The knowledgeable fan is the happy fan. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you watch this weekend:
Ravens vs. Broncos: The third-down battle.
The Baltimore defense, which during the regular season held opponents to a 36.6% third-down conversion rate, allowed the Colts a 45% success rate (9 for 20) on Sunday. Denver, the Ravens’ opponent this Saturday, ranked third in the league in this category during the regular season, succeeding on 45.1% of third-down conversion attempts. It would behoove the Ravens on Saturday afternoon to find a way to get the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands whenever they have the chance.
The other key to keeping the ball away from Manning, of course, is maintaining possession on one’s own, and third-down success will be key for the Ravens offense, as well. On Sunday, Baltimore converted four of ten third downs against a Colts team ranked 13th in third-down defense during the regular season (allowing opponents to convert 38.1% of the time). Denver, though, had the league’s best third-down defense in 2012, allowing only a 31% success rate. While a team always wants to win the time-of-possession game, it would be especially helpful for the Ravens on Sunday, since Manning—the leader of the second most prolific offense in the league—can’t score when he’s on the sideline.
Packers vs. 49ers: The Green Bay running game.
The Packers on Saturday ran for 76 yards, 2.5 yards per carry, against a Minnesota defense ranked 7th in rush DVOA (-13.4%). San Francisco’s defense is second in that category (-19.7%). Then again, the Packers averaged only 106.4 yards per game during the regular season, so it’s clear that they don’t need to run to win. If they have a fourth-quarter lead, though, running the ball effectively would help to eat the clock and minimize San Francisco possessions late in the game. Otherwise, the Pack will be relying on Aaron Rodgers’ ability to gain first downs through the air, which he did sixteen times against Minnesota, in the face of a much stronger 49ers pass defense.
Side note: Speaking of third-down efficiency, the Packers went an atypical 3 for 14 (21%) on third down in their victory over the Vikings, who were 27th in the league in that situation (allowing conversions 41.7% of the time). The San Francisco defense that Green Bay faces this week is second overall in that category (33.5%).
Seahawks vs. Falcons: The Atlanta run defense.
Seattle ran the ball for 224 yards against the Redskins on Sunday, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt (including 67 yards on eight runs/scrambles by Russell Wilson) against a Washington defense ranked 22nd in rush defense DVOA during the regular season. Atlanta’s 20th-ranked rush defense is similarly weak, and the Seattle ground game of Wilson and Marshawn Lynch clearly has the ability to take over a game by scoring points and then eating clock. Look for the Falcons to stack extra defenders against the run, putting the ball in Wilson’s hands as a passer, and then working to contain him when he tries to leave the pocket.
Houston vs. New England: Giveaways and takeaways.
New England features the top offense in the league, ranking first in DVOA (a full 8.7% over second-place Denver) and having scored the most points and gained the most yards during the regular season. The Pats also avoid turnovers, tied for second-fewest in the league with sixteen. The Texans defense, meanwhile, is no slouch, ranking third overall in DVOA and fourth against the pass (where New England is strongest). Still, Houston’s offense should have a difficult time keeping up with Tom Brady, and the Texans’ best shot might be to force the Patriots into a couple of uncharacteristic turnovers—perhaps one on special teams—while themselves avoiding giveaways. This would turn the tables on a New England team that led the league this year with a per-game turnover margin of +1.6.
Greg Blume writes here and rambles there.