As we get to the end of the season, hot topics tend to run themselves into the ground. Particularly as we hone in on the teams and games that matter most and let the rest fall into the background.

So let’s take a step back as we head into the postseason and look at what each playoff contender is doing well or poorly.

Often when we refer to team performance we take things at a season level, or we take arbitrary slices of time (first half / second half, month-by-month, and so on). For this discussion wanted to measure how well teams have been playing recently but not entirely disregard early-season performance.

To do that we took inspiration from our World’s No. 1 Quarterback Rankings. It uses Points Above Average, the statistical underpinning of Total Points that sets average performance at 0, and measures how good a quarterback currently is by combining multiple years of data but with recent performance weighted more heavily.

So, in identifying which teams are doing well in which ways, we took recency-weighted Points Above Average across four dimensions:

    1) Passing game (including blocking and QB scrambles)
    2) Running game (including blocking and excluding scrambles)
    3) Pass Defense
    4) Run Defense


Here’s where we stand with the biggest contenders heading into Week 18.


Recency-Weighted Points Above Average by Team (NFL ranks)

Team Pass Run Pass Def Run Def Overall
Chiefs 3 11 3 7 1
Bills 9 2 10 22 4
Patriots 6 4 16 16 5
Bengals 1 23 20 25 9
Chargers 5 15 12 31 12
Colts 13 1 22 18 14
Titans 20 19 9 10 16
Raiders 12 17 29 12 19
Steelers 26 14 6 27 21


We’ve talked about the Chiefs so much this year, and there’s not much new to say. The offense was never as bad as it appeared, and our numbers reflect that. They rank third in the NFL in passing effectiveness, and if you didn’t weight for recency they’d rank second.

But the defense has improved a lot. Through the first half, they were bottom-five in EPA per play allowed in the passing game. They’re in the top 10 since. In the running game, Kansas City has gone from second-worst to middle of the pack. This is now a complete team that is every bit the threat we thought they’d be.


On the other side of things are the Titans. When was the last time we saw a shakier 1-seed? The 2006 Grossman-led Bears? If we take the sum of their recency-weighted Points Above Average, they’d rank 16th in the NFL. They’ve been dealing with injuries all year, and might get Derrick Henry back at exactly the right time. Especially so if they can get a bye.

Whatever the situation, Tennessee’s offense is not the reason that it is in this position. The Titans rank in the bottom half of the league in both passing and rushing. But their defense has been consistently solid, and they rank in the top 10 in both pass and rush defense. If they can get a bye and find a groove with Henry back, maybe that’s enough.


One team whose offense ranks better than you might think is the Patriots. Their passing game is ranked sixth despite Mac Jones’ Rookie of the Year campaign taking a hit in recent weeks. Starting with the Bills game where Jones barely threw the ball, the Pats are in the top ten in Passing EPA and Positive%. They have virtually the same boom/bust profile—the percentage of plays with +1 or -1 EPA—as the Chiefs.

New England’s defense has been fine, but is slipping a bit. Both its pass and rush defense rank middle-of-the-pack. When people talk about complementary football, this is the sort of team you think of. The way that New England’s offense has held onto the ball, sustained drives, and shortened games has helped the defense play above their skis, particularly after divesting itself of Stephon Gilmore.


The Bills still lost to the Patriots in Week 13 when they barely threw the ball, but if it had been normal weather they might still have had some issues on the back end. Their recency-weighted pass defense rank is 10th, while their unweighted rank would have been 3rd. We know their secondary was excellent to start the year, and that Tre’Davious White got hurt in Week 12. But they have really only had one excellent game in terms of pass defense over the last couple months, and that started before White’s injury. Through Week 10, White, Jordan Poyer, Levi Wallace, and Taron Johnson were all in the top 25 DBs in Pass Coverage Points Saved. None of them can say that in the weeks since.

The Bills have one of the more surprising results using this methodology. They rank second in the running game. While they don’t run a lot, they’ve been pretty effective with it. Excluding QB runs, they’re at the top of the list in Broken/Missed tackles per attempt over the second half of the season, and only a few teams have gotten stuffed less frequently.


One of the big topics we might have been discussing in this space if I hadn’t already shown disdain for the notion is Joe Burrow’s MVP candidacy. The Bengals are unsurprisingly the top-ranked pass offense, 200 passing yards ahead of the next-best Chiefs over the last three games. But they rank in the 20’s in the other three dimensions, and that’s the big question for them. Can a team that’s gotten this hot sustain it, and can its one awesome dimension overcome average-surrounding context?

If the Bengals do, it’ll likely be the result of a few key playmakers on defense. Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard each rank in the top 15 in Pass Rush Points Saved, although it’s been more from splash plays than consistent pressure, which is harder to rely on. Chidobe Awuzie has been one of the more-targeted corners in the NFL, making opponents pay because he’s been better at limiting damage than basically everyone in the top 20.


Recency-Weighted Points Above Average by Team (NFL ranks)

Team Pass Run Pass Def Run Def Overall
Buccaneers 4 6 7 11 2
Packers 2 8 5 32 3
Cardinals 7 22 14 3 6
Rams 11 10 15 4 7
Cowboys 14 24 1 15 8
49ers 8 16 24 1 10
Eagles 10 3 19 20 11
Saints 23 30 2 6 15


Despite not topping the list above, the Packers still sit quite pretty in the NFC hierarchy. They have had pretty consistent ranks throughout the year. This is a great example of what is important in the NFL, though, because they’ve been good all year while being pretty bad defending the run. They’ve had three above-average run defense games according to Total Points. Maybe it’s good news that they were all in the second half of the year? But it hasn’t mattered much.


The Buccaneers are certainly not feeling like the second-best team in the NFL, as these numbers suggest. It remains to be seen what they will look like with the knowledge that Antonio Brown won’t be returning, but let’s not forget that this team had elite underlying metrics last year before they won it all, and they were doing it again this year before a bit of a swoon. But there is a swoon. All of their rankings above are worse than they would be if we didn’t weigh for recent performance.


Whether it’s a direct consequence or not, the Cardinals losing DeAndre Hopkins coincides with a drop-off in offensive effectiveness. Their pass offense looks 2 points worse per game when you weigh recent games more heavily.

And it’s a similar story on the defensive side (probably without Hopkins as an explanation). Just using first half / second half splits, Arizona is allowing two-tenths of an expected point per play more than it was in the first eight weeks. So 8 points per game if you assume 40 plays per game. In the first half of the year, they were causing more “Bust” plays than “Boom” plays. Only the Bills could have claimed that. Not so much anymore.


The Rams haven’t been quite as explosive in the pass game of late. They had a 32% Boom Rate (plays with an EPA greater than 1) through the first half of the year, but just 20% since. More sacks, more picks, not the “more” you’re looking for. On the whole, with recency-weighting they now sit basically a point per game above average in each of passing, rushing, pass defense, and run defense. They are a bit of a counter to the teams that don’t mind too much being deficient in one dimension (think the Packers).


We expected more from the Cowboys pass offense, for sure. It’s not particularly hot right now. But the pass defense is where they’ve looked a lot better. Obviously Trevon Diggs had an exciting start to the year, but he was masking some pretty questionable results on the rest of his snaps. That’s even more extreme now, with four picks but 11 yards per target in the second half of the year. Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis have been a lot more productive overall, and Micah Parsons has started to show his ability to do it all, allowing 6 yards on 137 coverage snaps in the second half of the year.


In theory, the 49ers are a run-and-stop-the-run team. And they are a top run defense. But in practice, their passing game has actually been a bit better than their running game. They’ve obviously had a rotating cast of characters in the backfield, so we can give them a bit of a pass there. But the passing game has been much more explosive than you’d expect if you knew Jimmy G had started most of the year. They trail only the Rams in Boom% through the air.


Another team whose passing rank might surprise you is the Eagles. In terms of Points Above Average per game, they are about the same passing and rushing. But the same amount of value in terms of points ranks you 10th in passing and 3rd in rushing. They are among the best ten teams in limiting points and yards, but more middle-of-the-road by EPA-based metrics. Remember their last five games have come against both New York teams and Washington. Darius Slay had a nice resurgent season going, but he’s produced literally zero Points Saved each of the last four weeks. With a relatively meaningless game against Dallas this week we still might not see them tested until next week.