(At a diner somewhere in greater New Orleans, right around the start of the early-bird specials...)
DREW BREES: So we meet again!
TOM BRADY: Third time's a charm. Say, how come no one is paying any attention to us?
BREES: They're all pumped up about Ravens-Bills.
BRADY: You mean fans would rather watch Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen than you and I?
BREES: Of course.
BRADY: But we're living legends!
BREES: And they are 24-year-old dual-threats leading explosive offenses. Also, fans haven't spent 20 years listening to their storylines getting told and retold.
BRADY: Such impudence.
BREES: The NFL belongs to them now, Tom. Think about it: where would you be without all the hoopla and the Dream Team supporting cast?
BRADY: I'd probably be getting ready to grit my teeth through a playoff game with a jacked-up ribcage while hoping my coach doesn't insert my Wildcat backup to get strip-sacked in the middle of the second quarter.
BREES: Touche. Say, what's the visiting locker room like at the Superdome? I hope it's spacious enough for you.
Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
Dual Threat Duel
Here are the top seven quarterbacks in running plays marked as "QB Design" or "QB Draw" in the Sports Info Solutions database, as ranked by total rushing attempts:
|Leaders in 'QB Design' or 'QB Draw' Runs, 2020|
|Source: Sports Info Solutions|
I stopped at seven because lots of quarterbacks with 10 or 15 designed runs kick in after that; we would be looking at guys who run one short-yardage or surprise read-option per game, not true dual-threats.
The chart above is full of goodness: Taysom Hill's relative mediocrity; Cam Newton's laborious year; Jalen Hurts' reliance on designed runs in just a handful of games (even with his sub-package plays taken away, he runs at near-Jackson levels); Jones' ability to make sneaky appearances on all sorts of top-10 lists. For this week's purposes, the chart is an indicator of how rarely the Bills design running plays for Allen. Allen executed 31 designed runs in 2019 and 23 in 2018, while his passing attempts have gone up drastically each season. He runs by design about twice per game, which is just enough to establish him as a threat, force opponents to account for his running in practice and game-planning, and so forth.
Allen also doesn't scramble as much as he used to: 28 times this season, as opposed to 46 times last year and 47 times (in a partial season as a starter) in 2018. Young quarterbacks are supposed to scramble more judiciously as they develop, so this is yet another indicator of Allen's across-the-board improvement. Young quarterbacks are also supposed to put away childish things such as designed running plays as they mature, at least until they achieve the "expendable stunt double" stage of their career (sorry, Cam). Jackson is probably in the process of changing that expectation, though it will be interesting to see how often Jackson runs after he lands a nine-figure contract. I'm guessing it will be scaled back closer to 35 designed runs per year than 88.
The Sideline Itch
Allen's greatest advantage over Jackson -- and the Bills' biggest offensive advantage over the Ravens -- is his ability to complete passes along the sidelines.
The next set of splits come from passes listed as "left" or "right" (as opposed to "left middle," "middle," or "right middle") in the Sports Info Solutions database. These passes are also tagged as "in pocket" because I wanted to weed out plays where Jackson (in particular) scrambled to his right and then floated a pass over approaching defenders for a short gain.
Allen ranked sixth in the NFL in the regular season with 209 attempts meeting the "sideline pass" parameters outlined above. Allen finished third with 1,760 yards (Brady and Aaron Rodgers were first and second), completing 71.3% of those passes (third to Alex Smith and Kirk Cousins, King and Archduke of the dumpoff) at 8.4 yards per attempt (fifth; Cousins led the league somehow).
Jackson ranked 33rd in the NFL with just 90 attempts on sideline passes; he threw fewer such passes than part-timers such as Smith, Tua Tagovailoa, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nick Foles, or Joe Burrow. Jackson ranked 32nd with 641 yards (less than Dak Prescott) and completed just 60.0% of such passes (34th, below Mitch Trubisky) at 7.1 yards per attempt (a relatively respectable 25th).
Jackson's limitations and reluctance as a sideline passer are significant, in part because they allow defensive backs to cheat toward the middle of the field to counteract both the option threat and shallow tosses to Mark Andrews and others. It's noteworthy that offensive coordinator Greg Roman appeared to emphasize short, scripted sideline passes in the second half of last week's playoff game: the Titans secondary was playing 10 or 12 yards off the ball so they could avoid blocks, read keys and fakes, and crash running lanes. The more Jackson can scratch the sideline itch, even on screens to Marquise Brown or quick flairs to Patrick Ricard, the easier it will be for him to open up everything from designed runs to deep shots.
Allen, meanwhile, has scratched all itches and opened the whole field. Coordinator Brian Daboll has enjoyed the luxury of a "full playbook" all season. Allen's emergence as a quarterback of this caliber was a possibility from the day he was drafted; it just wasn't a very high probability. I'll be writing more about Allen for the New York Times this week, but for our purposes: the Bills rolled boxcars, and the fact that it was a 2.8% shot doesn't diminish the fact that they came up winners, nor does it change the 2.8% probability that each of the next 500 Allen-like prospects will develop into Allen.
The Bills and Ravens are similar in ways that go beyond their two third-year quarterbacks. Their penalty rates are similar (the Ravens have committed 109 penalties, the Bills 104). Both of their defenses, while solid overall, are charged with a high number of missed tackles (135 for the Ravens, second-highest in the NFL; sixth-highest 127 for the Bills, per Pro Football Reference). They are as close to even on special teams as any team can be to the Ravens so long as Justin Tucker is their kicker.
Similarities aside, the Ravens are the far superior running team, but the Bills are a much better passing team. This is Football Outsiders, and this is 2021, so of course I am picking the better passing team to prevail.
Prediction: Bills 34, Ravens 27
(Back at the diner...)
TOM BRADY: Wow, the service stinks at this place. Garcon? Garcon?
DREW BREES: What, are you aging into Moira Rose?
BRADY: Hush. Garcon! MAINTENANT!
JARED VALDHEER: May I help you?
BREES: Don't I know you?
VALDHEER: Of course you do. I am Jared Valdheer, Veteran Left Tackle for Hire! It's my pleasure to help out legendary quarterbacks. I played left tackle for Philip Rivers and the Colts last week and will replace injured David Bakhtiari to protect Aaron Rodgers' blind side this week.
BREES: So wait … you can just join a playoff team on Monday, and then start at one of the most important positions on the field that weekend?
BREES: And not knowing the play calls isn't a factor?
VALDHEER: I did play briefly for the Packers in 2019 and joined the Colts at the end of the regular season, so I am not totally unfamiliar with their systems. But really, blocking is blocking.
BREES: And what about things like scheme fit, culture fit, locker room chemistry, the precision timing of an offensive line, the all-important long-term evaluation process and technical refinement based on weeks and months of practice reps…
VALDHEER: That's about 90% bullsnot so coaches and GMs can make their jobs sound like sorcery without making any risky decisions. Heck, I could block for either of you guys next week. Any takers?
BREES: I'll give you a call if anything happens to Terron Armstead. What about you, Tom?
BRADY: Kale and quinoa salad topped with smoked salmon, fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice on the side. There's a fiver in it for you if you bring it out fast.
VALDHEER: I'm sorry, but that's not on the menu. Can I interest you in a J.J. Gargantuan?
Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers, Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
Aaron Rodgers, Playoff Hero
Aaron Rodgers is tied for fourth on the all-time playoff touchdown list with 40. He will pass Peyton Manning if he throws one touchdown pass on Saturday. Rodgers needs four touchdowns to tie Brett Favre, five to tie Joe Montana. He then needs a scant 35 more (and counting) to pass Tom Brady.
I love to throw shade at Brady's ego/image/legion-of-obsequious-worshippers here at Walkthrough, but I hope folks realize it's all court jester stuff. I mean, holy crap, he has thrown nearly twice as many postseason touchdown passes as any other quarterback in history. At any rate, Rodgers is two good games away from second place.
Rodgers is seventh all-time with 5,027 postseason passing yards. Drew Brees is ahead of him with 5,232 yards, so Rodgers could pass Brees on Saturday, only to have Brees pass him again on Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger pulled into pit lane (with four flat tires and an engine on fire) on Sunday in fifth place with 5,757 yards. If Rodgers reaches the Super Bowl and produces three 300-yard games this postseason, he could climb over Montana and Favre into third place behind Peyton Manning and Pretty Boy. (There I go again).
Rodgers does not need any help with Hall of Fame arguments, but I like citing playoff statistics when making Hall of Fame arguments, in large part because I know many voters prefer candidates with lots of "big game" impact. While postseason leaderboards are dominated by recent players (not only do offensive rates keep increasing, but the league keeps adding more playoff games), postseason statistics do help weed out the "well, he'll finish his career sixth in all-time passing yards, therefore he MUST be inducted" arguments.
Russell Wilson is currently tied with Joe Flacco for 12th with 25 postseason touchdown passes. Wilson is on pace to pass John Elway and Terry Bradshaw over the next few seasons, assuming Brian Schottenheimer doesn't singlehandedly stop him. (Editor's Note: Good news!) Postseason touchdowns are a better indicator of what makes Wilson a likely Hall of Famer than most of his regular-season stats. (Flacco will fit squarely in the Ravens Ring of Honor and the South Jersey Sports Hall of Fame).
Matt Ryan, meanwhile, is stalled at 18th with 20 postseason touchdowns. The Ryan Hall of Fame discussion is not utterly ridiculous, and 20 isn't a bad total -- he's tied with Steve Young -- but if his career as a playoff quarterback is over, it won't help that he has thrown four fewer postseason touchdowns than Donovan McNabb (a superficially similar candidate who has never come close to being a finalist) and five fewer than Flacco.
Eli Manning threw 18 career postseason touchdown passes. His Hall of Fame candidacy hinges on postseason excellence. Let's just let that marinate.
Philip Rivers is now at 16, tied with Bernie Kosar, the player he most resembled from a passing mechanics standpoint and another playoff heartbreak legend. It may sound like I am making a big deal out of five or 10 postseason touchdowns, but they are postseason touchdowns, and also I am just using them for a broad-brush discussion. Hall of Fame voters will dig through the postseason records of (particularly) quarterbacks when analyzing borderline cases. Three touchdowns in playoff games mean much more in Hall of Fame discussions than some 4,000-yard seasons for 7-9 teams.
As you may have guessed by now, I am bored by this matchup and extra bored by the Rams. The Rams aren't winning this game with Aaron Donald at less than 100% and the Thumbless Wonder at quarterback. It has been a long year, and I am fresh out of jokes about Mike Pettine asking Preston Smith to cover Cooper Kupp (which will probably happen at least once on Saturday) or Rodgers Force-choking Marquez Valdes-Scantling after a dropped touchdown pass.
The Packers generally win at least one playoff game before collapsing into defensive miscommunication and Rodgers passive-aggression, which is why Rodgers is climbing so high on all-time postseason leaderboards. We'll check back on them against Brady or Brees next week. This week, they'll pick up the easy win that sets their hopes and expectations extra high.
Prediction: Packers 31, Rams 19.
(Back again at the diner...)
TOM BRADY: Turn the television off.
DREW BREES: But Patrick Mahomes…
BREES: … is undisputedly…
BREES: ... the NFL's biggest star…
BREES: … and the heir...
BREES: … to your…
BREES: … legacy!
BRADY: [Attempts to bite Brees' face off.]
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 3:05 p.m.
Browns Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio missed Sunday's victory over the Steelers due to COVID quarantines. All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin was knocked out early with a hamstring injury. Michael Dunn, Bitonio's replacement, missed the final few series with a calf injury. The Browns played most of Sunday's upset with backups Dunn and Kendall Lamm at left guard and right tackle and part of it with someone named Blake Hance at left guard. Yet the Browns rushed for 127 yards and held the best pass-rushing team in the NFL without a sack.
You heard it here first, folks: offensive linemen don't matter.
But seriously, it's hard to differentiate players from scheme and situation, which may be the theme of the Browns season and Football Outsiders' entire history as a website and analytics provider.
The Browns offensive line ranked sixth in adjusted line yards this season, which sounds about right, though it's noteworthy that the Vikings ranked first with a country cousin of an offensive scheme and an offensive line no one would confuse with the 1992 Dallas Cowboys.
Sports Info Solutions ranks Bitonio 11th-best in the NFL with a 0.894% blown blocks-per-snap rate (minimum 500 snaps). Conklin ranks 14th in this category, JC Tretter 49th. Blown blocks are of dubious value, except if someone blows five of them in 40 snaps or something, though having two players among the top 20 is at least somewhat noteworthy.
The Browns offensive line grades out very, very well in charting-based systems, and it doesn't take too much film grinding to notice guard Wyatt Teller doing something pancake-y. But if I am going to express skepticism about adjusted line yards, you can imagine my issues with the possible distortions baked into a charting-based system by strength of schedule, scheme, and situation.
It's safe to say that the Browns have a very good offensive line, and that this line has been helped by a line-friendly system, a season in which the Browns often played with a lead (it's easy to avoid sacks, even against the Steelers, when leading 35-10), a middling opposing schedule and, dare we mention them, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. I don't think it's some all-time great offensive line having a breakout year, even when it's at full strength; much of what the Browns do is predicated on their ability to remain balanced by keeping games close.
If you watched the Browns secondary in the second half on Sunday, you know the Browns have zero chance of remaining balanced by keeping things close against the Chiefs.
Prediction: Chiefs 38, Browns 24
(Back at the diner…)
BRADY: Well, old buddy, I guess we won't meet again until some charity golf tournament.
BREES: Say, look who's here!
BRADY: Oh no. Don't let him ... ugh. Hey, coach.
BILL BELICHICK: mumble mumble grumble mumble grumble.
BRADY: What's that? You say you were invited to accept some special award, but you really don't want to go?
BILL BELICHICK: mumble mumble grumble mumble grumble.
BRADY: And you want me to go in your place, because you don't think the person giving the award will even notice?
BILL BELICHICK: mumble mumble grumble mumble grumble.
BRADY: Yes, I know. We both did. Many times. And so did Captain Admirable here. Right, Drew?
BREES: Um … er … Social justice! Diversity! Where the hell is Valdheer with our check?
BILL BELICHICK: mumble mumble grumble mumble grumble.
BRADY: Sorry, coach. I'd love to help you out, but I have an excuse. I have a playoff game to prepare for!
BILL BELICHICK: Grrrrrr...
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints, Sunday, 6:40 p.m.
The Interference Protocols
The Saints were penalized for 1,025 yards this season, the second-highest total in the NFL. (The Jaguars led the league with 1,071 penalty yards). Saints opponents were penalized for just 567 yards. The Saints lost 458 net yards to penalties, the highest figure in the league, 93 yards higher than the second-place Ravens.
Most interestingly for this game, the Saints led the league with 19 pass interference penalties in the regular season. They tied for third with 10 defensive holding penalties. The Buccaneers finished the regular season as the beneficiaries of 24 defensive pass interference penalties, five more than the second-place Steelers and Dolphins and the highest total in the NFL Penalties database, dating back to 2009. I checked the Football Outsiders record books and couldn't find a higher total; the Buccaneers benefitted from more pass interference penalties from any team since 1985, and almost certainly of all time. They're about to face the most interference-happy team in the NFL.
It's tempting to assume there are some "Brady calls" in that total, especially with Roethlisberger's Steelers also high on the list. Rivers, another esteemed veteran, led the NFL with 16 pass interference calls in 2019. Brees led the league as the beneficiary of 13 fouls in 2018. Rivers led the league with 16 fouls in 2017, with Roethlisberger tied with Case Keenum with 14 and Brady with 12 for 287 yards (more than Rivers). But Derek Carr led the league with 19 fouls in 2016, Carson Palmer (great player, but no legend with the power to sway officials) in 2015, and Joe Flacco in 2014.
Brady's pass interference totals tend to be high in most seasons -- in 2014, for example, he tied Palmer and Andrew Luck for second place behind Flacco with 13 fouls for 223 yards -- but there are many other variables at play: the simple fact that Brady throws lots of passes, the quality of his receivers in any given year (particularly this one), the experience to see a defender trading paint with a receiver and throw the ball in that direction to draw the foul. And if Brady does get an extra call now and then for being Brady, so do his peers.
The Saints committed four pass interference penalties in their Week 1 victory over the Buccaneers. They committed just one, plus a defensive hold, in their Week 9 blowout. They were also flagged for roughing the passer in Week 9 and unnecessary roughness twice in the opener. The Saints led the NFL with eight unnecessary roughness penalties and were tied for second with eight roughing the passer penalties. Brady drew five roughing the passer penalties this season: not a high total, but keep in mind that defenders rarely get close to Brady in the first place. Pass interference is one thing. but if you don't believe Brady gets extra protection from roughness fouls, perhaps it's time for you to donate that old Ted Bruschi jersey to charity.
The Saints know a few things about losing playoff games due to officiating. Needless to say, they cannot afford to give the Buccaneers a 29-yard tilt and an extra first down or two on Sunday night.
Stuffs vs. Pressure
If penalties don't get the Saints, the Buccaneers run defense probably will. The Buccaneers defense ranks first in the league in adjusted line yards, first in second-level yards (limiting Alvin Kamara heroics) and second in stuff rate (say hello to second-and-11). Per Sports Info Solutions, four Buccaneers defenders finished among the top 20 in the NFL in tackles for a loss on running plays: Devin White (tied for third with 20), Lavonte David (tied for sixth with 16), and Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett (tied among many for 10th with 15).
The Bucs held Kamara to 16 yards on 12 carries and generally stopped the run in their first meeting; the Saints spent most of the second meeting squatting on a lead. It's hard to imagine the post-rib injury version of Brees moving the football without some semblance of run support.
The final variable to touch upon in this matchup is Brady's tendency to turn into the Chargers version of Johnny Unitas when he faces the Saints defense. That comes down to pressure, something Brady didn't have to cope with at the end of the regular season. Per Sports Info Solutions, Brady was pressured on 31 dropbacks in his final four games, 28th in the NFL. He dropped back 111 times with no pressure in that span, third in the NFL. Washington applied more pressure than most recent opponents on Saturday night and got a somewhat shakier Brady (22-of-40 passing, some red zone struggles). Washington was also starting their fourth-string quarterback, allowing the Bucs to (somewhat) safely settle for field goals. The Saints defense can't settle for tamping Brady down to wild-card levels; they need him at Saints-/Rams-/Bears-game levels.
May This Be Your Last Battlefield
Overall, the Buccaneers are not as strong as they looked during their victory lap around the Falcons and Lions at season's end. But the Saints are not as strong as they were earlier in the season.
If this turns out to be Brees' final game, let it be said that he went out battling Brady in a playoff game with cracked ribs. And if this is Brady's last game of the season, well, he'll probably be back.
Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Saints 24.