A Legendary Buffalo Bills Performance
NFL Wild Card - Once again, it is time for postseason DVOA ratings. As always, the following rules apply:
- All 32 teams are ranked, whether they made the playoffs or not.
- Teams are ranked in order of weighted DVOA, not total season DVOA. Since weighted DVOA is meant to lower the strength of older games, these ratings do not include Weeks 1-3, and Weeks 4-11 are somewhat discounted.
- The ratings listed do not include the adjustments used in the ratings for our playoff odds report. For example, Green Bay moves up significantly in those ratings because I removed Week 18 as well as the offense from Week 9 (Jordan Love). You'll find those ratings for the final nine teams in this tweet.
- Only weighted DVOA is listed for offense, defense, and special teams. Total DVOA is also listed, but one game doesn't change much in a 17-game sample so these ratings will be similar to those from the end of the season.
- Teams which did not play in the wild-card round are treated as if they had a bye week. (That includes both the 18 non-playoff teams and the two teams with byes.)
Obviously, most of my DVOA commentary for this week is going to be about the amazing game that the Buffalo Bills played against the Patriots on Saturday night. Seven drives, seven touchdowns! It was basically a perfect offensive game. It does not come out as the best overall playoff game in DVOA history. Nor does it come out as the best offensive game in DVOA history. But the Bills came really close to both titles.
Do you want to compare this week's Bills game to all the playoff games in DVOA history? I'm going to do it for you, but this is where I get to announce that you can also do it for yourself! That's right, we've now added 38 years of postseason DVOA to the FO+ database. Here's what you can now look up:
- You can look up DVOA ratings that include both the regular season and the postseason. For example, here's the total DVOA from last year, showing how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass the New Orleans Saints for the top spot when we include the playoffs. You can also look this up for offense, defense, or special teams separately. Do remember that weighted DVOA gets really wonky for non-playoff teams or even for teams that lost in the first round; right now, that's weighted DVOA through the Super Bowl and by that point, some teams haven't played in four weeks.
- You can look up DVOA ratings for just the playoffs. These are listed along with how many games each team played in that postseason. So now you can see that the Baltimore Ravens, for example, had the best DVOA in the 2012 postseason. This also available for just offense and defense (with pass/rush splits) along with special teams.
- The pages with single-game DVOA for a team in each week of a season now include playoff games. For example, you can look at the entire incredible postseason run of the 2007 New York Giants.
- You can also look up single-game DVOA for every game in a specific week of the playoffs, for example, the wild-card round from 2009.
Now let's get back to the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo ends up with 138.4% total DVOA for Saturday night's victory, which is the best single game of the 2021 season (regular or postseason). It turns out this is the sixth-best playoff game in DVOA history. The best postseason performance is also the best-ever single-game DVOA under the current formula: San Francisco with 156.4% DVOA for a 44-3 win over the New York Giants in the 1993 divisional round. It's a good example of turnabout being fair play because the second-best playoff game belongs to the Giants for their 49-3 win over Joe Montana and the 49ers in the 1986 divisional round. That game gets 149.4% DVOA. Here are the top playoff games since 1983, listed with each opponent's rank in total DVOA that year:
|Best Playoff Games by Total DVOA, 1983-2021|
Buffalo finished the game with 108.1% offensive DVOA, which is the best offensive performance in postseason history by DVOA. It is not the best offensive game ever, coming in behind the 2018 Kansas City Chiefs against Cleveland and the 2005 San Diego Chargers against the Giants. (My apologies for an early tweet where I said that Buffalo was second all-time; I missed the San Diego game in initially reviewing my files.)
Here's a look at the top offensive DVOA games since 1983, listed with each opponent's rank in defensive DVOA that year:
|Best Games by Offensive DVOA, 1983-2021|
The Bills were essentially perfect, with touchdowns on every single drive, against a top-five defense from the regular season. So how on earth did two games get ahead of this Bills performance? Let's dive a little deeper.
The 2018 Chiefs Week 9 game against the Browns seems like a weird candidate to be the best offensive DVOA game ever recorded. At the time, it seemed like just another Chiefs win in a season full of Chiefs wins. Nobody particularly took notice of it as a performance for the ages. The Chiefs didn't even make it to 40 points, so how does that game come out so high in DVOA?
The answer is tied to what is and is not counted in DVOA. Most offensive penalties are not counted in DVOA because we haven't found them to be as predictive as passing and rushing. And the Chiefs committed a number of penalties in that game. In particular, they got flagged for six offensive holding penalties, five of which counted. The penalties kept moving the Chiefs back and then Patrick Mahomes just went and converted the long-yardage downs over and over. The Chiefs did their Chiefs thing of folding up in the fourth quarter, when they kicked a field goal and then punted twice. However, in the first three quarters, the Chiefs had six drives and scored five touchdowns with one meaningless end-of-half Hail Mary.
Because of all the penalties, the Chiefs had an astonishing average of 10.6 yards to go on plays in the first three quarters of that game. That gives them a lower baseline of expectation than the Bills. Essentially, DVOA divides success value by total expected value, and so the denominator in DVOA was lower for the Chiefs in that game. And the Chiefs then soared past that expectation with 11.5 yards per play in the first three quarters! By comparison, the Buffalo Bills averaged 9.2 yards with 7.8 average yards to go in the first three quarters of Saturday night's game. The Bills kept pouring it on in the fourth quarter while the 2018 Chiefs did not, but of course I downweight the fourth quarter offense in blowouts.
The 2005 Chargers Week 3 game against the Giants is a bit harder to explain. Like the Bills this week, the 2005 Chargers kept playing hard for four quarters so we can compare their numbers to the Bills over the entire game. For the entire game Saturday night, Buffalo averaged 9.5 yards with 7.5 average yards to go. The 2005 Chargers against the Giants averaged 8.8 yards with 7.9 average yards to go. They did this against an average defense. Unlike the Bills, they turned over the ball once, with LaDainian Tomlinson fumbling on a three-yard reception. This does not seem like a better performance.
So why is this game so high in DVOA? First, the Giants were not an average defense in every way. The Chargers had a run-heavy game plan against a Giants defense that was fourth against the run but 23rd against the pass that season. We also have to remember that there's been a lot of change in the offensive baseline since 2005. That Chargers team played in a league where the average play gained 5.16 yards and the average offensive success rate was 40%. This Bills team plays in a league where the average play this season gained 5.51 yards and the average offensive success rate was 45%. In "raw VOA" without adjustments for the current season, Saturday night's Bills performance is better. That's the best explanation I've got for you without having to go in and analyze every single specific play in each game to figure out why that 2005 Chargers game comes out a little higher than the Bills game.
And after playing this incredible game on Saturday night, the Bills of course moved to the top spot in DVOA, right? Well, half right. The Bills are indeed the No. 1 team right now in total DVOA that includes every week of the season plus the wild-card round. However, surprisingly, they still are narrowly behind Dallas in weighted DVOA! Buffalo's weighted DVOA goes up 8% while the Cowboys stay basically the same but the Cowboys are still No. 1. Their weighted offense dropped but their weighted defense and special teams improved. This has to do with both this week's game, where Dallas had a positive DVOA despite the loss, but also has to do with the way the weights work for games in past weeks. And it certainly wouldn't be the case without that Week 18 game where the Eagles played all backups and the Cowboys destroyed them. If we were taking that game out in the ratings we use for the playoff odds simulation, Buffalo would easily be ahead of Dallas. But we don't have to worry about that since Dallas isn't playing any more games.
Otherwise, the teams move in ways you probably expect. Kansas City and San Francisco move up, now third and fourth. Tampa Bay dropping a little bit is a surprise, as they go from fourth to fifth in weighted DVOA. This is partly because Tampa's best game of the year, 45-17 over Miami in Week 5, is down to 20% strength in the weighted DVOA formula. The Rams also move up a spot as the Patriots drop from second to seventh. When someone has a legendarily great performance, there's always a team on the other side having a legendarily bad performance.
(Speaking of the Rams, we'll also have updated ratings Tuesday after the Arizona-Los Angeles game tonight.)
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To save people some time, we remind everyone to put their angry troll hatred into the official zlionsfan angry troll hatred Mad Libs form:
<team> is clearly ranked <too high/too low> because <reason unrelated to DVOA>. <subjective ranking system> is way better than this. <unrelated team-supporting or -denigrating comment, preferably with poor spelling and/or chat-acceptable spelling>
If you are new to our website, you can read the explanation of how DVOA is figured here. As always, positive numbers represent more points so DEFENSE is better when it is NEGATIVE.
There are no adjustments here for sitting starters in Week 18, although we do adjust the ratings that we use in the playoff odds report.
Teams in yellow are still alive in the playoffs. Teams in gray lost this past weekend.
Click here for a look at full-season DVOA with offensive and defensive splits.
Next, let's look at all the single-game ratings from wild-card weekend. You may be surprised that ratings are not higher for Kansas City and Tampa Bay in their blowout victories over Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, respectively. For once, the Chiefs didn't fall in DVOA because of how they played in the fourth quarter, at least on offense. This week, they were lower than you expect because of how they played in the first quarter: -82% offensive DVOA in the first quarter before 86% offensive DVOA over the rest of the game. The defense, of course, took its foot off the gas in the second half in proper Kansas City Chiefs fashion. Kansas City had -56% defensive DVOA in the first half and 50% defensive DVOA in the second half. You'll also notice that the Chiefs get adjusted downward when going from VOA to DVOA, even in a playoff game. Pittsburgh just wasn't a very good team this year.
Tampa Bay's offense maybe wasn't quite as impressive as you think on Sunday afternoon. Even in the first half of the game, the Bucs averaged just 4.5 yards per play. That muffed punt by Jalen Reagor did a lot of work for them. The other issue here is, like with the Chiefs, fourth-quarter defense. Tampa's defensive DVOA was -71% through the first three quarters and then 82% in the fourth quarter as the Eagles averaged 10 yards per play but their comeback attempt never got within a reasonable distance. As I've noted a few times in recent weeks, we're going to take another look at how we handle the second halves of blowouts this offseason to see if we can figure out a way to improve the predictive ability of DVOA by further downweighting these plays.