What’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.
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.