Every Wednesday, Dan Hanzus combs through the expert findings of the NFL Media Research Department to share nuggets (also known as "nugs") that fascinate, frighten or change him on a fundamental level. This is the Wild Card Playoffs edition of High-Flying Adventures In The Research Notes.
GO BIG OR GO HOME FOR THE FALCONS' STRANGE OFFENSE
Matt Ryan has had a weird season. When you watch Falcons games, there are a handful of plays every week in which Ryan looks exactly like the guy who won the MVP last year. He climbs the pocket, scans the field, looks off a safety, puts a ball in a spot only his receiver can get it. But then there's the 3rd-and-7 where he skips a ball to an open slot guy, or the key point of the game when he takes a bad sack, or when he seems to forget Julio Jones is his teammate inside the enemy 20. There wasn't a game all season where Ryan put it all together and just shredded someone. Again, weird.
Speaking of weird, here's a stat that neatly encapsulates the maddening nature of Ryan's 2017 season: Ryan's passer rating when targeting Jones this season was 86.9 --that so happens to be the exact league average passer rating for quarterbacks this season. This is a new phenomenon in Atlanta. Here is the Ryan-to-Jones passer rating since Jones entered the league in 2011: 110.7, 108.0, 96.5, 100.6, 105.3, 103.8. Jones only had three touchdowns this season and one of the scores came on a throw from fellow wideout Mohamed Sanu. Nuts.
I'm sure Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is aware of this issue. But is it too late to fix what appears to be a fatal flaw in Atlanta's attack?
DON'T SLEEP ON DREW BREES GOING OFF THIS MONTH
The Saints are set up so well for the playoffs. We know all about that incredible running game led by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, who became the first teammate duo in NFL history to each surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season. We know about their young and dynamic defense, too, led by rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Cameron Jordan.
But at the center of it all remains ol' reliable, Drew Brees. On paper, this wasn't the greatest season for the veteran signal caller. He set Saints career lows in passing attempts per game (33.5), passing yardage per game (270.9) and passing touchdowns (23). The numbers tell us that Sean Payton has never orchestrated an attack that relied on Brees less.
But Brees accepted that smaller workload and responded by making himself for efficient than ever. He set an NFL record in completion percentage (72.0). He finished first in the league in yards per attempt (8.1) and completions of 20 yards or more (72). He 103.9 passer rating was bested only by Alex Smith.
In other words, Brees is still Brees. And historically speaking, the man gets better in the postseason -- especially in his building. Brees is undefeated in four postseason games at the Superdome with 10 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 117.2.
BEWARE: THE CHIEFS HAVE THEIR MOJO BACK
Remember when the Chiefs were getting shredded by the Jets and Marcus Peters was losing his mind and it looked like Kansas City would go from 5-0 to 8-8 (or worse)? It may feel like forever, but it was exactly one month ago. How did they fix themselves? That's probably a question for Andy Reid, but there's no denying that the Chiefs begin the playoffs looking a lot more like that team from the first five weeks than the one that stumbled through the nearly two months that followed.
I love Alex Smith this weekend for two reasons: 1) The Titans are the worst team still currently active in the NFL and 2) Smith has shown us more than once that he, like Drew Brees, has the ability to raise his game in the crucible of the playoffs. True story: Alex Smith has authored two of my favorite playoff quarterback performances of this decade. The first came against the Saints in the 2011 Divisional Playoffs a.k.a. The Vernon Davis Game. The second came in defeat, a 45-44 heartbreaker to Andrew Luck and the Colts in the 2012 Wild Card Playoffs. If Dwayne Bowe doesn't drop Smith's deep ball late in that contest, Smith might have a case for the greatest statistical effort in the history of the NFL playoffs.
THE BILLS ARE SET UP FOR SUCCESS ... ON PAPER ANYWAY
People get too worked up about point differential. The Bills are not a great team and there is no way you can twist the numbers in a way that makes it appear Buffalo is primed for a deep postseason run. But that ugly differential is largely the product of a hideous three-game stretch when Buffalo was outscored by a combined 80 points by the Jets, Saints and Chargers.
Should they be excused for getting whipped by those three teams, two of which didn't even end up qualifying for the playoffs? No, but this was also the period where Buffalo was having their most public crisis of confidence regarding Tyrod Taylor. You may recall a historically inept Nathan Peterman start. In retrospect, it's fairly remarkable that Buffalo climbed out of that mess to end up where they are right now.
Until next week ...