NFL Divisional Round: In-Depth Analysis (1/10/18)

By Paul Bessire
Overview:

Reiterating some points from last week, picks in the NFL Playoffs on this site all time are 53-27 (66% ATS). While some luck is certainly in play, there are four main reasons to expect picks this time of the year in single elimination, postseason tournaments 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 eight 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. So, less uncertainty and more of an exploitable market.

The latter point is of particular interest. During the regular season, sharp money (the pros) dictates most lines and line movement. It is tougher to gain an edge (30% of games were not even playable ATS during the season, while all four are this week) 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, 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 year though, it is not as much the pass rushes as the combination of coverage and pass rush that stand out in our numbers. 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. Hey look... two 60% ATS plays.

Recency bias is also a thing. Since the Wild Card was introduced in 1990, road teams in the Divisional Round (i.e. those that won the previous week) are just 28% straight up and 9 games under .500 (47%) against-the-spread. Road teams in the Divisional Round that won and covered the spread the previous week are 13 games under .500 (45% ATS) the following week, suggesting that people react to what they have recently seen. I think that is particularly relevant to Atlanta @ Philadelphia this week as well as to what we saw out of the offense for the Jaguars and the defense for Saints.

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

Saturday, January 13 at 4:35 PM ET:
Philadelphia Eagles +3 vs Atlanta Falcons (Covers 60.8%), UNDER 41.5 (Covers 52.3%)
ATS Play Type: Normal
O/U Play Type: Not Playable

The Vitals:

Projected Score: Atlanta 19.2 - Philadelphia 21.0
SU Pick and Win%: Philadelphia wins 53.4%
Playoffs - Division SU Confidence Rank: #4
ATS Pick and Win%: Philadelphia Eagles +3 covers 60.8%
Playoffs - Division ATS Confidence Rank: #1
ATS Wager for $50 player: $88
O/U Pick and Win%: UNDER (41.5) 52.3%
Playoffs - Division O/U Confidence Rank: #3
O/U Wager for $50 Player: $0

The Teams: ATL PHI
Straight-Up Record 11-6 13-3
Against-the-Spread Record 9-8 10-5
Over/Under Record 4-13 7-9
Avg. Points For vs. Against 22.3-19.3 28.6-18.4
Strength of Schedule Rank (of all NFL) #1 #4
PM Passing Efficiency Rank #4 #7
PM Rushing Efficiency Rank #3 #4
PM Pass Defense Efficiency Rank #5 #3
PM Rush Defense Efficiency Rank #4 #1
Actual Pass/Run Ratio 55.6%/44.4% #55.9%/44.1%
Turnover Margin 0 +11

Injured Players: Devin Fuller, WR, Atlanta Falcons, 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

Weather Forecast: 44 degrees. Winds 10-15 MPH.

Wagering Information: ATS Bets - 60% Atlanta, 40% Philadelphia; O/U Bets - 47% Over, 53% Under

The Breakdown: The Falcons played the toughest schedule of any team in the NFL Playoffs and had the third best yards-per-play differential of any team in the NFL overall. They also have a clear quarterback advantage in this game and a defense that, like last year, improved down the stretch. However, we do not project Atlanta to win this game. And is not all home field advantage. On a neutral field, we would project the Eagles to win 50.4% of the time (HFA in NFL is currently only worth about two points - especially in such a low scoring game).

Why?

It's not Nick Foles, though we are more optimistic on his impact than popular perception. It is about how the Eagles generally win games. Philadelphia has a top five offensive line and top five defensive line. The Eagles out gained opponents by 0.7 yards-per-carry this season, the best mark by any team that ran the ball more than 40% of the time. Not only do they excel on the ground in running efficiency, both of these teams rely on the run. In fact, a reason why we are more bullish on the Eagles in general than the market is that all remaining NFC teams rank among the ten most run heavy teams in the league.

The Eagles may not score many TDs on the ground, but a concerted effort to win at the line of scrimmage and in the run game, coupled with improvements to the team's offensive run efficiency and a healthy offensive line give plenty of reason for optimism. In the projected boxscore below, the Eagles out gain the Falcons in the running game 136 - 92 and 4.6 yards-per-carry to 3.7. And finally as it relates to the running game, if weather is a factor in this contest (and the wind will border on impactful), a decisive edge on the ground at home against a dome team does not hurt.

It's definitely not all the running game. Today's NFL could see a team outgain its opponents by more than a yard per carry and still lose every game (ok, that actually happened - though the Browns had the fewest run attempts of any team in the league). The pass rush will also be critical. Philadelphia has the best run defense of any team that made the NFL Playoffs and yet also generated more pressures in the passing game than any team in the NFL overall. Atlanta gets more sacks in our projections (a product of the Eagles' QB situation and an improving pass rush), but the pass rush for the Eagles minimizes Matt Ryan's ability to connect on the explosive plays needed to expect to win on the road over a team that has most other advantages. In the projected boxscore of this game, the Falcons throw for just 18 more yards than the Eagles (and fewer interceptions for what that's worth).

Running game + pass rush + solid coverage + a QB change + possible weather impact = almost perfect recipe to back the underdog.

Lastly, Prediction Machine has predicted 13 previous upsets relative to the spread in the NFL Playoffs. Ten of those teams have won; 11 have covered (and one of the losses was the Seahawks vs. Patriots in the Super Bowl, which feels like the right side).

Boxscore: Atlanta Falcons, 19 @ Philadelphia Eagles, 21

Game Pick: Game Breakdown

ATL @ PHI TEN @ NE JAC @ PIT NO @ MIN

Saturday, January 13 at 8:15 PM ET:

Tennessee Titans +13.5 @ New England Patriots (Covers 55.7%), OVER 47 (Covers 55.2%)
ATS Play Type: Half-Bet
O/U Play Type: Half-Bet

The Vitals:

Projected Score: Tennessee 19.5 - New England 30.8
SU Pick and Win%: New England wins 77.5%
Playoffs - Division SU Confidence Rank: #1
ATS Pick and Win%: Tennessee Titans +13.5 covers 55.7%
Playoffs - Division ATS Confidence Rank: #3
ATS Wager for $50 player: $35
O/U Pick and Win%: OVER (47) 55.2%
Playoffs - Division O/U Confidence Rank: #1
O/U Wager for $50 Player: $30

The Teams: TEN NE
Straight-Up Record 10-7 13-3
Against-the-Spread Record 8-8 9-6
Over/Under Record 8-8 6-8
Avg. Points For vs. Against 20.9-22.2 28.6-18.5
Strength of Schedule Rank (of all NFL) #7 #5
PM Passing Efficiency Rank #6 #2
PM Rushing Efficiency Rank #6 #1
PM Pass Defense Efficiency Rank #8 #7
PM Rush Defense Efficiency Rank #2 #6
Actual Pass/Run Ratio 54.3%/45.7% #58.1%/41.9%
Turnover Margin -6 +6

Injured Players: DeMarco Murray, RB, Tennessee Titans, Tajae Sharpe, WR, Tennessee Titans, Martellus Bennett, TE, New England Patriots, Marcus Cannon, T, New England Patriots, Julian Edelman, WR, 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

Weather Forecast: 42 degrees. Light fog. Light wind.

Wagering Information: ATS Bets - 25% Tennessee, 75% New England; O/U Bets - 59% Over, 41% Under

The Breakdown: Well, 13.5 is a big number. There are a few factors at play in that number, among them being the market's reaction to news of in-house rift for the Patriots and what that means for to the egos on New England. Popular wisdom suggests that the Patriots will take out aggression on the Titans and make a very public statement with a dominant performance in this game. We tend to like when popular wisdom is cited in reference to a line, especially in a case like this when 75% of bets are on the Patriots as two touchdown favorites and it is difficult to expect that to occur.

Additionally, the Titans played the second easiest schedule in the NFL and were outscored. They may not be as good as their record, but they are better than their point differential, which seems to also be missed on the "populace".

Ripping directly from the notes on last week's game in Kansas City, "Tennessee runs the third slowest offense and has the fourth highest run frequency in the NFL. The Titans like to slow the game down, which tends to play in the favor of a heavy underdog keeping the game competitive. Tennessee also out gains opponents by more than a half a yard per carry on the ground and has shifted more towards getting Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry, the more efficient runners, touches recently. Overall, the Chiefs rank 19th against the run, which is below average. The running game is largely irrelevant straight-up in the NFL, but can definitely be a factor with an exploitable matchup relative to the spread.

Then there is the pass defense that we alluded to above. Tennessee is just better than average in coverage and is among the top ten teams in generating pressure. The Chiefs could hit some big plays in the passing game, but this team struggles with pressure (and a below average offensive line). Taking shots takes time and Alex Smith may not get that much time. Meanwhile, the Chiefs rank 22nd in pass defense and have the third weakest pass rush in the league.

Tennessee will run the ball and slow the tempo with a pretty clean pocket on offense while likely giving up a couple big plays, but otherwise making Smith uncomfortable."

Well, the Patriots rank 26th against the run. They have an average offensive line (better than Kansas City), yet the pass rush matchups between their offense and the Titans defensive line and their offensive line and the Titans defense are both very close (with a slight edge in each going to the Titans).

Furthermore, the Patriots have been a favorite of more than a touchdown 11 times this season. This includes all three of their losses. New England is 5-6 ATS in those games. The Patriots have won half their games by two touchdowns or more, but just two of those were over teams remaining in the playoffs and four were over playoff teams (which included beating the Bills twice easily.

Tennessee, with a strategy designed to stay in games, has lost just TWICE all season by more than ten points. A remarkable 11 of their games have been decided by six points or less.

Boxscore: Tennessee Titans, 20 @ New England Patriots, 31

Game Pick: Game Breakdown

ATL @ PHI TEN @ NE JAC @ PIT NO @ MIN

Sunday, January 14 at 1:05 PM ET:

Jacksonville Jaguars +7.5 @ Pittsburgh Steelers (Covers 60.5%), UNDER 41 (Covers 54.8%)
ATS Play Type: Normal
O/U Play Type: Half-Bet

The Vitals:

Projected Score: Jacksonville 17.2 - Pittsburgh 21.1
SU Pick and Win%: Pittsburgh wins 61.2%
Playoffs - Division SU Confidence Rank: #2
ATS Pick and Win%: Jacksonville Jaguars +7.5 covers 60.5%
Playoffs - Division ATS Confidence Rank: #2
ATS Wager for $50 player: $85
O/U Pick and Win%: UNDER (41) 54.8%
Playoffs - Division O/U Confidence Rank: #2
O/U Wager for $50 Player: $25

The Teams: JAC PIT
Straight-Up Record 11-6 13-3
Against-the-Spread Record 9-8 7-8
Over/Under Record 8-9 5-11
Avg. Points For vs. Against 25.1-15.9 25.4-19.3
Strength of Schedule Rank (of all NFL) #8 #6
PM Passing Efficiency Rank #8 #3
PM Rushing Efficiency Rank #7 #5
PM Pass Defense Efficiency Rank #1 #4
PM Rush Defense Efficiency Rank #5 #8
Actual Pass/Run Ratio 50.7%/49.3% #58.4%/41.6%
Turnover Margin +12 +2

Injured Players: Arrelious Benn, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars, Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars, Jaelen Strong, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carson Tinker, C, Jacksonville Jaguars, T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars, Keion Adams, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers, James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers, Ryan Shazier, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers, Artie Burns, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Weather Forecast: 18 degrees. Light wind.

Wagering Information: ATS Bets - 60% Jacksonville, 40% Pittsburgh; O/U Bets - 54% Over, 46% Under

The Breakdown: As bad as Blake Bortles has been, 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.

One could actually make a case that the matchup for the Jaguars' defense against the Steelers is actually better than against the Bills. Buffalo was a run heavy team with a good offensive line and a mobile QB who does not make mistakes. Pittsburgh is more pass oriented, has a good-but-not-as-good offensive line and a stationary quarterback who has a career interception rate that is literally more than twice the Bills' Tyrod Taylor's. They also have one receiver who garnered more than 30% of the team's targets when healthy, yet has not played since December 17. It's not that the Jaguars should be expected to give up fewer than the three points they allowed last week; it's that the style of the Steelers' offense better feeds into Jacksonville's big play tendencies on defense (i.e. we may see some points - or at least better field position directly due to the defense).

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 and have their elite pass defense. The Jaguars only lost three games all season by more than five points and were actually 3-2 STRAIGHT-UP as an underdog.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is littered with impactful injuries and uncertainty. The Steelers rested starters in Week 17, yet saw Ryan Shazier, Antonio Brown and 60% of the offensive line miss time before that. Shazier, the team's best defensive player, will not play in this game. Late breaking news also has the team's top coverage defender, Artie Burns, likely out as well.

And despite earning the second seed in the AFC, the Steelers only won five of their 13 games by more than six points. Five of their last seven wins came by four or fewer points. Since Shazier's injury, the Steelers won by 3 points, won by 1 point, lost by 3 points, won by 28 over the 32nd rank team in our Power Rankings and won by 4 points.

Boxscore: Jacksonville Jaguars, 17 @ Pittsburgh Steelers, 21

Game Pick: Game Breakdown

ATL @ PHI TEN @ NE JAC @ PIT NO @ MIN

Sunday, January 14 at 4:40 PM ET:

New Orleans Saints +4.5 @ Minnesota Vikings (Covers 53.8%), OVER 46 (Covers 50.8%)
ATS Play Type: Light
O/U Play Type: Not Playable

The Vitals:

Projected Score: New Orleans 21.8 - Minnesota 24.7
SU Pick and Win%: Minnesota wins 57.6%
Playoffs - Division SU Confidence Rank: #3
ATS Pick and Win%: New Orleans Saints +4.5 covers 53.8%
Playoffs - Division ATS Confidence Rank: #4
ATS Wager for $50 player: $15
O/U Pick and Win%: OVER (46) 50.8%
Playoffs - Division O/U Confidence Rank: #4
O/U Wager for $50 Player: $0

The Teams: NO MIN
Straight-Up Record 12-5 13-3
Against-the-Spread Record 8-9 12-3
Over/Under Record 8-7 6-9
Avg. Points For vs. Against 28.2-20.7 23.9-15.8
Strength of Schedule Rank (of all NFL) #2 #3
PM Passing Efficiency Rank #1 #5
PM Rushing Efficiency Rank #2 #8
PM Pass Defense Efficiency Rank #6 #2
PM Rush Defense Efficiency Rank #7 #3
Actual Pass/Run Ratio 55.9%/44.1% #52.5%/47.5%
Turnover Margin +6 +5

Injured Players: Coby Fleener, TE, New Orleans Saints, John Hughes, DT, New Orleans Saints, Hau'oli Kikaha, LB, New Orleans Saints, Zach Strief, T, New Orleans Saints, Kenny Vaccaro, S, New Orleans Saints, Sam Bradford, QB, Minnesota Vikings, Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings, Nick Easton, T, Minnesota Vikings

Weather Forecast: N/A

Wagering Information: ATS Bets - 59% New Orleans, 41% Minnesota; O/U Bets - 60% Over, 40% Under

The Breakdown: Both games on Sunday feature two teams in the Top 5 of our final regular season Power Rankings. In this case, the Saints bring with them a team that led the NFL in yards-per-play differential. They will face a Vikings' squad that is third in that metric. Both played similar caliber overall schedules in the process as well. Not too surprisingly, this difference in this pretty evenly matched game hovers around home field advantage.

Among all NFL teams, the Saints have the best pass offense and third best run offense. They are one of just two teams (Patriots) in the top five in both. They are facing the third best pass defense and eighth best run defense. The Vikings are one of just two defenses (Eagles) in the top ten in both of those strength-of-schedule adjusted efficiency metrics. Minnesota is pretty good in passing (#9) and below average in running (#19). The Saints are pretty good at defending the pass (#10) and below average in running (#28). That's an even matchup.

In our projected boxscore of this game, the Vikings average 349 yards of offense to the Saints' 318, but do so on 58.4 plays to the Saints 57.6. That edge in efficiency is directly related to home field. Penalties (6 for 52 vs. 6 for 53) and turnovers (1.2 vs 1.0) are almost identical as well. A very good game looks like it's 50/50 on a neutral field, so the value is in taking the points (more than a field goal) and a very good underdog.

When they played each other in Minnesota in Week 1, the Vikings won 29-19. They were also led by three touchdowns from Sam Bradford and 127 rushing yards from Dalvin Cook (both now on IR). Meanwhile, Alvin Kamara, the probable offensive rookie of the year, was the third string RB and only had more than one touch on a drive when the team was down two touchdowns in the second half. Since Week 2 (and ignoring Week 17 when the team benched its starters), the Saints are 12-2, losing their two games by a total of nine points. They outscored their opponents by an average score of 29.7 - 18.3. Since Week 2, the Vikings are also 12-2 and outscored opponents by average score of 24.6 - 14.8. Against the common opponents, the Saints went 8-2 and outscored opponents by average of 26.6 - 18.9 (7.7 margin) and the Vikings went 9-2 with a margin of 23.1 - 15.3 (7.8 margin). EVEN.

Boxscore: New Orleans Saints, 22 @ Minnesota Vikings, 25

Game Pick: Game Breakdown

ATL @ PHI TEN @ NE JAC @ PIT NO @ MIN