Cleveland @ Houston (+2.5)
Power rankings: Cleveland 9, Houston 15
Keys to the game, when Cleveland has the ball: The Browns have had a tough year offensively, ranking 28th in both offensive DVOA and EPA/play.
A slew of QB injuries and God awful QB play led to them eventually signing 38 year old Joe Flacco off the coach ahead of week 13. Since week 13, the Browns are still just 27th in EPA/play - Flacco has shown that he can still play at an elite level (just going to drive striaght into the memes), but that's come with volitility. He's struggled with interceptions and has completed just 60.3% of his passes. The offensive line is weak at the tackle positions (due to 3 different tackles being injured), but strong at the interior. He'll primarily look to Amari Cooper (122 targets), TE David Njoku (120), and Elijah Moore (98), who collectively account for 62.1% of targets on the season. On the ground, the Browns are 23rd in rushing DVOA as they've struggled to get things going after losing Nick Chubb and key members to the offensive line.
The Texans defense is 16th in DVOA (23rd pass, 2nd run). They have a strong defensive line, ranking 2nd in both pass rush and run stop win rates. They blitz just 20% of the time (29th in the league), but generate pressure on 30.1% of dropbacks (10th most). The pressure will primarily come from rookie DE Will Anderson Jr (59 pressures), DE Jonathan Greenard (48), DT Maliek Collins (45), and DT Sheldon Rankins (40) - all of whom have a PFF pass rushing grade above 70. All four of those players are also questionable (Anderson - ankle, Greenard - ankle, Collins - hip, and Rankins - shoulder), but I expect all four to still play, especially after each was able to pratice on Friday. The Texans also have a strong cornerback room, led by Derek Stingley Jr - a 2nd year player out of LSU who was taken 3rd overall in the 2022 draft who broke out in his sophomore year after immensely struggling his rookie season, and rookies Steven Nelson and Desmond King (slot). LB Blake Cashman has also been excellent in coverage, run defense, and pass rush, but the rest of the linebackers and safeties have all struggled. Houston has had a lot of issues covering number 1 receivers, where they rank 28th in DVOA, and tight ends, where they rank 19th. That puts the focus on DC Matt Burke to stop both Coooper and Njoku. When these two teams last met week 16, Cooper went off for 11 catches for 265 yards and 2 touchdowns.
When the Texans have the ball:
The Texans offense is 14th in DVOA (10th pass, 30th run). Rookie CJ Stroud finished 15th in both PFF grades and ESPN's QBR. Stroud showed off his arm talent with an impressive deep ball, earning a 98.6 PFF grade on throws that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. The offensive line is a beat up, leading to weaknesses everywhere except LT (Laremy Tunsil) and RG (Shaq Mason). They are also without rookie WR Tank Dell after fracturing his fibula in week 13, but the skill position players aren't anything to sneeze at. Nico Collins broke out in his third year, earning a 91.0 PFF grade and finishing second in yards per route run (3.10). Meanwhile, Noah Brown and Dalton Schultz have stepped up in Dell's absence, providing Stroud with options behind Collins. On the ground, Devin Singletary's lackluster play (2.84 yards per carry after contact ranks 39th out of 50) and the offensive line has led to a rushing attack that leaves a lot to be desired.
The Browns defense is 2nd in DVOA, ranking 2nd against the pass and 4th against the run. Their defensive line is downright scary - they rank 1st in run stop win rate, 2nd in pass rush win rate, and 3rd in pressure rate. Myles Garrett's pass rush win rate of 27.5% was easily the highest in the NFL (Michah Parsons was second at 24.1%) despite the fact that the NFL is littered with elite edge rushers. Garrett isn't alone on the line either: Za'Darius Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Shelby Harris have all played well this season. Simply put: the Browns defensive line is set to overwhelm the the Texans offensive line. The rest of the Browns defense is all solid, leaving offenses without a clear weakness to pick on. Cleveland is 1st in DVOA against #1 wide receivers and 2nd against tight ends. Stroud will need to brinng his A game.
Miami (+4.0) @ Kanasas City
Power rankings: Miami 6, Kansas City 5
Keys to the game, when Miami has the ball:
The Dolphins offense is 2nd in DVOA and 4th in EPA/play. Their offensive line has weaknesses at the LG and C positions (C Connor Williams is on IR), but is otherwise solid. Tua Tagovailoa ranks 4th in PFF grades and 10th in ESPN's QBR metric while Tyreek Hill/Jaylen Waddle remains one of the better receiving duos in all of football. Hill's 3.82 yards per route run was the highest figure we've seen since PFF started charging routes in 2006, beating Steve Smith's previous best of 3.63. 2nd place this season was Nico Collins at 3.10, which hopefully helps illustrate how absurd Hill's season was. Waddle missed last weeks game with an ankle injury, but he was limited in practice all week and looks set to return. On the ground, both Raheem Mostert and De'Vone Achane have over a 90 PFF running grade and have gained over 3 yards per attempt after contact, helping the Dolphins run game reach 2nd in rushing DVOA. The Dolphins scheme consists of lots of motion (62.7% motion rate is 1st), play-action (24.3%, 4th), and a quick release (2.26s time to throw, quickest).
The Chiefs defense is 7th in DVOA, ranking significantly better against the pass (5th in DVOA) than the run (27th). A poor run defense is a boarderline right of passage for an Andy Reid defense, and their run defense DVOA is further backed by their dead last ranking in ESPN's run stop win rate. Their pass rush isn't particularly impressive - they have a PFF pass rush grade of 77.5 and a pass rush win rate of 20th. However, they generate pressure via the blitz - they have the 5th highest blitz rate (33%) which has led to a pressure rate of 30.5%, which ranks 7th. Chris Jones (75 pressures) remains one of the premier defensive tackles in football, but the Chiefs haven't had much success outside of Jones. DE George Karlaftis is second on the team with 64 pressures, but his pass rush win rate of 12.5% isn't paricularly impressive. The Cheifs have a strong corner duo (Trent McDuffie and L'Jarius Sneed), with the former spending time in the slot, wher Hill runs 37.1% of his routes. Against the blitz, Tua has a 92 PFF grade, which is best in the league, which paints the question if the Chiefs should back off their normal blitz-heavy scheme.
When the Chiefs have the ball:
The Kansas City offense ranks 8th in DVOA and 11th in EPA/play. Pat Mahomes did not produce his normal MVP levels - ranking 10th in PFF grades and 7th in ESPN's total QBR. The offensive line is strong at interior and weak at tackle - their 2023 offseason tackle acquisitions (Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor) have both had down seasons. Travis Kelce (117 targets) and rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice (100) are by far Mahomes's primray targets. The next highest receiver by targetes is Justin Watson, who barely has half as many targtes as Rice (52). Rice's emergency has helped, but Kelce took a step back this season, and the Chiefs lack of talent at the receiver position is partially to blame for Mahomes's down year. The Chiefs run game hasn't been a savior either, ranking 17th is rush offense DVOA.
The Dolphins defense ranks 19th in DVOA (22nd pass, 16th run). Their pass rush was once the key of the defense, ranking 2nd in pressure rate despite blitzing 10th most often. They also rank 10th in pass rush win rate. I say "was once" because their top 3 edge rushers (Bradley Chubb, Jaelan Phillips, Andrew Van Ginkel) are all out for the season. Miami still has a strong duo of pass rushers at the inteior positions (Christian Wilkins/Zach Seiler), but this plays right into the strength of the Chiefs offensive line. They've added veterans Justin Houston and Melvin Ingram, both of whom have had solid careers, but they're a couple of 34 year olds who are well past their prime. The secondary is also without Xavien Howard (foot), and they could be without S Jevon Holland (knee). Holland has been playing through knee injuries, but he did not practice all week and is officially questionable. Howard hasn't had a great season, but Holland is one of the better safties in all of football. The secondary still has plenty of strengths (Jalen Ramsey), but this isn't the toughest matchup for Andy Reid and the Chiefs. Miami also ranks 30th in DVOA against tight ends, naturally not a great sign against Travis Kelce.
Pittsburgh (+10.0) @ Buffalo
Power rankings: Pitt 12, Buffalo 3
UPDATE: This game was moved to Monday, January 15th due to intense weather/the New York governor being a wimp. I placed my bet on Wynn, which is honoring the 10 point spread, so nothing changes from our end.
When Pittsburgh has the ball: The Steelers offense is 15th in DVOA and 23rd in EPA/play. They've been better running (12th in DVOA) than throwing (20th). Mason Rudolph took over QB duties in week 16, playing 3 games this season. Thus far, he's played one great game (against Seattle), one so-so game (against Cincy), and one stinker (against a week 18 Baltimore team that had already clinched the 1 seed). Rudolph is gaining an impressive 9.7 yards per attempt and completing 74.3% of his passes. He plays behind a medicore offensive line with a medicore group of skill position players. It's no wonder that their offense is medicore.
The Bills defense is 12th in DVOA (9th pass, 17th run). Their pass rush is strong, generating pressure 9th most often despite blitzing 19th most often. They also rank 4th in pass rush win rate. They can generate pressure on the inside (Ed Oliver, 65 pressures) and the outside (Greg Roussea, 55/Leonard Floyd, 41). Thanks to a deadline acquisition of Rasaul Douglas from the Packers, the Bills also have one of the stronger secondaries in football. Their PFF coverage grade of 91.9 is 4th best in the NFL this season. Pittsburgh will likely try to control the ball on the ground - it's clear the running game is where they match up best. Of course, that isn't easy to do when you're a 10 point dog.
When the Bills have the ball: The Bills offense is 3rd in DVOA (3rd pass, 7th run) and 3rd in EPA/play. Josh Allen may not be in the MVP conversation, but he should be - he finished the season as the best quarterback in the league per PFF grades and 3rd best per ESPN's total QBR. Their offensive line is solid while the skill position players give Allen plenty of options through the air. Stef Diggs finished with an absurd 29.9% target share, showing that he's still the alpha of the offense, but TE Dalton Kincaid and WR Khalil Shakir have both been strong complimentary options (Gabe Davis is out with a knee injury).
The Steelers defense is 6th in DVOA (6th pass, 9th run). Their pass rush is strong, ranking 7th in pass rush win rate and 8th in pressure rate. Howver, they'll be without TJ Watt (knee). The Steelers still have plenty of options in the trenches - Alex Highsmith's 18.0% pass rush win rate was actually better than TJ Watt's (16.9%). Larry Ogunjobi and Cam Heyward can also produce from the inside. Naturally, Watt is a legit DPOY contender, losing him is far from ideal, but this is still a scary defensive line. The rest of the defense is riddled with medicority. There's been a few impressive players, including rookie CB Joey Porter Jr and S Minkah Fitzpatrick, but there's enough holes for Allen and the Bills offense to take advantage of.