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Sunday's Best

Divisional Round Marquee Matchups

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: January 16, 2021, 10:24 am ET

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs

In the postseason, when breaking down matchups, a big consideration must fall on strength of schedule.  We have a full body of work from these teams by this point.

As with all strength of schedule analysis, the key is to focus on the extremes.

And in this game, we have multiple angles with extreme strength of schedule edges.

Let’s start with Chiefs Offense vs the Browns Defense.

The Cleveland Browns Defense has faced the NFL’s #1 easiest schedule of offenses this season.

Digging deeper, they’ve played the #2 easiest schedule of pass offenses and #2 easiest schedule of pass blocking offensive lines.

Against such an easy schedule, we should expect their performance to be strong defensively.  Or at least average.  

It wasn’t strong nor was it average.

The Browns ranked #25 against the pass and #24 overall.

The only top-10 offense the Browns faced this season was the Titans.  A run-centric team that passed the ball primarily using play action only after setting up the run.

When the Titans finally abandoned the run, they put up 35 points on the Browns Defense, 28 of which came in the second half.

Of the other 15 opponents the Browns Defense faced, only 4 had offenses that ranked above the bottom-10:  Ravens, Colts, Raiders and Texans

Every single one of those teams but the Texans was a run-centric offense.

The Ravens, Colts and Raiders ranked #3, 10 and 12 in run rate on early downs in the first three quarters.

But keep in mind that three games the Browns played on the season came in high winds or torrential rains, and that included the game against the pass-heavy Texans, who couldn’t pass the ball as a result.

The Chiefs have the NFL’s #1 most efficient pass offense.

And they are the NFL’s most pass-heavy team.

Now they get to go up against a Browns Defense that has been completely untested against any top-offense that passes the ball.

And keep in mind, it’s a defense that ranked #25 against the pass despite playing the NFL’s #2 easiest schedule of pass offenses.

This has trouble written all over it for the Browns.  

The Browns played 16 games this season.

The only QBs that didn’t throw for at least 4 TDs or play in terrible weather:

Mason Rudolph
Dwayne Haskins
Colt McCoy
Mike Glennon
Sam Darnold
Philip Rivers

Every single other QB the Browns faced threw at least 4 TDs against them this year.

Look at the teams that have played the Browns twice this year:

Joe Burrow’s Bengals scored 34 and 30 in their two games
Lamar Jackson’s Ravens scored 47 and 38 in their two games
Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers scored 38 and 37 in their two games

That’s six games against QBs of all experience levels, skill levels, team tendencies (run/pass).

All six games saw those offenses put up at least 30 points.

I don’t see the Chiefs doing anything differently.

The first concern I had with the Chiefs Offense was how they might look after the layoff.  

Their first game in the 2018 playoffs after a bye featured 24 first half points from KC.
Their first game in the 2019 playoffs after a bye featured 28 first half points from KC.

History says Mahomes has done very well in these spots.

History also says Andy Reid does well in these spots.

Decending order of Chiefs games off a bye with Patrick Mahomes, showing Chiefs points scored

35 points, week 11 2020
51 points, week 19 2019
40 points, week 13 2019
31 points, week 19 2018
40 points, week 13 2018

On the other side of the ball, there is an extreme strength of schedule angle as well.

The Chiefs have played the NFL’s #1 easiest schedule of run offenses.

Against such an easy schedule, we should expect their performance to be strong defensively.  Or at least average.  

It wasn’t strong nor was it average.

The Chiefs ranked #29 against the run.

Since week 5, the Chiefs have played 12 games.

Here are the rankings of the run offenses that the Chiefs faced:

#31
#29
#27
#26
#26
#25
#25
#22
#21
#18
#13
#1

Now they must face the #9 run offense of the Browns

The key for the Browns to have success against virtually any opponent is to ensure Baker Mayfield is protected.

One way to protect him is via the offensive line in pass pro, which we will discuss momentarily.

The other way is via the run game.

With the Chiefs ranking #29 vs the run despite playing the #1 easiest schedule of run offenses, and now facing the Browns diverse #9 ranked run offense, I believe the Browns will have success on the ground.

Next is the pass protection.  The Chiefs rank #19 in pass rush efficiency and #18 in pass rush win rate.

Cleveland’s offensive line ranks #2 in pass block win rate.  

They have a favorable matchup and should be able to protect Baker Mayfield.

The Chiefs Defense has been susceptible to play action and the Browns use it frequently.

Lastly, over the Browns five most recent games, they have shifted entirely from what they were to start the season.

They are now passing the ball on 61% of their early down plays in the first 3 quarters, which is the 5th highest rate in the NFL (KC is #3).

For comparison, over their first 5 games, the Browns were the 7th most run-heavy team in these situations.

That’s a colossal shift, and an indication that Kevin Stefanski has increased confidence in Baker Mayfield, his line and his weapons.

Speaking of which, getting Stefanski back from his one week absence will be a boost to his ability to call plays should the Browns fall behind.

Lastly, I’ve heard discussions on “strategy” and whether the Browns should come out slow and play keep away.

I would be shocked if they did that and would completely advise against it.

If I'm the Browns and Kevin Stefanski...

and my offense is rolling off last week...

and I'm playing a KC team that hasn't played it's offensive starters in 3 weeks...

I'm starting aggressive, fast & aimed at building a lead...

NOT slow or conservative to "shorten" the game

The Chiefs would absolutely love the Browns to start slow.  After all, the Chiefs haven’t played their starters since week 16.  They’re probably hoping the Browns do not get out quick and score, as that will put more pressure on their own offense to pick things up quickly.

I anticipate this game playing out similarly to the Chiefs and Titans result in the 2019 playoffs  or the Chiefs and Raiders results in 2020.  

The Titans and Raiders were teams that were more run-based, with QBs of similar caliber, and poor defenses.  Much like the Browns.  Those games ended:

35-25
35-32
40-32
35-31

 

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints

It’s hard to beat a team twice in one season.  That’s because the losing team of the first meeting typically makes adjustments.

Examine all the divisional games since 1990.

There have been 1,654 times that a team has won the first game divisional game and plays that same divisional opponent later that season.

On average, the team wins the first game by 11.4 ppg.

In the rematch, the team that won the first game wins the second game only 58% of the time.

The average margin in that second game is a win of only 2.7 ppg.

However, when they do win the second game, they actually win by a higher average ppg of 12.3 than the first meeting.

Let’s do a similar analysis, but strip out games that could have been dramatically influenced by turnovers.

Since 2010, in first meetings of the season, there have been 302 winners in divisional games without a 2+ turnover advantage.  They won by an average of 9.3 ppg.

In the rematch, those teams same teams have won just 54.8% of games, and the average final margin in that second game is a win of 2.5 ppg.

However, when they win the game, they win by 13.5 ppg

Primary takeaways on this analysis:

It is HARD to beat a team twice in the same season.  Typically, the first meeting’s winner wins barely above 50% of the rematches.

However, if they do sweep the series, they win the second game by a much higher margin than the first game.

And that’s because there is likely an inherent matchup advantage that one team possesses over the other.

Now, if it’s hard to win twice over the same team, imagine how hard it is to win three times?

If the 100% winner of the first game wins ~ 55% of the second games, would they trend to below .500 in the third game?

Would that losing team have two games worth of “errors” to correct, and take things personally in the playoffs, to not lose for the third time of the year?  Or does the team that swept the season series do well in the playoffs as well?

We need to know, because that’s what we’re dealing with in this Buccaneers / Saints game.

The Saints swept the series, winning the first game by 11 points, and just like the trend suggested, the second game by an even larger margin (35 points).

I dug through every playoff game since 1990 that featured a divisional rematch which featured a sweep during the regular season.

As it turns out, the results are even more lopsided than the second meeting of the year.

The team that swept the season series went 13-4 (76%) in the third meeting, the playoff game.

They went 5-1 (83%) if the teams met after the Wildcard round.

Notable among those 4 losses:

- one featured a win by the 0-2 team thanks to a +4 in turnover margin
- one featured a win by the 0-2 team because the 2-0 team had 4 turnovers, 11 penalties and allowed a defensive TD
- one featured a 4th quarter lead by the 2-0 team, only to see a 4th quarter comeback win by the 0-2 team

A 76% mark is dominant enough, but when you understand the context of the losses, it’s even more compelling.

What this speaks to is that some teams just have another team’s number.

That’s the layman’s perspective, but the reality is, there are just matchups in this game which strongly favor the Saints.

I believe the Saints will be able to score in this game.

And Tampa Bay was 1-5 against teams with a winning record this season.

My lone hesitation is with the Saints Defense.

Season-long metrics indicate the Saints Defense ranks 3rd in efficiency and is top-5 in both pass defense and run defense.

However, it just seems like apart from the Bucs, any game the Saints Defense has to play an offense that ranked average or better, they scored:

32 points vs #2 Chiefs
33 points vs #9 Vikings
24 points vs #11 Panthers
34 points vs #15 Raiders
27 points vs #16 Chargers
29 points vs #17 Lions

Every other game they played was vs below-average offenses.
 

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.