As you would expect, these types of teams are only fringe contenders, with far too many deficiencies to make a serious Super Bowl run. Of course, we could easily have said that about last season's champs, who look like the favorites to become this year's postseason party crashers.
The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Running Game
The Baltimore Ravens are only the 25th-ranked team this week, though that somehow represents the high-water mark of their season so far. Indeed, it's been a rough title defense for Charm City. Baltimore's defense remains a top-half unit against both the run and pass despite significant personnel turnover, but the offense has cratered after similar offseason changes.
It's beyond obvious at this point that the NFL is a passing league. A couple weeks ago, Bill Barnwell noted that a whopping 69.9 percent of the 2013 season's total yards from scrimmage have come through the air. And yet, 30 percent is still a huge chunk of yardage—the running game has been marginalized, yes, but it is not quite yet irrelevant.
But all season, the Ravens have been operating at 70 percent capacity. The struggles of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are well documented, and Baltimore has been stuck in the basement of run success rate all season, a putrid number that currently sits at 30 percent. An offensive line that lost Bryant McKinnie to a trade and Kelechi Osemele to season-ending back surgery has graded out as the fourth-worst run-blocking unit in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Baltimore averages a garish minus-0.16 EPA per running play, the worst mark since the 2005 Cardinals put up minus-0.20 EPA per running play.
If there's a silver lining, it's the oft-cited notion that teams with poor regular-season rushing attacks have still won the Super Bowl in recent seasons. No champion has had a top-10 rushing attack by EPA per play since the 2009 Saints, and when examining bad rushing champs, an interesting trend emerges in their postseason performances:
It makes sense to believe that these teams were able to strike gold and ride a short-term burst of rushing success to victory. But over the last 10 years, teams with average or worse run games really did not fare much better in their championship runs. Only the 2004 Corey Dillon-powered Patriots were able to produce a significantly favorable run game in the playoffs.
Of course, most of those average run attacks were supplemented by quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. Therein lies the other half of the Ravens woes, as Joe Flacco's spectacular four-game playoff run looks like the clear outlier. It's certainly not entirely his fault, as Baltimore shipped away Anquan Boldin for pennies on the dollar and have been without Dennis Pitta the whole season. Flacco has really only found success on deep throws to Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, but the lack of a reliable short and intermediate threat (again, an area where Rice has failed) doesn't give him many options.
Whether or not the Ravens even make the dance is still a question. Baltimore is tied with Miami at 6-6, though the Ravens owe the tiebreaker because of a head-to-head win. The Ravens get Minnesota this week, but then have a home game against New England sandwiched around road trips to Detroit and Cincinnati. The Dolphins also have to play the Pats, but their other three games are Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the Jets.
The likeliest result probably leaves both teams at 8-8, a scenario that would open up a dizzying array of possibilities for the plethora of 5-7 teams behind them. .500 is not what the Ravens have come to expect, and at least offensively, this season feels like one of those Murphy's Law aberrations. That may point to a bounce-back next season, but unless Baltimore tracks down the Monstars that stole Rice and Pierce's powers, a repeat is nearly inconceivable.
The Saints Don't Go Marching Outside
Much brouhaha has arisen about the New Orleans Saints' prolific offense suddenly turning into relative pumpkins on the road, a cry that will only grow louder in the wake of their 34-7 faceplant in Seattle. Unlike many weather-conceived storylines like Peyton Manning's supposed inability to play in the cold, this belief appears to hold some validity.
The Saints' indoor-outdoor splits are plainly obvious by whatever metric you use. New Orleans should be a bit worse outdoors, because all those environments constitute road games. But the drop-off is a bit too stark to ignore:
The games circled in red are outdoors, and it's concerning that both the offense and defense regress into average or worse units. The Seattle game had not yet been added to that chart at the time of publication, but it should go without saying that the numbers weren't pretty. If we include this week's loss, that means outdoor games have constituted five of their six worst offensive performances, and four of their five worst defensive ones.
It's a mandatory disclaimer that five games is a tiny sample size. But it's not as if New Orleans has faced a bunch of world-beaters on the road either. The Seahawks are obviously tremendous, but the Patriots had a struggling Gronk-less offense (not to mention that top corner Aqib Talib missed the second half with a hip injury), the Bears defense has struggled all year, the Jets offense is a dysfunctional unit, and the Bucs everything has been mediocre.
Moreover, if the Saints are to fulfill their Super Bowl aspirations, they'll most likely have to win in Seattle, and then beat the AFC champion in frigid North Jersey. Beating the Seahawks and (most likely) Broncos or Patriots would be tough enough in the Superdome, but the Saints will have to overcome their outdoor struggles against the best teams in the league.
Make no mistake, New Orleans is still an excellent squad. If the Saints can simply split with the Panthers over the last month, they will almost certainly win the division based on a superior conference record. That would likely grant them a first-round bye, making New Orleans one of the handful of favorites to raise the Lombardi Trophy. Nevertheless, the possibility of needing to win two outdoor playoff games has to make Who Dat Nation a bit apprehensive.
- The Detroit Lions have re-entered the top-10 after their Thanksgiving thrashing of the Packers. Coupled with Chicago's bizarre overtime loss to Minnesota, the Lions will almost certainly win the division if they can split their final four games against the Eagles, Ravens, Giants and Vikings. Still, the Lions have the seventh-worst turnover margin in the league, and will most likely be playing on Wild Card Weekend. They'll most likely face the 49ers, Panthers or Saints, making them likely candidates to open as home underdogs.
- I addressed the Ravens' excremental ground game earlier, but their biggest rivals haven't been much better. The Pittsburgh Steelers possess the third-lowest run success rate, and much like Baltimore, their difficulties stem from offensive line issues. Losing Maurkice Pouncey on opening day was a backbreaker, and only right guard David DeCastro has a positive run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus. Even with certain packages sneaking Mike Tomlin onto the field as a sixth lineman, the Steelers' offensive line woes have persisted.
- The New England Patriots are increasingly resembling the good-offense-bad-defense teams of recent seasons. The Pats have no replacement for either Vince Wilfork or Jerod Mayo, both of whom are on injured reserve, and persistent injuries to starting corners Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard aren't helping either. New England's defense is slipping back to league-average levels, while the offenses passes them in the night into nearly top-10 territory. At this point, they may just be a poor man's Denver, which is a problem considering they'll likely have to face the real Denver.
I've written negative things about five teams now, which is what happens when an upstate New York resident realizes winter has arrived. I'll be less of a Debby Downer next week (maybe), but in the meantime, these rankings will have to do.
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