2022 AFC Playoff Picture: Who’s Contending, Who’s Pretending?

Since every team in the AFC has played 12 games, it’s time to take a statistical look at the playoff contenders and what the numbers tell us about each team’s viability.

First, a little background. I broke into the NFL in the 1970s, under coach Marv Levy, with the Kansas City Chiefs. Levy brought on board what was then called a statistician. His name was Bud Goode, and he was based in Los Angeles.

Bud analyzed every team’s data and pointed out necessary benchmarks that contributed to winning. He was the forerunner of today’s analytics departments. Levy paid close attention to Bud’s product. Only a few teams did that then. All do now. I’m the farthest in the world from a mathematician, but even then, I realized the picture the numbers painted of our opponent had value.

Never forget the old saying: “It’s not the Xs and Os, it’s the Johnnys and Joes that win.” That is absolutely and forever true, but we will be taking a statistical look at every playoff contender’s Johnnys and Joes when the time comes. For now, we will look at the AFC. We will do so, first, through the lens of the most important Johnny and Joe, the quarterback. In addition, we’ll look at the three most vital defensive metrics.

The categories and their benchmarks necessary to win are as follows: 

Stat Definition Win Benchmark
Passer Rating (PR) A rating, tabulated by the league, and indicative of all-around passing performance 90 or higher
Yards Per Pass Attempt (YPA) Total yards gained passing, minus sack yardage divided by the number of pass attempts 7 yards or higher
Giveaway-takeaway (G/T) The number of fumbles lost and interceptions thrown versus the number of fumbles recovered and interceptions made.  Plus-1 or higher
Offensive 3rd-down efficiency (O3E) The number of total third downs divided by the number of times a team converts a third-down play for a first down expressed as a percentage. 45% or higher
Defensive 3rd-down efficiency (D3E) The number of defensive third downs divided by the number of times the defense denies the opposition a first down expressed as a percentage.  40% or higher
Red Zone touchdowns (RZTD) The number of times the offense reaches the red zone (i.e., the opposition’s 20-yard line or closer to their goal line) and scores a TD expressed as a whole number.  Two per game or higher
Points against (PA) The total number of points a club allows over the number of games played. For the purposes of this study, it’s 12 games. 21 points per game. In this study, it is rounded to a total of 250.

We could spend days on deep dives on these and other categories. Analytics departments obviously do. I learned, however, as an advance scout, you can get lost in the proverbial mathematical weeds. The numbers we are showing will give you a clear look at each club’s chances of going all the way.

It’s also important to remember the NFL season is a continuum and not a series of 17 one-game seasons. A team could enter a game seriously undermanned, lose big and not hit any of its benchmarks. That’s a one-game anomaly. It’s what they do over time that counts.

On the other hand, a team like the Colts can have persistent and serious offensive line problems. Eventually, this will show itself in the numbers. We don’t include the Colts in this analysis because the reality is they are not a likely playoff team primarily because of their offensive line deficiency.

Injuries to quarterbacks and difference-makers at other positions (i.e., Jimmy Garoppolo of the 49ers, Von Miller of the Bills and Joey Bosa of the Chargers) change platoon efficiency greatly and sometimes even lead to their ultimate demise. The stark reality is regardless of injuries, you have to hit or come close to the benchmarks in order to win. That’s where coaching comes in.

There is also a breaking point where injury robs a team of too many difference-makers for them to be competitive. The Rams are a stark example of that. In that case, it’s virtually impossible to compete and the numbers are meaningless.

We have broken down the AFC teams with playoff chances into three groups: Favorites, contenders and pretenders.

The Favorites

Buffalo Bills (9-3)

QB: Josh Allen

Stat Bills’ Output 
PR 96
YPA  7.6
GT Minus-3
O3E 51.7%
D3E 38.8%
PA  209

Summary: The only negative number for the Bills is their GT. Everything else is outstanding, and the third-down defense and points against are spectacular. If Allen can stay healthy and even with the loss of Miller, the combination of great talent, great defense and playoff experience make this club a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Kansas Chiefs (9-3)

QB: Patrick Mahomes

Stat Chiefs’ Output
PR  105
YPA 8.1
GT Minus-1
O3E 51.7%
D3E 40.5%
PA 270

Summary: The offensive numbers are spectacular, and the third-down defense is good. The points against are a worry. You can’t go all the way yielding that many points. Until the defense proves itself, long-term success is not a given.

Cincinnati Bengals (8-4)

QB: Joe Burrow

Stat Bengals’ Output 
PR 104.8
YPA 7.9
GT Plus-2
O3E 48.3%
D3E 41%
PA 255

Summary: Just like Kansas City, the offensive numbers are exceptional. They have the talent to sustain and improve upon them. Their defensive talent is sneaky good, which is why the PA is likely to come down during the last third of the season. They have good depth and have already survived the short-term loss of All-Pro receiver Ja’Marr Chase. This is a complete team with more than enough talent to make it back to the Super Bowl.

The Contenders

Miami Dolphins (8-4)

QB: Tua Tagovailoa

Stat Dolphins’ Output
PR 100.9
YPA 8.5
GT Minus-3
O3E 38.7%
D3E 41.7%
PA 289

Summary: Despite some criticism, the numbers tell us Tagovailoa is having a good year. This is not a heavy lift with the fleet duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle catching his passes. The third-down offensive conversion and GT numbers are worrisome. The addition of Bradley Chubb gave them a bona fide pass rusher who can close games. However, it’s hard to outscore people in the playoffs, thus making the PA number a concern. You can’t go all the way without a reliable defense. Can they? We shall see.

Baltimore Ravens (8-4)

QB: Lamar Jackson

Stat Ravens’ Output
PR 88.8
YPA 6.8
GT Plus-5
O3E 43.8%
D3E 31.2%
PA 236

Summary: All the offensive numbers are slightly below the line. This, however, is a run-first team that beats you up and bleeds the clock. It is a perfect December-January offense for a northern team. Jackson is the key. When healthy, he is their No. 1 run threat. Their suffocating defensive front seven can play with anyone. The run game, defense and kicking game are all Super Bowl caliber. The receiving talent, with the exception of tight end Mark Andrews, and secondary depth are suspect. A healthy Jackson is a must for this team to advance in the playoffs.

Tennessee Titans (7-5)

QB: Ryan Tannehill

Stat Titans’ Output
PR 92
YPA 7.6
GT Plus-5
O3E 36%
D3E 30.4%
PA 240

Summary: Barring a collapse, the Titans will win the AFC South. The defense is tough, physical and smart on all three levels. The question is whether they have enough passing dynamics to advance. Tannehill, like Tagovailoa, is often criticized, but the larger question is pass protection. The offensive line is built to run the ball, and they do it well. The biggest issues are third-down offensive conversions and TDs in the red zone. Both numbers are worrisome.

The Pretenders

New York Jets (7-5)

QB: Mike White

Stat Jets’ Output
YPA 6.7
GT 0
D3E 40.7%
PA 223

Summary: The offensive numbers under former starting QB Zach Wilson are not playoff worthy. His replacement, White, is an entirely different story, but there’s too small a sample size to draw a conclusion. The formula for the Jets is simple: Support their first-rate defense with an efficient passing game. Then, they become a team you don’t want to see in January. Will White be the quarterback who does that? Stay tuned.

New England Patriots (6-6)

QB: Mac Jones

Stat Patriots’ Output
PR 90.6
YPA 7.6
GT 0
O3E 36.2%
D3E 40.3%
PA 226

Summary: This is a typical Bill Belichick defense. It is difficult to decipher, it’s hard to block, it pressures the passer well and it’s good in the secondary. They limit points. They run the ball well, but pass protection is below the usual Patriots’ standard. Because of that, the offensive performance has been less than what we are used to seeing from New England. Never, however, bet against Belichick. If they make the playoffs, it may be a hard road to the Super Bowl.

Los Angeles Chargers (6-6)

QB: Justin Herbert

Stat Chargers’ Output
PR 92.3
YPA 6.5
GT Plus-4
O3E 42%
D3E 43.7%
PA 309

Summary: These numbers are cause for concern. There’s no question about Herbert’s talent, but his passer rating and yards per attempt are below what you would expect from him. The reason is twofold: A injury-depleted pass-protection group and receiving corps and an unreliable defense as the points against indicate. Unless the receiving corps can be healthy down the stretch, this team will struggle to make the playoffs. In the end, even if they do their defense might not be good enough for them to advance.

Cleveland and Las Vegas are both 5-7 and long shots to make the tournament. Both would have to win four of the next five and at least one or possibly two of the teams in front of them would have to hit a large skid. If such a miracle happens, we’ll analyze them in our playoff preview.

As told to Vic Carucci

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