by Scott Kacsmar (IND-KC) and Rivers McCown (LAC-NE)
The main narrative of this week's AFC playoff games is a difficult draw for both of the home teams that earned first-round byes. The Chiefs get the hottest team in the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts, in a matchup of the top two teams in weighted DVOA. Meanwhile, the Patriots get a Chargers team that had superior stats and more wins during the regular season. Home-field advantage and that extra week of rest still have the Chiefs and Patriots as favorites in these games, but bettors are also considering the Patriots' mystique and the Chiefs' distinct lack of it.
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.
Indianapolis at Kansas City
|DVOA||12.6% (8)||33.0% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||28.4% (2)||32.3% (1)|
|Colts on Offense|
|IND OFF||KC DEF|
|DVOA||8.2% (10)||6.8% (26)|
|WEI DVOA||19.2% (2)||1.5% (17)|
|PASS||21.3% (10)||4.7% (12)|
|RUSH||-3.2% (13)||9.7% (32)|
|Chiefs on Offense|
|IND DEF||KC OFF|
|DVOA||-3.4% (10)||34.2% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||-8.6% (7)||31.6% (1)|
|PASS||8.8% (20)||63.0% (1)|
|RUSH||-18.8% (4)||10.9% (4)|
|ST DVOA||0.9% (12)||5.6% (2)|
If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Kansas City (12-4) is the No. 1 seed and the Colts (11-6) were the last team to get in the playoffs, but it would be hard to find another 6-at-1 matchup where the home fans should feel so nervous. Chalk that up to one of the shakiest playoff resumes in NFL history, and an opponent that has been a real nemesis to the Chiefs in past years. Colts general manager Chris Ballard even helped build the current Chiefs roster before he took the Indianapolis job.
Since the 1970 merger, the Chiefs are 4-16 (.200) in the playoffs, a record for which only Detroit (1-12) would swipe right. Worse, the Chiefs are 2-7 at Arrowhead Stadium, where they are losers of six straight in January. For a stadium known for being so loud, it sure does get awfully quiet there this time of year. This losing streak began with a shocking 10-7 loss to the scrappy 1995 Colts. The 2003 Colts, led by Peyton Manning, won a 38-31 game in Arrowhead that featured no punts. In the 2013 AFC wild-card game, it was Andrew Luck's turn to help the Colts erase a 38-10 deficit in the second half for a 45-44 win over Andy Reid's Chiefs in Indianapolis. In the last two postseasons, the Chiefs have lost at home to the 2016 Steelers after allowing six field goals (18-16 final), then last year the Titans came back from a 21-3 halftime deficit for a stunning 22-21 win.
For the next chapter in Kansas City's tortured playoff history to be something new, the Chiefs are hoping that All-Pro quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the hero for whom they've been searching for decades. At just 23 years old, Mahomes is having one of the greatest quarterback seasons in NFL history, with 50 touchdown passes and 5,097 passing yards. Only Peyton Manning (2013) has hit those marks in the same season before. Mahomes has been consistently spectacular, and he'll have to continue that each week in the playoffs since his defense has been anything but great. The Chiefs allowed 421 points this season, the most ever by a team with more than 10 wins. Can this defense close against a quarterback in Luck who was second to Mahomes with 39 touchdown passes this season?
As we looked at two years ago before the Pittsburgh loss, Reid is 20-4 after a bye week, but he has lost two of his last three such games. The Chiefs also didn't know this week's opponent until Sunday afternoon, and the Colts aren't a familiar opponent, having last played Kansas City in 2016 (a 30-14 win for Reid in Indy). The Colts come in on a 10-1 stretch while the Chiefs have gone 3-3 over their last six games.
There have been some reports that a snow storm could take place during this game on Saturday. This season hasn't had a legitimate snow game yet, and while we will acknowledge the impact that could have on the matchup, we're going to assume the weather won't be significant. The best expectation for Saturday is points. The Vegas total for this game was still holding strong at 57.5 on Thursday. That would be the third-highest total for a playoff game in Pro Football Reference's database, and the highest for an outdoor playoff game.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
This matchup is the one most likely to dictate the game's outcome. If Luck can efficiently lead scoring drives against the Chiefs' inferior defense, then that just makes Mahomes' job tougher to match him. Head coach Frank Reich denied that a ball-control strategy was the plan this week, though it's not like a coach is going to willfully tip his hand days before the game of his career. However, the 2018 Colts aren't a big-play offense to begin with. The running game ranked 22nd in yards per carry and Luck was 13th in yards per dropback. The Colts only had three offensive touchdowns of 30-plus yards (the Chiefs had nine). Luck was 22nd in aDOT (7.6) and 30th in YAC per completion (4.5). All the numbers are a little more impressive if we only look at the turnaround from the 1-5 start, but the fact remains that mixing in runs with dart throws was already on the agenda for Indianapolis this week.
Barring a blizzard that destroys the playing surface, this game may inevitably be low on possessions with highly efficient offense on both sides. The Colts and Chiefs led the NFL in third-down conversion rate on offense this season, but the Chiefs were 29th on defense in DVOA on money downs. The Colts were 9-for-14 on third down in Houston last week. That's a huge down for Indianapolis to maintain possession this week.
The Colts as a team are actually second in weighted DVOA coming into this game. The Chiefs are No. 1 for the season, but so much of that is thanks to the historic offense and No. 2 special teams. The defense finished 26th in DVOA, which is a bad omen for the postseason. Since 1986, only one team has won a Super Bowl with a defense ranked 21st or lower in DVOA. The 2006 Colts were ranked 25th, but at least they got Bob Sanders back for the playoffs. They also played a less-than-stellar slate of opposing offenses in the playoffs. It doesn't sound like safety Eric Berry is going to play for the Chiefs, so there's a boost they won't receive this week against a hot Indianapolis team. For the season, the Chiefs ranked 32nd in yards per drive allowed and 28th in points per drive allowed.
Simply put, Kansas City would be the worst defense to ever win a Super Bowl, but that doesn't mean they can't win a home game this week. Any team can win a single game this time of year. For some perspective, the Patriots were 31st in defensive DVOA last year and still made it to the Super Bowl. The 2017 Chiefs finished 30th in defensive DVOA, even lower than this year's squad, and that unit likely would have beaten the Titans if it had the Mahomes-led offense backing it instead of Alex Smith and an injured Travis Kelce. (The playoffs: where bad luck and randomness happens.) For as long as Kansas City advances this postseason, we will point out how the defense is likely to be its downfall, but for now, we'll just focus on this divisional round matchup with Indianapolis. The Chiefs have to learn to crawl before they can walk in the postseason.
Getting a lot of pressure on Luck is very unlikely to happen. The only defense that has pressured Luck on more than 27 percent of his plays was Washington back in Week 2, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That was also the only defense to blitz him more than half the time, but the Chiefs were 16th in blitz rate (21.9 percent) this season, according to Sports Info Solutions. Luck also had the league's highest QBR (92.9) against the blitz. Getting the ball out quickly and not facing as much pressure has been a remarkable change for the Colts. In 2016, Luck was pressured more often than 27 percent in 12 of the 15 games he played. The Chiefs have three significant pass-rushers in Chris Jones, Dee Ford, and Justin Houston, but they may have to settle for timely pressures rather than filling up the stat sheet. If the only time they hit Luck all day is a strip-sack in the fourth quarter, then this defense would probably sign up for that. Any kind of pressure that can lead to a turnover would be big. Luck threw 15 interceptions this season, which is as many as the Kansas City defense created.
T.Y. Hilton is easily Luck's biggest weapon, but he has been playing with an ankle injury. Last week in Houston, Hilton had 63 yards on the opening drive, but only 22 yards for the rest of the game. It's almost like he was on a pitch count to preserve him for the playoffs. He's a good weapon, but the Chiefs were ninth in DVOA against No. 1 wideouts. They had bigger issues against tight ends, where they ranked 25th in DVOA. Some of the best tight ends this season had productive games against the Chiefs, including George Kittle (79 yards), Rob Gronkowski (97 yards and a huge fourth quarter), and Jared Cook (100 yards and a touchdown). The biggest receiving game anyone had against Kansas City actually belonged to Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James, who had 138 yards and a score thanks to some Ben Roethlisberger improv antics. Luck can do that with Eric Ebron, but he's more of a red zone weapon (14 total touchdowns) than a big yardage player. Ebron had one 100-yard game this season, against the Patriots, but he could be called upon if Hilton isn't as effective with the injury. Ryan Grant is out and the Colts are thin for depth at wideout with Chester Rogers and Dontrelle Inman backing up Hilton.
Let's turn to the running game briefly. Last week, Marlon Mack shocked everyone by rushing for a season-high 148 yards against a vaunted Houston defense. Maybe it helped that the Colts were playing Houston for a third time, but that was an unexpectedly great rushing performance that included three runs of 25-plus yards from Mack. He missed four games early in the season when the team struggled, but has played well during the turnaround. In the red zone, the Colts were very good at passing (third in DVOA), but may want to look to run against a defense that was 31st in DVOA in that area. Of course, the Chiefs were dead last in DVOA against all runs, so this needs to be an area where the Colts take advantage with the investments they've made on the offensive line. If it's a snow game and the receivers aren't running strong routes, then Mack could be the headline on Saturday despite the quarterback matchup.
While the Colts are expected to score in this one, there is a reason to think about home-field advantage. The Chiefs only allowed 18 points per game at home, which ranked sixth in the league. All five times the Chiefs allowed 30-plus points came on the road against stiffer competition. At home, the Chiefs would have been a perfect 8-0 had it not been for blowing that 14-point lead in the final eight minutes against the Chargers in Week 15. Even in that game, just stopping the two-point conversion at the end would have been enough for a win. While it's true that the Chargers were the only strong offense the Chiefs hosted this season, DVOA, which adjusts for opponents, is also supportive of the defense playing better at home. The Chiefs were 12th in home DVOA compared to 30th on the road.
This game is likely to go down to the wire, and it's more than fair to be doubtful of the Kansas City defense holding up against a quarterback who thrives in these moments such as Luck. For his career, Luck is 17-17 in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities -- only Tom Brady (43-40) has a better record among active quarterbacks. The Chiefs were 4-3 when holding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime this season, and we can make that stat sound a lot worse than it already looks. One of those "holds" was against Denver when the Broncos had four seconds to drive 85 yards. It gets even worse when you consider the records in that situation for the other teams with a bye week: the Saints (6-0), Rams (6-0), and Patriots (6-1). Jared Goff should have thrown a game-ending interception against the Chiefs in Super Bowl 52.5, but Orlando Scandrick dropped the ball. Scandrick was also burnt for a touchdown against the Chargers, who easily converted a two-point conversion in that 29-28 comeback.
If someone on Kansas City doesn't step up to make a game-ending play, then the Colts are good enough to make them pay again. That's also why Reid needs to be aggressive in a four-minute offense situation and rely on Mahomes to end the game on his terms rather than put the defense on the field. Given Reid's history in managing those situations, it's likely going to be on Luck's shoulders to win the game late.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Reich noted that "the primary goal is to score points" this week, which is absolutely right. The 21 points the Colts scored in Houston last week won't be enough in Kansas City. Mahomes has led the Chiefs to at least 26 points in all 17 of his career starts. The only longer streak in NFL history (playoffs included) was when Peyton Manning led Denver to at least 26 points in 19 straight games in 2012-13. The Chiefs have also set an NFL record with 21 straight games of at least 26 points in the regular season, which does not include the 22-21 playoff loss to the Titans that was started by Alex Smith last January.
Mahomes has been everything the Chiefs could have wanted and more this season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mahomes ranks in the top five in QBR on third downs, in the red zone, against the blitz, when pressured, when not pressured, and in every quarter. About the only split where you won't find him near the top is on first downs, where he ranked 11th, but he makes up for it by being top three on the other three downs, including converting all eight of his fourth downs. The worst statistical game for Mahomes was against Jacksonville (a feat he shares with Luck), and even that day he threw for 313 yards and rushed for a touchdown in an easy win. This has been a truly special season.
Since we're in such historic scoring territory with Mahomes and the Chiefs, you almost expect the inevitable down game any week now. Throughout history, it has often struck record-setting offenses in the postseason. MVP winner Joe Theismann and the 1983 Redskins, once the highest-scoring team in NFL history, scored at least 23 points every week until they were blasted 38-9 in the Super Bowl against the Raiders. The 1984 Dolphins (Dan Marino), 2004 Colts (Peyton Manning), 2007 Patriots (Tom Brady), and 2013 Broncos (Manning again) all had their quarterback break the record for touchdown passes in a season. Setting aside any game they rested in the regular season, all four of those teams failed to score 20 points for the first time in a playoff loss. The only historic NFL offense in the Super Bowl era that didn't have any duds was the 1998 Vikings, who scored at least 24 points every week. They blew a 27-17 lead in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, a game remembered best for Gary Anderson's missed field goal that would have sealed the win.
Mahomes led the Chiefs to 37.5 points per game in their four losses this year, a staggering number that includes the 54-51 loss to the Rams. Losing a shootout to the Colts wouldn't be shocking, but perhaps the more interesting question in this matchup is whether the Colts hold Mahomes to a career-low in scoring. Should Indianapolis do the unthinkable, Luck is 43-8 (.843) in his career when the Colts allow fewer than 26 points, the third-best record since 2001 (minimum 50 games). Over the last 10 games of the regular season, only the Bears (149) allowed fewer points than the Colts (164).
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has received a lot of credit for what he has done with his young unit this season, but he hasn't seen anything like Kansas City. In fact, the Colts played the easiest set of opposing offenses based on DVOA this season. The Patriots (No. 5) were the only offense the Colts played that finished in the top 12, and Indianapolis allowed 38 points that night. This gives a lot of context to how the Colts have gone on a 10-1 stretch after facing these quarterbacks: Derek Anderson, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill, Cody Kessler, Deshaun Watson (twice), Dak Prescott, Eli Manning, and Blaine Gabbert. Oddly enough, the loss was the 6-0 game in Jacksonville against the least accomplished quarterback listed (Kessler). But that list of quarterbacks does a lot to explain why the defense improved, and even then the team still struggled at home with the Jaguars (29-26 win after a late fumble reversal), Dolphins (10-point fourth-quarter comeback), and Giants (late game-winning drive).
The Colts were a strong run defense (fourth in DVOA), but only 20th in pass defense since they didn't exactly dominate such a weak slate of passers. Now they get the best quarterback in the league this season on the road. At this point, do we really need much of an overview of the Kansas City offense? Tyreek Hill is an excellent deep threat and a perfect fit for Mahomes' big arm. Travis Kelce is like watching a younger Rob Gronkowski play receiver, and he should do well against a defense ranked 29th in DVOA against tight ends. Sammy Watkins has missed a lot of time this season, but if he returns to action, that just gives Mahomes another capable weapon.
Running back is where things get a little interesting. The Chiefs released Kareem Hunt prior to Week 13 after video showed him assaulting a woman earlier this year. Hunt finished the season first in receiving DYAR and DVOA as he was really effective on screens, a staple of Reid's passing offense. It's not like the Chiefs can't replace him in that area, though. Spencer Ware and Damien Williams have receiving metrics that would put them near the league leaders this season as well. Williams also has the second-most DYAR and third-best DVOA for running backs with 20 to 99 carries this season. The Chiefs have rushed for over 150 yards in three games this season, and two of them have been post-Hunt. It shouldn't be a big deal this week, because it's not like the Chiefs were expected to run all over the Colts anyway. It's only a problem if the Chiefs completely abandon the run and put everything on Mahomes, which wouldn't be out of character for Reid in a game of this magnitude. It would be even crazier if it does snow badly and the Chiefs ignore the ground game while trying to run one of the more vertical passing games in the league.
To help the Chiefs out this week, the Colts are hurting at safety after losing Mike Mitchell for the season. Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers are also injured right now, but could play Saturday. While rookie linebacker Darius Leonard has stuffed the stat sheet all year for the Colts, he doesn't play a position that will make him a consistent pass-rushing threat. The Colts don't have any players with double-digit sacks or even 30 pressures this season. The Colts also don't care for blitzing (29th in frequency) and would likely be better off with a four-man rush this week anyway. Mahomes averages 8.5 yards per attempt against four-man rushes, but 10.4 against three-man rushes and 10.0 against five-man rushes. Big blitzes (six or more) have had some success against him as Mahomes only went 10-of-25 for 77 yards on those plays, according to Sports Info Solutions.
By now, you should get the gist of things. Every Mahomes split looks amazing this year, so it really is up to Luck to sustain drives, limit possessions, and outscore the Chiefs. We will leave one final tidbit of information that is either just the coincidence of the year, or something the Colts can hang their hat on for slowing down this juggernaut this week. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Colts played the most zone coverage this season at 58 percent. The three closest teams to that are the Chargers (56 percent), Cardinals (55 percent), and Seahawks (53 percent). In four games against those zone-heavy teams, Mahomes had his four lowest passing yardage totals of the season, and the Chiefs were 2-2. That's the good news. The bad news: Mahomes still had 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in those games, and for the season he threw 23 touchdowns against five picks with 9.41 yards per attempt against zone coverage. As long as he doesn't try a no-look pass to a disguised coverage that gets intercepted by Leonard, Mahomes should be just fine in this matchup.
The Chiefs finished second in special teams DVOA as they often do impress under coordinator Dave Toub, but the Colts were no slouches at No. 12. Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri just turned 46, but he's still as reliable as they come for making a pressure kick. Harrison Butker was wide right on a pair of kicks against the Ravens, but otherwise he only missed once this season. Both teams were in the top four in gross punting value, but the Chiefs are more dangerous in the return game. Tyreek Hill had a 91-yard punt return touchdown against the Chargers in Week 1, but hasn't done a whole lot (122 yards) with his other 19 returns this year. The Chiefs are No. 1 in starting field positon after kickoffs (27.61) compared to 20th for the Colts (24.91).
Colts fans know better than anyone how Chiefs fans feel this week. You're nervous the offense will come out rusty after a bye week and fall behind early. You're nervous that your All-Pro quarterback may not have a dominant game with the weight of the world on his shoulders. You're nervous the defense won't get off the field enough and won't close the game out. That's largely what happened in Indianapolis for the Manning and Luck eras. For a change, the Colts come into a game like this with a strong offensive line, a running game that should be respected, a defense that has played well, and a coach who probably knows what +EV means without using Google. To Jim Irsay's delight, the Colts have the more complete team while the Chiefs have "Star Wars numbers."
If you're backing the Chiefs this week, it's because Mahomes sounds like Yoda, but is as dangerous as Episode VI Luke Skywalker. He'll put up his usual points against a defense that hasn't seen anything like this in 2018, and road teams that allow at least 26 points have won 8.1 percent of playoff games in NFL history. Historic offenses with bad defenses may not win Super Bowls, but that hasn't stopped the 2017 Patriots, 2016 Falcons, and 2013 Broncos from at least getting to the big one in recent years. The Chiefs are a five-point favorite this week, so it's easy to imagine the Colts trailing 31-26 late with Luck attempting to pull off a game-winning touchdown drive.
This truly is the best weekend of the football year.
Los Angeles Chargers at New England
|DVOA||22.7% (3)||14.2% (7)|
|WEI DVOA||21.4% (4)||19.3% (6)|
|Chargers on Offense|
|LAC OFF||NE DEF|
|DVOA||20.8% (3)||0.4% (16)|
|WEI DVOA||11.9% (8)||0.2% (14)|
|PASS||41.7% (2)||5.1% (14)|
|RUSH||4.1% (6)||-7.0% (19)|
|Patriots on Offense|
|LAC DEF||NE OFF|
|DVOA||-4.7% (8)||14.5% (5)|
|WEI DVOA||-7.7% (8)||17.1% (4)|
|PASS||1.2% (10)||32.9% (4)|
|RUSH||-12.0% (10)||2.5% (9)|
|ST DVOA||-2.8% (25)||0.1% (16)|
If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Licking their wounds after a less-dominant-than-usual regular season, the Patriots enter Foxborough as four-point favorites over a wildly overqualified wild-card team that had a better record than New England in the regular season. The line did open at -4.5, so there is some belief in Vegas circles that this game will be closer than that.
This is the big chance for Philip Rivers to avenge that 2007 AFC Championship Game loss, where he was buried without LaDainian Tomlinson or one of his important knee ligaments. He couldn't have come to New England at a better time given the turmoil the Patriots have dealt with on offense all year. And the defense he brings with him has been playing the best ball of any unit on the field of late.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Most of 2018's best offenses swooned a bit down the stretch, and Los Angeles was no outlier. The rushing offense combined for 269 DYAR on the season, and only 35 of those DYAR came in the last four weeks of the year. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler both missed time with injuries in December, and that has put into question an element where Los Angeles would seem to have a big advantage over New England: throwing the ball to the backs. Ekeler finished fourth in receiving DVOA, while Gordon had 72 DYAR of his own and 55 broken tackles. Those two backs combined for -9 receiving DYAR over the last four weeks, and managed 17 yards on five receptions against Baltimore's shutdown defense.
Meanwhile, the Patriots were 22nd in DVOA against running backs. New England's linebacker corps has not handled running backs well in space, and a player such as Gordon, if healthy, can run circles around a game plan switch such as Duron Harmon or Patrick Chung. It would be particularly enticing if they happened to find Elandon Roberts, who hasn't played well in coverage at all. Among running backs with more than 100 touches, both Ekeler (second) and Gordon (fifth) are top-five in broken tackle rate, per Sports Info Solutions. This is an area that could swing the game in one direction or another, simply based on how healthy those two backs are in this game. Gordon did leave the Baltimore game briefly after taking a helmet to the knee in a goal-to-go rush.
New England is the No. 1 man coverage team of the season per SIS charting, choosing man-to-man in 57 percent of their defensive pass snaps. They also happen to have one of the best corners in the NFL this year: Stephon Gilmore. Past narrative about struggling in zone gone, Gilmore thrived this year with a success rate of 67 percent, the highest of any corner with 90 or more targets. Assuming the Patriots have him shadow Keenan Allen, which seems reasonable if not exactly a guarantee, Allen could have a hard time getting separation, just as he did against Marlon Humphrey.
I expect the Patriots to play the Chargers pretty similarly to how Baltimore did. The Ravens are the No. 1 blitzing team in the NFL, and were able to keep Philip Rivers' yardage in check by forcing him to throw short and beat a ferocious bunch of tacklers. New England is not quite Baltimore, but they are a top-10 blitz percentage team anyway, and a hyper-aggressive game plan with Gilmore on Allen could force the Chargers into some incompletions or mistakes. The Patriots got pressure on 32.3 percent of their snaps, the fifth-highest rate in the league. While Los Angeles' offensive line is not the horror show it was earlier in this decade, they're not exactly forcing pass rushes into submission either. Finally, Rivers' yards per attempt against man coverage is 7.99, while against zone, it is 9.55. Factor all this in, and I would be surprised to see zone coverage in often in Bill Belichick's game plan.
New England's best hope to get a non-natural pass rush is with end Trey Flowers, who finished in the top 10 in individual pass pressures with 43. The Chargers actually have a pretty vulnerable line outside of Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey. Right tackle Sam Tevi and guard Dan Feeney both made it in the top 10 of blown blocks per SIS, and Michael Schofield wasn't far behind. A decisive win by Flowers would shift a lot of the burden for this game on to Rivers.
Finally, the elephant in the room is what Hunter Henry will have to give the Chargers. Coming off IR from a torn ACL that was suffered in the preseason, Henry was looked at as a bit of a fantasy darling after scoring a touchdown or breaking 75 yards in three of his last four games in 2017. In theory, Henry is a big-bodied 6-foot-4 and could create a matchup edge over New England's secondary play. In actuality, we have no idea what to expect and couldn't project Henry's comeback if we tried. Antonio Gates isn't beating any kind of man coverage that starts with somebody on his person at this age, so Henry could still be an upgrade even if he can only flash the threat. Regardless, he figures to have a big impact on how this game unfolds.
Rivers' most consistent target in man-to-man coverage is former first-rounder Mike Williams, who has a big body and a knack for going completely uncovered in two-point attempts. If Allen draws Gilmore, then Williams would draw undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson, who replaced veteran Jason McCourty in the starting lineup for the last two games of the regular season.
Obviously it's hard to say much new about Rivers at this point. He's smart, he gets rid of the ball quickly, and he's completely immobile. I don't think you'll see the Patriots worried about leaving a spy on him. It is worth noting that the Los Angeles pass offense has struggled in every week since their win over the Bengals, even if that sample size only includes noted good defenses Baltimore and Los Angeles. I do think there is something to the idea that an older quarterback has arm strength troubles that build the longer he goes without a bye, which is something that plays in New England's favor if true.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Let's start with a fact that's true, but will get you buried anyway: Tom Brady has been somewhat mortal this year. We've remarked in Any Given Sunday about his inability to play against the blitz, and we've mentioned how poor his deep passing DVOA was. New England's two most targeted players on deep balls are Josh Gordon, who is on mental break, and Rob Gronkowski, who has had his worst year in the NFL and actually has negative DYAR on deep balls. The Patriots have somewhat regrouped around Chris Hogan, who was anonymous in the early season. As was the case in 2017, Hogan was terrific on deep balls down the stretch, generating 32 DYAR on seven targets in the last four weeks.
Los Angeles gives up one of the highest DVOAs in the NFL on deep passes, at 55.8%. Moreover, they don't blitz enough to actually trigger Brady's weaknesses. A league-low 12.6 percent of Chargers snaps were blitzes, and while Brady especially struggled against the big blitz, the Chargers brought six rushers only 1.5 percent of the time. That puts the onus of this battle on two slightly underperforming units: Hogan/Gronkowski and the New England deep passing game, and a Los Angeles pass rush from Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa that has absolutely no help from other blitzers.
Ingram has more than lived up to the hype this year with 44 pressures, sixth in the league per SIS. Bosa had 14 in 314 snaps. The Patriots don't have much in the way of a weakness in pass protection -- though left tackle Trent Brown is more solid than good -- and they figure to have free reign to trap and play around with chips if Ingram or Bosa turn out to be a real issue. Brady should have time to step up into the pocket and look downfield.
Unlike the Patriots, the Chargers are primarily a zone coverage team -- 56 percent of their snaps were in zone, the second-highest rate in the league in the regular season. As you might expect, Brady tore up zones this year, with 8.43 yards per attempt against zone versus 7.27 yards per attempt in man coverage.
The heavyweight matchup in this battle is actually the New England running game against Los Angeles' front seven. The Chargers defense has had one game of positive rushing DVOA since Week 12. The Patriots have rushed for double-digit positive DVOA scores in four of their last six games. Obviously, Brady will not be offering the Lamar Jackson zone reads or pistol sets, but the Patriots can offer a threat in the running game, and this could be a big factor in this contest. If the Chargers can keep the Patriots trying to beat them with the deep ball and getting incompletions that way, they can get to third-and-long and get off the field that way. The Chargers have a lot of team speed and will close quickly on checkdowns. Can they stay away from first-down checkdowns?
Desmond King has had a phenomenal year in the middle of the field, allowing just 6.9 yards per play. To win this game, I think the Chargers are going to be reliant on smothering New England's receivers underneath and maybe getting a pick off of a tip in the area. King and Derwin James are both the sorts of players who can force things like that to happen. Rob Gronkowski is going up against DVOA's No. 1 defense against tight ends.
One last interesting factor will be who James White gets matched up against in man. White is actually New England's leading receiver by DYAR this year, and the Chargers will likely be respecting him with a defensive back due to both linebacker injuries and White's speed. White remains a tough matchup for a defensive back with power, though, and I could see him breaking more than a few tackles in this one.
I would argue the Chargers are somewhat underrated by their current special teams DVOA because they replaced both their kicker and punter in midseason. Michael Badgley has missed one extra point and one 50-yard field goal since coming on for Caleb Sturgis, and Los Angeles has just two negative-DVOA games since their Week 8 bye. Meanwhile, Desmond King on returns is pretty dangerous, as you saw if you watched the Baltimore game. Chargers punt coverage has been an adventure all season.
New England, for the first time in as long as I can remember covering football, does not have a terrific special teams unit to take advantage of this. Year after year, New England has been a lock for a top-10 special teams DVOA. This year, they're 16th. The Patriots were almost exactly average on field goals with Stephen Gostkowski, and outside of Cordarrelle Patterson's kickoff returns, were a blisteringly average unit in 2018 ... except on kickoff coverage, where they actually finished last in the league. Like Los Angeles, they performed better post-bye week, but didn't hit the highs that the Chargers did this year.
From a pure game plan standpoint, I think the Patriots are worthy favorites at home. Los Angeles will need to change off their zones and play an uncomfortable brand of ball, whereas New England's defensive game plan fits directly into what works best against the Chargers. To me, that's saying that if Los Angeles is going to compete in this game, it's more likely to be as part of a high-scoring affair.
DVOA thinks the Patriots are getting just about the right amount of respect at home, and expects them to make the AFC Championship game yet again.
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.