Playoff Trait No. 3: High-Powered Passing with Solid Defense

By Robert Simpson and Peter Engler

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

While these teams may not have quite the staunch defenses of the first two clusters, they make up for it with an explosive passing offense. This passing ability combined with a plus defense makes this cluster the 3rd most successful in producing playoff teams.

Three Super Bowl Champions have come from this group, the 2016 and 2014 Patriots, and the 2011 Giants. From this cluster last season, we find the wildcard Eagles with the 9-7 Rams and 7-9 Buccaneers, both missing out on the postseason. This is somewhat indicative of the playoff chances of this cluster as a whole, with about 53% of the 51 teams making the playoffs and an average win total of just under 9.5.

This group is comprised of teams who love to (or have to) fling it, ranking in the top 37% of the league in pass attempts, but are fairly successful doing so, ranking in the top 36% in passing yards and top 43% in passing touchdowns. While they prevent sacks better than any other cluster, the run game is inefficient with an average of only 3.9 rush yards per carry and rank in the top half of the league in fumbles. This inability to rush frequently forces them into third-down situations but the pass offense bails them out with 5.6 third-down conversions per game on average.

The defense is a slight positive, as this cluster is one of three above the league average in both pass and rush defense, but it’s not by much. In most relevant defensive statistics, this group consistently ranks above the league average but it’s not to the level of the dominant defenses of earlier. With several defensive measures around the league median, such as passing yards allowed per attempt, passer rating allowed, and rushing yards allowed per game, these teams have a plus defense that can get hot late and make them a tough out.

This group is dominated by a few recurring teams: Detroit (6 times), Atlanta (5 times), Indianapolis (4 times), and Pittsburgh (4 times). The early-decade Lions should come as no surprise, while the Steelers tend to show up when Ben Roethlisberger is forced into heavy passing.

The three 2020 teams projected in this cluster are the Steelers, Colts, and Buccaneers. All three teams are in a good position to make the playoffs, with the Steelers virtually guaranteed a spot. While these teams’ defenses are on the high side for this cluster, the passing stacks up, as all 3 QBs are in the top 8 in attempts per game.

While teams in this cluster may not have as high of a chance of making the playoffs as the first two groups, they can still earn a postseason berth over half the time with this strategy. Having a better than average defense has allowed these first three clusters to find success, but the next group does not have this defensive luxury.

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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