2019-20 NFL Playoffs – Conference Round

Last week was more successful than the wild card round, with my predictions going 3-1 (up from 1-3), giving me a very mediocre 4-4 postseason record in my picks this year.

Fortunately, I’m very confident in my picks this weekend. For the viewer, this may be a negative, as I don’t expect close games this weekend. I suspect this will be the dud week in this year’s postseason for action, but well see.

Last week’s surprise losers were the Baltimore Ravens, but you’ll see me argue, this was more down to the Ravens than the Titans. Anyway, let’s get on with predicting this week’s games, and I’ll fill you in as we go.

Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs

Both these teams featured in wild action last week. The Titans beat the #1 seed in the AFC by 28-12 – a big win; meanwhile, the Chiefs came from 24-0 a few minutes in the second quarter to lead before halftime, and win 51-31 overall. We certainly weren’t short-changed for entertainment.

So, how did the Titans win their game?

Well, it was Derrick Henry, obviously. Everyone knows that.

Except, no, that’s not how it happened. Yes, the Titans had more rushing yards, but not so many more (217 versus 185). In terms of yards per carry, the Ravens were better (6.3 versus 5.8).

The real problem was the lack of any balance in the Ravens’ offense. They ran 88 plays on offense, of which 79 involved Lamar Jackson throwing it (59 times), or running himself (20 times).

The running backs? 9 carries and 2 targets. A little predictable, especially when 5 of those carries came on the first two drives. The first drive ended on an interception. The second drive ended with a turnover on downs.

The Ravens shot themselves in the foot repeatedly, with three turnovers, all on Jackson (2 INT, 1 FUM), and four times turned over on downs (twice in the fourth quarter in desperation mode, twice in the first three quarters, both on 4th and 1, both with Jackson straight up the middle).

In short, this was a team determined they could only win with Lamar Jackson. They discovered, unfortunately, that they couldn’t. The Titans had 11 possessions, punting six times, scoring four TDs, and finishing up in victory formation on their final possession. Meanwhile, the Ravens also had 11 possessions, punting only once, because they turned over on downs four times, gave away a fumble and two interceptions.

In fact, all four Titans TDs came in possessions gained from turnovers (1 INT, 1 FUM, 2 DOWNS), and three of them with field position past halfway. The Titans were outgained by 530 yards to 300. Yes, that was partially because of the field position, but just look at that and realise how many points the Ravens left off the scoreboard, and how much easier they made it for the Titans.

The Chiefs experienced a very different game. On their first possession, trailing by 7 to an opening drive field goal, they punted, but it was blocked and returned for a score. Five minutes in, they trailed by 14. After being held to another (successful) punt on their next possession, they then held the Texans to a punt and a chance to get on the scoreboard.

Except, Tyreek Hill muffed the punt and, one play later, it was 21-0 to the Texans. You didn’t feel like it was over (it was early still), but it was close.

To make things worse (could they be? Oh yes!), the following kickoff was also muffed and the Chiefs went 3 and out. The Texans then took 5 minutes to drive up for a field goal, making it 24-0 only 20 minutes into the game. The Chiefs were losing the time of possession by about 15 minutes to 5. Whilst at 21-0 it looked hard, but doable, at 24-0 it was looking like a game that was pretty much over.

But the Kansas City Chiefs aren’t a normal football team. They’re an exceptional team, and from then on justified why I keep saying they’re going to be in the Super Bowl. Suddenly, everything seemed to click, helped by a 58 yard kickoff return to, ahem, “kick” things off.

The Chiefs scored three touchdowns and a combined time of possession of less than three minutes. Their defense probably weren’t happy about the speed of scoring, but it dramatically altered the feel of the game. Although down by 3, having been so far down, and playing at home, it was now hard to see how the Texans would hold things together.

In fairness to the Texans, they tried to keep pace, but once the game became a shootout, they just didn’t have the firepower. The stats books will say they were seriously outgunned, but in terms of yardage, the game overall as fairly level. The difference is, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on 7 consecutive possessions.

The Texans aren’t a great team, but they’re a good team. I’d put them in a similar bracket to the Texans. However, I would say these two things, that go against the Titans this week:

  • The Texans have a better offense overally, yet couldn’t keep up with the Chiefs once they hit their stride, even with a massive head start;
  • The Titans have a better defense, but even the New England Patriots, who held opponents to a QB Rating of less than 65 over the season, couldn’t stop the Chiefs when they played.

The Chiefs won’t score 51 points, but they might score 30. Can the Titans score 30? I doubt it. The Chiefs average 20 points per game allowed this season.

The Chiefs are ranked #5 in my Power Rankings, #6 at home, #3 for point scored, #11 for points allowed.

The Titans are ranked #9 overall, #10 on the road, #8 for points scored, #10 for points allowed.

Both teams are 4-3 against playoff opponents. The Chiefs are 3-2 at home. The Titans are 3-0 on the road, all in the last three weeks. That stops now.

The predictor picks: the Chiefs.
I pick: Kansas City Chiefs.

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers

I think most people will be tempted to think this is a closer game. The 49ers are 6-2 at home in the regular season. The Packers are 6-2 on the road. The Packers have 13 regular season wins, as do the 49ers. Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback the world has ever seen and Jimmy Garoppolo is just a backup QB made to look good in the New England offense, and it’s just good fortune the magic hasn’t worn off yet…

That’s basically what people seem to be saying. What does Jimmy G need to do to prove himself to people?

Garoppolo has a better passing completion percentage than Rodgers this season (69% to 62%), more touchdowns (27 to 26), more yards per attempt (8.4 to 7.6), a better QB Rating (102.0 to 95.4) and more game winning drives (4 to 2).

Anyone telling you Rodgers is the greatest, and that Garoppolo still needs to prove himself, isn’t worth listening to. Yes, Rodgers is a very good, but he’s not doing anything right now, that other quarterbacks, Garoppolo included, aren’t.

For me, the key matchup in this game is the Packers’ offense vs the 49ers’ defense. The 49ers have the #2 defense in the league in terms of yards per game, yards per play, and are #8 in terms of point per game allowed.

The Packers are #18 in terms of yards per game and yards per play, and #15 on total points.

Going back to the Packers’ Divisional Round game, the interesting thing to note is all 7 TDs in that game (four for the Packers, three for the Seahawks) came on drives of 60 yards or more. The Seahawks had drives of 9, 10 and 12 plays, and the Packers had drives of 5, 8, 9 and 11 plays.

The 49ers don’t give up many long plays either on the ground, and neither the Packers nor the 49ers are known for their big play explosiveness. However, there is one small difference: in the NFC, the 49ers give up the fewest number of plays of 40+ yards (5), whilst the Packers give up the most (15).

If the 49ers take an early lead, I don’t see an easy way for the Packers to get back into it. If, however, the Packers can get the early lead, it could be a more interesting game, because whilst favourites, and with a great offense (especially the receiving corps), the 49ers aren’t a team than can score with the explosiveness of, to pick a random example, the Kansas City Chiefs.

The predictor picks: the 49ers.
I pick: San Francisco 49ers.

2019-20 NFL Playoffs – Divisional Round

The great thing about the playoffs is you make really confident picks, then the exact opposite happens. But still, this is worth reading, because this week, I’ll (obviously) be correct.

So, I might not have done very well last week, picking one winner out of four (although I did say there was every chance the Texans would win, and the was more than a whiff of an upset about the Patriots-Titans game), but obviously that was just a blip, and I’m going to pick all four winners this week.

That’s the plan, anyway.

Minnesota Vikings @ San Francisco 49ers

The Vikings managed to run the ball well last week (it helped having Dalvin Cook back), and Kirk Cousins delivered well on the long throws. The Saints really under-performed, struggling to run the ball, and unfortunately when coming back to the passing game, they’re a bit like the Patriots – they rely a lot on one man (Michael Thomas, in this case). One man can’t carry a team.

I don’t see the 49ers having the same issue. They can run the ball well, they have a better defense and in the passing game, they have some great weapons – George Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel.

They have lost twice at home (to the Seahawks by 3 in week 10, and to the Falcons by 7 in week 15), but they’ve also blown away the opposition in four games at home, including beating the Green Bay Packers, 37-8 in week 12. Off a bye week, I don’t see this team getting beaten. My Power Rankings put the 49ers at #2 and the Vikings at #7. However, the Vikings are ranked #13 on the road, and I think they will struggle.

The predictor picks: the 49ers (by 2.5 points).
Vikings confidence level: 67%.
49ers confidence level: 67%.
My pick: San Francisco 49ers.

Tennessee Titans @ Baltimore Ravens

The Titans did well last week, running straight through the Patriots defense for parts of the game. But they still struggled to score points, albeit against the stingiest defense my power rankings have ever seen. If only the Patriots could play on the other side of the ball this year, things would be very different…

The Titans may well pile up the rushing yards again today, but stopping the Ravens will be a huge task, one I don’t think they can quite manage.

The Titans are 3-3 against playoff opponents, whereas the Ravens are a league-leading 5-1. Their only loss was on the road to the Kansas City Chiefs. They’ve hosted three playoff teams in the regular season, winning them all – the 49ers by 3, the Patriots by 17 and the Texans by 34. There are eight regular season games played between playoff teams where the score differential was 10 points or more. The Ravens won three of those, as they also beat the Seahawks by 14 in Seattle.

The Titans appeared in two, winning in Houston by 21 in week 17 (see last week’s caveats there), and losing by 10 at home to New Orleans – who lost last week.

The Titans are #9 in my Power Rankings. The Ravens are #1. If the Ravens don’t win, it’ll be the most questionable thing to happen in the NFL since they didn’t check David Tyree’s helmet for cyanoacrylates.

The predictor picks: the Ravens (by 1.5 points).
Titans confidence level: No data.
Ravens confidence level: 100%.
My pick: Baltimore Ravens.

Houston Texans @ Kansas City Chiefs

This is predicted to be the closest game of the week, although I expect that to be the game at Lambeau, if I’m honest.

I think the Chiefs are the strongest team in the league. The struggled a bit in the middle of the season when Patrick Mahomes was injured, but they have a very good defense and an unbelievable offense. They run the ball well (with two solid backs in Damien Williams and LeSean McCoy) and they can throw to Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins.

On the other side, DeSean Watson is indecisive under pressure, which is bad news when you’re up against a team with 45 sacks and 16 interceptions in the regular season.

The Chiefs are ranked #5 in my Power Rankings. The Texans are #14. This is a mismatch. The Texans are ranked #19 in point allowed. Good luck stopping that offense…

Yes, for completeness, the Texans did visit Arrowhead in week 6, and they did win by 7. But they don’t have Will Fuller this time, and the Chiefs are +61 in point differential in their last 3 games at home. I’m not buying this as a road win.

The predictor picks: the Chiefs (by 0.5 points).
Texans confidence level: 50%.
Chiefs confidence level: 50%.
My pick: Kansas City Chiefs.

Seattle Seahawks @ Green Bay Packers

This is possibly the most intriguing game of the week. The Seahawks and Packers have both shown glimpses of being really good teams this year, and have also both looked average, or even quite poor, at times. So what will we get this weekend?

The Packers are 7-1 at home this season. They’re 1-1 against playoff teams at Lambeau Field, beating the Vikings and losing to the Eagles. But, they haven’t played a top-ten ranked road team this season.

The Seahawks are 7-2 on the road this season. They’ve beaten the Eagles twice, both times by eight points, and they’ve also beaten the 49ers. They are ranked #6 on the road. Seven of their nine games have been decided by one possession.

The Seahawks are ranked #13 in my Power Rankings, with the Packers at #6. The issue for both teams is points scored (Green Bay #14, Seattle #9). But making things worse for the Seahawks, they’re ranked #20 on points allowed. The are better on the road (+3 PD, median), but the Packers’ defense is better at home.

Also, it’s expected to snow.

You can come up with reason why both teams can lose this one. Some will say Russell Wilson can make the difference, but are you really saying Aaron Rodgers couldn’t do the same? And is Marshawn Lynch really going to play well enough to be a difference maker? He wasn’t last week.

I knowe the Seahawks are good on the road, I know they had a tougher schedule, I know their offense probably has more upside in a tough game, but it’s hard to go against Green Bay at home, with a week off. I just trust the Packers to do enough to get it done. I might live to regret it, and it’s for me, the tightest game of the week, but I’m going for four home wins out of four.

The predictor picks: the Packers (by 4.5 points).
Seahawks confidence level: 0%*.
Packers confidence level: 0%*.
My pick: Green Bay Packers.

*I think this game has well and truly broken my predictor.

Summary

Four games, four home wins. The first three, I don’t see any other outcome, short of injury issues in game. The last one? Who knows!

Join me next week, when my picks for the Super Bowl have already lost, and I need to rewrite the script from scratch.

2019-20 NFL Playoffs – Wild Card Round

New Year, new NFL season of NFL playoffs. Time for me tell you how it’s all going to pan out.

Last year, I said the playoffs were as open as they has been for a long time, with no team standing head and shoulders above the rest – and it probably was! As it turned out, the experience of the New England Patriots, and their knack of getting it done against tough opponents throughout the season, was enough to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead to get to the Super Bowl, and enough to beat the Los Angeles Rams once they got there.

This year, I don’t think the Super Bowl is quite as open. I expect the Super Bowl to be contested by one of the top two seeds in each conference, with everyone else, whilst good, there to make up the numbers.

One thing that strikes me this season is the lack of any team in the playoffs that really doesn’t deserve to be there. The Eagles, with the weakest record, have suffered with a lot of injuries, but are a worthy opponent for anyone. The Titans, sneaking in at the #6 seed in the AFC, have been very impressive since Ryan Tannehill became the starting QB. The Seahawks, at the #5 seed in the NFC, very nearly won their division (the toughest by far this year, too), and the Vikings at #6 had 10 wins with a net point differential in three figures. There’s no-one coasting in these playoffs, and unlikely to be anyone blown away.

That said, here’s a brief preview of each of the Wild Card fixtures:

Buffalo Bills @ Houston Texans

One way to see how good a team really is, is to examine how it fared against fellow playoff teams in the regular season. Last season’s Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, came into the playoffs with a 100% record against fellow playoff teams.

Neither team here is quite that impressive. The Houston Texans have played six games, winning three. They’re 2-2 on the road and 1-1 at home. That said, their home loss was in week 17 against the Tennessee Titans, a game that meant very little. The win? They beat the New England Patriots 28-22 in week 13.

The Buffalo Bills have played five games, losing four. The good news? One of those wins was on the road, in week 5 against the Titans. Otherwise, they’ve lost twice to the Patriots (home and road, as divisional rivals), and at home to both the Ravens and Eagles.

According to my Power Rankings, the Bills are ranked #11 and the Texans #13, so they are closely matched. Both are better on the road. The Texans score more points, but the Bills have the #2 scoring defense in the league, trailing only the Patriots. The Bills had a slightly easier schedule (the NFC East ranks #8 by a long way, the NFC South ranks #2) in a *slightly* easier division (yes, the Patriots are good, but the AFC South had three viable teams for most of the season).

Most of my Power Rankings figures put the Bills a tad ahead of the Texans, which his annoying given the previous data about games against fellow playoff teams. If the Bills had a better offense, they’d be an easy pick here.

A 1-4 record against fellow playoff opponents is poor, but it’s hard to pick against the Bills here. The Texans have lost their last two games at home. Yes, one was week 17, but they also lost in week 14, to the Denver Broncos. And they lost it badly, 28-14, only a week after beating the Patriots. They only just beat the Colts and Raiders (both by 3), and the Bills are a tougher opponent than either of those.

The Bills, meanwhile, are 6-2 on the road, and whilst they haven’t beaten anyone better than the Titans (when Mariota was still the starter, too), they’ve won five of those games by 7 points or more.

It’s a really tough pick. My predictor really struggles with the Texans, because they’re just not a consistent team.

The predictor picks: the Bills (by 2.5 points).
Bills confidence level: 80%.
Texans confidence level: 0% (Yes, the predictor has, in effect, predicted against itself 😑)
My pick: Buffalo Bills.

Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots

Last year, as mentioned earlier, the Patriots had a perfect record against playoff opponents. This year, it’s only half as good. They’ve played six, won three. 1-1 at home, 2-2 on the road. At home, they’ve beaten the Bills and lost to the Ravens.

The Titans have played five, won two. That said, they’ve played one on the road, and won it. But it was the week 17 game that didn’t mean much to the Texans. Still, momentum. Something the Patriots don’t have after losing at home to the Miami Dolphins.

The Titans are, quite possibly, the most inconsistent team in football, but that’s in part because of their change at QB, which has improved the team as the season has progressed. They are, arguably, a slightly better team than their rating puts them (#10 in my Power Rankings, compared to #3 for the Patriots).

The Titans are another team that plays better on the road, but going to Ne England is a tough prospect, especially against the #1 scoring defense in the league.

On first look, and recent performances, I’d probably favour the Titans. Especially as Derrick Henry might run straight through the Patriots’ defense. But on a slightly deeper inspection, there’s good reason to keep trusting in a home win for the Patriots.

First, on the Patriots’ side. They don’t often lose two straight games. Their week 16 win against Buffalo was also very impressive, so the Dolphins game was probably an outlier. But furthermore, the Patriots had no takeaways in their last two games. Cause for concern? Maybe. Or perhaps they’re overdue a couple. And when the Patriots win the turnover battle, they almost always win, except against the very best (and, Titans fans, you’re not quite in that bracket).

The Titans have not played a close road game all season. The closest was in week 9, where they lost by 10 to the Carolina Panthers. They’ve also lost to the Jaguars and Broncos. Their road wins? They came against the Texans (week 17, not wholly competitive), Falcons, Browns, Colts and Raiders.

So whilst this Titans team has a good road record, it’s not as good as it should be for the opponents they’ve faced. That said, the Patriots’ point differential in their first four home games was +81, compared to +1 in their last four.

I think I will again trust the more consistent data set (the Patriots at home), despite this having more than a whiff of an upset written on it.

My predictor picks: the Patriots (by 0.5 points).
Titans confidence level: 0% (again 😑).
Patriots confidence level: 100%.
My pick: New England Patriots.

Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints

Of the four games this weekend, this is, on paper, the easiest to predict. The Saints are a strong home team, and have won six of their eight home games this season. An inexplicable loss to Atlanta in week 10 aside, the Saints have been consistent at home. They did lose in week 14 to the San Francisco 49ers (48-46), but they also beat the Texans, Cowboys and Colts. However, four of their games were decided by 3 points or fewer, so don’t expect this to be a blowout game (although it might be… I’ll come back to that).

The biggest issue for the Saints is their defense. They’ve kept opponents to 10 points or fewer three times this year, but in the other five games, they’ve allowed 24 points or more.

The Vikings, on the other hand, are 4-4 on the road. None of those wins come against playoff teams. They lost the Kansas City by 3, to Green Bay by 5, and to Seattle by 7. But they have kept the games close, so it still doesn’t look unmanageable for the Vikings.

According to my Power Rankings, the Saints are ranked #4, and the Vikings are ranked #7. The Saints score about 3 points per game more, but allow about 2.5 points per game more too. The Vikings score better on the road (28 PPG vs 25.5 PPG), whereas the Saints give up more at home (25 PPG vs 21.5 PPG).

But there is one area that makes it look like the Saints should have this covered. The Saints have played seven games against a top ten rushing offense this season:

TeamRankGame TypeResult
San Francisco 49ers#2HomeLost by 2
Tennessee Titans#3RoadWon by 10
Seattle Seahawks#4RoadWon by 6
Dallas Cowboys#5HomeWon by 2
Indianapolis Colts#7HomeWon by 27
Houston Texans#9HomeWon by 2
Arizona Cardinals#10HomeWon by 22

As you can see, aside from a loss to the 49ers, which I’ll put down to being beaten (in a close contest) by a better team, the Saints, with the #4 rushing defense in the league, have had the better of opponents whose game relies mainly on the run.

The Vikings rank #6 rushing and #23 passing.

Against playoff opponents, the Vikings are 1-4 (20%), and the Saints are 3-1 (75%).

My predictor picks: the Saints (by 0.5 points).
Vikings confidence level: 100%.
Saints confidence level: 83%.
My pick: New Orleans Saints.

Seattle Seahawks @ Philadelphia Eagles

This is the only game of Wild Card week that’s a repeat of the regular season. These teams met in week 12 in Philadelphia, where the Seahawks won 17-9.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the Eagles went 9-7 in the regular season, and the Seahawks went 11-5, my Power Rankings rank the Seahawks #14, and the Eagles #9. Well, it’s mainly the home form. The Seahawks have struggled at home, posting a 4-4 record and allowing a lot of points (they lost two home games by two scores). Thankfully for them, their road record is much better (7-1).

Indeed, they’ve won both their road games against playoff opposition, as not only did they beat the Eagles in week 12, but they also beat the 49ers 27-24 in week 10. Their only road loss was to the Rams in week 14, by 28-12.

The Eagles are 5-3 at home, but haven’t beaten any playoff opponents. Their three losses were to the Lions (week 3), the Patriots (week 11) and the Seahawks (week 12, if you didn’t pick that up before now).

The Eagles are 2-3 overall against playoff opposition. The Seahawks are fractionally better at 3-3.

My predictor picks: the Eagles (by 2.5 points).
Seahawks confidence level: 67%.
Eagles confidence level: 100%.
My pick: Seattle Seahawks.

Closing Thoughts

Of the teams playing this week, I only see the New Orleans Saints as outsiders for the Super Bowl. However, in order to get there, they need to win this week and then win at Lambeau Field in the Divisional Round, which is a tough ask given it’s always likely to be cold there in January, and the Saints are an indoor team. I don’t see any of the other teams troubling the Super Bowl.

If the Patriots win this week, they’ll travel to Arrowhead, where I fancy the Chiefs to take care of them (in what would be a repeat of last year’s AFC Championship, albeit a week earlier). I don’t see any of the four AFC teams playing this week causing sleepless nights for the Baltimore Ravens (the Chiefs would cause them concern, though).

On the NFC side, the Vikings are too reliant on the run, the Eagles are too banged up and the Seahawks just don’t quite score enough points. If the Saints can win this week and at Lambeau, a trip to San Francisco might be a very interesting game. But overall, the top seeds deserve their byes – they are, for me, the best teams in the league this year.

And if I had to pick the one game that’s most in-the-air this week, it would be the Bills-Texans game. I may have picked the Bills, but for me, it’s on a knife-edge.

See you next week when I’ve got them all wrong, and the Texans have just blown out the Bills 59-0!

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