Strengths and Weakness of Wild-Card Weekend, Part One

Where do Saturday's wild-card teams excel and struggle on the field?

Finally. The Playoffs are here, and for the fans of the eight wild-card teams, this weekend is either going to be the next step towards a Super Bowl, or a tragic end to the season.

To figure out which end of the spectrum you and your team will fall under isn’t easy. Everyone who follows the NFL can tell you who they think will win each game, usually supported by a bogus reason or two. But isn’t it better to come to our own conclusions with tangible evidence to back up our thoughts? I sure think so.

So in this piece, I’m not going to sit here giving you my pointless opinion on who is going to win by simply stating that “Team X is a team of destiny, they deserve to win.” We'll save that for our algorithms (and an article publishing tomorrow). Instead, I’ll use our Net Expected Points metric, telling you the strengths and weaknesses of all eight Wild Card teams, and let you decide for yourself.

Kansas City Chiefs

Strength: Pass Defense

From Week 1, the strength of this Chiefs team has been its defense, specifically against the pass. With an Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP of -37.58, this unit ranked third in the NFL over the course of the season.

The team's aggressive 3-4 defense was so successful due to a combination of factors, one being its pass rush. A front-seven lined with Pro Bowlers including breakout star Dontari Poe helped the team pile up 47 sacks, the sixth most in the league. And when quarterbacks take pressure, especially up the middle, they make mistakes.

The KC secondary was able to capitalize on that pressure en route to intercepting the third-most passes in the league over the course of the year, ultimately creating 36 turnovers, the 2nd highest figure in the NFL.

Though the pass defense has struggled more of late compared to the beginning of the season, if the Chiefs can continue to create mayhem in the opponent’s backfield and cause turnovers at the rate they did this season, they will be a tough out this weekend.

Weakness: Pass Offense

This should come as no surprise, as quarterback Alex Smith’s limitations have been well documented. Even under offensive guru Andy Reid, Smith was his usual game-managing self in 2013, ranking 19th in the NFL in Passing NEP with a 28.70 score. Because of this, the Chief's Adjusted Passing NEP of 8.57 was the 11th-worst in the league, and barley better than the pass offenses of Oakland and Cleveland.

With many of the best passing teams active in this year’s playoffs, Smith and the Chiefs are going to have to evolve from check downs and shallow crossing routes in order to keep up with the likes of Denver and New England.

Indianapolis Colts

Strength: Rush Offense

If you had to refresh the page, I don’t blame you, as this one was pretty shocking to me. Who would have thought that after the disappointing results from Trent Richardson after one of the biggest NFL trades in years that running the ball would actually be the strength of this 11-5 Colts team.

Indianapolis has Donald Brown to thank for that. With Richardson, the third-worst running back in the league according to our metrics (min. 50 carries), failing to live up to expectations, Brown took over and never looked back.

At 13.91, Brown finished the season sixth in Rushing NEP, just decimal points behind MVP candidate Jamaal Charles. Even though he is taking the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hands, it looks like Pep Hamilton knows what he’s doing, and he would be smart to continue utilizing this underrated and overlooked rushing attack.

Another thing to remember is that Andrew Luck is one of the smartest rushing quarterbacks in the league. In fact, according to our Rushing NEP numbers, Luck did more with his legs for his team than any other quarterback outside of Cam Newton. This, too, contributes to the Colts' high rushing efficiency.

Weakness: Pass Offense

Yes, you could put the pass defense here, as they rank worse in that department than the passing offense one. However, the Colts perceived strength is actually in a place where they've struggled this year. With both Andrew Luck and the Colts as a whole in the bottom half of the league in Pass NEP, this team has a lot to work on before taking on an elite pass defense like the Chiefs.

But what exactly went wrong to make this the team’s worst trait? My first guess would be Andrew Lucks efficiency problems. His Pass Success Rate of 46.19% and yards per attempt of 6.71 fail to crack the top 25 at his position, which inevitably contribute to his mediocre Passing NEP of 41.73.

Another reason could be the loss of Reggie Wayne starting in Week 9. After his injury, the Colts passing game sputtered, putting up its four worst passing performances of the year form Week 10 to Week 13. On a per target basis, Wayne was the league’s 20th most efficient wide receiver before going down, so his loss was most definitely a huge factor in the Colts lack of success.

Whatever the cause, if the Colts can turn this weakness back into a top-10 passing attack, they could be dangerous down the road.

New Orleans Saints

Strength: Pass Offense

Trailing only Peyton Manning and the Broncos, the Saints finished the regular season second in the NFL in Passing NEP with a staggering 184.39 score. With Sean Payton calling plays for Drew Brees (second in Passing NEP, only behind Manning) and his arsenal of weapons including stud tight end Jimmy Graham, this passing game rolled week in and week out.

Brees and gang are able to pick up huge chunks of yardage all over the field, whether it be on a screen pass to Pierre Thomas or a deep ball to rookie Kenny Stills, it will be near impossible come playoff time to stop this unit.

Weakness: Run Defense

At a 10.25 Adjusted Rushing NEP, the Saints rank 20th in the NFL at stopping the run. When your team’s weakness is only a little below average in comparison to the rest of the league, that bodes well for your chances in any game. But the playoffs are also when even the smallest of weaknesses can be exposed as gaping ones.

Rob Ryan has done a terrific job rebuilding this defense from last year’s record-breaking (in a bad way) squad. This is a top-10 unit overall, and the number eight pass defense thanks largely in part to Ryan’s exotic blitz packages, but also some improvement in personnel. But in order to get the NFL’s fourth-highest sack percentage at 8.81%, you must sometimes sacrifice your run stopping ability.

However, this might not be that big of an issue, as the Saints are usually leading in games, meaning teams are in passing mode and not exploiting their weakness. But that will be put to the test this weekend against the league’s top running game.

Philadelphia Eagles

Strength: Run Offense

There was a lot of skepticism along the way, but Chip Kelly’s offense more than flourished in the NFL, as the Eagles submitted the top rushing attack in the NFL with a Rushing NEP of 55.97. Not only were they the best, but they dominated. The difference between the Eagles Rushing NEP and the number two Vikings was over 18 expected points, which is the same as the difference between the second-place and eighth-place teams within the metric.

Through the use of packaged plays, the read option, and never before seen formations, Kelly’s offense took the league by storm, especially when running the rock. This helped nobody more than the league’s rushing leader LeSean McCoy, who gave us a season to remember. McCoy’s Rushing NEP of 37.12 led the league by over 15 expected points, and more than doubled that of third place Knowshon Moreno. But much credit is also due to the offensive line, led by two All-Pro caliber players in Jason Peters and Evan Mathis.

This team will run the ball up 14 or down 21, and there isn’t much a defense can do to stop this ground game.

Weakness: Pass Defense

Despite having an improving run defense, the Eagles struggle mightily when defending the pass. Philadelphia’s Adjust Defensive Passing NEP of 61.82 ranked 24th in the league by the end of the regular season, and teams know to exploit this weakness of theirs, as no team faces more pass attempts in each contest than the Eagles at 41.9 attempts per game.

Philly’s front-seven is much improved, but still lacks a pass rush, as their 2.3 sacks per game was only 20th in the league. And we all know that when you can’t rush the passer, quarterbacks will have enough time to find the open man and eviscerate secondary’s as poor as the Eagles. With a bunch of castoffs playing corner and perhaps the worst safety duo in the NFL, Chip Kelly is going to need some black magic to stop Brees and the Saints.