Fantasy News & Analysis

Hartitz: Playoff Lenny, Mahomes baby GOAT, Stefon Diggs is elite and 20 takeaways from the NFL playoffs

Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) yells before the AFC Championship Game against the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve made it to the Super Bowl. Only one of the Chiefs or Buccaneers will get to call themselves champions. The other will be slandered on social media and have their QB photoshopped onto Conor McGregor memes. Such is life in 2021.

There’s plenty of time to break down the big game over the next two weeks, so first let’s take a look back at some of the biggest moments from the last three weeks of action. What follows are 20 key takeaways from the first three rounds of the playoffs with a focus on 1) recognizing pristine performances, and 2) anticipating what could be on the way for the 2021 regular season.

1. Patrick Mahomes might just be the chosen one

The Chiefs’ franchise QB has now played in seven playoff games since seizing the starting job back in 2018. The results have been as follows:

  • 31-13 victory over the Colts
  • 37-31 loss to the Patriots in a game that would’ve been over had Dee Ford not lined up offsides on a game-sealing interception
  • 51-31 victory over the Texans
  • 35-24 victory over the Titans
  • 31-20 victory over the 49ers
  • 22-17 victory over the Browns in a game that the Chiefs led 19-10 before Mahomes suffered a concussion
  • 38-24 victory over the Bills

Mahomes accounted for 21 total scores and just two interceptions along the way, regularly making the impossible seem too easy thanks to his limitless arm strength and penchant for creating magic once the play breaks down. The last time we’ve seen the man lose by more than eight points was November 19, 2016… against Iowa State.

The 25-year-old prodigy is PFF's highest-graded QB among 21 signal-callers with 25 dropbacks over the past three postseasons. A second Super Bowl W would already put Mahomes on a short list of multi-time winners with: Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Bob Greise, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Bart Starr and Jim Plunkett.

Equipped with arguably the best coach, wide receiver and tight end in the league, the ceiling is the roof for Mahomes’ future in Kansas City. It’s tough to call Mahomes anything other than one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen based on pure ability; don’t be surprised if he continues to rack up enough career accomplishments to be a staple in any GOAT discussion for years to come.

2. Name a better pair of receivers than Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill (I can’t)

Hill has posted 8-110-0 and 9-172-0 receiving lines on a combined 21 targets in the 2021 playoffs. Kelce has gone for 8-109-1 and 13-118-2 performances on 25 pass-game opportunities.

Madness. The Chiefs boast quite possibly the single-scariest skill-position player in the league in Hill, who has the sort of burners to make any mere mortal of a cornerback shake in their cleats without safety help. Yes, Mahomes has the sort of arm talent to make any throw on the field. Also yes, Hill usually makes things fairly easy for his QB: Nobody has been considered open or wide open more than Hill (31) on targets thrown 20-plus yards downfield over the past three seasons (including playoffs). Nobody else has even 25 such targets.

This sort of elite field-stretching threat has made dealing with Kelce in the underneath and intermediate areas of the field borderline impossible. It’s not like he’s making a living on feasting against linebackers and safeties; even true No. 1 corners have had problems containing the Chiefs’ stud tight end.

Overall, only Michael Thomas (124), Stefon Diggs (120) and Davante Adams (120) have more receptions than Kelce (113) when facing 2-man, cover-0 or cover-1 coverage — instances that feature mostly single man-to-man coverage.

This Chiefs offense combines a 1) QB capable of making any throw on the field, 2) WR with the sort of game-changing speed to demand help down the field, and 3) TE capable of winning against just about anybody in single coverage. So far the result has been one of the most-consistently dominant aerial attacks that football has ever seen.

3. My goodness Mecole Hardman can fly

Obviously the Chiefs run most of their offense through Hill and Kelce, but Hardman has been coming on strong in recent weeks thanks to some extra opportunities. Sure, his muffed punt in the first quarter of the Chiefs’ AFC Championship win over the Bills was hardly ideal, but the second-year speedster quickly rebounded with an electric 50-yard run that saw him reach a top speed of 21.52 MPH — the fastest speed reached by a ball carrier this postseason (per Next-Gen Stats).

Hardman isn’t even the fastest player on his own team, but his added presence over the past few weeks has made this offense even more absurd. The potential return of Sammy Watkins (calf) would likely relegate Hardman to his usual No. 4 WR role for the Super Bowl. Still, the departure of the Lizard King in 2021 could finally lead to the sort of enhanced role that Hardman has earned. Overall, only Justin Jefferson (11.6) and A.J. Brown (11.3) have averaged more yards per target than Hardman (10.7) among 122 players with 100-plus targets over the past two seasons (including playoffs).

4. The artist known as TB12 is certainly not washed

Brady hasn’t been spectacular during the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run, completing just 55% of his passes and posting a seven to three TD to interception ratio during the team’s three wins. Of course, this has hardly been all his fault: Buccaneers players have dropped a postseason-high 12 passes. No other QB has had to deal with more than eight drops over the past three weeks.

The six-time Super Bowl champion has more knowledge of the game in his pinky than myself or any of you reading this will obtain throughout our entire lifetimes; the most pleasant surprise from Brady has been his ability to continue to throw a catchable deep ball. Overall, Brady has racked up nine big-time throws on passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield this postseason; no other QB has more than five such passes.

The only true issue Brady has run into has been performance under pressure. He’s completed just six of 21 passes when not kept clean this postseason. Just realize reduced performance under pressure is true for any QB: Brady still has PFF’s second-highest passing grade under pressure over the past three weeks. Regardless of how the Super Bowl plays out, it’s safe to say at this point that Brady was anything but the problem for the 2019 Patriots.

5. Playoff Lenny is actually a thing!

The idea that Leonard Fournette had simply been saving his powers for the playoffs is at best comical and at worst stupid. We all know by now that running backs are more dependent on their teammates' performance than any other position, and enhanced production is almost entirely tied to volume.

With that said: holy hell, playoff Lenny has come to play! Fournette has racked up 313 total yards and a trio of scores over the past three weeks, showing off a combination of power and elusiveness that made the former-LSU star one of the most-hyped recruits of all time back in the day.

I maintain that running backs obviously matter during the course of any given game; it’s the NFL’s insistence on having a salary cap that forces decision-makers to prioritize spending their money elsewhere. Some call the salary cap essential to maintaining league-wide parity, although this argument is far from complete considering the cap-less MLB has delivered a far more diverse group of champions than the NFL over the past 20 years. Spending a large percentage of your cap on a position so dependent on the performance of everyone else is thus discouraged; just realize running backs regularly account for almost half of the touches during any given game, and the more talented players at the position would undoubtedly garner more interest and respect in a non-cap environment.

This is all to say: playoff Lenny has been 1) balling, and 2) fun to watch. It remains to be seen who he’ll be suiting up for come Week 1 next season. Either way, keep the fourth-year back’s name out of any slanderous offseason debates centered around some of the game’s least-efficient running backs; he’s earned it.

6. The Buccaneers never seem to run out of pass-catching talent

Brady struggled to find a single consistent target with the Patriots in 2019; now he has *seven* viable wide receivers and tight ends to keep involved in the passing game. Each has had varying degrees of success throughout the playoffs:

  • Mike Evans: Has caught 10 of 20 targets for 173 yards and a pair of scores despite seeing plenty of Marshon Lattimore and Jaire Alexander along the way. Evans has been playing with a bum ankle virtually all season, but the 6-foot-5 and 231-pound monster remains the single-most lethal red-zone threat in the league thanks to largely unmatched contested-catch ability.
  • Chris Godwin: Has a playoff-high seven drops, but he’s also racked up 223 receiving yards and a score over the past three weeks. Yes, Godwin needs to do a better job holding on to the ball. Also yes, the man remains plenty capable of coming down with just about anything thrown in his general vicinity, and he’s the Buccaneers’ premiere run-after-the-catch threat. 
  • Antonio Brown: Missed the NFC Championship due to a knee injury, but previously racked up five scores in his last five games. There was a learning curve for AB and TB12 once the ex-Steelers WR joined the offense in Week 9; things started to get seriously scary for opposing secondaries after the Bucs’ Week 13 bye when the Brady bunch truly started to click.
  • Scotty Miller: His massive end-of-the-half TD in the NFC Championship was another example of Miller causing problems for opposing secondaries down the field. Overall, Miller has caught eight of his nine catchable passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield this season for 312 yards and three scores. Must be nice to have a No. 4 WR capable of running 40 yards in 4.36 seconds.
  • Tyler Johnson: The Buccaneers’ fifth-round pick has just 20 targets all season but has shown off some soft hands along the way and figures to have a bigger role in 2021 if Godwin ultimately takes his talents elsewhere.
  • Rob Gronkowski: Took a screen pass upfield for 29 yards on his only NFC Championship target. Gronk certainly hasn’t been the same monster that we saw take over the league for most of the previous decade, but his seven scores and average of 14.2 yards per reception reinforces the idea that the 31-year-old future hall of famer isn’t completely washed just yet.
  • Cameron Brate: Has caught 11 of 16 targets for 149 yards and a score this postseason, emerging as Brady’s preferred target at the position along the way. Brate routinely flashed red-zone chemistry with Jameis Winston over the years; now he’s proving that the success was anything but a fluke.

7. Stefon Diggs is anyone’s idea of a top-three wide receiver

The Bills’ No. 1 WR set a new NFL record for games with at least six receptions in 2020, regularly displaying pristine route-running ability along the way. Diggs was truly a joy to watch throughout the season.

Josh Allen deserves plenty of credit for his own improvement as a passer, but adding Diggs to the equation undoubtedly helped speed up the young QB’s progression. The duo was as formidable as any QB-WR tandem in the league — particularly on comeback and hitch routes. Overall, Diggs set league-high marks in receptions (52), yards (533) and yards per route run (4.59) on these two routes, regularly providing a safe and efficient avenue for his QB to go with the ball.

Based on 2020-21 production alone: it’s impossible to call Diggs anything other than a top-three wide receiver on planet Earth.

8. Josh Allen isn’t a finished product *yet*

We didn’t see the best version of Allen over the past two weeks, as the third-year QB failed to average even 6.0 yards per attempt against both the Ravens (5.57) and Chiefs (5.98). Allen was more of a boom-or-bust QB in 2018-2019 before mostly just experiencing the former throughout his MVP-worthy 2020 campaign. The playoffs showed both sides of Allen, as his nine big-time throws trailed only Tom Brady (10), but nobody had more turnover-worthy plays (6).

Allen also had to deal with eight drops, and he deserves credit for posting a 25-145-1 rushing line. Still, his performance when things weren’t easy was a bit alarming. All in all, Allen’s 57.2 PFF passing grade under pressure ranked eighth among 13 QBs with at least 10 such playoff dropbacks, and his 52.4 mark when targeting a receiver that wasn’t considered open or wide open ranked 11th.

Allen had the greatest third-year breakout in modern NFL history. There is no reason for #BillsMafia to feel anything except great about their franchise QB moving forward; just realize that to be the best you’ve got to beat the best, and we’ll need to see even more out of Allen in the future in order for the Bills to take down Patrick Mahomes and company.

9. Aaron Rodgers’ present day ability is anything but uncertain

Rodgers threw for 346 yards and a trio of scores during the Packers’ NFC Championship loss to the Buccaneers. His two main “mistakes” were 1) an interception that probably should have been nullified by defensive holding, and 2) the decision to not take off and try to run the ball in from the Buccaneers’ 8-yard line late in the fourth quarter.

Don’t let one loss overshadow the reality that the 2020-21 version of Rodgers was truly the best version of himself that we’ve ever seen. This was despite the front office declining to add any notable receivers to the offense during the offseason. We can acknowledge that Davante Adams, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling each played well down the stretch while also keeping in mind that the Packers got virtually nothing out of their top-three-round picks all season.

After the game, Rodgers said, “A lot of guys' futures, they’re uncertain, myself included.” Surely the Packers will do everything in their power to keep arguably the most talented QB to ever play happy, and even then it’s tough to imagine them trading him away with their Super Bowl window still very much open. Regardless of how this saga unfolds, credit to Rodgers for his likely MVP campaign at 37 years of age.

10. Giving A.J. Dillon the football might be a good idea

The Packers drafted Dillon with the 62nd overall pick in the 2020 draft. He finished the season with just 58 total touches despite generally making the most out of his opportunities. Dillon converted 22 touches into 129 yards and a pair of scores against the Titans in Week 16, then played a total of five snaps the next week. His four touches in the NFC Championship went for a more-than-stellar 30 total yards and featured the rookie quite literally putting the team on his back like Greg Jennings did back in the day.

Both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are unrestricted free agents. It’d make sense if they let both players walk in order to devote financial assets elsewhere, particularly with Dillon on a cost-controlled rookie deal. Alas, nothing is guaranteed under coach Matt LaFleur, who infamously played Dion Lewis ahead of Derrick Henry for three months all the way back in *checks notes* 2018.

11. Baker Mayfield looks a lot like the Browns’ QB of the future, but please don’t give up on OBJ

The Browns’ fairytale season ended in the Divisional Round, but Mayfield certainly looked the part of a true franchise QB for most of the season. PFF’s No. 7 QB in passing grade among 44 signal-callers with at least 100 dropbacks including playoffs, Mayfield overcame the early-season loss of Odell Beckham with flying colors and regularly put the team in a position to win.

Note that we shouldn’t misinterpret this as the Browns offense being *better* without OBJ. The more likely scenario is that Mayfield was simply more willing to work within the confines of the offense without feeling like he needed to force feed an individual player. Overall, Mayfield targeted his first read on just 58% of his dropbacks in 22 games with Beckham over the past two seasons compared to 63% without. Only Aaron Rodgers posted a better PFF passing grade than Mayfield when targeting the first read after Week 7. It’s tough to stop Mayfield when he identifies an open receiver in rhythm; just realize the best version of this Browns offense would consist of this mindset *with* a coverage-shifting talent like Beckham making things even easier for the passing game’s complementary other options.

As PFF_Sam eloquently put in his 2021 breakout candidate piece: “Cleveland’s offense has actually been significantly better without Beckham on the field than with him. While many consider the logical conclusion to that being for Beckham to get traded away, I’m instead going to say that a coach as good as Kevin Stefanski can figure out how to mesh one of the game’s most talented players with an offense that cooks on gas in his absence.”

12. The Saints should consider figuring out how to throw the ball downfield

Michael Thomas has been slandered with “slant boy” jokes for the better part of the last four months. Yes, Thomas has produced most of his production in the underneath areas of the field on lower-aDOT routes. Also yes, the Saints stand out as perhaps the single-most risk-averse passing game when it comes to taking shots down the field. Overall, the Saints (7.3% deep-ball rate) join the 49ers (7.0%) as the only two offenses to have fewer than 8% of their pass attempts travel at least 20 yards downfield over the past two seasons.

Drew Brees is heading towards retirement. Credit to the future hall of famer for putting together one of the better careers that the position has ever seen, but it’s clear his arm wasn’t much more than a noodle down the stretch. Taysom Hill has a relatively stronger arm, although it’s tough to say his cro-hop heavy style has produced a better overall deep ball.

Defenses simply haven’t been forced to consistently respect this Saints offense vertically ever since they parted ways with Brandin Cooks. This has made Thomas’ “inability” to put up big numbers down the field somewhat of a chicken and egg situation: Is Thomas incapable of winning on more than just underneath routes, or has the Saints offense simply been devoid of a QB willing to throw the deep ball?

I lean towards the latter scenario. Thomas has caught 33 of 36 (92%) catchable targets thrown at least 20 yards downfield since entering the league in 2016 — the fourth-highest mark among 64 qualified receivers. It feels weird to say that the NFL’s single-season reception leader might have a higher ceiling with a different QB under center, but a true gunslinger like Jameis Winston could at least demonstrate that Thomas is far more than a one-trick pony. Check out last Friday’s edition of The PFF Fantasy Football Podcast for more discussion on the Taysom vs. Jameis debate.

13. Cam Akers 2021 RB1 szn is in full swing

Give the ball to Akers and good things usually follow.

The Rams certainly abided by this idea down the stretch in 2020, giving Akers snap rates of 62%, 81%, 60%, 66%, 72% and 96% during his final six games. Note that Darrell Henderson wasn’t injured until the final three games of that stretch.

Prior to 2020, coach Sean McVay gave his No. 1 RB a snap rate above 60% in 48 of 52 games; don’t be surprised if the Rams’ first-half committee backfield in 2020 was an outlier and not a sign of things to come. Injuries prevented Akers from catching his stride earlier in the season, but based on our most-applicable sample-size it’s tough to treat him as anything other than a top-10 RB entering next season.

14. D.K. Metcalf deserves double-digit targets per game

Sometimes we overuse the term “shut down” when discussing an underwhelming performance from a wide receiver, particularly one as naturally talented as Metcalf. Overall, Metcalf has finished with fewer than 50 receiving yards in 11 of his 35 career games, but he had more than six targets in just one of those performances.

Reminder: Metcalf is a 6-foot-3 and 229-pound monster capable of running the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds. The likes of Jalen Ramsey and Patrick Peterson have been given credit for “locking up” Metcalf in past matchups, although I’d argue the lack of production against these big-bodied corners has been more due to Russell Wilson’s reluctance to test their coverage than Metcalf truly getting erased.

The Seahawks’ rising third-year receiver caught five of 11 targets for 96 yards and a pair of scores during their Wild Card loss to the Rams. The rest of the passing game combined for just 78 scoreless yards. Here’s to hoping the Seahawks’ quest to run the ball more in 2021 doesn’t interfere with getting their stud No. 1 WR the sort of high-end target total that he deserves.

15. This Washington Football Team defensive line could be even scarier in 2021

Longtime stalwart Ryan Kerrigan is an unrestricted free agent. Even then: Washington returns their top-four defensive linemen in terms of snap rate and overall talent. The franchise invested heavy draft capital in each player, and they’ve largely all returned solid production in their respective young careers.

The absence of even an average offense doomed the overall upside of this team for most of the season. Still, adding a legit high-ish-end QB to the equation could put this franchise on a 2019 49ers-esque route to contention thanks to their embarrassment of riches across the defensive line.

16. Jonathan Taylor might already be the next big thing at the RB position

The 2020 rookie RB class was eventually headlined by Taylor, who exploded down the stretch with eight scores in his final five games. It’s rare to see a running back with Taylor’s combination of size (5-foot-11 and 221-pounds) and speed (4.39-second 40-yard dash). Defenses were largely helpless once the game began to slow down for the 22-year-old talent.

It remains to be seen how the Colts will replace Philip Rivers, but their beastly offensive line should continue to provide Taylor with plenty of runway as both a rusher and receiver. Even with Nyheim Hines likely to stay involved as the offense’s primary pass-down back, it’s tough to imagine a scenario where Taylor doesn’t flirt with 300 touches in 2021. That’s a scary thought for a player of his talents; don’t be surprised if the best is yet to come for the 41st overall pick of the 2020 draft.

17. Can we please get Lamar Jackson a true No. 1 WR?

Jackson led the Ravens to a 20-13 victory over the Titans in the Wild Card round largely thanks to a pristine 16-136-1 rushing line. His Divisional Round matchup against the Bills didn’t go nearly as well and ended with a concussion. Naturally, the absence of a Super Bowl victory has led many to question whether or not Jackson has the passing ability to get over the hump in the modern NFL.

First: We need to stop with the ignorant “RB playing QB” jokes. Jackson’s unrivaled ability as a rusher is somehow morphed into a negative at times when discussing the 24-year-old talent. He’s been anybody’s idea of an above-average thrower of the football since entering the league in 2018 (among 71 QBs with at least 100 dropbacks since 2018 including playoffs):

  • PFF passing grade: 77.2 (tied for No. 20)
  • Yards per attempt: 7.4 (tied for No. 22)
  • Adjusted completion rate: 73.2% (No. 44)
  • QB rating: 98.3 (No. 10)

Does Jackson benefit from defenses being forced to play less-complex coverages in order to also account for his rushing goodness? Absolutely. Should we hold this against him? Absolutely not, particularly when considering the Ravens ranked 28th in PFF’s team-wide receiving grade in 2020.

It’s fair to wonder why the Ravens haven’t given Jackson a true No. 1 WR. No offense to field-stretching talent Marquise Brown, but we’ve seen multiple examples of teams going out of their way to get their young signal-caller a more-established No. 1 WR. Examples include Baker Mayfield (Odell Beckham), Josh Allen (Stefon Diggs) and Kyler Murray (DeAndre Hopkins) among others.

It wasn’t that long ago that most doubted Allen could ever become a legit high-end passer. I’m not saying that Jackson has the same sort of ceiling as Allen when it comes to pure passing ability, but it’d at least be nice to see more of an effort to get the Ravens’ franchise QB a legit high-end No. 1 WR (cc. Allen Robinson).

18. A.J. Brown is a grown ass WR1

The artist known as AJB caught six of 10 targets for 83 yards and a score in the Titans’ Wild Card loss to the Ravens. It marked just the second time all season that he had double-digit targets in a game, which is a curious decision considering only Justin Jefferson has averaged more yards per target than Brown among 122 players with at least 100 targets over the past two seasons (including playoffs).

The lack of a true high-end workload was perhaps due to Brown playing through enough pain to warrant offseason surgery on both knees. This especially explains why arguably the premiere YAC-monster at the position didn’t have a single rush attempt all season.

The reality that Brown still functioned as one of the most-productive WRs is a testament to his absurd talent.

It’s always AJB WR1 szn, but the rising third-year talent has a chance to become *the* WR1 with an elite workload to match his demonstrated alien-level talent.

19. Mitchell Trubisky ain’t it, man

Trubisky is plenty capable of making a great throw from time to time. He should’ve had a 40-yard TD to Javon Wims during the Bears’ Wild Card loss to the Saints, but alas, the well-designed play was instead converted into six points by Jameis Winston and company the following week. 

The problem for Trubisky is that the flashes of brilliance are few and far between. We’re talking about the league’s single-worst deep-ball passer here by just about any metric (among 33 qualified QBs with 25-plus deep-ball attempts):

  • PFF passing grade: 55 (No. 33)
  • Yards per attempt: 5.5 (No. 33)
  • Adjusted completion rate: 22.2% (No. 32)
  • QB rating: 29.1 (No. 33)

Overall, Trubisky completed just seven of 36 attempts thrown at least 20 yards downfield. Sheesh.

The presence of Allen Robinson and an elite defense makes it tough to blame anybody other than the 2021 Nickelodeon MVP for his struggles to this point. It’s clear that Trubisky is capable of putting together stretches of above-average performance; the problem is we also know better by now to expect these stretches to become the norm.

20. The Steelers need to try something new on offense

Ben Roethlisberger was not a good professional QB in his first season back from elbow surgery (among 44 QBs with at least 100 dropbacks including playoffs):

  • PFF passing grade: 71.7 (No. 23)
  • Yards per attempt: 6.4 (No. 36)
  • Adjusted completion rate: 75.4% (No. 25)
  • QB rating: 93.2 (No. 24)

Forty-one dropped passes certainly didn’t help matters, but failure to reach even 20 points in four of his final six starts demonstrates the sort of ineptitude that plagued this offense for the better part of the final month and a half of the season. Calling this unit predictable is an understatement; the Steelers ranked dead last in play-action rate, boasted PFF’s 31st-ranked offensive line in run-blocking grade and nobody averaged fewer yards per carry.

The likes of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have flashed enough talent to warrant high-end inclusion in the 2021 edition of this offense, but otherwise it’s fair to wonder if a complete offensive rebuild is warranted — starting under center.


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