Wait a minute … there was a point this year where Steve Smith was useful? He did pretty badly in our numbers—and as you point out, it is such a small sample size that you really can’t learn anything from it (only 14 regular-season passes).
It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys use Jason Witten in this game. The Giants rank 31st in our ratings against tight ends, and in the first game between these teams Witten stomped all over the Giants: 116 yards and a touchdown with no incomplete passes. However, Michael Strahan did not play in that game, and the Giants pass rush was in the amorphous blob stage of evolution. By Week 10, the New York pass rush was so good that the Cowboys had to leave Witten back to help pass-block much more often, and he couldn’t take advantage of the subpar Giants safeties. He had only two catches for 12 yards.
Still, for all these stats we’ve been batting around, the biggest issue in the game has nothing to do with numbers—Terrell Owens’ ankle. The Cowboys offense just isn’t as good without him.
Back to the Jaguars-Pats game. You mentioned Jacksonville receiver Reggie Williams’ breakout year. Boy, I didn’t see this one coming. Before this season, Williams was just a mediocre receiver with an annoying habit of celebrating every catch as if he had just scored the Super Bowl-winning touchdown. Now, we have him as one of the 10 best wideouts in football on a per-play basis. It’s pretty obvious his performance this year is a fluke, though. Williams had 10 touchdowns with just 38 catches. Since 1978, the only receiver to score 10 TDs with fewer catches was Daryl Turner of the Seahawks, who did it in both 1984 and 1985.
On the other side of the ball, it’s really interesting that your pass-coverage metrics show that New England should target Brian Williams. When we looked at our early game-charting data, one of the more surprising things we found was a major drop in effectiveness for the Jags’ other cornerback, Rashean Mathis. He deservedly went to the Pro Bowl in 2006, but our charters have him as below average in 2007, while Williams comes out slightly above average—basically the same as he did a year ago. What do your numbers say about Mathis?
Of course, the beauty of the Patriots’ offense is that it doesn’t matter where the weakness of your defense happens to be. With so many weapons, they can attack pretty much anywhere. Everyone is looking for reasons why the Jaguars or Colts will beat the Patriots, but the Patriots were the greatest regular-season team of all time. I don’t think they’re going to go marching through the postseason with three blowouts like the 1985 Chicago Bears did, but there’s no reason to believe they will lose until it actually happens.
To answer your question about the Seattle Seahawks, they allowed an average of 4.7 yards after catch, which is league average. The Packers run a lot of slants that are designed to attack man coverage, and that’s where a lot of the YAC comes from. I don’t think those passes will be there against a Seahawks defense that plays primarily in a Tampa-influenced Cover Two zone.
The more important matchup issue is the Seattle defensive front seven against the Green Bay offensive line. That front seven won the wild-card game by dominating the Washington line, but it will be harder to harass Brett Favre. Green Bay’s blocking is good, and Favre knows how to throw the ball away and avoid a sack. Based on our Adjusted Sack Rate stats—sacks per pass play, adjusted for situation and opponent—the Packers had the best pass protection in the NFL this year. Seattle’s front seven is also good at stopping the run, and Green Bay’s line doesn’t do the best job run-blocking. However, the Seahawks give up a lot of long runs if a back can get past the initial line of defenders—and Green Bay’s Ryan Grant is a player who gets a lot of those long runs.
As for Bob Sanders, well, the play-by-play doesn’t really create numbers that tell you straight out when players are good and bad. They do a better job of telling you a broader story about how a defense used its individual players. Nonetheless, there are some pretty clear signs of Sanders’ importance. He made 60 run tackles, fourth among all safeties, and he made those tackles after an average gain of just 5.5 yards, which is well above average for a safety. Sanders also had 21 Defeats, defined as plays where the offense lost yardage, turned the ball over, or failed to convert third down. The only safety with more was Roman Harper of New Orleans. In addition, the Colts were the second-best defense against tight ends, usually a sign of good safety play. With injured superstar tight end Antonio Gates out for the Chargers, Indianapolis can stick Sanders in the box for pretty much the whole game, which sure makes life a lot more difficult for LaDainian Tomlinson.