The regular season has come to a close, and the numbers are in the books. It's difficult to read a lot into the Week 17 numbers, for obvious reasons--many top teams played their starters only sparingly. Should we read anything into the Colts losing 30-7 to Buffalo? The Chargers barely squeaking past the Redskins on the power of a last-second touchdown? Probably not. So we're going to look at the Week 17 DVOA numbers, but we're not going to draw concrete conclusions from them. Instead, we're going to use them as a jumping-off point to look at the Wild Card match-ups that will affect the Chargers. Read on.
Week 17's match-up with the Washington Redskins left the Chargers in the same place as they were last week in the Weighted DVOA standings--#6, behind Green Bay, Baltimore, Dallas, Carolina, and New England. Last week, these 6 teams were all within 5% of each other in weighted DVOA (last week it was Indianapolis instead of Carolina), and that was probably a truer test of the relative positions of the teams. The Chargers don't really have to worry about the NFC teams unless they make the Super Bowl, and they won't have to worry about the Colts or Ravens unless they make it to the AFC Championship. That means that only one of the Chargers' potential first round playoff opponents is in the top five of weighted DVOA. Unfortunately, it's also their most likely opponent--the New England Patriots. Their other possible opponents, the Jets and Bengals, came in at #8 and #22 respectively. Let's take a look at those match-ups.
New England Patriots
I'm going to look a bit more in depth at the Patriots, because I feel that they are the Chargers' most likely opponent in the Divisional Round. Despite finishing the season at 10-6, an above average though not spectacular record, DVOA liked the Patriots as the 4th best team in football in overall DVOA, and the 5th best in weighted DVOA (just ahead of the Chargers). The disparity can be explained primarily by one thing.
Five of their six losses came by one score or less. One loss came by 3 points in overtime, and two came by one point each. In DVOA terms, losses that close generally get graded out just as good as wins, because teams usually win or lose those games on one or two bad bounces (we saw this last year with the Chargers--DVOA ranked San Diego as the 7th best team in the NFL despite their 8-8 record). Think of it this way--if Kyle Orton hadn't had another tipped ball fall into the hands of his own receiver instead of hitting the turf or getting intercepted, if Kevin Faulk had caught a pass a foot farther upfield than he did, and if Belichick had kicked a field goal from the Miami 6 yard line instead of failing on a 4th down attempt, the Patriots would be 13-3 and the ones with the bye.
The Patriots are similar to the Chargers, but less extreme. Their weighted offense was second best in the league, behind only San Diego. Their defense was about average, coming in at #13 in weighted DVOA. They face Baltimore, whose offense was 10th in weighted DVOA, and whose defense was #5. The Patriots already played Baltimore in Week 4, beating them by a final score of 27-21.
Is there any indication this result won't be repeated? Perhaps. As everyone is aware, Wes Welker's season is finished. Welker has made a living making tough catches over the middle, moving the chains, and generally making New England's offense go. Theoretically, losing him should be a huge blow to the Patriots and make it much more difficult to succeed. Personally, I'm going to argue it won't for a couple different reasons. First, in the first game in Baltimore, Welker only had 6 catches for 48 yards. The Patriots should be able to get that kind of production out of Julian Edelman. Indeed, coming off the bench against Houston, Edelman picked up 10 catches for 103 yards. Second, and this is the most significant to me, Brady has always been able to make the most out of average receivers. Troy Brown, Jabar Gaffney, and Reche Caldwell have all caught big passes in playoff games for the Patriots.
The Ravens have a good defense, and a slightly above average offense. Neither of those things will be enough to overcome Tom Brady and Bill Belichick playing at home in the playoffs. I'm picking the Patriots by a final score of 28-13.
All right, I'm going to talk about these two teams at the same time, because they're playing each other. The Bengals are average in every sense of the word. Below average, actually. They clock in at #20 in overall DVOA, and #22 in weighted DVOA. Their ranking is dragged down somewhat by a putrid performance against the Jets in Week 17, which I believe Cincinnati largely phoned in. Let's go back to Week 16--the Bengals rank #17 overall and #16 weighted. Average. Their Week 17 weighted offense is #21, and their defense #15. Average. The Bengals have been getting worse as the season has progressed. They peaked around mid-season after sweeping the Steelers and Ravens, and have trended downward ever since. They've been decimated by injuries, and their emotions may have just run out on them after dealing with the death of their defensive coordinator's wife and a loved teammate. It should be a tall order for them to beat a hot team like the Jets, who sport the best defense in the league, right?
The Jets are a schizophrenic team. Their overall and weighted defense is the best in the league. They're living proof that a 3-4 defense doesn't need a dominant nose tackle to be effective (their starting defensive tackle Kris Jenkins went on IR after Week 6). But oh boy, are they bad on offense. They rank #24 in weighted offense. That's worse than the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins. Their passing offense is just awful (only the Browns, Raiders, Lions, and Rams are worse), and despite the perception that they possess a great rushing offense, their ground attack only comes in at #11 in the NFL.
We talked about this game on the recent podcast, and my BFTB colleagues John and Sam both like the Jets in this game. I'm going to go out on a limb, and say that the Bengals will find it within themselves to win this game in front of their home crowd. Here's the thing. The Bengals are going to try to run, run, and run some more. And while they are good, the Jets' run defense isn't nearly as good as their pass defense (#8 vs. #1). If they can establish the run, this will only help Carson Palmer, who can't help but be better than his performance in Week 17. On defense, the Bengals are good enough to limit the Jets' rushing attack. That means Mark Sanchez is going to have to throw. Does anyone think he'll be able to accomplish anything on the road against Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph? Me neither. Bengals, by a final score of 13-6, with an over/under of 3.5 Mark Sanchez interceptions.
So, yes, I am predicting that the Chargers will face the New England Patriots in the Divisional Round on January 17th. Are they the best match-up for the Chargers? Probably not. Their defense isn't great, but their offense is. Luckily for the Chargers, the Patriots are an extreme home team, and aren't nearly as good on the road. San Diego would be rightly favored in this game, and should win.
The easiest opponent for the Chargers would likely be the Cincinnati Bengals. As I mentioned earlier, the Bengals have been trending downwards. The two teams played in the regular season, and the experience should help the Chargers refine their game-plan and eliminate the mistakes that allowed Cincinnati to make a game of it in the fourth quarter. Plus the Bengals have gotten worse since then--they've lost standout rookie Rey Maualuga, which hurts their defense.
The worst opponent, match-up wise, for the Chargers are the New York Jets. The Chargers have struggled this season against defenses that are playing well, and probably would do so again against the Jets. Despite what I outlined earlier as a terrible offense, the Chargers' defense has managed to make pretty much everyone they've played look good (save the Kansas City Chiefs). The Jets' 11th ranked rush offense would look like the best, and Mark Sanchez would probably throw fewer than 15 passes. The Jets' defense would keep the game close, and anything could happen.
While I would savor another duel with the Patriots, the Chargers' best chances at advancing to the conference championship game probably lay in a rematch with the Cincinnati Bengals.