The lack of a true juggernaut featuring a top-five offense and defense, combined with the newfound presence of a seventh postseason contender in each conference, makes this season's playoffs especially exciting. There is a general lack of clarity surrounding who is actually the best team.
Sure, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are the prohibitive favorites at the moment, but have fun sleeping on Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson or Josh Allen and the Bills Mafia, among others.
The QB matters more than any other position in football. I'm not here to debate that. Rather, I'd like to get a clearer idea of which playoff team offers the best combination of offense and defense.
There's not a perfect science to figuring this out, but that doesn't mean we can't try. What follows is a breakdown of the playoff’s top offenses and defenses in order to get a grasp on the best overall team based on each squad's performance in a variety of metrics.
On offense we'll look at:
- Pass Offense: Rank of average of each team's ranks in EPA per pass, yards per attempt, explosive pass-play rate, adjusted completion rate and PFF pass offense team grade
- Run Offense: Rank of average of each team's ranks in EPA per run, yards after contact per attempt, explosive run-play rate and PFF run offense team grade
- O-line: Rank of average of each team's ranks in yards before contact per rush, pressure rate allowed and PFF run as well as pass blocking team grade
- Receivers: Rank of average of each team's ranks in yards after the catch per reception, drop rate, yards per route run and PFF receiving team grade
- Pass Defense: Rank of average of each team's ranks in EPA allowed per pass, yards allowed per attempt, explosive pass-play rate allowed and PFF coverage team grade
- Run Defense: Rank of average of each team's ranks in EPA allowed per run, explosive run-play rate allowed, yards before contact per carry allowed and PFF rush defense team grade
- Havoc: Rank in: (tackles for a loss and for no gain + forced fumbles + interceptions + batted pass and deflections + pressures) / plays
- Tackling: Rank of average rank in missed tackle rate, yards after contact per carry allowed and yards after the catch per reception
One limitation of this study is the fact that I averaged ranks, so a massive difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 team will be treated the same as a small difference. Additionally, strength of schedule wasn't actively accounted for. Coaching also obviously plays a massive role in any football game. Finally, all these categories were weighted equally. Again: The goal here is to provide a different sort of breakdown than simply ranking the QBs and moving on. I tried to control for some of these limitations by using multiple metrics for each category.
The following chart denotes each team's rank in the aforementioned metrics.
Ranked the average ranks in 3-5 metrics per category to try and get an idea of the most-complete team in the playoffs.
All categories are weighted equally; wanted to try to look at more than just who has an amazing QB and who doesn't. pic.twitter.com/b13swxsCdW
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 4, 2021
Please don’t interpret this as a contendership ranking; the Chiefs whole-heartedly deserve to be the Super Bowl favorites and ranked seventh in this very study in 2019. Still, football games are ultimately contested between 52-man rosters; we should make an effort to evaluate more than just the ever-important QB position. More information on each individual team’s biggest strength and weakness on offense and defense is below.
No. 1: New Orleans Saints
- This offensive line has largely been underrated throughout the prolific Drew Brees-Sean Payton marriage. Overall, tackles Terron Armstead (PFF’s No. 7 highest-graded tackle) and Ryan Ramczyk (No. 13) each rank highly among 59 qualified players, while the same can be said for center Erik McCoy (No. 9 among 31). This unit ranks fifth in yards before contact per attempt and 10th in pressure rate; there’s a reason why points kept flying up on the scoreboard even with Taysom Hill under center.
- This receiver room has been banged up all season long, but help should hopefully be on the way with Michael Thomas (ankle, IR) tentatively expected to suit up Sunday against the Bears. Still, this team’s tight end room and complementary options are hardly liabilities; this offense was a top-15 unit in PFF receiving grade, yards after the catch per reception, yards per route run and drop rate.
- What makes the Saints run defense so impressive is that they don’t sell out to achieve this goal like other units, allowing them to devote extra defenders to help stop the pass. Overall, they ranked fifth and 10th in percentage of runs and passes faced with fewer than eight defenders in the box. The Buccaneers (No. 29 in eight-man boxes vs. the run) and Seahawks (No. 32) are examples of “good” run defenses that simply go further out of their way to stop opposing ground attacks.
- The larger issue for this defense is what happens when their front-seven isn’t able to impact the play. Overall, each of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (No. 22 in yards allowed per coverage snap), Janoris Jenkins (No. 44) and Marshon Lattimore (No. 55) underwhelmed among 78 qualified corners in their ability to consistently hold up downfield.
No. 2: Indianapolis Colts
- PFF’s No. 1 ranked preseason offensive line didn’t quite dominate from start to finish, but they ultimately boasted the third-best unit in both PFF team run-blocking grade and pressure rate. Throw in the reality that old man Philip Rivers is usually able to set this offense up for success in terms of pre-snap process, and you have an offense capable of moving the ball against just about anybody.
- Rookie Jonathan Taylor has taken the league by storm over the final month of the season, but this success isn’t something that was consistent throughout the entire season. Overall, Taylor forced just nine missed tackles on rush attempts in Weeks 1-10; he racked up 34 broken tackles on carries in Weeks 11-17. A fairly soft season-ending schedule certainly helped matters; just realize the January-version of Taylor looks far different from what we saw during the first two and a half months of the season.
Jonathan Taylor is good, man pic.twitter.com/KGc1e6aTu3
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 4, 2021
- The Colts finished fourth in missed tackle rate, yards allowed after the catch per reception and yards allowed after contact per carry. Ball carriers seldom get more than expected against this defense, thanks in large part to regularly elite efforts from stud LB Darius Leonard (PFF’s No. 8 highest-graded linebacker) and prized offseason addition DT DeForest Buckner (No. 3 interior defender) alike.
- The one key ingredient missing from this defense is the presence of a truly elite pass rusher. Overall, the Colts rank just 21st in pressure rate. Only the Seahawks (No. 25), Packers (No. 27) and Titans (No. 29) had a harder time consistently getting to opposing QBs among all 14 playoff teams.
No. 3: Los Angeles Rams
- The Rams hardly addressed their offensive line last offseason, which seemed like a curious decision at the time after their once-dangerous offense regressed badly in 2019. Alas, coach Sean McVay has more football knowledge in his pinky than any of us ever will in our entire body, and the Rams managed to field the league’s sixth and 13th ranked offensive line in yards before contact per attempt and pressure rate. The latter rate is particularly impressive considering Jared Goff’s average of 2.54 seconds from snap to attempt ranked just 23rd among 42 qualified QBs.
- And yet, this offense still couldn’t consistently pound the rock despite having anyone’s idea of a solid offensive line. Each of Cam Akers (29th in yards after contact per carry among 51 qualified players), Darrell Henderson (32nd) and Malcolm Brown (49th) were below-average backs in their ability to pick up additional yardage after first contact.
- This pass defense is downright terrifying, ranking first in PFF coverage grade, EPA allowed per pass, yards allowed per attempt and explosive pass-play rate. Overall, their average of -0.161 EPA per pass play is good for the 11th-best single-season mark from a pass defense since 2010. Both Aaron Donald (PFF’s No. 1 highest-graded interior defender) and Jalen Ramsey (No. 8 corner) each deserve plenty of success for helping build this juggernaut.
- The Rams aren’t a bad tackling defense by any stretch; nobody 1) has a lower missed tackle rate, 2) allowed fewer yards after contact per attempt. Their only “issue” was ranking 24th in yards after the catch per reception; just realize this is likely more of a result from opposing passing games posting the league’s second-lowest average target depth when facing the Rams. The Saints also boast a great defense, but gimme the Rams as the league’s best unit entering the playoffs.
No. 4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Tom Brady finished the 2020 season with career-high marks in big-time throws (45) and average target depth (10.1). The GOAT might be 43 years of age, but anyone talking about a noodle arm hasn’t watched many Buccaneers games this season. Overall, Brady’s 1,233 deep passing yards in 2020 were the most he’s ever had in a season. The reality that TB12 has coupled this with a league-low 1.8% turnover-worthy play rate makes it easy to see this suddenly lethal Bucs passing game making some noise deep into January.
- Ronald Jones got loose on a few occasions this season, but big plays were largely few and far between for this rushing offense. Overall, the Buccaneers joined the Falcons and Steelers as the only rushing “attacks” with fewer than 35 gains of at least 10 yards on the ground. RoJo is healthy and back in action; just realize the success of this offense rests on their veteran QB’s arm.
- This unit knows how to get after the QB: Tampa Bay (37% pressure rate) ranks behind only the Rams (38%), Eagles (38%), Saints (41%) and Steelers (45%) in their ability to get after opposing signal-callers. Life hasn’t been much better for opposing backfields, as only the Eagles and Saints had a higher percentage of tackles for a loss or no gain on rush attempts than the Buccaneers.
- This secondary has had an up-and-down season, but arguably the single most-prevalent issue for this defense has been their tackling ability. Overall, the Buccaneers rank 18th in missed tackle rate — the sixth-worst mark among all 14 playoff defenses. This issue has reared its head mostly on passing downs; Carlton Davis, Devin White and Lavonte David are three of just 32 defenders with at least eight missed tackles in coverage this season.
No. 5: Green Bay Packers
- Obviously the strength of the Packers offense is No. 12. We’ve quite literally never seen Aaron Rodgers play at a higher level, as the MVP frontrunner set career-best marks in PFF passing grade (94.3), TDs (48), adjusted completion rate (79.3%) and QB rating (115.8) alike in 2020. The demonstrated ability to dice up defenses downfield was particularly impressive; Rodgers turned in just the sixth season with a 99.9 PFF passing grade on targets 20-plus yards downfield since 2010. Believe me, there were plenty of yards left on the field; 50 scores through the air *should* have happened.
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 4, 2021
- There isn’t much of a weakness for the highest-ranked offense in this study, but creating explosive plays on the ground is probably the only bone I have to pick. Their explosive run play rate of 11.7% ranks 21st in the league and is ahead of only the Bears (10.8%), Buccaneers (9.4%) and Steelers (8.7%) among playoff teams. Again, I wouldn’t go as far to call Aaron Jones and company a problem, but better complementing anyone’s idea of a top-two passing attack with more big plays in the run game can’t hurt.
- This is anyone’s idea of a top-10 pass defense, and No. 1 CB Jaire Alexander is the biggest reason why. Overall, PFF’s top-graded corner allowed just 35 of 69 targets into his coverage to be caught for 337 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT. The reality that Alexander was called for just a single penalty all season separates him from other top corners such as Xavien Howard (8 penalties), Marlon Humphrey (8), Tre’Davious White (6), Jalen Ramsey (6) and Stephon Gilmore (6).
- The biggest difference between the 2019 and 2020 Packers is their newfound inability to get after the passer. This defense ranked second and 17th in pressure and havoc in 2019, but has fallen to 27th and 23rd in 2020. Edge rusher Za’Darius Smith led the league in pressures last year but is tied for 24th in 2020. They’ll need to get back to causing problems for opposing offensive lines in the passing game to have any hopes of making up for their (again) atrocious run defense.
No. 6: Seattle Seahawks
- Only the Vikings and Browns ripped off explosive run plays at a higher rate than the Seahawks. A big reason for this was the reality that Russell Wilson got back to functioning as a true dual-threat QB, as his average of 32.1 rush yards per game marked just the second time since 2015 that he went for at least 30 yards on the ground per contest. Both Wilson (21 carries of at least 10 yards) and Chris Carson (19) ranked among the league’s top 25 players in most explosive carries.
- This Seahawks passing game simply underwhelmed for the better part of the second half of the season. D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are fantastic, although the former was one of just three receivers to drop double-digit passes, and the latter was tied for 13th with seven misses of his own. This offense made a great living on the deep ball early on in the season, but only the Buccaneers and Browns were worse in yards after the catch per reception among all playoff teams.
- The Seahawks join the Colts and Saints as the only defenses to function as a top-10 unit in missed tackle rate, yards allowed after the catch per reception and yards allowed after contact per carry. Offseason addition Jamal Adams deserves credit for regularly flying around the field, but fellow safety mate Quandre Diggs (PFF’s No. 3 highest-graded safety against the run) was arguably the real difference-maker.
- Things improved for this secondary in the second half of the season, although facing the Eagles, Giants, Jets, Football Team, Rams and 49ers since Week 12 might be a better explanation than a true turnaround. This pass defense simply has a bad combination of inability to 1) get after the passer, and 2) limit big plays. Overall, Seattle ranks 25th and 29th in pressure rate and total explosive pass plays allowed.
No. 7: Washington Football Team
- The offensive line is the only thing saving this offense from being a below-average unit in all four of our categories. Even then, the Football Team’s status as PFF’s No. 3 pass-blocking offensive line is probably more due to Alex Smith’s tendency to get rid of the ball as quick as humanly possible: His average of 2.38 seconds from snap to pass is the eighth-fastest mark among all QBs with at least 200 dropbacks.
- Only the Jets and Eagles had a worse overall passing offense rank than the Football Team. Their main issue all season has been creating big plays through the air; they join the 2018 Jaguars as the only offenses to post an explosive pass-play rate under 11% over the past three seasons.
- Only the Rams and Steelers posted a better EPA per pass play than the Football Team; this secondary and pass rush are legit. The latter group in particular is full of monsters, as each of Chase Young (No. 11), Jonathan Allen (No. 18) and Montez Sweat (No. 21) rank highly among 115 full-time interior and edge defenders this season.
- The one issue facing this defense has been their ability to truly shut down opposing rushing attacks; their 12.8% explosive run-play rate against ranks just 27th in 2020. This is made more concerning by the reality that they’ve faced run plays with at least eight defenders in the box at the league’s sixth-highest rate. Most of the Football Team’s success on defense comes from their front-seven’s ability to dominate opposing offensive lines; watch out if they meet an opponent with an o-line good enough to at least make things tougher than usual.
No. 8: Cleveland Browns
- The Browns boast PFF’s No. 1 offensive line in both team run and pass-block grade. The unit is littered with top-10 performers, as tackle Jack Conklin (PFF’s No. 8 highest-graded tackle) joins guards Wyatt Teller (No. 1 guard) and Joel Bitonio (No. 6) as well as center J.C. Tretter (No. 4) as legit high-end options at their positions.
- This was a below average receiver group in both drop rate (19th) and especially yards after the catch per reception (28th). Overall, Jarvis Landry (No. 42 in yards after the catch per reception) was the only Browns WR to rank inside the league’s top-100 options at the position with at least 25 targets.
- Credit to the Browns defense for functioning as a top-eight unit in both missed tackle rate (No. 7) and yards allowed after contact per carry (No. 8). Myles Garrett gets most of his praise for his elite pass-rush ability, but the 2017 draft’s No. 1 overall pick deserves more credit for functioning as PFF’s 12th-highest graded edge defender against the run. The bad news is fellow edge defender Olivier Vernon (No. 16) is out indefinitely with a torn Achilles.
- Removing Vernon from the equation will force Garrett to shoulder an even heavier burden than he already has. Only Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa and T.J. Watt have a higher pass-rush grade than Garrett among all full-time edge defenders, but the rest of the defense needs to step up. The Patriots, Chiefs and Vikings were the only defenses with fewer tackles for a loss or no gain, while the Browns ultimately finished just 19th in total pressures.
No. 9: Kansas City Chiefs
- Obviously Patrick Mahomes is the engine of the reigning Super Bowl champions. No offense puts more fear into the heart of opposing defenses when it comes to creating big plays; Mahomes and Russell Wilson tied for the league lead in scores on passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield with 13. Things have been particularly bleak for opposing defenses when Mahomes has managed to extend the play, as his eight big-time throws on scramble drills are unmatched in 2020.
- Perhaps getting Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, IR) back in the playoffs will provide a spark, but either way this offense has struggled to pick up more yards than what is expected. Overall, none of the Chiefs four RBs ranked inside of the league’s top-25 backs in yards after contact per carry among 96 players at the position with at least 25 carries.
- The Chiefs have generally done a great job limiting big plays despite daring offenses to achieve just that. All in all nobody faced a higher percentage of deep passes than the Chiefs (15.3%), yet they were still a top-15 defense in explosive pass-play rate allowed. Ball-hawking talent Tyrann Mathieu should continue to be lauded as one of the best players at the position after leading all safeties with six interceptions in 2020.
- Only the Dolphins gave up more yards after the catch per reception than the Chiefs. This was despite being one of just seven defenses to luckily have their opponent drop more than 30 passes against them throughout the season. Tightening things up on the outside would help them better limit their opponents after the catch; they rank as the fourth-worst defense in the playoffs in contested target percentage.
No. 10: Tennessee Titans
- Derrick Henry had more rush yards after contact (1,490) than the Texans (1,466) and Steelers (1,349) had total rushing yards. His average of 3.9 yards after contact per carry is only rivaled by fellow monster Nick Chubb (4.1). Madness. The latest member of the 2,000-yard club, King Henry is the engine of the league’s single-best rushing attack and capable of going off against just about anybody.
- The reality that Henry achieved this incredible season despite functioning behind the league’s 15th-ranked offensive line in yards before contact per rush is even more amazing. This banged-up o-line was even worse in their quest to protect Ryan Tannehill, as only the Giants, Jets, Chargers and Vikings had a worse overall PFF team pass blocking grade.
- Credit to the Titans for ranking seventh in yards after the catch per reception; otherwise we’re looking at a truly mediocre unit that should be considered the worst defense in the playoffs.
- Things have been so brutal for the Titans in large part due to the absence of an elite pass-rusher. The Titans join the Jaguars, Bengals and Vikings as the only defenses to pressure opposing QBs on fewer than 26% of their dropbacks. Not a single one of their defensive linemen rank within PFF’s top-50 highest-graded pass-rushing interior or edge defenders among 115 qualified players.
No. 11: Buffalo Bills
- Josh Allen and company are operating at an extremely high level at the moment. The 2020 fantasy QB1 deserves plenty of credit in his own right for making such a massive third-year leap, but the addition of Stefon Diggs into this passing attack can’t be understated. Only the Packers and Chiefs averaged more EPA per pass play than the Bills; having a WR that was pretty much unguardable all season was a key reason why.
99 seconds of Stefon Diggs being extremely good at his job pic.twitter.com/HBI2aXnOXg
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 4, 2021
- The Bills had the 26th-ranked offensive line in pressure rate this season, although that’s more due to Allen having the single-longest average time from snap to release among 29 qualified signal-callers. This isn’t a bad thing; Allen’s 23 passing TDs when taking at least 2.5 seconds to throw are tied with Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson for the most in the league. Still, it’d make sense if the clearest potential path to slowing down this offense is disrupting Allen at all costs.
- The Bills have done a great job creating negative plays all season long, as only the Steelers, Buccaneers and Saints boast a higher havoc rate. One of just six defenses to pressure opposing QBs on at least 35% of their dropbacks, Buffalo is a modern defense that (understandably) places far more importance on slowing down the pass than the run.
- We’ve seen this strategy come back to bite the Bills in matchups against the Chiefs (245 rushing yards) and Cardinals (217) to some extent. Even then, we can make a strong argument that putting the ball in the hands of Clyde Edwards-Helaire compared to Patrick Mahomes isn’t a bad strategy. Don’t make any mistake about it: This is not an elite defense. Still, the Bills’ general ability to play smart and to their strengths on both sides of the ball makes their weaknesses less of a liability than we might see in another franchise.
No. 12: Baltimore Ravens
- The Ravens have rushed for 100 yards in 39 consecutive regular season games since Lamar Jackson took over under center in Week 11, 2018. The only longer streak in NFL history is the Steelers (43 games) from 1974-1977. Fourteen players averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry this season among 51 dudes with at least 100 rush attempts; three played for the Ravens.
- Jackson’s at-times erraticness as a passer hasn’t helped the Ravens establish much consistency through the air all season, although he hasn’t exactly been blessed with the league’s best receiver room. Overall, the Ravens ranked 28th in both PFF receiving grade and drop rate. The offense’s 45.5% catchable deep-ball rate ranks ahead of the Buccaneers, Chiefs and Steelers; stop it with the unironic “RB playing QB” jokes and maybe start questioning why this offense hasn’t given Jackson a single established high-end WR to play with through three seasons.
- Patrick Mahomes is basically the only QB to have sustained success through the air against this secondary over the past two years. All in all, the Ravens ranked no worse than eighth in each of our pass defense categories. This is largely thanks to the excellent play of corners Marlon Humphrey (No. 13 in PFF coverage grade), Jimmy Smith (No. 17) and Marcus Peters (No. 36).
- The problem for this defense has been tackling. Overall, they rank 26th and 30th in missed tackle rate and yards allowed after contact per carry. This is far from simply a front-seven problem; only the Packers, Buccaneers, Giants, Dolphins and Lions missed more tackles in coverage than the Ravens in 2020.
No. 13: Chicago Bears
- David Montgomery truly deserves a ton of credit for his ability to at times will this run offense to success. Only Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb broke more tackles on carries than Montgomery, while his rate of 0.22 forced missed tackles per rush was tied for fourth among 51 players with at least 100 rush attempts.
- The situation under center has largely been a disaster all season, particularly when trying to push the ball downfield. Overall, the Bears were one of just eight offenses to post an explosive pass-play rate under 12%. Mitch Trubisky ranks dead last in PFF passing grade on balls thrown at least 20 yards downfield among 33 qualified QBs.
- Picking up extra yards against this defense has been a challenge all season: The Bears rank third in both missed tackle rate and yards allowed after contact per carry. It’s a bit surprising Khalil Mack didn’t rack up more than 10 sacks, but his status as PFF’s second-highest graded defensive lineman behind only Aaron Donald reinforces the reality that he’s still one of the game’s single-best defenders.
- The Bears have quietly had a problem limiting big plays on the ground, as only the Texans, Cardinals and Bengals allowed a higher explosive run-play rate in 2020. This is still an above-average run defense; just realize the right RB might be able to take advantage of their occasional lapses in limiting big plays.
No. 14: Pittsburgh Steelers
- The only part of the Steelers offense that we can kinda sorta compliment is the offensive line. Even then, it’s tricky. This is the league’s second-worst offense in yards before contact per carry, and the only reason they rank first in pressure rate allowed is because Ben Roethlisberger is one of just 10 QBs with an average target depth under 7.5 yards.
- No offense has been worse in EPA per run play than the Steelers. They somehow totaled just 32 rushes of 10-plus yards all season; nobody else finished with fewer than 34 such carries. None of the team’s RBs ranked inside the league’s top-40 players in yards after contact per carry among 128 players with at least 25 carries.
- This defense has gotten after opposing QBs at a historic rate all season long. Both T.J. Watt (73) and Stephon Tuitt (71) are two of just four players with at least 70 pressures. Cameron Heyward (62) isn’t too far behind. The reality that they’ve accomplished this without Bud Dupree (knee, IR) and Devin Bush (knee, IR) for most of the second half of the season has been even more impressive.
- The Steelers rank 27th in missed tackle rate, but that’s likely more of a result of them being such an aggressive and blitz-happy unit. The larger cause for concern is their standing as the 22nd-ranked defense in yards after contact per carry. This defense didn’t allow an opposing offense to surpass 105 rushing yards in Weeks 1-7; there have been seven offenses to surpass 125 yards on the ground against the Steelers in 10 games since.