How to survive in the NFL playoffs: Barnwell makes sense of the AFC chaos

The AFC divisional round was total chaos this weekend. On Saturday, the top-seeded Ravens were bounced from the bracket in a blowout loss to the Titans, who went up 28-6 in the third quarter and barely looked back. The Texans followed Sunday and seemed to be setting up an AFC South rubber match in the conference title game, but the No. 2-seeded Chiefs went down 24-0 and ran off a staggering 51-7 run to finish the game.

What happened? Why were the Titans able to hold on and beat the Ravens, but the Texans held their lead for a matter of minutes before the Chiefs stormed back? Where did the Chiefs succeed in their comeback where the Ravens did not? Are there any more takeaways we can glean in advance of the AFC Championship Game?

I’ll run through those questions and arguments below. I’ll focus mostly on the AFC but will sneak in a couple of NFC playoff elements from this weekend:

Jump to a section:
• Build a game plan that works for you
• Field position matters
• Dominate in the red zone
• Win on fourth down
• Fix the drops … during the game
• Did the defense copy from the right source material?
• Take advantage of the punt penalty trick
• How healthy is the other team’s key offensive weapon?

Build a game plan that works for your talent

Saturday was a treasure for people who argue that the NFL has prematurely abandoned the run. In the afternoon, the 49ers closed out their win over the Vikings by calling for runs on 30 of their final 36 offensive plays. The Titans followed suit in the nightcap by running the ball 37 times for 217 yards, with Ryan Tannehill going just 7-of-14 passing for 88 yards. In the process, Tannehill became the first quarterback since Terry Bradshaw in 1974 to win two playoff games in the same postseason while failing to throw for 100 yards in either victory.

Sunday flipped things back the other way. The Chiefs scored seven consecutive touchdowns to launch their comeback, and while Patrick Mahomes scrambled for 56 yards, Andy Reid handed the ball to running back Damien Williams a total of five times for 6 yards during that stretch. Williams ran in two scores, but the traditional running game was strictly a short-yardage option for Kansas City.

And in the Sunday night game, the Packers nearly blew their halftime lead after giving the ball to Aaron Jones 21 times for just 62 yards while Aaron Rodgers was averaging an even 9.0 yards per attempt. With Jones failing to move the ball, the Packers needed two late Rodgers completions on third down to seal their victory over the Seahawks.

Overreacting to the extremes presented by the Chiefs and Titans seems naive. The Titans have built a good offense around an excellent line and a back with rare athleticism in Derrick Henry, who can absorb more contact than just about anybody in football. It would be foolish for a team without those weapons to insist on running the ball nearly 70% of the time on offense. And likewise, the Chiefs have terrifying talent across the board in their passing game. Every time they handed the ball off while the game was competitive was a gift to the Texans.

Here’s my simple argument: No, the 49ers and Titans running the ball up and down the field is not a sign that we need to get back to the offensive ecosystems of the 1970s. We know passing is more efficient and effective than running, even if there are still times where running is valuable. There’s an equilibrium point for how frequently each team should choose to run or pass the ball, and it seems meaningfully dependent on the personnel those teams have. The Titans should play like the Titans, and the Chiefs should play like the Chiefs.

Field position matters

The biggest reason why the Titans were able to get out to an early lead and why the Chiefs were able to come back so quickly is simple. Field position over the course of multiple possessions almost never gets mentioned during broadcasts or in postgame commentaries from coaches and players, but it’s a lot easier to score on a short field than it is on a long one.

The Titans scored four touchdowns during their win Saturday night. Three of those drives started on Baltimore’s side of the field, with the Titans cashing in on possessions of 20 yards (after they recovered a Lamar Jackson fumble), 35 yards (a Jackson interception off a Mark Andrews drop, with a curious penalty tacked on for Jackson’s tackle attempt at the end of the play), and 45 yards (the first failed fourth-and-1 opportunity).

The Titans had one drive top 50 yards all night, and that 81-yard drive was essentially the 66-yard Henry run where he broke out of Matthew Judon’s grasp on third-and-1 and romped through the Ravens’ defense. Mike Vrabel’s offense was able to parlay those short fields and one huge play from Henry into 28 points and a huge lead.

They also repeatedly forced the Ravens to go the length of the field to score. Baltimore had 11 possessions, each starting inside its 26-yard line, with 74 or more yards to go for a touchdown. Jackson & Co. had six drives of 50 yards or more during the game, but those six opportunities generated just 12 points.

Six Ravens possessions — including all three of their fourth-quarter opportunities — ended on the Tennessee side of the field without any points. To put that in context, there has been only one playoff game over the past 20 years in which an offense made it to the opposing side of the field and failed to score more than six times.

The Titans made the Ravens claw and march the length of the field over and over again to have any hope of getting back into the game. The Texans made it much easier for the Chiefs. After Houston kicked a field goal to go up 24-0 with just under 11 minutes to go in the second quarter, the Chiefs’ next three drives didn’t need to go far:

  • A long kickoff return from Mecole Hardman gave Kansas City the ball at the Texans’ 42-yard line, and the Chiefs scored two plays later.

  • A failed fake punt gave the Chiefs the ball at the Texans’ 33-yard line, and they scored four plays later.

  • A fumbled kickoff by DeAndre Carter gave the Chiefs the ball at the Texans’ 6-yard line, and they scored three plays later.

Kansas City was able to turn nine plays and 81 yards into 21 second-quarter points, getting it back into the game in a matter of minutes. The Ravens, as an example, had a 14-play, 93-yard drive in the second quarter, but time ran out and they kicked a field goal. Mistakes by the Texans made it easier for the Chiefs to launch their comeback. The Titans didn’t make those same mistakes.

Dominate in the red zone

It’s not hyperbolic to suggest that the Titans are in the AFC Championship Game because of what they’ve done in the red zone. In the wild-card round, they held the Patriots to one touchdown on three trips, including what The Boston Globe’s Nora Princiotti noted was the first time a Brady-led Patriots team had ever failed to convert a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line into a touchdown during the postseason.

The Ravens were the second-best red zone offense in football during the regular season, scoring touchdowns on 67.2% of their trips inside the 20. On Saturday night, though, the Titans allowed Baltimore to score once on four red zone possessions, with the Ravens kicking a field goal and turning the ball over on downs twice. They would typically turn four red zone trips into about 22 points. The Titans held them to nine.

Yielding two touchdowns on seven red zone possessions on defense is one thing. What the Titans are doing in the red zone on offense, though, is virtually unprecedented. I mentioned this in my playoff preview, but after the Titans promoted Tannehill to the starting job for Week 7, they scored on 86.7% of their red zone possessions, which was the best rate in football by a significant margin. The Bucs were in second place over that time frame at 71.9%, and they were closer to 16th place than they were to Tennessee.

It makes sense that tackling Henry would be a tall order in the red zone, but the Titans were converting only 53.3% of their red zone trips into scores before Tannehill took over and were at 56.5% over the second half of 2018. History also tells us that red zone performance is wildly inconsistent from year to year, suggesting it’s more randomness and a small sample than anything else.

When you look at the other top red zone offenses over that same 11-week span going back through 2001, they weren’t able to keep their dominance up in the postseason. The 10 top red zone offenses between Weeks 7 and 17 over that time frame converted nearly 76% of their red zone trips into touchdowns during the regular season, but against stiffer competition in the playoffs, those same offenses only scored touchdowns on just over 61% of their red zone trips.

The Titans are supposed to regress to the mean in the red zone. They’ll get to that as soon as they stop running people over. They have scored on all five of their red zone possessions this postseason, going 2-of-2 against the Patriots and 3-of-3 against the Ravens. The margin of error against the Patriots was razor-thin before the pick-six with several seconds left to go; if the Pats had scored on their first-and-goal opportunity from the 1-yard line and the Titans hadn’t, Tennessee wouldn’t have been playing this weekend.

There were at least some signs that the Titans were lucky to come away with touchdowns on all three of their red zone trips. They scored on third down on each of their three tries, including a third-and-12 in which Jonnu Smith both made an incredible catch and managed to get his butt down before falling out of bounds with inches to spare. It’s hard to reconcile being unstoppable in the red zone with waiting until third down to prove the point.

There’s no arguing that offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has some tricks up his sleeve, though. Against the Ravens, the Titans scored on a halfback pass from Henry to Corey Davis and on a Tannehill speed option keeper. Teams are understandably terrified of Henry running them over near the goal line, which is creating opportunities for other members of the offense. It seems unsustainable, but the Titans haven’t had any trouble maintaining their dominance so far.

The Chiefs also left no doubt with their red zone performance Sunday. Andy Reid’s offense took eight trips into the red zone and scored seven touchdowns before adding a late field goal up big in the fourth quarter. Going back through 2001, no team had previously ever scored seven touchdowns in the red zone in a single playoff game.

Mahomes & Co. scored all 51 of their points in the red zone. Given their success rates in the regular season, the Chiefs and their 20th-ranked red zone offense would have expected to score just under 39 points on their eight red zone possessions. In a game that ended 51-31, a less successful performance from the Chiefs in the red zone would have made it far easier for the Texans to come back after blowing their lead so quickly.

Win on fourth down

The two victors on the AFC side of the bracket succeeded on key fourth downs in different ways. The Titans made huge plays by stopping the Ravens on defense. A Baltimore offense that had gone 8-of-8 on fourth-and-1 attempts during the regular season failed to convert on a pair of fourth-and-1 attempts in the upset loss. Both analytics and the Ravens’ offensive skill set supported going for it on those fourth-and-short opportunities, but the two failures dropped Baltimore’s win expectancy by a combined 15.6%.

The Ravens failed to execute on both plays. On the first fourth-and-1 attempt, they ran quarterback power and simply didn’t get a helmet on linebacker David Long (51). He is totally untouched and has a free gap to shoot when Jackson cuts back and tries to turn upfield, with the Titans stuffing the play in the backfield.

Later in the game, the Ravens ran one of the weirdest sneak attempts I’ve ever seen. There’s an unmanned gap between the center and right guard, and while Wesley Woodyard (59) is lurking over that gap several yards off the line of scrimmage, it seems almost obvious for Jackson to try to sneak there. The offensive line actually collapses the defensive line up front, but Jackson tries to go all the way around end to get the first down, runs into defenders, cuts back and then gets swallowed up by defenders. Far be it from me to tell Jackson what he should do with the ball in his hands, but it’s fair to say that whatever he was trying to do didn’t work.

The Chiefs succeeded with the help of Houston coach Bill O’Brien, whose two fourth-down decisions are going to loom large in the psyche of this franchise until the Texans make it out of the divisional round. Losing to the Chiefs would have been disappointing, but blowing a 24-0 lead in a matter of minutes — and attributing it to a pair of ill-advised and/or unorthodox fourth-down calls — could end up as the dominant memory of the O’Brien era when it does end in Houston.

Let’s take them one at a time. No, there’s not a good argument for kicking a field goal up 21-0 on fourth-and-1 from the 13-yard line. We can successfully bury the argument that you don’t want to give the Chiefs momentum if they stop you on fourth down deep into the earth, given that the Texans kicked a field goal and the Chiefs roared back anyway. You shouldn’t be settling for points because you’re already up by a bunch; we all know the Chiefs are capable of catching on fire at a moment’s notice, and if O’Brien had faith in his defense, he should have noticed that the only thing stopping the Chiefs to that point were their own drops.

The argument O’Brien made after the game was that he “… didn’t have a great play there for the fourth down at that point and time,” which seems more and more ridiculous each time I read it. The Texans called a timeout, so they had plenty of time to think about it. O’Brien has repeatedly insisted on adding extra duties to his plate; he’s now the coach, general manager and offensive coordinator rolled into one. He has Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, and a bevy of players for whom he traded picks to add this season on offense, including Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and Duke Johnson. O’Brien was facing a Chiefs team missing their best defensive lineman in Chris Jones.

If you can’t think of a playcall that you have enough confidence in to use on fourth-and-1 in the red zone with those guys and those responsibilities, what are you doing out there? Can you imagine Sean Payton or Kyle Shanahan not having a playcall for fourth-and-1 after a timeout? Charitably, I’d like to assume that O’Brien wasn’t telling the truth after the game and that he was instead scarred after failing on the fourth-and-1 attempt to seal the game up against the Bills in the wild-card round. That’s terrible logic, but it’s not as bad as being unable to come up with a fourth-down play for one of the league’s most dynamic offenses in a key playoff situation.

I’m not as pessimistic about O’Brien’s other decision. After the next Texans drive stalled on third down, Houston faced a fourth-and-4 from its 31-yard line. It decided on a fake punt and direct snapped the ball to safety Justin Reid. Fellow safety Daniel Sorensen tripped Reid up after a 2-yard gain, handing the ball back to the Chiefs with excellent field position. Here’s what the play looked like, courtesy of an animation from NFL Next Gen Stats:

The Texans got the look they wanted here; Reid had a huge swath of space with which to work and simply had to beat Sorensen in the open field to get the first down. That’s a risk, but it’s a risk that would generally favor the offensive side of the ball. Reid isn’t an offensive player, which is my biggest issue with O’Brien’s decision, but I can understand why the Texans would think they could have stolen a possession there.

The easy criticism after the play was that O’Brien was foolish for going with the conservative call on fourth-and-1 and then suddenly getting aggressive with a fake punt call one series later. That’s fallacious. For one, the two calls shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Once O’Brien decides to be conservative on the fourth-and-1 call, that decision is in the past. The fake punt isn’t going to serve as a makeup decision for his prior mistake, and I strongly doubt O’Brien saw the field goal as a mistake in the moment.

If anything, the conservative decision on fourth-and-1 would have suggested that O’Brien was trying to play things safe, which would have made a fake punt even more surprising on the following series. (If you’re going to say that it’s too cute, did you say that the Henry touchdown pass in the red zone was too cute?) I hated the decision to kick a field goal and O’Brien’s argument for why he chose to do so, but what happened afterward had nothing to do with that initial mistake. Either way, both decisions obviously ended up helping the Chiefs.

Have your receivers stop dropping passes

It seems pretty straightforward, of course, but both Jackson and Mahomes were impacted by drops. ESPN Stats & Information marked down four drops for Jackson on 59 pass attempts, but I would argue that there were at least three more that could have qualified. Most of these came while the game was still a contest, including a drop by Seth Roberts 20 yards downfield that might have resulted in a huge gain. One Willie Snead drop would have set up a fourth-and-2 on a possible touchdown-scoring drive in which the Ravens instead settled for a field goal. Another came on the final Ravens offensive play of the season and would have resulted in a (relatively meaningless) fourth-and-11 conversion.

Mahomes’ receivers were nice enough to concentrate their drops into that brutal stretch at the beginning of the game. Four of his first 10 pass attempts were dropped, including a pair of would-be third-down conversions on throws to Travis Kelce and Demarcus Robinson. The boo birds were out at Arrowhead, but just one of Mahomes’ 25 pass attempts after the first quarter was dropped. The reigning MVP went 19-of-25 for 278 yards and five touchdowns on those throws.

Face a defense that copied successfully from the right source material

According to cornerback Logan Ryan, the Titans went to an unlikely source for their defensive philosophy against Jackson: the infamous Madden defensive play “Engage Eight,” in which the defense rushes eight men toward the backfield and plays Cover 3 behind. Ryan was being at least a little facetious with his description, but the plan was clearly to try to fill every gap at the line of scrimmage, take away the numbers advantage Jackson offers as a runner and then play Cover 3 or Cover 4 behind. The Bills, Ryan noted, used a similar philosophy in slowing Jackson in one of his worst regular-season games.

I’m not sure the game plan did much to stop Jackson as a runner, given that he carried the ball 20 times for 143 yards, but the combination of the early lead and the Titans loading the box led him to throw 59 times, which was 16 more attempts than his prior career high. Tennessee limited Jackson to 6.1 yards per attempt on those throws and picked off the presumptive MVP twice.

The Texans, on the other hand, came out with the exact plan you would have expected and never wavered. Mahomes was the best quarterback in the league against zone coverage during the regular season, and the Texans had success in their regular-season win over the Chiefs by playing more man coverage against Kansas City’s weapons.

You’ll never guess what Andy Reid did during the bye week: He loaded up all kinds of man-coverage beaters and figured the Texans would never adjust. He was right. The Texans stuck with man coverage and watched Kelce set back rookie defensive back Lonnie Johnson’s career with the sort of game we’ll associate with Johnson for years. With the Chiefs repeatedly isolating Kelce on the backside of plays and daring the Texans to leave Johnson one-on-one against their star tight end, Kelce caught 10 passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns. Kelce also drew two pass interference calls for 43 yards against Johnson in coverage. The only respite the Texans had from Kelce came when the star tight end briefly sat out after halftime with a hamstring tweak.

To be fair, ESPN’s automated tracking analysis from NFL Next Gen Stats tracked only four pass attempts for Mahomes against zone coverage, and he went 3-of-4 for 81 yards and a touchdown, but the Texans needed to try something else. They briefly double-teamed Kelce in the red zone, with Zach Cunningham blatantly holding him to set up another first down, but maybe they needed to do that across the field.

Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel coached under Bill Belichick, and Belichick’s philosophy with athletic tight ends like Kelce is to try to take them out of the game and force the quarterback to go somewhere else. On Sunday, Crennel’s defense did almost the exact opposite, and the Chiefs took advantage of a coverage they probably spent the past two weeks expecting to see.

Take advantage of the punt penalty trick

While I’m sure the NFL is going to outlaw this during the offseason, we need to come up with a name for the time-wasting tactic surrounding punt plays at the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter. I know Belichick did it first, but given that Vrabel was able to use it to expertly troll Belichick during the wild-card round victory in New England, we should probably call it the Vrabel Exploit in honor of the former Patriots linebacker.

Vrabel didn’t use his now-infamous punt ploy during the win over the Ravens, but it did impact the game. The Titans ran the ball with 6:38 to go in the fourth quarter to set up a fourth-and-3 from the 45-yard line, which is prime territory for a Vrabel Exploit. The Ravens, who are hardly naive when it comes to exploiting loopholes in the rulebook, knew was what was up and immediately called their second timeout to keep the Titans from winding the clock down to five minutes. The play didn’t matter much in the long run, but it was still a 16-point contest and the Ravens almost surely wouldn’t have used a timeout at that point of the game if it weren’t for what Vrabel showed a week ago.

The Chiefs and 49ers weren’t in a position to use the punt strategy, but the Packers did in their win over the Seahawks. Rodgers was sacked on third down with 6:23 to go, but somehow, the clock was allowed to wind all the way down to 5:25 before the Packers were called for a false start. The Packers then wound the clock to exactly five minutes before they punted the ball away to the Seahawks. I suspect it has three weeks of shelf life before disappearing for good, and it had more of an impact on the NFC than it did on the AFC in the divisional round, but I love the Vrabel Exploit.

Have the other team’s key offensive weapon play at far less than 100%

You obviously can’t control whether the opposing team is going to come into a matchup healthy, but the Titans have faced two offenses whose biggest pieces (beyond their quarterback) weren’t their usual selves. Julian Edelman wasn’t the same after injuring his knee in the December loss to the Chiefs; he caught just three passes for 30 yards against the Titans, and while he was active enough to get arrested in Beverly Hills on Saturday night, he’s ticketed for both shoulder and knee surgeries during the offseason.

Likewise, while Mark Ingram II was able to suit up for the Ravens on Saturday night, it’s clear that he wasn’t the bruising back who served as the perfect counter to Jackson’s speed during the regular season. Ingram touched the ball only seven times and played 29% of the offensive snaps, down dramatically from when he averaged more than 15 touches and played just under half of the offensive snaps during the regular season.

The impact wasn’t quite as clear for the Chiefs, but DeAndre Hopkins did suffer a rib injury during the loss. He had five catches on six targets for 59 yards during the first half, and while he racked up the same 59 yards afterward, the star Texans wideout caught four passes on eight targets to get to that same total. I don’t think a healthy Hopkins would have flipped the game back toward the Texans in the second half, but their best chance of winning was with the otherworldly wideout at full strength.

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