How to Leverage Tom Brady’s Playoff History Against Elite Pass Rushes like the Chargers

How to Leverage Tom Brady’s Playoff History Against Elite Pass Rushes like the Chargers article feature image

USA Today Sports. Pictured: Tom Brady, Joey Bosa

  • The New England Patriots host the Los Angeles Chargers in Sunday's AFC Divisional Round matchup (1:05 p.m. on CBS) as four-point favorites.
  • Ryan Collinsworth outlines how you can leverage Tom Brady's playoff history against elite pass rushes (like Joey Bosa and Co.) when betting this game.

The Chargers — who boast an elite pass rush anchored by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram — could pose a threat to the Patriots’ passing game if able to apply pressure.

As my Action Network colleague John Ewing delved into, there’s a direct correlation between sacking Tom Brady more and the Patriots failing to cover the spread. So I wanted to leverage our FantasyLabs Trends Tool and Bet Labs archives to dig deeper into Brady’s and the Patriots’ history against elite pass-rushes.

How much do elite pass rush defenses like the Chargers’ disrupt the Patriots offense? Is this historical data already baked into the over/under? And is the sample size big enough to justify a bet against New England on Sunday?

Let’s dig in.

How We’re Evaluating Elite Pass Rushes

The Chargers’ pass rush has earned a Pro Football Focus grade of 32.9, so our baseline for elite pass rush defenses will be units with a PFF pass rush rating of 30.

I evaluated Brady’s and the Patriots’ performance against elite and non-elite pass rush defenses since 2006 — excluding the 2008 season, when Brady’s season was cut short by a torn ACL. I also compared splits for regular-season games to playoff games over that span.

Brady Against Elite Pass Rushes

I’ve outlined Brady’s average overall PFF grades based on his opponents’ PFF pass rush grades in the chart below. As a reminder, “elite” defenses have PFF pass rush grades of 30 or higher while “non-elite” defenses have pass rush grades below 30.

Of the 188 regular-season games he’s played in since 2006, Brady has faced elite pass rush defenses in only 42. And of his 26 playoff games in that same time frame, he’s faced elite pass rush defenses in only seven. Which means only 22.9% of his opponents over that span have had elite pass rushes.

The first big takeaway is that Brady seems to “play up” to his competition. He boasts elevated PFF grades against elite pass rushes. So one interpretation of this result could be that Brady elevates his game against stronger opponents.

Another and perhaps more likely conclusion would be that pressuring Brady is not necessarily the best method to disrupt the Patriots offense. New England thrives on the short-passing game and by identifying mismatches between their backs, tight ends and slot receivers against opposing coverages. Pass rush units that utilize more than four defenders expose more weaknesses in coverage, so it’s possible that Brady and the Patriots excel in these situations.

A less obvious takeaway is that Brady might not necessarily be the clutch playoff performer we believe him to be. His overall PFF grade tumbles in the playoffs regardless of his defensive matchup — he boasts an average overall grade of 1.93 in the regular season compared to a more-pedestrian grade of 0.77 in the playoffs over our sample.

Patriots Offense Against Elite Pass Rushes

Naturally, the next question we must ask is whether Brady’s performance splits against elite pass rushes translate to a meaningful difference in offensive production for the entire Patriots offense?

Intuitively, this should be the case. After all, the quarterback position is definitively the most important cog in any offensive machine; quarterbacks are also typically worth the most points toward a team’s spread as a result.

To answer this question, I analyzed New England’s offensive production based on average points scored, average game total and over-rate against elite vs. non-elite pass rush defenses, and then further split this data between regular-season and playoff games.

There are negligible differences in New England’s performance against elite or non-elite pass rushes during the regular season. The Patriots boast slight increases in average points scored, game total and over-rate against non-elite pass rush defenses, but these statistical improvements are so minuscule that we can’t confidently conclude that these differences are caused by the pass rush in isolation.

However, the story is quite different in the playoffs. The Patriots experience a decline in average points and average game total against non-elite defenses in the postseason but, paradoxically, their overs hit at a much higher rate (64.7%) in these contests.

Against elite pass rushes, their average game total increases markedly, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to a high over-rate. This could mean that the betting marketplace has already adjusted for these higher totals. We also only have a sample of seven such playoff games, which makes it difficult to draw strong conclusions.

Nonetheless, this data does suggest that the Patriots could be prone to higher totals against elite pass rush defenses — even if New England’s offense is not necessarily scoring more points — which implies that opposing offenses are scoring more points against them. This would support an over bet on the Chargers’ implied team total (20.75).

Patriots Win- & Cover-Rate Against Elite Pass Rushes

Our findings further suggest that the Patriots could be prone to failing to cover the spread against elite pass rush defenses during the playoffs. Indeed, they have averaged 30 points per game against such teams in the postseason while said opponents have averaged 29.9.

So, our final question is: How often do the Patriots win — or cover the spread — against elite pass rush defenses?

There is no meaningful difference in the Patriots’ win-rate or against-the-spread record against elite or non-elite pass rush defenses during the regular season.

However, the Patriots have gone a paltry 1-6 ATS against elite defenses during the playoffs, including 3-4 SU. Importantly, they were favored in five of those seven games, underdogs in one and a pick ’em in Super Bowl XLIX. All of this confirms my suspicion that opponents tend to cover against the Patriots in such games.

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How I’m Betting Chargers-Patriots

This sample size might be small, but it’s huge in its implications. We have now analyzed three sources of data that — combined — suggest the following trends when New England plays against elite pass rushes in the playoffs:

  • Brady performs below his career average in overall PFF grade.
  • The Patriots allow opponents with elite pass rush defenses to score more points, leading to higher game totals and suggesting higher opponent team totals.
  • New England is 1-6 ATS and 3-4 SU against teams with pass rushes similar to the Chargers.

All three of these trends point in the same direction: Bet the Chargers to cover — and maybe even to win straight up. And even if you’re cautious to bet on them ATS, you should strongly consider taking the over on the Chargers’ implied team total.