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Biggest vulnerability for eight remaining NFL playoff teams; plus, updated Super Bowl LVII probabilities

Published: Jan 18, 2023 at 05:38 PM

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.

And then there were eight.

I just finished my first round of 1,000,000 simulations for each of this weekend’s four Divisional Round games, which helps show the most probable outcome in terms of which teams will win as well as help outline what it would take for upsets to occur.

I’ve also updated my Super Bowl probabilities for the eight remaining teams and provided my assessment of the biggest vulnerabilities facing each squad. And because I love this weekend’s slate, I also added one red flag to note for each team’s upcoming matchup. Let’s dig in!

P.S. I re-run these when we get injury updates each week, so remember to check back closer to when games start.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The odds cited below are provided by Caesars and current as of 5:15 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City Chiefs

Win AFC: 41.2%

  • AFC No. 1 seed | Record: 14-3
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +310
  • Odds to win conference: +145

BIGGEST VULNERABILITY: Patrick Mahomes‘ dip in performance under pressure.

There are so many areas where Mahomes dominates the NFL — he broke the single-season record for offensive yards (5,614) and led the league this season in QB wins, passing yards, passing TDs and total TDs. One factor that matters, though, is what happened this season when Mahomes was under pressure: His passer rating decreased by 61.3 points, per Next Gen Stats. That was the third-largest such drop in 2022, behind only Lamar Jackson (88.6) and Kyler Murray (68). (For what it’s worth, in their Week 10 meeting with the Chiefs, the Jaguars pressured Mahomes on 31.4 percent of his dropbacks, and Jacksonville boasts a pressure rate of 37.4 percent between Week 9 and Super Wild Card Weekend.) 

Keeping Mahomes clean pays off, as evidenced by his league-leading 34 passing TDs and 119.0 passer rating when not under pressure in 2022, and minimizing pressure will be a big key to the rest of the Chiefs’ season. Based on the production we saw from their offense, they have the right supporting cast to keep pressure at bay via offensive scheme; Kansas City became the only team in NFL history to have 12 players with 100-plus scrimmage yards and multiple touchdowns in a single season. They’ve had a different leading receiver in five of their last six games. Also, 28 of Mahomes’ 41 TD passes in the regular season went to running backs and tight ends, which ties Mahomes for the most such scoring throws in NFL history (with Y.A. Tittle’s mark from 1963). 

One additional note ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Jaguars: In the regular season, the Chiefs’ defense allowed a passer rating of 112.0 against downfield passes (those that travel at least 10 air yards), per NGS, the second-highest in the league. Kansas City also allowed Christian Kirk to rack up 54 yards and one TD on three such receptions in its closer-than-expected win over Jacksonville back in Week 10.

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills

Win AFC: 30.2%

  • AFC No. 2 seed | Record: 14-3
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +350
  • Odds to win conference: +165

BIGGEST VULNERABILITY: Turnovers.

This one isn’t a surprise. In the 2022 regular season and playoffs, Josh Allen has recorded 22 giveaways, including 16 interceptions, and the team has 30 total in that span, second-most in the NFL. Here’s what is surprising: I did some math on the net impact of a turnover in the playoffs over the past 10 seasons and found that, when games have been within two scores, fumbles have been worth about 3.6 points for the defense, while interceptions have been worth about 1.8 points. That’s a difference of almost 2 points! Allen plays well in the clutch, as evidenced by his fourth-quarter passer rating in playoffs games (105.0), which is the third-highest among all QBs in the last 30 seasons. But an ill-timed turnover can spell doom in the postseason.

One note for this Sunday’s Divisional Round showdown: When the Bengals were able to get pressure this season, they ranked first in passer rating allowed (36.2) in the regular season, completion percentage allowed (39.9) and TD-to-INT ratio allowed (0:7). They were the only team to allow zero touchdowns when able to get pressure, all per Next Gen Stats. 

San Francisco 49ers
  • NFC No. 2 seed | Record: 14-4
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +380
  • Odds to win conference: +160

BIGGEST VULNERABILITY: Film.

Kyle Shanahan has been calling plays brilliantly for rookie QB Brock Purdy, but as defenses see more of the seventh-round pick, they will be able to create better plans to exploit his weaknesses. From Week 14 through Super Wild Card Weekend, Purdy has posted sparkling numbers, tallying the most wins (six) in the NFL in that span, with the highest passing yards per attempt (9.3) and passer rating (121.4), while tying for the most passing TDs (14). He also has an 86.9 passer rating under pressure, ranking sixth best (including playoffs). He’s working with the best skill-player teammates and the best left tackle, according to win share, in the game, and he’s operating in a scheme that allows for 3.3 yards of target separation on downfield pass attempts, which is by far the most in the NFL (the next closest is 3.0). I am by no means suggesting Purdy is a liability, or attempting to downplay the epic unfolding of a potential star, but even the Patrick Mahomeses, Josh Allens, and Joe Burrows of the world face an adjustment period once defenses learn their capabilities. 

In this Sunday’s faceoff with Dallas, I’m watching how Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn looks to stop the 49ers’ pass-catchers (mostly tight end George Kittle). We’ve seen Quinn employ smart strategies with his defensive backs to make up for injuries, and we’ve seen Shanahan dial up pre-snap motions and shifts (from Week 14 through last week, Purdy has the most TDs using motions and shifts in the NFL) to help his offense be simple but appear complex. Will Purdy be able to see this all well enough to keep the pass game strong?

Philadelphia Eagles
  • NFC No. 1 seed | Record: 14-3
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +525
  • Odds to win conference: +165

BIGGEST VULNERABILITY: Adjusting to the Giants’ defensive looks.

With the extra time off provided by the first-round bye, it’s probable (and hopeful) that quarterback Jalen Hurts will be back to his healthier self after dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him out of two regular-season games. However, one thing we saw in his return to action against the Giants in Week 18, when New York changed the defensive looks (to play more off-coverage, and split-safety shell and less press), the effectiveness of the Eagles’ offense decreased. In fact, in both of Philly’s games against the Giants this season, Hurts was far less productive when facing off coverage (21-of-33, 5.2 yards per attempt, 0:1 TD-to-INT ratio, 64.0 passer rating) than when he was facing press coverage (7-of-9, 16.8 yards per attempt, 1:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 155.8 passer rating). New York also had success when utilizing split-safety shells, holding Hurts to 3.3 yards per attempt in those scenarios.

Of course, in Philly’s Week 18 win, Hurts was still coming back from that shoulder sprain, while New York was resting many starters. The Eagles were also without Lane Johnson, who should return for this Saturday’s rematch, while New York will have Adoree’ Jackson, who missed both games, on hand. We should learn whether the Eagles will be able to adapt (especially if Hurts isn’t 100 percent healthy), which would be crucial to making a deep playoff run. 

Cincinnati Bengals
  • AFC No. 3 seed | Record: 13-4
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +800
  • Odds to win conference: +400

BIGGEST VULNERABILITY: Offensive line injuries.

La’el Collins is on injured reserve, while Alex Cappa and Jonah Williams are both considered week-to-week. Including the playoffs, Joe Burrow is 22-3 over the past two seasons when sacked fewer than four times in a game and 4-8 when he’s sacked four or more times. Sacks aren’t the only thing, though; I’m focusing on effective pressure, and how the back end of the defense limits space for pass catchers. In the Bengals’ wild-card win over the Ravens, Burrow was sacked four times off a 25 percent pressure rate while facing zone coverage on 28 of 32 attempts; he was also barely blitzed (facing a 5.6 percent blitz rate). On average, he had 2.38 seconds to throw, down from his regular-season average of 2.55 seconds. We can infer that the undermanned O-line contributed to faster pressure, which also led to less space being given to the pass catchers. 

On Sunday, the Bengals face a tough task in slowing down the Bills’ pass rush, even with Von Miller sidelined for the season. Last week alone, the Bills had eight players record at least two pressures each, with a total of 19 pressures and four sacks. For the season (including the playoffs), the Bills’ 29.6 pressure rate ranks 10th-best in the NFL.

Dallas Cowboys
  • NFC No. 5 seed | Record: 13-5
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +850
  • Odds to win conference: +350

BIGGEST VULNERABILITY: Kicking.

Just kidding! But that truly was a bizarre scene on Monday, when Brett Maher became the first kicker to miss four extra-point attempts in a regular-season or postseason game since 1932 (when the stat was first tracked for individual players), per Elias Sports Bureau.

ACTUAL BIGGEST VULNERABILITY: Injuries.

I say that because the potential shuffling of the O-line (Jason Peters injured his hip against the Bucs) and the replacement strategy for CB Anthony Brown (tore his Achilles in early December) both count here. Let’s start with the offensive line. After Peters’ third-quarter exit Monday night, the Cowboys returned to the configuration they used during the previous three games, which had been far less successful than what we saw against the Bucs, who couldn’t generate much of a pass rush (just eight pressures on 34 dropbacks). It’s also unreasonable to expect Dak Prescott — who had a career-high 15 INTs in just 12 games — to play at a near-flawless level each playoff week (he had perfect passer rating on passes of 10-plus air yards), so how his protection holds up going forward will likely be magnified. And with the 49ers’ vaunted front up next, that scrutiny could come quick.

As for the secondary, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn played an abnormally high percentage of zone against Tom Brady (85.1% vs. a season average of 65.6%), using extra defensive backs in Cover 4 and Cover 6 looks, while pushing nickel back DaRon Bland out wide and finding different ways to cover the slot. Quinn is masterful in scheming up ways to slow opponents, but surely even he will run into challenges with the lack of depth in the back end, especially if the Cowboys’ pass rush isn’t able to be as efficient.

New York Giants
  • NFC No. 6 seed | Record: 10-7-1
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +3000
  • Odds to win conference: +1300

BIGGEST VULNERABILITY: Defense.

The Giants will need more out of their defense if their postseason run is to continue past Saturday night. New York’s run defense ranked 28th this season, per PFF, which is in line with the unit ranking 27th in rushing yards allowed per game (144.2). That average is an interesting threshold to note, because just two teams in the previous 40 seasons have advanced beyond the Divisional Round in the same season they allowed more than 140 rush yards per game. The Giants have had their issues against the pass, as well, allowing 21 scores through the air against just six interceptions, which is the fourth-worst TD-to-INT ratio allowed by a playoff team in NFL history. On top of that, the unit as a whole gave up the second-most big plays of any defense during the regular season (127). To put it simply: Being susceptible to both the run and pass — and especially shorter runs and passes that set up big gashes — makes it less probable to earn lots of postseason wins.

Against the Eagles, it will be intriguing to see how impactful the Giants’ pass rush can be against a stout Philly O-line. Dexter Lawrence finished the regular season second among defensive tackles in QB pressures (54), and he and Leonard Williams combined for (83) — tied for fourth-most of any DT duo in the league. Not to be overlooked, rookie edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux tallied 40 pressures in Year 1, adding another six — a career-high — in the Giants’ wild-card win over the Vikings.

Jacksonville Jaguars
  • AFC No. 4 seed | Record: 10-8
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +3500
  • Odds to win conference: +1300

BIGGEST VULNERABILITY: Third-down defense.

If the Jags are going to pull off an upset in Kansas City, they will have to stand firm on third down. Jacksonville ranked 29th in third-down defense and 28th against the pass overall this season, struggling in particular with the slot alignment and tight ends. The Jags allowed a league-high 1,235 receiving yards, 5.1 completion percentage over expected (fourth-most) and 9.6 yards per attempt (most of any team since 2019) to tight ends during the regular season. Furthermore, their 3.0 completion percentage over expected allowed to slot receivers was the fifth-highest, per Next Gen Stats.

None of this bodes well for them in Sunday’s matchup with Patrick Mahomes, who targeted the slot at the sixth-highest percentage (32.7%) of any QB this season, and, of course, has four-time All-Pro Travis Kelce at his disposal. The duo’s inimitable connection is one reason Kansas City boasted the second-best third-down offense this year.

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