The 2021 NFL playoff brackets are set. Here’s a profile of the seven AFC playoff teams, complete with strengths, weaknesses and the opponent that each team most needs to avoid.
Before getting into the profiles below, a quick glossary of the statistics used:
- Expected Points Added (EPA): Is a statistic that measures the value of individual plays in terms of points. Every play has an Expected Points (EP) Value based on the context of down, distance, and field position. EPA measures the change in EP from the start of the play to the end of the play. By providing context of the play, a 3-yard gain on third-and-two has more EPA than one on first-and-10.
- Success Rate: A measure of efficiency that considers the context of play to deem whether a play is successful or not. A play is successful when it gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down.
- DVOA: Football Outsiders’ main statistic, it “breaks down the entire season play-by-play, comparing success on each play to the league average” based on the context of the game from down and distance to opponent quality.
- Adjusted Line Yards: A Football Outsiders’ statistic that separates the ability of a running back from the ability of the offensive line. Each play is adjusted based on situation and opponent quality.
- Adjusted Sack Rate: A Football Outsiders’ statistic that adjusts for pass rates, opponent quality, and down and distance. Since sacks are more common in certain situations, like on third down or third-and-long, it is a better measure of pass blocking than total sacks.
SEE ALSO: NFC Playoff Profiles
The most pressing question for Kansas City is whether the team’s recent performance will be indicative of their playoff results. K.C.’s 14-2 record masks their struggles over the past two months. The Chiefs have not won a game by more than one possession since Week 8, with an average margin of victory of 3.7 points. However, during that period, K.C. did defeat both Tampa Bay and New Orleans on the road. Kansas City’s offense received the headlines last year, but their defense was considerably better than this year’s unit. Over the final seven weeks of last season, K.C.’s defense was seventh in EPA/Play compared to 26th this season.
Worst Matchup – Baltimore Ravens
Kansas City is particularly exploitable on the ground, ranking 27th in EPA/Rush, and has surprisingly poor special teams (18th this season vs. 2nd last season). Thus, the Baltimore Ravens, who are first in EPA/Rush and second in special teams DVOA, line up with K.C.’s two biggest weaknesses. Add in strong Baltimore corners propelling the defense to sixth in EPA/Pass, the Ravens in theory can go toe-to-toe with the AFC’s No. 1 seed. These teams faced each other Week 3 and Kansas City won by 14 points. Patrick Mahomes terrorized the blitzing Baltimore defense, so it would be interesting to see if the Ravens alter their strategy in a potential second matchup.
Pairing an improved defense with a red-hot offense, Buffalo has surged to end the season. Since Week 11, Buffalo is tied with Green Bay for the league lead in Net EPA/Play. The questions for Buffalo are whether Josh Allen will continue his MVP-like play and whether the defense will regress to its early season form. The defense could still be a question mark, as the resurgence came as the team played Offenses that ranked on average 21st in EPA/Play.
Worst Matchup – Tennessee Titans
In Buffalo’s three losses (TEN, KC, AZ), the defense allowed on average over 200 yards rushing (in all three losses, Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano did not play). A Derrick Henry-led attack could run rampant against this mediocre Buffalo front seven. Additionally, Tennessee can score with Buffalo, as it is the only AFC team that ranks ahead of the Bills in OFF EPA/Play and OFF Success Rate. While the Ravens could also run all over Buffalo, Allen has destroyed blitzing defenses this season. Baltimore ranks first in blitz% and in four games against top 5 defenses in blitz%, Buffalo has gone 4-0 and scored an average of 36 PPG.
After starting the season with 11 straight wins, Pittsburgh ended the season 1-4. Pittsburgh’s offense has been mediocre for the season, but particularly bad since Week 11. While the offense ranks first in Adj. Sack Rate, this is driven by Ben Roethlisberger’s propensity for short passes, as Big Ben has the quickest Time to Throw in the NFL at 2.3 seconds. As defenses keyed in on his unwillingness to throw downfield, the offense cratered, scoring only 16 PPG during a three-game losing streak. Particularly troubling is the Steelers’ utter inability to run the ball, as the team ranks 28th in EPA/Rush.
Worst Matchup – Kansas City Chiefs
Pittsburgh wins games with defensive pressure and turnovers, making the Kansas City Chiefs, who rank fourth in both Adj. Sack RT and turnovers, an awful matchup. Additionally, K.C.’s most exploitable weakness is attacking their front seven and the Steelers have not had a 100-yard rusher since Week 6.
After a Cinderella run last playoffs, the Titans are back in the postseason. Once again, the Titans are led by balanced offensive attack, ranking third in EPA/Pass and second in EPA/Rush. As great as the offense is, the defense may be worse. Driven by a complete inability to rush the passer (31st in Adj. Sack Rate), the Titans pass defense is horrendous, ranking 28th in EPA/Pass. The defensive unit was considerably better last year, ranking a respectable 15th in EPA/Play. Tennessee’s losses have largely come from their defense hemorrhaging points early, as the team has allowed on average 22.2 first-half points in their 5 losses.
Worst Matchup – Pittsburgh Steelers
Tennessee has struggled when the offense stalls early trying to establish Derrick Henry and its defense is forced to make stops that it cannot. The Steelers, who rank second in Adj. Line Yards Allowed, rode this formula in a Week 7 victory over Tennessee. Despite its anemic passing offense, Pittsburgh jumped out to a 24-7 halftime lead as Henry struggled, accumulating 78 yards on 20 carries. Given Tennessee’s propensity to make all opposing passers look good, Big Ben’s struggles this season would matter less.
After storming through the regular season last year, Baltimore made the playoffs on the final week. Despite a midseason swoon that saw Baltimore drop four out of five games, the team finished the season with five straight wins. The team appears to be firing on all cylinders, finishing first in the NFL in point differential at plus-165. However, Baltimore has largely done this by beating up bad opponents. The Ravens have a minus-15 differential against the Top 11 teams in Net EPA/play (5 games) and a plus-129 differential against the bottom 10 teams in Net EPA/play (8 games). In general, Baltimore has beat up bad teams and struggled against playoff contenders. The main question becomes what Lamar Jackson will we see in the playoffs.
Worst Matchup – Pittsburgh Steelers
Due to COVID issues, Lamar Jackson only played once against Pittsburgh, but the results were disastrous. Jackson threw 2 interceptions (including a pick-6) and lost 2 fumbles. While Jackson ranked third in EPA/play during his MVP season, he finished a much more mediocre 14th this season. Pittsburgh’s familiarity with the Ravens’ offensive scheme, combined with its ability to stop the run and pressure Jackson into bad decisions present problems for Baltimore.
After a lost season last year, the Cleveland Browns survived a late Mason Rudolph rally to make the playoffs. While rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski has undoubtably improved this team, Cleveland benefited from the third-easiest schedule in the league per Football Outsiders. Now, due to COVID issues, the team likely will not have Stefanski, who has worked wonders for Baker Mayfield as a play caller. While Cleveland has been good on offense, including Stefanski-designed explosive plays, this team does not have many strengths. The Browns are mediocre on defense and special teams, and the offense has struggled mightily when Mayfield is pressured.
Worst Matchup – Pittsburgh Steelers
Cleveland’s inability to put away the Steelers last weekend was a poor sign for its hopes to win in the wild-card round. Pittsburgh’s pressure defense presents major problems for Baker Mayfield, as Pittsburgh has sacked him eight times in two games, including a 31-point loss in Week 6. Given Cleveland’s bottom 10 pass defense made Mason Rudolph look good, a rested Big Ben can find success against the Browns.
In the beginning of the season, Indianapolis looked like a balanced team that could pose problems in the playoffs. However, the defensive decline since Week 11 has been notable. Indianapolis’s defense ranked fifth in EPA/play from Weeks 1-10 and has dropped to 18th in Weeks 11-17. While the run defense remains good, the pass defense consistently allows successful plays, ranking 29th for the season in pass success rate and 26th since Week 11. Outside of T.Y. Hilton, the Colts offense does not have many outside weapons. Philip Rivers ranks in the bottom 12 in Intended Air Yards per pass, just above QBs like Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton. While the team does not have obvious holes, it also has few exceptional strengths.
Worst Matchup – Buffalo Bills
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, the Buffalo Bills are not an ideal matchup for them this weekend. Buffalo has shown a willingness to abandon the run and focus on passing against poor pass defenses, like in its Week 9 victory over Seattle. In the first half of that game, Buffalo threw 23 times to 3 runs en route to 24 points. Buffalo ranks fourth in early down pass rate and will likely look to attack through the air early and often. Indianapolis would have to match Buffalo’s high scoring attack. Yet, Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White ranks second in the NFL in forced incompletion percentage and can take away T.Y. Hilton.
AFC Playoff Prediction
I will take the Buffalo Bills to win the AFC. While the Chiefs have the best record, their trending performance is troublesome. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes have the most potential on offense in the playoffs, but the offense has not reached the heights of last year’s unit. Largely due to late-season injuries along the offensive line, the offense has not put away opponents for over two months. Additionally, last year’s defense mattered more than most realize. Last season, K.C.’s defense was a top 10 unit toward the end of the season whereas this season’s unit has yet to put it together. The Ravens or Titans could utilize a rush-based attack that can expose K.C.’s weaknesses and keep the ball out of Mahomes’ hands. The Bills offense can score with Kansas City while playing better defense. In my opinion, this year’s Bills most closely mirror last year’s Chiefs.