Playoff Preview: Has Mac Jones Hit the Rookie Wall?
Breakdown of Jones' rookie season and how he stacks up against the Bills' #1 pass defense
#6 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-7) AT #3 BUFFALO BILLS (11-6), 8:15ET
Line: Bills -4, Total: 44
ANALYTICAL ANALYSIS THAT EVERY SPORTS NERD NEEDS TO KNOW
Following a Week 13 victory over Buffalo that moved New England to 9-4 on the season, provided a seventh-straight victory, and set them up in the driver’s seat of the AFC East, quarterback Mac Jones was practically a lock for Offensive Rookie of the Year (he was around -500 odds at the time). Now, part of the reason that he is no longer the likely winner of that award is because Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase did some things that no rookie wideout has ever done before. However, the other part of the equation is that Jones hasn’t been the same passer over the final four games of the season.
In his first 12 starts, Jones completed 70.3% of his passes and ranked third in the NFL in that category. His passer rating was 97.1 and he threw 16 touchdown passes and eight interceptions while taking 24 sacks. Those numbers were solid, if unspectacular, accounting for the ups-and-downs of a first-year quarterback. But over the final four games of the season, a stretch in which the Pats went 1-3 and failed to win the division, his completion percentage dropped below 60% (59.9%) which was ranked 32nd among 40 qualified passers across those four weeks. Jones threw six touchdown passes along with six turnovers (five interceptions and a lost fumble) and his passer rating fell to 79.7. After averaging 7.5 yards per pass attempt in his first 11 12 games, he averaged 6.8 yards per attempt over the final four.
The change for Jones was actually the inverse of what you’d expect from a drop-off in yards per attempt: he started holding the ball longer and throwing farther down the field than he was earlier in the season. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones’ average time holding the ball in the pocket went from 2.53 seconds in the first 12 weeks to 2.78 seconds after. In only four of his first 12 starts did his average pass travel 7.5+ air yards; in his final four starts, his lowest IAY game was 7.9. That move toward longer passes meant more bad throws from the rookie, who averaged 4.9 bad throws per game in his first 12 starts and 7.8 in his final four games.
Another issue for Jones is his struggle against the blitz. We wrote extensively about Joe Burrow’s prowess in that department despite younger players generally struggling – Jones represents the more typical young QB. In games where Jones faced at least 10 blitzes, the Patriots were 3-7. In games where he saw single-digit blitzes, the team was 7-0. According to PFF, his passer rating against the blitz was 87.1 compared to 95.2 when not blitzed, his completion percentage was six points worse (63.6% vs. blitz and 69.6% vs. no blitz) and his yards per attempt dropped, as well (6.8 vs blitz and 7.6 vs no blitz). Really though, it’s about getting pressure on Jones. Against no pressure, Jones completed 71.9% of his passes in his first regular season. When facing pressure, that number dropped to 53.7%. He averaged an interception on one out of every 16.5 throws under pressure; when facing a clean pocket, it was once out of every 31.8 throws.
Enter, the Buffalo defense: the NFL’s number one unit against the pass at 163.0 yards allowed per game, which is nearly 25 yards better than the Patriots who are second at 187. What makes the Bills successful? Pressure. No team generated more pressure than Buffalo, according to Pro Football Reference, who has the Bills at a pressure rate of 30.8%, more than two full points better than the next best defense (Tampa Bay at 28.6%). While the Bills do blitz, they’re more middle-of-the-pack in that category than might be expected from a team with such a high-pressure rate (their 26.0% blitz rate ranks 13th highest). They also hurry opposing QBs at a league-high rate of 15.4%, again more than two points higher than the next-best team (Denver at 13.1%). While their team sack number of 42 is tied for 11th most in the league, the Bills continually make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable. It has also led to one of the lowest IAY by opposing quarterbacks, who average 7.2 air yards per throw against them, fourth lowest in the league. That might force Jones to operate more underneath, as he did earlier in the season, which could be good news for the young quarterback. The bad news for him is that in the game against Buffalo in which he was forced to throw more than three passes, he really struggled. He threw for 145 yards on 32 pass attempts (season-low 4.5 yards per attempt) while tossing two interceptions. He will need to be wary of the turnovers again because the Bills tied the Patriots for the third-most takeaways this season with 30 (only the Cowboys, 34, and Colts, 33, had more).
Then, there’s the history that’s working against Jones; rookie quarterbacks have historically struggled in their first career playoff starts, especially on the road. In fact, only two rookie quarterbacks have beaten a veteran QB in their first road playoff game and it hasn’t happened since 2009 (Mark Sanchez’ Jets beat the Bengals in 2009, the year after Joe Flacco’s Ravens beat the Dolphins in 2008). Additionally, of the five total rookies who have won their first playoff start since 2000 (home or away), all five teams had a Top 5 rushing offense in the regular season. While the Patriots are good on the ground, they are outside that benchmark (eighth at 126.5 yards per game). Jones will have to overcome a poor recent stretch and a long history of rookie struggles in the postseason, but he does have one major asset working in his favor: his coach is Bill Belichick, who has won 30 of the 41 playoff games he has coached with New England. So, which history will win out on Saturday?
TRENDS THAT EVERY SPORTS BETTOR NEEDS TO KNOW
Trends Favor the Road Dog
Home favorites of seven or fewer points (like Buffalo) are just 14-28-1 ATS (33% cover) in the Wild Card round since 2003. In the past four seasons, there have been 18 Wild Card games and the underdog has covered 15 of those 18 games (83% cover). Plus, in the last eight years, road teams are 22-11-1 ATS (67% cover) in Wild Card games. Home favorites facing division opponents in the Wild Card round are 3-9-1 ATS since 2003.
Unders, which have been hot all season – 141-109 in all non-overtime regular season games (56% cover) – are generally a strong bet in the NFL’s first round. Since division realignment in 2002, Unders are 46-31-1 (69% cover) in Wild Card games, including 12-6 in the past four years. Of the last 30 Wild Card games with totals of 44 or higher, the Under is 21-8-1. And of the three-seed versus six-seed Wild Card matchups over the last nine seasons, the Under is 15-2-1.
Both of these teams were profitable this season, with Buffalo slightly more so at 9-6-2 ATS (60% cover) than New England’s 10-7 ATS mark (59%). However, no team had a higher margin of victory above the spread than the Patriots who were +6.2 in that category (Buffalo was tied for fourth at +3.2). The Bills were slightly profitable at home (4-3-2 ATS) but their average margin to the spread was -1.5 at Highmark Stadium. They were the only team in the NFL with a winning home ATS record and a negative spread differential. Conversely, the Patriots were 5-3 ATS on the road this season with a +3.8 average spread margin. And going back to the Belichick factor, during his Patriots’ tenure, he is 30-14 ATS (68% cover) avenging an upset loss against an opponent (Patriots were favored by one when Buffalo beat them in Week 16), and they have outscored them by an average of 10.1 points per game.