Divisional Round Edition
*Note – DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average: It’s Football Outsiders’ primary efficiency statistic and I believe it to be the best and most predictive measure of assessing the strength of NFL teams
***Note – All betting odds courtesy of Vegas Insider
****Note – Public betting refers to the amount of wagers taken on the spread
Records Entering Divisional Round
Straight Up: 159-99-2 (.615)
Spread: 144-107-9 (.571)
Over/Under: 136-124 (.523)
Locks: 31-6 (.837)
Best Bets: 123-98-1 (.556)
#3 Seattle Seahawks vs #2 Atlanta Falcons
Spread: ATL -4.5 Over/Under: 51.5
’16 DVOA: SEA (14) < ATL (4)
Public Betting: ATL 55%
The Seahawks are coming off an impressive Wild Card weekend victory, albeit over a deceptively-average Detroit team. In it, Seattle stifled Matthew Stafford, limiting him to just 205 passing yards and a measly 46.6 total QBR. Credit the Seahawks’ pass defense for showing up last Saturday night. However, I’m skeptical they can replicate that performance against a terrific Atlanta offense.
The Legion of Boom has badly missed Earl Thomas. Since their All-Pro safety broke his leg against the Panthers in Week 13, Seattle’s pass defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to post an average quarterback rating of 105.4. Moreover, if we exclude their recent game against the league’s worst offense, the Los Angeles Rams, that figure rises to a staggering 115.1, which ranks dead last in the NFL over that time. Oh, and did I mention that Seattle is playing Atlanta this weekend? The Falcons led the NFL in practically every major offensive statistic this season, including points per game, yards per drive, offensive drive success rate, and yards per play. On paper, Matt Ryan and company should have little trouble putting up points on a weakened Seattle defense.
With that said, I certainly wouldn’t sell this Seahawks team short. We saw their defense rise to the occasion last weekend against the Lions; and speaking of defenses, Atlanta’s, which ranks 22nd in yards per play, leaves a lot to be desired. Plus, despite Ryan’s far superior season, I also trust Russell Wilson more in this type of situation than Matty Ice. I’ll still side with the team that the numbers say is better, but I’m anticipating a very competitive game.
Atlanta 31, Seattle 24
#4 Houston Texans vs #1 New England Patriots
Spread: NE -15.5 Over/Under: 44.5
’16 DVOA: HOU (27) < NE (1)
Public Betting: NE 73%
The more than two-touchdown spread indicates that this game is a mismatch. Yeah, no kidding. This is the most lopsided playoff matchup since Tim Tebow’s Broncos came into Gillette Stadium back in 2011 and got annihilated 45-10. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that the Texans, who rank 27th in Total DVOA according to Football Outsiders, don’t deserve to be in the playoffs. Fortunately for Houston, they’re here because a) they play in the worst division in football, b) they went a remarkable 8-2 in games decided by less than one touchdown, and c) they drew rookie Connor Cook and the Raiders in what was the most desirable Wild Card matchup since the Panthers took on Ryan Lindley and the Cardinals in 2014.
Unfortunately for Houston, they’re now up against most complete team in football. The Patriots are the only team in the NFL to rank in the top ten of offense, defense, and special teams according to Football Outsiders’ Weighted DVOA metric, which places greater weight on a team’s most recent performances into their efficiency ranking. What’s most surprising, though, is how New England’s defense has transformed. After ranking in the middle of the pack in many key categories during the first half of the season, the Patriots allowed just over 12 points per game over their final seven games to finish with the league’s top scoring unit. Ironically, their only great defensive performance during that first half came against the Texans, who they shut out 27-0 in Week 3. Remember that? That was back when Jacoby Brissett was starting!
The only chance Houston has is if their third-ranked defense forces Tom Brady and company into a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes. Which….is possible. The Texans’ defense has quietly been one of the league’s best this season, and though they might be without J.J. Watt, the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus could disrupt Brady’s rhythm. Plus, the net yards per play differential between these two teams isn’t quite as much as you’d think. Houston may be 31st in yards per play, but their third in opponent yards per play–good for a differential of -0.2. The Patriots have one of the league’s best figures at +0.7, but the implied spread based on these two differentials is only -9.
Yet who am I kidding. Full steam ahead to a sixth consecutive AFC Championship game.
*New England 37, Houston 13
#3 Pittsburgh Steelers vs #2 Kansas City Chiefs
Spread: KC -1.5 Over/Under: 44.5
’16 DVOA: PIT (2) > KC (5)
Public Betting: PIT 54%
I’ve talked at length before about why Kansas City may not be built for postseason success. Quick synopsis: They benefit greatly from other teams’ mistakes and they have a knack for scoring miraculous special teams touchdowns. The problem, though, is that they don’t measure well on a per play basis, as they rank just 15th in offense and 17th in defense. That certainly isn’t Super Bowl caliber.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh comes in on a tear offensively. Le’Veon Bell has been the league’s best running back of late and Antonio Brown finally broke his touchdown-less streak in the postseason by breaking off two long ones last week against Miami. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that their defense has improved vastly as well. They may not remind anyone of the recent Pittsburgh Super Bowl teams with Joey Porter and Troy Polamalu, but this year’s Steelers still rank a respectable 11th in points allowed per drive.
The problem, though, is that Big Ben is banged up, this time with a foot injury. We’ve seen this story before with Roethlisberger when he tries to “play through pain.” Just look back to earlier this season when the Steelers lost to Miami when he tried to play through an ankle injury. Or, more notably, remember when Tebow beat Pittsburgh back in the 2011 playoffs? That was mostly attributed to the fact that Roethlisberger was dealing with yet another injured ankle and turned the ball over two times.
Something tells me that a less-than-100 percent Roethlisberger won’t be enough to beat Kansas City in Arrowhead. This Chiefs team may not succeed in the most conventional of ways, but I bet they’ll use turnovers and special teams to their advantage once again and find a way to defeat Pittsburgh.
*Update- An ice storm has moved the start time for this game from 1:00 to 8:20. For that reason, I’m anticipating a much lower scoring game than I had originally predicted. Still taking the Chiefs, even though I’m worried about overlooking Le’Veon Bell’s dominance.
Kansas City 16, Pittsburgh 13
#4 Green Bay Packers vs #1 Dallas Cowboys
Spread: DAL -4.5 Over/Under: 52.5
’16 DVOA: GB (6) < DAL (3)
Public Betting: GB 65%
Everybody seems to be hoping on the Green Bay bandwagon. Makes sense. The Packers have been dominant offensively ever since Aaron Rodgers predicted they would win their final six games and make the playoffs. Speaking of Rodgers, you also have to side with him over rookie Dak Prescott in this matchup just based on postseason experience.
But don’t write off those Cowboys just yet. For starters, Dallas has the superior DVOA and net yards per play differential over Green Bay. The Packers are mainly held back by their below-average defense that has allowed 28.2 points per game on the road this season. Moreover, they also rank a horrific 28th in both yards and points per drive. This is the same defense, remember, that got gashed by Ezekiel Elliott to the tune of 157 yards in Dallas’ 30-16 win at Lambeau in Week 6.
Against similar defenses this year–that is, those that ranked in the bottom half of yards allowed per drive like Green Bay–the Cowboys put up 31.4 points per game. With the league’s top running game, Dallas should be able to pick up yards in chunks and minimize the likelihood of mistakes. Plus, if you think about it, what’s going to change for Dallas now that they are finally in the playoffs? Is Dak going to suddenly get nervous? I doubt it. He isn’t asked to do that much anyway, and I think Dallas’s offense is so good that one person never seems to carry too much of a burden to lead the entire unit.
It’s scary to bet against Aaron Rodgers at this point in time. You don’t need to remind me. But Green Bay has some serious deficiencies on defense that I think Dallas will exploit once again.
Dallas 27, Green Bay 21
And lastly, here are my best bets for the Divisional Round…
- Atlanta vs Seattle OVER 51.5
- ATLANTA (-210) over Seattle
- Teaser: NEW ENGLAND (-8.5) over Houston & PITTSBURGH (+8.5) over Kansas City
- Pittsburgh vs Kansas City UNDER 44.5
- DALLAS (-210) over Green Bay