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.

NFL Rankings, Week 12

Rodgers, Manning twice
Quarterback, changes destiny
Happy Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving Power Rank readers!

Here are the rankings for tomorrow’s menu:

1.  Turkey legs  10.43

2.  Stuffing  8.74

3.  Turkey breast  5.21

4.  Mashed potatoes and gravy  4.98

5.  Pumpkin Pie  3.16

6.  Cranberry sauce  -25.47

Just kidding!

On a more serious note, here is something I’m very thankful for this year:  19 years of the Packers (#1, 12.14) having a future Hall of Fame quarterback under center.  Not every fan base is as lucky as the one I am proud to be a part of, and it is good to reflect on that unbelievable fortune from time to time.

The Colts (#32, -12.18) are at the opposite end of that spectrum, losing their future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning to neck problems this year, sending them from a top-tier AFC powerhouse to the worst team in the league by almost every metric available.  For fans who have seen Peyton taking snaps every week since 1997, this season is quite a shock to the system.

Other teams haven’t been so stable at the quarterback position over the years, and their ups and downs have shown it.  The Bears, for instance (#5, 5.39) have always seemed to have trouble finding a reliable trigger in spite of years of talented defenses and running backs.  Chicago fans largely applauded the coming of Jay Cutler, the best quarterback talent the Windy City has seen since Jim McMahon.  Now Cutler is likely out for the rest of the regular season, and possibly a portion of the postseason, with an injured thumb.  The Power Rank has been measuring the Bears success with a competent starter leading the offense. With backup Caleb Hanie, their true power is likely diminished, which will show in the coming weeks both in their record and in their ranking.  For this week, do not count on the raw numbers as Chicago is favored over Oakland (#17, -1.15) by 4.5 on the road.

Another team made a big change under center this week.  The Kansas City Chiefs (#31, -8.22) have acquired the benched Kyle Orton from their division rival Broncos (#22, -2.35) to fill in for an injured Matt Cassel.  Tyler Palko was given a shot on Monday night to take the reigns, but a performance that yielded no touchdowns and three interceptions sent the Chiefs looking elsewhere.  Personally, I believe that not only is Orton an upgrade over Palko, he’s an upgrade over Cassel.  This is sure to be controversial, but I think Orton can deliver a ball to gifted receivers, which the Chiefs have in Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston.  It may not be enough for them to beat the Steelers (#8, 3.71) this week, but it may be enough for the Chiefs to start climbing out of the cellar and back into playoff contention.

Finally the Eagles (#13, 1.59) have been struggling all year, but managed to beat the Giants (#14, 0.99) with backup quarterback Vince Young last week.  This improbable loss helped bring the Giants’ division leading record closer to what the Power Rank has expected of the G-Men all year (mediocrity) and they are now tied for the lead with Dallas (#10, 2.85).  The Power Rank has considered the Cowboys a strong team all season in spite of a slow start with a tough schedule, but as things shake out they are rising to the top and The Power Rank expects this trend to continue.

That is, of course, assuming that Cowboys fans give their thanks tomorrow to ensure that Tony Romo can stay healthy for the remainder of the season!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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.