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NFL Playoffs Statistical Preview: Super Bowl XLIII

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Needless to say, the fact that the Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl comes as an utter shock to even the most causal NFL fan. Regardless of their stats, the Cardinals were the long shot of all long shots. First, they somnambulated into the playoffs with a 9-7 record after clinching the weakest division in football (maybe even all of professional sports in 2008). Second, they had absolutely no running game whatsoever all season, which is a pretty big weakness come playoff time. Third, their defense was atrocious all season; again, not an ideal characteristic for playoff success. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they're the Arizona (site decorum) Cardinals!!! Based on these things, it's no wonder that no one (stat geeks or otherwise) picked the Cardinals to make the Super Bowl, and that many considered Arizona to be the worst team ever to make the playoffs.

Now, here are the stat-based reasons why Arizona is an unlikely case when it comes to teams that have made the Super Bowl:

  • Their -0.5% total DVOA makes them the first team with a negative DVOA ever to make it to the Super Bowl, and therefore qualifies them as the worst Super Bowl team in the DVOA era, just edging out the 2007 Giants (0.0%).
  • Their -7.9% weighted DVOA destroys the previous "worst ever," -1.1% by - wait for it - the 2007 Giants.
  • Their 11.7% rushing offense DVOA is the 2nd-worst of the DVOA era, surpassed only by the 2002 Buccaneers (-13.6%). This year's Cardinals actually rank worse though (28th vs. 27th).
  • Their 9.3% defense DVOA is the 2nd-worst of the DVOA era. Only the 2006 Colts were worse (11.3%).
  • Their 16.4% road defense DVOA is the 2nd-worst of the DVOA era, behind only - wait for it - the 2006 Colts (24.5%), who actually had the worst road defense DVOA in the league that year.
  • Their 19.7% pass defense DVOA is easily the worst of the DVOA era. Only the 1998 Broncos were even double-digitally bad (10.2%).

Let's see, Arizona was either the worst or 2nd-worst Super Bowl team in 6 major DVOA categories, including the most important, overall efficiency. Case closed, right? Well, an astute reader (which means all of you) must have noticed that every other Super Bowl team I mentioned above actually won the Super Bowl! Furthermore, 2 of the 4 teams just happen to be the last two Super Bowl champions.

So what does this all mean? It seems we can draw two conclusions about hell freezing over (aka "the 2008 NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals"). One, they are the worst team since 1995 to make the Super Bowl, hands down. Two, that really doesn't mean much when it comes to predicting whether or not they're going to beat the Steelers on Sunday, especially given the most recent Super Bowl results.

To be honest, I, along with the guys at Football Outsiders, am kind of befuddled at the rampant mediocrity that has infiltrated the Super Bowl the past 3 seasons. Here's another great stat for you that illustrates my point. In the first 11 years of DVOA (1995-2005), no team outside the top 3 in total DVOA won the Super Bowl. In 2006 and 2007, both NFL champs were ranked outside the top 3, and 2008 is guaranteed to produce the 3rd straight (PIT is ranked 4th, ARI is ranked 20th). There are really only 4 possible explanations for this turn of events: (a) it's a totally random occurrence disguised as a trend, (b) DVOA has become an obsolete statistic in today's NFL, (c) the NFL regular season is becoming as irrelevant for postseason success as those of other sports, and (d) 3rd is just an arbitrary ranking cutoff that actually means nothing. I honestly have no clue, but I'd guess it's more (c) and (d) than (a) and (b). The answer to that question can wait for another time. What can't wait is my preview of the game...

PITTSBURGH STEELERS VS. ARIZONA CARDINALS (PIT -7, 47)

Here's how PIT and ARI stack up in terms of total DVOA:

Team

Total

Rk

Offense

Rk

Defense

Rk

Special Teams

Rk

PIT

27.0%

4

1.7%

20

-26.4%

1

-1.1%

23

ARI

-0.5%

20

11.9%

10

9.3%

21

-3.1%

28

Adv

PIT +27.5%

PIT OFF +11.0%

PIT DEF +14.5%

PIT +2.0%

Aside from their collective ineptitude on special teams, there's not much the same between PIT and ARI. PIT was great overall during the regular season, ARI was below average. ARI has a good offense, PIT has a bad offense. PIT has a great defense, ARI has a bad defense. It turns out though that, when you match up PIT offense vs. ARI defense and ARI offense vs. PIT defense, PIT has the advantage on both sides of the ball.

Here's how PIT and ARI stack up when you break down their offense and defense DVOAs:

Team

Run

Rk

Pass

Rk

PIT OFF

0.7%

15

2.6%

20

ARI DEF

-1.7%

15

19.7%

23

Adv

PIT + 2.4%

PIT +22.3%

Team

Run

Rk

Pass

Rk

ARI OFF

-11.7%

28

24.8%

7

PIT DEF

-22.4%

2

-29.7%

1

Adv

PIT + 34.1%

PIT +4.9%

These stats seem to reinforce the overall offense and defense DVOAs in the previous table: PIT has the advantage across the board. However, what's interesting is that, whereas ARI's best offensive matchup comes in an area of strength (i.e., the passing game), PIT's best offensive matchup comes in an area of weakness (i.e., the passing game). So, although PIT has favorable matchups across the board, it appears that ARI is going to have a slightly easier time executing their offense of choice. But let's break down these matchups a little bit further...

After the jump, I go a little bit further...

Here's how PIT's offense and ARI's defense stack up when you break down their run and pass DVOAs:

Team

1st Down

Run

Rk

2nd Down

Run

Rk

3rd Down

Run

Rk

PIT OFF

-0.6%

12

4.7%

15

-4.6%

29

ARI DEF

-16.2%

7

1.3%

15

24.3%

24

Adv

ARI +16.8%

PIT +6.0%

PIT +19.7%

Team

1st Down

Pass

Rk

2nd Down

Pass

Rk

3rd Down

Pass

Rk

PIT OFF

8.4%

16

31.4%

6

-32.5%

28

ARI DEF

5.4%

12

23.5%

22

37.7%

31

Adv

PIT +13.8%

PIT +54.9%

PIT +5.2%

Overall, it looks like PIT's offense has an advantage on 2nd and 3rd downs, whereas it's kind of a wash on 1st down. Clearly, though, these numbers suggest an obvious offensive path to success for PIT: pass on 1st down, pass on 2nd down, run on 3rd down. The problem for PIT's offense is that such a game plan goes against their tendencies. I suppose that's not always a bad thing (See ARI going against their passing tendencies during the playoffs). Nevertheless, I think PIT's preference in this game, as it has been all season, would be to fight a ground war rather than an aerial war. At the very least, they have a clear advantage on 3rd-down running plays, which bodes well if they do end up in a ground war.

Here's how ARI's offense and PIT's defense stack up when you break down their run and pass DVOAs:

Team

1st Down

Run

Rk

2nd Down

Run

Rk

3rd Down

Run

Rk

ARI OFF

-5.0%

16

-25.1%

32

-5.3%

31

PIT DEF

-27.7%

3

-17.5%

5

-19.5%

3

Adv

PIT +32.7%

PIT +42.6%

PIT +24.8%

Team

1st Down

Pass

Rk

2nd Down

Pass

Rk

3rd Down

Pass

Rk

ARI OFF

29.0%

5

27.9%

8

13.4%

12

PIT DEF

-28.4%

2

-21.8%

4

-39.3%

2

Adv

ARI +0.6%

ARI +6.1%

PIT +25.9%

One thing is very clear from these two tables: ARI needs to let it fly. If I'm ARI's OC (which, of course, I'm not), I'm passing on 1st down, passing on 2nd down, and praying on 3rd down. In other words, abandon the run. This might actually work out for ARI given that PIT is sure to have noticed their increased run/pass balance in the playoffs. In this sense, ARI's play-calling is like playing poker. They established a "loose table image" during the regular season through passing, then played contrary to their image during the playoffs. Now, they've established a "tight table image" during the playoffs through running, and so they have to play contrary to that image during the Super Bowl. These little things are what make football a great game, and they're what ARI is going to need to excel at to win this game.

Obviously, executing an offense, either in accord with or against tendency, depends on whether a team's offensive line can open holes in the running game and/or protect its quarterback in the passing game. So here's how the two teams rank in the trenches:

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

10+

Stuffed

ASR

PIT OL

25

10

8

24

32

19

19

28

21

29

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

PIT DL

7

21

29

4

15

6

1

1

9

3

As I've said previously, PIT's OL is not nearly as good as a smashmouth team would like it to be. In light of the game plan that I've proposed above, there's a decent chance that their ineptitude might be exposed in this game. Specifically, I suggest passing the ball on 1st and 2nd down. Well, their ASR this season was 9.2%, meaning that Big Ben might not get the time to exploit their DVOA advantages. In turn, failure on 1st and 2nd down passes will prevent PIT's offense from exploiting their aforementioned advantage on 3rd down runs. Of course, even if they're able to get into manageable 3rd down situations, it's not like their 25th-ranked overall ALY offers much promise; neither does their worst vs. best matchup in runs behind RT, a direction PIT actually likes to run at (2% above NFL avg). However, for PIT's OL, there is one silver lining to this black and gold cloud: Their favorite directional run, behind C/G (6% above avg), will likely encounter little resistance from ARI's DL.

The DVOA stats cited earlier suggest that ARI is going to have to pass the ball to win this game. The stats above seem to reinforce that idea: the run matchups for ARI's OL are not good. Don't let those less-than-stellar LE and LT ALY's for PIT's DL fool you. Teams have only run 17% of the time in those two directions against PIT, a frequency that's dwarfed by the 65% up-the-middle-run frequency (where they're stout). So it all comes down to ASR for ARI. If that's the case, their matchup isn't as bad as you think, considering that ARI's OL acquitted themselves well against PHI's 4th-ranked DL in the NFC championship game.

So far I've focused on how PIT and ARI will be best able to move the ball efficiently on Sunday. Well, moving the ball is one thing. Scoring is another. In fact, scoring is the name of the game. Here's how PIT and ARI stack up in the red zone:

Team

Red Zone

Total

Rk

Red Zone

Run

Rk

Red Zone

Pass

Rk

PIT OFF

5.4%

15

14.4%

12

-6.8%

17

ARI DEF

9.8%

21

2.5%

17

16.8%

22

Adv

PIT +15.2%

PIT +16.9%

PIT +10.0%

Team

Red Zone

Total

Rk

Red Zone

Run

Rk

Red Zone

Pass

Rk

ARI OFF

14.1%

12

-11.7%

27

34.8%

6

PIT DEF

-47.1%

3

-30.6%

3

-63.3%

3

Adv

PIT +33.0%

PIT +18.9%

PIT +28.5%

When either team has the opportunity to score, it looks like PIT has the advantage. Unlike the overall team stats I presented earlier, these red zone stats seem to favor PIT's offensive philosophy rather than ARI's. Specifically, PIT's best matchup plays to their strength (i.e., running), whereas ARI's best matchup plays to their weakness (i.e., running). To extend my offensive game plans for the two teams, PIT needs to go against tendency to get to the red zone, and then go with tendency once they're inside the red zone. In contrast, ARI needs to go with tendency to get to the red zone, but then go against tendency once they're inside the red zone. Of course, ARI could also just throw deep to avoid the red zone altogether. Given Larry Fitzgerald's prowess in that regard, it's actually not such a bad idea.

Now, I've pretty much established what each team needs to do on offense to win the game. One thing I haven't considered yet, though, is the flow of the game. This is especially important because ARI has flipped a switch in the playoffs, going from a slow-starting team to a team that blows opponents out before they've even shaken the pregame butterflies. It's a quality that's quite Singletary-led 49er-esque. So to get a gauge on the flow of the game, here's how PIT and ARI stack up in terms of score gap and time left in the game:

Team

Losing Big

Rk

Tie/

Losing Small

Rk

Winning Small

Rk

Winning Big

Rk

Late & Close

Rk

PIT OFF

-0.3%

17

2.1%

19

-8.8%

28

14.2%

11

10.3%

16

ARI DEF

41.5%

32

22.9%

24

-6.3%

7

-6.3%

11

3.4%

14

Adv

PIT +41.8%

PIT +25.0%

ARI +15.1%

PIT +7.9%

PIT +6.9%

Team

Losing Big

Rk

Tie/

Losing Small

Rk

Winning Small

Rk

Winning Big

Rk

Late & Close

Rk

ARI OFF

11.0%

11

7.7%

13

21.8%

6

9.1%

15

23.9%

2

PIT DEF

-30.4%

3

-45.1%

1

-15.6%

5

-37.1%

1

-20.4%

3

Adv

PIT +19.4%

PIT +37.4%

ARI +6.2%

PIT +28.0%

ARI +3.5%

Before I talk about these tables, I need to let you know how to read them. Each column is interpreted from the perspective of the offense, such that the DVOA for the offense in one situation is matched up with the DVOA for the defense in the exact opposite situation. For instance, the first column of the first table matches up PIT's offense when PIT is losing big (-0.3%) against ARI's defense when ARI is winning big (41.5%). So basically, that first column tells you that, if ARI is winning big during the game, PIT has a really good chance of closing the gap given their advantage in that situation (+41.8%). The only exception is the "late and close" column, which doesn't require any mental gymnastics to understand; both units are in the same situation.

OK, onto the interpretation. Essentially, all things point to the likelihood that an ARI win will be a close game, whereas a PIT win will be a blowout. Specifically, PIT's best offensive matchup and best defensive matchup are when ARI is winning big (i.e., by more than a TD), meaning that a big early ARI lead is likely to evaporate ala the PHI game. In contrast, when PIT is winning big, ARI remains at a clear disadvantage, especially when they're on offense. And what happens if the game goes down to the wire? I have no idea because both offenses have similar advantages at that point.

So to recap - and with all those numbers a recap is necessary - here is how PIT and ARI stack up in the major, game-deciding categories I've detailed in this preview:

Category

Advantage

OVERALL

PIT

WHEN PIT IS ON OFFENSE

PIT

WHEN ARI IS ON OFFENSE

PIT

WHEN PIT RUNS THE BALL

PIT

WHEN PIT PASSES THE BALL

PIT

WHEN ARI RUNS THE BALL

PIT

WHEN ARI PASSES THE BALL

ARI

WHEN PIT HAS 3RD DOWN

PIT

WHEN ARI HAS 3RD DOWN

PIT

WHEN PIT IS IN THE RED ZONE

PIT

WHEN ARI IS IN THE RED ZONE

PIT

WHEN THE GAME IS LATE & CLOSE

EVEN

BOTTOM LINE: This is a pretty clear-cut case, or so it seems. Based on the regular season stats, PIT should win their six pack rather easily. However, what this postseason has taught us is that this ARI team has played faaaaaaaaaaaaaar differently than it did during the regular season. 47-7 loss @ NE? 35-14 loss vs. MIN? 48-20 loss @ PHI? All seem unbelievably irrelevant at this point. Add in what I said at the top about the past 2 Super Bowl champions, and I can envision an ARI win. In fact, this game, from a total DVOA standpoint, is eerily similar to last year, when NYG pull off the then "upset to end all upsets."

In other words, I'm confident that I know how PIT is going to play, but I'm borderline clueless about which ARI team is going to show up. If the regular season ARI team plays this game, it's a PIT blowout. On the other hand, if the playoff ARI team plays this game, it's going to be a closely-contested affair that goes down to the wire, with some random event deciding the outcome (e.g., 4th-string WR makes a miraculous catch after his QB evades a sure sack). I'd even guess that the Super Bowl may resemble the NFC championship game in terms of a steadily evaporating ARI lead that turns a laugher into a nail-biter. With that said, I'm taking the guesswork (and culpability) out of my prediction. You see, one of my best friends (with whom I'll be watching the game) is a Steeler fan, so I have to go with...

PICK: STEELERS 30-17

If your brain hasn't exploded yet, here is FO's preview.

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