For most of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs have positioned themselves as Super Bowl contenders. The offense grinds up opponents, scoring a league-leading 3.1 points per drive, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes inserted himself in the MVP debate after becoming the second player in NFL history with 50 touchdown passes and 5,000 passing yards in a single season. Mahomes is the sixth player to pass for more than 5,000 yards in a season, joining Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Dan Marino and Matthew Stafford.
The defense, on the other hand, hasn’t been near championship caliber. In the red zone the Chiefs are allowing opponents to score a touchdown more than 72 percent of the time, the second-worst rate in 2018 after the 5-11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (78 percent). Since 2002, the first year the league expanded to 32 teams, no Super Bowl winner has ended the regular season allowing a red-zone efficiency higher than 60 percent. Plus, Kansas City gave up 76 plays of 20 yards or more during the regular season. The most big plays given up by a Super Bowl winner over the past 16 years was 71 by the 2011 New York Giants. The 2014 New England Patriots are next with 64. And, according to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs rank 26th in defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average; the only time a Super Bowl champ was ranked 26th or lower in defense DVOA was when the Indianapolis Colts (No. 26) won it all in 2006.
Not exactly a resume that gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling, is it? Don’t worry, the Chiefs aren’t alone. Here are fatal flaws for the rest of the playoff field.
New England Patriots (11-5-0) | AFC No. 2 seed
The Patriots’ pass rush is suspect. According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus, the Patriots have the fourth-worst pass-rushing unit in the NFL this year and after adjusting for strength of schedule they drop to 30th in adjusted sack rate; only the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants were worse at getting to the passer in 2018.
Defensive end Trey Flowers was outstanding for New England during the regular season — 65 pressures and the 14th highest rating by Pro Football Focus among edge rushers in 2018 — but the next best pass rusher for New England was Adrian Clayborn (44th among edge rushers), who registered just 39 pressures during the regular season.
Houston Texans (11-5-0) | AFC No. 3 seed
The Texans are good at getting to the quarterback but their passer is often under siege. In 2018, the Texans’ offensive line allowed a league-high 59 sacks and 215 total pressures over 622 passing plays. More than half of those sacks (29) were attributed to the offensive line and after adjusting the team’s sack rate for down, distance and opponent it soars to over 11 percent, the worst in the league, per Football Outsiders. There has been just one Super Bowl champion in the past six years to rank worse than 22nd in adjusted sack rate: the Seattle Seahawks (9.6 percent in 2013).
Poor pass protection leads to poor quarterback performance and while Deshaun Watson has been good under pressure — his 88.1 passer rating in these situations was the third-best of 2018 — it is significantly worse than his production from a clean pocket (111.6).
Baltimore Ravens (10-6-0) | AFC No. 4 seed
The Ravens, like the Chiefs, crumbled in the red zone, allowing 63 percent of drives inside the 20-yard line to end in a touchdown, the ninth worst mark of the season. The team’s quarterbacking situation also raises an eyebrow.
Rookie Lamar Jackson completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,201 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions over seven starts, making him one of the least valuable passers this year per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. By their metric, Jackson’s 45.2 QBR implies he would guide his team to a underwhelming 7-9 record over a full season. The quarterback he replaced, Joe Flacco, produced a 57.4 QBR before his injury. Peyton Manning was able to win the Super Bowl with a comparable QBR (44.2) in 2015, but that Denver team also boasted a historically good defense. Same for 2012 when Flacco (51.4 QBR) and the Ravens won it all. This year’s Ravens defense is good, but not anywhere close to being in the conversation as one of the best of all time.
Defenders of Jackson would argue his ability to run the ball — he produced 695 yards and five touchdowns on 147 carries in 2018 — makes him a more valuable quarterback; however, that scrambling ability translates to less than a third of a point per game after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each run, per data from TruMedia.
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4-0) | AFC No. 5 seed
The Chargers have a passer with big-play ability — quarterback Philip Rivers orchestrated 59 pass plays of 20 yards or more in 2018, the third most after Patrick Mahomes (72) and Jared Goff (66) — but their defense allowed 52 big plays through the air and another 11 on the ground, putting the team precariously close to the 2014 Patriots (64), one of two Super Bowl winners with that many or more big plays against during the regular season.
A propensity to give up big plays allows opponents to keep their offense on the field, and Los Angeles is no different: It allowed almost six plays per drive in 2018, the fifth-most this season.
Indianapolis Colts (10-6-0) | AFC No. 6 seed
Quarterback Andrew Luck, drafted in 2012, is an NFL veteran but the roster around him is among the youngest in the NFL (25.6 years old, eighth youngest). Offensive starters Marlon Mack (22 years old), Chester Rogers (24) and rookie offensive linemen Quenton Nelson (22) and Braden Smith (22) are all relatively new to the pros as are defensive starters Anthony Walker (23), Darius Leonard (23), Kenny Moore (23) and Malik Hooker (22). A young, productive core is great for long-term prospects but for Super Bowl titles it can be considered a hindrance: The Seattle Seahawks won a championship in 2013 with the fourth-youngest roster (25.3), but since then more seasoned teams have been the last team standing.
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New Orleans Saints (13-3-0) | NFC No. 1 seed
If defense wins championships, the Saints are in trouble. Opponents converted 73 percent of down series into a first down or touchdown during the regular season, the fifth-worst rate of 2018, and scored a touchdown on more than 63 percent of their red-zone drives, giving New Orleans the 10th worst red-zone defense this season. Remember, no Super Bowl winner since 2002 has ended the regular season allowing a red-zone efficiency higher than 60 percent.
That same defense also elevates the play of opposing quarterbacks. Passers have completed 67 percent of their throws against the Saints for an average rating of 100.3, roughly the equivalent of Goff’s 2018 number (101.1). Looked at another way, New Orleans allowed three points more per game than expected after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each pass against. Only seven other teams, just one a playoff contender (Chiefs), were worse in 2018, per data from TruMedia.
Los Angeles Rams (13-3-0) | NFC No. 2 seed
The Rams, for all their offensive gifts, struggle once they get inside the 20-yard line. The team converted just 58 percent of their red-zone opportunities, a below-average rate (59 percent), and instead relied on big plays to do most of the work — their 83 plays of 20 or more yards were second only to the Chiefs (95). They allow a lot of big plays to go against them (76), too, eclipsing the most big plays given up by a Super Bowl winner since 2002 (71 by the 2011 New York Giants).
Plus, the team’s net passer rating just isn’t where it needs to be. The Rams produced a 100.7 passer rating while allowing a passer rating of 93.8, giving them a net passer rating differential of plus-6.9, the 11th best differential this year. However, since 2002, 23 of the past 31 Super Bowl participants had a passer rating differential among the top five in the league, including 11 of the past 16 winners, leaving the Rams falling short.
Chicago Bears (12-4-0) | NFC No. 3 seed
Your outlook on the Chicago Bears likely hinges on how you feel about quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The 24-year-old completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,233 yards, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, ending the season with a 95.4 passer rating. However, seven of his 14 outings resulted in a passer rating below 85 with one other, a win against the Minnesota Vikings, coming close (85.9). Over the past 15 postseasons, teams have a 53-115 record (a .315 win rate) when their quarterback fails to achieve a passer rating in excess of 85. One clunker from Trubisky and the Bears could see their postseason cut short.
Dallas Cowboys (10-6-0) | NFC No. 4 seed
It’s going to be hard to keep quarterback Dak Prescott upright. The Cowboys’ offensive line ranked 20th in pass blocking by the game charters at Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders had them as the fifth-worst pass-blocking unit after adjusting for strength of schedule (10 percent adjusted sack rate against). There has been just one Super Bowl champion in the past six years to rank worse than 22nd in adjusted sack rate and with four of the 10 best pass-rushing units in the NFC playoff hunt, including both the Rams (second best) and Saints (sixth best), each a potential second-round opponent for the Cowboys, Prescott figures to be harassed early and often.
In those situations, Prescott’s passer rating dropped from 101.0 to 87.1 in 2018, roughly the difference between how well Goff and Brock Osweiler performed this season.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6-0) | NFC No. 5 seed
Seattle’s offensive line woes continue to plague them. It managed to overcome that deficiency in 2013 when their offensive line allowed a league-worst adjusted sack rate of 9.6 percent, but this year not only is it even worse at 10.4 percent, there is no Legion of Boom to help them. And because of that, opponents are not forced into three-and-out situations all that often. In fact, the Seahawks forced opponents into a three-and-out less than a quarter of the time (24.7 percent), the lowest rate in the NFL in 2018 (it was 38 percent in 2013, the 10th highest in the league that year). Over the past 16 years, only the 2006 Colts have won a Super Bowl after a regular season in which they forced opponents to go three-and-out less than 30 percent of the time.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) | NFC No. 6 seed
It’s very difficult for a team to emerge as champion from the wild-card round. Since 2002, only six teams have been able to do it and only one, the 2011 New York Giants, had fewer than 10 wins. However, that Giants team won the NFC East whereas this year’s Eagles are a runner up. Plus, road teams such as Philadelphia have a tough task ahead of them: Visitors are 28-36 in the wild-card round and 58-102 overall since 2002.
There are other knocks against Philadelphia, too. Its net passer rating differential is too low (plus-7.3, 10th best), it has trouble protecting the passer (6.7 percent adjusted sack rate, 17th) and their pass coverage can be porous at times, especially against Rasul Douglas, who allows almost two yards per snap in coverage (1.9), the fifth-highest rate at the position this year.