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.

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.

NFL Rankings, Week 5

Okay New England, we get it.  You’re good at football.  And St. Louis, it is likely that you’re already thinking more about the race to acquire Andrew Luck than the race to make the playoffs.  But today I’m not interested in the highs and lows of The Power Rank, I’m taking a shot at it’s sweet, juicy center.

To get a look at what truly constitutes the center of the Power Rank grouping, I used a mathematical formula for Standard Deviation, something that defines the variation from the mean (or average) in a data set.  If you’re enough of a nerd to not stick your tongue out at that definition and want to know more, you can look at Wikipedia’s explanation.

If you’re like me and most math classes made you go crossed-eyed and start drooling on yourself, all you really have to understand is that the bulk of a group (about 68%) falls within 1 standard deviation of the mean on either side, and that the bulk of the remainder (about 27%, for a total of 95% of the whole) falls within 2 standard deviations of the mean.

In other words, teams whose rating falls within 1 standard deviation of the mean (always 0.0 for the Power Rank) are all horribly mediocre.  Ok, that’s my inner pessimist coming out.  A more optimistic view for Eagles and Falcons fans might be to say that they are “on the bubble” when it comes to elite NFL teams (or horrible NFL teams, but we won’t dwell on that).  On the other hand, teams that exceed 2 standard deviations of distance from the mean are truly in a class of their own, either high class or low class depending on which side of the curve they are on.

That’s about as much explaining as I can do, although further questions about the mechanics of this process can be emailed to Ed, who will no doubt be able to give you a thorough explanation of the math that goes into this process.  For my part, I just plug numbers into a free online calculation program and analyze the output.  Ah… sweet, sweet technology.

On to football.

The standard deviation in this week’s power rank is 5.49.  That means that the bulk of teams will fall between 5.49 and -5.49, almost all teams will fall between 10.98 and -10.98, and teams beyond those ratings are truly special.

Congratulations to the Patriots (#1, 15.79) and the Packers (#2, 11.31) for pushing the limits and existing beyond the norm.  Perhaps even more congratulations are deserved by St. Louis (#32, -9.89) for not exceeding the norm…

Very few teams fall between the first and second standard deviations.  On the high side only Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans (by a hair) make the grade as especially good teams, whereas on the low end Denver, Arizona, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, and St. Louis all currently qualify as truly not very good teams.

That leaves the other 21 teams in the true statistical middle of the road.  Being in the middle isn’t all that bad, as you are supposedly as close to the top as you are to the bottom.  This is great news for 2010’s weekly bottom dweller Carolina, who finds themselves just within the boundaries of that first standard deviation, but not great news for teams hoping to return strong and make another playoff run like Pittsburgh, Atlanta, or Philadelphia.  Most importantly for these middling teams, their current ratings are not a death warrant for the season, they have no cause for alarm and no need whatsoever to join in the chase for the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes.

A few things to consider for these middle teams:

1.  The current standard deviation is almost 1 point bigger than it was at the end of last year when it ended up at 4.59.

2.  At the end of last season The Power Rank was a little more balanced with one team above 2 standard deviations (New England) and one team below (Carolina).  Currently the two teams exceeding 2 standard deviations from the mean are both on the high side. Most likely, either New England or Green Bay will fall back into the sweet center during the season.

3.  When one (or both) of the juggernauts fall they will bring that standard deviation down with them.  This will cut some teams out of of the running for average status (look out Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Carolina!) but on the upside a few teams may be thrust into greatness without needing to earn it (it may finally be the year for Houston or San Diego to go all the way).

4.  When the standard deviation shrinks a couple struggling teams may also become hopeless.  But come on, we are only one quarter of the way through the season!  Now is the time for Vikings fans to Ponder over whether or not they can finish out 12-4, Miami fans to Marshall their courage, and Colts fans to…  oh, who am I kidding?  Without Manning they have lost their identity…  they should focus on battling St. Louis and Kansas City in the race for the #1 draft pick in 2012.

NFL Rankings, Week 1

Pittsburgh, still near top
Arizona, not so great
Bills near the middle

Week One in the NFL – a glorious time when half of the league’s team become undefeated and their fans begin talk of this being “the year”, while the other half of the teams wallow in winless shame and their fans open up the forum to the debate over whether to tar and feather or just fire their team’s head coach and general manager.

Here at the Power Rank we pride ourselves in diligently working to stay out of the emotional mire that surrounds the first few weeks of the season.  In the past, we achieved this by quietly sitting back and waiting for a few weeks’ worth of data to roll in before beginning our own talks about who would be in or out of the playoffs.  This year we are boldly stepping up to bring you rankings after only one week of games while still keeping a data-driven analytical view of the game.

This year the early season rankings will account for some past data as well as using this season’s data.  This amalgamation has produced a ranking that places some undefeated teams near the bottom of the pile, while allowing other winless teams to hover near the top.  Let’s take a look at a few key examples:

Pittsburgh – Still Near the Top

The Steelers took one on the chin last Sunday, losing 7-35 to a bitter division rival, the Baltimore Ravens.  In spite of having the second worst season opener (after the Chiefs) in the league, Pittsburgh remains firmly in the top ten Power Rank teams at #8 with a rating of 4.34.  The Power Rank’s algorithm was generous to last year’s Super Bowl runner up because of their stellar showings in 2010 and the fact that the Ravens are a powerhouse as well, starting the 2011 season at #3 in The Power Rank with a whopping rating of 10.15 that is no doubt inflated by coming out and dominating one of the NFL’s more solid franchises.  With most of their talent returning it is a fair assumption to expect the Steelers to come back and earn their high standing in the coming weeks.

Arizona – Stuck in the Cellar

With all of the buzz surrounding the performance of rookie quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, some people seem to have forgotten that he didn’t get the most important stat a quarterback can earn:  a win.  Kevin Kolb arrived in Phoenix this year to help the Cardinals undo the damage the Derek Anderson inflicted on the franchise, if that is possible.  Kolb started the season the right way by guiding the Cardinals to the win column, a place that was largely unfamiliar to them in 2010.  So while Arizona shares the same record as the Patriots (#1), Packers (#2), and Ravens (#3) they are stuck near where they ended last season at #29 with a rating of -9.93.  The Cardinals suffer because The Power Rank is not convinced by a victory over last year’s weekly #32 team, the Panthers, who find themselves in familiar territory in 2011 with a ranking of #32 and a rating of -13.02.  In terms of both Arizona’s record and Newton’s 400+ yard performance The Power Rank is sticking with Public Enemy’s sage advice:  Don’t believe the hype.

Buffalo – Bill-ieve the Hype

Ok, maybe not all of it…  Ryan Fitzpatrick will not likely keep up his 4 touchdown per game pace and end the season with a record shattering 64 touchdowns.  Nor will the Bills be likely to snatch an AFC East title away from the Patriots (#1) or the Jets (#7).  On the other hand, the Bills earned a solid boost in The Power Rank by climbing to #18 with a rating of -0.02 by beating last year’s AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs, who fell hard to #31 with a rating of -10.66.  Fans of perennially successful franchises may scoff at these numbers, but they indicate that the Bills might just possibly have a team good enough to break .500, or even maybe just possibly sneak into the playoffs.  This is monumental for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 1999 season, and who have only had one winning season since that year.  Yes, it is too early to say that the Bills are firmly on the rebound, but for Buffalo’s beleaguered fans it is never too early to start partying like it’s 1999.

Week 2 Matchup to Watch – Chicago (#4, 7.90) at New Orleans (#5, 5.22)

Coming off a huge win against 2010 powerhouse Atlanta, Chicago is looking to beat another NFC South juggernaut by stopping Drew Brees and the Saints on their home turf.  With the visiting team holding a slight rating advantage the Power Rank is going to predict that this match is too close to call, and too exciting to miss.