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NFL playoffs: One thing each Championship Sunday team does better than the others 

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @cfrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

Conference championship week is finally here, and we have two incredibly competitive matchups on deck. You'll see by my model's Super Bowl win probabilities below (using 1 million simulations for both of this weekend's games) that it wouldn't be a surprise for any of the final four teams to be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 12. While running the numbers for Championship Sunday, I also spent time digging into the differentiating factors for each squad that have helped them reach this point. I tried to lock in on the one thing -- and I don't mean some random metric that can be taken out of context -- that stands out as each team's special sauce, formula for success, strategic advantage, etc. I tried to answer the question: What do they do better than all others that could give them the edge on Sunday and down the line?

Let's get to it!

NOTE: The odds cited below are provided by Caesars Sportsbook and current as of 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, Jan. 26.


Win SB:
Kansas City Chiefs
Win AFC: 52.2%
  • AFC NO. 1 SEED | 15-3
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +270

This season, the Chiefs have been exceptional at designing plays that confuse defenses and mask the primary target. While it's logical to assume that most pass plays are going Travis Kelce's way -- after all, he was targeted 51 more times than any other Chiefs player this season -- his varied pre-snap alignments disrupt the "rules" defenses usually follow as they pertain to tight ends, leading to more confusion. Kelce is the only tight end in the NFL this season (including playoffs) to run more than 125 routes from wide, slot and tight alignments. He ranks No. 1 at his position in receiving yards when aligned wide (376) and in the slot (709) this year, while his 29.8 percent target rate when aligned tight is the highest in a season during the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016).

Patrick Mahomes has been exceptional from the pocket this year (throwing the most TD passes from the pocket in the NFL ), but has also continued to showcase his innate ability to create extra time with his legs to exploit confused defenses. He led the league in attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns on extended dropbacks (at least four seconds to throw) this season. And since 2017, no quarterback has thrown for more yards (4,515) or touchdowns (40) on such passes than Mahomes. It’s also worth noting that Mahomes ranks third or better in every major metric for throws on the run (traveling at least 8 miles per hour), and notably he’s thrown for 881 yards (most in NFL) and nine touchdowns (T-2nd) on such attempts. Unsurprisingly, Mahomes leads the NFL in yards (4,946) and touchdowns (58) on the run since 2017 -- crushing the competition in both categories, with second-placed Russell Wilson coming up 681 yards and 20 touchdowns short of those marks.

With the MVP finalist nursing a high ankle sprain, it is unclear how much "Mahomes Magic" we will see on Sunday. Fortunately for Kansas City, No. 15 has also shown a proclivity for connecting on shorter throws. Just 7.8 percent of Mahomes' passes this year went deep, which is the lowest rate of his career and the sixth-lowest in the league -- a shift due in part to Tyreek Hill's offseason departure and increased two-high safety looks. As a result, Kansas City is winning now with a foundation built on the run game and short throws (and a heavy dose of Kelce, of course). If they are able to stay so multiple on offense, they can control the game against Cincinnati and book their ticket to Glendale in two weeks.

Win SB:
Cincinnati Bengals
Win AFC: 47.8%
  • AFC NO. 3 SEED | 14-4
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +275

According to my coaching-decision ranking models, no team has been better at adjusting in the second half of games than the Bengals on defense. Cincinnati's offense has also been great in the second half this season, but the team's defense has been elite in making adjustments that result in wins.

The 2022 Bengals' biggest superpower, though, rests in their ability to scheme around their offensive line. My models ranked Cincinnati's O-line 27th in the league during the regular season (Pro Football Focus had them 28th, so it's not just me), including almost all games prior to them playing without three starters (Jonah Williams, Alex Cappa and La'el Collins), as they did in their dominant Divisional Round win over Buffalo. The Bengals' revamped unit struggled to pass block for much of the year, earning PFF's third-worst grade in that category. Joe Burrow adapted to the issues up front by turning in the fastest time to throw (2.55 seconds) and shortest air distance per attempt (7.2 yards) of his career so far. Burrow's ability to navigate around the O-line's deficiency has been incredible, with the MVP finalist posting a career-high 19 touchdowns against just seven interceptions on quick passes this season, along with a personal best passer rating (100.9) on throws of 9 or fewer air yards.

Cincinnati has also had success this season featuring run schemes with pulling linemen: They've gained 6.0 yards per carry on traps, 5.8 on power and 4.8 on pull-lead this season. Bottom line, the scheming up front has generated enough juice, despite the myriad injuries, to keep the run game effective and allow the very elite Burrow to create opportunities with his exceptional group of pass catchers.


Win SB:
San Francisco 49ers
Win NFC: 53.4%
  • NFC NO. 2 SEED | 15-4
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +330

Kyle Shanahan's offensive prowess plus an embarrassingly rich group of playmakers make for such a powerful combination that it tips the scales in favor of a rookie QB (the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, no less) winning a conference championship and starting in a Super Bowl -- both firsts in league history. Shanahan is often credited for his innovative designs and ability to identify and exploit mismatches. One way he does that is through motion, a tactic the 49ers used on 74.1 percent of their plays this season (second-highest rate in the NFL) while averaging 6.26 yards per play (third-most). With so many weapons at his disposal -- particularly Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle -- Shanahan often schemes ways to get the ball in their hands quickly or while they're on the move so they can go to work on defenses. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that 56.8 percent of San Francisco's passing yards came after the catch this season (most in the NFL).

As for Brock Purdy, he’s averaged a whopping 11.5 yards per attempt on passes to open targets since Week 13 (3 or more yards of separation at the time the ball arrives), per NGS. When you keep that figure in mind and factor in Shanahan's ability to tailor his play-calling to specific games, you start to see the magic even more. For example, against the Cowboys last Sunday, Shanahan deployed empty formations on 22.6 percent of pass plays, which was the highest single-game rate since Purdy became the team's starter. Why? To counter an aggressive Cowboys defense. Purdy was able to work with quick, simple reads (his TTT was 2.49 seconds, compared with 2.97 in all other formations).

Shanahan has proven time and again during the 49ers' 12-game win streak that he knows which levers to pull -- and when -- to get the most out of his group.

Win SB:
Philadelphia Eagles
Win NFC: 46.6%
  • NFC NO. 1 SEED | 15-3
  • Odds to win Super Bowl: +250

The Eagles' decision-making and risk-taking calibration is exceptional. According to the Next Gen Stats Decision Guide, which offers a "go for it," "field goal" or "punt" recommendation on each fourth-down situation, the Eagles lost a cumulative 13.9 percent win probability this whole season -- including the playoffs -- when opting against a fourth-down try in non-toss-up scenarios (at least 1% in expected win probability). That's the third-lowest figure on such decisions by any team this season. The Eagles converted a league-high 68.8 percent of their fourth-down tries this season (min. 20 attempts), and their 22 total conversions was second to only the Browns (23). Philly was particularly successful converting fourth-and-1 or less this season, frequently relying on Jalen Hurts to muscle his way for a first down. In fact, the Eagles converted 24 of 27 QB sneak attempts on third- and fourth-and-1 scenarios (88.9%) -- no other team had more than 15 conversions. To hammer this point home, it's not that Nick Sirianni haphazardly decided to be aggressive in these instances, but rather had the right play (even when the defense knew it was coming) to optimize the opportunities.

Also, I have to give some love to the Eagles' defensive front, which set two NGS records this season: They had five players with at least 35 pressures, and they generated 54 sacks when rushing four or fewer defenders.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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