AFC Divisional Round Preview 2021
While veteran quarterbacks are the theme of the NFC divisional round, it is youth that is served in the AFC. Three of the remaining starters were drafted in 2018, and the other in 2017. That latter quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, is shooting for his second straight Super Bowl title. The biggest remaining Cinderella, Cleveland, will be standing in his way. On the other side of the bracket, Baltimore and Buffalo present a excellent matchup of two well-rounded teams that have peaked in recent weeks.
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.
Baltimore at Buffalo
|DVOA||18.6% (7)||23.8% (4)|
|WEI DVOA||22.3% (6)||35.5% (1)|
|Ravens on Offense|
|BAL OFF||BUF DEF|
|DVOA||4.3% (11)||-2.2% (12)|
|WEI DVOA||9.4% (7)||-6.7% (11)|
|PASS||13.9% (17)||2.2% (12)|
|RUSH||6.0% (3)||-8.2% (17)|
|Bills on Offense|
|BAL DEF||BUF OFF|
|DVOA||-6.9% (9)||15.6% (5)|
|WEI DVOA||-7.7% (8)||20.2% (4)|
|PASS||0.4% (10)||43.3% (3)|
|RUSH||-18.5% (12)||-15.0% (22)|
|ST DVOA||7.4% (2)||5.9% (4)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Five quarterbacks went in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but two were singled out for particular criticism.
From the -- let's be polite and call them "traditionalist" -- segment of draft analysis, Lamar Jackson received criticism that his athletic style of play wasn't fit to play quarterback in the NFL. Bill Polian famously implored him to move to wide receiver and he was asked to perform receiver drills at the combine. From the other side of the draft spectrum, the analytics community was far from convinced that Josh Allen would succeed in the NFL. A howitzer without a targeting system, Allen was the kind of big-armed draft prospect that first gets coaches drooling, and then fired when they are inevitably unable to convert big arm talent into workable accuracy.
Three seasons later, the two most-maligned quarterbacks of the draft class are among the league's elite. Former MVP Jackson shook off accusations that his stuff wouldn't work in the postseason as the Ravens handled the Titans in their wild-card matchup. Allen, after one of the greatest year-to-year-to-year improvements we have ever seen, helped the Bills to their first postseason win since 1995, a comfortable victory over the Colts. Both players have proved their doubters wrong, joining the top echelon of NFL quarterbacks, and will clash in arguably the most fascinating divisional-round matchup this year.
Oh, and about 100 other players will be on the field too. Almost forgot about that, what with the narrative and all.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
As Rivers McCown pointed out in our wild-card preview, the identity of the Baltimore offense revolves around Lamar Jackson and the running game. It's not just planned runs and blocking schemes, although the Ravens are very good at that and ranked first in the NFL in rushing attempts. It's also Jackson's ability to turn any man coverage situation into a long scramble, taking advantage of defenders with their backs turned to scamper through defenders, turning checkdowns or throwaways into game-changing plays. At the same time, when that run game has been stymied, the Ravens have struggled, ranking 25th second-and-long DVOA and spending most of the year underwater in third-/fourth-and-long situations until a late-season surge.
We saw both of those statements hold true against Tennessee in the wild-card round. Baltimore had a -27.7% rushing DVOA in the first quarter and a -10.6% rushing DVOA for the first half, with a success rate of just 29%. They were routinely facing long downs and distances; only two of their 11 second downs in the first half were shorter than 5 yards. It took a spectacular Jackson improvisation against man coverage for Baltimore to find the end zone; their offense was more or less stuck in neutral.
In the second half, however, Baltimore made some key adjustments and found their groove, watching their run DVOA jump up to 65.5% with a 61% success rate. Their average second-down distance dropped from 8.5 yards to go to 6.9, and they were off to the races. Keeping on schedule is important for any team, but especially so for Baltimore. They were one of only three teams to have a higher DVOA when rushing than passing on both second and third downs. The Ravens were first in rushing DVOA on third and fourth downs, and fifth when rushing with a lead in the second half. More so than any other good team in the NFL, the Ravens need the running game to be a viable threat in order to win football games.
"A viable threat" does not, however, necessarily mean running all the time. The adjustments the Ravens made in the second half against the Titans were just as much about the passing game as the running game, and while their passing DVOA didn't shoot through the roof like their running DVOA did (though it did improve in the second half, going from -22.0% to 22.7%), those changes opened up the offense as a whole and got it moving.
The Ravens were fifth in the league in passing DVOA on first downs -- better than Kansas City, better than Tennessee, better than Tampa Bay. Baltimore's passing DVOA is 38.9% on first downs, and -0.7% on all other downs, the largest gap in the league. Part of that does come from a surprise factor -- only New England and Tennessee passed less often on first downs than Baltimore did -- but part of it is because the run game is such a threat. Teams leak their safeties up in the box to help in run support, sacrifice defenders to spy on Jackson, and play softer zones to avoid the risk of a busted coverage allowing a rusher to scamper into open space. In turn, that leaves receivers open for huge gains, and allows the run/pass option to be exceptionally deadly -- Baltimore will just attack whichever option you choose not to defend. These advantages go away somewhat on second- and third-and-long, however.
In the first half of the wild-card game, the Titans did a great job of staying home and playing their assignments, letting their safeties shoot into the gaps to take away Baltimore's counter rushing attack. So, in the second half, Baltimore adjusted to start throwing shorter, quick passes to free receivers, taking advantage of soft Titans coverage. Without safety help over the top, Tennessee gave plenty of cushion to receivers to try to avoid huge plays. Marquise Brown averaged 7.7 yards of pre-snap cushion and 3.7 yards of separation per Next Gen Stats, and Mark Andrews wasn't far behind in either category; no other team last weekend had two receivers with at least 7 yards of free space when targeted. Add in Patrick Ricard slipping out into the flat -- the normal blocking fullback had a career-high four targets, further bamboozling a Titans defense trying to key against the run -- and you get an offense that kicked into gear. And a Ravens offense kicking into gear is a frightening offense indeed.
It's not a good matchup for the Bills, in all honesty -- matching the 17th-ranked run defense against the third-ranked run offense isn't a great look. Buffalo was fifth in the league with 127 missed tackles, with A.J. Klein and Tremaine Edmunds both particularly standing out as poor options. Buffalo will need Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer to do a lot of work in this one, both in the box as extra support and over the top as last-resort defenders. Buffalo also ranks 26th against the pass on first downs, and just 23rd against top receivers -- do not be surprised if Jackson looks to target Brown early and often. Tre'Davious White is great, yes, but he doesn't tend to shadow one receiver; Leslie Frasier's defense tends to keep its corners to one side or another. There's also the catch-22 of how to play defense against the Ravens. Soft zones give plenty of room for first-read, stress-free decisions; playing tight man runs the risk of Jackson taking off and dashing through the open field. For what it's worth, the Bills played zone coverage about 60% of the time during the regular season, but generally do try to play fairly tight coverage with their corners; no Colts player had more than 6.3 yards of cushion when targeted in the wild-card round, and Colts not named T.Y. Hilton all had 5.5 yards per cushion or less.
Expect Baltimore to try to get Brown matched up against Levi Wallace or Josh Norman for some deep shots, but the remainder of the Bills secondary did a good job taking away the Colts' offensive playmakers last week. Wallace and Norman were only targeted twice by Indianapolis and gave up just one 6-yard reception; instead, it was White who gave up five receptions for 67 yards and missed three tackles. That's out of character and I wouldn't count on that to repeat this week, but it's noteworthy. And while Jonathan Taylor and company did average a healthy 5.4 yards per carry, it came with a rush DVOA of only -6.4% and -- most importantly for Buffalo -- just one broken tackle.
Baltimore, like Indianapolis, is going to pick up yards on the ground, and plenty of them. It's up to Buffalo to stay disciplined in their defense, to not bite on the counter and other misdirection plays, to stay in the right position, and to make the tackles when they are available. This has been easier said than done for most of the season for Buffalo, but they continue to round into form at the right time, now seventh in defensive DVOA since Week 10. If they can disrupt first downs and knock the Ravens' offense off track, keeping them out of easy down-and-distance situations, Baltimore is going to have a much harder time moving the ball.
Oh, and one other note -- there's a 40% chance of snow during the game. Lamar Jackson has never played in a snow game at any level of football. There's no specific reason to assume Jackson won't be able to adapt to the weather conditions, but it's one more variable the Ravens' offense will have to adjust to in order to have success.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
"There is going to be pressure," Baltimore defensive coordinator Don Martindale told the media. "That's who we are. That's what we've done".
We believe him, both in the general and the specific. The Ravens blitzed a league-high 45.1% of the time per Sportradar, and only the Steelers knocked down quarterbacks more frequently. And, even more relevantly, this is exactly what the Baltimore defense did when they played Josh Allen and the Bills back in 2019. That day, the Ravens sent extra rushers at Allen on 31 dropbacks. They came early and often -- they blitzed on Allen's first nine dropbacks, and 11 of his first 12. It worked, too. Allen didn't complete a second pass for positive yards until midway through the second quarter. Allen was sacked six times, lost a fumble, and put up -134 passing DYAR, his worst game of the season. Specifically, Allen is going to have to deal with cornerback blitzes -- he has faced more defensive back blitzes than anyone in the league, and Baltimore sent more secondary blitzes than anyone other than Seattle and Tampa Bay. Expect Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott to spend a significant chunk of time in the backfield.
There's just one problem: that doesn't work anymore against Allen. Last season, Allen's passing DVOA facing five or more rushers fell to -1.6%, which ranked 21st in the league. In 2020, however, Allen's DVOA against the blitz was 51.3%, second behind only Patrick Mahomes. Among Allen's many improvements in 2020 has been his ability to handle extra pressure in the pocket. His processing this year is faster, allowing him to find his hot read or checkdown options. He seems to have a better understanding of what to look for when forced to scramble -- and his arm strength and newfound accuracy allow him to make throws few other quarterbacks can. The book on Allen still says to bring extra pass-rushers; the Bills faced a blitz 32% of the time. That book should be thrown out.
It's not pressure that gets to Allen, it's confusion. Allen's worst numbers have come against zone coverage and, more to the point, disguised coverages. Indianapolis had some success early in the wild-card matchup by showing blitz, getting Allen off of his initial reads, then dropping back into coverage, and that has been a pattern all season long. Only two of Allen's 10 interceptions have come with defenses rushing five or more, and only one of them has come with Allen actually outside of the pocket. Instead, by forcing Allen into an incorrect pre-snap read, defenses have been able to trick him to throw into zones where defenders lurk. The Ravens should play with their reputation for bringing pressure, line up in creative pressure fronts, and then drop back into coverage more than they typically would. They made the same sort of adjustment against Tennessee in the second half, cutting their blitz percentage in half and stymying Ryan Tannehill's arm. The same tactics might be the best strategy to slow Buffalo's explosive pass attack down. The Ravens had a -6.8% DVOA when rushing only four and still often found ways to get pressure without sending extra players anyway -- it's not like they always needed to blitz to get after the quarterback.
And the Ravens could use extra help in the secondary, because Stefon Diggs is going to give them fits. Diggs caught six of his nine targets against Indianapolis, with an average depth of target of 16.6 yards -- and one of the incomplete passes was a drop. Diggs had a receiving DVOA of 121.7% on his six deep targets against Indy and was nigh-unstoppable in the second half. And even if you take away Diggs, you still have to deal with the trio of Cole Beasley, John Brown, and Gabriel Davis. The Bills combined for the fourth-most receiving DYAR on deep passes in 2020, and they generally were very deep indeed -- only four offenses topped Allen's 27.1 average depth of target when throwing the ball deep (16+ air yards), and none of them threw it deep as regularly as the Bills did. The Ravens did rank fifth against the deep pass, but they struggled some containing A.J. Brown last week, especially when he was matched up one-on-one with Marlon Humphrey. There will be plenty of opportunities for Diggs and company to make splash plays deep in this one.
Do not expect the ground game to be much of a factor. Even when everyone's healthy, few offenses in football throw the ball more frequently than Buffalo does; they led the league by throwing the ball 61% of the time on first downs. And everyone's not healthy -- Zack Moss' high-ankle sprain will keep him out for the rest of the postseason. Without Moss, Buffalo's run DVOA drops from -15.0% to -16.5%, and Moss had a better success rate than Devin Singletary did as well. Plus, you know, Baltimore just held first-team All-Pro Derrick Henry to 2.2 yards per carry and have only allowed three 100-yard rushers all season long; it's not an enticing matchup to run against in normal circumstances. Basically, every time Buffalo decides to run the ball, it's a victory for Baltimore.
This is an area of strength against strength, with both teams finishing in the top four in special teams DVOA this season. Even taking into account his rare miss in the wild-card round, Justin Tucker remains one of the most reliable kickers in NFL history; Tucker and the Ravens ranked fourth in both field goal/XP value and kickoff value in 2020. Baltimore also led the league in kickoff return value behind Devin Duvernay and ranked fifth in punting value to boot.
Not to be outdone, Tyler Bass led the league in kickoff value for Buffalo, while Andre Roberts had the Bills in the top five in both kickoff and punt returns; he led the league with an even 30 yards per kickoff return. Roberts versus Ravens punter Sam Koch is the closest thing to a strength-on-strength matchup you'll get on special teams; two of the best at what they do going at it. If there's a weak link on either team, it's the rookie Bass on field goals. He was only 18-of-24 from 30 yards out or more during the regular season, though he did nail both of his attempts against the Colts.
Our numbers have this the tighter of the two AFC games -- the fourth- and fifth-place teams in DVOA, both of which are arguably playing their best football of the year. Neither team is lucky to be here; it's a clash between two legitimate Super Bowl contenders who might be doing this dance for much of the next decade. Neither team winning would be a surprise.
In the end, the Ravens' offensive strategy revolves around running the ball and staying on pace. Force a negative play early in the drive, and they simply aren't as effective. That's easier said than done, but it is a weakness. Stop Buffalo in first down, and Josh Allen is likely to just throw a 50-yard bomb while running away from three blitzers the next play. It's just hard to pick a run-first offense over a pass-first offense of similar quality in 2021. I expect the Bills to come on top in this one.
Cleveland at Kansas City
|DVOA||-5.6% (18)||19.5% (6)|
|WEI DVOA||4.7% (12)||17.7% (7)|
|Browns on Offense|
|CLE OFF||KC DEF|
|DVOA||5.4% (9)||4.9% (22)|
|WEI DVOA||13.8% (6)||8.3% (26)|
|PASS||20.9% (10)||6.7% (16)|
|RUSH||-0.8% (7)||2.6% (31)|
|Chiefs on Offense|
|CLE DEF||KC OFF|
|DVOA||7.4% (25)||23.9% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||8.2% (25)||22.4% (3)|
|PASS||16.4% (25)||49.0% (2)|
|RUSH||-5.4% (19)||-5.6% (13)|
|ST DVOA||-3.6% (27)||0.5% (17)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
After upsetting the Steelers in Pittsburgh Sunday night, the Browns come into Kansas City with a chance to knock off the reigning Super Bowl champions and thoroughly banish several memes from existence. The Chiefs, as we have mentioned all season, have not quite played up to the status you'd expect from a 14-2 team this year. They have been good, and they have beaten many other contenders, but they also won six games over their last seven weeks by a combined 26 points. Their post-bye week point differential is +9.
The Browns have not played the Chiefs since Baker Mayfield's rookie year. Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, of course, put on one of the finest displays of offensive football that ever occurred when they met in college. In that 2018 game under interim coach Gregg Williams, Mahomes got some payback for his loss in college. The Browns were ravaged by Mahomes to the tune of 375 yards and three scores. Two of those touchdowns went to Travis Kelce, and the other went to current Browns running back Kareem Hunt. The Chiefs crockpotted the final 22 minutes of game time after going up 34-13 in the third quarter.
Cleveland's path to victory this weekend relies on a couple of very evident things. One of them has a pretty fair chance of happening. The other, well, Any Given Sunday is about all we can hit on here.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Well, the Browns are a run-first offense. The Chiefs happen to have one of the worst DVOA run defenses in the NFL, and that's something that has been clear now for three years running!
|KC Run Defense DVOAs, 2018-2020|
The Browns have tended to run out of heavy formations often this year. Per Sharp Football Stats, they are the league leaders in using 13 personnel (one back, three tight ends, 124 snaps) and also used heavy doses of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, 255 snaps) and 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends, 89 snaps). The Chiefs have actually dealt well with these bigger packages. They allowed 3.9 yards per carry to 12, 3.4 yards per carry to 22, and 3.3 yards per carry to 13, though those last two are in small sample sizes and the successful run rate was still relatively high. That seems to spit out that though the Chiefs may give up first downs, they're fundamentally sound and don't get out-and-out gashed by big runs in bigger packages. Of course, Nick Chubb and Hunt both have a ton of tackle-breaking ability, which may be able to leave some of these players in a bind. Willie Gay was Kansas City's second-round pick and probably someone they had in mind when it came time to deal with rushing attacks like this, but he is on the injury report with a sprained ankle. Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson are the two Kansas City linebackers who have played the most snaps this season.
The Chiefs played three of the five teams with the most rushes in the NFL this year, and the Browns are fourth (they didn't link up with the Titans). Against the Ravens and Patriots, regressive passing games capped the offensive upside, but both teams were able to get plenty of yards. The Saints actually couldn't run on the Chiefs at all, and it helped force a game-script deficit they had to throw to overcome. The goal ends up being something close to what the Texans did to the Chiefs in Week 6 of the 2019 season when they won at Arrowhead: win time of possession by a lot (40 minutes to 20 in that game), hope that Mahomes misses a few key passes, and pray you can just keep dodging bullets while the offense keeps the heat on.
Cleveland's pass offense has taken leaps and bounds forward since their two midseason games with massive winds. Their only game with less than 10.0% pass offense DVOA in that sample (from Week 11 on) was Week 16 against the Jets -- a game where they were effectively using practice squad receivers thanks to COVID-19. The Browns managed 8.0 yards per pass attempt on 73 play-action targets for those first 10 weeks. From Weeks 11 on, it's a scorching 9.5 yards per pass in 65 attempts, good for a total DVOA of 35.0%, and 32 of those plays became first downs or touchdowns.
The Chiefs only allowed 7.0 yards per play-action pass (all play-action data from SIS). That was the 11th-best average in the NFL -- so not great, but not terrible -- but they shut down play-action against the run-heavy teams they played. Obviously Drew Brees' first game off injury had him looking a little shaky, but he didn't complete a play-action pass. Lamar Jackson, Jarret Stidham, and Brian Hoyer combined for 97 play-action yards on 22 attempts.
The other factor, then, is Baker Mayfield's statistical improvement against the blitz in the waning weeks of the season. Mayfield's passing chart from the first Cleveland playoff game isn't telling you a big story, but per Sportradar data he was blitzed on 20 of 34 dropbacks as the Steelers tried to flip the game script. They wound up getting pressure on him only twice.
In Mayfield's first six games of the season, he was blitzed 65 times per SIS. When he actually threw the ball, he threw for 7.0 yards per attempt. Since Week 7, Mayfield has averaged 9.8 yards per attempt when blitzed, and has only thrown one interception with a 16.6% DVOA. The Chiefs love the big blitz. Nobody has sent more six-plus-man rushes this year than Kansas City's 87.
Each of these three areas need to work in tandem for Cleveland to have a chance to spring the upset. The play-action game has to continue to be hot against a game opponent, the running game has to work, and Mayfield has to be able to avoid pressure. Kansas City's defense has not played all that great this year, but there are still some big names here, including Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones, and Frank Clark.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
And then there's these guys. The Chiefs finished first in pass offense DVOA and only had two games below 25.5% pass offense DVOA: Week 7 against Denver and Week 16 against the Falcons. Certain teams such as the Texans and Bills seemed to play back enough to literally force the Chiefs to run on them.
Don't do what Donny Don't does and blitz Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes somehow finished with positive DVOA this year (0.6%) when he was pressured -- that's a spot where the average quarterback is at -70.6% DVOA, and the only other qualifying quarterback that was positive was Ryan Fitzpatrick in a small sample. In his 15 starts, Mahomes had a 72.9% DVOA against 130 blitzes, averaging 9.3 yards per play. The Browns, on the other hand, allowed a 41.5% DVOA when they blitzed, 30th in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods can keep a couple of his best in for specialty circumstances, but otherwise, they need to chuck the entire blitz playbook away.
A reoccurring theme was isolating the LB's in coverage. Here motion to empty forces the ILB into a drop vs. speed at #3 receiver. Jerk route by Watkins is a tough matchup. pic.twitter.com/4h29tAMjQa
— Blitzology (@blitzologyblog) January 13, 2021
When Woods and Andy Reid/Eric Bieniemy matched up against each other while Woods was in charge of the Broncos, the Chiefs focused pretty heavily on getting linebackers isolated in coverage. This would be a wildly successful idea against a Browns team that never really replaced Joe Schoebert this offseason. B.J. Goodson took a shoulder injury against the Steelers last week and it was the first time all season he didn't play the vast majority of the snaps for the Browns. The depth is former third-rounder Sione Takitaki; former Super Bowler Malcolm Smith has also received 558 snaps following Mack Wilson's season-ending injury. Rookie third-rounder Jacob Phillips saw a ton of snaps as well against Pittsburgh. The general numbers have been pretty fair for those guys per SIS charting -- 5.5 yards per attempt against Smith, 6.5 against Takitaki -- but the Browns were one of the five highest zone-heavy coverage teams in the NFL this year. You don't want these linebackers isolated in man coverage.
Mahomes threw for 9.2 yards per pass against man coverage this year, versus only 7.6 against zone, so that's something that plays into Cleveland's hands. To circle back to the bad DVOA games up above, the Falcons ran zone on 33 of Mahomes dropbacks compared to just 11 in man. The Broncos ran zone on 20 of Mahomes dropbacks compared to … three in man. The major difference-maker is the deep throws. Mahomes threw 46 balls of 20 yards or more against zone this year and only completed 16 of them.
The return of Kevin Johnson and (mainly) Denzel Ward off the COVID-19 list would seem to be a boost as well. Cleveland's pass defense DVOA of 16.4% is only slightly improved to 15.0% if you take out Ward's weeks missed this year, but he's a phenomenal talent and the Browns need all the individual matchup wins they can get in this one. Also, I hate to bring this up, but the Browns have allowed 58.8% DVOA on deep throws this year, 29th in the NFL. So at the same time as they play zone, they need to make sure the pressure gets there quickly enough to not let Mahomes find Tyreek Hill or one of the other Swiss Army knife special teamer/wideout fast guys such as Demarcus Robinson wide open.
And that pretty much is the undercard of the Mahomes magic and something that could mess with the entire tenor of this matchup. The Chiefs are sixth in pass block win rate at 62.6% though former Browns tackle Mitchell Schwartz's return from IR is apparently not happening this week. That might help. The Browns have the third-highest pass rush win rate edge rusher in the NFL: Myles Garrett. Garrett was an Aaron Schatz All-Pro; he finished with more "quality" sacks than any player in the NFL per charting by Brandon Thorn of Establish The Run.
Well, good luck Myles. It's going to be on you to create the pressure on Sunday. Olivier Vernon is on IR with an Achilles injury. Sheldon Richardson can still get a little push but he's 30. The Browns used Porter Gustin as their change-up EDGE last week, with Adrian Clayborn as the main fill-in. As much respect as I have for Clayborn as a player, a dominant edge rusher at this stage of his career he is not. You're hoping to maybe find a little juice from Larry Ogunjobi or Jordan Elliott as well -- the Browns have to do this without blitzing somehow. This is one of the many conundrums Mahomes inflicts.
With Ben Roethlisberger literally just dropping 501 total passing yards on this defense -- even as it did have a huge lead and he did make mistakes -- trying to port the idea of that defense playing up to Mahomes standards is terrifying. Better get some turnovers, Cleveland.
Oh, the Chiefs have a run game as well. After putting up double-digit negative DVOA in each of their first four games, they were positive in eight of the last 12 and hit double-digit positive DVOA in four of their seven games since the bye week. The Browns don't have much of a split as a run defense. The only game they've carried worse than a 13.0% rush DVOA was against the Steelers in Week 6 -- one of those games where DVOA looks at what Pittsburgh did as a whole this season and adjustments look at the Browns skeptically. This will mostly be a change-up for the Chiefs. They know what their bread and butter is. The Browns could play the Chiefs like those Bills and Texans did and invite more runs -- they were extra special with their game plan in Week 1 to force the Ravens to pass on them rather than run on them -- but otherwise this is the thematic part of the storyline you won't really think about as Mahomes drops back and lets it rip.
Kansas City finished 17th in special teams DVOA. Do you know how far back we have to go to find another Chiefs team out of the top 10 in special teams DVOA? Try 2012, before Reid and special teams coach Dave Toub were employed by the organization. The Chiefs were bad on kick coverage (remember the touchdown they allowed to Baltimore's Devin Duvernay on Monday Night Football?) and, shockingly, on punt returns. Mecole Hardman had one return for a touchdown this year, and Robinson flubbed a ball that led to a safety against the Saints. Outside of those major plays, the Chiefs struggled to get anything going, with Hardman's long non-scoring return capped at just 16 yards.
The Browns, though, have been a net negative in literally every area of special teams this year. They barely cleared an average special teams DVOA last year with the second-best rating we handed out on kickoffs. This year they've been bad on kickoffs! One of the four worst units in the league, in fact. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown to Indy's Isaiah Rodgers in Week 5, and have allowed five other 30-plus-yard returns, though four of them came in the first two weeks of the season. With Cody Parkey at kicker, the Browns have essentially given up on long field goals. Parkey is 10-of-11 from 40-plus, but hasn't attempted a 50-plus-yarder all season. His season long is just 46 yards. Good thing the Browns don't mind going for it on fourth down anyway!
This is the biggest spread of any of the week's games, with the Chiefs getting 10 points. As much as we've disparaged the Chiefs, they're a pretty easy pick to win this game on paper. A lot has to go right for the Browns to come out of this with a victory, though our model does favor the Browns covering the 10 points.
There has been a lot of talk around the general enlightened football-sphere about how the Chiefs have mailed in certain parts of this season, using Mahomes out wide on some plays, not going for the jugular quite as quickly as you'd expect, and so on. The Browns are going to be a measuring stick for just how seriously the Chiefs are taking this. Since 2012, no team has made the Super Bowl without the benefit of a first-round bye. That obviously is a much shallower pool this year than usual, but it is something that merits watching as the Chiefs continue to be DVOA underachievers despite passing the media's juggernaut/easy favorite eye test.
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.