2016-17 NFL Playoffs – Conference Round

We’re left with four teams and one of the number 1 seeds has been knocked out – so who will make it to Houston?

In the Wild Card round two weeks ago, all four home teams won. Last week, only two of the home teams won, with both the Kansas City Chiefs (#2 in the AFC) and the Dallas Cowboys (#1 in the NFC) sent packing, by the Steelers and Packers respectively. So, can either of them repeat their road wins again this week?

First, let’s look at last week’s predictor predictions:

GamePredictionResult
Seahawks - FalconsFalcons by 9Falcons by 16
Packers - CowboysCowboys by 7Packers by 3
Steelers - ChiefsSteelers by a hairSteelers by 2
Texans - PatriotsPatriots by 22.5Patriots by 18

In the Wild Card round, my predictor picked all games correctly. Last week, it picked 3 out of 4 – that’s still a decent 7 of 8 so far in the playoffs. More importantly (to me), the margin of victory seems to hold up quite well.

It predicted the Steelers – Chiefs game would be very tight, and suggested the Steelers would win by a whisker. And they did.

It predicted the Seahawks would lost by more than a score – even though I tried to come up with reasons why that would be wrong. And they did.

It predicted the Patriots would win by three scores. And they did. Not that you’d think that from the media reaction after the game… I’ll come back to that.

It also predicted the Cowboys would win by a score, and they didn’t. The Cowboys’ defense looked awful in the first quarter, and that really cost them as they fell behind quickly. They did really well to recover, but that sideline catch to set up the winning Mason Crosby field goal was really something special.

Anyway, I’ll refer back to those games as we look at the Conference Round games.

Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots

Make no mistake, the Steelers were up against a good team last week. The Chiefs have a good defense and an offense that whilst not explosive, is well-balanced and doesn’t often turn the ball over. It was always going to be a tough game. But they won it, and they played well.

That said, they scored six field goals and no touchdowns. For a team with Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, even up against a strong redzone defense like the Chiefs’, has to be a little disappointing.

It was the Chiefs’ lowest home score of the season, so the Steelers’ defense deserve credit, but offensively, the Chargers, Saints, Buccaneers and Titans had all gone to Arrowhead and scored more. To win at Gillette Stadium, the Steelers will need to turn some of those field goals into touchdowns. The Patriots allowed only 27 touchdowns in the regular season – ranked #2 in the NFL, behind only the Giants, so that’s not an easy task.

The Patriots won their game by 18 points. It says a lot that despite winning by three scores, their performance was questioned.

Let’s be clear. The Patriots never really looked like losing this game. Yes, as a Patriots fan, it was frustrating to watch, but the Texans didn’t ever look like winning. Don’t believe me? Let me remind you:

  • The Patriots took the lead with 9:27 left in the first quarter with a dump-off pass to Dion Lewis. After that, the Texans never got back on terms with the Patriots – the closest they got was 14-13 with 10:49 left in the second quarter.
  • The Patriots scored 34 points – that’s higher than their season average.
  • The Patriots allowed 16 points – their season average is between 15 and 16 points.
  • All Houston’s points came from turnovers (2 INTs, 1 FUM, for 13 points) or drives kept alive by penalties (a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on what would have otherwise been 4th and 8, resulted in a field goal).
  • Brock Osweiler’s QB Rating was 47.6.

Essentially, the game looked closer than it was at halftime because the Patriots made uncharacteristic mistakes – yet they still led. So, in truth, anyone with a brain knew they would go in at halftime – leading by 4 points – and sort themselves out.

And they did. They came out in the second half, made fewer mistakes (except Dion Lewis, who kept coughing up the football), and outscored the Texans 17 – 3. When they Did Their Job, the game was over.

One thing they will have to watch this week is looking after the football. The Steelers recovered 10 fumbles in the regular season (10), and if New England has been bad in one area this year, it’s fumbling the football – they gave away 9, compared to the Steelers, who gave away only 3.

Normally, after fumbling twice in a week, Bill Belichick wouldn’t start you the next week. As Dion Lewis did that but also scored three touchdowns, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to him this week…

The key to the Steelers winning is to stop the Patriots scoring. I know, it sounds obvious, but they won’t win if this becomes a shootout. If their defense makes this a low-scoring game, it’ll be a proper slugfest. If not, they will probably struggle. Turnovers will be key.

So, let’s predict this one.

The Patriots are 5 of 6 against playoff teams in the regular season. The Steelers are 4 of 7. Of those, the Patriots are 3 of 4 at home, and the Steelers are 1 of 2 on the road.

The Steelers have a good road defense. They have allowed no more than 20 points in 6 of their 9 road games. They’ve also scored 24 points or more in five of their nine road games, but all five of those games were against teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

My predictor tells me that overall, these teams are ranked closely for this matchup. However, the Steelers have been inconsistent on the road, and so it predicts a Patriots win. With the Patriots in the top 5 for scoring offense, overall offense, passing offense, scoring defense and rush defense, and the Steelers not appearing in the top 5 on any official metric, it’s hard to disagree.

However, the Steelers are, according to my own rankings, the third-best team in the NFL, and top two of those teams still left in the playoffs. The problem? The Patriots are the number one.

Pick: Patriots.
Predictor: Patriots, with 50% confidence, by 10 points.

Green Bay Packer at Atlanta Falcons

Forget the hype: according to my stats, neither of these teams are as good as their AFC rivals – despite what the experts and fans say. Too many people have been too quick to say the winner of this game will win the Super Bowl. They may, but the stats say if they do, they’ll win as underdogs.

My ratings measure seven metrics, in addition to the overall home/road ratings for each game. On each of those seven ratings, the teams are ranked from #1 to #32, with #1 being the best. So, the best possible score for a team is 7. The worst possible score is 32*7, which is 224. So, what are the numbers for the remaining teams?

TeamScoreRankRelative
Patriots14110
Steelers29316
Falcons51620
Packers56724

Of the seven metrics – which are Overall Rating, Home Rating, Road Rating, Points For, Points Against, Points Difference and Cumulative Median (I’ll explain that one another time), the Patriots lead the NFL in 5, and the Falcons lead in 1. The Patriots and Steelers outrank both the Falcons and Steelers on 5 metrics.

The Falcons lead the NFL on Points For. Green Bay are #4, ahead of the Patriots at #5 and the Steelers at #13. The Patriots lead the NFL on Points Difference, followed by Atlanta (#2), Pittsburgh (#4) and Green Bay (#6).

The relative ranks between just the four teams left are also shown in the table above, but essentially, the categories suggest the AFC teams are stronger.

So, the key question then is, of the Packers and Falcons, which is stronger? To be honest, my rankings suggest they’re very evenly matched, and I’d agree with that.

The Falcons are a more balanced team, with a good running game, a great deep threat with Julio Jones (and plenty other receivers besides), and a defense which seems to be peaking at the right moment.

On the other hand, you have a Packers team which doesn’t have a brilliant defense (bad news when playing the Falcons, but which has Aaron Rodgers, who will undoubtedly find holes in the Falcons’ defense. So expect a high-scoring affair.

The Packers aren’t a great road team, but they’ve won so many games on the bounce now (the last three against playoff teams, and the last game against the #1 seed in the NFC), I can’t see it affecting them.

I’m tempted to say whoever gets the ball first wins. But they Packers have won 7 of 9 games against playoff teams this season, and the Falcons are 3 of 5. I’ve gone against the Packers two weeks in a row. After *that* sideline throw last week, I’m not doing it again. They have a winning swagger and last week was the proof they are a very good team.

Plus, I’d love to see a Patriots – Packers Super Bowl. Rodgers and Brady in the same Super Bowl? Yes please!

Pick: Packers.
Predictor says: Falcons, with 80% confidence, by 5 points.

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