2022 NFL Playoffs: One reason for hope for each bubble team

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. Each week this season, I want to work for you by providing 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 up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

It has certainly been a minute. I hope you’ve had a chance to check out my NFL+ game previews, which we’ve been rolling out each week. But we’re firing back up here on NFL.com, too, for the stretch run and the playoffs. What better way to get back into it than by spreading a little holiday cheer? Six teams have secured a playoff berth while only five have been eliminated from postseason contention heading into Week 16. There are 13 teams who still have hope but are currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. So for those teams, I’ve highlighted an area advanced data flags as a strength that could help sneak them into one of the eight remaining postseason spots. I also included their playoff chances heading into Week 16, per my model.

In my opinion there’s always room for hope! And if you’re not the glass-half-full-type, you can also view these positive traits as a foundation to build on for next season.

Please have a happy and safe holiday! I’m looking forward to making 2023 the best one yet, together!

NOTE: The odds for each team to make the playoffs cited below are provided by Caesars, current as of 5:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Dec. 20.

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Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: at Jets (7-7)
  • Week 17: at Texans (1-12-1)
  • Week 18: vs. Titans (7-7)

Look no further than the team’s QB1 and RB1. Trevor Lawrence has thrown only one interception since Week 9 and completed 73.9 percent of his play-action passes during that span, per Next Gen Stats. Travis Etienne has the third-most rushing yards over expected on outside-the-tackles attempts since Week 6 (+137). Computer vision models show that the Jags’ ability to overcome the loss of left tackle Cam Robinson to injury will be a big factor in their playoff potential. Should they win his week’s matchup against the Jets — which my models forecast to be tightly contested with just a bit more than a coin flip’s odds that New York wins — they would set themselves up well with two games remaining against division opponents.

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: vs. Jaguars (6-8)
  • Week 17: at Seahawks (7-7)
  • Week 18: at Dolphins (8-6)

The Jets are pressuring opposing passers at the fifth-highest rate in the NFL at 30.4 percent. NGS shows that they haven’t used an extra rusher in order to achieve this very often, ranking 29th in blitz percentage this season. PFF grades rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner at 87.9 overall and 89.6 in coverage — both rank first among all players at the position. He leads the league with 12 pass breakups, and his 48.8 passer rating allowed is second-best among qualified corners. New York has a strong case for both DROY and OROY honors with Sauce and Garrett Wilson. One of my favorite notes on Wilson is that he has at least four receptions on nine different routes, a level of versatility that most rookie receivers don’t display. All three of the Jets’ remaining opponents are motivated by their own playoff push, so player availability (injuries) will be a big determining factor in how things shake out.

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: vs. Bengals (10-4)
  • Week 17: vs. Dolphins (8-6)
  • Week 18: at Bills (11-3)

Running back Rhamondre Stevenson has become a reliable and versatile force for the Pats this season, with six games where he averaged over five yards per attempt on the ground and eight where he caught at least four passes. In Week 15 against the Raiders, Stevenson rushed for 172 yards (9.1 yards per carry) and averaged at least six yards per attempt against each defensive formation — light (six or fewer defenders in the box), neutral (seven defenders in the box) and stacked (eight or more defenders in the box). Efficient rushing along with the defense’s ability to bring pressure, specifically by Matt Judon and Josh Uche — who has a pressure rate of 19.5 percent since Week 8, ranking fourth in the NFL (min. 175 snaps) — has kept the Patriots in the playoff picture.

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: vs. Saints (5-9)
  • Week 17: at Commanders (7-6-1)
  • Week 18: at Steelers (6-8)

No player has earned more yards on rushes outside the tackles this season than Nick Chubb’s 1,073 with an average of 5.5 yards per attempt on such runs. Myles Garrett leads the NFL with 63 pressures this season. The formula of pairing effective rushing with exceptional pressure is one of the strongest indicators of NFL success in my 20-season sample. In other words, teams that can consistently shut down opposing passers and control the clock have higher win rates than teams who can’t.

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: vs. Raiders (6-8)
  • Week 17: at Ravens (9-5)
  • Week 18: vs. Browns (6-8)

There’s a pattern emerging, as here’s another team with the potential to lean on its running game and pressure on defense. Najee Harris has five rushing touchdowns in the last five games after scoring only once via the ground game in the first nine contests. Last week against the Panthers he faced seven or more defenders in the box on 83.3 percent of rushes, and ran 20 times for 77 of his yards and a TD when the defense sent extra reinforcements to stop the run. After posting 1.5 sacks against Carolina, T.J. Watt now has 76 career sacks in 84 games played, making him the third-fastest player in NFL history to reach 75 (only Reggie White and J.J. Watt accomplished the feat in fewer games). 

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: at Steelers (6-8)
  • Week 17: vs. 49ers (10-4)
  • Week 18: vs. Chiefs (11-3)

Josh Jacobs leads the NFL with 1,495 rushing yards and has posted 90-plus in five consecutive games. Computer vision shows that Jacobs is doing this despite his offensive line ranking 23rd in the league in run blocking. Now that Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow have returned from injury, the opportunity for Davante Adams to have a little more space to work with has also returned. Adams faced off coverage on 21 of 41 routes run last week against the Patriots. 

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: vs. Chargers (8-6)
  • Week 17: at Giants (8-5-1)
  • Week 18: vs. Texans (1-12-1)

Let’s do one from each side of the ball for Indianapolis. On offense, Michael Pittman Jr. is tied with Detroit’s Amon-Ra St. Brown for the most receptions on passes of fewer than 10 air yards among wide receivers this season with 70, per NGS. On the other side, the defense ranks fourth in the league in sack percentage (8.1 percent). One fun note for this week’s Monday night meeting with the Chargers: The Colts have held opposing passers to a league-low 37.8 completion percentage on downfield passes (10-plus air yards), which could make Mike Williams fantasy owners unhappy.


Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: at Panthers (5-9)
  • Week 17: vs. Bears (3-11)
  • Week 18: at Packers (6-8)

Only one time in league history has a team made the playoffs after starting 1-6, and that was the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals. The Lions have the NFL’s longest streak of games with at least one takeaway (13) and they’re tied for sixth with a +4 turnover differential. Their +57 point margin and average of 28 points per game since Week 9 both rank in the top five in the NFL. Rookie Aidan Hutchinson leads all rookies with 35 pressures, per NGS. My computer vision model ranks their defense as 19th currently after starting off 32nd for the first month of the season. The Lions are favored in my models in each of their remaining games.

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: at Chiefs (11-3)
  • Week 17: vs. Jets (7-7)
  • Week 18: vs. Rams (4-10)

A date with the Chiefs this week adds a lot of uncertainty into Seattle’s playoff odds. If the Seahawks win against Kansas City, things will look a lot better for them. Geno Smith leads the NFL with 12 deep TD passes and ranks fourth with an average of 7.9 air yards per attempt entering Week 16 (min. 400 attempts). The deep pass has the potential to break open games for the Seahawks, with DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett both ranking in the top 20 in the wide receiver win share metric this season. The Chiefs have had inconsistent defensive results in pressure percentage and have allowed the most passing TDs in the NFL this season (30). While the next two games look to be tough matchups, the Seahawks can still break into the playoffs with big passing plays.

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: vs. Lions (7-7)
  • Week 17: at Buccaneers (6-8)
  • Week 18: at Saints (5-9)

Keep an eye on Panthers edge rusher Brian Burns, who is one of just two players with at least 50 QB pressures and 10 or more run stuffs in 2022, per NGS. It’s also worth noting that Jaycee Horn leads the team with three interceptions and seven passes defensed. I write an article on underappreciated players from each team every year, and D.J. Moore might just be the easiest selection for this article from any team. Last week, he caught the sixth-least probable pass resulting in a TD of the season on his five-yarder in the second quarter against the Steelers. Clearly, there are reasons for optimism here.

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: at Browns (6-8)
  • Week 17: at Eagles (13-1)
  • Week 18: vs. Panthers (5-9)

OROY candidate Chris Olave is one of just six players in the Super Bowl era who have posted 40 or more receiving yards in 13 or more games as a rookie, with his injured teammate Michael Thomas being the last player to accomplish the feat (Thomas had 15 such games in 2016). Computer vision shows that Olave’s ability to adjust his routes to his quarterback’s passes ranks in the top 10 percent of all rookies in a 10-season sample. 

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: at Ravens (9-5)
  • Week 17: vs. Cardinals (4-10)
  • Week 18: vs. Buccaneers (6-8)

The utilization of running backs is a key component in Arthur Smith’s offense. In fact, the production from the backs is a big reason why the Falcons are still in playoff contention. We saw an example of it again in a narrow Week 15 loss, with Tyler Allgeier earning a career-best 61 rushing yards over expected and averaging 9.1 yards per attempt (73 yards) against a stacked box in quarterback Desmond Ridder’s first career start. Cordarrelle Patterson, who added another rushing TD last week, is also a strong contender for my annual underappreciated article.

Remaining schedule:

  • Week 16: at Dolphins (8-6)
  • Week 17: vs. Vikings (11-3)
  • Week 18: vs. Lions (7-7)

As Aaron Rodgers mentioned after Monday night’s win, the Packers still need plenty to break their way to earn a playoff berth this year. But the reigning back-to-back MVP is feeling confident. One reason why might be the recent play of rookie WR Christian Watson, who’s found his groove after a lackluster first half of the season. Watson is finding a ton of success against man coverage, with Next Gen Stats showing he ranks fourth in receiving yards (218) and tied for first in TDs (four) since Week 10. Great news for Green Bay, considering two of its final three opponents — the Dolphins and Lions — play a lot of man.

Rodgers’ running mates on the other side of the ball have truly been a mixed bag, ranking 29th against the run but second against the pass this year. Driving much of the unit’s success against opposing passers has been its ability to apply pressure at the fourth-highest rate in the league (30.8%). Thus, Green Bay’s pass rushers are likely licking their chops thinking about their Week 17 meeting against the Vikings, who have allowed Kirk Cousins to be pressured at the third-highest rate (35.4%).

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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