The NFL Playoffs begin on Saturday after a wild final week of the season. Using a variety of stats, the players at each position can be ranked, allowing us to look for mismatches and big matchups.
To rank the quarterbacks in the NFL, I used a combination of four advanced stats. Three of the advanced stats measure efficiency: Expected Points Added per Play (EPA/P) gives the average change in expected points on a drive after a play by a quarterback, Completion Percentage Over Expected shows how much more accurate a quarterback was than expected based on situation and pass distance, and Success Rate (SR) displays the consistency of a quarterback by through the percentage of plays that he has a positive EPA. The last advanced stat I used was Sticks%, which is a measure of aggressiveness. The Sticks% is simply the percentage of passes that are thrown at or beyond the first down marker. I also split these four stats into two situations: all plays and passing downs. Passing downs are plays where the expected pass rate (based on situation) is greater than 70%, meaning that defenses are expecting a pass. Players who excel in passing downs are especially good because they can still be efficient even when the defense is using a play designed to stop the pass.
In the AFC, there is a clear top tier of quarterbacks: Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, and Patrick Mahomes. Each of them are efficient and consistent in non-passing and passing down situations. Burrow has the highest completion percentage over expected, meaning that he excels at being accurate. On the other end, Ben Roethlisberger is ranked last among the AFC Playoff quarterbacks in almost every metric. The most aggressive quarterback in the AFC seems to be Josh Allen, as he throws past the first down marker on over 45% of passes. Derek Carr is just about average with a score of 56 out of 100, but he gets worse when put in clear passing scenarios with his EPA/Play falling by 0.118 and his CPOE falling by 1.9%. Therefore, the Bengals, the Raiders’ wildcard opponent, should emphasize forcing passing down situations by stopping early down runs and short passes.
The NFC, meanwhile, is led by likely MVP Aaron Rodgers, who is ranked near the top in all of the efficiency metrics. Kyler Murray is very good in general, but he especially impresses in passing situations. When the Cardinals need a big play in a disadvantageous spot, they can count on Murray. However, Dak Prescott is the opposite as he is better in non-passing situations. Jalen Hurts is the lowest ranked quarterback in most efficiency metrics, putting the Eagles at a disadvantage. But he can help the Eagles in another way: aggressiveness. Hurts is the most aggressive passer in the playoffs, ranking first in Sticks%. If Hurts gets hot and maintains his high level of aggressiveness, the Eagles could benefit from their high variance and upset the Buccaneers (although it is very unlikely). It is better for a bad team to have an aggressive passing attack because it allows for their offensive performance to have a greater variance, meaning they have a higher chance to boom or bust rather than be average. An the Eagles need a boom in order to win their wildcard game.
I used a similar approach to ranking running backs as I did to ranking quarterbacks. The stats I used were EPA/Play, Success Rate, and Rush Yards Over Expected (RYOE). Rush Yards Over Expected is the average yards per carry minus the average expected yards per carry, where the expected yards are based on factors such as distance from the endzone, down and distance, time remaining in the game, the defense’s strength, expected pass rate, and run direction. Unfortunately, I could not account for offensive line blocking or the location of defenders due to lack of data. I added a category for rushing downs, which are downs where the expected pass rate is less than 50%, in order to see whether running backs are efficient when defenses expect a run.
The running backs in the AFC are led by the duo of Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris, both of whom are efficient in all categories. A significant portion of their success likely comes from their offensive line because both of the top RBs are from the Patriots. The Chiefs should lean on Darrel Williams more heavily than former first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire since Williams is more efficient in every statistic. Derrick Henry and Joe Mixon are better on rushing downs, while Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Devin Singletary are better when defenses are expecting a pass. The Titans would greatly benefit from a potential return for Derrick Henry, as Henry’s EPA/Rush is almost 0.08 points better than backup D’Onta Foreman. Lastly, the Steelers should use Benny Snell sparingly as he is the least efficient qualifying running back in the NFL.
The NFC Playoffs are filled with efficient running backs. Tony Pollard, who is actually far more efficient than Ezekiel Elliot in both traditional stats (5.5 yds per carry vs 4.2 yds per carry for Zeke) and advanced stats, leads the way for the NFC. Miles Sanders has taken advantage of a strong Eagles’ offensive line, gaining over 1.0 average rush yards over expected. While Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds may seem like one of the best running backs according to yards per carry (8th in NFL among qualifying players), he is actually just doing well when the expected pass rate is high, meaning defenses will have fewer players in the box dedicated to stopping the run.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
The stats I used for wide receivers and tight ends are target rate, drop rate, EPA per Target, Success Rate, Catch Percentage Over Expected (CPOE), and Yards After Catch Over Expected (YACOE). A high target rate, which is the estimated percentage of passing plays where player was targeted, indicates that a player is good at getting open or has trust from his quarterback. EPA per target and success rate are measures of efficiency, and YACOE measures the receiver’s ability after the catch. YACOE was built into the play-by-play data, so I am not exactly sure what variables affect it. The CPOE and drop rate are measures of catching ability, where CPOE is based on depth of target, quarterback accuracy, game situation, and more.
Although not thought of as the best wide receiver, Kendrick Bourne has gone under the radar this season. He has the highest EPA/Target, Success Rate, and CPOE of all the wide receivers in the AFC Playoffs. He has caught almost 80% of passes thrown to him despite not being a checkdown option. The most targeted players include AJ Brown, Tyreek Hill, and Hunter Renfrow. Ryan Tannehill, Patrick Mahomes, and Derek Carr, respectively, depend of these receivers because of their skills to get open and be explosive. Ja’Marr Chase is a boom or bust player: he has a high EPA/Target and is great at gaining yards after the catch, but he has one of the highest drop rates in the NFL. The worst qualifying receiver has been Najee Harris, who is primarily used as a checkdown option for Ben Roethlisberger.
Davante Adams and Cooper Kupp, two NFL Offensive Player of the Year candidates, are a significant reason for their teams’ success. Adams has only 3 drops on the season, almost a 60% success rate, and is targeted on over 30% of Aaron Rodgers’ passes. Kupp, meanwhile, is a reliable option for Matthew Stafford in the slot, posting a catch percentage over expected of almost 9%. The Buccaneers will sorely miss Chris Godwin in the playoffs as he has been ruled out for the season. The 49ers are the best team after the catch, with all three of their top targeted players having a YACOE of at least 1.0. Deebo Samuel, their leading receiver, is another boom or bust player, in that he drops a lot of passes and he catches fewer balls than expected but is extremely explosive after the catch.
In addition to offensive players, we can also rank defensive players using advanced stats. Instead of using traditional defensive positions like defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs, I split the defensive players into three groups based on a specific skill: pass rushing, tackling, and coverage. The players in the pass rushing category will most often be defensive linemen, but there are also several skilled pass rushing linebackers that I wanted to include. The pass rushing players were ranked based on pressure rate (estimated pressures per opponent dropback) and qb hit rate (estimated quarterback hits per opponent dropback). The overall score also includes a small weight for tackling skills.
While the Steelers may be the weakest team of this year’s playoffs in many categories, one of their strengths is rushing the quarterback. TJ Watt, who tied the NFL sack record this year, leads the NFL by pressuring the quarterback on about 1 in 8 dropbacks. He is joined by Cameron Heyward and Alex Highsmith, both of whom post respectable pressure rates in addition to very good tackling stats. The Steelers have great defensive linemen, but the Bills actually lead the NFL in overall defensive pressure rate (30.8%). They have 3 linemen with high pressure rates, including rookie Gregory Rousseau. On the other hand, the Titans have struggled to pressure the quarterback this season. They are the only AFC playoff team without a player with a pressure rate of at least 7%, so their Divisional round opponent will not have to worry about having a quarterback under duress.
The Dallas Cowboys’ pass rush is their strongest part of their defense. Their top 3 pass rushers — Micah Parsons, Randy Gregory, and Dorace Armstrong — each have pressure rates above 7.5%. The Cardinals also have a strong pass rush, led by Chander Jones. They will face the NFL’s top pass blocking offensive line (according to ESPN’s pass block win rate) in one of the most interesting matchups of the wildcard round. One of the biggest breakouts of the NFL season was Rashan Gary, the Packers outside linebacker. His pass rushing and tackling ability has kept the Packers’ defense afloat as their sack leader from 2020, Za’Darius Smith, was out for most of the season.
The players in the tackling category mostly consists of linebackers. The three stats I used to evaluate tackling were Run Stop Rate (STOP%), Tackle Rate (TKL%), and Missed Tackle Rate (MTKL%). The Run Stop Rate is the estimated percentage of opponent designed runs that the player stopped within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage, the tackle rate is the estimated percentage of snaps that the player recorded a tackle, and the missed tackle rate is the percentage of tackle opportunities that were recorded as a missed tackle.
The best run stoppers in the AFC Playoffs are Nick Bolton, Gregory Rousseau, and Tremaine Edmonds. Nick Bolton, the Chiefs leading tackler, actually leads the AFC in all three categories. He records a tackle once in every 5 snaps, on average, and has missed just 4 tackles on the entire year. The Chiefs and Bills have the best tackling players in the AFC, but the Patriots have the worst. Outside of Ja’Whaun Bentley, all of their leading tacklers miss a lot of tackles and don’t stop the run often.
The Eagles are not usually known for having good linebackers, but both Alex Singleton and TJ Edwards have performed better than expected this season, both posting high tackle rates. The Packers also have good linebackers, led by De’Vondre Campbell, who simply does not miss tackles. The best run stopper in the NFC is DJ Jones of the 49ers, who is not pictured in the table above. While DJ Jones does not qualify for the pass rushing table because he does not get a lot of pressures and doesn’t qualifying for the tackling table because he doesn’t have a lot of tackles, he stuffs a run on over 12% of opponent rushing plays. In fact, 26 of DJ Jones’ 39 tackles on the season have come from run stops. The Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliot will have a hard time running up the middle against DJ Jones if he is in the game.
The most important job for defensive backs is to limit the production of wide receivers. Therefore, the most important stats for them are those that have to do with opponent passing. The three stats I used were completion percentage against, yards per target against, and interception rate. There is also a small weight given to tackling ability in the overall score because it is still important to be able to tackle after a receiver catches a ball.
In terms of pure coverage ability, JC Jackson leads the way for the AFC. Quarterbacks complete less than half of their pass attempts when he is targeted, and he also has 8 interceptions. Winning his matchup against Stefon Diggs in the Patriots’ wildcard game against the Bills will be critical for the Patriots’ chances of winning. However, the Patriots are also facing a Bills team that is strong in the secondary. All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White may be injured for the Bills, but Taron Johnson and Levi Wallace have kept the Bills secondary at a high level. Meanwhile, the Raiders have the weakest secondary. Brandon Facyson is a good defensive back, but both Johnathan Abram (who is injured) and Nate Hobbs have struggled when targeted, allowing about an 80% completion percentage each. Casey Heyward, who is not pictured in the table above, has about a 60% completion percentage against (better than Abram and Hobbs) but allows 7.6 yards per target (worse than Abram and Hobbs). The Raiders’ secondary will be tasked with covering the Bengals’ talented receiving corps, including Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins on the outside with Tyler Boyd in the slot. If the Raiders’ defensive backs don’t perform better than their season averages, they are in big trouble against the Bengals pass offense.
The player with the most interceptions on the year is Trevon Diggs, who has picked off opposing quarterbacks 11 times. Diggs is obviously a very good cornerback, allowing just a 52% completion rate and picking off over 10% of targets against him. However, when he allows completions, they are most often big plays. Trevon Diggs has an average yards per target of 8.8 despite his low completion percentage allowed, meaning that passes completed against him go for an average of 16.8 yards. Diggs also misses a lot of tackles, which certainly does not help him if a receiver catches a pass. Nonetheless, the impact of his interceptions outweighs the big plays he allows, making him an All-Pro caliber cornerback. As for the other NFC teams, the Packers found a gem in Rasul Douglas, and their secondary will only improve with the likely return of former Pro-Bowler Jaire Alexander. Two teams that have a relatively weak secondary are the Eagles and 49ers. Both have one good qualifying player for coverage (Darius Slay for the Eagles, Emmanuel Moseley for the 49ers) but their other defensive backs are a weak link. The Buccaneers and Cowboys, their respective opponents, will have the opportunity to feast by targeting the weak secondaries.
While the players have the most impact on the outcome of a game, the importance of coaching decisions and play calling cannot be understated. Analyzing the play calling tendencies of teams can give information about their play style and aggressiveness. In the tables below, I show each team’s QB scramble rate (% of dropbacks that QB scrambled), Pass Rate Over Expected (higher value means team passes more than average team given same situation), Pass location splits, rush location splits, and 4th down attempt rate over expected. The full formula and explanation for 4th down attempt rate over expected can be seen here. In short, this stat measures how much more often a team attempts a play on 4th down more than the average team given the same situation.
Using pass rate over expected (PROE), we can see that the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Bills are the most pass heavy teams while the Titans, Eagles, 49ers, and Patriots run the ball more. This makes sense as the teams that tend to run more often usually have less dependable and less experienced quarterbacks. Looking at the pass depth splits, it is apparent that the Steelers and Packers utilize short passes while the 49ers, Titans, Bills, and Patriots target intermediate routes. The Eagles and Raiders take the most deep shots, but the Titans and 49ers like to stay safe. Additionally, the Titans and 49ers often throw towards the middle of the field while the Eagles target the sidelines. The most aggressive teams on 4th downs are the Bills and Cardinals. The Cardinals even went for a 4th down inside of their own 25 yard line last week! However, you are unlikely to see Bill Belichick (NE) or Bruce Arians (TB) run a play on a 4th down instead of kicking a field goal or punting.
Advanced stats can help us determine which players are helping their teams and which players are holding them back. Obviously, the rankings created by the advanced stats are not super accurate, but they can be helpful for seeing the efficiency of lesser known players without any bias. Even though Aaron Donald ranks 11th in the pass rushing category for the NFC, he still has the most impact of any defensive player, disrupting offenses despite being double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed. The problem is that the stats I used sometimes need more context, like accounting for double teams or the responsibility of a player on a certain play. Basically, I am saying that the rankings are by no means perfect and just a guide to which players are the most productive.
Despite the imperfections of advanced stats, we can determine some key matchups, strengths, and weaknesses using them. In the AFC Playoffs, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow are a tier above the rest of the quarterbacks, and Aaron Rodgers and Kyler Murray lead the NFC. The Titans would benefit a lot from Derrick Henry’s return as he averages almost 0.10 EPA/Rush more than D’Onta Foreman. The Bengals have an explosive wide receiving corps, although leading receiver Ja’Marr Chase is prone to drops. The Steelers may be the weakest team in many categories, but they do have one of the best defensive lines, led by TJ Watt. The Bills-Patriots wildcard game will be difficult for the quarterbacks, as they have two of the best secondaries. However, the Raiders’ weak coverage may be an issue against the Bengals. And when it comes to a key fourth down, Sean McDermott (Bills HC) and Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals HC) are more likely to go for it whereas Bill Belichick and Bruce Arians will opt to kick.