I have been thinking a lot about the NHL season that was recently brought back from the dead (zombie Crosby?) and fantasy hockey in particular, but the NFL playoffs are rolling along too with no less drama and intrigue than we’re used to seeing.
There were no upsets last week, and teams like Houston in particular showing that momentum doesn’t really mean that much in pro sports. I went 3-1 with my picks last week, though I was 1-3 against the spread. At the time, taking the points seemed like a good idea, but that’s why sports betting is such a tricky thing. Without further ado, let’s look back at last week and look ahead to the most exciting weekend of the NFL season.
DVOA statistics come from the number one site for advanced football stats, Football Outsiders.
Recap: Houston Texans 19, Cincinnati Bengals 13
My only upset pick was not an upset at all, as the Texans played a lot more like their early-season selves than the team that limped into the tournament. Houston’s defense in particular looked much better than it did down the stretch, as they held the Bengals to under 200 yards of total offense. I think the single most telling stat from this game is that Cincinnati was zero for nine on third down. You don’t need John Madden to tell you that a team that doesn’t get a lot of first downs isn’t going to score a lot of points. Arian Foster played the role of the workhorse, getting 40 touches (32 carries plus 8 receptions) and the Bengals seemed to forget all about Owen Daniels (9 receptions on 11 targets). Shayne Graham did not miss a kick and JJ Watt did JJ Watt things with five tackles and a sack. The Texans looked like quite the complete team, as they posted a 37% offensive DVOA and a -26% defensive DVOA. Their special teams was pretty mediocre, just 1% ST DVOA, though because they were dead last in that area in the regular season, playing simply average is actually quite the upgrade. Cincinnati’s defense was not bad (3% D-DVOA) but compared to their regular season they didn’t play up to their ability. The Bengals offense, as already discussed, was the real stinker, finishing the game with a -21% O-DVOA. Texans fans are no doubt happy their team righted the ship and the stage is set for a great matchup with the Patriots, but ultimately I don’t think they can keep up with the New England Tom Bradys (more on this later.)
Recap: Green Bay Packers 24, Minnesota Vikings 10
When the news broke late that Christian Ponder would be unavailable for this game, I–along with the NBC talking heads–talked myself into the idea that Joe Webb might actually be able to give the Packers a different and surprising look. After all, Webb looked pretty good in that one game three years ago…and hey, Ponder has looked dreadful at times, so maybe this could be an upgrade. That lasted for all of about five minutes, as Webb led the Vikings down the field for an opening drive field goal. After that, he started doing things that no fan ever wants to see his quarterback do in a preseason game, let alone in the playoffs, such as trying to avoid a sack by throwing the ball straight up into the air. I didn’t think the Vikings would win the game, but I did think they would cover the spread. Football Outsiders wrote that according to DVOA, the game was perhaps closer than the score indicated…but to my eyeballs and everyone else’s the game was just a shellacking. Not much else to say here, so let’s move on you say? Agreed.
Recap: Baltimore Ravens 24, Indianapolis Colts 9
This was destined to be a game where whatever the outcome, the pre-established narrative would take over, whether it be for Chuck Pagano or Ray Lewis. By the numbers, the Colts lived up to their billing as an abysmal defense, posting a 30% D-DVOA (recall that on defense, negative is better.) 30%!! Easily the worst defense played by any team last weekend. The next lowest was the Bengals at 3%, while all other defenses actually played above average. Andrew Luck is great, but don’t forget how bad the team played last year to secure their first-overall pick. For their part, the Ravens played a solid all-around game, with a 24% O-DVOA -11% D-DVOA, and 9% ST-DVOA, the best of any team. They’ll need to keep up that level of play to have any hopes of keeping up with New England…
Recap: Seattle Seahawks 24, Washington Redskins 14
For my money (which was none, the games are all on network,) this game was the most compelling. You had the rookie quarterbacks, the Redskins outplaying the Seahawks at home in the first half, the last game of the week…but it ended up going about exactly as I predicted, with Seattle beating down Washington by the end of the game. Robert Griffin III played his heart out and it was a terrible shame to see him hurt his knee so I won’t belabor the point too much, but the Redskins were just outclassed and outplayed in the second half. The numbers are remarkably similar (SEA: -1% O-DVOA, -18% DVOA; WAS: 0% O-DVOA, -19 D-DVOA) with the only noticeable difference coming on special teams, SEA 7%, WAS -1%. The Seahawks did look very flat in the first half, though, and they will have to play two more road games to get to the Big One, so perhaps they will have a similar situation this weekend vs Atlanta (though I wouldn’t bet on it…)
Preview: Houston at New England (-10)
I don’t know if you know this but the Patriots are pretty good. Pretty…pretty good. They have the second-ranked weighted Offensive DVOA (28.6%) as well as the second-ranked Special Teams DVOA (8.7%). Their defense is mediocre (-0.9%, 16th ranked) but with the firepower on offense and one Bill Belichek they don’t have to worry about giving up 30 points because they will find a way to score at least 31. Houston looked good last week but their numbers are the opposite of New England–the Texans have a great defense (-12.3% weighted D-DVOA, 5th) but terrible special teams (-5.3% ST-DVOA, 31st) and their offense has a number of playmakers but they aren’t performing, -4.6% weighted O-DVOA, 17th. The Texans showed last week that they are capable of playing a solid game, but they also showed that predicting football games is like picking stocks…past performance is not predictive of future results. Arian Foster said after the game that he doesn’t believe in momentum, but that applies here as well. I don’t trust the Texans to put together two good games when they weren’t able to do that over the second half of the season.
The betting line is a different story. The Patriots see a lot of large lines because they keep their foot on the gas and are known to rack up the score. There is a case to be made that the Texans could cover the spread if their defense keeps them in the game or if Matt Schaub can exploit the Pats’ D and try to turn the game into a horse race. But I got burned last week by predicting a couple of non-covers, so if I’m picking New England this week, I’ll go all out. I learned a long time ago not to bet against Tom Brady and Bill Belichek.
Prediction: New England win big over the Texans, 34 – 21
Preview: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (-3)
The Packers and Niners have some pretty similar numbers on offense (GB 16.6% weighted O-DVOA, SF 15.3%) and special teams (GB -1.1% weighted ST-DVOA, SF -0.2%) while San Francisco has a modest advantage on defense (SF -13.5% weighted D-DVOA, GB -7.2%). As the playoffs progress and the matchups get better and better, it becomes more difficult to find significant differences in the stats, and the analysis shifts to specific matchups or players. In this case, it’s all about Aaron Rodgers. The guy is an unbelievable quarterback and has shown that he can play against the toughest of opponents. Green Bay has almost no running game to speak of, though DuJuan Harris has played sneaky good over their last two games. The Niners relied on a heavy rushing attack all season, and despite being gashed by Adrian Peterson, the Packers have a decent run defense (118.5 Rush YPG against, 16th.) I don’t really love the quarterback-vs-quarterback breakdown because they’re never on the field at the same time, and Colin Kaepernick certainly has the makings of a good NFL quarterback, but you’re telling me I can get Aaron Rodgers AND three points? Yes please.
Prediction: Close game but Green Bay wins it in the fourth quarter, 27-21
Preview: Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos (-10)
CUT THAT MEAT! CUT THAT MEAT! Going into the season, everyone was concerned about Peyton Manning’s six neck surgeries and his nerve damage. But he came back as the Peyton we all watched in Indianapolis for all those years. Denver has the third-best weighted O-DVOA (23.0%) and the second-best weighted D-DVOA (-15.9%) though their special teams is right about average (0.6%, 16th). The Broncos lost Willis McGahee late in the season but Knowshon Moreno stepped right in and didn’t miss a beat. Eric Decker (Minnesota kid) and DeMaryius Thomas have been great this year and their defense is solid, led by Von “Hipster Glasses” Miller.
The Ravens, on the other hand, are still putting up numbers that do not impress. Except for their best-ranked special teams (10.4%), they have been pedestrian on offense and defense. They looked good last week, but remember that if not for the Saints, we would have been talking about how the Colts had the worst defense in the league. Check out the Ravens weighted numbers, which give more precedence to Week 11 and later: 0.6% O-DVOA (14th), -0.3% D-DVOA (18th). Now compare those numbers to just their performance against the colts, 24% O-DVOA, -11 D-DVOA. Think they’ll be able to sustain that against the Broncos and their top-three ranked squads? I surely don’t. The following is pretty obligatory for stats guys: the numbers can’t predict a single game, and on any-given-day, any team can beat any other team. But come on. This is just a mismatch. The Broncos are laying 10 points at home, and I’m sticking with my plan of avoiding non-covers.
Prediction: Broncos outplay the Ravens for four quarters, win 34-17. The Onion kills it here: Joe Flacco Already Preparing Apology to Ray Lewis for Disappointing End to Career
Preview: Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons (-3)
I know Vegas looks at a lot of statistics and advanced numbers, but how are the Seahawks not favored in this game? Seattle has the best overall weighted DVOA (43.9%) as well as the best weighted O-DVOA (29.5%)…better than the Patriots and Broncos. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown, and Russell Wilson (Badger) tacked on 67 more yards against a good Redskins run defense. Their defense is great, and their special teams are top-five as well.
The Falcons won 13 games this year, they won their division by six games, and their point differential was +120 this year. They are a good team (obviously) or they wouldn’t have secured the first-round bye. But the advanced stats show the Falcons as an above-average but not fantastic team. Their overall weighted DVOA 6.1% (13th), weighted O-DVOA (4.4%, 12th), D-DVOA (-2.7%, 14th), and special teams (-1.0%, 19th) all point to them as a team that is going to be undermatched against the Seahawks who are on top of the league in all phases of the game. The Falcons have a bunch of great players on offense, this year was definitely Matt Ryan and Julio Jones’ coming-out party, and Roddy White is an amazing wideout who I think we’ll be considering for the HOF one day. Michael Turner is the engine that won’t quit and Tony Gonzalez is like sixty years old but still putting up crazy numbers. The Falcons are at home and will be eager to get a win after getting destroyed by the Giants last year (24-2) and the Packers at home the year before that (48-21). Seattle came out a little flat last week and is certainly missing their incredible home field advantage. But I just think Seattle is the better team all around here, so like the Packers, if you’re telling me I can get the Seahawks and the points, I’ll take that deal faster than you can say “Kimye’s baby.”
Prediction: Seahawks don’t stumble out of the gate this, knock the Falcons around and pull away late in the game, 31-21
Wrap-up: I like the favorites a lot, Patriots and Broncos–Brady v Manning just like the good ol’ days. Aaron Rodgers is too good and the Seahawks are the compleat team. Swallowing the points in the AFC, surprised I can get the Packers, Seahawks with the points.