The 4 Most Important Matchups to Watch During Championship Week
It's NFL Championship week, and that means that there are only two games to watch this weekend. That also means that with two island games, everybody sees every play, and every talking head rants and raves about a smaller group of players and matchups than usual.
Well, I'm not really going to be getting into the whole dueling quarterback narrative. Anybody and everybody will know anything and everything about those guys come Sunday, so what else will be going on in these games that will decide the outcomes?
Let's dig into the numbers and see which other matchups might be most important this weekend.
Colts Receivers vs. Patriots Secondary
This isn't entirely different from focusing on Luck's prospects against New England's pass defense, but really, it is. Luck tends to put up raw passing stats regardless of his opponents mainly from attrition, as the Colts were the sixth-most pass heavy team in the regular season. Rather, Luck's receivers are going to have to prove capable of making plays against the tough New England defense.
This regular season, the Patriots ranked fourth in the NFL in Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. If you're new to numberFire, NEP is our metric that indicates how far above or below a player or team performs compared to expectation. Their Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play was 0.00, meaning they did exactly what was expected of them -- and that was the fourth-best in the league. Only three teams managed a negative mark in the metric. Passing is just too efficient to take points off the board over the duration of a whole season.
What about the Colts' offense? Well, it's evident that T.Y. Hilton is the main man. This season, he ranked 10th in Reception NEP among wide receivers, adding 108.36 points above expectation to the Colts. As for the other receivers? Reggie Wayne ranked 47th (61.01), Donte Moncrief ranked 78th (35.58), and Hakeem Nicks ranked 87th (31.36).
It might, then, come down to the tight ends: Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Of the 55 tight ends who saw at least 20 targets, Allen ranked fourth in Reception NEP per target (0.90), and Fleener was 10th (0.76). If Darrelle Revis can bottle up Hilton, then the tight ends could prove critical for the Colts to stay on the field.
New England Running Backs vs. Indy's Front Seven
The truth is that we just don't know how Bill Belichick is going to attack this Colts defense even though it might seem obvious based on recent games. If he was a numberFire reader, then he would know that the run defense of the Colts (16th in the NFL) is a little more vulnerable than its pass defense (13th), but we can't know for sure he's going to try to run the ball -- even though everyone reading this knows that it was against the Colts that Jonas Gray carried the ball 37 times for 201 yards and 4 scores. But Gray has been a non-factor since, seeing double-digit carries just once since that monster game.
Shane Vereen played the majority of snaps for the Pats last week (59%), but that was in a pass-happy approach. It's most likely that LeGarrette Blount, who went for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns on 24 carries against the Colts in the playoffs last year will be the man, but pretending there is certainty when dealing with Belichick is foolish. Either way, it's likely the Pats will run the ball -- and one of these guys will have to step up against a beatable run defense.
Seattle's Pass Defense vs. Aaron Rodgers
As much as we'll hear about Rodgers before kick-off, there really is reason for it. But I'm not really going to try to guess how bad his leg is. I'm more worried about his splits against good pass defenses.
According to the year-end ranks, Rodgers faced 10 below average (17th or worse) pass defenses in terms of Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Obviously, six times he faced above average defenses. All of those six, actually, were top-10 units. Still, his splits against those teams are a mite worrisome.
|Top Half Pass D||6||19.3||30.7||63.0%||230.8||1.5||0.5||7.5|
|Bottom Half Pass D||10||22.5||33.6||67.0%||299.6||2.9||0.2||8.9|
So, no big news that Rodgers is better against weaker pass defenses, but he more or less doubled his touchdowns in plus matchups and racked up nearly nine yards per attempt. Seattle, of course, has a really good pass defense -- finishing the season ranked third in the NFL according to our metrics.
Rodgers has more than capable weapons out wide -- Jordy Nelson finished the year fourth in Reception NEP (140.05) and Randall Cobb was seventh (119.13) among wideouts. The calf injury is a fun talking point, but the numbers indicate that this battle will be crucial for Green Bay.
Green Bay's Front Seven vs. Seattle's Run Game
That's because, unless Green Bay's run defense shows up, Seattle could control the game on the ground. This year, the Packers finished just 22nd in run defense, per our metrics. Seattle, on the other end of the spectrum, had the best run game in the NFL -- by far.
Seattle's Adjusted Rushing NEP per play was 0.18. Second in the NFL? Kansas City at 0.06. In fact, Seattle posted the second-best Adjusted Rushing NEP per play since 2000 -- only the Carolina Panthers in 2011 (0.19) were better.
Russell Wilson led the NFL in Rushing NEP (60.50), and Marshawn Lynch led all running backs (27.34). Wilson had the third-best Rushing NEP since 2000 (to Michael Vick in 2004 (68.31) and Shaun Alexander (66.11) in 2005).
Green Bay has tall tasks on both sides of the ball, but with the best overall offense in the NFL going up against the third best defense, every snap of the ball is going to be enticing.