How Toxic Was Your NFL Team in 2017?

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What makes up championship-level teams? It takes an offense that is dutiful to take care of the ball but also takes calculated shots down the field. It takes a ballhawking defense that keeps the offense in front of it.

All of that is considered in toxic differential rankings, which combines a team’s turnover differential and explosive play differential. Explosive plays are defined as those gaining at least 25 yards. If a team ends up with a positive toxic differential, odds are it had success on the field. End with a negative differential, and a team will end up higher in the draft order than it would probably like.

Ten of the top 13 teams in toxic differential ended up making the playoffs, with those three other teams – Seattle (plus-23), Detroit (+16), and Los Angeles Chargers (+11) – all winning nine games.

Eleven of the 12 playoff teams this season ended with a positive toxic differential, with Carolina being the only team on the negative side (at minus-2). Of the 17 teams in the NFL with a winning record in 2017, 15 of those had a positive differential, with Dallas joining Carolina below that separator (at -4).

On the flipside, 13 of the 14 teams with a losing record had a negative differential. The Chicago Bears were the only team with a positive differential (+3). For the sake of filling out the field, the Arizona Cardinals finished 8-8 with a -10 differential.

(Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at some teams that improved their toxic differential drastically from 2016, some teams that went in the wrong direction, and some other interesting observations.

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Philadelphia. Well, obviously. There’s a Super Bowl ring/”Let freedom ring”/Liberty Bell headline in there somewhere. But let’s just talk about the Eagles +19 differential this season, a high number and good enough for fifth in the NFL. Combined with the team’s -20 differential from 2016, the +39 jump the Eagles made was the highest of the 2017 season.

The Super Bowl champs improved in almost every category this season: 31 takeaways compared to 26 last year, 51 explosive plays compared to 41, and the defense allowed only 43 explosive plays, compared to 67 last season.

San Francisco. The 49ers ended the season at -2, but their five-game win streak to end the season coincided with an uptick in toxic differential. From the time Jimmy Garoppolo started his first game in Week 13 in Chicago, the 49ers were +10 in toxic differential. That number alone would have placed them 11th in the NFL.

After the team’s -32 finish in 2016, the +30 tick was pleasantly welcomed, and with Garoppolo at the helm under a new and lucrative deal announced Thursday, 49ers fans should have plenty of excitement heading into 2018.

Los Angeles Rams. The Rams followed a very similar path as the Eagles in 2017. Surround a second-year quarterback with plenty of weapons on offense and a stout defense. That led to the second-highest jump in toxic differential from 2016 to ’17. The Rams were 29th in 2016 (-26), and finished tied for 12th in head coach Sean McVay’s first season (+6).

McVay orchestrated the biggest offensive turnaround in league history, taking the lowest-scoring offense in 2016 and turning it into the highest-scoring offense one year later. That had never been done before. The Rams generated 38 explosive plays in 2016, and 57 in ’17.

It wasn’t just the offense, though. The defense forced 10 more turnovers than in 2016.

Detroit. Contrary to what Detroit teams are typically known for, it was the defense that carried the load for the Lions in 2017. Their 32 takeaways were third in the NFL, and the 44 explosive plays allowed by the defense was the ninth-lowest total.

Matthew Stafford and the offense were at the league average in turnovers (22) and were 15th in explosive plays (50). New head coach Matt Patricia is a defensive-minded guy, which made the retention of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter all the more important if Detroit wants to take a step forward on that side of the ball.

The jump from a -5 toxic differential in 2016 to +16 this past season was a good starting point.

Chicago. As mentioned earlier, the Bears were the only team with a losing record with a positive toxic differential. They finished ahead of playoff participants Carolina and Pittsburgh, as well as Dallas and the Los Angeles Chargers.

That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to describe the Mitch Trubisky-led Bears offense as “explosive.” The rookie quarterback only threw 23 passes 21+ yards downfield this season. Because of that, the offense was 26th in explosive plays (39).

The defense was elite in keeping offenses in front of them, however. The 36 explosive plays they allowed were third in the league. Turnovers were a wash (they both forced and committed 22). For Bears fans wanting to replicate an Eagles/Rams turnaround with their second-year quarterback will be excited to know Chicago is well ahead of those two teams’ toxic differential pace from 2016 (as noted in the sections above).

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Oakland. Jon Gruden has his work cut out for him next year in Oakland. The Raiders seem long removed from their playoff berth in 2016, when they sported a +18 toxic differential. This season, the team had a -24 differential. The -42 freefall the team made in toxic differential was easily the worst in the NFL.

Oakland didn’t finish better than 19th in takeaways, giveaways, turnover differential, explosive plays, explosive plays allowed or toxic differential. Last season, it was second in takeaways, tied for first in turnover differential, and tied for fifth in both explosive plays and toxic differential.

How’d Oakland go from 12-4 to 6-10, you ask? There’s your answer.

New England. Take this for what it’s worth: The Patriots were still a Hail Mary completion away from extending their chances for another Super Bowl win. However, there was no solid defense to lean back on this season.

The defense forced 23 turnovers in 2016 and allowed only 38 explosive plays. That was tied for the second-best total in the NFL. This season, though, the defense only forced 18 turnovers and gave up 55 explosive plays. That ultimately doomed the Patriots, as they gave up five explosive plays and 41 points in the Super Bowl.

Altogether, the Patriots’ toxic differential took a hit of -25 from 2016 to ’17.

Dallas. The Cowboys’ season possibly looks more disappointing simply because their 2016 season was so good in terms of toxic differential (+25, fourth in the NFL). And you can put some of this on Ezekiel Elliott missing time. He had 14 explosive runs in 2016 and only five in 2017.

But the defense doesn’t have that excuse, and that unit was nowhere close to as good as they were in 2016. After allowing 38 explosive plays in 2016, that number ballooned to 50 this year. Not so coincidentally, after being +20 in explosive differential in 2016, they fell to -3 in 2017.

New York Giants. Nothing really went right for the Giants this season. Fans could take pride in Eli Manning’s consecutive start streak, but that now stands at four after head coach Ben McAdoo benched Manning for one game in favor of Geno Smith in Week 13.

Injuries killed the Giants’ chances at being explosive on offense. Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall and a handful of other playmakers went down. A bunch of unheard-ofs and rookies had to step up, and the Giants didn’t produce.

The 37 explosive plays were low, and the 61 explosive plays allowed were really high (31st in the league). That’s the main reason the Giants finished dead last in toxic differential this season (-27) – yes, worse than even the Cleveland Browns – a far cry from the +3 total from 2016, a year in which they made the playoffs.

The Conundrum that is the New England Patriots’ Defense

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The old adage states, “Defense wins championships.” But the Patriots have long gone with an alternative: “Tom Brady wins championships.”

It’s worked five times already. And the two other times the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl, Brady walked off the field late in the fourth quarter and handed his defense a lead, only for the Giants to invoke the “Eli Manning wins championships against the Patriots” storyline.

The Patriots defense has always been somewhat difficult to pin down, and this season is no different. It would seem to fall under the “bend, don’t break” category. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s unit gives up a lot of yards; the 366 yards per game the Patriots allowed this season was the fourth-highest total in the league. However, that same unit gave up the fifth-lowest points per game total at 18.5.

When it comes to looking into how the Patriots can have a top-five defense in terms of points but a bottom-five unit in yards allowed, well, the devil is sort of in the details.

There are a number of contributing factors, each of which has played a role in New England qualifying for its eighth Super Bowl since the 2001 season. Let’s get into those and see what Philadelphia can do to combat them and possibly hoist its first Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots recorded only 18 takeaways (25th in the NFL), but that tells only half the story. New England was opportunistic in the most critical portion of the field — the red zone. The Patriots led the league in red zone takeaways with six. That’s opportunism on steroids. On top of taking scoring chances away, Patriots opponents also left plenty of points on the field. Teams made only 71 percent of field goal attempts against New England, the second-lowest total in the NFL.

The confusing New England Patriots’ defense. (Graphics by Garrett Williams)

In the Patriots’ two one-score losses this season (Carolina in Week 4 and Miami in Week 14) opposing kickers were perfect, taking advantage of the opportunities to put points on the board. Jake Elliott has been really good for Philadelphia this postseason kicking the ball, knocking through all four of his field goal attempts, although he did miss an extra point against Atlanta in the divisional round.

Another reason opponents have racked up so many yards against the Patriots is simply the fact they always have a lot of field to work with when they start drives. Patriots’ opponents had the worst starting field position in the league this season, with drives starting at their own 24.8 yard line on average.

The Patriots force opponents to return kickoffs, as they utilize special teams to pin teams close to their own end zone. While teams kicked touchbacks on 57.9 percent of kickoffs this season, Patriots kickoffs resulted in a touchback only 40.8 percent of the time, the third-lowest total in the NFL. In line with that, opponents averaged only 18.9 yards per return, also the third-lowest total in 2017.

The New England defense often leaned on the long field behind it on opponent’s drives, as it forced a three-and-out on only 20.3 percent of drives to rank 27th in the NFL. The 34 yards per possession the Patriots gave up was the second-highest total in the league, ahead of only Tampa Bay.

The thing that consistently saved the Patriots was Captain Tom keeping the offense on the field. Opponents only got 172 possessions against Patricia’s defense, the fourth-lowest total in the league.

So what do the Eagles need to do? Give Nick Foles as many opportunities as possible to attack the Patriots defense, because it has shown this year that it will give up yards. It’s just a matter of pushing that defense past its bending point until it breaks.

How do they give Foles plenty of opportunities? Keep Brady and the Patriots’ offense off the field. Easy, right? Obviously not, but the Philadelphia defense earned a degree this season in keeping offenses off the field — they forced opponents into a three-and-out on 28.2 percent of possessions, good for fourth in the league, and their opponent’s time of possession was last in the NFL (27:19).

There’s another storyline that loosely applies here, one of a stonecutter hitting a rock a hundred times before it cracks on the hundred-and-first go at it. The Eagles need as many whacks at that stone as possible against the Patriots. The only problem will be getting the hammer away from Brady.

How Roster Depth Propelled the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl: Part II

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Connor Barwin spent four seasons as one of the Philadelphia Eagles’ top defenders and made the Pro Bowl in 2014 before becoming a salary-cap casualty in March. But neither side held any hard feelings. In fact, Barwin was prepared to sell his buddy on playing in Philly less than a month later.

Chris Long needed a job after winning last year’s Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. So he spoke to Barwin and did what anyone would do – he cold-called the Eagles, landed a contract, then donated his salary to charity and played the entire regular season for free.

That unconventional process has Long preparing to face his former team in Super Bowl LII, with an assist going to Barwin. And the reality is, not much of the Eagles’ run to the NFC title has been what most would call normal.

We began noting this in Part I of this two-part series that focused on the offensive side of the ball. We’ll now take a deep look into how Philadelphia’s defense overcame injuries of its own and relied on some unexpectedly solid performances to become one of the top units in the league.

There’s no overlooking Long, who’s made major contributions to a defensive line group that goes seven deep with everyone playing a specific role – from the veteran Long down to rookie Derek Barnett. The reserve pair contributed to two of the most important and momentum-swinging plays in the Eagles’ 38-7 rout of Minnesota in the NFC championship game.

Long reached Case Keenum in the first quarter and hit his arm as he threw, leading to a wobbly duck that Patrick Robinson returned 50 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7. Then in the second, Barnett strip-sacked Keenum at the Eagles’ 16-yard line before Long recovered the fumble, leading to Nick Foles’ 53-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery and a 21-7 lead.

Getting to the quarterback is more than just recording a sack. It’s part of the reason the Eagles also finished with one of the league’s best pass defenses, which we’ll get to in a minute. And the depth of the defensive line became a true asset following the offseason release of Barwin, a standout linebacker who recorded 26.5 sacks over his final three seasons with the Eagles.

Brandon Graham recorded a team-high in sacks, but Fletcher Cox finished with the best percentage of pressures per rush opportunity at 11.7 percent, which is nearly two percentage points above the league average for a defensive tackle.

STATS X-Info data ranked Cox as the NFL’s second-best pass-rushing tackle behind only the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald. Graham ranked as the No. 3 edge run-stuffer and Timmy Jernigan as the No. 3 defensive tackle stuffing the run. Those rankings aren’t made by placing some arbitrary number that supposedly rates performance. It takes a complicated propriety model STATS developed combining multiple advanced metrics to arrive at those conclusions.

Among the variables in run-stuff rating is how often a certain player is able to redirect an obvious run design and cause a running play to bust. In the case of Cox’s pass-rusher ranking, STATS takes into account that not every dropback presents a rush opportunity.

The play above shows Keenum releasing the ball in only 1.9 seconds, which falls under the threshold for QB release time to count as a rush opportunity for the opponent. This did not count as a rush opportunity in STATS’ data.

This play, however, did count as a rush opportunity for Philadelphia, and Keenum was able to get a pass off. The completion came during the Vikings’ opening drive that concluded with linebacker Najee Goode getting beat for a touchdown. But a third-string player getting burned shouldn’t be viewed as a total failure given the unique situation he was in.

Jordan Hicks, who called the defensive signals and directed the unit, originally was supposed to be in that spot, but he tore his right Achilles on Oct. 23 after having five interceptions in 2016. The Eagles signed former Baltimore Ravens starter Dannell Ellerbe as a replacement, but he suffered a hamstring injury and sat out the NFC title game.

Even despite missing Hicks, a playmaker who is excellent in pass coverage, for a majority of the season, the Eagles still finished with the lowest burn percentage in the NFL thanks to a deep defensive backfield and solid linebacker core that combined to tie for fourth in the league with 19 interceptions.

STATS X-Info calculates a burn against a targeted defender when the opposing player makes a catch. Eagles defenders were burned only 42.07 percent of the time during the regular season. That number, however, takes into account much more than a simple reception conceded at any point in the game.

STATS’ model again factors in a multitude of advanced metrics, including game situation. Burns and passing yards against – as well as the lack of burns and yards against – during, say, a one-possession game in the second quarter are weighted more in the STATS model than any that occur during a 21-point fourth-quarter blowout, for example. This allows for the numbers to balance, rather than a player being penalized for allowing a catch when the situation calls for the defense to sag off or when the offense is throwing at will to make up a large deficit.

Veteran safety Corey Graham intercepted Keenum in such a situation in the fourth quarter of the NFC title game, helping bring the Eagles to within one victory of their first championship since 1960. Graham signed a one-year deal with the Eagles prior to the season after Buffalo cut him, accepting a backup role after starting every game the previous two seasons with the Bills.

Carefully piecing together this Eagles team brought together a unique combination of talent. It’s still a tough sell on some considering Philadelphia is preparing to play its third straight postseason game as the underdog. But everyone has been accepting of their role, and they’re one victory away from the ultimate reward.

Revisting the Nick Foles Blueprint for Success

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When Carson Wentz tore his ACL six weeks ago, we wrote about what the Eagles could and should do to help Nick Foles have success in his absence as the backup took charge of the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

The blueprint the Minnesota Vikings laid out for Case Keenum — and the subsequent success they had this season – was outlined in that post as well, because nobody was talking about Keenum with an asterisks next to his name as a backup quarterback after he kept winning week after week.

Fast forward to now, and Foles has his team in the Super Bowl after thoroughly outplaying Keenum and the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. If you remember, Keenum took Foles’ starting job with the St. Louis Rams two seasons ago. It hasn’t been all good for Foles since replacing Wentz, though, as his regular-season numbers resembled what he put up during that dismal year with the Rams.

Before Foles plays in the biggest game of his life, let’s go back into the outline that was laid out within that article six weeks ago and see what has worked for Foles, what hasn’t worked, and what might work in the Super Bowl.

From the December 15 article:

What the Vikings have done well this season is allow Keenum to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers quickly and let them do the damage.

Foles and the Eagles didn’t do a great job of this during the last four weeks of the regular season. According to STATS X-Info data, about 65 percent of Foles’ throws were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage during that time, which is roughly five percentage points lower than Keenum during the regular season. On top of that, Foles only completed 65 percent of those throws, while Keenum completed 75 percent.

Widen the scope of Foles’ numbers during the regular season and it’s not any better. He only completed 48 percent of throws 11-20 yards down the field and didn’t complete a single pass of 21-plus yards.

However, during the postseason the Eagles have gotten the ball out of Foles’ hands earlier and in direct correlation with that, they have had a lot more success. Foles has joined Joe Montana as the only two quarterbacks in postseason history to complete 75 percent of their throws in consecutive games.

Foles’ release time was less than two seconds on 23 percent of his throws from Weeks 14-17. That number has spiked to 38 percent of his throws in two postseason games.

A lot of that has had to do with the abundance of screen passes he has thrown in the playoffs. In 97 regular season throws, eight came behind the line of scrimmage. In 63 playoff throws, 15 have been behind the line of scrimmage. Jay Ajayi has been a large beneficiary of that, hauling in six catches for 70 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Corey Clement has three catches for 19 yards, Zach Ertz has three for 17 yards, and Nelson Agholor has added two for 16.

Nick Foles has been much better in the postseason. (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

Adam Thielen has emerged as one of the best receivers in the NFL in 2017…Foles didn’t have anybody like Thielen in St. Louis. He did in 2013 with Philadelphia when he was throwing the ball to LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson…and he will again now with Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz.

As much as Foles has relied on the screen game during the playoffs, Jeffery and Ertz have made a big impact downfield in the passing game (Minnesota fans can’t get the image of Jeffery waltzing wide open into the end zone out of their heads). Foles had a tough time pushing the ball downfield during the regular season partly because his work in the short game wasn’t exactly lethal. But with an uptick in production around the line of scrimmage during the playoffs, it’s opened up the deep portion of the field for Foles to take calculated shots. That has translated to four completions on nine attempts (he was 0 for 9 in the regular season) for 172 yards and two touchdowns on throws 21-plus yards downfield.

Jeffery and Ertz have also combined for 15 clutch receptions this postseason — a reception resulting in a first down or touchdown – with Torrey Smith adding six more, giving Foles a number of reliable targets at each level of the passing game.

When you add in the rushing attack from both teams…and defenses…both Foles and Keenum have a very similar — very strong — supporting cast around them.

Possibly Foles’ biggest key to his success is the ability to hand the ball off to guys like LeGarrette Blount and Ajayi. Blount is as dangerous as ever in the red zone, scoring twice this postseason, and Ajayi has gained 127 yards.

And the Philadelphia defense has been the best postseason unit, by far. Of the four conference championship teams, the Philadelphia defense led in rush yardage per game (78), pass yardage per game (240.5), total yardage per game (318.5), passing yards per attempt (5.7), and QB rating (73.6).

If (Foles) can get the ball out of his hands quickly…he can put up numbers similar to Keenum’s: 96.2 rating, 7.4 yards/attempt, 2.6 TD-INT ratio. If Foles does that, we could still see an Eagles-Vikings matchup in the NFC Championship game.

Well, we got that Eagles-Vikings matchup in the NFC Championship game. During the end of the regular season, the Eagles success was despite Foles, however. During the playoffs, though, and especially against the Vikings, it was because of him. How do Foles’ postseason numbers compare to those of Keenum’s listed above? He has a 122.1 rating, 9.49 yards/attempt, and has three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Don’t be too quick on the draw with those “Brady vs. the Backup” headlines. The Eagles are a complete team, and Foles is a big part of that.

Gronk or No Gronk, Brady Still Shines for Patriots

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Rob Gronkowski took a shot to the head with less than two minutes to play in the first half of the AFC championship game, immediately went into concussion protocol and never returned. New England scored later in the possession to cut Jacksonville’s lead to four, but saw that lead jump back up to 10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

In stepped Danny Amendola, making one big play after another to carry the Patriots to their eighth Super Bowl since 2001.

The “next man up” mantra has been well-versed with the Patriots in the past, especially in the receiving corps. Last season, it was about Gronkowski. This season, it’s been about replacing Julian Edelman’s production. Depending on whether Gronkowski passes the concussion protocol, it may again be about replacing his production in Super Bowl LII. But if history is any indication, the Patriots won’t exactly be up a creek without a paddle if they’re without their star tight end.

That’s not to say Gronk isn’t a game-changer. He passed Dallas Clark on Sunday for the most postseason receiving yards ever by a tight end (856) and his 10 touchdown receptions are tied for third all-time among all pass-catchers. But Tom Brady has found others in his absence and put up roughly the same numbers as he does when Gronkowski is on the field.

Gronk owns the middle of the field when he plays. Of his 60 targets in the postseason since 2014, 32 of them have been on either a curl, dig, or slant route. He also frequently hooks up with Brady on vertical routes down the middle of the field, much like he did twice on the game-winning drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15.

However, STATS X-Info data shows when Gronkowski has missed time in the postseason, Brady has actually thrown more over the middle. With him in the lineup, Brady threw between the numbers 53 percent of the time. Without Gronk, that number rose to 56 percent.

The next man in simply ventures out over the middle a bit more with No. 87 out of the lineup. From 2014-15 with Gronkowski in the lineup during the postseason, Edelman ran just under 38 percent of his routes over the middle (cross, dig, drag, post, slant routes). With Gronk out during the 2016 postseason, he ran just over 47 percent of his routes over the middle. Amendola’s numbers look about the same — 26 percent of his routes were over the middle with Gronkowski, just under 47 percent without him.

It’s the same production, just different receivers.

The splits look similar in the red zone. With Gronkowski in the game, he is one of Brady’s favorite targets along with Edelman. Amendola has historically been the guy to get squeezed in the red zone, but with Gronkowski out, he finds ways to get involved. After only being targeted once in the red zone in 2015, he was thrown to three times last season with Gronkowski out of the lineup. During the second half alone of the AFC Championship on Sunday with both Gronkowski and Edelman out, Amendola was targeted three times (and once more from the 23-yard line).

Upped usage isn’t the moral of this story, though. An injury to any player on any team obviously means different guys will be more involved. New England isn’t special in that regard. It’s the fact that Brady doesn’t skip a beat, and that those Gronkowski replacements put up historical numbers without him.

Chris Hogan hasn’t even been mentioned yet, although his yardage last postseason (332) combined with Edelman (342) was the second-highest receiving yards total ever by a pair of teammates, trailing only Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad of the 2003 Carolina Panthers (756 combined).

The domino effect of Edelman (in part) replacing Gronkowski meant someone needed to replace Edelman’s original role, which fell to Hogan last season. That role is in large part towards the boundaries, where Hogan was targeted more than half the time on comeback, corner, flat, out, wheel, and go routes.

If Gronkowski cannot play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, Hogan may again have a larger role. Or it could be Brandin Cooks, who was the team’s leading receiver all year and who was targeted seven times after the Gronkowski injury in the AFC Championship, totaling 48 yards in receiving and another 68 in penalty yardage.

If Gronkowski cannot play, the Patriots’ game plan will be different, but it will be the same understudies stepping up and replacing production with the same quarterback and head coach in charge of it all. It’s not always the same ingredients, but it’s a recipe for success.

How Roster Depth Propelled the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl: Part I

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A simple review of many NFL “expert” preseason predictions shows how few believed the Philadelphia Eagles could win the NFC East, let alone take the conference title with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. And that was before the injuries began happening with almost comical regularity.

Those who decided Dallas or the New York Giants – teams that combined for fewer regular-season wins (12) than the Eagles had on their own (13) – would win the division are now red-faced as Philadelphia prepares to face New England in Super Bowl LII. Just how were the Eagles able to overcome injuries both early and late to win the NFC?

The answer requires a complicated explanation, one that we’ll dissect on both sides of the ball in a two-part series ahead of the Super Bowl. But what’s important to remember throughout is that STATS foretold Philadelphia’s success prior to the 2017 season even beginning, backing it with X-Info data and advanced analytics.

STATS’ propriety model calculated the Eagles having the second-ranked overall roster in the NFL heading into the season when taking into account depth and performance – both past and projected – at each position. That may have seemed like a stretch considering the Eagles were coming off their second straight 7-9 campaign with a second-year quarterback who had an overall underwhelming debut season.

The X-Info roster rankings factor in much more than just the first unit, though. It helps provide context to a team’s depth and balance – almost an outline for the next-man-up mentality should someone fall to injury or simply underperform. We’ll get to the Eagles’ defense and the issues it faced in Part II next week, but first let’s get into how they found success offensively.

STATS Research notes Philadelphia is the first team since the 2003 Patriots to reach the Super Bowl without having an 800-yard rusher and a 900-yard receiver. Prior to that New England squad, the last team to do so was the 1990 New York Giants. The Eagles had the seventh-ranked offense this season, up from 22nd in coach Doug Pederson’s first season, when they also went with an offensive balance that spread to many different options.

The difference became the quality of talent, as Philadelphia traded receiver Jordan Matthews to Buffalo and signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. It also signed running back LeGarrette Blount from New England and cut Ryan Mathews. Of course, there’s no metric in the world able to predict Carson Wentz would go from throwing 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions as a rookie to a 33-to-7 ratio while becoming an MVP candidate the very next year, but a reasonable leap was expected.

STATS X-Info ranked Philadelphia with the second-best roster before it acquired former 1,200-yard rusher Jay Ajayi from Miami for a fourth-round pick Oct. 31, but the addition of undrafted free agent Corey Clement was underrated in the wake of Darren Sproles’ left ACL tear and broken right forearm suffered on the same play Sept. 24. Almost a month later to the day, nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters tore his right ACL and MCL, forcing unproven Halapoulivaati Vaitai to step into the starting lineup.

We noted shortly before the season opener that Wentz should have much better weapons than he did in 2016 with the additions of Jeffery and Smith, and for the most part that became true. Wentz’s completion percentage to strictly wide receivers rose from an NFL-worst 44.9 to 56.8 this season as his receivers created more separation with 6.9 yards at catch (fifth) after ranking 28th with a 5.04 average last year.

Wentz also become more efficient. His third-down passer rating went from 67.0 (on 156 attempts) in 2016 to 123.7 (on 124 attempts) this year, sparking an overall improvement from 79.3 to 101.9. Despite playing three fewer games, Wentz still saw an increase of pass plays of 20-plus yards (39 to 40).

It might seem odd that STATS X-Info calculated the Eagles having the 29th-ranked receiving corps, even with Nelson Agholor having more catches this season (62) than in his first two NFL campaigns combined (59). But that’s only because of the position distinction going essentially three deep, when in reality Wentz found his options all over the field. Pass-catching depth is the best way to describe it.

Zach Ertz finished with team highs of 74 catches and 824 yards along with eight touchdowns. Fellow tight ends Trey Burton and Brent Celek combined for 36 more catches, with Burton adding five touchdowns and Celek catching another. The Eagles targeted tight ends 31.5 percent of the time, which was 9.5 percent above league average and the second-highest mark in the league behind Indianapolis.

Also, six running backs caught at least five passes, and four had at least 47 carries as the Eagles tied for fourth in the NFL in yards per rush at 4.47. So while Philadelphia’s positional roster ranking for wide receivers from X-Info isn’t flattering, running backs ranked 12th and tight ends sixth. The production was spread between a plethora of players at each of those spots and, combined with Wentz’s improvement, more than justify the original overall roster ranking.

And we haven’t even discussed the injury that was supposed to derail Philadelphia’s Super Bowl hopes. Wentz’s torn ACL in Week 14 forced into action Nick Foles, a former Eagles Pro Bowler cast off from St. Louis and Kansas City the previous two seasons. Few people believed Foles could step in and replace Wentz’s production. Just as few people likely realized that Pederson worked with Foles previously as the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach in each of their first stints with the franchise.

Foles and Joe Montana are the only players in NFL history to complete at least 75 percent of their passes in back-to-back playoff games after Foles threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-7 win over Minnesota in the NFC championship game. Foles picked up where Wentz left off, with 14 different players catching a pass in Foles three regular-season starts and two postseason games. Five different running backs carried the ball in that span and Philadelphia has continued winning with the same offensive game plan.

When one cog goes down, the Eagles plug in another and the machine keeps churning smoothly. It’s a trend that’s continued throughout the season and into the Super Bowl, not simply because of depth, but the quality of that depth.

The same goes for the defensive side of the ball.

To be continued in Part II next week…

Clipped Wings? Detailing Why the Atlanta Falcons’ Offense Wasn’t as High-Flying in 2017

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Kyle Shanahan is gone, and Matt Ryan is now a shell of his old self after the now-San Francisco 49ers head coach groomed him into an MVP a season ago, right? Well, not quite.

First off, Ryan has the Falcons playing into the second weekend of the NFC playoffs with a good shot at another trip to the NFC championship game. That hasn’t changed since last season.

This season has been different, though. Atlanta was winning by a margin of over two touchdowns during last season’s Super Bowl run; this year, that margin is down toward eight points per game. Ryan threw 38 touchdowns in 2016; this season, that total only reached 20.

So where’s the difference? Well, Steve Sarkisian is wearing the offensive coordinator headset this year, and the playcalling has been different than Shanahan’s. That’s just one difference, but it’s where we’ll start.

Play-Action Passes

Shanahan loves the play-action pass. The Falcons threw the second-most play-action passes in the NFL last season, and the 49ers ranked the same this season under the first-year head coach. And Ryan was really good in the play-action passing game in 2016, ranking sixth in QB rating in that category (109.8). That correlated to 26 big pass plays (20+ yards), 1,469 yards and nine touchdowns.

Ryan has been just as good this season on play-action, he just hasn’t had as many opportunities to put it on display. After throwing 143 times after a play fake last season, he did the same only 117 times this season — the 16th-highest total in the league. That in turn produced 18 big plays and five touchdowns.

The Falcons also didn’t spread the ball around as much off play-action this season. Julio Jones was the overwhelming favorite target for Ryan, throwing more than 35 percent of his play-action passes to him in 2017. Jones was one of four Falcons pass-catchers to have 10 or more targets off play-action. On the flipside, Ryan targeted six different receivers more than 10 times during his MVP season, while targeting Jones just 25 percent of the time.

The bigger emphasis on getting the ball to Jones seemed to be a theme this season.

(Not) Spreading the Wealth

Jones was targeted on 28 percent of Ryan’s passes overall this season, the fourth-highest percentage in the entire league. Only DeAndre Hopkins (34 percent), A.J. Green (29) and Antonio Brown (28) were targeted more. Jones’ 148 targets were 19 more than his 2016 total.

In line with Jones’ upped usage, Ryan threw the ball less to his other receivers this season. The Falcons had eight players catch at least 12 passes. Conversely, Atlanta had 10 players with at least 13 catches a season ago, when its two main running backs — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman — were highly involved in the passing game. Those two combined for 85 catches, 883 yards and five touchdowns a season ago, while hauling in 63 catches, 616 yards and four TDs this season.

The same has been true for the Falcons’ deep passing game — passes traveling 21 or more air yards downfield. Ryan was historically good in that department in 2016 with a 133.1 QB rating, easily the best in the NFL. His 1,018 yards were second most in the NFL. His 47.3 completion percentage and nine touchdown passes on those throws were both third best in the league, while he was one of only four quarterbacks with at least 20 deep pass attempts to not throw an interception. Matty Ice’s success was spread around to a number of receivers, namely Jones, speedster Taylor Gabriel and tight end Austin Hooper. Jones did what you would expect him to do: 11 catches for 381 yards on 30 targets. Gabriel was a good addition in 2016 for Atlanta, catching seven deep balls on seven targets for 213 yards and three touchdowns. Hooper added 120 yards on deep balls.

Ryan’s completion percentage on those same throws dropped to 26 percent this season, while only connecting for 492 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

So what was different this season?

Ryan was pressured on over 41 percent of his deep throws this season, up from 34 percent in 2016. That’s part of it.

Another was the reluctance of Ryan to throw the ball deep to anyone other than Jones. Ryan targeted Jones on an astonishing 63 percent of his deep throws, by far the highest percentage in the league (T.Y. Hilton was second at 51 percent). The abundance of targets led to 10 catches for 328 yards, but didn’t leave much production for anyone else, considering Ryan only connected on 14 deep balls all season. Gabriel didn’t catch any of his seven deep targets this season, and Hooper didn’t catch a single deep ball after Week 1.

The Falcons used Jones more this season, but they also used him differently.

Julio’s Changing Route Tree

Jones caught 12 passes on 17 targets running a post route in 2016 for 364 yards. No one else in the league gained more than 250 yards on the post route. In 2017, he caught three passes on seven targets for 51 yards on that route. He was also extremely successful running out routes in 2016, being targeted 11 times and catching nine of those for 142 yards. In 2017, he was targeted more (13 times), but only caught five out routes for 61 yards.

That’s only half the story, however. Jones did, in fact, have more receiving yards in 2017 than he did in 2016. So he had success on other routes.

One of those was the corner route. After only being targeted six times on that route in 2016, Jones was targeted 13 times on the corner route this season and caught 12 for 145 yards. He was also much more efficient running the curl route, as you can see below:

It’s not all about what the Falcons are doing differently on offense, however. Defenses have made adjustments to their high-flying attack.

Changing Defenses

Opposing teams have made a collective effort to get at Ryan more, hurrying him on 17.5 percent of his completions this season, a number that was 11.5 percent last year.

A big part of that has been first down blitzes. In 2016, defenses brought five or more defenders on first down 45 times out of Ryan’s 229 dropbacks (19.6 percent). Ryan’s subsequent first-down totals looked like this: 156-229 (68 percent)/2,448 yards/14 TDs/4 INTs/116.5 QB rating.

This season, defenses brought five or more on first down almost 28 percent of the time, and Ryan’s numbers took a hit along with him: 142-216 (65)/1,830 yards/9 TDs/6 INTs/94.5 QB rating.

Matt Ryan might not have played like an MVP this season. But the 10-year veteran still threw for over 4,000 yards and has his team in the NFC Divisional Round, where they’re favored to make it back to the NFC title game.

His numbers this season compared to last have as much to do with learning a new offense as anything else. His numbers in his first season under Kyle Shanahan’s tutelage, 2015, look more like his 2017 season than his 2016 MVP season.

Although his 2016 season may be an outlier, his numbers this season don’t point to a career decline.

Thunder and Lightning: The Offensive Balance of the 2017 Saints

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STATS X-Info data helps show the interchanging roles of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, as well as how the New Orleans Saints returned to the playoffs by moving away from their dependence on Drew Brees’ arm.

They’ve been called thunder and lightning, a battering ram and a jitterbug, the perfect balance between physicality and pace. The thing is, calling Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara all of those things doesn’t give either of the dynamic New Orleans running backs near enough credit. In fact, it’s a bit confusing.

You can point to Ingram’s seven broken tackles this season, which ranks fifth in the league, and say he should be considered “thunder.” But then again, less than 10 percent of Ingram’s rushes have gone up the middle, and the 508 yards he’s gained after his 58 catches this season would point toward him having a little lightning in him.

But the “lightning” label has been designated for Kamara this season, and for good reason. The 3.8 yards before contact he averages on his runs suggests he makes a lot of guys miss. However, it’s hard to ignore his 2.3 yards after contact, which ranks fifth among backs with at least 100 carries. That’s a thunderous stat. So are the six broken tackles Kamara has forced this year.

Ingram and Kamara present a problem in that regard, although if which nickname to give the duo is the biggest problem the Saints have in the backfield, Sean Payton and Drew Brees will likely take it.

No matter what they are called, “historic” needs to be attached. Ingram and Kamara’s combined 3,094 yards from scrimmage this season (728 rushing/826 receiving from Kamara, 1,124 rushing/416 receiving from Ingram) are the second-highest total all-time for a running back duo, trailing only Walter Payton and Roland Harper of the 1978 Chicago Bears, who totaled 3,207. The 2017 New Orleans pair is the first ever to both gain at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and the first pair to both make the Pro Bowl since 1975. And Kamara did all of that despite touching the ball a total of 20 times in the first three weeks of the season while Adrian Peterson was still in town.

Ingram has had his best year in the NFL with career highs in carries, rushing yards, catches and receiving yards, and still isn’t the most valuable player in the Saints backfield.

Kamara totaled eight rushing touchdowns, five receiving touchdowns, and even returned a kickoff for a touchdown in Week 17. He also had the highest explosive play rate among running backs in the NFL (catches of 25-plus yards and runs of 15+) at 9.9 percent.

Numbers in parentheses denote NFL rank among running backs. (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

And that barely scratches the surface on the value he has provided the Saints. Kamara, a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, was taken No. 67 overall in last year’s NFL Draft, 59 spots behind Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, who was considered the next-generation, do-it-all running back. While McCaffrey has been very good with over 1,000 scrimmage yards and 80 catches, Kamara has been better. The Tennessee product trumps McCaffrey in every statistical category, but it goes deeper than that. Because New Orleans didn’t draft Kamara until the third round, it opened the door to drafting Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk in the first round. Pro Bowler Lattimore is in the driver’s seat for Defensive Rookie of the Year with five interceptions and 18 passes defended. Ramczyk has played every snap on the offensive line this season and is the No. 12-rated right tackle in the NFL for pass protection, according to STATS X-Info.

The most impressive thing about Kamara and Ingram, though, is how balanced they have made the New Orleans offense after the Saints had to rely almost solely on Brees’ arm over recent years. This is of course counterintuitive to passing trends in today’s NFL, which we noted earlier this week with an assessment of Jacksonville’s emphasis on building an elite pass defense.

Both running backs run the ball extremely well. Kamara’s 6.1-yard average and Ingram’s 4.9-yard average ranked first and fourth in the NFL this season. Kamara also ranked second in quality-rush percentage[1] among running backs with at least 120 carries, trailing only Ezekiel Elliott.

The result: 2017 is the first time in 10 years Brees hasn’t thrown 30 touchdown passes, but for good reason. Brees has handed the ball off more times this season than he has since 2009, which has led to a top-five rushing attack and the league lead in touchdown runs — both firsts for Brees in his career.

And that’s just what the two provided in the run game. Although Brees didn’t put up his usual gaudy numbers in the passing game (he’s led the league in attempts four times since he moved to New Orleans, and has been top-three nine times, but is ninth in 2017), a New Orleans offense is always going to have success throwing the ball. Adding Kamara in the draft didn’t take away from that. His 6.1 yards per carry were just one element he added to the Saints — his real impact came catching the ball.

Historically, the Saints have been good when Brees has running backs that are a threat catching the ball. In 2013 — the Saints’ last winning season before this one — Brees threw over 38 percent of his completed passes to running backs. In 2011, when the team won 13 games, that number was almost 34 percent. Back in 2006, when Brees was named First Team All-Pro, he completed 43 percent of his passes to the likes of Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister. This year, that number is right at 37 percent. Not surprisingly, Brees led the NFL in screen attempts (87), completions (76) and yards (594).

To put Kamara’s receiving skills into perspective, he had 12 more receptions than Dez Bryant, 37 more receiving yards than Alshon Jeffery, and as many touchdown receptions as Golden Tate. According to X-Info data, Kamara recorded a 20-plus yard reception lined up in seven different positions, more than the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Julio Jones or McCaffrey.

That versatility from Kamara, coupled with the ever-steady production of Ingram, has given the Saints a high-flying — and extremely balanced — offense that has kept defensive coordinators awake at night all season. If defenses choose to stack the box and stop the run, prepare for both Ingram and Kamara to show flashes of lightning in the passing game. Drop back in coverage, and you’ll get a steady boom of thunder.

It comes as no surprise that thunderstorms are in the forecast for Sunday in New Orleans, when Carolina comes to town for the first round of the NFC playoffs. And although the game will be played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, don’t expect that to stop a little thunder and lightning from making its way into the stadium. The biggest challenge for the Panthers will be to decide where it’s coming from — Ingram or Kamara.

 

[1] Quality rush:
1) on first down: a rush play achieves greater than or equal to 40 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down.
2) on second down: a rush play that achieves greater than or equal to 50 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down.
3) on third and fourth downs: a rush play that results in a first down.

Taking the Air Out of Airing It Out

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The NFL has become a passing league, and by no small margin. Here’s how David Caldwell’s Jacksonville Jaguars reached the playoffs for the first time since 2007 by building around defending the era of air.

NFL teams have thrown the ball about 5,000 more times than they have run the ball this year, a number that is actually a tick closer than it has been the past six years. In each of those six years, there have been about 6,000 more pass plays than runs in the regular season.

It’s no secret the NFL has become a passing league. Five of the top-10 passers in terms of yardage in NFL history are currently playing, with a long list of younger quarterbacks that could make their way into the record books in the not-so-distant future. Sure, there is still a collection of coaches that want to set the tone with the run game, but there’s a reason quarterback has become the most important and criticized position in pro sports.

In that regard, defenses have had to adapt to the changing offenses. No defense has been more ahead of that curve than Jacksonville, which had the second-ranked overall defense in the league during the regular season. The Jaguars are proof that you don’t necessarily need to be a balanced defense to be elite in today’s NFL. If you put most of your chips in the pass defense basket, there’s a good chance you’ll like the amount of success you have.

The Jaguars have given up fewer air yards and passing first downs than any other team in the league this season, quarterbacks have a league-worst passer rating against Jacksonville, and the defense has the second-most interceptions and sacks in the NFL.

Jacksonville has made a point of beefing up its pass defense. Since general manager David Caldwell took over in January 2013, the team has drafted nine defensive backs, including five in his first draft with the Jaguars. Since then, he has drafted cornerback Jalen Ramsey fifth overall in the 2016 draft and signed two starters this past offseason in free agency – A.J. Bouye and Barry Church.

They’ve also been committed to the pass rush, signing Pro Bowlers Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell in free agency in each of the past two offseasons and spending early draft selections on pass rushers each of the past three seasons.

As good as the Jaguars are in pass defense, and with all the resources they have thrown at that area, Jacksonville has been a bad team at stopping the run. The second-ranked defense in the NFL isn’t even average in run defense – It’s one of the worst in the league.

The Jaguars give up 4.72 yards per carry on first down (29th in the NFL). That number makes the 4.16 yards they give up on average on second down (19th) look pretty good. Rattling off more STATS X-Info numbers won’t make anybody feel any better about the Jaguars’ rush defense: 47.6 percent of opponents’ carries have gone for 4-plus yards (29th), they’re 28th in quality rush percentage[1] (50.1 percent), 26th in opposing rusher’s yards before contact (2.7), 26th in overall yards per carry (4.34), 20th in negative rush plays (44), 18th in stuff percentage (18.9), and 19th in runs of 10+ yards (49).

All of that has led to Jacksonville giving up 116.3 yards per game on the ground (21st), although teams have only ran the ball 26.8 times per game against them – the 13th-highest total in the league.

Despite the deficiencies in run defense, however, the Jaguars haven’t put the same amount of effort into stockpiling talent on the interior defensive line. Since Caldwell took over, the Jaguars have drafted a total of two defensive tackles: Sheldon Day in the fourth round in 2016 and Michael Bennett in the sixth round in 2015 (Day has three stuffs this year, Bennett none). The rest of the league has drafted 46 defensive tackles in the first three rounds alone in that same time period.

Opposing teams have taken notice of the Jaguars’ shortcomings in the middle of the defensive line. According to X-Info, teams are running up the middle on the Jaguars 40.78 percent of the time on first down and 46.05 percent of the time on second down. That’s second-highest and highest in the league, respectively. Remember, the Jaguars are towards the bottom of the league at stopping the run on those downs.

However, in today’s NFL, a team like Jacksonville with an elite secondary and pass rush is getting away with those numbers in the run game. Even when Jacksonville’s defense gets into a third-and-short (1-3 yards) only one other team has seen more passes called against it, despite the Jaguars having the third-lowest opponents QB rating on third down (59.9).

That’s the way the NFL is trending on 3rd-and-short. In 2008, there were more run plays called on 3rd-and-short than pass plays. In 2009 that changed, and the discrepancy has grown bigger almost each year since.

For the Jaguars and their stout pass defense, they know if they get into a third down, they have a good chance to get off the field because the offense is more often than not going to throw the ball and playing into their strength.

That formula has gotten Jacksonville into the postseason after drafting in the top five for six straight years. And it appears the rest of the NFL isn’t far behind in loading up on talent in the back end and focusing on stopping the pass. There will always be more defensive backs drafted than defensive tackles simply because there are four or five defensive backs on the field at all times and only one or two defensive tackles. But considering just four years ago there were five more defensive backs taken in the first three rounds than defensive tackles, compared to last year when there were 22 more defensive backs taken, you start to see a shift in philosophy.

The Jaguars seem to have been at the forefront of this, and it’s led them to their first playoff berth since 2007.

 

[1] Quality rush:
1) on first down: a rush play achieves greater than or equal to 40 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down.
2) on second down: a rush play that achieves greater than or equal to 50 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down.
3) on third and fourth downs: a rush play that results in a first down.

Foles 2017: Eagles Won’t Get Foles ’13 or Wentz ’17, but Keenum ’17 Could Suffice

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Philadelphia Eagles fans have been in better moods than they are this week. Carson Wentz’s season and MVP campaign came to a sudden halt just as he did when he dove for the end zone against the Los Angeles Rams, tearing his ACL and throwing a wrench into the Eagles’ Super Bowl aspirations, just after he stood on that blown up knee and threw one last touchdown before leaving the team to backup Nick Foles.

Foles has certainly had success in Philadelphia, albeit four years ago with a roster that has turned over considerably since. His 27-2 touchdown-interception ratio was the second-best in NFL history, and he led the Eagles to the NFC East title. It’s relevant to point out that he started that season as a backup to Michael Vick, as well. Since then, Foles has made stops in St. Louis and Kansas City, and was unspectacular in both places.

Foles won’t match Wentz’s production this season, and no one expects him to do that. Wentz leads the league in touchdown passes and has an almost unmatched ability to escape pressure. Philadelphia is still built to win, however. The defense is ranked fourth in yards in the NFL through Week 14, is first in the league in total defensive pressures, and it ranks fourth in STATS X-Info’s successful plays allowed. Successful plays allowed is defined as anytime the offense gains 40 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down on first down, 50 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down on second down, or gains a first down on third or fourth down.

And there are still plenty of playmakers on the offensive side, too.

The question to ask with the Eagles now is not whether Foles can be Wentz-like the rest of the season; rather, it’s whether he can become a quarterback that he himself is particularly familiar with – Case Keenum.

Keenum was a backup to start the season in Minnesota, but people around the league have long since stopped bringing that up when talking about the Vikings’ Super Bowl chances. That is because Mike Zimmer and the rest of the Vikings coaching staff have laid out a blueprint of success for Keenum that Doug Pederson and the Eagles should try to emulate for Foles.

It was only two years ago in St. Louis that the Rams coaching staff deemed Foles better than Keenum, starting the former over the latter for the first 13 weeks of the 2015 season. So it isn’t far-fetched to think Foles can give the Eagles similar production to what Keenum has given the Vikings.

What the Vikings have done well this season is allow Keenum to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers quickly and let them do the damage. Sixty-nine percent of Keenum’s throws have been within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and 90 percent of his throws have come within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage.

For comparison’s sake, Foles threw 73 percent of his passes in 2015 within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and 88 percent of his throws were 20 yards or less.

Those numbers are very similar to Keenum’s. Where the similarities end and swing to Keenum’s advantage is when you look at the receivers targeted on those passes. Adam Thielen has emerged as one of the best receivers in the NFL in 2017, and if Keenum gets a big contract after this season, Thielen better get a thank you card. Consider how far above average Thielen has been in both the short (0-10 yards) and intermediate (11-20 yards) passing game:

Short: 40 catches for 377 yards (league average: 23.6 catches for 210.7 yards).

Intermediate: 29 catches for 584 yards (league average: 10.8 catches for 193.2 yards).

On top of that, Thielen has been good at making guys miss, with 395 of his 1,161 yards coming after the catch. He is the main reason Keenum has been well above average in completion percentage on both short (71 percent) and intermediate (61 percent) passes.

Foles didn’t have anybody like Thielen in St. Louis. He did in 2013 with Philadelphia when he was throwing the ball to LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson (Foles completed 64 percent of his passes that year), and he will again now with Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz. Compare Ertz’s work in the short passing game and Jeffery’s in the intermediate to Thielen:

Ertz in short passing game: 43 catches for 364 yards.

Jeffery in the intermediate passing game: 25 catches for 421 yards.

Those numbers are pretty similar. And when you add in the rushing attack from both teams (Philadelphia is second in the NFL in rushing, Minnesota is eighth) and defenses (Philadelphia is fifth in scoring defense, Minnesota is third), both Foles and Keenum have a very similar – very strong –supporting cast surrounding them.

What Keenum does a lot better than Foles is make plays outside of the passing game. He has picked up 11 first downs with his feet, and has eluded pressure to the tune of only 15 sacks this season. Foles only ran for four first downs in 2015, though when he was forced to use his legs more in 2013 in Chip Kelly’s offense, he ran for 15 first downs.

Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks coach that season just happened to be Doug Pederson, so the Eagles head coach had a front row seat to Foles’ historic 2013 season. Will Foles be able to repeat that? Probably not. Those numbers are pretty steep: 119.2 QB rating, 9.1 yards per attempt, and that 27-2 TD-INT ratio.

But if he can get the ball out of his hands quickly to let Ertz, Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and the stable of running backs continue making plays, he can put up numbers similar to Keenum’s: 96.2 rating, 7.4 yards/attempt, 2.6 TD-INT ratio. If Foles does that, we could still see an Eagles-Vikings matchup in the NFC Championship game.