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» Scramble for the Ball: Championship Quartets

Blake Bortles. Nick Foles. Case Keenum. Can it get worse than that? Andrew steps out of the way and lets Bryan throw up a dozen tables to try to come to an answer.

05 Jan 2018

AFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2018

by Scott Kacsmar (TEN-KC) and Rivers McCown (BUF-JAC)

Pick your method -- wins and losses, point differential, DVOA, or conventional wisdom -- and they all say the same thing: the AFC has the two weakest of this year's 12 NFL playoff teams. Tiebreakers after the final week left us with the teams ranked 18th (Tennessee) and 21st (Buffalo) in DVOA instead of the teams ranked seventh (Baltimore) and 11th (L.A. Chargers).

On the other side of these games, we have two of the league's more unbalanced teams, the defense-first Jacksonville Jaguars and the offense-first Kansas City Chiefs. The Jaguars were the league's least consistent team, although the Rams' horrible backup performance in Week 17 kept the Jaguars from ranking 32nd in variance. Their defense varied from good to fabulous, the offense from good to abhorrent. The Chiefs started out as the league's strongest team, faltered at midseason, then recovered to end on a four-game winning streak.

Neither of this weekend's AFC home teams looks like a Super Bowl favorite right now, but compared to the medicore teams that snuck into the last two spots, they are clear favorites to win on wild-card weekend.

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 Kansas City



Titans on Offense
TEN OFF KC DEF
DVOA -2.1% (18) 10.6% (30)
WEI DVOA -5.9% (21) 14.0% (32)
PASS 1.4% (20) 17.1% (23)
RUSH 2.0% (8) 3.0% (32)
RED ZONE 11.0% (12) 7.2% (21)


Chiefs on Offense
KC OFF TEN DEF
DVOA 15.7% (4) 5.1% (21)
WEI DVOA 8.0% (7) 2.1% (18)
PASS 29.8% (8) 19.0% (24)
RUSH 9.5% (5) -15.6% (7)
RED ZONE -8.6% (21) -9.5% (10)


Special Teams
TEN KC
DVOA 1.6% (13) 5.3% (4)
TEN kickoff +2.9 (12) 0.0 (14)
KC kickoff +0.8 (11) +7.1 (2)
TEN punts +3.0 (16) +1.7 (12)
KC punts +0.7 (13) +6.2 (8)
FG/XP +0.6 (15) +11.8f (3)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

Tennessee's first postseason appearance since 2008 was not easy to come by. When a team drafts a quarterback like Marcus Mariota, playoffs by the third year are normal expectations. However, no one expected the usually efficient Mariota to toss more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13) this season. A stagnant offense and a subpar defense are a good recipe for peaking at 8-8 mediocrity, but the Titans pulled off enough close wins in the middle of the season for an 8-4 start. After blowing three fourth-quarter leads in a row in Weeks 14 to 16, the Titans had to complete a Jacksonville sweep in Week 17 just to get to 9-7. The good news is that late three-game losing streak came against NFC West teams and didn't hurt Tennessee's playoff tie-breakers. The Titans' superior 8-4 conference record gave them the nod over the three other 9-7 teams to clinch the No. 5 seed.

Meanwhile, Kansas City always expected to be here, but probably had higher expectations than a No. 4 seed. Once upon a time the Chiefs were 5-0, the league's last unbeaten team. Alex Smith was a leading MVP candidate, Kareem Hunt was an overwhelming favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, and this looked like the team's year. Then the Chiefs ran into their kryptonite known as the Steelers, and lost to Oakland after a couple of untimed downs. Andy Reid's bye week dominance didn't show up as the Chiefs lost in one of the upsets of the year to the Giants, 12-9 in overtime. That was followed by a home dud against Buffalo, and somehow the Chiefs managed to lose six of seven games with no signs of complementary football. If the offense was great, then the defense played terrible, and vice versa.

Just as the Titans started a losing slump in Week 14, the Chiefs got hot again. They took a 26-0 lead on the Raiders before winning by 11. They knocked off the Chargers 30-13 in a showdown for first place in the AFC West in Week 15. They easily took care of the Dolphins, and their backups knocked off a bad Denver team last week to finish a four-game winning streak.

Could Kansas City be the next team to make a late run to a title à la the 2011 Giants or 2012 Ravens? We haven't seen anything like that since those teams. Since 2013, seven of the eight Super Bowl participants were No. 1 seeds, and the 2016 Falcons were a No. 2 seed. The pressure is certainly on the Chiefs to take care of business at home here, but the Titans have a way of hanging around late that could make this one interesting.

WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL

Marcus Mariota needs a good running game to succeed, because he needs the play-action pass to succeed. If the Titans are running the ball well, then that's going to open up the play-action game for Mariota.

I put that in italics since it doesn't represent my own thoughts; it is common conventional wisdom associated with teams which have a reputation for running the ball and a quarterback who uses his legs. If you can't find the book on "Exotic Smashmouth" at your local adult bookstore, let me expose the secrets behind this mediocre Tennessee offense that ranked 18th in DVOA.

For starters, the running game, which ranked No. 8 in DVOA, isn't actually that great this year. DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry split carries evenly, but the duo combined for 81 rushing DYAR. San Francisco's rookie backup Matt Breida had 79 DYAR himself this year. A big boost in the numbers for Tennessee is that Mariota had 131 rushing DYAR, the third most for a quarterback in 2017. If you factor out quarterback rushing in the numbers for all teams, then the Titans fall from eighth in DVOA to 16th. Mariota actually gives his running game a lot of statistical help on his own.

As for the backfield duo, Murray is out this week with an MCL tear, leaving Henry as the workhorse. This is a little problematic since Murray was the superior receiver, but Henry did run better than Murray this season. Henry's success rate ranked 15th (48 percent) compared to Murray's ranking of 43rd (39 percent). However, Henry's overall rushing numbers are a bit misleading this year. He had a 72-yard touchdown run against the Colts (Week 6) and a 75-yard touchdown run against the Texans (Week 13). Those two plays alone account for 52 of Henry's 54 rushing DYAR this season. That's not to say we should just remove big plays, but these are not your typical big plays. Both were runs on third-and-5 in the final minute of the game where Henry could have just fallen down after the first-down marker to end the game. Instead, he helped the Titans cover the spread twice and scored two of the most irrelevant long touchdowns in the last couple of decades.

As it stands, this running game is just not that impressive, and it needs to be good against a Kansas City defense that ranked 26th in adjusted line yards and 32nd overall against the run. The Chiefs allowed at least 100 rushing yards in 12 games this season, trailing only the 3-13 Giants (13 games). Kansas City was still an impressive 7-5 in those games, but you can run on the Chiefs this year. The Chiefs rank 31st this season in second-level yards (those gained 5 to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage). So if Henry gets a hole to get loose, he may have a big play in him that will hopefully come when his team really could use it this time.

Getting good gains on first down would also really help. The Chiefs rank 32nd in DVOA against first-down runs this season. The Titans were fifth in rushing and 26th in passing on first down, so we'll see if the early-down strategy is to get Henry going this week and limit the Chiefs' possessions.

     

Then we have the odd case of Mariota's 2017 season. Sure, he was banged up at times this year, but that was true in each of his first two seasons as well. This reliance on the play-action game wasn't there in his breakout sophomore season of 2016. When we did our play-action offense study for 2016, the Titans fared better without play-action (31.1% DVOA, ranked eighth) than they did on plays with play-action (20.6% DVOA, ranked 19th).

But there are some damning numbers this year. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Titans rank second in the league with 9.6 yards per play on play-action passes, and 5.5 yards per play on other plays (31st). That's the largest difference in the league this season. However, the Titans only used play-action 21 percent of the time, which ranked 15th. So it's not used too much, but it has been an effective tool for Mariota, especially with helping him have a clean look down the field. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mariota was only pressured on 22.8 percent of his dropbacks with play-action, the lowest rate in 2017.

Kansas City was middle-of-the-road in defending play-action passes, ranked 15th in yards per play (7.3). A bigger problem for the Chiefs could be a so-so pass rush that only ranked 20th in pressure rate (30.0 percent), according to Sports Info Solutions. Justin Houston (9.5) and Chris Jones (6.5) were the only Chiefs to log more than 2.0 sacks this season. The good news is that Houston still had a decent number of pressures -- 41 tied him for 12th in the league according to Sports Info Solutions. He just didn't finish as many plays for sacks as usual, and it should be difficult to get after Mariota on Saturday. The Titans allowed the fourth-lowest pressure rate (26.1 percent) this season, according to Sports Info Solutions.

Back to the play-action shenanigans -- there's just no real link between Tennessee's running success and play-action success. In Week 2 against Jacksonville, the Titans had a season-high 66.9% rushing DVOA, but Mariota was 4-of-7 for 35 yards and an interception on play-action against a tough defense. Against Pittsburgh, Mariota was 4-of-5 for 123 yards and a touchdown on play-action, but still threw four interceptions in that game, a 40-17 loss where the Titans had -12.3% rushing DVOA. Against Baltimore, Mariota was 6-of-6 for 112 yards and a touchdown on play-action, but the Titans had just 0.5% rushing DVOA that day.

Run well or not, use play-action or not, the common link with Tennessee's passing game this season is that it's just not that productive or efficient. Mariota only threw multiple touchdowns in three games, and never more than two in any one contest. He had four games with at least three touchdowns in his 2016 season. This comes on the heels of Tennessee improving its receiving corps. Tight end Delanie Walker is still the most reliable option on the team, and Rishard Matthews has been a DVOA favorite, who finished 19th in DVOA and DYAR among wide receivers this year. But Eric Decker and first-round rookie Corey Davis have been marginal contributors with one touchdown between them on 148 targets.

If the Titans can get Matthews against the often-targeted cornerback Terrance Mitchell (ranked 74th in yards per pass according to Sports Info Solutions), then that's a favorable matchup. Marcus Peters is still a deadly ball magnet. He collected five more interceptions, forced three fumbles, recovered two fumbles, and scored a touchdown this season. The Chiefs only rank 31st against No. 1 wideouts this season, but that's not to say Peters, who doesn't shadow, is all to blame there. If Mariota wants to test him this week, he may very well regret that. Tennessee's offense has given up four touchdowns on turnovers this season.

We'll end with a snarky reminder that Mariota has 39 touchdowns to zero interceptions in the red zone in his career, because no one has probably ever heard that one before. However, it wasn't all good in 2017. The Titans only rank 25th in passing in the red zone compared to second in rushing. So even if Mariota never has thrown a red zone interception, he's really not throwing enough touchdowns in that area either.

"Not enough touchdowns" could serve as the three-word summary of this offense this season, and we'll see if that can describe the outcome of this game as well.

WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL

The Chiefs had a few offensive clunkers this year, but scored at least 24 points in 12 games, tying the Rams and Eagles for the most such games in 2017. This is a really impressive offense when things are clicking. Alex Smith did what we thought he might do and pulled off the rare feat of having a career year in his 13th NFL season. Call it a DeBerg. Kareem Hunt started in such incredible fashion and still finished fourth in rushing DYAR. Tyreek Hill may not have been as dynamic on runs and returns, but perhaps more importantly he proved he could be a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. Travis Kelce is the best tight end not named Rob Gronkowski in the NFL. The offensive line didn't have a Pro Bowler, but Andy Reid understands how to scheme around that. The line still finished in the top 10 in various stats such as power success (first), stuff rate (ninth), second-level yards (eighth), and open-field yards (second).

This can be a fun offense to watch with Reid's implementation of the read option, though maybe one too many shovel passes to Kelce can get old at times. Yet there is an elephant in the room here. How do you get Alex Smith to throw for 4,000 yards? Tell him it's third down with 4,500 yards to go. OK, so that's a recycled joke from Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, but Smith finally had his first 4,000-yard season and he only needed 15 games to eclipse that benchmark. He led the NFL in passer rating (104.7), though advanced stats weren't quite as enamored as he still took his share of sacks and checkdowns. Smith's 18.2% passing DVOA is a career high, but he ranked 10th there and eighth in ESPN's QBR (61.7). Smith had a few touchdowns of the "most fortunate" variety this year, such as the tipped ball for a 63-yard touchdown against Oakland and the ridiculous defense Dallas showed on The Checkdown Hail Mary to Hill.

It was an impressive season, but let's not blow it out of proportion. Contrary to popular belief, Smith didn't morph into Daryle "Mad Bomber" Lamonica this season. Smith's 7.8 air yards per attempt is the seventh-lowest among 2017 quarterbacks. What really changed for Smith this year is that he started to hit more of his deep shots in his talented offense, and some of those big completions came in crucial spots. Smith had 683 DYAR on throws of 20-plus yards, which only trailed Matthew Stafford (740 DYAR). Smith was a little eager to attack more this year, and he finished 22nd in ALEX (+0.7) on third down. That's a big step up for someone who routinely ranks 30th and lower with negative ALEX.

This is a matchup that should be tailor-made for Smith. Dick LeBeau's defense ranks third against deep passes, but 32nd against short passes. That's the old "tackle the catch" philosophy, but the Titans also rank 24th in DVOA against tight ends (lowest in the whole playoff field) and 32nd against receiving backs. Hunt has had a pretty solid year in that department too, with 53 catches on 63 targets, and he leads the NFL with 89 broken tackles according to Sports Info Solutions. Tackling these talented receivers can be difficult. The Chiefs forced a missed tackle on 13.3 percent of their plays, the second-highest rate in the league according to Sports Info Solutions. Even Alex Smith forced 29 missed tackles, second to only Cam Newton (35) among quarterbacks. Tennessee's defense only missed a tackle on 9.0 percent of plays, the fifth-lowest rate in the league, so this will be a good matchup to watch.

     

While we talked about the offensive boost the Titans get from the play-action pass, the opposite is true for the Chiefs. Kansas City ranked 20th in yards per play (7.0) on play-action passes and second without play-action (7.6) according to Sports Info Solutions.

Defenses tend to play passively against Smith. He was the least-blitzed quarterback (18.8 percent of dropbacks) in the league according to ESPN Stats & Info. This makes sense since you expect him to hold the ball and force a checkdown, but the Titans will have to get a good pass rush on the road. Brian Orakpo and Jurrell Casey lead a solid front seven, but Derrick Morgan actually led the team with 7.5 sacks. Tennessee's pressure rate was 33.6 percent, which ranked seventh this year.

Safety Kevin Byard was a player who flashed so often as a rookie in 2016, but one thing he did not register was an interception. Byard tied with Darius Slay for the league lead with eight interceptions this year, which is incredible since the Titans only had 12 picks as a team. However, seven of Byard's picks were collected against DeShone Kizer (three), Joe Flacco (two), and Blake Bortles (two in Week 17 alone). Smith is very careful with the ball, only throwing five interceptions and ranking second in lowest interception rate (1.0 percent).

It will be very difficult for the Titans to get takeaways in this game. The Chiefs are just the fifth team in NFL history with fewer than 12 giveaways in a season, and two of their 11 turnovers happened in Denver last week with backup quarterbacks in the game. They also had some silly interceptions thrown by Hill and Kelce on trick plays, so the giveaway numbers are really something else here. Tennessee is going to have to force the Chiefs to kick field goals, which is something Kansas City did more per drive (23.8 percent of the time) than any offense. The Chiefs were only 29th at scoring touchdowns in the red zone, so if the Titans can avoid giving up the big plays to that trio of Kelce, Hunt, and Hill, then they may have the advantage in the red zone to keep this game close.

SPECIAL TEAMS

After losing to six field goals by Pittsburgh's Chris Boswell in the playoffs last year, Kansas City fans may not like this next stat. However, if you like watching field goals, then this is the game for you. Kansas City's Harrison Butker and Tennessee's Ryan Succop tied for the league lead with 42 field goal attempts this season. Succop has been a solid kicker for a while now, but the newcomer Butker was impressive in making 38 of his 42 kicks, including four of five from 50-plus yards. Unless Butker shakes hands with Lin Elliott before kickoff, he should be fine in his first playoff game.

The Chiefs were very solid on special teams again (No. 4 in DVOA) as is usually the case for coordinator Dave Toub, and they should have a slight advantage in most phases of this one. However, the return units were nothing special this year. Tyreek Hill was an All-Pro returner as a rookie, but with his increased role at wideout, he gave up his kick return duties this year. He also delegated some of his punt return duties to De'Anthony Thomas, who had a miserable 16 yards on eight punt returns before breaking his tibia. Hill still had an 82-yard punt return touchdown against Houston, but he wasn't nearly as successful on punts as his 2016 season. In a big game like this, it would be wise to use Hunt on punt returns, but I wouldn't expect to see big plays coming there. Tennessee punter Brett Kern crushed the ball this year with a league-high 49.7 yards per punt and 44.6 net yards per punt. However, only 12.0 percent of his punts led to a fair catch, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. Hill could have a shot at a nice return in this one.

OUTLOOK

The Chiefs haven't won a home playoff game at Arrowhead since January 8, 1994. That is nutty, especially since there have been five home playoff losses since then, but there won't be an easier draw for the Chiefs than this Tennessee team. As a bettor, I would be skeptical of the spread that has crept up to nine points this week in favor of the Chiefs. In Tennessee's last 12 games, the Titans have only lost by more than six points one time: a 40-17 blowout in Pittsburgh (Week 11). This Tennessee team just has a way of making sure every game is a 60-minute slog. At the very least, the Chiefs had three wins in a row by at least 11 points in Weeks 14 to 16, so this team may be peaking at the right time.

A home loss where Smith can't move the offense would likely end his time in Kansas City. It is hard to see that happening this week against a Tennessee defense that allowed at least 25 points to the Texans (with Deshaun Watson), Steelers, Rams, Seahawks, Raiders, and 49ers (with Jimmy Garoppolo). Tennessee's defense faced the weakest set of offenses by DVOA this year. Simply put, good quarterbacks produce against this Tennessee defense this season, and Smith is enjoying his finest season yet. Let this one serve as a learning experience for the Titans.

Buffalo at Jacksonville


Bills on Offense
BUF OFF JAC DEF
DVOA -11.1% (26) -16.1% (1)
WEI DVOA -13.6% (28) -13.0% (4)
PASS -9.3% (28) -27.5% (1)
RUSH -8.1% (19) -2.8% (26)
RED ZONE -17.2% (24) -18.0% (5)
Jaguars on Offense
JAC OFF BUF DEF
DVOA -0.2% (16) 1.7% (15)
WEI DVOA -1.9% (19) 7.3% (26)
PASS 13.3% (15) 0.6% (12)
RUSH -4.8% (12) 2.9% (31)
RED ZONE 9.3% (13) 0.6% (19)
Special Teams
BUF JAC
DVOA 2.9% (10) -2.8% (24)
BUF kickoff +2.0 (15) -0.5 (15)
JAC kickoff -4.9 (29) -8.8 (30)
BUF punts +4.3 (11) +3.5 (7)
JAC punts +1.8 (11) -4.4 (21)
FG/XP +11.5 (4) -3.6 (22)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

Six teams made the AFC playoffs, and the tiebreaker that got the Bills here was conference record. The Chargers spanked the Bills head-to-head, but were eliminated from the playoffs because they went 6-6 in conference games, while the Bills and Ravens both went 7-5. The tiebreaker came all the way down to strength of victory: Buffalo's wins came against teams with a .396 winning percentage, and Baltimore's came against teams with a .299 winning percentage.

Tiebreakers are stupid. Buffalo was one of the worst teams in the AFC this year, and no tiebreaker should acknowledge a win against David Fales as worthwhile. But this is the system we're stuck with. For what it's worth, teams with Buffalo's point differential have tended to do alright in the playoffs once they get there. Teams with a minus-50 or worse point differential (the Tebow Broncos and the Beastquake Seahawks) are 2-0 in their opening playoff games since 2007. Of course, they also tend to only be in the playoffs because they won the division, and thus got a home game. The Bills just so happen to be in a historically bad conference, and thus will have to head to Everbank Field as eight-point road dogs.

The Jaguars have slumped of late, losing their last two games and allowing 37 offensive points to the 49ers. The Bills haven't won a game by multiple scores since Oakland came to Buffalo in Week 8, going 4-5 down the stretch with only a win against the then-struggling Chiefs as a quality victory.

WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL

The burden of proof is on Buffalo in this game, so let's focus on them. Everybody knows that the Jacksonville defense has taken The Leap. The numbers above us tell a season-long story of a mismatch. The Bills don't have an offense chock-full of elite players. In fact, their best skill position player, LeSean McCoy, will be a game-time decision after being carted off when his ankle gave in Week 17. Were this a regular-season game, there'd probably be no question about his status. It's fairly rare for a player to be carted off one week and play the next.

What does Buffalo have going for them? Their offense isn't going to play to the strength of Jacksonville's defense: the cornerbacks. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye combined to post a pair of top-12 success rates among qualifying cornerbacks per Sports Info Solutions' charting data. They present matchup problems for teams that want to feed outside receivers. But in Buffalo, outside receivers are essentially irrelevant. Kelvin Benjamin was targeted 27 times in six starts, catching just 16 balls along the way. Deonte Thompson, the nominal No. 2 receiver, was targeted more than four times in a game just four times with the Bills. All four games were losses -- losses in which the Bills combined for a point differential of minus-82. Both of these receivers are listed as questionable, as well.

Buffalo's offensive game plan is a heavy dose of Charles Clay, who led their team in targets in each of their last three games heading into the postseason and likely would have made it five in a row had they not played a blizzard in Week 14 and the Patriots in Week 13. McCoy lead the team in targets, but is the nominal second option to Clay since Clay missed three games and trailed McCoy by three targets. These are good players to feed against a Jacksonville passing defense that finished 20th in DVOA on targets to tight ends and 15th on targets to running backs. Clay, like every other skill position player, is questionable as of this writing.

While Jacksonville has a bad run defense compared to the rest of the league, it still had a negative run defense DVOA on the season. (Runs in general, of course, continue to be much less efficient than passes in a vacuum.) But what is particularly fascinating for Bills fans is that two of the three biggest blowups the Jaguars allowed as a run defense came against teams that had mobile, run-game producing quarterbacks: early-season (uninjured) Marcus Mariota, and Russell Wilson. Tyrod Taylor is the kind of quarterback who can absolutely stress the Jacksonville defense in the same way.

Taylor plays safe with the ball, as he has thrown just four interceptions and usually eschews throwing his receivers into danger. That, combined with his mobility, should allow the Bills to weather Jacksonville's big splash plays as a pass defense. The Jaguars ranked fourth in pressure rate at 34.3 percent, but Taylor was well protected by play-action and Buffalo's offensive line. The Jaguars had a league-leading seven defensive touchdowns and finished tied for second in the NFL in sacks and interceptions. They're a big-play defense, and the looming question in this game is just how well Taylor can avoid feeding that fire. (Nathan Peterman might actually become a living interception if he plays in this game.)

Buffalo's traditional offensive game plan is able to play away from the strengths of the Jaguars, and as Charles McDonald went into for Film Room recently, the Jaguars can be hurt if you isolate their weaker man-coverage defenders. The big keys for Buffalo will be the health of McCoy and their ability to avoid negative plays. If McCoy can't play at his usual level, the explosiveness seeps right out of this offense. The drop-off from McCoy to Mike Tolbert is staggering, and since Buffalo insisted on keeping two fullbacks on the roster all season, their only true halfback behind McCoy is third-year seventh-rounder Marcus Murphy, a 5-foot-8 Dexter McCluster wannabe.

Jacksonville's defense has struggled against quality opposition since Week 6's destruction of Ben Roethlisberger. The only double-digit negative DVOA games (negative is good for defenses) they have posted since have been against T.J. Yates, the Browns, the Colts, and the Titans. The weighted defensive ranking is still quite good, of course, but it's worth noting that it has come beating up on bad offenses.

If only Buffalo wasn't also a bad offense...

WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL

Marcell Dareus Revenge Game … by Proxy! After trading Dareus to Jacksonville, the Bills have tanked hard on run defense. From Weeks 1-8, Buffalo's average run defense DVOA was -16.2%. From Week 9 on, it has been 9.7%. That would be dead-last in the NFL on a seasonal basis by more than 6 percentage points. Only three teams even allowed a full-season positive DVOA on rushes. Weaknesses don't come in much more obvious ways than this. RPG characters with extremely stupid hair are less likely to be the main villain than the Bills are to stop you on the ground.

To say this plays into Jacksonville's hands is evident. The original design of this offense was to keep Blake Bortles from doing stupid things by running the ball into the ground. The Jaguars led the NFL in rushing attempts, running the ball 26 times more than the second-place Vikings.

However, Jacksonville has seen the steam come out of its running game down the stretch. After leading off the year with three double-digit positive rushing DVOA games, the Jaguars had just one more game like that all season: Week 14 against Seattle. They have five double-digit negative rushing DVOA games since then, including last week against Tennessee. They've had a positive rushing DVOA just twice since Week 6.

And Leonard Fournette's burst is essentially the determining factor in how good Jacksonville's run game is. He had 12 carries of 10 or more yards in the first six weeks of the season, and has had six since -- four of which came in the two games where Jacksonville was above average: Week 13 against Indianapolis and Week 14 against Seattle.

The Jaguars schemed Bortles into a lot of safe throws this season. On throws on third-/fourth-and-7 or longer, Bortles was able to find a first down or touchdown on just 26 of 96 attempts, with seven sacks and four interceptions. As long as Jacksonville has been able to keep their quarterback from sabotaging them, Bortles has played well enough to win behind this defense. The return of wideout Marqise Lee will also boost Jacksonville's offense, putting their other receivers into less demanding roles.

While Buffalo's pass defense is not quite as bad as their rush defense, it has followed the same essential trend. The Bills have had four games since Week 5 with a negative pass defense DVOA. One of them actually came against the Saints, in a game where New Orleans ran so well that they barely needed to throw. Another was that aforementioned game against a reeling Chiefs offense. Yet another was when they played Indianapolis in the snow. The last one happened in Week 15 against Miami, when they picked off Jay Cutler three times, sacked him twice, and forced 20 incompletions in a game where the Bills were up 21-6 at halftime.

On an individual level, there are some good matchups for Buffalo. Tre'Davious White had a great rookie year, with a top-20 success rate among qualifying corners. Buffalo had the No. 1 and No. 3 pass defense DVOA, respectively, against No. 2 and "Other" wideouts. The depth behind E.J. Gaines was rough, but when Gaines was healthy, the Bills were a solid pass defense. They're probably going to need the corners to step up in this game and dominate in coverage to create splash plays, because...

Buffalo's big issue as a defense is just the lack of pass pressure they generate. They finished 28th in adjusted sack rate, and had the second-lowest pressure rate in the NFL per Sports Info Solutions. That they managed so many picks (18, tied for sixth) in spite of that says a lot about the level of coverage the Bills provide. The only real issue for Jacksonville will be making sure that Jerry Hughes (34.5 pressures, a top-30 result) doesn't blow up.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The main difference between these two teams has been the kicker situation. Steven Hauschka had a solid year for the Bills, while the Jaguars shed Jason Myers for Josh Lambo. Lambo has missed two extra points and one field goal in 44 attempts since signing, so in theory, he has fixed that issue.

Otherwise, not much that isn't evenly matched here. Both teams mirror each other's strengths and weaknesses, except for Jacksonville's punt coverage team being a little worse than Buffalo's punt returns. Brandon Tate has done excellent work for the Bills on returns after being signed over from Cincinnati.

OUTLOOK

There are reasons to believe that the Bills can keep this closer than we would think by just looking at point differentials and extrapolating regular-season performance. On offense, they fit a lot of the parameters that have given the Jaguars problems. On defense … well, Blake Bortles can provide a lot of magic in the right scenarios. (By this, I mean magic for the other team.) The Jaguars have been somewhat less dominant defensively in the second half of the season.

But a lot of those reasons rely on the idea that LeSean McCoy is healthy and that the Bills don't get pushed into catch-up mode. So, essentially, a lot of this game relies on just how well the Bills can run the ball and punish Jacksonville's weak links in pass coverage. DVOA projects the Jaguars as heavy favorites.


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 red zone DVOA and 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.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 05 Jan 2018

2 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2018, 3:45am by JoeyHarringtonReigns

Comments

1
by Cheesehead_Canuck :: Fri, 01/05/2018 - 9:25pm

My picks for Saturday:
Chiefs - 26, Titans - 16
Rams - 31, Falcons - 27

I have an uneasy feeling about LAR, but the data tells me they are simply the better team.

2
by JoeyHarringtonReigns :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 3:45am

0-2 cheesehead.
My picks for Sunday
Jacksonville 24-10 (although my affinities lie with the Bills given my close proximity to them here in Ontario)
New Orleans 42-35 (this game hopefully turns out to be like the Rose Bowl we just witnessed