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 – AFC Wild Card

With the postseason about to start, you’ve been dying for a low-down on the AFC race. Wait no longer.

There’s one thing I love about January: the NFL playoffs. There’s also one thing that disappoints me about January: the NFL season is nearly over. So, if it’s nearly over, let’s enjoy it while it’s still here.

Looking at my detailed statistics, fine-tuned for the 2016-17 season and more accurate than ever due to my top-secret new formula, I’ll take you through the AFC Wild Card games…

Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans

Last season, the Houston Texans won their division and hosted an AFC West team in the playoffs. They lost. If the Oakland Raiders had won in week 17, this would be a rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs, and I suspect they would lose again.

As it is, the Raiders’ star quarterback is out for the season, their backup is also injured, and they travel to Houston for an intriguing match up.

On paper, this Raiders team (12-4) is better than last season’s Chiefs (11-50, whilst the Texans are again merely an average team winning a poor division. So what are they good at?

The Texans are very good at home, going 7-1 in the regular season. They even beat the Kansas City Chiefs 19-12 in week 2. They have allowed fewer than 15 points at home in half of their home games, although their opposition haven’t been particularly strong.

Still, you can only beat the teams in front of you, and four of their seven wins were by seven points or more – not bad considering they haven’t scored 30 points in a single game at home all season.

Their other strength, as you may have picked up, is their defense. Overall, their defense ranks 10th in the league for points allowed, but at home, only the Chiefs, Patriots and Seahawks have meaner defenses.

In short, they may be an average team, but that’s averaged out between a good home team and a poor road team. Only the Seahawks have a larger disparity between home and road performance. Good thing they’re at home then!

So, what of the Raiders?

Let’s be honest, if Derek Carr wasn’t injured, Oakland would be hot favourites. But, he is injured. So is their backup. They will likely need to start their third-string quarterback, rookie Connor Cook.

Good news for Oakland: the Texans average around 20.5 points at home, and the Raiders average around 22.5 on the road. However, the Raiders’ road defense is as bad as the Cleveland Browns on the road, and as I’ve mentioned, the Texans are in the top 10. Everything points to a home win.

My projections give it to the Texans by 2.5 points, before you account for the Raiders’ quarterback issues, despite being ranked #26 in points difference in the whole NFL – ahead of only the Jaguars, Jets, Bears, Rams, 49ers and Browns.

The teams met in week 14 in Oakland, where the Raiders won 27-20.

My pick: Texans.
Predictor says: Texans, 100% confidence, by 2.5 points.

Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers

At the start of the season, people talked of the Steelers as potential Super Bowl champions. After the first couple of weeks, it all went a bit wrong.

After winning four of their first five games, they lost four on the bounce, including to the Cowboys, Patriots and Dolphins, before winning out in their last seven games.

The trouble is, only one of those final seven games was against playoff opposition (the Giants), although in week 3 they did hammer the Chiefs 43-14 at home. So, overall they are 2-3 against playoff opposition.

The good thing for the Steelers? Their two losses at home were to the AFC and NFC #1 seeds, so they only lose to really good teams. And the Dolphins aren’t really good.

The Dolphins are 1-3 against playoff opposition. The Patriots beat them comfortably in Foxboro back when Tom Brady was suspended in the interests of trying to stop the Patriots winning. They were squeaked out by the Seahawks in week 1 when the Seahawks looked very lost. And in week 17, they were annihilated by the Patriots.

Don’t get too excited by the 9 wins in 10 games between weeks 6 and 16 either. Yes, they beat the Steelers, but that was at home, and their other wins were against the Bills (twice), Jets (twice), Chargers, Rams, 49ers and Cardinals. The Steelers aside (who are 3-5 on the road), none of those teams even went .500 this season. This is a team flying high on a weak schedule, who get beat against quality opposition.

The Dolphins are 4-4 on the road, and are middling at best in terms of points scored and points allowed. They average 19 points on the road (the Steelers average 28.5). They don’t give up any more points on the road, but it won’t be enough to save them.

Points difference gives this to the Steelers by 12.5.

The teams met in week 6 in Miami (another reverse fixture!), where the Dolphins won 30-15.

My pick: Steelers.
Predictor says: Steelers, 100% confidence, by 12.5 points.

Bye Week: New England Patriots

The Patriots are the best team in football, even without Gronkowski, and without Jamie Collins. Forget the hype around the Cowboys, Packers and Seahawks – they’re all good, but the Patriots are the team to knock off the top of the perch.

The Patriots may not win the Super Bowl – plenty of favourites don’t – but they are by far the team to beat. The Dallas Cowboys look very good, but their rookie quarterback will need to step up a gear in the playoffs to hold off two of the Falcons, Packers, Seahawks and Giants to just get to the Super Bowl (don’t worry about the Lions, they’re toast).

So why are the Patriots so good? Well, we know all about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but the standout reason the Patriots are so good this year is that they give up fewer than 16 points a game – that’s two points a game fewer than the next best team (the Giants). They win their games by an average of 12 points – nearly 4 points more than the next best team (the Falcons).

People questioned trading Jamie Collins to the Browns. Things might change in the playoffs, but they haven’t looked like they’ve missed him much so far.

Then there’s Martellus Bennett. The Patriots have a second tight end who can win any matchup – with one upside on Rob Gronkowski. He’s not a walking hospital case.

Finally, there’s the run game. The Patriots aren’t known for the run – or at least, they weren’t. But with Dion Lewis, LaGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, James White and James Develin in the backfield, this Patriots team can run the ball down any team’s throat.

And that’s why they’re the team to beat.

Bye Week: Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs secured a bye on the back of Oakland’s bad fortune. They’ll be glad they did, as a trip to Houston would have been tricky, having lost there in week 2.

If any team in the AFC can beat the Patriots to the Super Bowl, this is probably the team to do it. They won 6 out of 8 on the road on the back of one of the toughest schedules in the league. Of their road games, four were against playoff teams, and two more were against last year’s Super Bowl teams, and they were 4-2 in those games.

So, if they get to to the AFC Championship and it’s in Foxboro, they have certainly shown they’re good enough to compete. The question is, can they get there?

Their home form hasn’t been as good as it should be. They’ve only played one home game against playoff opposition – against the Raiders, which they won. They lost twice, to Tampa Bay and Tennessee, both games by two points. Six of their games were decided by one possession.

Their most likely opposition in the Divisional Round is the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that would be juicy match-up. They’ll be glad to get this week off to prepare.

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 – AFC Wild Card

This weekend is the opening weekend of the playoffs. Which teams will make it through to the divisional round and play against the top seeds in their conference? This preview looks at the AFC contenders.

With the regular season over, it’s now win-or-go-home for the twelve teams remaining. Eight of those teams play this weekend in the wild card weekend. I’ll look at the AFC teams first, since they play on Saturday, with the help of some statistics I’ve compiled over the course of the season.

Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans

The Houston Texans won their division with a 9-7 record this season – the weakest record of the AFC division winners. By contrast, the Chiefs took the fifth seed with an 11-5 record and for a while in week 17 looked like they might win their division, as Denver struggled to beat the Chargers with the division (and #1 seed) on the line. Moreover, having started 1-5, they won their last ten games – the longest winning streak in the league by a long way. So, given their hot streak, and Houston’s weak division record, are the Chiefs destined to win?

Well, according to my rankings, the Chiefs are the better team (1.873 to 1.517). However, when looking at the home/road rankings, it’s much closer. The Chiefs still edge it, barely (1.701 to 1.684). That’s a margin of 0.017. Twenty-three games have featured teams this close so far this season. Home teams are 9-14 in those games. This includes two road wins for Houston (Jacksonville in week 6 and the Colts in week 13). Kansas also lost a home game to Denver in week 2.

Oh, and the Chiefs and Texans also played once – in week 1. The Chiefs won by 7. On the road – a repeat of this game! So, in tight games featuring these teams, road teams are 4-0. Good luck, Houston… That game in week 1 was the only time this season the Chiefs have been slim favourites in a road game, or that Houston have hosted a road team who are.

Verdict: It all points to a Chiefs win, doesn’t it? So I’ll pick the Texans.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals

The Steelers and Bengals have looked great and awful in equal measure at times this year, and it’s been the same cause for both: their quarterback. Big Ben has been phenomenal on the whole when fit, and the Bengals looked unstoppable before Andy Dalton attempted a tackle and broke his thumb.

Otherwise, teams both have struggled, which has also affected their ratings. The Bengals have a higher rating (2.063 to 1.719), but accounting for home/road rankings, it’s 2.063 to 1.375. So, Bengals to win?

Yeah, just one problem with that. Andy Dalton won’t be playing. Throw all the stats you like at me, I don’t think the Bengals can beat a Steelers team (even at home) that has Big Ben and Antonio Brown, when all the Bengals have is a backup at QB. One and done they will be – for a fifth straight year. Ouch.

Don’t believe me? Well, despite their stellar home rating, the Bengals have lost at home twice this season, both times to AFC playoff opponents – Houston in week 10, and, in week 14, the Pittsburgh Steelers. They did beat two other playoff contenders – the Chiefs in week 4, by 15, and the Seahawks in week 5, by 3, but both those teams were really struggling at that point.

This is the Steelers’ to lose.

Bye week: Denver Broncos

According to my rankings, the Denver Broncos are second to the Bengals in the AFC (2.063 to 2.042). However, with Andy Dalton out, they should be the de facto #1 team – if it weren’t for their Peyton vs Brock battle at QB. It’s hard to know which option is better, but they’ve gone with Peyton Manning for now. Time will tell. They have homefield advantage, but according to the rankings, they are equally good at home as on the road.

They have lost at home – to the Raiders, and more notably, the Chiefs, and the Chiefs will visit Mile High if they win against the Texans and the Steelers lose to the Bengals.

Most interestingly, Denver’s home games are close. Aside from the loss to the Chiefs (by 16) and the victory over Green Bay (by 19), their other 6 games have been won by a total of 25 points. Just over 4 points a game isn’t much for a #1 seed.

They’re beatable.

Bye week: New England Patriots

The Patriots started well, and should have secured the #1 seed. However, injuries hampered them in the last few weeks and that’s made their job potentially a little harder. The key for the Patriots is to get their starters healthy. If that happens, they are the most likely winners of the AFC. If it doesn’t (especially Julian Edelman), they have no hope.

The Patriots average over 30 points a game at home. They lost only once – to the Philadelphia Eagles, in a game affected by a combination of key injuries and abysmal special teams. Even then, they only lost by 7. They have beaten two other playoff opponents on home turf – the Redskins by 17, and the Steelers by 7 in the very first game of the season. They also beat the Jets by 7.

However, they haven’t played a tough game at home in the second half of the season, so they have a lot to prove. But would you bet against them? I wouldn’t. But the key is getting starters back from injury.

AFC Rankings

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

TeamSeedHomeRoad
Denver Broncos12.042.04
New England Patriots22.111.51
Cincinnati Bengals32.062.06
Houston Texans41.681.35
Kansas City Chiefs52.041.70
Pittsburgh Steelers62.061.38