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!

2018-19 NFL Playoffs – Conference Round

With a place in the Super Bowl on the line, can the road teams do what they couldn’t last week, and win?

So, I got three out of four last week, but my predictor got all four correct, which means we’re both on 6-2 with three games left in the playoffs. What’s going to happen this week?

(Please forgive the shorter post. I may have miscalculated the kickoff times this week!)

Los Angeles Rams @ New Orleans Saints

The Saints are the top-ranked team in my Power Rankings. The main difference between the two sides is the defense, and that’s where I see this game won.

Many will focus on the Rams’ ability to stop the run. I’m not so sure that will help. I expect the Saints to use motion and quick underneath passes to bypass the rush of Suh and Donald, getting the ball out quickly. If they can give Brees some pretection, the Rams will also really struggle to hold Michael Thomas quiet.

On the other side of the ball, expect the Saints to put everything into stopping Todd Gurley and the run, and allow Goff to throw the ball to his heart’s content. His passer rating last week was 75. Whilst he looked after the football, that’s not a recipe for winning if you can’t run the ball.

If he can throw the ball well, the Rams may well win, but I have faith in the Saints’ defense to stop him.

The predictor picks: Los Angeles.
Rams confidence level: 50%.
Saints confidence level: No data. But 0% when predicted to lose this season.
My pick: New Orleans.

New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs

New England have the worst record of any team left. Make no mistake, they are the underdogs here. Again, I see this being a story of defense, or rather, the lack of it. Whilst the Chiefs will have their work cut out to cover Gronkowski, Edelman and the running game, the Patriots have it much worse.

Do you stop the run? Do you double team Travis Kelce? What about Tyreek Hill? Oh, did you also see Sammy Watkins is back from injury? Even if you cover all those players, Mahomes can run straight through you himself.

In short, the Chiefs just have too much talent to lose this game. It doesn’t mean they won’t (Andy Reid has proved that before), but Bill Belichick is the only reason people believe the Patriots can win this game.

Even worse news for the Patriots: the Chiefs discovered a half-decent defense last week too.

The Patriots may have a defense ranked 17 places higher than the Chiefs, but the Chiefs are #1 for points scored and #1 for points differential. It will show here.

The predictor picks: Kansas City.
Patriots confidence level: 0%.
Chiefs confidence level: 100% (so something’s got to break!)
My pick: Kansas City.

2018-19 NFL Playoffs – Divisional Round

After getting 75% of my picks right last week, how will I do this week? 100% hopefully…

If you followed last week’s picks, you’ll know I got three out of four correct, once ahead of my predictor. So, what about this week’s games? Here’s a quick guide.

Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs

I correctly over-ruled my predictor last week by picking the Colts, and although I could look silly by doing so, I’m very tempted by the Colts tonight. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But they’re on a roll, winning 10 out of 11, and Andrew Luck is an experienced quarterback who can surely pick apart the Chiefs’ secondary.

Andy Reid and the Chiefs haven’t always done well in the playoffs, but that’s not why I pick against them here. I’m more picking for the Colts, because they’ve shown in the second half of the season they are better than their #6 seed shows. They play with confidence, they have good experience, and they just look like a team that knows how to get it done.

If they can’t win in Kansas City, I don’t see anyone else doing so. It’s a brave pick, but I just believe in this Indianapolis team.

The predictor picks: Kansas City (7.5 points).
Chiefs confidence level: 100%.
Colts confidence level: 100%.
My pick: Indianapolis.

Dallas Cowboys @ Los Angeles Rams

I’d love to pick the Cowboys here, but it’s almost impossible to justify. Yes, their defense is immense right now, and they are capable of shutting down the Rams’ running game and forcing them to throw. And yes, passing is exactly where the Rams look weak right now.

And yes, the Cowboys are 7-2 on the road this season. They’ve only lost on the road to divisional rivals. And they won on the road in the regular season against three playoff teams.

But this is where you have to read your stats carefully. They beat Seattle in week 3, and Houston in week 5. Both those teams played better as the season went on.

In week 15, they play the Colts. The Colts are the bar, as you should know by now. What happened? The Colts won 23-0.

So, no matter how much I’m tempted, I’m not getting carried away with the Rams’ struggles at the end of the regular season. With a week off to rest and reset, they can hold off Dallas at home.

The predictor picks: Los Angeles (10 points).
Cowboys confidence level: No data.
Rams confidence level: 75%.
My pick: Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Chargers @ New England Patriots

The Patriots are undefeated at home. The Chargers are still undefeated outside of Los Angeles, having lost one road game in their hometown, and won one home game 5,437 miles away from home in London. Follow?

Philip Rivers has never beaten Tom Brady. Well, I’ve not checked that, but everyone’s said it all week. More to the point, the Patriots are very hard to beat at home, and they’ve had a week’s rest. This Patriots team can be beaten, certainly, but history shows they are particularly hard to beat off a bye. I won’t be falling off my chair in shock if they lose, and I definitely think it’s closer than a 12-point game, but I’m not going against the NFL’s only team to go undefeated at home.

The predictor picks: New England (12 points).
Patriots confidence level: No data.
Chargers confidence level: 100%
My pick: New England.

(There’s no data for New England as this is predicted to be a closer game than any of their home games this season. All other home games have had them as strong favourites, which isn’t the case to the same degree here.)

Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints

The Eagles tripped me up last week when I picked the Chicago Bears, and I’ve not changed my mind this week. The Eagles are, I’m adamant, the weakest team in the playoffs. The Saints may have a weaker defense than the defeated Bears, but their offense is much stronger.

The Bears were found wanting on offense, but I don’t see that being a problem here, whereas I just don’t see the Eagles scoring enough points to compete.

In Power Rankings terms, it’s the #1 team against the #15.

The predictor picks: New Orleans (9 points).
Eagles confidence level: 33%.
Saints confidence level: 100%.
My pick: New Orleans.

2018-19 NFL Playoffs – Wild Card Round

With the NFL playoffs upon us, it’s time to see if I can guess the games correctly… of course I can! Right?!

The NFL playoffs are upon us once more, and this year, it looks as open as it has been for a long time. No team stands head and shoulders above the rest, unlike in recent years. In fact, with Nick Foles starting for the Eagles in the playoffs, you could (almost!) see any team winning the Super Bowl in February, and definitely and of the teams in the AFC, on their day.

On the AFC side, the Chiefs can score 50 to win if they need to – but, crucially, not 55, which can be a problem for on defense; the Patriots, meanwhile, have good defense, but an inconsistent offense, although they are the only playoff team to have a perfect record against other playoff teams this season.

The Texans and Ravens have excellent defenses but the Texans allow far too many sacks and the Ravens have an inexperienced quarterback who is a better runner than passer.

The Chargers are very good, but struggle against quality opponents, and the Colts have Andrew Luck, who is playing as well as I’ve ever seen, but they have to win on the road the whole way, which is tough.

On the NFC side, the Rams have struggled in recent weeks, as have the Saints in places, and neither team is strong on defense.

The third seed, the Bears, may in fact be the best team in the NFC right now (and lead my industry-leading Power Rankings), as although they are ranked #8 on points scored, they are the #1 defense (points), and top-four ranked both at home and on the road.

The Cowboys have played better as the season has gone on, but were shut out against the Colts in week 15.

The Seahawks are workmanlike if anything, and have joint-worst record against fellow playoff teams (33%, along with the Chiefs), but did beat the Chiefs by putting up 38 points in week 16.

Finally, the Eagles beat the Rams on the road in week 15, and the Texans at home in week 16. Plus, they have Nick Foles, who makes Tebow Time almost explainable.

So, all in all, it should be interesting. Here’s my (brief) thoughts on this week’s games…

Indianapolis Colts @ Houston Texans

As both teams are in the AFC South, they’ve already played twice. On both occasions, the road team won by three points: the Texans (37-34) in week 4, and the Colts (24-21) in week 14.

The Colts are much better now than in week 4. And whilst the Colts have an average defense, the Texans allowed 62 sacks in the regular season. The You just can’t do that in the playoffs. Colts led the league, allowing only 18. The Texans’ big advantage is their regular season turnover differential (+13). I fancy the Colts to look after the football today, and in doing so, to win.

Both teams are 2-3 against playoff opponents, 1-1 against each other, both losing at home. The Colts lost all three of their games in the first five weeks; the Texans won both their games in the first five.

The predictor picks: the Texans (1.5 points).
Texans confidence level: 50%.
Colts confidence level: 33%*.
My pick: Indianapolis.

*Yes, that means the predictor predicts [for the Colts] that it will more like prove itself wrong, than right!

Seattle Seahawks @ Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are 3-3 in games against other playoff teams, and the Seahawks are 2-4. However, if it helps, the Seahawks are 0-2 on the road, and the Cowboys are 2-0 at home. Which makes this look quite easy…

Seattle have beaten the Cowboys this season, comfortably in week 3 (24-13), but the reality is Seattle is not Arlington. Whilst Russell Wilson is great on the move, this Seahawks team have ground it out by doing just enough, and I just don’t think they have enough to beat a team that’s 7-1 at home, when they are only 4-4 on the road themselves.

The Seahawks are joint-ranked #6 for points (offense), and the Cowboys are ranked #6 for points (defense).

The predictor picks: the Cowboys (4.5 points).
Cowboys confidence level: 100%.
Seahawks confidence level: No data. But they’ve played some dreadful teams on the road and still lost, so I’ll go with “confident”.
My pick: Dallas.

Los Angeles Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens were, until week 17, the #1 scoring defense. They were overtaken by the Chicago Bears, but they still hold the #2 spot. The Chargers are ranked #8.

The Ravens are ranked #13 on scoring offense, which won’t surprise, but it may surprise you to learn the Chargers are only ranked #10.

The Ravens are 6-2 at home, but the Chargers are 7-1 on the road. Indeed, the Chargers score more points on the road, and allow fewer, than at home. They are ranked #3 on the road, behind only the Saints and Rams, whereas the Ravens are ranked #9 at home.

The Ravens have only played three games against playoff opposition this season, going 1-2. But the win was against the Chargers… in Los Angeles. They lost both home games.

The Chargers’ one road loss was against the Los Angeles Rams. So it seems like it should be a Chargers win…

The predictor picks: the Chargers (2.5 points).
Ravens confidence level: 100%.
Chargers confidence level: 100%.
My pick: I gut really want to pick the Ravens, but my brain says my predictor is successful for a reason. So, I’m going against my instinct and picking San Diego Los Angeles.

Philapelphia Eagles @ Chicago Bears

The Eagles are without their starting quarterback, although their backup has a better record this season, and won them the Super Bowl last season.

Chicago are my #1 team in my Power Rankings (albeit slightly affected by the Rams and Saints resting players in week 17).

The Bears are 2-1 against playoff teams, all at home. They lost to the Patriots, but held the Rams to 6 points.

The Eagles are 3-3 against playoff teams (1-2 on the road), including a win against the Rams in Los Angeles. But they also got beaten 29-23 in Dallas, and only scored 7 points in New Orleans (not a great defense). But… Nick Foles, etc.

The Eagles are the lowest ranked playoff team in my Power Rankings, and are not top-ten in any metric. The lowest ranking for the Bears is #8 (points scored), and everything else is top five.

My predictor picks: the Bears (7.5 points).
Bears confidence level: 75%.
Eagles confidence level: 50%.
My pick: Chicago.

2016-17 NFL Playoffs – Super Bowl

Roger Goodell can’t hide any longer. He has to see the Patriots tonight. The question is, does he have to hand them the Vince Lombardi Trophy?

The end is in sight. Only two teams are left fighting for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Will it be the Atlanta Falcons, or the New England Patriots, who end up victorious in Houston?

One thing I have learned is that it’s not worth me picking against my predictor. Twice I’ve picked against mt predictor in the playoffs, and twice I’ve made the wrong call.

Picking the Patriots as the winners of the AFC Championship game was relatively easy, but my predictor correctly predicted the Falcons would see off the Green Bay Packers – and they did it very easily. The Packers’ defense couldn’t stop the Falcons’ offense, and the Packers didn’t generate much offense of their own for much of the game.

The Patriots, meanwhile, made mincemeat of the Steelers and were never really tested. I suspect the Falcons, with their ability to generate pressure upfront, and their much more potent offense, will do a better job in the Super Bowl. But will it be enough?

In truth, I don’t really know, but the stats suggest the Patriots are the more likely winners in this contest. Whilst the Falcons generate pressure, the Patriots are good at restricting opponents to field goals, whilst neither offense is easy to stop. It should be a great game.

The Patriots have won 6 out of 7 games against playoff opponents this season, whilst the Falcons have won 4 of 6. Both teams lost to the Seattle Seahawks. On the road, the Patriots were 2 of 2, whereas the Falcons were 1 of 2. The Falcon’s home loss was to the Kansas City Chiefs.

My own view is that it’s easier to see the Patriots putting up 30 points on the Falcons, than the Falcons putting 30 points up on the Patriots. And, whist the Falcons lead the league in points rank, the rank comfortably behind the Patriots on everything else.

For the Super Bowl, as there is no real home and road team, I designed a new predictor, by comparing home and road data for the two teams. I compared the following:

  • Average road scores
  • Average home scores
  • Average allowed road scores
  • Average allowed home scores
  • Comparisons of the above

I won’t bore you with the technical details, but if they’re evenly matched, they should win 6 games each in this table.

BasisRoadHomeR-PredH-PredWinner
NE-RPatriotsFalcons28.516.5Patriots
NE-HFalconsPatriots16.530.5Patriots
ATL-RFalconsPatriots3425Falcons
ALT-HPatriotsFalcons3037Falcons
NE-R-ADJPatriotsFalcons31.4525.9Patriots
NE-H-ADJFalconsPatriots26.530.25Patriots
NE-R-ADJFalconsPatriots32.128.6Falcons
NE-H-ADJPatriotsFalcons36.12529.5625Patriots
Road-OFFPatriotsFalcons28.534Falcons
Home-OFFAtlanta FalconsPatriots3730.5Falcons
Road-DEFFalconsPatriots16.525Patriots
Home-DEFPatriotsFalcons3016.5Patriots

As you can see, the Patriots win 7 times, the Falcons 5. So it’s not a big mismatch at all. What is interesting is margin of victory.

Without adjustment, the Patriots win on average by 13 points, whereas the Falcons win by 8.

If looking only on offense, the Falcons should win, by 6 points. If looking only at defense, the Patriots should win, by 11 points.

When making adjustments for the Super Bowl opposition, the Patriots win on three of the four scenarios. Taking the Falcons’ base averages at home and adjusting for the Patriots’ road averages, the Falcons lose, by 6.56 points. Which is funny, because the Falcons are the designated home team in the Super Bowl, if that matters at all… which I doubt.

Anyway, if you add up all these match-ups you get the grand total. So what does it say…?

It says the Patriots will win 29.54 – 26.84. So let’s call that 30-27.

My pick: Patriots.
Predictor says: Well, it doesn’t predict neutral games, but if the Patriots are the road team, it confidently predicts the Patriots by 5 points. If they’re the home team, it’s less confident, but it still picks the Patriots by 5.

I’m sure Tom Brady would settle for another Super Bowl ring, and picking up the MVP car from Roger Goodell and let Matt Ryan keep his league MVP award.

Roger Goodell? He might not enjoy that so much.

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 Jobâ„¢, 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 – 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 – Super Bowl

It’s the biggest game of the (NFL) season – the Super Bowl. It’s Carolina against Denver, Peyton against Cam, and two cracking defenses against one another. Who’s going to win? You know what I’m going to say already, right?

So, after 255 games (let’s ignore the Pro Bowl), a few upsets along the way, and what seems like an unusually high number of injuries to big name players this year, we’ve finally made it to the Super Bowl. Super Bowl 50, from San Francisco.

In the Championship Round, the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots. They put points on the board early and forced New England to chase from behind. This helped them for two main reasons:

  1. After the first quarter, the Patriots’ defense figured them out and the Broncos’ offense was terrible for the rest of the day;
  2. The Patriots’ offensive line was beaten up before play started, and this only got worse chasing the game.

I said the Broncos needed to rely on their defense to win, and I think that view was vindicated. Their defense overpowered the offensive line to an extent that even quick balls were nigh-on impossible for Tom Brady to complete. The Patriots’ run game was non-existent and they couldn’t give Brady time to complete passes. Despite a late surge, they couldn’t do enough to pull it back. Denver survived.

The Panthers had it much easier. An early pick-six helped, but Carson Palmer struggled to throw well, whilst Cam Newton had no such issues. The Panthers showed they are a very good team on offense, defense and special teams. They have no big weaknesses, and that showed in the crushing scoreline of theiv victory.

So, how will the Super Bowl pan out?

I’ll be honest. I don’t see Denver winning. This isn’t a case of “they’ll need to rely on their defense making plays”. Even that won’t be enough. This is Carolina’s to lose. Here’s why:

  • The Panthers have a pick-six in both their last two games. Peyton Manning leads the league in picks thrown this season.
  • The Broncos’ defense can’t rush the Panthers like they did the Patriots – the Panthers have a healthier offensive line. Not league-leading by any stretch, but certainly better than the Patriots’ had two weeks ago.
  • Cam Newton can escape the pocket in a way Tom Brady (and Peyton Manning) can only dream of.
  • Probably the Panthers’ biggest weakness – the deep ball – is also the Broncos’ biggest weakness.
  • The Broncos scored 30 points only twice this season (once, against the Patriots, required overtime). The Panthers have done it twice in the playoffs alone – against the Seahawks and the Cardinals, who both have highly rated defenses. They also did it eight times in the regular season. They are hard to stop.

My Power Rankings give this to Carolina by 2.267 – 2.042, and I agree. Ron Rivera should be a very happy man at the end of the game tonight.

 

2015-16 NFL Playoffs – Conference Round

Having picked three out of four winners last week, can I pick both winners this week? I hope so. As both number one and number two seeds play each other, on paper at least, it should be hard to separate the teams.

In the Wild Card round, all four road teams won. In the Divisional Round last week, all four home teams won. So, what will happen this week? One home team and one away team?

Perhaps. Here’s how I see the Conference Round games.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos

Last week, the Patriots hosted the Chiefs, who had won eleven games straight. Although the final score add the game appear close, in truth the Patriots were never really threatened.

The key for the Patriots was that Tom Brady was able to throw quickly, often to Julian Edelman, but also to Rob Gronkowski, and so the Chiefs’ pass rush was nullified. The Patriots didn’t really bother to run the football much. Once the Chiefs were behind, they were always going to find it hard to come back to win.

The Broncos really struggled to get past a Steelers team with an injured quarterback which was also missing its top wide receiver and top two rushers. Trailing for most of the game, the Broncos ground out a result in a game they deserved to lose. Was it the offense that won them the game? No, it was a turnover.

And this is what today’s game comes down to, for me. Denver have shown no ability to generate consistent offense with Peyton Manning as quarterback this year. He has a bad record in the playoffs and a terrible record against Brady’s Patriots (although less so in the playoffs, for the record).

The Patriots don’t turn the ball over much. Fumblers are treated harshly and an Tom Brady interception which isn’t the result of a tipped ball, or that hasn’t been thrown up into the air by a receiver, is headline news. If Denver are going to win today, they need a better gameplan than to wait for the Patriots to turn the ball over. It may happen, but the statistics are against you.

The ratings give this to the Broncos (2.04 to 1.51), but that’s misleading. The Patriots were back to their best last week, and Matt Patricia’s defense will expect to force Peyton Manning into throwing picks. Expect them to goad him into throwing long and taking their chance at picking up the pieces.

Peyton Manning has one touchdown pass at Mile High this season. Tom Brady has three.

Pick: Patriots.

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers

Arizona won against the Green Bay Packers last week in a thrilling overtime victory. The game was a tight affair until the final quarter, when most of the points were scored. However, despite Aaron Rodgers throwing two exceptional lucky throws at the end of the game, an improvised throw to Larry Fitzgerald on the run in overtime resulted in a huge play, and ultimately, a touchdown, to end the game.

Carolina’s route to the Conference Round was equally eventful, as they led 31-0 at halftime and then let Seattle come back to 31-24 by the end of the game. That’s the second time this season Carolina have taken a huge lead and then let a team come back into the game, although in Seattle’s case, it always seemed like a false hope, from my perspective at least.

So what’s the key in this game? Well, Carolina need to stop Arizona running the ball, and also need to take Larry Fitzgerald out of the game. Arizona need to keep Cam Newton in the pocket and force him to make plays without breaking free.

I was perhaps rash in giving Arizona no chance in this game, but I do still favour the Panthers. Carolina did, however, intercept Russell Wilson twice early on last week, so Arizona need to be careful. The Cardinals’ defense may have a fierce reputation, but the Panthers’ defense is no slouch either. In fact, all four teams left in the playoffs have defenses worth writing home about.

The ratings give this to Carolina (2.42 to 2.41) – it’s the number one home team against the number one road team, and it’s officially too close to call.

Unofficially, this is a matchup of two well-rounded teams, rather than teams littered with stars (although they probably have one each in Cam Newton and Larry Fitzgerald). I’m picking Carolina to win because I think Cam Newton has enough to guide the Panthers home, and it’d be no less than he deserves for his career in the NFL so far.

Pick: Panthers.

Playoff Rankings

For reference, the following table shows the rankings for each of the teams in the playoffs as of the Divisional Round, 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