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The fatal flaw that could stop each NFL playoff team from reaching the Super Bowl

We know Aaron Rodgers can throw the ball, but does he have enough receivers? (Rick Osentoski/AP)

If defense wins championships, many of the eight teams remaining in the NFL playoffs are in trouble. Some struggled in the red zone this season, while others had issues with forcing opponents into three-and-outs; strength in those metrics is often indicative of a potential Super Bowl champion. Two of the weakest defenses in the field reside in the AFC, giving the conference’s top seed, the Baltimore Ravens, a relatively easy path to this year’s Super Bowl.

The Ravens, however, have defensive issues of their own. Their defensive line has had trouble generating pressure with a traditional four-man pass rush, forcing Coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Martindale to blitz a league-high 55 percent of the time. (The league average is 28 percent.) That can leave the Baltimore secondary vulnerable. The remaining playoff teams that faced Baltimore this season produced an 84.6 passer rating against its blitz but just a 68.9 passer rating against its traditional pass pressure, with significant differences in completion rate and yards per attempt.

Remaining playoff teams vs. Baltimore’s blitz in 2019
Comp %
Yards per attempt
Passer rating
Plays under pressure
45 percent
When blitzed
61 percent

That difference might not be dramatic, but it’s easy to imagine how giddy Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill is at the thought of facing plenty of blitzes Saturday night. Tannehill averaged 11 yards per attempt against the blitz this season, with eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a 133.9 passer rating.

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If generating pressure with a four-man rush is Baltimore’s biggest weakness, here are potentially fatal flaws for the rest of the playoff field:


No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs

Fatal flaw: Rush defense

The Chiefs stopped just 14 percent of opposing rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage during the regular season (the third-lowest stuff rate of 2019) and allowed 71 percent of runs on third or fourth down needing two yards or less to achieve a first down or touchdown, the fifth-worst rate in the league. Those numbers limited Kansas City’s overall rush defense, after adjusting for opponent, to 29th in the NFL, with opponents going three-and-out a league-low 22 percent of the time.

Over the past 16 years, only the 2006 Colts won the Super Bowl after a regular season in which they forced opponents to go three-and-out less than 30 percent of the time.

No. 4 Houston Texans

Fatal flaw: Pass coverage

Houston’s defensive component of Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (a measure of team efficiency based on comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent) ranked 26th, per Football Outsiders, putting the Texans precariously close to a worrisome line of futility. The only time a Super Bowl champion ranked 26th or lower in defensive DVOA was when the Colts, who also ranked 26th, won it all after the 2006 season.

Houston has also allowed the most touchdown passes (33) of any playoff team. Of the five Houston cornerbacks playing at least 25 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, just one, Bradley Roby, has more interceptions (two) than touchdowns allowed (one). Two of those five corners, Vernon Hargreaves III and Lonnie Johnson Jr., allowed a passer rating of more than 130 in coverage.

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No. 6 Tennessee Titans

Fatal flaw: Red zone defense

The Titans, like the Chiefs, struggled to force three-and-outs (33 percent, ranking 22nd), but they also allowed more than two-thirds of drives to end in a touchdown, with a 68 percent defensive efficiency in the red zone during the regular season. Only the Texans were worse. Since 2002, when the NFL expanded to 32 teams, no Super Bowl winner has ended the regular season with an opponent red-zone efficiency higher than 60 percent.


No. 1 San Francisco 49ers

Fatal flaw: Ball security

It should come as no surprise that the team with a positive turnover margin wins a majority of playoff games. From 2002 to 2019, a positive turnover margin has led to a 118-36 record in the postseason. And just five teams over that span appeared in the Super Bowl despite losing the turnover battle in the postseason.

San Francisco has struggled with ball security; its 23 turnovers are the most of any remaining playoff team. Jimmy Garoppolo has thrown 13 interceptions, the most of any of the remaining playoff starting quarterbacks, and also fumbled 10 times, losing five of those. (The NFC’s other three starting QBs threw a combined 15 interceptions.) Minnesota, which San Francisco will host in the divisional round, was fourth in the NFL in takeaways (31), with 19 forced fumbles (tied for fifth most) and 13 fumble recoveries (tied for third most). The other two remaining NFC playoff teams, the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, ranked third and seventh in takeaways.

No. 2 Green Bay Packers

Fatal flaw: Receiver depth and passing efficiency

Aaron Rodgers is on the decline. The two-time MVP and nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback was the 21st-most valuable passer of 2019, per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, after finishing 16th in 2018 and fourth in 2016. (In 2017, he played just seven games because of injury.) Rodgers’s corresponding decline in his traditional passer rating is also a red flag (he posted a 104.2 passer rating in 2016 but just a 95.4 passer rating in 2019, which is average), dragging down the team’s net passer rating to plus-14.2, the ninth-best differential during the regular season.

Passer rating
Passer rating allowed
Net passer rating

Teams outside the top five in net passer rating face an uphill battle in the quest for a title. Since 2002, 23 of 34 Super Bowl participants had a passer rating differential among the top five in the league, including 11 of the 17 winners.

Perhaps Rodgers’s reduced efficiency is due to defenses focusing on Green Bay’s No. 1 wideout, Davante Adams. On passes to Adams, Rodgers completed 83 of 124 targets for 997 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception, producing a 101.4 passer rating on those throws. Rodgers managed a much lower 93.3 passer rating when targeting his other receivers.

No. 5 Seattle Seahawks

Fatal flaw: Pass protection

Russell Wilson was the highest-rated passer of 2019, per Pro Football Focus, despite a porous offensive line that was deemed responsible for more than half (27) of Wilson’s league-leading 48 sacks. After adjusting the team’s sack rate for strength of schedule, Seattle ranked 24th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. Just one Super Bowl champion in the past seven years had an adjusted sack rate that ranked worse than 24th: Seattle in 2013. (Those Seahawks had a league-worst 9.6 percent adjusted sack rate.)

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Wilson’s production also declined from a 115.2 passer rating in a clean pocket to 88.7 when facing pass pressure. To be fair, Wilson’s passer rating when facing pass pressure was the fourth highest of the season, but it is still a significant drop-off from his performance in a clean pocket. To put that drop in perspective, it’s roughly the difference between how well Drew Brees performed during his record-setting romp through the regular season (116.3) and Daniel Jones’s rookie campaign for the New York Giants (87.7).

No. 6 Minnesota Vikings

Fatal flaw: Pass coverage

The Vikings’ cornerbacks are, for lack of a better word, weak. Out of 128 cornerbacks playing at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, only one Vikings player — slot corner Mackensie Alexander — ranked in the top 50 during the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus. But Alexander was inactive for Sunday’s game at the New Orleans Saints because of a knee injury, and he will reportedly be out against the 49ers. Mike Hughes ranked 68th but was also inactive Sunday with a neck injury that landed him on injured reserve. Trae Waynes ranked 79th, and Xavier Rhodes ranked 125th.

As a group, the quartet allowed a league-high 72 percent of targets to be caught, producing a 107.7 passer rating against. The rest of the NFL’s cornerbacks allowed a 62 percent completion rate and a 93.7 passer rating against. Rhodes and Waynes allowed an opponent passer rating of 110 or more when targeted in coverage.

When you have weak cornerbacks, you can’t play as much man-to-man coverage, forcing Minnesota to be a zone-heavy defense that drops back in coverage and yields the underneath area of the field. Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore and Tennessee are four of the five best teams at exploiting this area. The Vikings already dispatched the league’s best in this regard, the Saints, but New Orleans completed 21 of 25 passes within nine yards of the line of scrimmage in its loss Sunday. The Seahawks were successful on 18 of 20 underneath passes against the Vikings in Week 13.

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The Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20, in the Super Bowl to deliver Kansas City’s first NFL championship in 50 years. Find all the highlights here.

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Photos: The best photos from Hard Rock Stadium | The plays the Chiefs made to win

Halftime show: Jennifer Lopez and Shakira teamed up to become the first two Latina singers to perform at the Super Bowl. It was a truly riveting, wildly entertaining performance. “You may have heard the American Dream itself pulsing in a space where it will always be allowed to live,” pop music critic Chris Richards writes, “inside a pop song.”

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