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AFC Divisional Round Preview: Peyton Manning’s Swan Song

Peyton Manning AFC Divisional Round

Via our friends at numberFire.

Even before the weekend hits, we’ve got drama in the NFL. Plenty of big-name players have injury concerns, and that’s making it difficult to see how some of these games will play out.

Let’s dig into some of the numbers and storylines for the AFC games this week, though, and see if we can make some sense of what’s going to play out.

New England Patriots vs. Kansas City Chiefs

No surprise here — for the sixth straight year, the Patriots are making their playoff debut in the divisional round after securing a first-round bye. They’ll be taking on a Chiefs team that finished the regular season 11-5, just one game back from the Denver Broncos in the AFC West.

The Patriots are consistently one of the top teams in the NFL, and this year is no different. Offensively, they ranked third in the league according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric when adjusted for strength of schedule. The defense didn’t trail far behind, coming in at 12th overall.

At the risk of boring you with more of exactly what you expected, Tom Brady once again proved himself to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and among the 37 quarterbacks to record at least 200 drop backs on the year, his passing NEP ranked fourth on a per-drop-back basis. On average, every single time Brady dropped back to pass, he contributed just a shade over 0.25 points to the Patriots’ expected total. His raw numbers were great, too, throwing for 4,770 yards and a league-leading 36 touchdowns, both his best marks since 2011, while limiting his interceptions to 7, the second-lowest mark of his career.

While no team makes it this far into the year without injury troubles, Brady managed those gaudy numbers with three of his best offensive weapons —Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski — missing at least some time due to injuries.

Lewis tore his ACL and is done for the season, but barring any late setbacks, Gronkowski and Edelman will both be returning to the field this weekend.

Gronkowski and Edelman are the Patriots’ two most efficient pass-catchers according to our metrics, and Brady’s numbers vary greatly with and without them. Over the last two seasons, when Edelman plays, Brady has thrown for 0.9 more touchdowns and 0.8 fewer interceptions per game, and his yards per attempt jump by 1.29. Without Edelman this season, Brady had a below-average Passing NEP per drop back rate, while his rate was the league’s best with Edelman.

That’s a drastic difference, and if they can hit the ground running, the Patriots’ offense is as good as any in the league.

When Brady is on top of his game like he has been this season, aiming to simply slow him down is a much more realistic goal than trying to stop him. But the Chiefs’ defense may well be up to the task. They rank fourth in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP, and have been strong against both the run, ranking eighth, as well as the pass, ranking fourth.

One of the few consistent ways that opposing defenses have been able to make Brady struggle has been by getting pressure on him, and the Chiefs are well positioned to do that. The duo of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali haven’t been as prolific this year as in years past, but the Chiefs defense still managed to finish the season ranked seventh with 0.07 sacks per opponents’ drop back.

Behind that pass rush is Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Marcus Peters and first team All-Pro Eric Berry, who will play the biggest roles in Kansas City’s efforts to stay with Gronkowski and Edelman.

The Patriots have really struggled to run the ball since Lewis went down, and while James White has stepped up admirably in the passing game, he simply can’t fill Lewis’ role, as I wrote about earlier this week. When the Patriots are on offense, this game is going to be won and lost through the air.

There’s considerably less intrigue when the Chiefs are on the field. Our metrics have Kansas City’s offense ranked 14th, and the Patriots’ defense ranked 12th.

The Chiefs are the seventh most run-heavy team in the league, with a 1.18 pass-to-run ratio this season, and that’s also where they’ve been the most effective. While their passing offense only ranks 19th, their rushing offense finished the season ranked second, despite losing top back Jamaal Charles early in the year.

The Patriots defense ranked 12th against the run this year, and having Dont’a Hightower getting closer to 100 percent healthy will be big for their ability to stop the Chiefs’ rushing attack.

A big question mark surrounding the Chiefs’ offense is how they will play if they fall behind early and can’t lean on the run game. Their passing offense ranked 19th this year, and Alex Smith’s 0.08 Passing NEP per drop back also ranked 19th. Things become especially difficult with Jeremy Maclin’s injury. Even if Maclin can play, he’ll be limited, which also limits a huge part of the Kansas City aerial attack. Maclin has accounted for 35 percent of the Chiefs’ targets through their last six games, and his 0.70 Reception NEP per target is the best mark among Chiefs’ players with at least 25 targets.

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