After going through several years of less-than-stellar matchups in the final week of the NFL regular season, we finally have a Week 17 in which not many teams will be resting their starters. Four playoff spots are up for grabs, and only Kansas City is locked into its postseason seed.
Let's take a look at some of the matchups and trends that will play a role in this weekend's four biggest games, using Football Outsiders' advanced statistics. Much of our analysis is based on defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), which takes every play during the season and compares it to the league average based on situation and opponent. DVOA and Football Outsiders' other advanced stats are explained here. A number of other stats below are based on game charting from both Football Outsiders and ESPN Stats & Information.
Here's a preview of four key Week 17 matchups: Baltimore-Cincinnati, San Francisco-Arizona, Green Bay-Chicago and Philadelphia-Dallas.
Our advanced stats heavily favor Cincinnati, in part because the Ravens' performance broken down by play by play doesn't match the team's 8-7 record. The Bengals rank ninth in the league in DVOA, while the Ravens are just 23rd. Both teams have good defenses. And while the Bengals' offense has been average, the Ravens' has been horrific. Only Jacksonville has a lower offensive DVOA this season, and the Ravens will end up with one of the 10 poorest-rated running games in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play breakdowns.
Additionally, the Ravens have the lowest offensive variance in the league, so they aren't just awful on offense -- they're consistently awful.
It's very hard to figure out where Baltimore has some kind of matchup advantage against Cincinnati's defense. Split each down by pass and run, and the Ravens are ranked 20th or worse on every combination except for passing on first down, where they rank 18th. Of course, the Bengals happen to rank first in the NFL in DVOA against first-down passes. The Bengals have a bit of a weakness against passes to running backs, but the struggling Ray Rice ranks 42nd of 48 backs in receiving DVOA this season.
If Baltimore is going to pull off an upset, it will need great field position from its defense and special teams. The Ravens should get a lot of help from the latter. The Bengals aren't bad in this area, but Baltimore ranks second in our special-teams ratings. We all know about kicker Justin Tucker, but the Ravens also rank third in the league in kick return value, and first in punt return value.
There are some good defensive matchups here for Baltimore. Both Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb have been very good this year, so they should do a reasonable job covering A.J. Green. Furthermore, the Ravens' run defense (seventh in DVOA) matches up very well with the Cincinnati running game (22nd).
Unfortunately for Baltimore, one of the best strategies against Dalton is an area where the Ravens have problems. Dalton has a horrible 3.9 QBR, third worst in the league, when opponents blitz at least one defensive back. But the Ravens' defense gives up 74.5 QBR (29th) when it blitzes a defensive back.
As hot as the Cardinals have been in recent weeks, the matchups just don't look good for Arizona here. The Cardinals have been winning games almost entirely with defense. They rank third against the pass and second against the run in Football Outsiders DVOA ratings. Nonetheless, San Francisco should be able to take advantage of a couple of big weaknesses.
Arizona has the NFL's best defense when it comes to covering wide receivers, but the quality is not spread equally across the secondary. Patrick Peterson is outstanding, and Tyrann Mathieu, when he was healthy, was playing very well at nickelback. Jerraud Powers is another story. According to our game-charting data through Week 16, Powers has given up 9.5 yards per pass, with a 51 percent success rate. Peterson, by comparison, has given up 6.4 yards per pass with a 60 percent success rate. (Success rate for cornerbacks is explained here.) Powers has been targeted more often than Peterson, even though Peterson is usually covering the opponent's top receiver.
Arizona also has trouble covering tight ends, where the Cardinals rank 20th in DVOA. When San Francisco beat the Cardinals back in Week 6, Vernon Davis torched the Arizona secondary for eight catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. And who was covering Davis on three of those plays, including a 61-yard touchdown? Powers. Peterson covered Anquan Boldin in the first game, but he'll probably be on Michael Crabtree this week. If Powers is covering Boldin, that makes both Boldin and Davis enticing targets for Colin Kaepernick.
One other problem for the Cardinals is that no defense blitzes more than Arizona, yet very few quarterbacks are better against the blitz than Kaepernick. His 85.1 QBR against the blitz is the highest in the league for a quarterback with at least 10 starts.
Looking at recent splits and trends for the Green Bay offense is pointless now that we know Aaron Rodgers is returning as the starting quarterback. Even if he's not at 100 percent, he's likely to be a big upgrade from Matt Flynn. The Packers were second in offensive DVOA before Rodgers was injured and 20th in offensive DVOA since.
While the Packers are likely to have a much improved offense, the Bears will run the same defense that has ranked 31st in defensive DVOA over the second half of the season. We all know Chicago has been dismal against the run; the Bears have allowed 5.4 yards per carry. No other defense is above 4.8. Things aren't much better against the pass. The pass rush, for example, is just 25th in Adjusted Sack Rate.
What about the secondary? Bears left cornerback Tim Jennings may have had an excellent 2012, but this season, game-charting data through Week 16 has Jennings giving up 9.6 yards per pass, with a success rate of 46 percent -- about 10 percentage points below the average cornerback. The Bears also rank 26th in DVOA against tight ends, giving up a league-leading 74 yards per game. In the first Green Bay-Chicago game, Andrew Quarless actually led the Packers with five receptions.
The good news for Chicago is that Green Bay's defense has been almost as bad this season, and will be without Clay Matthews (broken thumb). Green Bay ranks 30th in DVOA against the opposition's No. 1 receiver; I don't know if that means Brandon Marshall or Alshon Jeffery, but someone is going to be open. Marshall and Jeffery will be particularly strong weapons in the red zone, where Chicago's offense ranks ninth on red zone passes and the Green Bay defense is 30th.
Before they get down near the goal line, the place for Chicago to look for big gains is going to be on second down. The Bears' offense ranks fifth on second-down plays, while the Packers' defense is 30th, including a dead-last ranking against the run.
First of all, toss out the Week 7 game in which Dallas beat Philadelphia 17-3. Nick Foles had not yet blossomed into the efficient passer he has been the past two months, and he played only half the game anyway; Matt Barkley came in when Foles suffered a head injury, and the rookie was awful.
Things are very different now. The Eagles have been red hot over the second half of the season, while Dallas has been in decline. Since Week 10, Philadelphia has the best offense in the league, according to DVOA ratings, and Dallas has the worst defense.
The Cowboys may not be able to slow the Philadelphia attack, but the Eagles will slow themselves if they don't recognize the strengths of the Dallas defense on film and devise their game plan accordingly. The Cowboys are very strong in a couple of specific ways that counter common Philadelphia strategies. For example, screens are a big part of the Eagles' passing game, but the Cowboys have allowed the lowest QBR in the league against screens (7.7). And the Cowboys have allowed just 3.24 yards per carry on read-options, fourth best in the NFL.
Much of the Cowboys' strength against these plays has to do with Sean Lee, who won't be playing this week. But why even take the risk that the Cowboys are good against such plays when it will be open season when Foles sets up with more conventional passes? Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have each given up more than 9.0 yards per pass, according to our game-charting data. The Cowboys also rank just 30th in DVOA against tight ends, so Brent Celek and Zach Ertz should play much bigger roles than they did in the first game.
It's hard to know what to expect on the other side of the ball with Kyle Orton likely replacing Tony Romo. But we do know that the Eagles' defense has improved from 30th in DVOA from Weeks 1 through 9 to 13th from Weeks 10 to 16. Philly's D should also be able to keep DeMarco Murray from making big highlight runs; the Eagles are the best defense in the league when it comes to preventing open-field yards, or yards that come more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage on a rushing play.