NFL Betting School: Market Shopping

Whether you are betting to have fun or betting to make a profit, winning money is the goal. So it’s important to get the best of it every time you make a wager. This is why so many of us preach having multiple Sportsbook accounts so you can shop for the best price on a game – a practice called line shopping. It’s arguably the most important and straightforward way to increase the expected value on your bets in the long run. Most bettors already know and hopefully practice this.

But we don’t often hear about market shopping. Major sporting events have multiple betting markets attached to it. For example, an NFL game typically has the spread, moneyline, total, team totals, first/second half spread/total, alternate spreads, alternate totals, game props, player props, and more. This menu of betting options provides an opportunity for value by allowing bettors to focus on the best way to capitalize on any edges they might find.

Futures markets – which I am focusing on now since it’s still June – also provide an opportunity for market shopping. You can find team win totals, alternate win totals, division odds, miss/make playoffs, conference odds, Super Bowl odds, and more. Using my 2022 NFL Futures Betting Guide, I’ll illustrate some examples of how to market shop to identify higher value bets.

Example 1: Team-Specific Outcome Ranges

For the most part, season-long projections for a team will look a bit like a bell curve. The further you get away from the projected win total, the less likely that outcome is on both sides. But the specifics of each team’s curve will vary. When evaluating the likelihood of various outcomes, it’s important to recognize the true likelihood of an outlier result. Sportsbooks can and do account for this sometimes – particularly the sharper books – but not always. So it’s possible to capitalize when they do not. Let’s talk about the Ravens and the Chiefs.

I am very high on the Ravens in the regular season compared to existing market prices. I’ve already got significant action down on them because, when healthy, they are a team that excels at beating bad opponents. With a comparatively easier schedule than their division rivals and consistency when they have the advantage, they are an ideal regular season team. Their lack of receiving weapons hurts less in this context.

But in today’s NFL, it’s exceedingly difficult to win a Super Bowl without a passing game that can stand on its own two legs. They have struggled in the playoffs because they are disproportionately affected by strong pass defenses and playing from behind. The odds of them making a three- or four-game run through a brutal AFC to the Super Bowl are low. Even if they reach their potential, they would likely not be a top-3 contender to make the Super Bowl no matter how good their regular season is.

 BALKC
Best Win Total (Over) OddsO 9.5 (-130)O 10.5 (-115)
True Win Total (Over) Odds-173+117
Best SB Odds+2200+1000
True SB Odds+2500+800

Looking at the odds table, I see a positive break-even percentage on the Ravens’ season win total. The true odds (-177) indicate they are more likely to go over 9.5 wins than their price (-130). But I see no value on a Ravens Super Bowl bet. Usually, these bets will have correlated value. But not when a team’s specific outcomes include more regular season success than playoff success.

By contrast, the Chiefs have a very tough regular season. They have the toughest schedule in the NFL and will need to improve their defense quickly and prove that the loss of Tyreek Hill is immaterial. Due to the difficulty of their schedule and the potential bumps in the road adjusting to new pieces, I actually see no value on their regular season win total. With such small margin for error, one or two injuries will almost certainly sink the bet.

However, they have what’s called a “fat tail” of outcomes on the positive side. If Andy Reid and Mahomes figure out their offense system with all the new weapons and Spagnuolo puts his defensive pieces together, the Chiefs could (and arguably should) be Super Bowl favorites. They need to stay healthy and overcome a tough schedule, but if they make the playoffs they’ll be one of the favorites no matter their seed. The number one most important element of a Super Bowl winning team is a quarterback who can take over a game. Mahomes can do that better than anyone.

So, if you’re bullish on the Ravens, I recommend market shopping for your favorite regular season bets (win total, division, and make playoffs). But if you’re bullish on the Chiefs, skip the regular season bets and go straight for the high-payoff Super Bowl bet or AFC Conference bet. My numbers suggest some value on the Chiefs at 10:1 to win the Super Bowl even though I’m cautious about regular season results.

Example #2: Compounding Edges

Market shopping also lets you combine multiple angles into one bet. In an efficient market like the NFL, edges are typically very small. But when those edges compound, you can find a higher value bet. Maybe you like one team against the spread but also the over in points scored. You can play both bets with small edges. Or, you might look to bet the over on your team’s total points for a larger edge. This can create some cushion if one of your angles was slightly off.

But again, since it’s June, let’s use my NFL Futures Betting Guide to identify some value in the Futures market using compounding edges. Let’s talk about the Bills.

Everybody loves the Bills. They are the Super Bowl favorites. This love is completely justified in my book because they were the most Effective team in the NFL last year over the course of the season. Sure, an easy schedule helped them out. But they have also gotten better this off-season and with Tre White returning, they are primed to deliver. But betting a season win total bet at 11.5 or 12 wins leaves almost no margin for error. I think Over is the way to go, but the edge is not big enough for me to tie up my money.

Then I look at the rest of the division. The Patriots overachieved on defense against an easy schedule and relied on keeping the pocket clean for Mac Jones and leaning on the ground game on offense. Losing two offensive linemen and some defenders is going to significantly impact this team and playing from behind is going to disrupt this offense. I don’t see them winning 10 games again.

The Dolphins had the largest negative gap between actual wins and Adjusted Wins, which is my calculation for how many wins the team would have earned against an average schedule based on their Adjusted Effectiveness over the course of the season. They were essentially a 5 or 6 win team last year. So even though they improved, the jump to 10 or 11 games is likely too much to ask. And the Jets are probably at least a year away from being true competitors in the division.

 BUF
Best Win Total (Over) Odds11.5 (-115)
True Win Total (Over) Odds-137
Best Division Odds-180
True Division Odds-302

Relative to the market, then, I’m optimistic on the Bills and pessimistic on both of their prime competitors. So, compounding these small edges into an optimal bet, the best way to play the Bills is to bet them to win the division at -180. I think the true odds are roughly -302, indicating strong value worthy of locking in some cash for a while. It’s tough to lock in a lot of capital over a long period of time on a big favorite like this, but if you have the funds, I think it’s worth it.

How I’m Playing It

I only advocate for bets I’d make myself. I can’t guarantee winners, but I can guarantee that if you follow my advice, you’ll get the same results I get. So, for transparency’s sake, here are all the relevant bets I’ve released to my Members on the teams discussed in this article:

BetOddsUnitsDate Placed
BAL to win AFC N(+175)
(+210)
1
1
3.8.22 (DK)
6.7.22 (DK)
BUF to win AFC E(-180)1.23.16.22 (FD)
BUF to win SB(+750)0.53.8.22 (MGM)
KC to win SB(+1000)0.26.22.22 (DK)

If you’re already a Member, you can see all of my NFL Futures bets here:

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I take pride in my work but nobody can guarantee success betting on sports. There are too many variables. I offer advice for entertainment purposes only. If you have a gambling problem, finding winning bets is not the answer. The only answer is to stop gambling. For help, call 1-800-522-4700.

NFL Betting School: Identifying an Edge

"Well if they're big and you're small, then you're mobile and they're slow. You're hidden and they're exposed. You only fight battles you know you can win. That's the way the Vietcong did it. You capture their weapons and use them against them the next time."

Brill Lyle, Enemy of the State (1998)

Winning money betting on the NFL is hard. Due to its popularity, football invites more American bettors (with more money) than any other sport. Sportsbooks are incentivized to offer the sharpest lines on the biggest markets, and bettors with the highest volume help sharpen the lines with their action. This is why you’ll see people call the major NFL markets – spreads, moneylines, totals – the most “efficient” markets. They are hard to beat.

Regardless, betting on sports is fun. Having a financial stake in the outcome of games makes them more interesting to watch. The dopamine hit that follows a winning bet is real. You don’t need to have an edge to make a bet. Doing it for fun is perfectly fine, and probably advisable for most people. But winning is more fun, and allows you to play the game longer on your given budget.

You won’t win in the long run without a true edge. You might get lucky and go on a hot streak, but that could set up unreasonable expectations and lead to disappointment. So I want to talk about – and demonstrate – this concept. An edge is created by data, information, an angle, or perspective, that allows you to make a bet with a higher true probability than the implied probability of the odds offered by the Sportsbook. In other words, you only have an edge if you factor in something the market does not. The more efficient the market, the harder that is to actually do. But it’s not impossible.

Here is my simple two-step process to finding an edge. Then I’ll demonstrate with some examples.

Step 1: Understand the Betting Market

A lot of people make bets because “the public” or “the media” spouts an opinion on a team that they think is wrong. But you aren’t betting against the guy who Tweeted that the Bengals are clearly better than the Chiefs because they beat them twice last year, no matter how many likes his Tweet gets. And you aren’t betting against ESPN. Sometimes a majority opinion can influence the market through a massive volume of bets, but for the most part, these off-base takes do not move the needle in the betting markets.

You are actually betting against (1) the Sportsbooks' trading rooms and (2) professional bettors. Both of these groups of people invest substantial time and money into understanding the teams, situations, injuries, and other factors present in every game. They run statistical models to predict outcomes and hone those systems with machine learning. They have been doing it for decades. The more you know about the kinds of inputs these models use, and the type of data bookmakers and professionals use or find significant, the better you can understand the market.

Step 2: Differentiate

Once you understand the market, you can look for an edge. To find an edge, you need to be able to identify flaws in the betting market's biggest inputs and exploit those flaws. I like to use the market’s own data against itself by exploiting gaps in major statistical metrics that inform the largest bettors and Sportsbooks. Let’s use some examples from the Futures market to illustrate, since those are the bets I'm looking at in June.

Sophisticated bettors do not start with last year’s win total as a baseline projection for a team. You’ll hear “The Dolphins won 9 games last year and vastly improved so Over 9 wins is a lock.” That’s not how sophisticated bettors think, and so this type of thinking is typically not reflected in the market. Instead, bettors use more advanced metrics, such as pythagorean wins and strength of schedule. Most successful bettors look beyond these metrics of course, but they are used widely enough to impact the market, and that's what we are looking for.

Pythagorean win totals capture a team's performance based on total points for and total points against, instead of wins and losses. The number attempts to project how many wins that team should have won based on point differential, and does a good job of evening out the impact of a lot of close wins or close losses. Many bettors have modified the basic Pythagorean formula, but even modifications will suffer from similar flaws. Namely, point totals do not accurately reflect the true performance of a team. If you have a metric that evaluates performance in a game independent of final scores, you can use that metric to generate a more accurate win total. Where this win total differs most from the team's pythagorean win total, you may have an edge.

Bettors typically provide context to a team's Pythagorean win total by measuring strength of schedule. These strength of schedule comparisons often involve using team win totals. That’s highly flawed. Most sophisticated bettors are not using this number, but use power ratings instead to form their own strength-of-schedule ratings. Yet most of the content in this space – which helps drive bets by a high volume of bettors and can implicitly influence sharp bettors – involves win totals.

But even strength of schedule calculations based on power ratings are flawed because teams aren’t consistent throughout the season. Catching the Packers without Aaron Rodgers should not count the same as a fully healthy Packers team. Facing a team missing eight starters due to Covid virtually assures a win regardless of how good that team is on the season. Even situational factors matter, such as playing a road game on Thursday after playing a long overtime game on Sunday (like the Ravens did in 2021). So you have to factor in true strength of schedule at the time of the matchup.

My Method

Instead of using Pythagorean wins, I evaluate every game holistically and assign score values based on each team's holistic Effectiveness. Instead of using raw points for and points against, I use my own metrics to calculate Adjusted Wins, or how many wins the team would typically earn playing that level of football without variance. Over the course of the season, small gaps in individual results can compound to create a meaningful edge in differentiating from the market.

Because we are looking for edges over market metrics, let's look at the biggest gaps between my Adjusted Wins and Pythagorean Wins. My numbers have incorporated all strength of schedule and hidden schedule quirks as well. I ran the numbers on every team and the two biggest outliers in 2021 (one in each direction) were the Raiders and Dolphins:

Team '21 Pythag Wins '21 Adjusted Wins Difference
MIA 7.74 5.57 -2.17
LV 7.15 9.43 +2.28


Miami’s win total and point margin were both inflated by extreme in-game variance and favorable situational strength of schedule quirks. For example, in Week 1 they beat New England 17-16 despite a very unfavorable Effectiveness Rating (6.12-5.11). They had fewer first downs (24-16), were less efficient on a per-play basis (5.6-5.0), and had fewer red zone trips (4-2). The Patriots moved the ball much more easily, converting 11 of 16 third downs to the Dolphins’ 4 of 11. But the Patriots settled for three field goals and lost two skill-player fumbles. The first was on a 9-yard catch on 1st down. The second was on 1st down on the Miami 11-yard line with 2 minutes to go, down by 1 point. The fumble allowed Miami to secure an unlikely win.

They had similar variance in Week 18 against the Patriots, in a 33-24 win despite another unfavorable Effectiveness Rating (5.56-4.55). This time, The Patriots outgained the Dolphins significantly (6.4 yards per play to 4.5), but Miami squeaked by with a win due to three Patriot turnovers, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and a heavy penalty advantage.

Outside of these two misleading final scores, the Dolphins had zero games in 2021 where they lost outright despite outplaying their opponent in terms of Effectiveness. They won every game they deserved to win, which is actually quite rare for an entire NFL season. They avoided negative variance as much as they benefitted from positive variance.

On top of that, they played the Saints down three offensive line starters with Ian Book, the Jets down two offensive line starters with Zach Wilson, the Giants with Mike Glennon, the Panthers with Cam Newton off the street, the Jets with Joe Flacco, the Texans with Tyrod, and the Ravens down two offensive line starters on 4 days rest after playing nearly 100 snaps on Sunday. These schedule quirks inflated both their strength of schedule and Pythagorean wins.

The Raiders, on the other hand, caught the short end of the variance stick in several games. Despite an ostensibly lucky record at 10-7 (including 4 out of 4 overtime wins), their actual performance was not reflected in their final scores. I'll highlight five example games:

  • They beat Miami by 3 points in overtime but significantly outplayed them overall (5.17-4.64). They edged Miami in first downs (28-22), yards per play (6.1-4.2), and red zone trips (4 to 1). They overcame a pick-6 deep in Miami territory and a turnover on downs in their own territory. Variance went against them and it should have been a more comfortable win.
  • They lost to the Giants 23-16 but were the more Effective team overall (5.30-4.62). They racked up more first downs (24-16), better yards per play (6.0-4.6), and more red zone trips (6 to 2). But three turnovers, including a pick-6, some unfortunate high-leverage failures, and a missed 25-yard field goal set them back.
  • They lost 32-13 to the Bengals in what was actually a fairly close game. The Bengals dominated time of possession in large part due to a massive penalty discrepancy (7-77 to 1-5) and two more turnovers by the Raiders. But it was 16-13 with just over 5 minutes left in the 4th before a late flurry of fairly meaningless points. These teams eventually played a rematch in the playoffs that more closely reflected the respective quality of the teams, as the Raiders had a chance to tie that game late and lost by a touchdown.
  • They got blown out by Kansas City to the tune of 48-9 but experienced massive negative variance. They had 5 turnovers, including 4 lost fumbles, 2 on first-down catches and 1 on a kickoff that was returned for a touchdown. Kansas City wins this game almost every time, but the 39-point differential skews the Raiders' pythagorean win total.
  • They only beat DEN 17-13 but absolutely dominated the game (5.78-3.78). With an edge in first downs (22-8), yards per play (5.1-4.0), red zone trips (3-1), the Broncos only stayed in it due to three turnovers. The Raiders finished the game kneeling in Denver territory, so it could have easily been a bigger win if they needed it to be.

Conclusions

With very similar records last year (10-8 for LV and 9-8 for MIA), similar win total projections for this year (around 8.5 wins), and similarly low pythagorean win totals, these two teams make for an interesting comparison. Both improved in the off-season. Yet both are projected by the market to win fewer games than last year. Schedule has something to do with it of course, but so does last year's results. In Miami's case, this element is justified. But for the Raiders, it arguably is not.

Now, I don't necessarily recommend betting on Miami's win total under and Las Vegas's win total over. I put a lot more into my analysis before firing off a bet. But I use these outliers to demonstrate one way that a bettor can find a potential edge over the market. Given that any edge in an efficient market will be small, I recommend only making a bet when you can compound a few edges in one bet. And hopefully, this gives you an idea of how to go about doing that for yourself.

Now for my pitch. This all takes a lot of work. Below, Members have access to a table with every team's Pythagorean Win total and Adjusted Win total from 2021. This is just a small snippet of the actionable information I provide to Members. If you're interested in learning more about what I do, you can join my free mailing list, or if you'd rather pay for the fruit of my work, you can become a SharpClarke Member and get all my picks and analysis. You can find both options on my Membership page.

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Arizona Cardinals 2021 Team Study

Part 32 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 31 here: Seattle Seahawks.

Offense

Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
5.03+0.1211th
Offensive Eff. Rating (red and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate
10th10th7th

The Cardinals started 2021 on a heater, winning their first seven games. These weren’t fluky wins either for the most part. They were playing solid football on both sides of the ball. Kyler Murray and Kliff Kinsgbury found a way to get the ball in the hands of the many offensive playmakers, essentially spreading the field and just dropping the ball in whichever direction had the most space. This opened up running lanes that both James Conner and Chase Edmonds capitalized on. Kyler was accurate and took advantage of the straightforward concepts that made life easy for him.

He also made some absolutely mind-blowing plays on third and long during this stretch. His agility and mobility in the pocket created time when he needed it, and with several tenacious receivers downfield he would often eventually find someone open to chuck the ball to. Their offense on early downs was okay, but these bail-out plays swung games. They weren’t isolated plays either; he did it several times. This led to the Cardinals finishing 1st in the NFL in DVOA on third or fourth down and long.

But once again, Kyler did not excel as a traditional pocket passer. He wasn’t imposing his will on defenses with a well-run offensive scheme built around diagnosing defenses, progressing through route concepts, and capitalizing on mistakes. Instead, he seemed to always be on his back foot or scrambling around if the initial pass wasn’t there. His almost magical ability to convert in these situations kept the team afloat.

An offense that relies on the quarterback making these kinds of plays is bound to experience some regression when those plays don’t pan out. Later in the season, particularly without DeAndre Hopkins, opposing defenses did a better job of closing on the short throws that Kyler thrived on early in the season. This led to more third-and-longs, and – surprise – Kyler was unable to repeat the same kind of magic he displayed earlier in the season.

He also suffered an injury that lingered for weeks. He has a small frame and takes a lot of hits, so this kind of injury feels almost inevitable. His absence disrupted the offense, although Colt McCoy showed flashes at times and was, overall, a competent backup. The team never really got back on track after his injury and the season ended with an embarrassing blowout loss in the playoffs, where Kyler and Kliff had no answers for the Rams defense.

On one hand, the offense is capable of beating any defense on any given Sunday. The Cardinals seem to play their best offensive football against the best teams. Setting aside the playoff loss, they put up 37 points on the Rams (3rd in Def. Adj. Eff.), 37 points on the Browns (5th), and 31 points on the 49ers (6th). On the other hand, relying on big plays and not being able to just line up and win on routes once again made them less effective against the worst defenses. For the second season in a row, they lost to the Lions, this time 30-12. It’s really tough to rely on a gimmicky or gadgety offense like the Cardinals to just take care of business against a weaker defense. So the week-to-week ceiling is high for this offense, but the season-long ceiling is limited by their ability to win consistently.

After struggling without Hopkins late last year, they will open up 2022 with Hopkins suspended for six games. They also lost Christian Kirk and Chase Edmonds, who were both underrated pieces of this offensive tapestry. An underrated Marquise Brown should be an excellent fit for this offense and I expect him to be heavily involved (and highly productive) early on. They also will need Rondale Moore to elevate his game in year two after showing flashes as a rookie.

After last season’s collapse, I don’t think the house is on fire. I still anticipate this team to compete with the best of them when Kyler is healthy. But Kliff’s poor coaching and the gimmicky nature of the offense indicates that the ceiling has arguably been reached for this team. That’s why they face a tough decision with Kyler’s extension. How much can they sink into a potentially injury-prone quarterback who has likely peaked as a player? In the meantime, expect another inconsistent season from this offense with high highs and low lows.

Defense

Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
4.99+0.0014th
Defensive Eff. Rating (red and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate
6th3rd4th9th

The Cardinals handed me my biggest season-long betting loss in 2021, as I bet them to win fewer than 8.5 games and they managed to win 11. This surprise stemmed primarily from a defense that shocked me. Chandler Jones, Budda Baker, Markus Golden, and J.J. Watt heralded a defense of overachievers who tackled aggressively and played cohesively. They finished in the top-6 in EPA/play allowed against both the run and the pass, creating big plays throughout the season.

Yet I graded them as only the 14th-best defense. This type of gap between pure stats and my Effectiveness Ratings typically indicates an over-reliance on big plays, especially ones that rely on variance going their way. This is borne out in the numbers. Despite giving up the 5th-highest yards per carry, they allowed the 3rd-lowest EPA/play against the run. That’s a crazy gap.

Turnovers, which have a huge impact on EPA, are not all created equal. A lot of interceptions are created by great defensive play, starting with pressuring the quarterback and finishing with solid coverage on the backend. Quarterback fumbles are somewhat more predictive, because quarterbacks who get sacked and pressured frequently are typically more likely to fumble the ball. But skill player fumbles are almost entirely random. And the Cardinals led the NFL (tied) for most fumbles recovered, many of which were skill player fumbles.

They blitzed at a high rate and wanted to create that disruption. But against teams that were able to take time in the pocket while avoiding pressure, this hyper-aggressive approach fell flat. They didn’t have elite coverage or consistency. Demonstrating this split, Chart A shows the Cardinals’ defensive Adj. Eff. Rating in each game ranked by the opponent’s average time in the pocket on the season. The Cardinals performed better against teams that spent less time in the pocket because quick plays played into their defensive strengths.

Chart A

Defensive Adjusted Rating per game against each opponent ranked by its season-long average time in the pocket.

They were also very strong on high-leverage third and fourth downs. This is not necessarily unsustainable, but if they cannot keep up the pressure then they are susceptible to a notable drop-off here. With Chandler Jones moving to Las Vegas, and J.J. Watt coming off injury in his age-33 season, any optimism for the Cardinals to continue their defensive success must be tempered. I would anticipate continued aggression, which could have a positive outcome against bad offenses but may expose them against sound offenses that can handle pressure well.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Cardinals: Even though I’m low on the Cardinals, the market is arguably lower. Unfortunately, Murray has played much better overall with Hopkins on the field than without him so I don’t think there is much value trying to cash in early. But if they underperform and people start writing the team off, they make good underdogs.

When to fade the Cardinals: Most of my angles for fading the Cardinals are baked into the market already. But sometimes bettors will overestimate how much of a “sure thing” this team is against a vanilla defense, particularly if the team’s offense has a good offensive line.

Evaluating the off-season: Losing Chandler Jones likely hurts. And rolling out Marquise Brown as the #1 wide receiver for six weeks might make for a tough start. This team needed to put the final pieces together as Murray’s rookie contract expires, but I don’t think they meaningfully upgraded.

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Seattle Seahawks 2021 Team Study

Part 31 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 30 here: San Francisco 49ers. Part 32 now available: Arizona Cardinals.

Offense

Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
4.96-0.0016th
Offensive Eff. Rating (blue and green) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate
18th2nd15th

If I’m a wide receiver who just beat my man, there is probably no quarterback in the league I’d rather have throw me the ball than Russell Wilson. He routinely throws accurate, easy-to-catch passes downfield when the opportunity is there. He takes chances in the right way and no down or distance is too tough for him to convert. He finished 2021 with the NFL’s highest average depth of target while maintaining a reasonable on-target percentage.

But his game has a lot of flaws as well, particularly looking back at 2021. Whether you blame the scheme or blame Wilson, he seemed unable to combat pressure with timing routes. Throughout his career he has invited a lot of pressure, with both good and bad offensive lines. His desire to make the big play pays off when Metcalf or Lockett get open. But when they are well-covered, he ends up sitting in the pocket for too long and often getting sacked. The Seahawks gave up the 5th-highest pressure rate on throws behind an offensive line that allowed middling running backs to finish 3rd in yards per carry. Perhaps the line was simply better at run blocking than pass blocking; but I think Wilson’s tendencies deserve a good part of the blame.

Throughout his career, Wilson has been sacked at a high rate just about every season. At 33 years old, his escapability and mobility have seen a slight downturn. Even on a per-game basis, his rushing yards in 2021 were – by a good margin – the lowest of his career. That was a major problem. Earlier in his career, he could get away with waiting in the pocket because if it didn’t work out he could evade the pressure and run for a first down. Either he wasn’t able or wasn’t willing to put his body on the line in the same way. So the Seahawks offense struggled relative to its best years with Wilson.

Even more than in previous years, this led to a big gap in success based on the quality of the opponent’s pass defense. He basically relied on Metcalf and Lockett winning, or getting enough time in the pocket to make a play. Good coverage and pressure impeded this offense far more than an offense built around anticipation and timing routes. Obviously teams will perform better against bad pass defenses in general. But even looking at the numbers relative to competition, the Seahawks were notably worse against good pass defenses. Chart A shows the Seahawks’ Adjusted Effectiveness (performance relative to quality of opponent defense) in each game by the opponent’s yards per pass play allowed on the season.

Chart A

Offensive Adjusted Rating per game against each opponent ranked by its season-long net yards per pass play allowed.

The Seahawks had well below average performances against every top-12 pass defense. Granted, that includes two games with Geno. But outside of a struggle against Washington, when Wilson was on the field, they abused bad pass defenses. Note that the down game against Pittsburgh was also a Geno game.

Now, I know that’s a lot of words to review the performance of an offense led by a quarterback who is no longer on the team. But this Team Study looks back – not forward – and can be helpful in several ways: (1) Understanding where the Seahawks are coming from as they transition to a new quarterback, (2) Predicting how Russell Wilson will fit in to and impact the Broncos’ offense, and (3) Identifying patterns and trends that can be applicable to other teams with similar tendencies.

I’m honestly not sure how to spin this transition for Seattle. The offense was markedly worse in the three games they played with Geno Smith. You can say what you want about Wilson’s tendencies, but he is one of the rare quarterbacks who can put the team on his back and make a play. Geno’s average depth of target was nearly three yards lower than Wilson’s. He wanted to lean on the ground game, which could be okay for a team that was actually very efficient on the ground. Drafting another running back tells me that’s the direction Seattle wants to go. But without a true downfield threat, the running game could really suffer as defenses could crowd the line of scrimmage. The floor is low for this offense with Geno.

If Drew Lock takes over, I think he will be a lot more like Russell Wilson. He likes to take shots downfield and will want his receivers to make plays. The problem is that he’s not nearly as accurate or mobile as Wilson. So that’s a problem. But he at least offers the upside that could keep their ground game successful. I would guess Pete Carroll goes with the safer option in Geno, but I think that’s the wrong call. Either way, this team should be in rebuilding mode following the Wilson trade. It’s not clear that it is.

Defense

Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
4.95-0.1322nd
Defensive Eff. Rating (blue and green) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate
24th10th22nd26th

I have much fewer words to say about the Seahawks’ defense than their offense. This is normal. Offenses tend to have a much stronger impact on a team’s season-long performance, whereas defenses can often depend heavily on the quality of competition. In Seattle’s case, for the second straight year, they pretty much played to the level of their opponent.

They don’t have the star power they once had on defense, but they weren’t terrible. For all his flaws as a head coach, Pete Carroll seems to get good performances out of his defense, particularly at home, where the crowd helps and opponents have had to travel. They were once again stronger against the run than the pass, especially against quarterbacks who took a long time to make decisions in the pocket. Chart B shows the Seahawks’ defensive Adj. Eff. Rating in each game ranked by the opponent’s average time in the pocket on the season.

Chart B

Defensive Adjusted Rating per game against each opponent ranked by its season-long average time in the pocket.

The Seahawks played above-average football defensively (or close to it) against Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Taylor Heinicke, Nick Foles, Tim Boyle, and Trevor Lawrence. Not only are these underwhelming quarterbacks in general; they specifically are quarterbacks who did not process defenses quickly and, as a result, lingered in the pocket making decisions. The Seahawks did not have the type of high-pressure defense or elite cornerback play that helps a defense perform against the smartest, quickest quarterbacks by putting them in un-winnable situations. But they were good against these slower types.

Seattle’s offense is not the only unit that will look very different in 2022. New defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt is apparently transitioning to a 3-4 look that might shift some of these tendencies. With several new faces and a new scheme, it’s tough to project continuity and rely on 2021 angles. I will be watching this team closely to learn, and avoiding strong opinions early unless I have good reason. It’s important to have an open mind about evolving situations.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Seahawks: In that spirit, I’m not eager to back Seattle with much confidence early. My opinion will depend heavily on which quarterback they go with and how that quarterback matches up against the defenses they face.

When to fade the Seahawks: Similarly, I’m not looking to fade Seattle early without more evidence of who they are. It’s important when betting to understand the gaps in your handicapping approach, and my approach – which substantially relies on understanding past performance – has limited utility with teams that experience a lot of significant change.

Evaluating the off-season: Moving on from Russell Wilson was inevitable but has to put a damper on 2022. They made an effort to address the offensive line and re-form the defense after losing Bobby Wagner, which indicates they are likely in rebuilding mode. But with Pete Carroll at head coach, I’m not sure how a long-term rebuild makes sense. And drafting a running back in round two is truly puzzling. Ultimately I come away from this off-season confused as to where this team is heading.

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San Francisco 49ers 2021 Team Study

Part 30 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 29 here: Los Angeles Rams. Part 31 now available: Seattle Seahawks.

Offense

Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
5.20+0.229th
Offensive Eff. Rating (red and gold) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate
5th9th29th

To beat the NFL’s best teams, you must pass the ball efficiently. If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ve seen me hammer this point. I bring it up every year when the playoffs arrive. But the important caveat is that you don’t necessarily need to pass a lot. You can win with a run-heavy approach as long as your run game sets up an efficient passing attack, preferably with explosive plays. In fact, without an elite quarterback, this is the optimal approach.

The 49ers found success in 2021 once again with the 4th-lowest adjusted pass rate. Shanahan’s run scheme famously creates open space for playmakers by using misdirection and setting up optimal play-action opportunities. It’s an offense focused on yards after the catch. But it’s a mistake to say the quarterback has nothing to do with it. Garoppolo has missed some throws in his career, but he possesses underrated anticipation skills and delivered the NFL’s 2nd-highest on-target percentage on his throws in 2021. He’s simply not good enough to elevate a team around him, but in the right circumstances he can give you what you need.

The 49ers have lived off explosive plays for years now. They aren’t typically throwing deep bombs for 80-yard touchdowns. But their ability to create chunk plays – the 25 yard catch-and-run to Kittle or the Deebo Samuel misdirection run – makes them extremely successful on a drive-by-drive basis. Their run game lost explosiveness without Mostert, but Deebo’s emergence as a weapon in the run game offset this loss. The versatility of this offense made it extremely difficult to defend with typical defensive aggressiveness. 

Teams that relied on the blitz to exert pressure were frequently stymied by this offense. The 49ers thrived when they could create open space, and when defenders moved out of coverage into the backfield it just created more space. Garoppolo was smart enough and quick enough to capitalize. Chart A shows the 49ers’ Adjusted Effectiveness against each opponent ranked by its blitz rate on the season:

Chart A

Offensive Adjusted Rating per game against each opponent ranked by its season-long blitz rate.

This chart demonstrates that this offense’s relatively poor performances all occurred against teams that did not blitz. Blitz-heavy defenses rely on making big plays but the 49ers did not give up a lot of big plays because they protected Garoppolo well and did not put him in a lot of dicey situations. They also performed relatively well against teams that had a high conversion rate of sacks to pressures. This methodical offense prevented sacks and did not lose its edge when the field shortened. They finished with the 2nd-highest red zone conversion rate in the NFL because they controlled the short area so well.

The 49ers have had sustained offensive success without an elite quarterback. This is rare. Trey Lance looked quite bad in his limited opportunities as a rookie, but this is still the ideal spot for a raw quarterback prospect. Over the years we have seen some of the best all-time quarterbacks (such as Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes) emerge on talented teams after learning from the bench as a rookie. This obviously does not guarantee success for Lance, but I believe circumstances play a massive role in a young quarterback’s development. With Garoppolo still on the roster, the 49ers will only go to Lance if he is ready to win now. The roster is too good to squander a year away.

If Lance can do the little things well, he brings an upside to this offense that makes the team a legitimate Super Bowl contender. And if he is the next elite quarterback, the 49ers could be the outright Super Bowl favorites. But if he struggles with the easy throws or cannot process defenses effectively, it creates tension on the roster that could be difficult to deal with. The range of outcomes is wide, but even with Garoppolo, this is a solid offense when healthy. Lance just gives them a potential upside we haven’t seen yet.

Defense

Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
5.16+0.206th
Defensive Eff. Rating (red and gold) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate
23rd2nd29th20th

The 49ers defense imposed its will up front, led by superstar Nick Bosa with help from a strong rotation of linemen (including Arik Armstead) and linebackers (including Fred Warner). It was really tough to run against this front, as they plugged gaps effectively and tackled aggressively. It was also really tough to escape pressure with how quick Bosa came off the edge. And if you double-teamed Bosa, the rest of the line was strong enough to get penetration.

Of course, they had to win up front because their secondary was a liability. If they didn’t disrupt the pocket it would have been too easy for top quarterbacks to capitalize on mistakes in coverage. The problems in the secondary were especially egregious given that the 49ers did not blitz frequently. The upside of not blitzing should be that you excel in coverage. The 49ers still struggled in coverage, leading to a bottom-10 defense against the pass in terms of EPA/play.

Their biggest problem was giving up first downs with penalties. On the season, they gave up 37 first downs by penalty, including 15 on third down. Both numbers were the highest in the NFL. The defense actually had a decent rate of success, but these key results in high-leverage situations hurt them badly. No game sticks out more in this regard than their 30-18 loss to the Colts in which Wentz got three big first downs on defensive pass interference calls that totaled 97 yards. When the cornerbacks are struggling, you can succeed by chucking the ball downfield and hoping for a catch or a call.   

Nothing was easy against this defense. Solid tackling limited yards after the catch and explosive plays were not easy. Good pressure made it more difficult for teams to abuse the weakness in the secondary. So the teams that tended to outperform against the 49ers were more inconsistent, aggressive offenses. Some really good quarterbacks struggled with the 49ers because they couldn’t simply impose their will like they were used to.

Now, the 49ers have addressed their biggest weakness by picking up Charvarius Ward from the Chiefs. This could be a huge material addition, because if they make fewer mistakes downfield they could be an elite defense. They will need to stay healthy of course, but they now possess the type of talent and leadership at every level that is the hallmark of an elite defense.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the 49ers: The 49ers come to play against really good competition. Good coaching and team chemistry give them an edge, and really good pocket quarterbacks that routinely abuse the blitz struggle to find their edge against this defense. As long as they project to win the line battles, this is a bet-on team.

When to fade the 49ers: Because the 49ers are such a strong team, they can get inflated spreads at times. I don’t love going against a team like this, but more wild and erratic quarterbacks – like Carson Wentz – can have relatively good games because they take chances.

Evaluating the off-season: Picking up Charvarius Ward was huge for the defense. But the big question remains at quarterback. Can they win a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo? They certainly came close twice in three years. If they move on to Trey Lance there is much more downside, but potential upside as well.

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Los Angeles Rams 2021 Team Study

Part 29 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 28 here: Las Vegas Raiders. Part 30 now available: San Francisco 49ers.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.51 +0.52 5th


Offensive Eff. Rating (blue and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
4th 19th 9th


Sean McVay finally got his quarterback. Matthew Stafford came into an established scheme with two skills that Jared Goff lacked: reading defenses and throwing deep with confidence. McVay needed a quarterback who could react to what defenses put on the field, both before the play and while the play developed. Those who have actually watched the Lions play over the years expected Stafford to thrive. And that’s exactly what happened.

Despite spending a lot of time in the pocket letting plays develop deep, the Rams allowed the 2nd-lowest pressure rate in the NFL. The offensive line deserves some credit for this, but pressure rate is also significantly impacted by the quarterback and the scheme. For example, when a quarterback sees before the snap where the pressure could be coming from, he can switch up protections to give himself more time. And a good coach will give the quarterback these options in each formation. The Rams passing offense was simply well-executed at each level.

Their run game was awful. They had the biggest gap between passing EPA/play and rushing EPA/play in the league. Fortunately, running doesn’t win championships in today’s NFL so they overcame this weakness. They also were more of a downfield passing team than a catch-and-run team. As a result, they didn’t play quite as well against teams that gave up a log of yards after the catch. Chart A shows the Rams’ offensive Adj. Eff. Rating by each opponent ranked by its yards after the catch per completion allowed on the season. Their quality of performance trended negatively against teams that gave up a lot of yards after the catch.

Chart A

Outside of the run game, the Rams had two weaknesses on offense. First, Stafford’s aggressiveness led to some negative plays. He got away with one against the 49ers in the playoffs when Jaquiski Tartt dropped an easy interception. But his turnovers were costly earlier in the year too, most notably in an ugly 28-16 loss to the Titans. This is an acceptable trade-off in the long run, because this aggressiveness is what allowed the Rams to succeed in the first place. But it did lead to some inconsistency and risk.

Second, the offense was reliant on its top two wide receivers. Cooper Kupp absolutely smashed, and they were fine as long as they had either Robert Woods or Odell Beckham, Jr. on the other side. But things got dicey in the Super Bowl after OBJ went down, and it raises concern about what would happen if Kupp got hurt. They lost OBJ and Woods permanently now, but replaced them with Allen Robinson. If Robinson and Kupp can stay healthy, there is no reason to anticipate a drop-off for this offense. It is the type of passing game that can sustain success. But if one or both get hurt, the floor could be low.

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Las Vegas Raiders 2021 Team Study

Part 28 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 27 here: Kansas City Chiefs. Part 29 now available: Los Angeles Rams.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.08 +0.05 15th


Offensive Eff. Rating (silver and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
16th 29th 5th


The Raiders offense was a bit of an enigma in 2021. Coming into the season I expected the offensive line to be a liability that limited the team's upside. But watching their games, it seemed Derek Carr was never under pressure. They used creative formations that included a lot of tight ends and even fullbacks to get extra bodies up front, and it seemed to work. Despite spending the 5th-most time in the pocket, Carr was only pressured at the 9th-highest rate. That typically speaks to a quality offensive line, but in this case had as much to do with the scheme as anything.

I believe this in part because the run game was terrible, both before and after contact. Josh Jacobs is a good runner but never had holes. Sometimes linemen are just better in pass protection than run blocking, but I think their success stemmed from Gruden’s scheme. However, it certainly continued after Gruden resigned, which means either that the offense just continued its approach or it wasn’t Gruden to begin with. Carr also deserves some credit. He is a very smart quarterback who understands how the formations help offset pressure and he anticipates players being open. He showed the ability to use a variety of weapons in the passing game and is finally getting the respect he deserves. That’s good to see.

When your best pass catcher is a tight end and your best receiver is a slot receiver, defenses built around solid cornerback play tend not to be as effective. When looking at game-by-game performance, we can see this in action. Chart A shows the Raiders’ offensive Adj. Effectiveness in each game, ranking each opponent by its DVOA against opposing #1 wide receivers. Many handicappers validly recognize that teams reliant on a top outside wide receiver can struggle against elite cornerback play. But it’s just as important to recognize that an offense not reliant on a top outside wide receiver tends to outperform against those very same defenses by comparison. Diverse passing attacks featuring tight ends, running backs, and slot receivers, tend to eliminate the advantage a top cornerback brings.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pass defense in DVOA v. each team's top wide receiver.
*DVOA data from Football Outsiders.

Carr plays with a chip on his shoulder against the best competition. The Raiders offense – which was pretty much a reflection of Carr because the run game was underwhelming – played its best games against the toughest pass defenses. Granted, there is some correlation between good cornerback play and overall pass defense. But Chart B shows the Raiders’ offensive Adj. Effectiveness by each opponent ranked by its EPA/play allowed on passes. Carr stepped up in the toughest spots.  

Chart B

Chart B: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pass defense in EPA/play on the season.
*EPA data from Football isn't played on spreadsheets.

Carr is a smart player. I would expect the Raiders to continue to do whatever they did to help offset the inevitable pressure that comes from having a weak offensive line. But it’s not a guarantee. It depends on how Josh McDaniels approaches the scheme. They also picked up Davante Adams to reunite him and Carr. Adams is a really good fit for this offense with his excellent route-running and reliable catching. Even though his overall production should take a hit with a downgrade at quarterback and more target competition, he should definitely boost Carr’s play and immediately lifts the upside of this offense.

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Kansas City Chiefs 2021 Team Study

Part 27 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 26 here: Denver Broncos. Part 28 now available: Las Vegas Raiders.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
6.06 +1.12 1st


Offensive Eff. Rating (red and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
2nd 8th 2nd


The Chiefs once again boasted the best offense in the NFL despite a turbulent season. Early on they looked unstoppable moving up and down the field, but weren’t getting credit because of some very fluky turnovers and a defense that struggled to stop anybody. They lost to the Ravens and Chargers In back-to-back weeks as a direct result. But starting in Week 7 against the Titans, this offense started legitimately struggling for a stretch of 5-8 games. They eventually adapted and turned it around down the stretch, outside of a crucial offensive no-show in the second half of the AFC Championship game against the Bengals. 

The struggles were new for the Chiefs. Opposing defenses devoted everything to taking away the deep ball. Teams rolled out two-high safety shells and flooded coverage, particularly shadowing Tyreek Hill deep. Linebackers did not bite on play action and basically ignored the Chiefs’ run game. The result was a new style of offense in which Mahomes threw mostly shallow passes (9th-lowest ADOT) to create yards after the catch (3rd-highest yards after the catch per completion). All told, the Chiefs finished dead last in the percentage of total passing yards gained through the air (as opposed to after the catch).

Mahomes was not as comfortable in this style of offense, especially at first. He had grown accustomed to being able to make big plays happen in the passing game, and knew he had talent and elite weapons. The most effective way to coax defenses out of these looks is to run into these defenses successfully, but Mahomes and Reid knew that running the ball when you have Mahomes at quarterback is not ideal. And when they did run, the running backs were not great. Defenses let the Chiefs’ running backs pick up the 2nd-most yards per carry before contact in the NFL, but those same backs had the fewest yards after contact. All the rushing yards were created by the line and the scheme (and defenses playing in coverage). So opposing defenses never had to come back down and play the line of scrimmage.

But the Chiefs figured it out. Andy Reid, Eric Bieniemy, and Patrick Mahomes worked on the offense and adapted on the fly. They finished 1st in passing success rate, much like the Packers did in 2020. This means they took what the defense gave them. Mahomes is the best in the business at avoiding sacks and making plays in negative situations. With an improved offensive line, they didn’t really have a weakness. They led the leage in converstion rate on 3rd and 4th down because Mahomes plays his best when his back is against the wall. They did all this while facing – by far – the most difficult schedule of opposing defense in the NFL.

Tyreek Hill’s departure changes this offense a bit. But I think the Chiefs knew what they were doing when they traded him. The truth is, defenses have adjusted to Hill and essentially taken away the explosive elements of his game. In four years, his average depth of target has decreased from 14.8 to 12.9 to 12.9 to 10.4 yards in 2021. His yards after catch per completion has decreased from 6.1 to 5.0 to 4.7 to 4.0 yards in 2021. Yet despite these trends, the number of first downs Hill picked up in those years was 66, 57, 39 and then 75 in 2021. By the end of the season he had essentially become a possession receiver. He’s a great player, but the Chiefs had already lost the most dangerous elements of his game and already had to adapt.

This is why I think the Chiefs offense will barely miss a beat. They will continue to adapt with the new weapons they have. Elite quarterbacks thrive regardless of specific weapons. Mahomes has played 8 games in his career with Hill injured for all or most of the game. In those games, he has averaged 341 yards passing with 17 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Chiefs are 7-1 in those games with an average margin of victory of 10.3 points. It’s a small sample size, but it backs up my point: this offense should be just fine.

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Denver Broncos 2021 Team Study

Part 26 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 25 here: Los Angeles Chargers. Part 27 now available: Kansas City Chiefs.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
4.78 -0.34 22nd


Offensive Eff. Rating (blue and orange) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
13th 21st 20th


After failing to entice Aaron Rodgers in the off-season, the Broncos opted for Teddy Bridgewater to lead their team, who has proven over the years to be a capable but unexciting NFL starter. He was a clear upgrade over Drew Lock, and helped the Broncos by delivering the 13th-best on-target percentage on his throws despite a respectable average depth of target of 8 yards. He made some nice throws in key moments to his talented receivers, but lacked consistency and suffered several in-game injuries.

The Broncos running backs performed at a very high level despite poor run-blocking. Javonte Williams led the league in broken tackles and watching him plow through defenders for extra yards was the highlight of watching Broncos games last year. Even Melvin Gordon did a good job creating yards. They finished with the 9th-most yards per carry despite gaining only the 19th-most yards before contact. Most of the damage was done after they got hit.

The offensive line deserves some blame for this disparity, but I also blame the play-calling. They were fairly predictable and ran a lot on early downs. They did not work to create open-space opportunities for skill players; even the check downs often went to players who were easily covered up. They lacked explosive plays in the passing game, which allowed defenders to crowd the line of scrimmage. It was much easier for the Broncos offense when they played a bad run defense, as shown in Chart A, which measures the Broncos' offensive Adj. Eff. in each game, ranking opponents by rush defense efficiency:

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent rush defense efficiency in EPA/play allowed on the season.
*EPA/play data from Football isn't played on spreadsheets.

Every time the Broncos put on an above-league average offensive performance (KC, DAL, DET, and NYG), it came against a team in the bottom half against the run. But this team was not only about the run. I also think Teddy Bridgewater played better than perception. The Broncos allowed the 2nd-most pressures of any NFL team, so Bridgewater was constantly under fire. Jerry Jeudy came out of college highly touted but has not really put it all together yet on the NFL field, and Courtland Sutton can make impressive catches but does not routinely create separation. It felt like, all year, this offense had the potential to be good. But it never reached that potential.

Broncos fans argue that this team was just one quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender. Before the season, when people believed Rodgers was going to Denver, Denver sports radio called the Broncos Super Bowl favorites. Now they got their wish – or close to it – by trading for Russell Wilson. Surely an elite quarterback will solve this offense's problems?

I’m not so sure. This is not a situation like the Rams, where Sean McVay had long established a successful scheme that made even Jared Goff look good for a while. With an elite defense and a successful scheme, the Rams traded for Stafford and he plugged right in and filled the role perfectly. The Bucs had a similar situation with Tom Brady. With an elite defense and an established, successful offensive scheme led by Bruce Arians that made a 5,000-yard passer out of Jameis Winston, the Bucs instantly became Super Bowl contenders.

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