Upset Watch: Week 6 Reeling Green Bay Packers can knock off unbeaten Houston Texans
By Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders
~Upset Watch appears every Thursday this season for ESPN Insider, as Football Outsiders uses a proprietary formula to forecast the expected point spread of each game based on current DVOA ratings (explained here) and, early in the season, our DVOA projections. Each week we highlight the most likely upset on a game with a line over three points, plus an additional game in which a significant underdog has a strong chance to cover.
Bill Parcells often said “you are what you are,” meaning that a team was truly only as good as its record. But actually, that’s not really true. Analyzing a team’s performance over hundreds of plays gives you a better idea of a team’s quality than a win-loss record. You can’t go back and change the past and wipe losses off your slate, but a binary win-loss record really isn’t a good way to judge how well a team will play going forward.
The Green Bay Packers are a great example of this. The Packers have been one of the best teams in the league this year despite losing three games — well, two games, plus one with an asterisk. Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, which compare success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent, have the Packers sixth in the NFL right now. In fact, the Packers are the second-best 2-3 team in the history of DVOA stats, which currently go back to 1991. Except for the two teams playing this season, the teams in the top 10 all finished with winning records and/or made the playoffs. And if you need another reason to like the Packers over the Texans this weekend, we’ve nailed our last three upset picks. Just sayin’.
The Packers aren’t running up and down the field like they did a year ago, but they aren’t quite the “faltering offense” that some have described. Once we adjust for situation and opponent, the Packers still have a top-five offense, even with star receiver Greg Jennings sidelined most of the year. And while the defense doesn’t come close to Houston’s dominant unit, it has been above average.
The Texans have looked much better than Green Bay in part because of who they have played. Green Bay has played the third-hardest schedule so far by average DVOA of opponent, while Houston has played the third-easiest schedule. Once we account for strength of schedule, Houston is still better, at second overall, and it is properly favored in this game. But right now the gap between Houston and Green Bay is smaller than the gap between Houston and No. 1 San Francisco.
The biggest worry for the Packers is that their greatest weakness on offense is pass protection — not the kind of thing you can hide against the Houston Texans. Our Adjusted Sack Rate metric measures sacks per pass play, adjusted for situation and opponent, and the Packers offense is 31st at 10.0 percent, while the Houston defense is fourth at 9.2 percent. However, the Packers may not fall for J.J. Watt’s greatest trick. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had only five passes batted down at the line last year, tied for 29th in the NFL. This year, he’s had only one tipped pass (by Chris Clemons of Seattle).
If the line can keep Rodgers upright long enough, he will want to look for wherever Kareem Jackson is patrolling the field. The Texans tend to move Johnathan Joseph around to cover the opponent’s top receiver, and that leaves a lot of opportunities for the second weapon — probably James Jones on Sunday — to take advantage of Jackson. The Texans are No. 1 in the league in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, but just 23rd against No. 2s, who have caught 67 percent of passes. Eric Decker of Denver was a particular problem, with 123 yards on seven catches plus a 26-yard gain on a defensive pass interference call.
On the other side of the ball, the Packers have to figure out how to turn the pass-rush tables on the Texans. Houston does a great job of protecting Schaub — he’s been sacked a league-low three times — but the Packers are the toughest pass rush Houston has faced this season. Green Bay ranks fifth in defensive Adjusted Sack Rate, right behind the Texans. The Packers may want to consider double-covering Andre Johnson the whole game, because they’ve had a ton of trouble against opponents’ No. 1 receivers (27th in DVOA).
One last advantage for the Packers is one that’s always useful for the underdog: special teams. Randall Cobb is always a threat to turn the game around with one return.
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