To read about Saturday’s wild-card teams or to see what this piece is all about, check out Part One. Now, without further ado, let's dig into the strengths and weaknesses of Sunday’s wild-card teams.
San Diego Chargers
Strength: Pass Offense
After his worst season since the mid-2000s last year, many questioned if the once elite quarterback for the Chargers, Philip Rivers, was over the hill. Throw in a new head coach in Mike McCoy and the same battered offensive line, and this passing game was left for dead before the year even started. But little did we know McCoy would rejuvenate his quarterback and create one of the better passing offenses in the entire NFL.
Rivers had a complete renaissance of a year, posting top-five numbers in completion percentage (69.5), yards (4,478), yards per attempt (8.23) and touchdowns (32). All of this success ultimately accumulated into Rivers having the third-highest Pass Net Expected Points total in football at 162.80.
But he didn’t do it all by himself. The offensive line held up all year long, as they only let their quarterback be sacked on 5.23% of his drop backs, the sixth-best mark in the league. Rivers also got a bit of help from rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, who flashed some serious potential as the season progressed. On a per target basis, Allen was the league’s fourth-most efficient receiver (minimum 50 targets), posting a Reception NEP per target number of 0.93.
Whether it was McCoy, Rivers, or the supporting cast, the Chargers offense put it all together and had the third-highest team Passing NEP total in football, and can surly keep up with the AFC’s best in a shootout.
Weakness: The Whole Defense
Usually a team struggles in one aspect of defense while having mild success in other places. But in the case of San Diego, they are dreadful at stopping both the pass and the run. When adjusting for schedule, the Chargers rank 26th against the run and 31st against the pass, and sit at 29th in the league in total defense according to our Defensive NEP numbers.
However, aside from a clear lack of defensive talent, it’s quite puzzling how they are this bad. Chargers opponents have possession of the ball only 45.01% of the time, the lowest mark in the league. This contributes to the fact that the San Diego defense sees only 59.9 plays per game, the second-fewest in the NFL. This is not a good sign for McCoy’s squad in the playoffs, as a defense that is on the field less than any other in the league should not be giving up such high NEP totals.
The Chargers might need every bit of that third-ranked passing game in order to stay afloat in the AFC, because it’s hard to see them stopping anyone on the defensive end.
Strength: Pass Defense
After losing their top two defensive players for the season in Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, it's nothing short of miraculous that the Bengals were able to finish with the second-highest Adjusted Defensive PNEP in the NFL at -44.57.
Thanks to big-money defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, Cincinnati was still able to post elite pass rushing numbers, sacking opposing signal callers 2.7 times per game. This undoubtedly made the lives of past-their-prime corners Terrence Newman and Adam Jones much easier when in coverage.
In terms of pass defense, the Bengals had their third-best game of the season against San Diego in Week 13, a performance they will likely need to repeat this Sunday.
Weakness: Rush Offense
Fantasy owners of Giovani Bernard just let out a collective “sigh”, as they are all too familiar with the Bengals struggles on the ground. After investing the 37th overall pick in explosive UNC running back, the team continued giving carries to plodder BenJarvus Green-Ellis. BJGE had 49 more carries than Bernard this season, despite his Rushing NEP being almost three times worse than Gio’s.
All of those wasted carries for the Law Firm took a major toll on Cincinnati’s running attack, as the team averaged a putrid 3.6 yards per carry, a lead factor in their 22nd-ranked running game according to our Rushing NEP numbers.
San Francisco 49ers
Strength: Rush Defense
San Francisco is not elite in one particular area, as they are a very well-rounded football team, but do excel at stopping the run. With an Adjusted Defensive RNEP of -22.79, the 49ers rank ninth in the NFL.
Justin Smith and Patrick Willis led a star studded front line of defenders to hold opposing running backs to only 3.9 yards per carry, as they allowed only 4.8 first downs per game on running plays during the regular season, the sixth-best mark in football. Defensive whiz Vic Fangio is going to need this to continue in order to stop Green Bay’s power run game.
Weakness: Rush Offense
Despite the Jim Harbaugh’s never before seen run formations, stable of running backs, and the 49ers 0.90 pass-to-run ratio, San Fran actually struggles when trying to pound the rock. Harbaugh’s offensive line is one of the best in the league, but the team is 19th overall in Rushing NEP. In addition, all four of the team’s running backs totaled negative RNEP totals this season, with Frank Gore having one of the worst in the league at -17.29.
A lot of this can be attributed by the sheer volume Gore and the other backs accumulate, but Gore’s Success Rate of just over 40% tells us that he might be over the hill, and that it may be Kendall Hunter time for the 49ers.
The 49ers pride themselves on their “ground and pound” style of play, but may actually be more apt to play in more of a pass-oriented offense.
Green Bay Packers
Strength: Rush Offense
With one of the game’s best players in Aaron Rodgers missing almost two months of the season, Green Bay had to turn to running that ball, an area where they routinely ranked in the bottom of the league during Rodgers’ tenure.
But Rookie of the Year candidate Eddie Lacy and a reinvigorated James Starks may have actually carried this Packers team into the playoffs. Starks finished fourth in the NFL in Rushing NEP at a 17.20, and despite having only the 18th-highest RNEP (third-most carries of any running backs inside the top 20), Lacy was extremely effective and earned second team All-Pro honors.
As with any potent running game, the offensive line deserves credit as well. The Packers line has never been stable, but the addition of rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari was huge for Green Bay. When running left, the Packers averaged 5.1 yards per carry, a number that would tie the Eagles for the best in the NFL.
Rodgers has since returned, and Mike McCarthy will bring the emphasis back to him offensively, but he’d be best not to forget about perhaps the Packers most efficient weapon.
Weakness: Pass Defense
Surprise! The Packers can’t defend against the pass, what else is new? When adjusted for schedule, the Pack rank 27th in Defensive Passing NEP, a figure that does not bode well in a pass-first league. However, this one is actually quite puzzling to figure out.
Green Bay usually struggles to rush the passer, but finished with a top-10 sack rate on the year. The blame can likely be put on the secondary, who allowed the seventh-most yards per attempt in football at 7.3. The defense will likely improve when and if promising second-year corner Casey Hayward returns, but will need to forge together something resembling an average pass defense to contend this year.