Game Theory

NFL Week 17: Scouting five games with serious playoff implications on Sunday

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.

In the final week of the regular season, the playoff picture remains muddled when it comes to participants and seeding. So, in this dispatch, I'm spotlighting five Sunday games with serious postseason implications, highlighting a few key players (or position groups) that should go a long way toward deciding each outcome -- and simultaneously setting the tournament field.

Cowboys' playoff percentage: 26.5
Giants' playoff percentage: 22.5

If Washington ends up losing on Sunday night, the winner of this game is crowned NFC East champion. And I anticipate this particular rivalry bout will be strongly influenced by the Giants' offensive line. Next Gen Stats show that Giants QB Daniel Jones has been pressured on 41.4 percent of dropbacks, the highest rate in the NFL. When under pressure, Jones has thrown three touchdown passes and five interceptions (tied for the fourth-most INTs in the NFL). Among 36 qualified quarterbacks, Jones ranks no better than 33rd in sacks, sack rate, blitz rate, pressure rate and overall pressures.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys' defense has started to heat up opposing quarterbacks at a much higher rate of late. In Weeks 1-14, Dallas had a 23.5 percent pressure rate, blitzing at a 25.1 percent rate. In Weeks 15 and 16, though, the Cowboys have boosted the pressure rate to 33.3 percent while decreasing the blitz percentage to 17.2. In Dallas' 37-17 win over Philadelphia this past Sunday, the 'Boys generated 17 pressures on 42 Eagles dropbacks. That equals a 40.5 percent pressure rate, which is a season high for Dallas.

Dolphins' playoff percentage: 62.4
Bills' No. 2 seed percentage: 57.9

In Tua Tagovailoa's first six starts, he averaged 8.8 air yards per attempt, per Next Gen Stats. Over the last two outings, though, Tua has posted a significantly decreased figure of 3.9 air yards per attempt. NGS also shows that, in the past two weeks, the No. 5 overall pick has struggled on passes of 10-plus yards: 2-of-7 (28.6%) for 25 yards (3.6 ypa) and zero touchdowns. That's a stark departure from his production on such throws over his first six starts: 27-of-61 (44.3%) for 484 yards (7.9 ypa), with three touchdowns and an interception.

Buffalo's offense has been clicking to the tune of 6.5 yards per play over the past four weeks, averaging 36.5 points per game (second-best in that span). While Kansas City has already locked up the AFC's top seed (and accompanying bye), the AFC East champion Bills are motivated to win in order to secure the No. 2 seed. So if the Dolphins want to prevail, their rookie quarterback will likely need to succeed in more than just the very short passing game. (Or they'll need another round of FitzMagic in relief.)

Cardinals' playoff percentage: 49.9
Rams' playoff percentage: 82.3

The winner of this game clinches a playoff berth. If Los Angeles loses, the Rams can still make the postseason with a Chicago loss to Green Bay.

With Jared Goff fresh off thumb surgery, John Wolford will be making his NFL debut as the Rams' starter on Sunday. Having worked as an AAF analyst during the league's only season, I got a close look at Wolford's last real game action as the Arizona Hotshots' starting signal-caller. Wolford led the league in touchdown passes (14) while finishing in a fourth-place tie on the interceptions front (7). The area of his game that stood out the most? Deep passing, as in throws of 20-plus air yards. Wolford's 53.6 percent deep completion rate (15 for 28) was the highest mark in the league. He enjoyed the most deep success between the numbers (with a perfect 158.3 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus) and outside right (125.0 passer rating, per PFF). An area of concern is how Wolford will perform under pressure. The Hotshots' O-line let him down, as Wolford took the second-most sacks in the AAF (14), but he also threw the most interceptions under pressure (6).

On the other side of this matchup, Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins will likely see a lot of Jalen Ramsey. In the Rams' 38-28 win at Arizona back in Week 13, Next Gen Stats had Hopkins lined up against Ramsey on 85 percent of routes. According to PFF, Hopkins was targeted eight times while covered by Ramsey, catching three balls for 20 yards. NGS shows that Hopkins had zero receptions of 10-plus air yards in that game and zero in this past Sunday's loss to San Francisco -- his only two contests of the season with no catches in that range. NGS also shows that Hopkins' 75 receptions on passes of fewer than 10 air yards rank as the sixth-most among wide receivers in 2020, but he only has one touchdown reception on such throws.

Packers' No. 1 seed percentage: 78.0
Bears' playoff percentage: 67.8

Green Bay clinches the No. 1 seed with a win (or a Seahawks loss to the 49ers), while the Bears nab a playoff bid with a win (or a Cardinals loss to the Rams).

One key factor in this rivalry showdown will be the matchup between Packers CB Jaire Alexander and the Bears' wideouts. Next Gen Stats show that Alexander lines up almost exclusively at left corner. My models measure his on- and off-ball impact as the third-highest (best) in the NFL. Bears star Allen Robinson aligns wide right (presumably facing Alexander) on 31 percent of snaps, per NGS. Robinson aligns wide left on 42 percent of snaps and in the slot on 12 percent. Will Alexander travel to shadow Robinson? Both defenses have shown susceptibility to the run, so shutting down the pass could prove to be a deciding factor.

Football Team's playoff percentage: 51.0
Eagles' playoff percentage: Already eliminated

This is a win-and-in game for Washington, as the Football Team clinches the NFC East with a victory. And I think a certain rookie will play a major role in deciding this game's outcome.

Antonio Gibson returned to action last week after missing two games with a toe injury, gaining 69 yards on 13 total touches (10 rushes for 61 yards, three receptions for 8 yards). On the season, the third-round pick boasts what is easily the highest yards-over-expected figure in WFT's backfield: +66, as compared to J.D. McKissic's -30 and Peyton Barber's -50. And Gibson's average of 4.5 yards per rush between the tackles (with eight touchdowns) similarly trumps the marks of McKissic (4.1) and Barber (2.8). In Washington's first meeting with Philadelphia all the way back in Week 1, Gibson wasn't a main feature of the game plan, but he still led the team with 36 yards on nine rushes. In order to curtail the Eagles' pressure front, the Football Team must feature a strong run game on Sunday night.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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