Game Theory

2020 NFL playoff picture: Packers or Saints in race for NFC's No. 1 seed?

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.

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.

Heading into Week 15, two NFC teams have clinched a playoff berth: The Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints, both of whom own a 10-3 record. So, who's in the best position to secure the conference's one and only postseason bye? Well ...

Ahead of Week 14, the Saints' chances of earning the NFC's No. 1 seed stood at 53.7 percent. But after a shocking loss to the Jalen Hurts-led Eagles, that percentage plummeted in my playoff projection model to 30.1 percent. Now, the Packers are in the driver's seat at 59.9 percent, thanks to their head-to-head tiebreaker win at New Orleans back in Week 3. And the Pack have a more manageable remaining schedule:

Seed
1
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
10-3 · NFC North No. 1

Week 15 (Saturday night): vs. Carolina Panthers (4-9)

Week 16 (Sunday night): vs. Tennessee Titans (9-4)

Week 17: at Chicago Bears (6-7)

Seed
2
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints
10-3 · NFC South No. 1

Consequently, my model currently forecasts the Packers to win 12 games, while the Saints' number sits at 11.8.

So, that's where we stand right now. The two 9-4 teams from the NFC West still have an outside shot at the No. 1 seed -- the Seahawks have a 4.8 percent chance, while the Rams' odds sit at 4.5 -- but 90 percent of simulations spit out the Packers or Saints as top dogs. So, what could separate these teams down the home stretch? Here are four key factors:

1) The LaFleur-Rodgers marriage is stronger than ever

Remember all those questions prior to last season about how first-time head coach Matt LaFleur would get along with supremely decorated quarterback, Aaron Rodgers? Would Rodgers have enough freedom to operate in this offense? What about "the audible thing"? Well, in Year 1 under LaFleur, the Packers went 13-3 and reached the NFC title game. In Year 2, Green Bay has clinched its second consecutive NFC North title, and Rodgers is enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career.

So, is it the 41-year-old coach's scheme or the 37-year-old quarterback's transcendent talent?

Both! Rodgers has used play-action more this season than in each of the previous four. With a 28.2 percent play-action rate, he ranks ninth in the NFL. Last season, he utilized play-action at the 16th-highest rate (24 percent) after ranking no higher than 26th in the three seasons prior. So, obviously LaFleur's architecture is taking. But at the same time, Rodgers' output has been ridiculous, which is to the quarterback's credit, as well. Rodgers is completing 71.9 percent of his play-action passes, with a whopping 134.6 passer rating and a sparkling 16:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. And by the way, those 16 play-action touchdown passes are already the most by any player in a season since Next Gen Stats began tracking this in 2016.

And because it's related and matters, Davante Adams has lined up in the slot more this season (24.5 percent of snaps) than in any of the four prior campaigns. The result? A prolific catch rate of 82.6 percent, with 38 grabs for 365 yards and an NFL-best seven touchdowns from the slot.

So, maybe the math here is ... LaFleur's architecture + elite Rodgers + elite Adams = first-round bye.

2) Can the Saints re-establish their defensive efficiency against the run?

Prior to last Sunday, the Saints were yielding just 4.0 yards per rush when utilizing a light box (six or fewer defenders in the box) -- that was the second-best rate in the NFL. Over that span, in Weeks 1 through 13, the Saints faced about 10 rushing attempts per game in a light box and only gave up two total touchdowns in those situations. But in Week 14, Jalen Hurts, Miles Sanders and the Eagles gave New Orleans fits in this area. On 20 rushes against light boxes, Philly racked up 213 yards (10.7 a pop) and a touchdown.

With Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs coming to town on Sunday, New Orleans' defense obviously faces a daunting challenge. And given Kansas City's field-stretching aerial acrobatics, the Saints will need to routinely operate in light boxes. But it's unlikely New Orleans will allow light-box rushes to be so spectacularly efficient -- or else the Saints have serious problems.

3) Green Bay's strength is also its Achilles' heel

The Packers are tied (with the Titans) for fewest turnovers in the NFL this season with nine. Seven of those giveaways have come in their three losses, meaning only two have come in their 10 wins. And, in fact, those two came in a surprisingly tight win over the hapless Jaguars.

So, basically, when the Packers take care of the football, they win. How difficult a task will this be over the next three weeks? Well, Carolina and Tennessee are currently tied for 13th with 18 takeaways apiece, while Chicago's tied for 24th with 14.

4) New Orleans' quarterback situation remains fluid

NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported on Tuesday that unless Drew Brees (ribs/lung) is "all the way back," Taysom Hill will likely get another start Sunday vs. Kansas City. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport echoed this sentiment on Wednesday: "There is a chance we see Drew Brees back, but not a great one."

So, how does the Chiefs' defense stack up against Hill, a dual-threat QB who's rushed for 209 yards and four touchdowns in his four starts? Well, the Chiefs have allowed 268 rushing yards to quarterbacks this season, 10th-most in the NFL. But -- and this is a big contextual note -- Lamar Jackson accounted for 83 of those yards in a single game back in Week 3.

The Saints should be able to protect the quarterback -- whether it's Hill, Brees or both -- in the final three weeks of the regular season. The Chiefs, Vikings and Panthers all rank 20th or worse in sack production.

UPDATE: Sean Payton announced he's planning to start Drew Brees against the Chiefs on Sunday.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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