Smarter Stats: NFL divisional round preview, by the numbers
Football is a tape-based analysis game, and there’s no doubt the best way to get a read on teams is to break down their All-22 as much as possible. Still, there are certain statistical trends and indicators that can be revealing in a preview sense, and here’s a heaping helping of advanced numbers for the divisional round.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks (Sat., Jan. 11, 4:35 p.m. ET)
Let’s start this off with an incredible stat. According to Pro Football Focus, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was targeted 58 times on 549 defensive snaps, which is a league-low 10.56 percent among qualifying cornerbacks. And he still led the NFL with eight interceptions. That’s actually fairly typical for a Seattle secondary that has been just about impossible to beat consistently.
Perhaps most impressive is that when the starters and first-tier reserves go missing for any reason, the backups and backups’ backups step right in and perform at a similar level — or better. When Brandon Browner was lost for the season due to a violation of the NFL’s drug policy, Walter Thurmond had already started taking snaps away from him. Browner allowed an opposing passer rating of 78.8 on 254 pass defense snaps, while Thurmond allowed a passer rating of 67.5 on 311 snaps.
When Thurmond was suspended four games for a marijuana-related violation, third-year cornerback Byron Maxwell stepped in opposite Sherman and has allowed a 47.8 rating on 304 snaps. Yes, the Seahawks have some issues with ancillary conduct in their defensive backfield, but it is also as deep and as talented a unit as the NFL has seen in a good long time.
When the Seahawks and Saints faced off on Dec. 1, it was a 34-7 result in Seattle’s favor, and one of the reasons things didn’t go well for Drew Brees was that tight Jimmy Graham was limited to three catches on nine targets for 42 yards. Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright did a great job of covering Graham to the flats and up the seams. Wright will miss this game with a foot injury, but backup Malcolm Smith continues the trend of backups playing well for Seattle — he’s allowed one touchdown and picked off two passes to Wright’s two touchdowns and zero picks. That’s not to malign Wright — he’s the more complete player — but if Graham is going to beat this defense, the backups won’t make it any easier for him.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (Sat., Jan. 11, 8:15 p.m. ET)
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck put up an amazing performance in his team’s wild-card comeback win over the Kansas City Chiefs, and that’s the latest flash in a trend that has seen a serious upswing of late. In November, without receiver Reggie Wayne, Luck completed 90 of 162 passes for 1,019 yards, five touchdowns and four picks. In December, as his group of less experienced receivers coalesced and Luck upped his game, he completed 117 of 184 passes for 1,229 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
If the Colts are to use Luck’s new efficiency to get a lead, they’ll want to keep it by forcing Tom Brady out of his comfort zone. Atypically, Brady has been pretty average when under pressure this year. He’s completed just 46.6 percent of his passes and thrown five touchdowns and five interceptions when hurried and hit.
In case you were unclear about the graphic difference in player value between Colts running backs Donald Brown and Trent Richardson, here are some numbers. Brown ranks 14th in both of Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics — per-play and season-cumulative. Richardson ranks 45th in both, ahead of only Baltimore Ravens running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Brown is averaging 3.28 yards after first contact, while Richardson is averaging 1.90 yards. Brown has eight runs of 15 yards or more on 102 carries, while Richardson has two on 157. Brown has a 54 percent Success Rate (FO’s stat that divides successful running plays by total running plays), second in the NFL behind San Diego’s Danny Woodhead. Richardson’s Success Rate is 43 percent; he ranks 36th. If the Colts want to put any sort of positive spin on the trade for Richardson, they could always insist they just did it to make Brown better…
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers (Sun., Jan. 12, 1:05 p.m. ET)
Right after the 49ers pulled off their wild-card win over the Packers last Sunday, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick said that his team “owed” the Panthers. Kaepernick was referring to the Panthers’ 10-9 win in Week 10 when he was sacked a career-high six times and threw for 91 yards. The Panthers also hurried Kaepernick 16 times in that game, and the 49ers’ offensive line had few answers for what Carolina’s defense sent its way. That’s because Carolina’s defense isn’t just built on attacking; linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are experts at patrolling the flats and taking away first reads when quarterbacks are pressured.
Now, while the 49ers have not lost a game since receiver Michael Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles tendon on Dec.1, the Panthers’ secondary has also improved in the second half of the season. Drayton Florence and Melvin White have each allowed opposing quarterback ratings of under 73.0, and while Captain Munnerlyn is a bit more vulnerable against No. 1 receivers with 66 catches allowed on 98 targets and an 85.5 opponent passer rating, Carolina’s three primary cornerbacks have allowed just two touchdowns as the primary target.
Cam Newton could struggle to get things going against a defense that kept him in check with just 16 completions on 32 attempts, 169 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. And similarly, his struggles in the teams’ earlier meeting started up front. Newton was sacked just three times in the game, but the 49ers’ defense put up 20 quarterback hurries and kept Newton out of sorts all day. The quarterback that manages to break through with any sort of impressive statistical performance in the rematch will have earned it, to be sure.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos (Sun., Jan. 12, 4:40 p.m. ET)
The 9-7 Chargers had to backdoor their way into the playoffs and face a 13-3 Broncos team in Denver, but this is no lead-pipe lock. In two games this season, the Broncos have just a 48-47 score advantage, and the Chargers put together a brilliant game plan when they gave Denver its only home loss of the season on Dec.12. The Chargers ranked dead last in FO’s defensive metrics in 2013, but they used their offense to play defense against the Broncos by rolling the game clock down to single digits on every play and holding the ball for 38 minutes and 49 seconds. San Diego led the AFC in average time of possession per game this season (32:47; only the New Orleans Saints averaged higher at 32:48), and while that stat isn’t always revealing, it’s relevant to this game.
Denver set an NFL record this season with 606 points, and it had the ball an average of 30:01 per game. Of course, for San Diego to repeat its success, drive efficiency will be key. The Chargers converted six of their 12 third downs in that game. That’s well over their average on the road. San Diego converted 6.2 third downs per game this season, which led the league, but only averaged 5.3 on the road.
Philip Rivers wasn’t prolific in that game, but he was ruthlessly efficient when he had to be, as was his primary scoring target. Rivers completed just 12 of 20 passes for 166 yards but threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions. Both touchdowns went to rookie receiver Keenan Allen, and those were Allen’s only two catches of the day. It was an atypical performance from an efficiency perspective, which should give Denver’s defense pause. In December with that Broncos game removed, Rivers averaged 21 completions on 32 attempts for 233 yards, two touchdowns and 0.75 picks per game.
Also in that game, Ryan Mathews became the first back to run for over 100 yards against Denver’s defense in 2013. That stat was more a function of Denver’s opponents having to abandon the run just to play catchup. Mathews ran for 534 yards in December, and when Rivers has play-action to deal with, he’s just about unstoppable. In fact, one wonders why the Chargers don’t use it more often. Rivers completed 54 of 74 passes out of play-action in the regular season for 755 yards, six touchdowns and one pick. That’s 10.2 yards per attempt, as opposed to 7.9 without play-action. Rivers was 3-for-4 for 64 yards with play-action in the Chargers’ wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.