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2017 NFL Playoff Preview

Injuries have left the NFC wide open. A Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC? Don't be so certain. Bill Barnwell lines up the many potential postseason scenarios.

NFL playoff preview

If this season has been weird, the playoffs bode to be even stranger. Injuries have left the NFC field wide-open, and did anyone foresee Bills-Jaguars in the AFC? The Football Power Index predicted a Patriots-Falcons Super Bowl last year. This year? Let's find out.

By Bill Barnwell

ALL
AFC
NFC
PATRIOTS
VIKINGS
SAINTS
EAGLES
STEELERS
FALCONS
RAMS
JAGUARS
PANTHERS
CHIEFS
TITANS
BILLS
1 Patriots AFC East http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/one.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/brady_pats.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/one.svg0.0

The AFC playoffs go through Foxborough yet again, but there might be reasons to be concerned about this Patriots defense. It improved during the season but made it to only 31st in defensive DVOA. Bill Belichick is a defensive wizard, but the Patriots have never won a Super Bowl with a defense ranked lower than 16th in DVOA.



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE AFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Tom Brady

Brady is the likely favorite to win MVP in a season that looks statistically to be the fifth-best season of his Hall of Fame career. By QBR, it's actually his second-worst campaign in 11 years.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
1
Offense
Rank
31
Defense
Rank
3
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13-3
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11-5
Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Probability
Of Matchup
Patriots'
Chances To Win

You aren't beating Tom Brady in the playoffs without pass pressure. In Kansas City's two regular-season victories over New England under Andy Reid, the Chiefs have sacked Brady on 8.2 percent of his dropbacks. When the Chiefs lost to the Patriots in the divisional round two years ago, though, they failed to sack Brady once in 42 tries and pressured him on a mere 9.3 percent of dropbacks, the third-worst rate in any Patriots playoff game since 2008. The 2017 Chiefs, unfortunately for K.C. fans, have posted the league's sixth-worst sack rate since that win to kick off the regular season.

The Steelers have lost five straight games to the Patriots, in part because their trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown has started and finished only two of those games. This just doesn't happen to the Steelers, who haven't had a five-game losing streak against a franchise since 2000 (Tennessee). Pittsburgh came within a replay review of beating the Patriots the last time in Week 15, but it is also 0-5 against Tom Brady in New England, where the AFC Championship Game between these two would occur. The Pats have won those five games by a combined score of 183-96.

The most likely Super Bowl matchup before Carson Wentz tore his ACL, Eagles-Patriots could still come into play if Nick Foles can hold on to the football for a couple of games. The Patriots would be a tough matchup regardless of who is under center for Philly, though. The Eagles' most significant coverage weakness is against tight ends, as they're 17th in DVOA. Tom Brady can neutralize the deep Eagles defensive line rotation by going no-huddle and up-tempo. LeGarrette Blount & Co. are 17th in rushing DVOA, which might not be enough to attack the 30th-ranked Pats' run D.

Most teams can't stay in the game long enough to exploit the Patriots' run defense, but it's a serious problem. The Patriots rank 30th in rushing defense DVOA while allowing a league-high 2.95 yards before first contact on rushing plays. Tennessee's offensive line has taken a step backward after a dominant 2016 season, though. After ranking fifth in the category last season, the Titans are 16th in yards before first contact in 2017. They're better off with Derrick Henry, who averages 2.53 yards after contact, compared to DeMarco Murray's 1.41. Henry is third among 47 backs in that stat, and Murray, who didn't play against the Chiefs, is 45th.

If any quarterback truly doesn't care about a pass rush, it's Tom Brady. The future Hall of Famer posted a scarcely believable passer rating of 109.1 when pressured this season. Carson Wentz ranked second but was more than 17 points behind Brady. Brady was also the only quarterback to post a better passer rating when pressured than when unpressured, as he got up to only 101.1 with a clean pocket. Opposing defenses have bothered Brady in past Super Bowls with interior pass pressure, so Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson could play a bigger role than Jacksonville's edge rushers in this matchup.

Case Keenum vs. Bill Belichick might sound like a mismatch for the best coach in NFL history, but you don't need to be a superstar to play well in the postseason against The Hoodie. Among the 11 best postseason games by passer rating against New England in the Belichick era, you'll find appearances by Jake Delhomme, David Garrard, Mark Sanchez, Matt Schaub and three Joe Flacco games. Our middling passers are 4-7 against Belichick in those games, which isn't bad when you consider that the other passers are 4-18.

Bills fans want to see their team win a Super Bowl, but if they're going to lose in the postseason, I suspect they would be happier about losing to anyone other than Tom Brady. The Bills have lost their past 12 games to the future Hall of Famer, excluding a meaningless game Brady left halfway through in Week 17 of 2014. Brady is also 14-0 at home against the Bills excluding that game, having beaten nine Buffalo starters in that period. There is no better time to break the curse of Drew Bledsoe than now!

If the secret to beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl is getting pressure without blitzing -- as was the case for the Giants in 2007 and 2011 -- the Saints might be in trouble. As good as their defense has been in 2017, they've needed to send extra men to create havoc. The Saints have a pressure rate of just 21.4 percent when they send three or four defenders after the quarterback, which is sixth lowest in the league. Tom Brady has been great under pressure this season, but I don't think he'll mind being left alone.

Bill Belichick's most famous defensive game plan saw him batter Marshall Faulk during Super Bowl XXXVI. He might try to give Todd Gurley the same treatment, but it won't be as easy. The 2001 Pats were not a great run defense, ranking 28th in rushing defense DVOA, but they were about league average in terms of allowing running backs to catch passes. This year's bunch is 30th in run defense DVOA and 22nd against running backs in the passing game. Only Tennessee and Cincinnati allow more receiving yards to running backs than the 54.2 yards per game permitted by New England.

A rematch would either allow every Falcons player to sleep peacefully for the first time in a year or prevent them from sleeping ever again.

The Panthers beat New England in Week 4, back when the Patriots' defense was still routinely allowing receivers unsupervised tours of Gillette Stadium. Things have changed. The New England pass defense allowed eight plays of 35 or more yards in the first four games, including two to Carolina. The Patriots have allowed just 11 such plays in the 12 ensuing contests. Carolina might still look good, though, given that the Patriots are 30th in rushing defense DVOA and allow the third-most receiving yards per game to running backs.


2 Vikings NFC North http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/two.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/diggs_vikings.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/two.svg0.0

The only thing the Vikings don't have is a big name at quarterback, given that Case Keenum is playing like a Pro Bowler. It's hard to believe that Keenum won't eventually turn into a pumpkin, but skeptics have been waiting all season and it hasn't happened yet.



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE NFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Case Keenum

Keenum finished second in the league in QBR behind Carson Wentz. Beyond the obvious improvements, he fumbled only once and took sacks just 4.4 percent of the time.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
5
Offense
Rank
2
Defense
Rank
18
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11-5
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Probability
Of Matchup
Vikings'
Chances To Win

While the Vikings' defense rightfully came in for plaudits after holding the Rams to a lone touchdown in a 24-7 victory in November, the offense might have deserved more of the credit. For one, a Cooper Kupp fumble near the goal line cost the Rams a likely touchdown. Case Keenum & Co., meanwhile, averaged 6.2 yards per play, generated 27 first downs and produced four drives of 11 or more plays. Only the Eagles produced more first downs against the Rams this season, and it took them 12 additional plays to make it to 29.

It's difficult to think of two teams in this playoff field constructed more similarly than the Eagles and Vikings. Both are built around deep, dominant defensive lines with athletic linebackers and great safety play. Expensively assembled offensive lines block for running games by committee, pressed into service by injuries. Deep receiving corps are built around two of the league's few two-way tight ends. Of course, both teams are down to their backup quarterbacks. The differences? Minnesota has a top-end cornerback in Xavier Rhodes, while the Eagles are stronger on the interior of their offensive line.

The Vikings blew out the Saints in Week 1, but that might as well have been in another universe. Sam Bradford threw for 346 yards and three scores. Dalvin Cook ran for 127 yards in his NFL debut, while Alvin Kamara turned his 11 touches into a mere 38 yards. Adrian Peterson got as many carries as Mark Ingram. Star Saints left tackle Terron Armstead was hurt, while eventual starting corner Ken Crawley was a healthy scratch. The Saints have matured into a much better team, but with Case Keenum playing so well, the same might be true for Minnesota.

Case Keenum vs. Bill Belichick might sound like a mismatch for the best coach in NFL history, but you don't need to be a superstar to play well in the postseason against The Hoodie. Among the 11 best postseason games by passer rating against New England in the Belichick era, you'll find appearances by Jake Delhomme, David Garrard, Mark Sanchez, Matt Schaub and three Joe Flacco games. Our middling passers are 4-7 against Belichick in those games, which isn't bad when you consider that the other passers are 4-18.

Carolina won the matchup between these two in Week 14 by breaking the Case Keenum formula. He had thrown five interceptions and taken just nine sacks in his first 11 games with the Vikings, but the Panthers picked off Keenum twice and sacked him six times in their 31-24 victory. The Vikings also were missing a pair of starters in standout rookie center Pat Elflein and right tackle Mike Remmers that day.

One way to build a great passing attack with a quarterback such as Case Keenum is to create throwing lanes via play-action. The Vikings threw a league-high 152 pass attempts off play-action this season, and their QBR on those throws was a whopping 84.4, which was tops in the NFL. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen each rank in the top five in receiving yards with play-action. That might be a problem for Pittsburgh, given that the Steelers are allowing a 73.0 QBR when opposing teams execute a play-fake. No playoff defense is worse.

For all the concern about their offensive decline, no team in the league converted third downs more frequently than the Falcons (44.7 percent) this season. Their worst game of the season came against the Vikings, with Steve Sarkisian's unit going 1-for-10 on third down. Four of those attempts required 10 or more yards for a conversion, and the Falcons can't leave Matt Ryan in third-and-long against a pass rush as good as Minnesota's. It also would help if they bothered Case Keenum, who wasn't sacked once in 30 tries the last time these two teams played.

Think about the poor quarterbacks! The record for sacks in a single Super Bowl is 12, set all the way back in February 2016, when the Broncos and Panthers combined for a dozen. A Vikings-Jags matchup could threaten that record. Both Blake Bortles and Case Keenum have posted excellent sack rates this season, but neither has had to go up against an opposing pass rush this good -- besides in practice. Jerick McKinnon might give the Vikings an advantage by virtue of serving as the best dumpoff and screen option between these two teams.

The Chiefs' only Super Bowl victory came at the expense of the Vikings, who turned the ball over five times in Super Bowl IV. Minnesota will hope to exact some revenge 48 years later by dominating the turnover battle. Mike Zimmer's team is 8-0 when it doesn't turn the ball over and 11-1 when it has one or no giveaways; on the other side of the ball, the Vikings are 9-1 when they force at least one turnover and just 4-2 without. It could be a problem, then, that the Chiefs have the lowest turnovers-per-possession rate (6.3 percent) in the league.

The Vikings and Titans played in Week 1 of the 2016 season. Shaun Hill handed off to Adrian Peterson and Matt Asiata. Tajae Sharpe and Andre Johnson were the leading wideouts for the Titans. That game feels like an eternity ago. The modern Titans might not match up well with the Vikings, given that they rank third in DVOA against deep passes and dead last against short throws. Case Keenum ranks fourth in QBR and fifth in passer rating on those pass types. The Vikings also have the league's fifth-best run defense, so expect a lot of third-and-longs for Marcus Mariota.

The Bills' offense thrives on creating big running plays. Over the past three years, Buffalo has a league-leading 22 runs of 30 yards or more, including 11 from LeSean McCoy. The problem with that against the Vikings is Harrison Smith, who leads a defense that doesn't give up big plays. The Vikings have given up only six such runs over the same time frame, which is tied for 30th with the Patriots. They allowed two this season and both were in the same game, when Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart each busted off 60-plus-yard runs in Week 14.


3 Saints NFC South http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/three.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/lattimore_saints.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/three.svg0.0

After years of depending on Drew Brees to win shootouts, the Saints have developed overnight into a team built around its defense and running game. New Orleans has won just one road playoff game under Sean Payton, though, and it might need to beat two of Philadelphia, Minnesota and Los Angeles to make the Super Bowl.



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE NFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Drew Brees

While Brees' raw numbers remain at a high level, his style has changed. The veteran threw the league's shortest average pass this season, at 6.36 air yards per throw. His receivers made up the difference after the catch.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
2
Offense
Rank
8
Defense
Rank
15
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13 - 3
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Probability
Of Matchup
Saints'
Chances To Win

Sean Payton's team has beaten the Panthers twice in 2017, so a playoff rematch would invoke the old adage of how it's difficult to beat a team three times in one season. History suggests the Saints need not worry. Since 1990, teams that have beaten an opponent twice during the regular season have gone 11-5 against those same opponents when they play for a third time in the postseason. Familiarity and losing both breed contempt, but it doesn't matter much if you're familiar with only the back of Alvin Kamara's jersey.

Chalk would have these teams meet in Philadelphia during the divisional round, and the Eagles would be happy to not travel to the Big Easy. Jim Schwartz's defense has thrived in the City of Brotherly Love this season, allowing an average of just 13.4 points per game. That figure rises to 23.5 points per game on the road, the largest swing by any playoff defense. The Saints have a long record of scaring teams with their offense in the Superdome, but they've been just over four points per game better on offense at home in 2017.

The Vikings blew out the Saints in Week 1, but that might as well have been in another universe. Sam Bradford threw for 346 yards and three scores. Dalvin Cook ran for 127 yards in his NFL debut, while Alvin Kamara turned his 11 touches into a mere 38 yards. Adrian Peterson got as many carries as Mark Ingram. Star Saints left tackle Terron Armstead was hurt, while eventual starting corner Ken Crawley was a healthy scratch. The Saints have matured into a much better team, but with Case Keenum playing so well, the same might be true for Minnesota.

If the secret to beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl is getting pressure without blitzing -- as was the case for the Giants in 2007 and 2011 -- the Saints might be in trouble. As good as their defense has been in 2017, they've needed to send extra men to create havoc. The Saints have a pressure rate of just 21.4 percent when they send three or four defenders after the quarterback, which is sixth lowest in the league. Tom Brady has been great under pressure this season, but I don't think he'll mind being left alone.

The Rams prevailed in a 26-20 victory over the Saints earlier this season, but I'm not sure I'd count it as canon. Dennis Allen's defense was without its top two cornerbacks, as Ken Crawley and rookie star Marshon Lattimore were injured. The Rams were without their top wide receiver, Robert Woods. They also had star kicker Greg Zuerlein in the fold, and Zuerlein's only miss in five tries was from 63 yards.

Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger would combine to produce the oldest Super Bowl in league history, in terms of starting quarterback age. I wonder, though, if the Steelers' run defense might have more to do in deciding a Super Bowl between these two. Pittsburgh's run defense was the second best in football in terms of win probability added in the first half of the season, but it fell to 30th from Week 10 forward. The Saints, meanwhile, produced 1.8 wins from their rushing attack on the legs of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the third-best rate in the league.

These two teams hardly need any introduction, having played twice in December. The matchup has been a nightmare for Devonta Freeman, who fumbled as the Falcons tried to finish their win in Week 14 and then repeated the feat on the Saints' 1-yard line in Week 16 before being stuffed on a fourth-and-goal try later. Freeman has fumbled only twice in 14 other games, so a third fumble probably isn't in the cards. If the Falcons' offensive line can't keep the Saints from sacking Matt Ryan five times again, though, a better game from Freeman won't help.

Most teams struggle to bother Drew Brees, given that the future Hall of Famer has one of the league's best offensive lines and one of the quickest releases of his generation. If opponents do get after the Saints' starter, though, Brees doesn't do well. The soon-to-be 39-year-old posted a passer rating of just 42.0 under pressure this season, the lowest rate by far of any quarterback in this playoff field. Consequently, Brees has the highest passer rating of any passer when left to his devices under center. Guess what the Jags will need to do to win?

A Saints-Chiefs Super Bowl would deliver a tantalizing matchup along the line of scrimmage. On one side: Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who is having the best season of his career with 13 sacks and a league-high (for defensive linemen) 11 pass deflections. Eleven of his 13 sacks have come from the left defensive end spot, where he would line up against the best right tackle in the AFC, Kansas City's Mitchell Schwartz. Justin Houston vs. Ryan Ramczyk isn't far off from that matchup, either. Marcus Peters vs. Michael Thomas! Marshon Lattimore vs. Tyreek Hill! This would be fun.

The Saints have made drastic strides on defense this season, but they still struggle to contain opposing quarterbacks in the running game. New Orleans has allowed opposing signal-callers to average 6.4 yards per rushing attempt this season, the highest rate in football. Among playoff teams, only the Falcons allowed more rushing yards to quarterbacks than the Saints. Much of that is the effect of playing Cam Newton twice a season, but Taylor is the only quarterback in the league who comes close to Newton's rushing totals over the past three seasons, with 174 fewer yards on 78 fewer attempts.

No team in the league is more productive on screen passes than the Saints, who have generated 29 first downs on screens this season. No other team has topped 21. The Titans, meanwhile, are allowing opposing passers to post a 107.3 mark on screen passes this season, the second-worst rate by any team in the playoff field. Tennessee's league-worst performance on throws to running backs doesn't bode well against a team with Alvin Kamara in the backfield. The Saints do have the league's 23rd-ranked rushing defense in DVOA, though, so the Titans might be able to control the ball on the ground.


4 Eagles NFC East http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/four.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/flexer_eagles.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/four.svg0.0

The best team in the NFC before losing Carson Wentz, the Eagles have to get by with Nick Foles at quarterback. He has looked terrible over the past two weeks, leaving coach Doug Pederson with some tough decisions to make about his game plan before the divisional round begins.



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE NFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Nick Foles

Foles posted one of the best half-seasons in league history back in 2013, but the 41.5 QBR he has posted since ranks 36th among 40 quarterbacks.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
8
Offense
Rank
5
Defense
Rank
16
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11-5
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13-3
Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Probability
Of Matchup
Eagles'
Chances To Win

Chalk would have these teams meet in Philadelphia during the divisional round, and the Eagles would be happy to not travel to the Big Easy. Jim Schwartz's defense has thrived in the City of Brotherly Love this season, allowing an average of just 13.4 points per game. That figure rises to 23.5 points per game on the road, the largest swing by any playoff defense. The Saints have a long record of scaring teams with their offense in the Superdome, but they've been just over four points per game better on offense at home in 2017.

It's difficult to think of two teams in this playoff field constructed more similarly than the Eagles and Vikings. Both are built around deep, dominant defensive lines with athletic linebackers and great safety play. Expensively assembled offensive lines block for running games by committee, pressed into service by injuries. Deep receiving corps are built around two of the league's few two-way tight ends. Of course, both teams are down to their backup quarterbacks. The differences? Minnesota has a top-end cornerback in Xavier Rhodes, while the Eagles are stronger on the interior of their offensive line.

One factor an offense has very little control over is where its drives begin, which is determined by the work of its defense and special teams. The Eagles have an opportunistic defense and the league's sixth-highest third-and-out percentage, which is why they have the league's third-best average starting field position, an even 70 yards from the end zone. The Falcons ... do not, and they start their average drive 74.1 yards from the end zone, which is the second-worst rate in the league. Add that up over a full season, and it amounts to about 40 points of field position.

The most likely Super Bowl matchup before Carson Wentz tore his ACL, Eagles-Patriots could still come into play if Nick Foles can hold on to the football for a couple of games. The Patriots would be a tough matchup regardless of who is under center for Philly, though. The Eagles' most significant coverage weakness is against tight ends, as they're 17th in DVOA. Tom Brady can neutralize the deep Eagles defensive line rotation by going no-huddle and up-tempo. LeGarrette Blount & Co. are 17th in rushing DVOA, which might not be enough to attack the 30th-ranked Pats' run D.

Cam Newton threw away Carolina's chances of beating the Eagles when these two teams played in Week 6, as three interceptions from the 2015 MVP set up two Eagles touchdowns. The Eagles were able to stifle the Carolina running game beyond Newton, holding Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart to 4 total yards and 12 carries, but that was without star center Ryan Kalil. Nick Foles might not be Carson Wentz, but the Eagles should be able to hit Carolina on screens, given that the Panthers have the third-worst passer rating in the league against screen passes.

If there's a flaw in the armor of this Eagles defense, it's tackling in the secondary. The Eagles allow opposing receivers to average 5.83 yards after their receptions, which is the third-highest rate in football. That's a recipe for disaster against the Rams, who are way ahead of the pack in yards after the catch. Los Angeles averaged 6.84 YAC per pass before Week 17, placing it more than a half-yard ahead of the second-place Jags. The Rams are 27th in the same category on defense, so if Nick Foles is on, there might be some big plays in this one.

The Eagles are a different pass defense when Fletcher Cox & Co. get after the opposing quarterback. Jim Schwartz's defense is allowing a passer rating of just 35.1 when it generates pressure, the second-lowest rate in football. When the Eagles don't pressure the quarterback, they are allowing a 92.7 passer rating, good for 13th. This is great news for Ben Roethlisberger, who is being pressured on a league-low 18.4 percent of his dropbacks.

Nick Foles has squared off against most of this Jacksonville defense recently, but it was in his lone start as a member of the Chiefs last season. Although Foles' final line produced a respectable passer rating of 86.3, he was dismal. It took Jaguars players colliding to keep him from throwing interceptions, and he generated just six first downs in 35 dropbacks. The last time the Jaguars faced the Eagles, though, was Week 1 of 2014. The Jags went up 17-0 at halftime but promptly allowed 34 unanswered points to Foles, who threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns.

With Andy Reid facing off against Doug Pederson, this matchup is so 1999 Eagles that Duce Staley will need to perform the ceremonial coin toss in a pop-up Wawa. As was the case in Week 2, the Chiefs will probably try to win this one via the turnover battle. The Eagles are 13-1 this season when they force at least one takeaway and 0-2 when the opposing offense holds on to the ball all game. The Chiefs are 9-2 when they force at least one takeaway and 1-4 without one, so they know the feeling.

The Titans can push around most teams with their running game, but the Eagles might be an exception. Philly stuffs opposing rushers for no gain or a loss 29 percent of the time, which is second in the league behind Cleveland. Football Outsiders also tracks success in "power" situations, which include goal-line carries and third- and fourth-down carries with 2 yards or fewer to go. Philadelphia limits teams to a 55 percent conversion rate there, which is sixth in the NFL. One weakness: the red zone, where the Titans were fifth in scoring rate and the Eagles 18th against.

If the Bills make it to the Super Bowl, they'll be excited to see a welcome sight on the other side of the field: a backup quarterback. The Bills have faced two backups so far this season, and they won both games, holding Jacoby Brissett to 69 yards on 22 pass attempts (and 10 rushing yards) and prevailing over Dolphins third-stringer David Fales in Week 17. Philadelphia's three losses have come against mobile passers Alex Smith, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott, though the Eagles shut down Prescott earlier in the season and picked off Cam Newton three times.


5 Steelers AFC North http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/five.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/bell_steelers.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/five.svg0.0

Is Antonio Brown going to be healthy enough to play? Given that Ben Roethlisberger has thrown just 140 passes over the past five years without his star receiver on the field, it's tough to say if Pittsburgh will be able to overcome his absence. Having Le'Veon Bell healthy for his second playoff run in four years will help.



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE AFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Ben Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh's star quarterback stayed healthy all season for the first time since 2014 and tied for the league lead with three fourth-quarter comeback victories.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
3
Offense
Rank
9
Defense
Rank
9
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13-3
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 0-0
Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11-5
Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Probability
Of Matchup
Steelers'
Chances To Win

It's safe to say that Jalen Ramsey & Co. aren't afraid of the Steelers after they manhandled Pittsburgh at home in Week 5, picking off Ben Roethlisberger five times in the process. Everyone will be watching Ramsey versus Antonio Brown, but watch out for Leonard Fournette in the red zone. The Steelers were a dominant red zone defense last season, but red zone defense is random from year to year, and they're allowing more points per red zone trip than any other playoff defense besides Kansas City's. The Jags, meanwhile, have the league's most productive red zone offense, averaging 5.5 points per possession.

The Steelers have lost five straight games to the Patriots, in part because their trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown has started and finished only two of those games. This just doesn't happen to the Steelers, who haven't had a five-game losing streak against a franchise since 2000 (Tennessee). Pittsburgh came within a replay review of beating the Patriots the last time in Week 15, but it is also 0-5 against Tom Brady in New England, where the AFC Championship Game between these two would occur. The Pats have won those five games by a combined score of 183-96.

Pittsburgh has the most effective blitz in the league. When the Steelers send extra pressure, they have the league's best pressure rate (51.1 percent) and second-best sack rate (a whopping 16.8 percent). One team they might be able to beat with blitzes is Kansas City. Teams have sent a league-low 125 blitzes at the Chiefs this season, likely out of their fear of covering Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce one-on-one, but Kansas City has posted a passer rating of just 73.1 against the blitz, comfortably the lowest by any playoff team.

One way to build a great passing attack with a quarterback such as Case Keenum is to create throwing lanes via play-action. The Vikings threw a league-high 152 pass attempts off play-action this season, and their QBR on those throws was a whopping 84.4, which was tops in the NFL. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen each rank in the top five in receiving yards with play-action. That might be a problem for Pittsburgh, given that the Steelers are allowing a 73.0 QBR when opposing teams execute a play-fake. No playoff defense is worse.

The Eagles are a different pass defense when Fletcher Cox & Co. get after the opposing quarterback. Jim Schwartz's defense is allowing a passer rating of just 35.1 when it generates pressure, the second-lowest rate in football. When the Eagles don't pressure the quarterback, they are allowing a 92.7 passer rating, good for 13th. This is great news for Ben Roethlisberger, who is being pressured on a league-low 18.4 percent of his dropbacks.

The Steelers' secondary is much-improved after years of transitioning from the heyday of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, but it still susceptible to big plays downfield. Pittsburgh has the league's eighth-worst DVOA on deep passes. Meanwhile, the quarterback in these playoffs who throws the ball deep most frequently is Marcus Mariota. More than 25 percent of Mariota's passes travel 15 or more yards downfield, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Ben Roethlisberger is just behind Mariota in fifth, but he might prefer shorter passes against the Titans, who have the worst DVOA in football against short throws.

Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger would combine to produce the oldest Super Bowl in league history, in terms of starting quarterback age. I wonder, though, if the Steelers' run defense might have more to do in deciding a Super Bowl between these two. Pittsburgh's run defense was the second best in football in terms of win probability added in the first half of the season, but it fell to 30th from Week 10 forward. The Saints, meanwhile, produced 1.8 wins from their rushing attack on the legs of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the third-best rate in the league.

Rams-Steelers would be a matchup of a great second-year quarterback and a quarterback who was great in his second year. Among quarterbacks who have played their sophomore seasons in the NFL since 2001, Jared Goff and Ben Roethlisberger rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in passer rating. Roethlisberger ended his second season with a Super Bowl victory, though he missed four regular-season games and posted a passer rating of just 22.6 in Pittsburgh's win over Seattle. Goff won't be upset if he traverses the same path.

The way to attack the Steelers on defense is to try to hit them for big plays downfield, as Pittsburgh ranks fifth in DVOA on passes within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage and 26th on deeper throws. Matt Ryan posted a league-best 137.5 passer rating on deep throws last season, but his passer rating in 2017 dropped to 74.7, which is 22nd in the league. Taylor Gabriel figures into the decline here; he had seven catches for 271 yards on deep throws last season but doesn't have a single deep catch on nine targets in 2017.

The Bills wouldn't see the Steelers until the AFC Championship Game, but I suspect they would much rather face another AFC rival if the Super Bowl is on the line. The defenders who are still on the roster probably still have nightmares about last December, when Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown carved up the Bills in Buffalo. The dynamic duo combined for 376 yards from scrimmage in a 27-20 win, good for their largest combined total from scrimmage in any game with Pittsburgh. Rookie corner Tre'Davious White should help some against Brown, but the Bills will have their hands full regardless.

The Mike Mitchell revenge game looms for the Steelers in a matchup of two teams that haven't played since September 2014. If you want to contextualize how long ago that was, it marked the occasion of the first and only 100-yard game by LeGarrette Blount as a member of the Steelers. I'd be worried about how the Steelers will handle Carolina's mountain of throws to running backs and tight ends without Ryan Shazier in the lineup, though we don't yet have enough data without Shazier to get a good handle on the Steelers' performance.


6 Falcons NFC South http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/six.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/jones_atl.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/six.svg0.0

The Falcons are back after last year's heartbreak, but they left their dominant offense in Houston, and the defense didn't take the leap forward everyone expected. The same core that got hot last January and nearly won a Super Bowl is still here, but can they live down 28-3?



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE NFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Matt Ryan

The 2016 MVP looked a lot like his old self this season. From 2013-2015, Ryan posted a 90.8 passer rating and a 66.1 QBR; he produced a 91.4 passer rating and a 64.2 QBR in 2017.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
9
Offense
Rank
22
Defense
Rank
19
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13-3
Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11-5
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Probability
Of Matchup
Falcons'
Chances To Win

It doesn't get much better for interior matchups than Alex Mack vs. Aaron Donald, but the Falcons will miss injured left guard Andy Levitre, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday. The Rams rank 22nd in rushing defense DVOA, and the best way to neutralize a player such as Donald can be to run right at him. Some taller receivers also have given the Rams problems in the second half, including DeAndre Hopkins (7 catches for 111 yards), Adam Thielen (6-123) and Larry Fitzgerald (10-98-1), though Los Angeles held Fitzgerald in check earlier this season and held Michael Thomas and Alshon Jeffery to fewer than 60 yards.

One factor an offense has very little control over is where its drives begin, which is determined by the work of its defense and special teams. The Eagles have an opportunistic defense and the league's sixth-highest third-and-out percentage, which is why they have the league's third-best average starting field position, an even 70 yards from the end zone. The Falcons ... do not, and they start their average drive 74.1 yards from the end zone, which is the second-worst rate in the league. Add that up over a full season, and it amounts to about 40 points of field position.

For all the concern about their offensive decline, no team in the league converted third downs more frequently than the Falcons (44.7 percent) this season. Their worst game of the season came against the Vikings, with Steve Sarkisian's unit going 1-for-10 on third down. Four of those attempts required 10 or more yards for a conversion, and the Falcons can't leave Matt Ryan in third-and-long against a pass rush as good as Minnesota's. It also would help if they bothered Case Keenum, who wasn't sacked once in 30 tries the last time these two teams played.

These two teams hardly need any introduction, having played twice in December. The matchup has been a nightmare for Devonta Freeman, who fumbled as the Falcons tried to finish their win in Week 14 and then repeated the feat on the Saints' 1-yard line in Week 16 before being stuffed on a fourth-and-goal try later. Freeman has fumbled only twice in 14 other games, so a third fumble probably isn't in the cards. If the Falcons' offensive line can't keep the Saints from sacking Matt Ryan five times again, though, a better game from Freeman won't help.

A rematch would either allow every Falcons player to sleep peacefully for the first time in a year or prevent them from sleeping ever again.

The way to attack the Steelers on defense is to try to hit them for big plays downfield, as Pittsburgh ranks fifth in DVOA on passes within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage and 26th on deeper throws. Matt Ryan posted a league-best 137.5 passer rating on deep throws last season, but his passer rating in 2017 dropped to 74.7, which is 22nd in the league. Taylor Gabriel figures into the decline here; he had seven catches for 271 yards on deep throws last season but doesn't have a single deep catch on nine targets in 2017.

We finally saw a glimpse of the 2016 Falcons' defense in their Week 17 victory over Carolina. A team that forced six takeaways in three games -- including a pick-six of Tom Brady -- intercepted Cam Newton three times, forced him to fumble twice and broke up seven pass attempts on a 14-for-34 day. The problem is that the offense looked more like the frustrating 2017 edition, as the Panthers forced the Falcons into five (successful) Matt Bryant field goal attempts. If an undersized, speedy Falcons defense can keep up against the bruising Panthers offense, it bodes well for January.

A Falcons-Jaguars Super Bowl might come down to a question of which Jacksonville team shows up. The Jaguars have been better than the Falcons this season, but consistency has been a weakness. Only the Rams exhibited more week-to-week variance in DVOA than the Jaguars, who lost to the Jets and beat the Steelers by 21 points a week later. On the other hand, while Atlanta's season has been relatively disappointing by 2016 standards, the Falcons have shown the least variance from week to week. Is consistently average better than occasionally great? Is that a metaphor for the 2017 season?

The Falcons became Kansas City South for a stretch of time under former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, but the only prominent Chiefs player left on the roster is defensive lineman Dontari Poe. The Falcons have the sort of up-the-middle athletes who can run with Travis Kelce in Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, but they're 26th in DVOA against short passes, which suggests that Alex Smith would be able to dink-and-dunk if he's so inclined. On the other hand, having two superb receivers means the Falcons will always have a mismatch with Julio Jones or Mohamed Sanu against Not Marcus Peters at cornerback.

One thing the classic "eye test" fails to capture in watching tape is the quality of opponents over the course of a 16-game season. Strength of schedule impacted these two teams greatly. The Falcons followed their Super Bowl season by facing the league's fourth-toughest schedule by DVOA, the most difficult slate of any playoff qualifier. The Titans, on the other hand, faced the league's third-weakest set of opponents. Only the Jags had an easier time this season, and that was because they faced the Titans (and vice versa).

It's hard to lose a game in more frustrating fashion than how Atlanta lost to Buffalo in Week 4. The Falcons held the Bills to one offensive touchdown and racked up nearly 400 yards of offense, but everything else went wrong. Stephen Hauschka hit two field goals from more than 55 yards out. Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu got hurt. Matt Ryan threw two picks, including an interception off backup wideout Nick Williams' hands with Atlanta in game-tying field goal range. A third Atlanta fumble resulted in a Bills touchdown. Give the Bills' D credit, but it's tough to win that way twice.


7 Rams NFC West http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/seven.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/gurley_rams.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/seven.svg0.0

The most stunning playoff crasher in a decade, the Rams are the model for what every struggling team wants to do this offseason. Sean McVay's team has a total of three starters with playoff experience, though, so how will they deal with the pressure of the postseason?



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE NFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Jared Goff

Goff gets less credit from QBR than he does from traditional passer rating by virtue of the work done by his receivers, who led the league in yards after catch in 2017.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
6
Offense
Rank
6
Defense
Rank
2
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13-3
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11 - 5
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Probability
Of Matchup
Rams'
Chances To Win

It doesn't get much better for interior matchups than Alex Mack vs. Aaron Donald, but the Falcons will miss injured left guard Andy Levitre, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday. The Rams rank 22nd in rushing defense DVOA, and the best way to neutralize a player such as Donald can be to run right at him. Some taller receivers also have given the Rams problems in the second half, including DeAndre Hopkins (7 catches for 111 yards), Adam Thielen (6-123) and Larry Fitzgerald (10-98-1), though Los Angeles held Fitzgerald in check earlier this season and held Michael Thomas and Alshon Jeffery to fewer than 60 yards.

While the Vikings' defense rightfully came in for plaudits after holding the Rams to a lone touchdown in a 24-7 victory in November, the offense might have deserved more of the credit. For one, a Cooper Kupp fumble near the goal line cost the Rams a likely touchdown. Case Keenum & Co., meanwhile, averaged 6.2 yards per play, generated 27 first downs and produced four drives of 11 or more plays. Only the Eagles produced more first downs against the Rams this season, and it took them 12 additional plays to make it to 29.

If there's a flaw in the armor of this Eagles defense, it's tackling in the secondary. The Eagles allow opposing receivers to average 5.83 yards after their receptions, which is the third-highest rate in football. That's a recipe for disaster against the Rams, who are way ahead of the pack in yards after the catch. Los Angeles averaged 6.84 YAC per pass before Week 17, placing it more than a half-yard ahead of the second-place Jags. The Rams are 27th in the same category on defense, so if Nick Foles is on, there might be some big plays in this one.

The Rams prevailed in a 26-20 victory over the Saints earlier this season, but I'm not sure I'd count it as canon. Dennis Allen's defense was without its top two cornerbacks, as Ken Crawley and rookie star Marshon Lattimore were injured. The Rams were without their top wide receiver, Robert Woods. They also had star kicker Greg Zuerlein in the fold, and Zuerlein's only miss in five tries was from 63 yards.

Bill Belichick's most famous defensive game plan saw him batter Marshall Faulk during Super Bowl XXXVI. He might try to give Todd Gurley the same treatment, but it won't be as easy. The 2001 Pats were not a great run defense, ranking 28th in rushing defense DVOA, but they were about league average in terms of allowing running backs to catch passes. This year's bunch is 30th in run defense DVOA and 22nd against running backs in the passing game. Only Tennessee and Cincinnati allow more receiving yards to running backs than the 54.2 yards per game permitted by New England.

Rams-Steelers would be a matchup of a great second-year quarterback and a quarterback who was great in his second year. Among quarterbacks who have played their sophomore seasons in the NFL since 2001, Jared Goff and Ben Roethlisberger rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in passer rating. Roethlisberger ended his second season with a Super Bowl victory, though he missed four regular-season games and posted a passer rating of just 22.6 in Pittsburgh's win over Seattle. Goff won't be upset if he traverses the same path.

Cam Newton might still have nightmares about facing Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in the Super Bowl two years ago. In that game, Phillips was able to use his superstar edge rushers to keep Newton in the pocket. This time, the linchpin of Phillips' defense is interior disruptor Aaron Donald, who might be too fast for the read-option and play-action pass concepts on which Newton thrives. The Rams have allowed an average of just 3.0 yards against the read-option this season, second best in the league, and they had the league's seventh-highest pressure rate on play-action attempts before they rested their starters in Week 17.

The way to slow down Jared Goff is with pressure. His worst games of the season by passer rating came against Washington (which has the league's highest pressure rate), a full-strength Seahawks team in Week 5, sack champ Chandler Jones and the Cardinals, and the devastating Vikings pass rush after L.A.'s bye. The former first overall pick posted the best third-down passer rating (106.9) of any quarterback in this playoff field. It's a good thing the Jags have the league's second-highest pressure rate and have allowed the third-lowest passer rating (67.5) on third downs this season, huh?

Todd Gurley's success this season has come as a modern back, capable of impacting the game on all downs as both a runner and receiver. Against the Chiefs, he might look more like a traditional halfback. Kansas City has the worst run defense DVOA in football, but it also has the league's fourth-best DVOA on throws to running backs and allows the fourth-fewest receiving yards per game to backs (32.5). The Rams are better but have roughly similar strengths and weaknesses, so the same could be true for Kareem Hunt on the other side of the field.

If you bet on a Rams-Bills Super Bowl before the season began, you should be the one writing this preview because you can see the future.

The Titans hung in against the Rams in Week 16 by recovering two of three fumbles, one of which turned into a defensive touchdown when Jurrell Casey perfectly jumped the snap count. The Titans also benefited from the largesse of replacement kicker Sam Ficken, who missed an extra point and a 36-yard field goal in his debut with the Rams. After the Rams went up 27-23 in the fourth quarter, though, Tennessee's offense couldn't answer, racking up a total of four first downs across three possessions. The score wasn't reflective of the gap between the two teams.


8 Jaguars AFC South http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/eight.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/ramsey_jags.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/eight.svg0.0

The Jaguars finally made their breakthrough with the league's best defense. It also was its healthiest, as Jacksonville's top 13 defenders missed just three games because of injury. The question mark is Blake Bortles, who followed his best three-game stretch as a pro with five total picks in Weeks 16 and 17.



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE AFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Blake Bortles

Bortles, likely playing for his Jacksonville future during the playoffs, posted the best interception rate and Total QBR of his four-year career in 2017.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
16
Offense
Rank
1
Defense
Rank
24
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Patriots
FPI rank: 32
Record: 13-3
Chiefs
FPI rank: 1
Record: 10-6
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13-3
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11-5
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Probability
Of Matchup
Jaguars'
Chances To Win

Both these teams want to win by running the ball and creating takeaways on defense, which actually plays more toward Buffalo's strengths than Jacksonville's. Even after taking on Marcell Dareus from the Bills in a salary dump, the Jags finished the year 26th in run defense DVOA. It would help to have LeSean McCoy around, of course, but he's questionable with an ankle injury. The Bills also finished the season tied for sixth with 18 interceptions, and even in Blake Bortles' best season, his 2.5 percent interception rate was worse than league average. No quarterback in the league threw interceptions less frequently than Tyrod Taylor.

It's safe to say that Jalen Ramsey & Co. aren't afraid of the Steelers after they manhandled Pittsburgh at home in Week 5, picking off Ben Roethlisberger five times in the process. Everyone will be watching Ramsey versus Antonio Brown, but watch out for Leonard Fournette in the red zone. The Steelers were a dominant red zone defense last season, but red zone defense is random from year to year, and they're allowing more points per red zone trip than any other playoff defense besides Kansas City's. The Jags, meanwhile, have the league's most productive red zone offense, averaging 5.5 points per possession.

If any quarterback truly doesn't care about a pass rush, it's Tom Brady. The future Hall of Famer posted a scarcely believable passer rating of 109.1 when pressured this season. Carson Wentz ranked second but was more than 17 points behind Brady. Brady was also the only quarterback to post a better passer rating when pressured than when unpressured, as he got up to only 101.1 with a clean pocket. Opposing defenses have bothered Brady in past Super Bowls with interior pass pressure, so Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson could play a bigger role than Jacksonville's edge rushers in this matchup.

This could be the Leonard Fournette show. Although the Chiefs' struggles at cornerback across from Marcus Peters have drawn the most attention, it's their league-worst run defense (by DVOA) that has been the most concerning problem this season. Only the Bills have allowed more runs of 10 or more yards than the 62 Bob Sutton's team has allowed. Meanwhile, Alex Smith should be able to starve the Jags of precious takeaways, but I'd be nervous about him throwing downfield versus the league's best pass defense against deep passes. It might be that neither team gets to 10 possessions in this one.

Think about the poor quarterbacks! The record for sacks in a single Super Bowl is 12, set all the way back in February 2016, when the Broncos and Panthers combined for a dozen. A Vikings-Jags matchup could threaten that record. Both Blake Bortles and Case Keenum have posted excellent sack rates this season, but neither has had to go up against an opposing pass rush this good -- besides in practice. Jerick McKinnon might give the Vikings an advantage by virtue of serving as the best dumpoff and screen option between these two teams.

Nick Foles has squared off against most of this Jacksonville defense recently, but it was in his lone start as a member of the Chiefs last season. Although Foles' final line produced a respectable passer rating of 86.3, he was dismal. It took Jaguars players colliding to keep him from throwing interceptions, and he generated just six first downs in 35 dropbacks. The last time the Jaguars faced the Eagles, though, was Week 1 of 2014. The Jags went up 17-0 at halftime but promptly allowed 34 unanswered points to Foles, who threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns.

Most teams struggle to bother Drew Brees, given that the future Hall of Famer has one of the league's best offensive lines and one of the quickest releases of his generation. If opponents do get after the Saints' starter, though, Brees doesn't do well. The soon-to-be 39-year-old posted a passer rating of just 42.0 under pressure this season, the lowest rate by far of any quarterback in this playoff field. Consequently, Brees has the highest passer rating of any passer when left to his devices under center. Guess what the Jags will need to do to win?

The Jaguars were swept by Tennessee this season, but the vast majority of evidence available suggests that the Jags are the superior team. Even including a 26-point deficit in two losses to Tennessee, Doug Marrone's team outscored its opponents by 149 points, posted 11.7 Pythagorean wins and finished eighth in DVOA. Marcus Mariota & Co. were outscored by 22 points in the campaign, which was good for 7.4 Pythagorean wins and an 18th DVOA finish. Both teams played easy schedules, but the Jaguars posted a dominant win over the Steelers. The only playoff team Tennessee beat was Jacksonville.

The way to slow down Jared Goff is with pressure. His worst games of the season by passer rating came against Washington (which has the league's highest pressure rate), a full-strength Seahawks team in Week 5, sack champ Chandler Jones and the Cardinals, and the devastating Vikings pass rush after L.A.'s bye. The former first overall pick posted the best third-down passer rating (106.9) of any quarterback in this playoff field. It's a good thing the Jags have the league's second-highest pressure rate and have allowed the third-lowest passer rating (67.5) on third downs this season, huh?

A Falcons-Jaguars Super Bowl might come down to a question of which Jacksonville team shows up. The Jaguars have been better than the Falcons this season, but consistency has been a weakness. Only the Rams exhibited more week-to-week variance in DVOA than the Jaguars, who lost to the Jets and beat the Steelers by 21 points a week later. On the other hand, while Atlanta's season has been relatively disappointing by 2016 standards, the Falcons have shown the least variance from week to week. Is consistently average better than occasionally great? Is that a metaphor for the 2017 season?

The 1995 Expansion Bowl would feature two teams that are as run-oriented as teams from that era. The matchup might favor Carolina, given that the Jags rank 26th in DVOA against the run. If the Panthers fall behind, though, they might not be able to catch up. In addition to a devastating pass rush, the Jaguars have the league's best DVOA against deep throws and have allowed just one running back to top 60 receiving yards this season, which could limit Christian McCaffrey's effectiveness.


9 Panthers NFC South http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/nine.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/cam_panthers.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/nine.svg0.0

A 7-1 record in games decided by one score or less pushed the Panthers back into the playoffs, but which team will show up? Will it be the one that ran all over the Vikings and beat the Patriots, or the one that needed comebacks to beat the Buccaneers and Jets?



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE NFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Cam Newton

Newton struggled early in the season, which was chalked up to his recovery from shoulder surgery, but then he posted a 73.1 passer rating in December. He had four games with a passer rating of more than 120. Which Cam will show up?

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
17
Offense
Rank
7
Defense
Rank
6
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11-5
Eagles
FPI rank: 32
Record: 13-3
Vikings
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 0-0
Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Probability
Of Matchup
Panthers'
Chances To Win

Sean Payton's team has beaten the Panthers twice in 2017, so a playoff rematch would invoke the old adage of how it's difficult to beat a team three times in one season. History suggests the Saints need not worry. Since 1990, teams that have beaten an opponent twice during the regular season have gone 11-5 against those same opponents when they play for a third time in the postseason. Familiarity and losing both breed contempt, but it doesn't matter much if you're familiar with only the back of Alvin Kamara's jersey.

Cam Newton threw away Carolina's chances of beating the Eagles when these two teams played in Week 6, as three interceptions from the 2015 MVP set up two Eagles touchdowns. The Eagles were able to stifle the Carolina running game beyond Newton, holding Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart to 4 total yards and 12 carries, but that was without star center Ryan Kalil. Nick Foles might not be Carson Wentz, but the Eagles should be able to hit Carolina on screens, given that the Panthers have the third-worst passer rating in the league against screen passes.

Carolina won the matchup between these two in Week 14 by breaking the Case Keenum formula. He had thrown five interceptions and taken just nine sacks in his first 11 games with the Vikings, but the Panthers picked off Keenum twice and sacked him six times in their 31-24 victory. The Vikings also were missing a pair of starters in standout rookie center Pat Elflein and right tackle Mike Remmers that day.

The Panthers beat New England in Week 4, back when the Patriots' defense was still routinely allowing receivers unsupervised tours of Gillette Stadium. Things have changed. The New England pass defense allowed eight plays of 35 or more yards in the first four games, including two to Carolina. The Patriots have allowed just 11 such plays in the 12 ensuing contests. Carolina might still look good, though, given that the Patriots are 30th in rushing defense DVOA and allow the third-most receiving yards per game to running backs.

Cam Newton might still have nightmares about facing Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in the Super Bowl two years ago. In that game, Phillips was able to use his superstar edge rushers to keep Newton in the pocket. This time, the linchpin of Phillips' defense is interior disruptor Aaron Donald, who might be too fast for the read-option and play-action pass concepts on which Newton thrives. The Rams have allowed an average of just 3.0 yards against the read-option this season, second best in the league, and they had the league's seventh-highest pressure rate on play-action attempts before they rested their starters in Week 17.

We finally saw a glimpse of the 2016 Falcons' defense in their Week 17 victory over Carolina. A team that forced six takeaways in three games -- including a pick-six of Tom Brady -- intercepted Cam Newton three times, forced him to fumble twice and broke up seven pass attempts on a 14-for-34 day. The problem is that the offense looked more like the frustrating 2017 edition, as the Panthers forced the Falcons into five (successful) Matt Bryant field goal attempts. If an undersized, speedy Falcons defense can keep up against the bruising Panthers offense, it bodes well for January.

The Mike Mitchell revenge game looms for the Steelers in a matchup of two teams that haven't played since September 2014. If you want to contextualize how long ago that was, it marked the occasion of the first and only 100-yard game by LeGarrette Blount as a member of the Steelers. I'd be worried about how the Steelers will handle Carolina's mountain of throws to running backs and tight ends without Ryan Shazier in the lineup, though we don't yet have enough data without Shazier to get a good handle on the Steelers' performance.

The 1995 Expansion Bowl would feature two teams that are as run-oriented as teams from that era. The matchup might favor Carolina, given that the Jags rank 26th in DVOA against the run. If the Panthers fall behind, though, they might not be able to catch up. In addition to a devastating pass rush, the Jaguars have the league's best DVOA against deep throws and have allowed just one running back to top 60 receiving yards this season, which could limit Christian McCaffrey's effectiveness.

In the Kelvin Benjamin Revenge Game, it's fair to wonder whether the Bills would struggle with the height Carolina offers at receiver. Devin Funchess is 6-foot-5, and he's likely to go up against Tre'Davious White or E.J. Gaines, each of whom is 5-foot-11. Funchess had 68 yards (and Benjamin 77 yards as a Panthers receiver) the first time these teams played, and other tall receivers have given Buffalo fits. A.J. Green racked up 189 yards and a TD. Other big games were had by Michael Thomas (117 yards), Demaryius Thomas (98), DeVante Parker (89) and Mike Evans (88).

The Chiefs' passing offense wouldn't want to face a healthy Panthers defense, specifically because Carolina does a great job of taking away tight ends. Luke Kuechly & Co. rank fourth in DVOA against tight ends, allowing an average of 36.3 receiving yards per game, the second fewest in the NFL. On the other hand, the Chiefs have the fourth-best DVOA on throws to running backs, which suggests Christian McCaffrey is more likely to make his mark against the league's second-worst run defense. The Panthers probably need someone to win at wide receiver besides Devin Funchess, given the hole across from Marcus Peters.

A Panthers-Titans Super Bowl would certainly be a genteel affair. Carolina (83) and Tennessee (85) are the two least-penalized teams (in terms of accepted penalties) in football. Carolina leads the league in fewest penalty yards, but Tennessee has done a much better job of agitating the other guys. The Titans' opponents have been flagged for 113 penalties, and the resulting plus-34 margin is comfortably the largest in the league. However, the Titans are the worst team in football in defending throws to running backs, as we saw when they paid tribute to Todd Gurley's MVP case in Week 16.


10 Chiefs AFC West http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/ten.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/peters_chiefs.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/ten.svg0.0

The Chiefs weathered a 1-6 stretch in midseason to win the AFC West, and with regular-season wins over both top seeds, they can beat anyone on their day. Can they overcome an aging, ineffective defense -- and the playoff ghosts of years past -- to finally make it back to the Super Bowl?



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE AFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Alex Smith

Smith responded to critics by dramatically improving as a deep passer in 2017; he led the league in passer rating on throws 16-plus yards downfield this season (133.5).

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
4
Offense
Rank
30
Defense
Rank
4
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13-3
Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 0-0
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Probability
Of Matchup
Chiefs'
Chances To Win

After what Todd Gurley did to them in Week 16, the Titans should be terrified of facing Kareem Hunt this weekend. Tennessee finished last in the league in both DVOA and passing yardage allowed to running backs. It is also 22nd in the league in trying to defend screen passes, as the Titans are allowing a passer rating of 107.3. With the league's worst run defense by DVOA, though, the Chiefs also might want to be terrified of Derrick Henry. Only the Lions and Bills allowed teams to run for first downs more frequently than the Chiefs (25.3 percent).

You aren't beating Tom Brady in the playoffs without pass pressure. In Kansas City's two regular-season victories over New England under Andy Reid, the Chiefs have sacked Brady on 8.2 percent of his dropbacks. When the Chiefs lost to the Patriots in the divisional round two years ago, though, they failed to sack Brady once in 42 tries and pressured him on a mere 9.3 percent of dropbacks, the third-worst rate in any Patriots playoff game since 2008. The 2017 Chiefs, unfortunately for K.C. fans, have posted the league's sixth-worst sack rate since that win to kick off the regular season.

Pittsburgh has the most effective blitz in the league. When the Steelers send extra pressure, they have the league's best pressure rate (51.1 percent) and second-best sack rate (a whopping 16.8 percent). One team they might be able to beat with blitzes is Kansas City. Teams have sent a league-low 125 blitzes at the Chiefs this season, likely out of their fear of covering Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce one-on-one, but Kansas City has posted a passer rating of just 73.1 against the blitz, comfortably the lowest by any playoff team.

This could be the Leonard Fournette show. Although the Chiefs' struggles at cornerback across from Marcus Peters have drawn the most attention, it's their league-worst run defense (by DVOA) that has been the most concerning problem this season. Only the Bills have allowed more runs of 10 or more yards than the 62 Bob Sutton's team has allowed. Meanwhile, Alex Smith should be able to starve the Jags of precious takeaways, but I'd be nervous about him throwing downfield versus the league's best pass defense against deep passes. It might be that neither team gets to 10 possessions in this one.

With Andy Reid facing off against Doug Pederson, this matchup is so 1999 Eagles that Duce Staley will need to perform the ceremonial coin toss in a pop-up Wawa. As was the case in Week 2, the Chiefs will probably try to win this one via the turnover battle. The Eagles are 13-1 this season when they force at least one takeaway and 0-2 when the opposing offense holds on to the ball all game. The Chiefs are 9-2 when they force at least one takeaway and 1-4 without one, so they know the feeling.

The Chiefs' only Super Bowl victory came at the expense of the Vikings, who turned the ball over five times in Super Bowl IV. Minnesota will hope to exact some revenge 48 years later by dominating the turnover battle. Mike Zimmer's team is 8-0 when it doesn't turn the ball over and 11-1 when it has one or no giveaways; on the other side of the ball, the Vikings are 9-1 when they force at least one turnover and just 4-2 without. It could be a problem, then, that the Chiefs have the lowest turnovers-per-possession rate (6.3 percent) in the league.

A Saints-Chiefs Super Bowl would deliver a tantalizing matchup along the line of scrimmage. On one side: Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who is having the best season of his career with 13 sacks and a league-high (for defensive linemen) 11 pass deflections. Eleven of his 13 sacks have come from the left defensive end spot, where he would line up against the best right tackle in the AFC, Kansas City's Mitchell Schwartz. Justin Houston vs. Ryan Ramczyk isn't far off from that matchup, either. Marcus Peters vs. Michael Thomas! Marshon Lattimore vs. Tyreek Hill! This would be fun.

The Bills absolutely shut down the Kansas City running game in Week 12 to seal a 16-10 upset victory. Kareem Hunt mustered a season-low 17 yards on 11 carries, and none of the Chiefs' receivers topped 41 yards. Alex Smith & Co. went 2-of-13 on third down before the Bills got a late Tre'Davious White interception to seal the game, and even that took a preposterous call from the officials to push the Chiefs onto Buffalo's side of the field. If the Bills play defense like that again, it is going to give any team fits.

Todd Gurley's success this season has come as a modern back, capable of impacting the game on all downs as both a runner and receiver. Against the Chiefs, he might look more like a traditional halfback. Kansas City has the worst run defense DVOA in football, but it also has the league's fourth-best DVOA on throws to running backs and allows the fourth-fewest receiving yards per game to backs (32.5). The Rams are better but have roughly similar strengths and weaknesses, so the same could be true for Kareem Hunt on the other side of the field.

The Falcons became Kansas City South for a stretch of time under former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, but the only prominent Chiefs player left on the roster is defensive lineman Dontari Poe. The Falcons have the sort of up-the-middle athletes who can run with Travis Kelce in Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, but they're 26th in DVOA against short passes, which suggests that Alex Smith would be able to dink-and-dunk if he's so inclined. On the other hand, having two superb receivers means the Falcons will always have a mismatch with Julio Jones or Mohamed Sanu against Not Marcus Peters at cornerback.

The Chiefs' passing offense wouldn't want to face a healthy Panthers defense, specifically because Carolina does a great job of taking away tight ends. Luke Kuechly & Co. rank fourth in DVOA against tight ends, allowing an average of 36.3 receiving yards per game, the second fewest in the NFL. On the other hand, the Chiefs have the fourth-best DVOA on throws to running backs, which suggests Christian McCaffrey is more likely to make his mark against the league's second-worst run defense. The Panthers probably need someone to win at wide receiver besides Devin Funchess, given the hole across from Marcus Peters.


11 Titans AFC South http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/eleven.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/casey_titans.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/eleven.svg0.0

Last year, 9-7 was seen as an exciting step forward for Tennessee. This year, it's a borderline fireable offense. The Titans have limped into the playoffs and were outscored by their opposition, but the 2012 Ravens lost four of their final five games and promptly won the Super Bowl. Anything is possible once you're in.



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE AFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Marcus Mariota

Mariota took a major step backward in 2017, posting the worst yards per attempt, interception rate, passer rating and Total QBR of his three-year career.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
18
Offense
Rank
21
Defense
Rank
13
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13-3
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Falcons
FPI rank: 32
Record: 10-6
Bills
FPI rank: 12
Record: 9-7
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11-5
Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Probability
Of Matchup
Titans'
Chances To Win

After what Todd Gurley did to them in Week 16, the Titans should be terrified of facing Kareem Hunt this weekend. Tennessee finished last in the league in both DVOA and passing yardage allowed to running backs. It is also 22nd in the league in trying to defend screen passes, as the Titans are allowing a passer rating of 107.3. With the league's worst run defense by DVOA, though, the Chiefs also might want to be terrified of Derrick Henry. Only the Lions and Bills allowed teams to run for first downs more frequently than the Chiefs (25.3 percent).

Most teams can't stay in the game long enough to exploit the Patriots' run defense, but it's a serious problem. The Patriots rank 30th in rushing defense DVOA while allowing a league-high 2.95 yards before first contact on rushing plays. Tennessee's offensive line has taken a step backward after a dominant 2016 season, though. After ranking fifth in the category last season, the Titans are 16th in yards before first contact in 2017. They're better off with Derrick Henry, who averages 2.53 yards after contact, compared to DeMarco Murray's 1.41. Henry is third among 47 backs in that stat, and Murray, who didn't play against the Chiefs, is 45th.

The Steelers' secondary is much-improved after years of transitioning from the heyday of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, but it still susceptible to big plays downfield. Pittsburgh has the league's eighth-worst DVOA on deep passes. Meanwhile, the quarterback in these playoffs who throws the ball deep most frequently is Marcus Mariota. More than 25 percent of Mariota's passes travel 15 or more yards downfield, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Ben Roethlisberger is just behind Mariota in fifth, but he might prefer shorter passes against the Titans, who have the worst DVOA in football against short throws.

The Jaguars were swept by Tennessee this season, but the vast majority of evidence available suggests that the Jags are the superior team. Even including a 26-point deficit in two losses to Tennessee, Doug Marrone's team outscored its opponents by 149 points, posted 11.7 Pythagorean wins and finished eighth in DVOA. Marcus Mariota & Co. were outscored by 22 points in the campaign, which was good for 7.4 Pythagorean wins and an 18th DVOA finish. Both teams played easy schedules, but the Jaguars posted a dominant win over the Steelers. The only playoff team Tennessee beat was Jacksonville.

The Vikings and Titans played in Week 1 of the 2016 season. Shaun Hill handed off to Adrian Peterson and Matt Asiata. Tajae Sharpe and Andre Johnson were the leading wideouts for the Titans. That game feels like an eternity ago. The modern Titans might not match up well with the Vikings, given that they rank third in DVOA against deep passes and dead last against short throws. Case Keenum ranks fourth in QBR and fifth in passer rating on those pass types. The Vikings also have the league's fifth-best run defense, so expect a lot of third-and-longs for Marcus Mariota.

The Titans can push around most teams with their running game, but the Eagles might be an exception. Philly stuffs opposing rushers for no gain or a loss 29 percent of the time, which is second in the league behind Cleveland. Football Outsiders also tracks success in "power" situations, which include goal-line carries and third- and fourth-down carries with 2 yards or fewer to go. Philadelphia limits teams to a 55 percent conversion rate there, which is sixth in the NFL. One weakness: the red zone, where the Titans were fifth in scoring rate and the Eagles 18th against.

One thing the classic "eye test" fails to capture in watching tape is the quality of opponents over the course of a 16-game season. Strength of schedule impacted these two teams greatly. The Falcons followed their Super Bowl season by facing the league's fourth-toughest schedule by DVOA, the most difficult slate of any playoff qualifier. The Titans, on the other hand, faced the league's third-weakest set of opponents. Only the Jags had an easier time this season, and that was because they faced the Titans (and vice versa).

The Bills' margin for error on offense is such that they can't afford to turn the ball over if they want to win. In 2017, Sean McDermott's team is 6-2 when it doesn't turn the ball over and 3-5 otherwise. The Bills will obviously want to play teams who don't force many takeaways, and in the AFC, the team with the lowest takeaway rate is the Titans. Tennessee recorded just three turnovers in six weeks before finishing the season with four takeaways in a Week 17 win over Jacksonville. The Titans are 1-4 when they haven't forced a takeaway. In Tyrod we trust ...

A Panthers-Titans Super Bowl would certainly be a genteel affair. Carolina (83) and Tennessee (85) are the two least-penalized teams (in terms of accepted penalties) in football. Carolina leads the league in fewest penalty yards, but Tennessee has done a much better job of agitating the other guys. The Titans' opponents have been flagged for 113 penalties, and the resulting plus-34 margin is comfortably the largest in the league. However, the Titans are the worst team in football in defending throws to running backs, as we saw when they paid tribute to Todd Gurley's MVP case in Week 16.

No team in the league is more productive on screen passes than the Saints, who have generated 29 first downs on screens this season. No other team has topped 21. The Titans, meanwhile, are allowing opposing passers to post a 107.3 mark on screen passes this season, the second-worst rate by any team in the playoff field. Tennessee's league-worst performance on throws to running backs doesn't bode well against a team with Alvin Kamara in the backfield. The Saints do have the league's 23rd-ranked rushing defense in DVOA, though, so the Titans might be able to control the ball on the ground.

The Titans hung in against the Rams in Week 16 by recovering two of three fumbles, one of which turned into a defensive touchdown when Jurrell Casey perfectly jumped the snap count. The Titans also benefited from the largesse of replacement kicker Sam Ficken, who missed an extra point and a 36-yard field goal in his debut with the Rams. After the Rams went up 27-23 in the fourth quarter, though, Tennessee's offense couldn't answer, racking up a total of four first downs across three possessions. The score wasn't reflective of the gap between the two teams.


12 Bills AFC East http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/twelve.svg0.0 http://www.espn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflplayoffpreview/images/full-body/taylor_bills.png0.0 http://a.espncdn.com/prod/styles/pagetype/otl/20180103_nflPlayoffPreview/svg/team/twelve.svg0.0

The feel-good favorite, Buffalo is in the postseason for the first time since 1999 despite dumping salary and benching Tyrod Taylor in midseason. If you believe in the old playoff adage of winning by playing great defense and running the ball, well, the Bills might be built to win in January.



FPI Projection To ...


0% 0% 0% 0% MAKE DIVISIONAL ROUND ROUND MAKE AFC TITLE GAME TITLE GAME MAKE SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL WIN SUPER BOWL SUPER BOWL ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



QBR Story: Tyrod Taylor

Taylor has his critics in Buffalo, but his ability to avoid giveaways and move the football with his feet consistently makes him a QBR favorite. His 53.1 mark from 2017 ranked ahead of Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins.

NFL AVG: 51 NFL AVG: 51 --------- 0 0


Unit by unit DVOA
?


OFFENSE RANK 0 0 0 DEFENSE RANK SPECIAL TEAM RANK
26
Offense
Rank
15
Defense
Rank
10
Special
Team Rank



Your guide to every potential matchup


Jaguars
FPI rank: 8
Record: 10-6
Patriots
FPI rank: 1
Record: 13-3
Steelers
FPI rank: 5
Record: 13-3
Chiefs
FPI rank: 10
Record: 10-6
Titans
FPI rank: 11
Record: 9-7
Vikings
FPI rank: 2
Record: 13-3
Saints
FPI rank: 3
Record: 11-5
Eagles
FPI rank: 4
Record: 13-3
Panthers
FPI rank: 9
Record: 11-5
Falcons
FPI rank: 6
Record: 10-6
Rams
FPI rank: 7
Record: 11-5
Probability
Of Matchup
Bills'
Chances To win

Both these teams want to win by running the ball and creating takeaways on defense, which actually plays more toward Buffalo's strengths than Jacksonville's. Even after taking on Marcell Dareus from the Bills in a salary dump, the Jags finished the year 26th in run defense DVOA. It would help to have LeSean McCoy around, of course, but he's questionable with an ankle injury. The Bills also finished the season tied for sixth with 18 interceptions, and even in Blake Bortles' best season, his 2.5 percent interception rate was worse than league average. No quarterback in the league threw interceptions less frequently than Tyrod Taylor.

Bills fans want to see their team win a Super Bowl, but if they're going to lose in the postseason, I suspect they would be happier about losing to anyone other than Tom Brady. The Bills have lost their past 12 games to the future Hall of Famer, excluding a meaningless game Brady left halfway through in Week 17 of 2014. Brady is also 14-0 at home against the Bills excluding that game, having beaten nine Buffalo starters in that period. There is no better time to break the curse of Drew Bledsoe than now!

The Bills wouldn't see the Steelers until the AFC Championship Game, but I suspect they would much rather face another AFC rival if the Super Bowl is on the line. The defenders who are still on the roster probably still have nightmares about last December, when Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown carved up the Bills in Buffalo. The dynamic duo combined for 376 yards from scrimmage in a 27-20 win, good for their largest combined total from scrimmage in any game with Pittsburgh. Rookie corner Tre'Davious White should help some against Brown, but the Bills will have their hands full regardless.

The Bills absolutely shut down the Kansas City running game in Week 12 to seal a 16-10 upset victory. Kareem Hunt mustered a season-low 17 yards on 11 carries, and none of the Chiefs' receivers topped 41 yards. Alex Smith & Co. went 2-of-13 on third down before the Bills got a late Tre'Davious White interception to seal the game, and even that took a preposterous call from the officials to push the Chiefs onto Buffalo's side of the field. If the Bills play defense like that again, it is going to give any team fits.

The Bills' margin for error on offense is such that they can't afford to turn the ball over if they want to win. In 2017, Sean McDermott's team is 6-2 when it doesn't turn the ball over and 3-5 otherwise. The Bills will obviously want to play teams who don't force many takeaways, and in the AFC, the team with the lowest takeaway rate is the Titans. Tennessee recorded just three turnovers in six weeks before finishing the season with four takeaways in a Week 17 win over Jacksonville. The Titans are 1-4 when they haven't forced a takeaway. In Tyrod we trust ...

The Bills' offense thrives on creating big running plays. Over the past three years, Buffalo has a league-leading 22 runs of 30 yards or more, including 11 from LeSean McCoy. The problem with that against the Vikings is Harrison Smith, who leads a defense that doesn't give up big plays. The Vikings have given up only six such runs over the same time frame, which is tied for 30th with the Patriots. They allowed two this season and both were in the same game, when Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart each busted off 60-plus-yard runs in Week 14.

The Saints have made drastic strides on defense this season, but they still struggle to contain opposing quarterbacks in the running game. New Orleans has allowed opposing signal-callers to average 6.4 yards per rushing attempt this season, the highest rate in football. Among playoff teams, only the Falcons allowed more rushing yards to quarterbacks than the Saints. Much of that is the effect of playing Cam Newton twice a season, but Taylor is the only quarterback in the league who comes close to Newton's rushing totals over the past three seasons, with 174 fewer yards on 78 fewer attempts.

If the Bills make it to the Super Bowl, they'll be excited to see a welcome sight on the other side of the field: a backup quarterback. The Bills have faced two backups so far this season, and they won both games, holding Jacoby Brissett to 69 yards on 22 pass attempts (and 10 rushing yards) and prevailing over Dolphins third-stringer David Fales in Week 17. Philadelphia's three losses have come against mobile passers Alex Smith, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott, though the Eagles shut down Prescott earlier in the season and picked off Cam Newton three times.

In the Kelvin Benjamin Revenge Game, it's fair to wonder whether the Bills would struggle with the height Carolina offers at receiver. Devin Funchess is 6-foot-5, and he's likely to go up against Tre'Davious White or E.J. Gaines, each of whom is 5-foot-11. Funchess had 68 yards (and Benjamin 77 yards as a Panthers receiver) the first time these teams played, and other tall receivers have given Buffalo fits. A.J. Green racked up 189 yards and a TD. Other big games were had by Michael Thomas (117 yards), Demaryius Thomas (98), DeVante Parker (89) and Mike Evans (88).

It's hard to lose a game in more frustrating fashion than how Atlanta lost to Buffalo in Week 4. The Falcons held the Bills to one offensive touchdown and racked up nearly 400 yards of offense, but everything else went wrong. Stephen Hauschka hit two field goals from more than 55 yards out. Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu got hurt. Matt Ryan threw two picks, including an interception off backup wideout Nick Williams' hands with Atlanta in game-tying field goal range. A third Atlanta fumble resulted in a Bills touchdown. Give the Bills' D credit, but it's tough to win that way twice.

If you bet on a Rams-Bills Super Bowl before the season began, you should be the one writing this preview because you can see the future.


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