Together We Make Playoffs: The 2015 NFL Wild-Card Preview

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The first week of professional football in 2015 brings us a wild-card weekend less familiar than it might seem. As traditional as it feels to see the likes of the Bengals and Colts alongside a Ravens-Steelers tilt in the playoffs, just three of the eight teams featured in this weekend’s games played in last year’s postseason. It’s been five years since we’ve seen the Cowboys in the playoffs, and the last time the Cardinals suited up for meaningful January football was when Kurt Warner was under center.

In 2014, wild-card weekend delivered a stone-cold classic in Chiefs-Colts and three games that were competitive into the fourth quarter. With nobody in this weekend’s games favored by more than a touchdown, we might get a set of games that match up to last year’s batch.

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ersMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers

The weekend starts with its most bizarre matchup, a pair of teams that have been traveling in diametrically opposed directions over the past month. The Cardinals have collapsed amid a rash of injuries, losing four of their final six games to give away the NFC West and the top seed in the conference. Carolina, left for dead at 3-8-1 as it entered December, shockingly won four straight to become the first team to retain the NFC South title. Nobody will pretend this is a glamour matchup — there’s a reason a reader tweeted me suggesting this was the playoff game that would air on NBA TV. It’s also a high-variance game that could go in a lot of directions. High-variance football is the most entertaining football.

The key figure at the crux of all this variance is Ryan Lindley, who has been thrust into an impossibly difficult role. Lindley is living out his dream, yet with the knowledge he will almost surely be single-handedly blamed for bringing down a legitimate championship contender if he merely plays to the limitations anybody would expect a third-string quarterback to exhibit.1 It would be unfair to expect Lindley to be any good, but if he plays the way everybody expects him to perform, he’s going to get the Billy Madison treatment.

The 7-8-1 Panthers are 6.5-point favorites because there really may never have been a playoff team with a starting quarterback as underwhelming as Lindley has been in his first 264 professional passes. There have been starting quarterbacks in the playoffs who were less experienced than Lindley. Todd Marinovich took over for an injured Jay Schroeder in Week 17 of the 1991 campaign, looked impressive on 40 attempts against the Chiefs, and was named the starter for the Raiders’ subsequent playoff rematch with the Chiefs after just one lone professional start. Doug Flutie started just one game with the 14-2 Bears as a rookie in 1986 before Mike Ditka named him the team’s starting quarterback for the playoffs.2 Houston’s Gifford Nielsen even won a playoff game after one career start and 65 career passes in 1979.

That’s merely a discussion of inexperienced quarterbacks. Lindley has more experience than those guys, but he’s been really bad during his 264 passes. Among quarterbacks with 200 or more passes since Lindley entered the league in 2012, he’s last in completion percentage (50.8), yards per attempt (5.0), adjusted net yards per attempt (2.6), touchdown-to-interception ratio (0.2, with two touchdowns against 11 picks), and passer rating (50.3).

Has there ever been a quarterback with a less imposing statistical record heading into a playoff game? I went back and looked at every quarterback who has been his team’s primary passer in a playoff game since the 1970 merger and calculated what his career regular-season statistics were heading into that contest. Lindley is, as you might suspect, not far from the bottom:

Here’s the scary news: Three of the other four guys in the bottom five actually ended up winning playoff games. Brunner, who held off Phil Simms for the starting job so long that it might have made Simms’s logic component explode, won a road playoff game as a seven-point underdog against the Eagles. Jaws’s Rams scored three defensive touchdowns in a 35-23 win over the Cardinals. Ferragamo won twice and made the dang Super Bowl! A quarterback as bad as Lindley is not a death sentence.

With that being said, while Lindley’s only the fourth-worst quarterback to make a playoff start by passer rating, those numbers aren’t adjusted for era. You’ll note that the other guys on that list all played between 1972 and 1981, when the average passer rating for a quarterback was 64.8. The average passer rating for a quarterback in 2014 is a robust 87.1. Nobody has started a playoff game with a career passer rating lower than 60 since Mark Malone in 1984, and Lindley is 10 points worse than that. Considering the context in which Lindley plays, he is almost surely the least-qualified quarterback to start a postseason game in the Super Bowl era.

Is there any reason to think Lindley might be better than his numbers suggest? I see one obvious argument: strength of schedule. Lindley has played an incredibly difficult slate of opponents during his brief career. He’s seen meaningful action in nine games since 2012, and in six of those games, he was playing against a team that would finish the season ranked in the top 10 in pass defense DVOA, including the third-ranked Seahawks and fourth-ranked 49ers this year. Weight his pass attempts, and his average throw has come against the league’s seventh-best pass defense per DVOA, which is downright brutal.

I wrote about the Panthers and their remarkable defensive improvement against the pass on Monday, so I won’t rehash that again. The Panthers obviously want to feature a run-first attack that’s designed to keep Cam Newton and his offensive line in manageable situations. Arizona has one of the league’s best run defen— oh, we have a table flying in here …

Not great. Arizona’s run defense has cratered over the past six weeks, a run that has coincided with two games against Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks. Lynch’s 79-yard touchdown run in Week 16 is the most memorable lapse from that six-week stretch, but it wasn’t the only one. Jamaal Charles ran for a 63-yard score. Steven Jackson had a 55-yard run, which I don’t think Steven Jackson even knew was possible in 2014.

The concern for me, were I a Cardinals fan, would be that rushing quarterbacks have had a field day against the Cardinals during that span. Russell Wilson had 16 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown in his two games against the Cards. Colin Kaepernick and even Alex Smith made plays with their feet. In all, quarterbacks ran the ball 33 times for 267 yards during that five-game stretch, an average of 8.1 yards per carry.

That’s not due to the read-option — Arizona has actually been better against the zone-read than against traditional runs — but rather a function of Arizona’s personnel and the way it attacks opposing offenses. The Cardinals rely heavily on the blitz, sending pressure on 44 percent of opposing pass plays, a rate topped only by the Rams. When they send that pressure and it doesn’t get home, they’re left vulnerable to quarterbacks who can run past whatever spy the Cardinals leave behind in the open field. That’s a huge opportunity for Newton. And truthfully, sending pressure at the Panthers doesn’t really seem to do very much; their regular-season combination of Newton and Derek Anderson is 12th in QBR when teams blitz and remains 12th when teams don’t blitz.

I think the Arizona run defense will be better Saturday than those numbers indicate. They’ve played a particularly rough stretch of talented rushing attacks over the past few weeks, and the Panthers — 17th in rush offense DVOA — are not one of those, especially if DeAngelo Williams and his 3.5-yard rushing average gets integrated back into the lineup. Also, Arizona will get back run-plugging inside linebacker Larry Foote after he missed the regular-season finale with a knee injury.

On the other hand, given all the injuries Arizona has suffered this season, it’s not crazy to imagine that a front seven populated by veterans in larger-than-expected roles like Foote, Frostee Rucker, and Tommy Kelly might have worn down as the season’s gone along.

This game hinges on Lindley. I wonder whether Bruce Arians will come up with some elemental switch offensively to try to throw the Panthers off their game, because it seems like he’s leaving his team dead to rights by keeping the same offensive scheme around for his fourth quarterback of the year. Arizona throws deep more than anybody else in football, and that hasn’t changed with Lindley, who’s averaged more air yards per pass (12.5) than any other starting quarterback in 2014. The Panthers are actually much better against deep passes than they are against shorter ones, allowing the 10th-lowest QBR on passes that travel 15 yards or more in the air, but the sixth-highest QBR on throws within 14 yards of the line of scrimmage. I wonder if Arians will try anything (a ridiculous dosage of screens?) to mix things up. If he doesn’t, it’s going to be very difficult for the Cardinals to take another step toward a home Super Bowl.


Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

Ravens-Steelers games are popularly characterized as wars of attrition; here, the war has already happened. Each of these teams have injury concerns, albeit of drastically different varieties. The Steelers could be missing an irreplaceable star; the Ravens are missing what feels like half of a team. Baltimore has 17 players on injured reserve, more than any other team in this postseason. The average postseason team has only 9.4 players on injured reserve, and the Steelers have just three.

It’s a Steelers player with uncertain availability who is dominating the news this week. Pittsburgh might very well have three irreplaceable players on offense, and while Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are healthy heading into Saturday’s divisional matchup, Le’Veon Bell is a huge question mark. After a breakout sophomore season, Pittsburgh’s star running back has a knee injury from Sunday’s win over Cincinnati that appears likely to either limit him in this matchup against the Ravens or keep him out entirely.

The only report at the moment suggests that Bell’s knee is hyperextended, which doesn’t give us much clue into the specifics of the injury or allow for much projection as to how long he’ll be out. That he hadn’t practiced as of Thursday makes it seem unlikely he’ll suit up Saturday. It would be wrong to rule anything out from Mike Tomlin — if there was ever a spot to lie about the severity of an injury, it would be here — but it seems reasonable to expect Bell to sit out the wild-card game.

What does that leave for the Steelers? Not very much at all. Pittsburgh cut LeGarrette Blount in November, leaving the team perilously thin at running back behind Bell. When Bell went down last week, his primary replacement was undrafted free agent Josh Harris, a home run hitter who lacks the patience behind the line of scrimmage that has quickly become Bell’s trademark. And third-round pick Dri Archer is more of an attempt to clone Darren Sproles than an out-and-out running back.

Take Pittsburgh’s signature running play, the Counter OF scheme it runs with guard David DeCastro and tight end Heath Miller pulling to the left. Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report does an excellent job of drawing up the play here. It’s a simple power play that relies on an above-average offensive line (sixth in Adjusted Line Yards) and a running back who does an excellent job waiting for his lane to develop while retaining the acceleration to burst through the hole when it does appear. Bell’s the perfect back for that concept.

It was interesting, then, that Pittsburgh went out this week and added a veteran running back by signing Ben Tate. In itself, the move represents a simple likelihood that Bell isn’t going to play. It was even more interesting that the Steelers chose Tate, because of where he’s succeeded in the past. Tate’s best work came in Houston, where he was a one-cut back in a zone-blocking scheme under Gary Kubiak. Pittsburgh installed zone-blocking concepts last year, only to abandon them during the first quarter of Week 1 after center Maurkice Pouncey went down with a serious knee injury.

It’s retained some of those zone-blocking principles under new offensive line coach Mike Munchak, and having suited up together for 74 of 80 possible starts this season, the Pittsburgh offensive line has even developed some experience and continuity running those concepts. Tate’s not going to be the team’s primary back, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Steelers use him on some of the same stretch plays he ran in Houston. And likewise, given that Tate has only had a few days to acclimate himself to black and yellow, expect the Ravens to identify Tate’s snaps as likely run plays.

And then, of course, expect the Steelers to know that the Ravens are keying on that and try to run play-action with Tate in the game. The bigger concern for the Steelers might very well be figuring out who lines up in pass protection on the outside next to Roethlisberger, given that the Ravens are very capable of getting pressure with Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs on the edge.

Even that sells the Baltimore pass rush short. As good as Dumervil and Suggs were this season, Pernell McPhee also deserves some appreciation. While McPhee finished with only 7.5 sacks, he recorded a whopping 23 quarterback hits, tied for the seventh-most in football. He did that while playing in just 47.7 percent of Baltimore’s defensive snaps, splitting time with Dumervil, who had 26 hits while playing 55.8 percent of the snaps. As a unit, the Ravens had three players with 20 quarterback knockdowns or more; the rest of the league had just 12, and no other team had three 20-hit defenders on the payroll.

Baltimore needs to hope it gets a pass rush on Roethlisberger, because it has no hope of holding up in coverage if it fails. The Ravens have allowed the league’s second-best QBR (1.0) when they get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but when they fail to bother the opposing passer, quarterbacks have put up an 86.2 QBR, the eighth-worst figure. Much of that comes down to personnel, as the Baltimore secondary has been ripped apart by injuries at cornerback. Consider that we played a game of “Ravens Cornerback or The Wire Cast Member?” on the Grantland NFL Podcast last month, and since then, the Ravens have lost two more cornerbacks to season-ending injuries. They have no fewer than five cornerbacks on injured reserve. It’s brutal.

The Ravens will start Lardarius Webb across from second-year corner Rashaan Melvin, who played in the final three games, starting two, for Baltimore after not suiting up for an NFL game beforehand. Melvin has ideal size and speed, but he struggles with deeper routes and can be burned by double moves. If the Steelers can keep Roethlisberger upright with pass protection and give Martavis Bryant enough time to break down Melvin, there should be a big play for them downfield.

Kubiak, Tate’s former coach in Houston, will also have his hands full on the offensive side of the ball for Baltimore. His Ravens attack has screeched to a halt over the past few weeks. The Baltimore offense produced just 46 points combined over the final three games, a figure they topped against the Buccaneers earlier in the season. Joe Flacco had one of the worst first halves you’ll ever see against Houston in Week 16 — he started the game 4-of-22 for 35 yards with three interceptions — and struggled again in the first half of Week 17 before turning things around after halftime against the Browns.

What’s been bothering the Ravens? Some of it is sheer randomness. Third-down conversion percentages play a huge part in determining how effective offenses play, but they’re also subject to the whims of small samples. Before Week 15, the Ravens had converted an even 45.0 percent of their third and fourth downs, the seventh-best rate in football. Over these past three weeks, though, they’ve managed to pick up just 27.9 percent of their third and fourth downs, which is the fifth-worst rate in the league. Over time, we would expect the 180-play sample from Weeks 1 to 14 to be more meaningful than the concluding 43-play sample.

There’s one reason, though, to be worried about why that 43-play sample might mean something more than just randomness.3 On those 43 plays, ESPN Stats & Information notes that Flacco has been pressured 45.9 percent of the time, the third-highest rate behind the Seahawks and Browns. The Ravens have struggled to protect Flacco, and there’s an obvious reason why: injuries.

Baltimore’s offensive line is shedding like it’s spring. The Ravens lost left tackle Eugene Monroe and right tackle Ricky Wagner during that Week 16 loss to the Texans, and neither will be back for Saturday night. Monroe was out in Week 17 and hasn’t practiced all week, and Wagner’s been placed on injured reserve. The Ravens are stuck starting undrafted free agent James Hurst in Monroe’s spot, as they did when Monroe went down with a knee injury earlier this year.

Interestingly, on the right side, they’ve moved star guard Marshal Yanda (one of my All-Pro picks) to right tackle, a position Yanda has played sparingly at most since 2010. Rookie fifth-rounder John Urschel has filled in at guard, and while it’s probably a safer combo than leaving Yanda at guard and starting a pair of rookies at tackle, it’s also one with a lower ceiling on a play-by-play basis.

There’s probably a big running play in this game for the Ravens. Baltimore’s resurgent rushing attack has really thrived on big plays, as 14.1 percent of Baltimore’s carries have gone for 10 yards or more, the third-highest rate in the league. The Steelers have the 17th-ranked rush defense by DVOA, but their problem has been giving up big plays. Only the Giants gave up 10-plus yards on runs more frequently than the Steelers, who did so on 15.2 percent of their opponent’s rushing attempts.

And for all the worries the Ravens have in the secondary, the Steelers pass defense simply hasn’t been good all season, finishing 30th in DVOA. Some of that comes down to injuries to players like Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, but those guys weren’t particularly effective against the pass when they were in the lineup, either. The Steelers are stuck with the likes of Antwon Blake and Brice McCain playing meaningful roles, and while they both showed up in Week 17 against Cincinnati (McCain picked off two passes), they’re question marks at best heading into the postseason.

This should be a fascinating game under the lights in Pittsburgh. It would be optimal for the Steelers to come out and throw the ball three-quarters of the time on their first few drives and see if the Ravens can get enough pressure on Roethlisberger to stop them, but that’s not exactly the sort of blood-and-guts Steelers football we would expect to see in the postseason. Both these teams have exploitable holes in the secondary, and in a game that’s expected to be played in wet, windy conditions, the game’s biggest play may very well come down to a slip or a blown coverage.

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee TitansFrederick Breedon/Getty Images

Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts

Cincinnati’s loss to Pittsburgh last week did more than deny the Bengals their second consecutive division title; it dropped them down to the fifth seed, sending them to Indianapolis to play a team that has won five of its last six games. The Colts inflicted one of the most one-sided beatdowns I’ve seen all year the first time these teams played, beating Cincinnati 27-0 in an October contest during which the Bengals went three-and-out on their first eight possessions. Oh, and Cincinnati may very well be without star wideout A.J. Green, who suffered a concussion during that Sunday loss to the Steelers.

And yet, despite all of that, the betting action in Vegas has moved heavily toward the Bengals. Cincinnati opened as six-point underdogs, only for the line to move to three, an impressive swing for the enormous market of a playoff game. What are people seeing in the Bengals? The answer more likely revolves around what they aren’t seeing in the Colts.

On one hand, the Colts are quickly becoming a model of consistency in the AFC South. They’ve just finished their third straight 11-5 season with Andrew Luck at the helm. Their peripheral numbers have improved each year; lousy and lucky in many ways in 2012, the Colts had the point differential of a 10-win team this year and went a relatively unoffensive 4-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. And yet, this is what they did against playoff teams this year:

That’s not impressive. There’s the one dominant win against the Bengals, a 20-13 win over the Ravens in which both teams looked sloppy and mediocre, and four losses, most of which came by comfortable margins. Indianapolis was outscored by 47 points in those games. It went 9-1 in games against teams that didn’t make the playoffs, and the only other team it beat with a winning record was Houston, which it beat twice by a combined 12 points. Indianapolis played the seventh-easiest schedule in football.

And as useful as that 5-1 stretch to finish the season was, it included wins over the Browns, Jaguars, Titans, and Washington. The Colts were actually playing better during the first half of the year, especially on offense. And that’s most noticeable in the one aspect of this Colts team you would not hesitate to believe in:

Luck, once a leading MVP candidate, dropped off considerably during the second half. His 72.9 QBR was sixth-best through Week 10; after returning from his bye the following week, Luck’s QBR fell all the way to 48.9, placing him just below Geno Smith (49.1) and Jay Cutler (49.3) over that same time frame. DVOA further drops Luck for the relative lack of quality competition he faced.

Is that Luck’s fault? I’m skeptical. For once, it wasn’t his pass protection; the Colts controlled the line of scrimmage on 54.1 percent of Luck dropbacks after the bye, the second-best rate in football per ESPN Stats & Information. He lost T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, and Dwayne Allen to injuries during the second half. Allen has been a nonfactor since coming back, which has hurt; he averaged 42 receiving yards per game before his knee injury, but after returning in Week 14, he has caught just three of 10 passes for 21 yards before sitting out again in Week 17.

Some of it was a statistical fluke, with Indy dropping from a 43.4 percent conversion rate on third downs before the bye to a 37.9 percent rate afterward despite facing slightly easier third downs on average. (The league-average conversion rate on third downs is 39 percent.) But there’s no smoking gun for why the Indy offense cooled off.

I’m skeptical that the Bengals are the defense to stand up to Luck in a playoff game, because they just don’t get enough pass pressure to really bother Indy’s star quarterback, and that’s been the best way to slow down the Colts this year. When opposing teams have gotten pressure on Indianapolis quarterbacks, they’ve posted a 3.0 QBR, the 12th-worst rate in the league. (Since the bye, their QBR under pressure is 0.6, tied for the worst with Denver and Washington.) Everybody gets better with no pressure, but Indy gets way better; their combination of Luck and a mini-football-helmet dollop of Matt Hasselbeck produced an 87.1 QBR without pressure, the 10th-best figure in the league.

Cincinnati simply doesn’t get after the quarterback. Its 20.2 percent pressure rate is the lowest in football. It has a very talented no. 1 rusher in Carlos Dunlap, whose 28 quarterback hits were tied for the second-most behind J.J. Watt, but nobody else on the team had more than 12 hits.

Situational rusher Wallace Gilberry, specifically, was exposed in a larger role. After recording 7.5 sacks and 12 hits on 508 defensive snaps in 2013, Gilberry suited up for 826 defensive snaps in 2014, only to come up with a mere 1.5 sacks and another 12 hits. Geno Atkins was the only player besides Dunlap to finish with more than 1.5 sacks, and even he had only three. The Bengals finished with 20 sacks, meaning that Watt and Justin Houston each had more sacks than Cincinnati had as an entire team.

At the same time, I don’t know that the Colts offense necessarily matches up all that well with the Bengals. Cincinnati’s other clear weakness on defense is against the run, where it posted the fifth-worst DVOA in 2014. Indy finished with the sixth-worst rushing offense DVOA, and that was as high as it was only because Ahmad Bradshaw was around for part of the season; it was 30th in rush offense DVOA after the bye, as Trent Richardson (51 carries, 2.5 yards per carry) and Zurlon Tipton (10 carries, 1.8 yards per carry) inexplicably ran the ball more frequently than Dan Herron (56 carries, 5.0 yards per carry). Cincinnati also posted the fifth-worst rush defense DVOA in the red zone, but it was the best pass defense inside its own 20. The Colts will need to somehow manufacture a running game against this dismal unit and make it count.

There will be some subset of people reading this who will think it’s a waste of time to even analyze the game because it’s Andy Dalton in the playoffs and that’s an automatic loss. Maybe it will be. The thing with Dalton, as it is whenever we fetishize some aspect of a player’s performance, is that the goalposts keep moving. Dalton was supposed to be terrible in prime time, and over the last couple of games, he’s been fine. Not incredible — 44-of-63 for 390 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions against the Broncos and Steelers — but good enough to be competitive. Even though Dalton beat the Broncos in prime time, the goalposts now move to say Dalton needs to win a playoff game to prove he’s legitimate.

Will he? It would help if the Colts stay away. Indianapolis’s lack of a dominant pass-rusher has led it to blitz more than anybody else in the AFC; it sent a blitz on an even 44 percent of opposing dropbacks, the second-highest rate behind the Rams. Those blitzes just don’t get pressure all that frequently; the Colts get pressure on only 33.7 percent of their blitzes, the 13th-worst rate in football. It’s even worse when they don’t send a blitz, as their 17.3 percent pressure rate without blitzing is the fourth-worst figure.

As for Dalton (whose issues under pressure I highlighted in the moments before his contract extension this summer)? Pressure wasn’t the obvious problem for him this year that it had been in the past. Dalton ranked 12th in QBR when opposing teams got pressure on him, including one long touchdown pass on a catch-and-run from Mohamed Sanu.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the best way for the Colts to win is to get pressure on Dalton, as they did when they hit him nine times in 42 dropbacks during that Week 7 shutout. It just hasn’t been the obvious bugaboo it was for him in years past. Indy also posted the league’s ninth-best DVOA and allowed the seventh-fewest yards per game to no. 1 wideouts this year, mostly thanks to the work done by star cornerback Vontae Davis, who had his most consistent season as a pro. Even if Green does make it all the way through the concussion protocol and manages to play, Davis should be able to limit his influence, if not necessarily shut it down altogether.

If Dalton loses this game, you have to wonder whether the Bengals will emotionally give up on the Dalton–Marvin Lewis era and do something drastic. There are several talented quarterbacks who started their playoff careers with three straight losses, including Randall Cunningham, Matt Ryan, and most famously, Peyton Manning. I can’t find a starting quarterback since the merger who began his playoff career with four consecutive losses. The Bengals could cut or trade Dalton during the first two days of the 2015 league year and get out of his new contract with a mere $9.6 million in dead money. I don’t think that they necessarily should, but if the Bengals come away from a fourth consecutive playoff run without even a lone victory, rationality might not be a particularly relevant concept.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington RedskinsMitchell Layton/Getty Images

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys

Almost unquestionably the most highly anticipated game of the weekend, Detroit-Dallas raises the dumbest of questions: If you pit Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo against one another in a meaningful game in which somebody has to win, what happens? The world has recently noticed that Stafford is somehow 3-31 in games against teams that finished with a winning record, including a 1-4 mark this season. Romo is … well, you don’t need me to tell you what the world thinks of Romo’s chances in the playoffs, right or wrong. Barring an intervention from Brandon Weeden or Dan Orlovsky, one of these guys is actually going to win this game.

Stafford’s astoundingly bad record against above-average opposition has helped put his lack of professional growth into context. He’s only a tiny bit better than the player he was heading into this season, even after we spent Week 1 raving over his newfound athleticism and agility during that blowout win over the Giants:

The difference between this year’s Lions and the Lions of the past few seasons boils down to an improved defense and better luck in close games. Detroit was a scarcely believable 6-14 in games decided by one touchdown or less in 2012 and 2013, including season-destroying stretches in close games both seasons. This year? Detroit went 6-1 in one-score games, including that bizarre win over the Falcons in London, a stunning comeback gifted by the Saints, and a comeback victory over Jimmy Clausen in Week 16. The gap in point differential between the 2013 and 2014 Lions amounts to 0.7 wins of Pythagorean Expectation; the dramatic swing in close-game luck is how the Lions improved by four games this year.

Detroit will get to have Ndamukong Suh in the lineup for Sunday’s game in Dallas after his suspension for stepping on Aaron Rodgers’s ankle was appealed down to a fine. I’ll let others handle the Suh quandary, but it’s impossible to deny Suh’s importance to this Detroit defense. The Lions allow a league-low 2.69 Adjusted Line Yards on runs behind either guard or center, where Suh does his dir— most effective work. The Dallas offensive line ranks seventh on runs to that very spot, underlying just how important it is for Suh to be around.

With Suh back and Nick Fairley practicing for the first time since Week 8,4 the Lions will have as deep of a group as they’ve had in months to try to stop Dallas’s overwhelming rushing attack. Even without accounting for that wonderful Detroit run defense, DeMarco Murray may not exactly be quite as dominant as he once looked. Before suffering a hand injury that threatened to force him out of the lineup in December, Murray was showing signs of slowing down during the second half of the season. In a year when he carried the ball 392 times — more than anybody since Larry Johnson in 2006 — Murray’s numbers showed a pretty comfortable second-half drop-off after Dallas’s Week 11 bye:

Before the bye, Murray combined absurd volume with elite efficiency; afterward, while he retained virtually all of the volume, he was merely average on a per-carry basis. You might expect a player being slowed down by overuse to lack the acceleration needed for big plays, but Murray actually had something close to a proportional number of his runs of 20 yards or more show up during those final six games. Really, Murray’s slowdown came from the slog of volume. On first-and-10 before the bye, Murray ran the ball 151 times for 868 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Afterward, he ran the ball 87 times for just 387 yards, gaining 4.5 yards per attempt.

Dallas’s passing game got better as teams began to give more defenders run responsibilities. While Dallas’s rank in rushing DVOA fell from third in the first half of the season to ninth afterward, the Cowboys improved from 14th in passing DVOA all the way up to second. After the bye, Romo carried the team on his broken back by playing like the best quarterback in football. He produced an 88.3 QBR during those final six weeks, and the only quarterback within 10 points of his figure was Eli Manning (79.8). Romo finished the season leading the NFL in completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, and QBR.

Detroit’s pass defense is good — eighth in the league by DVOA — but its run defense is otherworldly. The last defense to post a run defense DVOA as good as Detroit’s minus-31.3 percent figure was the 2000 Ravens, who often appear in conversations about the best defense in NFL history. The Lions have also gotten worse against the pass as the season’s gone along, falling from the league’s top pass defense through Week 9 by posting the 23rd-best pass defense DVOA afterward. This is a truly terrifying group of run defenders, and the Cowboys would probably be right to pursue a pass-heavy approach to try to move the ball.

The only problem is that Dallas would want to pursue a low-variance option as 6.5-point favorites, and running the ball is almost always going to be a lower-risk choice than throwing. It’ll be an interesting question for Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, and the 27 other offensive coaches on Dallas’s sideline: Is it better to play to your strengths or your opponent’s weaknesses?

Linehan, who served as the offensive coordinator on a pass-happy Lions team last year, has to wonder how his former charges will attack a below-average Dallas defense. The run-heavy approach doesn’t really fly with the Lions, who averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and ranked 29th in rushing offense DVOA. And that was all with guard Larry Warford, the team’s best offensive lineman, who will likely miss Sunday’s game with a knee injury. The dropoff from Warford to dismal backup Garrett Reynolds isn’t exactly Romo to Weeden, but it’s not far off, either.

Instead, Detroit will just likely have to throw and throw to try to make up ground on the Dallas offense. Plenty of that will go to Calvin Johnson, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Golden Tate have an even bigger day, given that Dallas is right around average against top wideouts while posting the league’s fourth-worst DVOA against no. 2 receivers.

The more I think about this game, the more I feel like it comes down to that incredible matchup of the Dallas rushing attack and the Detroit rush defense. It might be wisest for the Cowboys to go pass-heavy, but after 392 Murray carries, it’s hard to envision them changing course now. If the Lions get the Cowboys repeatedly stuck in third-and-long, they can get pressure on Romo, force some questionable throws, and try to create the sort of turnover-friendly game that would help push them into the next round.

If the Cowboys run on them, Dallas can control the clock, keep Tate and Megatron off the field, and reduce the variance available to the Lions. With the Cowboys having one lone playoff win in the last 17 years and the Lions having won exactly one playoff game (against these very Cowboys) during the 48 years of the Super Bowl era, both of these fan bases desperately want a win of any kind at any cost. Winning pretty can come next year.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell