Game Theory

2020 NFL playoff picture: Four postseason contenders with difficult final stretches

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

Heading into the final quarter of the 2020 regular season, with four games left on everyone's schedule, I'd like to spotlight four playoff-contending teams with one thing in common: a tough slate down the stretch. If these teams end up punching a postseason ticket, they'll have earned it.

Additionally, I'm taking a look at where the Pittsburgh Steelers stand after their first loss of the season. Yes, they still hold the AFC's top playoff seed, but how secure is their grip? And more interestingly, how much do they need the conference's lone first-round bye?

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

Four teams with treacherous paths to the playoffs

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
8-4 · AFC No. 7 seed

Remaining schedule: at Raidersvs. Texansat Steelersvs. Jaguars


Indianapolis reaches the playoffs in 69.6 percent of my simulations -- the sixth-highest figure in the AFC -- with a projected win total of 10.3 games. The Colts' season averages look kinda above average, but not elite -- as in, they rank between No. 7 and No. 15 in almost every position group when looking at win shares by unit. Digging into the game-by-game data, it's easy to see how crucial a factor the trenches play in Indianapolis' success (... or failure). When the Colts' O-line is healthy -- specifically, when LT Anthony Castonzo is playing -- Indy's win-share contributions in both run and pass blocking increase by about 30 percent. When DT DeForest Buckner is playing, the defense sees a similar bump. Generating rushing success (or approximating it with shorter passes that really function as a run game would) unlocks the Colts' ability to win, as their defense typically keeps them from having to score quickly. But if the Colts have to play catch-up? Yeah, that's where the problem lies. Philip Rivers is averaging 7.1 air yards per attempt this season -- that's the ninth-lowest mark in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats (min. 150 passing attempts). On passes intended to travel 10-plus air yards, Rivers has an insufficient touchdown-to-interception ratio of 7:6. If the Colts get into more obvious passing situations, the potential for turnovers increases significantly.

Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles Rams
8-4 · NFC No. 3 seed

Remaining schedule: vs. Patriots (Thursday)vs. Jetsat Seahawksvs. Cardinals


The Rams make the playoffs in 90 percent of simulations -- and win the division in 32.3 percent -- with a projected season win total of 9.6 (fourth-highest NFC mark). NFC West teams forecast to beat each other up a bit down the stretch. The most difficult division in football is far from decided -- and it's the most likely of all divisions to contribute three teams to the 2020 postseason. I don't need to remind you that Aaron Donald is elite, but it's really quite remarkable how much attention he commands from opposing offenses. Donald is double/triple-teamed more than any other defender in the game: 30.3 percent of pass plays, 22.9 percent of runs. Consequently, the Rams have a significant advantage in the numbers game, which allows them to field a more efficient all-around defense. The Rams have used light boxes on 71 percent of run plays this season -- the highest rate in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Los Angeles' average number of defenders in the box on run plays is 6.2, the lowest figure in the league. You'd think this would be one of those "bend don't break" stats where a team strategically surrenders a ton of rushing yards, but the opposite is happening. While deploying light boxes, the Rams are yielding just 4.6 yards per rush -- the sixth-lowest number in the NFL, per NGS. Part of the reason for this is the ability of the entire front seven to shut down the run. That said, space matters -- and offenses are forced to change their shape when accounting for Donald. The potential Achilles' heel for the Rams? Offensive turnovers. Jared Goff just hasn't been very consistent this season, particularly when he can't immediately get rid of the football. On passes where his time to throw is 2.5-plus seconds, Goff sports an underwhelming TD-to-INT ratio of 9:7 (NGS).


UPDATE: The Rams took care of business in the first leg of this final stretch Thursday night, impressively dispatching of the Patriots in prime time, 24-3.

Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
8-4 · AFC No. 6 seed

Remaining schedule: vs. Chiefsvs. Patriotsat Raiders (Saturday)at Bills


Miami makes the playoffs in 56.8 percent of simulations as the seventh and final addition to the playoffs with 9.4 total wins projected. The Dolphins have the least-favorable schedule of any team within striking distance of the postseason. In the next four weeks, they'll face a pretty daunting group of quarterbacks: Patrick Mahomes, Cam Newton, Derek Carr and Josh Allen. The good news: Miami makes opposing signal-callers work, thanks to sticky coverage. Using eight seasons of passing data, I trained a model to detect when a quarterback's first read isn't available. Applying this to the 2020 season's output, the Fins' defense -- and particularly the cornerbacks -- makes opposing QBs skip the first read and go through their progressions at the fifth-highest rate in the league. Also, Next Gen Stats show that Miami allows just a 35.8 completion percentage on passes to wide receivers of 10-plus air yards, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. In order to net the two more regular-season wins that seem necessary for a playoff bid, rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa will have to stay efficient using quick passes (under 2.5 seconds), something he does on 55.9 percent of attempts. His average time to throw is 2.54 seconds. He's also going to have to stay efficient against the blitz, an area in which he's completed 23 of his 42 throws for 210 yards and two touchdowns.

New York Giants
New York Giants
5-7 · NFC No. 4 seed

Remaining schedule: vs. Cardinalsvs. Browns (Sunday night)at Ravensvs. Cowboys


After serving as a league laughingstock for much of this season, the NFC East pulled off a pair of massive upsets in Week 13, with New York winning in Seattle on Sunday and Washington ending Pittsburgh's perfect run on Monday night. Suddenly, the Giants and Football Team -- two frisky groups playing their best football at the right time -- are locked in a very interesting battle for the division's playoff bid. Washington currently edges out New York in my models, taking the East crown in 41.3 percent of simulations, as compared to 40.2 for New York. My model doesn't have the G-Men favored in a game until the season finale against Dallas, but this week's meeting with the Cardinals is close to a coin flip, as Arizona wins in 54.1 percent of results. The Giants are currently projected for 6.6 wins (Washington: 6.7). Big Blue's defense -- specifically free-agent acquisitions Blake Martinez and James Bradberry -- creates problems for opposing offenses trying to work between the numbers on intermediate or deeper passes. The Giants also hinder the opponent's ability to effectively run into Martinez's area. So, why does Washington edge out New York? The Football Team has a more effective defense, led by the pressure-generating front, and Alex Smith has been able to navigate pressure better than his New York counterpart. Daniel Jones has been under pressure on a league-high 40.6 percent of dropbacks. Under duress, Jones has thrown three touchdown passes against five interceptions with a 53.1 percent completion percentage -- good for a 65.4 passer rating. If the Giants QB can be more consistent under pressure -- or just under pressure less -- this very well could give New York the edge in the division.

No. 1 or bust? A team that could REALLY use the bye

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
11-1 · AFC No. 1 seed

With the expanded playoff field, only one team per conference gets a bye in the postseason. At the moment, the Steelers earn that bye in 42.3 percent of simulations. How essential is this for Pittsburgh? Maybe more than you'd think. I ran 50,000 simulations to see who'd benefit more from a first-round bye -- the Steelers or Chiefs -- and the results surprised me. Obviously, every team is going to have a higher percentage chance of reaching the Super Bowl if you eliminate an entire round of the playoffs from the docket. But what happens when you take that bye away? The odds will decrease, sure, but by how much? That's where I found a surprising discrepancy between Kansas City and Pittsburgh. According to my simulations, when the Chiefs don't get a first-round bye, their chances of reaching the Super Bowl drop 11 percent. But when the Steelers don't get the bye, their chances plummet 23 percent -- more than double K.C.'s drop-off! Why? Obviously, Pittsburgh's defense isn't the problem. The blitz-happy Steelers boast the NFL's highest pressure rate this season at 39.6 percent. Even in non-blitzing situations, Pittsburgh still paces the league with a pressure rate of 33.8. Not to mention, the Steelers rank first in scoring defense and turnovers. So, what gives? Why does Pittsburgh appear to need the bye so much more than Kansas City? Well, the modern NFL is typically defined by offensive football. And on that front, my model points to Pittsburgh's depleted offensive line. With key pieces missing up front, the Steelers have been forced to tweak their strategy. With the O-line unable to routinely create viable rushing lanes, Pittsburgh has leaned more on the short passing game. Next Gen Stats show that Ben Roethlisberger has attempted passes of fewer than 10 air yards on 72.1 percent of passes this season. That's the third-highest rate in the NFL. But the effectiveness of this quick pass strike has waned of late. On passes of fewer than 10 air yards during Weeks 1-10, Big Ben posted robust figures in yards per attempt (5.8) and passer rating (100.7). Over the past two weeks, though, those numbers have dropped to 4.4 and 88.2. Now that defenses are keen to Pittsburgh's quick-passing desires, they are adjusting. The Chiefs are less impacted by not earning a bye than the Steelers because the range of plays they have effectively executed (both run and pass) is greater than that of the Steelers' offense.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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