Playoff Trait No. 4: Elite Passing with Mediocre Defense

By Robert Simpson and Peter Engler

This is the fourth cluster of teams in our study of traits associated with NFL playoff teams. For a look at how we established these clusters, click here.

Passing fireworks define this group that network executives are sure to love. Without the stability on defense provided by teams in the previous clusters, these teams are fun to watch, but do not generally achieve sustained success.

This cluster does not contain any Super Bowl champions, though the 2011 Packers finished with a regular season record of 15-1 and the 2018 Rams lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. As we continue to move into less-successful groups, just over 37% of the 35 teams in this cluster made the playoffs, with 8.3 regular season wins on average. While this cluster will see some teams earn a first-round bye like the 2018 Chiefs and 2011 Patriots, these are more likely the teams to win a weak division or grab a wildcard spot with 70% of playoff teams here being forced to play on wildcard weekend. Furthermore, being unable to defend will lead to some ugly records like the cluster-worst 2015 Chargers (4-12).

Affectionately referred to as “Shootout City”, these teams play some of the most high-scoring football with by far the best pass offense of any cluster, averaging over 4600 passing yards and 32 passing touchdowns. They pick up chunks moving down the field, with a 25th percentile of passes over 20 yards greater than 66% of all teams, and put points on the board with an average of 26.3 points per game. The run game isn’t efficient, but they don’t need it, and they avoid turnovers better than all but one cluster.

The problem with high-scoring football, however, is the atrocious defense, and this cluster is no exception. With the worst pass defense of any cluster by far, they allow more passing yards than a stunning 95% of all teams. Allowing an average of 25.3 points per game, they get gashed by the pass and have little ability to stop the run, allowing averages of 4.6 rush yards per carry and almost 13 rushes of 20+ yards. Despite being league-average in forcing turnovers, they are the only cluster to prevent offensive sacks while being unable to accrue them on defense. Hey, as long as it makes for good TV.

Eight teams have put in multiple seasons for this group, led by the New Orleans Saints who only missed out on six consecutive appearances (2011-2016) with a 2013 playoff appearance. Other teams to frequent include three times each from the Falcons, Packers, Chargers, and Giants, while the Panthers, Cowboys, and Raiders put in two shifts each.

Nine teams from this season are projected to land in this cluster, the 2020 Packers, Seahawks, Bills, Raiders, Patriots, Texans, Panthers, Falcons, and Chargers. A third of these teams would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, about lining up with the cluster’s playoff percentage as a whole, and the range of teams with poor records is also reflected.

While this backyard football approach has yet to produce a Super Bowl champion, it appeals to fans who love points. The next cluster in this segment takes the opposite approach, pounding the rock with hard-nosed, old-fashioned football.

Read all seven clusters:

The First Cluster: Dominant Defense and Run Game

The Second Cluster: Efficient Offense with Opportunistic Defense

The Third Cluster: High-Powered Passing with Solid Defense

The Fourth Cluster: Elite Passing with Mediocre Defense

The Fifth Cluster: Pounding the Rock with Elite Pass Rush

The Sixth Cluster: All Defense

The Final Cluster: Inefficient Passing and Turnovers

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