Divisional round preview
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Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
These teams last met in Week 13, and the Steelers' 13-10 win was decided by Ben Roethlisberger, who led a game-winning drive despite a very broken nose. Big Ben showed that he's the real center of the team's deep offense; his two longest passes on the day went to backups Emmanuel Sanders and David Johnson.
Now, about this whole "Joe Flacco has four road playoff wins" thing you keep hearing - we really need to start reining this in, America. In his first "playoff win" against the Miami Dolphins in 2008, Flacco went 9-of-23 for 135 yards and no touchdowns. In his second "playoff win" against the Tennessee Titans the following week, he went 11-of-22 for 161 yards and a touchdown. In his third "playoff win" against the New England Patriots in 2009, he went 4-of-10 for 34 yards - in the entire game, mind you - and another pick. It was only in last week's wild-card win against the Kansas City Chiefs that you could really say Flacco had a direct positive effect on his team's ability to win. He went 25-of-34 for 265 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks. That, friends, is a winning quarterback performance. The other ones? Not so much.
Overall, these two teams are incredibly well matched, which reflects in the close games they generally play. The Steelers are second in the league in overall DVOA and second in Weighted DVOA, which puts more stock in recent performance. The Ravens are fourth overall and third in Weighted DVOA. You have to look a while to find statistical inequities, but they do show up. Baltimore puts up the 12th-ranked offense against Pittsburgh's No. 1 defense, but Pittsburgh's special teams are just league-average, and Baltimore's ranks fourth. Baltimore is 23rd in offensive red zone DVOA, and the Steelers are first overall in red zone defense. It's always difficult to put a thin piece of paper between these two teams, and that should be the case again when they face off at Heinz Field.
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons beat the Pack, 20-17, in a Week 12 game at the Georgia Dome. In that game, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had a stretch of 18 straight completed passes, but those passes went for just 132 yards and seven first downs. Atlanta will need to open things up against a Packers team that has finally found its running game.
And let's talk about that running game - rookie James Starks put up 123 rushing yards on 23 carries (more than he had in his entire regular season) against the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card game. It' a bad time for Atlanta to be facing a team with a better-than-solid run game. In the first half of the regular season (weeks 1-9), they ranked third in run defense DVOA. In weeks 10-17, they were 31st, and only the Chiefs were worse. That dip in rushing efficiency transfers to the offensive side of the ball for the Falcons - they were 12th in offensive rushing DVOA in weeks 1-9, and dead last in the second half of the season. As much as the Falcons set everything up around their run game, this could be a big problem.
The Packers rank third in defensive DVOA against No. 1 receivers, which is another issue for the Falcons, given how much they like to target Roddy White. However, they're 23rd against tight ends, and in the regular-season matchup, Atlanta got some traction in the red zone by moving Tony Gonzalez around pre-snap, forcing Green Bay's nickel defenders to adjust in short spaces.
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has said that his plan is to kick to return dynamo Devin Hester, but that's not as crazy as it sounds. Seattle has among the most efficient return coverage units in the league, and when these teams played in Week 6, the Bears were held to their own 18-yard line as an average starting point - though Hester did get off an 89-yard punt return touchdown. Seattle punter Jon Ryan put the Bears inside their own 10-yard line on five different occasions.
Perhaps the two oddest stats from that first game were two zeroes - the Bears failed to convert a single third down in 12 tries, and they never sacked Matt Hasselbeck once. The Bears rank 30th in third-down DVOA overall, but they've had fewer problems converting as their offense has become more streamlined and efficient.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, are 28th in third-down defensive DVOA. The Bears also have 23 of their 34 sacks in the last nine games. Seattle rookie left tackle Russell Okung had the game of his life against the Bears in the previous game, negating the pass pressure of Julius Peppers and placing key blocks on each of Seattle's two rushing touchdowns. Okung, who allowed four sacks in 10 regular-season games, may be the key to an upset.
New York Jets at New England Patriots
The Jets had best watch out when their offense takes the field for their third game against the Pats this season, especially quarterback Mark Sanchez. New England had just 36 sacks in 2010, but 23 of them came in their final eight games, tying them with three other teams (Chicago, Green Bay, Oakland) for fourth-highest in the NFL.
New England's new multi-dimensional passing attack does not augur well for the Jets' secondary - they rank 10th in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, but 24th against No. 2 guys (not a ringing endorsement for Antonio Cromartie) and 11th against ancillary receivers. They're ninth against tight ends, which is good news, but this Patriots offense is all about spreading defenses out, and that's why they've been as efficient as the 2007 fun-and-gun version of the New England offense. This could be worst for the Jets in the red zone, where the Tom Brady-led passing game ranks second in red zone DVOA, and the Jets' defense ranks 25th in red zone pass defense DVOA.
The matchups are pretty even on each side of the ball in a general sense; the Jets' defense ranked sixth in total DVOA, and fifth in weighted; the Pats were first on offense in both categories. The Jets have a far more average offense (16th in total DVOA and 20th in weighted), but the New England defense hasn't been much to write home about (19th in total, 11th in weighted). But as that weighted total would lead you to believe, New England's defense is trending up in a major way - 27th in total defensive DVOA in weeks 1-9, and sixth ever since. The Jets have been on more of an even keel, 13th to 18th from the season's first half to second.
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Posted by: a-littlebird-ptolemy | January 14, 2011 9:43 AM