Thursday, January 05, 2006

NFL Wild Card Preview/stabs in the dark

I'll be the first guy to admit that my football knowledge is gleaned mostly from Madden NFL versions 97 through 06. I tried to change that a bit this year, and became a regular vistor to Football Outsiders, a football site dedicated to statistical analysis. The site is dedicated to overturning conventional "wisdom", such as RUNNING THE FOOTBALL and STOPPING THE RUN that pundits spout 24/7. F.O. also tries to disprove the idea that yardage is the best measure of sucess and the best predictor of future success. The site recognizes that some yards are more important than others, and devised a system that measures which plays are successes and which plays aren't. For example, a 2 yard run on 1st and 10 is unsuccessful in their system, but a 2 yard run on 4th and 1 is successful. Makes sense, no? The site translates all of these successful and unsuccessful plays into a percentage above or below average, and then adjusts for opponent difficulty, resulting in a stat called Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA. A teams overall DVOA is then split into Offense, Defense, and Special Teams values, with special teams encompassing placekicking, kickoff returns, punt returns, kickoff coverage, and punt coverage. There are additional statistics for evaluating individual players, but even they admit such a task is Herculean in football, a sport that requires the coordination of all 11 players on the field for a play to be successful. Consequently, I will mostly be using team DVOA to assist in my predictions.

I've found DVOA to be very helpful in making predictions in individual games this season, helpful enough that I finished in the 91% of all Yahoo users, who number in the hundreds of thousands. My number would have been higher had I not forgotten to make my picks in Week 7. Disregarding Week 7, I successfully picked the winners in 159 out of 242 games. Not bad, not bad. Anyway, this entire preface is really more of a disclaimer. Though I don't know much about football, I'm learning, and I have Football Outsiders to thank. With that, on to the games.

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
This is the rubber match in a divisional rivalry that saw the away team win each game. Both teams looked so impressive in their respective away wins, that everyone (including myself) bought into the winner of the game as the team to beat in the division. It just so happened that Cincy's win came later in the season, so everyone turned out to be right. While the Bengals may have finally won the division, Pittsburgh finished on a much stronger note, with dominating victories over Cleveland and Detroit. Cincinnati, meanwhile, looked terrible in a game it tried to win, a home loss agaist Buffalo, and then mailed it in at Kansas City in the season finale by resting most of its starters. After witnessing last year's Eagles, I became convinced that momentum going into the playoffs really doesn't matter very much, and that will especially be the case here between teams that know each other so well. It's better to throw out the mitigating circumstances (save for Cincy's homefield advantage) and look at how the teams match up on paper.

This just in: the Steelers have a great defense. In terms of DVOA, they ranked 2nd in the league against the run and 8th against the pass. Another newsflash: the Bengals have a great offense. They ranked 6th in passing DVOA and 6th in rushing DVOA, but if you throw out their white flag game against Kansas City, they'd be in the top 5 of both categories. The Bengals had trouble scoring in the red zone against Pittsburgh in their loss, and definitely corrected the problem in the victory. I expect that success to continue in this game, and I also expect 3 or 4 long pass plays to Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

It's no secret that the Steelers love to run the ball, but it surprised to find that they actually ranked higher in pass DVOA (8th) than run DVOA (11th). It's also no secret that the Bengals struggle to stop the run (24th in run DVOA), but make up for it with their predeliction for interceptions, which help give them the 10th best passing defense. In a sense, the Bengals offense will determine its defense, because if the Bengals go ahead quickly, Pittsburgh will be forced to play against the strength of the Bengals D, something that did not work too well in Cincy's 38-31 victory in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger has not shown me that he can win a game with his arm, especially with his thumb banged up the way it is. I've read a couple of articles saying that he still can't pass with the kind of touch he wants to, which plays right into the hands of the Cincinnati secondary.

Moving on to oft-overlooked special teams, the Bengals have the edge in every phase except for punting. Placekicker Shayne Graham and kick returner Tab Perry are particular strengths. I have a feeling that punting won't matter as much in this game because both offenses should be able to move the ball, which negates the Steelers advantage a bit. In what should be a close game, Cincy's edge in the kicking game will prove decisive.

Prediction: Bengals win 34-31

Jacksonville at New England
This game is hard to read because New England has improved so much in the second half of the season, and there's no way to know how well Byron Leftwich will perform for Jacksonville coming off his injury. Since New England's defense was so horrible their defense languishes in the depths of the rankings (27th overall and 29th against the pass). While Tedy Bruschi's return seems to have helped the run defense (ranked 13th), the secondary is still incredibly banged up. Even without Leftwich in the lineup, David Garrard played well enough to keep the Jaguars as the 9th ranked passing offense; Fred Taylor and LaBrandon Toefield combined for the 12th rushing rank. If not for the brilliance of Tom Brady and his many weapons, the Jags would actually have a better offense.

As it is, the Pats passing offense ranks 2nd. Unfortunately for them, this plays right into the hands of Jacksonville's true strength, their 5th ranked pass defense. They're not too shabby against the run either, ranked 14th. New England's rushing offense is subpar, ranking only 19th. If Tom Brady wants to win, he will have to overcome one of the toughest pass defenses he has faced this season.

The teams match up evenly in special teams. Not surprisingly, New England and future public statue Adam Vinatieri have a decided edge in placekicking. But Jacksonville is much better on kickoff coverage, and New England is nothing special when it comes to kick returns. Five extra yards of field position might not make a difference though, because of the Vinatieri factor.

It pains me to make a prediction, but I can't stop coming back to the New England passing offense against Jacksonville's passing defense. These guys held Indianapolis to 10 points in Indy! I have a gut feeling that they will replicate the performance and stun the Pats.

Prediction: Jaguars win 28-27

Carolina at New York
Maybe it was because he was on my fantasy team, but I had a kick watching Tiki Barber run wild this season. Maybe it's the way he fixed his fumbling problem by carrying the ball up on his shoulder, and maybe it's that great brow of his. Whatever it is, I know that he should be able to run against Carolina's 12th ranked run defense. It's not a bad ranking, but I have faith in Tiki. As much as I like Tiki, I hate Jeremy Shockey with a blinding passion. Yet that won't stop me from proclaiming him as a top 3 tight end in this league, and he should also be able to run wild over the Panther linebackers, who ranked 19th in the league against tight ends.

Carolina's rushing game is already anemic (ranked 29th). Now it has to go up against New York's 3rd ranked rushing defense. Granted, New York is missing two of its best linebackers in Antonio Pierce and Carlos Emmons, but the real strength of the defense is the line, led by Michael Strahan. I think the New York defensive line will stop the run and pressure Jake Delhomme into throwing interceptions. Carolina will be unable to run and will be forced to throw to their only true weapon, Steve Smith. New York will double team him, and I don't think Carolina has the personnel to give Delhomme a viable safety valve.

Both teams were among the leaders in total special teams. Placekicking is strong for both teams, as is punting, although Carolina's put coverage is particularly strong--2nd ranked in fact. Once again, I think the teams relative strengths cancel each other out and no team will have a huge advantage in special teams.

People will probably make a big deal out of Eli Manning's inexperience and tendency to throw interceptions, but despite Jake Delhomme's experience, he throws picks just as often. When it comes down to it, I can't get by the fact that Carolina has one legitimate offensive threat, and when that threat is a wideout, it's easier to stop him than if he's a running back or quarterback.

Prediction: Giants win 27-14

Washington at Tampa Bay
This game is a rematch of one of the best games of the regular season, a 36-35 thriller that Tampa won on a 2-point conversion. That was the start of a 3 game losing streak for Washington, which they then followed with a 5 game winning streak. More notable than the fact that they actually won these games was that their offense caught fire, scoring 30+ points in the last three games of the season. Not only do they score points, but they score with balance, ranking 10th in passing offense and 9th in rushing offense, thanks to the resurgences of Clinton Portis and Santana Moss. Despite the hype surrounding Ronde Barber, Tampa ranks only 15th in passing defense, although they do sport the top ranked rushing defense. I still think Portis is good enough to get enough carries to keep them honest (in the game earlier this year, he gained 144 yards), which should allow Santana Moss to get over the top.

Tampa's offense suffered from a lack of identity most of the year, at least until Chris Simms found his sea legs, so to speak, and Cadillac Williams fully recovered from his injury. Of course, Tampa hung 36 on Washington earlier, solely based on Chris Simms throwing deep to Joey Galloway (18.7 avg) and Edell Shepherd (29.0 avg). Will that happen again? I'm not so sure. Simms didn't come close to replicating his performance against Washington the rest of the season. Simms averaged 9.6 yards per attempt against Washington, but ended up at only 6.5 for the season and never topped 7.0 again. The performance smacks of "outlier". I say that Simms struggles against Washington's 5th rated pass defense, and Cadillac won't get much mileage (sorry, had to do it) against the 7th ranked defense.

This is the only wild card game in which one team holds a slight edge over the other, with the advantage going to Washington. They have big advantages in in kickoff returns and punting, while basically running even with Tampa in the other categories. Getting good field position is vitally important for the weaker Tampa offense, and if Washington can punt the ball deep and inside the 20 consistently, it will be tough for Tampa to overcome.

In short, I don't trust Chris Simms to beat Washington's defense again, which ranked 2nd overall this season. Washington has been scoring points at will recently, and while they won't break 30, they will score more than enough to beat Tampa on the road.

Prediction: Washington wins 28-14

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