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By the Numbers

Fact or Fiction: NFL Playoffs Edition

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: January 9, 2020, 1:06 am ET

The Divisional Round features four matchups that (on paper) each offer the type of talent and storylines that could produce some spectacular games:

  • Vikings at 49ers (-7)
  • Titans at Ravens (-10)
  • Texans at Chiefs (-8)
  • Seahawks at Packers (-3.5)

I looked at these matchups on Monday and was surprised to be influenced by several long-held beliefs that may or may not actually be true:

  1. Does the better QB on the worse team usually beat the worse QB on the better team?
  2. Is home-field advantage even more important in the playoffs?
  3. Do defenses win championships?
  4. Can anybody win it?

What follows is a breakdown on each of these four questions in order to determine the validity of these common beliefs. Ideally, the findings could even help point us in the right direction for some fantasy and gambling related adventures.

Playoff studies are tricky because there's a huge sample size overall, but often limited game logs to surf through when it comes to individual players that haven't played under Bill Belichick for the last two decades. For this reason I'll be sure to clearly define the parameters and potential limitations of each analysis before moving on to the results and 2020 qualifiers.


Does the better QB on the worse team usually beat the worse QB on the better team?

The Study: To answer this question we'll limit the time frame of qualified players to every playoff matchup since the 2000-2001 season. Adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) will be the metric used to evaluate QB performance. ESPN's QBR metric is also a solid indicator of overall play under center, but the statistic only goes back to 2006. ANY/A is superior to both adjusted yards per attempt (AYA) and net yards per attempt (NY/A) because it weighs touchdowns and interceptions (like AYA) and also subtracts sack yards from passing yards (like NY/A). Special thanks to Pro Football Reference for this data.

We'll use overall Team Efficiency DVOA to decide which historical matchups featured the "better" team. Per Football Outsiders this formula is "measured by our proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system that breaks down every single NFL play and compares a team's performance to a league baseline based on situation in order to determine value over average."

Using only one metric to sum up pretty much anything in life isn't ideal. Still, both of the chosen stats do combine a good number of important variables when it comes to accessing both QB and overall team performance.

Results: There have been 77 playoff matchups featuring a better QB on a worse team facing a worse QB on a better team since 2000:

  • Worse teams with the better QB have 38 wins ... and 39 losses in this sample.
  • This means that better teams with the worse QB have been slightly better at 39-38.
  • Meanwhile, better teams with the better QB have 84 wins against just 52 losses.
  • Worse teams with the better QB have an average point differential of -0.9 PPG.
  • Overall, better teams with the better QB have posted a strong average point differential of +5.3 PPG.

2020 Qualifiers: 49ers, Ravens

Obviously Ryan Tannehill isn't a better QB than Lamar Jackson; this is a side effect of using only one metric to denote QB performance. Still, we also should realize just how special TanneThrill was in 2019:

  • Adjusted net yards per attempt: 8.52 (No. 1 among 33 qualified QBs)
  • Net yards per attempt: 7.98 (No. 1)
  • Adjusted yards per attempt: 10.2 (No. 1)
  • Yards per completion: 13.6 (No. 1)
  • Touchdown rate: 7.7% (No. 2)
  • Completion rate: 70.3% (No. 3)
  • QB Rating: 117.5 (No. 1)
  • QBR: 65.4 (No. 8)

This Ravens squad is special: Only the 2007 Patriots, 2010 Patriots and 2013 Seahawks have boasted a better overall team efficiency rating since 2000.

With that said: Don't sleep on this Tennessee team. The Titans' passing game is scary when clicking, and nobody would really be that shocked to find out Derrick Henry was scientifically engineered in a lab. At the very least, I'm going with Titans +10 considering this far exceeds the usual winning margin for teams with a better QB and team.

Last week I determined the Vikings were the playoff's most-complete team based on a variety of offensive and defensive metrics. I noted that their opening spot was potentially their toughest potential draw of the playoffs due to both the Saints' pass rush as well as the potential for Drew Brees and Michael Thomas to carve up the Vikings' mediocre group of corners. Luckily for the Vikings, Kirk Cousins decided to turn in the finest performance of his career:

Still, this week's matchup against the 49ers isn't exactly a cake walk; they ranked No. 2 overall in my most-complete rankings and are expected to get back key defenders LB Kwon Alexander (pec), S Jaquiski Tartt (rib) as well as DE Dee Ford (hamstring). Check out my Divisional Round Injury Dashboard for daily practice participation along with estimated and official game statuses for every injured player.

Look for this game to again be a back-and-forth brawl that either team can win. Ultimately, I'm loving Vikings (+7) due to the potential reality of them having both the superior QB and overall team. Even if we just want to go with Cousins being better than Jimmy G, the historical point differential of +0.9 in these matchups indicates the current spread might be just a bit too high.

Nobody is probably too surprised that Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs didn't fit this analysis, but the absence of Russell Wilson and the Seahawks from this qualifier is intriguing. It was close, but Wilson (No. 8 in ANY/A) edged Aaron Rodgers (No. 11) and the Seahawks (No. 8 in overall DVOA) were graded slightly better than the Packers (No. 10). Our next study should help clarify just how good of a chance Seattle has of pulling an upset this week.


Is home-field advantage even more important in the playoffs?

The Study: It's clear that some teams seem to especially rise to the occasions when playing from the friendly confines of their home stadium, while others don't exactly receive the same level of support in terms of both crowd noise and general success.

I wouldn't disagree with anyone that generally believes home-field advantage is overrated in the NFL. Still, there's a reason why higher seeds get to play their games at home, and history certainly suggests at a minimum that teams usually lose more games than they win when traveling.

First I'll determine what teams actually seem to boast a home-field advantage on both offense and defense in average points per game differential since 2000. We'll use differential compared to pure PPG because this better denotes which teams have had a true change in impact based on their location; the Patriots have been the best offense at home and on the road since 2000.

Finally we'll see just how successful those teams were in their respective playoff runs before seeing if this newfound information could help us with this weekend's matchups.

Results: There's been a long-standing assumption in the betting world that home-field advantage is worth three points. We'll use that threshold as a baseline when zeroing in on teams that have boasted a significantly better offense or defense at home vs. on the road.

Offenses that have average at least three additional PPG at home vs. on the road since 2000 feature the: Ravens (+4.6), Seahawks (+4.6), Steelers (+4.3), Cowboys (+4.2), Rams (+4), Texans (+3.3), Vikings (+3.2), Raiders (+3.2) and Lions (+3.1).

Meanwhile, defenses that have allowed at least three fewer PPG at home vs. on the road since 2000 feature the: 49ers (-5.1), Packers (-4.8), Cardinals (-4.3), Colts (-4.3), Vikings (-4), Chiefs (-3.9), Jaguars (-3.7), Browns (-3.7), Ravens (-3.6) and Bills (-3.1).

The Ravens are the only team to appear on both lists.

Of course, this is a study on overall team success, not just one side of the ball. Only five teams have posted an average point differential of at least seven points at home vs. on the road since 2000:

  • Ravens (+8.2)
  • 49ers (+7.3)
  • Packers (+7.3)
  • Vikings (+7.2)
  • Seahawks (+7.1)

Overall, these squads have gone a combined 25-12 in home playoff games since 2000 with an average point differential of +5.6 PPG.

Each team's specific records and point differentials at home:

  • Ravens: 3-3, +3.7 PPG
  • 49ers: 3-1, +4 PPG
  • Packers: 6-5, +2.3 PPG
  • Vikings: 3-2, +8.2 PPG
  • Seahawks: 10-1, +9.5 PPG

The Vikings and Seahawks were the only teams that actually improved their domination at home during the playoffs among our sample group. Each of the Ravens, 49ers and Packers were still plenty solid at home, but their respective records and point differentials alike don't exactly paint the picture of unstoppable machines.

Remember: none of these teams were necessarily "bad" on the road; they've just been especially dominant at home when we compare their usual away performance.

Additionally, the fine folks at Bet Labs provide tools to help build profitable betting systems as well as view historical results. Home teams have actually finished just 76-86-4 against the spread in the playoffs since 2003. Our sample of home teams have gone 15-15-2 ATS during that span.

2020 Qualifiers: Ravens, 49ers, Packers

The 49ers and Ravens seem to have already received an appropriate home-field boost based on their lofty spreads. Additionally, the Packers' status as a relatively-mundane 3.5-point favorite makes more sense after seeing their mixed performance at Lambeau in January since 2000. 

The Chiefs (+5.6) rank eighth overall. Surprisingly, the Chiefs are just 1-5 at Arrowhead in six home playoff games since 2000, with their lone victory being a 31-13 blowout over the Colts last season. That Patrick Mahomes guy sure does make a difference.

Home-field advantage certainly helps, but if anything it's less pronounced in the playoffs when there's a better chance of each opponent boasting a high-level roster. There doesn't appear to really be any room for value in the point spreads based on our findings, as each home team's respective performance in home playoff games over the years seems fairly on point.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.