Week 16 NFL preview
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Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
How much has Arizona's weird quarterback situation affected receiver Larry Fitzgerald's 2010 performance? Consider that in 2009, 53 of the balls thrown to him for whatever reason - drops, misfires, etc. - were not caught. With two games left in the 2010 season, Fitzgerald has seen a league-leading 75 passes go awry for whatever reason. Now, here's a receiver with a legitimate complaint about his offense (though he does not voice it). Still, even Fitzgerald should be able to make tracks against a Cowboys pass defense that's allowing 256.6 passing yards per game and ranks dead last in DVOA against No. 1 receivers.
Washington Redskins at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars like to lead with the "ground-and-pound" style of running back Maurice Jones-Drew, but when quarterback David Garrard is allowed to open things up, Jacksonville's offense may be even more dangerous. Among qualifying quarterbacks, Garrard leads the NFL in quarterback rating (109.6) in formations with four wide receivers. But on the Jacksonville defensive side, the Redskins have set Rex Grossman up to face a weak pass defense for the second straight game. The Jags rank 30th in Pass Defense DVOA and are especially vulnerable to No. 1 and slot receivers.
Detroit Lions at Miami Dolphins
Through Week 14, the Lions lead the NFL with 122 penalties, which is one of several reasons their overall offensive and defensive performances do not show up in their won-loss record. Detroit goes into this game with a 4-10 record, but an Estimated Wins total (based on overall efficiency) of 6.3. The 8-4 Jacksonville Jaguars have the same Estimated Wins total, proving that luck visits some teams more than others. The Lions are still on pace to smash the record for shotgun sets per play with a Week 15 total of 65.4 percent. They're league average out of shotgun, and the worst offense in the NFL under center. However, Miami ranks fifth in Defenisve DVOA against the shotgun, and only two defenses allow fewer yards per play out of that formation.
San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams
As the Rams try to find playoff relevance for the first time in years, quarterback Sam Bradford may have finally hit the rookie wall. The talented passer hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in his last three games, but he has thrown five interceptions - his nine fourth-quarter interceptions leads the NFL this season - and only New Orleans' Drew Brees has as many red zone picks (four). Meanwhile, the 49ers are just marking time with the switches between Alex Smith and Troy Smith at quarterback; they ranked 25th in Passing DVOA in the first half of the season, and 24th since.
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
Have the Chiefs been smart in limiting carries for speedster running back Jamaal Charles, and putting him in a tandem with Thomas Jones? Many smaller, faster backs do wear out over time, but that's not the case with Charles, who averages 6.0 yards per carry on his first 10 carries of a game , and a league-leading 7.5 yards per carry on carries 11-20. Last season, Titans running back Chris Johnson was one of the most dynamic backs in his first 10 game carries; but that hasn't transferred to 2010.
New York Jets at Chicago Bears
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has been playing very well of late as he gets used to Mike Martz's offense. However, he's got a major challenge in the Jets, who have allowed a league-low 51.4 percent catch rate. The Bears have allowed a 63.2 percent catch rate (they play far more zone than the Jets do), but no team has dropped more passes against a defense than against Chicago (38 passes dropped).
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Per Football Outsiders' metrics, the 2010 Patriots now have the most efficient offense of at least the last 20 years, and one reason is Tom Brady's ability to hit his receivers inside the opposing 10-yard line. Between Wes Welker, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, there are 19 catches inside the 10 even before yards after catch - by far the most of any team in the league.
Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns
The Ravens' defense is coming around at just the right time for a playoff push. In Weeks 1-9, they ranked 13th in defensive rushing efficiency and 13th against the pass. In Weeks 10-14, they've upped those ranks to eighth against the pass and first against the run.
Houston Texans at Denver Broncos
It's getting tougher and tougher to excuse the coaching in Houston; there's certainly enough offensive firepower on the offensive side of the ball for the Texans to threaten for a playoff run. Andre Johnson leads the league with six 100-yard games, and Arian Foster has the NFL's most yards from scrimmage with 1,895. Foster also enjoys the highest yards per carry average of any back when he's asked to carry more of the load; he averages 7.0 yards after the 21st carry of each game. Denver has allowed 4.6 yards per carry and the most rushing plays of 20+ yards (18), so Foster should have a field day against this defense.
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer may be on the way out as a functional signal-caller, but he's not getting optimal help from his receivers. The combination of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens is the NFL's only duo with 10 or more dropped passes through 14 games - Owens leads the league with 11 (tied with Reggie Wayne of the Colts), and Ochocinco has 10. San Diego's defense has been an underrated entity all season - they're third in DVOA against the pass, the best team in the league against No. 1 receivers, and they lead the league in sacks. The advanced numbers check out - the Chargers pace the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate (sacks divided by pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent) as well.
Indianapolis Colts at Oakland Raiders
How does Peyton Manning deal with the fact that he's had a sub-par running game for most of the season? He passes on first down. In 2010, Manning is tied with Drew Brees of the Saints for second in the NFL with 141 first-down passes - only Atlanta's Matt Ryan (163) has more. Probably a good idea to hit the ground running against an Oakland defense that has caused 51 three-and-outs this year; only the Jets have more. When you give the ball to Raiders running back Michael Bush, don't expect a negative play to result. On his 130 carries this season, Bush had been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage just four times; no back has a lower percentage. The Eagles have stuffs on a league-average 19 percent of the rushing plays against them.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
You can expect both Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers to be under fire in this game; the Giants and Packers are two of the four NFL teams with at least 40 sacks and 15 interceptions. This may benefit the Packers more, since Manning the younger leads the NFL in picks (20), and more than half (11) have come on the road. When it comes to forcing fumbles, no team is better than the G-men. The team has 26 (the Bears and Saints are tied for second with 19), and any player with a unsure grip on the football had best avoid Osi Umenyiora, who leads the league with eight, Justin Tuck, who has six, and Terrell Thomas, who has four. Rodgers has fumbled just once in 2010 after coughing up the football eight times in 2009.
Seattle Seahawks at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs selected two defensive tackles early in their 2010 draft to improve a run defense that was among the NFL's worst. But now that Brian Price and Gerald McCoy are each lost for the season with injuries, Tampa Bay is allowing 4.98 running back yards per carry (the highest total in the league) and no team gives up a higher percentage of rushing yards from five to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. However, the Seahawks are equally ineffective on the offensive side of the ball with their rushing attack - they've put up just 3.70 Adjusted Line Yards per carry, they're getting stuffed on a league-worst 26 percent of their rushing plays, and only half of their runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go have resulted in a first down or touchdown.
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
When looking at the greatness of Michael Vick's season, it's good to start with his passer rating in key situations. He's got a 113.8 rating in the fourth quarter (only David Garrard is better), a 109.7 rating on the road (three rating points better than Tom Brady), and 44.9 percent of his third down passes have gone for first downs. The Vikings have managed to string together a decent pass defense despite a large decline in quarterback pressure in 2010 compared to recent seasons; they're especially effective with the underneath stuff to ancillary receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Only the Steelers and Chargers have fewer pass plays allowed of 20 yards or more, though the Vikings have allowed seven plays of 40 yards or more, and that's right up Vick's alley - the Eagles have the league's most 40-plus yard plays with 14.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons currently have a hold on the NFC South, but there are trends to worry about - they've gone from 13th in rushing efficiency in the first half of the season to 27th in Weeks 10-14, just as the Saints are hitting an uptick in the same category. New Orleans ranked 25th in rushing efficiency in the season's first half, and they've been sixth ever since. Even more worrisome for the Falcons is the downturn in their run defense; those efficiency numbers have plummeted from third in the season's first half, to 31st from Week 10 on.