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!

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