Takeaways fueling Ravens' playoff run
Football Outsiders takes a look at the upsets of the divisional playoffs, why they happened and what awaits the victors in the championship round.
If you write about upsets every week of the NFL season, this past weekend was a fat kid in the candy store moment. On the weekend when home teams historically have won the majority of games, three road teams toppled their rested opponents.
Rather than focus on one upset, we look at all three and what they mean for next weekend's championship games. In each game, a handful of plays swung the winning team's way and show what the team needs to do to advance to the Super Bowl.Baltimore-Tennessee Tennessee lost because it turned the ball over three times in the red zone. The Titans outgained Baltimore by 180 yards, but thanks to turnovers, they lost 13-10.
The Ravens should be able to force turnovers against the Steelers, who turn the ball over at a much higher rate than the generally efficient Dolphins and Titans. The Steelers' past two games, however, hint that Pittsburgh will have more success throwing the ball, particularly on shorter routes, than it did during the regular season. For Baltimore, turnovers are no longer a bonus but a necessary part of being a dominant defense.
Equally important is whether the Ravens will be able to prevent giving the ball back to Pittsburgh. Through two playoff games, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has avoided mistakes. The results are not always pretty -- the Ravens made only nine first downs against Tennessee -- but Baltimore still won two playoff games. Flacco has thrown only five interceptions in his past 13 games, but two of those were in the Ravens' Week 15 loss to the Steelers. Flacco was awful in that game, completing only 11 of 28 passes.
Given that the two Baltimore-Pittsburgh regular-season games were decided by three and four points, respectively, it is hard to imagine the AFC title game will not be extremely close. The winner likely will be the team that forces more turnovers. The Ravens' defense seems up to the challenge. Whether Flacco can remain mistake-free is to be determined.
Arizona-CarolinaThe most surprising result of the weekend was Arizona's domination of Carolina. The Cardinals limped home to a 9-7 finish yet find themselves hosting the NFC Championship Game. Offensively, the Cardinals' explosiveness is well-known. Had they won two shootouts, their surprising playoff run would have been at least understandable.
Instead, the Cardinals have played well on offense, but their defense has done the heavy lifting. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ratings, the Cardinals' best defensive game of the season was against Carolina. Their third-best was their wild-card win over Atlanta. The Cardinals have limited opponents who want to run the ball and forced their quarterbacks into obvious passing situations. Their defense has then cashed in on turnovers.
The Panthers' massive early deficit meant they had to abandon the run, but they struggled to run the ball even early on. DeAngelo Williams finished with 63 yards on 12 carries, but 31 of those yards came on his second carry of the game. When the Panthers couldn't run, the pressure fell on Jake Delhomme, who had the worst game of his career and the second-worst game any quarterback has had in the playoffs since 1995.
The game turned on the Panthers' second possession. After jumping to a 7-0 lead behind the strong running of Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers called three straight running plays but were stuffed on third-and-1 by safety Adrian Wilson. The Panthers punted. The Cardinals scored after a big play to Larry Fitzgerald. Then, the Cardinals' Antonio Smith sacked and forced a fumble on the Panthers' next offensive play, and the rout was on.
The Cardinals' defense faces a very different challenge against Philadelphia, one it failed to overcome on Thanksgiving. The Eagles, unlike Atlanta and Carolina, are a pass-first team. Arizona's aggressive safeties, Wilson and Antrel Rolle, excel near the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals' secondary has been reinforced with the insertion of ball-hawking cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into the starting lineup, but it still is not an elite group.
The Cardinals like to play man-to-man defense, which can be effective against the Eagles. The key, however, will be whether the Cardinals can put pressure on Donovan McNabb. Nothing about their regular-season performance indicates the Cardinals can do that. Of course, nothing about their regular-season performance said they could beat the Panthers.
Philadelphia-New York Giants
The rubber match of this intense rivalry went to the visiting Eagles, who relied on a dominant defense to return to their first NFC Championship Game since the 2004 season. That defense has driven the Eagles all season. McNabb remains the face of the franchise, and his midseason benching and subsequent good play have been the focus of much media attention. The dirty little secret is that McNabb is playing at the same level he has played for years. Instead, the Eagles' return to the NFC title game is predicated on the defense's return to glory.Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley anchor the defense and are the key cogs to the front seven. Their disruptive play allows the young, athletic linebackers to make plays.
Against the Giants, the Eagles held their own against the Giants' vaunted run game, particularly on the game's most crucial plays. In the fourth quarter, the Eagles stopped the Giants on four third- or fourth-and-short runs. These stops basically sealed the victory. The Giants averaged more yards per play, but their inability to convert on third and fourth down (4-for-16) was their undoing.
The Eagles' offense continues to make just enough plays to win games. Against Minnesota in the wild-card round, the Eagles made a few big plays to lead them to a win. On Sunday, the key was the Eagles' proficiency on third down. The Eagles completed seven of 14 third downs. Most damaging were a third-and-21 and a third-and-10 the Eagles converted on their go-ahead field goal drive in the third quarter. Although they made some clutch plays, the offense was pedestrian overall.
Adjusting for opposing defensive quality, the Eagles actually had the second-worst offense of the whole weekend, better than only Carolina. The Giants shut down Brian Westbrook, which poses an interesting model for Arizona. The Cardinals love to stop the run and likely will mimic the Giants' strategy. In Arizona, however, the Eagles are unlikely to face the same windy conditions that slowed down both offenses Sunday, and the Cardinals cannot match the Giants' pass rush.
The Eagles have to be considered prohibitive favorites against Arizona. Their defense should harass Kurt Warner and stop the Edgerrin James revitalization tour. Still, the Cardinals' passing offense is too good not to make some big plays, so McNabb and the offense will need to play more consistently. Given the upheaval of this postseason -- underdogs are 5-3 -- anything can happen and probably will.
Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.
2008 NFL Playoffs
The road to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII on Feb. 1, 2009, began Jan. 3 with the wild-card playoff round. Will the Steelers or Cardinals replace the Giants as champs?
Championship Game results: NFC | AFC
COLUMNS/FEATURES• Wojciechowski: May the bitter team win
• Chadiha: McNabb lets good times roll
• Football Outsiders: Numbers Crunching
• Sunday Countdown: Predictions and more
• Clayton: First and Goal
• Garber: This Philly Story seeks proper ending
• Clayton: Peaking Steelers should advance
• Chadiha: Eagles will soar in desert
• Wojciechowski: Book Eagles for Tampa
• Football Outsiders: Any Given Sunday
• Football Outsiders: Quick Reads
CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES (Jan. 18)
Steelers 23, Ravens 14• Polamalu's INT return secures win
• Playoff page | AFC North blog
Cardinals 32, Eagles 25• Fitzgerald leads Cardinals to first Super Bowl
• Playoff page | NFC West blog ... East
DIVISIONAL ROUND (Jan. 10-11)
Steelers 35, Chargers 24• Walker: The Bus sparks Parker
• Williamson: Bolts need season-long urgency
• Recap: Steelers knock out Chargers
• More | AFC West blog ... AFC North
Ravens 13, Titans 10• Graham: Battered Ravens pass physical
• Kuharsky: Titans failed to answer critics
• Recap: Turnovers doom Titans
• Zoom Gallery
• Fleming: Can anyone stop the Ravens?
• More | AFC North blog ... AFC South
Cardinals 33, Panthers 13• Sando: Desert bloom for Arizona's faithful
• Sando: No denying Cards' makeover
• Yasinskas: Carolina's big plans fall apart
• Recap: Delhomme's 5 INTs doom Panthers
• Zoom Gallery
• More | NFC West blog ... NFC South
Eagles 23, Giants 11• Wojciechowski: Book Eagles for Tampa
• Mosley: Giants lost to better team
• Recap: Defense smothers Giants
• Zoom gallery
• Chadiha: Eagles' defense hitting stride
• More | NFC East blog
WILD-CARD ROUND (Jan. 3-4)
Ravens 27, Dolphins 9• Wojciechowski: Scary Ravens' D
• Recap: Ravens' defense overpowers Dolphins
• More | AFC North blog ... AFC East
Eagles 26, Vikings 14• Mosley: Eagles' run continues
• Recap: Westbrook, big plays carry Eagles
• More | NFC East blog... NFC North
Cardinals 30, Falcons 24• Sando: Cards' winning identity
• Recap: Strong second half powers Cards
• More | NFC South blog ... NFC West
Chargers 23, Colts 17• Williamson: 5-6 Sproles comes up big
• Recap: Chargers shock Manning, Colts in OT
• More | AFC South blog ... AFC West