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).