Sports

The Stats That Will Define the N.F.L.’s Wild Card Weekend

In the N.F.L. playoffs, teams are as evenly matched as they will have been all season.

With opponents looking for whatever scant advantage exists, there are several statistical trends worth monitoring. Dropped passes, penalty yards, field-position differentials and fourth-quarter surges can all have a major impact on the results of this weekend’s elimination games.

Brady’s patented comebacks are still big. It’s the rest of his game that has grown smaller.

His Buccaneers (8-9) overcame fourth-quarter deficits in four of their victories. Tampa Bay beat back a 13-6 fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Los Angeles Rams, 16-13, in Week 9. Brady overcame a 16-3 deficit to beat the New Orleans Saints, 17-16, in Week 13. Brady also led the Buccaneers back from trailing by 16-6 to beat the Arizona Cardinals, 19-16, in overtime in Week 16, and then the next week they trailed by 21-10 before defeating the Carolina Panthers, 30-24, to clinch the N.F.C. South.

In those comebacks, the Buccaneers trailed by a combined 66-22 score in the fourth quarter, against opponents who ended the season with losing records. That does not exactly inspire confidence.

Across the first, second and third quarters of regular-season games, Brady threw just 12 touchdowns, fewer than the Bears’ Justin Fields and the Texans’ Davis Mills (13 each), beleaguered young quarterbacks whose teams combined for a 6-27-1 record and earned the right to the top two picks in the 2023 draft. Brady then threw 13 fourth-quarter touchdowns, seven of them while trailing in the final four minutes, sometimes (though not always) during heroic comebacks.

Brady’s sorcery will probably not be enough to advance the Buccaneers through the playoffs, but his knack for fourth-quarter touchdowns is reason for opponents not to give the ball back if they can avoid it.

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott tied for the league lead with 15 interceptions and had the worst interception rate (3.8 percent) of any starter during the regular season. In each of his last seven games, he has thrown at least one interception and three of them have been returned for touchdowns.

Prescott has been a fine quarterback aside from the interceptions, which is not quite like claiming that Sunday dinner was delicious except for the salmonella. Prescott finished the season tied for fourth in the N.F.L. in touchdown rate (5.8 percent). He often Houdinis his way out of the predicaments he helps cause, leading comeback victories against Houston in Week 14 and the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16.

Prescott also isn’t getting much support from teammates; his overtime interception against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15, for example, was tipped in the air by his own receiver.

A high interception rate does not preclude a Super Bowl victory: Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford tied for the N.F.L. lead with 17 interceptions in 2021, then threw three more in the postseason. Still, the Cowboys have a long and hilarious history of postseason pratfalls and will be much better off if they do not hand their opponent any easy opportunities. Especially since their opponent on Monday night is led by Tom Brady.

Saturday’s game between the Chargers and Jaguars promises to be a showdown of Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence, two of the N.F.L.’s most promising young star quarterbacks. It could turn into a frustrating blooper reel, however: The Jaguars led the league with 41 dropped passes, according to Pro Football Reference, while the Chargers ranked second with 40 drops.

Zay Jones led the Jaguars with 13 drops, while Christian Kirk dropped seven passes; Marvin Jones and the former Giants tight end Evan Engram added five each. Running back Austin Ekeler and tight end Gerald Everett led the Chargers with nine drops each, while the top receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who were injured for much of the year, combined to drop three passes. Herbert therefore holds the advantage: He has two reliable targets at his disposal, while Lawrence has none.

The 49ers begin their average offensive drive at their own 30.9-yard line, the best starting field position in the N.F.L., according to Football Outsiders. Their opponents, by contrast, are stuck starting their drives at their own 25.6-yard line, the worst starting field position in the league. The 49ers therefore net a league-high 5.24 yards per series, essentially tilting the field in their favor and muscling opponents back toward their own goal line.

The 49ers also led the N.F.L. in turnover differential, with 13 more takeaways than giveaways. Their defense often gives the rookie quarterback Brock Purdy and his many playmakers the ball within easy striking distance of the end zone.

The 49ers scored touchdowns on short drives after turnovers in each of their two regular-season victories over the Seattle Seahawks, a division rival they’ll face again on Saturday. Even if the Seahawks manage to play turnover-free football, however, they may find themselves climbing uphill all afternoon.

The Minnesota Vikings committed 88 penalties for just 689 yards in the regular season, according to nflpenalties.com. Their opponents committed 111 penalties for 926 yards. Their +237-yard penalty differential was the highest figure in the N.F.L., and it contributed to the sense that the often unimpressive Vikings were winning many of their games based though sheer luck.

Some of the Vikings’ penalty edge stemmed from the team’s strengths. For example, opponents committed 11 defensive pass interference penalties for 158 yards in their desperate effort to cover receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Some of the advantage may have come from experience and sound coaching: The Vikings committed just 12 offensive holding penalties, the second-lowest figure in the N.F.L.

The rest of the differential may indeed have been the result of the team’s purported probability-warping superpowers: Opponents were flagged a league-high six times for ineligible downfield receivers, a truly random infraction.

The Giants must minimize their penalties against the Vikings on Sunday, especially since they cannot count on their passing game to bail them out of trouble.

The Giants rely heavily on short passing. A little too heavily. Daniel Jones’s average depth of target of 6.4 yards tied for 31st among starting quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Reference. For comparison’s sake, the Bills’ Josh Allen averaged 9.2 air yards per target, and Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins — not exactly renowned as a mad bomber — averaged 7.5.

As a result of all their micro-passing, the Giants generated just 28 passing plays of 20 or more yards in the regular season, the lowest total in the league.

Despite the lack of big plays, Jones managed to lead the Giants on four fourth-quarter comebacks, the same number as Brady and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. Unfortunately, Cousins led the Vikings on eight fourth-quarter comebacks, tying the modern record.

So the Giants cannot rely on late-game magic. Instead, they and other teams hope that some statistical trends will start to reverse themselves this weekend.

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