The Geek's Guide to the NFL Playoffs
I'm looking forward to this conversation because we both started our careers outside the standard media network, just fans striving to find a better way to understand football. In my view, we're looking at the NFL from complementary angles. In your articles and your book, Scientific Football 2007, you've made scouting rational by using insights gleaned from game tape to produce numbers that show why players succeed and fail. My site, Football Outsiders, does some work with game tape, but we're better known for scouring raw play-by-play data to create advanced statistics, similar to those used in baseball, that evaluate teams and players by adjusting for the context of situations on the field. I'm hoping this dialogue will give fans insights they'd never hear on a network pregame shows. I'm also hoping to find out where our analysis differs, and why—after all, what's a discussion about football without a good argument?
So, here we are ... the preliminaries are over, and now it is time for the actual NFL playoffs. The wild-card round was fun and all, but let's be honest. For most of the regular season, it seemed pretty clear that each conference had two teams that stood far above the pack. The biggest games of the year came when these teams played each other—the Pats-Colts contest back in Week 9, and the Packers-Cowboys game four weeks later. Now that those four teams are in the mix, it feels like we're doing it for real.
Of course, those teams aren't quite so far ahead of everyone else anymore. This is a bigger deal in the AFC, because the Jaguars are the hot team that everyone is supposed to be afraid of during the playoffs, and the Chargers have also been playing very well since midseason. The Patriots and Colts kept winning, but both teams have definitely cooled off in the past few weeks. At Football Outsiders, we have a version of our DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) formula that drops the weight of early games to get a better sense of how well teams are playing at the end of the year, and based on that formula, Jacksonville is currently the second-best team in the league, with the Chargers third, the Colts fourth, and all the NFC teams behind them. We all know who's in first.
The AFC games will get most of the attention this week, and everyone is watching to see if the Patriots can make it to 19-0. New England's first obstacle is Jacksonville, a team that's thrived this year thanks to the steady hand of QB David Garrard. KC, I'm interested to hear your theory about why David Garrard has stepped up his game so much this year compared with his performance in the past. We know he's playing better than ever before, but I have a hard time putting my finger on why, since I've watched Jacksonville only a handful of times. Since you live down there, maybe you have a better sense of what's going on. I know the answer isn't that the Jags have better receivers. Jacksonville's wideouts are still a bunch of unimpressive no-names with no clear No. 1 option, and tight end Marcedes Lewis hasn't developed at a rate that matches his status as a first-round pick a year ago.
On the other side of the AFC bracket, I'm interested in seeing how healthy the Colts are after their bye week. Indianapolis, of course, had problems in the second half of the year because of a cascade of injuries. In the preseason, I wrote that the Colts were basically the Redskins plus Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. Well, this year the Colts faced a barrage of health problems that matched the ones that destroyed Washington in 2006. At one point, the Colts were down to a wide receiver group that included the great Reggie Wayne plus Devin Aromashodu (a guy who couldn't even make the Miami Dolphins roster) and Craphonso Thorpe, the one-time Kansas City prospect whose memorable name is matched by equally unmemorable play.
The injuries really killed the Colts offense for a while. Peyton Manning likes to audible, but the actual plays he runs are pretty simple; it isn't like the Redskins, where Al Saunders likes to put 12 guys in motion even though there are only 11 actually on the field. Still, all those option routes and pre-snap audibles require that Manning has receivers whom he knows well, not guys just signed off the street.
The Colts are certainly not the fourth-best team in the AFC now that most of the injured players are back. Even Harrison is supposed to return this week from the knee injury that cost him half the season, although I'll believe it when I see it. And the Colts defense will be a lot better with pass-rusher Robert Mathis and outside linebacker Freddy Keiaho on the field instead of random guys named Pitcock. That's one of the biggest stories of the year, the Colts defense. Last year, the Colts had a porous D in the regular season and a great defense in the postseason. Instead of returning to the dismal level from the 2006 regular season, this year's defense has been even better than it was during last year's Super Bowl run. It really helped that safety Bob Sanders, who made such a difference in last year's playoffs, was healthy for most of the season (he missed only one game) and was defensive player of the year. The strange thing is that the Colts defensive backs, with the obvious exception of Sanders, don't really do that well in our game charting metrics. How do they do in yours?
While the AFC is getting all the pub, for me the most interesting game of the weekend is actually the New York Giants at Dallas. If you look at the season as a whole, the Cowboys were much, much better than the Giants. It wasn't even close. In November and December, the Giants went through their fourth straight second-half slide, to the point where I thought they would slide out of the playoffs by losing to Buffalo in Week 16. Instead, the Giants beat the Bills and then had their two best games of the year, almost beating New England and taking out Tampa Bay to move on to the second round of the playoffs. The Giants have the best pass rush in the league, and the maddeningly inconsistent Eli Manning is going through one of his good periods, taking what the defense gives him instead of trying to force the ball downfield to Plaxico Burress every other play.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are coming off four games that were either mediocre or just plain awful. According to our DVOA formula, four of their five worst games of the year came in their last four outings. Terrell Owens is a "game-time decision" with an ankle sprain, and Tony Romo hasn't been the same since he injured his right thumb against the Eagles in Week 15. Romo's mobility is supposed to neutralize the importance of the Giants' pass rush, but then again, wasn't that supposed to be the case with Jeff Garcia last week? Normally, I don't think that two games or even four games are enough to establish that a team is playing at a significantly different level than it was before. But after saying mean things about the Giants on my Web site for week after week over the last couple months, I'm now starting to wonder if the Giants might actually upset the Cowboys. Am I crazy?