Friday, January 2, 2015

NFC Wild Card Weekend Preview

The Dallas backfield combo of Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray has been lethal this season, but the Cowboys will face a huge test against Detroit's vaunted defense.
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The Regular Season is dead. Long Live the Regular Season.

Jeremy went a clutch 10-5-1 to miraculously finish the season over .500 (127-122-7), but it wasn't enough to catch Joe, who finished 129-120-7. For the season, Joe beat Jeremy 35-33-2 on disagreements, and it came down to the wire - had the Patriots covered against Buffalo, the season would have ended in a tie.

(Also, worth noting that Jeremy is protesting the Week 17 picks method - he picked the games first and Joe decided whether he agreed or disagreed, which Jeremy feels gave Joe the unfair advantage, especially when defending a lead in Week 17. There were several picks that Jeremy was on the fence about, and had Joe made his picks first, Jeremy would have leaned the other way in an effort to make up ground. And Jeremy claims that the games he was on the fence about - namely Oakland at Denver and New Orleans at Tampa Bay were ones that would have resulted in a season victory had Joe picked first, thus allowing Jeremy to disagree with him. But everyone can agree that Jeremy just needs to quit his whining.)

So Joe is our regular season champion. Barely. But now Jeremy is prepared to exact his revenge in the postseason. After a grueling 256-game marathon, this 11-game sprint is all about the details. Like we did last year, we'll go into greater detail for these games, because we can.

We've split it up into AFC and NFC previews (as opposed to a Saturday preview and a Sunday preview), so this covers Saturday's tilt between Arizona and Carolina, and Sunday's showdown with Detroit and Dallas.

(Quick note - the "DVOA" stat in the "By The Numbers" section is the stat created by Football Outsiders to measure value on a per-play basis. Positive numbers means more points, so for Defensive DVOA, a negative score is better.)

Arizona at Carolina (4:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN)

The Line: Panthers by 6.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 11-5 (11-5 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 19.4 (24th) - 18.7 (5th)
Average Scoring Margin: +0.7 (16th) - 8.3 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -9.3% Offense (23rd); -5.5% Defense (7th); -2.2% Special Teams (21st); -6.0% Total (22nd)

Record: 7-8-1 (8-8 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 21.2 (19th) - 23.4 (21st)
Average Scoring Margin: -2.2 (23rd) - 7.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -5.0% Offense (20th); -1.6% Defense (15th); -5.5% Special Teams (30th); -8.9% Total (25th)

Player(s) to Watch: Ryan Lindley

The Arizona quarterback carousal has landed on Lindley and, much like all of his predecessors other than Carson Palmer, there has been some left to be desired.

Still, the Cardinals showed great faith in Lindley in the season finale at San Francisco, allowing the largely anonymous signal caller to sling it 39 times against a usually stingy 49er defense.

Lindeley was able to muster 316 yards and a pair of scores, but turned the ball over three times and took a pair of bad sacks. With a solid set of weapons, it will be on Lindley to merely move the chains against a Carolina secondary that has looked lost at times, and not make any critical mistakes.

A clean game from Lindley should mean an Arizona win.


Player(s) to Watch: Jonathan Stewart

I thought we were done with Jonathan Stewart. In 2012 and 2013 combined, he played in 15 games and gained 516 yards at an average of 3.7 per rush. That's two full seasons combined. Then he didn't really start off the season doing much, either. Through the first 12 weeks, he played in eight games and accrued 323 yards at a clip of 3.85 yards per carry. Then out of absolutely nowhere, he finished the season on a tear, gaining 486 yards over the last five weeks, averaging 5.3 yards per attempt. With DeAngelo Williams essentially broken, Stewart saved Carolina's running game, and their season along with it.

For the first 11 games of the season, the Panthers averaged 96.4 yards per game on the ground, which would have ranked then 24th in the league over the full 16-game schedule. Over the last five weeks, however, the Panthers have averaged 195 rushing yards per game, which is such an astronomical number that, had they done it over a full season, the team that finished 4th in rushing (San Francisco at 136 yards per game) would be closer to last than first.

Now they're going up against an Arizona defense that's surprisingly below-average against the rush. Much like Carolina, they started the year as a very different team than they finished it. Over their first ten games, Arizona surrendered just 80.5 yards rushing per game, which would be third-best in the league. In a related story, they started the year 9-1. However, over their last six games, they've surrendered 155 yards per game, which would rank them dead last by a similarly astronomical margin.


Hidden Point(s): Which Carolina Shows Up? Which Arizona Shows Up?

As noted, these two teams have seen their seasons turned upside-down over the last two months. The Cardinals started 9-1 and finished 2-4. The Panthers started 3-8-1 before winning four straight to close out the year. Based on the first two months of the season, the Cardinals should be favored by 10 points. Based on the season as a whole, it should probably be a pick'em. But based on the last five or six weeks, factoring in the health and starting quarterbacks of the two teams, the Panthers suddenly laying a touchdown in a playoff game after being left for dead a month ago seems somehow plausible.

We know that as terrible as Ryan Lindley has been (he has a career QB Rating of 50.3, a 2-11 touchdown-interception ratio, and has a record as a starting QB of 1-5), Arizona still has a defense that can easily stifle predictable offenses (the St. Louis game in Week 15 being the obvious example), and the teams that Carolina went through to clinch a playoff spot were New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Atlanta, so it's not like they were slaying giants. Meanwhile, perhaps Arizona's struggles have been overstated - yes, they're 2-4 over their last six, but two of those losses were to Seattle (only the best team in football). Maybe the sky isn't falling after all.


The Picks:

Carolina 13, Arizona 9 (Cardinals Cover)

I think it's going to be a defensive, low-scoring, borderline unwatchable game. Patrick Peterson and the rest of the Arizona secondary should be able to take away Kelvin Benjamin, and the pass rush should be able to bother Cam Newton into some bad throws. Meanwhile, Carolina's defense isn't that good, but it's good enough to prevent Ryan Lindley from doing anything noteworthy. The only unit that should be able to produce is Carolina's run game, and they'll bleed the clock long enough to come out with a win.


Arizona 16, Carolina 13 (Cardinals Cover)

This has the look of a field position and field goal fest to me, so I'll go with the defense and the player (Patrick Peterson) most likely to make a game-changing defensive/special teams play.

Not in love with the Cardinals on offense right now, but their receiving corps should have some success, and if Arizona can just hold onto the ball, they have the defense to limit Carolina's passing game and clamp down when things get tight in the red zone.


Detroit at Dallas (4:30 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

The Line: Cowboys by 6.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 11-5 (7-9 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 20.1 (22nd) - 17.6 (3rd)
Average Scoring Margin: +2.4 (13th) - 9.2 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -3.7% Offense (19th); -13.8% Defense (3rd); -5.7% Special Teams (31st); +4.4% Total (14th)

Record: 12-4 (10-6 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 29.2 (5th) - 22.0 (15th)
Average Scoring Margin: +7.2 (5th) - 10.6 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +17.0% Offense (4th); +4.1% Defense (22nd); +0.9% Special Teams (13th); +13.8% Total (6th)

Player(s) To Watch: Tony Romo

A super obvious pick, I know, but nobody in the playoffs has more pressure on them than the Dallas gunslinger.

Romo has enjoyed his finest season as a pro, but it will all be for naught, and every owner of a hot sports take will revert to the "Romo can't win the big one" narrative should he lay an egg against the Lions.

It will be far from easy against one of the league's best defenses, especially one with a the teeth to slow down league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray, but Romo's legacy is on the line. We'll see if he delivers.


Player(s) To Watch: Golden Tate

For the first nine games of the season, Tate averaged over 100 receiving yards per game. Over the last seven weeks, that's dropped to just over 60 yards per game.

Granted, sixty yards per game is nothing to sneeze at. That's over 950 yards over the course of a 16-game season. But as Tate has tailed off, so has Detroit's offense. Over the first nine games of the season, Detroit averaged 262 passing yards per game, which has dropped to 238 per game over the second half of the season. Detroit needs Tate to be a factor, because otherwise defenses rotate all of their coverages to Calvin Johnson's side of the field.

Finding a second receiver to compliment Johnson has long been a problem for the Lions. Since his breakout season in 2008, here are the wide receivers who have put up the next-best receiving totals:

2008: Shaun McDonald (35 catches, 332 yards)
2009: Bryant Johnson (35 catches, 417 yards)
2010: Nate Burleson (55 catches, 625 yards)
2011: Nate Burleson (73 catches, 757 yards)
2012: Titus Young (33 catches, 383 yards)
2013: Kris Durham (38 catches, 490 yards)
2014: Golden Tate (99 catches, 1331 yards)

Admittedly, it wasn't *that* bad - Brandon Pettigrew did have seasons of 71/722, 83/777, and 59/567 from 2010-2012, which made him Detroit's No. 2 receiver in those seasons, but I'm talking specifically about the outside receivers who play opposite Johnson. And it's clear that Tate is by far the best one that they've had, and they need him to be productive in order to have their offense click. When Tate is on his game, the Lions might have the best 1-2 receiving tandem in football (only Green Bay and Denver can make an argument).


Hidden Points: The Point of Attack

If we were to list the best "units" in football, we might mention Denver's receiving corps, Seattle's all-world secondary, or Buffalo's pass rush. But in this matchup, we might have the two best groups in all of football, and they'll be battling it out on the field at the same time. I'm talking about Dallas' offensive line going up against Detroit's defensive front.

The Dallas offensive line has been well documented. They carved a path for DeMarco Murray to be the league's leading rusher, and they created a pocket for Tony Romo to be the league's most efficient passer. But Detroit's front four is right up there with them. The Lions finished 8th in the league in sacks, and convincingly had the league's best rush defense. Both units are led by players who very well could be the best in the league at their position - Ndamukong Suh is certainly in the discussion for the league's best defensive tackle (among 4-3 tackles his only competition is Marcel Dareus and Gerald McCoy, and J.J. Watt is a 3-4 defensive end, so not quite the same), and Tyron Smith may have established himself as the league's best left tackle (Cleveland's Joe Thomas is the only other possibility).

Because both units are so strong, it would be disingenuous to suggest that one will clearly grab the upper hand over the other and lead their team to victory, but suffice it to say - whichever unit does get the better of the other will probably provide the difference.


The Picks:

Dallas 27, Detroit 17 (Dallas Covers)

If you look at the games Detroit has played this year - they just haven't gone up against too many high-octane offenses. Other than shutting down the Packers in Week 3, they haven't really had any performances that were really eye-opening. Holding teams like the Jets, Vikings, Bears, Bills, Bucs, and Cardinals to under 20 points isn't exactly a huge deal. They pulled out wins against New Orleans and Atlanta, but those weren't defensive games - they have up over 400 yards of offense to the Saints. 

In Dallas, they'll be going up against a balanced, efficient offense. Detroit's defense is predicated on stuffing the run and forcing likely passing scenarios on third-and-long. But what if they can't stop the run? They had trouble doing that against the Packers last week, and they gave up 30 points. 

The Stafford-Romo duel is cruel in a way. Everyone will be expecting one or both of them to choke the game away, but this seems like the year where Romo finally exorcises some demons. I'm not saying Dallas is going to win the Super Bowl, but they'll at least advance to the next round. 


Dallas 31, Detroit 20 (Dallas Covers)

I too think Romo exorcises his overly-emphasized playoff demons and delivers a stellar performance against one of the league's best defenses. The Cowboys defense, meanwhile, continues to play over its head and forces Matthew Stafford into a pair of turnovers, including one going back the other way.

I think it ends up being contested until the end, but Romo delivers a dagger in the game's final stretch to send Dallas to the Divisional Round.


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