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Lombardi Rankings: Now you know how the playoffs play out

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Looking three weeks ahead really pays off when it takes us to SB LI

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
aleX-factor
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s NFL playoff time, and just about all the big quarterbacky names have come out to play.

Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger: present. Second-tier names such as Matt Stafford, Eli Manning, Dakota Prescott, Alexander Smith: also invited to the junket.

Noticeably absent are Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and perhaps-one-year-wonder Cam Newton. But do not feel sorry for those strong, burly men! Each of them will be back to dance once more before their careers wind down. Yes, okay, maybe twice, but no reason to push it.

All the QB star power you could reasonably hope for is assembled to fight for a championship. And Derek Carr should get mentioned — he brought the Raiders this far even if he’s now a casualty of the violence inherent in the system.

(Somebody is quarterbacking the Dolphins, somebody else is quarterbacking the Texans, and you care a great deal about both of them.)

With the QB parade out the way, now let’s run through the elite defenses present in the chase for the Pete Carroll Trophy (what?). There’s the, uh, the Giants are not bad? Maybe the Texans? The Patriots won the scoring title so they’re... pretty good? The Seahawks used to play defense — back in the Earl Thomas era? The Chiefs are good at grabbing loose balls, and what else?

Fearsome defenses are not punching their postseason ticket. I arranged defenses in five categories, with the understanding that to be called elite, you have to rank in the top 10. So in five common categories, here are the top ten defenses.

Ranked Defenses

DVOA YARDS SCORING TO MARGIN YDS/PLAY
DVOA YARDS SCORING TO MARGIN YDS/PLAY
DEN HOU NE KC DEN
NYG ARI NYG OAK ARI
ARI MIN SEA NE SEA
PHI DEN DEN ATL JAX
SEA SEA DAL MIN NYG
BAL JAX MIN GB MIN
HOU BAL KC PHI HOU
SD NE CIN BUF NE
MIN LA BAL BAL BAL
CAR NYG PIT PIT/DAL LA

Scan through and a couple factoids stand out: Minnesota and Baltimore both appear five times. They’re elite in every column, in five important categories, even in total yards. As much as we like to poop on total yards as a metric, you want to give up fewer of them, overall, not more.

The Vikings and Ravens officially own fearsome defenses. They’re also taking January off.

Denver, New England, New York, and Seattle all show up four times; Houston and Arizona three times. Most those teams are alive in the Super Bowl chase, but not all. Among teams whose name you see above the most, only half are still playing.

Which leads me to pose the question: which matters more in the NFL — having an elite defense, an elite quarterback, a bad defense, a bad quarterback, or being balanced?

Because in the effort to reach the postseason, it’s pretty clearly the presence of a superior QB.

As for advancing afterward? You’ll find those who argue for:

  • Getting hot at the right time
  • Avoiding costly errors
  • Turnover luck
  • Strong run game
  • Strong defense
  • Strong special teams
  • Winning in the trenches
  • Experience

Obviously none of the above are negatives. A team that checks off three boxes by being experienced, protecting the ball, and dominating the opposing lines will win many January games.

But usually it’s because that team had a good quarterback in the first place — otherwise they wouldn’t be in the playoffs to begin with.

Then again, we’ve all seen great defenses overcome great QBs. The Giants did it to Brady twice in the last decade; the Seahawks did it to everyone they faced in 2013 and 2014, until the fourth quarter of XLIX.

That’s why I’m casting my lot with teams that are balanced. The more well-rounded a team is, the fewer avenues its opponent will find to exploit.

Who is balanced? Never thought you’d ask.

The AFC

1. Kansas City Chiefs, AFC champions

In a nutshell, you’ll never guess, it’s because they’re the most balanced team out there.

DVOA has the Chiefs 2nd in ST, 10th in weighted offense, 7th in pass defense and 26th in rush defense. There it is. What they don’t do very well is defend the run. So with Le’Veon coming in like a wrecking bell in the second half of the season, the Chiefs’ biggest test of the playoffs will be containing him. My hunch is they’ll do just enough, while the other phases of the game dominate the Steelers. Especially special teams.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers, divisional losers

They become the instant favorites if they dispatch the Dolphins and then prevail in Arrowhead.

How good is Le’Veon Bell? His worst statistical game of the second half is probably his Week 16 output: 23-93-0 on the ground and 5-38-0 in the air. Yep, his worst game. That’s the kind of performance the Chiefs will need to turn in. If they don’t, it’s probably Steelers-Cowboys for all the marbles, just like every year in the 1970s.

3. New England Patriots, AFCCG losers

Who has New England even played since their tilt with the Seahawks? Nobody. They beat the Niners, Jets and Rams immediately afterward, then scraped by the Ravens, took out the reeling Broncos, destroyed the Jets again, and finished 2016 with a win against the Dolphins, who’d already clinched a postseason berth and were messing around with backup quarterbacks.

They should easily dispatch the Raiders in Foxborough. But that’s the Carrless Raiders! They will not have played anyone of value since November, when KC comes to town. Count me as a non-believer in the Gronkless Pats.

4. Miami Dolphins, wild-card losers

With a better draw, like not Pittsburgh, Miami would advance. Jay Ajayi is a force, the defense is well-rounded, Matt Moore knows how to not screw things up, and the Dolphins took the Patriots and Seahawks to the limit. They are legit. But doomed.

(The gap between the top three and bottom three playoff teams is best described as “chasmic.”)

5. Oakland Raiders, divisional losers

Matt McGloin or Connor Cook will see extensive snaps in Houston. That sounds... a little bit less than ideal for the Raiders. It won’t matter much because the Texans are stuck returning to Brock Osweiler.

It should be noted, again, that Osweiler isn’t just bad. He’s worse than bad.

His completion percentage is under 60. He’s thrown more picks than TD’s (16-15). His Y/A is 5.8 -- for reference, Tim Tebow’s career Y/A is 6.7. Osweiler’s 72.2 passer rating means he’s 24 percent worse than league average. Again, Tebow’s career mark is 75.3, for ugly reference.

Really, the Ravens, Bills, Bengals and even the Chargers are better suited to win a playoff game than the Raiders or Texans. Yet, here we are.

6. Houston Texans, wild-card losers

Too much pixel ink has been spilled on them already. If they win, they go to New England, then to KC or Pittsburgh. You’d like to think that in a six-way race, any playoff team has at least a 5 percent chance of winning its conference, but in my opinion the Texans win the first round 2/5 times, the divisional round 1/5 times, and the conference 1/4 times. That translates to 2 percent.

Ranked by chance to reach SB LI

1. Chiefs, 33 percent

2. Steelers, 28 percent

3. Patriots, 27 percent

4. Dolphins, 8 percent

5. Raiders, 4 percent

6. Texans, 2 percent

The presults

Wild-card round

OAK 20, HOU 10

PIT 44, MIA 24

Divisional round

NE 42, OAK 7

KC 34, PIT 31

AFCCG

KC 30, NE 27

The NFC

1. Dallas Cowboys, NFC champions

I’m seeing a Giant (haha) drop-off between the Cowboys’ chances and everyone else’s in the conference this year. Hawks are too inconsistent, Packers are too banged up, Falcons are too shoddy on defense, Giants face too many road games.

The hope for the challengers is that Dak ‘n’ Zeke remember they’re rookies and brain fart accordingly, or tire out, as the “rookie wall” narrative propounds.

But by this time of year, nobody’s a rookie. And if those guys were going to hit a so-called wall, their extended rest will have helped. Their January might well feel like the handful of weeks off before a bowl game.

If you desperately want to find a reason to hope, there’s this: the Cowboys overperformed their expected W-L record by 2.1 wins.

If Dallas loses, it’s because a potent offense took advantage of their defense, which shows up on the elite leaderboard above in only one place, tied for 10th in turnover margin. Which is as much a function of Prescott’s unreal 23-4 TD/INT ratio as anything.

The Hawks, Falcons and Packers all will score many points against Dallas. But this year none of those teams has the defense to finish the job.

2. Seattle Seahawks, NFCCG losers

Beating the Lions hasn’t been easy for the Seahawks recently; a last-minute loss in Detroit in 2012 was avenged by a skin-of-the-teeth win in Seattle in 2015. Yes, the KJ bat game.

Any excuse, right?

Detroit is 0-10 in road playoff games. Seattle hasn’t lost a home playoff game under Pete Carroll, and not at all since the 2004 season ended at home to the Rams, who, fuck them.

You’ll tell me that history means little because the teams have turned so many players over since 2015, let alone 2012. I’ll tell you that history means quite a great deal because in the last 40 NFC playoff games, home teams are 25-15. In the last 100 playoff games period, home teams are 60-40. In the last infinity NFL games, the home team wins 57 percent of the time.

The historical numbers are with the Hawks.

So after the Lions leave town with their tails between their legs, the Hawks return to Atlanta to eke out a pass-rush-fueled 35-32 overtime win against the Falcons, before advancing to the NFCCG in Dallas. The run ends there, with some very bad defense, because I just can’t trust these Seahawks to play good defense for three straight games against three good quarterbacks.

Why not? Their run defense is stout as always. However, the pass defense isn’t the same without Earl Thomas. (Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.)

3. Green Bay Packers, divisional losers

“Dodgers” Rodgers evades the fabled Giants defensive line. Eli Manning does the Eil Manning face, thrice. 38-14 Green Bay in the wild-card laugher, setting up the divisional dream matchup of Packers at Cowboys.

In which all the points are scored, but just a few more by Dallas.

4. Atlanta Falcons, divisional losers

Bad defense finally catches up with the Falcons. Matt Ryan can carve up the Hawks defense, for sure, there can be no question about that -- but not if he has too little time to do so. Richard Sherman follows Julio Jones around, and by the time Ryan gets to his second or third read, he is swallowed by either Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril or Frank Clark. Plus once by Bobby Wagner, for good measure.

It’s important to note that the Hawks are capable of scoring against bad defenses. The poop eggs laid at LA, ARI, TB and GB overshadow that Seattle put up >30 points five times and >24 points ten times.

So the Hawks finish the year as the 18th highest scoring offense. But since the TB stinker, they’re averaging 123 yards rushing yards and 268 yards passing yards per game.

The key to advancing will be Seattle’s red zone performance. The Hawks know to reach the red zone; they’re eighth in the league in that category. You might want to avert your eyes for the rest of the story, however. Too late. In TD percentage, the Hawks are 27th this year, at 46.4 percent. Half the time they settle for field goals. Against the Falcons, that won’t, er, fly.

That’s where the story comes full circle. “Bad defense finally catches up with the Falcons.”

5. New York Giants, wild card losers

No every-five-years magic for the Giants. The Packers are playing just too well. Jordy Nelson has returned, and is Jordy Nelson again.

Nelson, first half of 2016: 38-539-7, catch rate of 52 percent, good numbers

Nelson, second half of 2016: 59-748-7, catch rate of 75 percent, HoF numbers

Looks like Rodgers knows how to find him again.

6. Detroit Lions, wild card losers

The Lions are not good. They’re just good finishers. 14 times this season they’ve trailed in the fourth quarter. 14 times!

More splits.

Matt Stafford before finger injury: 8-4, twice a rating under 75, 21-5 TD/INT ratio.

Matt Stafford after finer injury: 1-3, thrice a rating under 75, 3-5 TD/INT ratio.

There is very little reason to think he’ll turn it around against a good pass rush like Seattle’s, in Seattle, with no run game to lean on.

Ranked by chance to reach SB LI

1. Cowboys, 35 percent

2. Seahawks, 17 percent

3. Packers, 16 percent

4. Falcons, 15 percent

5. Giants, 14 percent

6. Lions, 3 percent

The presults

Wild-card round

SEA 29, DET 14; GB 38, NYG 14

Divisional round

SEA 35, ATL 32 (OT); DAL 41, GB 37

NFCCG

DAL 30, SEA 16

Now you know. But you should probably still watch. The Lombardi Rankings have been wrong before.