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 13

Week 13…  one month to go until the end of the season!

With five games left to play this season, things are certainly heating up but some teams are cooling down.

As mentioned last week, the Bears (#7, 4.24) struggled without Jay Cutler at the helm, and may be at the beginning of a skid with their offense in the very unsure looking hands of Caleb Hanie. Their defense and Matt Forte will keep them in games, but with Hanie looking like Rex Grossman minus the talent, turnovers may kill this team’s hopes of playing in January.

Lucky for the Bears the Lions (#10, 2.00) also lost a star player when Ndamukong Suh decided to curbstomp the Packers’ backup guard Evan Deitrich-Smith on Thursday.  After grabbing Deitrich-Smith’s head and smashing it into the turf a few times, Suh was pulled away from the guard by other players.  Suh was not quite finished and with clear intent stomped on Deitrich-Smith’s arm while the player was still on the ground.  Suh was immediately ejected in the loss, and for the brutality of the infraction as well as his apparent lack of remorse for the act (he later claimed to be trying to regain his balance, but has since admitted his mistake) he has been suspended for the next two games as well.

The Texans (#6, 5.48) are on a roll and with the Colts (#32, -12.10) finally out of their way the AFC South title seems to be in their grasp.  But two weeks ago Matt Schaub’s season ended with an injury, and last week his replacement Matt Leinart, who was playing well, also succumbed to a season ending injury.  Tyler Yates finished the game and is slated to start this week, but Yates is just not the guy to inspire confidence in a team as they come down the homestretch and into a playoff run.  Kellen Clemens has been brought in as a virtual 4th string quarterback in the event that Yates’ season also ends abruptly, but do not expect big things out of either player.  Even though the Texans have thrived on solid defense and a dynamic running game, Yates invites opponents to stack the box against the run and put Houston to the test.  With only a two game lead over Tennessee (#13, 0.86) the Texans might be headed for more heartbreak than glory.

Oakland (#14, 0.30) is playing well and looked good driving the ball against Chicago’s stout defense last weekend.  Unfortunately for them, the Tim Tebow tide is taking over.  The Broncos (#18, -1.25) are nipping at the heels of the Raiders in terms of The Power Rank, and after a four game win streak are only one game behind the division leader, and are only one game out of the second wild card spot as well.  The real secret to Tebow’s success, unless you believe in divine intervention, is a combination of an emerging defensive powerhouse led by this year’s second-overall draft pick, Von Miller, and Tebow’s excellent ball security.  Denver’s defense has allowed Tebow’s anemic offense to win games in spite of averaging less than 20 points per game.  It’s not so much that Oakland is hurting…  in fact, they are doing fairly well under veteran replacement Carson Palmer.  It’s more that Denver seems to be getting hot at the right time.  If they keep their momentum going Oakland may take a back seat in the division and miss a shot at the playoffs.

Finally, the Giants (#17, -0.70) are starting to match their record with their mediocre rank on The Power Rank.  Our numbers have shown them to be overachievers all season long, and they have finally allowed slow starting Dallas take control of the NFC East with their recent three game losing streak.  With a probably loss at home against Green Bay (#1, 12.54) this weekend, the Giants will fall to 6-6, a mediocre .500 record that matches their inconsistent play this year.

Expect these downward trends to continue as the season winds down.

NFL Rankings, Week 8

This week I am going to take a page out of the Fox News playbook.

Hey?  Where are you going?  Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to sell you Food Insurance.  I just want to focus this week’s discussion on the key battleground divisions the way news networks look at swing states while ignoring the rest of the country.  So Rams fans can breathe easy, I won’t be taking so many shots at your team this week.  Besides, you should all still be celebrating the (baseball) Cardinals victory!

Battleground Division #1 – NFC North

The NFC North is stacked with talent this year, led by the Super Bowl champion and The Power Rank leader Green Bay Packers (#1, 11.55).  Normally having a team like the Packers in a division would settle matters, but this year it does not.  The reason is that the Lions (#4,  5.17) are right on the Packers’ heels, and the Bears (#9, 3.78) are not that far behind.  That’s three top ten teams in one division.  The Lions may have a hard time keeping up their pace especially with their oft-injured quarterback having ankle problems last week, and the Bears are legendary for pulling wins out of thin air.  Just ask Dennis Green!  Even if the Packers’ high level of success continues and they lock up the division title early, the Bears and Lions will both still likely be in the playoff hunt, in fact if the playoffs started today both teams would receive a wildcard berth.  With a lot of division games left the NFC North division is going to be an interesting one to watch.

Battleground #2 – AFC North

What’s with the North being so good at football?  Although the AFC North doesn’t feature three top ten teams as the NFC North does, it comes very close.  This division is led by the Baltimore Ravens (#3, 7.80) but they are actually a half-game behind the Steelers (#11, 2.58) and only a half game ahead of the Bengals (#12, 1.69).  Now, I know nobody talks about the “top twelve” of any lists, but it is nonetheless impressive that this tight grouping all falls within the top 12 teams in The Power Rank.  It’s hardly a revelation to NFL fans that the Steelers and Ravens are going to be battling for a division title, or that the loser is likely to grab a wildcard spot.  What is unlikely is the upstart Bengals sticking their noses into the mix.  With a third solid team to contend with the Steelers and Ravens will not be able to take anything for granted this season, and the fight for a playoff berth may get ugly in this division that is known for misconduct both on and off the field.

Battleground #3 – NFC East

The NFC East doesn’t carry nearly as many strong teams as the NFC and AFC North divisions do, but with some schedule oddities the team that The Power Rank picks as the clear division favorite is lagging behind in the actual standings.  The Cowboys (#8, 3.85) should be running away with this division in light of the fact that their closest competition should be the Eagles (#18, -0.89) who are also struggling to find wins.  Instead the Giants (#24, -3.29) are leading the division with a 4-2 record.  True, it’s early in the season.  And yes, we at The Power Rank do think that as things shake out the Cowboys’ record will start to match their apparent strength.  Even so, with poor starts from teams with high expectations and surprising starts from teams with low ones, everyone is in the mix here and every game is going to be an especially heated contest.

Non-Battleground – AFC East

The Power Rank is scheduled to get some East Coast bias with our next software upgrade.  If you want to hear how this is the only division that matters this year (or any other) tune into ESPN.  We apologize for the inconvenience.  Sure, the AFC East has a lot of strength in top ten teams New England (#2, 9.77) and New York (#7, 4.36) but in spite of what some sports news anchors would have you believe, this is not news.  The addition of the up and coming Bills (#16, 0.41) is shaking some fans’ confidence in the Patriots and Jets getting their perennial playoff spots, but The Power Rank thinks otherwise.  The Bills are indeed a good team right now but good is not enough in a division that has contained two top ten (and usually top five) teams for the last few years.  This division will get down and dirty where it normally does (in the playoffs) with the teams it normally sends (the Pats and Jets).  Until then, my attention will be elsewhere.

NFL Rankings, Week 7

Effect of lockout
What does The Power Rank say?
Have good leadership

Through the first six weeks of the season the results are decidedly lopsided.

Some of you faithful of The Power Rank are scratching your heads and thinking “Tom is off his rocker this week, doesn’t he remember that the average of all The Power Rank ratings always equals zero”? Even more of you must think I am insane, as the Power Rank shows that 18 teams have a rating over zero, while only 14 are below that magical mean.

But there is more to The Power Rank than just averages.  To illustrate the lopsidedness of the league so far this season I created the following graph which shows the distribution of NFL teams by their rating (rounded to the nearest integer):

As you can see, the “0” row, which should be at the center of the main bulk of the teams, is actually closer to the high side of the middle of the main pack of teams.  The reason for this are the transcendent outliers, the top three teams:  #1 New England (10.63), #2 Green Bay (10.11), and #3 Baltimore (9.27).  These three teams have been so consistent and solid that the Power Rank shows them as head-and-shoulders above all other competitors.

To be fair, there is a team that is as transcendentally bad as the top three are good (Sorry Temple).  The Rams (#32, -9.68) are just struggling as a franchise even though the recent acquisition of Brandon Lloyd may provide the team with a target for Sam Bradford and the spark they have been missing.  Until that turnaround happens St. Louis is still stuck in their hole far below the rest of the Power Rank field.

After removing these outliers the mean of the remaining 28 teams drops from 0 to -0.76, a fairly significant drop in Power Rank terms.  Only six pairs of teams in the Power Rank are separated by a rating gap of more than 0.76:

#2 Green Bay (10.11) and #3 Baltimore (9.27)

#3 Baltimore (9.27) and #4 Detroit (6.58)

#5 San Francisco and (6.12) and #6 New York Jets (4.08)

#19 Washington (-0.28) and #20 Atlanta (-1.50)

#21 New York Giants (-1.64) and #22 Minnesota (-3.44)

#31 Kansas City (-6.93) and #32 St. Louis (-9.68)

0.76 rating points are significant enough that adding them to #18 Philadelphia (0.24) would move them four steps higher to #14, just ahead of current #14 Chicago (0.98).

To make matters worse, emergent powerhouses Detroit (#4, 6.58) and San Francisco (#5, 6.12) are stranded somewhere in the no-man’s-land between the blob of average teams and the island of Super Bowl favorites.  Personally I think they belong with the majority of teams, but we may have some Lions or Niners faithful in the audience that would beg to differ.  To please those fans, I also calculated the average ratings of only the yellow teams, making the assumption that the Lions and Niners are poised to continue their meteoric rises to join the ranks of the Patriots, Packers, and Ravens.

The average rating of the 26 yellow teams comes out to an unimpressive -1.27, a full half a point lower than the average with Detroit and San Francisco in the group.  That means that the average performance rate of the yellow teams fall somewhere between the Redskins (formerly) Grossman powered team, and the Atlanta Failcons.

A lot of people went in to this season expecting chaos due to the lockout, players not being ready, and teams being in turmoil with new staff unable to get familiar with their athletes.  I think what we are seeing here is a graphic representation of that chaos.  The teams at the very top (New England, Green Bay, and Baltimore) all have had very few roster and organizational changes between this year and last.  Stadium lockouts didn’t prevent Aaron Rodgers from calling a captain’s practice with Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.  I’d bet my left hand that Ray Lewis was on top of his teammates, making sure they stayed fit and ready to come back and win.

On the other hand teams without strong veteran leadership, teams that made significant roster moves (Eagles), and especially teams that are under new head coaches have been left adrift in this sea of yellow.  One thing is certain.  12 teams are going to be in the playoffs.  It is likely that the cream of the early crop, the teams highlighted in blue and green, will make the cut.  But that will leave seven spots for teams from the yellow blob of mediocrity.

Are the 2-3 Cowboys (#7, 3.86) a playoff team?  Their record would suggest that they are not.  In fact, their record is tied with the #31 Chiefs (-6.93).  And what about the future of the 4-2 Giants (#21, -1.64)?  The Power Rank is not impressed, but they are getting wins.

Keep your eyes open.  The surprises of the 2011 season are just beginning, and truly anything can happen.  Just ask the Bengals and their newly gained draft picks…

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.