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NFL Playoffs: Takeaways from the Divisional Round

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What did we learn this weekend?

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Divisional Round is usually one of the most exciting weekends of the NFL season, but what we got instead was three games that were never really in doubt and one close game to round out the weekend. Still, there are a few takeaways we can find from these games as we turn toward crowning a conference champion this weekend.

The pass set up the run

All of the winning teams this weekend did a great job running the ball, but not all of them ran the ball to win. There’s going to be a lot of looking at the final rushing numbers with some concluding the ground game was the reason these teams won, but like many instances, these teams got to run because they were winning and so much of that running was set up by the passing game.

The Kansas City Chiefs took a 7-0 lead on their first drive with gains of 11, 16, and 34 through the air. Kansas City also had the biggest pass-to-run ratio of the weekend on 1st and 10 in the first half — 12 passes against just four rushes — and they averaged 9.25 yards per play on those. 16 of Damien Williams’s 24 rushing attempts and 87 of his 129 rushing yards came in the second half of the game when the Chiefs started with a 24-7 lead.

In Los Angeles, the Rams have been using the passing game to open up lanes on the ground throughout the Sean McVay era. With a consistent look of 11 personnel (three wide receivers) and tight splits (receivers inside the numbers), the Rams use the threat of the pass to create advantageous running opportunities with their offensive line against light boxes. Even as the Rams were successful on the ground, C.J. Anderson faced a box of eight defenders or more on just 17.4 percent of his attempts Saturday night, per Next Gen Stats. Todd Gurley saw a stacked box on just 6.3 percent of his attempts. Those splits are really all you should need to see what defenses focus on to stop the run — and it’s not the back.

New England jumped out to a 35-7 halftime lead with 31 drop backs and 18 rushing attempts. That lead was gained through the air. The Patriots barely topped a 50-50 run-pass split in the second half with 13 pass attempts against 14 non-Brady kneels rushing attempts.

Chargers kept it light

Against the Baltimore Ravens last week, the Chargers played almost exclusively with seven defensive backs on the field to match the speed of Lamar Jackson and the rest of the Baltimore offense. They stuck with that defense to start against the Patriots, but the problem there is New England doesn’t have the same athletes and the offense is a little more traditional. There doesn’t need to be an extra defensive back to account for the quarterback on runs because — I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen Tom Brady — that quarterback isn’t going anywhere. The strategy hit a bump early when safety Adrian Phillips got injured, though he returned to play 72 percent of the defensive snaps.

During the regular season, the Patriots faced just 14 plays against seven defensive backs on the field per Sports Info Solutions — three rushes for 32 yards, eight passes for 38 yards, and three sacks. But New England went into this game prepared for an all-DB defense and the Chargers had no counter once things didn’t go their way.

Ghosts of Monday nights past

Now deep into the playoffs, we have moved away from the ESPN Monday Night Football crew and any inane commentary that goes along with it and, oh no.

(breathes deeply)

The Rams thing is just, wow. How anyone could think that offensive line was a liability heading into the weekend is amazing and there’s no possible way to think that after the Dallas game. The Rams were first in Adjusted Line Yards during the regular season — by a fair amount — and first in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate as a whole with the No. 1 tackle, No. 3 guard, and No. 5 center, individually. Even the LA run defense, which was 28th in DVOA, hasn’t been that much of a liability because the pass defense was good (ninth in DVOA) and rarely did rushing attempts matter against the Rams because they were always ahead (see the game against Dallas).

Kansas City’s secondary has also been the better part of the Chiefs’ defense. The Chiefs were 12th against the pass by DVOA, but 32nd against the run, so if there was a run defense that could be a liability it was in Kansas City.

The Eagles’ secondary has been patched together, but they finished the season 15th in pass defense DVOA. Their struggles against the Saints on Sunday had more to do with static zone coverage on long third downs and not adjusting for things like Michael Thomas sitting wide open in the hole in coverage rather than being completely outmatched.

Get ready for points

The playoffs have been pretty chalky this season — both Conference Championship Games feature the No. 1 and No. 2 seed — but there could not be a better set of games than what we’re going to get this coming weekend. The four teams left were first, second, fourth, and fifth in offensive DVOA this season. Week 9 gave us a 45-35 Saints win over the Rams in New Orleans and Week 6 gave us a 43-40 Patriots win over the Chiefs in New England. These offenses are going to light up the scoreboard and we’re in for a Super Bowl shootout no matter who plays — though we should all rooting for Chiefs-Rams Part 2.