2016-17 NFL Playoffs – Divisional Round

We’re only two wins away from the Super Bowl, so who will be left standing after the Divisional Round this weekend?

In the Wild Card games in last season’s playoffs, all the home teams were knocked out. However, this season it was reversed, with all the road teams knocked out. So, what can be expected this week in the divisional round?

Last week, three of my picks (the Texans, Steelers and Seahawks) were correct, and one (the Giants) was incorrect. However, my predictor went one better, scoring all four correctly:

GamePredictionResult
Giants - PackersPackers by 8.5Packers by 25
Lions - SeahawksSeahawks by 9Seahawks by 20
Raiders - TexansTexans by 2.5Texans by 13
Dolphins - SteelersSteelers by 12.5Steelers by 18

As you can see, all four games were settled by margins larger than predicted – although the predicted margins were on the whole larger than most other people would have predicted.

The only exception to that would be the Raiders – Texans game, where most people would have expected the Texans to win by more than 2.5 points, but that was mainly down to the injury to Derek Carr, which my model doesn’t take into account.

All in all, my prediction model worked very nicely. So, how will it stack up this week? Let’s see.

Houston Texans at New England Patriots

Let’s get this game out of the way first. Let’s be honest – this is the biggest mismatch of the weekend. Despite being in the playoffs, and even getting through to the Divisional Round, the Texans are the twenty-third ranked team in my rankings.

They are a team that does two things well: they win at home, and they don’t allow many points – at home.

The trouble is, they’re playing on the road, where they allow, all things being equal, ten points a game more, score six points a game less, and lost three quarters of their games.

They play the meanest defense in the league, and an offense that can score on the ground or through the air almost at will.

A sidenote: I know people say the Texans have the league’s best defense. They don’t. The Patriots do. The Patriots allow fewer points per game than any other team (by two points a game). Give out awards for yards a game if you like, but last time I checked, you win based on points scored. That matters a whole lot more.

So, who’s going to win? The Patriots. By how much? Anywhere between 10 and 40 points. I could cloud you with more figures, but I won’t bother – apart from this:

My predictor is 35-3 in games this one-sided this season. One of those was the Cardinals beating the Seahawks in week 16. Another was the Bills beating the Patriots 16-0 in week 4, when the Patriots didn’t have a fit quarterback. The final one? The Texans – Chargers game in week 12. Unfortunately for Houston, they were meant to win it, and they lost – San Diego’s only road win of the season.

Pick: Patriots.
Predictor says: Patriots, 83% confidence, by 22.5 points.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs

This is an interesting matchup. If the Steelers were at home, they would be clear favourites, but a trip to Arrowhead makes this much harder to pick.

Undeniably, a team with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are not a team you can write off. Nevertheless, the Chiefs’ defense is tough, they have a quarterback who doesn’t tend to turn the ball over, and they also can run the ball. Add on to that a bye week to rest, and Andy Reid’s 16-2 record after a bye week, and something has to give. So who’s it gonig to be?

People will tell you the Steelers are poor on the road. Well, they’re not the best team, but they are 5-3 on the road, and the Chiefs are only marginally better at home (6-2), so there’s not a lot to choose there.

Intriguingly, their average points per game are almost identical (23.47 to 23.81), as are their points allowed (18.76 to 18.81). However, the Chiefs are marginally better scoring on the road than at home. The Steelers are the third-rated team on the road, behind only the Patriots and Cowboys. So, are the Steelers edging towards victory?

The Chiefs are 2-2 in their last four home games, which have been the toughest of their home games. The Steelers are 4-0 in their last 4 road games, and haven’t allowed more than 20 points in any of those games. They’ve also scored at least 24 points in all those games. That’s a significant turnaround compared to their first four road games, where they scored fewer than 16 points in 3 games, and allowed more than 20 on 3 occasions.

The Chiefs are 1-0 in home games against playoff teams this season, whilst the Steelers are 0-1 in road games against playoff teams.

I’ve flip-flopped on this all week, and I’m not confident. But I’m going to back the Steelers’ recent road form.

Pick: Steelers.
Predictor says: Too close to call. Based on previous similar matchups, it suggests Steelers.

Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys

I refuse to get carried away with how good this Green Bay Packers team is. Yes, they are good, but they’re not really good. Last week, they were flattered by a New York Giants team which had plenty of opportunities to take a big first half lead, but didn’t take them. The Giants paid for that in the second half, but the game could have looked very different had they taken those chances. I suspect the Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t have wasted those chances…

The Packers still have two main weaknesses. First, their defense is not great, especially right of the hash mark. I expect the Cowboys to exploit this. Second, they struggle to run the ball. There’s only so long you can rely on Aaron Rodgers. You need more than him to win a Super Bowl. The Cowboys’ defense aren’t great, but they aren’t bad either, and allow 6 points fewer per game than the Packers. It’s definitely advantage Cowboys.

The Packers give up too many points on the road. They allowed 47 against the Titans, 42 against the Redskins and 33 against the Falcons. Yes, they’ve also scored 30 points three times, but who against? The Falcons (terrible defense), the Bears (just terrible) and Lions (average).

The Cowboys have allowed 20 points at home 5 times, but never more than 26. They have only once scored fewer than 20 points at home, have surpassed 30 three times, and on one of those occasions, they scored 42 (against the Lions).

The Packers are 1-1 in road games against playoff teams this season. They beat the Lions and lost to the Falcons. The Cowboys are 1-1 in home games against playoff teams – they beat the Lions and lost to the Giants.

But, looking at the season, the Cowboys always do the business when they should – except against Eli Manning. Tom Brady knows all about that. The Giants just defy convention.

Pick: Cowboys.
Predictor: Cowboys, with 83% confidence, by 7 points.

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons

Although there are three cracking games this week, this is for me the most intriguing, because it’s a battle of relative strengths and weaknesses. It’s hard to know what will win out.

On one hand, the Falcons have an explosive offense, up against a team that whilst not as good as it has been, is hard to beat in the air. On the other, you have a Seahawks team which has struggled to score consistently, up against a Falcons defense which has more holes than emmental.

I suspect the end product may end up disappointing, as I’m coming to the conclusion the Falcons will likely be more able to score against a tough Seahawks defense, than the Seahawks will be able to take advantage of the Falcons’ ropey defense. I do hope I’m wrong though.

The Falcons have allowed 29 points or more 6 times at home this season, and have scored 30 points or more 6 times too. Their lowest scoring home game featured 54 points, a 41-13 win against San Fransisco. They have lost at home to Tampa Bay, San Diego and Kansas City, but all needed at least 25 points to win. Can Seattle score that many?

It’s hard to know. They can, but they don’t consistently. They scored 31 against New England on the road, but they also scored a combined 24 in Los Angeles, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Green Bay. Those four games combined would be enough to get a tie against Atlanta in their lowest-scoring game.

This is the Seahawks’ problem: against balanced teams, they’re a good matchup. They don’t create massive mismatches. Unfortunately, that’s their downfall this week. The rest of their game probably can’t make up for the mismatch of Julio Jones. I think any thoughts to the contrary are probably wishful thinking on my part.

Pick: Falcons.
Predictor: Falcons, with 62.5% confidence, by 9 points.

2016-17 NFL Playoffs – NFC Wild Card

Following on from my insight into the AFC playoff race, here’s your guide to the NFC playoffs.

New York Giants and Green Bay Packers

This game is easily the juciest game of the weekend. One team on a 6-game winning streak against another known for shutting down opposing offenses. Even better, the Eli Manning is 2-0 in the playoffs when playing at Lambeau Field, so this really should be the game to watch…

The Giants are 3-2 against playoff opposition this seasom. The Packers are 5-2, including a win against the Giants at Lambeau Field. The only playoff team the Giants have beaten on the road is the Cowboys (week 1). The only playoff team the Packers have lost to at home is the Cowboys (week 6).

The game isd essentially two teams’ weakenesses matched against each other on one side, and their strengths on the other. Are the Packers’ offense (ranked #4 on points) better than the Giants’ defense (#2)? Are are the Packers’ defense (#21) worse than the Giants’ offense (#26)?

At some point, Aaron Rodgers has to turn the ball over. At some point, the Packers’ run must end. At some point, Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Junior will connect and show that the Giants’ offense can be better than that #26 ranking.

The Giants’ pass coverage and the Packers’ issues in coverage, especially down the field on Clay Matthews’ side, mean this matchup is built to expose these. It may not happen, but this is the best chance the Giants will get.

I’m not confident picking this game, not least because both teams have been inconsistent this season. Despite the Packers’ impressive six-game winning streak, only the win against the Seahawks was unexpected. The other five were weak opponents. They’ve given up at least 24 points in each of their last three games, and that makes me think they’re not quite as good as others think, and that the Giants have just enough hope they can overcome their ropey road form to pull this one off.

The Giants and Packers met at Lambeau Field in week 5. The Packers won 23-16.

My pick: Giants
Predictor says: Packers, 80% confidence, by 8.5 points.

Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks

Let’s cut to the chase here: the Detroit Lions are the only playoff team not to have beaten another playoff team this season, and it’s not for lack of opportunity. They have lost to the Packers at home, and on the road to the Packers, Cowboys, Giants and Texans.

That really should tell you all you need to know. Against non-playoff teams, the Lions are 9-2. Against playoff teams, they are 0-5. They’ve had a good season, but it ends here. They’ve hit their glass ceiling. That shouldn’t disappoint them, they just need to accept they’ve hit their maximum potential this season.

The Seahawks, on the other hand, whilst inconsistent this season, have played well against playoff opposition, winning three out of four games. They beat the Falcons and Dolphins in Seattle, and beat a Brady-led Patriots team on the road in an impressive week 10 win. Their only loss was an odd road loss to the Packers 38-10 in week 14.

The real differentiator here is that whilst both teams score around 20 points a game, the Lions give up around 21, whereas the Seahawks are closer to 17 points a game. I don’t see the Lions running many points up on the road in Seattle.

My pick: Seahawks
Predictor says: Seahawks, 80% confidence, by 9 points.

Bye Week: Dallas Cowboys

If the New England Patriots are the best team in the NFL, most people would agree the Dallas Cowboys are the next best, and the best in the NFC. The regular season definitely suggests that, although come the playoffs, they will have to beat quality and experienced opposition to get to the Super Bowl.

The question mark the Cowboyd have to answer is this: when facing up to the Seahawks, Packers and Giants, do they have the poise to beat teams with quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning, who between them have five Super Bowl appearances, four of those on the winning side? No matter how good the Cowboys are, they will be up against teams who have proved they can win in the postseason, even if they’ve been merely average in the regular season.

Outside of experience, the Cowboys only have one obvious weakness to exploit: defense. They won 7 out of 8 games at home, their only loss was in week 1, to the New York Giants, and even then only by a point. Furthermore, four of their wins were double digit wins. However, they give up a median of 20 points at home, which whilst not the worst of the playoff teams, is not league leading either (though it should be pointed out, the three teams leading the league on this all missed out on the playoffs).

If you can slow down the Cowboys on offense, they’re beatable, because their defense allows scores – every road team scored at least 14 points this season against the Cowboys, compared to the Patriots who allowed three road teams a combined 13 points, whilst piling on 94 points at the same time.

Bye Week: Atlanta Falcons

If the Cowboys’ defense is a weakness, the Falcons’ defense is positively ugly. They allowed 29 points or more in 6 of their home games this season, which would put road teams in the top 10 for scoring in the NFL this season.

Of course, the reason Atlanta are in the playoffs is that they lead the league in scoring, comfortably, with an average of nearly 34 points a game.

That’s great, but what happens against quality opposition? Well, their two closest games this season at home came against two playoff teams. They played the Green Bay Packers in week 8, winning 33-32, and played the Kansas City Chiefs in week 13, losing 29-28.

In fact, despite all their scoring, five of their home games were one possession games. They beat three teams by two, three or even four scores, but those teams were the Panthers, Cardinals and 49ers, none of whom were great teams this season.

It’s hard to put 40 points up against a playoff team, and when you concede an average of 25+ points at home, you don’t have much margin for error. In short, this team gives up too many points to win the Super Bowl.

And the bad news? The most likely visitors to Atlanta next weekend are the Seattle Seahawks. To me, that’s the worst possible matchup for this team.