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The NFL’s Divisional Round Gave Us A Few Near-Upsets — And One Certified Mega-Upset

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Well, that was quite a weekend. For a hot second on Sunday, it looked like we would lose both of the FiveThirtyEight Super Bowl favorites in one round … but the Chiefs came roaring back, so we only lost our one overwhelming favorite. Welp.

So let’s start with the most shocking result of the weekend: Tennessee over Baltimore.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): That was the single most shocking playoff upset of the Super Bowl era, per Elo.

Tennessee’s upset was historic

Most unlikely playoff victories of the Super Bowl era (since 1966), according to FiveThirtyEight’s pregame Elo win probability

Favorite Underdog
Season Rd. Team QB Adj. Elo Team QB Adj. Elo Win Prob. Score
2019 D BAL L. Jackson 1795 TEN R. Tannehill 1603 13.1% 28-12
2011 D GB A. Rodgers 1769 NYG E. Manning 1586 13.7 37-20
1987 D SF J. Montana 1767 MIN W. Wilson 1588 13.8 36-24
1996 D DEN J. Elway 1653 JAX M. Brunell 1483 14.5 30-27
2007 S NE T. Brady 1837 NYG E. Manning 1608 17.0 17-14
1983 W DAL D. White 1650 LAR V. Ferragamo 1484 17.7 24-17
2017 D PIT B. R’berger 1689 JAX B. Bortles 1551 17.9 45-42
1995 D SF S. Young 1769 GB B. Favre 1648 19.1 27-17
1983 D MIA D. Marino 1691 SEA D. Krieg 1574 19.2 27-20
2010 D NE T. Brady 1743 NYJ M. Sanchez 1617 19.3 28-21

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I can confirm that I felt this level of shock.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The Ravens had such bad/unlucky offensive efficiency. They scored 12 points on over 500 yards of offense, becoming just the second home team in playoff history to gain 500 yards and lose. The Steelers did it in the 2017 season, in a loss to Jacksonville, but they scored more than 40 points. And only two teams since the merger (in the regular season or playoffs) gained over 500 yards and scored fewer points than the Ravens — the Bucs last year and the 1986 Niners.

neil: That’s what happens when you turn it over three times and fail on fourth down four more times.

Salfino: Yes, those fourth-down plays are basically turnovers.

joshua.hermsmeyer: In the regular season, the Ravens averaged 1.4 expected points added per play on fourth downs. Against the Titans: -2.58. And the Titans capitalized on those fourth-down defensive holds in a very big way.

sara.ziegler: It was pretty amazing that the Titans were able to capitalize on every single mistake the Ravens made.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was a bad day for doing the analytically sound thing.

sara.ziegler: And that’s the key point: They were RIGHT to go for it on those fourth downs, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Every time.

(And the 2-point attempt.)

neil: I detected a lot of people gleefully piling on analytics during that game.

They’d been waiting for a game like this.

Salfino: Tennessee is trying to make us think red-zone scoring efficiency isn’t random. The Titans were 3-for-3 on Saturday, 76 percent for the regular season and 8-for-8 in their last three games (spanning Week 17 and the playoffs).

joshua.hermsmeyer: A Derrick Henry TD pass is random???

neil: Tennessee is the perfect vehicle for everyone’s anti-analytics feelings, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t blame folks for making fun of analytics after this game — it’s a fun target, for sure. But if your takeaway was that fourth downs got owned or that somehow passing was shown to be fraudulent in the playoffs, I’m not sure which teams you thought you were watching.

The Ravens were the best rushing team in the league in the regular season.

Salfino: Do you think that Lamar Jackson was pressing or just happened to play relatively poorly? I think he was pressing given his problems throwing a spiral. It seemed like he was choking the football; the ball just was not coming out his hand like it should.

neil: He certainly didn’t seem like himself once he had to try to pass his way out of that deficit.

Salfino: Should they have tried to play out of it that early or just stuck to their game plan?

neil: Well, it didn’t help that the score allowed Tennessee to dust off a version of the ol’ kryptonite coverage scheme we’ve written about before.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the flukey interception at the beginning might have had an impact on things. Unsure about spirals and the rest. They moved the ball fine as a team — it was the high-leverage plays where the wheels fell off.

Salfino: The average team this decade has scored 1 point every 15.3 yards. So the Ravens had 34.6 expected points, and they scored only 12. And on top of that, the Titans got touchdown “drives” of 20, 35 and 45 yards (one play on the 45-yard “drive” — the play of the game, IMO).

The Titans had a point every 10.7 yards to one every 44.2 for the Ravens. Good. Lord. Those numbers are crazy.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I was tracking yardage and time of possession by drive, and I can’t remember a time when possessions were equal and the Ravens trailed in anything but penalty yards and turnovers. And, of course, points.

neil: So do the Ravens just file this in the “shit happens” drawer and move on?

sara.ziegler: I think so, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t think anyone is just “moving on,” but yeah, I think that’s the most sound takeaway. Football is weird.

sara.ziegler: “Football is weird” should be our slogan for this whole season.

Salfino: I mean, they have 12 Pro Bowl players, most of whom should be returning, so it shouldn’t be as hard as it is for most teams to get back.

sara.ziegler: Very good point.

On the side of the Titans, we can’t really say enough about Henry. I can’t get over the way he turned his season around.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Also turned around Earl Thomas.

Salfino: Yes, that was a bad look after saying the Patriots were afraid to tackle.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: You would have to be insane to not be afraid to tackle Henry.

sara.ziegler: In his first nine games of the season, Henry averaged 72 yards per game and 3.93 yards per carry.

neil: I’m not sure we’ll see a stretch like this in football ever again:

Derrick Henry has been on fire since Week 10

Tennessee running back Derrick Henry’s weekly totals in the last half of the 2019 NFL regular season and playoffs

Rushing
Week Opponent Result Carries Yards Yds/carry TD
10 Kansas City W 35-32 23 188 8.2 2
12 Jacksonville W 42-20 19 159 8.4 2
13 Indianapolis W 31-17 26 149 5.7 1
14 Oakland W 42-21 18 103 5.7 2
15 Houston L 21-24 21 86 4.1 0
17 Houston W 35-14 32 211 6.6 3
18 New England W 20-13 34 182 5.4 1
19 Baltimore W 28-12 30 195 6.5 0

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Salfino: Henry’s genius to me is running the play that’s called. He’s not creative; he’s not looking for another hole or to create one himself. He’s just pure speed and power at the point of attack. He’s like Jim Brown, stylistically. His offensive linemen must love him because they know that if they just barely do their jobs, the play is going to be successful.

sara.ziegler: “He’s not creative” does not sound like a compliment to me, LOL.

Salfino: I know. But he’s not an improviser. Maybe that’s the better word.

And why should he be?

sara.ziegler: If it ain’t broke, etc.

What about Ryan Tannehill’s performance in this game — and in the postseason in general?

Salfino: Is he playing? I haven’t noticed.

neil: 😂

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Lol.

sara.ziegler: Jinx

joshua.hermsmeyer: He’s just sixth in play-action EPA per play in the playoffs, after being tops in the regular season.

neil: At least this time around, the EPA split between passing and rushing offense made more sense.

Salfino: These are 1970s playoff QB boxscores for Tannehill.

neil: But he was efficient, and that quick TD strike to Kalif Raymond after a failed Ravens fourth down was devastating.

sara.ziegler: I guess there’s something to be said for doing what you need to do and limiting the mistakes.

Let’s move on to the other game that saw a big favorite get down big early: the Chiefs vs. the Texans.

Salfino: Biggest first-quarter deficit ever overcome by a home team in the playoffs. By a full touchdown.

sara.ziegler: Not gonna lie: I was pretty worried about our model about a quarter into this game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: What a first half that was. Whew.

neil:

👀

sara.ziegler: A roller coaster right there.

Salfino: The Texans never really stopped the Chiefs one time. Kansas City had the two drops, the blocked punt and muffed punt return. And then, seven straight touchdown drives (that seemed like 700).

joshua.hermsmeyer: The game started in a similar way to the Baltimore-Tennessee game on Saturday. The difference is that the Chiefs are a team built on the passing game, and you can overcome a lot of bad variance quickly with that type of attack.

Salfino: The turnaround was so quick. It was more like watching an NBA game than a football game.

neil: Yeah, is that basically why the Chiefs are still playing and the Ravens not?

One team is built to dig out of holes, and one isn’t?

joshua.hermsmeyer: There’s certainly something to that, in my opinion.

Salfino: I think this is correct: There is no defense for Patrick Mahomes in this offense.

neil: Houston was also far from flawless in its execution once the big lead fell into its lap.

(By contrast, I thought Tennessee executed a nearly perfect game plan once it got out ahead.)

Salfino: Houston seemed to panic at the first sign of trouble. I get that the Chiefs made a great play to snuff out the fake punt, but that was a crazy play-call at that point in the game. Make the Chiefs earn it.

I’m not sure about it, but that seemed like it could have been the fastest four touchdowns in NFL history. If you went out for lunch and returned, Kansas City had already come all the way back from 24-0. In real time, it felt like 10 minutes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was one beer at a not-so-busy bar, my preferred measure of time.

Salfino: Hahaha

sara.ziegler: So let’s move over to the NFC, where the games were much less interesting, at least until the very end of the Green Bay-Seattle game.

neil: RIP Vikings. 😞

sara.ziegler: Yeah, not much to say there.

I let you guys bully me into picking Minnesota, even though I knew that was ridiculous.

Salfino: I have a great Kirk Cousins stat. He completed 72.4 percent of his passes, and the Vikings had 147 total yards. That’s the fewest number of yards on better than 70 percent accuracy, minimum 25 pass attempts, since the merger IN ANY GAME, playoffs or regular season.

neil: He was really focused on getting that completion for 4 yards on third-and-8.

sara.ziegler: Dalvin Cook: 18 yards on nine carries.

Sure.

Salfino: This is what we talked about with Cousins last week. That’s why those stats about his rating against playoff teams being about the same as against nonplayoff teams is so meaningless.

sara.ziegler: Wait, what do you mean, Mike?

Salfino: I mean that if he happens to avoid interceptions, which are random, he’s going to play to a passer rating by just piling up meaningless completions.

sara.ziegler: Ohhh, passer rating is garbage. Right.

Salfino: It’s certainly garbage for Cousins.

joshua.hermsmeyer: A 63.6 three-and-out percentage was brutal for the Vikings. Throughout the playoffs, the average has been 26.4 percent.

Salfino: Three-and-out is such a good stat.

neil: I will say, we have to credit the Niners defense as well. They really reasserted themselves after a shaky stretch.

sara.ziegler: Absolutely, Neil. San Francisco is just a much more complete team.

neil: San Francisco really was the lone favorite that didn’t have to sweat it out over the weekend.

It was funny that at one point during the K.C. game, when Houston was ahead, you Slacked and were like, “Great, all of the underdogs will win this weekend EXCEPT the Vikings.”

sara.ziegler: LOL

I was wrong!

But not about the Vikings.

Salfino: The Vikings could not block San Francisco. The 49ers paid for the pass rush with draft capital and trades, and they got their money’s worth.

neil: I wonder if that will change next week against the No. 1 offensive line in pass block win rate.

Salfino: That’s a great stat. This game suddenly got a lot more interesting, in my mind. It’s always tough to believe in a rematch when the last game that season was such a massacre, but there’s also the 2010 Jets over the Patriots, right?

neil: That one definitely sticks out in my mind as a rare major reversal between regular season and playoffs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: My research has shown that o-line has more of an effect on pass rush allowed than defense does in creating it, fwiw.

neil: Interesting!

Salfino: I believe that, Josh. The offense is mostly in control versus anything the defense does, based on all the data I’ve seen.

neil: Does the defense control its own destiny in anything???

Poor defenses. Always at the whims of the offense.

(Or variance.)

Salfino: I think certain, generational defenses (cue Josh) do. And certainly some players like a Lawrence Taylor. But it’s rare.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, at the player level, defenders certainly own their pressure created. But it seems that they do so more often against poor o-lines, so that’s what pops up in the studies.

sara.ziegler: I have a hard time believing that the Green Bay run defense will slow down the Niners.

Salfino: Kyle Shanahan was all “run to win” Saturday in the postgame.

sara.ziegler: By Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, the Vikings had the ninth-best run defense this year, and they still gave up 186 yards to the Niners. Green Bay was ranked 23rd.

neil: 😬

Well, we can also look at that split for the K.C. run defense vs. the Titans rushing attack. The Chiefs were 29th in DVOA against the run, and Tennessee ranked fifth in offensive rushing DVOA.

With all of these teams building to stop the pass and not caring about run defense, are we reaching the point where it makes sense to build a running team to tear through it? Or is this just a one-off with Tennessee?

sara.ziegler: Henry’s 6.5 yards per carry seems like a one-off, Neil.

Salfino: I don’t know if you can throw more defenders in the box at Henry and stop him. But I will dare Jimmy Garoppolo to beat me if I’m the Packers. I thought he looked VERY shaky against the Vikings.

You can’t let the Niners get 47 carries like the Vikings allowed or even close to it if you’re the Packers.

neil: Do we want to dance on the grave of the Seahawks? Their habit of playing close games finally failed to pay off.

(Although they almost won that game in true Seahawksian fashion, tbh.)

Salfino: At least Seattle didn’t have the chains on Russell Wilson. He was throwing early, just not well.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Throw out the game plan earlier, and they win.

Need to establish the pass.

Salfino: The Seahawks had only six running-back runs in the first half, probably still six too many.

I’m convinced that Russ would have won that game if the Seahawks had stopped the Packers on that third-and-long with two minutes left.

neil: Oh, I fully agree. The Packers were hanging on for dear life at that point.

sara.ziegler: I just want to know why they punted with 2:32 left.

joshua.hermsmeyer: OMG

That was wild.

sara.ziegler: Like, guys. Even if Aaron Rodgers is having a down year, you don’t give the ball back to him.

neil: And really they still might have gotten another chance if Rodgers doesn’t complete some of those passes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, that last throw for a first down to seal the game is part of why Rodgers still commands the respect he does.

Salfino: It was fourth-and-11 for the Seahawks, though. Wilson had to avoid the sack on third down, and he could not.

sara.ziegler: But Mike, if you trust your defense to hold the Packers to no more than a field goal if you don’t get the first down, it’s still a one-score game.

I don’t know — that seemed like throwing the white flag to me.

Salfino: There were no good options after the sack, which was a dagger, IMO.

sara.ziegler: So let’s wrap this up with some predictions!

We’ve been very bad this postseason, you guys.

Only three games left to redeem ourselves.

Salfino: 3-1 — I’m back baby!

joshua.hermsmeyer: 😂

neil: Chalk was 3-1 as well! (Miraculously, given how things were going early in that K.C. game.)

I was afraid we’d have to blow up the model.

sara.ziegler: 1-3 — ugh.

I went with my heart instead of my head.

Salfino: This seems too easy this week without the spread. But that’s what I said one year in college when I lost my car in the divisional round.

sara.ziegler: Wait … what???

neil: ???

Salfino: Joking.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: I was gearing up for a bad beat story.

neil: Me too!

Salfino: I mean, we all have to pick the Chiefs and Niners, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: KC-SF for me.

sara.ziegler: Anyone gonna break from the pack??

neil: I so badly want to take Tennessee. That matchup against the K.C. run D is very tempting.

sara.ziegler: DO IT, Neil.

neil: Also, did you know that Tennessee now has a higher Elo rating than SF or GB???

Upset wins really do wonders for your Elo.

But I can’t pick against Mahomes.

Salfino: Tennessee is not going to be able to run its way out of this one — he said, twirling his mustache.

neil: KC/SF. The Steve Bono Bowl.

joshua.hermsmeyer: hah

neil:

Salfino: No, it’s the Montana Bowl — come on.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Why pass over Montana, such shade.

neil: There are about a half-dozen KC/SF QBs we can pick.

Practically every KC QB from the 1990s into the 2010s was a former SF QB.

  • Steve DeBerg
  • Joe Montana
  • Steve Bono
  • Elvis Grbac
  • Alex Smith

Why? No clue.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Holy cow, that list.

neil: Or what about the first Super Bowl? KC-GB.

So many potential matchups.

sara.ziegler: That would be a fun throwback.

But I think we’re all here for the DeBerg-Montana-Bono-Grbac-Smith Bowl.

Salfino:

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

CORRECTION (Jan. 15, 2020, 3:40 p.m.): A previous version of the chart of defenses faced by Lamar Jackson gave the incorrect date for the Baltimore Ravens’ divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans. It was Jan. 12, 2020, not Jan. 12, 2019.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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