Friday, January 8, 2016

Your NFC Wild Card Primer

Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins is pumped to be playing at home, where his team is 6-2 and he's posted a 117 passer rating this season. On the road Washington is just 3-5, with Cousins' passer rating dipping all the way to 87.7.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

We kicked off our Wild Card Weekend preview yesterday with our AFC Primer. Both of us like the road teams on that side of the bracket. Here comes the NFC Primer, where again, both road teams are the nominal favorites.

All four road teams can't end up winning, can they?

A reminder, in case you missed the AFC Preview - the "DVOA" line in the "By The Numbers" section is the Football Outsiders' metric "Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average." It is designed to measure each team on a per-play basis, adjusted, obviously, for the opponent, but also for down and distance. For example, a 6-yard gain on 3rd-and-4 against Seattle is a more valuable and/or meaningful play than a 11-yard gain on 4th-and-12 against New Orleans. DVOA accounts for those things. And positive numbers represent more yards/points, so a defense is better when it is further negative.

Let's dive right in. 

Seattle at Minnesota (1:00 p.m. Sunday, NBC)

Opening Line: Seahawks by 3.5
Current Line: Seahawks by 5

By The Numbers:

Current Record: 10-6 Overall, 5-3 Away; 8-7-1 Against the Spread, 4-3-1 Away
Average Score: 26.4 (4th) - 17.3 (1st)
Average Scoring Margin: +9.1 (4th); 11.7 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +18.5% Offense (2nd); -15.2% Defense (4th); +4.2% Special Teams (3rd); +38.0% Overall (1st)

Current Record: 11-5 Overall, 6-2 Home; 13-3 Against the Spread; 6-2 Home
Average Score: 22.8 (16th) - 18.9 (5th)
Average Scoring Margin: +3.9 (9th); 9.8 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: 0.0% Offense (16th); -1.8% Defense (14th); +3.9% Special Teams (4th); +5.7% Overall (11th)

Player(s) to Watch (SEA): Marshawn Lynch

Wow, what a crazy idea, right?

Lynch is expected to play this weekend after missing the last seven games with a sports hernia. He'll be going up against a defense in Minnesota's that ranked 21st in the league in opponents' yards per rush and who Football Outsiders had 18th among run defenses. They aren't exactly the Purple People Eaters of years past.

However, even when he was healthy this year, Lynch wasn't the dominant force that we've grown accustomed to. He had just one game with more than 100 yards rushing, and only one game where he averaged more than five yards per carry. He averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt for the season, by far the lowest mark he's had since arriving in Seattle.

Plain and simple, Seattle's running game was better when Thomas Rawls was in the game. Unfortunately, he's out for the year with a broken ankle. Christine Michael has stepped in admirably, carrying the ball 39 times for 192 yards (a 4.9 per-carry average) over the last three weeks, but if Lynch is active, he'll start. All the numbers suggest that Seattle should be able to make quick work of the Vikings, but one scenario where they don't probably involves a heavy dose of Lynch early, but either due to rust or the simple passage of time, Lynch just isn't the same running back as he used to be.

If Seattle's first few drives stall, Adrian Peterson and Minnesota's play-action game warm up, and Seattle finds themselves in an early 10- or 14-point hole, they could be in trouble. They aren't exactly a team built to close big leads.


Player(s) to Watch (MIN): Everson Griffen, Stefon Diggs

Here are two guys that could go a long way toward Minnesota scoring the home upset over the reigning conference champs.

If the Vikings are going to slow down Seattle's currently red-hot offense and quarterback Russell Wilson (more on that later), they're going to need a consistent pass rush, and a set edge against the run.

Griffen can provide both of those things, as a double-digit sack man and consistent force against off tackle and outside zone run plays. The key for Griffen will be staying honest against Seattle's zone read, however. If the physical end gets a little overly aggressive chasing Seattle's backs, there could be plenty of cheap yards for Wilson to pick up on the back end of plays.

On the other side of the ball, Minnesota badly needs to generate big plays down the field to open up lanes for rushing champ Adrian Peterson. The last time these teams played, Minnesota seemed to never have the ball, and only got Peterson a hand full of touches as it fell behind early. This time around, they'll want to get their star back involved, but that means SOMEBODY will have to keep Kam Chancellor and the rest of the Legion of Boom secondary from creeping up into the box.

Diggs is as good a choice as anyone in a Vikings receiving corps loaded with speed, but often short on production. The former Maryland "all-purpose weapon" has dealt with inures and inconsistencies dating back to his high school days, but man, when he puts it together is he fun to watch.

He's been quiet of late, only getting two targets and grabbing a single catch in last week's win over the Packers, but if there's ever been a time for a breakout game, now would be it for the promising young wideout.


Hidden Points: Seattle's Resourceful Offense

If I would have told you just after Seattle lost last year's Super Bowl that:

A. The Seahawks would trade All-Pro center Max Unger.
B. They would get a largely ineffective Jimmy Graham in return, then place him on IR, and
B. Marshawn Lynch would miss two months of the regular season.

You would probably think that the Seahawk offense tanked in 2015, but actually quite the opposite occurred.

After posting respectable offensive numbers on their way to the Super Bowl in 2014 (9th in total O at 376 YPG and 10th in scoring O at 24.6 PPG), the Seahawks have grown into an elite unit this season, rankings fourth in the league in both total offense (379 YPG) and scoring offense (26.4 PPG).

Those jumps may not sound significant, but keep in mind that two points per game is the difference between the Jets offense and the Steelers offense, while two yards per game is the difference between the Giants and the Patriots. You would obviously much rather have the latter offense in both cases.

How has Seattle done it? By getting more creative in its pass play calling (by necessity, since the tired "run Jimmy Graham down the seam" is out of the playbook), and through the emergence of Doug Baldwin.

Look, Baldwin isn't Antonio Brown or Julio Jones, but he has provided quarterback Russell Wilson with a reliable target, and has shown an ability to find the end zone. Over Seattle's remarkable six-game offensive stretch to end the regular season, Baldwin has hauled in 34 catches for 530 yards and 11 TOUCHDOWNS!

Geez, that's like a whole season for a "red zone" weapon, and Baldwin did it in six weeks.

By the way, over that same stretch, Wilson has thrown 24 touchdowns and just one interception. As much as they've been a running team in recent years (and they still are), the Seahawks are scary efficient through the air right now, and it's mostly because they tore things down and rebuilt them midseason.


Hidden Points: Teddy Bridgewater's Development

Here's a question that I'm not sure of the answer to: Are we sure that Teddy Bridgewater is even good?

Let's look at the facts. Minnesota ranked 31st in passing yards, 31st in passing touchdowns, 31st in first downs gained through the air (only St. Louis was worse in each category), 25th in net yards per attempt, and 19th in Football Outsiders' DVOA. Bridgewater, individually, ranked 24th of 36 eligible quarterbacks in net yards per attempt, 22nd of 35 eligible quarterbacks in Passer Rating, 13th of 35 in Total QBR, and 22nd in DVOA, and 21st in DYAR (another Football Outsiders metric, derived from DVOA). He's a 2nd-year quarterback, just 23 years old, but other than a respectable completion percentage, we just haven't seen much over the last two seasons that suggest Bridgewater is a quarterback that can be the fulcrum for an explosive offense.

It may be the case that the Vikings are really only concerned with keeping Bridgewater out of trouble from a down-and-distance perspective, and much more willing to turn the game over to their ground attack and defense. When you have Adrian Peterson in the backfield and Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith on defense, you certainly can't fault them for that gameplan. But is that a gameplan that is going to beat the Seahawks? The only teams that have taken down Seattle in the postseason in the last three years are Atlanta and New England, and they did it by flinging the ball all over the field. In the Super Bowl last year, the Patriots threw the ball 50 times against just 19 runs.

You need to be able to make plays against Seattle's defense. Playing a conservative scheme allows them to load the box and rely on the best top-to-bottom secondary in the league to not get beat one-on-one. It plays right into their hands. If Minnesota wants to get out with a win and a trip to Arizona, Bridgewater needs to have the game of his life.


The Picks:

Seattle 28, Minnesota 17

The Seahawks got off to a strange start to the season, but since their loss to Arizona in Week 10, they've been perhaps the best team in football. Besides a still head-scratching loss to St. Louis at home, they've trounced everyone they've come across, including Arizona, Pittsburgh, and, yes, this very same Minnesota team. Normally in the playoffs, previous head-to-head matchups mean little, especially games now over a month removed from this one. But Seattle won so convincingly that it's hard to believe it can be swept aside.

Seattle won 38-7, in Minnesota, outgaining the Vikings 433-125 in the process. Minnesota's only score was on a 104-yard kickoff return. Adrian Peterson ran the ball eight times for just 18 yards, by far his worst game of the season. Seattle held the ball for 35 minutes, going 9-for-13 on third down, holding Minnesota to nine first downs and a 2-for-10 mark on third downs of their own.

Minnesota has made a killing against mediocre defenses this year. They run the ball, control clock, make one or two big plays downfield, then run out the clock and go home. Against elite defenses, however, they've been just mediocre themselves. Against teams ranked by Football Outsiders in the top 10 of total defense, the Vikings were 3-4 and averaged just 291 yards of total offense. In their other nine games, Minnesota was 8-1, averaging 344 yards of offense. If they can't move the ball against elite defenses, a repeat of the Week 13 matchup might be expected.


Seattle 24, Minnesota 20

I don't see a repeat of Seattle's demolition of the Vikings, but I still don't think Minnesota has the offense to win this one. The much-improved Vikings defense held Aaron Rodgers in check last week, but Seattle is a healthier and more balanced offense than Green Bay right now.

I do think Minnesota will commit to its ground game, and hit a few shots down the field to make this a close one, but in the end, Seattle's defense and Russell Wilson are the difference.


Green Bay at Washington (4:30 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Opening Line: Packers by 1
Current Line: Pick'em

By The Numbers:

Green Bay:
Current Record: 10-6 Overall, 5-3 Away; 9-7 Against the Spread, 5-3 Away
Average Score: 23.0 (15th) - 20.2 (12th)
Average Scoring Margin: +2.8 (11th); 9.2 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +2.5% Offense (11th); -7.3% Defense (9th); +0.4% Special Teams (17th); +10.2% Overall (10th)

Current Record: 9-7 Overall, 6-2 Home; 9-7 Against the Spread, 5-3 Home
Average Score: 24.2 (10th) - 23.7 (17th)
Average Scoring Margin: +0.5 (14th) - 8.2 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +1.9% Offense (12th); +5.4% Defense (21st); +3.2% Special Teams (6th); -0.3% Overall (15th)

Player(s) to Watch (GB): Josh Sitton, David Bakhtiari

After starting the year 10-4, with a strong hold on the NFC North, the Packers lost back-to-back games in ugly fashion to squander a home playoff game. One of, if not the biggest reasons is pass protection. David Bakhtiari missed both games, and Aaron Rodgers was sacked nine times against Arizona in Week 16, followed by five more Week 17 against Minnesota. If Green Bay can't keep Aaron Rodgers upright, they can't win. It really might be that simple.

Bakhtiari is listed as questionable heading into the game, and if he can't go, Josh Sitton will likely slide over to left tackle as he has in previous weeks. It has not worked out, to say the least. The shuffling offensive line has not only hurt the passing game, but they've been unable to open holes for the running backs, either. Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined for 36 carries for 129 yards over the last two games, just a 3.6 per-carry average. Lacy averaged 4.25 yards on his previous 151 carries this year, Starks averaged 4.18 on 135 carries of his own.

Washington's run defense is among the worst in the league - they were 31st in opponents' yards per rush and were ranked 22nd in run defense by Football Outsiders. As a pass rush, they weren't much better, sacking opposing quarterbacks on 6.3 percent of dropbacks, barely better than the league average of 6.1 percent. With an offensive line at full strength, Green Bay should be able to push Washington's defense around. But if the trend continues, the Packers' offense could have a tough time getting anything going.


Player(s) to Watch (WAS): Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith

Well, I think Jeremy just laid out the case for Aaron Rodgers spending most of the game on his back, and if that turns out to be true, it will most likely be one of these guys putting him there.

One of the league's more underrated pass rushers, Kerrigan has fought through double teams all year to rack up 9.5 sacks, and all the attention he's drawn has helped the young Smith develop into a nice complementary rusher himself.

The rookie out of Mississippi State finished the season on a tear, grabbing five sacks in Washington's final three games, all wins. It will be interesting to see where both of these guys line up because physically, Green Bay may not have anyone that can match their combination of power and speed.

If they don't find an answer, the Packers could be in trouble.


Hidden Points: Crawling to the Finish Line

After starting the year 6-0, Green Bay has gone just 4-6 over its final 10 games, but that doesn't tell the story of just how much the Packers are struggling. Of their four wins, three have come against losing teams (Detroit, Dallas and Oakland), and that Lions victory was the result of a ridiculous Hail Mary from Aaron Rodgers to tight end Richard Rodgers (no relation).

In fact, the Pack has only beaten three teams all year with winning records, and two of those came in the first three weeks of the season (against Seattle and Kansas City, when both teams were struggling mightily, I may add), while they split their season series with everybody in their division, meaning they lost to Detroit and Chicago this year. Ew.

The point is, don't just assume Green Bay is going to win because they're the Packers and they have Aaron Rodgers. By the way, Rodgers hasn't been himself this year, mostly due to a beaten and battered line, along with a nicked up receiving corps. The savvy vet has thrown an interception in five of his last six games, and only surpassed 300 yards in three games all season.

When you take all those things into consideration, it's astonishing that Green Bay is in the playoffs at all, but if the Packers can patch an offensive line together and find some semblance of a running game, they have the quarterback to make a deep run.


Hidden Points: Kirk Cousins' Home Cooking

Here are some true numbers:

Kirk Cousins' home games this season, prorated to 16 games:
4340 yards, 32 Touchdowns, 4 Interceptions, 74.7% completion percentage, 9.34 net yards per attempt, 117.0 passer rating

Kirk Cousins' road games this season, prorated to 16 games:
3992 yards, 26 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 65.4% completion percentage, 6.47 net yards per attempt, 87.7 passer rating.

For a full year, "Home" Kirk Cousins would rank first in passer rating by a full seven points. Drew Brees, who ranked 6th in the league at 101.0, would have scored closer to Blaine Gabbert (86.2) than Cousins (117.0). Meanwhile, "Road" Kirk Cousins would have ranked just 25th in passer rating, behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Blake Bortles, just barely ahead of Sam Bradford.

It's exceptionally rare that a quarterback performs this much better at home than on the road in a given season. If and when it does happen, it almost invariably involves a dome quarterback (Matt Schaub in 2012 comes to mind). That this year it involves a quarterback who played outdoors all year (in fact, two of Cousins' road games this year came indoors - one strong performance against the Cowboys, one weak performance against Atlanta) is likely just statistical noise helped by the fact that Washington's home schedule included New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and the Giants.

All that being said, it is a striking statistical anomaly. If it continues, Washington could find themselves in Round 2.


The Picks:

Green Bay 23, Washington 16

I just don't think Washington is good. I've been saying it all year, but they keep winning. I think their schedule will finally catch up with them, though. Pro Football Reference ranks Washington as having the 7th-easiest schedule in the league this year. They only played five teams that finished at .500 or better (Atlanta, the Jets, New England, Buffalo and Carolina), and they went 1-4, only beating Buffalo. The other four games, they lost by a combined 65 points.

And I think Green Bay's problems are overblown. Yes, they've looked terrible on offense over the last two weeks, but, as mentioned above, they've had injuries to their offensive line that could very well be fixed come Sunday, and they've played against two elite defenses. Washington is coming off a game in which they gave up 512 yards to the Cowboys. That's right, the same Cowboys team that averaged 13.1 points per game and under 300 yards of offense over their previous seven weeks. They gained 500+ yards against this Washington defense.

Do you really expect Washington to shut down Aaron Rodgers? And do you really expect Kirk Cousins to light up a Top-10 defense? The Packers should right the ship and punch their ticket to Round 2.


Washington 21, Green Bay 20

Upset pick of the week (even though it's not a true upset)! 

Dammit, there's no way every home team loses this weekend, right? So, I'm going to go with the team and quarterback that seem to only feel comfortable at home (Washington was 6-2 in its own stadium this year and just 3-5 away).

That, and I just don't see how Green Bay sorts out its offensive line issues quickly enough to deal with a pair of pretty good pass rushers, and a midlevel defense that has played over its head at times this season (though, admittedly, they've also played remarkably poorly at times). Give me an incredibly pumped up Kirk Cousins and Washington at home.



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