The four teams clashing in the NFL conference championship games on Sunday have one thing in common. Not elite quarterback play (no disrespect to Jimmy Garoppolo, but I bet even he'd admit he hasn't exactly been on fire of late). In fact, the common thread is only indirectly tied to quarterbacks,
It's yards after the catch. An abundance of it.
The 49ers will stroll into SoFi Stadium averaging 6.56 yards after the catch per reception, the best figure in the NFL. Tied for second? None other than the AFC title game participants. The Chiefs and Bengals each have averaged 6.31 yards after the catch per reception this season, counting the playoffs.
The only other club above 6.0 in this increasingly vital statistical category this season was the Packers.
Meanwhile, the Rams are 13th with 5.34 YAC per grab and seventh in total YAC with 2,394.
Why has YAC becoming increasingly vital?
Because for as much as the long ball still exists as a weapon in today's NFL, supremely athletic skill-position players are being featured on high-percentage passes more than ever before. A majority of the most productive quarterbacks are operating well-oiled YAC machines that rely on an occasional brilliant deep strike to really hum. And this isn't fading away anytime soon, especially considering the avalanche of receiver talent that enters the league every year.
Of the 14 playoffs teams, 11 finished with a YAC per reception figure above 5.0. There's a strong correlation.
Five of the top 10 receivers in total YAC will play on Championship Sunday, highlighted by the top three (Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, and Ja'Marr Chase). Samuel is operates on another planet after the catch. The dude averages more than a first down (10.4 yards) after the catch this season.
And you probably could've guessed that Travis Kelce (651) and George Kittle (500) have led all tight ends in total YAC this season to date. But it goes deeper than just the superstars. Kansas City's Mecole Hardman is second in the NFL among qualifying receivers at 8.9 YAC per grab. San Francisco's Brandon Aiyuk averages the same amount of yardage accumulation after catch the ball as Kupp (6.1 yards). C.J. Uzomah of the Bengals has the seventh-most total YAC among tight ends.
As for the quarterbacks who'll take center stage Sunday, check how frequently they've thrown the football at certain depths to date:
|Average depth of target (rank)||Percentage of 20+ yard passes (rank)||Percentage of passes behind LOS (rank)|
7.4 yards (34th)
8.8 yards (8th)
8.4 yards (10th)
7.7 yards (29th)
Some incredible nuggets there, right? How about the fact that Burrow has the exact same percentage of deep tosses and throws behind the line this season. And even Stafford, who's 8th in aDOT, is only 22nd in long-ball percentage.
And Mahomes really sticks out. Despite his reputation as being the game's most dangerous shot-play specialist, the Chiefs have been ultra-conservative with him. And it's clearly worked. He's amassed nearly as many yards (1,040) on throws that did not travel to the line of scrimmage as throws that traveled 20-plus yards downfield (1,177). Mind blown.
Every year the copycat nature of the NFL takes a trend into the following season based on "what worked" for the successful playoff teams. And given what the Chiefs, Bengals, Rams, and 49ers do really well, this year's trend should absolutely be the acronym football fans have recently come to know very well -- YAC.