What Did the Blowouts Teach Us About the Weekend's NFL Wild Card Winners?
Throughout the 2016 NFL regular season, there was a lack of consistently great teams, which left the possibility of an unpredictable wild card weekend between the middle and lower tier postseason squads.
Instead, what we got were four blowouts from the home teams.
As we head into the divisional round, all four home teams are again favored -- the Pittsburgh Steelers did open as a road favorite against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the line has shifted. With the slightly unexpected barrage of blowouts this past weekend, was there anything we learned from these teams that could carry over to the next round?
A lot broke right for the Houston Texans to get where they are. The Oakland Raiders were without Derek Carr and Donald Penn to start the game and lost Malcolm Smith, Rodney Hudson, and Michael Crabtree at various points and lengths of Saturday’s contest. The biggest injury impact was of course at quarterback, where not only was Carr out, but backup Matt McGloin was also recovering from an injury.
McGloin was not healthy enough to be an upgrade at any point over Connor Cook, who struggled mightily in his first career start.
Houston’s defense, though, wasn’t a question mark. The unit was fourth in Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) per play during the regular season. Instead, the Texans needed to competency with an offense that ranked 31st in Adjusted NEP per play during 2016.
In this regard, there wasn’t a lot answered.
Brock Osweiler had just his seventh positive performance of the year by Passing NEP per drop back, but didn’t show much in terms of improvement. He averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt and while DeAndre Hopkins was the leading target getter (9), he only had 5 receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown against one of the league’s worst defenses. When Hopkins wasn’t being targeted, Osweiler was content throwing short and intermediate routes to his tight ends for little gain.
There’s going to have to be more production on that side of the ball as the team heads into New England for the divisional round.
The Seattle Seahawks were the 23rd-ranked team by Adjusted Rushing NEP per play this year, which was a far drop from the Marshawn Lynch-era Seahawks. During the season, Seattle went through a myriad of running backs, but towards the end, the expected starter in Thomas Rawls, was finally healthy.
The Seahawks ran Rawls with authority against a Detroit Lions defense that was ranked 23rd against the run by Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. Rawls was worth 0.32 Rushing NEP per attempt, which was just above the season-long leading back among those with 100 carries in the regular season.
Luckily for Seattle, the Atlanta Falcons were one of the few teams worse than the Lions at stopping the run, ranking 31st in the regular season by Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play.
Seattle’s biggest question also wasn’t answered in the wild card round, that being how the middle of the defense will hold up without Earl Thomas. While the Lions have offensive weapons, they’re not the type of team that exploits the deep middle of the field.
When the Lions went deep in 2016, it was generally been down the sidelines. Only two of Matthew Stafford’s passes against Seattle were labeled “deep middle” and they weren’t so much seam-stretching plays as much as deeper slants from Marvin Jones. They also didn’t come until later in the game.
During the regular season, Matt Ryan was 17-of-25 (68 percent) on plays labeled “deep middle” for 414 yards, with 4 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and a Passing NEP per drop back of 1.17. It's likely that part of the defense will be tested at a much higher volume in Atlanta.
When the “Big Three” of the Steelers are on, there’s really no stopping them. The advantage the Steelers have is all three don’t have to be on all the time for the offense to be very good. Against the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh started out pass heavy, which resulted in two big yards-after-catch touchdowns for Antonio Brown.
Brown finished with 5 catches, 124 receiving yards, and 10.80 Reception NEP, but 112 of those yards and 10.73 Reception NEP came on his two touchdowns. He was barely a factor for the remainder of the game.
Part of that was how the Steelers shifted to a ground-based attack with Le'Veon Bell.
On a third quarter drive, the Steelers scored a touchdown on a 25-yard drive where all six official plays were Bell runs. In all, he carried the ball 29 times for 167 yards and 0.26 Rushing NEP per attempt. At times, he showed an almost comical level of patience behind his offensive line that resulted in big gains.
The there was Ben Roethlisberger, who had an up-and-down performance. He threw two interceptions, but neither mattered with the Steelers already up big. Due to the leads, Roethlisberger was only asked to throw the ball 18 times.
Against the Dolphins, like much of the regular season, each of the three had their moments, but what could make the Steelers dangerous is if all three can sustain greatness for an extended period of time.
Green Bay Packers
There might not be anything more mesmerizing in the NFL than Aaron Rodgers at the top of his game. When he’s there, no other player in the NFL comes close.
Against the New York Giants and the second-ranked defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, Rodgers was there. Part of that was due to the Green Bay Packers taking advantage of a secondary without an injured Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but a lot of it was on Rodgers being on a completely different level than any other player.
Even while getting pressured early and taking five sacks, Rodgers put up 0.38 Passing NEP per drop back, which easily led the weekend. Now at the top of his game, which has slowly been coming over the second half of the season after a first half of “What’s wrong with Aaron Rodgers?” criticisms, he does things on the field that just can’t be defended.
His touchdown pass in the second quarter to Davante Adams was just one.
The Dallas Cowboys finished 17th against the pass by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, and in a Week 6 meeting, Rodgers threw for 294 yards, a touchdown, and interception, and was worth 0.11 Passing NEP per drop back.
This version of Rodgers is going to be the best quarterback Dallas has seen this season and could be the biggest obstacle for Dallas’ ball-control style offense.