The Patriots' struggles on offense, combined with the NFC more or less being wide open, makes this season's playoffs especially exciting due to the general lack of clarity surrounding who is actually the best team.
The QB matters more than any other position in football. I'm not here to debate that. Rather, I'd like to get a clearer idea of what playoff team offers the best combination of offense and defense.
There's not a perfect science to figuring this out, but that doesn't mean we can't try. What follows is a breakdown on the top offenses and defenses in order to get a grasp on the best overall team based on each squad's performance in a variety of metrics.
On offense we'll look at ...
- Pass Offense: Average of each team's ranks in net yards per pass attempt, explosive pass-play rate and pass DVOA
- Run Offense: Average of each team's ranks in yards per carry, explosive run-play rate and rush DVOA
- O-line: Average of each team's ranks in yards before contact per rush, adjusted sack rate and adjusted line yards per rush
- Receivers: Average of each team's ranks in yards after the catch per reception, drop rate and yards per target
And defense ...
- Pass Defense: Average of each team's ranks in net yards allowed per pass attempt, explosive pass-play rate allowed and pass defense DVOA
- Run Defense: Average of each team's ranks in yards allowed per carry, explosive run-play rate allowed and rush defense DVOA
- Havoc: Rank in: (tackles for a loss + forced fumbles + interceptions + pass deflections + pressures) / plays
- Tackling: Rank in missed tackle rate
One limitation of this study is the fact that I averaged ranks, so a massive difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 team will be treated the same as a small difference. Additionally, strength of schedule wasn't actively accounted for. Coaching also obviously plays a massive role in any football game. Finally, all these categories were weighted equally.
Still, I tried to control for these factors by using multiple metrics for each category. The following chart denotes each team's rank in the aforementioned metrics. More information on each individual team is below.
No. 1: Minnesota Vikings
- I'm fairly surprised at this outcome as well. Unfortunately for the Vikings, their toughest matchup in the entire playoffs might just be this Sunday against the Saints. Kirk Cousins has ranked among the league's top-10 most-pressured QBs in each of the past two seasons. Of course, this is also simply a side effect of both Cousins' playing style as well as this scheme. Nobody averaged a longer time between getting the snap and throwing the ball than Cousins (2.83 seconds) this season (PFF). Either way, the Saints have consistently infiltrated opposing backfields all year and ranked second in the league in pressures per dropback.
- Again, this week's matchup just isn't setting up right for the Vikings to cash in on their overwhelming talent. Dalvin Cook is a special player, but the likes of Christian McCaffrey (22-64-1, 9-26-1), Leonard Fournette (20-72-0), Ezekiel Elliott (18-35-1), Todd Gurley (16-63-1) and Chris Carson (15-52-0) just couldn't consistently pick up good yardage on the ground despite plenty of chances to do so against this tough New Orleans rush defense. Carlos Hyde's 83 rushing yards back in Week 1 remain the most the Saints have given up to any individual all season.
- The Vikings offensive line posted the following rankings: yards before contact per rush (No. 17), adjusted sack rate (No. 14) and adjusted line yards per rush (No. 7).
- Stefon Diggs caught 102 passes in 2018 and just 63 in 2019. Yet, Diggs gained 1,021 receiving yards last season compared to 1,130 this year despite playing the same amount of games. The answer: Diggs is the league's premiere deep-ball artist at the moment. Nobody has more receiving yards (635) or touchdowns on deep passes (6) than Diggs this season.
- The Vikings have actually still been a fairly elite defense against the pass despite their liabilities at CB. The secondary has rotated corners in recent weeks praying for an answer to emerge out of thin air. None of their CBs rank inside of PFF's top-50 corners in yards allowed per coverage snap.
- The Vikings run defense posted the following rankings: yards allowed per rush (No. 18), explosive run-play rate allowed (No. 3) and rush defense DVOA (No. 9).
- Packers DE Za'Darius Smith (93 pressures) was the only player with more pressures than Vikings DE Danielle Hunter (88) during the regular season. Teammate Everson Griffen (66) ranks sixth in pressures among all playoff defenders (PFF).
- The Vikings functioned as the league's single-most efficient defense when it comes to not missing tackles. This is in large part thanks to the unit's aforementioned edge defenders as well as Eric Kendricks -- PFF's No. 1 overall LB among 99 qualified players.
- This is honestly just ridiculous. The Vikings boast three of PFF's top-four (!!!) safeties in Anthony Harris (No. 2), Harrison Smith (No. 3) and Jayron Kearse (No. 4) among 101 qualified players. Even if the lovely folks at PFF are perhaps overrating these back-end defenders, there's clearly enough talent up the middle of this defense to help compensate for their issues at corner.
No. 2: San Francisco 49ers
- The 49ers are a run-first offense that doesn't ask Jimmy Garoppolo to take over games. Still, that doesn't mean we can't give the man credit for balling out with his limited opportunities. Overall, Jimmy G averaged a league-high 21 yards per deep ball attempt among 42 QBs to throw at least 100 passes. His career average of 8.22 adjusted yards per attempt trails only Russell Wilson (8.26), Aaron Rodgers (8.32), Lamar Jackson (8.34) and Patrick Mahomes (9.21) among all QBs to start at least 16 games over the past 50 years.
- PFF's Breakaway Percentage metric denotes the rate at which a RB's yards came on runs of at least 15 yards. Matt Breida (No. 2), Raheem Mostert (No. 8) and Tevin Coleman (No. 11) each ranked highly among 59 qualified backs, demonstrating the fantasy-friendly life of a RB in a Shanahan-coached offense.
- The 49ers offensive line is currently operating at a higher level than we saw for most of the season: LT Joe Staley (fibula/finger, missed 9 games) and RT Mike McGlinchey (knee, missed 4 games) are each back at full health health right when it matters most.
- The 49ers receivers posted the following rankings: yards after the catch per reception (No. 1), drop percentage (No. 28) and yards per target (No. 2). Again, the Shanahan impact is clear.
- The 49ers narrowly edged the Patriots as the league's single-best pass defense, ranking among the league's top-three units in net yards allowed per attempt (No. 1), explosive pass-play rate allowed (No. 3) and pass defense DVOA (No. 2).
- Meanwhile, this run defense has been sneaky meh. Overall, the 49ers allowed at least 100 rushing yards in all but four games this season. The good news is that LB Kwon Alexander (pec, IR) could play if the 49ers advance to the NFC Championship. Keep an eye on our industry-leading News Feed for updates on the 49ers' stud LB.
- No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa joined Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt, Shaq Barrett, Cameron Jordan, Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith as the only defenders with at least 80 pressures this season (PFF).
- The 49ers have rather inexplicably been a poor tackling defense this season. They've actually not quite been the same monster recently that you remember from the first half of the year. Overall, the 49ers allowed a league-high increase of +15.5 PPG in Weeks 9-16 compared to their mark in Weeks 1-8.
No. 3: Baltimore Ravens
- Lamar Jackson's rushing ability doesn't just create problems for defenses on the ground, as merely the threat of the future 2019 MVP taking off is usually enough to freak out 11 professional defenders. Overall, Jackson easily led all QBs in plays (172), passing yards (1,257), pass attempts (76), pass yards (585), rush attempts (92) and rush yards (671) off of RPO designs this season (Pro Football Reference).
- Obviously the most-ridiculous part of the offense remains the rushing attack. The Ravens ranked first in yards per carry, explosive run-play rate and rush DVOA this season.
- The offensive line and offensive scheme also deserve plenty of credit. They're highlighted by LT Ronnie Stanley and RG Marshal Yanda -- PFF's No. 3 tackle and No. 4 guard, respectively.
- The Ravens boasted the third-best group of pass catchers this season in terms of fewest drops per target. Still, they'll need to add more talent around Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews in the future. At least the latter player appears to truly be among the league's very best talents at his position. Overall, Andrews' average of 2.89 yards per route run in 2019 trails only 2019 George Kittle (3.1) as the highest mark among all TEs with at least 50 targets in a season over the past decade (PFF).
- The Ravens pass defense could be ranked even higher if we only counted the portion of the season that they had both CBs Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters. Overall, the Ravens allowed an average of 22.3 points and 265 pass yards per game in Weeks 1-7 compared to 14 points and 162 pass yards per game in Weeks 9-17 with their newfound talent at corner.
- The Ravens haven't been a great run defense, but this is probably the least consequential metric of any that is being analyzed. The correlation between a defense's pass DVOA rank with overall DVOA rank (+0.88) and yards per play rank (+0.73) is much stronger than their run rank (+0.62 and +0.65).
- It's honestly somewhat surprising the Ravens don't rank higher in 'Havoc' which is a college football stat that I decided to apply to the NFL because, why not. Overall, Baltimore has blitzed on 54.9% of opponent's plays this season, which easily surpasses the Buccaneers' (43.3%) second-place mark (Pro Football Reference).
- The scary part about the Ravens Defense is the reality that they've been without key contributors S Tony Jefferson (knee, IR), CB Tavon Young (neck, IR) and DL Pernell McPhee (triceps, IR) for nearly the entire season.
No. 4: New Orleans Saints
- Teddy Bridgewater got plenty of grief for consistently checking the ball down during his time under center, but this has actually been a defining part of the Saints' passing game for awhile. Drew Brees has ranked No. 35, No. 33 and No. 26 over the past three seasons in deep-ball rate among qualified QBs (PFF).
- Latavius Murray has a #RevengeGame this week, but the Saints' backfield has largely been the Alvin Kamara show all season. Overall, he played at least 59% of the offense's snaps in Weeks 1-16 before being pulled early during the Saints' 42-10 blowout victory over the Panthers last Sunday. Kamara is the Saints' No. 2 receiver and locked in as the slate's most fantasy-friendly player. Only Thomas (22 PPR) has a higher projection than Kamara (20) in the Rotoworld DFS Toolkit.
- The Saints offensive line has been nothing short of spectacular in recent years, ranking among the league's top-five units in both adjusted line yards per rush and adjusted sack rate from 2016-2019 (Football Outsiders). Coach Sean Payton's scheme, along with the excellence of Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara among others obviously plays a factors, but this is still one of the league's premiere units up front.
- What more is there to say about Michael Thomas? Nobody can guard Mike. Particularly not a Vikings secondary that has rotated corners in recent weeks praying for an answer to emerge out of thin air. None of their CBs rank inside of PFF's top-50 corners in yards allowed per coverage snap. Thomas has posted 5-45-0, 5-81-0 and 7-85-2 performances in three career matchups against this secondary, but that was with a far superior version of CB Xavier Rhodes tracking him all over the field. The ceiling is the roof for Thomas this week. No wonder he trails only Lamar Jackson in John Daigle's Playoff Only Top-50 fantasy breakdown.
- Marshon Lattimore has been a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to performance in shadow matchups this season. Note that the following stat lines don't reflect stats purely in Lattimore's coverage, but rather that receiver's stat line across the entire game. It just seems unfair to me to penalize a WR for a CB not traveling with them into the slot or wherever. Anyway, Lattimore was up and down in matchups against DeAndre Hopkins (8-111-2), Amari Cooper (5-48-0), Mike Evans (0-0-0), D.J. Chark (3-43-0), Allen Robinson (10-87-1), Julio Jones (3-79-0), Calvin Ridley (8-91-0) and A.J. Brown (1-34-0).
- The Saints rush defense posted the following rankings: yards allowed per rush (No. 14), explosive rush-play rate allowed (No. 24) and rush defense DVOA (No. 5).
- The 49ers and Steelers were the only defenses more consistently disruptive than the Saints this season. Much of the credit deserves to go to Cameron Jordan, who ranks as PFF's No. 9 overall edge defender among 120 qualified players.
- The Saints have been an incredibly sound-tackling defense this season, but they'll be tested this week if they can't get healthier. Each of S Vonn Bell (knee), S Marcus Williams (groin) and CB Eli Apple (ankle) were out in Week 17.
No. 5: New England Patriots
- It'd certainly behoove the Patriots to do everything in their power to keep Tom Brady upright during their playoff run. The GOAT joins Kyle Allen, Joe Flacco, Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky and (if you aren't done throwing up yet) Mason Rudolph as the only other QBs averaging fewer than five yards per pressured attempt this season (PFF).
- Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead are the only RBs left in the playoffs that have fewer than 20% of their rushing yardage from explosive plays (PFF). The Patriots have simply struggled to consistently make big plays on the ground all season.
- The Patriots offensive line posted the following rankings: yards before contact per rush (No. 18), adjusted sack rate allowed (No. 5) and adjusted line yards per rush (No. 9).
- Julian Edelman has been the only consistent source of offense for the Patriots all season, but he posted 2-9-0, 5-72-0 and 3-26-0 receiving lines to end the year while playing limited snaps. The good news is that his shoulder and knee are apparently feeling at least a little bit better, as Edelman said, "I feel better than I have in the last few weeks ... I feel good enough to go out and compete at a high level."
- It's positively hilarious that pretty much the only two WRs that have given Stephon Gilmore serious problems over the last few years are Corey Davis (7-125-1, 5-63-2) and DeVante Parker (8-137-0 in Week 17).
- Each of Joe Mixon (25-136-0), Nick Chubb (20-131-1), Mark Ingram (15-115-0) and Frank Gore (17-109-0) managed to clear 100 rushing yards against this defense. The idea that Belichick always takes away the opponent's No. 1 offensive weapon isn't exactly a myth, but it's also a relatively basic way of describing the overwhelming success that his defenses have had over the years.
- Only the Ravens (54.9%) have blitzed at a more frequent rate than the Patriots (37%) among all playoff teams.
- The Patriots will need to continue to function as one of the league's best-tackling defenses this Saturday against the Titans, as A.J. Brown (No. 2 WR in YAC per reception), Jonnu Smith (No. 2 TE in YAC per reception) and Derrick Henry (No. 2 RB in YAC per carry) have each functioned as some of the league's premiere play-makers when it comes to shedding defenders (per Rotoworld's Josh Norris).
No. 6: Tennessee Titans
- Ryan Tannehill deserves plenty of credit for the offense's ridiculous big-play ability in the passing game. He's routinely managed to hit the team's field-stretching WRs downfield with b-e-a-utiful strikes from both inside and outside the pocket. TanneThrill has averaged a robust 14.7 yards per attempt on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield this season, gaining 544 yards and tossing three touchdowns with zero interceptions on 37-such attempts.
- The Titans' workhorse RB has only gotten better as the season has gone on during his short career, as Derrick Henry has been much more efficient in November (5.87 yards per carry), December (5.38) and January (4.98) compared to September (3.87) and October (3.87). Who can blame any defender for not being all that enthusiastic about tackling this 6-foot-3 and 247-pound monster.
- The Titans offensive line posted the following rankings: yards before contact per rush (No. 21), adjusted sack rate (No. 32) and adjusted line yards per rush (No. 4).
- Only three players have averaged at least three yards after the catch above expectation since 2016 (Next-Gen Stats): 2018 D.J. Moore (+3.2), 2018 George Kittle (+3.4) ... and 2019 A.J. Brown (+4.9).
- The Titans have been great against opposing RBs ... on the ground. They join the Chiefs and Colts as the league's only defenses that allowed triple-digit receptions to opposing backfields this season
- Tom Brady will have to be careful about testing this secondary deep. S Kevin Byard has 17 interceptions since entering the league in 2017. Nobody else has more than 13 during that span.
- Each Wild Card defense's respective rank in pressures per dropback: Saints (No. 2), Eagles (No. 4), Patriots (No. 7), Vikings (No. 17), Bills (No. 19), Texans (No. 20), Titans (No. 27) and Seahawks (No. 31).
- Adoree' Jackson (foot) will return to action after practicing in full all week. PFF graded Jackson as their No. 14 overall CB among 134 qualified corners during the regular season.