NFL Championship Round Matchup Manifesto: The Rams Can’t Guard Michael Thomas, More

NFL Championship Round Matchup Manifesto: The Rams Can’t Guard Michael Thomas, More article feature image
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Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13), Los Angeles Rams cornerback Marcus Peters (22).

  • Saints WR Michael Thomas had monster game against the Eagles on Sunday and is in position to do the same against the Rams in the NFC Championship game.
  • Below are various matchup-based advantages and disadvantages to leverage in the four playoff teams remaining.

The NFL is a matchup-driven league. Offensive coordinators are always looking to scheme their playmakers into one-on-one situations against a defender, while defensive coordinators will attempt to do anything in their power to upset the timing and rhythm of the opposing quarterback.

Despite the obvious impact that defenses have on opposing offenses, fantasy players are often left with one-way metrics to describe offenses and defenses that they are then forced to compare against each other in an attempt to identify mismatches.

The goal here is to provide easy-to-decipher charts and notes to identify key matchups on both sides of the ball in:

  • Explosive Plays
  • Pace
  • Pressure
  • Trench Battles
  • Turnover Margin
  • Passing Game

Our Divisional Round manifesto accurately forecasted an underwhelming performance for Andrew Luck, a solid day for everyone rushing behind the Rams’ offensive line as well as an uber-efficient performances from Michael Thomas and Sony Michel.

The following charts have matchup-specific information meant to highlight the largest mismatches in these ever-important facets of football to ultimately gain actionable betting and fantasy takeaways for the two NFL Championship round matchups.

Note: This data is based on games from Weeks 1-17.

Explosive Plays

Big plays make the football world go round. Matchups between explosive offenses and leaky defenses are exactly what we’re looking for when compiling game stacks in DFS, or when betting an over. We can calculate this with help from NFL.com’s team-based statistics.

  • Explosive Pass Rate: The sum of an offense’s rate of 20-plus yard completions per pass attempt and the opposing defense’s rate of 20-plus yard completions allowed per pass attempt. A higher percentage is better for offenses (green is good, red is bad).
  • Explosive Run Rate: The sum of an offense’s rate of 20-plus yard gains per rush attempt and the opposing defense’s rate of 20-plus yard runs allowed per rush attempt. A higher percentage is better for offenses (green is good, red is bad).

  • The Chiefs and Saints boast the week’s most-explosive offenses on the ground and through the air.
  • Still, each of the remaining teams managed to consistently create big pass plays throughout the season. The Chiefs (No. 1), Rams (No. 2), Saints (No. 5) and Patriots (No. 12) all posted an explosive pass play rate above 9%.
  • The Chiefs (No. 1) were also the league’s most-explosive offense on the ground during the regular season. The Rams (No. 15), Patriots (No. 21) and Saints (No. 27) were unable to routinely bust big runs this season despite each team having plenty of talent in their respective backfield.
  • Jared Goff (391 yards-3 TDs-1 INT), Drew Brees (346-4-0), Patrick Mahomes (352-4-2) and Tom Brady (340-1-0) managed to ball out during their respective first matchups this season against their upcoming opponent.
  • The Patriots boasted the league’s 15th-best defense in explosive pass play rate allowed this season. Still, their man-heavy defense could be troublesome against Patrick Mahomes and his group of speedy playmakers.

  • Of course, the Saints (No. 20), Chiefs (No. 26) and Rams (No. 30) weren’t any better at limiting explosive plays through the air this season.
  • Be sure to monitor our industry-leading NFL twitter feed for updated weather information in Kansas City on Sunday. The over/under opened at 59.5 points, but has since dropped all the way to 55 (per our Live NFL Odds Page).
  • The Saints (No. 6) were the only defense that had any sort of success with consistently limiting big runs. The Chiefs (No. 15), Patriots (No. 20) and Rams (No. 30) have all had trouble limiting explosive runs throughout the season.
  • Damien Williams has the best breakaway percentage (runs of 15 yards or more, PFF) among all backs in the playoffs. Overall, the Chiefs’ electric featured back has turned 7-of-75 rushes (9.3%) into big runs.

Pace

Fast-paced games lead to more plays, which lead to more points. There are several games that could resemble a track meet based on their combined situation-neutral pace ranking (Football Outsiders).

  • Combined Situation-Neutral Pace: Represents the combined situation-neutral pace between each matchup’s two offenses. A lower number indicates fewer average seconds per play (green = fast-paced game), while a higher number indicates more average seconds per play (red = slow-paced game).

  • Expect to see plenty of fast-moving offenses this Sunday. The  Patriots (No. 1 in situation neutral pace), Rams (No. 3), Chiefs (No. 6) and Saints (No. 13) all operated at an above-average pace this season.
  • The over was smashed in each of the previous matchups between the Patriots-Chiefs (43-40) and Rams-Saints (45-35).

Pressure

An overmatched offensive line can result in poor fantasy days for all skill-position players involved. Meanwhile, quarterbacks with all day to throw can help generate points in bunches. We can determine which offensive lines might be especially better (or worse) this week with help from Pro Football Focus’ offensive and defensive pressure statistics.

  • Combined Pressure Rate: The sum of the offensive line’s rate of pressures allowed per dropback and the opposing defense’s total pressures generated per dropback. A higher percentage (red) is better for defenses, while a lower percentage (green) indicates that matchup’s quarterback could face reduced pressure.

  • The offensive lines from the Patriots (No. 1 in adjusted sack rate), Saints (No. 3), Chiefs (No. 5) and Rams (No. 6) have each largely done a great job protecting their quarterback all season.
  • The same holds true for the Patriots (No. 2 in pressure rate allowed), Saints (No. 3) and Rams (No. 12) when we look at pressure instead of sacks.
  • The Chiefs (No. 20) haven’t done quite as good a job at keeping Patrick Mahomes consistently free from pressure. Of course, Mahomes has both the confidence and dynamic arm strength to make any throw on the field, which also leads to enhanced risk taking at times via extended plays.

  • The Rams (No. 3 in pressure rate) and Patriots (No. 6) are the only remaining pass rushes that managed to record a pressure on at least 50% of their opponent’s dropbacks during the regular season. The Chiefs (No. 10) and Saints (No. 15) weren’t too bad themselves.

Trench Battles

We can calculate where each back’s offensive lines hold the best advantages against their opponent’s defensive line with help from the fine folks at Football Outsiders — specifically, their adjusted line yards per rush metric, which takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on an opponent-adjusted set of variables.

  • Combined Directional Adjusted Line Yards per Rush: The sum of an offensive line’s adjusted line yards per rush to a certain area of the line and the opposing defense’s adjusted line yards allowed per rush to the same area. A higher number (green) is good for running backs, while a lower number (red) indicates that matchup’s offense could have some trouble running the ball.

  • The Patriots are easily set up the best on the ground overall against the Chiefs’ league-worst defense in rush DVOA. The Chiefs yielded big days to both Sony Michel (106 rushing yards and two touchdowns) as well as White (92 total yards on 11 touches) back in Week 6.
  • The Patriots are positioned for success on the ground in almost every area, but particularly behind right tackle Marcus Cannon — PFF’s No. 14-ranked offensive tackle in run blocking this season.
  • Still, playing the Chiefs at home vs. at Arrowhead isn’t even close to the same thing.

  • A combined adjusted yards rate of at least nine is usually a good indicator of success, so both the Chiefs and Rams are still set up fairly well on the ground despite their redness in the above chart.
  • Damien Williams possesses enough big-play ability to take advantage of a Patriots defense that has been better against the pass (No. 14 in DVOA) than the run (No. 19) this season. Look for Mahomes to continue to target his running back against the slow-moving Patriots linebackers who helped allow the ninth-most receiving yards to opposing running backs this season.

  • The Saints have done a great job setting the edge in the run game all season, as they rank second and first against runs around left and right end, respectively.
  • Still, the Rams’ offensive line proved plenty capable of dominating the Cowboys’ fifth-ranked defense in rush DVOA last week. The Rams finished the season with the most overall adjusted line yards per rush (5.49) since Football Outsiders began tracking the metric in 1996.
  • The absence of Sheldon Rankins (Achilles) could lead to an even larger advantage for the Rams’ rushing attack on runs up the middle. Rankins was PFF’s No. 24 overall interior defender this season.
  • Ezekiel Elliott converted 20 carries into just 47 yards (2.35 YPC) against Aaron Donald and company last week, but the Cowboys ranked outside the top-12 offensive lines in adjusted line yards around left and right end this season.
  • The Saints dominated on runs around left end (No. 1 in adjusted line yards) and right end (No. 3) thanks in large part to their stud tackles Terron Armstead (PFF’s No. 2 overall tackle) and Ryan Ramczyk (No. 8).
  • Of course, having running backs with the open-field ability of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram also doesn’t hurt matters.

Turnovers

Matchups between two careless teams are obviously of interest when it comes to targeting fantasy defenses. Crafting a turnover differential for each individual matchup between an offense and defense can help identify when turnover-prone offenses are taking on ball-hawking defenses.

  • Combined Turnover Rate: The sum of the offense’s turnover rate and the opposing defense’s takeaway rate. A higher percentage (red) is better for defenses, while a lower percentage (green) is better for offenses and indicates the absence of a turnover-prone offense or takeaway-happy defense.

  • Unsurprisingly, the Saints (No. 4 in turnover rate), Patriots (No. 6), Rams (No. 9) and Chiefs (No. 10) did a great job taking care of the ball all season.
  • However, the Rams (No. 2 in takeaway rate) and Patriots (No. 4) were quite a bit better than the Saints (No. 12) and Chiefs (No. 13) in creating turnovers on defense.
  • One factor working in the Chiefs’ favor is the fact that they are the last remaining team with a mobile quarterback.

  • Still, a high combined turnover rate in the regular season was usually considered as anything over 6%, so none of these offenses are particularly huge candidates for a sloppy game.

Passing Game

We can calculate how well each of these quarterbacks are set up when throwing to different areas of the field with help from Sharp Football Stats.

Pro Football Reference also provides enough information to calculate each offense’s and defense’s yards per attempt to each position.

  • Combined Directional Passer Rating: The sum of each quarterback’s passer rating to each area of the field and the opposing defense’s passer rating allowed to the same area. A higher number is better for the quarterback (green), while a lower number is good news for the defense (red).
  • Combined Position-Specific Yards per Attempt: The sum of each quarterback’s average yards per attempt to each position with the opposing defense’s yards per attempt allowed to the same position. A higher number is better for that position and quarterback (green), while a lower number could lead to a more definitive defensive advantage (red).

  • The Chiefs (No. 1 in net yards per pass attempt), Rams (No. 4), Saints (No. 5) and Patriots (No. 6) each boast incredibly efficient pass offenses, so let’s see exactly where we should expect them to thrive this week.
  • The Patriots’ success on deep passes down the left sideline is undoubtedly compromised by the absence of Josh Gordon, who was the most-efficient target of Tom Brady’s career.
  • Expect Julian Edelman (29 targets in three games without Gordon) and James White (26) to take advantage of the Chiefs’ mediocre defense in the underneath areas of the field.
  • Rob Gronkowski caught 3-of-4 targets for 97 yards against the Chiefs in Week 6 with Eric Berry (Achilles) sidelined, but Gronk was held to just 33-scoreless yards on six targets in Week 1 of last season when the Chiefs’ All-World safety was healthy.
  • Monitor our Conference Championship Injury Report for daily practice participation along with estimated and official game statuses for each team’s respective banged-up starters.
  • Regardless of Berry’s final status, Gronk has just six targets in his past three games without Gordon and has had more success as a decoy and blocker than as a receiver all season.
  • The Chiefs are set up best in the shorter areas of the field, where we would expect the likes of Damien Williams and Travis Kelce to thrive.
  • The Patriots did a great job limiting Sammy Watkins (2-18-0) earlier this season with shadow coverage from Stephon Gilmore, but they have yet to figure out how to slow down Tyreek Hill.

  • Jared Goff has featured Robert Woods (73 targets), Brandin Cooks (63) and Josh Reynolds (51) over the rest of his pass-game options in nine games without Cooper Kupp (knee, IR) this season.
  • Cooks roasted the Saints for 114 yards and a touchdown during his Week 9 #RevengeGame, but the elite field-stretcher has failed to surpass even 65 yards in a game since the Rams’ Week 12 bye.
  • Cooks should see the most of Marshon Lattimore based on their usual alignments, although Lattimore didn’t travel with a single receiver during their first matchup. This would leave Reynolds to face off against Eli Apple, who hasn’t allowed a single touchdown reception this season.
  • Woods is set up for the most success in the slot against liability P.J. Williams — Pro Football Focus’ No. 109 cornerback out of 119 qualified players.
  • The Rams appear to be most susceptible deep down the right sideline. That’s typically where Ted Ginn Jr. roams. Only Michael Thomas (29 targets) has gotten more attention from Brees than Ginn (15) in Week 16 and the Divisional Round.
  • Rams cornerback Aqib Talib didn’t play during the first matchup between these teams, but Talib hasn’t been asked to travel with a single receiver all season.
  • Thomas caught 12-of-15 targets for 211 yards and a touchdown in Marcus Peters’ shadow coverage back in Week 9. The third-year receiver has caught 27-of-38 targets for 387 yards and three touchdowns in three career playoff games and is easily the highest-projected receiver in our Pro Models.