Week 17 didn’t feature many games with opponents both needing to play for something, but that didn’t stop from some exciting matchups throughout the day. We’ve hit the end of the 2020 regular season, so let’s dive in.
1. The Bills might be the most fun team in the playoffs
They might not be the best team and they won’t be the Super Bowl favorite but what the Buffalo Bills are doing right now is objectively fun to watch (maybe objectively outside of Miami). While the Bills had little to play for in Week 17, they hung 56 points on a Miami Dolphins team that ranked 11th in defensive DVOA heading into the game and needed to win in order to guarantee a playoff spot.
In the Sean McDermott-Brandon Beane era, the Bills quickly put together a talented defense and then made major moves to build around a toolsy quarterback. That’s led to one of the most dynamic wide receiver groups in the league and a breakout year for Josh Allen. Allen finished the season as a top-5 quarterback with his place in that top-5 up to you. He finished fifth in passing yards, fourth in EPA per play according to nflfastR, and second in completion percentage over expectation per NFL Next Gen Stats.
We’re now a full season into the Allen development and it shouldn’t go overlooked how impressive it was. The Bills were able to rein in some of Allen’s deep attempts into more open, higher percentage intermediate throws and the mix of a better offense with more control from Allen turned him into one of the best passers in the league.
Josh Allen, 2018-2020
|Year||Avg. Depth Target||Tight Window %||Exp. Comp%||Comp%||CPOE|
Allen still does have some recklessness in him — this game against the Dolphins started with Allen throwing a baited interception to Byron Jones on the left sideline.
But the difference this season isn’t just how those throws have been less frequent, it’s also how well Allen has been able to bounce back with big plays to counteract them. Despite the pick, Allen finished the game 18-of-25 for 9.0 yards per attempt with three touchdowns. He averaged 0.43 EPA per dropback with a 63% success rate and 88 QBR.
Allen has been more in control of the offense both through his pre- and post-snap reads. His second touchdown pass was a veteran play. On a third-and-4 from the Miami 14-yard line, Allen saw the Dolphins jump early and after the snap tried to tell Stefon Diggs twice to run to the end zone. When Diggs didn’t, Allen stayed in the pocket, knowing he had a free play and a first down at worst with the penalty, and waited for something else to come open. Eventually, Isaiah McKenzie crossed his route into the end zone, left Nik Needam behind, and Allen hit him for an open score.
McKenzie had a huge game with two receiving touchdowns, a team-high nine targets, and a punt return touchdown. Gabriel Davis led the team with 107 yards (on just two receptions), and Diggs worked his way to seven receptions for 76 yards, which cemented his place as the season’s receiving yards leader at 1,535.
Perhaps the biggest development was the return of John Brown. Brown has missed time on injured reserve and the COVID-reserve list but came back for four catches, 72 yards, and a touchdown. A healthy Brown adds another element to the Buffalo passing game and two catches in a three-play stretch at the end of the first half showed the upside of Brown, Allen, and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
On a first-and-10 from the Buffalo 41-yard line, the Bills attacked the Dolphins’ zone coverage with a trips bunch to the left. McKenzie held the outside corner with a route to the flat from the inside alignment. The vertical stems from Brown and Diggs held both the linebacker and deep safety to the left after a corner blitz from the trips side. Brown was able to cut off his route well before reaching the safety and Allen maneuvered in the pocket to hit an open 27-yard gain.
After an incompletion, the Bills faced a second-and-10 from the Miami 32-yard line. The Dolphins came out in a Cover-0 look. Allen motioned McKenzie in from the slot to help block. On the outside, Brown gave just enough of a fake inside to get Byron Jones to bite, which allowed for the receiver to easily get behind the corner for a touchdown.
As Nate Tice noted on Twitter, this was Buffalo getting aggressive by using Miami’s aggressiveness against them. The Dolphins so often get home on those 0-blitzes, the corners expect the ball to come out early. A head fake was all that was needed to create the deep separation — it’s great prep and execution from Allen, Brown, and Daboll.
Buffalo also now has a defense that is playing closer to its 2019 level than the unit had earlier in the season. Per Football Outsiders, the Bills ranked 15th in pass defense DVOA through Week 8 and ninth from Weeks 9-16. The defense consistently made Tua Tagovailoa uncomfortable in the pocket and forced three interceptions, more than he had thrown in his previous nine games.
As the No. 2 seed, the Bills don’t get a bye but they’re still favored significantly to make the AFC title game. They’re at 61% per Football Outsiders and 55% per FiveThirtyEight. Both sites have Buffalo with the fourth-highest odds to win the Super Bowl — 17.6% and 16%, respectively.
2. *CLICHE ALERT* Are the Ravens peaking at the right time?
If the Bills aren’t the most fun team in the playoffs, it might be the Baltimore Ravens, who have hit their stride in the last month of the regular season after a slow and disappointing start. With a 38-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens reached 30 points scored in four of their past five games after hitting that mark four times in their first nine games.
The quality of opponent can certainly be a big driver in the turnaround, but the Ravens have been blowing out their bad opponents, which is typically the sign of a good team. The best teams in the league generally stand out by their ability to dominate worse opponents rather than the ability to keep games against similar or better teams close. Despite struggles throughout the year, the Ravens ended the season with the best point differential (+165) in the league.
Baltimore’s turnaround has come with a significant improvement through the air. The Ravens were able to remain efficient on the ground, but they ranked 22nd in passing DVOA through Week 8. Since Week 9, they have ranked sixth. That’s really turned over the past five weeks. Lamar Jackson has the second-highest EPA per play among quarterbacks with at least 100 plays since Week 14, per nflfastR data.
Jackson’s biggest change has been an improvement on the deep ball. Through Week 8, Jackson had a 52.2% on-target rate and 29.2% completion percentage on passes that traveled 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, per Sports Info Solutions. The difference between the accuracy and completions (Jackson’s on-target rate ranked 18th among 32 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts and his completion percentage ranked 26th) hinted that better production would come but Jackson has stepped up even more with a 61.1% on-target rate (seventh among 37 quarterbacks) and 44.4% completion percentage (eighth) from Weeks 9-16.
Against Cincinnati, Jackson went 1-3 on deep balls with a perfect throw to Marquise Brown that was dropped but was followed up with a 43-yard touchdown to Miles Boykin on the same drive in the first quarter.
While the Ravens are still using a running back by committee approach, they have figured out to give 2020 second-round pick J.K. Dobbins the lead in carries. Dobbins has the best potential for an explosive run, which is what helped propel the Ravens last season, and that finally paid off in this game. Dobbins had his best game as a pro — 13 carries for 160 yards and two touchdowns, good for 0.77 EPA per attempt. His highlight run was a 72-yard touchdown through traffic on the first play after Jackson was removed from the game.
If there is a weakness for the Ravens, it might be the defense, which has taken the opposite trend of the offense from the first half of the season to the last. Baltimore ranked seventh against the pass by DVOA and second against the run through Week 8 but from Weeks 9-16, those dropped to 26th and 21st.
Luckily for the Ravens, that defensive slip was covered up by the offensive improvement and injuries on that side of the ball have cleared up. Baltimore should be mostly going into the playoffs healthy and their star players have plenty of flash play ability, which could turn a playoff game in their favor.
3. Same Record, Different Packers
The Green Bay Packers needed a win over the Chicago Bears to clinch the top seed in the NFC and the first-round bye. Nowhere in the 35-16 win was that in question. Green Bay’s win probably fell below 50% just once, per nflfastR, when Chicago scored an opening drive touchdown that lasted 14 plays. The Packers responded with a 12-play touchdown drive and that eliminated any hope for the Bears in the game.
Aaron Rodgers capped what could be an MVP season with 10.0 yards per attempt, four touchdowns, 0.70 EPA per dropback, and a QBR of 93.2. Rodgers didn’t even have to be that great. Throws were open throughout the game and he ended with the second-highest expected completion percentage of the week (73.4%) per Next Gen Stats. But Rodgers was great and he completed 79.4% of his passes for a +5.7% completion percentage over expectation, which was the fourth-highest of the week.
Rodgers’s rebound is the sole driver in the difference between the 13-3 Packers of 2019 and 2020. Last season was aided by a lot of luck that bumped up a team that finished with the point differential closer to a nine-win team, but this year’s Packers have a legitimate trump card in an offense that can score at any time. The Packers lead the league in points per drive as the only team to average over a field goal per drive in 2020.
Explosive plays in the passing game have been a huge boost in 2020 compared to 2019. Last season, the Packers were just 18th in explosive pass play rate and that jumped up to fourth in 2020. Rodgers’s deep accuracy also took a major step forward compared to recent seasons. He went 1-of-2 deep with a 72-yard touchdown and a drop from Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Aaron Rodgers Deep Attempts, 2018-2020
Rodgers’s improvement here this season stemmed from cutting down on the number of deep attempts and not forcing throws if something better was open. Rodgers’s increased comfort level in Year 2 of the Matt LaFleur offense was apparent and it opened up better and smarter throws at every level of the field.
Securing the bye in the NFC was huge for Green Bay, one place where a home field advantage in January could still exist. FiveThirtyEight has the Packers with a 42% chance to make the Super Bowl and a 21% chance to win, both figures behind the Chiefs. Football Outsiders also has the Packers as the second-most likely team to reach the Super Bowl (44.6%) but they are currently FO’s Super Bowl favorite with a 24.3% chance to win.
Somehow after this game, the Bears still made the playoffs too.
4. The Browns Are Finally Playoff Bound
Few things with the Cleveland Browns can never be easy. So when all it took was a win over the backups of the Pittsburgh Steelers to lock down an 11-win season and the first playoff berth for the team since 2002, of course it came down to a field two-point conversion for a 24-22 Browns victory.
Cleveland is another team that has started to click late in the season, a wide receiver-less loss to the Jets last week notwithstanding. The key for the Browns will be the health of the roster. After the contact tracing wiped out the wide receiver group last week, another spread knocked out a few key players in this game, including cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson.
The biggest positive was the return of right guard Wyatt Teller, who hadn’t played since Week 14. He made an immediate impact by shooting out to the second level and clearing a path for Nick Chubb’s 47-yard touchdown run on Cleveland’s first drive of the game.
Cleveland was able to take advantage of Pittsburgh resting some of its starters, especially on defense. Ona 42-yard pass to Rashard Higgins in the second quarter that led to a field goal, second-year cornerback Justin Layne (31), who had previously played just 11% of the Pittsburgh defensive snaps, got completely lost in coverage despite there only being two receivers in routes on the play.
There were, of course, some weaknesses that stood out for the Browns, mostly on the defensive side of the ball — their biggest area of concern overall. Mason Rudolph averaged 8.1 yards per attempt against the Cleveland defense and showed what the Steelers receiving corps could potentially do with a quarterback more willing to go down the field. Rudolph was 4-of-9 for 157 yards and a touchdown on passes that traveled 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, per Next Gen Stats. The Browns, despite being the team that plays the most Quarters coverage, has been one of the worst teams at defending the deep pass, 28th per DVOA.
Defending the deep ball might be a bit different when these two teams meet again in the Wild Card Round next week with Ben Roethlisberger back at quarterback. Cleveland’s worst game of the season came when these teams met earlier in the season, a 38-7 Steelers win in Week 6.
Regardless of how the playoffs go, the fact the Browns are here is an incredible feat. Kevin Stefanski led the Browns to 11 wins in his first season, which as Kevin Clark of The Ringer notes is more than seven Browns head coaches had during their entire tenures.
5. Sorting Through The Secondary NFC Contenders
Even as the Packers have put together an impressive season, no NFC team has really stood out as significantly better than the rest. Green Bay gets the massive advantage of the bye, which now leaves the second tier of NFC contenders in a cluster that will need some breaks to make it through to the Super Bowl. Each team possibly lucked out with the draw in the Wild Card round.
As the No. 3 seed, the New Orleans Saints get to host the Bears. New Orleans ran through the Carolina Panthers in a 33-7 win despite not having running backs available for the game. Ty Montgomery took the lead role and rushed for 105 yards and 0.06 EPA per attempt. With a healthy pass rush and corners who can create takeaways — two picks and eight other passes defensed against the Panthers — the Saints can force opposing offenses into mistakes and that’s always nice when Mitchell Trubisky will be on the other side.
The Buccaneers continued their offensive explosion against the Atlanta Falcons in a 44-27 win. Tom Brady threw for 9.7 yards per attempt with four touchdowns and one interception to average 0.54 EPA per dropback. Brady has hit the deep ball as of late and the Buccaneers are spreading the ball around. Chris Godwin had his biggest day of the season for 133 yards on five catches with two touchdowns. Antonio Brown led the team in receiving yards at 138 on a team-high 14 targets. Those contributions will be needed with Mike Evans’s status in question after he left the game with a leg injury.
Tampa Bay has to travel to Washington but they’ll bring a defense that can put pressure on Alex Smith, which kills almost all of that team’s offense. The Buccaneers might be the most fascinating team in the playoffs as a team that made the Packers look their worst but also lost to the Bears and made the Giants look competitive for an entire game.
Something might be wrong in Seattle. Russell Wilson has averaged over 7.5 yards per attempt once in his past eight games and that was 7.6 against the Jets. Wilson was largely ineffective and averaged 5.0 yards per attempt in a 26-23 win over the depleted San Francisco 49ers. Wilson averaged just 0.05 EPA per dropback in the game with a 48% success rate. We’ve come a long way since Russ was cooking his way to an MVP favorite earlier in the season. It’s not just defenses playing two-high to stop the big play anymore, but that has been part of it. Wilson was 0-for-5 on passes of 20 or more air yards against the 49ers.
Now the Seahawks will host the Rams, who have shown the ability to hold them down defensively but Seattle could get a break with another game of John Wolford at quarterback.
6. Rams-Cardinals Could Have Been More Fun
This was a game that was more fun in theory than what happened in practice. In reality, the 18-7 Los Angeles Rams win over the Arizona Cardinals was a disappointing matchup between two teams that had shown promise throughout the season.
Arizona’s side of this was especially disappointing. Kyler Murray injured himself early in the game and only returned late when the Cardinals were down in the fourth quarter. Murray threw just 11 passes and ran twice. The Cardinals were stuck with Chris Streveler at quarterback, who averaged -0.72 EPA per dropback with a 29% success rate.
Kliff Kingsbury continued with some odd choices that have hamstrung the Cardinals throughout the season. DeAndre Hopkins again stayed isolated to the left side of the field, which made shadow coverage easy for the Rams and Jalen Ramsey. Per Next Gen Stats, Ramsey was in coverage against Hopkins for 75% of his routes and allowed just two receptions for 27 yards on seven targets.
Late in the game with Murray back in, the Cardinals faced a third-and-18 from the Rams’ 48-yard line, down 18-7 with just over five minutes to go. Kingsbury called for a sprint option, which saw Murray run into a wall and pitch back to Chase Edmonds for a loss of three yards. That brought on a fourth-and-21 punt and the Cardinals didn’t get the ball back until there were only 19 seconds left on the clock.
Los Angeles had an excellent defensive effort both in coverage and along the lines. Aaron Donald had two unreal tackles for loss early and late in the game.
Of course, the focus was on Wolford at quarterback. The game started with a bad interception on Wolford’s first throw, but eventually the quarterback settled down and limited mistakes for the rest of the game. His 0.05 EPA per dropback was fine. Mostly, he was able to hit the throws that needed to be made. He had a nice 27-yard gain to Robert Woods on a slot wheel as the inside man in trips and had two other open deep completions to Tyler Higbee and Cam Akers.
It wasn’t a McVay-led training wheels game, either. Wolford had the fifth-lowest expected completion percentage of the week (57.1%) and a figure significantly lower than Jared Goff’s season total of 66.6%.
Wolford’s biggest impact came on the plays he was able to make with his feet. The fact he can scoot led all scouting reports for the quarterback and he added 56 yards on the ground, worth 0.80 EPA per attempt. That’s an added element the Rams don’t have in their offense with Goff at quarterback. The mobility also helped within the structure of the offense with bootlegs that the Rams do favor with Goff.
The Rams don’t yet know what they’ll be able to do at quarterback for the Wild Card Round and it might be less clear which option would be better for the team.
7. Save Deshaun Watson
This has focused a lot on playoff teams, but a callout for what Deshaun Watson accomplished this season is needed. Watson led the NFL in passing yards, basically out of necessity. But it wasn’t just empty yards. Watson also finished first in completion percentage over expectation, per Next Gen Stats, and seventh in EPA per play, according to nflfastR.
The Texans went 4-12.
This is a plea to give Watson anyone who has a clue about what to do offensively in the modern NFL.
8. Chart of the day
Derrick Henry ran for 250 yards against the Texans and eclipsed 2,000 rushing yards for the season. Henry has benefitted from some good blocking this season, but he still ranks fifth in rushing yards over expectation per carry and fourth in the percentage of carries that produce more rushing yards than expected.
In Week 17, the Texans tried to stop Henry by keeping defenders back and not loading the box, just 8.82% of his carries came against a stacked box, but that didn’t work. Henry had 98 rushing yards over expectation and 50% of carries went for more yards than expected.
9. Play of the day
Even with Henry’s big day on the ground, the Titans needed a comeback to overtake the Texans. The key was a 52-yard shot on the first play after the Texans took the lead with just 18 seconds. The play was a perfect Quarters beater with the vertical stem from Corey Davis holding the safety, which opened the inside throwing lane to A.J. Brown.
The Titans kicked a game-winning 37-yard field goal two plays later to secure the AFC South.
10. Super Bowl Pick
I reserve the right to change my mind on this immediately after this posts, but for now, let’s go with Bills over Packers in the Super Bowl.