As I was looking through Football Outsiders’ numbers today to get ready for Sunday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, a few things caught my eye. Most significant is the fact that the two teams are separated by just one spot in the DVOA rankings for the season to this point.
That difference got me looking deeper to see what differences are present and whether they can explain why the Packers sit at .500 after seven games while the Patriots are 6-2. In short, New England has been a better team overall this year, but the Pats certainly aren’t better by enough that one would expect them to finish 250 points higher in winning percentage over a full season than the Packers.
Here’s what I found for the two teams.
Packers’ offense vs. Patriots’ defense
Green Bay’s offense ranks sixth in the NFL in DVOA at +13.4%, while the Patriots’ defense is 16th at -0.6%. There should be room to move the ball through the air despite the Packers’ 13th-place passing offense, as the Patriots rank 19th in that area.
Expect Davante Adams in particular to have another big game this week. The Patriots rank 26th against opposing #1 receivers. They are also near the bottom in covering running backs, sitting 25th, which suggests a good day for Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams in the passing game as well. Green Bay would do well to call the occasional screen pass or try to get Jones on some wheel routes out of the backfield.
However, the Pats are very good against other receivers, ranking 11th against #2s, 4th against all “other” wide receivers, and 7th against tight ends. Look for the Packers to attack Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones on the left side of the Pats’ defense in particular as well, as New England ranks 28th on passes to the left (the offense’s right) but in the top five on passes in the middle and to the right.
In the run game, the Patriots rank 9th, while the Packers’ rushing attack ranks fourth on this per-attempt metric. Running behind right tackle Bryan Bulaga may be a mistake, as the Pats rank first in the league on runs off right tackle (where left defensive end Trey Flowers usually lines up). They’re below-average everywhere else, however. That’s probably fine for the Packers, though, who rarely ever run that direction (only 5.3% of attempts this year have been charted as right tackle runs).
Patriots’ offense vs. Packers’ defense
The Patriots’ offense is almost a reverse of the Packers’, as New England ranks fourth in passing offense and 14th in rushing. Meanwhile, Green Bay ranks 17th and 24th, respectively on defense.
Like the Pats, the Packers are iffy against #1s, with a 25th-place ranking. However, they’re also 20th against #2 wideouts while coming in just above league-average against all other players in coverage. Of course, keeping tabs on running back James White is a challenge for anyone; as a result, the Packers will almost certainly see more than the 5.4 attempts per game that their opponents average to running backs, which is the lowest mark in the NFL.
In the run game, look for New England to run between the tackles a great deal, as their line ranks second in DVOA when doing so. It may be a surprise to see that the Packers’ front sits 30th against runs up the middle, given the talent on the defensive line.
In summation, the Packers are 11th in total DVOA, one spot behind the tenth-place Patriots. That’s great on its face, and it suggests that the teams are pretty closely matched. However, the numbers also indicate that there are tiers in place, with teams ranked 6-10 being a step ahead of those from 11-14, which are in turn lumped pretty closely together). The difference between the Patriots and the 6th-place Seahawks is closer (2.3%) than the difference between them and the Packers (3.6%), while Green Bay is closer to 14th-place Miami (2.4%) than to New England.
(Also notable is that half of the difference between the two teams is a result of the Packers’ inferior performance on special teams this season.)
Those tiers could help explain why one team is 6-2 and the other is 3-3-1, especially since there does not appear to be a large difference in the teams’ schedule strengths, though the Packers have played a slightly tougher schedule. Still, Football Outsiders’ projections for the remainder of the season show the Packers going .567 the rest of the way and the Pats being a .613 team (based on future opponents). Projecting those winning percentages over a full 16-game schedule would result in just one win of separation between the two.
All told, this game very well could and should be a close contest.