Predictions for the Superbowl, 2015

bill_belichickYou want to know whether the Patriots or Seahawks will win the Super Bowl.

Can New England overcome the distractions from deflated footballs and exploit the human mismatch of Rob Gronkowski? Will the injuries to Seattle’s defense prevent them from repeating as Super Bowl champions?

I am extremely split on this Super Bowl. In recent previous years, I usually have a pretty good feel for the game after watching each team for almost 20 weeks.

Ed did an ensemble prediction that combined The Power Rank’s numbers with those from 8 other sources on CNBC. It gave the Seahawks a half point edge, the toss up that I expect.

Even in speaking to some sharper bettors, they seem split on this game on both the outcome and the point spread (New England -1 as of Tuesday afternoon). Nonetheless, let’s highlight some match up advantages and disadvantages for each team.

Patriots Offense vs. Seahawks Defense

The big question for the Seattle defense is the health of cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman seemed to injury his elbow pretty badly in the NFC Championship as he used only one arm in bump and run coverage against Jordy Nelson.

If Sherman is affected at all by his elbow, I guarantee the Patriots and Tom Brady do their best to exploit the opportunity. If Sherman is close to healthy, it’ll be interesting to see who the Patriots put on his side of the field.

Richard Sherman lines up on the left side of the defense almost 100% of the time. Thus, the opposing offense can almost pick their match up for Sherman.

For the Seahawks, this strategy eliminates one side of the field and the receiver trying to beat Sherman down field. However, the Patriots have a number of equally dangerous receivers.

The catalyst for the Patriots offense is Rob Gronkowski. Since Gronk probably will not line up against Sherman, it’ll be interesting to see Seattle coordinator Dan Quinn’s approach to slowing him down.

They could certainly bring Kam Chancellor down from the safety position to cover Gronkowski. After seeing the soft spot in the middle of the field get exposed by Aaron Rodgers and his tight ends, I’d guess this is exactly what Dan Quinn ends up doing.

The size, speed, and aggressiveness of Chancellor could slow Gronkowski down as much any team has this season. I don’t think anyone can shut him down completely, but it gives them a chance.

In the games I’ve watched, it seems Brandon LaFell tends to lineup on the opposite side of Sherman. Thus, that leaves either Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola taking up Richard Sherman’s time.

Strangely, I would like the Edelman match up against Sherman. If there is the slightest weakness in Sherman’s game, it’s the crossing routes that drag him the width of the field.

I don’t expect the Patriots to stick to the running game like they did against the Colts. Seattle has the second best run defense in the NFL, and I highly doubt LeGarrette Blount will gash the Seahawks like he did the Colts.

If they are going to have success in the running game, it will have to come from smaller, speedier guys like Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray.

Though I’ve heard some talks about the Seahawks front making Tom Brady uncomfortable, they have an average sack rate this season. The Patriots only trailed Denver and Peyton Manning in sack rate allowed this year. Brady should have plenty of time with his usual quick trigger.

Seahawks Offense vs. Patriots Defense

Frankly, I hate this match up for the Seahawks offense. Bill Belichick had a field day with Andrew Luck last week, and this Seahawks offense is a lot less sophisticated.

I never agree with the run-heavy approach, but this might be the best strategy for the Seahawks. New England ranks just inside the top ten in opposing yards per carry but they could also quickly stunt Seattle’s poor passing game.

Belichick’s typical plan is to put Darrelle Revis out on the offense’s best receiver while allowing Browner, McCourty, and the others to match up against the rest of the wide outs with safety help over the top.

It is looking like Jermaine Kearse will end up on Revis Island on Sunday. Kearse does have some speed and has shown to be a down field threat as of late.

However, much like Sherman, Darrelle Revis eliminates the big play. It’s not a great match up for the Seahawks.

Seattle will more than likely depend upon Doug Baldwin and Luke Willson in the passing game. Baldwin is very similar to Kearse with a little less athleticism and speed.

Luke Willson, on the other hand, has shown to be a little better at tight end than most expected. He’s extremely similar to guys like Heath Miller or Jason Witten with good route running and a great set of hands.

I’d expect Russell Wilson to target his tight ends with some bad match ups on the outside. Speaking of Russell Wilson, it is imperative that he runs the ball himself with more success than last week.

Clay Matthews drew the job of spying Wilson throughout the entire game last week. He got after Wilson and really shut him down in the running game.

Jamie Collins will more than likely get that job this week. For those of you haven’t watched Collins play, he’s even quicker and more explosive than Matthews. Regardless, Wilson must finds ways to extend and make plays with his feet.

The Seahawks will need to expose the Patriots defense much like the Ravens did in New England’s first playoff game. They will have to use Baldwin and Willson in the middle of the field while running Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin out on the edge.

Inevitably, Pete Carroll will be creative enough to set up some quick hitters like wide receiver screens, running back screens, end-arounds, and read-options to keep the ball systematically moving down the field.

However, the Seahawks offense isn’t capable of putting up a lot of points.

Prediction

After the games ended last Sunday, I would have leaned extremely heavily on the Patriots. In the way the Seahawks and the Patriots won their games, the better team was clearly the Patriots.

I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. The line opened on Sunday night at Seahawks -2.5. The sharps crushed that line literally within a few minutes. The line snapped down to pick ‘em almost immediately and has now settled around Patriots -1 to -1.5 depending where you look.

The books want to make lines as close to 50-50, in terms of money and number of bets, as possible. It seemed like they completely misjudged the public perception after an emotional Seahawks victory and the bigger money bought the line down right away.

After a week of looking over the match ups, this game is much closer than I initially thought. I foresee both defenses being able to control each offense.

In typical weeks, I almost always lean on the defensive side. That’s the side most undervalued in the eye of the public. In return, you typically get favorable lines on good defenses.

The Seahawks defensive value, though, is typically accurate or even overvalued. The next aspect of the game is the quarterbacks and his protection. This edge is significantly in Brady’s favor.

For the sake of picking a winner, I’ll take the Patriots. I think Deflategate will have the Patriots playing angry and give them a little incentive to run up the score if they get ahead instead of taking the laid back approach that the Packers took.

If anyone has an argument in favor either side, I’d love to hear it in the comments because I don’t have much of a lean in breaking this game down. This is as much as a toss up for a Superbowl as I can remember.

Let’s hope this one comes down to the last possession. Enjoy the game and the next eight months until football comes back again next season.

Predictions for the NFL Conference Championship Playoffs, 2015

2014_Conference_ChampionshipThe Divisional playoffs last weekend gave us some close games. New England and Green Bay won but didn’t cover the spread.

Even Seattle’s 14 point win over Carolina was closer than it seemed. Carolina moved the ball regularly against the Seattle defense and threatened to make it close until the interception return by Kam Chancellor, who played as well as any defender I’ve seen all season.

Moreover, Denver might have given Indianapolis a better game if Peyton Manning didn’t have a torn quad muscle. Somehow, news of the injury came out only after the game, as the line moved from 7 to 9.5 in favor of Denver before the game.

The bookmakers did their job, though. According to Sports Insights, every game closed pretty close to a 50% split for each game. Last week’s games certainly suggests taking the points this week.

Colts @ Patriots

The Colts dominated the Broncos in Denver. That’s incredible. The news about Peyton Manning’s torn quad didn’t surprise me. However, his receivers were blanketed for most of that game.

I thought Manning blatantly missed an open receiver only a few times. As we’ve realized before, this Colts defense is a little underrated.

Overall, the Colts pass defense ranks tenth in The Power Rank with a bit of a boost as of late. In the last three weeks, they’ve given up ten points to the Titans, ten points to the Bengals, and thirteen points to the Broncos.

The Colts also boast the ninth best sack rate (7.2%). However, pressuring Tom Brady may still be difficult.

The Patriots front have only given up sacks on 3.6% of drop backs as Tom Brady typically gets the ball out quickly. The Colts will have to blanket more receivers this week if they want a chance to win.

The biggest mismatch is Rob Gronkowksi, as usual. The Colts aren’t exactly known for their linebacker play. If they don’t move safety help or move a corner over to handle Gronk, he could have a huge game.

Even moving a capable body over to handle Gronk leaves so many options for Tom Brady. Defending Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, the resurrected Danny Amendola, and Shane Vereen out of the backfield is an insane task.

Not to mention, the Patriots offense completely ditched the run last week. They rushed once in the second half, and it was a Tom Brady quarterback sneak. Since passing has been 54% more efficient by yards per play than rushing in the NFL this season, this approach should only increase their likelihood of winning.

The Patriots defense doesn’t have it any easier. Andrew Luck doesn’t have the quick trigger like Brady or Manning, but he does have superior mobility inside and outside the pocket. He also is supported by an impressive offensive line.

Andrew Luck has had clean pockets for the last three weeks, hardly being touched at all. I was mildly surprised the Patriots weren’t able to pressure Joe Flacco last week, especially in the first half. Considering the Patriots front has about an average sack rate, I expect Luck to have some time and find his speedy receivers.

Bill Belichick typically puts Darrelle Revis on the opposition’s best receiver (T.Y. Hilton for the Colts), and matches up Brandon Browner with safety help on the next best receiver. This is what makes Belichick so efficient on defense; he makes other teams beat them with guys they don’t want to use.

For this week, that leaves Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, two capable tight ends, to get open and exploit their defense in the middle of the field. Joe Flacco and the Ravens were able to do this last weekend.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see Browner move in to cover Coby Fleener. However, that still leaves some decent match ups for Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks.

Playing in Foxboro is clearly a big advantage for the Patriots this time of the year. The Colts play their home games in a dome.

The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions give a field goal advantage to the Patriots. I couldn’t agree more. Both these offenses will have success and keep this game close. Be sure to take the points, especially while you’re getting the whole touchdown. [Editor’s note: the line moved to New England -7 to -6.5 from the time Frank submitted this draft to publication on Wednesday afternoon.]

Packers @ Seahawks

The Packers are the beneficiary of some controversy this week as they advanced with the help of instant replay and a questionable rule. By the transitive property, the Seahawks will be the team receiving the benefit this week.

In all seriousness, the Seahawks secondary is terrifying. Kam Chancellor changed the outcome of last week’s game on his own. Richard Sherman may be the most sure-handed cornerback in the NFL. Teams that attempted to run to counter their defensive backs are stopped by a front seven that allows 3.49 yards per rush, second best in the league.

The one weakness of the Seahawks defense is the pass rush. And a lack of pressure against Aaron Rodgers will doom them.

I was actually surprised how well the Cowboys defense contained Rodgers last week. In the second half, though, he really caught his stride and threaded the needle through some tight coverages that doomed the Cowboys.

The aspect that ruined the Panthers last week was turnovers. Even with a costly fumble and an interception, the Panthers found themselves near the Seahawks ten yard line with the opportunity to make it a one possession game. Then Kam Chancellor squatted on a route and took the interception to the house, effectively ending the game.

Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback at avoiding interceptions (career pick rate of 1.6%). I can imagine he will have success against nearly any defense.

Unlike Belichick’s approach, the Seahawks keep Richard Sherman generally on one side of the field. This gives the Packers the opportunity to move Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson on the other side of the field or in the slot, which they do often anyway, providing some favorable match ups.

I still can’t buy into the Seahawks offense, ranked 17th by The Power Rank. After I bashed them last week, the Seahawks put up 31 points. But points can be deceiving.

The Seahawks scored touchdowns on the mentioned pick-six, a 63 yard pass, and after a fumble on the Panthers own 20 yard line. These are all unsustainable ways to continue to score. They only really drove down the field and scored once on the Panthers defense.

I am not trying to compare the Packers defense (24th) to the Panthers defense; the Panthers are much better. However, the Packers don’t need to be great, though, to give themselves a chance to win against this Seahawks offense that depends upon their own opportunistic defense.

The books have lined this game at Seahawks -7.5 which seems a bit inflated to me even with reduced mobility of Aaron Rodgers (slight tear in his calf). Any time you can get north of seven points in a football game, it’s good value. This game is no different.

I like the Packers to cover, and Aaron Rodgers always gives you a chance to win. The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions concur and give the Seahawks a 4.9 point edge (about 63% to win).

Thanks for reading and enjoy the few remaining games. Since I no longer have a horse in the race, I’ll be rooting for a Packers-Patriots Superbowl as that would seem to me to be the most entertaining to watch.

Frank Brank founded cheapseatanalytics.com, a site devoted to analytical sports information and betting systems. He majors in baseball but also covers the NFL and NHL. You can follow him on Twitter @realFrankBrank.

How safe is Oregon from an upset against Ohio State?

cfb_playoff_trophyOregon looks like a clear favorite over Ohio State in the college football championship game.

The markets opened with Oregon as a 7 point favorite, which implies a 70% win probability. The predicted margin of victory is even higher with my college football team rankings based on margin of victory.

After an early loss to Arizona, Oregon has been dominant. Only UCLA has come within two touchdowns of beating Oregon. This stretch of games included a rematch against Arizona and the playoff semi-final against Florida State.

Ohio State barely made the college football playoff after an early loss to Virginia Tech, a team that went 3-5 in the ACC. They’re playing a third string quarterback lucky to have receivers talented enough to catch his jump balls.

Oregon should win, right?

In reality, Ohio State is a terrible match up for Oregon. Let me explain.

Oregon’s biggest match up problem

Ohio State has an elite ground game. To quantify this, let’s look an efficiency statistic: yards per carry. In college football, sacks count as rushes in the official statistics. Since sacks are pass plays, I exclude these plays in calculating yards per carry.

To adjust yards per carry for strength of schedule, I use a ranking algorithm I developed based on my research in statistical physics. While Ohio State has the 7th best raw yards per carry, these adjustments move them up to first. Ohio State is predicted to gain 6.78 yards per carry against an average FBS rush defense.

And Oregon has essentially an average rush defense (52nd of 128). Ohio State ran all over Wisconsin (13th ranked rush defense) and Alabama (2nd). They should do even better against Oregon.

The visual shows the difficult match up for Oregon. The blue dots represent Ohio State’s pass and rush offense. The smaller green dots show Oregon’s defense, and better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons. You’re looking at how a unit compares to average.

Ohio State's offense vs Oregon's defense

The gap between Ohio State’s rush offense and Oregon’s rush defense shows the clear advantage for the Buckeyes.

They will give most of the carries to Ezekiel Elliott, who has gained 6.9 yards per carry this season. We all saw his speed when he outran the Alabama defense for a 85 yard touchdown in the semi-final game. Quarterback Cardale Jones will also run the ball, and he’s a load to bring down at 6’5″, 250 pounds.

Offensive line coach Ed Warriner deserves much of the credit for Ohio State’s explosive run game. He had to groom four new starters this year, and none of the candidates had 5 star recruiting credentials. While the offensive line came into the season with question marks, it now looks like the strength that could carry them past Oregon.

Oregon’s other match up problem

Oregon, led by Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, excels at throwing the ball. To quantify this, let’s look at yards per pass attempt, an efficiency statistic that includes sacks. After adjusting for schedule, Oregon has the top ranked pass offense. They are predicted to throw for 9.04 yards per attempt against an FBS average pass defense.

However, Ohio State’s strength on defense is against the pass. They had the 9th best pass defense by adjusted yards per attempt. Against Alabama, they didn’t allow star receiver Amari Cooper to make big plays. While Cooper averaged 13.9 yards per catch this season, his longest against Ohio State was 15 yards.

The visual shows how Oregon’s offense matches up with Ohio State’s defense.

Oregon's offense vs Ohio State's defense

The gap between Oregon’s offense and Ohio State’s defense shows the size of the advantage. Oregon should still be able to throw the ball against Ohio State. However, it won’t be as easy as against Florida State.

The visual also show Oregon’s edge in running the ball. They should run it often (and they did on 55.9% of plays this season) and set up play action for Mariota.

Prediction

For college and pro football this season, I started aggregating many predictions into one ensemble prediction. This ensemble, which includes my adjusted numbers and data from the markets, predicts Oregon by 3.2 points, which corresponds to a 59.5% win probability.

However, you should never blindly trust numbers, especially in a game with mismatches. One of the predictors in the ensemble accounts for passing and rushing separately for each team. It considers Ohio State’s significant edge in running the ball and that Ohio State runs the ball on 59.3% of plays.

This matchup model predicts a 50-50 game between Ohio State and Oregon.

I think the game will be very close. Can Mariota have a monster game and carry his team? Or does Elliott break off big run after big run?

This game most likely comes down to a field goal in the final minutes. I give a slight edge to Oregon to win, but don’t be surprised if Ohio State pulls it out.

Predictions for the NFL Divisional Round Playoffs, 2015

2014_DivisionWhat’s the NFL without a little controversy? All news is good news for the NFL. The more folks blowing up social media on the missed pass interference call in the Cowboys-Lions game only made more tune into the game.

Conspiracy theorists rejoice.

Overall, I had a pretty solid Wildcard Round last week. Many of the outcomes ended up being as predictable as I had thought. This week will be a little more difficult as the teams get better, the weather gets worse, and the lines get tighter.

Ravens @ Patriots

The first game of the week renews the heated Flacco-Brady rivalry… just kidding.

The Joe Flacco in the Playoffs narrative continues after the Ravens beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh last week. Though his team’s record is impressive in recent years, let’s not depend on a small sample of games spread out across multiple seasons. Flacco will undoubtedly regress towards his career expectancy.

Flacco hasn’t played well on the road in his career. In 56 home games, Flacco has completed 61.7% of his 1740 passes for 7.56 yards per attempt (78 touchdowns, 35 interceptions). In 56 road games, he drops to 59.5% completion rate on 1907 attempts for 6.45 yards per attempt (70 touchdowns, 55 interceptions).

Those road numbers compare to teams like the 49ers, Titans, and Jaguars from this year. For what it’s worth, I quickly scrolled through home/road splits of other quarterbacks like Tony Romo, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and even Andy Dalton without finding a home/road difference even close to Flacco’s.

In addition, he will face New England’s 11th ranked pass defense and 12th best sack rate. That’s quite the step up from Pittsburgh’s abysmal secondary and pass rush.

The Patriots offense, ranked 6th by The Power Rank, also has a favorable match up. Tom Brady will draw the Ravens league average pass defense (15th).

Baltimore does make up for the secondary by getting after the quarterback. The Power Rank predicts they sack the opposing quarterback on 8.25% of pass attempts against average pass protection. The issue, of course, is Tom Brady doesn’t take many sacks. New England gives up a 3.7% sack rate against an average pass rush, second best in the NFL.

If you’re backing the Ravens because of Joe Flacco’s recent playoff success, you should look at the difference in his home and road performance. He doesn’t play well on the road compared to other quarterbacks.

Markets opened this game at Patriots -8.5. With some money coming in early, this line was adjusted moved down to Patriots -7.

This game is appropriately lined given the Patriots home dominance over the last decade; however, there’s some clear line value any time you can get an underdog north of seven points. Baltimore is still getting the slim majority of the bets, so this line has a small chance to get under seven points. The value would then be flipped to the Patriots.

I’ll take the Patriots to win with comfort and hope the Joe Flacco in the Playoffs story is put to rest.

Panthers @ Seahawks

The Panthers and Seahawks couldn’t be further away in the standings. However, they play similar styles of football with an aggressive defense and run first offense.

Throughout the season, the Seahawks executed that style better since they had 12-4 regular season record versus the 7-8-1 mark of the Panthers.

Continuing with the similarities, each of these teams have played some cupcake games recently. Seattle finished the season winning six straight games with two games against quarterback-depleted Arizona, two against San Francisco, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

Carolina has won five straight against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Atlanta, and a quarterback-depleted Arizona. Nonetheless, these are still professional football players and no opponent should be taken for granted.

The Panthers and Seahawks each have elite defenses. The Panthers defensive numbers are a little skewed as they’ve gotten healthy as the season has progressed and have played much better as of late.

According to The Power Rank, they still rank 13th on defense with the seventh best pass rush. Sacks have disrupted Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense all season (8.8% sack rate).

I don’t believe this is a knock to the offensive line; Wilson has held onto the ball entirely too long. Lacking a real threat on offense could be the issue.

The Seahawks traded away Percy Harvin, leaving Doug Baldwin and Luke Wilson as the most dangerous weapons on offense. Wilson has been able to improvise with his legs; however, there is no doubt in my mind that Luke Keuchly will be spying him all game.

The Seahawks offense, ranked 17th, should struggle against a fast, opportunistic Carolina defense.

The Panthers offense will be in a similar situation. The Seahawks, who also struggled on defense at the start of the season by their standards, have worked their way up to the fifth best defense per The Power Rank.

Cam Newton has played better lately, but I expect him to have similar issues as Russell Wilson in this game.  Newton certainly has more weapons at his disposal, but he’ll also oppose the better defense.

The books have lined this game at Seahawks -10.5 after opening at Seahawks -11. This game should be much closer than that. Even with the Panthers playing much better lately, 56% of the public has laid all those points with the Seahawks.

I simply don’t think the Seahawks can score enough points to cover a double digit line. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Panthers have a good chance to win this game with such limited scoring. One big play can change the outcome.

Cowboys @ Packers

The Cowboys narrowly scraped by last week, as we thought they might, with a little help from the referees, of course. The Packers had a week to rest, which should only help them continue their home dominance.

The Packers have a ridiculous offense, which you don’t need me to break it down. The Cowboys also have a great offense, so where is the edge for each team?

For starters, the Cowboys defense is not very good. I was supremely impressed by their second half against Detroit. They shut down the running game, pressured Stafford, and held the Lions offense to three points.

However, the Cowboys defense was terrible in the first half against Detroit. If they lay an egg in either half of this game, Aaron Rodgers will take advantage and put them away early considering the Cowboys defense ranks 27th in passing defense and 29th in sack rate.

The Packers defense may have similar issues. Though the offense started slow last week, the Cowboys have roughed up even the best of defenses, including the Seahawks in Seattle.

According to The Power Rank, Green Bay’s defense now sits 24th in passing defense and 17th in sack rate. They have certainly been better than Dallas, but it’s not a wide margin by any means.

Even with temperatures expected to be around twenty degrees at game time, I expect some points. The books expect the same with a total of 53, only trailing the Broncos-Colts total by one point.

Having an opinion on this game is difficult. I really do trust Green Bay’s home dominance, but I also trust that they will give up some points.

There’s certainly a chance the Cowboys hang in there and win this game, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Power Rank has the Packers by a touchdown and I agree with that number. The betting line is also hovering around Packers -6.5.

On a neutral field, these teams are very close to equals. At Lambeau, I’ll take the Packers over any team.

This is a rare game where the hot and cold of the Cowboys isn’t swaying their betting line. If you’re going to take a side, grab the Cowboys and the points, but the books got this one right.

Colts @ Broncos

Many thought the Colts were in trouble after the closing weeks of the regular season. However, their offensive line dominated the Bengals pass rush in their Wildcard game and gave Andrew Luck plenty of time to find his speedy receivers.

The Broncos got the week off they desperately needed. They have some injuries on their offensive line.  Even the Bengals horrendous pass rush was able to exploit those soft spots up front.

The Broncos face a good Colts pass rush ranked 9th in sack rate adjusted for schedule. They also have a good secondary, as the Colts pass defense is very underrated at 10th in The Power Rank.

The Broncos front will be better this week than in recent weeks. Though it’s a tall task with his quick releases, but if the Colts front seven can disrupt Peyton, they might have a chance to win this game.

Ed and I have talked previously and agree that the Broncos are a better team, at least statistics-wise, than they were last year at this point.

The Broncos are the top ranked team in The Power Rank and have the second best pass defense with a strength of schedule adjustment for yards per attempt.

Peyton Manning still has the best overall protection with the aid of his quick timing routes and the best passing attack. Very few would question that.

The questionable part is their now run-happy offense. C.J. Anderson has emerged as one of the better power backs with added quickness in the league. Realistically, though, Peyton Manning should be throwing the ball more often, as he leads the top ranked pass offense.

If the Colts want to survive and advance, they’ll need to get to Manning. It’s that simple. If he has time in the pocket, Manning has proven for nearly two decades that opposing teams have a very small chance to beat him.

I don’t foresee the pressure being sufficient and expect the Broncos to win comfortably. The books have lined this around a touchdown. The Power Rank likes the Broncos by a little more with an ensemble prediction of -8.6.

The difference is the key number of seven points. You want to be on the correct side of that number. I can live with laying 6.5 points with Denver. You probably won’t see less than a touchdown anywhere, though. I also wouldn’t be opposed to taking the points at Colts +7.5.

Outlook

I really can imagine two of the underdogs, Panthers and Cowboys, winning this week. I would rank them in that order of likelihood, as well. The Panthers being double digit dogs may disagree with me, but I love the match up.

With no games inside of 6.5 points in Vegas, they are suggesting a pretty boring Divisional round. However, we know well enough the playoffs are always exciting. Sports have insanely random outcomes in the one game samples you’ll get this week.

Frank Brank founded cheapseatanalytics.com, a site devoted to analytical sports information and betting systems. He majors in baseball but also covers the NFL and NHL. You can follow him on Twitter @realFrankBrank.

Predictions for the NFL Wildcard Playoffs, 2014

nfl2014The NFL Playoffs have arrived. Remember, there are favorites to win the Super Bowl, but no team has great odds to win three or four games in a row against the NFL’s best teams.

That makes picking Super Bowl winners very difficult. It depends on both good play and luck. Nonetheless, that’s what makes the playoffs great: anyone can win.

Last year featured the consensus two best teams in the Super Bowl, but I wouldn’t expect that to happen often.

Finding edges in the playoffs is much more difficult than the regular season. There will be many more bets coming in and the public generally knows the worth of each team at this point. Valuing overlooked aspects like home field advantage and defense is important.

Let’s try to figure out who wins this week.

Cardinals @ Panthers

Over the last two seasons, the Arizona Cardinals have been the unluckiest team in the NFL.

Last year, the Cardinals won ten games but missed the postseason. This year, Arizona won eleven games but lost their first and second string quarterbacks to injury.

Now they travel to play a 7-8-1 Carolina team. And unfortunately for Cardinals fans, that 7-8-1 team is much better than them right now.

Ryan Lindley is the go-to quarterback for the Cardinals. He has nine career games, a 50% completion rate, and just threw his first touchdown pass last week.

Lindley will go up against a now healthy and very fast Carolina defense. The Panthers have given up more than 20 points in just one of their last six games and are beginning to look like the defense we saw last year.

The Carolina offense, on the other hand, hasn’t been great. Sure, they scored 34 points as a team last week but that was aided by two defensive touchdowns and incredible field position most of the game. Relying upon some fortunate bounces isn’t a sustainable way to win games.

Cam Newton will go up against a Cardinals defense that is a bit overrated. Early in the season, the Cardinals repeatedly found themselves in close games in which late turnovers and defensive touchdowns aided some victories.

In actuality, they’ve produced the 27th best sack rate and 21st best pass defense by yards per attempt adjusted for schedule.

Without being able to pressure Cam Newton, the Cardinals will find themselves in a bad situation. Newton will be able to exploit their defense on the ground and through the air.

The books have the line at Panthers -4.5. Considering they are playing at home, this line suggests the Panthers would be very small favorites on a neutral field.

The public will be largely backing the Panthers which should move this line towards the price of a touchdown. If you like the Panthers as much as I do this week, you may want to get them early or find another game to tease the line down with them.

I like to bet on defense and home field advantage. Panthers win big.

Ravens @ Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers come into the playoffs flying high. They’ve won their last four games by an average of 11.5 points against solid competition.

The Ravens have won three of four but haven’t played great in the last three games since cruising past the Dolphins. Baltimore slipped by the Jaguars, lost to the Texans who brought Case Keenum off the street, and pulled out a close one against the Browns led by Connor Shaw last week.

The Ravens defense has been about what one would expect in those games; however, the offense has been abysmal.

It all starts with QB Joe Flacco. This season, his 62% completion rate and 7.2 yards per attempt reminds you of quarterbacks named Eli Manning and Colin Kaepernick.

The match up couldn’t be better for Flacco and the Ravens offense this week, though. Pittsburgh rates as the third worst pass defense in the NFL, just beating out Atlanta and Chicago.

That not-so Steel Curtain defense ranks 25th in sack rate and 30th in passing yards per attempt against. Look for Flacco, who hasn’t been great in road games over his career, to have some success.

I do believe the Ravens best chance of advancing through the Wildcard round was to draw the Steelers. That doesn’t mean I’d pick them to win this game.

The Steelers offense has been incredible. Pittsburgh has the fourth best pass offense, only trailing Denver, Green Bay, and Indianapolis.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell are as good of a trio that you will find in the NFL. Bell did hyperextend his knee late in Week 17 and is likely a coin flip to play this week. I still believe they have success against an average Ravens defense with a mixture of Josh Harris and Dri Archer in the backfield.

The opening line favors the Steelers by more than a field goal. The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions favors the Steelers by a point. I’ll agree and back the Steelers to win with home field advantage. This game is lined appropriately given that the Ravens offense and Joe Flacco continue to struggle this season.

Bengals @ Colts

I am really stuck coming up with an opinion for this game. If it weren’t the playoffs, I’d pass on this one entirely. I do believe the Bengals are a little better than most people think. However, they have a large match up problem this week.

The Bengals front seven will not be able to stop Andrew Luck. In the few games that the Colts offense has struggled, it’s been mostly due to pressure on Luck where he’s become turnover-happy.

The Bengals have the second worst pass rush in the NFL. That’s a large mismatch since Luck takes sacks at the fifth best rate in the NFL.

Luck should be able to extend plays with his legs and inside the pocket while allowing the athleticism of T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Colby Fleener to really shine. Cincinnati’s secondary has been impressive, recently blasting Peyton Manning into mediocrity, but stopping Luck on the indoor turf in Indy is a different story.

The Bengals did take the Steelers down to the wire last week. The ten point difference doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Bengals were already inside of field goal range while down three with around three minutes left in the game before A.J. Green fumbled and cost his a team a shot to win the game.

In the process, Green was injured on the play and is questionable for Sunday’s contest. Green may be the best offensive player and threat for the Bengals. His potential absence or limited play should not be taken lightly.

There still is a slight misconception that the Colts defense isn’t very good. They represent the tenth best secondary and eighth best sack rate. According to The Power Rank, they rate overall at tenth, right between the Lions and Patriots.

Nearly every statistical aspect of this game tells me the Colts win easy. While the Colts have struggled recently, I think they play their best at home this weekend in their most important contest of the season. This agrees with the ensemble prediction of Colts by 4.8.

Lions @ Cowboys

As I’ve stated before, the Cowboys are the most publicly-driven point spread each week. I was amazed when I saw a Cowboys -7.5 pop up Monday morning. A bottom five defense is going up against an incredibly talented offense and is laying more than a touchdown in the books.

If we evaluate this game at an offense versus defense standpoint, I think it’s safe to say the Lions offense is a better match up for the Cowboys defense than the Cowboys offense against the Lions defense.

Detroit’s offense certainly hasn’t lived up to its talent level, but they’ve shown some flashes of what one would expect. Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, and Reggie Bush could give this Cowboys questionable defense some nightmares this week.

Detroit’s passing offense ranks right about average; however, they’ve spent a large portion of the season without their most important offensive player, Calvin Johnson. Either Orlando Scandrick or Brandon Carr will cover Johnson this week, while the other gets Golden Tate.

Both Scandrick and Carr have played better than expected this season but they still have their hands full dealing with all that speed in a dome and on turf.

Stafford has struggled at times dealing with pressure and their front line hasn’t protected him at a great rate. However, the Cowboys don’t get to quarterbacks that often (4.25% sack rate).

Not to mention, the Cowboys haven’t historically played great at home. Even with a substantial home field advantage, this game should be much closer than anticipated.

We all know how good the Cowboys offense has been this year. Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant are as good as they come in the skill department. They will give any defense problems.

The Lions do boast the best run-stopping defense in the NFL and a top ten secondary. If the Lions secondary can find a way to stop Dez Bryant from catching multiple touchdowns this week and force Tony Romo to use Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley, they’ll have a great chance to win this game.

They will be without Ndamukong Suh who was suspended for stepping on Aaron Rodgers’ injured calf. Suh’s absence has a huge effect as he may be the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL. [Editor’s note: for some reason, the NFL has cleared Suh to play in this game.]

I am not suggesting the Cowboys are much worse than the Lions. I still think they win this game with superior offensive abilities.

This entire Cowboys team has been better than expected. However, the fact that the largest line of the week by a wide margin is given to the team with relatively no defense and no great home field advantage is a shock.

I expect the Cowboys to pull this one out, and the ensemble predictions agree (Dallas by 2.3). Take the points.

Enjoy the playoffs, all. It’s the best time of the year and it doesn’t last long. May the luckiest team win!

Frank Brank founded cheapseatanalytics.com, a site devoted to analytical sports information and betting systems. He majors in baseball but also covers the NFL and NHL. You can follow him on Twitter @realFrankBrank.