Sports Reference Blog

Wild Card Weekend

Posted by Jonah Gardner on January 8, 2016

At Pro Football Reference, we tend to deal in the factual, objective historical record.  Our website contains tables of things that really, actually happened already. This blog post will not involve that. Instead, today we're going to take a look at the hypothetical. Here's what could happen this weekend, in the four Wild Card games, and why:

Pittsburgh vs Cincinnati

Since the addition of the Wild Card round, there have been 29 teams who finished the regular season 12-4 or better and had to play on Wild Card Weekend. That includes 2 13-3 teams, the 1999 Tennessee Titans and the 2011 New Orleans Saints. The other 27 12-Win teams in the Wild Card round have gone a combined 18-9. Most of those 9 losses are road games, where a team with 12 wins got in as a Wild Card and had to play on the road. The last time a 12-4 team lost at home in the first round? January 2005, when the San Diego Chargers were hosting the New York Jets.

But the Bengals aren't like other 12-4 teams, even the ones that lose. In the six 12-4 Wild Card losses since 2000, all six lost behind their main starting QB (Garcia, Favre, Brees, Leftwich, Manning, and Roethlisberger). The Bengals may not be in that position, since it's looking very likely that Andy Dalton will miss the game. Even if he doesn't, it's doubtful that he'll be at 100%.

So what will Cincy be missing? On deep throws, not that much. With all necessary caveats about sample size, AJ McCarron has actually had a better QB rating on deep passes than Dalton:

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 4.27.30 PM

Though he got a few throws early in the season, McCarron didn't attempt a deep pass until Week 14 when he came in for Andy Dalton when the latter was injured. So, in 4 games, McCarron is averaging 6.5 deep throws per game, versus a little under or over 6 per game, depending on whether you want to credit Dalton with 13 or 14 games.

Why count the game against Pittsburgh where Dalton threw 5 passes and got injured? 3 of his 5 passes that game were deep throws, a pretty significant number when you're averaging 6ish per game.

(Does that seem like a lot of deep throws against Pittsburgh to you? Hold that thought for a second.)

So if he can chuck it, what's the problem for A.J.? The short throws:

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 4.33.39 PM

Andy Dalton was 3rd in the NFL in AY/A, which adjusts yards per attempt for TDs and INTs. The reason he was doing so well? That 15:2 TD to INT ratio on short throws. Only Teddy Bridgewater threw fewer INTs on short passes while also hitting 10+ TDs. AJ McCarron actually has a better completion percentage on short throws, but he threw an INT on 1.1% of short throws, a good enough percentage until you see that Dalton's was 0.6%.

Will this matter on Saturday? The answer, like most things when it comes to predicting football, is ¯\_(?)_/¯. Pittsburgh is not very good against deep passes. 49.1% of deep pass attempts against Pittsburgh turn into 1st downs, most in the NFL, and the passer rating against them on deep passes is 98.2, much higher than the league average of 85.3. However, the passer rating against them on short passes is 89.4, better than the league average of 92.7, and they're tied for the 3rd most INTs on short passes. Cincy knows this, they attempt 9.5 deep passes per game in their two games versus Pittsburgh this year, most of any team they played.

So would you rather have a QB who's slightly better on deep throws attacking a team that's bad at defending the deep ball, or a QB who's better on short throws protecting against the opponent's defensive strength?

Kansas City vs Houston

The conventional wisdom is that this is a matchup between two stellar defenses facing off against 2 QBs that you wouldn't trust in the playoffs. And that's true on one side, as something called Brian Hoyer will be squaring off against the #4 DSRS team in the league.

Kansas City's quarterback will be Alex Smith, who is better than you might think. Over the last three seasons, he's been 19th in passing TDs, 2nd in INT% (min. 400 attempts), and 10th in QB Rating (again, min. 400 attempts). Alex Smith is a good QB putting up good numbers. But Alex Smith is gone until September. Playoff Alex Smith is the captain now.

small smith

In 3 playoff games, Alex Smith has thrown for 291 ypg, 9 TDs, and 0 INTs. Alex Smith's AY/A in 3 years in Kansas City? 7.2. Playoff Alex Smith's career AY/A? 9.2. His passer rating? 108.6. Over the course of a regular season, that would be 48 TDs and 4,656, something that only these dudes have done:

Games Passing
Rk Year Tm Lg G GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate
1 Peyton Manning 2013 DEN NFL 16 16 450 659 68.29 5477 55 10 115.1
2 Tom Brady 2007 NWE NFL 16 16 398 578 68.86 4806 50 8 117.2
3 Peyton Manning 2004 IND NFL 16 16 336 497 67.61 4557 49 10 121.1
4 Dan Marino* 1984 MIA NFL 16 16 362 564 64.18 5084 48 17 108.9
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/7/2016.


One more thing that all of those dudes have done: throw an interception, a concept that's foreign to Playoff Alex Smith.

Now you may be saying to yourself, "It's pretty absurd to compare what one QB has done over 3 games to a full season." And you'd be right! We should look at how many QBs have thrown at least 100 passes in the playoffs without being picked off:

Rk From To G Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate
1 Jeff Hostetler 1989 1993 6 72 115 62.61 1034 7 0 112.0
2 Alex Smith 2011 2013 3 66 114 57.89 873 9 0 108.6
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/7/2016.


Or how about the longest streaks of playoff games with 25 or more passes and 0 INTs:

Tm Count Cmp Att Yds TD Int From To
Drew Brees NOR 5 144 205 1602 13 0 Jan 16, 2010 Jan 7, 2012 See all games »
Joe Flacco BAL 4 79 132 1117 11 0 Jan 12, 2013 Jan 3, 2015 See all games »
Alex Smith KAN, SFO 3 66 114 873 9 0 Jan 14, 2012 Jan 4, 2014 See all games »
Troy Aikman DAL 3 61 89 795 8 0 Jan 10, 1993 Jan 31, 1993 See all games »
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/7/2016.


And yet, Alex Smith is just 1-2 in the playoffs. Among other reasons, it could have something to do with this list of players who have been targeted in the playoffs by Smith:

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 3.57.41 PM

Neither Travis Kelce nor Jeremy Maclin has had a target from Playoff Alex Smith before. Without Jamaal Charles and facing the most talented pass rusher in the NFL, it will be up to Smith to guide this offense to victory. Good thing Playoff Alex Smith is essentially Optimus Prime.

Seattle vs Minnesota

Coming off of an absolute demolition of the Arizona Cardinals, a team advanced statisics had tipped as the year's best, practically everyone is expecting Seattle to take an easy victory in this first round matchup. What this portion of the preview presupposes is...what if they don't?

Any defense of the the Vikings' chances has to begin with the last time the Seahawks travelled north, a game that did not go especially well for Minnesota. In that game, the Vikings were held to 9 yards per drive, the lowest of any team that faced the Seahawks this year:

Average Drive Score
Tm G #Dr Plays Yds ? Time Start PtDiff
Steelers 1 12 6.4 45.8 2:39 Own 22 Down by 0.9
Packers 1 10 6.7 40.4 3:17 Own 25 Up by 4.0
Bengals 1 13 6.2 35.0 3:08 Own 26 Down by 5.9
Browns 1 7 7.7 32.9 3:38 Own 25 Down by 8.3
Panthers 1 12 5.9 30.8 2:38 Own 23 Down by 5.2
Cardinals 2 24 6.0 30.5 2:33 Own 24 Down by 5.9
Ravens 1 10 5.7 29.3 2:25 Own 24 Down by 12.1
Rams 2 20 5.5 29.3 2:47 Own 26 Up by 3.4
Cowboys 1 9 6.7 25.1 3:21 Own 29 Down by 1.7
Lions 1 10 5.4 22.9 2:47 Own 24 Down by 5.7
49ers 2 21 4.8 20.7 2:06 Own 19 Down by 13.2
Bears 1 10 4.6 12.1 2:44 Own 21 Down by 10.4
Vikings 1 10 4.8 9.0 2:29 Own 29 Down by 18.9
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/8/2016.

But look at those numbers again. Is the Vikings offense really worse than San Francisco or St. Louis? On a sheer yard per play basis, the answer is no. It could be that Seattle matches up really well with Minnesota on a scheme level, causing the Vikings to be dominated. But it could also just be that Minnesota had a bad day.

In that game, Adrian Peterson had 8 carries. If that seems very low to you, it's because it is. Since 2010, AP has only had 4 games where he received fewer than 10 carries. He wasn't particularly effective in that game, taking his 8 carries for 18 yards, but you'd expect him to have a much bigger opportunity to make an impact this weekend.

One reason AP didn't have more carries: the Vikings got blown out pretty early. By the end of the first half, it was 21-0. Minnesota's win probability at the end of the first quarter was just 20.5%. A comeback situation meant a lot of deep throws for Teddy. Remember that 11:1 TD:INT ration on short throws? His ratio on long passes is 3:8 and his completion percentage is a mere 41.3%.

Of course, it was their defense, one that was ranked 5th in the NFL this year, that got them into that mess in the first place. Let's go back to the drive stats:

Average Drive
Tm G #Dr Plays Yds ? Time Start PtDiff
Cardinals 1 8 8.4 50.0 3:59 Own 24 Up by 2.0
Seahawks 1 9 7.2 48.3 3:46 Own 35 Up by 15.1
49ers 1 8 8.0 45.0 3:45 Own 27 Up by 3.5
Falcons 1 8 7.1 39.9 3:18 Own 23 Down by 7
Broncos 1 10 5.4 36.4 2:32 Own 23 Up by 5.2
Chargers 1 11 6.5 33.5 3:02 Own 17 Down by 9.2
Raiders 1 11 5.8 32.4 2:27 Own 24 Down by 8.4
Packers 2 22 6.7 31.7 2:53 Own 28 Up by .2
Lions 2 21 5.8 31.2 2:29 Own 22 Down by 6.7
Bears 2 21 6.0 27.9 2:52 Own 29 Down by 7.3
Chiefs 1 11 5.3 27.5 2:26 Own 22 Down by 7.6
Rams 1 14 5.4 24.0 2:19 Own 24 Down by 2.1
Giants 1 15 3.9 22.1 1:40 Own 28 Down by 14.3
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/8/2016.

As you can see, Seattle averaged the second highest yards per drive. However, they also had crazy good starting field position. Their average drive started 10 yards closer to the end zone than the average team Minnesota faced in 2015. In fact, the only team that did better than Seattle on yards per drive, Arizona, ended up in a much closer game against Minnesota. That's at least in part due to their starting field position, 11 yards further back than Seattle's

Now, this could be a skill or advantage Seattle has. They do have the best opponent starting field position in the league which would help on the other side of the ball. But even with that factored in, Seattle's average offensive drive in 2015 started at the 29.2 yard line. That's a good mark, 8th best in the league, but still far behind what they did in this game. So, again, it could be something Seattle is doing specifically to give them a gigantic advantage over Minnesota, or it could be that they overperformed and this game might see some regression.

Then there's the temperature. As you might have heard, it's going to be a little chilly in the Twin Cities this weekend. If the temperature does drop below 0 degrees, it would be one of the 8 coldest games since 1967:

Passing Conditions
Rk Tm Year Date Opp G# Result OT Cmp Att Yds TD Int Temperature
1 MIN 1972 1972-12-10 GNB 13 L 7-23 18 35 146 0 4 -2.0
2 CIN 1981 1982-01-10 SDG 18 W 27-7 30 51 348 3 2 -9.0
3 GNB 1993 1993-12-26 RAI 15 W 28-0 32 66 317 1 2 0.0
4 GNB 2007 2008-01-20 NYG 18 L 20-23 OT 40 75 479 2 2 -1.0
5 MIN 1972 1972-12-03 CHI 12 W 23-10 23 52 262 2 2 -2.0
6 GNB 1967 1967-12-31 DAL 16 W 21-17 25 50 215 3 1 -13.0
7 BUF 1993 1994-01-15 RAI 17 W 29-23 41 57 495 3 0 0.0
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/8/2016.

Of the 7 games we have in our database in sub-zero temperatures, the home team won 5 of them, the 6th went to OT, and the 7th was a matchup of two Midwestern, cold weather teams. I also added the combined throwing statistics just to see that there hasn't really been a pass heavy cold weather game. That factor may or may not help the Vikings, considering that the Seahawks' defense is 6th in passing NY/A but 4th in rushing Y/A.

Seattle is the better team, by a considerable margin. They lead Minnesota by 5.5 points in SRS. But that's actually the second smallest gap of this weekend's four matchups and one that home field advantage will eat into a little. If the Seahawks are merely the better team, and not the overwhelmingly dominant kaiju monster they looked like in the first matchup, then Minnesota has a shot.

Green Bay vs Washington

As you may know, Washington hasn't had a win over an above .500 team this season. Does that actually matter? Here's every team in the Super Bowl era to make the playoffs without beating a team with a winning record:

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 9.28.46 AM

Two of those teams, The Greatest Show on Turf Rams and Steel Curtain Steelers, won the Super Bowl. This is good news for Washington since, by yelling "You like that" after a victory, Kirk Cousins has given his team an equally catchy nickname. Unfortunately, however, 8 of the 13 teams to make the playoffs without beating a winning team lost their first playoff game.

However, the situation may be even bleaker for Cousins & Co. Despite a record of 9-7, their SRS, a measure of overall team strength, is -1.9. That means that, on a neutral field, against a roughly average football team, Washington would be 1.9-point underdogs. Excluding the 1965 Cleveland Browns, 29 teams with an SRS of -1.5 or lower have made the playoffs, for a combined record of 21-29.Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 9.44.40 AM

That being said, there's good news here for Washington as well. Most of these teams had vastly lower SRS scores than they do. Every team with an SRS between -1.5 and -2, with the exception of the '96 Colts, won at least one game. And the low SRS team that had the best playoff run of all, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, have almost exactly the same SRS as Washington.

The difference is that Arizona was a much higher variance team. Their Offensive SRS was 4.0, and their Defensive SRS was -6.0. Washington, in comparison, has a -0.2 and -1.8. A better comp, unfortunately, might be those Colts, who had a -1.8 on offense and a 0.2 on defense. In other words, they were this year's Washington team, but the opposite. The team they lost to, the 1996 Pittsburgh Steelers, had an SRS of 5.2. This year's Packers' SRS? 5.3.

So those are some storylines to follow this weekend. If you're going to be watching the action this weekend, make sure to follow us on twitter, @pfref, for up-to-the-minute updates and stats.wild card 2

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