Ever since the Giants won a couple of Super Bowls earlier this century, there has been a team every few years that “gets hot at the right time” and rolls to a ring.
While there isn’t much that can be done analytically to assess when a team will start or stop being hot, as passive observers it can be useful to know which teams are closer to their apex and which are closer to their nadir, especially when we often cite full-season stats.
We kind of already have a sense for where teams are in that sense, though. The Chiefs are hanging on by a Patrick Mahomes ankle, the Bengals are banged up but riding high off a road win, the Eagles have gotten healthy but haven’t had to stand up to a test in quite a while, and the 49ers are doing as well as you could with a third-string quarterback.
So, I thought I’d take a look at it from a player perspective. Which players are at their best right now? And who is at their worst?
We can use Total Points, which captures most things a player does on the field, to evaluate how players have done in January and how that compares to the rest of the year. Because playing time can vary between months, I’ll use monthly Points Above Average, which is the underpinning of Total Points that sets average performance at zero. A player who barely plays is likely to stick close to average, while a player with a lot of playing time has the opportunity to make a bigger impact (for better or worse).
Here are some of the players for each of the remaining four teams who have had either their best or worst month in January. They need to have played for at least 4 months to qualify.
A comfortable win against the Giants in the Divisional Round meant that Kenneth Gainwell got some run, totaling 112 yards on 12 carries. He achieved seven first downs on those runs. Prior to this game, Gainwell had eight first downs on 25 carries since Week 10. He was a much tougher tackle than usual, with 4 broken or missed tackles on those 12 runs. He eluded 9 tackles per 100 carries during the season.
Kicker Jake Elliott got some good reps in thanks to a productive offense last week (5-for-5 on extra points and a made FG), and he showed himself to be far and away the most productive NFC East kicker in the playoffs this year. He is also 3-for-3 on field goals of 50+ yards in January.
The players of concern for the Eagles are to some extent obvious. Both quarterback Jalen Hurts and right tackle Lane Johnson have been ailing, so a combination of missed time and less-outstanding performance puts them in this spot. Hurts didn’t need to push it once they got up big against New York, and he really hasn’t put on a show through the air since the Titans game in Week 13. Johnson looked banged up but played a full complement of snaps in the Divisional Round, and the Eagles called runs to his gap more than in any other game this year.
The Niners are in the best spot as a team by this method of evaluation, with 10 players having their best month and 6 having their worst.
He didn’t have a strong showing in the win against Dallas, but Christian McCaffrey was dealing prior to that bump in the road. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry in his three prior January games, with nearly a third of his rushes going for a first down.
Safety Tashaun Gipson nabbed three of his five interceptions (and had his hands on what might have been another) in the last two weeks of the regular season. He’s generally playing deep safety, so if you’re hearing his name it’s most likely very good or very bad. In the last month it’s been more the former.
Other players in the San Francisco secondary have not been as fortunate with their recent playmaking. Breakout safety Talanoa Hufanga—for whom I have a particular affinity because he was all over the leaderboards of the SIS Football Rookie Handbook when he came out of USC—has been all over the field making plays, but less so of late.
Talanoa Hufanga Stats, 2022
|January (4 games)|
|Tackles for Loss||5||0|
|Pressures||10 (2 sacks)||2 (0 sacks)|
Cornerback Charvarius Ward has handled being the team’s top corner well, yielding a team high in targets with pretty good results on those targets. In the last month he has allowed more successful plays, particularly against the Seahawks in the Wild Card round when he was targeted eight times for a total of 98 yards and a touchdown. A matchup with DK Metcalf was a problem in that game, and a matchup with another Ole Miss product in A.J. Brown awaits.
The Kansas City skill position group has had different contributors every few weeks (behind Travis Kelce), and at this point in the year Isiah Pacheco and Kadarius Toney are top dogs.
Pacheco has taken the lion’s share of the carries this year, with an explosive run against the Jaguars providing a highlight in the most recent contest. This month he’s produced more first downs and been stuffed less than a third of the rate he was prior, which is a level of consistent productivity that is all this offense needs.
Over the last three games Toney is second on the team in basically every measure of total productivity you can think of. He’s been very efficient, with a league-leading Yards per Route Run and an EPA per target that ranks in the top 10.
I’m sure it doesn’t shock you that Patrick Mahomes shows up here, based on his injury. But even before that, he had posted three of his five below-average games by Points Above Average this season since Week 14. If we assume he’ll be throwing from a stable platform more often than usual this game, it’s worth noting that in January he ranks outside the top 10 in Independent Quarterback Rating with his feet planted. He was second by that measure in the first 16 weeks of the season.
One player who might be doing more scrambling than Mahomes is linebacker Nick Bolton, who has been targeted in coverage more than any non-cornerback in January. He has allowed a 100% Deserved Catch Rate in that span, which measures the catch rate a player allows on catchable throws and treats dropped passes as though they were completions.
Cincinnati’s secondary has done better than expected in the absence of the injured Chidobe Awuzie, with most recent contributions to that effort coming from cornerbacks Cam Taylor-Britt and Mike Hilton. Each is among the 10 best defenders in terms of EPA per Target in January (minimum 10 targets), with Hilton manning the slot and Taylor-Britt on the outside. A large part of their value has come from allowing completions on just 1-of-8 targets between them on third and fourth down.
Another injury-related entry on this list comes in the form of Tee Higgins, who suffered a hip injury in Week 18 and has had below-average games since. He was always the 1b to Ja’Marr Chase’s 1a, but in the last two games Chase has him nearly doubled in targets and more than doubled in yards.
Linebacker Logan Wilson has felt success slip through his fingers of late. He’s allowing ballcarriers to elude his tackle attempts more than twice as often in January as he had through December, and multiple passes that he could have intercepted have fallen for incompletions.