Divisional Round (1/16/13)

By Paul Bessire

Wednesday, January 16 at 11:45 PM ET

For this week's football blog, I am again stealing a page from our weekly football podcasts and ripping off the weekly GameChanger article featuring our Live ScoreCaster feature (free for every NFL playoff game) to review some interesting notes from the games of Divisional weekend, which may have been the most entertaining in postseason history. The weekend also saw our picks go 2-2 ATS with wins in our top game - Seattle +2.5 - and with the 49ers -3. With Denver -9 and Houston +9.5 as losses, some interesting themes have emerged. Of our four 2013 NFL playoff losses, all four of our teams have had the ball in the last 90 seconds of regulation at midfield or closer needing a touchdown or less to cover. Seattle was obviously in a similar situation and covered. Losses are losses (maybe not necessarily for teaser players) and there will always be randomness in these situations, but there have not been any swing and misses. Also, further noting difficulties with motivation as it relates to the spread, six of our seven all time NFL playoff losses (from 31 games) have come against greater than touchdown lines (more on that later). 

Divisional Round:

Baltimore @ Denver

Game Changer: When the Broncos and Ravens met in Week 15, the game changed on a 98-yard Denver pick-six at the end of the first half. The turnover came in a 10-0 game with 30 seconds to go in the first half. Joe Flacco’s interception was even more damning because of the high likelihood that the Ravens were going to at least score a field goal if not a touchdown. So instead of it being at worst 10-3 going into half the Broncos extended their lead to 17-0 and the game was never close.

We bring this up because a similar situation occurred in the AFC Divisional round matchup on Saturday, but this time it went against the Broncos. With 1:16 left in the second quarter, Denver leads Baltimore 21-14, the Broncos attempt a 52-yard field goal. Matt Prater snap-hooks the attempt to the left (insert joke about your golf game) and actually kicks the ground a full foot behind the ball. Three plays later Baltimore ties the game and at the end of the half Denver’s win percentage has slipped to 62.9%.

Had Denver converted the field goal attempt, they lead 24-14, their win percentage jumps to 88.1% and the projected final score is 39-23; good for a Broncos' cover as well as a win.

Additional Notes: Not only did we originally project Denver to win 80% of the time in this game, the Broncos had a 98.1% chance to win the game with 1:15 left in the fourth quarter. The conservative play-calling of new Chargers' head coach Mike McCoy and the Broncos' staff has certainly been questioned. However, up 35-28 and facing a 3-and-7 at midfield with just over a minute left to play, Denver could only have increased its chances of winning the game by a maximum of 1.9%. Consider what Baltimore had to do to win the game - advance the ball 77 yards against a top five defense in 65 seconds with no timeouts, then stop Peyton Manning from getting points in the last 31 seconds of regulation and then winning in overtime on the road against the best team in the league with a team that played 86 snaps on defense the previous week. That's sounds about 1.9% likely. Even on the play before Manning threw his final interception towards the end of the first overtime, Denver had a 67% chance to win the game.

Also, at no point during regulation was Baltimore favored to win and the Broncos were as high as 98.6% to win late in the game. This is not just an upset where the nine point favorite lost. This is an upset where the underdog found a way to hit its 1% shot at winning a game on the road against the Super Bowl favorites. 

See the chart that tells the story of Ravens @ Broncoshttp://predictionmachine.com/Live/IndividualGame.aspx?lgid=1114

Green Bay @ San Francisco

Game Changer (more like Cover Changer in this case): With 11:28 left in the 4th, the Packers have the ball 4th and 5 at the Green Bay 48, they trail the 49ers 38-24. Down 14 points with their season on the line and unable to stop Colin Kaepernick all day, the Packers seemingly give up and punt the ball. On the ensuing drive, failing to stop Kaepernick, the 49ers march down the field and score a touchdown. Going for it on 4th down and punting from midfield made no statistical difference other than taking the ball out of Aaron Rodgers hands.

The Packers’ odds of winning after they punted the ball were 2.7%. If the Packers went for it on 4th down and failed to convert, 49ers ball at midfield, Green Bay’s win percentage only decreases to 2.4%. If the Packers convert the fourth-and-five, the Packers win percentage goes up to 5.3%. Punting the ball was admitting defeat; Green Bay had nothing to lose by going for it.

Additional Notes: Personally, it did not end up difficult at all to root against the Packers. Colin Kaepernick (who was born in Milwaukee) is just that entertaining (putting more pressure on the win after the Broncos' loss probably played a role in that as well). That being said, any notion the Packers will not enter the 2013 regular season as an elite team are misguided. Aaron Rodgers is still one of the game's top players. The offensive weapons should be healthier next year. And the defense and offensive line, which need to improve, will immediately benefit from the (likely) returns from injury of LBs Nick Perry, Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith and OT Brian Bulaga. Other young players like Randall Cobb, Casey Hayward, Don Barclay, Jerel Worthy, DuJuan Harris and Jeron McMillan look promising and likely to improve as well.

Technically, after the Packers' interception return gave Green Bay a 7-0 lead early in the game, the Packers were the likely favorite for a short period of time. Kaepernick and the 49ers' offense responded - and then some.

See the chart that tells the story of Packers @ 49ershttp://predictionmachine.com/Live/IndividualGame.aspx?lgid=1115

Seattle @ Atlanta

Notes: The Seahawks were favored to win the game for a total of two plays. Some of my favorite elements to the Live ScoreCaster were on full display throughout the game - especially at the end. First of all, even down 20-0 in the first half, there were times we gave Seattle 8%+ chance to win outright. Secondly, with Atlanta needing just a field goal to win the game, Seattle was just 50.2% likely to win the game when the Falcons started  their last possession with 25 seconds left from their own 28 yard-line. One play later, with 19 seconds left and the ball already at midfield, Atlanta became a 62.7% favorite to win the game (even though they were losing at the time). 

While it may not have looked that way for the first three quarters of the game, Seattle should have won over Atlanta on Sunday. The Seahawks turned three promising first half drives deep into Atlanta territory into zero first half points due to a Marshawn Lynch fumble, an ill-prepared fourth down attempt (spread the field, get under center, quick count, sneak the ball - every time - but if not that, Lynch should probably get the ball) and a bizarre end to the half. A furious second half comeback ultimately gave the Seahawks a lead with 31 seconds remaining. All told, Seattle out-gained Atlanta overall (491 yards to 417 yards) and on a per-play basis (7.4 to 6.8) by significant margins and the teams were equal in turnovers. 

See the chart that tells the story of Seahawks @ Falconshttp://predictionmachine.com/Live/IndividualGame.aspx?lgid=1116

Houston @ New England

Game Changer: With 12:10 left in the 3rd quarter and Houston trailing New England 17-13, Tom Brady completes a 40-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez. The completion gives the Patriots a first down at the Houston 12-yard line. Two plays later New England scores a touchdown; their win percentage jumps to 88.9% with a projected score of 36-22. The only problem with this chain of events is that it never should have occurred. The only reason Hernandez got open and rumbled for a 40-yard gain was that he committed offensive pass interference (extended his arms and knocked the defender down). He was not penalized this time; however, in the 4th quarter with the Texans trailing 38-20 and the game out of reach the referees threw their flag (10-yard penalty for offensive pass interference) as Hernandez once again extended his arms and knocked a defender down. The result of the penalty in the 4th quarter was a Patriots punt.

Had offensive pass interference been called on Hernandez during the Patriots opening drive of the 3rd quarter it would have been New England ball, 2nd and 15 from their own 38-yard line. According to AdvancedNFLStats.com the probability of converting a 2nd and 15 is less than 40%. Given the penalty, the Patriots projected win percentage drops to 71.6% with a final score of 31-23. That is good for a Texans’ cover.

Additional Notes: This game puts on full display a question posed to us last week by subscriber (ok, he is an intern, but he certainly uses our information). 

Here is what started the discussion: It involves betting a 6 point teaser and a straight wager at the same time on one game. A book I use has a great teaser deal where a push is a "no bet or refund" and I still only have to lay $1.1 to win $1.My strategy is to bet a teaser on two games that we have as a playable pick, but the games are at different times in the day or even different days. If I win the first half of the teaser, then I go ahead and bet the 2nd game DOG to set myself up for a big middle. Here is an example: I bet a teaser last week on New England -4 and Alabama -3.5 risking $1.1 to win $1. New England blew out Miami 28-0 and I won that half of the bet. Now, I went ahead and bet Notre Dame +10. At this point I'm only risking $.1 to win $2 if Alabama wins by either 4,5,6,7,8,9... and I win $1 if they win by 10.

My reply on this: A play on a 2-team, 6 point teaser at -110 odds would require 52.4% confidence, which would need an average of 72.4% for the two teased picks (assuming no hedging). I did some number crunching and we would need about 60% confidence in a straight bet to get to 72%+ +6 six points. Those are rare plays (but we did have two last weekend). The ability to hedge a game cuts into that. I think it’s a smart move to do with two strong plays. For instance, last weekend, you could play Seattle +8.5 and Houston +15.5 and then play New England -9.5 if you win Seattle. It's a mathematically sound teaser play with some hedge protection that provides a big middle.  

That definitely looks smart now, but could also provide some assistance for long-term, risk averse players. As noted, six of our seven all-time NFL playoff losses have come in games where the spread was greater than a touchdown. Our all-time NFL playoffs record in such games is 6-6 ATS and I certainly would not suggest fading such a pick (nor would I ever for any of the analysis we publish), but it does bring motivation concerns to the forefront when an NFL side involves so many points. As was clearly obvious to anyone watching the final minute of the Texans @ Patriots last week, Houston could not have cared less about losing by 13 or by six. One way to combat that in a situation like this is with a teaser and a middle, especially when an earlier play is an even stronger opinion on a line with fewer motivation concerns like we saw last week.

See the chart that tells the story of Patriots @ Texanshttp://predictionmachine.com/Live/IndividualGame.aspx?lgid=1117

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