13

-22.1%

3

ARI

-11.7%

28

-1.7%

15

24.8%

7

19.7%

23

As I said, PHI had the best total DVOA over the course of the regular season, whereas ARI was actually a below average team. In terms of the team units, PHI is by far the best defense that ARI has faced in the postseason, especially against the run. In fact, the sorriness (if that's a word) of ARI's previous run defense opponents just might be the thing that everyone has been overlooking. ATL was 25th in run defense DVOA, and CAR was 24th. This is actually starting to make sense in terms of the buffoonery (apparently that is a word) of game analysis that we've gotten on television. Contrary to the color commentators (read Moose and Goose) and sports talking heads, it's not that ARI has all-of-a-sudden "found an identity" in terms of dedication to the run. It's that they've played two horrible run defenses so far. Ala Susan Powter, "Stop the insanity!" Thanks to PHI's 3rd-ranked run defense, it will be.

Here are the 3 SVWs for this matchup:

Situation

PHI Rank

ARI Rank

PHI PASS OFFENSE VS. ARI PASS DEFENSE ON 3RD DOWN

6

31

PHI RUN DEFENSE VS. ARI RUN OFFENSE ON 2ND DOWN

6

32

PHI RUN DEFENSE VS. ARI RUN OFFENSE ON 3RD DOWN

7

31

As I've said in a previous article, Andy Reid is pass-happy...especially on 3rd down and in the red zone. As I said above, ARI has been able to run the ball because they've faced two crappy run defenses. These SVWs don't look like good news for ARI. Then again, neither has any matchup for the past two weeks.

Here's how the two teams rank in the trenches:

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

PHI OL

16

25

30

5

8

23

31

19

30

6

ARI DL

16

27

13

29

1

19

23

7

15

23

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

ARI OL

30

18

25

31

11

10

29

25

3

7

PHI DL

6

5

3

17

23

7

9

11

5

4

This is an interesting matchup for PHI. They like running outside, and ARI's DL isn't all that great on outside runs. To a lesser degree, they like running behind RT (1% > NFL avg), but ARI has the best DL in the league at stopping such runs. They don't particularly like running up the middle (1% < avg), yet that's easily their best matchup on the line. They suck in power running, but so does ARI's DL. They're great in protecting Donovan McNabb, and ARI's DL doesn't do all that good of a job sacking the QB. I don't know what to make of it all, but my prescription for PHI success is, "Let it fly!" Wait, ARI's defense has been an interception machine the last two weeks. Oh well.

ARI, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have any good matchups in the trenches. Unlike the last 2 weeks, they're not facing a crappy DL, whether we're talking overall ALY or LT ALY, which is where they like to run most. Power running: not good. Long runs: not good. Protecting Kurt Warner: not good. I guess the one optimistic thing I can say for ARI's OL is that going against the 3rd-ranked DL on RT runs last week didn't seem to hurt them, so going against the 23rd-ranked DL on RT runs this week can only help.

BOTTOM LINE: Nearly every stat and trend goes against ARI in this matchup. Last week, I overlooked just how bad CAR's run defense was, and it cost me. The week before, I overlooked ATL's porous run defense, and it cost me. This week, PHI's run defense is one of the best, so I'm definitely not going to overlook it (but it will still probably cost me). It's as simple as that. But, then again, nothing is as it seems with ARI this postseason (consider that a CYA conditional clause).

PICK: EAGLES 31-17

BALTIMORE RAVENS @ PITTSBURGH STEELERS (PIT -6, 34)

Here's how the two teams stack up in terms of team DVOA:

Team

Total DVOA

Rk

Offense

Rk

Defense

Rk

Special Teams

Rk

BAL

30.3%

2

5.6%

18

-24.5%

2

0.2%

17

PIT

27.0%

4

1.7%

20

-26.4%

1

-1.1%

23

Team

Rush Offense

Rk

Rush Defense

Rk

Pass Offense

Rk

Pass Defense

Rk

BAL

5.9%

9

-26.0%

1

5.3%

19

-23.3%

2

PIT

0.7%

15

-22.4%

2

2.6%

20

-29.7%

1

I hate to be Captain Obvious, but these teams are mirror images of each other. Both are great, entirely due to their stout defenses. They're nearly identical in every ranking you see in the table. So where is there any daylight? I guess if I had to come up with something, it would be the fact that BAL has the better running matchup, both on offense and on defense. However, by no means can that "better" matchup be classified as a "good" matchup. It's kind of like having to choose between Rosie O'Donnell and Sandra Bernhard.

Here are the 4 SVWs for this matchup:

Situation

BAL Rank

PIT Rank

BAL DEFENSE VS. PIT OFFENSE IN THE 1ST HALF

1

29

BAL DEFENSE VS. PIT OFFENSE ON 3RD DOWN

6

29

PIT DEFENSE VS. BAL OFFENSE ON 1ST DOWN

25

2

PIT DEFENSE VS. BAL OFFENSE ON 2ND AND LONG

25

1

Needless to say (being Captain Obvious again), the strengths in this game are on defense and the weaknesses are on offense. A couple of supplemental facts here, though. First, both of these defenses were top-8 in every single down and distance DVOA category. Second, BAL's defensive advantage on 3rd down exists on both running plays (5th vs. 29th) and passing plays (5th vs. 28th). If I had to choose which of the above SVWs to have, I'd say BAL's. In the playoffs, it's usually good for the road team to get off to a good start in a game (See GB @ SF in 13 years ago, ignore ARI @ CAR 6 days ago). Also, I'd rather have an advantage on 3rd down than on 1st down, all else being equal (which it is here).

Here's how the two teams rank in the trenches:

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

BAL OL

9

11

19

10

24

18

3

23

10

22

PIT DL

7

21

29

4

15

6

1

1

9

3

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

PIT OL

25

10

8

24

32

19

19

28

21

29

BAL DL

1

6

7

1

2

12

14

18

3

14

Which of these things is not like the other? That would be PIT's sorry OL. How Willie Parker and friends are going to find any running room, I have no idea. PIT needs to pass the ball, you say? Check out their stellar ASR. If Big Ben was statuesque in the pocket last week, then this week he's going to be the Venus de Milo. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the human pick-6, Ed Reed.

BOTTOM LINE: Here's an interesting stat I came across: A team that has beaten another twice in a season has succeeded in 11 of the 18 previous opportunities to beat them a third time. So when the talking heads (read buffoons) tell you that it's hard to accomplish this feat, remember that you basically could have predicted a similar result by flipping a coin 18 times. That stat doesn't mean PIT is going to win, it just means that you're better off relying on stats that are better able to predict wins...like the ones I've just presented to you. Both the stats - and the trends - seem to suggest...

PICK: RAVENS 20-17

For further stat-filled reading pleasure, here's FO's AFC preview and NFC preview.

**DVOA, ALY, and ASR statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

 

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join Niners Nation

You must be a member of Niners Nation to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Niners Nation. You should read them.

Join Niners Nation

You must be a member of Niners Nation to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Niners Nation. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_9341_tracker