The Divisional round is here. In this weekly column, we dive deep into Next Gen Stats' metrics and explore player and team-based matchups. The goal is simple: Next Gen provides truly unique analytical data we can use to uncover edges when making fantasy lineup decisions. Most importantly, Next Gen Stats' makes us more informed viewers of the game.
Let's break down at least one key matchup in each contest that will impact the four-game, Divisional round slate:
Colts at Chiefs (4:35 p.m. ET) on Saturday
In one of the most tantalizing matchups of the 2018 season, Colts-Chiefs is fully expected to offer a high scoring affair. The game total currently rests at 57 points, making it the second-highest over/under in NFL playoffs history.
Winners of 10 of their last 11, the Colts turnaround in 2018 has taken place for four main reasons. The first three are obvious -- Frank Reich is arguably the coach of the year, GM Chris Ballard deserves free drinks at any Indy bar for life after his work on the roster, and Andrew Luck is finally healthy -- but the latter part of the equation needs to be expanded on further. The fourth pillar in this 180-degree turnaround is squarely placed on the offensive line.
It's stunning to write these words after Luck was under duress constantly in 2012-16, but Indianapolis arguably has one of the three best offensive lines in the NFL. With LG Quenton Nelson added, C Ryan Kelly healthy, and LT Anthony Castonzo back after missing the first five weeks of the season, the Colts allow the lowest amount of interior pressure in the league (7.4 percent). What's more, once Castonzo returned in Week 6, the Colts offensive line permitted just eight sacks on Andrew Luck's 432 dropbacks in 11 games played. That's amounts to a 1.9 percent sack rate allowed, and easily the best clip in the NFL. In fact, the Colts sack rate with Castonzo healthy this season is the lowest single-season clip in the NFL since Peyton Manning in 2009 (Colts sack rate allowed then: 1.7 percent).
After erasing J.J. Watt and Co. on the road last week, the Colts have another formidable task in the Divisional Round. Chiefs' DL Chris Jones is fifth among interior linemen in pressure rate forced (10.2 percent) while EDGE rushers Justin Houston (15.1 percent) and Dee Ford (13.4 percent) rank 3rd and 7th, respectively, in pressures among qualifying defenders. While Kansas City can bring the heat, the road-tripping Colts are perfectly equipped to give the Chiefs all they can handle.
Cowboys at Rams (8:15 p.m. ET) on Saturday
While the Rams have one of the most talented defensive lines in the league led by legitimate MVP candidate Aaron Donald, L.A.'s defense has struggled immensely this season stopping heavier offensive packages. Per Next Gen Stats, the Rams play a near even mixture of 3-4 (25 percent), 4-3 (16 percent), Nickel (31 percent), and Dime (28 percent) defense -- but their inability to slow the run out of 3-4 and 4-3 alignments may be their undoing ahead of a date against Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys' vaunted rush attack.
Since trading for Amari Cooper, Dallas has transitioned into an almost exclusive 11-personnel team. Per Next Gen Stats, 53 percent of the Cowboys called run plays have been out of a three-receiver set (11-personnel) since Cooper was added -- a significant uptick from their 43 percent clip in Weeks 1-8. However, Dallas would be wise to force Los Angeles' hand against the run and play more 2-receiver, 2-tight end sets.
If Dallas elects to go run-heavy out of 2-tight end or 6-OL sets, the Rams would have to match the Cowboys heavier package and, in theory, align in 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Ezekiel Elliott will be a tough man to stop in this scenario. During the regular season, the Rams allowed a gargantuan 4.8 yards per carry aligned in 4-3 (second-most) and 5.0 YPC aligned in 3-4 (most).
Los Angeles' shoddy run defense in their 4-3 and 3-4 sets is a large part of the reason they allowed the sixth-most fantasy points per rush attempt during the regular season. Armed with the back that has led the NFL in rush yards per game for three-straight single seasons, the Cowboys are in a unique position to expose the Rams against the run in the Divisional Round.
Chargers at Patriots (1:05 p.m. ET) on Sunday
In the six games in which Joey Bosa has played on at least 60 percent of Chargers snaps, Los Angeles' 9.5 percent sack rate would have bested Minnesota (9.3 percent) for the top spot in the regular season. What's even more impressive (and dangerous) is that the Chargers are getting to the quarterback routinely by just rushing four defenders. Astonishingly, the Chargers blitz just 11 percent of the time when Bosa plays full-time, easily the lowest rate in the league.
To be fair, pressuring Tom Brady is quite tricky. No quarterback faced pressure less often (18 percent) than Brady did during the regular season while his 2.61 seconds to release was the fifth-fastest release time among qualified passers. Brady does hold the ball longer on first-down (2.70 seconds to throw), but he owned the league's second-fastest time to throw on second- and third-down (2.56 seconds). Only Ben Roethlisberger had a faster release time in these situations (2.52 seconds).
Eagles at Saints (4:40 p.m. ET) on Sunday
As evidenced by numerous receivers across the season, the Eagles main deficiency remains in the secondary. Primary boundary wideouts like Julio Jones (10/169), Mike Evans (10/83/1), DeSean Jackson (4/129/1), Corey Davis (9/161/1), Stefon Diggs (10/91), Devin Funchess (6/62/1), Amari Cooper (6/75, 10/217/3), DeAndre Hopkins (9/104), and Allen Robinson (10/143/1) have each had their way with the Eagles, starting back in Week 1. This list isn't complete, either -- as Saints' receivers Tre'Quan Smith and Michael Thomascombined for 14/249/2 receiving when these two sides met in Week 11.
Over the regular season, no team allowed more PPR fantasy points per game to receivers aligned out wide than the Eagles (32.9) per Next Gen Stats' data. The league-average was 23.9. In fact, 50 percent of the Eagles' total passing PPR output allowed went to boundary wideouts, the league's highest rate.
Now, the Saints have another weapon to play with in speedster Ted Ginn. In Week 16, Ginn returned to action and drew eight targets on just 25 snaps after missing 10 games with a knee injury. Ginn's presence out wide and from the slot -- where he runs 35 percent of his routes -- will further elevate the Saints' ceiling and draw safety attention away from Michael Thomas.
The Eagles are obviously down four of their five starters in the secondary, but they are in a woeful position to defend the Saints' suddenly diverse receiver corps in the Divisional Round. Per Next Gen Stats, Philly's current boundary CB tandem, Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox, each rank among the bottom-15 corners in catch rate allowed above expectation on targets to receivers aligned out wide. They are tasked with defending the quarterback who led all passers in completion rate above expectation during the regular season... Drew Brees.