The Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs gave us a little bit of everything. A dominant No. 1 seed performance, a shocking upset of the other No. 1 seed, a historic comeback, and a suspenseful one-score game by two teams who exclusively played suspenseful one-score games during the regular season.

No matter how different the results of these games were, they all had one thing in common — one figure that was able to completely take over the game. These people weren’t the only reasons their teams were victorious over the weekend, but they were arguably the lead force in creating the result. Each played a big part and helped guide their team to victory in a different way.

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San Francisco 49ers – Kyle Shanahan

There was a focus on the Robert Saleh vs Kevin Stefanski matchup, more so for reasons outside of this game, but Kyle Shanahan was the coach who really gave his team the edge. Shanahan has quickly become one of the NFL’s best play designers and play callers and that showed in San Francisco’s 27-10 win over Minnesota.

Shanahan plays can typically target a player or position group of the opponent that appears to be a weak link. There were a number of places the 49ers could have gone given all of the injuries on the Minnesota defense. San Francisco didn’t really have the wide receivers to consistently take advantage of a depleted secondary, so early in the game, the 49ers tried to exploit the Vikings’ second level, specifically Anthony Barr in coverage.

Barr didn’t even have that bad a day — this wasn’t 2018 against the Rams part two  — but a few early plays were still able to get Barr and the Vikings into uncomfortable spots in coverage. The first came on San Francisco’s first drive. 

The 49ers had a 2nd and 10 at midfield. Fullback Kyle Jusczyzk started wide to the right and motioned across the formation pre-snap. With no movement from the defense, the 49ers knew they had zone coverage. The run action at the snap carried almost all of the Vikings defense and a deep cross from Emmanuel Sanders was able to sneak in behind a turned around Barr for a gain of 22 yards. San Francisco would go on to score a touchdown to end the drive.

 

 

San Francisco didn’t have an overly successful day on third downs, just 5-of-12 with minus-0.15 Expected Points Added per play and a 38% success rate per nflscrapR data via the Baldwin Boxscore. Still there a few big conversions on San Francisco’s scoring drives.

On a 3rd and 12, the Niners ran another crossing route to target the Minnesota linebackers. San Francisco came out in a 2×2 look with Sanders out wide to the left with George Kittle in-line and Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne stacked to the right. At the snap, Bourne ran a go to clear the coverage and Tevin Coleman ran out to the right flat to pull slot defender Andrew Sendejo. Samuel ran the crosser behind Eric Kendricks and Barr, who tried to jump a throw that never came when Jimmy Garoppolo adjusted in the pocket. That freed plenty of space for Samuel on a gain of 14. The 49ers went on to score a touchdown.

 

 

Later on a field goal drive to start the second half, the 49ers faced a 3rd and 2. San Francisco again used pre-snap motion to read the defense as Bourne moved from the right to a trips bunch on the left and another indicator of zone coverage with no defender following. The three-man route combination perfectly opened up an easy throw for a first down. San Francisco ran mesh (dueling shallow crossers) with the point of the bunch and Kittle from the opposite side. The inside slot receiver took his route up the middle of the field to occupy the single-high safety. That left Bourne one-on-one on the outside with Xavier Rhodes, who was playing with outside leverage in zone but because the safety was occupied, had no help to the inside. Bourne ran a wide-open post for a gain of 21 yards.

 

 

San Francisco did a lot of its damage on the ground with Coleman (64% success rate) and Raheem Mostert (50% success rate). Like the passing game, much of that was accomplished with great play design. In the third quarter, the 49ers faced a 3rd and 2 from the Minnesota 13. San Fransisco came out in a split-back set with Coleman and Jusczyzk. Kittle motioned across the formation and the entirety of the 49ers offense put on a blocking clinic. Kittle took on Everson Griffen on his own, the left tackle and left guard double-teamed the defensive tackle, Jusczyzk took Barr on the outside, and the right guard pulled inside to take on Kendricks. All this opened a hole for Coleman with a gain of 11. He would score from two yards out on the next play to give the 49ers a 24-10 lead.

 

 

This wasn’t the greatest game for the 49ers offense but the plays were there when needed and that’s thanks to a coach who was able to put his team in the best position.

Tennessee Titans – Derrick Henry

OK, so let’s talk about Derrick Henry. Henry was again a dominant force in a Tennessee Titans playoff win — 28-12 over the Baltimore Ravens. He rushed for 195 yards on 30 carries after a 34-182 day against the New England Patriots last week. He even threw for a touchdown this week. The high rushing yardage has brought on a number of arguments for running in the playoffs and why that’s still a winning strategy and why analytics died with the Ravens and why no teams should ever pass again or something like that. Let’s dive into some of these arguments.

Defense against Henry

First, this Henry performance was more impressive than the one against New England. In the Wild Card game, the Patriots opened up not caring much about the Tennessee running game. They were way more concerned with not giving up big gains off play-action. That led to light boxes the Titans were more than happy to run against. (We went over this last week.)

The Ravens, on the other hand, wanted to stop Henry. They had eight men or more in the box on 63.3% on his runs per Next Gen Stats. Selling out to stop the run with stacked boxes usually works for a low success rate but can leave the defense open to long runs if a back is able to break through a few tackles and that’s exactly what happened. Henry only had a 38% success rate on his carries and a 20% first down rate, but was able to break through enough tackles on the good runs that he was able to break some long gains.

OpponentAttemptsYardsEPAEPA per playSuccess RateFirst Down RateStacked Box Rate
NE341822.60.0746%31%26.5%
BAL301903.30.1137%20%63.3%

Running can win in the playoffs

Of course, it can. Anything can win in the playoffs given the right circumstances. Playoff football is a small sample of an already small sample size sport. In any one game, anything can happen. We also need to consider the circumstances that allowed Tennessee to stick to the run over the past two games.

Tennessee got out to an early lead against an offense that couldn’t do enough to come back to score more than 14 points against the Patriots. The Titans then jumped out to an even earlier lead against the Ravens and forced them out of their typical offense. Tennesse also got the benefit of three unlikely turnovers and two fourth-down stops. All of that matters, too. A good running team can sustain these types of drives in any game given the right opportunity. Through two games, the Titans have gotten game scripts as favorable as they could ask for. That’s so important to what they’ve done and it’s not something that can realistically be planned.

The Titans’ defensive game plan should get as much credit, if not more, than the running game. Because of that, Tennessee was able to hold off a Baltimore comeback. The strategy would not have looked the same against Kansas City’s comeback and the Titans will have to be prepared to hand with the Chiefs next week. A repeat of a 38% success rate isn’t going to do it.

Remember what got them here

Tennessee doesn’t get in the playoffs without the switch to Ryan Tannehill, who was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football since he took over in Week 7. Tannehill’s own run was a bit unsustainable itself, but the Titans aren’t anywhere near the playoffs unless they threw the ball just as well as any other team in the league over the second half of the season. Per Football Outsiders, the Titans were 18th in passing DVOA from Weeks 1-9 and jumped to third from Weeks 10-17. That passing success opened up the running game which went from 23rd to first in DVOA over those same time periods. 

Henry has been a big part of the Titans’ success but to place all the credit on him is a slap in the face to what Tennessee has previously accomplished to be in this spot. The rushing has been a key to the two playoff victories, but it would have been nearly impossible to make playoffs if these were the types of games the Titans had tried to play during the regular season. Tennessee wouldn’t even want to do it themselves. That’s the difference between trying to find what can successfully be sustained over a full season and what can win in an anything goes single game. You’re not exactly having the same conversation.

Kansas City Chiefs – Patrick Mahomes

Early in the Chiefs-Texans game, it looked like we were going to have an exact copy of the Ravens-Titans script. Then the Texans blew a 24-0 lead as the Chiefs went on a 51-7 run. Of course, behind that run was Patrick Mahomes and an immediate dropkick to the face of the previous night’s calls of “you have to run the ball to win.” 

The wild thing about this Mahomes game is it wasn’t necessarily a holy s@#! Mahomes performance. He was just consistently great throughout and that might have made it more impressive.

If you heard the Chiefs scored 51 points, you’d probably imagine somewhere between three to five deep Mahomes passes for touchdowns but there were none of those. During the game, Mahomes only had two passes that traveled over 20 yards and in the air and only of them was completed. That completion didn’t even come until early in the third quarter when the Chiefs had already come back to be up 28-24. 

Part of that is what made Mahomes’s performance in the comeback do deadly. He didn’t get off his game and try to force anything down the field to erase the deficit with one throw. Typically when trailing by 24, that’s when quarterbacks force anything in an attempt to make a comeback. This isn’t to say Mahomes’s day was void of incredible throws. They just weren’t the deep passes we’ve been accustomed to over the past two seasons. Instead, he smartly and safely picked apart the Houston secondary with short and intermediate throws that moved Kansas City down the field. 

Mahomes’s average depth of target was just 6.1 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and his average completion was at 5.7 yards, per Next Gen Stats. During the regular season, those figures were 8.6 and 6.2. 

The Chiefs worked their way down the field and went an incredible 7-of-7 scoring touchdowns inside the red zone. Mahomes was responsible for five of those scores, three to Travis Kelce. Kelce was the top target all over the field with 10 receptions for 134 yards on 12 targets. Thanks in part of the scoring upside, Kelce was worth over a full expected point per target — 1.20 EPA per play.

Mahomes was worth 0.71 EPA per drop back with a success rate of 60%. Those numbers felt out of reach early in the game after a number of drops from open Kansas City receivers. But again, there was little panic for the Chiefs offense and they stick to their game.

What also made Mahomes’s performance so impressive is the Chiefs used him as their running game. Mahomes had 53 rushing yards and was more than willing to take off when Houston’s man coverage left open holes, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Even once Kansas City had a comfortable lead, the Chiefs had Mahomes continue to throw. They didn’t want to take their foot off the gas like Houston did with a field goal attempt on a 4th and 1 from the Kansas City 13 that put them up 24-0.

Instead, the Chiefs kept throwing and knew Mahomes wouldn’t do anything to put the ball in danger. Kansas City continually moved the ball down the field and kept scoring. The Chiefs didn’t just have to run the ball to run out the clock. They knew they had the best player on the field and they kept the ball in his hands to secure the victory.

Green Bay Packers – Davante Adams

No one on the Seattle Seahawks could cover Davante Adams. It really wasn’t even close. Whenever the Green Bay Packers needed a big play, Adams was able to get himself open. He finished the game with eight catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns on 11 targets.

The combination of play design and route running made Adams nearly uncoverable Sunday night. Green Bay also didn’t really have any other options. Jimmy Graham came through with a few big catches against his former team, but there was little outside of that. Adams made up for 50% of Aaron Rodgers’s targeted throws (in Rodgers fashion, he had a few throwaways) and accounted for 67.9% of Green Bay’s air yards, per Next Gen Stats. Rodgers went 6-of-6 for 145 yards with two touchdowns on throws more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Adams’s ability to get open was a huge part of that.

On Adams’s first touchdown, which came from 20 yards out, he and Geronimo Allison faked a switch release off the line but instead of crossing, Adams broke back outside. The fake fooled both Seattle corners and Adams was wide open for the touchdown.

 

 

The second touchdown came off play-action and a double move with an instant change of direction that cornerback Tre Flowers could not match.

 

 

Then, with the game on the line, the Packers put Adams in the slot for a 3rd and 8. His release off the line gave Ugo Amadi no chance at recovering and Adams created a wide-open window for a Rodgers throw on the slot fade to ice the game.

 

Per Sports Info Solutions, Adams had only been targeted on one slot fade during the regular season and it fell incomplete. It wasn’t a successful play for the Packers at all during the regular season. They went 0-for-8 overall and only three throws were considered catchable.

In the game, Adams was worth over an expected point per target (1.02) and each of his eight receptions produced positive EPA.

This was the best the Packers passing offense had looked through a full game in some time. Generally, the Packers had looked good early in the game with scripted plays then tailed off as the game went on. But against the Seahawks, the Packers kept feeding their best receiver and he continually found ways to get open.