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AFC Championship Preview 2020 | Football Outsiders

14 min read
AFC Championship Preview 2020 | Football Outsiders


It’s not the Chiefs-Ravens showdown that many anticipated, but the matchup between the Titans and Chiefs has become similarly compelling after their disparate, dominating wins last week. Each team must terrify the other. Last week, the Chiefs showed an ability to quickly erase a deficit that neither the Patriots nor the Ravens possess. But the Titans have an unrivaled ability to hold the ball and limit their opponents’ possessions with a lead, something the Texans failed to do after pulling ahead 24-0 on Sunday. And with both teams possessing an offensive strength to target the biggest defensive weakness of the other, this game has the potential to be a shootout worthy of crowning an AFC champion.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

  TEN KC
DVOA 8.6% (9) 30.2% (2)
WEI DVOA 33.8% (4) 40.0% (3)
Titans on Offense
  TEN OFF KC DEF
DVOA 12.9% (6) -3.4% (14)
WEI DVOA 30.1% (1) -4.7% (14)
PASS 29.6% (6) -9.3% (6)
RUSH 7.9% (5) 4.1% (29)
Chiefs on Offense
  TEN DEF KC OFF
DVOA 1.0% (16) 22.7% (3)
WEI DVOA -4.9% (12) 29.1% (3)
PASS 11.0% (21) 43.7% (2)
RUSH -12.6% (10) -1.4% (14)
Special Teams
  TEN KC
DVOA -3.2% (29) 4.1% (2)

If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL

I’ve written the Titans preview each of the last two weeks, and even with all the research time and words I’ve expended on Derrick Henry, I think I’ve still shortchanged him. Henry’s 2019 totals of 22.0 attempts per game (first), 5.2 yards per attempt (third), 3.1 yards after contact per attempt (first), 6.5% DVOA (11th), and 21.5% broken tackle rate (eighth) are great and paint a picture of one of the best and most powerful backs in football. But his 96 carries for 588 yards and four touchdowns over the last three weeks — all in elimination games — are something else. In a sport dominated by passing, Henry has controlled his playoff games and is the biggest reason the No. 6 seed Titans are a win away from a trip to the Super Bowl.

There has been little mystery to the Titans’ approach to their recent games. The Ravens were even ready for it, loading the box with eight or more defenders on 63% of Henry’s carries. It just didn’t stop him.

And I doubt the Chiefs can stop Henry, either. Like the Patriots and Ravens, the Chiefs built a defense to limit their opponents’ passing games. All three defenses are in the top five in differential between pass defense DVOA and run defense DVOA, and the Chiefs have the worst run defense of the three at 4.1% (29th).

Patriots vs. Ravens vs. Chiefs Defensive Comparison 2019
    Patriots   Ravens   Chiefs
Stat Total Rank Total Rank Total Rank
Pass DVOA -32.2% 1 -16.0% 4 -9.3% 6
Run DVOA -14.0% 6 -7.9% 19 4.1% 29
Pass – Run DVOA -18.2% 2 -8.1% 5 -13.4% 4
Pressure Rate 35.9% 1 34.7% 3 28.9% 20
Adj Line Yards 4.00 6 4.07 9 4.82 28
Broken Tackle Rate 7.8% 2 11.5% 24 11.1% 17
YPA vs. CBs 5.8 1 6.4 3 7.4 9
Success Rate – CBs 64.6% 1 58.0% 2 57.7% 3
Play-Action YPA 7.3 10 7.5 11 6.3 4
Play-Action Diff +2.3 28 +1.8 22 +0.1 3

Chiefs players and coaches are clinging to a narrative that first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has turned around a run defense that was the worst in football in 2018 (9.8% DVOA), citing the Chiefs’ improvement from 148 rushing yards allowed per game in the first 10 weeks of this season to 95 rushing yards allowed per game in the nine weeks since. But that narrative doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The Chiefs may have made small efficiency improvements in the second half, but they still finished in the bottom third of teams in both yards per carry and run defense DVOA. The big improvement they experienced in rushing yards allowed came predominantly from a decline in their opponents’ rushing attempts, something for which they can credit their offense much more than their defense.

Chiefs Defensive Splits 2019
    Weeks 1-10   Weeks 11-19
Stat Total Rank Total Rank
Carries Per Gm 28.8 27 21.1 1
Rush Yards Per Gm 148 31 95 6
Yards Per Carry 5.1 31 4.5 22
Run DVOA 5.8% 31 0.4% 23
3+ Score Lead Play% 13.8% 6 30.9% 1

The explosive Chiefs were never a pedestrian offense, but with Matt Moore starting a couple of games and Patrick Mahomes limited by his knee injury in others, the Chiefs seldom enjoyed multi-score leads in the first half of the season. But as Mahomes has gotten healthier, the Chiefs have authored some incredible blowouts. Since Week 11, they have owned three-score leads on 30.9% of their plays and two-score leads on more than half of their plays. Those offensive advantages make life easier on a defense better equipped to defend the pass than the run. Since passing plays tend to take less clock and have higher potentials for big gains, trailing teams rely more and more on them the more they fall behind. Since 2009, offenses have passed more than 70% of the time with three-score deficits. That rate declines steadily to 40% with three-score leads.

Henry is the perfect player to kill clock with a lead. His carry totals from the last three weeks demonstrate his capacity to handle heavy workloads, and at 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, he wears down the defenders who try to tackle him. Since 2018, Henry has averaged 1.8 more yards per attempt when leading than when trailing, the biggest differential in football. And he has improved both his average yards before and after contact with a lead.

Derrick Henry Leading/Trailing Splits 2018-19
Stat Leading Trailing Diff Diff Rk
Yds Per Att 6.3 4.5 +1.8 1
Yds Bef Con Per Att 2.9 1.5 +1.4 2
Yds Aft Con Per Att 3.4 3.0 +0.4 11
Minimum 200 carries; numbers from Sportradar

That latter improvement follows the cliché for a power back who gets stronger the more carries he takes. And it likely also explains some of the former improvement. The Patriots’ J.C. Jackson illustrated that idea a few weeks ago as he retreated on a second-half carry to presumably avoid a collision with Henry at speed, a play that The Ringer‘s Robert Mays put on my radar.

But that yards before contact improvement also likely captures the excellence of the Titans offensive line, flourishing with continuity in multi-year starters Taylor Lewan, Ben Jones, and Jack Conklin, plus an influx of talent in $44 million free agent Rodger Saffold and third-round rookie Nate Davis. The Titans’ 4.66 adjusted line yards are fourth-most in football this season and should be an even bigger advantage against the Chiefs defensive front (4.82, 28th) than it was against the Patriots (4.00, sixth) and Ravens (4.07, ninth). Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ defensive broken tackle rate of 11.1% is much closer to the Ravens’ rate (11.5%) than the Patriots’ rate (7.8%). Even if defensive tackle Chris Jones can return from the calf injury that kept him out of the divisional round, the Chiefs are unlikely to slow Henry with their defense. Jones is more of a pass-rusher than run-stopper in the interior of their line. He missed seven tackles against just 21 successful solo tackles this season.

The Chiefs still can limit Henry the way they’ve been limiting other running backs in the second half of the season: by scoring a ton of points and forcing the Titans to pass to try to catch up. A deficit wouldn’t necessarily doom the Titans. After all, they returned from a 10-0 deficit to beat the Chiefs in Week 10 despite Mahomes throwing for 446 yards and three touchdowns in his first game back from his knee injury. But the Titans benefited from a string of unlikely occurrences in that comeback, including a fumble return for a touchdown, a dropped field goal attempt, and a blocked field goal attempt. In a game with balanced fortune, the Titans would likely struggle to pass effectively against the Chiefs’ No. 6 DVOA pass defense.

Like many modern defenses, the Chiefs’ defensive success starts in the secondary. Their cornerbacks’ collective 57.7% coverage success rate is third-best in football, just behind the Patriots (64.6%) and Ravens (58.0%). But unlike the Patriots and Ravens, the Chiefs excel against play-action passing. They allow the fourth-fewest yards per play-action attempt (6.3) and have the third-best yards per attempt differential (+0.1) against play-action versus traditional passes. That will likely inhibit the Titans’ play-action passing attack, which is the best in football by both yards per attempt (10.9) and yards per attempt differential (+4.3). And versatile defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Kendall Fuller should help the Chiefs maintain that excellent secondary play despite the recent loss of starter Juan Thornhill to a torn ACL.

That Chiefs’ defensive strength may limit the over-the-top plays — such as a pair of 45-plus-yard completions to A.J. Brown in Week 17 and a 45-yard touchdown to speedy receiver Kalif Raymond last week — that have been underrated drivers of Tennessee’s recent wins. But quarterback Ryan Tannehill wouldn’t be totally helpless in a dropback passing game. Led by positional leaders Brown (8.8) and tight end Jonnu Smith (7.5), the Titans are second behind only the 49ers with 6.1 average yards after the catch this season. Chiefs cornerback starters Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward are allowing 3.6 and 4.6 average yards after the catch, both outside the top 40 among qualifiers at the position. If the Titans can expand their recent physical approach to all aspects of their offense this week, then they should move the ball effectively against a Chiefs defense that is likely less equipped to face that style than either the Patriots or Ravens defenses.

WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL

Derrick Henry has justifiably attracted the bulk of the praise for the Titans’ improved play in recent weeks, but their defense is peaking at the perfect time, as well. The team’s -4.9% weighted defensive DVOA (12th) is a step up from their full-season 1.0% defensive DVOA (16th), and their -18.6% and -41.2% defensive DVOA numbers against the Patriots and Ravens the last two weeks are their third-best and best performances of the season.

It’s not fair to say that the Chiefs offense is of a different caliber. Their 29.1% weighted DVOA offense and 43.7% DVOA pass offense are similarly excellent to the Ravens at 27.7% and 47.4%. Both teams are top-four in football from both perspectives. But where the Ravens rely on reads and versatility at quarterback and tight end to create confusion and mismatches in coverage, the Chiefs have a no-frills approach to their offense that is similar to the Titans. But instead of strength, the Chiefs rely on speed at their skill positions and Mahomes’ unmatched ability to throw quickly and accurately down the field.

Mahomes suffered significant declines of more than 1,000 passing yards and nearly half of his 50 passing touchdowns from last year’s MVP season, but he also missed time this year with a dislocated kneecap. In terms of efficiency, Mahomes had less steep of a decline from 39.9% DVOA last year to 30.0% this year, remaining among the league leaders. Meanwhile, the offense around him may be more dangerous than ever. In adding speedy rookie Mecole Hardman at receiver, the Chiefs now deploy three of the fastest receivers in the league. Hardman, Tyreek Hill, and Sammy Watkins have each exceeded 21 miles per hour with the ball on a play in the last few seasons according to Next Gen Stats. Hardman and Hill excelled more generally as receivers with 42.7% and 23.4% DVOAs this season, as did the team’s most versatile skill player, tight end Travis Kelce (15.3%).

As Hill is happy to boast, no defense can cover the Chiefs’ speed in man coverage. And that is likely to be a particular problem for a Titans defense that uses man coverage on 35.5% of passes — the 10th-highest rate in football — and allows nearly twice as much average separation (4.3 yards vs. 2.3 yards) in zone versus man coverage according to Next Gen Stats. In short, even encore standout performances from cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Logan Ryan are unlikely to sabotage the Chiefs’ passing offense.

If the Titans want to slow down Mahomes, they will likely need to pressure him. The Texans hit or hurried Mahomes on just eight of his 36 dropbacks last week and failed to sack him, and Mahomes lit them up for 9.2 yards per attempt and five touchdowns. But the Chiefs offensive line has been susceptible to pressure — their 31.4% allowed pressure rate is 23rd in football — and Mahomes seems particularly sensitive to pressure given his desire to hold the ball to throw downfield. His yards per attempt and touchdown rates have decreased sharply while his interception rate has increased sharply in games with higher pressure rates in his career. Over the same timeframe, quarterbacks overall have been less sensitive to pressure, averaging between 7.0 and 7.4 yards per attempt and between 4.0% and 4.8% touchdown rates with those same pressure splits.

Patrick Mahomes’ Pressure Splits, 2017-19
Pressure Rate Games YPA TD% INT%
0.0% – 24.9% 18 9.1 7.4% 1.1%
25.0% – 39.9% 10 8.3 7.5% 1.7%
40.0%+ 6 7.6 5.2% 2.0%

Those splits offer the Titans a clear mission, but it is an easier one to identify than to execute. The Titans defense is 30th this season with a 25.1% pressure rate, and a Chiefs offensive line that has dealt with multiple injuries this season has returned to full strength. In particular, Eric Fisher anchors the team’s pass protection from his left tackle position. He missed two months after a core muscle surgery this season, and the team went 4-4 in his absence. With him on the field, the Chiefs are undefeated at 9-0. But with Fisher and 2018 All-Pro Mitchell Schwartz providing the strength of the team’s offensive line at its edges, the interior line is a weakness the Titans may be able to exploit. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey provides five to seven sacks in a typical season, modest totals relative to edge rushers. But he is likely still the team’s best pass defender. His 20 pressures are second-most on the team this season, and he sacked Lamar Jackson twice last week.

The Titans’ other problem is that the Chiefs offense has a more viable Plan B than their own. Even if defensive pressure erases Mahomes’ desired deep throws, he can still throw short to his tight end Kelce and running back Damien Williams. Finally healthy, Williams asserted himself as the team’s featured back last week, playing 62 offensive snaps against just one apiece for both LeSean McCoy and Darwin Thompson. And while McCoy (-3.5% rushing DVOA) and Thompson (1.0%) outperformed Williams (-6.8%) as runners this season, it is Williams’ relative receiving advantage (-2.9% receiving DVOA) over McCoy (-31.4%) and Thompson (-23.9%) that should keep him in the lineup. Kelce and Williams combined to produce 202 yards and six touchdowns against a Texans defense last week that is 15th in DVOA on throws to tight ends this season, and 27th on throws to running backs. And the Titans are down there with them with the No. 20 and 23 DVOA defenses against those positions.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Despite their field goal difficulties in their previous matchup with the Titans in Week 10 and their blocked punt and punt return fumble last week, the Chiefs should own a significant special teams advantage over the Titans with the No. 2 vs. the No. 29 weighted DVOA special teams units. Rookie Mecole Hardman earned a Pro Bowl selection with his 26.1 average yards per kick return, fifth-best among frequent returners. Tyreek Hill stopped returning punts this season and may have shown some rustiness in his fumble last week, but his 11.9 career yards per punt return is exceptional, and his elite speed makes him a threat to run in his fifth career punt return touchdown as he resumes that role in the postseason. And kicker Harrison Butker led football with 34 made field goals on 38 attempts, and his career 89.7% conversion rate makes him a perennial leader at the position (non-Justin Tucker division).

The Titans regained the services of Raymond, their primary kick returner, last week. He had missed the two previous games with a concussion. But Raymond has made his greatest impact for the team as a deep receiving threat. His 22.4 average yards per kick return is pedestrian and significantly trails Hardman’s standout average. And kicker Greg Joseph has still improbably avoided attempting a field goal attempt in four games with the Titans since replacing the dreadful Cairo Santos and Ryan Succop. Joseph’s 85.0% conversion rate as a rookie in 2018 suggests he could probably get the job done if called upon, but the Titans’ best chance of neutralizing an on-paper special teams disadvantage will be to continue to avoid kicking entirely. That’s something their league-leading 75.6% red zone touchdown conversion rate has helped them do all season.

OUTLOOK

The Chiefs defenders are not the only people terrified by the Titans. I’ve incorrectly picked against them each of the last two weeks, and I’m picking against them again this week. But I think the Titans’ leading/trailing splits offer some consolation for my past mistakes. The Titans will thrive if they can run, but their ability to run requires a positive game script as much as it requires Derrick Henry and their offensive line to be effective. Good fortune with turnovers, fourth-down conversions, and touchdown conversions in the red zone has helped the Titans build leads the last two weeks. Simple regression will likely shift some of the team’s attempts away from their strength with the run and toward their (relative) weakness with the pass. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are better equipped to erase an early deficit than either the Patriots or the Ravens, and their offense is explosive enough to build a multi-score lead that the Titans would have little chance of overcoming on offense. The Titans can definitely win if they play the type of game they want to play. But the Chiefs can win any type of game, and that’s why they are appropriately favored this Sunday.

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You’ll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here). Weighted DVOA ratings include the playoffs.

Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team’s trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that the defensive chart is reversed so upwards is a more negative defensive DVOA (which is better).


https://www.footballoutsiders.com/game-previews/2020/afc-championship-preview-2020

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