The top 5 ways numbers go against Carolina, a 2016 Super Bowl preview

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Manning versus Newton: Previewing the Super Bowl, 2016

sb_trophyWill the Broncos or Panthers win Super Bowl 50?

As usual in professional football, this question will get answered by the quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Cam Newton. Put bluntly, it’s the old man versus one of the most athletic human beings in the world. If you didn’t follow sports, you would never guess which one of these guys is being investigated for PED use.

However, both teams have excellent defenses as well. How do they match up against Manning and Newton? Let’s break it down.

Panthers offense versus Broncos defense

The real matchup in this game is the Broncos’ defense against Cam Newton. I would say the Panthers’ offense, but he’s the only above average skill-position player.

As noted in my conference title game preview, the Broncos have the top ranked defense by yards per pass attempt and sack rate, both adjusted for schedule. (They’re slacking against the run, ranking only 2nd best in the NFL.) However, Cam Newton presents an entirely new problem.

Not only is Newton bigger than most linebackers, he’s one of the fastest quarterbacks in the NFL. I have little doubt that Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and others can flush Newton from the pocket. However, can they then tackle him?

I thought the Cardinals had their chances to tackle Newton in the NFC championship game but were not able to bring him down (or tackle any one else on the Panthers offense).

I don’t foresee the Panthers’ wide receivers beating the best pass defense in the NFL on initial routes. However, they could make plays if Newton has or creates time to throw. Covering wide receivers may be the hardest job in the NFL. The longer corners are required to cover, the harder it becomes.

The Broncos must contain Newton and make him throw into coverage earlier than he would like.

Broncos offense versus Panthers defense

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers’ defense will not have the same worries. Peyton Manning is as immobile as they come and his arm strength has diminished.

To my surprise, the Broncos came out throwing the ball more than expected last week. Manning protected the ball well, took his sacks when pressured, and did just enough to win the game.

Though I’m still not a huge believer in the Panthers’ secondary, the front seven is solid. They will be able to sit on under routes and short crosses that Manning prefers these days.

Prediction

Despite the Broncos’ shortcomings on offense, there is still value on their side in this game. Pinnacle opened with the Broncos as a 3.5 point underdog, but that number has moved as high as 6. It has settled at 5.5 on Tuesday before the game, while The Power Rank’s member numbers makes the Broncos a 1.1 point underdog.

The difference between the computer projection and the markets is the current state of the Broncos. They’re not as strong as earlier in the season. The recent play is determining the point spread more than season-long statistics.

The question becomes whether or not we should trust recency bias or season-long statistics. I’d prefer to look at the season as a whole, but I can see the case for expecting a blowout in favor of the Panthers.

Personally, I lined this game closer to the open (Broncos +4) and am willing to play it at the current number. With both defenses being very stout, I am expecting a closer game than the Panthers’ have seen lately. It would not surprise me to see the line get bumped back down towards +5 or +4.5 at sharper books. Not to mention, backing the opposite of the public favorites in the NFL has proven to be profitable.

Coming back from behind will prove difficult for the pedestrian Broncos’ offense. They will need to get ahead or keep the game close in the first half to have a chance in Super Bowl 50.

I’m willing to entertain both narratives of this game. Seeing Newton growing into a superstar with relatively no help on offense has been incredible. Manning likely has one foot out of the door, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the old man go out with a ring.

Unfortunately, if Manning does get his ring, it will be a similar story as the AFC championship game. We will credit Wade Phillips’ NFL best defense and incredible game plan to contain Newton. Otherwise, it’ll be another disappointing playoff scenario for Peyton and the near perfect season for the Panthers.

Preview of the NFL conference championships, 2016

sb_trophyWhich teams will make the Super Bowl?

New England travels to Denver as a 3 point favorite. This goes against the numbers, but a strong subjective adjustment suggests that the markets have this one correct.

The story is different for Arizona at Carolina. A look at the match ups and injury situations go against the home favorite Panthers in the NFC championship game.

Let’s take a closer look at both games using the ensemble predictions available to members of The Power Rank.

Patriots at Broncos (Line: +3, The Power Rank: -3.8)

Both the Patriots and the Broncos have played two different seasons. Both teams started the season on fire, then struggled down the stretch.

Though their win-loss record didn’t take a big hit, the Broncos didn’t quite fit the part as the number one seed in the AFC. They’ve been flip-flopping between an “injured” Peyton Manning and the youngster, Brock Osweiler.

The defense kept the Broncos a consistent force all season. Despite, to be fair, awful play at quarterback by both Manning and Osweiler, the Broncos won important games down the stretch on their way to the number one seed.

What made the number one seed possible for the Broncos? The Patriots’ struggles.

After starting 10-0, the Patriots finished the season 2-4 as injuries affected the offense and the secondary struggled.

In my opinion, the Patriots didn’t exactly try to win the last two games of the season. They kicked off in overtime against the Jets and only threw the ball a handful of times against the Dolphins.

I would agree that avoiding the Steelers as the sixth seed was a better opportunity for the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl. With the Broncos knocking off the hobbled Steelers last weekend, this week is an even better opportunity for the Patriots.

The Patriots offense is suddenly healthy. With Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski all appearing close to 100% last week, Tom Brady ripped apart the Chiefs’ solid defense and silenced many doubters (including me).

The discrepancy in The Power Rank’s prediction (Broncos by 3.8) and the actual point spread (Patriots by 3) likely comes from the way these teams are trending health-wise. The Patriots statistical struggles down the stretch could be credited to both not exactly attempting to win games and preserving health for this very moment.

This current Patriots team is much closer to the team that started 10-0 as opposed to the team that closed the season 2-4 while losing to Brock Osweiler in overtime.

Though the Broncos’ defense is extremely stout (the best pass defense and sack rate in The Power Rank’s ratings), quarterback play will hold back this team. They rank just 19th in pass offense and yards per carry (both adjusted for strength of schedule).

I have sympathy for those currently backing the Broncos this week. There is some line value on a team with a great defense getting 3 points at home. But the uncertainty at quarterback position is frightening.

If you are a follower of The Power Rank, you know that rushing ability does not predict wins or losses. The Broncos must be willing to throw the ball on the Patriots’ secondary if they want to stay in this game.

Seeing that they were not willing to throw the ball against the Steelers awful secondary last week, I would not back either team of these teams. Point spreads are pretty efficient this time of the year and I don’t see the number coming off of three on either side throughout the week.

At 3 points, I’ll pass on the side and enjoy the last of the Brady-Manning rivalry that we’ve been blessed with for so many years.

Cardinals at Panthers (Line: -3, The Power Rank: +0.2)

A Cardinals-Panthers matchup is the most we could ask for this NFL season. These teams are very similar on paper and the point spread would suggest they are equals on a neutral field.

Both of these offenses are extremely talented, exciting, and efficient. Both defenses rank in the top twelve in the passing game. Lastly, the most underrated portion of this game is the aggressiveness of coaches Bruce Arians and Ron Rivera.

Though they have beat them twice, the Seahawks are by far the best team the Panthers have played this season. Their own division was very weak and their schedule-matched division this year was the NFC East. That combination alone led to an opponent 47-65 record.

The Panthers did beat the Packers, but we can all admit it wasn’t the typically strong Green Bay team. Overall, Carolina only played two teams in the top half of The Power Rank’s member rankings: Seattle and Green Bay.

The Power Rank’s advantage for the Cardinals comes from pass offense, 1st in the NFL, against the Panthers pass defense. After accounting for strength of schedule, the Panthers pass defense is merely average, 16th in the NFL.

I would agree with this assessment. Outside of Josh Norman, the Panthers secondary is questionable at best. Robert McClain, Cortland Finnegan, and Roman Harper are all liabilities when trying to cover Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd. Admittedly, Kurt Coleman has had a huge year with seven interceptions; however, this appears to be more of an aberration when you consider his previous seasons.

Let’s not downplay Cam Newton’s talent, either. He’s lost a total of one game this season while scoring loads of points despite being the only offensive threat on the team. You’ll have to forgive me as this is also my concern.

When looking at the matchup for the Cardinals secondary against Ted Ginn, Devin Funchess, and Kevin Norwood, I can’t say Cam has the upper hand this week.

Playing at home certainly does help. But if you’re giving me the entire three points with a good quarterback, the better secondary, and much better receivers, I’m going to take that every time. I may not agree that the Panthers should be underdogs in this game at home, but the whole three points is too many.

You can follow Frank Brank on Twitter.

Death star versus young Jedi, an Alabama and Clemson preview

deathstarCan Clemson upset Alabama in the championship game of the College Football Playoff?

It seems unlikely. Alabama is the most consistent, elite team in college football. Through both recruiting and weekly preparation, Nick Saban puts his team in national title contention year after year.

Some years, the Crimson Tide get derailed. It takes a miracle play like the Kick Six against Auburn, or an elite performance from Ohio State’s offense in last year’s playoff semi-final.

But Alabama is college football’s empire, a finely oiled machine with infinite resources to destroy the opponent. Their defense is a Death Star aimed at Clemson and another national title.

Not many expected a national title for Clemson this season. They were ranked 12th in the preseason AP poll, as they lost most of their starters on an elite defense and had worries about the health of Watson.

However, Clemson has played exceptional this season, and QB Deshaun Watson has taken a starring role. He’s a young Jedi beginning to use his full powers, just like Luke Skywalker in the New Hope.

Can he blow up the Death Star and win the national title? Let’s look at the match ups and possible value in markets.

Alabama’s offense against Clemson’s defense

Clemson’s run defense had an outstanding game against Oklahoma by allowing 3.9 yards per carry. However, don’t expect the same against Alabama.

For the season, Clemson has allowed 4.6 yards per carry (numbers do not include sacks like usual college football statistics), 42nd in the nation. The rush defense is good but not elite, and they played one of their better games against Oklahoma.

Don’t expect the same type of performance from Clemson in the title game against Alabama. They face Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry in an offense that mostly runs the ball.

Overall, the numbers see a very even contest between these units. This usually implies Alabama will score about 28 points, the college football average. The Power Rank’s member numbers predict 26.6 points, a slight adjustment for the slow pace at which Alabama’s offense plays.

This number most likely requires a subjective adjustment for Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson. The pass rush beast racked up 10.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss this season but hurt his knee against Oklahoma. Lawson most likely plays on Monday night but probably not at 100%.

Alabama’s defense and possible value in the under

Clemson ran for 320 yards on 5.7 yards per carry against Oklahoma in their semi-final win. QB Deshaun Watson contributed to this efficient total, as he broke off a 46 yard run in the second quarter.

There are two reasons Clemson won’t get anywhere near these numbers against Alabama.

First, Clemson hasn’t been efficient with their ground game. For the season, they have rushed for 5.2 yards per carry, 51st best in the nation.

Second, Alabama’s front seven is dominant. They have allowed 3.5 yards per carry (numbers do not include sacks like usual college football statistics), second best in the nation. LSU’s Leonard Fournette had 31 yards on 19 carries against this unit.

The numbers like Alabama’s Death Star defense to contain Clemson’s offense, as my member model predicts 20.2 points for Clemson. A predicted total of 46.8 suggests that under 50.5 (as of Thursday morning) has value.

However, the under doesn’t feel right in this game. Deshaun Waton is the best college football player in the nation not named Christian McCaffrey (no Stanford bias whatsoever). His blossoming talent gives Clemson a chance of blowing up the Death Star.

A few other factors go against the under. I mentioned the injury to Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson in the previous section. Also, Alabama’s Tony Brown is suspended for this game. The cornerback has a limited role in the secondary but has been making special teams plays all season.

Can Clemson pull off the upset?

It’s unlikely. The Death Star usually wins; they only make movies about the statistically improbable. (Cue Han Solo voice about never telling him the odds.)

A Clemson win wouldn’t be a fluke. My numbers make them a 6.4 point dog, which corresponds to a 32% win probability. However, Alabama will most likely wins their 4th national title in 7 years.

The Seattle Seahawks are sneaky good

The following is a guest post from Rohan Shah.

The Seattle Seahawks were a major disappointment their first 6 games of 2015. With a 2-4 record, they were written out of playoff contention due to a crowded NFC playoff picture.

However, since then, they have gone on a tear, winning 7 of their last 8 games. They now find themselves nearly locked into an NFC Wild Card spot and in great position to make a deep run into the playoffs.

Several factors indicate that Seattle is a dangerous, underrated team.

Russell Wilson is an Elite Quarterback

Many have questioned Wilson’s true effectiveness without a great running back and great defense.

However, over the past few weeks, Wilson has shown his greatness. He has been without running back Marshawn Lynch and his dynamic tight end Jimmy Graham, but has nonetheless still produced.

Wilson has been a top 5 QB each of the last 5 weeks based on ESPN’s Total QBR metric, which accounts for both running and passing. According to The Power Rank, Seattle ranks 4th in pass offense by yards per attempt adjusted for schedule with a fairly mediocre receiving crew.

Current Playoff Picture

Despite the rough start, Seattle is in a prime position to make a deep run in the playoffs. This is based on several factors: the current playoff picture, and the tough opposition that Seattle has faced this year.

Barring a collapse of epic proportions, Seattle will be locked into the NFC’s 5th seed in the playoffs. This gives them a game against the 4th seed in the NFC, which will be the “winner” of the putrid NFC East.

The competition that Seattle has faced this year will also be a blessing in disguise in the playoffs. Playing in one of the toughest divisions in football (NFC West) and drawing a division with a plethora of good QB (NFC North), Seattle will be in good shape to take anything thrown at its way in the playoffs.

Richard Sherman and the defense

The last factor that really makes Seattle a serious contender is their highly touted defense. Led by high profile players, the defense has lived up to the hype this season by ranking 5th against the pass, 3rd against the run, and 10th in terms of sack rate (all adjusted for strength of schedule).

With the defense and Wilson at quarterback, Seattle could win their second Lombardi trophy in three years.

Advanced NFL statistics

The numbers cited in this article, such as sack rate adjusted for strength of schedule, are available to members of The Power Rank.