The NFL playoffs are coming to our 4K Ultra HD television screens this weekend, with 12 teams aspiring to get their grimy, bloody, misshapen fingers on the Lombardi Trophy.
In trying to figure out the most likely champion, I usually start by looking for each team’s most ruinous potential flaw. Here’s my look at the 12-team field, and the one (or) two weaknesses that could be catastrophic at this time of the season.
Let’s begin with the American Football Conference …
No. 1 seed: New England Patriots, 13-3
This nugget from Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post: “Since 2002, 22 of the past 30 Super Bowl participants had a net passer rating differential among the top five best in the league, including 10 of the past 15 winners. The Patriots have a net passer rating differential of 13.1, the 10th highest in the league this season.”
This means New England, 13-3, will be trying to defy a strong trend. Tom Brady should be able to handle it, especially with the Patriots set up at home for the AFC playoffs. But one thing about Brady: He is the GOAT, for sure. But he wasn’t up to his GOAT standard over the final month, tossing six touchdowns but with an uncharacteristic five INTs in posting an 81.6 passer rating in the last four games. That 81.6 passer rating was Brady’s worst in the month of December since 2002. Does that mean anything? Is he beaten down? Is the challenge presented by aging starting to creep into Brady’s performance? It’s probably nothing, but …
And with the Patriots preparing for their playoff opener next weekend — they had a first-round bye — the organization undoubtedly will be stung by a juicy expose that dropped on Friday morning at ESPN.com … take time to read it, but the headline gives you a good idea of what’s in Seth Wickersham’s revealing story: “For Kraft, Brady and Belichick is this the beginning of the end?”
Hell, if the Beatles can break up while at the top of the music world … then the Patriots can throw away what they have because of internal strife.
Back to football …
New England’s prime vulnerability is run defense. The were ranked 30th at the end of the season in DVOA rushing defense according to the metrics at Football Outsiders. And the Patriots gave up an average of nearly 4.8 yards per rush on first down; that was down near the bottom of the league. The Patriots’ defense also has the league’s worst “stuff” percentage on opponents’ running plays. To upset the Patriots in Foxborough, you have to prevail and dictate pace with a grinding, ground-hog, ball-control offense. That’s the only way to get it done… and that’s where the Patriots have struggled the most.
The Patriots may be more vulnerable than normal, but they can lean on their dominant home field advantage. Brady is 107-19 during his regular-season home games, and 17-3 in home postseason games. The Patriots have won six in a row and nine of their last 10 postseason games played in Foxborough.
No. 2 seed: Pittsburgh Steelers, 13-3
I’ve got two things for you:
–The Steelers are surprisingly inept in the red zone … on offense AND defense. This season the Pittsburgh defense has given up touchdowns on 61.5 percent of red-zone possessions; that’s the fifth-worst performance by an NFL defense this season. This can be a huge factor; no Super Bowl champ since 2002 has allowed red zone touchdowns at a rate higher than 60 percent. Over the last 10 seasons teams that have made the playoffs have yielded touchdowns in the red zone at a rate of about 52 percent. But it isn’t pretty when the Steelers have the ball; they’ve scored a touchdown on 50.8 percent of their red zone possessions this season to rank 22nd.
–The Steelers defense has been scalded for too many big plays including 10 plays of 50+ yards and 16 plays of 40+ yards. No defense gave up more 50+ plays this season, and only one team was burned for more plays of 40+ yards. The absence of injured big-play linebacker Ryan Shazier is an undeniable factor … The Steelers were zapped for 11 plays of 40+ yards with Shazier out of the lineup.
No. 3 seed: Jacksonville Jaguars, 10-6
Three words: quarterback Blake Bortles. No surprise there, eh? He has a passer rating of 84.7 … and to put that into context, here’s a stat gem from Bleacher Report: over the past 15 postseasons, teams have a lame winning percentage of .315 when their quarterback puts up a playoff-game passer rating under 85.0. Bortles was on a roll for much of December until stinking it up in two consecutive losses (San Francisco, Tennessee) in the final two weeks. Bortles threw two touchdowns and was intercepted five times (combined) by the 49ers and Titans, and on third down passes he completed a pathetic 44 percent and had a passer rating of 25.1. The other problem with Bortles is his terrible inaccuracy on downfield throws; he has the league’s worst completion percentage (22.2) on passes that travel between 21 and 40 yards in the air this season.
No. 4 seed: Kansas City Chiefs, 10-6
–Coach Andy Reid is 11-12 in the postseason during his career with the Eagles and Chiefs. Specifically he’s 1-3 in the playoffs as KC’s coach. The embarrassments include coughing up a 38-10 lead in the second half to lose 45-44 at Indianapolis. Reid’s befuddling game-management blunders — a factor in last season’s close playoff loss to Pittsburgh — continue to tarnish his overall coaching rep.
–The defense has been too soft too often. According to Football Outsiders, only Buffalo gave up more second-level rushing yards per carry than KC this season.
— The Chiefs have been inconsistent in generating a pass rush, bagging a sack on only 5.2 percent of dropbacks, which ranks 27th among the 32 teams.
This Chieftains cannot lose to Tennessee at home, right?
I don’t think so.
No. 5 seed: Tennessee Titans, 9-7
— The Titans have a horrible passer rating differential of minus 10.7 a figure so deplorable it should have ruined any chance of making the playoffs. (Put it this way: according to the Washington Post, the average passer rating differential for non-playoff teams over the past 15 years is minus 7.7)
— The Titans are lagging on impact plays on offense, ranking 24th with only 51 plays that gained 20+ yards. The offense also finished in the bottom five in the league in plays of 25+ yards.
— This team didn’t exactly storm the barricades to invade the playoffs, losing three of the final four games and being limited to 15 or fewer points in two of the contests.
— Quarterback Marcus Mariota regressed this season. In what was supposed to be a break-out season, Mariota often went bust. The No. 2 overall pick in 2015 finished with 13 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a mediocre 79.3 passer rating. Mariota was among the worst quarterbacks in the league in third-down passing, ranking 32nd with a rating of 70.5.
— The Titans’ offense is careless; only two teams had a higher total of giveaway points than Tennessee this season, 94. Of all of the points allowed by Tennessee this season, 26.4 percent stemmed from giveaways. That’s an awful number for a playoff team.
— Now we get to the nitty-gritty: The Titans must clear a path to the Super Bowl as a road team. Uh-oh. This season in seven road games Mariota was intercepted 11 times (with only five TDs) and had a passer rating of 69.1 … that ranked 31st among quarterbacks. The Titans’ average of 284.9 yards per road game ranked 31st, and their average of 17.5 points per road game ranked 22nd. It doesn’t help to be without RB DeMarco Murray, who will miss Saturday’s game in KC with a knee injury.
No. 6 seed: Buffalo Bills, 9-7
Super all-around running back LeSean McCoy leads the Bills in rushing yards, and he’s second in receiving yards. Unfortunately, McCoy may be sidelined or limited by an ankle injury for Sunday’s road game a Jacksonville. Even he does play, Shady may not have the turbo to be his usual big-play-generating self. There goes the offense. And the Bills need offense for their assignment against a frenzied Jacksonville defense that’s second in the league with 33 takeaways, No. 2 in sacks (55), No. 2 in fewest offensive points allowed (15.5 per game), No. 1 in most points generated by takeaways (137) and No. 1 in the percentage of overall points that originated via takeaway (32.9%).
Speaking of defense: after a strong start to the season. the Bills’ defense has steadily eroded. The Buffalo “D” ended the regular season ranked 23rd in points allowed per drive — the worst rate of any of the 12 playoff teams. They finished sixth in DVOA weighted defense. The Bills’ rushing defense was ranked 31st in DVOA. That does not bode well for Buffalo in what should be a dock-brawl game in Jacksonville. Moreover, the Bills offensive line ranked 31st in adjusted sack rate in protecting QB Tyrod Taylor. That’s hazardous against that disruptive Jax defense that’s always on the hunt.
Now, onto the National Football Conference…
No. 1 seed: Philadelphia Eagles, 13-3
I could tell you about Philly’s physical rushing attack, physical defense, and a physical (and LOUD) home crowd that provides a superb home-field advantage. And none of that figures to matter. The Eagles’ legitimate status as a leading championship contender ended when starting QB Carson Wentz went crashing down with a stunning season-ending knee injury.
Enter Nick Foles…
In the final two games of the regular season Foles was absolutely brutal in completing 46.9 percent of his passes, drowning with a 48.2 overall passer rating, connecting on only 2 of 14 third-down passes. With Foles at quarterback, Philadelphia converted only 2 of 25 third-down plays in the final two contests… managing only 19 points vs. Oakland before getting shutout by Dallas.
No. 2 seed: Minnesota Vikings, 13-3
All hail Case Keenum! Seriously … great story, great dude, and a major reason why the Vikings appear to be in solid shape to sweep through the NFC playoffs and march into their own stadium to play the Super Bowl. Everything seems to be in place. The Vikings ranked 7th in offensive points scored. Their defense allowed the fewest offensive points in the league. The Vikes gave up a touchdown on only 12.8 percent of their opponents’ possessions; that was tied for first with Jacksonville’s defense. The Vikings can run it. Keenum has been great in the red zone, ranking third with a 110.4 passer rating, 16 touchdowns, and no interceptions. The defense has been stout in the red zone. The coaching is excellent.
So what can stop the Vikings who seem to be clicking in every area and are doing it at the right time of the season? Well, the special teams aren’ the best, ranking 17th in weighted efficiency. And let’s take a closer look at something here … something about Case Keenum.
As presented by Mr. Greenberg at the Washington Post…
The NFC field is loaded with multiple teams that ranked very well in pass defense DVOA: Los Angeles (3rd), New Orleans (5th), Philadelphia (7th), Carolina (10th).
Just saying …
No. 3 seed: Los Angeles Rams, 11-5
The Rams’ shortage of postseason seasoning has many pundits chirping, and it’s a legitimate concern.
The Rams have only six players with playoff experience, and according to NFL Research that’s the fewest among the 12 teams in this postseason. The Rams are the youngest team in the NFC with an average age of 25.1 years. Some young teams have won it all in recent years — most notably the 2013 Seattle Seahawks with an average age of 25.3 years. But if the Rams can steal the Lombardi Trophy, it is believed they’d be the youngest team to do it. QB Jared Goff is 23. Is he ready to thrive on the big stage?
And what about the rookie head coach Sean McVay? The dude has done a fantastic job. But rookie head coaches don’t have much of a resume when it comes to Super Bowls. Only two rookie head coaches have won the Super Bowl: the Colts’ Don McCafferty (1970) and George Seifert (1989 San Francisco.) But that isn’t comparable, in my opinion. McCafferty were veteran coaches with tons of experience. McVay is 32 years old. He’s the youngest coach to lead a team into the postseason in league history.
No. 4 seed: New Orleans Saints, 11-5
We don’t detect any real signs of weakness. No team is perfect. And the Saints proved that by inexplicably losing at Tampa Bay in the final game of the regular season to cost themselves first place in the NFC South. But this is a solid all-around team.
The defense is improved. The Saints gave up a bunch of big plays early in the season but have fixed the problem.
Drew Brees has a beastly rushing attack to lean on with two splendid all-around backs in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
Is there a potentially devastating flaw to exploit here?
The Saints were among the most vulnerable defenses in the league (based on DVOA) in stopping downfield passes. They exploited some weaker offenses but later in the season were burned through the air by the Rams, Redskins and Buccaneers. They also gave up more s 20-yard plays than the other 11 playoff teams. So that’s something to watch for.
No. 5 seed: Carolina Panthers, 11-5
A few observations:
— The metrics show that the Panthers were loose against the run when an opposing running back cracked the line of scrimmage to reach the second level. Teams that can be exploited on the ground don’t fare well in the postseason.
— The Panthers are slumping offensively, having reached the end zone for touchdowns on only two of their last 24 possessions.
— The erratic Cam Newton is unpredictable. He’s had some brilliant stretches of making big plays and taking over games … and other times Cam looks lost out there … lost in lethargy. Newton has a 73.1 passer rating in his last four games, and the Panthers offense has been in a state of decline. In his final two reg-season games Newton completed 50.8 percent of his passes with 1 TD and 4 INT and a passer rating of 45.9 … Newton has exceeded a 100 passer rating in five games this season, but he’s also had a passer rating of 71.0 or worse in nine games.
— The weakness appears to be a shortage of weapons. Tight end Greg Olsen is playing on a painfully damaged foot and isn’t very effective. The Panthers lost firepower when they traded wideout Kelvin Benjamin at the deadline. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey is a crafty, effective receiver out of the backfield but doesn’t pose much of a threat as a runner. McCaffrey and James Stewart each averaged less than 4 yards per carry this season behind a so-so offensive line, and that leaves it up to Newton to free lance and break out on runs. He’s good at it. Problem is, you just don’t know if Newton will be on or off in an up-and-down season. And he’s rated No. 27 in the league among regular quarterbacks in the Pro Football Focus rankings.
No. 6 seed: Atlanta Falcons, 10-6
There’s a lot to like here but …
The Falcons’ defense ranks 19th in weighted DVOA. We have to go back to the Indy Colts in 2006 to locate a team that won a Super Bowl with a defense that had such a drab DVOA ranking. It probably helped the Colts to have Peyton Manning slinging passes. But as others have pointed out, and I shall pass it along … In 2006 Manning was No. 1 in the NFL with a total QBR of 86.4. And this season Atlanta QB Matt Ryan is fifth with a 64.2 QBR. Obviously, being fifth is damned good … but can Ryan and his offense put up enough big plays and points to offset any of the team’s serious defensive issues?
Last season the Falcons thrived in the red zone, scoring a TD on 62 percent of their RZ possessions. This season they ranked 23rd with a RZ touchdown percentage of 50 percent. And after leading the NFL with 500 offensive points scored en route to an NFC title, the Falcons fell off to 332 offensive points scored (13th) this season. So the offense — while stocked with proven performers — is sluggish by its usual standards. Ryan was sensational on third downs last season; this season he’s fine but nothing special on third down passes. Same with the red zone: last season Ryan was among the best in the league with a 108.8 RZ passer rating; this season he was only OK with a RZ rating of 81.0. That’s why the Falcons are ranked 23rd in red-zone performance by Football Outsiders.
But really, the concern here is the ATL defense which ranked 18th this season in points allowed per possession, and is 18th in rushing defense DVOA.
Pardon my typos after my long and busy day…
Thanks for reading …