Biggest vulnerability for eight remaining NFL playoff teams; plus, updated Super Bowl LVI probabilities

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @cfrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

And then there were eight.

I just finished my first round of 300,000 simulations for each of the four Divisional Round games, and in two of those contests, the winning team advanced in just 53 percent of outcomes. These close projected results suggest we are likely in for a really exciting set of games this weekend.

To preview Round 2 of the 2021 NFL playoffs, I've updated my Super Bowl probabilities for the eight remaining teams and provided my assessment of the biggest vulnerabilities facing each squad. And because I love this weekend's slate, I also added one red flag to note for each team's upcoming matchup. Let's dig in!

P.S. I re-run these when we get injury updates each week, so remember to check back closer to when games start.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The odds cited below are provided by Caesars and current as of 2:45 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Jan. 19.

Win SB:
20.5%
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
Win NFC: 41.4% · Record: 13-4
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +375
  • Odds to win conference: +155


The Packers allowed a whopping 5.6 yards per rush over their last three games, indexing above their regular-season average of 4.7, which ranked 30th. On first down, they allowed 4.4 yards per carry, which ranked 24th. All of this is to say that a sound strategy to beat the Packers would likely include effectively and efficiently running the ball. With the expected return of shutdown corner Jaire Alexander, keeping the defense honest against both the pass and run becomes even more important.

 

There is also an interesting signal in the data about pressure and play-calling. Aaron Rodgers was one of the least pressured QBs in the NFL this season, prospering under those conditions to the tune of 34 TD passes, two picks, a 75 percent completion rate and league-leading 122.6 passer rating when well-protected. However, when defenses were able to generate pressure on No. 12, his completion percentage and rating plummeted to 36.1 percent and 53.9, respectively; that nearly 69-point difference in passer rating was the biggest decline of any passer, per Next Gen Stats. Taking it one level deeper, when Rodgers is pressured, the next play after that pressured play is about 34.5 percent less effective (as measured by that set of downs either resulting in a new set of downs or a score), making it more punishing (think of 20 percent here as a normal decrease).

 

This has interesting implications for this week’s matchup with the Niners, especially if Nick Bosa (concussion) is able to play. (UPDATE: The 49ers announced Friday that Bosa cleared concussion protocol and has no injury designation for Saturday night's game in Green Bay.) San Francisco’s ability to generate pressure with only four rushers, along with its highly productive run game, could exploit some weaknesses in Green Bay.

Win SB:
18%
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs
Win AFC: 33.3% · Record: 13-5
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +400
  • Odds to win conference: +175


Kansas City's biggest vulnerabilities are with its defense, specifically the unit's inability to force low-probability passes and stop the run. The Chiefs ranked 26th in yards per pass play (7.0) and 31st in yards per carry this season (4.8), leading to the third-worst yards-per-play mark in the league (5.9). They also have struggled to get to the quarterback (though Melvin Ingram's arrival earlier this year helped), finishing 29th in sacks. Although the unit kept the Steelers' offense at bay until late in the third quarter last Sunday night, it still has problem areas that could keep Patrick Mahomes off the field.


This week, the Bills' ability to bring pressure, especially without blitzing, projects to be a big deciding factor in the game. Mahomes gets into trouble when defenses generate pressure using four or fewer rushers, completing just 40.7 percent of his throws for 5.3 yards per attempt (both rank bottom-10 in the league), in 18 games this season. When he's not under pressure, those numbers rocket up to 71.9 percent and 7.5 yards, respectively. In their Week 5 matchup, a 38-20 win for the Bills over the Chiefs, Mahomes was 4 of 9 for 49 yards when under pressure against four or fewer rushers. Including the playoffs, Buffalo has a 28 percent pressure rate when sending four or fewer (sixth).

Win SB:
17.4%
Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
Win AFC: 25.1% · Record: 12-6
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +500
  • Odds to win conference: +225


The Bills managed the last third of their season without standout corner Tre'Davious White (torn ACL), but how they fare against the high-powered offenses left in the tournament could depend largely on the play of fourth-year nickel Taron Johnson.


Can the former fourth-round pick hold up against six-time Pro Bowler Tyreek Hill this weekend?


Hill lined up against both White and Johnson in last season's AFC Championship Game, totaling 30 yards on three catches (four targets) against White, and a staggering 90 yards on three catches (three targets) against Johnson, according to Pro Football Focus. However, when the Chiefs hosted the Bills back in Week 5, Johnson had a much better showing, limiting Hill to just one catch for 17 yards. We know Kansas City likes to line up Hill in the slot, as evidenced by his seven scores from that alignment (third-most, including playoffs). And Johnson has developed into one of the best slot corners in the NFL this year, earning PFF's fourth-best coverage grade (75.3) among the 43 CBs with at least 100 snaps in that spot, including playoffs. The winner of this head-to-head battle on Sunday could help determine who advances and who goes home.

Win SB:
15.3%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Win NFC: 24.5% · Record: 14-4
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +550
  • Odds to win conference: +230


The Bucs' biggest vulnerability this Sunday (and going forward) is related to injuries and the lack of cohesion/snaps within position groups on both sides of the ball, but particularly along the O-line. Pro Bowlers Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs were both banged up last weekend, as was backup tackle Josh Wells, putting the availability of all three linemen into question versus the Rams.


The uncertainty up front doesn't bode well for Tom Brady, who was sacked on four of the six dropbacks in which he was pressured last week against the Eagles. To Brady's credit, he helped mitigate Philly's pass rush, and the injuries up front, by eschewing the deep ball (attempted just one all game) for quick and short passes:


  • Less than 2.5 seconds to throw: 22 of 28, 179 yards, 1 TD, 105.2 rating.
  • Passes of less than 10 air yards: 25 of 31, 184 yards, 1 TD, 102.2 rating.


But averaging 4.6 air yards per attempt, as he did against the Eagles, likely won't be sustainable against better opponents. If Jensen and Wirfs both miss time, the lack of player reps together among the starting five will make overcoming any point deficit that much harder.


In this weekend’s matchup with the Rams, the Bucs may want to ditch their heavy-blitz philosophy. We know Todd Bowles loves to send extra rushers, with the Bucs blitzing at the second-highest rate (38.1%) of any team this season. But doing so against Matthew Stafford could backfire:


  • Stafford’s 141.8 passer rating against the blitz is the highest mark reached by any qualified QB in the NGS era (since 2016).
  • His 17.1 percent QB pressure rate when blitzed this season is the lowest in the NFL.
  • He has a higher completion percentage (71.9% vs. 66.2%) and passer rating (141.8 vs. 93.1) when he's blitzed than when he's not.
  • 16 of his 17 interceptions have occurred against four or fewer rushers.
Win SB:
10.5%
Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
Win AFC: 21.6% · Record: 12-5
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +850
  • Odds to win conference: +320


The Titans' secondary forecasts to be the key to their Super Bowl hopes, especially the unit's ability to shut down big passing plays, and that starts this week against the Bengals. Ja’Marr Chase hauled in the most receiving touchdowns of 20-plus air yards this season with seven, which is the most by a rookie in the NGS era (since 2016). The Titans allowed seven such touchdown receptions this year, which is tied for sixth-most in the NFL. Chase also set the NGS era single-season record for yards on go routes (542), adding 47 more yards off two such routes last Saturday in the Bengals' win over the Raiders, and had more receiving scores of 50+ yards (five) than any other player had of 25+. Kevin Byard and Co. will have their hands full this weekend, to say the least.

Win SB:
6.2%
Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles Rams
Win NFC: 18.9% · Record: 13-5
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +750
  • Odds to win conference: +350


How the Rams' second-level defenders (safeties and linebackers, excluding Jalen Ramsey) handle their coverage responsibilities flags as a potential source of concern, especially in the context of their defensive in-game adjustments ranking in the bottom third of the league, per Computer Vision. On short passes to the middle, the Rams have allowed the highest completion percentage (80.2) in the NFL and rank 28th in average gain allowed (7.9 yards). On short passes to the left, right and middle, the Rams have allowed at least a 68.2 completion percentage.


Not the numbers you want ahead of a matchup with quick-passing maestro Tom Brady. Brady's average time to throw (2.48 seconds) is his fastest in the NGS era and trails only Ben Roethlisberger among all quarterbacks this season. Last week against Philadelphia, Brady had a 2.17-second time to throw, his fastest ever recorded by NGS. TB12's ability to get the ball out quickly helps to negate opposing pass rushes (ranks first in pressure rate), even one as fierce as the Rams'. In their Week 3 matchup, the Rams only got to Brady on 17.2 percent of dropbacks, their third-lowest rate of the season. Now, that was before Von Miller's arrival to L.A. and the Bucs' O-line got hit with injuries, but let's not discount Brady's prowess on quickly dissecting defenses. The seven-time champ leads the NFL with 24 TDs on quick passes, and no team has allowed more passing yards on quick passes than the Rams.

Win SB:
6.1%
San Francisco 49ers
Win NFC: 15.2% · Record: 11-7
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +1100
  • Odds to win conference: +575


The 49ers' biggest flag is their pass defense -- especially if they're unable to generate pressure. They are particularly vulnerable on the left side of the field, ranking 30th in completion percentage allowed on both deep and short passes in that direction this season (76.2 and 51.2, respectively, per NGS). If San Francisco does not get pressure on Aaron Rodgers this weekend, it will be tough to stop Davante Adams. The All-Pro receiver ranked fourth in the regular season with 883 receiving yards on passes of 10-plus air yards. San Francisco allowed a 53.5 completion percentage, 11.9 yards per attempt, a 111.4 passer rating and a +8.6 completion percentage over expected on such passes … all ranking in the bottom five of the league. Last week against the Cowboys, Dak Prescott had a 99.1 passer rating on these passes compared with 51.9 on passes of fewer than 10 air yards.

Win SB:
6.0%
Cincinnati Bengals
Win AFC: 20% · Record: 11-7
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +1500
  • Odds to win conference: +550


According to my projections, the Bengals have the lowest percentage chance of reaching the Super Bowl of the four AFC teams, but they still have a better shot than two NFC teams. This shows that the AFC matchups are quite close. The Bengals have had their issues up front, ranking 30th in sacks allowed, but Joe Burrow has largely been successful in overcoming the problems along his O-line. Where the Bengals could really be in trouble, however, is along the other side of the line of scrimmage, where they will be without DT Larry Ogunjobi (foot) and, potentially, Trey Hendrickson (concussion), who finished the regular season with the second-most individual pressures.

 

Last week, the Bengals pressured Derek Carr on 10 of 23 dropbacks with Hendrickson on the field, but notched just three pressures on 33 dropbacks after he was ruled out. Not promising for a unit set to face Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown. The Titans are 11-2 in the 13 games that Brown has played. One reason is that Tannehill has been significantly more effective and efficient on downfield passes (10-plus air yards):


  • With Brown on the field: 56 comp. %, 10.8 ypa, 6 TDs, 4 INTs, 96.7 rating, +4.4 CPOE.
  • Without Brown: 30.9 comp. %, 5.3 ypa, 1 TD, 4 INTs, 25.5 rating, -15.3 CPOE.

 

Even before the losses along their D-line, the Bengals struggled to defend downfield passes this season, ranking 26th in passer rating allowed (103.2), 20th in yards per attempt (11.0) and 25th in completion percentage (51%), per NGS.

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