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Division Preview: New Orleans at Seattle

Brees and Wilson scheming to get on an amusement park ride

Brees and Wilson scheming to get on an amusement park ride.

On the surface, this does not appear to be a very even matchup. In home games in 2013, Seattle outscored opponents by 15.4 points per game, an average that includes the loss to Arizona. In road games during the regular season, the Saints were outscored by 4.6 points per game. Both of those averages, of course, include Seattle’s 27-point demolition of the Saints in Seattle just six weeks ago. The 20-point difference between Seattle’s average home margin and the New Orleans’ average road margin — which, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to call the “projected MOV” — is very high, even by historical standards.  In fact, only 20 playoff games since 1950 featured a game with a larger projected MOV.

The table below shows the 50 playoff games with the largest projected MOV since 1950, measured from the perspective of the home team. For games since 1978, I’ve also shown the pre-game points spread. The largest projected MOV came in 1998, when the Vikings hosted the Cardinals in the playoffs. That year, Minnesota outscored teams by 23.6 points per game at home, while Arizona was outscored by 9.1 PPG on the road. Those numbers combine for a projected MOV for Minnesota of nearly 33 points! The game took place during the division round of the playoffs and the Vikings were 16.5-point favorites. You can click on the boxscore link to see the PFR boxscore for the game, which Minnesota won, 41-21.

YearHomeRoadHm PD/GRd PD/GProj MOVRdSpreadBoxscorePFPAW/L

In those 50 games, the home team won 38 times. Coincidentally, 38 of the games took place since 1978. In those games, the home team won 28 times, for a similar 74% winning percentage. On average, the home team had a points differential per game average of 17.5, and the road team was at -3.2, leading to a projected MOV of 20.6. And, on average, the final score was Home 29.1, Road 18.5.

The average points spread was Home Team -9.3. Based on the points spread in each game, we would have expected the home team to win exactly 74% of their games. In other words, Vegas has typically done a good job in these situations. And the Seahawks, with a projected MOV of 20.0 and a points spread of -8, fit comfortable into this group. Giving the team a 70-75% chance of winning seems reasonable.

But being great at home is not a guarantee of anything: one game with a projected MOV of 16.6 just missed the cut. That was the Bengals performance against the Chargers last week.  And despite the historical success of teams in similar situations to Seattle, there are reasons to like New Orleans — for example, Brian Burke ranks them as the 2nd best team in the NFL. The Saints are also coming off a road win in Philadelphia. In that game, New Orleans actually called more running plays than pass plays, something which never happened during the regular season. Since we know that Seattle’s pass defense is one of the best of all time, many expect New Orleans to implement another run-heavy game plan. (Of course, because of the team’s status as an underdog, Steve has a different view.)

There’s just one problem with that. And it’s the same problem that always exists when a team wants to have a run-heavy day. Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, and Khiry Robinson combined for 108 yards on 18 first-down carries against the Eagles. That’s outstanding production, and it wasn’t based on one or two long runs. Twelve of the runs picked up at least 4 yards — in fact, take a look at how many yards New Orleans gained on each of the first down runs by Ingram, Sproles, or Robinson:

The success of the running game allowed Drew Brees to pick up 155 net passing yards on 15 first down pass attempts, which in turn made it easier to stick with the running game. As a team, New Orleans averaged 7.5 yards per play on first down, an incredible average considering the run-heavy game plan. In Seattle during the regular season, Sproles, Ingram, and Pierre Thomas had just seven first down carries…. for 13 yards. And Brees averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt. Establishing the run sounds easy, but the only way to do it is to be effective on first down carries.

As it turns out, the Saints are pretty good at that. During the regular season, New Orleans averaged 5.29 YPC on 1st-and-10 runs in the first three quarters when the score was within 14 points That was the 2nd best rate in the league, trailing only Chicago. The best defense in those situations was the Jets, allowing just 3.17 yards per carry. The second best? Seattle, at 3.29. This is a true matchup of strength versus strength.

Seattle In the Air

Of course, the real strength in this game belongs to the Seattle pass defense. And you can even extend that to the whole Seattle passing game. In 2013, the Seahawks averaged 7.26 ANY/A (Russell Wilson, while not throwing often, threw efficiently) and allowed 3.19 ANY/A, for a remarkable 4.07 ANY/A differential. Seattle also led the league in Y/A differential (2.53), AY/A differential (4.65), NY/A differential (2.13), and Yards per Completion differential (3.27). And the Seahawks led the league in interceptions differential (19) and INT rate differential (3.2%), too. In other words, yeah, the Seahawks were absurdly dominant in the passing game on the team level. And that was without Percy Harvin, who appears likely to play on Saturday.

Seattle’s 4.07 ANY/A differential is the 9th best since 1970. The table below shows the top 25 in ANY/A differential from 1970 to 2013: half of the first 24 teams made the Super Bowl, with nine of them winning it all.

RkTeamYearANY/A OANY/A DANY/A DiffRecordPlayoffs
1WAS19918.333.335.0014-2Won Super Bowl
2MIA19726.72.044.6614-0Won Super Bowl
3MIA19848.854.434.4314-2Lost - Super Bowl
4SFO19877.553.214.3313-2Lost - Division Rd
5CIN19756.582.314.2711-3Lost - Division Rd
6SFO19898.544.274.2714-2Won Super Bowl
7MIN19755.831.584.2512-2Lost - Division Rd
8NWE20078.774.624.1616-0Lost - Super Bowl
10STL19998.023.964.0713-3Won Super Bowl
11RAM19736.692.634.0612-2Lost - Division Rd
12WAS19746.272.283.9910-4Lost - Division Rd
13PIT19755.81.823.9712-2Won Super Bowl
14MIN19704.680.723.9612-2Lost - Division Rd
15MIA19735.141.213.9312-2Won Super Bowl
16SFO19707.63.783.8310-3-1Lost - Conf CG
17MIN19885.962.153.8111-5Lost - Division Rd
18RAM19765.781.973.8110-3-1Lost - Conf CG
19IND20049.65.913.6912-4Lost - Division Rd
20DAL19775.812.123.6912-2Won Super Bowl
21SFO19948.074.453.6213-3Won Super Bowl
22SFO19847.824.253.5715-1Won Super Bowl
23PHI19806.963.443.5212-4Lost - Super Bowl
24GNB19966.623.123.513-3Won Super Bowl
25DAL19716.613.133.4711-3Won Super Bowl

Take a moment and admire that Washington averaged 5 more ANY/A than it allowed in 1991. That’s incredible. But the team from the state of Washington in 2013 is pretty darn good, too. Teams that are dominant in the passing game tend to do very well, and I’m not too keen to go against history here.

Prediction: Seattle 31, New Orleans 14

Bonus Stat of the Day: Despite the prediction, let me close with a neat stat I discovered. While the Seahawks dominated most of the pass differential metrics, the Saints made history in one of these categories, too. New Orleans gained 4918 passing yards and allowed only 3105 passing yards. That 1813 yard difference is largest by any NFL team in history. The 1961 Oilers, led by George Blanda, Bill Groman, and Charley Hennigan, actually gained 2,001 more passing yards than they allowed, but Houston of course was an AFL team. And there’s a bit of an asterisk here because of the games played: the 1943 Bears, 1951 Rams, and 1967 Jets also had a larger passing yards differential on a per-game basis. But regardless, that puts the Saints in some pretty impressive company. The Oilers, Bears, and Rams all won their league’s championships that season, and Joe Namath’s Jets won the Super Bowl the next season. The team with the fifth largest passing yards differential on a per-game basis, prior to the Saints, was the 2006 Colts, also a Super Bowl champion.