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.

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.

2015-16 NFL Playoffs – Divisional Round

The Wild Card round was unusual in that all the road teams had significant playoff experience (especially at quarterback), and ultimately that showed as all four home teams were knocked out. Can we expect the same this week? I doubt it,

My predictions last week proved to be a little hit and miss.

The Seahawks beat Minnesota, but it most definitely was a contest, and they needed the Vikings to miss a (usually) relatively easy field goal in extreme cold in order to come out on top.

The Packers beat Washington in a game I said was very tough to call, and it was only because they found great form in the second half they managed to pull the win off.

I said everything pointed to a Chiefs win (but couldn’t bring myself to pick and Andy Reid team to win), and they did. Even more comfortably than anyone really thought. The Texans shut out at home – the only home team to be shut out this season.

And I picked the Steelers to beat the Bengals. I said it was theirs to lose, and they nearly did lose it. However, having thrown away a big lead, the Bengals couldn’t then take advantage as they managed to throw the game away in spectacular fashion later on. In amusement terms, it ranks with the Colts’ miserable excuse for a play on 4th and 3 against the Patriots earlier this season.

So, what’s on the divisional round card for this week?

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots

Normally, this would be an easy game to call. The Patriots rarely lose at home, and the Chiefs, despite their eleven game winning streak, would not normally be seen as a team to fear in the AFC.

However, having annihilated the Texans last week, and with the Patriots winning only two of their last six, this becomes a tough game to call. On paper, The Patriots have the advantage (2.115 to 1.701). They are third-ranked at home, and the Chiefs are ninth-ranked on the road.

The Patriots have lost once at home this season, to the Eagles (twelfth-ranked on the road) in a game decided by special teams rather than offense and in a game where the Patriots were ravaged by injury.

The Chiefs run the ball well. Alex Smith can scramble and run well, and he looks after the football. They have beaten Denver on the road this season, but Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are very different propositions.

The Patriots will struggle to get many takeaways and may struggle if they fall behind. However, they should play better than in recent weeks, having had a week off. They’ve had a number of players injured who should now be healthier – Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola on offense, and Dont’a Hightower on defense.

With New England at home, Edelman back and an extra week to prepare, I think there’s enough here for the Patriots to win. Plus, the last time Brady played the Chiefs, he was benched in one of the worst New England performances in living memory. He’ll be out for revenge.

Edelman is the key. It’s not so hard to beat the Patriots if you only need to focus on one top receiver. However, it’s much harder when you have to focus on two. Brady needs to get the ball out quickly and Edelman is the man he’ll be looking for.

I’d be foolish to go against the Patriots, and I won’t. But I’m not confident about it. Whoever wins, they’ll fancy their chances next week.

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals

This is an intriguing game. The Packers have struggled in the second half of the season, but they rediscovered their form in the second half against Washington last week. Their success seems to be linked to their ability to run the ball well. When they can do that, they pass the ball better too.

The good news for the Packers is that Eddie Lacy will likely play against the Cardinals. The bad news is that Davante Adams won’t. The Cardinals, of course, have had a week off to prepare and rest…

And that’s probably a good thing. They really struggled against the Seahawks in week 17, so a week to get that out of their system was probably needed. Green Bay’s offense, whilst better last week, is probably still one of the weaker ones in the playoffs overall (unless they show more consistency this weekend), and their defense is not anywhere near as strong as Arizona’s.

The rankings give this to Arizona (2.236 to 1.788) and I’d agree with it. However, Arizona’s loss to the Seahawks does just make me wonder a little, as does Green Bay’s second half performance last week. I still think Arizona will win fairly comfortably – by at least ten points.

But I still don’t give them a hope next week.

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers

I’ll be straight to the point. This, for me, is the game that most likely gives us this year’s Super Bowl winner. Seattle are the most likely team to beat Carolina out of all the teams left. If Carolina win, they’ll fear no-one. If Seattle win, they’ve beaten the best home team in the league this season. Part of me really wants to see a Patriots – Seahawks rematch, but I think that’s unlikely. Of course, we could see a Denver – Seattle rematch too…

Anyway, the Seahawks have been on fire towards the end of the season, despite their fortunate escape last week. However, their reliance on that fortunate escape was in part down to the exceptionally cold weather they were playing in.

This week, Marshawn Lynch will likely play. Will he play the whole game? No-one knows. But if he plays, he should be fresh. He should be a big presence in the game if he’s on the field.

The Panthers are favoured here (2.267 to 1.719) but the Seahawks have a mean rush defense, and can burn any team through the air or on the ground. It’s strange to say it given Seattle’s history and the Legion of Boom, but I think the key to this game is how the Panthers pass the ball. They’ll need to pass well to win the game, and I think Seattle are vulnerable there. But it’s a very dangerous approach and can go very wrong…

The Seahawks have given up one offensive touchdown in their last six road games. This won’t be a shoot-out. The statistics say Carolina should win. I say Seattle will somehow manage to grind this out. But the winner will go to the Super Bowl, and whoever they play, they’ll be favourites to win it.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos

This one, for me, is an easy pick. The Denver Broncos will win, even with Peyton Manning starting. On paper, they have a comfortable advantage (2.042 to 1.375).

The Steelers will be missing their top rusher (Le’Veon Bell) and receiver (Antonio Brown) and the quarterback will be playing with a separated shoulder.

On the other side, the Broncos have one of the strongest defenses in the league, have two healthy rushers who have been competing for carries all season, and a healthy array of receivers.

This will be a comfortable win for the Broncos, even with the second and third-best quarterbacks in the game. And whoever they play next week, it will be an intriguing game.

Playoff Rankings

For reference, the following table shows the rankings for each of the teams still in the playoffs, with their playoff seeding, home and road rankings.

TeamSeedHomeRoad
Carolina Panthers12.422.11
Denver Broncos12.042.04
New England Patriots22.111.51
Arizona Cardinals22.062.41
Kansas City Chiefs52.041.70
Green Bay Packers51.791.79
Pittsburgh Steelers62.061.38
Seattle Seahawks61.721.72

2015-16 NFL Playoffs – NFC Wild Card

Having already looked at the AFC playoff contenders yesterday, today is the turn of the NFC teams. Can the Carolina Panthers win with homefield advantage? Will the Seattle Seahawks continue their hot run? Can the Green Bay Packers rediscover their form? Time will tell…

By the time this post is published, the AFC wild card games will be done, so my views may well look very silly. Going by my predictions in recent years, there’s a very good possibility of that – my record of picking winners in the playoffs has been hit-and-miss. However, it’s not going to stop me, here are my thoughts on tonight’s NFC games and the bye week teams.

Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings

According to my rankings, and the NFC seedings, the Vikings should be the favourites in this game. Their overall ranking leads the Seahawks (1.968 to 1.719), and when accounting for home/road rankings, this lead increases (2.146 to 1.719).

However, don’t be fooled. The Seahawks started the season badly, losing four of their first six games (to the Rams, Packers, Bengals and Panthers). However, they’ve lost only twice since then (to the Cardinals, and the Rams again). In that stretch, they’ve also beaten three playoff teams – the Cardinals, Steelers and Vikings. Thus, their record against playoff teams this season stands at 3-4. However, in week 10 it was 0-4, so it’s clear to see which direction they’ve been heading in.

Now, the Vikings. They’re not a bad team, but they are flattered by their #3 seeding. They have a 6-2 record at home this season, but the two they lost, they lost heavily. Both those losses were against playoff teams (Green Bay, Seattle). Both were in the last six weeks. Oh, yes? Have you joined the dots yet? The Seahawks didn’t beat the Vikings in Seattle. They beat them in Minnesota. They beat them 38-7.

The Vikings are 2-4 against playoff teams this season. When they’ve won, it’s been close – the game against the Packers in week 17 was their clearest win, and that was settled inside the two minute warning. The two games they’ve lost, they’ve been outscored 68-20.

No contest.

Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins

This is an intriguing game. The Redskins are, according to my rankings, the weakest team in the playoffs, but they’re up against a team that’s struggled in the second half of the season, but without much cause. Yes, Jordy Nelson is out, but he has been for the whole season. Their QB is healthy, and a secure starter, their running back is healthy, and so are their other wide receivers, yet they can’t score.

Whilst the Patriots have stumbled into the playoffs having lost two running backs, a third of their defense, most of their offensive line and at one point, their top two wide receivers and tight end, the Packers have no such players to welcome back as the playoffs progress. This is as good as it gets – and it starts from a worse position.

That said, they’re probably better on the road than at home right now. They’ve won three of their last four on the road, one of them against playoff contenders (Minnesota).

Washington, on the other hand, can’t always be trusted at home. They lost in week 1 to Miami, and have won 6 or the last 7 at home, but lost at home to the Cowboys in week 13 – a result that would make the shortlist for shock road win of the season.

Put with that, they’ve really not had any strong opposition to play at home this season. Only the New York Jets have had an easier home schedule. Thus, the faltering visitors meet the untested hosts. And, of the four games this weekend, this is the only one where the teams haven’t met this season. A tough one to call.

The Redskins are 0-2 against playoff teams this season (both road losses) and the Packers are 4-3. However, the Packers’ last two games were both against playoff teams, and they lost by a combined 58-20. I’d like to see the Packers win, but current form says the Redskins should do it.

Bye week: Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers top my rankings this season. It’s easy to see why. They went 15-1 in the regular season, losing once once, to the Atlanta Falcons on the road in week 16. This will probably help them, as no-one is now talking about an undefeated season – an unwelcome distraction gone.

Only once did they score less than 20 points, and that was against the Falcons. They scored 37 points or more 7 times. They kept their opponents to less than 20 points 8 times, including a shut-out against the Falcons in week 14. It’s easy to see why they went 15-1. They also beat the Texans, Seahawks, Packers and Redskins along the way.

No-one visiting Carolina will be favourites, and the only team I can see winning there is the Seahawks. Of course, if the Seahawks beat the Vikings this weekend, the road to the Super Bowl would then likely go through Arizona, with Seattle having already beaten Arizona in week 17…

Bye week: Arizona Cardinals

Ah, yes. Arizona. This team finished second in my rankings, and for most of the season, they too have scored freely. They’ve scored 30 points of more 9 times, and forty points or more 4 times, although the quality of those teams was towards the lower end of the rankings.

They’ve beaten the Packers, Vikings, Bengals and Seahawks, but lost to the Steelers. But, more to the point, they were crushed at home to the Seahawks in week 17. I know they didn’t play their starters for the whole game, and they claim they weren’t trying to win the game, but the Seahawks were crushing them before the starters were benched. If they play the Seahawks in the playoffs (which could only happen in the NFC Championship game), I don’t see them winning.

Unfortunately for them, not playing the Seahawks likely means playing the Panthers – unless Minnesota win against Seattle and the winner of the Redskins – Packers game beats Carolina. That’s a very long shot…

Sorry, Arizona. Your route to the Super Bowl is just too hard.

NFC Rankings

For reference, the following table shows the rankings for each of the NFC teams in the playoffs, with their playoff seeding, home and road rankings.

TeamSeedHomeRoad
Carolina Panthers12.422.11
Arizona Cardinals22.062.41
Minnesota Vikings32.151.79
Washington Redskins42.041.02
Green Bay Packers51.791.79
Seattle Seahawks61.721.72