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.

Predictions for week 17 of the NFL, 2014

nfl2014Week 17 of the NFL is one of, if not the hardest, week to predict outcomes of football games. You must consider which teams will play full out and which will sit starters or play cautiously. To avoid these situations, let’s focus on important games to both teams.

The analysis below is based on calculations available to members of The Power Rank. The offense and defense rankings for passing consider yards per attempt and adjusts for strength of schedule, since the NFC South is just that bad.

The team rankings shown in the visual aggregate these offense and defense rankings with calculations based on margin of victory. The predictions come from these ensemble rankings and add a constant factor for home field.

Panthers @ Falcons

Sadly, either the 22nd or 28th best team by The Power Rank will win the NFC South and host a playoff game.

When evaluating football games, a large portion of the analysis and focus should depend upon the offensive and defensive match ups for each team. I believe the Panthers have a decent advantage on Sunday.

The Falcons have the worst pass defense in the NFL. They also don’t pressure the quarterback, ranking 31st in sack rate.

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers don’t throw the ball particularly well but I don’t foresee much of an issue against this defense.

The Panthers offensive weakness is pass protection, as they rank 22nd in sack rate allowed despite having an extremely athletic, mobile quarterback in Cam Newton. However, the Falcons front can’t get to anyone, so Newton will have success running and throwing the ball.

Contrary to popular belief, the Falcons have been just slightly above average on offense. They rank just one half of a yard ahead of league average in adjusted yards per pass attempt.

Similarly, the Panthers pass defense has been just slightly above average this season. As they’ve gotten healthier and as the season has worn on, they’ve gotten better, allowing more than 20 points in one of the last five games.

The ensemble predictions suggests a one point win for the Falcons. The public has backed the Falcons at a three to one rate early, moving the line from Falcons by three to Falcons by four already.

I’d gladly take the Panthers north of three points with the money line having some value as well.

Cowboys @ Redskins

Now that the Cowboys have clinched a home playoff game, this game will be a matter of seeding in the upcoming weeks.

Like I wrote last week, the Cowboys are the most hot and cold team in the eyes of the public. If they are winning, they’re highly respected. If they are struggling, they get no public backing.

Looking back on it, it’s somewhat comical that the Cowboys were four to five point underdogs at Tennessee in Week 2.

I also wrote last week about the one fatal flaw in Robert Griffin’s struggles and how he could exploit the Eagles poor secondary with a little bit of time in the backfield. As the Cowboys have generated very little sacks on defense (4.6% sack rate), Griffin should be able to find similar success against a bottom five secondary.

There’s also a chance the Cowboys play it a little safe in this game. Sure, seeding is important in the playoffs, but keeping everyone healthy could be equally important for an offense that relies heavily on their offensive line and just a few skill position players.

There’s little chance the Redskins have given up at this point. Robert Griffin is playing for a starting job next year, whether it’s with the Redskins or another team, and DeSean Jackson definitely hasn’t taken a play off.

This match up is much closer than one would expect as both teams do not play defense. The six and a half point line is too many points to lay for the slightly better defense at home. If you move this game to Dallas, this line would suggest the Cowboys to be nearly two touchdown favorites.

That’s too many points to lay for a cautious team with a horrendous secondary. The Skins have another chance to win this week. The numbers agree, giving the Cowboys an edge of only 1.4 points.

Bengals @ Steelers

The game of the week is Cincinnati traveling into Pittsburgh for the AFC North Championship and the opportunity to host a playoff game. Considering how well both of these teams have played in recent years at home, this game should be of high importance to each team.

Most of the public, and the books, will more than likely remember the 21-point win by Pittsburgh in Cincinnati just a few weeks ago. However, the full season statistics suggest the Bengals have better match up with the Steelers this week.

The Steelers have the 4th best pass offense while the Bengals feature the 7th ranked pass defense, which is surprising. It’s safe to expect the Bengals to hold the Steelers offense under 42 points this time around.

The mismatch comes on the other side of the ball. The Bengals passing game hasn’t performed as well as one might expect from their talent. But the Steelers pass defense is bad (30th) and has been exploited over the top.

The Steelers have won games with big plays on offense. It’ll be a little harder this week against a good, underrated Bengals defense.

A standard three points to the home team gives the Steelers a slight edge. The Power Rank says Steelers by a point. Flip a coin, the last possession determines the outcome in the game of the week.

Thanks for reading. We’ll cover all of the games next week as the playoffs get underway.

Additonal Leans:

Jaguars +10, Bills +10.5, Rams +13

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 week 16 of the NFL, 2014

NFL_Rankings_Week_16Though it’s late in the season, Ed and I have teamed up to provide some NFL previews for the remaining games. I am the owner of cheapseatanalytics.com where I provide analytical sports information and betting systems. I major in baseball but also cover the NFL and NHL.

In this segment, I will be providing a weekly view on some important games to watch from an analytical and betting perspective. You can follow along with me on Twitter @realFrankBrank and check out my betting systems and sports analytical models at cheapseatanalytics.com.

Eagles @ Redskins

Fresh off two losses and dropping from their top spot in the NFC East, the Eagles get the privilege of traveling to Washington and taking on the helpless Redskins.

The Redskins have only failed themselves. The owner has failed the coach who has failed the players who have failed each other.

On the other side, the Eagles first ran into a revived Seahawks defense two weeks ago. This past week, their defense got torn apart by Tony Romo and Dez Bryant while sprinkling in some Cole Beasley and Jason Witten.

It wasn’t a good look for this popular Eagles team. Their uptempo offense has struggled for long periods of time throughout the previous two games.

Mark Sanchez may have caught the Chip Kelly hype, but he hasn’t been much more than an average quarterback when you look at his 6.9 yards per pass attempt (includes sacks but not adjusted for competition) and 61% completion rate. Sure, the high pace offense and large amounts of points are great. The rate stats tell a different story.

The defense, particularly the secondary, hasn’t played well all year, ranking 18th in adjusted yards per attempt against. The largest edge the Eagles will have against the Redskins is their second-best 8.4% sack rate.

Washington QB Robert Griffin has struggled to elude pressure. He looks slower, indecisive, and has been sacked twenty-eight times in seven games (five starts) for a ridiculous 15.7% of drop backs. That’s about one sack for every six drop backs for RG3. Sacks play a huge factor in the outcomes in NFL games and a 15.7% sack rate is impossible to overcome no matter the quarterback.

However, when Griffin is able to throw the ball, he’s performed at a high level by completing a 69% of his passes with a mere 2% interception rate. This Eagles secondary may be just what Griffin needs to have a decent game. I don’t think Washington can win this game. I do think this 8.5 point line is too much and the game will play much closer. (Ed note: The line is now 7.5 in most places.)

The typical three point edge to home teams suggests this game would be lined at 14.5 (or more depending on where this line finishes) if it were played in Philadelphia. That’s too many points to bet on for a bad defense. The Power Rank’s team rankings based on margin of victory says Eagles by seven, and I can agree with that. When this line finishes at or over ten points, it’ll be worth grabbing the Redskins.

Chiefs @ Steelers

The Steelers are the hardest team to project this season. They’ve blown out some of the better NFL teams like the Colts, Ravens, and Bengals. They’ve also lost to the Jets, Bucs, and Saints.

The Chiefs aren’t too much different. They’ve beaten the Patriots, Chargers, and Seahawks while losing to the Raiders, 49ers, and Titans. This type of variance from game to make makes projecting teams difficult.

There’s one thing easy to find in this one: the Steelers play great at home. To go along with that, the Chiefs haven’t been great on the road. Most recently, they’ve lost to the not-so-good Cardinals, the Raiders, and skated by the Bills in a game in which they lost in every aspect besides the final score.

A quick look at the Steelers home scoring tells the whole story. They’ve scored 30, 24, 30, 51, 43, and 32 points at home for an average of 35 points. There aren’t many defenses that can stop them from scoring, particularly at home.

The Chiefs, who still don’t have a touchdown pass to a wide receiver this season, seem to be the exact opposite. They have a pedestrian, risk adverse offense that tries to win on defense and check downs to running backs and tight ends.

No matter who Dick LeBeau is running out on defense, he can game plan against this offense to keep everything in front of them. The Steelers losses have come from the secondary getting exposed, putting them into a hole early. They give up an average of 12.7 yards per catch and 7.3 adjusted yards per pass attempt, third worst in the NFL.

However, the Chiefs offense can’t expose this Steelers weakness. The Chiefs offense gains just 10.9 yards per catch, ahead of teams like the Jets, Bills, Jaguars, and Vikings.

I expect the Steelers offense to get a lot of possessions and score a lot of points again. The Chiefs can’t keep up in this one.

The betting line is at three, which basically says these two teams are equal on a neutral field. When I initially saw the line, I expected a ton of Steelers backers. However, 60% of the public has come in on the Chiefs so far.

The Power Rank has picked the Chiefs to win. I just see match up problems for the Chiefs this week. Pittsburgh wins big.

Falcons @ Saints

The NFC South is putrid. It’s a shame, really, that one of these teams will make the playoffs.

After Monday night’s blowout of the Bears, the Saints have taken the lead in the division with a 6-8 record. One of the Seahawks, Lions, Packers, Eagles, or Cowboys aren’t going to make the playoffs because the Panthers, Falcons, or Saints are guaranteed a playoff spot.

Let’s hope the Saints, the best NFC South team by The Power Rank’s ensemble rankings, can win out to get to 8-8. That may be harder than it seems.

The Saints usually have a large home field advantage, but that has not been the case this season. They’ve been blown out by marginal teams like Carolina and Cincinnati while also losing to Baltimore and San Francisco.

Both of these teams have had issues stopping opposing quarterbacks, and I expect the same this week. New Orleans and Atlanta have the 29th and 32nd ranked pass defense by yards per play adjusted for schedule respectively. These pass defenses will struggle against Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, who both lead above average pass offenses.

A standard three point edge to the home team for an evenly matched game gives the Saints the edge by a field goal. When you consider how great the Saints have been at home, you could probably assume a 4.5 to 5 point edge. Interestingly, The Power Rank gives the Saints exactly that, a win by 4.8 points.

Vegas has booked this line at Saints -6.5. With a strong performance on prime time Monday Night Football, I’d expect the fan favorite Saints to steal a majority of the public bets.

Colts @ Cowboys

This is the game of the week. Coming off four straight prime time games, the Cowboys need to win out to secure a playoff spot. There are other ways to get in, but they would need some external help from some bad teams. Considering the Cowboys play the Redskins next week, this game against the Colts could determine their playoff fate.

The Cowboys are small favorites in this game but betting lines can be misleading. There’s not a more polarizing team in the NFL when it comes to public perception than the Dallas Cowboys.

A sportsbook’s lines are hypothetically made so that game ends up on either side of the line 50% of the time. In actuality, the lines are made to persuade the public to bet 50-50 to reduce risk in the books losing out. With the Cowboys coming off a big prime time win and all things being equal, one could assume Cowboys -3 is a bit of an inflated line.

The Cowboys have been a bad home team. Most dome teams have a sizable advantage at home (see Saints, Colts, Falcons, etc.). It has an opposite effect for Dallas.

Dez Bryant is obviously a huge threat to any defense, but their strength is dominating with the offensive line and running the ball with DeMarco Murray. Now that Murray has had surgery on his broken hand, he could see a reduced role or maybe even sit this one out. I don’t see any issue with Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar being able to pick up the slack behind this offensive line.

It’s no secret this Cowboys defense, especially the secondary, is bad. Are they better than we thought they’d be? Definitely. However, they rank 28th in adjusted yards per pass attempt.

The Colts also have looked pretty vulnerable the last two weeks. Andrew Luck has surrendered a few touchdowns to opposing defenses while barely sneaking by the quarterback-troubled Browns and Texans. They also haven’t been a great road team. They’ve held serve to this point by skimming past the Browns in Cleveland and Texans in Houston. However, Indianapolis went down big in Denver and was blown out in Pittsburgh.

Both of these defenses has their shortcomings while both offenses can really move the ball. The Power Rank has this one as a virtual tie (Cowboys by 0.5). I can agree with that. The Colts struggle on the road, the Cowboys struggle at home.

It looks like last possession wins with two lights out kickers. Don’t forget about the kickers!

Additional leans:

Jaguars -3, Lions -5, Panthers -3.5, Bengals +3.5

Thanks for reading. You can follow me on Twitter @realFrankBrank and check out my betting systems and sports analytical models at cheapseatanalytics.com.