NFL Conference Round: In-Depth Analysis (1/17/18)

By Paul Bessire
Overview:
Reiterating some points from the postseason thus far, picks in the NFL Playoffs on this site all time are 55-29 (65% ATS). While some luck is certainly in play, there are four main reasons to expect picks in single elimination, postseason tournaments like this to be successful: 1) a full season's worth of data provides a better sample size for us to trust that teams are who they are, 2) injury information is better known when there are only four teams for the media (and the PM team) to cover, 3) there are no motivation concerns and 4) the public plays more of a role than usual in the lines. In other words, this is a good time of year because there is less uncertainty and the market is more exploitable.

During the regular season, sharp money (the pros) dictates most lines and in-week line movement. It is tougher to gain an edge during the season. Thirty percent of games in 2017 regular season were not even playable ATS, while all ten games thus far in the playoffs have been playable. We are not always opposite the public on playoff picks, but it does provide an opportunity for exploiting those that do not know what to appropriately value. For the first 21 NFL Playoff picks on this site (18-3 ATS), we simply picked the team with the better pass rush. NFL teams continue to pass the ball more and more often (pass ratio has increased in 11 of last 13 years). Fans generally know which quarterbacks are best, yet struggle to know which will face tougher pass rushes. This postseason has been a great example of this phenomenon as Tom Brady is the only top eight quarterback from the regular season remaining (Case Keenum comes in #9 in our strength of schedule adjusted efficiency rankings) and only two of these QBs even had starting jobs at the beginning of the year.

This year is not quite as much about the pass rush as it is the combination of coverage and pass rush that leads to success (especially against the number). Teams like Jacksonville and Philadelphia (and previously Denver in its Super Bowl run) that have weak quarterbacks, but very good coverage units and elite pass rushes are ripe for being undervalued by the public. I have been typing this for three weeks now and those teams are still remaining. Not too surprisingly, we still like them against-the-spread, especially as underdogs.

Recency bias is also a thing. Though it is not as applicable this season, teams that cover the spread in the Divisional round are just 36% ATS in the next week when facing a team that did not cover the spread in the Divisional round. Furthermore, as we discussed heading into last week, road teams in the Divisional Round that won and covered the spread Wild Card week are 13 games under .500 (45% ATS) in the Divisional Round, suggesting that people react to what they have recently seen. (This seemed to play a strong role in the perception of Atlanta in Philadelphia last week).

Note: Efficiency ranks below are relative to remaining teams in NFL Playoffs.

Sunday, January 21 at 3:05 PM ET:

Jacksonville Jaguars +9 @ New England Patriots (Covers 52.9%), OVER 46.5 (Covers 53.5%)
ATS Play Type: Light
O/U Play Type: Light

The Vitals:

Projected Score: Jacksonville 20.3 - New England 28.3
SU Pick and Win%: New England wins 69.8%
Playoffs - Conference Championships SU Confidence Rank: #1
ATS Pick and Win%: Jacksonville Jaguars +9 covers 52.9%
Playoffs - Conference Championships ATS Confidence Rank: #2
ATS Wager for $50 player: $5
O/U Pick and Win%: OVER (46.5) 53.5%
Playoffs - Conference Championships O/U Confidence Rank: #2
O/U Wager for $50 Player: $12

The Teams: JAC NE
Straight-Up Record 12-6 14-3
Against-the-Spread Record 10-8 10-6
Over/Under Record 9-9 7-8
Avg. Points For vs. Against 26.2-17.4 29.0-18.2
Strength of Schedule Rank (of all NFL) #4 #3
PM Passing Efficiency Rank #3 #1
PM Rushing Efficiency Rank #4 #1
PM Pass Defense Efficiency Rank #1 #4
PM Rush Defense Efficiency Rank #3 #4
Actual Pass/Run Ratio 50.3%/49.7% #58.7%/41.3%
Turnover Margin +14 +6

Injured Players: Arrelious Benn, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars, Michael Bennett, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars, Chris Ivory, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars, Jaydon Mickens, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars, Calvin Pryor, S, Jacksonville Jaguars, Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars, Jaelen Strong, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carson Tinker, C, Jacksonville Jaguars, Martellus Bennett, TE, New England Patriots, Rex Burkhead, RB, New England Patriots, Marcus Cannon, T, New England Patriots, Nate Ebner, S, New England Patriots, Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots, Mike Gillislee, RB, New England Patriots, Dont'a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots, Cyrus Jones, CB, New England Patriots, Shea McClellin, LB, New England Patriots, Malcolm Mitchell, WR, New England Patriots, Derek Rivers, DE, New England Patriots, LaAdrian Waddle, T, New England Patriots

Weather Forecast: 46 degrees. Light Wind.

Wagering Information: ATS Bets - 47% Jacksonville, 53% New England; O/U Bets - 47% Over, 53% Under

The Breakdown: We have been hyping the Jaguars for most of the latter half of the season and into the Playoffs. Now, while we are yet again picking Jacksonville to cover the spread, we are not giving the team much hope to win the game (less than a one-in-three shot) and it is even a very light play against a nine point spread. The Patriots are really good.

New England ranks as the best team in the NFL (not as complete as the Vikings, yet better where it matters) and has one of the best two run AND pass offenses in the league. The Patriots struggle defensively, which is one of the main reasons we like Jacksonville to cover, yet New England has improved defensively over much of the season and has the best overall coaching staff in football. If this were New England against Jacksonville five weeks into the season, it may be a much stronger pick on the Jaguars, but they still have the ATS edge.

It's still all relevant, so we will rehash some of what we said about the Jaguars heading into last week, when they were more than 60% likely to cover the number against the Steelers:

"As bad as Blake Bortles has been (this season), the Jaguars' defense has been better. They have the best coverage and best pass rush in the NFL. BOTH. The only other time we saw that in the NFL since we started doing predictions on this site, the Broncos defense carried a beleaguered and beat up quarterback to a Super Bowl victory. And in this case, the degree to which Jacksonville is better than any other team in each is even greater than with Denver in 2015.

Jacksonville has an elite CB tandem with AJ Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. The team allows just 5.3 yards-per-pass with a 4% interception rate. The great coverage aided the pass rush that it is deep, fast, for the most part young and ridiculously athletic. The Jaguars sacked the quarterback on 10% of opponent dropbacks. All of those are tops in the league. They are very, very good and should keep most of those pieces together for a while...

There is no team in the NFL at this moment that should be a favorite of a touchdown or more over Jacksonville regardless of venue. The Jaguars finished as the second best team in the NFL in yards-per-play differential. The Jaguars only lost three games all season by more than five points and were actually 4-2 STRAIGHT-UP as an underdog."

Technically the eight point projected difference is still within a touchdown with the two point conversion as the projection has gone slightly more in the Patriots' favor after New England's dominance over the Titans. Still, a running game + pass rush + solid coverage + a doubted QB = almost perfect opportunity to back the big underdog.

The Patriots have lost 15 games against-the-spread in the NFL Playoffs under Brady and Bill Belichick. Thirteen of those were as favorites. Those ATS losses were as:
  • -6 vs. Tennessee in 2004 (17-14 win)
  • -7 vs. Carolina in 2004 (32-29 win)
  • -7 vs. Philadelphia in 2005 (24-21 win)
  • -13.5 vs. Jacksonville in 2008 (31-20 win)
  • -14 vs. San Diego in 2008 (21-12 win)
  • -12.5 vs. New York Giants in 2008 (17-14 loss)
  • -4 vs. Baltimore in 2010 (33-14 loss)
  • -9.5 vs. New York Jets in 2011 (28-21 loss)
  • -7.5 vs. Baltimore in 2012 (23-20 win)
  • -2.5 vs. New York Giants in 2012 (21-17 loss)
  • -9.5 vs. Baltimore in 2013 (28-13 loss)
  • -7 vs. Baltimore in 2015 (35-31 win)
  • -3.5 @ Denver in 2016 (20-18 loss)
Of those 13 games, 12 were played against Top 8 pass rushes from the regular season, nine were as 7+ point favorites (five by nine or more points) and 12 were as favorites by more than a field goal with six of those results coming in games decided by a field goal or less. The most recent eight ATS playoff losses for Brady and the Patriots are most interesting. Baltimore (4 times), the Giants (twice) the Jets and Denver from those respective seasons match what we see out of Jacksonville now: elite pass rushes without much blitzing, solid coverage and a below average quarterback (for that season) that underrates the entire team relative to public perception. Meanwhile, the Patriots have covered in that same stretch of time against Indianapolis twice, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Houston twice, Atlanta and Seattle. Seattle had a top eight pass rush and should have won that game. Houston did not actually have elite pass rush by the time the Patriots played the Texans in either of those games. Otherwise, those teams have good quarterbacks with shiny weapons, but nothing offensively on the Patriots level and nothing much on defense.

In the projected boxscore below, the Patriots outgain the Jaguars by about 70 yards (377 to 307) more than one yard per pass attempt (6.9 to 5.7) and almost one yard per carry (5.1 to 4.2). Dion Lewis has 114 total yards on 19 touches to star in the game and outperform Leonard Fournette who gets 98 yards on 24 touches. Jacksonville has fewer penalties for fewer yards (this is worth monitoring for narratives) and is sacked less. The Jaguars can cover without winning penalties, turnovers and pass rush/sacks, but they will likely need to edge New England in all three if they want to win outright.

Boxscore: Jacksonville Jaguars, 20 @ New England Patriots, 28

Game Pick: Game Breakdown

JAC @ NE MIN @ PHI

Sunday, January 21 at 6:40 PM ET:

Philadelphia Eagles +3.5 vs Minnesota Vikings (Covers 59.3%), UNDER 38 (Covers 54.6%)
ATS Play Type: Normal
O/U Play Type: Light

The Vitals:

Projected Score: Minnesota 17.8 - Philadelphia 17.8
SU Pick and Win%: Minnesota wins 50.4%
Playoffs - Conference Championships SU Confidence Rank: #2
ATS Pick and Win%: Philadelphia Eagles +3.5 covers 59.3%
Playoffs - Conference Championships ATS Confidence Rank: #1
ATS Wager for $50 player: $73
O/U Pick and Win%: UNDER (38) 54.6%
Playoffs - Conference Championships O/U Confidence Rank: #1
O/U Wager for $50 Player: $23

The Teams: MIN PHI
Straight-Up Record 14-3 14-3
Against-the-Spread Record 13-3 11-5
Over/Under Record 7-9 7-10
Avg. Points For vs. Against 24.2-16.2 27.8-17.9
Strength of Schedule Rank (of all NFL) #1 #2
PM Passing Efficiency Rank #2 #4
PM Rushing Efficiency Rank #3 #2
PM Pass Defense Efficiency Rank #3 #2
PM Rush Defense Efficiency Rank #2 #1
Actual Pass/Run Ratio 52.9%/47.1% #55.5%/44.5%
Turnover Margin +6 +9

Injured Players: Blake Bell, TE, Minnesota Vikings, Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings, Nick Easton, T, Minnesota Vikings, Kevin McDermott, C, Minnesota Vikings, Shamar Stephen, NT, Minnesota Vikings, Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Philadelphia Eagles, Jordan Hicks, LB, Philadelphia Eagles, Chris Maragos, S, Philadelphia Eagles, Jason Peters, T, Philadelphia Eagles, Donnel Pumphrey, RB, Philadelphia Eagles, Darren Sproles, RB, Philadelphia Eagles, Joe Walker, LB, Philadelphia Eagles, Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

The Breakdown: The Minnesota Vikings have the team with the fewest weaknesses in the NFL. They rank ahead of the Eagles by five spots in our updated overall NFL Power Rankings (#2 vs. #7... it would be #2 vs. #3 with Carson Wentz starting and the Eagles at #2). Still, the Vikings are projected as almost exactly even (totally even in average score) against the Eagles in Philadelphia for a berth in the Super Bowl.

Part of this, of course, is the impact of home field advantage. That being said, home field advantage only accounts for about 1.5 points in this low scoring game. Additionally, I had said before the playoffs started that the opponent Philadelphia could host that would be most impacted by major weather would be the Vikings due to their ineficiencies on the ground despite their commitment to running. Well, 47 degrees with no wind or precipitation is not going to have a tangible impact on this game.

The biggest reason for the Eagles being the pick against the spread and being 50/50 to win outright is, yet again, the play of the offensive and defensive lines. The Eagles have a top five offensive and defensive line. The latter has been the most impressive as of late. Philadelphia ranks as having the best remaining run defense. Opposing running backs averaged the fewest yards before contact at the second most negative runs against the Eagles. They have done this while also generating the most amount of pressures in football from their defensive line and having one of the lowest blitz rates in football. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan and others have been that good.

Being able to shut down the run and pressure the quarterback without blitzing is a great recipe for success in the NFL. It's even more relevant in this game. Case Keenum was very good (relative to other NFL quarterbacks) against the blitz this season, yet he had one of the league's largest gaps between performance when clean versus pressured. In other words, he is great at recognizing a blitz and getting the right throw off quickly, yet struggles mightily when faced with pressure and no obvious read.

Friend of PM, Sam Monson of PFF noted this glaring issue earlier in the week:

Beyond the defensive line, even without Jason Peters, the Eagles offensive line is very good and will be able to run the ball well and often enough to keep scoring low and dictate tempo in this contest (generally a benefit for a team that is an underdog with respect to covering - though not always a benefit to winning outright). The Eagles have the second best remaining run offense and are top ten overall in football.

As with the quarterbacks, though Case Keenum is a better quarterback and has better weapons than Nick Foles, this is still Keenum and Foles. We addressed the difference between Foles and Carson Wentz earlier in the year. In this game, Wentz would mean about four points (projected win by Philadelphia 23-19). In their careers, Foles has completed 60.1% of his passes for 7.0 yards-per-attempt, an interception rate of 2.1% and a sack rate of 5.5%. Keenum has completed 61.9% of his passes for 7.0 yards-per-attempt, an interception rate of 2.1% and sack rate of 5.3%. Keenum has started 39 games, including nine for the Rams. Foles has started 39, including 11 for the Rams. These are not end all, be all numbers - and Keenum had the markedly better 2017 with 14 starts to Foles' 3 - but the numbers are pretty even.

Aside from quarterback, the Vikings' edges are at receiver and in the secondary, yet the Eagles have the better lines. No edge by either team is obvious, though, and none is even individually as strong as home field.

In the simulated boxscore below, the Eagles actually outgain the Vikings overall (288 to 280), though they lose the passing yards battle by more than 20 yards (187-166 and 5.8 yards-per-pass to 5.1). Penalties and turnovers are a total wash, which means the game will likely come down to whether or not the Vikings can hit big plays in the passing game as compared to the Eagles controlling tempo.

Wagering Information: ATS Bets - 38% Minnesota, 62% Philadelphia; O/U Bets - 36% Over, 64% Under

Weather Forecast: 47 degrees. Light Wind.

Boxscore: Minnesota Vikings, 18 @ Philadelphia Eagles, 18

Game Pick: Game Breakdown

JAC @ NE MIN @ PHI