NFL Playoffs Statistical Preview: Wild Card Round

The 49ers' season might be over, but the same can't be said for mine. This week, and for the rest of the playoffs, I'll be previewing each playoff game just like I did for the past 10 Niner games, except I'm adding in offensive and defensive line rankings. Think of it as 4 for the price of 1, which I guess can be a good or bad thing depending on your level of statistics tolerance. I hope you enjoy these articles. At the very least, I hope they help you win some money over the next 5 weeks.

Before I begin, though, here are a couple of overall playoff observations:

  • Of the teams in the playoffs, Philadelphia has the best total DVOA, and Arizona has the worst.
  • The 4 teams with 1st-round byes were 3rd (NYG), 4th (PIT), 5th (TEN), and 6th (CAR) in total DVOA.
  • Only 3 of the 13 NFL champions during the DVOA era (1995-2007) were outside of the top 3 in total DVOA, but 2 of the 3 won in the last 2 seasons.
  • Only 3 NFL champions during the DVOA era have been below average on defense. This season, the Steelers (-26.4%), Ravens (-24.5%), Eagles (-20.7%), Vikings (-18.2%), Titans (-16.9%), and Giants (-4.0%) have above average defenses.
  • Only 2 NFL champions during the DVOA era have had below average special teams, but those two won in the last 2 seasons. This season, the Vikings (-6.5%), Dolphins (-4.9%), Cardinals (-3.1%), Colts (-2.2%), and Steelers (-1.1%) have below average special teams.
  • Only 1 NFL champion during the DVOA era was playing below average going into the playoffs, but that was last year's Giants. In fact, the other 12 champs have had weighted DVOAs above 10.0%. This season, the Falcons (9.8%), Dolphins (7.5%), Vikings (5.3%), and Cardinals (-7.9%) failed to cross that weighted DVOA threshold.
  • No rookie quarterback has won the Super Bowl during the DVOA era.

Based on the above, the Super Bowl XLIII champion will likely be one of the following teams: Eagles, Giants, Titans, or Panthers. I say the AFC championship game is Titans vs. Steelers, the NFC Championship game is Giants vs. Panthers, and the Giants beat the Steelers to repeat as NFL champs.

OK...onto the previews...

ATLANTA FALCONS @ ARIZONA CARDINALS (ATL -2.5, 51)

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

Team

Total DVOA

Rank

Offense

Rank

Defense

Rank

Special Teams

Rank

ATL

8.4%

12

16.5%

8

11.4%

23

3.3%

7

ATL - ROAD

2.1%

10

7.8%

10

9.0%

15

ARI

-0.5%

20

11.9%

10

9.3%

21

-3.1%

28

ARI - HOME

19.3%

13

24.7%

8

2.3%

17

 

 

This season, Arizona joined some exclusive playoff company. During the DVOA era, only 20 of the 156 playoff teams, and only 5 of the 98 division winners, have had a negative total DVOA. However, this isn't necessarily bad news for the Cardinals. Ten of the previous 20 negative-DVOA playoff teams won at least 1 playoff game, and 2 of the 20 won 2 games. The combined record for these teams is 13-20 (.394), which isn't as bad as you might think considering that the positive-DVOA teams have gone 130-123 (.514). So basically, having a negative DVOA makes a team only 12% less likely to win a playoff game. There's even less of a disparity when you just focus on the wild card round, where negative-DVOA teams have gone 9-9 since 1995. The picture's even less bleak when you take into account the fact that, the 5 negative-DVOA division winners have gone 2-1 in their home wild card round games (2 had byes). In fact, whether or not a negative-DVOA playoff team wins in the playoffs seems to depend on whether they're at home or on the road. Overall, they're 5-1 at home, but just 8-19 on the road. In the wild card round specifically, they're 3-1 at home, but just 6-8 on the road. These home/road splits are especially important given that Arizona is waaaaay better at home than they are on the road.

During the DVOA era, 23 of the 52 wild card round games have been DVOA upsets, i.e., won by the team with the worse DVOA. Were they to win, how would Arizona's 8.9% DVOA disadvantage stack up against the previous 23 upsets? Well, a Cardinals win would be the 9th biggest wild card round upset in DVOA history.

Finally, these two teams have been going in opposite directions of late. Atlanta's weighted total DVOA (9.8%), which puts more emphasis on recent games, is better than their unweighted DVOA, whereas Arizona's is worse (-7.9%).

Here are the 6 SVWs that could decide the outcome of this matchup:

Situation

ATL Rank

ARI Rank

ATL SPECIAL TEAMS VS. ARI SPECIAL TEAMS

7

28

ATL OFFENSE VS. ARI DEFENSE ON 3RD DOWN

8

30

ARI OFFENSE VS. ATL DEFENSE IN THE 2ND HALF

25

5

ARI OFFENSE VS. ATL DEFENSE LATE AND CLOSE

29

2

ARI PASS OFFENSE VS. ATL PASS DEFENSE ON 2ND DOWN

29

8

ARI OFFENSE VS. ATL DEFENSE ON 2ND AND LONG

31

8

In the playoffs, the little things go a long way. Third-down conversions become especially important. Furthermore, this game could easily come down to a special teams play and/or an Arizona drive at the end of the game.

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

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

ATL OL

10

21

6

20

16

12

12

7

20

5

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

ATL DL

20

23

31

8

18

17

5

24

11

11

To appreciate these tables, you have to understand what the two teams like to do on offense. Atlanta likes to run the ball behind left tackle and off the right end of the line, and that's what they're best at according to ALY. On the other hand, Arizona runs predominately behind their left tackle, yet they're in the bottom 8 of the league on such runs. In addition, the Cardinals' weakness in power football is going to be readily apparent against the 5th-ranked Falcon power defense.  In the passing game, Atlanta is actually better than the pass-happy Cardinals when it comes to protecting the quarterback.

OK, so taking all of the above into consideration, we have the following:

  • Atlanta has the better total DVOA, but Arizona has the better venue DVOA.
  • Arizona's negative DVOA doesn't prohibit playoff success, especially because they're at home.
  • An Arizona win would be the 9th biggest wild card round upset in DVOA history.
  • Atlanta has been playing better than usual recently, whereas Arizona has been playing worse than usual.
  • Atlanta has the better special teams.
  • Arizona is better in the 2nd half of close games.
  • Atlanta has the better offensive line, both in run blocking and in pass protection.

PICK: FALCONS 31-24

After the jump, I'll preview the other 3 games...

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS @ SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (IND -1.5, 51)

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

Team

Total DVOA

Rank

Offense

Rank

Defense

Rank

Special Teams

Rank

IND

15.4%

7

21.3%

4

3.7%

14

-2.2%

26

IND - ROAD

1.6%

11

10.9%

5

7.1%

13

SD

12.3%

8

21.3%

3

10.7%

22

1.7%

12

SD - HOME

37.2%

5

31.8%

2

-3.7%

12

 

 

This is the closest (and best) DVOA matchup of the weekend, by far. Both of these teams have high-powered offenses and middle-of-the-road defenses. Both have been playing better than usual recently (IND +22.6%, SD +14.7%). There's one massive elephant in the room though: San Diego's home performance vs. Indy's road performance. When you take game venue into account, a 3.1% DVOA disadvantage for the Chargers becomes a 35.6% advantage. So basically, game venue has an almost 40% impact on this matchup. That's pretty hard to ignore.

Here are the 3 SVWs that could decide the outcome of this matchup:

Situation

IND Rank

SD Rank

IND OFFENSE VS. SD DEFENSE IN THE 1ST HALF

1

27

IND OFFENSE VS. SD DEFENSE ON 2ND AND LONG

3

25

SD OFFENSE VS. IND DEFENSE ON 3RD AND SHORT

30

2

Not too much here except for the fact that the Colts might jump out to an early lead, but might also have a problem holding that lead if their defense can't get off the field on 3rd down.

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

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

IND OL

23

9

18

18

15

31

21

32

13

1

SD DL

27

26

28

13

7

32

8

3

27

20

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

SD OL

22

26

24

11

17

15

2

18

2

17

IND DL

21

10

14

27

22

13

30

15

25

22

There are a couple of interesting matchups here. Although the Colts like running off both the left and right ends, they're much better on stretch plays to the left. As the Chargers are 7th-worst in left end running plays, the Colts should focus on what they're best at, because it should pay off this week. The same can be said for the Chargers' preference for running up the middle. They do it a lot, they're good at it, and the Colts are bad at stopping it. Also, the Chargers have a great matchup when it comes to the power running game, as well as the ability to avoid negative yardage. Finally, it looks like Peyton Manning might be statuesque in the pocket this Saturday because the Colts are the best team in the league at pass protection, whereas the Chargers are in the bottom half in defensive ASR.

To me, it looks like this game boils down to one thing: the health of Ladainian Tomlinson. Darren Sproles is more of an outside runner, whereas LT is better inside. The Colts are better stopping outside running plays than they are stopping inside running plays. As they say, LT's running is the straw that stirs the Chargers' offensive drink. Sure, San Diego can win with Sproles running outside; they're just more likely to win with LT pounding it inside. I say LT plays.

PICK: CHARGERS 28-17

BALTIMORE RAVENS @ MIAMI DOLPHINS (BAL -3.5, 38)

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

Team

Total DVOA

Rank

Offense

Rank

Defense

Rank

Special Teams

Rank

BAL

30.3%

2

5.6%

18

-24.5%

2

0.2%

17

BAL - ROAD

18.7%

3

2.3%

15

-16.2%

2

MIA

9.2%

10

17.1%

7

3.0%

13

-4.9%

29

MIA - HOME

3.7%

21

23.9%

10

15.3%

28

 

 

This game looks to be a matchup of strength on strength. The Dolphins have one of the most efficient offenses in the league, whereas the Ravens have the 2nd-most efficient defense in the league. Nevertheless, this is yet another game in which its location is a factor, except that it's a factor that favors the road team. The Dolphins are much better offensively at home, but much worse defensively. The Ravens are worse offensively and defensively, but the differences are negligible. Indeed, the Ravens' DVOA advantage only drops from 21.1% to 15.0% when you take game venue into account. Going back to my discussion of the Atlanta-Arizona game, a Dolphin win would be the 4th-biggest wild card round upset in DVOA history.

Here are the 2 SVWs that could decide the outcome of this matchup:

Situation

BAL Rank

MIA Rank

BAL RUN DEFENSE VS. MIA RUN OFFENSE ON 3RD DOWN

5

25

MIA DEFENSE VS. BAL OFFENSE ON 1ST DOWN

25

8

All I have to say is that the Dolphins better not try to run the ball on 3rd down.

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

MIA DL

14

9

8

19

24

10

24

4

17

13

 

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

MIA OL

12

19

20

23

9

3

5

15

6

12

BAL DL

1

6

7

1

2

12

14

18

3

14

Here's the problem for the Dolphins. They like to run to set up the pass, yet they're going against the best defensive line in the league against the run. Luckily for them, though, the place where they like to run the most, right end, is also the place where they're best at and have the most favorable ALY matchup. Baltimore, on the other hand, would do best to run up the middle because, although they like to also run behind left tackle, their ALY matchup is far more favorable behind the center and guards.

I don't really see how Miami is going to score many points in this game. Baltimore has a great defense that travels well. On the flip side, the Dolphins' home defense is just porous enough to allow Baltimore some success on offense. Seeing as how this game was already played once, I figure there will be a similar outcome.

PICK: RAVENS 24-13

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES @ MINNESOTA VIKINGS (PHI -3, 41.5)

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

Team

Total DVOA

Rank

Offense

Rank

Defense

Rank

Special Teams

Rank

PHI

31.7%

1

9.3%

12

-20.7%

3

1.6%

13

PHI - ROAD

13.8%

6

-3.9%%

21

-16.1%

3

MIN

6.8%

14

-4.9%

23

-18.2%

4

-6.5%

32

MIN - HOME

10.1%

17

-10.7%

27

-27.3%

3

 

 

The Eagles are the 5th seed in the NFC despite being the most efficient team in the league over the course of the regular season. In fact, in the history of DVOA, Philadelphia is the first #1 DVOA team that has to play a wild card game, not to mention one on the road. So what happened? Well, two things. First, they're what we would call a statistical anomaly. The 31.7% total DVOA works out to an expected record of at least 11-5. Second, they suck on the road, where their offense has a propensity to sabotage victories: In games @ CHI, @ CIN, @ BAL, and @ WAS they were 0-3-1 with an average offensive DVOA of -20.4%. I guess it doesn't help this week that the Vikings' home defense is 3rd-best in the league. On the bright side, however, the Eagles' 3rd-ranked road defense matches up quite favorably against the Vikings' 27th-ranked home offense. Oh, and did I mention that Minnesota has the worst special teams in the league? Good field position has a funny way of masking horrible road offense.

Here are the 7 SVWs that could decide the outcome of this matchup:

Situation

PHI Rank

MIN Rank

PHI RED ZONE DEFENSE VS. MIN RED ZONE OFFENSE

6

28

PHI RED ZONE PASS DEFENSE VS. MIN RED ZONE PASS OFFENSE

8

28

PHI DEFENSE VS. MIN OFFENSE LATE AND CLOSE

4

26

PHI DEFENSE VS. MIN OFFENSE ON 2ND DOWN

6

28

PHI RUSH DEFENSE VS. MIN RUSH OFFENSE ON 2ND DOWN

6

26

MIN RUSH DEFENSE VS. PHI RUSH OFFENSE ON 3RD DOWN

32

2

MIN DEFENSE VS. PHI OFFENSE ON 2ND AND SHORT

31

7

These matchups don't look very good for Minnesota. Their offense is horrible in the red zone and in games that are close in the 2nd half. Also, their advantage in 3rd-down run defense is kind of nullified when you consider how pass-happy Andy Reid is as a head coach.

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

MIN DL

4

8

10

5

5

4

2

12

6

2

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

MIN OL

15

16

7

19

28

8

8

4

16

28

PHI DL

6

5

3

17

23

7

9

11

5

4

There doesn't look to be much running room in this game. Philadelphia likes to run to the outside, yet their two worst ALY matchups are running to the edges of the Minnesota defense. Similarly, the Vikings like to run outside left end, yet that's their worst matchup as well. In terms of pass protection, Tarvaris Jackson better have a Fort Knox of Advil® stored away because, in the words of Clubber Lang, "Prediction?...Pain."

I believe this game is going to be closely contested. However, several things are working against the Vikings though. First, their #3 home defense will likely be missing DT Pat Williams. Second, you can't deny Philadelphia's #1 DVOA ranking. Third, red zone and late/close inefficiency is not exactly the best recipe for a playoff victory.

PICK: EAGLES 21-16

 

 

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

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