Conference Championship 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 Championship Sunday
Straight Up: 161-101-2 (.614)
Spread: 146-109-9 (.570)
Over/Under: 139-125 (.527)
Locks: 32-6 (.842)
Best Bets: 127-99-1 (.562)
#4 Green Bay Packers vs #2 Atlanta Falcons
Spread: ATL -5.5 Over/Under: 61.5
’16 DVOA: GB (5) < ATL (3)
Public Betting: GB 62%
No need for advanced mathematics here: This year’s NFC Championship will be high-scoring. And I know it sounds cliche, but I bet this game comes down to whichever offense has the ball last, too.
You could make the argument that that the Packers and Falcons possess the best two offenses in the league, at least right now. This isn’t to discredit either of the two teams on the other side of the draw, but let’s look at the numbers. Atlanta leads in practically every key offensive category, including points per game, yards per play, and offensive drive success rate. They’ve been even better of late, too. The Falcons are averaging a league-high 6.9 yards per play and nearly 36 points per game in their last three contests.
And yet, Atlanta might not even have the advantage offensively. The Packers’ offense is on just as much of a roll, although while the Falcons have relied on multiple players on different occasions, Green Bay has largely been a one-man show. Aaron Rodgers is currently in the midst of a remarkable 21 TD/1 INT tear; and he’s actually on a better statistical pace this postseason than his magnificent 2010 run in which he led the Packers to a victory in Super Bowl XLV. His touchdown percentage, quarterback rating, and yards per attempt figures are all higher.
But the respective offenses aren’t the only reason why this game is a lock to be high-scoring. Both defenses are sub-par. Green Bay’s a mere 29th in opponent yards per play this season. Atlanta’s not that much better, checking in at 22nd. Moreover, neither defense is good against the pass, with the Packers ranking 22nd and the Falcons 19th, according to Football Outsiders (FO). However, one interesting element to watch will be how Green Bay’s rushing attack exploits Atlanta’s poor rushing defense. The Falcons rank just 29th against the run this season, which means that versatile weapon Ty Montgomery could be the game’s x-factor. It’s worth mentioning that he did not suit up when the Packers lost to Atlanta 33-32 earlier in Week 7.
The other intriguing matchup to watch will be Atlanta’s pass-rush versus Green Bay’s stellar offensive line. The Packers have not one, but two of the league’s best offensive tackles in Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari. Together, they helped Green Bay finish with the league’s top-graded pass blocking unit in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus. They’ll have their hands full, however, against Vic Beasley and an Atlanta front that had the third most QB hurries in all of football.
Injuries to a few key Packers players could tip the scale toward the Falcons. Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and a couple members of Green Bay’s secondary are all questionable. But to write off Rodgers, even if he’s without some of his most reliable weapons, could be a mistake. The Packers were in a similar situation where they were shorthanded when they first met the Falcons in October, and that game ultimately was decided by one point.
Furthermore, the difference between Green Bay and Atlanta, at least in terms of DVOA, is negligible. Underdogs that rank in the top 10 of DVOA–like Green Bay–have gone 19-12 (.613) against the spread since Week 6 of this season. That includes two of last weeks games in which both the Packers and Steelers covered and won outright as top 10 DVOA underdogs. But if you thought that was noteworthy, check this stat out: Games in which both teams are within five DVOA ranking spots of each other have seen the underdog cover the spread at a roughly 67% rate (30-14-2).
In short, I love Green Bay to cover the 5.5 point spread. But I’m still going to side with the Falcons, the team that I picked to represent the NFC a few weeks before the playoffs even began on the final Check Down episode of 2016. Atlanta’s offense has been unstoppable this season, particularly at home, where they’ve averaged a league-leading 6.8 yards per play. Compare that to Green Bay, whose defense, conversely, has allowed the most opponent yards per play on the road. This rationale may turn out to be foolish because I used this same logic in explaining why I liked Dallas to beat Green Bay last weekend. Nonetheless, I think that–sooner or later–the Packers’ bad defense will be their downfall. Odds are that Atlanta’s terrific offense will be the team that finally takes advantage.
Atlanta 41, Green Bay 37
#3 Pittsburgh Steelers vs #2 New England Patriots
Spread: NE -6 Over/Under: 50.5
’16 DVOA: PIT (2) < NE (1)
Public Betting: NE 57%
The second playoff matchup between Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers and Tom Brady’s Patriots has been long overdue. New England prevailed with ease the first time these two future Hall of Famers met in the postseason during the 2004 AFC Championship. Considering that this matchup pits the two best teams in football–at least according to Football Outsiders–against one another, another Patriots blowout doesn’t look to be in the cards.
The October meeting between these two teams should’ve been the AFC’s game of the year had Roethlisberger not been injured. The Patriots had no problem defeating Landry Jones and company back in Week 7, but there were still a few troubling signs for the AFC’s number one seed stemming from that game. First, they had little answer for Le’Veon Bell, who accounted for nearly 150 yards from scrimmage despite what seemed to be extra attention paid to him by the New England defense. Moreover, they had trouble stopping the Steelers’ offense in general. Pittsburgh averaged a respectable 5.4 yards per play sans Roethlisberger; and had it not been for two missed field goals by the normally reliable Chris Boswell (e.g. last weekend’s Divisional Round game against Kansas City) and a red zone interception thrown by Jones, they could’ve easily scored well over 16 points.
As for the Patriots’ defense, much has been made about the fact that they “hasn’t played anybody.” This is true. The best quarterback they played this year was Russell Wilson, and he lit up New England in Foxboro to the tune of three touchdown passes. Other than that, the Patriots didn’t face one offense that ranked in the top ten in offensive DVOA aside from Buffalo, which explains why New England ultimately ended the season having played the league’s easiest slate of offenses, according to FO. Plus, even though the Patriots have held Pittsburgh’s offense in check during their previous two meetings, Sunday will be the first time New England faces the Steelers with Roethlisberger, Bell, and Antonio Brown at full strength since 2013.
There’s still reason to believe that the Patriots will make things difficult for Pittsburgh’s offense. After all, Matt Patricia’s top-scoring defense must be doing something right this year. Considering that the strength of New England’s defense is their ability to stop the run–they graded as the league’s 2nd best run-stopping unit according to Pro Football Focus (PFF)–New England should have the resources to contain Bell. Malcolm Butler, who PFF named to their All-Pro team after another stellar campaign, also should be able to contain Brown, at least to a certain degree. It also helps that New England is terrific on special teams: The Patriots’ defense had the league’s most favorable starting field position in 2016, with opposing offenses average drives starting at roughly the 25-yard line. Pittsburgh’s offense, on the other hand, wasn’t as fortunate. They began each drive with the NFL’s 27th-best starting field position.
It’s time now to talk about the Patriots’ offense, and what it projects to do to James Harrison and the Steelers’ defense. First, forget what you saw last week. New England is unlikely to have another relatively poor showing after struggling against the Texans’ underrated defense. After all, the Patriots ranked fourth during the regular season in turnover margin and first in interception rate. Slim chance they turn the ball over three times again.
In addition, their offense, surprisingly, hasn’t struggled since Rob Gronkowski went down with a season-ending injury. A big reason why has been the emergence of New England’s three-headed monster at running back–LeGarrett Blount, James White, and last week’s hero, Dion Lewis. The Patriots may only rank 17th in rushing DVOA according to FO, but it’s clear that they have the ability to pound away at defenses with Blount, particularly after he ran for 127 yards when the Patriots beat Pittsburgh back in October. It’s also evident that Lewis, who returned in Week 11 after ACL surgery, provides the Patriots’ offense with a weapon nearly as dynamic, only in a different way, as Gronk.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, their defense doesn’t really have too many holes. According to FO, they’re 11th against the run and 12th against the pass. They’ve also improved as the season has gone along, posting above-average single-game DVOA’s in each game since Week 11. This largely can be attributed to the emergence of linebacker Bud Dupree, who has proved to be a big difference maker across from James Harrison, who piled up a sack and multiple tackles for loss in the Steelers’ win last week over Kansas City.
What ultimately could prove to be the difference in this matchup? Turnovers. As mentioned, the Patriots have protected the ball like few other teams in NFL history have before, as they broke a record this year for fewest interceptions over the course of a sixteen-game season. Pittsburgh isn’t as careful. Roethlisberger’s more interception-prone than you might realize, as the Steelers finished this season with the 11th-most interceptions per drive. Big Ben, for the record, accounted for thirteen of those fifteen interceptions.
This brings me to a couple of crucial stats that ultimately explain why I’m picking New England to head to their seventh Super Bowl in the Brady/Belichick era. First is the Patriots’ dominance when they win the turnover margin. Since 2001, New England is 87-3 (.967) when they win the turnover battle in games at Gillette Stadium. The overall sample size from the 2016 season suggests that the Patriots have the edge against the Steelers in this regard. Moreover, they’re 88-4 (.957) when they score at least 25 points at home as well. The Patriots are currently averaging 27.9 points per game on the season and 36.7 in their last three games; and as we saw last week, Brady and company can have an off day and still find a way to put up 30+.
I’m not the biggest supporter of the classic “home-field advantage” argument, but it’s undisputed how dominant New England is at home. Sure, they’ve lost playoff games at Gillette before. But it’s still unlikely that a team will come into Foxboro and win, as evidenced by Brady and Belichick’s 117-17 (.873) record at home since 2001. Pittsburgh is certainly capable of being an exception to that rule, but they’ll need to put up a boatload of points to do. Even though their defense is respectable, it will take an unbelievable effort to slow down Brady and company, particularly since it’s unlikely that the Steelers will the turnover battle. For those reasons, I’m taking New England to advance, albeit in a tight contest.
New England 31, Pittsburgh 27
And lastly, here are my best bets for Championship Sunday…
- Teaser: GREEN BAY (+12.5) over Atlanta & PITTSBURGH (+13) over New England
- Teaser: Green Bay vs Atlanta OVER 54.5 & Pittsburgh vs New England OVER 43.5
- Teaser: ATLANTA (+2.5) over Green Bay & NEW ENGLAND (+1) over Pittsburgh