Football Outsiders
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AFC Divisional Round Preview 2020

Kansas City Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

A Chiefs-Ravens AFC Championship Game has felt destined since each team overcame last year's AFC champion, the Patriots, in their regular-season matchups. Las Vegas expects it to happen, installing both home teams as 9.5-point favorites in the divisional round. And neutral fans would no doubt love to see a contest between last year's MVP, Patrick Mahomes, and this year's overwhelming favorite for the award, Lamar Jackson. But last week's AFC wild-card round results illustrate why the Titans and Texans cannot be dismissed as serious contenders for upsets. The Titans have an unusual, run-dominated approach for the modern NFL that on paper should give the Ravens the same defensive fits it gave the Patriots. And the Texans' Deshaun Watson is a blossoming star with a penchant for overcoming odds that seem stacked against him. He certainly did that in last week's overtime win over the Bills, surviving a pair of quarterback hits in the backfield to make a game-breaking completion to running back Taiwan Jones. And he also did it in Week 6 when he handed Mahomes one of just three home losses in his career. If anyone could do it twice, it would likely be Watson.

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.

Tennessee at Baltimore

  TEN BAL
DVOA 8.6% (9) 41.5% (1)
WEI DVOA 26.9% (4) 55.7% (1)
Titans on Offense
  TEN OFF BAL DEF
DVOA 12.9% (6) -12.7% (4)
WEI DVOA 28.7% (3) -22.6% (2)
PASS 29.6% (6) -16.0% (4)
RUSH 7.9% (5) -7.9% (19)
Ravens on Offense
  TEN DEF BAL OFF
DVOA 1.0% (16) 27.5% (1)
WEI DVOA 0.0% (17) 33.7% (1)
PASS 11.0% (21) 47.4% (1)
RUSH -12.6% (10) 21.1% (1)
Special Teams
  TEN BAL
DVOA -3.2% (29) 1.3% (10)

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.

Younger NFL fans may not recognize the Titans and Ravens as rivals, but the teams mirror each other in a number of ways. Both franchises were AFC Central members dating back to its formation in the 1970s when they were still located in their original cities in Houston and Cleveland. Both teams moved to new locales in the mid-1990s. And both teams have tended toward physical styles of play on both offense and defense, which has led to some incredible head-to-head matchups. The Titans and Ravens played each other three times in the playoffs in the 2000s, and the road team won all three of those matchups, the most famous being the 2000 Ravens victory on their way to a win in the Super Bowl that season.

The Titans and Ravens have kept their legacies alive this year, both finishing in the top five in run offense DVOA. But where it is the Titans' identity, rushing efficiency is just the tip of the iceberg for a complete Ravens team that won 14 games and is the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Titans overcame long odds to upset the Patriots in New England last week, but they face even longer ones this week as 9.5-point underdogs in Baltimore.

WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL

Titans weekly

The Titans had a clear plan of how to deal with the Patriots' No. 1 DVOA pass defense last week, and that was to avoid it entirely. Derrick Henry carried the ball 34 times, and the Titans overall ran on 40 of their 56 offensive attempts. That 71.4% run rate is the second-highest in a game this season and the Titans' third entry in that seasonal top 16 from the last two months.

Highest Run Rate Games, 2019
Team Week Passes Runs Run Rate Result
MIN 1 10 38 79.2% W 28-12
TEN 18 16 40 71.4% W 20-13
WAS 7 12 26 68.4% L 9-0*
BAL 12 23 48 67.6% W 45-6
BAL 17 21 43 67.2% W 28-10
DAL 15 23 45 66.2% W 44-21
BUF 9 20 39 66.1% W 24-9
LAR 11 18 34 65.4% W 17-7
BUF 12 25 47 65.3% W 20-3
SEA 5 23 43 65.2% W 30-29
TEN 17 21 39 65.0% W 35-14
SF 7 21 39 65.0% W 9-0*
TEN 12 18 33 64.7% W 42-20
MIN 3 21 38 64.4% W 34-14
ARI 7 21 38 64.4% W 27-21
PIT 6 20 36 64.3% W 24-17
*Played in heavy rain

Fifteen of those 16 leaders also won their games, and the lone loser was playing another team that made the top 16 in what was a rain-drenched affair between the Redskins and 49ers in Week 7. But this is another situation where correlation may not equal causation. The bulk of those leaders ran as much as they did because they built multi-score leads and could comfortably run to kill the clock. The Titans needed the Patriots' cooperation to rely as heavily on the run as they did, and the Patriots can make a compelling case that they made the right choice to do so. After all, they limited the Titans offense to just 14 points. New England lost because they failed to win on offense, because many of the tipping points most affected by randomness -- like turnovers, touchdown conversions in the red zone, and punts downed versus punts for touchbacks -- went the Titans way, and because a run-heavy game plan limited the number of plays for regression to even things out.

In short, the Titans' run-focused approach is an excellent one to use against a superior opponent because it limits plays and promotes randomness. And fortunately for the Titans, the Ravens' excellent defense has a very similar mix of strengths and weaknesses as the Patriots' defense. It is stronger against the pass (No. 4 DVOA) than the run (No. 19). And while it both generates excellent pressure and protects the back end with excellent coverage, it is relatively susceptible to play-action passing. That is the Titans' biggest strength in their passing game -- they are the best in football with both their 10.6 yards per play-action attempt and 4.3-yard play-action differential (subscription required) -- and the lever they use to prevent defenses from crowding the box to stop Derrick Henry.

Patriots vs. Ravens Defensive Comparison 2019
    Patriots   Ravens
Stat Total Rank Total Rank
Pass DVOA -32.2% 1 -16.0% 4
Run DVOA -14.0% 6 -7.9% 19
Pass - Run DVOA -18.2% 2 -8.1% 5
Pressure Rate 35.9% 1 34.7% 3
Adj Line Yards 4.00 6 4.07 9
Broken Tackle Rate 7.8% 2 11.5% 24
YPA vs. CBs 5.8 1 6.4 3
Success Rate - CBs 64.6% 1 58.0% 2
Play-Action YPA 7.3 10 7.5 11
Play-Action Diff +2.3 28 +1.8 22

Meanwhile, the major weakness the Ravens defense has that the Patriots didn't is in tackling. The Patriots allowed a broken tackle on just 7.8% of their opportunities this season, the second-lowest rate in football (subscription required). In contrast, the Ravens allow a broken tackle on 11.5% of their opportunities, 24th in football, and that is a failing that Henry is particularly well-equipped to exploit. He isn't shifty in the open field the way that Devin Singletary is, but Henry uses his power to break tackles and not just push the pile. In fact, Henry's 21.5% broken tackle rate was eighth-best of the 45 running backs with 100 or more carries this season.

Highest Broken Tackle Rates, RBs, 2019
Player Team Carries Broken Tackles Broken Tackle%
Austin Ekeler LAC 132 34 25.8%
Chris Carson SEA 278 67 24.1%
Josh Jacobs OAK 242 58 24.0%
Devin Singletary BUF 151 36 23.8%
Alvin Kamara NO 171 38 22.2%
Joe Mixon CIN 278 61 21.9%
Nick Chubb CLE 298 64 21.5%
Derrick Henry TEN 303 65 21.5%
Damien Williams KC 111 23 20.7%
Raheem Mostert SF 137 28 20.4%
Minimum 100 carries

Given their success with the formula last week and a pass-unfriendly weather forecast of winds up to 20 mph and a 54% chance of rain, the Titans are a good bet to try to run back their strategy from last week. They will just have to hope that the Ravens cooperate, especially on offense.

If the Titans do pass, due to either the score or strategy, they aren't as hopeless as the picture I've painted of them. After all, they are the No. 6 DVOA passing offense and one that has been trending up since Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota at quarterback in Week 6. It's just that the Ravens have clear answers for the mismatches that the best Titans skill players present for most defenses.

Titans receiver A.J. Brown was the most prolific and efficient rookie receiver in football this season with 1,051 yards and a 26.2% receiving DVOA. But his meager total of 4 yards on one target last week reflects more than the team's game plan to run the ball. Likely Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore shut Brown down in shadow coverage, and the Ravens' top cornerback Marlon Humphrey outperformed Gilmore by both coverage success rate (64% vs. 56%) and yards allowed per target (5.9 vs. 6.5) this season, and was similarly effective in average yards allowed after the catch (4.3 vs. 4.2), a crucial trait against the NFL's leading receiver in that statistic (8.9). (subscription required).

With a 50% coverage success rate and 7.4 yards allowed per pass, Marcus Peters has not been a positional standout the way Humphrey has. But his trade acquisition prior to Week 7 erased an Achilles heel for the Ravens defense that offered opponents an easy escape from the blitz-heaviest (54.9%) defensive scheme in football. The Ravens' No. 2 and No. 4 rankings in weighted defense and weighted pass defense DVOA best capture their current stellar form. As the No. 2 quarterback in sack rate (9.8%), Tannehill would likely find himself in some terrifying downs and distances if he were forced to throw the ball with any frequency.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

Like the Titans, the Ravens employ one of the few run-focused offenses in the modern NFL. Dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson is the linchpin, but the Ravens' base pistol formation makes sense for all of the team's personnel. Derrik Klassen illustrated the benefits of the scheme shortly after Jackson took over for the Ravens last November. Jackson starts in the shotgun, where he can make quick throws in a spread offense and can also read edge defenders to create running lanes for himself and his backs. Meanwhile, those backs start from a greater depth than in a traditional shotgun, which helps them build speed for their inside power runs and gives time and space for the Ravens' linemen and battery of tight ends to pull and attack defenses in unexpected gaps.

Still, Jackson is the star and a worthy MVP candidate. He excels on the run with breathtaking athleticism. His 4.8 average yards before contact easily bests the other players with similar carry volumes, all of whom are running backs. Raheem Mostert leads those backs with 3.4 yards after contact per attempt, 1.4 yards behind Jackson. But despite a marked lead in carries at his own position, Jackson also leads all quarterbacks with that 4.8 average, leading everyone but Kyler Murray by more than half a yard per attempt.

Yards Before Contact Per Attempt Leaders, QBs, 2019
Player Team Carries YBC / Att
Lamar Jackson BAL 175 4.8
Kyler Murray ARI 93 4.7
Deshaun Watson HOU 96 4.1
Russell Wilson SEA 84 3.9
Gardner Minshew JAX 66 3.6
Jameis Winston TB 58 3.2
Ryan Fitzpatrick MIA 54 3.1
Dak Prescott DAL 52 3.0
Jacoby Brissett IND 56 2.9
Carson Wentz PHI 62 2.8
Josh Allen BUF 118 1.9
Minimum 50 carries

Jackson's runs have likely dominated the highlight reels you've seen of his play, but he also excels as a passer with his decision-making and accuracy. The Ravens scheme again helps him here by featuring athletic tight ends who create mismatches against linebackers with their speed and defensive backs with their size. Mark Andrews is the first of those options, leading the team with 98 targets and finishing seventh at the position with 124 DYAR. But fellow sophomore Hayden Hurst (probably most famous for being selected seven spots ahead of Jackson in the first round in the 2018 NFL draft) performed even better over a smaller sample of 40 targets with a 22.4% DVOA that bested many of the standout players at the position, including Travis Kelce (15.3%), George Kittle (19.5%), and Andrews himself (12.3%). In total, Jackson targeted his tight ends on 41.6% of his attempts this season, the highest rate in football, and he stretched the field with them with a 9.3-yard average depth of throw.

Highest Tight End Target Rate, QBs, 2019
Player Team TE Target% aDOT
Lamar Jackson BAL 41.6% 9.3
Carson Wentz PHI 38.0% 7.6
Derek Carr OAK 31.0% 6.9
Jimmy Garoppolo SF 27.5% 5.7
Patrick Mahomes KC 26.9% 9.2
Jacoby Brissett IND 26.2% 7.3
Jared Goff PHI 24.9% 6.9
Ryan Tannehill TEN 24.5% 7.0
Daniel Jones NYG 23.5% 5.9
Kirk Cousins MIN 23.2% 6.1
Minimum 200 pass attempts

Jackson uses a lot of play-action out of the pistol; the Ravens led football with a 33% play-action rate this season. But where teams like the Titans and the Vikings use play-action to pull defenders forward and take shots deep down the field to their wide receivers, the Ravens use it as one of their many tools to create general defensive confusion and non-commitment. That's likely the biggest reason that the team's prototypical deep threat, first-round rookie Marquise Brown, has a modest 11.5-yard aDOT despite his absurd rate of seven touchdowns on just 46 catches this season. Overall, the Ravens have an unusual split of 6.8 yards per play-action attempt and 7.7 yards per traditional attempt, good for a -0.9-yard differential that was 31st in football. But that 6.8 yards per attempt average on play-action passes is still-top 10 in football.

Jackson may be the most talented runner in football, but his rushing isn't singularly responsible for the team's league-leading 57.5% run rate. Even excluding Jackson's and backup quarterback Robert Griffin's 196 carries, the Ravens ran on 47.5% of their other offensive plays this season, the third highest rate in football.

Run Rates, QBs vs. Other Players, 2019
      Quarterbacks   Non-Quarterbacks
Team Passes Runs Run Rate Rank Runs Run Rate Rank
MIN 466 37 7.4% 21 439 48.5% 1
SF 478 49 9.3% 11 449 48.4% 2
BAL 439 196 30.9% 1 397 47.5% 3
TEN 446 66 12.9% 5 377 45.8% 4
IND 513 64 11.1% 7 407 44.2% 5
SEA 517 75 12.7% 6 405 43.9% 6
OAK 523 29 5.3% 28 406 43.7% 7
DEN 504 40 7.4% 21 369 42.3% 8
BUF 513 111 17.8% 2 354 40.8% 9
PIT 510 43 7.8% 17 351 40.8% 9

The Ravens offensive line was third-best with 4.73 adjusted line yards, and running backs Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards shined with 19.1% and 11.0% rushing DVOAs, respectively. That sort of quality depth tends to pay its biggest dividends over the course of a lengthy regular season, but it may become more important for the Ravens this week with Ingram attempting to overcome a calf injury that he suffered in Week 16. Edwards has averaged more than 5.0 yards per in his two-year career, and he could fill that void if Ingram were unable to play. But neither Edwards nor rookie Justice Hill could replace what Ingram does for the team as a receiver out of the backfield. Ingram's 66.6% receiving DVOA easily led running backs with 20 or more targets. Edwards (7.8%) and Hill (-2.3%) were neutral efficiency receivers this season.

The Chiefs and Browns both found ways to score enough points to beat the Ravens back in Weeks 3 and 4. But they earned those victories while many of the Ravens' defensive starters were new to their roles and before the team made its trade for Peters. No one has found the formula to shut down the Ravens offense, and it seems unlikely that the Titans would be the team to crack the code. The Titans defense is stronger against the run (No. 10 DVOA) than the pass (No. 21), and that's probably a good place to start. But the Titans are also 20th or worse in by DVOA in pass coverage against tight ends, No. 1 receivers, and running backs (subscription required), all of the ways Jackson and the Ravens like to attack teams in the air.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Titans kicker Greg Joseph played his third straight game for his new team without attempting a field goal, a rather remarkable streak but one the Titans fans are no doubt happy to see after his predecessors Cairo Santos and Ryan Succop combined to miss 10 of their 18 field goal attempts this season. Not surprisingly, the Titans finished 29th in special teams DVOA, although if Joseph can either duplicate even his moderate success as a rookie in 2018 or continue to avoid kicking entirely, the Titans should outplay their performance to date. Brett Kern averaged 47.1 yards per punt this season, fourth-best at the position, and was named first-team All-Pro. And returner Kalif Raymond cleared concussion protocol this week and should return after a two-week absence.

We are in no position to complain that the Ravens have embraced analytics. But a side effect of their willingness to attempt and succeed in going for it on fourth downs -- they finished tied for sixth with 24 offensive attempts on fourth down and converted a league-leading 70.8% of them -- is that it more often keeps their Ferrari of a placekicker Justin Tucker in the garage. The Ravens attempted just 29 field goals this season, tied for 11th-fewest in football, and attempted just one field goal of more than 50 yards despite leading the league in percentage of drives that ended in a score. Still, Tucker found a way to shine. He connected on all but one of those 29 attempts, his lone miss striking the right upright in the first quarter of a Week 11 game against the Texans that the Ravens won 41-7 anyway. Tucker also made a league-leading 57 extra points on 59 point-after attempts. He is a first-team All-Pro and the best kicker in football. Frankly, I'm still a bit surprised he missed the two extra points. He has made 298 of 301 for his career.

The bigger surprise is that the Ravens slipped outside of the top six in special teams DVOA, a place they had finished in each of the previous seven years of Tucker's career. It was a remarkable run given then relative lack of year-to-year consistency of special teams compared to both offense and defense. Of course, their 10th place finish is hardly bad. It still gives them a clear advantage over the Titans this week. But midseason acquisition De'Anthony Thomas has underwhelmed as a kick returner, averaging just 16.6 yards per return since joining the team in Week 10 for a mark that would be second lowest for teams this season.

OUTLOOK

The Titans walked the tightrope to upset the Patriots in New England last Saturday, but that wire will likely be too thin to repeat the feat in Baltimore in the divisional round. Even if Derrick Henry has success on a per-play basis -- and that seems very possible given his excellence as a runner and the Ravens' very Patriots-like defensive strengths and weaknesses -- the Titans will need to slow down the Ravens' offense to approach his carry volume from last weekend. The Ravens are more consistent, more explosive, and better rested than the Patriots and any other team in the playoffs. If they can build a lead, it will force the Titans to move away from their strengths of running and play-action passing and expose their weaknesses, in particular Tannehill's predisposition to taking sacks.

Houston at Kansas City

  HOU KC
DVOA -5.8% (19) 30.2% (2)
WEI DVOA -12.1% (23) 36.1% (3)
Texans on Offense
  HOU OFF KC DEF
DVOA 0.3% (17) -3.4% (14)
WEI DVOA -3.6% (18) -7.4% (9)
PASS 13.6% (15) -9.3% (6)
RUSH 0.0% (11) 4.1% (29)
Chiefs on Offense
  HOU DEF KC OFF
DVOA 8.9% (26) 22.7% (3)
WEI DVOA 13.6% (27) 20.4% (4)
PASS 19.5% (26) 43.7% (2)
RUSH -5.1% (22) -1.4% (14)
Special Teams
  HOU KC
ST DVOA 2.9% (5) 4.1% (2)

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.

The Chiefs lost four games all season, and three of them were to AFC South teams, including when this matchup was played in Arrowhead in Week 6. Kansas City comes off the bye week quite healthy, and they don't have the gimpy Patrick Mahomes that they were dealing with earlier in the season. In fact, the Chiefs had a ton of injuries that shifted that Week 6 game in a meaningful way.

Meanwhile, the Texans have had exactly one game with more than 10.0% DVOA as a team since their Week 10 bye. There are reasons to believe that this number is a bit off as far as representing the amount of talent on the team, but you can't deny that they simply aren't playing well. They were quite fortunate to survive the Bills, coming back from a 16-0 deficit and seemingly using up all nine lives in the process.

Week 6's result should inform some of how we approach this game as far as talking about the schematics and how those can favor the way the Texans usually play, but do not take it for granted that the Texans can win this game just because they won in Arrowhead once already.

WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL

Houston weekly chart

 

As we discussed last week, this offense has wild splits with and without Will Fuller that drive a lot of production. Fuller (groin) remained limited through Thursday's practice, but is apparently considered more likely to play this week via most media chatter. The splits with and without Fuller were stark in the regular season. Houston's pass offense DVOA in games where Fuller played at least 20 snaps in 2019: 35.4% (fourth), 115.3% on deep balls (11th). Without Fuller (excluding Week 17): -8.5% (27th) and 17.6% on deep balls (29th, and they threw just 29 of them). Against the Bills last week, the Texans attempted just three deep passes all game.

Fuller's absence would be felt even more in that the Texans have DeAndre Carter as their nominal third wideout since they have buried Keke Coutee. One of the two areas where throwing on the Chiefs was profitable this year was with "other" wideouts, where they ranked 21st in DVOA (subscription required). Carter, without much pedigree or history of success, would be an awkward fit to try to attack that. If Fuller is healthy, the Texans get to slide a much more dangerous Kenny Stills into that role.

While DVOA believed the Texans were outplayed by the Chiefs in Week 6, I want to leave this video set of Fuller deep balls that were narrowly missed as some proof that I don't think the Chiefs did a terrific job defending the deep ball.

Now, that in and of itself means little about this game -- the Chiefs were wildly unhealthy for Week 6's matchup on defense and I think better health solves some of their issues. They didn't have star defensive tackle Chris Jones, they didn't have Anthony Hitchens, and they were forced to play Ben Niemann on 98% of their snaps. Frank Clark was playing but perhaps not fully up to his usual level of production. This week the Chiefs have their entire starting lineup available asides from rookie safety Juan Thornhill (ACL tear) -- Armani Watts (59% of the snaps in Week 17) will become the new sub-package safety as Daniel Sorensen (94% of the snaps in Week 17) takes over the starting role.

In Week 6, the Texans sort of caught the Chiefs off-guard with a flip to an extreme amount of zone-read and RPO plays that involved a tight end drag and a levels concept that they had not seen much of on film. That was the basis behind a lot of the statistics that Texans compiled that game, from the fact that they didn't need to punt to the fact that they possessed the ball for 39:48. Obviously the Chiefs will be more aware of the potential for this sort of thing this week, and the biggest outlier on the defensive side of the ball was that Deshaun Watson was not sacked at all in that game.

Watson was sacked seven times against the Bills and, as we pointed out in last week's preview, the Texans have struggled to deal with blitzing at times. I have posted a lot about that on my own website if you are interested in the click, but the tl;dr is that the Texans have been inconsistent with hot reads and making them manageable for Watson. Per SportsRadar, the Chiefs sent a blitz on 14 of Watson's 42 dropbacks -- that has been a successful strategy this year, and the addition of a healthy Jones may be enough to tip the balance of rush power in their favor. Kansas City finished 10th in adjusted sack rate this year and they have gotten stronger as the season has gone along, with at least two sacks in every game since Week 9. Pass rush was even keeping them in their Week 10 bloodbath against Derrick Henry, as they sacked Ryan Tannehill four times.

The Chiefs have had a mostly successful transition under Steve Spagnuolo, but the biggest weakness on the team is probably the run defense. The Chiefs allowed 4.9 yards per carry -- 29th in the NFL -- with a 29th-place 4.1% run defense DVOA. The Texans were one of several teams that were able to grind clock on them. Indianapolis did it the week before. Tennessee in Week 10. Baltimore in Week 3, even though the Chiefs won that game. Even if we are extremely kind and forget about the big games and just look at what was happening down the stretch, the Chiefs allowed 0.4% rushing DVOA from Week 11 on. We don't know how much zone-read the Texans plan on running, but either way they should be able to find some success between the tackles, and it would help them tremendously to set the Chiefs up with a negative game script.

One secret weapon could be Duke Johnson -- he received six touches last week and gained at least 5 yards on all of them. The Chiefs have DVOA's No. 1 defense over the short middle of the field, but they have also allowed running backs to produce a league-high 57.9 yards per game on a more pedestrian -0.6% DVOA. Johnson caught a touchdown in Week 6 and added five more carries for 34 yards. The Texans aren't necessarily a great offense in their current state, but if they can keep the Chiefs from sacking Watson, they have enough to make this game interesting. Especially if Fuller plays.

WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL

Well, the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, who played through an injury and dealt with regression but also has the notable advantage of being Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City wound up with the No. 2 DVOA passing offense, behind only Baltimore, despite Mahomes missing a little under three games, Tyreek Hill missing four games, Damien Williams missing five games … the Chiefs really had a few games this year where Andy Reid sort of MacGyvered the offense into solid play.

As covered in Film Room this week, the Chiefs had issues hitting deep balls against the Texans in Week 6. Kansas City finished the year with a league-best 161.8% DVOA on deep balls, and wound up with a negative DVOA against Houston's pass defense in Week 6. I wrote a little about this game when it happened, but my general takeaway was that Mahomes was just slightly off as a deep passer at the time while dealing with his ankle.

Now, you can argue that the Texans will have better coverage players in this game than they did in that one. Gareon Conley has been grabby, but has broken up a lot of passes in his general area. Phillip Gaines (IR) was nothing but a journeyman last time, and Lonnie Johnson, a second-round rookie, hit the bench once Conley and Vernon Hargreaves were brought in. Houston played a lot of Cover-3 and single-high man against the Chiefs.

The Texans had their best defensive game in a month against the Bills last week. They generated three sacks and 11 quarterback hits -- numbers they hadn't hit since Week 13's win over the Patriots. Houston has one game with a negative pass defense DVOA since their bye week -- that occurred when they played the Bucs and created five turnovers. Jameis Winston forever. J.J. Watt clearly solved some problems for the Texans, and there is more hope for this pass rush creating negative plays than the Texans had in some time, but this is not Cody Ford. Mitchell Schwartz is one of the best right tackles in the NFL, and in Week 6 Watt finished with just one quarterback hit. Schwartz allowed just three sacks all season per SIS.

Unlike Week 6, the Texans will also be dealing with a Kansas City line that's at full strength. Both starting guard Andrew Wylie and starting left tackle Eric Fisher missed the earlier game. If the Texans want to blitz Mahomes, well … he averaged 9.1 yards per attempt against it, and completed 58-of-79 against five-man blitzes with no interceptions and two sacks. Mahomes, it turns out, is good at football.

The No. 1 issue the Texans have as a defense is that they can't do anything over the short middle. They allowed a league-worst 67.2% DVOA against passes over the short middle, but as you can see in this graph, the Chiefs barely went there in Week 6, attempting just two throws. Over the course of the season, the Chiefs had a league-best 109.5% DVOA on passes over the short middle, but they only threw 91 passes there. That's not a devastatingly low number, but it's solidly in the bottom half of the NFL.

One thing I am curious about is what the Texans will do with Travis Kelce. In Week 6, Kelce was held to just 58 scoreless yards on six targets. That was with a healthy Tashaun Gipson, who had done an excellent job on tight ends this year, and with Johnson in the slot. Do the Texans break Johnson back out for this job again? With backup safety Jahleel Addae now dealing with an Achilles injury, the Texans might be relegated to playing 38-year-old Mike Adams here, which is not ideal.

Finally, though it hasn't been much of an area of emphasis, Houston's run defense versus Kansas City's run offense will have a big role in this game. The Texans were able to create some longer third downs with some stuffs in Week 6, but haven't shown quite as much as a run defense down the stretch. They did rebound a bit against the Bills, posting a -8.0% run defense DVOA. Kansas City's backs also killed the Texans in the pass game in Week 6 -- Houston allows 56.1 receiving yards per game to backs, second-highest in the NFL. Darrel Williams had a 52-yard reception in Week 6, and Damien Williams added a 14-yard touchdown reception on which he was wide open.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Both units have played pretty well this season. Watts and Byron Pringle were nominated by special teams coach Dave Toub as the guys who performed the best in Kansas City's in-house points system. Mecole Hardman returned one to the house on a kickoff in the Chiefs' last game against the Chargers. Kansas City's weakest area this year was on punt coverage, where they were slightly below-average. But, as usual, Toub coaches up a hell of a unit.

Brad Seely's Texans have been excellent in coverage, but average on returns and had a mid-season confidence slump for Kai Fairbairn. Harrison Butker appears to be a more reliable kicker, though he did have two blocked against the Titans in Week 10.

OUTLOOK

We've got plenty of empirical evidence that the Texans can win in Kansas City. They already did it this year. But not only do we think the 9.5-point spread is rooted in reality, we actually think it undersells how good the Chiefs have played this year. Our numbers would put the line even higher.

It's going to take big turnovers, big time of possession wins, and all the typical underdog tactics that the Texans can muster to win a second game in Arrowhead this season.

STATS EXPLAINED

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.

Comments

13 comments, Last at 11 Jan 2020, 2:04am

1 That DVOA split link doesn't…

That DVOA split link doesn't seem to work

Opening the DVOA split database manually only prompts week 17 at the latest and even changing the URL from 17 to 18 or 19 doesn't work

6 Now fixed

These links are now fixed. They somehow reverted to old links in the editing process, not sure how that happened!

11 Correct

That's because there isn't a playoff schedule in our premium database. To get to the playoff matchups, you need to use the links that are either in these playoff preview articles OR on the front page of the DVOA premium database.

5 The titans winning would be…

The titans winning would be a 2010 Jets level upset. The Ravens' units are better at seemingly everything than the Titans(except for wide receiver and dtackle), are at home, and have had the bye.

 

Edit:

 

Welp, not only was I wrong, I was spectacularly wrong.

9 might take an injury

or a ton of turnovers.

I just don't see the Titans able to keep up.  Even with the massive day from Henry last weekend, they only had two scoring drives vs. Patriots.  I feel like the Ravens will score every quarter.  

The Titans are weak in their pass defense.  The crippled Pats' offense couldn't take advantage of that, but I expect the Ravens will.  

As for the Chiefs, I still don't understand how the Texans are still in the playoffs.  Ben Muth's article this week is about how poorly they block.  I saw they beat the Bills, but I still don't understand how that actually happened.

12 It was a nail bitter of a…

It was a nail bitter of a game and one that should not have gotten to that point but the Bills, like the Vikes and the titans, went into turtle mode thinking they had done enough in the first half to win.

 

It really should have cost all three teams and nearly did for the Titans. If Vrable is a good coach, he better realize that last week's formula is a fluke and gets you beat way more than it working out. And it sure as hell isn't going to work twice in a row. 

 

The texans are such a top heavy team that you can just see the flaws come out every game. The defense only gave up 20 points, but man it looked like it could be had at any time.

 

Frankly, if the titans had started Tanny the entire season, they probably win the division, which isn't a terrible division but its not great either. 

 

13 That Jets upset seems to be…

That Jets upset seems to be always overstated.  The 2010 Jets still had a DVOA of over 18, facing a Patriots team with a DVOA of 44.6, most of which resided in their 42% DVOA offense.  The Jets had a far better defense, and better special teams.  They also beat them earlier in the year.  The Titans have a DVOA of 8.6%, and aren't better statistically than the Ravens in offense, defense or special teams.  I would look to a different Jets upset, Super Bowl III, for a similar match-up, statistically at least.  I think the stats overrated the Colts in that instance, and believe the Raiders or Chiefs would have beat them, as well as a Cowboys team that got upset by the Browns before they could face Baltimore.  The more I think about the statistics, the more bummed I am that I bet on the Chiefs to make the Super Bowl.