Archive for January, 2017

Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2017 Comments off

During wild card weekend, I learned not to invest too much faith in road teams in the playoffs. In the divisional round, I learned that I need to invest more faith in the predictive stats.

In both rounds, I finished 3-1 straight up, which isn’t exactly terrible. But I could have done better. (I know this because of math.) I should never have picked Oakland in the wild card round. That was an act of shear stupidity on my part.

I also should have followed the stats and taken Green Bay to beat Dallas in the divisional round. That one’s a bit less painful since, you know, both teams had their starting quarterbacks active. But, still.

In my defense, I had Packers-Cowboys as a toss-up and it came down to the final play, so I at least got that right. But I overreached. I went against the stats in both of the Sunday games. What I should have done was stuck with the one I felt strongest about — Pittsburgh over Kansas City — and let the numbers point the way in the other. But after wild card weekend, I couldn’t make myself feel good about picking two road teams. And I couldn’t talk myself into picking the Chiefs, I talked myself into picking the Cowboys.

So it goes.

I head into conference championship weekend 6-2 (.750) straight up. And with my 2-2 finish against the spread in the divisional round, I’m a typically dismal 3-5 (.375) there.

The good news for me this weekend is that the stats favor the home teams in both games. That renders the decision making simpler, anyhow. Probably means I’m headed for 1-1 straight up 0-2 against the spread at best. But at least I go into it free of inner conflict. And that’s something, I suppose.

Here’s what not to expect.

Green Bay (+4.5) at Atlanta
Let’s start with the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, Falcons +2.4; passer rating differential, Falcons +8.6; takeaway-giveaway differential, Falcons +3. Those aren’t overwhelming numbers, but they’re telling. When all three favor the home team, that’s usually is a pretty reliable indicator of outcome. You could argue there’s an X-factor present in that Aaron Rodgers  played great football down the stretch and has continued that trend through two postseason games. And you’d be right. But Matt Ryan‘s done the same (except with just one postseason game so far, because the Falcons qualified for a bye while the Packers did not). And while neither of these teams brings much to the field by way of a defense, the home team is at least marginally better at defending the pass, which is what matters most in this game. Atlanta also has a stronger offensive ground game than Green Bay. And the Falcons did manage to put up 36 points last weekend against a visiting opponent that featured an actual NFL defense. I think you also have to factor in that a second straight road game against a tough opponent is always a difficult hurdle to clear. I know there’s no shortage of folks who are convinced that Rodgers has been blessed with some sort of inevitability magic, but I’m not one of those. I think Rodgers is a great quarterback and I never cease to be amazed at what he’s able to do on the football field. (And I’ve been rooting for the guy for his entire pro career.) But a great quarterback can only carry a team so far. At some point, other factors come in to play. And the majority of the factors I rely on point to a Falcons win. I’m taking the lessons of last week to heart and going where the numbers point. Atlanta by a field goal.

Pittsburgh (+6) at New England
Might as well start with the math portion of the festivities here, too: scoring differential, Patriots +3.6; passer rating differential, Patriots +9.4; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +5. I should note straight away that the Chiefs came ahead in two out of three of those areas a week ago and still managed to lose. Just as I thought they would. I made the pick thinking Kansas City’s suspect run defense had no chance of containing Le’veon Bell. And it didn’t. But you know what’s funny? Even though the Patriots’ run D is considerably more formidable than the Chiefs’, I’m in no way under the impression that it’s strong enough to take Bell out of the game. The Patriots at least appear to have the talent to hold Bell to fewer than 170 yards, of course. But let’s say they don’t. Let’s say the Steelers are as successful running the ball against the Patriots as they were against the Chiefs. Where did that get Pittsburgh last weekend? It got them to 18 points. And, yeah, the Chiefs had the NFL’s seventh best scoring defense this season, allowing just 19.4 points per game. But the Patriots feature the league’s best scoring defense, a unit that surrendered just 15.6 points per game. And while Kansas City surrendered just 10 rushing TDs during the season, New England gave up a league-low 6. I don’t think the Patriots sell out to stop Bell. I think the Pats play their game, assume Bell’s going to get his yards, and figure that if the Steelers want to kick another six field goals, that will be OK by them. (This is anything but revolutionary thinking, by the way. It’s just me recalling how Bill Belichick’s defenses approached similar challenges in Super Bowl XXV and, to a lesser extent, Super Bowl XXXVI.) Keep in mind, by the way, the Patriots can run the ball, too. New England’s ground attack was good for 117 yards a game and 19 touchdowns this season. Pittsburgh’s run D gave up 100 yards a game and 15 TDs. I may not love the prospects for New England’s defense (or any team’s defense) trying to shut down Bell. But neither do I have any reason to feel strongly about the Pittsburgh D’s chances of neutralizing the NFL’s rushing TD leader and the rest of the New England ground attack. The Patriots also are better than the Steelers through the air, and marginally better at defending the pass. But you already knew that; it’s in the numbers I led with. I think if the Patriots focus on disrupting Ben Roethlisberger, challenge the Steelers to match Tom Brady‘s output with Bell’s, and eliminate the uncharacteristic mistakes of last week (which limited their margin of victory to a mere 18 points), they can expect to come out with a relatively comfortable win. That’s what the predictive stats say. And, once again, this week I’m going where the numbers point me. New England by 10.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Divisional Round Picks

January 12th, 2017 Comments off

Might as well start with my performance picking the wild card games, which was about par for the course. I went 3-1 straight up, 1-3 against the spread.

All of my failures last weekend came as a result of giving too much credit to the road teams. I had the Raiders to win, which was stupid (I knew Connor Cook wasn’t going to be great, didn’t think the Oakland coaching staff would give him the opportunity to be a complete disaster), the Lions and Giants to cover, which … eh, whatever. I didn’t place any actual bets.

If I had it all to do over again, I’d still pick at least one of those games to be close. But I don’t have it to do over again. And now my task is not to let my mistakes from the first round of the playoffs affect the way I look at the games in the second round.

That’s not necessarily a simple task. The quality of the teams remaining at this point is much greater than it was a week ago — last week’s field of competitors included four teams that were never going to get very far (two of which were playing each other); this week there’s just one of those — but in three out of four games, that uptick in quality is there for both teams. So you tell me: In any of the three close matchups, is favoring the well-rested home team the wise course, or would it constitute going conservative after getting bit by overestimating the road teams last week? Does looking for reasons to believe a road team will win (or keep it close) make for smart analysis, or would I simply be repeating my errors of a week ago?

I have no answers to those questions. So I suppose I should just move ahead with getting everything wrong.

Here’s what not to expect.

Seattle (+5) at Atlanta
I think the Falcons would have beat the Seahawks back in week six had the game been played in Atlanta. I don’t necessarily think that means a whole lot three months later, but there it is just the same. So what does mean something? Well, let’s start with the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, Falcons +1.8; passer rating differential, Falcons +7.1; takeaway-giveaway differential, Falcons +10. That doesn’t point to a good outcome for the road team. Pairing that data with Seattle’s offensive line issues and lack of a robust rushing attack makes it really hard for me to see a path to victory for visitors. The Seahawks’ defense could potentially carry the day, I suppose. And if this game were being played in Seattle, I’d consider that a real possibility. But I don’t think you can count on it here. Atlanta by a field goal.

Houston (+16) at New England
Hey, you never know. Lots of things could happen. Like, the Patriots could lose a handful of critical players early in the game. The whole New England team could get the flu. Maybe it turns out the Texans have been working an elaborate rope-a-dope these last few years. The Texans could be accidentally exposed to gamma radiation on their way to the stadium and hulk out en masse just before kickoff. Or, you know, it could just be one of those freaky games when everything happens exactly as it shouldn’t. Barring something along those lines, though, (and with all due respect to Tom Brady’s caution about the quality of this weeks’ opponent) it’s really hard to envision any way this is still a game when the second half gets under way. Here are the predictives (factoring in the Texans’ atypically strong performance against the depleted Raiders in the wild card round): scoring differential, Patriots +7.1; passer rating differential, Patriots +14.9; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +16. Those are not numbers one expects to see in the second round of the postseason. They’d point to a decisive Patriots victory in Houston. In Foxborough, they spell blowout. Patriots by 28.

Pittsburgh (+1.5) at Kansas City
If there’s an upset coming this weekend, it’s almost certainly coming on Sunday. And I think it’s more likely to happen in Kansas City than in Dallas. The holy trinity of predictive stats say this is probably the Chiefs’ game to lose: scoring differential, Steelers +0.2; passer rating differential, Chiefs +3.6; takeaway-giveaway differential, Chiefs +10. Close, but a home team coming out ahead in two out of those three factors is usually in good shape. The ground game, though, points in a somewhat different direction. Both teams run the ball well. But the Chiefs can struggle on run D. That’s a tough position to be in with Le’Veon Bell coming into your building. If Kansas City can solve that problem, force the Steelers to the air, and get Ben Roethlisberger to throw at least one pick, they should be able to earn a trip to the AFC Championship (for the first time since they had Joe Montana behind center). I suspect, though, that stopping Bell is a bit too much to ask. I won’t be surprised by any outcome in this game (other than a blowout), but since I have to make a pick, I’m going to say Steelers by a point.

Green Bay (+4.5) at Dallas
This one comes down to the ground game, too. The predictive stats say it’s a tossup: scoring differential, Cowboys +1.6; passer rating differential, Packers +0.3; takeaway-giveaway differential, Packers +5. I see nothing that tells me the Packers’ average-ish run defense can contain Ezekial Elliott. Their only hope is to build a big enough lead that the Cowboys abandon the run. And I can’t even imagine what a lead like that would look like. More likely, I think, Elliott helps keep the Packers offense off the field, limiting Aaron Rodgers‘ opportunities and forcing him to take too many chances when he does get out there. I think it translates to a Dallas win in a game that will be closer than the 6-point gap in the final score.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Wild Card Round Picks

January 5th, 2017 Comments off

I think I’ll just pretend that my strong (strong-ish) finish in week 17 wasn’t mostly the product of a slate of games that were mostly over before they kicked off. Because it helps me feel better about myself, that’s why. What’s it to you, anyhow?

I went 13-3 straight up in the final week of the season, 9-7 against the spread. So I finish the season 165-89-2 (.648) straight up, 119-134-3 (.471) against the spread. I’m going to find a way to be OK with that. Maybe it’ll be easier after I take a bath with my wild card picks. These games never go the way I anticipate.

Here’s what not to expect.

Oakland (+3.5) at Houston
There are some who will say (who have said) that trying to win on the road in the postseason behind a rookie quarterback who was third on your depth chart two weeks earlier and who’s making his first ever NFL start is an impossible task. I should be one of those. I know I should. I should also be thinking that Romeo Crennel will have the Texans defense well positioned to make Connor Cook‘s day as painful as possible. And, you know, I do think that. I truly do. But I also think (by which I mean I know) that the Texans don’t really have any business in the tournament. They backed into the the AFC South title with a record of 9-7, scoring an average of 17.4 points per game while giving up 20.5. Do you know how many other division winners had negative scoring differential for the season? None. That’s how many. Indeed, there are only three teams in the playoffs that gave up more points over the year than they scored: Houston, -49; Miami, -17, and Detroit, -12. And the Texans were outscored by their opponents by 20 points more than the two six seeds combined. And, yeah, I know the Raiders have been an unbalanced team that was carried by offense, the same offense now looking to a third string rookie to lead them to a win. But here’s what I’m thinking: the Raiders might not need their quarterback to do all that much this week. Oakland finished this season tied with Kansas City for the league’s best takeaway-giveaway differential, +16. That was on the strength of 30 takeaways, 16 of which were interceptions. Brock Osweiler threw 16 picks (which is tied for fourth most in the league) while playing in 15 games (14 starts), a major factor in his team’s -7 takeaway-giveaway differential. That, by the way, is also worst among playoffs qualifiers. The only other postseason teams with negative turnover differentials are the NFC wild card teams. And the Giants, -2, and Lions, -1, combined didn’t end up half as deep in the hole as the Texans. I think the Oakland defense may well put seven points on the board in this game. At the very least, I expect the Raiders D to give Cook and company a few short fields to work with. However it works out, I suspect the Raiders will be able to put up somewhere just north of 18 points, which has typically been enough for Texans opponents. So, yeah, I’m taking Oakland to start wild card weekend with an upset. Let’s call it Oakland by two.

Detroit (+8) at Seattle
The Seahawks are vulnerable enough that it wouldn’t absolutely shock me if they dropped this game. But the Lions have been fading for roughly a month now. I can’t see them reversing that trend in a road trip into a hostile environment. I expect a low scoring game that the Seahawks take by something like four points.

Miami (+10) at Pittsburgh
There are a lot of things one could say about this matchup, not one of which would indicate that the Dolphins have much chance of hanging with the Steelers. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just go with one: There’s no way a team that gives up 140 rushing yards a game, let alone 4.8 yards a carry, finds a way to stop Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh by two touchdowns.

NY Giants (+4.5) at Green Bay
Spare me the Eli Manning has some kind of postseason magic nonsense. And save the bit about how the Giants have some kind of power over Green Bay and New England in the playoffs, too. Here’s what the Giants have (again): A much better defense than anyone other than Giants fans seems to realize. And more to the point, a defense with a great ability to disrupt typically strong passing offenses. That could be trouble for a team like the Packers (or the Patriots, but that’s a different story for a different day — maybe). I think Manning can do one of two things here. He either plays well enough for his team to capitalize on the opportunities the D creates or we see the guy who threw 16 interceptions in the regular season and he finds a way to lose the game (taking a page from his brother’s book). If I’m betting, which I’m not, I’m betting on the latter. Oh, by the way, because this match looked so close, I worked out the big three predictive stats. They go like this: Scoring differential, Packers +0.5; passer rating differential, Giants +1.9; takeaway-giveaway differential, Packers +6. Unbelievably close until you get to that last one (thence my take on this game). Green Bay by a point.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: