Weekend Preview - Week 17

Photo: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

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Welcome to the Weekend Preview!

This year at SumerSports.com, we are excited to bring you an analytical look at the NFL twice a week. In this preview of another football weekend, we will be laying out which games you should consider watching, what a win or a loss could mean for your team’s playoff chances, and more.

Be sure to check out the SumerSports podcast feed, follow us on Twitter @SumerSports, and sign up for our newsletter for more content like this. Also, take a look at our new customizable data tables that include teams, players, and more!

Playoff Leverage

Even with the end of the season near, there is still much to be sorted out in the NFL Playoff race. Last week there were teams like the Bills and Rams that saw a big increase in their odds to play in the postseason while the Saints and Bengals saw a similarly sized decrease.

The Packers and Rams are both vying for a Wild Card spot in the NFC with the Packers just needing to match the Rams’ record to jump them as they have the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the Packers beat the Vikings on Sunday night, they jump to a 61.4% chance to make the playoffs while the Rams need to beat the Giants to jump to a 72.4% of making the postseason.

In the AFC, if the Bills take care of business against the Patriots, they essentially lock up a playoff spot and may make Week 18 against the Dolphins a game for the AFC East. The Bengals could upset the Chiefs and put themselves right back into the playoff conversation entering the last week of the season as well. The Jaguars need to beat the Panthers or else their playoff chances will come down to a coin flip situation.

Games to Watch

As we look ahead to Week 17, we can use a combination of team strength (using Elo), spread, projected points, and quarterback play to see which games we could be watching during the full slate.

After a Saturday full of College Football bowl games, NFL fans are given what should be a high scoring game in Lions-Cowboys with major seeding implications on the line for both teams.

The early slate on Sunday has the headliner of the weekend as the Dolphins travel to Baltimore for a game where the winner will have a strong chance of being the #1 seed in the AFC. It should also be a great play caller matchup between Mike McDaniel and Mike MacDonald.

Later in the day, the Bengals travel to Kansas City with both teams looking to bounce back from lackluster offensive performances in Week 16. On Sunday Night, a classic NFC North matchup between the Packers and Vikings will take place as we will see two stylistically different defenses play against offenses with playmakers.

Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys

For the 2nd straight year, the Detroit Lions have a top 10 offense in terms of EPA/play. However, this time it’s been more about the run game that ranks 5th in EPA/rush and a play caller that has been leaning on the run with a -4.2% pass rate over expected. The Cowboys run defense has been an interesting case study as they rank 12th in EPA/rush allowed but rank 32nd in rush success rate allowed (when removing fumbles, they rank 18th in EPA/rush allowed). Because of that, the Lions will try to make this a big thunder and lightning game with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs as Montgomery has the higher success rate and Gibbs has the higher explosive rate. 

In the pass game, with both Stephon Gilmore and Daron Bland having a negative CPOE when targeted, Ben Johnson will probably look towards the middle of the field. The Lions’ leaders in target share over the middle of the field are Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta with 46% of the targets combined so expect a lot of targets for them as well. Despite all of that, Dallas’ defense poses a very tough matchup for Detroit’s offense because they get pressure at a league leading rate. Jared Goff has a 0.32 EPA/play when not pressured (2nd best) but that drops down to a -0.87 EPA/play when pressured (28th best) showing that if the Cowboys can generate pressure at the rate they have been, they should be able to muddy the waters for the Lions offense.

The Cowboys offense is going to play a game that should be a pass funnel for them. They currently have a +2.9% pass rate over expected, the 4th best EPA/pass in the NFL, and are playing a defense that is stout against the run but is susceptible to the explosive pass play. Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb are still both playing at All-Pro levels with Prescott ranking 4th in EPA/play and Lamb ranking 6th in yards per route run. Detroit’s defense plays zone on 57.2% of snaps and that will probably need to increase in this game as the Cowboys pass offense ranks 3rd in EPA against man coverage but 9th in EPA against zone coverage. The Lions defense has struggled in the pass game when seeing 12 personnel so we could see Jake Ferguson and Luke Schoonmaker used together. With a 53.5 total, there should be a lot of scoring in this game on Saturday night.

Miami Dolphins @ Baltimore Ravens

Both the Dolphins and Ravens rank top 10 in the following metrics: EPA/play, EPA/pass, EPA/rush, EPA/play allowed, and EPA/pass allowed. The only category they don’t rank in the top 10 is EPA/rush allowed, which is usually the least correlated with winning. Basically every matchup in this game will be strength on strength.

Starting with the Dolphins offense vs. the Ravens defense, the Dolphins offense has another opportunity to prove what they can do against elite defenses. Miami has a 0.18 EPA/play when facing a non-top 10 defense (2nd best) but a -0.02 EPA/play when facing a top 10 defense (10th best). Mike McDaniel has had a -0.7% pass rate over expected this season and the Ravens have been below average against the run in both EPA and success rate so we can expect them to establish it early and often. 

When the Dolphins are running the ball, it will probably be mostly out of 21 personnel with fullback Alec Ingold and Achane or Mostert as the running back as the Ravens have allowed the 8th highest EPA/rush against two back sets this season. The Dolphins use 21 personnel at a league leading rate, 42.9% of the time, and run 55% of the time out of it. In the pass game, it will be interesting to see how much zone coverage Mike MacDonald deploys as the Ravens are primarily a man defense team, but the Dolphins have the 2nd best EPA against man coverage. If the Ravens go man-heavy, it should be a big Tyreek Hill game, but if they go zone heavy, Raheem Mostert and the secondary receivers could be used more in the pass game.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens are facing a Dolphins defense that has been 2nd in EPA/play allowed and 3rd in success rate allowed since Jalen Ramsey returned from his injury. Miami’s defense plays the 3rd highest rate of man coverage in the league. Lamar Jackson has the highest scramble rate at 13.3%, so we could expect this to be a big scrambling day for him. Zay Flowers has a team-leading 24.0% target share against man coverage and that should be heightened with him playing from the slot, where Ramsey hasn’t played much this season. In the run game, the Ravens like to run out of 21 personnel (40% pass rate) but the Dolphins defense has been really good against two running back sets this season on a limited sample so that will be something to watch.

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