Game Theory

Championship Sunday mismatches: Will Pack torch Bucs on early downs? Can Chiefs stop Stefon Diggs?

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.

Championship Sunday's on tap, and we couldn't have asked for a better final four. In the NFC Championship Game, which leads off the day's double-dip (3:05 p.m. ET on FOX), we get to watch probable league MVP Aaron Rodgers vs. consensus G.O.A.T. Tom Brady at Lambeau Field. Then the AFC title bout (6:40 p.m. ET on CBS) presents a matchup between a Chiefs squad seeking to hoist a second straight Lombardi Trophy in the Sunshine State and a rising Bills team that embodies the spirit of synergy we all need in the wake of this crazy 2020 season/year. (And yes, if Patrick Mahomes clears concussion protocol, the latter game will offer a thrilling QB duel between the reigning Super Bowl MVP and breakout star Josh Allen.)

With so many storylines and lenses to filter these showdowns through, I turned to my models to cut through all the noise and identify what truly matters. Below you'll find one key potential mismatch that could heavily influence the outcome of each conference title contest.

NOTE: I know I talk a lot about my models, but it's in the interest of better explaining how they were made, how they evolve, what they can do and how you can use them. If you want more context about my models, you can find it at the bottom of this file.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13-5 · NFC No. 5 seed
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
14-3 · NFC No. 1 seed

Mismatch to watch: Green Bay's early-down offensive efficiency vs. Tampa Bay's D.


In the first matchup between these two teams -- a 38-10 beatdown by the Buccaneers back in Week 6 -- Aaron Rodgers was completely flummoxed by Tampa Bay's blitz. Quite uncharacteristic of the veteran star this season, considering how he's performed when any other opponent has sent extra pass rushers:


Rodgers vs. Bucs' blitz: 25.0 comp%, 2.3 ypa, 0:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 0.0 passer rating.

Rodgers vs. rest of NFL's blitz: 66.9 comp%, 8.3 ypa, 15:1 TD-to-INT ratio, 123.5 passer rating.


Stark contrast, eh? Both of the interceptions against the Buccaneers occurred on third down, with the first going all the way back for a touchdown. One of the reasons why Tampa's third-down blitzes were so effective in Week 6? Green Bay's efficiency on early downs (first and second) was considerably lower than usual, allowing the Bucs to pin their ears back and get after the QB on third down. In that game, the Packers earned just 3.23 yards per play on first and second down -- much different than their 5.93 mark in all other games.


In recent weeks, though, Green Bay's offense has become more efficient, while Tampa Bay's D has taken steps backward.


Over the past 10 games (since Week 9), the Bucs' defense has allowed a whopping 13 touchdowns (while grabbing just one pick) when blitzing, according to Next Gen Stats. Meanwhile, on the season, Tampa has yielded an average of 5.11 yards per play on early downs, with the most takeaways in the NFL (20, per NGS). However, in the past five games (including postseason), the Bucs have allowed 5.76 yards per play on early downs, which is almost a full yard more than their 4.8 average in the first few months of the season (Weeks 1-11). Should the Buccaneers be able to take advantage of the Packers playing without left tackle David Bakhtiari -- limiting Green Bay's offensive balance on early downs -- they will have the edge on third down, allowing them to reduce overall scoring. But if Rodgers and Co. can keep Tampa's defense honest -- continuing to enjoy steady gains on early downs and forcing the Bucs to defend the run and pass simultaneously on third -- then the advantage goes to Green Bay. And if recent results are any indication, Rodgers and friends are poised for success.

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
15-3 · AFC No. 2 seed
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs
15-2 · AFC No. 1 seed

Mismatch to watch: Buffalo WR Stefon Diggs vs. Kansas City's banged-up secondary.


In the 2020 Chiefs' lone defeat with their starters playing -- I know they lost in Week 17, but we need to focus on the most relevant data that'll drive the probable results in this one -- Kansas City lost the third-down battle against the Raiders. Yes, Bashaud Breeland snagged a first-quarter pick on the money down, but otherwise, Derek Carr had his way with K.C.'s defense. According to Next Gen Stats, Carr completed 8 of 12 third-down passes for 205 yards (16.9 yards per attempt) and a touchdown, posting a 102.8 passer rating. This included a pair of bombs -- 46- and 72-yard gains -- to rookie burner Henry Ruggs III, as well as a 42-yard connection with Hunter Renfrow. Since 2018, big plays have been one of the keys to beating the Chiefs. With Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, six of the Chiefs' nine losses over the past three seasons have come when their opponents log more big plays (rushes of 10-plus yards, passes of 20-plus yards). With Breeland and fellow cornerback Rashad Fenton both dealing with health issues, K.C. could definitely have trouble containing Buffalo's talented receiving corps, particularly when it comes to the first-team All-Pro in the group ...


Diggs has been a revelation in Year 1 with the Bills, leading the league in catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535). He could create the kind of mismatches that break the game open for Buffalo -- especially in the red zone, where the Chiefs' defense ranked dead last during the regular season. One of the things that makes Diggs so difficult to defend is his versatility. He has 100-plus receiving yards on five different routes, per NGS, as well as one or more touchdowns on eight different routes. He also ranks in the top five in yards on two different routes this season -- hitch (537 yards) and out (203 yards) -- with the most receptions in the NFL on hitch routes (54). Looking at all of Diggs' targets, 52.2 percent have been outside the numbers, where he's netted the most receptions (71) and yards (866) in the NFL (including the playoffs), with six touchdowns for good measure.

How my models work

This season, before each week's slate of games, I ran 100,000 simulations of each regular-season contest. For the playoffs, I upped it to 200,000. Using data from 15 prior completed NFL seasons -- organized by how each of the past games was won or lost -- I then compared this season's contextualized data (updated after every game to reflect personnel, play-calling and trends) to the historical model. This allowed me to find look-alikes, or comparables. These comparables exist on a lot of levels: whole team, phase of the game, unit and player. The comparables from prior seasons create a foundation of what happened in the past.

What makes my models different is that my formulas reflect input and logic from actual NFL coaches, players and front-office executives, many of whom were actually a part of what happened in the past -- and why it happened. The math and statistical formulas that I piece together are also vetted by my former professors and mentors (PhDs mostly, but generally just immense overachievers). The point is to make sure I am giving you the best objective logic and subjective "real football" context. The marriage of different thinking styles creates value and allows my models to provide intel that is as realistic and unbiased as possible.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

Related Content

Gamepass_vert_web_r

See all the Action

Replay every game all season.