With the 2019 NFL playoffs upon us, you already know a little bit about the NFL's 12 remaining teams. Let's go a little further and try to offer up some additional insight into the remaining contenders as part of my preview.
How are they better or worse than public perception? Is that likely to play out during the postseason? Who do they need to play well? Which Super Bowl winner from the past best resembles each of these teams?
I'll run through each of the 12 playoff teams, sorted by their projected chances from ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) to win Super Bowl LIV. You can probably guess which squad stands as the Super Bowl favorite at the end of the column, but let's begin with one of the most promising young teams in football.
12. Buffalo Bills (5-seed, AFC)
Where they start: at Houston in wild-card round (Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)
How they got here: With a defense that won a few games outright and kept the team close in just about every other contest. The Bills allowed 24 points or fewer in 15 of 16 games, a figure no defense has topped since the Eagles went 16-for-16 in 2001. Over the past five years, teams that held their opponents below 25 points have won 74.2% of the time, which is roughly the pace of a 12-win season. Josh Allen and the offense have chipped in with four fourth-quarter comeback victories, tying the second-year quarterback for the league lead.
How they're better than you think: This is the best defense in the league at taking away big plays. Since the start of 2018, the Bills have allowed only 26 plays of 30 yards or more, the fewest of any team in football. They've also allowed the league's second-best passer rating (58.9) on what the NFL defines as deep passes since the start of 2018, trailing only the division-rival Patriots.
That's going to come in handy in a conference full of teams that thrive on big plays. The Chiefs rank first in the NFL over that time frame with 75 plays of 30 yards or more, 12 more than any other team. The Texans, who have 59, are fourth. Since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback for the Titans, they rank third in the NFL with 23 plays of at least 30 yards. The Bills take away big plays and force offenses to march downfield to try to score against the league's sixth-best red zone defense.
One other way the Bills have improved dramatically this season? They've stopped turning the ball over. After a four-giveaway day against the Patriots in Week 4, Allen & Co. turned over the ball just six times across their ensuing 11 games before a three-turnover game in Week 17.
How they're worse than you think: While the Bills' offense has generally avoided turnovers, it simply hasn't been good against playoff-caliber competition. In five starts against playoff teams this season, Allen completed just 51.6% of his passes and averaged 5.6 yards per attempt. His 72.7 passer rating against those defenses ranked 25th out of the 28 quarterbacks with 100 pass attempts or more against the playoff bracket, and the Bills' offense scored an average of 14 points per game while going 1-4 in those five contests.
You could make the argument that the Bills have taken advantage of what FPI pegs as the league's third-easiest schedule. For all the talk about how the Cowboys were going through the season without a victory over a team with a winning record, they finished with two such victories. The Bills finished with one, and that came against the Titans before they made the quarterback change from Marcus Mariota to Tannehill.
We know Allen can make big plays, and the second-year quarterback made a pair of absolutely beautiful throws to set up one touchdown and score the team's second TD in a Week 16 rematch with the Patriots. Those plays just don't come frequently. Buffalo had only 16 plays of 30 yards or more this season, which tied them with the Jets for 30th.
Allen's touchdown pass to John Brown against the Pats was an example of what he needs to do against the blitz, but teams that send extra defenders have locked down Allen. He ranks 27th in passer rating and 28th in Total QBR against the blitz, which is a problem given the makeup of the AFC. The Ravens blitz a league-high 54.2% of the time. The Patriots are sixth in blitz rate at 38.0%. The Texans are 10th and the Chiefs are 11th. The only AFC playoff team that doesn't blitz at a higher rate than league average is Tennessee, who the Bills would have a shot of playing only if the fifth and sixth seeds both advance to the AFC Championship Game.
Where they need to get hot in January: In the red zone on offense. Allen's running ability gives the Bills a valuable weapon, but Buffalo is just above league average at 14th in red zone efficiency this season. That's fine, but against the league's best teams, they need to turn their goal-line opportunities into touchdowns, because they might get only two or three shots there per game.
Most quietly important player: Devin Singletary. The rookie running back has quietly become nearly an every-down player as the schedule has grown tougher. Singletary was playing about 65% of the offensive snaps after returning from his hamstring injury in Week 7, but when you look from Thanksgiving on, he fielded more than 81% of the snaps, including 52 of 54 against the Patriots in Week 16.
It's promising that the coaching staff felt comfortable enough with Singletary in pass protection to leave him on the field for virtually every snap against the league's best defense. If he can be a three-down player throughout the postseason, his versatility and ability after the catch gives the Bills a weapon they don't have with Frank Gore. Allen's passer rating and QBR are both about 10 points better with Singletary on the field.
Past Super Bowl comp: 2001 Patriots. Bills fans might not be enthused about being compared to their archrivals, but that Patriots team was built around a strong defense that slowed down offenses in the red zone and a second-year quarterback whose job was mostly to avoid turnovers. Tom Brady didn't have Allen's rushing ability, and the Bills' defense is better than that Patriots defense was by DVOA, but they win games with the same style of play.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Lose to Texans
Chances of advancing to divisional round: 30.7%
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 3.6%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 0.6%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 0.2%
11. Tennessee Titans (6-seed, AFC)
Where they start: at New England in wild-card round (Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
How they got here: Looking for a spark, the Titans turned their offense over to offseason acquisition Ryan Tannehill in Week 7. They've gone 7-3 since. Tannehill has posted the league's second-best passer rating and fifth-best QBR, and the former Dolphins starter has averaged 9.6 yards per attempt, more than a full yard ahead of anybody else in the league over that time frame. Two and a half months of playing like the 2018 Chiefs was enough to get the Titans into January after an uneven start.
How they're better than you think: The top-level talent in the secondary is impressive. Safety Kevin Byard and cornerback Logan Ryan are two of the best players at their positions in football, and Ryan was one of the most obvious Pro Bowl snubs for me. The slot corner ranked third in the NFL with 18 passes defensed, and while we only have forced fumble data going back through the 1980s, he became the eighth player since to intercept four passes, rack up four sacks and generate four forced fumbles in the same season. Given how dependent the Patriots are on throwing to Julian Edelman, Ryan is one of the last corners they probably wanted to see in the wild-card round.
How they're worse than you think: It's difficult to imagine this offense staying as good as it has been over the past three months. I wouldn't write off the Titans as a flash in the pan, but there's no way they're going to be as effective moving forward in the red zone. Since Tannehill entered the lineup, they have converted 86.7% of their red zone trips into touchdowns. To put that in context, the second-placed Buccaneers are at 71.9%, and they're closer to the 49ers in 16th than they are to Tennessee at the top.
I get that Derrick Henry is a load to bring down in short yardage, but the Titans were 18th in the same category before Tannehill took over, and there's no track record of any team sustaining that for a meaningful amount of time. The last time a playoff offense was anywhere near that hot in the red zone over the final 11 weeks of the season was the 2012 Patriots. They scored touchdowns at an 80.5% clip from Week 7 on, only to score five touchdowns in 10 red zone possessions during the playoffs. The Titans have created lots of big plays with Tannehill throwing to A.J. Brown, but they can't count on virtually every red zone trip resulting in six points from here on out.
Where they need to get hot in January: The Titans need to hit opposing quarterbacks. While Tennessee was right around the league average in sack rate, the defense knocked down opposing passers after the pass just 4.5% of the time, the lowest mark in football. You don't want to hit quarterbacks way after the snap and create personal foul penalties, of course, but research has shown that teams that generate large knockdown totals typically translate those knockdowns to sacks in the future.
It's tough to see where those knockdowns will come from. Harold Landry leads the team with 14 knockdowns, but the second-most knockdowns came from Cameron Wake, who played only 195 snaps before going on injured reserve. Jurrell Casey is still on the defensive line, but the guy who might have the most upside to suddenly break out during the playoffs is first-round pick Jeffery Simmons, who has been playing in a part-time role since returning from a torn ACL.
Most quietly important player: Kicker Greg Joseph, who hasn't been tested with a single field goal try since taking over as Tennessee's fourth kicker of the season. I can't think of a team that entered the postseason using a kicker who didn't have a field goal attempt on record during the regular season, but Titans fans will probably take their chances with the 2018 Browns starter. The combination of Cody Parkey, Cairo Santos and Ryan Succop went just 8-of-18 on field goals this season, costing the Titans 15 points of field position.
Past Super Bowl comp: 1980 Raiders. Jim Plunkett was technically in his second season with the Raiders, but the former first overall pick had disappointed with the Patriots and 49ers before finding his way to Oakland. And just as the Titans are really built around their power running game with Henry, those Raiders ran the ball 541 times in 1980, with fullback Mark van Eeghen leading the way.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Lose to Patriots
Chances of advancing to divisional round: 27%
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 4.4%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 1%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 0.5%
10. Seattle Seahawks (5-seed, NFC)
Where they start: at Philadelphia in wild-card round (Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC)
How they got here: Russell Wilson's heroics as a downfield passer and MVP-level play with the game on the line got the Seahawks through a season of heart-stopping close games. They went 9-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, becoming just the fifth team since 1989 to win nine one-score games in a season. That sort of close-game success isn't sustainable, but it didn't stop our extremely small sample in the postseason. Those other four teams went a combined 7-3 in the playoffs, with the 2003 Panthers making it to the Super Bowl and the 2015 Broncos winning it.
Seattle had a serious shot of claiming home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after the 49ers lost in Week 15, but consecutive home losses to the Cardinals and 49ers dropped the Seahawks to the fifth seed. Wilson is yet to lose a home playoff game, but he'll need to get his 2-4 road playoff record to .500 by winning at least two games on the road en route to the Super Bowl. Given the injuries hitting this team on both sides of the ball, he will need to again shoulder much of the workload.
How they're better than you think: This was legitimately one of the league's best offenses in 2019. While the Seahawks ranked ninth in points per game, they were fifth in DVOA. The biggest reason why there was a gap between the two: They faced the league's third-toughest slate of opposing defenses. They didn't face the top-ranked Patriots, but they went up against the second-ranked 49ers twice and had to play the third-ranked Steelers, fourth-ranked Ravens, fifth-placed Bucs and seventh-placed Vikings. Wilson posted a passer rating of 102.6 in those games, throwing 14 touchdown passes against three picks.
This offense pretty much did everything at a high level except for one thing. Seattle fumbled 26 times, with 25 coming on offense. Nearly 8% of Seahawks possessions ended in fumbles, the league's second-highest rate, behind the Giants. Halfback Chris Carson, who is done for the season, fumbled once every 45 touches during an otherwise-auspicious 2019 campaign. If the Seahawks can just hold on to the football, few defenses have been able to stop them.
How they're worse than you think: While you might remember Jadeveon Clowney single-handedly shredding the 49ers the first time these two teams played, the Seahawks' pass rush has otherwise been nonexistent this season. They rank 30th in both sack rate and pressure rate, the worst standing in either category for any of the league's playoff teams. Of the 132 teams to make the playoffs since 2009, the Seahawks' 4.3% sack rate ranks 129th.
Even worse, Clowney's superstar performance seemed to take a toll on the former first overall pick. He missed the following two games with knee and hip injuries, then missed two more with a core injury that is expected to require surgery. After racking up five quarterback knockdowns in the win over the 49ers, Clowney has no sacks and one knockdown over his ensuing three games. The team's other edge rushers have barely been noticeable.
Where they need to get hot in January: Without much of a pass rush, the Seahawks need to create big plays with takeaways. They had the league's fourth-highest takeaway rate on a possession basis during the regular season, but part of that was recovering 64% of fumbles on defense, which isn't likely to keep up. This team needs to create interceptions, and there's a player who helped spur a leap in Seattle's interception rate ...
Most quietly important player: Quandre Diggs. The free safety was gifted to the Seahawks in a huff by the Lions in midseason, and he immediately stepped in and helped solve one of Seattle's biggest problems. With Diggs on the field, the defense allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a QBR of just 31.2 and intercepted 3.9% of pass attempts, which would have ranked second in the NFL this season. Without Diggs, the Seahawks allowed a QBR of 65.2 and intercepted just 2.1% of opposing pass attempts, which would have ranked 21st.
Diggs was responsible for three interceptions, and the Seahawks badly missed him as he sat out the Cardinals and 49ers losses with a high ankle sprain. He's expected to return for the playoff game against the Eagles, where he could again encounter a stray football. The only quarterback to throw more interceptions on passes between the hashes since the start of 2016 than Carson Wentz (nine) is Eli Manning (10).
Past Super Bowl comp: 2006 Colts. That team posted the league's ninth-worst sack rate and finished the regular season 25th in defensive DVOA, but the return of star safety Bob Sanders for the playoffs turned around the defense. Indy forced 13 takeaways in four playoff games, including five against the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Those Colts got two home games, including the crucial AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. The Seahawks will likely have to make the entirety of their run through the NFC from the road.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Lose to Eagles
Chances of advancing to divisional round: 39.7%
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 10.9%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 3.4%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 0.9%
9. Houston Texans (4-seed, AFC)
Where they start: vs. Buffalo in wild-card round (Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)
How they got here: With Bill O'Brien trading most of his future draft capital to supplement the roster around Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans need to make a deep playoff run to justify going all-in. The first step was making the playoffs, and while the Texans predictably laid eggs against middling teams such as the Broncos and Panthers, Houston won competitive games against the Titans, Patriots and Chiefs before clinching the AFC South.
How they're better than you think: When the Texans have Will Fuller on the field, Watson is arguably the best quarterback in football. His passer rating jumps from 89.8 to 104.3 and his QBR leaps from 64.4 to 77.3 with Fuller as a receiving option. This isn't a one-year sample, either: Since 2017, Watson's three-year splits with and without Fuller as a receiving option are about the same. The only passer in the league with a better QBR than 77.3 over that time frame is Patrick Mahomes.
Watson slipped out of the MVP race during the second half and, unsurprisingly, Fuller spent most of that run on the sideline. After playing virtually every snap during the first six weeks of the season, he went down with a hamstring injury after three snaps against the Colts. When he came back, he was again almost an every-down player and the Texans won three straight, only for a groin injury suffered against the Bucs in Week 16 to sideline the former first-round pick. Fuller sat out the meaningless Week 17 loss to the Titans, and his status for the wild-card round remains unclear. A healthy Fuller would be a mismatch against Bills corner Levi Wallace.
How they're worse than you think: While the Texans have played the league's second-toughest slate of opposing offenses, they rank 26th in defensive DVOA. They rank 19th in points allowed per game, but they have faced only 162 meaningful drives this season, the fifth fewest in the NFL. They're 31st in yards allowed per drive and 27th in points allowed per possession. Disasters such as the Falcons, Browns, Panthers and Washington all have better defenses than Houston.
The defense has cycled desperately through cornerbacks all season, but much of their struggles have been a product of missing J.J. Watt. Since the star pass-rusher went on injured reserve with a torn pec in late October, the Texans are 27th in sack rate and 30th in pressure rate. They've remained ninth in turnover rate, but when they haven't forced turnovers, the defense has mostly rolled over and let offenses march down the field.
Of course, Watt is now back on the roster after being activated from injured reserve, although the team sent starting safety Tashaun Gipson to IR in the corresponding roster move. It remains to be seen what the Texans will be able to get from Watt, who will be coming back from what is traditionally a season-ending injury after a little over two months. Counting on the Watt who was among the league's leading pass-rushers before the injury to return at 100% seems naive, but even a limited Watt playing half of the Houston snaps would be a valuable addition.
Where they need to get hot in January: With their stars struggling to stay healthy, we need to see the Texans get off the field on defense on third downs. Houston has allowed teams to convert 48.5% of their third downs this season, the second-highest rate in football behind Washington. Unsurprisingly, that mark rises to a league-high 51.5% over the time while Watt was out with the injury.
Third-down performance can fluctuate wildly over the course of the season. (Ask the Falcons, who had the league's worst third-down conversion rate on defense through Week 8 and its best from Week 9 on.) The Texans' true talent level and performance on first and second down suggest that their third-down struggles are a bit of a fluke, so it wouldn't shock me if they improved in January.
Acho: Brees doesn't have many chances left
Emmanuel Acho and Domonique Foxworth say Drew Brees is the NFC playoff quarterback under the most pressure, as his time to win a Super Bowl is dwindling.
Most quietly important player: As tempting as it is to say Watt, I'm going to go with Bradley Roby, who has been Houston's best cornerback when healthy this season. The former Broncos first-round pick missed six games with a hamstring injury, but when he has been on the field, the Texans' passer rating allowed has dropped by 12.2 points, along with a 14.5-point swing in QBR. There's nobody else at cornerback I'd feel comfortable sticking on John Brown if I were defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
Past Super Bowl comp: 2006 Colts. It might be cheating to use the same champion twice, let alone two teams in a row, but the defense getting its best player back just before the postseason applies here. It feels like NFL fans have also started to write off the Texans as playoff also-rans in the same way they used to dismiss the Colts under Peyton Manning, and we know what happened there.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Beat Bills, lose to Ravens
Chances of advancing to divisional round: 69.4%
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 11.5%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 2.7%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 1%
8. Philadelphia Eagles (4-seed, NFC)
Where they start: vs. Seattle in wild-card round (Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC)
How they got here: Nobody else wanted to win the NFC East. After a three-game losing streak culminated in an embarrassing loss to the Dolphins, the Eagles were at 5-7 and held just a 25.9% chance of making it to the playoffs. Since then, Carson Wentz has posted the league's eighth-best passer rating and thrown seven touchdown passes without an interception, although QBR knocks him for the fumbles and drops him to 20th over the past four weeks.
I'm not sure the turnaround tells us much about the Eagles. Their season-ending, four-game winning streak came within the division, which will go down as one of the worst in NFL history. Three of the four wins were against the lowly Giants and Washington, with the Eagles trailing two in the fourth quarter. Philly was just 4-6 outside of the NFC East this season, and unfortunately for Wentz & Co., everybody else in the division is busy making coaching changes right now. Philadelphia is going to have to beat far better competition from here on out.
How they're better than you think: The most obvious way for the Eagles to exceed expectations is to be healthier than expected, given just how many players they have who are either missing or operating at far less than 100%. Alshon Jeffery, Ronald Darby and Darren Sproles are done for the year, with star guard Brandon Brooks joining the IR brigade after suffering a shoulder injury in Week 17.
The players who might be able to suit up for the Eagles in the postseason will help determine how far Philly can go. I've repeatedly mentioned just how dramatic Wentz's splits are with and without right tackle Lane Johnson on the field, and Johnson has missed the past three weeks. Running back Miles Sanders left with an ankle sprain in the regular-season finale, and he's questionable for the Seahawks game. Tight end Zach Ertz is battling a broken rib and a lacerated spleen. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson is eligible to return if the Eagles advance to the divisional round, and while he lasted only four snaps in his first attempt to return from a core muscle injury in Week 9, he's the exact sort of high-upside player who could change Philadelphia's trajectory.
In general, the Eagles have been a better team than their valleys would indicate this season. They finished the year 1 DVOA percentage point behind the 13-3 Packers in 11th place, ahead of both the Bills (13th) and Texans (19th).
How they're worse than you think: The Eagles have survived by succeeding on both sides of the ball on third down. They rank fourth in the NFL in third-down rate on both offense and defense, and it's not supported by their performance on other downs. Take the offense: The Eagles are 15th in the league in converting for a new set of downs on first down, 25th on second down, and fourth in the league on third down.
The Eagles do face the league's fourth-shortest set of third downs, with an average of 6.6 yards to go, but teams such as the Seahawks, Raiders and Patriots are all in the same ballpark of third-down distance, and they don't come close to hitting Philly's conversion rates. It's asking a lot to keep that third-down success going throughout the postseason.
Where they need to get hot in January: Cornerback has been the weakest position for the Eagles, and while their corners have played better as the season has progressed, the only reason they weren't the story against the Cowboys in Week 16 was because Dallas simply missed the big plays that were there on the table. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz desperately needs guys such as Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones to play well. Though Jalen Mills has hardly been a stopper during his pro career, simply getting another professional cornerback to insert in the rotation would be a huge plus. Mills was carted off during the Cowboys game with an ankle injury and missed the season-ender against the Giants.
Most quietly important player: Fletcher Cox was voted to the Pro Bowl for the fifth consecutive season, but the star interior disruptor isn't playing up to his usual standard. After racking up 10.5 sacks and 34 knockdowns during a banner 2018 campaign, he has been able to muster only 3.5 sacks and 10 knockdowns this season while playing a similar number of snaps.
The defensive line isn't as deep as it was a year ago, but it isn't a product of extra attention, either; ESPN's automated pass-rush analysis suggests that Cox has been double-teamed on 58% of his pass-rush attempts in 2019, down from nearly 64% of his attempts in 2018. When he has been one-on-one, his pass rush win rate has dropped from 23.5% in 2018 to 13.9% this season. We all know Cox has game-breaking upside, but whether it's just an off season or a hidden injury, the star defensive tackle hasn't shown it this season. If Philadelphia gets the peak version of Cox during the playoffs, its ceiling changes.
Past Super Bowl comp: It's tough to find a team that fits the bill here, given that no Super Bowl winner has ever posted a losing record outside of its division during the regular season. The 2008 Cardinals and 1979 Rams, both runners-up, are the only teams to even make it to the Super Bowl with a losing record outside of their division.
I'm going to instead go with the 2011 Giants, who went 6-4 outside of the NFC East that season. Like the Eagles, those Giants seemed to bury their chances with a November losing streak, dropping five of six, including a defeat by a Rex Grossman-led Washington team. They were able to salvage their playoff chances because the rest of the division was hovering around .500. It wasn't pretty, but the Giants pulled off a two-game winning streak by beating the Jets in a game in which Eli Manning went 9-of-27 passing and Mark Sanchez threw the ball 59 times, and dispatching the Cowboys in a Week 17 play-in game for the division title. They then ran the table as the 9-7 fourth seed in the NFC, which is exactly where the Eagles begin now.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Beat Seahawks, lose to 49ers
Chances of advancing to divisional round: 60.3%
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 15%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 4.7%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 1.3%
7. Minnesota Vikings (6-seed, NFC)
Where they start: at New Orleans in wild-card round (Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET, Fox)
How they got here: The Vikings were seemingly a balanced team, ranking 10th in offensive DVOA and seventh in defensive DVOA, but it was hard to find many weeks in which they clicked on both sides of the ball. Over the first month of the season, the Vikings ranked 29th in the league in win probability added (WPA) on offense and sixth on defense. Over the last month of the season, Minnesota ranked 29th in the league in offensive WPA and third in defensive WPA.
In between those two four-game stretches, the Vikings ranked first in offensive WPA and 18th in defensive WPA. Kirk Cousins struggled to start the season, then morphed into one of the top three quarterbacks in football for two months. The running game was great until Dalvin Cook suffered a shoulder injury and unsuccessfully tried to play through pain, with those struggles dragging down the whole offense in the process.
How they're better than you think: Cousins has been good this season! Really good! From Week 5 on, he ranked second in the league in yards per attempt, second in completion percentage and fourth in passer rating. Going back to the full season, it's Cousins -- not Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers -- who posted a league-best passer rating of 124.0 on deep pass attempts. Cousins has posted the third-largest positive difference between his expected completion percentage (63.6%) and actual completion percentage (69.1%), trailing only Ryan Tannehill and Drew Brees. He has done most of this without Adam Thielen, who has just four catches for 52 yards since the start of Week 7.
I think there's some part of the collective football consciousness that writes off Cousins' performance this season as an aberration, that his 0-9 record on Monday Night Football is proof that he can't do it when it counts. When he needed to come up with a big game against the Packers on Monday night in Week 16, he went 16-of-31 for 122 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a home loss. When he plays the Saints on Sunday afternoon, he'll be on the road in what has traditionally been a scary place to play. It's easier to assume Cousins will wither and fail to live up to expectations.
Maybe that will happen. I'm not sure I would put too much stock in a player's record in prime-time games. Cousins is 2-5 in Thursday night games, but did he really struggle under the bright lights when he went 36-of-50 for 422 yards and three touchdowns in last year's loss to the Rams, or when he went 41-of-53 for 449 yards and three touchdowns in a 2016 loss to the Cowboys? Did it count when he was 31-of-46 for 365 yards and four touchdowns during a 38-24 win over the Eagles on a Saturday night in 2015 to clinch the division title for Washington? He might struggle against the Saints on Sunday, but I don't think it'll be because he can't handle the pressure of playing in front of a national audience.
How they're worse than you think: This defense has stopped dominating on third downs. The Vikings were the league's stingiest third-down defense in both 2017 (a nearly unprecedented 25.2% conversion rate) and 2018 (30.5%). This season, they are all the way up at 39.7%, which ranks 19th in the NFL.
In part, that's because teams haven't needed to pick up as many yards as they did in prior years; opposing offenses have needed to pick up only 6.5 yards to convert on third downs against the Vikings this season, the second-fewest yards required on third down in football. From 2017 to 2018, Vikings opponents needed 7.6 yards to convert their third downs, the third-longest average mark in football.
With Minnesota's cornerbacks struggling for most of the season, this isn't the same defense we've seen in years past. And if linebacker Eric Kendricks isn't able to play Sunday after leaving the Packers game with a quadriceps injury, it won't be anywhere near as good of a defense as the Vikings were during the regular season. Kendricks had his best season in 2019 and deserved to be a Pro Bowler; he hasn't practiced since suffering the injury in Week 16, and the Packers were able to repeatedly exploit his absence after he left. You can imagine what Saints coach Sean Payton is planning.
Where they need to get hot in January: A return to the old third-down defense would be nice. The most likely driver of a turnaround on third down would be the pass rush, which ranks 16th in sack rate and 21st in pressure rate on third down. Coach Mike Zimmer has had to blitz to create even that modest pressure rate; when the Vikings face third down and Zimmer hasn't called for blitzes, their 24.5% pressure rate ranks 31st in the league. Blitzing Brees is generally a recipe for disaster; he has posted a passer rating of 134.8 with 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions against the blitz in 2019. Your move, Zim.
Most quietly important player: Xavier Rhodes. The team's nominal No. 1 cornerback is likely suiting up for the last time in a Vikings uniform during this postseason. After he got into a sideline shouting match with Zimmer during the Monday Night Football loss to the Seahawks in Week 13, Zimmer converted Rhodes into a part-time player. The team's highest-paid cornerback took just 43.5% of the defensive snaps between Weeks 14 and 16 before sitting out Week 17 with the other Vikings veterans. It might be unrealistic to expect the Rhodes who excelled earlier in his career to make a sudden comeback, but the Vikings need one of their corners to step up, if not two or three.
Past Super Bowl comp: I'll go with the 2007 Giants, a team with a quarterback nobody believed in and a defense whose names seemed bigger than their actual performance. Those Giants sorely needed help at cornerback heading into the playoffs and got it from Corey Webster, who had been benched earlier in the season and hadn't started since Week 3. Webster turned around both his season and career with a stellar postseason, while the front four did the rest.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Lose to Saints
Chances of advancing to divisional round: 36.8%
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 12.4%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 6.3%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 2.3%
6. New England Patriots (3-seed, AFC)
Where they start: vs. Tennessee in wild-card round (Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
How they got here: After one of the hottest two-way starts in league history, the Patriots' offense fell apart. Wide receivers Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon worked their way out of football. Fullback James Develin, offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn and kicker Stephen Gostkowski got hurt. Sony Michel never got started. The defense and special teams papered over the holes for a while with return touchdowns and short fields, but this offense ranks 24th in win probability added since Week 4.
The Patriots lost to the three other division champions in the AFC and then saved their customary, inexplicable loss to the Dolphins for Week 17, with the league's best defense failing to stop Ryan Fitzpatrick from marching down the field for a game-winning score. As a result, the Patriots ceded their first-round bye and will be on the road for the divisional round. It's only a sample size of three seasons, but the Patriots have famously never made it to the Super Bowl in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era when they've needed to play a wild-card game.
How they're better than you think: Even given a frustrating game against the Dolphins, this is still a dominant Patriots defense. They finished the season with the 16th-best defensive DVOA over the past 34 seasons. The Patriots allowed 12.2 points per game to opposing offenses in a league where the average team allowed 21.5 points per game to those offenses. They finished 2.5 standard deviations below the mean. This is a great defense, quality of opponent be damned (although it's accounted for in DVOA).
The asterisk here involves Stephon Gilmore, who was my pick as Defensive Player of the Year while shutting down the opposing team's No. 1 wideout for the majority of the season. Things haven't gone quite as well over the past three weeks. He was burned for a 53-yard touchdown by John Brown of the Bills in Week 16, and DeVante Parker followed by posting the first 100-yard game against Gilmore this season. If Gilmore is not 100%, this defense's ceiling drops accordingly.
How they're worse than you think: This offense, on the other hand, hasn't found its identity. You can't make much of an identity when you don't have a very good offensive line or much in the way of weapons beyond Julian Edelman and James White. Brady posted his best game in weeks during the win over the Bills and their excellent defense, but the future Hall of Famer was 16-of-29 for 221 yards with two touchdown passes and a pick-six against the Dolphins, who finished with the league's worst pass defense DVOA, in Week 17.
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What's really distressing is that they were downright sloppy in Week 17. On the first third down of the game, N'Keal Harry was blown up and knocked backward as a blocker to stuff a White run for a loss in the backfield. Just before the pick-six, two Patriots receivers failed to get their relative depth to each other right as they ran the crossing routes in mesh, one of the most widely run and familiar concepts in the NFL in 2019. Brady took a bad snap and seemed to throw into double coverage for Edelman out of frustration. A play-action pass concept the Patriots have run with Edelman out of the slot approximately 10,000 times ended with Brady's pass hitting Edelman in the lower leg. An attempt to run a wham scheme ended with the running back beating the pulling tight end to the hole and both getting stuffed by the unblocked defender.
It's one thing for the Patriots to lack weapons and big plays on offense, but they weren't getting simple fundamental concepts right against the league's worst defense in Week 17. If Andrew Van Ginkel and Eric Rowe are looking like wrecking balls against your offense, what happens when you face the Ravens?
Where they need to get hot in January: The Patriots desperately need to develop some sort of a pulse running the football, in part to take the pressure off Brady. Michel has finally shown some signs of life over the past few weeks; since Week 12, the 2018 first-round pick has averaged 66.2 rushing yards per game and 4.3 yards per attempt, an improvement of around one full yard per rush on his previous per-carry performance. Michel has been almost a comically bad receiver this season, dropping three of his 20 targets, and Brady would probably rather eat something at J.P. Licks than throw the ball to the Georgia product in a meaningful situation.
Belichick could opt for a heavier dose of Rex Burkhead, who has been more efficient as a runner and far more reliable as a pass-catcher. Michel played a significant role in the 2018 playoff run, but those blockers are gone. The Patriots need a back who can make tacklers miss, and he hasn't been that guy, even during his improved stretch.
Most quietly important player: I'll go with Elandon Roberts here. Nominally a linebacker, the Patriots converted Roberts to fullback out of sheer necessity, leading to one of the best quotes of the 2019 season. Roberts has helped spring Michel, and he added a 38-yard touchdown catch to his résumé last week. If Roberts can serve as a viable lead blocker, the Patriots might have a reasonable plan on offense.
Past Super Bowl comp: The 2002 Buccaneers, who combined a dominant defense with an offense whose primary job was not screwing things up. It's a sign of the times that I'm comparing Brady to a 34-year-old Brad Johnson, but at this point, he is essentially serving as a game manager.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Beat Titans, lose to Chiefs
Chances of advancing to divisional round: 73%
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 21.3%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 8.3%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 4.9%
5. Green Bay Packers (2-seed, NFC)
Where they start: vs. highest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 12 at 6:40 p.m. ET, Fox)
How they got here: By squeezing opposing teams in close games. The Packers went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer, which doesn't even include a pair of eight-point victories. Matt LaFleur's team went 6-0 in the NFC North while outscoring the opposition by more than eight points just once, with that exception coming in the aforementioned Vikings game on Monday Night Football.
Advanced metrics do not see the Packers on the same level as their 13-3 record. Point differential pegs them as a 9.7-win team. ESPN's Football Power Index views the Packers as the ninth-best team in football and virtually identical to the Rams. DVOA has the Packers as the 10th-best team in the league, ensconced between the Titans and Eagles. The Packers are still a good team, but most projections don't put them on the same level as the 49ers or Saints.
Then again, they don't have to be on the same level as those teams. They'll host the Saints at Lambeau if the two teams face each other in the divisional round, and road playoff games have been a horror for Drew Brees. If the 49ers get upset, the Packers will be at home in the NFC Championship Game with a victory, regardless of who beats the No. 1 seed. Being at home with a good team beats being on the road with a great team more than we might think.
How they're better than you think: One trend that has stuck for the Packers throughout the season: They're a fundamentally different offense with Aaron Jones on the field. I referred to Green Bay's on/off splits on offense with Jones on the field earlier this year, so let's get an update.
The Packers have run 603 offensive snaps with him on the field. Those snaps have added 90.4 expected points to Green Bay's offensive output, or 0.15 expected points per play. Only two offenses in football generated more than 0.15 EPA per play this season -- the Ravens and Chiefs. With Jones on the field, the Packers are the third-most dominant offense in football.
Without Jones, they aren't the same. When Jamaal Williams has replaced Jones in the lineup, the Packers have generated minus-24.33 EPA across 337 snaps, or minus-0.07 EPA per play. The Williams version of the Green Bay offense ranks 29th in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers' QBR drops from 67.7 with Jones on the field to 28.7 with Williams in the lineup instead.
The Packers have been reticent to hand a heavy workload to Jones. The star back has taken more than 70% of the offensive snaps just twice this season: Week 4 against the Eagles (when Williams was injured on his first and only snap of the game and did not return), and Week 17 against the Lions (when Williams was inactive). Williams already has suggested he'll be ready to return for the divisional round, but LaFleur needs to focus a larger proportion of the snap count on his star back.
How they're worse than you think: Advanced stats generally aren't optimistic about the Packers' defense either. DVOA lists the Packers as the 15th-best defense in football, a reasonably far cry from their ninth-placed finish in scoring defense. ESPN's win probability metric is more optimistic, though, pegging the Packers as the league's fourth-best defense by WPA. The Packers are 14th by expected points added, so it seems like the Packers have been best when it matters most.
Naturally, the first place to look is at this team's fourth-quarter performance. The Packers have done a great job of coming through late in games. Mike Pettine's unit has posted the league's best QBR allowed in the fourth quarter this season (20.9), the lowest mark in football. Eight of the Packers' 17 interceptions have come in the fourth quarter. While they're still pretty good in the first three quarters, the Packers rank fifth in QBR across those opening 45 minutes.
I'm always skeptical of teams who turn things on in the fourth quarter -- why not just start to be that good in the first quarter as opposed to waiting for an arbitrary point to succeed? -- but teams like this don't always regress toward the mean. The 2018 Patriots ranked 22nd in QBR over the first three quarters, but they improved all the way to the top of the QBR charts. I don't recall opposing offenses doing much against them come playoff time a year ago, although the Chiefs coincidentally did launch a second-half comeback against the Pats.
Where they need to get hot in January: Rodgers needs to hit the throws he has been narrowly missing this season. He has completed 62% of his passes when NFL Next Gen stats suggest he should have hit on 63.9% of his throws. His drop rate is at 3.7%, which is higher than the league average of 3.3%, but not high enough to likely account for the entirety of those drops.
Most quietly important player: Guard Billy Turner has been the most middling member of Brian Gutekunst's free-agent class this season, and the Packers need Turner to hold up in pass protection. Both the Chargers and 49ers were able to get scheme-wrecking pressure on Rodgers by attacking the interior of the Green Bay offensive line. Center Corey Linsley and right tackle Bryan Bulaga left the season finale with injuries, and if their absences extend into the divisional round, it could significantly compromise Rodgers' effectiveness and place even more pressure on Turner.
Past Super Bowl comp: The Packers are 13-3 with the point differential of a 9.7-win team. That's a 3.3-win difference, and no team has ever made it to the Super Bowl with that large of a gap between their expected win-loss record and actual total, let alone won the thing. The only other teams that came close to that large of a gap were the 2009 Colts and 1999 Titans, each of whom came up short in the Super Bowl. The 1976 Raiders, who were 3.0 wins ahead of their expectation at 13-1, went on to win the Super Bowl under John Madden. They're our closest comparable for the Pack.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Beat Saints, lose to 49ers
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 57%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 20.9%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 5.9%
4. New Orleans Saints (3-seed, NFC)
Where they start: vs. Minnesota in wild-card round (Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET, Fox)
How they got here: The 13-3 Saints have overcome obstacle after obstacle and injury after injury this season. Their three losses have come under wildly different circumstances. Their defeat at the hands of the Rams came when they lost Drew Brees in the first half. The loss to the Falcons was an ode to the premise that anything can happen in a divisional game against an archrival. The 48-46 loss to the 49ers was my game of the year and a product of San Francisco touching the ball last.
How they're better than you think: While everyone is going to quote Brees' playoff splits -- the future Hall of Famer is 6-1 as Saints quarterback in the playoffs at home, but just 1-5 on the road -- I'm not convinced home-field advantage means all that much for the Saints. Last year, I wrote that the Saints didn't have an enormous home-field advantage, and while they got to play both of their playoff games in New Orleans, they struggled to put away the Nick Foles-led Eagles before losing that famously controversial game to the Rams.
The crowd was unquestionably loud in that Rams game, but the Saints weren't able to ride an early run of dominance to put them away, and after the terrible pass interference no-call, the Saints weren't able to conjure up a stop at the end of regulation before Brees threw an interception in overtime.
In 2019, they were again better away from home. They went 7-1 on their travels this season, losing only to the Rams. At the Superdome, they went 6-2, losing to the 49ers and Falcons. A frantic comeback against the Texans and a fortuitous missed field goal by the Panthers kept the Saints from going 4-4 at home. They don't need to play at home to be a special team. They're also one of the best road teams in football.
How they're worse than you think: While defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's unit has been able to weather injuries, New Orleans lost half of its starting defensive line when Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport hit injured reserve after the 49ers game. The Colts and Panthers weren't able to exploit the injuries along the line, but the Titans scored 28 points in Week 16 without those two linemen in the fold. If the Vikings can get their running game going again with Dalvin Cook supposedly back to health, the Saints might not be able to match Minnesota up front. This would also be a concern if we get a Saints-49ers rematch in San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, given how physical the 49ers are with their running game.
Where they need to get hot in January: They've already started to get hot in the red zone, but the Saints need to stay there. Though the first 13 weeks of the season, they converted just 51.2% of their red zone possessions into touchdowns, which ranked 23rd in the NFL and seemed out of character for a team that was at 70.4% though the first 13 weeks of the 2018 campaign.
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Over these past four weeks, though, they have scored touchdowns on 85.7% of their red zone possessions. Alvin Kamara has finally looked capable of scoring touchdowns after bizarrely going most of the year on touchdown suspension; a productive Kamara would be an excellent third option in the red zone behind Michael Thomas and Jared Cook, although we know that Brees is comfortable throwing to anybody on the roster in the red zone if they're open.
Most quietly important player: Is it too early to say Janoris Jenkins? New Orleans claimed the former Giants corner on waivers after he refused to apologize for tweeting an epithet at a fan from the team facility, and when fellow former Giants player Eli Apple went down with an injury against the Titans, it opened up a spot in the Saints' starting lineup.
Jenkins, 31, played every defensive snap in the win over the Panthers and figures to continue doing so as the Saints enter the postseason. The Saints made their move for Jenkins one week after the 49ers mercilessly picked on Apple and rookie slot corner C.J. Gardner-Johnson during their 48-46 victory. Signing Jenkins is an attempt to take away the weakest spot in the Saints' secondary from snap to snap with an NFL-caliber defensive back. You can't fault the Saints for getting creative, although it remains to be seen if Jenkins will live up to expectations after an uneven season in New York.
Past Super Bowl comp: The 2014 Patriots were sixth in offensive DVOA and 12th in defensive DVOA as they entered the postseason. The 2019 Saints are fourth in offensive DVOA and 11th on defense. The big difference, of course, is that the Patriots were able to attack the postseason as the top seed in the conference, while New Orleans will need to win three games to make it to the Super Bowl.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Beat Vikings, lose to Packers
Chances of advancing to divisional round: 63.2%
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 31.1%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 15.2%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 6.4%
3. San Francisco 49ers (1-seed, NFC)
Where they start: vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 11 at 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC)
How they got here: The 49ers were the poster children for regression toward the mean and an easy pick as the most likely team in the league to improve this season. If you had asked me whether they would finish the regular season as the No. 1 seed in the NFC, though, I would have guessed that the defense wouldn't be able to hold up its end of the bargain.
Instead, the defense has been the best part of this team. It's even more surprising when you consider that the Niners have dealt with serious injuries at every level of their defense. Their three big additions this offseason were Kwon Alexander, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, and the three players combined for just 108 defensive snaps together before Alexander went down with a torn pec. (Opposing quarterbacks posted a QBR of 3.0 when those three players on the field together. That's not a typo -- 3 out of 100.)
How they're better than you think: Jimmy Garoppolo has rounded into form as a devastating downfield passer. On throws traveling 16 or more yards in the air, he has posted a QBR of 97.7 and averaged 16.6 yards per attempt, with both marks leading all quarterbacks this season.
Veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders, acquired at midseason, has been a major upgrade for the passing attack. With Sanders on the field, Garoppolo has posted a passer rating of 109.3, which would be the fourth-best mark in football among qualifying quarterbacks this offseason. During the times when Sanders has been on the Broncos or unavailable to Garoppolo, though, the former Patriots backup has posted a passer rating of 94.4, which would rank 13th in the NFL. The Niners want to be a run-first team, but they're one of the league's best passing attacks with Sanders.
How they're worse than you think: For all the talk about how they're a brilliant running team, the 49ers rank 13th in rushing DVOA, ninth in yards per carry and 20th in first-down rate. Heavy leads late in games mean that they have been able to focus more on eating clock than trying to score points, but DVOA accounts for that and still sees them as something closer to a competent rushing attack than something dominant.
The Niners are loaded with competent running backs who can make plays in Kyle Shanahan's scheme, but the coach is yet to really piece together a usage pattern that has stuck for any length of time. (The only back with a defined role, strangely, is fourth-stringer Jeff Wilson, who has been used as the goal-line back when one of the top three backs has been injured.) When Shanahan has made public commitments to Tevin Coleman or Raheem Mostert as his primary back, those plans haven't resulted in much more than 10 to 12 carries per game. There's nothing inherently wrong with rotating backs, and the 49ers play in a scheme in which they don't need to give someone 25 carries per game, but none of these guys has developed much of a rhythm as the lead back. It'll be interesting to see whether Shanahan does commit to one back for a majority of the touches come January.
Where they need to get hot in January: More than hot, they need to get healthy in January, especially on defense. Alexander could return in time for the NFC Championship Game, but the 49ers could get others back in time for the divisional round. Ford has played just four defensive snaps since injuring his hamstring in Week 11. Even as a part-time edge rusher, having him available would take some of the pressure off Bosa as the team's primary pass-rusher.
Getting safety Jaquiski Tartt back in the fold for Marcell Harris would also be a huge plus. The Saints picked on Harris for early touchdowns in that 48-46 game, and the 49ers have been a totally different pass defense with the backup in the lineup. They allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a passer rating of 71.5 and a QBR of 16.8 with Tartt on the field, but with Harris on the field and Tartt sidelined, those marks have risen to 100.5 and 74.4, respectively. After quarterbacks threw for 11 touchdowns against 11 picks with Tartt in the fold, they've thrown for 11 touchdowns against just one pick with Harris on the field.
Most quietly important player: The 49ers benched struggling corner Ahkello Witherspoon on the final drive of Sunday's win over the Seahawks, replacing him with Emmanuel Moseley. Witherspoon had allowed two touchdowns earlier in the game, and while Moseley also was targeted by Russell Wilson, he came up with a key pass breakup to save a touchdown. I'm not sure who the 49ers should start across from Richard Sherman, but whoever plays on the outside is going to see a ton of pass attempts in their direction this postseason.
Past Super Bowl comp: It's anathema to compare the 49ers to the Seahawks, but the 2013 Seahawks team that won the Super Bowl went 13-3 and took on the NFC as the top seed in the conference. This year's 49ers are 13-3 and will be the top seed in the NFC. Wilson was still relatively inexperienced and entered into that second season with 393 career pass attempts. Garoppolo has spent more time in the NFL, but he entered the season with 361 career pass attempts. That Seahawks team led the league in defensive DVOA and was seventh in offensive DVOA. This 49ers team was second in defensive DVOA and seventh in offensive DVOA. I'll stop here.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Beat Eagles, beat Packers, lose to Ravens
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 73.3%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 49.5%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 18.7%
2. Kansas City Chiefs (2-seed, AFC)
Where they start: vs. highest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 12 at 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
How they got here: The Chiefs had just a 7.3% chance of coming away with one of the top two seeds in the AFC after their Week 12 bye. Facing the possibility of a road playoff game in the divisional round in Baltimore or New England, the Chiefs ran the table from 6-4 to finish 12-4, beating the Patriots along the way. Kansas City is the only team in the league to beat both the Ravens and Pats this season. With Patrick Mahomes in the fold, nobody wants to see this offense in January.
How they're better than you think: For the second year in a row, the Chiefs have a better pass defense than you might assume heading into the postseason. Steve Spagnuolo's bunch finished the year sixth in pass defense DVOA, and during their six-game winning streak, the Chiefs were the league's stingiest pass defense by passer rating (63.5) and Total QBR (25.6). I still want to see more pressure from a team that shelled out a huge deal for Frank Clark this offseason, but when you're allowing fewer than 6 yards per pass attempt to NFL offenses in 2019 over a six-game span, you're doing something right.
The current concern is about the torn ACL suffered by rookie safety Juan Thornhill, who had rounded into form as one of the league's more impressive freshmen. While I'm still a little skeptical of nearest defender statistics as measures of cover ability, especially for safeties, Thornhill had allowed a passer rating of 27.9 as the closest defender in coverage this season, which ranked third among all defenders with 100 coverage snaps or more. (The league leader, by the way: Earl Thomas, who allowed a passer rating of 4.4.)
Andy Reid thinks the Chiefs could get creative in replacing Thornhill, which worries me. Kendall Fuller has moved around the defense this season after losing his job as a starting cornerback, and the former Washington draftee could combine with backup safety Armani Watts to fill Thornhill's role. Given how backups and injuries at safety have sunk the Chiefs in recent years, I hoped we would get to see Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu play together throughout the postseason.
How they're worse than you think: Owing in part to a generally ineffective running game, the Chiefs haven't been good in the red zone this season. (Damien Williams managed to get his yards per carry up to a respectable figure after running for a 91-yard touchdown last week, but he would drop from 4.5 yards per rush to 3.7 yards per carry without that one gain.) Mahomes & Co. have converted just 54% of their red zone possessions into touchdowns this season, which ranks 20th.
Williams appeared to regain his role as the team's primary back by default in Week 17, with the Chiefs finally giving up the ghost on their reported plan to rest Shady McCoy for the stretch run by making him a healthy scratch in Week 16 and leaving the former Eagles star on the bench without a touch in Week 17. Williams, at least by one measure, has been the best back in terms of keeping Mahomes upright. The reigning MVP has been sacked just twice on 172 pass attempts with Williams on the field, but he has taken 15 sacks on 351 dropbacks without the former Dolphins reserve. Williams' most important role in the offense is as a receiver, and unless he starts breaking 90-yard runs every week during the playoffs, the Chiefs are going to go as far as their passing game takes them.
Where they need to get hot in January: The red zone offense from 2018 would sure be nice. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on 71.8% of their red zone possessions last season.
Most quietly important player: I'll go with Fuller, who seems likely to get the majority of the snaps Thornhill is vacating. There's no Rob Gronkowski left lurking in the tight end pile, but the Chiefs could see Dawson Knox in the divisional round and would expect to see Mark Andrews in the AFC Championship Game. Mathieu will certainly draw coverage duties, but can Fuller step in as a run defender?
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Past Super Bowl comp: The 1994 49ers were slightly better on both sides of the football, and they got a full 16-game season out of Steve Young, but you can figure out what I'm thinking here. Dominant offense with a special quarterback gets hot and tosses everyone aside. The 49ers were the top seed in the NFC that year, but they averaged just over 41 points per game on offense during their three-game blitz to the Super Bowl, throwing in a defensive touchdown for good measure. Those 49ers led the league with an 18.9% DVOA, and while the Chiefs are in third, their 22.7% DVOA actually tops San Francisco's.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Beat Patriots, lose to Ravens
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 74.3%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 33.8%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 22.1%
1. Baltimore Ravens (1-seed, AFC)
Where they start: vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 11 at 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
How they got here: The Ravens started 2-2 after a 15-point home loss to the Browns. They proceeded to roll off 12 consecutive wins, becoming just the 20th team since 1950 to win 12 or more games in a row. While it's a natural delineation point for their season, the first two wins in that bunch included an overtime victory over the Steelers and a six-point win over the Bengals.
The Ravens are 10-0 since Week 7. They've outscored opponents by more than 20 points per game, including comfortable victories over the Patriots, Seahawks, Texans, Rams and Bills. They needed a last-second Justin Tucker field goal to beat the 49ers, but to piece together such a dominant run against some of the league's best teams is something rare indeed. On the back of that winning streak, the Ravens finished 2019 as the seventh-best team by DVOA going back through 1985. Not bad for a gimmick offense teams are going to figure out any day now, right?
How they're better than you think: Everyone sees the Ravens' defense this season as a necessary evil in between moments of magic from Lamar Jackson, but it has been great since acquiring Marcus Peters. With the former Rams cornerback in the fold, Don Martindale's defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a QBR of 31.1. With Peters sidelined or in Los Angeles, that mark rises more than 28 points to 59.2.
The Ravens have blitzed more frequently with Peters on the field, and both their sack and pressure rates are better with the former All-Pro in the lineup. Martindale is just having fun dialing up pressures each week. On third down, the Ravens are blitzing 70% of the time. Seventy! No other team is north of 50.6%, and with 13 years of data, the only other defense that blitzed as frequently on third down was Rex Ryan's 2009 Jets team, which had peak Darrelle Revis at corner. The Ravens don't have anybody as good as Revis, but with Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith, they're deeper than anybody else in the league at corner.
How they're worse than you think: This is tough. Sam Koch and the punting unit rank 25th in the NFL this season, and while they haven't needed Koch often in 2019, the Ravens probably don't want to get into a field position game with their punter. Thankfully, they have the best offense in football, so this isn't likely to come up.
Where they need to get hot in January: This is already comfortably the hottest team in football. The Ravens need to stay hot.
Most quietly important player: I'll go with Marquise Brown, who is one of the few Ravens starters who might qualify as disappointing this season. After racking up 233 receiving yards and two touchdowns through the first two weeks of the year, the rookie wide receiver has been inconsistent from week to week. The Oklahoma star missed time with a groin injury, but since returning in Week 9, he has averaged just under 29 receiving yards per game. Brown isn't going to get 10 targets per game in this offense, but we know how terrifying his speed can be for opposing defenses. I'm hoping he makes an impact on the playoff stage.
Past Super Bowl comp: 1972 Dolphins. The 14-0 Dolphins ran for 2,960 yards during the regular season, more than any other Super Bowl-winning team in league history. Larry Csonka & Co. averaged a little over 211 rushing yards per game. Jackson and the Ravens finished the regular season with a 3,296 rushing yards in 16 games, averaging an even 206 rushing yards per contest and setting the single-season team rushing record in the process. FPI thinks there's a good chance these Ravens will set the record for most rushing yards by a Super Bowl winner too. John Harbaugh's team is the prohibitive favorite to win Super Bowl LIV.
FPI says ...
Projected playoff result: Beat Texans, beat Chiefs, beat 49ers, win Super Bowl
Chances of advancing to conference championship: 84.9%
Chances of advancing to Super Bowl: 53.5%
Chances of winning Super Bowl: 35.7%