We covered wild-card Saturday on Thursday. Now we move on to wild-card Sunday on Friday. Try to keep up.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
If you ranked and re-seeded the 12 teams set to do battle in this year’s postseason right now, I think the Ravens and Colts would likely be the two bottom-ranked teams. The Ravens have been ravaged by injuries to their top players to the extent that it has shifted their identity and reduced a perennially swagger-enveloped Super Bowl contender to a whisper. Indianapolis profiles as the classic NFL overachiever, with their statistical profile suggesting that the Colts are one of the worst teams to make the playoffs in recent memory. One of them will advance to the second round by the blessings of the league’s seeding system, while two teams that are arguably both better than either contender here will compete in the nightcap.
Those labels don’t really mean anything in the context of what these teams are going to do on Sunday and in the month of January. So what if the Colts got here by winning a bunch of close games against the league’s easiest schedule? What good is there to wondering how good the Ravens might be with a healthy set of starters on defense? Those problems only matter in terms of evaluating each team’s level of play heading into the playoffs, not in determining whether better teams deserve to be here instead.
Of course, there are emotions swirling throughout the story lines surrounding this game. Indianapolis is here on the back of a season spent almost entirely without head coach Chuck Pagano, who has been undergoing treatment for leukemia. Pagano was the Baltimore defensive coordinator in 2011 and spent four years as a member of the Ravens coaching staff under John Harbaugh. The longtime leader of that defense, Ray Lewis, announced this week that he’ll be retiring at the end of the season. After missing 10 games with a torn triceps, Lewis will likely return in a limited role for Sunday’s game, which will almost surely be the 13-time Pro Bowler’s final home game with the Ravens.1 I’m not going to be addressing these because they’re impossible to quantify and there’s no way to make reliable meaning of them. I don’t doubt that these sorts of intangible factors exist, but if you think you have a way to handicap the relative meaning of a team playing for a sick coach versus the impending retirement of a franchise icon, chances are you’ve fooled yourself.
Exploiting Low Expectations
I mentioned Thursday that it’s important to evaluate a team’s true level of play by going beyond their win-loss record and actually looking at their underlying performance. Any analysis in that direction regarding the Colts is going to suggest that they’re a very lucky football team to be 11-5. I don’t think it’s important to belabor that point, since I’ve discussed it more than once in recent weeks here at Grantland (including in Monday’s piece), but I do want to put the gap between the Colts and your typical 11-5 team into some perspective.
By just about any advanced measure I can find, the Colts rate out to be among the worst 11-5 teams and the worst playoff teams in league history. Their point differential over 16 games was at minus-30, a figure that would more commonly be associated with a 7-9 team than an 11-5 one. The Colts are the first team in league history to win 11 or more games with a negative point differential. They’re 25th in DVOA, the Football Outsiders core statistic,2 and 24th per the Simple Rating System. They have 11 wins despite all that because they’ve played the league’s easiest schedule (by virtually any definition you can imagine), gone 9-1 in games decided by one touchdown or less, and gotten brilliant work in the clutch from Andrew Luck.
Only seven teams since 1983, strike-shortened seasons aside, have made it to the playoffs with a point differential inferior to that of the Colts. The two teams at the top of that list made their way into the playoffs rather recently. The 2010 Seahawks were the first team in league history to win their division with a 7-9 record, and they marched their way into the playoffs with a -97 point differential. They were followed in 2011 by the Broncos, who rode Tebowmania to the AFC West crown despite a -81 point differential. Playoff teams with subpar point differentials are organizations that often got an automatic spot by virtue of winning the worst division in the NFL in a given year; it can be more difficult for a subpar team to put up the impressive win totals needed for a wild-card berth.
You may remember something interesting about those Seahawks and Broncos teams: Despite being huge underdogs in the divisional round, each managed to win dramatic upsets at home against teams that were supposed to blow them out. As it turns out, that’s no fluke. Those seven teams who made it to the playoffs with an inferior point differential to the Colts went 6-1 in the opening round, with four of those six wins coming on the road. In fact, teams with a negative point differential have gone 16-10 in the opening round of the playoffs, including an 8-6 mark on the road. Now, a 26-game sample size across 30 years of football doesn’t mean a ton, so I wouldn’t go bet my life savings on the Colts because seemingly inferior teams have done better than you might expect, but I think that says a lot about just how random the playoffs can be when you’re matching up teams in the first round. The magic doesn’t last long, though: When these teams face off against much tougher competition in the second round of the playoffs, they’re a combined 2-14. Only one team in the past 30 years has made it through the Conference Championship and to the Super Bowl with a negative point differential: last year’s New York Giants, who battled one of the league’s toughest regular-season schedules to a point differential of minus-6.
The Ravens have been unlucky in a different way. Beyond every one of their defensive stars either being sidelined or slowed by an injury this year, the Ravens have been subject to some unfriendly bounces on special teams. Despite their having produced what Football Outsiders suggests to be the league’s best special teams unit,3 Baltimore ranks last in terms of their “hidden” special teams performance. That metric encapsulates plays on special teams that are out of a squad’s control, including things like field goal kicking against a team, or the average kickoff distance a team faces (before any return). Baltimore’s been beaten up by these uncontrollable events to the tune of just under 22 points’ worth of value this year. Opposing kickers are 37-for-39 against Baltimore this year, producing a league-high success rate of 94.9 percent.
Commit to Competence
That’s enough about randomness. Let’s get to performance. If the Colts are really that much worse than their record, what about their actual level of play is so subpar? Well, there’s one facet of the game where the Colts rate out as particularly poor, and it’s a spot the Ravens have spent the second half laboring to exploit. Indianapolis has one of the worst run defenses in all of football. They allow teams to run for 5.1 yards per carry, which is 31st in the league, and the Colts are dead last in run defense DVOA. Indy allowed 21 runs of 20 yards or more this year, more than anybody else in football. It wasn’t all Arian Foster and Jamaal Charles, either, as the likes of Joe McKnight, Alex Green,4 and Joique Bell each busted off carries for 40-plus yards on the Colts. And it’s not as if the Colts are a boom-or-bust run-stopping team, either; only two teams in the league stuffed runners in the backfield for a loss less frequently than Indianapolis. The Colts have a front seven filled with a lot of spare parts and players moving to new positions, and the result has been scattershot work against opposing ground games.
Can the Ravens actually do something about it, though? Baltimore’s lack of a running game was enough for the organization to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replace him with former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell in a move that’s earned an incomplete score through three games. Baltimore’s rushing offense was actually playing at an elite level during the first half of the season, when the Ravens ranked second in rushing DVOA. That’s fallen to 16th over the second half of the campaign, and it hasn’t been from overuse. The Ravens only run the ball 48.7 percent of the time on first-and-10 in situations where they are within 14 points of their opponents, which is the seventh-lowest rate in the league. They average 4.31 yards per rush on those plays, which is just below league-average, but the Colts allow their opponents a whopping 5.31 yards per run in those same situations. Only the Saints are worse.
It will be interesting to see if the Ravens finally unleash Ray Rice and let him take the vast majority of the team’s offensive snaps. After signing Rice to a lucrative contract extension this offseason, the Ravens protected their newly expensive asset by limiting him to 318 touches, Rice’s lowest figure as a starter. Baltimore didn’t get any improvement in efficiency with those limitations, as Rice averaged a career-low 7.8 yards per catch and produced 4.4 yards per carry, which is below his career average. Rookie Bernard Pierce has been effective as Rice’s understudy, but it certainly seems like high time to take off the leash and give Rice the lion’s share of the workload on offense. Key guard Marshal Yanda has missed two of Baltimore’s last three games, and while he’s likely to play on Sunday, a healthy Yanda could be an enormous contributor in this game.
Baltimore’s home-field advantage could end up being the deciding factor in this game.5 Indianapolis’s offense and Baltimore’s defense are remarkably consistent at home and on the road in terms of DVOA, but the other matchup is rather staggered. Baltimore’s offense improves from 25th in DVOA on the road to seventh in the league at home, while the Indianapolis defense is 20th in DVOA at home and dead last in the league when they hop on a plane (and probably listen to some terrible Jim Irsay mixtape).
That gap is reflected in Indianapolis’s win-loss record. The Colts were 7-1 at home this year, with each of their wins against playoff-caliber competition (the Packers, Texans, and Vikings) coming at home. They were 4-4 on the road, and their wins came against the Chiefs, Jaguars, Lions, and Titans, four teams who combined to go 14-50 this year. Their four road defeats weren’t pretty, either: They lost by 12 to the Texans, 20 to the Bears, 26 to the lowly Jets, and 35 to the Patriots. It’s safe to say that the Ravens have more in common with the latter group of teams than with the former.
I think Seahawks-Redskins is the closest game of the four this week, but I believe that Colts-Ravens represents the game with the widest range of possible styles. I think it’s equally as likely that these two teams play conservative, field-position football as it is that they air the ball out and take advantage of each other’s injury-weakened and/or mediocre defenses. The most likely scenario involves the Colts failing to protect the ball and the Ravens taking advantage of their inability to do so. Indy has turned the ball over 20 times in its eight road games this year, and the Ravens are 31-9 under Harbaugh in games where they’ve forced two takeaways or more.6 If the Ravens get ahead early, they’re going to be able to run the ball down Indianapolis’s throat, which should take time off the clock and prevent Luck from being able to lead the Colts back with his arm. These may be the two worst teams in the playoffs, but Baltimore’s the better team of the two. Baltimore 27, Indianapolis 17.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Washington Redskins (10-6)
Can two 11-5 teams be any less similar than the Colts and the Seahawks? While the Colts eked by against an easy schedule with a subpar point differential, the Seahawks faced one of the league’s toughest slates (fourth per Football Outsiders, fifth per SRS) and produced a point differential of plus-167, the third-largest figure in the league. Only two other 11-5 teams since the strike season of 1982 managed a better point differential across 16 games. Seattle’s performance produces a Pythagorean expectation of 12.5 wins, also third in the league, and the Seahawks finished the year with a league-best 38.3 percent DVOA. The Seahawks haven’t trailed by more than seven points since Week 6 and have only been down by more than one score for a total of 28 minutes and 42 seconds all season. The Chiefs are lucky if they can stay within one score for that long in a single half.
The Seahawks might be the only team in football that had a better second half of the season than the Redskins. Both Seattle and Washington went 7-1, but the Redskins did so while simultaneously vaulting themselves from the NFC East cellar into its penthouse, winning the division during the final game of the 2012 regular season. Everyone knows about Washington’s brilliant offense, but as I discussed on Monday, it’s been Washington’s defense that has improved more during the team’s unlikely run to the playoffs. For all Alfred Morris did Sunday, the offense still punted the ball away to the Cowboys deep in the fourth quarter with a chance for Dallas to drive and take the lead. It was the defense that came up with an interception of Tony Romo to end the drive and all but seal the Cowboys’ fate.
Washington is going to need every bit of defense it can get, since Seattle’s offense remains arguably the most underrated attack in all of football. How underrated? Well, that seems like a good place to start …
Running With the Ones
As I discussed in Thursday’s preview of the Texans-Bengals tilt, relying on second-half splits as a foolproof indicator of a team’s future level of play in the playoffs can be a dangerous thing. At the extremes, though, it’s hard to write off a truly staggering stretch of play as just total randomness. Even if something isn’t sustainable, it can indicate some new level of performance that wasn’t available to the team in question beforehand.
With that in mind, there was nothing wrong with the Seattle Seahawks offense through Week 9. They were 13th in DVOA with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson at the helm, with that unsurprisingly weighted toward the ground game: seventh in running the ball and 12th through the air. Then they scored 272 points over the final eight games of the year. Thirty-five of those points came on returns by the defense and special teams, but when you consider the circumstances — 42 points against the 49ers, 58 against the Cardinals — 237 is a damn impressive number. Even more impressive was their DVOA. Seattle produced the league’s best offensive DVOA over the final eight weeks of the year. Let me take that a step further. Not only did Seattle have the best offensive DVOA in the league, they had both the best rushing offense DVOA in the league and the best pass offense DVOA in the league.
Seattle has been truly incredible over that stretch on both sides of the ball, but the attention has rightfully been focused on their star quarterback. I wrote about Russell Wilson four games into that eight-game stretch and noted that his statistics were eerily similar to those of one Robert Griffin III. I also noted that his interception rate (zero during that four-game stretch) was likely to bounce back, and that the Seahawks weren’t going to keep converting 50 percent of the third downs he threw on in two-touchdown games. Let’s see if that actually happened, and how Wilson’s numbers shifted over the final four games of the year:7
Difficult to call that one a victory for me. Wilson had only two interceptions across those four games, and they came in contests where the Seahawks prevailed by a combined 87 points, so it’s hard to imagine that they were very meaningful. And after I suggested that Wilson wouldn’t be able to move the chains 50 percent of the time when he dropped back on third down for much longer, he did exactly that through the final four games. My only saving grace there is that the Seahawks weren’t in many situations where they faced third downs in close games; Wilson only threw 14 such passes in that context from Week 14 on. With each extended stretch of play like this from Wilson, it becomes more and more likely that we’re seeing his true level of performance and not a hot stretch of play that he’ll regress from in the coming weeks. At the moment, nobody is in better form than Russell Wilson.
And if you believe that those same splits are meaningful for the Seattle offense, well, Washington’s defense might be up for the challenge. While the Redskins defense has improved from 23rd in defensive DVOA during the first half to 12th during Weeks 10-17, that improvement has been driven entirely by their work as a pass defense. The Washington pass defense went from 22nd in the league to sixth during their run to the top, while the run defense went from 17th to 28th. Some of that can be dictated by the situations they faced, but DVOA does adjust for the specific situation in question, so this should be a sign that their pass defense has improved some (at the expense of the run defense).
If there’s anybody on the defensive side of the Washington roster who has stepped up during their winning streak, it’s underappreciated linebacker Rob Jackson. Jackson is the guy who took over for Brian Orakpo after Orakpo suffered a season-ending pec tear in Week 2, and while it took him a little while to settle in, he has been a defensive playmaker for Washington during their 7-0 run. Over the past seven games, Jackson has four sacks, four passes defended, two forced fumbles, and two picks, including that game-sealing interception of Romo last week. Of course, more playing time helps produce more big plays, and over that time frame, Jackson’s playing time has increased from 46 percent of snaps to nearly 67 percent, the biggest such change for any Redskins defender.
Washington will have to be particularly vigilant in the red zone, where Seattle has been deadly all season. The Seahawks have produced the fourth-best red zone offense in the league this year, averaging 5.1 points per trip inside the 20. Washington’s defense ranks just 24th in the league against teams in the red zone, as they’ve been allowing 5.0 points per red zone possession.8 Seattle also has the league’s third-best red zone defense, while Washington’s offense is 12th inside the 20.
Let’s Watch Alf
Washington’s best chance at stopping Russell Wilson & Co. will come by keeping the explosive Seahawks offense on the bench. Fortunately, I think they’re going to be able to do that. Although Seattle certainly has impressive personnel on the defensive side of the ball, their run defense has fallen off during their hot stretch in the second half. After ranking sixth in run defense DVOA during the first nine weeks of the year, Seattle’s run defense has fallen all the way to 26th during the second half. That is where Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris come in. Our Chris Brown did a great piece on the core components of the Washington rushing attack Thursday that is an absolute must-read for understanding both how simple and how effective the Washington rushing attack can be.
For Seattle, the difficult part is going to be balancing their defensive personnel versus the different options Washington can present out of the same looks. They’ll have to play a delicate line with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, their two excellent safeties. Do they push Thomas into the box for run support and dare Griffin to throw downfield, hoping that Thomas will be able to use his athleticism to react and that their cornerbacks will hold up long enough in coverage? Or do they leave Thomas deep and trust that he’ll be able to crash running plays for minimal gains? What about a raw talent like Bruce Irvin, whose primary job is to rush the passer? Will the Redskins be able to exploit his aggressiveness by reading him appropriately in the run game? Will the same be true for opposite end Chris Clemons? The 49ers did have a little bit of success running with Colin Kaepernick in a similar role against the Seahawks in Week 16 before the game got out of hand, so it’ll be interesting to see if Seattle can hold up versus the run.
On the other hand, Seattle should do well against Washington’s group of receivers, a unit that seems to make half of its catches downfield with nobody else on the screen. The Seahawks did a great job of taking away big plays in the passing game this year, allowing only 12 passes for 30 yards or more to be completed against them this season. That was the fourth-lowest figure in the NFL. In addition, Seattle is one of the best-tackling teams in football, especially at cornerback, where Richard Sherman and the returning Brandon Browner are big enough to tackle anybody in the league. They should do well against Washington’s barrage of screens and quick hitches.
And if Seattle can do well against the run and force the Redskins into third-and-long, well, it should be a very long day for the Skins. Washington has converted just 18.3 percent of the time on third-and-8 or more, the fourth-worst rate in the league. To judge their company, only the Jaguars, Browns, and Cardinals have been worse on third-and-long. That could be a total fluke, but it makes some sense: Washington’s receivers really aren’t very good, and when you remove the threat of the run, your linebackers and safeties can drop into coverage without having to wade through all those ball fakes and misdirection cues.
Go-Go, Not Grunge
Finally, it’s worth noting just how different a team Seattle can be when they’re not playing in their legendarily loud home confines. The Seahawks have had, statistically, the best home-field advantage in football over the past decade or so. This year was no exception, and it’s reflected in their record. Seattle was 8-0 at home, including victories over the Packers (sorta) and Patriots. I count the “away” game against the Bills in Toronto as a neutral-site game, so they were 1-0 there. In true road games, Seattle was 2-5 and outscored by 14 points. They lost to the lowly Lions and Cardinals away from home, and while you can make the case that the losses in question came before Wilson took his huge step forward, they also lost to the Dolphins by three points in Miami in Week 12.
It’s always tough to explain this, and I’m going to pick a side by the tiniest of margins, but I think this is one that’s too close to call. Seattle is the better team in a vacuum, but they’re not the same team away from home and Washington’s strengths can match up reasonably well with Seattle’s weaknesses. The Seahawks are the healthier team, though, and I have my doubts that the Redskins will be able to stop Seattle’s running game. I think it’ll be a run-heavy, low-scoring game, but one that Seattle manages to pull out in the end. Seattle 16, Washington 13.