By Shawn Maher (@ShawnBenMaher)
Cold, Hard Football Facts’ Advocate for the Hog Heroes
The 2012 NFL season is pulling into port, and tickets are being punched to the extended trip into the playoffs.
With only two spots still up for grabs, the porters of the playoff-bound teams, their hogs, are ready to escort their teams to the promised land. The Cowboys and Redskins, along with the Vikings, Bears and Giants, are vying for the last two golden tickets. But with the playoff picture coming into focus, the league’s best hogs can be broken down in advance of what is truly the most wonderful time of the year.
Hog Report’s Super Bowl Barometer: Denver Broncos are the Undisputed Best Big Uglies
At the Hog Report, we know, despite the unparalleled joy that the running game brings an offensive lineman, that this is a passing league. With that in mind, the team that wins the battle in the trenches is likely to be the most successful, and offensive and defensive NPP% is the best predictor of success in the NFL.
The differential between the two, with a Super-Bowl-worthy mark of 3.5, is the best way to find out whose hogs will lead them to the top. Here is the leader board:
As the 2012 season progresses, the Broncos have continued their weekly ascension to the toast of the AFC. As the Patriots and Texans fade, only the Seahawks currently top the Broncos in Cold, Hard Football Facts’ quality stats.
Despite that, both of the Manning brothers’ teams remain at the top of the rankings of the Hog Report’s Super Bowl Barometer. Unlike the fading Giants, Texans and Patriots, however, the Broncos are continuing to assert themselves as the dominant team in the trenches. After dismantling the Browns, they have inflated their already-best NPP% differential from 4.74 to 5.27. Their 14.29 NPP% was almost completely the handiwork of the d-hogs, with 4.5 of their 6 sacks coming from the beasts up front.
On the other hand, their offensive line allowed a 2.33 NPP%, but did not give up a sack to a Browns teams that entered as the 8th-ranked group of d-hogs. Left tackle Ryan Clady is playing to cash in this season in free agency, and his value-inflating season along with the pick-your-poison defensive line have made the Broncos the overwhelming favorite in the AFC.
Prime Cut: Green Bay Revs up for the Playoffs at the Titans’ Expense
The Titans are a team struggling to find their footing, as well as a team struggling to protect Jake Locker. They are ranked 14th in the Offensive Hog Index, but their 9.43 offensive NPP% is towards the bottom of the pack as the 10th-worst unit. Green Bay, who is getting healthy at just the right time, managed plant Locker in the turf seven times for sacks, as well as grabbing two interceptions.
Throw in Green Bay’s 55-point offensive shellacking, which capitalized on the defense’s effort, and the Packers turned in a playoff-worthy performance, despite the lack of a playoff-worthy opponent. Historically, Green Bay’s performance was only rivaled by six others in the history of the NFL.
Teams scoring 55 Points, w/7 Sacks and 2 INTs
Prime Cut: Seahawks are becoming the NFC’s Dark Horse
Much has been made of the play of Russell Wilson, and for good reason. While taking nothing away from Andrew Luck and RGIII, Wilson is the rookie quarterback that has led his team to the top of the quality stat rankings and six quality wins.
What has been even less recognized is the play of another Russell, left tackle Russell Okung. The Seahawks’ first-round selection in 2010 spent his first two season hampered by ankle and pectoral injuries. Under the tutelage of zone-blocking guru Tom Cable, Okung has blossomed.
Okung was known for his finesse coming out of Oklahoma State, which was on full display as he blanked Aldon Smith last week as he pursued the single-season sack record, but he is also showing a newfound ability to finish blocks in the running game. The Seahawks are the sixth-ranked unit in the Offensive Hog Index, surging up the ranks four spots from last week’s 10th ranking.
They are also ranked sixth in rushing with 4.79 YPA, another statistic that has trended upward as of late despite placing left guard James Carpenter on injured reserve, a disappointing development for the 2011 first-round pick’s failure to fully recover from offseason knee surgery.
In fact, since their Week 11 bye, the Seahawks have not given up more than two sacks in a game. They have also averaged over 4.0 YPA in every game except for a Week 12 loss to the Dolphins, the only game since their bye in which they rushed for less than 30 attempts.
In those five games, four of which were against top-ten teams in the Defensive Hog Index. Currently, San Francisco is ranked third, Arizona fourth, Chicago fifth and Miami is ninth.
WK 16 SF
WK 15 BUF
WK 14 ARI
WK 13 CHI
WK 12 MIA
To rattle off four straight wins, the last three of which were in very convincing fashion, makes Seattle one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs. Against Arizona, they were only the third team ever to win by more than 50 while rushing for more than 6 YPA. Running for over 8 YPA and winning by 30 points, which Seattle accomplished against the Bills, has only been accomplished 10 times in history.
The 2012 Bills have the dubious distinction of being appearing twice on the list of teams to be beaten by more than 30 while giving up over 8 YPA, a performance they replicated earlier in the season against Seattle’s NFC West rival in San Francisco.
The Seahawks are the only team with a rookie quarterback in the top-ten of sacks allowed. They are ranked eighth and, although they have the second-worse NPP% in the top-10, a high amount of interceptions early in the season, attributed to Wilson’s learning curve, along with few pass attempts, normalizes that stat.
With Wilson only tossing two interceptions in the past five weeks, Seattle is performing higher than their overall ranking.
Roasted Pork Butt: The Bengals Knock the Steelers out of the Playoffs by Pounding Big Ben to the Ground
Bengals’ defensive tackle Geno Atkins has racked up 13 sacks so far this season, which is the most since 2000, when Warren Sapp picked up 16.5 and Trevor Price had 17.
Cincinnati’s 47 sacks are only one behind the NFL-leading Denver Broncos and a big reason they locked up a playoff spot against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals pressured the Steelers into an 18.75 NPP% and Atkins overpowered Pittsburgh’s interior linemen on his way to 2.5 sacks.
The Steelers also ran the ball 31 times, but only for a paltry 95 yards.
During the Ben-Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh, only four times has a Steelers team attempted more than 30 rushes and then had less than 100 yards to show for it.
Three of those were against AFC North opponents. Of those four instances, only the Bengals emerged victorious despite the rushing futility.
Less than 100 Rush Yds on More than 30 Attempts
Although A.J. Green has racked up 95 catches for 1,324 yards with the Ravens’ beleaguered defensive secondary on the horizon, along with Andy Dalton’s 87 passer rating and 62.2% completion rate, the Bengals’ offense has not been consistent. Their offensive line allowed an embarrassing 17.02 NPP% against Pittsburgh, fueled by 6 sacks.
While Marvin Lewis’ 2000 Baltimore defense was able to carry the Ravens’ offense to a Super Bowl championship, the Bengals will need more from their offense if Lewis expects to earn his first playoff win in stripes.
It all starts up front. After plowing the way for BenJarvus Green-Ellis to average over 4 YPA for six straight weeks, they were only able to help him to 14 yards on 15 attempts. Due to their superb defensive performance, the Bengals earned the dubious distinction of becoming on the seventh team to ever win a game with less than 280 yards passing and 15 yards rushing
Less than 100 Rush Yds on More than 30 Attempts
The Bengals reintroduced center Kyle Cook to the starting lineup after he spent the first 14 weeks of the season on IR. Their chemistry looked to be affected, and without a strong performance against Baltimore, Cook may find his way back to the bench and cede his spot back to impressive rookie Trevor Robinson.
Trench Warfare of Week 17: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins
This is the game that decides the NFC East. The Cowboys have struggled to generate much of a pass rush lately, coming up empty in defensive NPP% while losing to the Saints. DeMarcus Ware has only racked up 2.5 sacks in the past seven weeks, and the Cowboys have been forced to send more bodies back in coverage with injuries to safeties and linebackers. That certainly does not bode well against Robert Griffin III.
On the other hand, the Cowboys’ once-woeful offensive line only gave up a 4.44 NPP% against the Saints. New Orleans, however, is hardly the barometer of excellence in pass rushing, coming in 29th in NPP%.
The Redskins made a notch in the win column last week with a seven-point victory over the rudderless Eagles. Their offensive line allowed RGIII to be pressured into 8 NPP%, but he managed to stay healthy enough to keep Kirk Cousins on the sidelines. The run-heavy Redskins also toted the ball at 4.57 YPA.
The Redskins top the Cowboys in CHFF’s quality stats, and it is not hard to see why. The Cowboys have achieved more than they should have considered what they have to work with up front, and the Redskins run behind Trent Williams, the most underrated left tackle in a zone blocking scheme.
The Redskins will almost certainly allow RGIII to join Russell Wilson as the second rookie quarterback to lead his team to the NFC playoffs this season, and make for a potentially thrilling playoff matchup.