Making the Case for the NFL Wild-Card Underdogs

Most wild-card rounds, we can expect at least one No. 5 or No. 6 seed to break through. This year what will it take for each underdog team to pull off the victory in the first round of the NFL playoffs?

Last season we entered the divisional round of the playoffs with a No. 5 seed (L.A. Chargers) and two No. 6 seeds (Philadelphia and Indianapolis) making a push for the conference championship game. The year before that, we had one six (Atlanta) and a five (Tennessee).

There are some seasons where a scratch field tears its way through the playoffs, like in 2016 when the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in each division survived the wild-card round respectively, but most of the time we can expect at least one upset, especially this year when the talent seems to be more evenly distributed throughout the field.

Here’s the case for such an upset in each of the four games this weekend:

Josh Allen

The case for Buffalo over Houston (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)

• I liked the comparison that a few smart folks have made this week between the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars, ’18 Chicago Bears and ’19 Buffalo Bills. Each had an incredible, world-beating defense backed by just enough of an offense to help them navigate through a season and into the playoffs with a little bit of steam. We’ve seen these teams succeed to a varying degree depending on what kind of production they’ll get from the offense when it matters the most. Regardless, their ability to limit offensive efficiency (Buffalo is fourth in yards per play allowed) shouldn’t be overlooked.

• So, about that Bills offense: No. 22 in DVOA. Josh Allen is -15 in defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement; that essentially makes him the Andy Dalton of this year’s playoff field, but with a mobility factor that makes the offense more diverse. Pretty much any advanced statistic available on Allen will tell you that the basic, box score statistics are dangerous and misleading when it comes to Allen. That said, I think they have one bright spot in their corner: Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Daboll, who is interviewing for some head coaching jobs, has done a lot to milk the efficiency out of this offense by stripping the system down to what its functional parts do well. The Bills rank sixth in big plays, which, to me, shows a situational awareness of his offense and his quarterback. In the postseason, “big” plays can represent knockout blows or force coaches to alter the way they game plan on the fly.

• Another check mark in Buffalo’s corner: Tre’Davious White did not allow a touchdown in direct coverage this season, which is an interesting note from Pro Football Focus. White told reporters this week that Buffalo will probably remain in their typical coverage, which means that he’ll only draw DeAndre Hopkins on one side of the field. In this sense, the advantage could tip in Buffalo’s favor if they manage to turn this game into Bill O’Brien sacrificing certain looks to scheme his best receiver open vs. Sean McDermott having to sacrifice his defense to roll coverage to Hopkins. As an aside, the more slivers of time Buffalo forces Deshaun Watson to spend in the backfield, the more opportunities it will create for a defensive line that is one of the most consistent at rushing the passer in football

• To expand on the Hopkins point a bit: Throwing off the wide receiver in the least (again, difficult to do) is significant. He accounts for more than a quarter of the Texans’ total air yards. Here’s where I think White can make it interesting: White plays on the left side of the defense and, according to Hopkins’ alignment statistics from 2019, he is either in the slot to the left or the left outermost receiver 60.4% of the time. If, on 60.4% of Hopkins’ snaps, White can challenge him, that significantly changes the parameters for Watson. Look at PFF’s tight window throw stats from 2018—the BEST tight-window passer in the NFL was Patrick Mahomes, and he was completing them at about a 50% clip. That’s a completion rate I would take as a defensive-minded coach anytime.

The case for Tennessee over New England (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS)

• I do think there is something to the way former Patriot players and assistants play against New England. Back in 2016 when Vrabel was on the Texans’ staff with then-defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, they crafted a game plan that knocked New England off its tracks early by using their best pass rushers and shoving them into interior gaps where the Patriots were weakest. Had it not been for the Texans' quarterback situation, we may have been talking about one of the bigger upsets in league history. The Titans have enough roving pass-rush talent to find and exploit a similar weakness.

• The emergence of Derrick Henry over the latter half of the season has turned Tennessee into a powerhouse. Henry’s success in recent weeks (896 yards, 10 touchdowns, 6.45 yards per attempt over his last six games) has changed the way the Titans can play offense and scheme open budding star receiver A.J. Brown (against good defenses, too). From a physics standpoint, he is also, generally speaking, not someone you would like to tackle in January outdoors and while this is a dated take, there are moments when even the most high-minded football plans devolve into big person running over little person.

• With Henry’s emergence comes the increased success (and hopefully frequency) of play action. And, of the four teams that scored the most against the Patriots’ vaunted defense this year (Ravens, Texans, Chiefs, Dolphins), three of them were in the league’s top 15 in play action frequency, according to Pro Football Reference's play finder. Lamar Jackson’s Ravens team has essentially redefined play action and we saw how many fits that gave New England’s defense.

On the flip side, no team runs more play action in the NFL than the Los Angeles Rams, and New England managed to figure them out when it counted. This Patriots defense was considered generationally great almost all season for a reason.

• Here’s something else I like about the Titans and, specifically, Ryan Tannehill. There are very few quarterbacks who have tried to throw more passes this season where another defender is within a yard of the intended receiver. Next Gen Stats calls this Aggression % and, when you’re facing a defense like New England that features the best cornerback in football, it becomes significant. Ryan Fitzpatrick, leader of the woeful Miami Dolphins, is another quarterback with an extremely high Aggression % and is historically a good to very good tight window thrower. Tannehill is redefining himself as such in 2019 and is already accustomed to taking these chances.

Dalvin Cook

The case for Minnesota over New Orleans (Sunday, 1:06 p.m. ET, FOX)

• The Vikings are great at last-second plays which tend to catch Saints players woefully out of position, giving them the edge in this one... just kidding. Minnesota rested Dalvin Cook specifically for this moment knowing that their seeding wouldn’t change much down the stretch if they lost to the Packers in Week 16. Cook says he’s healthy and is likely the only path Minnesota has to a victory against New Orleans. Kirk Cousins is the league’s ultimate play action champion, which is why keeping the game close legitimizes those run threats and aids in the fluidity of the Vikings’ scheme.

• I think that the ultimate case for Minnesota lies in the fact that Saints games can tend to break down in the final moments if the score is close. We’ve seen time and time again games that turn into laser shows over the final five minutes and, if that is the case, Kirk Cousins is not a bad player to have on your side. His snap to throw times are slow for moments when a defense knows he’s passing (but also that slow because of the built in time an frequency of play action), but, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, only Gardner Minshew was a better deep ball passer this year. So, Cousins is using the time that he’s created with play action to make more effective decisions downfield. If Adam Thielen is legitimately healthy and can wear down a No. 1 corner, this one is up for grabs.

The case for Philadelphia over Seattle (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC)

• Here is my Dave Gettleman-esque, science-free, analytics-free, mindless sports-talk radio case for the Eagles on Sunday: I oddly believe there is something to the fact that Carson Wentz has been credited with carrying this injured team through a season-ending slog and into the playoffs (even if he hasn’t been as wildly efficient as the baseline numbers would have us believe). This is a player who has been buried under the thumb of Nick Foles for the last two seasons and struggled in the immediate wake of his departure. Now that he’s making some vintage Wentz-ian plays with backup players, it appears he has reached a level of confidence similar to that of his peak in 2017 pre-torn ACL.

• Let’s take that a step further since I’m already exposing my strange ideas: I’ve talked to coaches who believe the best quarterbacks are the ones who, historically, have had to learn accuracy first before arm strength and build themselves traditionally. Wentz came into his own during a season when the Eagles were running an offense that was extremely difficult for the rest of the league to stop (largely in part to their willingness to borrow collegiate concepts from North Dakota at a time when the rest of the NFL still scoffed at the idea). Perhaps his perception of what an open receiver really looks like was modified to some degree and has reset over the last two years, built from the ground up. Maybe Wentz is retooling himself a bit at a critical time despite his lack of surrounding talent (something that will be aided by the fact that Seattle is middle-of-the-road when it comes to pass rush win rate?)

• I also don’t think that Philadelphia’s excellent run defense and Seattle’s issues at running back will be inconsequential, though who would have thought that the name to watch on Sunday would be Travis Homer, the sixth-round pick out of Miami. Homer had a 3.3 efficiency mark during his moderately significant workload against the excellent 49ers defense on Sunday which, for comparison, puts him in the realm of Mark Ingram, Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey specifically when it comes to his ability to not waste yardage and get upfield. If the Eagles can manage Homer and Marshawn Lynch, they can keep the game within reach.

• A ridiculous note I saw from the NFL Research Twitter account that isn’t necessarily relevant to this preview but is too good not to share: Between the Eagles’ and Seahawks’ Week 17 games last week, a total of 17 Week 1 starters were missing. If the injury report carries over to the playoff game, it would be the largest combined number of Week One starters absent in modern NFL history. In short: Bring your roster cards on Sunday, kids. There may be a few names you don’t recognize.

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