Jan. 06, 2017
Wild and Exciting NFL Wild Card Previews (Part I: Saturday)
(All statistics referenced in this article are courtesy of teamrankings.com, espn.com, football-reference.com, and sportingcharts.com)
Can you feel it? Can you smell it in the air? It's here. The moment you've all been waiting for... Well, other than the Super Bowl... The beginning of the NFL Postseason!
It took us all a while to get here, but such is the nature of a 512-game regular season. Just think of what it would be like if we were all baseball fans. Yuck. But that's beside the point, and a little bit mean, so let's get back on message: this is an exciting time of the year. We're ringing in 2017 with a few fantastic football games coming up, as well as a few less-than-exhilarating ones.
This coming Saturday has unfortunately been delegated two of the 2016-17 Playoffs' less interesting match-ups: Oakland at Houston and Detroit at Seattle. This is not to take away anything from the teams involved, as making the postseason at all is an incredible achievement. It's just that certain circumstances have taken a lot of the oomph out of what could potentially have been a couple of very intriguing games.
The Raiders are without their maestro, Derek Carr, leaving their team with quite an identity crisis. The Texans have had their hands forced into starting the Rottweiler, Brock Osweiler. The Lions are entering the playoffs on a three-game losing skid, in which they've only scored 17 points per game. And the Seahawks are still trying to figure themselves out after an unnecessarily close outing on the road against San Francisco in the final week of the season. (Don't worry, this is the last time that I'll mention the Niners for the rest of the season.)
But maybe I'm wrong in suggesting that these games will not be intriguing. Perhaps they will be, but in very different ways than any of us had anticipated. Or maybe these will both be fantastic games, and I will feel like a fool.
Either way, let's talk about playoffs.
Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans
Oakland - In the wake of the devastating Derek Carr injury, we of the Raider Nation placed our faith in the yet-untested hands of Matt McGloin. I've always had difficulties trusting people with the last name McGloin, and my distrust proved to be justified when Matt went down with a shoulder injury in Week 17. So now everything rides on the even less tested back of Connor Cook, who will be starting for the first time in his professional career in a road playoff game against one of the NFL's less noticed, yet statistically stacked defenses. Happy birthday.
It's difficult to try to analyze what this Raiders offense will look like with Cook under center, because we only have one week of data to work with. Against Denver, who own a similar defensive force as Houston's, the Raiders averaged 4.4 yards per play, converted on 2 of 11 third down attempts, and yielded just 221 yards. The one real spark for Oakland came from DeAndre Washington out of the backfield, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry. The only problem is that Washington carried the ball just 7 times throughout the game, and the Raiders as a team only amassed 57 rushing yards on 16 carries. This offensive unit will need to re-configure itself to better incorporate the run game, even just a slight bit, if it expects to wreak any sort of havoc in the postseason.
What can we really expect? Oakland's offense did look marginally better with Connor Cook at quarterback than it did with McGloin, but again, that was over the course of just two quarters against a team that had virtually nothing to play for. And the Raiders are second in the NFL in dropped passes, which is very unfavorable to their ability to adapt to a rookie quarterback. On the flip side, they also rank highly in just about every category when it comes to rushing offense. So will Jack Del Rio be inclined to include some more carries for Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington, and Jalen Richard? It seems to make the most sense to do so. But which is more difficult: attempting to fit Connor Cook into Derek Carr's massive shoes on offense or attempting to re-design the entire offense around the loss of one player? This is a horrible question that no coach ever hopes to have to answer, but it's one that needs addressing very soon.
I don't mean to sound so pessimistic, because even despite all of the downsides to Oakland's offensive structure, I still favor them in most categories when compared to Brock Osweiler's Texans. But I wouldn't blame anyone for keeping their hopes relatively low.
Advantages: Quarterback (slightly), running backs, receivers, offensive line
Weaknesses: No Derek Carr, offensive re-structuring, nagging injuries throughout, dropped balls
Houston - I mean... at least Tom Savage was fun while he lasted, eh? Too bad for you Houstoners, you're faced with a snap back to reality this week: Brock Osweiler makes his return to the big stage. I can't recall very many times that a playoff team has had a starting quarterback so universally regarded as a poor player. Well, not poor in terms of money, obviously. I meant the other definition. Bad is what I meant. Osweiler is a bad quarterback, and everyone seems to understand that he is a bad quarterback who is making far too much money. That was my point. He is a poor, rich quarterback.
Statistically, Osweiler lands near the bottom of most categories involving quarterback play, amongst the ranks of Blake Bortles, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Cam Newton (fight me, Panthers fans, he was awful this year). There have been a few teams that have cycled through multiple quarterbacks this season, so the best way to analyze Mr. Rottweiler is to look at team passing offense. Houston ranks 25th in completion percentage, 27th in incompletions per game, 30th in passer rating, 28th in passing first downs per game, tied (with Cleveland and Los Angeles) for last in touchdown passes per game, and dead last in yards per completion. For reference, in just about every one of those categories, the teams ranking below or near the Texans are teams who have started multiple quarterbacks throughout the season. It's amazing that the man lasted so long as the starter.
But to be at least a little bit fair to the Rottweiler, the Texans offense has been generally bland all-around this season. Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue have been frightfully average as running backs, Will Fuller's impressive start to the season has had all of its color entirely washed out, and DeAndre Hopkins has performed a complete 180 from his standout season a year ago. Houston's offensive line has been the least gray unit on the offense (though not by much), ranking 11th in the league in sacks allowed. That's all they've got. Overall, there is very little to be excited about when it comes to the Texans' offense. It's just there.
So even despite all of the difficulties plaguing Oakland on the offensive side of the ball, I still don't really favor the Texans in very many regards. With Brock Osweiler starting, they will at least have the advantage in terms of time spent together behind one particular quarterback. But in all honesty, that's just about it.
Advantages: Plenty of play-time with Osweiler under their belt
Weaknesses: Plenty of play-time from Osweiler upcoming
Oakland - Here is where things get a bit more interesting. The Raiders began the season with one of the league's worst defenses. Given that Coach Del Rio is a former defensive coordinator, for the Denver Broncos no less, it was surprising to see such struggles coming from that particular side of the ball. But in the second half of the season, largely on the back of Khalil Mack, Oakland's defense started to find itself. The Raiders now rank 2nd in the league in takeaways, as well as 7th in third down conversions allowed. A lot of the successes of the Oakland defense are difficult to see, only because they have just been coming to fruition recently, and because most of those successes have come late in the game.
The big question is this: do the Oakland Raiders have a good defense? This is a much more complex question than one might think. When it comes to passing defense, the Raiders are 7th in completion percentage, which seems good. But in contrast, they also rank 24th in passing yards allowed, and dead last in yards per completion. So do the Raiders have a good secondary? It depends how you interpret the word "good," but in most interpretations, the answer is no. How about the front seven? Even worse, as it turns out. Oakland ranks anywhere from middle of the pack to mediocre in every major rushing defense category, as well as dead last in sacks.
The Raiders really do have about a one-and-a-half man defense. Khalil Mack, all by himself, accounts for just under half of his team's sacks and nearly a third of the team's tackles for loss. Add in Bruce Irvin, and the pair make up 72% of the Raiders' sacks and about half of the tackles for loss. The efforts of Mack and Irvin have been the only thing keeping Oakland's defense in balance as it gives up huge play after huge play. Gods forbid that anything might happen to either of these men, because this team will find itself in some deep sewage without them.
The Raiders certainly have an upper-hand in terms of star power up front, but not much of anywhere else.
Advantages: Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin, takeaways
Weaknesses: Vulnerable to big plays and slow starts
Houston - Perhaps I haven't been paying as much attention to the Texans this season as I should have been, but it seems as though nobody talks about their defense with quite as much adulation as they should. With the average record that Houston has boasted this season, it only makes sense that the bad offense has been balanced out by a top-level defense.
Let's go through some of Houston's most notable defensive rankings: 1st in yards per game, 1st in first downs allowed, 1st in passing first downs allowed, 3rd in punts forced, 3rd in redzone attempts allowed, 3rd in redzone touchdowns allowed, 4th in yards per pass attempt, 6th in touchdowns allowed, 6th in yards per play, and 6th in offensive points allowed per game. So basically the Texans are very, very good at stopping first downs, preventing teams from reaching the red zone, and holding offenses to low score totals. That's a good starting point for any defense, I'd say.
If you're savvy, you may have noticed one important area of defensive play is not well-represented in those statistics above: run defense. Bill O'Brien's defense is 12th in rushing yards allowed per game, 13th in rushing yards per carry, and 17th in rushing touchdowns allowed. None of those rankings are particularly bad, but they do signal a weak point in the Texans' defense that could be exploited. The absence of J.J. Watt has not been fully felt, thanks to the emergence of Jadeveon Clowney, but it certainly sticks out a bit on the stat sheets. In addition to the less-than-stellar rushing defense, Houston also ranks 25th in the league in sacks. The Texans certainly have a formidable secondary on their hands, but there are some vulnerable areas up front.
Even still, it's hard not to favor Houston's defense over Oakland's in just about every facet. For all of the ground that Oakland has made up in the back half of the year, it's still not much of a contest.
Advantages: Pass defense, red zone defense, and basically everything else
Weaknesses: Potentially vulnerable run defense, inability to sack the QB
LAST MEETING (11/21/16)
Mexico City was the most recent meeting place between these two teams, in what was the NFL's first game there. Unfortunately for Houston, the game was marred by a few poor spots/bad calls on the part of the officials. The first of which was a questionable, but un-challengeable, out-of-bounds step from DeAndre Hopkins, even though all replays showed that Hopkins had indeed stayed in-bounds and tightroped his way down the sidelines to the endzone. And of course, the game was most notable for two straight (really three, having gone back and watched it) horrible ball spots in the fourth quarter, which collectively led to a turnover on downs and subsequently a game-winning touchdown for Derek Carr and the Raiders offense.
Lamar Miller had an excellent game that day, putting up 104 rushing yards on 24 carries. Conversely, Oakland had just 30 yards of rushing as a team, at a rate of just 1.5 yards per carry. The biggest difference for the Raiders offense, of course, was Derek Carr. 21/31 for 295 yards and 3 touchdowns, a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, all against one of the league's top passing defenses. Soon after, Carr became the subject of a local Mexican folk tale, and he lives on as a legend throughout the country. I made that last part up, but it might as well be true.
The Raiders are the most penalized team in football, and they don't have their star quarterback around to make up the difference. Add on top of that the fact that Houston is 7-1 at home this season, and it's hard to come to any other conclusion than a Texans victory.
I feel depressed already for saying that. These Raiders finally had the potential to ride the Carr campaign all the way to the promised land, only to have that potential swiped away from them at the worst possible moment. And is there a more demoralizing way to have your season end than with a loss to Brock Osweiler's Texans? I can't think of one. It's not unfeasible that Oakland could pull this off, because these still are Brock Osweiler's Texans, but I just don't see it.
21-17, Texans over the Raiders
Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks
Detroit - While he did end up falling just a hair short of most MVP discussions, Matthew Stafford still had himself a hell of a year for these Lions. Stafford finished the regular season with a 24/10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a 65.3% completion percentage, and over 4300 passing yards. This is a quarterback who defines and carries his team. So how is it that a quarterback could play so well and be so productive, yet still play for a team that ranks 21st in the league in total offense? Well, there is that whole "running game" thing.
The Lions rank 30th in the league in rushing yards per game, just ahead of the comparably abysmal ground games of the Rams and Vikings. Other notable rushing stats for Detroit: 27th in yards per carry, T-26th in rushing touchdowns, and tied for last in the league in rushing attempts per game. So at least Jim Caldwell recognized the fact that maybe running the ball just isn't their thing. Either way, it isn't for lack of talent in the backfield. Theo Riddick has a lot of potential to be a great running back, if he can just stay healthy and stop trying to do too much. And recently, Zach Zenner has been getting more and more opportunities. But while he has looked good, he still has not been able to escape Matt Stafford's shadow and contribute anything of great importance to the offense.
But at the end of the day, Matthew Stafford's ability to not just utilize his receivers, but turn them into superstar receivers, has proven to be plenty enough for the Detroit offense. Marvin Jones started off the season extremely hot and is still a great asset to the offense, but Golden Tate has become Stafford's go-to man, and with good reason. Tate just completed his third straight 90-reception season, amassing 1077 receiving yards on an average of 11.8 yards per reception. Most of this production has come towards the tail end of the season, during which he has become something of a highlight-reeler in addition to his role as a top NFL receiver. It will be interesting to see how he plays in his playoff return to Seattle, having been mostly shut down in his last game against his former team in the 2015-16 season.
In comparison to Seattle's offense, it's very clear that the Lions have more to work with. For all of the praise that is afforded to Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford is on another level. He is not invincible, however, and as you could possibly tell by the fact that I have now used the word "Stafford" in this rundown a total of six times, the Lions rely very heavily on him. The Seahawks need to find a way to shut him down, and if/when they do, they will shut this offense down.
Advantages: Matt Stafford, deep receiving corps, better offensive line
Weaknesses: Ground game, one-trick offense
Seattle - The Seahawks can claim ownership of one of the most perple NFL offenses in recent memory. Never have I seen such a stark difference in offensive production when comparing home games to away games. The 12th Man in Seattle has always been a notable factor for the Seahawks through the past five or so years, but this year in particular seems to be something on a whole other level. There was one particular five-week stretch this season in which this difference jumped out at me. Between weeks 11 and 15 of the regular season, these were the Seahawks point totals, in order: 26, 5, 40, 10, 24. I'll let you take a guess as to which of those games were the away games (hint: it's the lower ones).
In fact, I was so puzzled by this offense, that I looked into the deeper statistics of it myself. Most teams in the league this year have averaged somewhere between 0 and 7 points per game fewer on the road than at home. The Seahawks offense averages 28.4 points per game at home, good enough for 6th in the league in that category. But on the road, the same Seahawks average a pitiful 15.9 points per game, which places them at 29th in the league in that category. That's a swing of -12.5 points home-to-away, nearly triple the league average and comfortably the worst differential in the league.
Similar to Detroit, the Seahawks have a very below average ground attack. Both teams average in the mid-to-late 20's in most rushing categories. But interestingly enough, the Lions and the 'Hawks seem also to have a similar aerial game, statistically speaking. Seattle averages 257.8 yards per game through the air, Detroit averages 256.9. Seattle averages a team passer rating of 93.4, Detroit averages 93.3. Seattle averages 7.3 yards per pass attempt, Detroit averages 6.9. But despite being so similar in every category, the biggest difference between the teams is that the Lions are much more consistent between those categories when comparing home and away games, whereas the Seahawks fluctuate much more between the two.
So what is it that makes the Seahawks offense flip-flop so dramatically? I haven't the faintest idea. All I know is that, for some unexplainable reason, Seattle performs incredibly better on offense when they are at home. And given that this Saturday's game will be contested in Seattle, I'd say they must feel pretty good about their chances.
Advantages: Performance at home in all categories of offense, Russell Wilson's playoff experience
Weaknesses: Running game still not great, offensive line struggles
Detroit - There is almost nothing to the Lions' defense, really. It's startlingly un-notable. I don't know if that's a coined term just yet, but I'm making it one if it is, because it applies pretty perfectly here.
18th in yards allowed, 18th in rushing yards allowed, 19th in passing yards allowed, 13th in PPG allowed. Just... there's nothing there. It's not as if it's an outright terrible defense, but it's certainly not very good. I can't even really denigrate them for very much, because it's all just slightly left of the middle of the road. The only thing I can really harp on very much is that they are T-30th in the league in sacks, so shame on you for that, Jim Caldwell. Do your job, I guess.
As far as notable players, I'm struggling a little bit. There are no Pro Bowlers to be found, but I think Haloti Ngata is still around and playing for the Lions. Either way, the fact that I can't tell you many players on this squad should tell you a good bit about how much they have to work with defensively. Not to say that you need a lot of instantly-notable players to have a successful defense, just look at Houston, but it certainly helps. Detroit has also gone through some number of injuries on this side of the football through the season as well, which did them no favors.
Sorry not to put very much here, but there really just isn't very much to discuss. This is an NFL defense with some moderately good NFL players on it, as well as some moderately not-so-good players on it. We'll see if they can bloom out of that shell come Saturday.
Advantages: Element of surprise?
Weaknesses: Vulnerable all around, lack of pressure on the pocket
Seattle - Once again, not much of note to talk about with this defense, so... Yeah, no, there's plenty here to talk about.
The Seahawks have consistently had one of the NFL's toughest defenses to crack, and this year was no exception. 1st in yards per carry allowed, 3rd in PPG allowed, T-3rd in sacks, T-3rd in yards per play, 5th in yards per game, and so on. I searched desperately for a statistic that they were 2nd in, just so that they could complete the flush, but I was unsuccessful. (Comment down below with a statistic that Seattle's defense is 2nd place in, and I'll send you a reward.) In any case, there aren't many relevant statistics on this side of the football that the 'Hawks rank outside of the top 10 in, which should give you some idea why teams heap such praise upon their defense.
However, there is a glaring absence this postseason for Seattle's lauded defense, and its name is Earl Thomas. Thomas has long been responsible for orchestrating the Seahawks' defensive backfield, alongside Richard Sherman, and his season-ending injury in Week 13 was quite the blow to this team. Since that injury, the 'Hawks have given up 24.5 points per game, well above their average. And surely none of us have forgotten just how badly that defense was massacred by Aaron Rodgers a few weeks back. Needless to say, when matched up with a quarterback like Matthew Stafford, a man like Earl Thomas will be sorely missed.
But don't be fooled. The Seahawks have an overwhelming advantage over the Lions when it comes to defensive prowess. Seattle's defense is feared for a reason. This weekend's game will be the biggest test for the secondary since the game against the Packers in week 14, but most everything still falls in Seattle's favor anyway.
Advantages: Literally everything
Weaknesses: No Earl Thomas
LAST MEETING (10/5/15)
A close, low-scoring contest was waged between these two teams last season at CenturyLink. Russell Wilson played an incredibly efficient game, going 20/26 with 287 yards and a touchdown, good enough for a 125.0 passer rating. Additionally, Wilson contributed 40 of Seattle's 110 yards on the ground, just behind the leading runner Thomas Rawls' 48 yards. All of these successes on Wilson's part were in spite of Detroit's defense amassing 6 sacks for a total of 52 yards lost.
As for Detroit's offense, well, there wasn't too much to speak of. Matthew Stafford played somewhat well, throwing for 203 yards and posting an 83.4 passer rating. But Seattle's defense was good enough that day to hold Detroit to a total of just 53 rushing yards, as well as keep the Lions offense out of the end zone. The only touchdown for the Lions came on a fumble return in the fourth quarter, which put them in position to potentially tie/win the game, but proved to be inconsequential in the end.
CenturyLink Field must have some magical home team water with how well the Seahawks seem to play there, and I expect their home dominance trend to continue into this Wild Card match-up. The Lions simply don't have adequate answers for Seattle's strong points, and their one big bad on offense, Matt Stafford, will be made vulnerable by the hungry 'Hawks defense. Even if he has a decent game, I don't expect that to be enough.
I do think that this game could be much closer than many people seem to expect, because these are not the Seahawks of old. Defensively, most everything is still moderately on par with recent years, maybe a slight bit below the enormous expectations. It's Seattle's offense that concerns me. There have been far too many ups and downs for me to trust too deeply in anything going on on that side of the football. Luckily, Pete Carroll's boys play much better at home, and they will have a wonderfully vanilla Lions defense to build up some confidence against.
27-20, Seahawks over the Lions
That's that for the upcoming Wild Card games this Saturday. We've got a double-header of article goodies coming your way this week, because we're getting deep into this thing now. So stay tuned for tomorrow, as you will be rewarded with Part II of the 2016-17 Wild and Exciting Wild Card Previews.
Until then, stay hydrated, my friends.
Water is life,