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New York @ San Diego: An Advanced Statistical Analysis

Last week, I went about previewing the Chargers' possible Divisional Round opponents. I was horribly, terribly wrong. I failed to anticipate the unbelievable events that took place in Foxborough on Sunday. As events would have it, the Chargers will face the New York Jets, a wild card team that's already won on the road in order to get here. Let's take a look, and see how DVOA says these two teams match up.

We're in luck. The post-Wild Card DVOA rankings have some interesting tweaks and additions to them. First, you'll notice it contains all 32 NFL teams, not just the remaining playoff clubs. The teams which didn't play this past weekend, whether because of bye or elimination, were treated as if they had a bye week. Also, overall DVOA is gone--the teams are ranked solely on weighted DVOA. Lastly, as Schatz points out, he's tried to correct for teams resting their starters. In calculating this week's numbers, they've removed plays where the top teams stopped playing their number one guys. Indianapolis with Curtis Painter, San Diego with Billy Volek, and (among others) New Orleans with Mark Brunnell have all been removed. It's had a curious effect on the rankings.

The top three teams in weighted DVOA are Baltimore, Dallas, and San Diego. The Chargers' offense has dropped slightly, from #1 to #2, but the new #1 offensive team, Green Bay, has been eliminated, so we don't need to worry about them anymore. We all knew the offense was great, but what surprises me is that the weighted defense has improved dramatically. After Week 17 the Chargers were #20. This week, the new numbers show them as #14--not only is that an improvement, but they've even become slightly above average! They don't even have the worst defense left in the playoffs. Arizona, New Orleans, and Minnesota all clock in at worse in weighted defense than the Chargers. Indianapolis is only slightly better at #13.

Now let's look at the Jets. Their defense continues to reign at #1 overall, but their offense still is pretty darn bad. Despite a couple good showings in a row, their weighted offense is still only #22, and on average produces plays that are 3% worse than league average (by contrast, the Chargers' offense on average produces plays that are 30.6% better than league average). Overall, this works out to a #7 weighted ranking overall for the Jets. Good, but not better than the Chargers.

On paper, the Chargers are better than the Jets. The Chargers have a great offense and an average defense. The Jets have a great defense and terrible offense. The aggregate of those puts San Diego on top. Now, that's not to say the Jets can't win. But it means they have an uphill battle. If they want to win, they're going to have to take away what the Chargers do best, and that's throw the ball. They'll have to knock Philip around and pick off a couple passes. The problem is that they'll have a hard time doing that. Rivers threw only 9 interceptions this year, four of which were on tipped balls. After taking a bit of a beating the first five games, Philip has taken very few sacks in the last 11. These things are a result of the offensive line blocking better, the Chargers gameplanning better, and Rivers just being better in the pocket. That probably won't stop Rex Ryan from trying, though. As I pointed out in my film review, Ryan threw blitz upon blitz at Carson Palmer. There's little to suggest he won't do the same thing to the Chargers--that's how their defense operates. If I had to guess, I'd say that Rivers and Turner are hoping he does exactly that. Philip has been phenomenal against the blitz this year, and the Chargers' pair of offensive masterminds have probably dreamed up numerous fun ways to hammer the Jets when they try to rush 5 or more.

When this match-up was set, I was concerned that we could see a repeat of last year's Divisional Round, where the Chargers also went up against the league's best defense. I can confidently say the circumstances are different. First, the Steelers last year were better than the Jets on defense, and the Chargers were worse on offense. Let's look at the weighted DVOA numbers after last year's Wild Card round, and compare them to this year's. The Steelers weighted defensive DVOA was -28.1%. That's really, really good. The Chargers offensive DVOA was only 21.5%. The Steelers played defense better than the Chargers played offense. This year, it's different. The Jets' defensive DVOA is -21.4%, and the Chargers' offensive DVOA is 30.6%. The Chargers play offense better than their opponent plays defense. The story is also different when the opposition has the ball. The 2008 Steelers had a positive offensive DVOA of 4.9%. Combine that with the 2008 Chargers' terrible defensive DVOA of 9.9%, and the Steelers wind up playing better offense than the Chargers in a head to head matchup. It's a different story with the 2009 Jets. Their offensive DVOA is -3%, while the Chargers' defensive DVOA is 2.3%. Combine the two, and the Jets are still playing crappy offense. The overall weighted DVOA difference between the 2008 Steelers (30.7%) and Chargers (15.1%) was over 15% in the Steelers' favor. Contrast that with this year--in overall weighted DVOA, the 2009 Chargers (28.5%) are over 8% better than the 2009 Jets (20.3%).

The conclusion this all leads us to is simple: the 2009 Chargers are a better team than the 2009 Jets. Despite their prowess on defense, the Chargers advantage in offense more than makes up for it. The Jets can still win if they force the Chargers into making uncharacteristic mistakes--sacks, fumbles, interceptions, and penalties. If the Jets do those things, they can win. If they don't, and Rivers does what he always does, the Chargers should win.