AFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2020
It's an all-AFC Saturday of Wild Card games, and it should be a fascinating one even for NFC fans because of the teams' competing strengths and weaknesses. Deshaun Watson has only needed a few years to become one of the most prolific passers in football, but he'll face one of the best pass defenses in the league in the Bills. Josh Allen tends to have more of his success on the ground than through the air, but the Texans' poor pass defense invites its opponents to throw on them, or at least it did with J.J. Watt out. Sony Michel has finally found his stride behind linebacker-turned-blocker Elandon Roberts, but the Titans have a stronger run defense than pass defense. And Ryan Tannehill has transformed the Titans offense into one of the best in football but will face his most difficult test of the season against the Patriots' exceptional pass defense. To win, each team will likely need to succeed with a weakness or shut down an opponent's strength. It's a recipe that should make both games competitive and unpredictable.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
Buffalo at Houston
|DVOA||2.7% (13)||-5.8% (19)|
|WEI DVOA||8.3% (10)||-12.1% (23)|
|Bills on Offense|
|BUF OFF||HOU DEF|
|DVOA||-7.3% (22)||8.9% (26)|
|WEI DVOA||-5.2% (19)||13.9% (27)|
|PASS||-0.8% (23)||19.5% (26)|
|RUSH||-3.1% (17)||-5.1% (22)|
|Texans on Offense|
|BUF DEF||HOU OFF|
|DVOA||-11.3% (6)||0.3% (17)|
|WEI DVOA||-12.7% (6)||-2.8% (18)|
|PASS||-13.5% (5)||13.6% (15)|
|RUSH||-8.3% (18)||0.0% (11)|
|DVOA||-1.2% (21)||2.9% (5)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
This is a game without a lot of historical pull. Since the Texans came into existence in 2002, they have played the Bills just nine times. Houston, somehow, has a winning record against Buffalo despite a decade of wandering before they even made the playoffs. The Texans have won three of their last four against the Bills, but other than the 2018 game (a 20-13 triumph that involved a Nathan Peterman game-ending pick-six), those games are essentially irrelevant to what we have here. The only players that will play in this game that started the 2015 game between the teams are J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Jerry Hughes, Johnathan Joseph, and Whitney Mercilus. Kevin Johnson is also around, but has switched sides -- he's now with the Bills.
To the extent that there is any #RevengeGame vibe here at all, it lies not with Johnson but with former Texans general manager Brian Gaine. Gaine has bounced back and forth between these two teams exclusively since 2013; he was unceremoniously fired by the Texans after this year's draft, and re-joined the Bills in July as a personnel advisor. There is no doubt that he wants to end Bill O'Brien's season.
The 2018 game is a real sounding point for our analysis so let's discuss it a bit: Houston's offensive line was slapped around in a game where Deshaun Watson took seven sacks, but a clutch Will Fuller DPI in the end zone set the Texans up at the goal line to tie a game they didn't have much of a reason to win. With 1:23 to play, Peterman dropped back and hit Johnathan Joseph in the flat to cement his reputation as one of the worst quarterbacks in recent history. Both teams struggled to move the ball and forced a lot of runs. That very last part probably will not change in 2019.
Remember that both of these teams sat starters last week so their DVOA ratings are a little lower than they would be otherwise.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Let me start with something not injury-related -- it's not that the Bills are boring to talk about, it's that so much of what Houston is going to bring to this game is dictated by their injured players. Josh Allen's development this year has mostly come in a way where you can read what you'd like to into it. I find it illuminating that his on-target rate and catchable throw percentage (per Sports Info Solutions) have barely improved at all. He's +1.5% in on-target percentage, and +0.9% in catchable percentage. What changed for Allen this year is that A) he stayed healthy and B) the Bills largely cut the amount of deep throws they attempted.
|Josh Allen Throws by Distance|
|* Qualifying SIS attempts, not total pass attempts.|
This has been smart because Allen has been one of football's worst deep throwers. He completed just 16 of 62 deep throws per SIS charting this year. He has also been more decisive in the pocket when he sees open shorter throws. That mindset change with Buffalo's offense has gone a long way in creating a more sustainable offense.
If you were designing a game plan for the Bills to tear the Texans apart, the obvious answer would be to use Allen to pound the short middle. The Bills have a 60.8% DVOA on throws over the short middle, whereas the Texans have a league-worst 67.2% DVOA on throws over the short middle. Somehow, the Texans did not create one turnover all season on throws over the short middle. It is worth nothing that Buffalo only threw 106 passes over the short middle -- it wasn't a focal point for them -- but they did do some work there.
The absence of safety Tashaun Gipson, hurt during a meaningless Week 17 game where he somehow was given 48 snaps, is only going to amplify this. In the three games where Gipson mostly didn't play -- Week 7 against the Colts, Week 8 against the Raiders, and Week 9 against the Jaguars in London -- the Texans allowed an absurd 192.0% DVOA on passes over the short middle. In Week 7 and Week 8, Derek Carr and Jacoby Brissett set season-highs in touchdown throws. It is J.J. Watt's return that gets a lot of the press here, and rightly so, but a lot of those terrible short middle stats happened with Watt on the field wreaking havoc. Gipson may be a bigger loss than he is publicly perceived to be.
What does Watt's return do for the Texans? A lot. Houston's pass rush dissipated into the dust without him. D.J. Reader began to see more double-teams and Whitney Mercilus simply can't consistently beat solid tackles. On Mercilus' 7.5 sacks, the following left tackles were in the game for his opponents: Donovan Smith, Terron Armstead, Greg Little, Trenton Scott, Will Richardson. That's one Pro Bowler, one overpaid franchise tag player, a high-round rookie, and flotsam. Jacob Martin gave the Texans a splash of pass rush down the stretch, but they don't have a lot in the cupboard without Jadeveon Clowney. When asked how they would use Watt, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel first noted that he'd like pass rush. It's unclear exactly how much Watt's snaps will be limited, and of course he's at a higher risk of re-injury than most players after rushing back from this torn pectoral muscle. But if I had to posit a guess based on need and effort, I'd expect the Texans to work him in gently in sub packages the first few series and then re-evaluate after they see more.
Houston's run defense has also steadily declined without Watt. Weeks 1 to 8 saw Houston's run defense at -20.2% DVOA, fourth-best in the NFL. From Week 9 on, the Texans have fallen to 5.5% as a run defense, fourth-worst in the NFL. The biggest difference has come on plays at right tackle and right end -- without Watt, the Texans allow 18.9% DVOA on carries at his spot. With Watt, who has always been a bit of a freelancer and prone to leaving his gap, that number was only 6.6%. Devin Singletary has a noted split of creating more yards on his off-tackle and outside attempts, and I think that's an area the Bills can exploit with or without Watt playing on run downs. Let's not let it sit idly uncommented on that the Bills should have an advantage running the ball in this game, in a game where both teams figure to cram runs in by the bushel.
Another big reason for Allen's improvement is the free-agent and draft investments around him this year: John Brown, Cole Beasley, and an almost entirely new offensive line. Brown creates an amusing segue because normally I'd tell you that T.Y. Hilton toasts slow Houston cornerbacks and John Brown can too, but things have gotten a little more aggressive for Romeo Crennel over the past few weeks.
Johnathan Joseph played just six snaps in Houston's last meaningful game in Tampa Bay. They've imported Gareon Conley from Oakland for a third-round pick, and they reeled in Vernon Hargreaves III as a waiver claim from Tampa Bay. Those two combined with Bradley Roby to be the main corners against Tampa Bay -- and the Texans have been a lot more aggressive in man coverage and blitzing without Joseph in the lineup. Houston blitzed 24.9% of the time in 2018 per SportsRadar's numbers, and this year that has skyrocketed to 32.8%. They've been even more aggressive in the course of certain games -- they went after Jameis Winston on 21 of 51 dropbacks.
And of course, this is where we talk about Allen versus the blitz. You knew this was coming. Derrik Klassen wrote about it. Per SIS, Allen has struggled to the tune of 5.6 yards per attempt against the blitz, the fourth-lowest rate of any qualifying quarterback. (Daniel Jones, Mitchell Trubisky, and Eli Manning are below him.) Allen also has a notable split between his performance against zone and man coverage -- he has completed just 102 of 210 passes for 6.3 yards per attempt against man per SIS. Man coverage often demands accurate placement, and that accuracy is something that Allen is still lacking in his quest to become a franchise quarterback.
The Texans have the pieces to run a game plan that strangles Allen's game and forces him to win in tight man coverage. The Texans pretty much have to play this way because Crennel's second- and third-and-long defense is trash that will hold the Texans back if their lead ever gets too big. Crennel's zones have given up a league-worst 34.5% DVOA on second-and-long and a mind-bogglingly bad 110.5% DVOA on third-and-long. Meanwhile, the Bills have gone for it on fourth down more than any non-Ravens team this year. If Crennel gives up fourth-and-short, he may live to regret it.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
The Houston Texans are held hostage by Will Fuller (groin, questionable). They have one of the most dynamic pass offenses in the NFL when he's out there and one of the worst pass offenses in the NFL when he's not:
Houston's pass offense DVOA in games where Fuller played at least 20 snaps in 2019: 35.4% (4th), 115.3% on deep balls (11th)
Without Fuller (excluding Week 17): -8.5% (27th), 17.6% on deep balls (29th, and they threw just 29 of them)
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 31, 2019
Even the reports on whether Fuller will play or not are coming out different ways, with James Palmer of NFL Network reporting he's a real long shot to play while ESPN's Stefano Fusaro reported he's expected to play. It's hard to explain exactly why Fuller has the swing on this offense that he does, but a lot of it plays in to the head coach's perception of how he has to win ball games -- the Texans frequently do not throw deep without Fuller, which limits a lot of their game plan.
Houston went out and improved their offensive line massively this offseason, and a lot of the reasons they did so were on display in the 2018 game. While Deshaun Watson did create a sack or two on his own in that one based on where he stepped up, a lot of his sacks were on an offensive line that was dominated. Laremy Tunsil is a major improvement on Juli'en Davenport, and second-round pick Max Scharping has been an improvement on Houston's left guard position in 2018. The right side of Houston's line has been less effective since first-rounder Tytus Howard went to IR. Chris Clark plays meaningful snaps.
The Texans are still Bill O'Brien's team. Here's how that plays out on the field: five teams have more than 250 first-down runs this year, and the Texans are the only one of those teams with a DVOA below -1.8% when they do it. They're at -5.6%. Since their bye week, as they've mostly dispensed with trying to run read-options or run-pass options in a meaningful way, that number is at -11.5%. Inside zone sparks joy for Bill O'Brien. When they played the Texans in 2018, Buffalo was able to hold the Houston run game to 3.0 yards per carry.
Buffalo's seasonal run defense DVOA is a wacky rollercoaster ride. They finished 18th in DVOA at -8.3%. They had four separate games with above-0.0% DVOA as a run defense: Week 2, Week 8, Week 12, and Week 15. Per SportsRadar's tracking, the Bills allowed 56, 86, 40, and 17 yards after contact in those games. So generally, their big games weren't about missed tackles, they were about clear schematic wins. In those four games, the Bills played against 11 personnel on 54% of their snaps and allowed 5.7 yards per carry. The Texans averaged 5.3 yards per carry out of 11 personnel this season, but rarely used it on first downs. These numbers suggest that as long as the Bills are able to stay heavy, they'll be pretty good about limiting Houston's run offense.
Buffalo's defense tends to funnel targets to No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers and running backs. Our numbers have the Bills with a -21.3% DVOA against No. 2 wideouts and -32.5% DVOA against No. 1 wideouts, but they're at just -4.8% against running backs (subscription required), and Houston's Duke Johnson has been incredible this year when he actually becomes part of the passing game. That's one area where the Texans could get some real traction. The Bills allowed 7.4 targets per game to running backs against the league-average of 7.0. Otherwise, you probably don't need me to tell you that Tre'Davious White versus DeAndre Hopkins is a huge matchup that will determine a lot about who wins this game.
Much has been made about how Josh Allen struggles against the blitz, but in lowkey hushed whispers, let's discuss Deshaun Watson against the blitz. Houston beat Tampa Bay to clinch the division in Week 16, but their offense was abominable as Watson took 19 blitzes per SportsRadar charting. In the seven games in which Watson was blitzed 10 or more times per SportsRadar charting this year, the Texans have a -7.6% passing DVOA and 16 turnovers. Both Baltimore and Tampa were able to chew up the Texans with their aggressive play calling; New England and New Orleans were not. Hey, I wonder which games Will Fuller played in of those four?
Buffalo's defense is a middle-of-the-pack blitzing team that is very strongly a rush-four-and-cover base -- they rush four on 72.4% of defensive downs. While we don't have a game that these two teams have played this year, Sean McDermott came from Carolina, and Ron Rivera's Panthers did in fact share a common defensive blueprint if not the exact same scheme. The Bills use a bit more man coverage than Carolina does, but I think Buffalo can look at that game and come away with some similar lines of attack to keep the game low scoring.
Buffalo is most easily attacked over the middle of the field -- their 22.9% DVOA allowed over the middle is 20th, and their 114.6% DVOA allowed on deep passes over the middle is fifth-worst in the NFL (subscription required). The Texans generated the sixth-most passes targeting the short middle this year, but generated just 25.7% DVOA on them -- the average pass offense DVOA over the short middle was 45.7%.
As always, Houston's offense lives or dies with Bill O'Brien's creativity. When O'Brien gets down into the weeds and designs new stuff, the offense can look impressively easy. When he rests on his laurels, the Texans are liable to spend two quarters punting and wondering what happened. With how bad Houston's defense is this year, they can't afford any slack in this game.
One of Houston's advantages in this game is in special teams. Several special teams coordinators on opposing teams, as well as none other than Matthew Slater, have praised what the Texans have done under Brad Seely. Seely's coverage teams have been outstanding enough to pin returners below the 20 often, and Bryan Anger's work has been so good that the Texans extended him in the leadup to their Week 17 game. The Texans don't have a ton of trust in Kai Fairbairn as a long-distance field-goal kicker, but everything else about the operation has been fairly solid this year.
In contrast, almost all the positive value the Bills have received from special teams this year has been from 2018 Pro Bowler Andre Roberts, who has returned almost all kicks and punts and has done so excellently. With Bills coverage teams struggling, this could be an opportunity for DeAndre Carter.
Our numbers believe the Bills are the better regular-season team. The Texans have home field and, in theory, could have two of their best five players healthy for this game for the first time since Week 6. It's much closer to a mathematical coin-flip than a game where either team has a real advantage, but I don't think it's exactly breaking open ground to announce that it's a lot easier to see the Texans winning this game if the Watt and Fuller comebacks go well.
So much about the Texans has been inconsistent all year. They definitely have more star power in this matchup, but the Bills have only gotten better as the season goes along. Ultimately, neither result would surprise us much.
Tennessee at New England
|DVOA||8.6% (9)||29.9% (3)|
|WEI DVOA||20.4% (5)||19.0% (6)|
|Titans on Offense|
|TEN OFF||NE DEF|
|DVOA||12.9% (6)||-24.6% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||24.7% (3)||-16.8% (4)|
|PASS||29.6% (6)||-32.2% (1)|
|RUSH||7.9% (5)||-14.0% (6)|
|Patriots on Offense|
|TEN DEF||NE OFF|
|DVOA||1.0% (16)||4.1% (11)|
|WEI DVOA||1.7% (20)||-0.6% (15)|
|PASS||11.0% (21)||14.9% (14)|
|RUSH||-12.6% (10)||-2.9% (16)|
|ST DVOA||-3.2% (29)||1.2% (11)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Whether or not you think the wild-card game between the Patriots and Titans will be close depends on how much of the teams' histories you believe will inform their play on Saturday. Tom Brady is 20-3 in home playoff games in his career, and that more than anything else explains the Patriots' five-point spread. The Patriots own a healthy advantage in full-season DVOA, but the Titans have a slight edge in weighted DVOA, and it's easy to convince yourself that those latter numbers best capture the current quality of these two teams.
For the Titans, the narrative is simple. They benched incumbent Marcus Mariota for former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in Week 7, and their offense flourished. Over the first six weeks, Mariota led the Titans to the 29th-ranked offensive DVOA of -19.0%. With Tannehill as the starter, they jumped to second with a 31.2% offensive DVOA over the final 11 weeks.
The Patriots didn't suffer a dramatic personnel change during the season, but their circumstances certainly changed. They led all teams with an historically excellent -44.0% defensive DVOA in the first half of the season, but they did that against the league's weakest schedule (-15.5%). After an opening week dismantling of Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers, the Patriots faced an uninspiring and inexperienced sextet of starting quarterbacks -- Ryan Fitzpatrick, Luke Falk, Josh Allen, Colt McCoy, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold, and Baker Mayfield -- that they victimized for 16 interceptions against just two passing touchdowns. In the second half of the season, the Patriots faced exceptional quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes, and at times struggled to stymie them. It added up to a -8.3% defensive DVOA that was just seventh-best against the 10th-hardest second-half schedule (3.8%). DVOA makes adjustments for opponent quality, but those may be understating the sensitivity of this Patriots defense to good quarterback play and good gameplanning and coaching.
That coaching theory is an especially interesting one for this matchup because Titans head coach Mike Vrabel won three Super Bowls as a player for Bill Belichick at the start of the Brady dynasty. The Patriots' most shocking upsets the last two seasons came at the hands of former Belichick assistants: in Week 3 of 2018 to Matt Patricia's Lions and last week to Brian Flores' No. 32 DVOA Dolphins. The Dolphins and Bill O'Brien's Texans were the only two opponents that threw the ball effectively against the Patriots all season. And Vrabel's Titans manhandled the Patriots last season with a 34-10 victory.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Fresh off a 211-yard, three-touchdown performance that he punctuated with a 53-yard touchdown run that won him the NFL rushing title -- his 1,540 yards were 46 more than Nick Chubb in second place -- Derrick Henry is the rare modern running back who is the focal point of his team's offense. Henry led the league with 303 carries and is the biggest reason the Titans finished fourth in the league running the ball on 49.8% of offensive snaps
Interestingly, the top five teams in rushing rate -- the Ravens (57.5%), 49ers (51.0%), Vikings (50.5%), Titans, and Seahawks (48.2%) -- all made the playoffs. This isn't an establish the run argument, but I do think that might suggest more than that good teams build leads and can run the ball in the second half of games to kill clock. Yes, Henry averaged 2.6 more carries in the second half of games this season than in the first half, but he also averaged 1.9 more yards per carry in the second half, with marked improvements to both his yards before and after contact. Meanwhile, Henry has also shown marked improvements from the first half to the second half of the season that last two years, finishing first at the position in both yards per attempt and yards after contact per attempt after November 1.
|Derrick Henry's Season-Half Splits 2018-19|
|Before Nov. 1||After Nov. 1|
|Att Per Gm||15.7||15||17.7||6|
|Yds Per Att||3.6||34||6.2||1|
|Yds Bef Con Per Att||1.0||38||2.5||9|
|Yds Aft Con Per Att||2.7||6||3.7||1|
|Minimum 100 carries for each season half|
I'm dangerously close to another cliché here that a power back like Henry wears down defenses as games and the season go along, but there could be more truth to the cliché in the modern NFL as defenses trade size for speed to counter some of the passing trends of the last decade. Teams used nickel defenses with five defensive backs less than 50% of the time every season from 2011 to 2014, but they've exceeded 50% every year since, including 60% and 55% the last two seasons according to researcher John Shirley of Sports Info Solutions. Henry didn't fare any better against those defenses than base defenses in 2019, but they accounted for a relatively small sample at just a third of his total carries. That may not be the case against a Patriots defense that used nickel 42% and dime 35% of the time in 2019.
Really, the Titans are built to take advantage of the Patriots' relative defensive weakness against the run (No. 6 in DVOA). Their No. 1 DVOA pass defense is built on four defensive backs in the top 30 in coverage success rate (subscription required), the least of which is likely Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. They naturally prefer to keep those players on the field, which should provide an opportunity for Henry and his No. 4 run-blocking line (4.66 adjusted line yards) to run wild.
The Titans are also built to take advantage of the Patriots' relative defensive weakness against play-action passes. The Patriots defense allowed 7.3 yards per play-action attempt (subscription required) this year versus 5.1 yards per traditional attempt, good for a bottom-five differential. Meanwhile, the Titans threw for 10.9 yards per play-action attempt (subscription required), 4.3 yards on average more than on traditional attempts, both the best marks in football.
The Titans are equipped to move the ball more effectively against an excellent Patriots defense than most teams. The critical question then might be whether they can finish those drives with touchdowns. They were remarkably good at that task in 2019, converting 75.6% of their red zone trips into touchdowns, the highest rate in football by an 8.4% margin over the second-place Ravens. Tannehill drove that success with a 71.1% completion rate and 5.0 yards per attempt in the red zone, second-best and best in football, but those results are a clear outlier from his previous career standards of 57.1% and 3.9. If regression strikes him on Saturday, the Titans may struggle to keep pace with the Patriots' scoring and rely on Henry for the bulk of their offensive.
Still, Tannehill deserves some trust in his ability to deliver the ball effectively even against the Patriots' otherworldly pass defense after the season he had. He finished among the league leaders with a 28.1% DVOA and led the league by a full yard with 9.6 yards per attempt. Tannehill was willing to throw the ball downfield -- his 9.8-yard average depth of throw dwarfed Mariota's at 7.3 yards -- and that helped transform receiver A.J. Brown into a leading offensive rookie of the year candidate. Brown's 26.2% DVOA was fifth-best among wide receivers with at least 50 targets.
Brown may be taking over the Titans' No. 1 target role, but the team might still need former first-round pick Corey Davis to excel this weekend. Davis was instrumental in the Titans' 34-10 blowout of the Patriots last season, catching seven passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. That Patriots pass defense wasn't this year's Patriots pass defense, but Gilmore seems to have his worst games against big receivers like Davis and DeVante Parker last week, while holding smaller No. 1 receivers like Amari Cooper and DeAndre Hopkins in check.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense have received the bulk of the public heat for the team's poor close to the season, but it was actually the defense that declined in the second half. Their offense was very consistent in-season with a 5.5% DVOA (11th) in the first half and 2.6% DVOA (10th) in the second half. Of course, that standard is down noticeably from a 14.5% DVOA (fifth) in 2018, and I don't think there is any doubt that Rob Gronkowski's retirement made an impact. Brady shifted about 6% of his aimed passes from tight ends to wide receivers in 2019, and his passes to tight ends were shorter and less productive.
|Tom Brady's Success by Target Position, 2018-19|
The Patriots have shifted offensive philosophies based on personnel many times through their dynasty, but they did not enjoy their usual success with the change in 2019. First-round rookie receiver N'Keal Harry spent the first half of the season on injured reserve with an ankle injury and struggled after his return with a -25.7% DVOA, and in-season trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu was even less efficient with a -32.4% DVOA. Julian Edelman caught his traditional six passes per game, but the Patriots desperately needed a talented receiver on the outside to complement him and stretch the field. After losing Gronkowski to retirement, Antonio Brown to legal troubles, and Josh Gordon to injuries, the team didn't have it. And Brady's yards per attempt to wide receivers fell from 8.8 yards last year to 6.9 this year, an even steeper decline than on his passes to tight ends.
It's less clear to me how much blame to assign to an aging Brady for the team's declining offensive success. He continued to receive excellent pass protection. After leading the league with a 22.9% offensive pressure rate in 2018 (subscription required), the Patriots pass protection finished second, allowing just a 24.2% offensive pressure rate in 2019. And while I traditionally would have credited Brady's decisive nature for a healthy portion of that success, Brady held the ball 0.13 seconds longer on average in 2019 than he did in 2018 according to Next Gen Stats. It was the difference between having the seventh-quickest trigger and the 13th-quickest trigger. With none of his primary targets averaging more than 3.1 yards of separation, Brady likely held the ball longer because of fewer immediate opportunities for completions. So does Brady deserve the blame for his decline from a 70.4% to a 66.9% catchable aimed pass rate, or did his circumstances dictate that as well?
That question may not have mattered as much if the Patriots could have shifted more work and enjoyed more success on the ground, something their first-round selection of running back Sony Michel in 2018 seemed to foreshadow. But the team declined from a 45.4% run rate and 2.5% rushing DVOA (ninth) in 2018 to a 41.9% run rate and -2.9% rushing DVOA (16th) in 2019. Michel's efficiency declined sharply in 2019, but like with Brady, I suspect he owes more of those losses to changing circumstances than changing ability. The Patriots run-blocking fell from third best with 5.03 adjusted line yards in 2018 to just ninth-best with 4.51 adjusted line yards in 2019. There, personnel likely was a major factor. Gronkowski was one of the best blocking tight ends in football. Center David Andrews missed the season because of blood clots. And fullback James Develin missed the bulk of the season after he suffered a neck injury in Week 2.
In typical team fashion, the Patriots' best hope for an offensive resurgence comes from a non-traditional decision to deploy linebacker Elandon Roberts at fullback. Roberts started those efforts in earnest in Week 15 and has logged 39 offensive snaps over the final three weeks of the regular season. And since that move, Michel has seen his yards per attempt, success rate, and DVOA all rebound to near their 2018 levels.
|Sony Michel's Efficiency Splits, 2018-19|
|Weeks 1-17, 2018||4.5||53%||-2.7%|
|Weeks 1-14, 2019||3.5||46%||-7.7%|
|Weeks 15-17, 2019||4.5||62%||-3.5%|
Of course, the Patriots have also played that stretch of games against the Bengals, Bills, and Dolphins, all in the bottom half of teams in run defense DVOA. Things likely will be more difficult against the Titans' No. 10 DVOA run defense on Saturday, which will put the Patriots' offensive fortunes where they have tended to be over the last 20 years, on Tom Brady's shoulders.
The good news for Brady is the Titans' pass defense is No. 21 in DVOA and bottom-12 in pass coverage against No. 1 receivers, "other" receivers including slot receivers, and running backs. Cornerbacks Adoree' Jackson and Malcolm Butler have not lived up to their respective first-round draft selection and $61-million contract to leave the Patriots for the Titans, and Butler is out for the season with a wrist injury. And none of the team's qualified corners are holding receivers under 7.7 yards per target (subscription required). The Titans have several defensive weaknesses that the Patriots can try to exploit, and those are the situations where the Patriots' excellent gameplanning has frequently made a difference.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski's early-season hip injury should have ended the Patriots' seemingly impossible 23-year streak as a top-half team in special teams DVOA. But even while cycling through kickers Mike Nugent and Kai Forbath -- the former of whom missed three field goals and three extra point attempts in just four games -- before landing on Nick Folk, the Patriots finished the season with their 24th consecutive top-half finish with the No. 11 special teams DVOA. And that's not even giving credit for their four blocked punts (blocked kicks are usually too random to have predictive value). And with that as a threat and even though Folk does not have the same range as his predecessor, the Patriots should have a pretty significant edge in special teams over the Titans and their No. 29-ranked unit.
Cairo Santos struggled to make field goals at the start of the season, and a still-injured Ryan Succop was even worse after he returned from injured reserve in Week 9. Succop did not make any of his five attempts over 40 yards before returning to injured reserve two weeks ago. Overall, the Titans finished with an abysmal 44.4% field goal rate, more than 20% below the next-worst team. (The last team to miss more field goals than they made was the 1987 Minnesota Vikings, in part because strike replacement kicker Dale Dawson missed four of his five kicks.) They will have to hope that new kicker Greg Joseph can right the ship for the playoffs. He has made all nine of his extra points since joining the team in Week 16 but has yet to attempt a field goal. The one thing that has gone right for the Titans special teams is a good performance by punter Brett Kern. Note that usual return man Kalif Raymond is questionable in the concussion protocol.
It's easy to talk yourself into a Titans upset given their relative matchup of offensive strengths with Patriots defensive weaknesses in the running game and with play-action passing. And if the Titans can build an early lead, I'd expect them to close it, especially given the potential for cold temperatures and rain that would likely make it difficult for the Patriots to throw effectively to catch up. But there is another matching of strength and weakness that I expect could land the Patriots an early lead. Aided by their excellent coverage, the Patriots have the second-best defensive pressure rate of 35.0% (subscription required), and Ryan Tannehill leads all quarterbacks with at least 300 dropbacks with a 9.8% sack rate. A couple of early sacks -- and possibly strip-sacks given the potential for rain -- could flip field position and allow the Patriots to score some early points even without an elite offense. And I expect it would be incredibly difficult for Tannehill to lead a Titans comeback on the road in his first career playoff game.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.