Thursday, January 9, 2014

NFC Divisional Weekend Preview

Can the Panthers again contain Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers' ground game?

By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Last week we never really set up any ground rules for how to score ourselves with our playoff picks. We listed the line for each game, and predicted a score (and winner) for each game, but never officially picked games "Against the Spread." If we decide that only our straight-up predictions matter, Jeremy did not have a very good week. He went 0-4 (and he doesn't want to talk about it). Joe was a slightly better 2-2, hitting on Indianapolis and San Francisco.

However, in an interesting twist, while Indianapolis and San Francisco both won straight up, Indianapolis failed to cover (they were 2.5-point favorites when we made picks on Thursday, they won by a point), and San Francisco's game ended with a push (they were 3-point favorites and won by 3). San Diego winning, meanwhile, creates an interesting problem - we both picked Cincinnati - but Jeremy picked them to win by 10 (covering the 7-point spread) while Joe picked them to win by four (functionally picking San Diego to cover).

In other words, if we go purely by picking winners, Jeremy was 0-4 and Joe was 2-2. But if we go by the spread, using our score predictions, Jeremy improves to 1-2-1 (he picked Kansas City straight up, they ended up covering), while Joe drops to 1-2-1 (Indianapolis turns into a loss, San Diego turns into a win). The New Orleans-Philadelphia game is the only one not affected - we both picked Philadelphia to win by a touchdown.

Because it gives Jeremy the benefit of the doubt, he, in his infinite wisdom as Editor-in-Chief, has decided to retroactively apply our score predictions as our official Against The Spread picks. (Perhaps more accurately - he's still bitter about losing to Joe in the regular season and wants any advantage he can get, even if it means borderline-shady tactics to get it.) In this week's picks, we'll make it clear both who we're picking straight up (which Jeremy has decided doesn't really matter) and who we're picking to cover.

New Orleans at Seattle (4:35 p.m. Saturday, FOX)

The Line: Seattle by 7.5

By The Numbers:

New Orleans:
Record: 11-5 (8-7-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 25.9 (10th) - 19.0 (4th)
Average Scoring Margin: +6.9 (7th) - 10.8 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +15.9% Offense (5th); -5.9% Defense (10th); -2.5% Special Teams (24th); +19.3% Total (4th)

Record: 13-3 (11-5 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 26.1 (8th) - 14.4 (1st)
Average Scoring Margin: +11.6 (2nd) - 12.8 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +9.4% Offense (7th); -25.8% Defense (1st); +4.8% Special Teams (5th); +40.1% Total (1st)

Player(s) To Watch: Mark Ingram

It looks like the Saints will again be without top running back Pierre Thomas, but Ingram did an admirable job carrying the load last week against Philly's aggressive defense, rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown.

It will be a significantly bigger challenge Saturday as Ingram will be running against the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and No. 7 unit against the run. Whether or not he can give the Saints enough quality carries to allow Darren Sproles to do his thing on the ground and through the air, plus open up play action (Which came in very handy in the second half against Philly) will be huge if New Orleans is to be its usual self against the elite Seattle defense.


Player(s) To Watch: Percy Harvin

The Seahawks have a rather interesting passing offense. By standard metrics, they don't look particularly good - they had just 3236 net yards passing this season, just 26th in the league, and their quarterbacks were sacked on 9.5% of their drop-backs, by far the worst in the league. But as you might guess, this ignores that the Seahawks are so low in net passing yards because they attempted so few passes in the first place - just 420 this season, fewer than any team other than division rival San Francisco. Sorted by yards per attempt, they're 2nd in the league behind just Philadelphia, and Football Outsiders' DVOA ranks them the 8th-best overall (27.7 percent better than league average on a per-play basis).

Seattle's passing offense versus New Orleans' pass defense is an interesting matchup, especially after seeing New Orleans last week against Philadelphia. Philadelphia and Seattle have similar passing attacks - they both try to make big plays downfield by luring attention towards the line of scrimmage with their zone-read running game, and neither team is very reliant on a traditional straight drop-back passing attack like that of, say, New England or Denver.

New Orleans is well-equipped to defend that type of attack, as we saw last week against the Eagles. Both Joe and I mentioned Roman Harper (and his well-documented struggles in pass coverage) in our NFC preview last week, but the Saints avoided problems by just, well, not playing him in pass coverage. They used him almost as an extra linebacker, crashing down towards the line of scrimmage in run support while the other safety, Malcolm Jenkins, played deep down the middle of the field. As a result, Philadelphia managed just 256 yards of total offense, and just 17 first downs, one of their worst offensive performances of the season.

This is where Percy Harvin comes in. The Seahawks have built their passing offense around Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, who have both had very good seasons. But they've lacked an inside receiver who would be able to take advantage of a New Orleans defense that can't offer much help towards the middle of the field due to Harper committing so often in run support. Harvin has played in just one game this season (Week 11 vs. Minnesota), but is expected to be active this week after being listed as a full participant in Wednesday's practice. If Harvin can give Seattle a third receiver, it will force New Orleans out of their defensive comfort zone, and could jump-start a Seahawks offense than has sputtered of late.


Hidden Points: Third Down Defense

While we tend to think of the Seahawks as an elite defense and the Saints as one treading water, both are fantastic on third down. Both are giving up only conversions on 35 percent of third downs, and it's largely because of the excellent play of both secondaries.

That's where things get a little tricky for New Orleans, because it will definitely be without its best safety, Kenny Vaccaro, and may be without top corner Keenan Lewis. The free agent signing from Pittsburgh suffered a concussion against the Eagles, and his status is still somewhat up in the air.

Word out of Saints camp suggests he's going to give it a go, and missing a top flight corner isn't as big of a deal against a team like Seattle that doesn't run its passing game through a single, dominant receiver. But speedster Percy Harvin might play this week (I know, I'll believe it when I see it), and Golden Tate has victimized inexperienced corners in the past.

Given Seattle's superior running game, I would expect the Seahawks to stay ahead of the chains most of the day, and the state of the Saints' secondary leads me to believe that Russell Wilson will be able to convert more often than not when they don't.


Hidden Points: Home Field Advantage (Again)

So New Orleans finally won a game on the road. A playoff game, no less.

What does that tell us? Does it say that New Orleans has finally shaken that monkey off their back, and they're ready to storm from the No. 6 seed to the Super Bowl like the Packers and Steelers have done in recent years? Or does it mean that New Orleans had the good fortune of running up against a team that was only in the playoffs because the rules dictated someone from the NFC East had to make it?

Did New Orleans hold the explosive Philadelphia offense to just 256 yards, or was that the weather that did it? I would think the Saints' defense had a lot to do with it, considering it was the Saints, not the Eagles, that were expected to slow down in the cold, and the Saints managed to accumulated 436 yards of total offense. At the same time, however, the Saints gained 436 yards against an Eagles' defense that, by any measurement, is one of the 10 worst in the league. Now they're up against Seattle's, that, by any measurement, is one of the three best (or even THE best) in the league. And they're still outside. With a "100% Chance of Rain" on Saturday evening.


The Picks: 

Seattle 27, New Orleans 13 (Seattle Covers)

Even after watching New Orleans' defense shackle the Eagles last week, I can't help but think that the win was an outlier, not a sign of a trend. Yes, New Orleans has a supremely underrated defense, and yes, they're well-equipped to defend an offense like Philadelphia's (and like Seattle's), but their offensive performance is likely to regress to the mean - perhaps violently, even, given they're playing the league's top defense in inclement weather.

Seattle's only home loss this year came against Arizona, a game in which the Cardinals absolutely throttled the Seahawks at the line of scrimmage, sacking Russell Wilson four times and holding the Seahawks to just 89 passing yards on 31 drop-backs. New Orleans does have an impressive pass rush - their adjusted sack rate of 8.6 percent was the fourth-best in the league. But if often disappears on the road, and their speed won't be as much of an asset on a wet field.


Seattle 30, New Orleans 20 (Seattle Covers)

Not much more to add. I expect the Seahawks to thrive at home in inclement weather, and build a nice lead early. For all his greatness, Drew Brees does have a tendency to press and try to do too much, leading to turnovers in games like these. Expect a few of those early, and Seattle to push this lead to three score before the fourth quarter starts. A few late Saints scores make the game look more competitive than it actually was.


San Francisco at Carolina (1:05 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

The Line: San Francisco by 1

By The Numbers:

San Francisco:
Record: 12-4 (10-5-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 25.4 (11th) - 17.0 (3rd)
Average Scoring Margin: +8.4 (3rd) - 11.5 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +9.1% Offense (8th); -4.6% Defense (13th); +3.7% Special Teams (7th); +17.4% Total (6th)

Record: 12-4 (9-6-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 22.9 (18th) - 15.1 (2nd)
Average Scoring Margin: +7.8 (4th) - 11.7 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +8.1% Offense (10th); -15.7% Defense (3rd); +1.0% Special Teams (13th); +24.9% Total (3rd)

Player(s) To Watch: Michael Crabtree

Crabtree had a breakout year last season, hauling in 85 receptions for over 1100 yards and nine touchdowns, and providing a versatile threat in the passing game, lining up on both sides of the field and running a diverse set of routes. He hasn't had much of an impact this season, missing the first 11 games of the season with an Achilles injury and only topping 100 yards once in the five game he did play, against a terrible Atlanta pass defense.

One of the games he missed was a Week 10 game against Carolina, and it showed. The 49ers managed just 46 net yards passing, by far the worst performance of any team in the entire league this season. Colin Kaepernick was just 11-for-22 for 91 yards, intercepted once, and was sacked six times in 28 drop-backs.

With Crabtree back in the lineup, the 49ers have another option besides Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis (who were both completely shut down in Week 10 against Carolina - Davis was shadowed by Luke Kuechly with safety help over the top, while Boldin was bracketed by defensive backs, knowing that no other San Francisco receiver would be able to consistently beat single-coverage). The 49ers have struggled blocking for Kaepernick recently (especially in the second half last week), and another six-sack performance from Carolina would spell doom for San Francisco, but having Crabtree healthy will be a big difference-maker in this game.

Player(s) To Watch: Greg Hardy

No pass rusher ended the season on a bigger tear than Carolina's Greg Hardy. The Ole Miss product wracked up eight sacks over his team's final three games, including a dominant four-sack effort at Atlanta to end the year and help his team lock up a first round bye.

Oh, and he brought Drew Brees down three times the week before in a game against New Orleans that would ultimately decid the NFC South title.

So yeah, he's been big in the biggest games, but San Francisco's offense presents a different challenge for Hardy. While his 15 sacks might suggest otherwise, Hardy is far from an edge pass rusher. Rather, he is a "set the edge" five-technique end (An odd alignment for the 4-3, but they Panthers run it well on the strong side) that also has the ability to push the pocket against the pass.

Hardy would seem, on paper, to be the perfect end to help a defense contain Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers' ridiculously fast quarterback. Instead of coming around the left tackle on his rush, Hardy will line head-up on either tackle, and attempt to push them backward, penetrating only to where their heels used to be, then discard them as he reads the play. This, in theory, should keep Kaepernick in the pocket on designed dropbacks, and allow Carolina to win the numbers game when the Niners run the outside zone-read to his side. It should also allow him to help out on inside zone-reads to both sides.

Of course, all this is mute if they simply run outside away from him, as they did in week 10, but that allows middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to cheat a bit away from Hardy and use his speed to run down plays on the back side.

Hey, it worked the first time, as the Panthers held San Francisco to only three field goals in a 10-9 win.


Hidden Points: Containing Kaep

As I mentioned, the last time these two teams met, the Panthers did an excellent job of keeping Colin Kaepernick in the pocket. Carolina held him to scrambles on just three of 31 called dropbacks. They also did a great job of forcing the Niner rush offense to go through the stellar, but less dangerous Frank Gore. Forcing the ball to the halfback every time the Niners ran the zone read led to Gore averaging over five yards per carry, but his 82 yards on 16 carries only results in one carry over 10 yards.

The splash plays weren't there.

Kaepernick only kept it once on the zone read. In a move that was clearly just him giving into frustration, Kaep held the ball even though the weak side defender stayed home, resulting in a six yard loss. If Carolina can again set the edge with Hardy and attack the Niner running backs with Kuechly and Thomas Davis, it could be another long day for Kaepernick on the ground.

Conversely, if San Francisco can create movement like it did last week against Green Bay, and Kaepernick can break contain in a similar fashion, this will be a totally different ball game. The speedy quarterback turned in just the fourth 200 yard passing, 90 yard rushing performance in NFL history last week against the Packers. Though, to be fair, he does seem to have Green Bay's number, as the third such performance was Kaepernick against the Packers in last year's playoffs.


Hidden Points: "Playoff Experience"

The Panthers are one of two teams (along with Philadelphia) in the postseason in which neither their quarterback or head coach has any postseason experience (Ron Rivera has made the playoffs as a defensive coordinator both with Chicago and San Diego, but never as a head coach). Meanwhile, this is San Francisco's third straight year in the postseason, and their third straight with at least one postseason win. They've made the NFC Championship game in each of the last two seasons, and in reality are two muffed punts away from being reigning back-to-back NFC Champions.

That being the case, this is an excellent test case for whether or not "Playoff Experience" is really an inherent advantage. We have two teams with identical records, nearly identical average scoring margins (San Francisco's is slightly better), and nearly identical DVOA ranks (Carolina is slightly better). The teams met once this season, and Carolina won by a single point. For all intents and purposes, the two teams are equal. The Panthers have home-field advantage, but the narrative usually holds that "playoff experience" trumps that (hence all the stories about old, veteran teams going on the road and showing the young upstarts how it's done). Las Vegas seems to buy this line of argument, considering San Francisco is a one-point favorite, despite being on the road, playing a team they already lost to this year.

Round 1 saw one game where the "playoff experience" narrative is certainly applicable (although still perhaps not accurate) - New Orleans going on the road and beating Philadelphia. Indianapolis-Kansas City doesn't really apply (the Luck/Pagano combo was 0-1 in postseason play, Alex Smith and Andy Reid both have postseason success in their past), neither does Cincinnati-San Diego (Marvin Lewis was 0-4 in the playoffs, Andy Dalton 0-2, but San Diego hadn't even appeared in the playoffs since 2009). San Francisco-Green Bay is an interesting case - both teams have a great deal of recent postseason experience: Green Bay has a Super Bowl win in 2010, San Francisco appeared in the Super Bowl last year, but neither would truly be considered the "more experienced" than the other.

San Francisco-Carolina though has a clear application of the narrative, though. Carolina last appeared in the playoffs in 2008, and the only relevant players from this year's team that were on the roster then are DeAngelo Williams (who is a shell of his former self), Jonathan Stewart (who is a shell of a shell of his former self), Steve Smith, Thomas Davis (who has had three ACL surgeries since then), and Charles Johnson (who didn't start a single game that year). That's it. Five guys on a 53-man roster. If "Playoff Experience" really matters, San Francisco definitely has the advantage.

The Picks: 

 Carolina 20, San Francisco 16 (Carolina Covers)

"Playoff Experience" doesn't matter.

It's just a narrative that gets retro-fitted to games after the fact. There are a number of examples in recent years of teams with decidedly less playoff experience beating teams with more:

2011 Wild Card: Denver 29, Pittsburgh 23
2011 Divisional: 49ers 36, Saints 32
2011 Divisional: Giants 37, Packers 20
2010 Wild Card: Seahawks 41, Saints 36
2010 Wild Card: Jets 17, Colts 16
2010 Divisional: Jets 28, Patriots 21

Everyone (including Joe) has been talking about the 49ers as the "hot team" coming into the playoffs, and I suppose that's fair - they had won six straight games, and improved that to seven last week. But the Panthers have won 11 of their last 12 games, the only loss on the road to New Orleans, not exactly a shocker. And nobody is talking about it. Once Carolina beat San Francisco and New England in consecutive weeks, it seems like everyone collectively decided that Carolina was "for real" (for lack of a better term) and moved on. But nobody really noticed that they finished 5-1 after that, including a win over New Orleans in Week 16. If the 49ers are "hot," then Carolina unquestionably is also.

And, as mentioned before, Carolina is playing at home, against a team they already beat this year. If the two teams are even in a vacuum (which, admittedly, they basically are), home-field advantage and a previous head-to-head win (with that win coming on the road), certainly tips the scales towards the Panthers.


San Francisco 20, Carolina 16 (San Francisco Covers)

The 49ers are the "hot team," dammit! I'll give you that Carolina is certainly playing very well too, but my pick was Niners-Patriots before the playoffs started (Pitting the "hot team" against the "team that isn't as good as it has been in recent years, but somehow makes it"), and I'm sticking to my guns.

I just wrote a pair of short stories on why the Panthers should be able to contain Colin Kaepernick and, thus, the 49er running game, but games aren't won on paper! The Niners are a team of destiny that is giving 110 percent, taking it one game at a time, has been here before, and understands there is no "I" in team! They're going to play their game and let the chips fall where they may! As you know, it's the playoffs, and anything can happen!

Other cliches!


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