NFL Wild Card Sunday Preview: Will Pittsburgh and Green Bay Enjoy Home Cooking?
While the NFL's wild card round starts up on Saturday with a pair of interesting matchups, there are two more on Sunday to enjoy, providing us with a full weekend of gridiron action.
Each of these two contests have the potential to be high-scoring affairs, as the Miami Dolphins travel to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, while the Green Bay Packers play host to the New York Giants, with both over these over-unders coming in higher than the Saturday matchups.
Let’s dig in.
Pittsburgh vs. Miami
Ben Roethlisberger leads a dynamic Steelers offensive attack that has been one of the league's best in 2016, and it certainly doesn't hurt having playmakers like Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell at your disposal. Big Ben finished the regular season seventh-best in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back among the 34 quarterbacks with 200 or more drop backs (0.23).
The signal-caller also enjoys the friendly confines of Heinz field even more, where he's produced at a much better rate than on the road.
Ben Roethlisberger leads all quarterbacks in home passer rating (123.8). He ranks seventh-worst on the road (81.9) of 31 qualifying.
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) November 30, 2016
The Dolphins will hand the game to Matt Moore, who took over starting duties after an injury to Ryan Tannehill, who won't be ready to play. That may not be such a bad thing for the Dolphins, who are hoping to come up with the upset. The sample size for Moore has been much smaller, but his efficiency has been better than Tannehill this season -- Moore has produced a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.33, compared to Tannehill's 0.09.
As far as the two backfields are concerned, it features some of the best the game has to offer.
After missing three games to start the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy, Bell has arguably been the best running back in the league. Among the 19 running backs with 200 carriers or more, Bell ranked fifth in Rushing NEP per play at 0.07. For good measure, he basically functioned as the team's number-two wide receiver, ranking second in targets (94) on his way to 75 receptions and a Reception NEP per target of 0.47.
Bell's Total NEP of 62.98 was only second to David Johnson, while suiting up in three less games.
Simply highlighting the Pittsburgh rushing attack here would do an injustice to one of the league's other elite runner, Jay Ajayi, who ranked fourth in Rushing NEP per play at 0.08 and owns three games of 200-plus rushing yards in 2016.
Don't think the Steelers aren't aware of this -- he gashed them in Week 6 for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns in leading them to a 30-15 win for the Dolphins.
Part of Roethlisberger's success has been utilizing Antonio Brown, who finished second with 106 receptions (second to Larry Fitzgerald's 108 and only one of three receivers to break 100 catches). Brown ranked only 19th in the league in Reception NEP per target (0.71) among 41 receivers with at least 100 targets, but certainly his high volume played a role in the decreased efficiency.
Jarvis Landry led the Dolphins with 94 catches, but racked up a Reception NEP per target mark of only 0.64, good for 30th.
On the other side of the ball, these are two defenses that haven't been the strongest and check in right next to each other according to numberFire's adjusted per-play metrics (Miami at 18th and Pittsburgh at 19th). The Dolphins are better against the pass (16th) than the run (29th), whereas the Steelers are worse against the run (21st) than the pass (15th).
We could see a heavy ground attack from both sides.
The Dolphins have already beating Pittsburgh once this season, but our algorithm likes the Steelers and Big Ben a lot better at home -- we expect them to win 66.3% of the time. Per our friends over at Oddshark, the betting trends also favor the Steelers. The Dolphins are 1-7 in their last eight road playoffs games, and the Steelers are a whopping 7-0 as a favorite in their last seven contests.
Green Bay vs. New York
This contest seems to be a simple matchup between one of the league's hottest offenses and one of the best defenses. Over the last month, virtually no one can match Aaron Rodgers' production led by some insane play on third down.
Since Week 12, Aaron Rodgers is averaging 13.0 yards/att & completing 77% of his passes on 3rd down, both best in the NFL in that span. pic.twitter.com/TgmcVV7cx3
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 23, 2016
Rodgers' recent run boosted him to fifth in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back among the 34 quarterbacks with 200 or more drop backs (0.26). What's more impressive and perhaps overlooked is his running ability -- Rodgers ranked sixth among quarterbacks with 51 carries and sixth with a Rushing NEP per play of 0.50.
Eli Manning, conversely, struggled quite a bit in 2016, ranking 24th in Passing NEP per drop back among the same group (0.06). As our own Matt Blair wrote recently, Eli's poor play has hampered New York's offense significantly and could hold this team back from reaching Houston.
Figuring out how either team wants to approach the ground game is tough to decipher. The Packers appeared to have finally settled on Ty Montgomery, who far outperformed his teammates in 2016. Montgomery posted a Rushing NEP per carry of 0.08 on 77 carries, well above league average. But when reviewing snap counts in Week 17, per Football Outsiders, Aaron Ripkowski actually out-snapped Montgomery by the slimmest of margins (36 to 35).
The Giants, meanwhile, may finally be ready to turn the workload over to rookie Paul Perkins. In Week 17, Perkins out-snapped Rashad Jennings and gave the Giants their first 100-yard rusher this season. Unfortunately, Perkins and Jennings haven't been efficient -- Perkins has a Rushing NEP per play of -0.02, which is far better than Jennings' -0.12.
The receiving game will feature some of the league's best pass-catchers. Jordy Nelson has been an absolute beast coming back from a previous knee injury, grabbing 97 balls on his way to a Reception NEP per target of 0.81, sixth-best in the league. Odell Beckham hasn't been as efficient as Nelson, posting a Reception NEP per target of 0.66, but he did grab 101 passes.
Defense is where the Giants really shine. With offseason additions of Janoris Jenkins, Landon Collins and Damon Harrison, this has been one of the league's best units, ranking second in our adjusted per-play metrics. They boast top-5 units against the pass (fifth) and run (third) and were second-best in points allowed. The Packers finished 20th in our rankings, and while they are strong against the run (10th), they are far worse against the pass (23rd).
Our algorithm sees this as a likely win for the Packers, taking the game 69.2% of the time. At the end of the day, this fantastic Giants defense needs to be up to the task against a red-hot Aaron Rodgers in order to achieve an upset at Lambeau Field.