NFL Picks - 1/5/2013

Last Updated: 1/7/2013 1:01 PM ET

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Paul's Pick: Minnesota +8 vs. Green Bay (Covers 57.1%)

In each of their two games this season against the Green Bay Packers - both meaningful, both in December and each after the season-ending injury to Percy Harvin - the Minnesota Vikings out-gained their opponents on a per-play basis. The Vikings also had second half leads in both games and looked very likely to cover the spread in both games (they went 1-0-1 ATS against the Packers with a push as nine point underdogs at Green Bay after Blair Walsh - the NFC's starting Pro Bowl kicker - missed a 42 yard field goal with less than two minutes to play). 

While they do win this game 36.8% of the time, losing matchups in the passing game (coupled with Green Bay's home field advantage) makes it difficult to make a strong case that the Vikings will win. However, with the major matchup advantages that they have on the ground, Minnesota should be able to keep the game within a touchdown. 

On the season, Minnesota is 10-6 straight-up and 9-6-1 against-the spread versus the sixth toughest schedule in the league. The Vikings closed the season winning and covering in their final four games of the year - a feat made even more impressive by the fact that Minnesota played the easiest NFL schedule through the first eight weeks and the toughest over the last eight weeks of the year. The Vikings were underdogs in each of those final four games and finished the year with seven straight-up wins as underdogs. They ended the year as the 13th best team in our NFL Power Rankings

Likely leading to both the lack of trust that oddsmakers have instilled in this team and the Vikings propensity to pull off upsets, Minnesota is a uniquely built playoff team. While ranking 28th in our strength-of-schedule-adjusted pass efficiency rankings (i.e. fifth worst in the league) is not generally conducive to winning, the Vikings actually do just about everything else well while not often hurting themselves. With the player who would be my vote for NFL MVP, Adrian Peterson leading the way, the Vikings run the ball at the fifth highest rate (48.6%) in the league, yet they are still able to generate the most efficient running game on per-play basis - by far. Over the final nine games of the season, Peterson averaged 6.8 yards-per-carry, scored 11 touchdowns and only lost two fumbles. That is more yards-per-carry than 14 NFL teams averaged per pass over the course of the season. His efficiency translated into a traditional NFL QB rating would be 107.1 over that stretch (Aaron Rodgers led the league with a 108.3 QB Rating). If Vikings' starting quarterback Christian Ponder had finished the season in which his team went 6-3 straight-up and he averaged 6.8 yards-per-attempt with 11 TDs and two interceptions over 235 attempts, this line would likely be less than a touchdown. Minnesota still gets that productivity from its running back.

Elsewhere, the Vikings allowed the seventh fewest rushing yards-per-carry defensively and sacked the quarterback on 7% of all drop backs (good for fifth in the league and just a percent behind Green Bay's mark). With a relatively young defense, particularly at safety, the team improved defensively down the stretch as well. Lastly, as it pertains to Minnesota, the Predictalator was 11-4-1 ATS in Vikings games this season.

The Green Bay Packers finished 11-5 SU and 8-7-1 ATS against the eighth toughest 2012 NFL schedule. Green Bay was a touchdown or greater favorite in six games and only covered in two of those contests. With a strong offense that finished fifth overall in our strength-of-schedule adjusted rankings and a pass defense that is among the best in the league (now that it is healthy), the Packers did finish the season as a top five overall team in the league. However, Green Bay gives up the sixth most yards-per-carry of any defense in the league and, currently without much semblance of an offensive running game, the Packers have only out-gained its opponents overall by 0.29 yards-per-play (that is just 0.008 more yards-per-play than Minnesota's margin). The Packers have been susceptible to giving up big plays, especially on the ground and especially to Peterson, who ran for 409 yards on 55 carries (7.4 yards-per-carry) in two games against Green Bay.

The Packers have the edge in the passing game and are playing at home as the better team. But with the massive advantage in the ground game and an improving team, Minnesota keeps the game close at Lambeau Field. According to 50,000 games played by the Predictalator, Green Bay wins straight-up 63.2% of the time and by an average score of 27.4-22.1. As eight point underdogs, the Vikings cover the spread 57.1% of the time, which would warrant a wager of exactly $50 from a normal $50 player. After these teams combined for 71 points last week and weather should not be much of a factor in the outcome, the OVER (46) is playable as a "half-bet" that would warrant a $31 play from a normal $50 player. 

Paul's Pick: Cincinnati +4.5 vs. Houston (Covers 53.7%)

Admittedly, this is the weakest NFL Playoff pick that we have ever posted and it would not be playable if RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis and safety Chris Crocker both miss Saturday's game (Crocker means about a point and Green-Ellis about half a point to this pick, so losing them both would essentially put the predicted margin right at 4.5 points). Still, as is the case in the other game, there is value in the underdog to keep this game within about a field goal either way. In addition to what the numbers suggest, anecdotally, recent play and a more careful review of last year's Wild Card matchup between these two teams (basically, Houston caught its interceptions and Cincinnati did not) would suggest that this is closer to a coin flip game than one that Houston should win going away.

Having played the league's 27th ranked schedule, the Houston Texans are 12-4 straight-up and 9-6-1 against-the-spread this season. The Texans struggled to close the year, losing three of their last four games and only covering the spread twice since November 11. As has been the mantra for this team for much of the year, the Texans are above average at just about everything, though not elite in anything. They do not rank higher than seventh or lower than 15th in any of our SOS-adjusted efficiency metrics. This is a solid approach to winning more games than not, but rarely leads to blowouts, especially when the opponent is similarly strong and does not have any obvious weaknesses (which is the case with Cincinnati). 

In fact, though their defensive positioning may be slightly different, this game features two remarkably similar teams. Both played easy schedules and have efficient quarterbacks, an elite receiver, a workhorse (though under whelming in both cases) running back, a very good tight end, a tremendous pass rush, an average kicker and average kickoff teams, an above average punters and above average punting teams and a solid secondary. Cincinnati, which is 10-6 SU and 9-6-1 ATS against the 31st "toughest" NFL schedule to-date, finishes the year not ranked higher than eighth or lower than 15th in any of our efficiency metrics. Aided by Crocker's reassertion into the starting lineup and defensive and offensive lines that made great strides throughout the year from health and experience, the Bengals did close the year on a higher note than Houston by winning and covering the spread in seven of the last eight games (and losing the other game by just one point after leading by nine heading into the fourth quarter). 

Also, the Predictalator is 23-5 ATS all-time in playable picks for Houston Texans' games. 

Home field advantage ultimately meant about 2.2 points over the course of this season. Even if, with Houston's Reliant Stadium, postseason motivation and the pace of this game, home field advantage amounts to a full field goal, there is little more to suggest that one of these teams has a major advantage over the other at this point. In 50,000 games played by the Predictalator, Houston wins over Cincinnati 58.4% of the time and by an average score of 22.1-19.0. As 4.5 point underdogs, the Bengals cover the spread 53.7% of the time, which justifies a $14 play from a normal $50 player. The UNDER is a similarly weak pick at 54.2% and $19 for a normal $50 player.

NFL Playoff Preview
The Predictalator uses current rosters and strength-of-schedule-adjusted team and player stats to play, one play at a time, the NFL Playoffs bracket 50,000 times before it's actually played. For this analysis, we are tracking how likely a team is to make it to any level of the NFL Playoffs. The playoffs are played all the way through individually, with the team that wins each game in that instance advancing. The percentages in the table below represent the team's likelihood of advancing to that round.

After spending much of the last six weeks as our most likely Super Bowl winner, the Denver Broncos supplanted the Houston Texans in Week 17 to claim the top seed in the AFC and home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs. The Broncos are our favorites to win the Super Bowl, making the Super Bowl 50.4% of the time and bringing home the title 28.6% of the time (making Denver 57% and three point favorite on average over its NFC opponent in the Super Bowl). In the AFC Playoff race, the Week 17 shake-up at the top leads to a bracket that is ultimately true to form in seeding. Denver is followed by the AFC's second seed in the New England Patriots, which has the third best chance to with the Super Bowl overall (15.4%) and would be underdogs (by just 1.8 points) to San Francisco from the NFC. Denver and New England meet in the AFC Championship game over half (50.7%) of the time. Houston, the AFC's third seed and its third best team at this point, is a distant third in AFC Championship winning (9.3%) and Super Bowl winning (4.2%) odds. After the top three AFC Seeds, the Baltimore Ravens (2.3%), Indianapolis Colts (0.3%) and Cincinnati Bengals (1.3%), combine for just 3.9% of all Super Bowl wins. The Colts, who have never been ranked higher than #20 in our NFL Power Rankings, have just a 1.1% chance of riding "Chuckstrong" magic through the AFC playoffs to make the Super Bowl (likely having to face Baltimore, Denver and New England on the road just to get to New Orleans). The Broncos win the Super Bowl more than New England, Houston, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Indianapolis (and Minnesota and Washington) combined. As it stands now, Denver and New England represent the AFC in the Super Bowl exactly 80% of the time. In general, the AFC is 52.1% likely to win the Super Bowl, but only the Broncos and Patriots would be favored to win over the average expected NFC Super Bowl participant.

The best NFC team with respect to its likelihood to win the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers, wins it all 20.6% of the time. Despite having home field advantage in the NFC Championship game if it gets there, the Atlanta Falcons are half as likely to make the Super Bowl as the 49ers. Atlanta is the fifth most likely overall Super Bowl champion at 6.5%. A 49ers @ Falcons NFC Championship game is just 29.1% likely to happen at this point. The 49ers are actually followed in Super Bowl likelihood by a fellow NFC West team. Though they would not likely get any playoff games at home (the best home field advantage in the NFL), the Seattle Seahawks, at 11.1% likely to win the Super Bowl, have the best chance of any team playing this weekend to win the Super Bowl. According to our numbers, the Seahawks, Texans and Packers are the three of the five best teams in the playoffs, so the projections could look different if those teams can avoid upsets this week. It should be noted as well that San Francisco and Seattle are the only NFC teams currently favored over the average AFC playoff team. Green Bay, which is the healthiest it has been in more than two months, still has a tough path to the Super Bowl that includes its third matchup with the Minnesota Vikings this weekend, potentially followed by back-to-back road games. Green Bay is only 1-3 on the season against NFC Playoff teams. The NFC North may have two teams in the postseason, but the division is only 16.3% likely to be represented in the Super Bowl. The Washington Redskins, the lone home underdog in Wild Card week, have an offense that can make the game competitive against anyone, yet would almost assuredly be underdogs in all four games en route to a Super Bowl championship. The Redskins vs. Seahawks game is certainly one to watch, though, as the winner of that game heads to the Super Bowl 27% of the time (the highest figure of any matchup this week). 

Interesting Super Bowl matchups and their relative likelihood include: Most Likely - Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers occurs 19.4% (last year's most likely Super Bowl was just 13% likely at this time); Top Seeds - Denver Broncos vs. Atlanta Falcons occurs 9.2%; All-Harbaugh - Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers occurs 2.4%; Biggest Projected Margin (13.4 points) - San Francisco 49ers  vs. Indianapolis Colts occurs 212 times out of 50,000; All Rookie Quarterbacks - Washington Redskins or Seattle Seahawks vs. Indianapolis Colts occurs 151 times out of 50,000 simulations; Least Likely - Indianapolis Colts vs. Minnesota Vikings occurs 25 of 50,000 times. Also, while Indianapolis is listed as winning the Super Bowl 0.3%, the Colts - the Colts, who are the only double-digit underdogs in any possible Super Bowl, actually take home the title exactly 149 times out of 50,000, but would not be greater than 30% likely to win over any NFC team.

NFL Playoff Odds (based on 2012-13 NFL Playoffs played 50,000 times)

Team Conference Championship Super Bowl Super Bowl Win
Denver Broncos 77.5% 50.4% 28.6%
San Francisco 49ers 61.9% 38.5% 20.6%
New England Patriots 65.4% 29.6% 15.4%
Seattle Seahawks 35.4% 19.8% 11.1%
Atlanta Falcons 47.0% 18.3% 6.5%
Green Bay Packers 23.4% 11.7% 5.2%
Houston Texans 24.2% 9.3% 4.2%
Washington Redskins 17.4% 7.1% 2.8%
Baltimore Ravens 18.3% 6.2% 2.3%
Minnesota Vikings 15.0% 4.5% 1.7%
Cincinnati Bengals 9.3% 3.4% 1.3%
Indianapolis Colts 5.3% 1.1% 0.3%

NFL Picks Pages:

January 5: Predictalator Picks  Paul's Analysis
January 6: Predictalator Picks  Paul's Analysis
Play Analyzer - View Updated Picks on Current Consensus Lines
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