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Riske: Ranking the 14 passing offenses ahead of the NFL playoffs

Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls a play against the Carolina Panthers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how you look at it, being able to pass the ball is the most important thing in the NFL. Of the top 10 passing offenses per EPA/play, nine made the playoffs (and it was very close to becoming a perfect 10 for 10 if the Chargers get a little bit luckier on Sunday night). If you extend that further, 12 of the top 13 and 13 of the top 15 passing offenses made the playoffs, with the Steelers being the only exception.

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Forecasting the playoffs is hard, but given the importance of the pass, it’s never wrong to look at the best passing offenses of the season. As we noted last year before the postseason, passing offense is not only highly correlated to making the playoffs, it’s also the most predictive facet of the game for playoff success.

This, of course, leaves one question: How do we project passing offenses for the playoffs? Naturally, we first look at the performance of passing offenses this season. To do that, we use the best two metrics we have to assess the quality of a passing offense: EPA/pass play and PFF passing grade of the starting quarterback.

However, when we first wrote about this going into the playoffs two years ago, we found incorporating another piece of information helps in making more informed projections: the quarterback. A quarterback’s career matters to predicting a team’s passing ability in the playoffs, even though we found it should be weighted lower than this season’s performance. (A ⅔ – ⅓ split is close to the perfect split for predictive matters, so we’ll use that.)

Last year, a prominent example of this effect were the Super Bowl winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had a good but not great passing offense in the regular season, but obviously went on to win the title with the playoff’s best offense. It’s not hard to imagine that incorporating the information that their quarterback was Tom Brady improved projections.

The state of 2021

First, we rate all 14 passing offenses using EPA per pass play and PFF passing grades while weighing more recent data a bit higher than data from early weeks of the season. To bring the grades and the EPA numbers together, we put them on the same scale via standardization to z-scores and then use a simple 50:50 split. After accounting for defenses faced, we obtain the following rankings for the 14 playoff pass offenses when only looking at 2021 performance.

It’s noteworthy that the Chiefs have the best passing offense by EPA/pass play, and the Bengals have the highest-graded quarterback in Joe Burrow, but the combination of play-by-play efficiency and PFF grades for the Bucs passing offense was higher than for any other team this year. Naturally, most playoff offenses are above average, with the Steelers being the sole exception this year. This is certainly a difference from last year, when the Steelers, Rams, Bears and the Washington Football Team all made the playoffs with below average passing offenses.

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