There are no perfect teams in this NFL season. The Ravens have looked pretty close for the past two months, and the Patriots got off to one of the hottest starts in league history, but there’s no team that would be a mismatch for everybody or a favorite to win on every other team’s home turf. Each of the league’s playoff contenders has weaknesses.
Of course, if they run into a team that can exploit those weaknesses, the results can be fatal. Think about the 2017 season, when the Jaguars manhandled the Steelers in the regular season and then beat them again in the playoffs. The Steelers were likely a better team on paper and clearly had a quarterback advantage with Ben Roethlisberger against Blake Bortles, but the matchup of a dominant, ball-hawking defense against the aggressive Roethlisberger just wasn’t a good one. Jacksonville was able to exploit it and nearly make a trip to the Super Bowl in the process.
Let’s run through the 12 teams currently in playoff spots with two games to go and pick their possible playoff kryptonite. I’ll identify a weakness that stands out in how they’ve played and pick a team that might be able to exploit that problem on their side of the conference playoff bracket. In some cases, we’ve already seen those opponents use their would-be advantage earlier in the season. In others, we saw teams take advantage of the kryptonite in Week 15.
Would I favor every one of these kryptonite teams to beat their opponents? Absolutely not. I do think, though, that each of these 12 playoff teams would rather avoid a matchup with the team I’m mentioning. I’ll start with the best team in football, because even the Ravens have weaknesses:
Playoff kryptonite: Quarterbacks who can beat the blitz
I’m pretty sure Lamar Jackson is impervious to kryptonite, which is why I’m looking toward the other side of the ball. Since the Ravens traded for cornerback Marcus Peters before Week 7, their defense is allowing the league’s stingiest passer rating (72.5) and yards per attempt (5.8). Adding Peters has led the Ravens to blitz even more frequently, upping their rate to 53.5%. Their success rate with those blitzes has doubled; after sacking teams on 5.9% of their blitzes before Peters arrived, they’re up to 10.8% after Week 7.
The kryptonite for blitzes can also be screen passes. Teams haven’t been able to hit many screens against Baltimore’s blitzes this season, but since the Peters trade, the Ravens are allowing a passer rating of 124.2 when teams throw screens against their blitzes, which ranks 24th in the NFL. Naturally, the Ravens want to avoid quarterbacks who consistently make blitzing defenses pay.
Team to avoid: Kansas City Chiefs
I’ll go with one of the two teams to actually topple the Ravens so far. (I’m not sure anyone is willing to acknowledge that the Browns beating the Ravens by 15 points actually happened.) The Ravens probably don’t want to see Patrick Mahomes again. The reigning MVP was 27-of-37 passing for 374 yards and three touchdowns when the Chiefs beat the Ravens in September, and he has a track record of absolutely shredding defenses who play like the Ravens. Since taking over as the starter in 2018, Mahomes has the best QBR (87.9) and second-best passer rating (120.2) in football. He was 10-of-16 for 104 yards with two touchdown passes against the blitz the last time these two played. Putting up just 6.5 yards per attempt isn’t a Mahomes-esque number, but the Ravens were only able to sack Mahomes once off a blitz, and that came on a third-and-15.
While the Ravens have improved after adding Peters, the Chiefs didn’t have Tyreek Hill for that first game, with Mecole Hardman instead popping up with an 83-yard touchdown catch. The Ravens go deeper at cornerback than arguably any other team in football, but the Chiefs respond with arguably the deepest group of weapons in the league. Travis Kelce had seven catches for 89 yards in the first contest, and outside of shutting down George Kittle, the Ravens really haven’t had to deal with many star tight ends this season.
It seems odd to mention the Chiefs and their well-known sieve of a run defense against the league’s most devastating rushing attack, but Kansas City was able to slow down Jackson the first time these two teams played. The Chiefs seemed to focus on stopping Jackson at all costs, limiting him to eight carries for 46 yards and a lone rushing touchdown. The other Baltimore backs ate — Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards combined to touch the ball 23 times for 156 yards and three touchdowns — but with Jackson averaging just 6.2 yards in the air across his 43 passing attempts, the Chiefs were able to keep the Ravens quiet for most of the game before allowing three late scoring drives with a big lead.
Baltimore still got to 28 points, but the Chiefs’ strategy is likely going to be how teams try to slow down the Ravens in the postseason. There’s absolutely no stopping the soon-to-be-named MVP Jackson, but he’s the scariest part of this Ravens offense. Ingram is going to make opposing teams pay if they keep their defensive ends on the edge and force Jackson to hand the ball off, but the chances of Jackson running for 20 yards are higher than the chances of Ingram doing the same thing. The Bills last week did an excellent job of working as a unit and taking away big plays from the Ravens while making one mistake on the 66-yard Hayden Hurst touchdown just after halftime. Teams are going to try to follow that philosophy, although emulating the Bills will be tough.
Playoff kryptonite: Teams that minimize the importance of Stephon Gilmore
If Gilmore wasn’t already the Defensive Player of the Year, the Patriots cornerback might have sealed up the award by picking off two Andy Dalton passes Sunday, taking one to the house for a pick-six. I hardly need to recite Gilmore’s résumé at this point, but the 29-year-old has given Bill Belichick the ability to shut down whichever opposing receiver he wants from snap to snap.
The Patriots have a great defense around Gilmore, of course, but they’re going to do best against opposing offenses that revolve around throwing to one star wide receiver in the postseason. Teams that don’t rely heavily on the pass are likely to do best against the Pats, given that New England’s dominance really stands out through the air. Through Week 14’s games, the Patriots led the league with a -41.7% pass defense DVOA. To put that in context, while the 49ers are close to the Pats at -35.6%, the No. 3 Ravens are at -18.0% and closer to the Seahawks in 15th place than they are to the Patriots.
Belichick’s defense ranks sixth in the league in DVOA against the run, and that will likely fall a bit after Sunday’s game, when the Bengals ran the ball 32 times for 164 yards before dropping behind and being forced to throw. Sixth in the league is still pretty good, but I’m not sure that’s good enough against …
Team to avoid: Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens scored 30 points on offense against the Patriots in early November, the most of any team this season. Much of that, unsurprisingly, came on the ground: Baltimore ran the ball 41 times for 210 yards and three touchdowns, two of which came from Jackson. The Ravens had eight meaningful possessions in the game and punted just twice, with Baltimore scoring four touchdowns, kicking a field goal and Ingram losing a fumble to set up a Patriots field goal.
It would be wrong to say that Gilmore would be wasted against the Ravens, but the game doesn’t optimally set up for him to shut down a heavily targeted player. The Patriots could theoretically stick Gilmore on tight end Mark Andrews, who is targeted on 36% of the routes he runs, but that would likely mean they would need Jonathan Jones to play in coverage against speed demon Marquise Brown, and Jones was being used as the focal point of the spying package against Jackson.
Of course, the Ravens also gave Tom Brady fits when they were on defense. Brady’s numbers have fallen across the board this season, but he has been notably bad when blitzed. Even when we include Brady’s effective three-game stretch to start the season, he has posted a passer rating of 75.8 and a QBR of 39.7 against the blitz, which ranks 28th and 26th, respectively, in the NFL. The good news for the Patriots is that they still project as the second seed in the AFC, which means they wouldn’t be in line to play the Ravens until the AFC Championship Game.
Playoff kryptonite: Patrick Mahomes‘ health
While the Chiefs might very well be susceptible to teams that run the football effectively, a bigger — and more pressing — concern would likely be the health of their star quarterback. While Matt Moore is an underrated backup, and Nick Foles proved that a team can win the Super Bowl if it does a good enough job of coaching up the No. 2 option, the Chiefs realistically need Mahomes to stay healthy to have their best shot of making it to the Super Bowl.
He has been very good since returning from his knee injury in Week 10, and he threw for 340 yards and two touchdowns in the snow against an underrated Broncos pass defense in Sunday’s 23-3 victory. It’s also fair to say that he hasn’t quite hit the lofty heights of 2018 or what he was showing before he was slowed down by ankle and knee injuries. Remember that Mahomes was posting a passer rating of 141.1 earlier this season in games before repeatedly injuring his ankle, with that number falling to an even 80.0 in those games after the ankle injury.
Over the past five games, Mahomes has been somewhere in the middle, posting a passer rating of 97.3, the sixth-best mark in football. He has looked fine as a rusher, racking up 59 yards against the Chargers, while a 20-yard scamper against the Broncos on Sunday was called back for an illegal shift. The Chiefs can win with this version of Mahomes, but they need him to stay healthy.
Team to avoid: Pittsburgh Steelers
Naturally, the Chiefs will want to avoid teams that batter opposing quarterbacks. No team has given opposing quarterbacks more bumps and bruises than the Steelers, who are second in the league with a sack rate of 9.1%. They have the sixth-highest blitz rate in the league. With T.J. Watt playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Pittsburgh has one of the best pass-rushers in all of football.
Mahomes absolutely torched the Steelers for 326 yards and six touchdowns when the Chiefs faced the Steelers in Week 2 of 2018, but that was a different Pittsburgh defense. None of the starters who lined up in the secondary for the Steelers in Sunday night’s loss to the Bills was in the starting lineup for that Chiefs game. Minkah Fitzpatrick was on the Dolphins and Steven Nelson was on the opposite sideline. Devin Bush, a huge upgrade in pass coverage on then-starter Jon Bostic, was still in college. Both Watt and Bud Dupree have also elevated their games to new levels since that 2018 contest. I suspect the Steelers want a second crack at Mahomes after what happened last time.
Playoff kryptonite: Teams that take away big plays
The Texans absolutely devastate opposing defenses by stretching them vertically. With Deshaun Watson‘s ability to extend plays and the work his receivers do after the catch, Bill O’Brien’s offense is a threat to score from any spot on the field on any given play. Watson is tied for the league lead with Russell Wilson with 14 completions on throws traveling 30 or more yards in the air.
The Texans have produced 33 plays that gained 30 yards or more this season, which is second in the NFL behind the Chiefs. What’s telling about that number is how many of those plays have come when they needed them most. They have 12 30-plus-yard gains in the fourth quarter, four more than any other team. While the second-ranked Jaguars have mostly taken advantage of garbage time to rack up those plays, almost every one of those Texans plays has been in a competitive game.
Two of them came Sunday, when the Texans got the ball with 13:35 to go after the Titans scored to tie their crucial AFC South tilt at 14. Given time to throw, Watson fired a perfect pass to DeAndre Hopkins for a 35-yard completion. After Watson scrambled for a first down on the ensuing third-and-8, the Texans took the lead with a Carlos Hyde touchdown run.
On the next drive, Watson set the Texans up for more points with another big play. This time, Watson had to escape pressure, but he somehow managed to escape left, instantly reset his body, and throw another perfect pass upfield to Hopkins for a second 35-yard completion. The Texans settled for a field goal, but those three points ended up as the margin of victory in a close game.
Team to avoid: Buffalo Bills
While the Patriots and Steelers also rank among the stingiest defenses in the league in terms of allowing big plays, the Bills are on another level if we look a little further. Since the start of 2018, they have allowed just 24 plays of 30 yards or more. The Patriots are at 28, and they’re the only other team in the league under 30 over the last two seasons. Six of those plays have come in the fourth quarter, where the Bills trail only the Vikings for the fewest huge gains allowed over the final 15 minutes of action.
Buffalo has also done excellent work over that time frame against deep passes. It ranks second in the league in passer rating allowed (69.0) against downfield throws since the start of 2018. In Tre’Davious White, it also has the sort of corner who can compete against any wide receiver. White, who had two interceptions in Sunday night’s win over the Steelers, is allowing a passer rating of 32.1 as the nearest defender in coverage per NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s the best passer rating in football for cornerbacks with 200 coverage snaps or more who don’t play for the Patriots.
These two teams played in 2018, and Sean McDermott’s defense gave the Texans fits. Watson went 15-of-25 for 177 yards with a touchdown, two interceptions and seven sacks. Houston’s longest play of the day went for 24 yards, and its one offensive touchdown was set up by a muffed punt on a drive that only needed 29 yards to hit paydirt.
The Texans prevailed 20-13, because the Bills couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain on offense. Josh Allen was 10-of-17 for just 84 yards before leaving in the third quarter with an elbow injury, which turned things over to embattled backup Nathan Peterman. After the Texans tied things up with a field goal to make it 13-13 with 1:37 to go, Peterman threw a pick-six to Johnathan Joseph to give the Texans a 20-13 lead. After getting the ball back, Peterman then threw an interception to Kareem Jackson to end the game.
The Bills aren’t anywhere near as turnover-prone this season, as Sunday’s win over the Steelers was the first time they have turned the ball over more than once in any contest since Week 4. We’ll likely get a chance to see the rematch very soon, too, as FPI projects a 72.3% chance that the Bills will travel to Houston as the No. 5 seed and face the No. 4-seeded Texans in the wild-card round.
Playoff kryptonite: Getting boxed in the pocket under pressure
While Josh Allen has certainly made strides as a passer in Year 2, he still has that young quarterback habit of struggling against a pass rush. When he hasn’t been under duress this season, he has been quite effective, posting a passer rating of 102.1. That’s good for 15th in the NFL. When he has been pressured, though, his passer rating falls all the way to 31.7, which ranks 30th among qualifying quarterbacks. Only Kyler Murray and Jared Goff have been worse under pressure this season.
We saw the good and bad of Allen during Sunday’s win over the Steelers. Early in the game, he took advantage of a short field with his legs. He ran for 12 yards on third-and-18 to set up a makeable fourth down, and then followed a lead block from Devin Singletary to walk in untouched for a 1-yard touchdown.
During the second half, Buffalo’s touchdown drive was mostly two big Allen throws. The first was a 40-yard completion to John Brown, who had beaten Steven Nelson at the line of scrimmage. The second was more impressive and a sign of Allen’s growth, as he worked all the way to the backside of his progression and found an open Tyler Kroft in a narrow window with a perfect throw for a 14-yard touchdown. If that throw is poorly placed, it either pushes Kroft out of bounds for an incompletion or draws him to the trailing defender for a possible interception. Allen’s throw couldn’t have been better.
The bad was what we saw when he came under pressure from a devastating Steelers defense. While he didn’t turn the ball over on the 11 plays where the Steelers created pressure, he went 3-of-8 for just 22 yards with a sack and two unsuccessful scrambles. His interception actually came on a play where he wasn’t under pressure and instead simply sailed a dig route to an open Cole Beasley, who couldn’t bring the pass in with his leap.
It wasn’t a horrific performance under pressure by any means — consider that Mahomes was 2-of-8 for 11 yards, a pick, and a passer rating of 0.0 under pressure against the Broncos in the snow on Sunday — but a reminder that the Bills need to protect Allen and use their quick game to help get the ball out of his hands quickly. Avoiding teams that get after opposing quarterbacks would be ideal, but in this AFC bracket that won’t be an option.
Team to avoid: New England Patriots
Allen has started twice against the Patriots, and both times Belichick has stifled him. In 2018, the Patriots limited Allen to five carries for 30 yards and saw the rookie go 20-of-41 for 217 yards with two interceptions and a garbage time touchdown. Earlier this season, Allen was even more destructive, as the Wyoming product went 13-of-28 for 153 yards with three interceptions and a fumble before being knocked out of the game by a helmet-to-helmet hit.
Tre’Davious White explains what it’s like to have his team make the playoffs for the second time in three years and to have his alma mater, LSU, ranked No. 1 overall in college football.
In both contests, Belichick has successfully instructed his defense to keep Allen in the pocket. In his two starts against the Patriots, Allen has gone 2-of-8 for 21 yards and an interception on throws outside the pocket, good for a passer rating of just 4.9. He typically made mistakes when throwing out of the pocket, as his passer rating against the rest of the league on those throws is just 44.9, but by forcing him to process from the pocket, they’ve kept the speedy quarterback from making plays with his legs.
Allen will get a chance to mark off some level of revenge against the Pats before the playoffs begin, as the Bills get their rematch with the Patriots this weekend in Foxborough. Otherwise, if the current standings hold, the Bills wouldn’t be in line for a third game against the Pats until the AFC Championship Game.
Playoff kryptonite: The intermediate game
Devlin Hodges is a little like an appliance from the 1960s. While some modern marvel of a device might be able to toast your bread to one of 20 different specifications on demand through your phone, Hodges has two options: short or deep. A whopping 43.6% of his passes have been thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage this season, which is more than 10 percentage points ahead of Nick Foles for the highest rate in all of football. Foles is closer to 26th than he is to Hodges, who leads all 41 passers with 100 attempts or more.
At the same time, though, Hodges also gets the ball downfield quite frequently, as 13.7% of his pass attempts have traveled 20 yards or more in the air. Of those 41 passers, Hodges is tied for the 10th-highest frequency of long throws with Steelers teammate Mason Rudolph.
When you look at throws in the intermediate range — between 5 and 15 yards in the air — Hodges has trouble. He attempts only about four of those passes each game, and his passer rating on those throws is 66.5, which ranks 38th in the league. (Rudolph, coincidentally, ranks 39th on those same passes.) I mentioned that the Bills typically take away deep passes, and when they forced Hodges to throw intermediate passes on Sunday, he went 6-of-11 for 54 yards with an interception.
Team to avoid: New England Patriots
Hodges realistically needs those occasional deep shots to move the ball on offense and create some breathing room for his checkdowns and quick throws, so any team that erases deep passes should give him fits. Enter the Patriots, who have embarrassed opposing quarterbacks brave enough to throw downfield on them this season. The Pats are allowing a QBR of just 18.2 on deep passes, nearly 30 points better than any other team. If you prefer passer rating, the Pats are giving up a mere 32.0 rating on those deep throws, which is nearly 30 points better than the second-place Steelers.
Pick a stat for downfield pass defense and the Patriots are the best in the league, usually by a considerable margin. That’s bad news for Hodges. The Steelers wouldn’t be in line to face the Patriots until the AFC Championship Game if they make it to the postseason, but they would have to face the Ravens in the divisional round, and Baltimore ranks third in passer rating against deep throws since Week 5. Neither matchup seems particularly appealing for Pittsburgh’s young quarterbacks.
Playoff kryptonite: Missing pass rush
It’s almost a prerequisite for a playoff team — let alone a team that currently has the No. 1 seed in the NFC with two weeks to go — to have at least a competent pass rush. While Jadeveon Clowney‘s efforts on national television against the 49ers in November are the biggest reason the Seahawks actually hold the top spot in the NFC, he is injured and the team’s other pass-rushers are floundering. Seattle’s pass rush has been abysmal for most of 2019.
The Seahawks rank 30th in pressure rate (22.8%) and 31st in sack rate (4.1%). Only the Dolphins have sacked opposing quarterbacks less frequently. To put that latter number in context, the only team since 2001 to make it to the playoffs with a sack rate worse than 4.1% are the 2014 Bengals, who were all the way down at 3.1%.
What’s worse is that the problems don’t appear to be getting better. Sunday should have been a great opportunity for Seattle to get its pass rush right, given that Pete Carroll’s team was going up against eminently sackable Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen. Allen had a 9.5% sack rate heading into the game, the second-worst mark in the league among starters. The Seahawks sacked him once on 42 dropbacks. He was pressured on just 13.3% of those plays, the lowest rate for any quarterback in football in Week 15. He threw three interceptions, but quarterbacks who thrive without pressure are going to give the Seahawks trouble this postseason.
Team to avoid: New Orleans Saints
When the Seahawks lost to the Saints at home in September, it was with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback. Bridgewater dropped back 27 times, but as you might suspect from Seattle’s track record, he wasn’t sacked once and posted a passer rating of 112.7 in his first competitive start with New Orleans.
Drew Brees only ups the degree of difficulty. If you don’t get pressure on the future Hall of Famer, he will tear you apart. He ranks third in the league in Total QBR (83.6) and fourth in passer rating (117.1) when teams don’t pressure him this season. His completion percentage on those throws is an unreal 77.7%, unsurprisingly tops in football.
Brees doesn’t turn into a pumpkin under pressure, but you can certainly slow down the 40-year-old with some pass-rushers in his face. His Total QBR drops all the way down to 9.4 when he’s under pressure, which ranks 20th in the NFL. His passer rating of 65.4 is 11th, which is still pretty good, but not the sort of pitch and catch an unbothered Brees can play with Michael Thomas.
Playoff kryptonite: Great pass rushes
Green Bay’s two significant losses this season have come in games where it was torn apart by dominant defensive lines. As I wrote about earlier this year, the Chargers were able to put the Packers’ offense into safe mode by moving Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram inside to go up against the weaker pass-protecting elements of the Packers’ line. The Chargers eventually won that game 26-11.
I thought the 49ers might do the same with Bosa’s little brother three weeks later, but it turned out they didn’t really need Nick to move to the interior. With Bryan Bulaga going down injured in the first quarter, the 49ers were able to harass Rodgers from just about anywhere they wanted. Fred Warner strip-sacked Rodgers on the first third down of the game to hand the 49ers a short field, Tevin Coleman scored on the next play, and a 37-8 rout was on.
Team to avoid: San Francisco 49ers
Not a surprise, right? Even with Dee Ford sidelined for most of the season, the 49ers can boast three wildly productive pass-rushers in Bosa, DeForest Buckner and former first-round pick Arik Armstead, who has a team-high 10 sacks. A balky hamstring continues to sideline Ford, with the former Chiefs star having played just four defensive snaps since Week 11, but he should be back for a possible postseason rematch between these teams in the divisional round.
One other concern for the Packers that reared its head in the first matchup is that the Packers seem to rely upon scoring early, given how their offense tends to shut down as the game goes along. Perhaps owing to whatever plays Matt LaFleur scripts early in contests, they have averaged 3.4 points per possession on drives starting in the first quarter, the third-best rate in football. On their other drives, they have averaged just 1.9 points per possession, which ranks 16th.
The 49ers haven’t had the same sort of splits — they rank 10th in points allowed per drive on defense in the first quarter and third in the NFL afterward — but they shut out the Packers on four first-quarter drives when these two teams played and held Rodgers & Co. to just eight points afterward.
Playoff kryptonite: Controlling the middle of the field
The Saints simply don’t have many weaknesses as one of the league’s most well-rounded teams. My biggest concern for them is the injuries they have along the defensive line after losing Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport to injured reserve. Wonderfully named undrafted free agent Shy Tuttle has come on in recent weeks and could impress in a larger role, and the Saints could very well be the sort of team to claim Terrell Suggs off waivers, but the Saints’ edge rushers behind Cameron Jordan right now are Trey Hendrickson, Carl Granderson and Noah Spence. I would be worried about the Saints if teams are able to bottle up Jordan with double-teams.
The injuries are a little outside the purview of this conceit, though, so let’s go with an issue we’ve already seen the Saints struggle with this season. While Marshon Lattimore remains a cornerback opposing teams should avoid, we just saw the 49ers build their offensive game plan around attacking the lesser defensive backs in the New Orleans secondary. Kyle Shanahan repeatedly targeted Eli Apple, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and the Saints’ linebackers and safeties in coverage in that legendary 48-46 game from Week 14. The Saints, who play Monday night against the Colts, have had to spend the last week stewing over the tape of a difficult loss.
Many of those plays came over the middle of the field, where the Saints have been particularly bad in pass defense. When teams have thrown the ball between the hashes, Dennis Allen’s defense really hasn’t had an answer. Opposing quarterbacks are 57-of-76 for 758 yards, seven touchdown passes and two interceptions against the Saints between the hashes this season. The yardage total leads the league, while the resulting 96.5 Total QBR from passers ranks 30th, with only the Cardinals and Falcons worse.
Team to avoid: San Francisco 49ers
Could you have guessed? With a strong play-action game and superstar tight end George Kittle running up the seam, the 49ers are deadly over the middle of the field. Jimmy Garoppolo has posted a passer rating of 143.0 on throws between the hashes, the third-best mark in the league behind Patrick Mahomes and Ryan Tannehill.
In the Week 14 matchup against the Saints, Garoppolo was 4-of-6 for 101 yards and a 75-yard touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders between the hashes. That sounds good, but it wasn’t even the best performance we saw all year from a quarterback in the middle of the field against the Saints. Go all the way back to Week 1 and you’ll find Deshaun Watson going 8-of-9 for 134 yards and three scores between the hashes against the Saints, including the 37-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to briefly give the Texans the lead with 43 seconds left in the game. The Saints will be quite happy if they get to play the Texans again this season, but a 49ers rematch could very well be in play this January.
Playoff kryptonite: Kicking and special teams
Can you recall a team that won a Super Bowl despite their kicking? The Cowboys have been an absolute disaster on special teams this season, with the issues most famously rearing their head in the 13-9 loss to the Patriots in Week 12. Second-year kicker Brett Maher went 20-of-30 on field goal attempts before being released, including a scarcely-believable 1-of-5 performance between 40 and 49 yards. Replacement Kai Forbath missed an extra point in his lone week with the Patriots before being released, although he was 3-for-3 on field goals in his debut with the Cowboys against the Rams on Sunday.
Getting rid of Maher might help, but the Cowboys’ woes weren’t limited strictly to scoring plays. Football Outsiders ranked the Cowboys dead last in special teams DVOA heading into Week 15, and it wasn’t just for kicking. The Cowboys were below average in every facet of special teams, including ranking last on kickoff returns and 26th on punts. Special-teams performance can regress toward the mean during the season, but the Cowboys realistically need to invest in new personnel (and/or a new special-teams coach) over the offseason.
Team to avoid: Green Bay Packers
In this case, the Cowboys need to avoid bad weather as opposed to a particularly onerous opposing special-teams group. The Saints would qualify as the best special teams in the NFC, mostly through Wil Lutz‘s success on scoring plays, but the Cowboys would likely welcome a chance to try to kick and punt in the friendly confines of a dome.
Instead, with the Cowboys sure to be on the road after the wild-card game, a trip to Lambeau would be scariest for this special-teams unit. Seahawks fans are legendarily loud, and the Pacific Northwest’s weather in January is hardly inviting, but the chances for snow and swirling winds at Lambeau make for what could be a horrific special-teams day. Opposing kickers have missed eight field goals at Lambeau in the playoffs over the past 20 seasons, the most in any stadium. I wouldn’t want to count on the well-traveled Forbath keeping that total at eight in a close playoff game.
Playoff kryptonite: Play-action
I always find it strange when teams whose offenses excel at something have defenses that struggle against that very same thing. Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated upon the zone-rushing scheme and the play-action passes that come off that concept. Just over 31% of San Francisco’s dropbacks have included some form of a play-fake this season, the third-highest rate in football.
On defense, though, the 49ers have struggled to stop opposing offenses when they fire up their own play-action opportunities. While the San Francisco defense has generally been great in 2019, Robert Saleh’s unit has allowed teams to post a passer rating of 112.9 off play-action, which ranks 24th in the NFL. When teams haven’t used play-action, the 49ers have allowed a passer rating of 66.6, which is second in the NFL behind the Patriots.
The Falcons took advantage of this hole in the 49ers’ defense in their upset victory Sunday. Matt Ryan went 7-of-8 on play-action for a relatively modest 49 yards, but the biggest play came on a 32-yard pass interference call against Jimmie Ward, setting up a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line for Atlanta. Factor that in and Ryan’s nine pass attempts off play-action generated 81 passing yards. Nine yards per attempt isn’t shabby against this pass defense, especially considering Ryan was otherwise 18-of-31 for 152 yards.
Team to avoid: Minnesota Vikings
The other team in the NFC playoff picture built off the Shanahan play-action playbook is the Vikings, who have Gary Kubiak as an offensive adviser. Kubiak played under Mike Shanahan in Denver and built his own offenses in Houston as a coach under the same tenets. Kyle, of course, was Kubiak’s offensive coordinator for a time with the Texans.
The Vikings have been the league’s most devastating play-action team. They’ve actually turned to play-action on nearly 32% of their dropbacks, which is just ahead of the 49ers for the second-highest rate. It has unlocked a career year for Kirk Cousins, who has thrown 13 touchdown passes without an interception and posted a passer rating of 136.3 off play-action. No passer with 100 play-action attempts or more has been better.
The 49ers unquestionably know the Kubiak scheme inside and out, and Dalvin Cook‘s availability appears questionable after he re-aggravated his shoulder injury against the Chargers, but the 49ers don’t want to see a dominant play-action offense on the opposite sideline in January.
Playoff kryptonite: Downfield passing
This has been a strange season for the Vikings. Mike Zimmer has generally done an excellent job of drafting and developing cornerbacks, and Minnesota devotes about as much in terms of draft resources to the position as possible. Xavier Rhodes had fallen off a bit from his peak in 2018, but with Trae Waynes entering a contract year and Mike Hughes returning from a torn ACL, it was reasonable to think that corner could be a plus position for the Vikings in 2019.
That hasn’t happened. Rhodes and Waynes have the fifth-worst and 16th-worst passer ratings as the nearest defender in coverage, respectively, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Rhodes has been particularly gruesome, with opposing quarterbacks going 52-of-63 for 652 yards and four touchdowns with him as the closest defender. Next Gen Stats predicts that 64.5% of those 63 attempts should have been completed, and quarterbacks are instead hitting 82.5% of their passes.
The resulting difference of 18 percentage points is comfortably the largest in football for corners with 200 coverage snaps or more, and the only other guy in the league over 10 percentage points is Josh Norman, who was benched for most of the last month and came in for six defensive snaps on Sunday, one of which was Norman getting beat on Carson Wentz‘s game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Ward. Rhodes has been worse than Norman.
The Vikings have generally been a mess when teams throw downfield. On passes traveling 16 yards or more in the air, Minnesota has allowed a Total QBR of 96.6, the fifth-worst mark in the NFL. The good news is that they have five interceptions against deep passes over the past two weeks, which I would attribute more to David Blough and Philip Rivers than the defense. They also picked off a Dak Prescott Hail Mary with three seconds left in Week 10, but I wouldn’t want to trust these cornerbacks against a quarterback who has had success throwing downfield in 2019.
Team to avoid: Seattle Seahawks
While Russell Wilson‘s MVP run will likely fall short to the incredible work Lamar Jackson has done, the Seahawks star has diced teams up throwing downfield. His 97.6 QBR on deep throws ranks third in the NFL behind Garoppolo and Cousins, and he has nearly thrown deep more frequently than the two of them combined.
Take it a step further and look at ultra-deep passes traveling 26 or more yards in the air, and Wilson’s dominance is clearer. He comfortably leads the league in ultra-deep completions (21) and passing yards (821). Wilson has generated 17.9 expected points on those passes, which is also ahead of everyone else in the league. He has also done this despite the fact that his receivers have dropped three of his 44 ultra-deep attempts.
What’s interesting, though, is that Wilson didn’t really have a great game on deep throws when the Seahawks beat the Vikings earlier this season. He was 1-of-5 on deep passes in that game, and while his completion was a 60-yard touchdown pass to David Moore, guys like Matt Moore and Derek Carr were able to piece together much more productive downfield passing days against Zimmer’s defense. Given a second chance, I suspect Wilson would have a big game in a playoff rematch between these two teams.