By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Potentate of Pigskin (@footballfacts)

The statistical chaff was conveniently separated from the nourishing wheat of contenders in the wildcard round, especially when you analyze the NFL through the powerful prism of Passer Rating Differential.

  • The Texans (No. 8 in PRD) caged the Bengals (No. 11), 19-13
  • The Packers (No. 1) easily cut down the Vikings (No. 24), 24-10
  • The Ravens (No. 12) embarrassed overvalued Andrew Luck and the Colts (No. 27), 24-9
  • And the Seahawks (No. 2 in PRD) toppled the Redskins (No. 6), 24-14

It’s all so predictably beautiful. If we suffered the weakness of human emotion, we would love it so.

With only real contenders remaining, it’s time to start sizing up the divisional foes: Ravens-Broncos (4:30 p.m.) and Packers-49ers (8 p.m.) Saturday; then Seahawks-Falcons (1 p.m.) and Texans-Patriots (4:30 p.m.) Sunday.

No better way to do it than with PRD.

You probably know that we call Passer Rating Differential the Mother of All Stats.

After all, the NFL is a very simple game: you win when you win the battle of passing efficiency. Anyone who tells you otherwise is an ass.

Look at the Final 8 in the 2012 NFL season. They rank No. 1 (Green Bay), No. 2 (Seattle), No. 3 (Denver), No. 4 (San Francisco), No. 5 (Atlanta), No. 7 (New England), No. 8 (Houston) – notice a trend here folks? – and No. 12 (Baltimore) in Passer Rating Differential.

Hell, it works almost flawlessly at picking out the league’s elite.

The only outlier is Baltimore, and at No. 12 in PRD the Ravens are barely outside the norm for Final 8 contenders.

And the only team in the Top 8 in PRD that failed to make the Final 8 of the 2012 season is Washington; and the Redskins had the misfortune of facing the late-surging Seahawks (No. 2 in PRD) in the wildcard round. Robert Griffin III’s injury was also huge, of course. But Seattle won because it was the better team in the air.

Truth is that Passer Rating Differential is about the closest thing to statistical clockwork you’ll find in football, and maybe in all of sports. Teams win games when they dominate the indicator: 218-37 (.855) in 2012 and 4-0 so far in the playoffs.

Teams win championships when they dominate the indicator, too: nearly 40 percent of all NFL champs since 1940 were No. 1 in PRD. More than 60 percent finished in the Top 3.

Needless to say, it’s a very useful way through which to analyze two different teams. So, here’s our first look at the divisional playoffs, using Passer Rating Differential as the vehicle through which to size up each team.

We'll have much more and deeper analysis over the rest of the week, including our aptly named Real And Spectacular Picks at CHFF Insider, where we size up every team in every game in 20 different Quality Stats and make our picks straight up and against the spread for every game: 4-0 in the wildcard round, including 3-1 against the spread.

The PRD numbers (below) include postseason for those four teams that played in the wildcard round. The graphs also include the updated PRD data.

Baltimore (+9.2) at Denver (+25.9)

The Ravens begin the season red-hot, dominating the Bengals 44-13 in Week 1. Naturally, they dominated the score because they dominated PRD (+60.4 that day). And naturally, they had to come back to Earth after that un-attainable high.

The Broncos also began the season with a big win, 31-19 over the Steelers. The domination in that victory also apparent in the graph below. But they trailed the Ravens in PRD through Week 6, before Denver beat up San Diego 35-24. Baltimore took a down turn in Week 7, when it was crushed 43-13 at Houston.

The Ravens have trailed the Broncos in PRD fairly consistently since that day. Denver enters the postseason +25.9 in PRD, No. 3 in the NFL and its best mark of the year. In other words, the Broncos right now are at their statistical peak.

The Ravens ticked up from +5.8 to +9.2 in the wake of its dominating wildcard win over the Colts.



Green Bay (+32.0) at San Francisco (+23.2)

Packers-49ers is clearly the statistical heavyweight battle of the divisional round, at least as measured by PRD (No. 1 vs. No. 4).

The season began poorly for Green Bay, against these very same 49ers. The Packers lost in San Francisco, 30-22, as Aaron Rodgers (30 of 44, 303 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) was easily outplayed by Alex Smith (20 of 26, 211 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT).

Green Bay quickly recovered in Week 2 and has been No. 1 in PRD since mid-season, though the 49ers have been nipping at their heels like a little statistical yip-yip dog.

Carrying the animal metaphor much further than we should, the elephant in the room here is the 49ers quarterbacking situation. As you know, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh replaced the hugely efficient Smith with Colin Kaepernick in Week 11.

The 49ers have still won, but the move has not exactly paid off in the all-important category of PRD: Smith had a higher completion percentage, average per attempt and passer rating than Tom Friggin Brady. His rating of 104.1 this season is nearly 6 points higher than Kaepernick’s (98.3).

The 49ers were No. 2 in PRD (+29.0) before Alex Smith was injured and benched; they finished the season No. 4 in PRD (+23.2). Still good. Just not as good as it was. If the 49ers lose, it will be because of a narrow loss in the battle of passing efficiency, a battle that they easily won back in Week 1. Smith might have been the difference.



Seattle (+28.7) at Atlanta (+22.0)

We’ve been drinking the PRD Kool-Aid for a few years now. We’ve been drinking the Russell Wilson and Seahawks Kool-Aid since about mid-season. Hell, we said Russell Wilson was better than Andrew Luck back in Week 10, long before it was popular.

Today, Wilson is the last rookie QB standing and easily outperformed Luck in their first playoff games.

Both of our drinking problems will be put to the test when the 12-5 Seahawks, the late-surging No. 5 seed in the NFC, head down to Atlanta to face the 13-3, No. 1 seed Falcons.

Atlanta was the better team early in the season. Seattle is the better team right now.

You’ll see that Atlanta has largely been on the decline since its very hot start to the season; the Seahawks have largely been on the rise since what now seems like an unbelievable 20-16 Week 1 loss to the Cardinals, a long time ago in a gridiron galaxy far away.

Their statistical paths finally crossed in Week 10, when rising Seattle surpassed falling Atlanta in PRD. The Seahawks head to Atlanta No. 2 in PRD and red hot. The Falcons are No. 5 in PRD. That’s very good, too. But it’s also well below the peak they played at early in the year.

This game, much like Seattle-Washington in the wildcard round, should be the most interesting of the week. We know the Seahawks are good enough to win. They are better than the Falcons in both Offensive Passer Rating (only slightly) and Defensive Passer Rating.

But does this team that’s clearly better at home still have the horses to win on the road again after yet another cross-country trip? We will see.



Houston (+10.6) at New England (+10.7)

If Passer Rating Differential has predictive value, Texans-Patriots should be the tightest, most evenly contested battle of the divisional round. They are virtual statistical equals right now.

Sure, the Patriots dominated the first meeting, 42-14, in Week 14. Interestingly, it was that win that propelled New England past Houston in PRD for the first time all season.

But we all know that beatings at one point in the season do not usually lead to beatings again later in the season or in the postseason.

Look at the dominating 14-2 Patriots of 2010: they crushed the Jets, 45-3, in Week 13. A month later they were bounced out of the postseason by the very same Jets, 28-21, in the divisional round. The powerful, Super Bowl-caliber Patriots failed to win a single playoff game.

Generally speaking, the Patriots have been at their statistical best late in the season; the Texans generally declined from their early highs much of the year.

If momentum means anything, the Patriots have clearly been the better team down the stretch.