The NFL’s Conference Championship games on Sunday will emphasize the major difference between the AFC and the NFC: In one game, you have a battle of MVP quarterbacks who have both had to rely on improved defenses supporting them at times this season, whereas in the NFC it is a test of offensive play callers, arguably the two best in the NFL this year.
No matter which two teams win this weekend, the Super Bowl will be billed as “an elite quarterback attempting to cement his legacy as the best right now” against “a coach proving himself as one of the few in the industry who can truly make every player his best self because of him.”
May the best two teams win. Who those teams are could come down to these stats.
106.7 – Patrick Mahomes career postseason passer rating
The Chiefs quarterback has the highest passer rating in playoff history and it’s not even that close. Despite only being 28, Mahomes is already 10th all-time in postseason pass attempts— so he’s not just benefiting from a small sample size — and with 38 career playoff touchdowns, the two-time MVP only needs two more to tie Peyton Manning’s career mark, which is tied for fifth. Among players with at least 200 playoff pass attempts, Mahomes is ahead of Bart Starr but then well ahead of anyone from the modern era:
Career Playoff Passer Rating
|Postseason Pass Rating
|Postseason Pass Rating
By comparison, Tom Brady’s career postseason passer rating is 89.8 (on 1,921 attempts), Joe Montana’s is 95.6, Brett Favre’s is 86.3, Peyton Manning’s is 87.4, Dan Marino’s is 77.1, and Drew Brees’s is 97.1.
Of course, passer rating has gone up for all quarterbacks in the last few decades as the rules change and offenses get better on high-percentage completions leading to downfield explosive plays. But with Mahomes, this is not just a quarterback taking advantage of the era he plays in, he’s also much better than his peers and totaling touchdowns at a rate we’ve never seen before and without throwing more interceptions.
Tom Brady has 88 playoff touchdowns in 48 games. That is 43 more touchdowns than second place Rodgers and Montana.
Patrick Mahomes has 38 touchdowns in 16 games. Since that’s one-third the number of games, it’s simple math: At this pace, Mahomes would have 104 touchdowns in 48 games.
If Mahomes was 38 years old, he’d never get there. Since he’s 28 years old, he has a lot of time left to pass Brady. Mahomes’ 38 touchdowns by age 28 is 15 more than second-place Brett Favre, 17 more than Josh Allen, 18 more than Russell Wilson, and 23 more than Tom Brady, who is in 11th place.
In fact, Brady didn’t get to 38 career playoff touchdowns until he was 34 years old. And Mahomes isn’t even finished with this postseason yet, he will play one or two more games. Mahomes would need seven more touchdowns to tie Rodgers and Montana for the second-most playoff touchdowns in NFL history, which given who he is, isn’t hard to imagine.
By the way, his 1.2% interception rate is the lowest for any QB with at least 400 playoff pass attempts and second (Josh Allen, 1.1%) for anyone with at least 270. He does it all.
16.5 points per game allowed – Ravens led the NFL in defense
Baltimore’s 36 year old defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald may not hold that job for much longer as teams with head coach openings would like to have him do for their defense what he’s done for the Ravens. Since replacing Wink Martindale in 2022, Baltimore’s defense went from 23.1 points per game (19th) and 363 yards per game (25th) in 2021 to 18.5 points per game (3rd) and 324 yards per game (9th) in 2022 and now 16.5 points per game (1st) and 301 yards per game (6th).
For anyone who despises traditional statistics, pick your poison: The Ravens had the number one defense by DVOA with a sizable lead over second place Cleveland, a huge lead over the third-place Jets, and a massive lead over the fourth-place 49ers and everyone else.
In fact, DVOA creator Aaron Schatz has referred to the Ravens as “the hottest team ever” by weighted DVOA going into the conference championship games.
The Baltimore Ravens are the hottest team ever at this point in the postseason, according to weighted DVOA. But now they have to face Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. #RavensFlock
Updated DVOA ratings and commentary here:https://t.co/C271nIJKxu
— Aaron Schatz (@ASchatzNFL) January 22, 2024
Unfortunately for Baltimore, Schatz also noted that the Ravens could be the best team over a five-year stretch to never make the Super Bowl if they don’t beat Kansas City on Sunday.
This graphic created by Jason Pauley in 2023 shows the historical average ranking for Super Bowl champions since the merger and the data implies that defense only sometimes wins championships:
But the Ravens saving grace is not just defense anymore, it is OFFENSE PAIRED WITH DEFENSE: Baltimore ranks fourth in DVOA on offense, fourth in scoring, first in rushing yards, and Lamar Jackson is the favorite to win MVP as he’s having his most efficient season ever as a passer.
Compare that to the Chiefs: They rank eighth in offense and seventh in defense by DVOA. Those are really good, but they aren’t as good as first and fourth and the Ravens have cruised against most good teams this season. You need look no further than blowing out the Texans 34-10 in the divisional round.
How confident am I in the Ravens offense scoring against KC?
Chart in simple terms:
Teams in the top 16 of defensive DVOA and how many points the Ravens scored against them then compared to their season avg. pic.twitter.com/Cg9JVvAF4n
— James Gibbons (@J_Gibbons52) January 24, 2024
So combining Jackson’s best season as a passer, a number one rushing offense, and a defense that ranks first in points allowed, first in DVOA, first in takeaways, second in red zone efficiency, seventh on third down defense, and homefield advantage, it’s clear what we have in the AFC Championship: The best player of his generation against the toughest test he’s ever faced in the playoffs.
116.2 – Jared Goff passer rating on play action
Some refer to Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson as the “next Sean McVay”, the Rams head coach who helped get Jared Goff to the Super Bowl five years ago, based on Johnson’s phenomenal success as a play caller beginning in late 2021 with Detroit. Since then, “the next McVay” has made the Lions quarterback look like “the old Goff”.
And now Goff is one win away from his second Super Bowl and the Lions are sure to use play action—they run under center play action more than any other team in the NFL—to their advantage in the NFC Championship. In 2022, Johnson’s first full season as offensive coordinator, the Lions had the second-highest EPA on play action behind only the Chiefs.
In 2023, the Lions had the most play action pass attempts in the NFL (151) and Goff completed 69.5% of those attempts with nine touchdowns, one interception, six sacks, and a passer rating of 116.2. His 7.0 yards per attempt on non-play action passes jumps to 9.4 on play action.
Same as it was during his college days at Cal and playing for McVay on the Rams, the key to Goff’s success against the 49ers stacked defense will be under center play action.
Ben Johnson is so slick
Shotgun with TE out wide
Shifts to under center with stacked alignment
Motions ARSB away, where 7 is the only defender, for a screen with OL peeling out in front pic.twitter.com/zKd62DNnpq
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 23, 2024
According to SumerSports, the Lions rank sixth in both EPA per pass and EPA per rush. Play action has unlocked everything for Detroit’s offense: a 1,500-yard season by receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, over 1,100 total yards by both running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs, and an elite rookie season by tight end Sam LaPorta. Any time in his career that he has had plays called by someone other than Sean McVay or Ben Johnson, Goff has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, making it as relevant as ever that Johnson draws that comparison.
The biggest issue facing Johnson is that Goff targets the middle of the field more than any other QB in the NFL and also has the highest efficiency rating when doing so, but the 49ers defense is a top-4 unit against middle-field passes across the board: EPA/Att, Success Rate/Attempt, and yards per attempt.
It’s a great challenge for Johnson and perhaps the only play caller with a better reputation right now is the head coach on the other team he’ll be facing.
0.18 EPA/Play – 49ers offense ranks 1st in the NFL
Few teams ever show up to the playoffs as balanced on offense and defense as the 49ers, but as expected San Francisco’s real bread and butter continues to be Kyle Shanahan’s play calling combined with several All-Pro talents on offense. Per SumerSports, the 49ers offense is first in the NFL in EPA per play at 0.18, first in success rate at 51.6%, first in EPA per pass at 0.27, and first in EPA per rush at 0.03.
It is no surprise then that both Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffrey were finalists for the MVP award.
As impressive as the Lions offense has been under Ben Johnson and a former first overall pick, Detroit’s success pales in comparison to what Shanahan has done with a former last overall pick: The 49ers 0.27 EPA/pass is .10 ahead of second place Miami and that is the same gap between the Dolphins and the eighth place Eagles.
The margins of difference are much smaller in EPA/rush, but the 49ers are still as far ahead of second place Baltimore as the Ravens are ahead of the seventh-ranked Dolphins.
These are dominant margins for the 49ers offense and they are especially good in 11 personnel: A 0.23 EPA/play in 11 personnel ranks first in the NFL, but then that number jumps to 0.41 EPA/play when San Francisco is in 22 personnel, which is two running backs and two tight ends. The Niners run the second-highest rate of 22 in the NFL and the second-LOWEST rate of 11 personnel, but in either case the defense is facing the most efficient offense in the league.
Reporter to Kyle Shanahan: How important is the 12th man in this game?
Shanahan: “We don’t call it the 12th man here.”
— Nick Wagoner (@nwagoner) January 25, 2024
Even if Deebo Samuel misses the game with a shoulder injury, the 49ers would still be bringing MVP candidates at QB and RB, an All-Pro tight end, a 1,300-yard receiver, an All-Pro fullback, and an All-Pro left tackle.
Oh and San Francisco has allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL.
Good luck to the Lions. Good luck to everyone who isn’t the 49ers.