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Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2017

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.

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