NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful … or the most misunderstood.
As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there’s a stat/trend you’d like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.
As we head into Divisional Round weekend, I ran one million simulations for each game, because why not? Then I looked at all of the outcomes — including the upsets — to identify some of the main drivers causing wins. With all that in mind, here are the X-factors who can unlock each remaining team’s potential to make a Super Bowl run.
SATURDAY, JAN. 16
Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers (4:35 p.m. ET on FOX)
For the Rams to upset the Packers, the highest-probability formula is to limit the impact of the pass (especially the deep pass of 20-plus air yards) on defense and efficiently rush the ball on offense. Aaron Rodgers went deep on 14.1 percent of passes this season — the second-highest rate in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats, trailing only Tom Brady — posting a league-best 12:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 128.7 passer rating (third-highest). But the Rams’ defense ranks in the top four against the deep pass in completion percentage (24.6), passer rating (37.9) and TD-to-INT ratio (2:5). Jalen Ramsey, who has yielded the fewest receiving yards (309, per Pro Football Focus) among cornerbacks with at least 500 coverage snaps, has been a big part of this success. And the first-team All-Pro’s versatility is key. Per NGS, Ramsey has aligned in the slot on 16.3 percent of defensive snaps this season, allowing just six receptions for 40 yards and zero touchdowns on 12 targets. Why am I pointing this out before this particular matchup? Green Bay’s first-team All-Pro receiver, Davante Adams, has lined up in the slot on 29.9 percent of routes — the highest figure for Adams since Next Gen Stats started tracking this in 2016. On slot targets, Adams boasts an 83.6 reception percentage, which is the second-highest mark in the NFL. While Ramsey’s responsibilities are likely to include more than just Adams, the corner’s continued excellence will be necessary to contain whatever Rodgers throws his way.
Quickly, because I can’t not hit on the Rams’ run game after briefly mentioning it as a big part of the winning formula above: L.A.’s ground attack led by rookie Cam Akers, who has averaged 92.5 rushing yards per game since Week 12, will be a huge complementary factor.
Aaron Rodgers has been pressured on just 16.8 percent of dropbacks this season (third-lowest rate in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats). Not surprisingly, the likely MVP has acquitted himself pretty well under pressure: 47.2 completion percentage, 6.7 yards per attempt, 5:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 92.6 passer rating. But when Rodgers isn’t under pressure, the figures skyrocket: 74.7 completion percentage, 8.4 yards per attempt, 43:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 126.1 passer rating. Obviously, losing LT David Bakhtiari, Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated pass blocking tackle this season, is a massive hit to Green Bay’s line. And protection issues are quite concerning when you’re going up against the Rams’ ferocious front. Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd both posted double-digit sacks in the regular season, and they each logged two more in the wild-card win at Seattle. Given Bakhtiari’s season-ending injury and right tackle Rick Wagner’s ongoing knee issues, the Packers have legit questions at both bookend spots. Billy Turner started Green Bay’s Week 17 game at left tackle, but the Packers also just brought back Jared Veldheer. It will be very interesting to see how Matt LaFleur and Co. reshuffle the offensive front. The scheme and Rodger’s elite ability to diagnose defenses should mitigate some of the potential problems, but quality protection on the edges is a huge factor in just how far the Pack can go.
Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills (8:15 p.m. ET on NBC)
Pro Football Focus shows that Baltimore’s top two corners have been tested downfield a lot this season, with Marcus Peters in coverage against 48 targets of 10-plus air yards (tied for eighth-most) and Marlon Humphrey facing 43 such targets (tied for 11th-most). Peters’ gambling style has been a gift and a curse in this area, with four picks and five touchdowns allowed — both ranking among the four highest marks for cornerbacks against passes of 10-plus air yards. Humphrey’s efforts here have been more balanced, with fewer big plays made and given up. Saturday night presents quite a challenge for the Ravens’ CB duo. Buffalo QB Josh Allen has been productive at all passing depths, including 10-plus air yards, where he’s piled up 21 of his 37 touchdown passes on a 113.9 passer rating. That said, this is the area where Allen has thrown nine of his 10 picks, so the playmaking Peters could have takeaway opportunities. Overall, the Ravens have allowed just a 45.6 percent completion rate and an 82.6 passer rating against throws of 10-plus air yards.
My findings show that when Cole Beasley and Stefon Diggs have been on the field together this season, Bills receivers have created an average of 1.8 more feet of separation than last year’s Buffalo wideouts were able to manage. No receiver has earned more yards from the slot this season than Beasley — 948, per Next Gen Stats — and PFF has Josh Allen’s passer rating at a sparkling 111.5 when he targets the 5-foot-8 jitterbug. Last week, I spotlighted Allen’s off-platform efficiency, and Beasley’s impact when he’s both the subject of one of those throws, as well as when he’s on the field but not targeted (like when he’s asked to block), ranks as the fifth-best by win share among slot receivers this season.
SUNDAY, JAN. 17
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs (3:05 p.m. ET on CBS)
Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson have been activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list after missing the wild-card win at Pittsburgh. Really, this X-factor is about the Browns’ entire secondary as the unit prepares to face Patrick Mahomes, but Ward’s the best cover man in the bunch, so he gets the honor of being singled out here. During the regular season, Cleveland had the 26th-ranked coverage secondary, according to Pro Football Focus. But Ward graded out well in PFF’s evaluation, and he finished with the second-most passes defensed in the league (18). Because defensive fronts and backs work together, it’s worth noting that the Browns have the sixth-highest pressure rate (29.1, according to Next Gen Stats). Under pressure this season, Mahomes owns a passer rating of just 73.9. In other words, if Cleveland is to upset Kansas City, it will likely be due to exceptional pressure that’s fortified by sticky coverage from Ward and friends.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire hasn’t played since Week 15 due to hip and ankle ailments, and his status for Sunday remains unclear. Despite missing three full games over the course of the regular season, CEH still piled up 1,100 scrimmage yards, which ranked fourth among rookies. In 2020, no team had more passing first downs than Chiefs’ 255, but their 110 rushing firsts (tied for 17th) shouldn’t be overlooked. Those rushing firsts included 57 runs of 10-plus yards (which ranked 10th), with Edwards-Helaire earning a team-high 21. Le’Veon Bell, who made his K.C. debut in Week 7, has posted 353 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns for the Chiefs. My models aren’t in love with Bell’s pauses and attempts to change direction behind the line of scrimmage in this type of offense, but the three-time Pro Bowler did average 128.8 scrimmage yards per game in his four postseason outings with the Steelers. That said, Bell was dealing with an ailment of his own (inflamed right knee) down the stretch of the regular season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints (6:40 p.m. ET on FOX)
Tom Brady had a passer rating below 80 in just three games this season, with two coming in New Orleans’ regular-season sweep of Tampa Bay, including a ghastly 40.4 mark from the 38-3 prime-time loss back in Week 9. That was Brady’s lowest single-game passer rating in 14 years. Against all non-Saints opponents this season (including Super Wild Card Weekend), Brady’s passer rating sits at a lofty 107.9. Can TB12’s third time against these 2020 Saints be the charm? Well, unfortunately for the Bucs, nothing brings the best out of New Orleans CB Marshon Lattimore like going up against Mike Evans. Since Lattimore entered the NFL in 2017, he’s posted sterling numbers in coverage against Evans: Nine catches on 20 targets (45 percent completion rate) with one touchdown, one interception and a 77.3 passer rating, per PFF. And that’s why I’m spotlighting Antonio Brown, who didn’t do much in that Week 9 blowout with 31 yards on three grabs. He must be more impactful on Sunday. Brady, who attempted the most passes of 20-plus yards in the NFL during the regular season, needs to hit Brown on some downfield gashes. The future Hall of Fame quarterback had a roller-coaster ride with the deep ball in 2020, but he finished with a flurry, leading the NFL in deep-passing completions (17), yards (594) and touchdowns (7) in Weeks 12 through 17. Then he completed four of seven deep attempts for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the wild-card win over Washington. If Brady wants to avoid losing to the same team three times in a season for the first time ever, he’ll need some downfield help from Brown.
Michael Thomas had a tough regular season, missing nine games due to injuries and a team suspension. In his return from injured reserve against the Bears last week, Thomas (five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown) averaged 10 air yards per target for the third time this season and sixth time since the beginning of 2019. The Bears employed press coverage on 54.3 percent of Thomas’ routes — the highest rate Thomas has faced this season — and the Saints star posted two catches for 24 yards and a touchdown against the tactic. I’m fascinated to see how the Bucs approach him on Sunday evening. Commanding significant defensive attention every snap, Thomas’ off-ball metric ranks in the top five of all receivers over the past three seasons. This changes the opportunities for all other Saints pass catchers — and benefits Alvin Kamara in the pass and run. Emmanuel Sanders’ increased integration with the team certainly helps the aerial attack, but make no mistake about it: Thomas is the straw who stirs the Saints’ passing-game drink.
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