Archive for January, 2018

Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2018 Comments off

The divisional round ended up working out OK for me. I went 3-1 both straight up and against the spread. I was perfect on Saturday, then split the Sunday games, having picked the Jaguars to cover but not win, and the Vikings to win but not cover. I guess I can live with that, particularly since I was among a very few who saw the Eagles’ victory coming and among the vast majority who never in a million years would have picked the Jaguars to come out on top in a high-scoring barn burner in Pittsburgh.

That gets me to 5-3 both straight up and against the spread so far in the postseason. And that would lead me to believe I must be destined to go 0-2 across the board this weekend. Except that, as you’ll see, I’ve cleverly rendered that outcome impossible.

Here’s what not to expect (mostly).

Jacksonville (+7.5) at New England
Let’s lead with the big three predictive stats (taking into account here all regular season and postseason games played by both teams): Scoring differential, New England +1; passer rating differential, Jacksonville +0.8; takeaway-giveaway differential, Jacksonville +8.

That last one’s a biggie, huh? The closeness of the other two points to the probability of a narrow win by the home team. But that turnover advantage by the visitors really throws quite the wrench in the works.

We’ll get back to that one in a minute. In the meantime, let’s deal with the fact that the middle stat is kind of shocking. I mean, when you look at the disparity in offensive passer rating — New England, 102.6; Jacksonville, 84.5 — which is about what you’d expect, and then go back to the differential, it’s kind of hard to imagine how that could happen. And how it happens is both bad news and good for the Patriots. We know the Jaguars have a great defense, but here’s how great it’s been against the pass: 70.3. That’s Jacksonville’s defensive passer rating through 18 games. That’s sort of astonishingly good, particularly when compared to New England’s 90.0.

And it would be tempting to conclude from that data that the slight advantage New England enjoys in scoring differential must come from a dominating offense compensating for a rather less than dominating defense. And, you know, the Patriots did have the second highest scoring offense in the NFL in 2017, putting up 28.6 points per game. But that’s ultimately not that huge an advantage over the Jaguars, who averaged 26.1. (Factor in the postseason and you get the Patriots at 29, the Jaguars at 26.2. Similar difference.) But the Patriots didn’t exactly bleed points this season. They allowed 18.5 per game, which was fifth fewest in the league. The Jaguars gave up 16.8, second fewest. (With the postseason added to the mix, they land at 18.2 and 17.4, which I would call a minor tightening up.) So in reality it’s just closer than one might imagine all around.

Do a bit of a drill-down, though, and you get to this: While both teams were fairly consistent performers on offense through the season and into the postseason, and while the Jaguars D has been up and down through the season (giving up big points here and there, from week two to week sixteen to the divisional round, and few to very few in the games in between), the Patriots defense was an undisciplined disaster for the first four weeks of the season then turned a corner and became one of the best scoring Ds in the league for the final thirteen weeks (twelve games). Of the 296 points the Patriots defense surrendered during the regular season, 128 (43 percent) were scored over those first four games. Since then, New England has allowed 14 points per game, which is fewer than any other team in the league.

To drill down into the passer rating differential, you have to drill down into the takeaway-giveaway numbers. And here’s what you see if you do that. The Jaguars’ +14 through 18 games (as compared to the Patriots +6 through 17 games) isn’t a reflection of a team that takes a fair number of balls away from opponents while taking good care of the ball itself. The Jaguars actually turn the ball over quite a bit. They’ve just bagged a ton of takeaways. Jacksonville has 37 takeaways through 18 games. Their 33 in the regular season were second most in the league. They also turned the ball over 23 times. That’s the second most giveaways among the teams that made the postseason, behind only Tennessee’s 25. More important (as this games goes anyhow), 24 of Jacksonville’s takeaways (21 regular season, 3 postseason) have been picks.

We know that picks don’t come all that easily when you play the Patriots. Tom Brady threw just 8 in the regular season, and finished with an interception percentage of just 1.4, third best in the league. Moreover, the Patriots’ 12 total giveaways this season were second fewest in the NFL, behind Kansas City’s 11.

If you’re a team that relies on its defense’s ability to take away the ball (with all that comes with it), the Patriots would appear to present not the greatest matchup.

Back to passer rating differential, specifically that scary Jacksonville defensive number, which remains scary despite the fact that Ben Roethlisberger put up a 110.5 against the Jaguars last week, throwing five TD passes on the way. How? Well, because Jacksonville’s regular season defensive passer rating was an even scarier 68.5, lowest in the league by a margin of 4.5. Factor out those interceptions, though, and it starts to look less scary.

You can’t do that, of course, because the Jaguars actually picked off all of those passes. They earned their defensive passer rating. And they earned their takeaway-giveaway differential. That’s all legit.

And still, if you’re looking ahead to this game, you have to decide what you think is likely to prevail, the Patriots offense or the Jaguars defense? We all know that’s the key. Because while anything can happen, the likelihood that the Jacksonville offense is going to bust out a huge game against the Patriots D is not good, especially if they have to do it without the benefit of some short fields and an increasingly tired defense. And then you do have to ask what’s more likely to prove sustainable in the scoring trends and the takeaway trends.

When you look at the matchups, particularly when you look at the Patriots’ ability to adapt and the specific weaknesses of the Jacksonville D — which, it turns out, are difficulties stopping the run and defending passes to tight ends and running backs (all specific strengths of the Patriots offense) — it starts to feel like the safe guess is that it’s the home team that stays true to form.

I don’t think either team is running away with this game. Yeah, it could end with a double-digit difference on the scoreboard, but I suspect if that happens, it’ll come by way of a late score that puts the game away but doesn’t truly decide the outcome. More likely, I suspect, is a hard-fought defensive struggle that ultimately favors the team that has more ways for its offense to prevail. That’s New England. And that’s why I think the Patriots win this by four.

Minnesota (-3) at Philadelphia
If Carson Wentz hadn’t been injured, I think this game would be relatively easy to pick. Maybe not a gimme, but my guess is the Eagles would be giving three and that would feel about right. If the game were being played in Minneapolis, particularly with Nick Foles starting behind center for the Eagles, I’m certain this game would be easy to pick. But Foles in starting. And they’re playing in Philadelphia. And I’m just not certain what to make of it all.

I’m not sure the big three predictive stats mean a whole lot given that Foles has started all of four games. But four is also too small a sample size to go on. So let’s at least take a peak. (As above, I’m factoring in all regular season and postseason games by both teams.) Scoring differential, Eagles +.09; passer rating differential, Vikings +3.1; takeaway-giveaway differential, Eagles +3. That would look OK for the home team if it weren’t for the fact that the Eagles have scored roughly 11 points per game fewer with Foles than they had with Wentz (again, small sample size). Of course, the Eagles also have allowed four fewer points per game than their season average over their last four. That may or may not matter, though it strikes me as worth noting that the Eagles D gave up only 10 to the Falcons in the divisional round. All of that said, his success last week notwithstanding, Foles has never been and is not now on the same level as Wentz as a passer. It’s reasonable to expect the Minnesota advantage in that area is substantially better than the aggregate numbers suggest.

To my mind, the central questions here involve whether the Vikings offense can successfully take its show on the road while facing one of the league’s best Ds, and whether Foles can once again limit mistakes enough to give his team a chance to win, and, frankly, whether that’s likely to be enough against an opponent that is considerably better than the one Philadelphia hosted last week.

My best guess is that this is where the loss of Wentz catches up with the Eagles. The Vikings are a very well balanced football team with an offense that finds its way around opposing Ds. I don’t expect them to have the same kind of success in Philadelphia that they had against the Saints last weekend at home, but I think the Vikings will be able to make some plays in the passing game and put up enough points to force Foles and the Eagles out of their comfort zone. If they can do that consistently from the start, and capitalize on whatever Eagles mistakes may follow, the Vikings could potentially run away with this game. But even if they can’t take command (and I expect they won’t be able to do that), I think Minnesota finds itself in a position to steal another game late. And that’s just what I suspect we’ll see on Sunday night. Vikings put up a late field goal to take this one by a point.

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Divisional Round Picks

January 11th, 2018 Comments off

I suppose I should be happy to have come out of the wild card round with a picks record of 2-2 both straight up and against the spread.

I was only half kidding last week when I said I expected to go 0-4. I certainly believed 0-4 was a stronger possibility than 4-0. You never know where upsets are coming in the wild card games, only that they’re coming. So I picked the games straight and split the results. I’ll live with that. Because while I suppose I should (or at least might) have seen Atlanta’s win over Los Angeles coming, and while Andy Reid-coached teams melting down in the postseason is nothing new, there’s absolutely no chance I ever would have picked the Titans to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. None. In fact, if they were to play that game again this weekend, I absolutely promise you I’d pick Kansas City to win and cover.

So, you know, consider that overwhelming evidence of my wisdom as you ponder my picks in the divisional round.

Or, put another way, here’s what not to expect.

Atlanta (-3) at Philadelphia
I don’t have any better idea than anyone else of what’s likely to transpire in this game. I do know that Nick Foles isn’t the quarterback I’d want starting for my team in the divisional round of the playoffs. Not on any field. I think (by which I mean I know) Foles was playing far better football than he is now the last time (the only other time) he started a postseason game, and he wasn’t quite good enough to carry the Eagles to a victory then. But that doesn’t really matter. Four years is forever in NFL time. Plus, the 2017 Eagles are a better team than the 2013 Eagles were, and the 2017 Falcons probably aren’t quite on par with the 2013 Saints. Also, while Foles is a undeniably a big step down from Carson Wentz, Philadelphia’s success this season has had as much to do with defense as offense. Through the regular season, Philadelphia had the league’s third highest scoring offense and fourth stingiest D. That’s a solid combination. And it tells me that with the Eagles hosting this game and coming off a first round bye, Philadelphia may be in a position to take a step or two back on offense and still come out on top. That is, all the Eagles may really need Foles to do is play conservatively and not lose the game for them. So the question is, can the Falcons O overcome the Eagles D to enough of an extent that Foles and the Philly offense are forced to take some risks? Or maybe it’s, can the Atlanta D force some early errors, or at least create some three-and-outs, keep the Philadelphia D on the field and wear them down? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, because I still don’t feel like I know what the Falcons are as a football team. Atlanta’s run hot and cold all season. And I’m confident that’s going to become a problem for the Falcons in the postseason. But I’m not entirely sure it’s going to happen this week. My gut says the Eagles D steps up, hems in the Falcons offense, keeps this a low scoring game, and produces a narrow victory for the home team. I won’t be in any way shocked if what I end up seeing is a runaway win for Atlanta, but since I’ve got to make some kind of prediction, I’m going with the Eagles by a point.

Tennessee (+13.5) at New England
Any given Sunday (or Saturday night, I suppose) and all that, right? Honestly, I just don’t know about that principle here. I don’t want to dismiss the Titans or anything. I did that last week and it bit me on the ass. And, you know, one wants to believe one has the capacity to learn from mistakes. But I still have a hard time seeing a path to victory for Tennessee in this game. Take a look at this stuff.

I could do more, but I’m guessing you get the point. And, yeah, I know it’s not all about quarterback play. But it’s kind of a lot about quarterback play. Still, you know, just to be safe, let’s look at the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, New England +5.1; passer rating differential, New England +11.9; takeaway-giveaway differential, New England +10. There’s nothing in any of those numbers that says the Titans go into Foxborough to play in a third straight elimination game and a second straight road game and upend the Patriots who are coming off a first round bye and looking healthier than they’ve been in months. Could it happen? Sure. Anything can happen, and sometimes it does. But anything can happen isn’t a real prediction. Patriots by 17? That’s a real prediction.

Jacksonville (+7.5) at Pittsburgh
The disparity in quarterback numbers here (there are more than what you see above) isn’t nearly so stark as it is in Saturday’s AFC game, but it’s not exactly insignificant. I suppose that’s more meaningful if you’re someone (as I am) who needs to see more than a solid run against mostly middling competition before he buys into the Blake Bortles resurrection myth. If the Jaguars are going to win this game, they’re going to have to do it behind an offense driven not by Bortles but by Leonard Fournette, and a defense that figures out how to turn its well established ability to get to the quarterback into some actual sacks against Ben Roethlisberger, who is about as hard to bring down as any QB I’ve ever seen. Can they do it? Maybe. I don’t know. I’m going to need to see it before I’m ready to believe it. Until then, I’ll just look for the Jaguars to make this a game. Pittsburgh by three.

New Orleans (+4.5) at Minnesota
We all know this is the real NFC Championship game, right? I mean, I know there’s still a solid chance that I am — that many of us are — significantly underestimating the defending conference champion Falcons. Barring that, however, I don’t think anyone outside of the teams’ fan bases believes that either of Saturday’s NFC competitors can stand up to either of these teams on the big stage. This is a terrific matchup between two very talented and very well balanced football teams. And, assuming Tennessee doesn’t find a way to sneak through, I think this game sets up a phenomenal matchup in the Super Bowl. If the game were being played in New Orleans, I’d probably pick the Saints. But it’s in Minnesota. The Vikings have the benefit of a first round bye. And the Minnesota defense, I suspect, has a great chance to take away the run and make the Saints offense a bit more predictable and a bit less robust. I have to lean toward the home team. I expect a great game. And I expect the Vikings to win by four.

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Wild Card Picks

January 4th, 2018 Comments off

Well, I managed to get through the entire regular season without embarrassing myself too badly. That’s a relief.

Despite a few completely unpredictable results in week 17, I managed to come in at 11-5 straight up, 8-8 against the spread.

I end the season with a fairly respectable record of 177-79 (.691) picking them straight, and a not completely awful 124-119-13 (.510) with the points.

Of course, this all points to an awful showing in the postseason. In fact, I kind of expect to go 0-4 this week. Wild card weekend always packs a few surprises, and I’ve never been particularly good at figuring out where they’re likely to come. This weekend, I can’t see a single upset in the offing, even though I know a few are bound to happen. Which means we’ll probably see all four road teams walk away victorious.

Here’s more on what not to expect in the days ahead.

Tennessee (+8) at Kansas City
The more I hear from the experts about how the Titans don’t really belong in the tournament, the more tempted I become to think Tennessee’s going to find a way to pull off an upset in this game. But that’s about the only reason I can think of to like the Titans here. I haven’t bought in to the notion that Kansas City has completely turned things around following the brutal 1-6 run they went on from week six through week thirteen. But neither do I see anything impressive in Tennessee’s journey to 9-7 and the six seed. The Titans really just don’t do anything well enough to lead me to believe they can keep up with the Chiefs, particularly not while playing in Kansas City on short rest. I can’t even bring myself to hedge and take the Titans with the points. Kansas City by 10.

Atlanta (+6.5) at LA Rams
The Falcons absolutely can win this game. If the Atlanta defense can limit the Rams’ ground game, while the Falcons’ offense leans on its own rushing attack and doesn’t commit turnovers, they can move on to a divisional round match with Philadelphia, which likely would mean a return to the NFC Championship (which they would lose). Can they do all of those things? I doubt it. But perhaps they can manage to of three. So while I’ll take the Rams straight up, I guess I like the Falcons to make it a game and keep the difference to something like a field goal.

Buffalo (+8) at Jacksonville
Listening to Bills players talk this week, it’s struck me that they accomplished their goal for this year simply by qualifying for the postseason. That’s nice and all, I suppose. Buffalo overcame some obstacles, ended the league’s longest playoffs drought, and blah, blah, blah they’re “on the right track.” But being content just to make the playoffs doesn’t typically add up to winning games once January rolls around. I think this one’s over by halftime. Jaguars by 17.

Carolina (+6.5) at New Orleans
Although both of these teams bring solid defenses to the field, I still think this game turns into an airshow. New Orleans wins the turnover battle and that’s what makes the difference in a high scoring game. Saints by four.

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