Saturday, January 6, 2018

NFC Wild Card Primer (With Picks): Mostly Just The South

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

We've already previewed the AFC Wild Card games, so let's dispense with the pleasantries and skip the lengthy introductions: Here is what we think of both NFC Wild Card games, which include three teams from the NFC South.

Atlanta at Los Angeles (8:15 p.m. Saturday, NBC)

Opening Line: Rams by 5
Current Line: Rams by 5.5

By the Numbers:

Record: 10-6 Overall, 5-3 Road; 7-9 Against the Spread, 2-6 Road
Average Score: 22.1 (15th) - 19.7 (8th)
Average Scoring Margin: +2.4 (11th); 9.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +8.2% Offense (9th), +5.6% Defense (22nd), -1.2% Special Teams (19th); +1.5% Overall (15th)

Los Angeles:
Record: 11-5 Overall, 4-4 Home; 9-7 Against the Spread, 4-4 Home
Average Score: 29.9 (1st) - 20.6 (12th)
Average Scoring Margin: +9.3 (T-3rd); 11.3 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +11.1% Offense (6th), -9.7% Defense (6th), +6.8% Special Teams (2nd); +27.7% Overall (2nd)

Player(s) to Watch: Sean Harlowe, Alex Mack, Wes Schweitzer

The interior of the Atlanta offensive line will have their work cut out for them opposite all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald and perpetually underrated defensive tackle Michael Brockers. The Rams have one of the best interior defenses in football, and the Falcons are without Andy Levitre, one of the best guards in the league, so Sean Harlowe, his replacement, will have his hands full.

The good news for Atlanta is that in the three games that Levitre missed early in the season before being put on IR earlier this week, the Falcons were able to amass 400 rushing yards. Granted, two of those games were against the Saints and the other was against the Bucs, who finished near the bottom of the league in rush defense. Then again, the Rams finished 30th in yards allowed per rush and 22nd in DVOA against the run. 

The strength of the Rams defense is their pass rush - they finished fifth in adjusted sack rate, and most of that pressure comes from up the middle. This could spell trouble for Atlanta, considering Matt Ryan was sacked five times in the last game that Sean Harlowe played (Week 16 against New Orleans), and most of the pressure in the game came from the pocket collapsing in front of Matt Ryan.

If these three guys can keep Aaron Donald in check, likely with regular double teams, Matt Ryan might be able to find enough time to connect with Julio Jones downfield, which would go a long way towards an Atlanta upset.


Hidden Points: Home Field Advantage

Here's the weird thing - the Rams were just 4-3 in home games that had any consequence (most of their relevant players sat for most of Week 17's tilt with San Francisco), but in those seven games, they had a scoring margin of +11.5, which is kind of insane. They had wins of 37, 33, and 26 at home this year. Those games came against the Colts, Cardinals, and Texans. Their three home losses (all by a touchdown or less) came against Washington, Philadelphia, and Seattle.

So, herein lies the eternal question - do you put more stock into the idea that they beat up on the bad teams that they beat up on, or that they lost close games when they were stacked up against better competition? Over the course of a full season, it's usually more reliable to just look at scoring margin, and mostly ignore which games were blowouts and which games were close. But because we're looking only at their home games (and really only seven of them, ignoring Week 17), the sample becomes a lot smaller, and therefore less reliable.

It's unclear what, if any, home field advantage the Rams have. They play outside, but don't play in adverse weather, obviously, and as they just moved to Los Angeles and are still working on building a steady fanbase, so they don't have a loud and raucous and disruptive crowd like the Chiefs or Raiders or whoever else. Now they're playing against a team that was reasonably successful on the road (and also went 6-2 on the road last year) and is the defending conference champion.


The State of the Falcons:

After blowing the Super Bowl last year, most thought the Falcons would go one of two ways. Either the reigning NFC champs would come back stronger and hungrier than every, unleashing a scary offense full of play makers and a young defense long on speed, or... They would totally fall apart.

Well, we've seen flashes of both this season, as Atlanta has looked occasionally brilliant, and sometime awful en route to a 10-6 season and Wild Card berth.

That said, the Falcons are Top 10 in both total offense and defense this season, making them one of the most complete teams in football. Super Bowl collapse aside, Atlanta has wins against the Saints and Panthers in the past few weeks, and have as much talent as anybody in the tournament.


The State of the Rams:

The Rams are such a weird team to break down. We've known this has had talent for a few years now, but it has finally flourished under first year coach Sean McVay, who has helped second-year quarterback Jared Goff make a huge leap, and squeezed the most out of a dominant defensive front led by Aaron Donald.

What is most remarkable about the Rams is that they lead the league in points per game, while ranking 10th in total offense. That has been largely due to Goff's 28 passing touchdowns and running back Todd Gurley's 13 rush touchdowns to go with 1,300 yards. Gurley has been nothing short of sensational this season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and nearly 90 yards per game, while also catching 66 balls for nearly 800 yards and six more scores.

Basically, the guy has done it all for the league's highest-scoring offense.


The Picks:

Atlanta 31, Los Angeles 28

Last year, Atlanta spent most of the year dropping 30+ points on everybody but there were questions about whether their defense could hold up in the playoffs. Well, they kept scoring 30+ points on everybody and their defense held up (for the most part) until the second half of the Super Bowl. This year, the defensive momentum they built up at the end of last season has continued, but there has been a rather jarring drop-off in offensive output despite returning every relevant offensive player.

The only change in Atlanta's offense from last year to this year is the loss of Kyle Shanahan, which is certainly relevant, but the point is that the talent is still all there. If the Falcons are finally going to put it all together, it seems like this would be a reasonable opportunity - playing against a rookie head coach and a defense that has some legitimate question marks.


Los Angeles 30, Atlanta 27

The Rams may not have a real home field advantage, but they do have a defense that can generate pressure without blitzing, and an All-World running back who can burn a "pretty good" Atlanta defense in a plethora of ways.

Plus, doesn't this just seem like a coming out party for McVay and Goff? I think the Rams offense comes through in a big way, and the defense makes just enough plays to limit Julio Jones and company.


Carolina at New Orleans (4:30 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Opening Line: Saints by 6
Current Line: Saints by 7

By the Numbers:

Record: 11-5 Overall, 5-3 Road; 9-7 Against the Spread, 5-3 Road
Average Score: 22.7 (12th) - 20.4 (11th)
Average Scoring Margin: +2.3 (12th); 9.0 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -0.5% Offense (17th), -8.8% Defense (7th), +4.7% Special Teams (6th); +13.0% Overall (9th)

New Orleans:
Record: 11-5 Overall, 7-1 Home; 8-8 Against the Spread, 4-4 Home
Average Score: 28.0 (4th) - 20.4 (10th)
Average Scoring Margin: +7.6 (6th); 10.9 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +21.6% Offense (2nd), -7.9% Defense (8th), +1.2% Special Teams (15th), +30.7% Overall (1st)

Player(s) to Watch: Alvin Kamara, Luke Kuechly

I suppose it's kind of cheating to just list the most impactful player for each team on a given side of the ball and call them the players to watch, but in this case, this is really the only matchup in the game that will be true strength vs. strength.

After spending most of the last decade-plus as an explosive vertical passing attack, the New Orleans offense this year shifted focus slightly. Sure, they still have great downfield threats, but the bread and butter of their offense comes from their running backs, especially Kamara. Not only did Kamara and Mark Ingram combine for 1852 rushing yards at a clip of almost 5.3 yards per carry, but they also combined for 139 receptions and 1242 yards, with 1216 of those yards coming after the catch.

New Orleans has an absolutely devastating screen game, and they're one of the few teams in the league where checking down to the running back is actually one of their best available plays. Kamara is the real engine there. He was second among running backs in receptions, first in receiving yards, and third in yards per reception.

Unless New Orleans decides to line him up outside like a wide receiver for most of the game (and don't rule this out), the guy that will be responsible for keeping tabs on Kamara will be Kuechly, the league's best linebacker and perhaps the league's best defensive player, period. The Panthers and Saints have tussled twice this season, and the Saints came away with relatively easy victories both times. Kamara was largely a non-factor in the first game in Week 3. He had a 25-yard touchdown run, but the Saints were already up two touchdowns with less than five minutes remaining, and his other four touches accounted for just 17 yards. In Week 13, however, Kamara accounted for 126 total yards on 14 touches, including two rushing touchdowns in another easy New Orleans win.

So far this season, Kamara has been a dynamic playmaker that no team has really been able to bottle up - his only "bad" games have come when he just didn't handle the ball much. If Kamara can break a few plays in this one, the Saints should sweep the season series over Carolina.


Hidden Points: What Is Driving Carolina's Offense?

In Football Outsiders' NFC Preview, they outline how the Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin, their leading receiver at the time, but inexplicably saw their offensive improve over the second half of the season.

One of the big factors here is that they started running the ball more. Instead of trying to replace the half-dozen or more targets that Benjamin saw each week with targets to less impactful receivers, they decided to just keep the ball on the ground. That seemed to help, as their offense clearly got better.

What is interesting, though, is that perhaps the real reason for their turnaround isn't specifically that those extra runs generated more value (like, an extra seven rushes is going to account for an extra 30 yards or so - nothing to write home about), it's that throwing less led to fewer negative plays. For the second half of the season, Carolina's interception and sack rate fell considerably, so even though Cam Newton's per-play passing statistics fell slightly, Carolina's offense was better.

All in all, there just aren't that many threats on Carolina's offense that scare you - neither Jonathan Stewart or Christian McCaffrey were especially dynamic as runners, and Devin Funchess was the team's leading receiver with 840 yards. The best aspect of Carolina's offense is still Cam Newton running with the football, but you can't really rely on that for 25 or 30 offensive plays per game, someone else needs to step up.


The State of the Panthers:

As usual, the Panthers are tough to get a read on but, also as usual, as Cam Newton goes, so does this team. Carolina will again go as far as its quarterback can carry it, with limited outside weapons, but a nice cast of characters in the backfield, slot and at tight end.

Defensively, the Panthers have two elite players in linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Kawann Short, but also a pair of veteran pass rushers who have played far beyond anyone's expectations. 30-year old Mario Addison is tied for the team lead in sacks with 11, but he shares that lead with the ageless Julius Peppers, who is somehow still scaring opposing QBs at the ripe old age of 37.

If Newton is on his game, and this defense can stay forever young, Carolina has the horses to run with pretty much anybody.


The State of the Saints:

This ain't your big brother's Saints team. After years of winning by simply handing the ball to Drew Brees and telling him to sling it, New Orleans is winning with the historically good 1-2 running back punch of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, plus a Top 10 scoring defense led by All-Pro edge rusher Cameron Jordan.

But Brees ain't chopped liver either, as the future Hall of Famer still ranks in the Top 5 in the league in passing yards, and has only thrown eight interceptions all season.  Basically, this is the most balanced Saints team we've seen in the Brees era, and maybe ever. But, is it good enough to bring home the franchise's second Lombardi Trophy? That remains to be seen.


The Picks:

New Orleans 34, Carolina 23

I think that Carolina will hang around for as long as they can get away with running the ball on as many first and second downs as they want to. If they don't have the success they're looking to find there, the Panthers will need to be perfect (or damn close) in third-and-medium-or-more situations to have any chance of keeping up. If they can't find success on the ground and/or are anything less than outstanding on third down, this should be an easy Saints win.

It's just not reasonable to expect that Carolina can hang in punch-for-punch with New Orleans, much like I said about Tennessee trying to hang with Kansas City. For as dynamic as their quarterbacks are as runners, with some support in the backfield, they just don't have the horses at wide receiver to keep up.

I do like Carolina's defense, and it's one of the few defenses still alive that I'd trust to keep Drew Brees in check if everything goes well, but Carolina's offense is just too inconsistent. They'll hang close for the first three quarters, but once they get into a spot where they have to start throwing the ball on (nearly) every down, I think they're in trouble.


New Orleans 30, Carolina 20

The Saints have beaten Carolina twice this year, and I don't see a reason why Round 3 will be any different. New Orleans' versatile offense is virtually impossible to stop, while its defense has done just enough rushing the passer and in the red zone to win big games.

This seems like the first step of a Super Bowl run for the Saints, but of course I just jinxed it.


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