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Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2018

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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