NFL Playoffs Statistical Preview: Divisional Round

Last week, I went 3-1 straight up, 3-1 against the spread, and 3-1 against the total. I'll try to keep it up this week. Before I begin, though, here are a couple of overall observations:

  • Only 1 of the 8 teams left in the playoffs (ARI) was not ranked in the top 8 in total DVOA. I'd say that's pretty good evidence for the validity of DVOA-based rankings. The only top-8 team not in it anymore is IND (7th), but they had the unfortunate luck of having to play a top-8 team last week (SD).
  • 5 of the 6 playoff teams with above average defenses are still alive (PIT, BAL, PHI, TEN, NYG). Only MIN has been eliminated.
  • 3 of the 5 playoff teams with below average special teams lost last week (MIN, MIA, IND). Only the Cardinals (-3.1%) and Steelers (-1.1%) are still alive.
  • 3 of the 4 playoff teams playing below 10.0% total DVOA going into the playoffs lost last week (ATL, MIA, MIN). Only the Cardinals (-7.9%) are still alive.
  • All 4 of my DVOA-based Super Bowl contenders are still alive (PHI, NYG, TEN, CAR).

Here are a few divisional round observations:

  • DVOA underdogs are 23-29 in the divisional round since 1995, which is the same as their record in the wild card round. Unlike the wild card round, however, game location has not been a factor in the upsets (11 home upsets, 12 road upsets). The DVOA underdogs this week are TEN, ARI, NYG, and SD.
  • Only 7 of the 23 DVOA upsets in the divisional round have been greater than 10.0%. The largest 3 upsets came in 1995 and 1996: IND over KC in '95 (38.1% upset), GB over SF in '95 (30.5%), and JAC over DEN in '96 (28.0%). There were no >10.0% upsets between 1997 and 2005, and then 4 have occurred in the past 2 seasons: NYG over DAL in '07 (24.3%), SD over IND in '07 (14.0%), NO over PHI in '06 (13.3%), and IND over BAL in '06 (12.3%). This week, ARI over CAR would be a 20.3% upset, and SD over PIT would be a 14.7% upset.
  • Only 3 teams with a negative DVOA have won a divisional round game, and none have won in the past 7 seasons ('95 Colts: -10.9%; '96 Jaguars: -0.9%; '00 Vikings: -2.5%). None of the 3 won their conference championship. ARI is the only team with a negative DVOA that's playing this week.

BALTIMORE RAVENS @ TENNESSEE TITANS (TEN -3, 34.5)

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

Team

Total DVOA

Rank

Offense

Rank

Defense

Rank

Special Teams

Rank

BAL

30.3%

2

5.6%

18

-24.5%

2

0.2%

17

BAL - ROAD

18.7%

3

2.3%

15

-16.2%

2

TEN

27.0%

5

8.8%

14

-16.9%

5

1.3%

15

TEN - HOME

31.3%

6

10.5%

16

-19.5%

6

 

 

These numbers tell us a couple of things. First, this game is going to be a blood bath. Both teams are highly efficient, primarily on the strengths of their defenses. Second, a 3.3% DVOA advantage for BAL turns into a 12.6% advantage for TEN when you take game location into account. That's almost a 16% impact. However, as I mentioned above, DVOA upsets in the divisional round haven't been dependent on which team is at home.

Here is the one SVW for this matchup, although it probably won't be a deciding factor (going out on a limb there):

Situation

BAL Rank

TEN Rank

TEN DEFENSE VS. BAL OFFENSE ON 2ND AND LONG

25

8

This is further proof that these are two very good teams. Of the 50 DVOA categories I look at, BAL and TEN were 25th or worse in a combined 3 of them. In other words, they were bottom-8 in 3 out of a possible 100 rankings. Compare this with the 56 out of 100 times they ranked in the top 8, and you realize how much of a war of attrition this game might turn out to be.

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

TEN DL

5

2

2

1

7

4

13

12

2

10

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

TEN OL

17

23

11

17

22

16

26

6

22

3

BAL DL

1

6

7

1

2

12

14

18

3

14

Both of these teams' offenses rely heavily on the run, although the skill of TEN's RB tandem (6th in 10+) is more of a reason for TEN's running success than is their offensive line (17th in ALY). BAL likes to run up the middle (4% more RB carries than NFL avg) and behind LT (6% > avg), but TEN's DL is stout in both of those directions. Because Albert Haynesworth is healthy and BAL doesn't have a good matchup if they decide to run against tendency, it's likely BAL will have a serious problem running the ball this week. TEN's running tendencies are almost a mirror image of BAL's: they like to run outside right (2% > avg) and behind RT (3% > avg). There's a potential for success here because BAL's DL is at its worst on runs to the offense's outside right. Finally, Kerry Collins appears to have a better shot than Joe Flacco at having ample time to throw. This is important because both teams like to throw the ball deep off of play action.

BOTTOM LINE: Overall, this is easily the most evenly matched game of the divisional round. It really seems destined to be one of those "irresistible force vs. immovable object" type of games that is decided at the end. There are a couple of things working in TEN's favor though. First, they have a better matchup when it comes to "imposing their will" in the running game ala Mike Singletary. Second, Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch are healthy, and have the potential to overwhelm BAL's OL vs. both the run (Haynesworth) and the pass (Vanden Bosch). Finally, I'll take a veteran, Super-Bowl-tested QB at home over a rookie QB on the road any day. Playing mistake-free QB last week against the 5th-worst home defense is a lot easier than doing so against the 6th-best this week. First team to score 20 points wins...

PICK: TITANS 20-16

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

ARIZONA CARDINALS @ CAROLINA PANTHERS (CAR -10, 49)

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

Team

Total DVOA

Rank

Offense

Rank

Defense

Rank

Special Teams

Rank

ARI

-0.5%

20

11.9%

10

9.3%

21

-3.1%

28

ARI - ROAD

-19.5%

24

0.0%

17

16.4%

24

 

 

CAR

19.8%

6

18.6%

6

1.3%

10

2.5%

10

CAR - HOME

39.6%

4

25.7%

7

-11.4%

8

 

 

If BAL-TEN is the closest matchup of the weekend, CAR-ARI is easily the most lopsided. Although game location doesn't seem to matter in the divisional round, the disparity here is hard to ignore: a 20.3% all-venue CAR advantage nearly triples to a 59.1% advantage because this game is in Charlotte. That 59.1% game disadvantage puts ARI neck deep into Nolan Era 49er territory.

Here is the one SVW for this matchup, although it probably won't be a deciding factor (going out on another limb):

Situation

ARI Rank

CAR Rank

CAR OFFENSE VS. ARI DEFENSE ON 3RD AND LONG

28

7

I'm surprised by the fact that CAR has only one SVW advantage against such an inferior team. Nevertheless, I suppose that if CAR is going to have one SVW advantage, they wouldn't mind it being this one. If ARI's defense can't get off the field on 3rd and long, the Cardinals are going to end up at the taxidermist's office.

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

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

ARI OL

30

18

25

31

11

10

29

25

3

7

CAR DL

24

24

20

31

3

16

20

19

20

5

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

CAR OL

7

20

16

13

6

11

1

1

8

9

ARI DL

16

27

13

29

1

19

23

7

15

23

Luckily for ARI, they're facing a DL this week that is just about as mediocre as the one they faced last week. There are a couple of differences though. First, ARI's favorite directional run (behind LT) is going to be more difficult against CAR's 20th-ranked DL than it was against ATL's 31st-ranked DL. Second, ARI's 2nd-favorite directional run (behind RT) is going to be nearly impossible against CAR's 3rd-ranked DL when compared to ATL's 18th-ranked DL. Finally, CAR is in the top 5 when it comes to sacking the QB, which doesn't bode well for Kurt Warner's "I'm as pure as my unsullied uniform" motto.

ARI played really well against ATL's running offense last week. I'm attributing that to two things. First, ARI's defense is actually descent at home. Second, ATL's two most likely directional runs (LT and RE) were places where ARI's DL isn't all that horrible. The exact opposite trends are in play this week. Obviously, ARI isn't at home anymore. Less obvious, though, is that CAR likes to run the ball to the outside left (1% > avg) and straight up the gut (4% > avg), which just happen to be the two directions where the ARI DL can't stop anyone. And just to throw salt on the wound, ARI's 23rd-ranked DL in ASR is not at home facing a rookie QB whom they can sack and pressure with reckless abandon.

BOTTOM LINE: Not much to see here. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will run wild. ARI won't be able to run the ball, and they'll be down early, which will force them to pass even more than they already do, playing right into CAR's DL strength. At crunch time, the game won't be close, which will nullify ARI's acumen in late and close games. Basically, it's pretty simple: A CAR blowout is nigh...

PICK: PANTHERS 37-14

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES @ NEW YORK GIANTS (NYG - 4, 40)

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

NYG

29.4%

3

23.4%

2

-4.0%

8

2.0%

11

NYG - HOME

42.9%

2

27.6%

5

-13.3%

7

This game is a lot like the IND-SD game last week. Both teams are top-8 in DVOA, with the road team having a slight advantage overall. Yet, when you take game location into account, that slight advantage turns into a major disadvantage. As it relates to this game, PHI's 2.3% advantage becomes a 29.1% disadvantage because of home/road splits. Similar to the IND-SD game, game location appears to have an impact of over 30% on this game. Unfortunately, I do remember saying that game location has no effect on divisional round DVOA upsets. Well, nevertheless, I mentioned last week how PHI's below-average road offense is what kept them from winning more games during the regular season despite their #1 total DVOA. They overcame a poor offensive performance last week @ MIN, but this is the defending Super Bowl champion they're facing, not a Brad-Childress-coached team missing one of their all-world DTs.

Here is the one SVW for this matchup, although it probably won't be a deciding factor (running out of limbs here):

Situation

PHI Rank

NYG Rank

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

7

26

In keeping with this week's theme, there's not much to go on here. I guess if Andy Reid's crew is actually going to try to run the ball, they should think about limiting that break from tendency to 2nd down.

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

NYG DL

3

4

5

2

14

9

6

25

8

6

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

NYG OL

3

5

2

1

20

24

23

2

11

10

PHI DL

6

5

3

17

23

7

9

11

5

4

The Giants are the prototype NFL team when it comes to playoff football: they're great at both running the ball and stopping the run. Interestingly enough, though, their worst OL matchup this week comes in the direction they like to run most (RT: 4% > avg), and their best matchup comes in the direction they like to run least (C/G: 9% < avg). At least the favorable C/G matchup will probably nullify their unfavorable power running matchup. In the passing game, everyone knows that the Mannings don't do well when teams are getting pressure on them. PHI is one of the highest blitzing defenses in the league, and one of the best at sacking the QB. Of course, again, they're not playing Tarvaris Jackson and the 5th-worst ASR OL in the league.

As I said last week, PHI likes to run to the outside. This week, they face another DL that is stout on outside runs. Perhaps this is why opponents like to run up the middle against the Giants (4% > avg). Oops, not much luck there either. The one place where PHI might find some success running the ball is if Brian Westbrook is able to get past the LBs, and break into the second level. That's because 22% of the rushing yards NYG allowed this season came after the first 10 yards of the run, a value that was 3% more than the league average. For the PHI passing game, we've got the ultimate staring contest. Whichever juggernaut blinks first loses.

BOTTOM LINE: If you're one of those the-NFL-is-rigged-to-follow-storylines types, then the Super Bowl should be PHI vs. SD, with the ensuing NFL films documentary entitled, "Redemption." Unfortunately, that means a Giants win this week would be something of an ad lib. This is the 3rd meeting between these two teams this season, and the previous two games could not have been more closely contested. Each team won on the other's home field by less than a touchdown. Again, the script says PHI should win. Well, I'm not much of a fan of formulaic plots, and I have two big problems with a couple of the plot twists. First, when PHI won in NY, PHI was a desperate team and NYG was a distracted team. That's not the case anymore. Second, I think PHI's subpar road offense is going to come back to bite them at some point in the playoffs, just like it has all season. Aside from one spectacular play, it almost happened last week; I think it happens this week...

PICK: GIANTS 27-17

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS @ PITTSBURGH STEELERS (PIT -6, 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

SD

12.3%

8

21.3%

3

10.7%

22

1.7%

12

SD - ROAD

-13.2%

21

9.8%

7

24.7%

28

 

 

PIT

27.0%

4

1.7%

20

-26.4%

1

-1.1%

23

PIT - HOME

29.0%

9

-0.1%

22

-30.2%

2

Like ARI, SD is poised for its "Come to Jesus" game this week. Basking in the sun-drenched climes of home, life was as good as it gets in the wild card round. Now, they travel across-country for an intemperate-weather game. For SD, a surmountable 14.7% overall DVOA disadvantage becomes an insurmountable 42.2% DVOA disadvantage when game location is taken into account. I know, I know...I said game location doesn't matter in the divisional round. Well, if SD (or ARI for that matter) were any good on the road, perhaps they'd be able to overcome the change in scenery, and conform to the upset history. They're not, and so I'm pretty sure they won't.

Again, in line with the trend this week, the well of SVW matchups is shallow. In fact, for this game, the well's run dry. Instead, there's a panoply of strength vs. strength matchups, all involving the 3rd-ranked SD offense vs. the top-ranked PIT defense.  Here are the 5 most intriguing:

Situation

SD Rank

PIT Rank

SD PASS OFFENSE VS. PIT PASS DEFENSE

1

1

SD RED ZONE DEFENSE VS. PIT RED ZONE OFFENSE

4

3

SD OFFENSE VS. PIT DEFENSE IN THE 2ND HALF

3

1

SD OFFENSE VS. PIT DEFENSE ON 2ND DOWN

4

4

SD OFFENSE VS. PIT DEFENSE ON 3RD DOWN

3

2

I know I said BAL-TEN was an "irresistible force vs. immovable object" matchup, but SD offense vs. PIT defense puts that matchup to shame. I mean, it's not just that these units are top-4 in every game situation I've listed here. It's that 3 of these situations are ones in which success is crucial for playoff victory (red zone, 2nd half, 3rd down). Again, first juggernaut...well, more like last juggernaut to blink loses.

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

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

SD OL

22

26

24

11

17

15

2

18

2

17

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

SD DL

27

26

28

13

7

32

8

3

27

20

Things aren't as rosy (or sun-drenched) this week for SD as they were last week. Against IND, they had 3 great matchups when it came to where they like to run the ball most (C/G: 2% > avg), converting on short-yardage runs, and avoiding negative run plays. Against PIT's DL, however, all 3 of those great matchups are nullified: PIT's DL is ranked 23 spots higher than IND's in C/G ALY, 29 spots higher in power running, and 16 spots higher in stuffs. The only hope for SD's running game is actually helped by LaDainian Tomlinson's absence. Specifically, SD also likes to run outside left (2% > avg) and behind left tackle (1% > avg), which are directions where PIT's DL has had problems, and where "Mighty Mendit"® Darren Sproles is more comfortable. Oh, one last thing. Attention: Philip Rivers...duck!

PIT's OL is actually not anywhere near as good as their smashmouth reputation suggests. They like to run up the middle (6% > avg) and behind RT (2% > avg), yet they pretty much suck at it. Not to mention that SD's DL performance is actually better in those two directions than anywhere else. Another problem for PIT's running game is that their best ALY matchup is in the direction they run least (LT: 4% < avg). Luckily for PIT, the passing lanes look to be open because the SD's Merriman-less DL isn't that good at sacking the QB this season. Looks like Ben Roethlisberger's brain is safe this week.

BOTTOM LINE: Generally, when a great defense plays a great offense, the great defense wins. When that great defense already has one-game's worth of tape with which to prepare their gameplan, the great defense is even more likely to win. When the great offense is not-so-great on the road, while the great defense is even greater at home, the great defense is even likelier to win. Because the great defense has a mediocre-at-best offense to complement it, this has all the makings of a signature low-scoring playoff game. Hell, the regular season contest ended 11-10! I'm thinking something very similar, but with a greater margin of victory...

PICK: STEELERS 19-10

FYI...Football Outsiders does their own statistical game previews, except with a lot more depth given the fact that they have their complete stat database and game charts at their disposal. Here's the AFC preview, and here's the NFC preview. I don't read them until after I've written my own. It makes for a good "great minds think alike" moment. Enjoy.

 

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

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