Here is everything you need to know about Saturday's NFL playoff games. Tune in on Friday for predictions on Sunday's slate.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Houston Texans (12-4)
It is easier to be fooled by randomness in football than in any other major sport. Football, by virtue of its 16-game schedule, creates story lines that would get washed away amid the annals of a long season in every other notable professional sport. Don't believe me? Consider this 16-game slice of the 2011-12 NBA season, where the eventual champions in Miami went just 9-7, finishing up their "season" with three losses in four games. In the meantime, teams like the Knicks, Bucks, and Suns (each 11-5) established themselves as surprise contenders heading into the playoffs.
You're going to have various arguments pop up in your head when you consider that 16-game NBA stretch. For one, you'll say that the schedule isn't weighted fairly across those 16 games and that the Heat likely played a harder slate than the Suns. That's true, of course, but it's also true that NFL teams don't play evenly distributed schedules over their season, either; Indianapolis's opponents were a combined 106-128 when they weren't playing the 11-5 Colts, while Arizona had to face a schedule of teams that combined to go 125-105-4 when they weren't facing the Cardinals. That's about the difference between facing a 9-7 team and a 7-9 team every week. You'll say that you know the Knicks, Bucks, and Suns aren't as good as the Heat because the Heat have their Big Three, but big names weren't enough to push the Giants or Steelers into the playoffs. The way that you truly know the Heat are the better team is because you watch them play over a much larger sample in a given season. It's much harder for randomness to overcome a 66-game sample than a 16-game one.1 You know the Heat are better because you know more about the Heat.
That simple argument is why I'm so hesitant to declare that the Houston Texans are in a season-defining swoon. We have a decent idea that the Texans are a very good football team for a number of reasons. They've gone 23-11 over the past two seasons, with comfortable wins over a number of notable teams, including three of the other five AFC playoff teams this year alone. There are some statistical markers that suggest that the 2012 Texans have been a little lucky this year — a high fumble recovery rate, a 5-0 record in games decided by one touchdown or less — but those numbers aren't enough to turn the Texans into an also-ran. Instead, because the Texans have struggled over the final quarter of their season against difficult opposition with little reason to show immediacy (before Week 17), it's time to write off the Texans as exhausted and defeated? I'm skeptical.
The Houston Collapse
Virtually every argument I've seen suggesting that the Texans aren't playing at a high level begins with Houston's 42-14 blowout loss in New England in Week 14, a defeat that ended Houston's six-game winning streak and brought upon their disappointing 1-3 stretch to finish the season. If you want to make the case for Houston truly slumping, though, you need to look past their wins and losses and actually identify the spot where they started to play inferior football, even if they still had enough to pull out victories.
The most logical place to start if you want to identify Game Zero of the Houston downgrade is Week 11, three weeks (and wins) before the Patriots game. That week, the Texans were coming off of a messy-but-impressive victory over a 7-1 Bears team in Chicago on Sunday Night Football. They had the easiest game on their schedule ahead, a game at home against the lowly Jaguars. Jacksonville somehow managed to turn the game into a serious contest, with big games from Chad Henne and Justin Blackmon producing a stunning 34-20 lead in the fourth quarter. The Texans stormed back and eventually won the game in overtime, 43-37, but it was a sloppy win against arguably the league's worst team. It was the sort of performance they wouldn't get away with against a better team. Five days later, they played a marginally better team on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, and the Lions gave the Texans a similarly tough matchup. The Texans again prevailed in overtime, 34-31, but the margin of victory amounted to Jim Schwartz's famous premature flag on a touchdown that never should have been granted. Houston had now played 10 quarters of football in five days against two of the league's worst teams and barely come out on top. If you want to pinpoint where the fall of the 2012 Texans began, you have to include those games, even though they were wins.2
Houston followed that with a 24-10 win against another of the league's downtrodden, Tennessee, before beginning that fateful four-game stretch that dropped them out of the top spot in the AFC to the three-hole. In all, that's a seven-game sequence where the Texans won close games against some of the league's worst teams and lost handily to three playoff participants. In their four wins, the Texans recovered nine of the 10 fumbles that hit the ground; in the three losses, they were only able to nab three out of seven, notably failing to pick up a first-quarter Stevan Ridley fumble that might have turned the tide early against New England. It's clear that the Texans played worse during that stretch, but I don't know that their decline is necessarily indicative of some disappointing level of play that's going to stick around in these playoffs.
If the Texans really did have some key component fall off the wagon during that 4-3 run, what was it? The premium database at Football Outsiders splits out DVOA, their core statistic, by how a team did in the first half (Weeks 1-9) and second half (Weeks 10-17). That second-half figure includes that seven-game stretch and the tight Bears game that preceded it. DVOA is also useful to use here because it adjusts for the game situation, the down and distance, and the quality of the opposition; that last bit is crucial, considering how difficult Houston's second-half schedule was. Here is their rank in each DVOA split and how it changed from the first half of the season to the second half:
According to DVOA, the Houston offense declined to a greater extent than the defense, and the passing offense fell off more noticeably than the rushing attack. Now, just out of curiosity, how did the Cincinnati pass defense change between the first half of the season and those final eight weeks?
Hall of Justice
That's right: Cincinnati's pass defense went from being the league's fifth-worst unit (28 of 32) during the first half of the season to producing the best pass defense DVOA in football over the final eight weeks of the year. Their run defense also improved from 26th to 14th, so in all, Cincinnati's defense morphed from 27th in the league in DVOA into the league's best unit over the course of the season. It's a trick backed up by the conventional numbers, too, as Cincinnati's defense went from allowing 27.3 points per game during the first nine weeks to just 12.8 over the final eight games. Cincinnati faced a tough slate of opposing offenses during the first half, including the Redskins and Broncos, but they also allowed 44 points to the Ravens in Week 1 and 61 points over two different games to the Browns, of all teams. They held the Giants to 13 points and the Cowboys to 20 during that dramatically improved second half.
What specifically improved with Cincinnati to drive that stunning rise to the top? Well, for one, they had healthier personnel. Rotation defensive tackle Pat Sims came off the PUP list and made his way back into the lineup, giving the combination of Domata Peko and Geno Atkins a chance for more regular rest. Atkins is a superstar and probably the most impressive interior defensive lineman in football this year after J.J. Watt, but he's more productive playing 50 snaps per game than he is approaching the low-60s. Underrated pass rusher Carlos Dunlap missed the first two games and got off to a slow start, but five of his six sacks came during the second half. Three of the four starters in Cincinnati's secondary missed time with injuries, notably star cornerback Leon Hall, who was already coming off of a torn Achilles in 2011. You would expect Hall to get healthier and more productive as the season's gone along, and that's exactly what's happened.
Cincinnati's cornerback depth, honestly, is a wonder to behold. Their nominal starters are Hall and former Cowboys star Terence Newman, who has been productive as the team's no. 2 corner while staying healthy for most of the year.3 Their second-stringers are Adam Jones and Nate Clements, each of whom can contribute effectively in limited roles. Clements has played safety at times this year as warranted, where he's a big hitter (if an inconsistent one). Their nominal third-stringers are first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick and Jason Allen, who was the nickel back and a regular contributor to last year's Texans defense. Nobody in the league comes close to matching Cincinnati's depth at corner.
The underlying numbers bear out a team that improved in very traditional ways. For one, Cincinnati started creating more takeaways, as the Bengals forced 19 turnovers in the second half after allowing just 11 during the first eight games of the year. They were unquestionably aided by an offense providing them with better field position by avoiding turnovers of their own, as the Cincinnati offense went from a 16-turnover run during the first half (including at least one in each game) to just 10 over their final eight. And when they weren't forcing turnovers, Cincinnati's pass defense got much, much better in terms of creating stops on third down. In situations where the Bengals were within 14 points or fewer of the opposing team,4 they allowed 7.2 yards per pass on third down during the first half, with offenses creating first downs for themselves 41.0 percent of the time. During the second half, the average number of yards those offenses need for first downs hasn't changed one bit, but the Bengals are allowing 3.1 yards per pass and opposing units are only converting 24.4 percent of the time. That's the fourth-best rate in football.
Distressingly for Texans fans, their passing offense has gotten notably worse on third down. During the first nine weeks of the year, Houston produced 7.17 yards per dropback in those same situations, converting 47.2 percent of their passes for first downs, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Since then, Houston's passing offense under Matt Schaub has lost its way: They've been averaging 5.1 yards per pass and converting 34.3 percent of the time, with Schaub getting sacked more than twice as frequently. If the Bengals are going to upset the Texans and gain their revenge after losing to Houston in the wild-card round last year, it's going to be because their pass defense suffocates the Houston offense and produces three-and-outs.
You can get me to believe that Cincinnati's pass defense is criminally underrated, but I'm still inclined to think that the Texans pull this out. As much as Houston's passing offense has been in decline in recent weeks, the Cincinnati passing offense rates out at just 19th in the league, and that's with A.J. Green in the lineup. Andy Dalton's work at quarterback has been inconsistent all year, but he's been notably bad the past two weeks, when his team's season has been on the line. The Bengals couldn't do anything on offense against the Steelers in Week 16, as their 13 points included an interception return for a touchdown and an interception-arranged game-winning field goal. Last week, with the Ravens playing a team of backups on defense virtually the entire way, the Bengals weren't able to move the ball whatsoever with Dalton at the helm for the first half. Their lone scoring drive with Dalton in started on the Baltimore 42-yard line. If you can't score against a team that's not trying to win, how can you do so against a unit that's led by J.J. Watt?5
Green obviously represents the most important player for the Texans to consider on defense, but they match up well against teams with one star wideout and little else, thanks to the presence of Johnathan Joseph. Joseph's had an uneven season this year, thanks to a string of mid-season injuries that saw him play at far less than 100 percent, but he finally made his way off of the injury report last week for the first time all season. A healthy Joseph is one of the league's best corners and one of the few guys in the league who can be competitive with Green in one-on-one situations, if not necessarily favored. If you remember last year's game, the Texans got a year from an injured Andre Johnson before getting him healthy for the postseason and allowing him to take over games at times; I suspect that it might be the same case with Joseph. Houston should also get starting linebackers Brooks Reed and Tim Dobbins back into the starting lineup, albeit with Reed likely in a situational role.
In the end, I think people are writing off the Texans because of the vagaries of sequencing and small sample size. The 16-game schedule makes Houston's disappointing stretch seem monumental when it's more likely to be a blip on the radar. Somehow, critics have used it to backfill complaints about Matt Schaub being unable to win the big one. Terry Bradshaw noted last Sunday that the Broncos had passed the Texans because Houston hadn't proven that they were capable of winning "the big one," despite the Texans having beaten those same Broncos earlier this season.6 Beating the Ravens by 30 in Week 7 doesn't count, nor do last year's victories over the Steelers and Falcons, let alone the playoff victory over the Bengals. Heck, the Texans outplayed the Ravens in Baltimore and nearly won in the divisional round with T.J. Yates as their quarterback. T.J. Yates! Even a diminished Schaub is an upgrade on T.J. Yates.
The Bengals slow down the Houston passing attack and put up a better fight than they did one year ago, but a resurgent Houston defense picks up the slack. Houston 20, Cincinnati 13.
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5)
After Adrian Peterson's stunning performance led the Vikings to a 37-34 victory over the Packers on Sunday afternoon, the story lines surrounding this game have turned Saturday's playoff tilt into a matchup of Peterson versus the entire Packers team. "If the Packers can't stop Peterson," the logic goes, "they can't win." Well, the Packers certainly haven't been able to stop Peterson this season, but I don't think it's quite that clear-cut. It seems extremely likely that the Vikings would need a big game from Peterson to win; it just also seems entirely possible that the Vikings could get another heroic performance from their star running back and still lose.
All Day Until the Postseason?
Although the league is no longer geared toward building an offense around one dynamic running back, the history of elite running backs and the teams that surround them has actually been relatively consistent across eras. There are 20 instances in NFL history of a back running for 1,800 yards in a season or more, a group that Peterson joined for the first time with his stunning, MVP-worthy 2,097-yard campaign this year. There's a built-in selection bias dictating that those players' respective teams do well during the regular season; no bad team is going to be able to hand the ball to a running back frequently enough to get him to 1,800 yards, because a below-average team will be throwing to catch up far too frequently. Indeed, each of those 20 teams had a record of .500 or better, and 15 of the 20 teams made the playoffs during their star's breakout year, just as Peterson's Vikings did this year. Were they able to sustain their success during the postseason?
Not really, no. Of the 14 non-Peterson playoff teams, nine were knocked out of the playoffs in their very first contest. Altogether, their teams were a collective 9-13 in the postseason, and only one of the 14 backs in question, Terrell Davis, won the Super Bowl during his starring campaign. He also had John Elway at quarterback, and Christian Ponder is no John Elway. Shaun Alexander and Jamal Anderson were on teams that went to the Super Bowl during their big seasons, and they had more pedestrian quarterbacks, but even Matt Hasselbeck and Chris Chandler were viewed as way ahead of where Ponder is at this point in his career.
The backs also saw a dip in their production during the playoffs. After averaging 5.3 yards per carry with 123.6 rushing yards per game during the regular season, the backs combined to run for 4.5 yards per attempt and just 90.7 yards per game. Those numbers are still respectable, of course, but the superior competition and likely improvement in opposing run defenses were enough to slow these elite backs down.
You might be inclined to argue that Peterson doesn't belong in a class with mere 1,800-yard backs like Anderson and Tiki Barber, and maybe you're right. But there's a cautionary tale for Vikings fans with the one back that everybody respects, and it happens to include the Green Bay Packers. In 1994, Barry Sanders kicked off a four-year stretch of ridiculous performances by running for 1,883 yards on 331 attempts, leading the league in both yards per carry (5.7) and rushing yards per game (117.7). Although he had a 47-yard game against the Packers during his first game against Green Bay that year, his second appearance against them saw him run for 188 yards on 20 carries. You would have expected Sanders to be at his mercurial best when the Lions traveled to Green Bay for the wild-card game and Sanders ran for -1 yards on 13 carries.7 It was the worst performance of Sanders's legendary career, and it came after a four-game stretch in which he ran the ball 72 times for 477 yards. He wasn't quite as hot as Peterson's been over the final quarter of the season, but nobody expected Sanders to have a bad game, let alone one with negative yardage.
Let's bring it back closer to home. We've certainly seen Peterson lead the Vikings into the playoffs over the final quarter of the season, with a four-game winning streak from the Vikings coinciding with a 651-yard stretch from AD, but has Peterson noticeably played better in Minnesota's wins than in their losses? Actually, that doesn't really appear to be the case:
Unsurprisingly, Peterson carries the ball more frequently when Minnesota's winning (and not forced to throw to catch up), but he's been more efficient in Minnesota's losses and actually been more productive in those six defeats when you toss in his work as a receiver. What those numbers suggest to me, admittedly in a small sample, is that Peterson can play brilliantly and the Vikings can still lose.
Can Peterson somehow manage to avoid playing brilliantly against the Packers? He's certainly owned them this year. Having run for 409 yards on 55 carries against Green Bay this year, Peterson became just the seventh back since 1960 to rush for more than 400 yards against one team in a single season.8 The only arguments weighing in Green Bay's favor seem to revolve around regression toward the mean; even the best running back in football history wouldn't be able to run for 200 yards per game against the Packers game after game, right? The Packers will hope that a returning Charles Woodson will help, with Woodson likely spotting in as a safety in and around the line of scrimmage. He certainly can't be worse than Tramon Williams, who sank Green Bay's chances with a terrible personal foul penalty that extended a stalled goal-to-go series while mixing in a couple of notable whiffs on possible tackles of Peterson.
In fact, the best argument surrounding Green Bay's defensive prowess is that they've been resting guys and slowly working them back into shape for a playoff run. With a playoff spot seemingly ensured for most of the second half, the Packers haven't rushed Woodson back into the lineup. The team also ramped up Clay Matthews's workload, playing him in 93 percent of snaps last week after he was on the field 51 percent of the time in Week 16. One downside of playing the Vikings, though, is that it doesn't allow the Packers to line up with their best 11 defenders on the field. That's their nickel package, and the threat of the Minnesota running game forces the Packers to stay in their base 3-4. That keeps promising rookie ballhawk Casey Hayward off the field and could limit Woodson's usage on Saturday.
Let's say Peterson gets his numbers — even if it's not a single-game rushing record, he puts up 25 carries, 140 yards, and a touchdown. You know what? Go crazy. Two touchdowns. What else can we really expect the Vikings to bring to the table beyond Peterson? Last Sunday, they weren't able to stop Aaron Rodgers. He threw for 365 yards and four touchdowns without top target Randall Cobb in the lineup, notably abusing Vikings nickel cornerback A.J. Jefferson for an entire drive without any recourse for Minnesota. Rodgers might not produce numbers quite that pristine again, but it's hard to see how the Vikings stop him without an otherworldly game from Jared Allen. The shoulder injury sapping the strength of Vikings end Brian Robison is a hidden killer, since it allows the Packers to focus further upon Allen while Robison plays through his injury at far less than 100 percent.
So if we assume that Peterson and Rodgers have productive days, it feels like the game falls on the shoulders of Christian Ponder. Ponder had just about the best game of his career on Sunday, and the Vikings were only able to win by three. Ponder went 16-of-28 for 234 yards with three scores and no picks, notably hitting Jarius Wright with a perfect 65-yard bomb up the seam. He continued his maddening habit of throwing scary floated lobs into the end zone, a play that worked when Michael Jenkins caught it for a touchdown. After converting 35.4 percent of his third downs (in 14-point games) through the first 15 games of the year, Ponder went 6-for-12 in picking up third downs last Sunday. That's only two more first downs than we would "expect" from the 35.4 percent clip, but those two extra conversions might have been enough to seal the game.
That Ponder performance was also notably at home, where he's been a much better player this year. Ponder's completed 63.7 percent of his passes while throwing in the domes of Minnesota this year, averaging seven yards per attempt while throwing nearly two touchdowns for every interception. Outside on the road, though, Ponder's a middling checkdown artist: He averages just 5.3 yards per attempt, his completion percentage falls to 60.7 percent, and he throws nearly one touchdown for each pick. He's not the same guy. And neither is Blair Walsh, who hasn't missed a kick at home this year (a perfect 16-for-16) while going 19-for-22 on the road.
So after all the Peterson hype gets washed away, I think Minnesota's chances really depend upon Ponder. If he can make it two consecutive big games in a row, hit a big play or two, and avoid turning over the ball, the Vikings have a shot at winning in Lambeau. I just don't think the odds of that happening are very high.
Green Bay 31, Minnesota 17