Published: Dec. 27, 2019 at 01:16 p.m.

Next Gen Stats: Key figures shaping NFC playoffs

Before we dive into Week 17 of the 2019 NFL season, let's take a look at some metrics that are shaping the NFC playoff picture.

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  • Drew Brees has thrown at least three TD passes in six of eight games since returning from injury, keeping the Saints' hopes for a playoff bye alive. Brees' favorite target is the NFL single-season record holder for receptions (with 145 and counting) in Michael Thomas, whose connection with Brees is on another level. Brees has connected on 83.8% of Thomas' targets this season, but was expected to complete just 67.6% of those passes, according to NGS' probability model, which accounts for difficulty of a pass based on the condition of the QB and receiver at the time of the pass. This +16.2% difference in catch rate and expected catch rate ranks first in the NFL among all QB-WR duos with at least 50 targets. This is nothing new for the pair that completed +16.1% of their passes last season (second behind Russell Wilson-Tyler Lockett, +19.7% in 2018). 6

    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Can the Brees-Thomas connection carry the Saints?

    Drew Brees has thrown at least three TD passes in six of eight games since returning from injury, keeping the Saints' hopes for a playoff bye alive. Brees' favorite target is the NFL single-season record holder for receptions (with 145 and counting) in Michael Thomas, whose connection with Brees is on another level. Brees has connected on 83.8% of Thomas' targets this season, but was expected to complete just 67.6% of those passes, according to NGS' probability model, which accounts for difficulty of a pass based on the condition of the QB and receiver at the time of the pass. This +16.2% difference in catch rate and expected catch rate ranks first in the NFL among all QB-WR duos with at least 50 targets. This is nothing new for the pair that completed +16.1% of their passes last season (second behind Russell Wilson-Tyler Lockett, +19.7% in 2018).

  • The 49ers and their stifling defense were the talk of the NFL early in the season, but the D has struggled to maintain its torrid pace in the second half, as several starters have been dealing with injuries. Through the first eight weeks, the 49ers had the second-highest pressure rate in the NFL (33.6%) but they ranked 29th in the category over Weeks 9-16, having pressured the opposing QB on just 20.6% of dropbacks over that span. Part of the decrease can be attributed to Dee Ford missing time, as the Niners defense has a 36.3% pressure rate with Ford on the field this season compared to a 21.9% pressure rate without him. Offenses have also combated the 49ers' early-season pass-rush success by getting the ball out more quickly (time to throw, Weeks 1-8: 2.74 seconds; Weeks 9-16: 2.66 seconds) and attempting shorter passes (air yards per attempt, Weeks 1-8: 8.1; Weeks 9-16: 5.8). 5

    John Hefti/Associated Press

    49ers defense in decline?

    The 49ers and their stifling defense were the talk of the NFL early in the season, but the D has struggled to maintain its torrid pace in the second half, as several starters have been dealing with injuries. Through the first eight weeks, the 49ers had the second-highest pressure rate in the NFL (33.6%) but they ranked 29th in the category over Weeks 9-16, having pressured the opposing QB on just 20.6% of dropbacks over that span. Part of the decrease can be attributed to Dee Ford missing time, as the Niners defense has a 36.3% pressure rate with Ford on the field this season compared to a 21.9% pressure rate without him. Offenses have also combated the 49ers' early-season pass-rush success by getting the ball out more quickly (time to throw, Weeks 1-8: 2.74 seconds; Weeks 9-16: 2.66 seconds) and attempting shorter passes (air yards per attempt, Weeks 1-8: 8.1; Weeks 9-16: 5.8).

  • The Vikings are counting on their ground-oriented, heavy-personnel offense translating well to the playoffs, when they hope to have workhorse Dalvin Cook back at full health. OC Kevin Stefanski's preference for fullbacks and tight ends is unique, as the Vikings lead the NFL in percentage of offensive plays with 2+ tight ends (58.6%) and 2+ running backs (35.4%) on the field. The Vikings have also aligned with two or fewer receivers at the highest rate in the NFL (more than 80% of snaps). The Vikings have remained efficient in these formations, averaging 5.5 yards per play with both 2+ RBs and 2+ TEs on the field, the seventh-most yards per play with 2+ RBs and eighth-most with 2+ TEs. This "old-school" approach might be a new wave of offense, as the top four teams in both 2+ RBs (MIN, SF, BAL, NO) and 2+ TEs (MIN, PHI, BAL, TEN) usage are all in the playoff race. 4

    Howard Simmons/Associated Press

    Vikings offense turning back the clock

    The Vikings are counting on their ground-oriented, heavy-personnel offense translating well to the playoffs, when they hope to have workhorse Dalvin Cook back at full health. OC Kevin Stefanski's preference for fullbacks and tight ends is unique, as the Vikings lead the NFL in percentage of offensive plays with 2+ tight ends (58.6%) and 2+ running backs (35.4%) on the field. The Vikings have also aligned with two or fewer receivers at the highest rate in the NFL (more than 80% of snaps). The Vikings have remained efficient in these formations, averaging 5.5 yards per play with both 2+ RBs and 2+ TEs on the field, the seventh-most yards per play with 2+ RBs and eighth-most with 2+ TEs. This "old-school" approach might be a new wave of offense, as the top four teams in both 2+ RBs (MIN, SF, BAL, NO) and 2+ TEs (MIN, PHI, BAL, TEN) usage are all in the playoff race.

  • The Packers currently have the highest pressure rate in the NFL this season (33.8%) and have been particularly dominant at rushing the passer during their current four-game win streak. Green Bay has pressured opposing QBs on 44.1% of dropbacks in Weeks 13-16 (highest in NFL) while accumulating 71 QB pressures (18 more than the next closest team). Za'Darius Smith and Kenny Clark are first and second in the NFL with 24 and 23 pressures in the last four weeks, respectively. With Smith's recent surge, he's surpassed Aaron Donald for most pressures this season and has tied Dee Ford's 2018 campaign for the second-most pressures in a single-season since 2016 with 69. Smith needs just four more pressures to surpass Donald's 2018 mark of 72 pressures (most in a season since 2016) and has the most games with four-plus pressures this season with 11. 3

    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Packers' potent pass rush

    The Packers currently have the highest pressure rate in the NFL this season (33.8%) and have been particularly dominant at rushing the passer during their current four-game win streak. Green Bay has pressured opposing QBs on 44.1% of dropbacks in Weeks 13-16 (highest in NFL) while accumulating 71 QB pressures (18 more than the next closest team). Za'Darius Smith and Kenny Clark are first and second in the NFL with 24 and 23 pressures in the last four weeks, respectively. With Smith's recent surge, he's surpassed Aaron Donald for most pressures this season and has tied Dee Ford's 2018 campaign for the second-most pressures in a single-season since 2016 with 69. Smith needs just four more pressures to surpass Donald's 2018 mark of 72 pressures (most in a season since 2016) and has the most games with four-plus pressures this season with 11.

  • It's pretty incredible to think that the Seahawks have spent 47.8% of their offensive snaps playing from behind and still have a chance to earn a first-round bye, but Russell Wilson has willed his team to a 10-1 record in games decided by eight points or fewer this season. Wilson has an aggressive style of play, leading the NFL in deep pass percentage (16.8%). His deep passing production is especially impressive given his volume and the difficulty of his deep passes. Wilson's deep targets average just 1.5 yards of target separation (lowest in the NFL), and as such, he's only been expected to complete 30% of his deep passes (second-lowest in NFL). However, Wilson's completed 42.5% of his deep passes, good for +12.5% above expectation, the best rate in the NFL. 2

    Lindsey Wasson/Associated Press

    Russell Wilson putting the team on his back

    It's pretty incredible to think that the Seahawks have spent 47.8% of their offensive snaps playing from behind and still have a chance to earn a first-round bye, but Russell Wilson has willed his team to a 10-1 record in games decided by eight points or fewer this season. Wilson has an aggressive style of play, leading the NFL in deep pass percentage (16.8%). His deep passing production is especially impressive given his volume and the difficulty of his deep passes. Wilson's deep targets average just 1.5 yards of target separation (lowest in the NFL), and as such, he's only been expected to complete 30% of his deep passes (second-lowest in NFL). However, Wilson's completed 42.5% of his deep passes, good for +12.5% above expectation, the best rate in the NFL.

  • Carson Wentz and the Eagles have adjusted to emphasizing a shorter passing game out of necessity due to a number of injuries. It has proven to be effective in the last three weeks (all Eagles wins). Wentz has attempted 10-plus passes behind the LOS in each of his last three games, after doing so in only six career games entering Week 14. He also has at least nine backfield targets in each of his last three games, with Miles Sanders (14 receptions from backfield in Weeks 14-16, most in NFL) and Boston Scott (12 rec.) being the main beneficiaries. Wentz has at least 200 yards on passes of fewer than 10 air yards in the Eagles' three-game win streak, after gaining 200-plus yards on such passes in a game only once in his career entering Week 14. Wentz has a 14-0 TD-INT ratio on passes of fewer than 10 air yards this season (the best on such passes) -- a big reason for optimism for Eagles fans entering the regular-season finale against the Giants. 1

    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Eagles' successful short passing game

    Carson Wentz and the Eagles have adjusted to emphasizing a shorter passing game out of necessity due to a number of injuries. It has proven to be effective in the last three weeks (all Eagles wins). Wentz has attempted 10-plus passes behind the LOS in each of his last three games, after doing so in only six career games entering Week 14. He also has at least nine backfield targets in each of his last three games, with Miles Sanders (14 receptions from backfield in Weeks 14-16, most in NFL) and Boston Scott (12 rec.) being the main beneficiaries. Wentz has at least 200 yards on passes of fewer than 10 air yards in the Eagles' three-game win streak, after gaining 200-plus yards on such passes in a game only once in his career entering Week 14. Wentz has a 14-0 TD-INT ratio on passes of fewer than 10 air yards this season (the best on such passes) -- a big reason for optimism for Eagles fans entering the regular-season finale against the Giants.