New England Patriots at Denver Broncos: 2013 AFC Championship Pick

New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)

One of the keys to successful handicapping of NFL games is to figure out which situations certain teams tend to do well in. This is easier when the team has had the same quarterback and/or head coach for a long time. Well we’re in year 13 of Tom Brady and this is exactly the type of situation in which the Patriots have dominated in the Tom Brady era. In his career, Tom Brady is 28-11 straight up against opponents with a better record than his, including 6-1 in the post-season.

Just think about that. Teams usually win 38.5% against teams with a better record than the other one. Tom Brady has won 71.8% of such games. Against the spread, he’s even better, going 29-9-1 ATS, including 18-5 ATS as underdogs. Brady and Belichick always bring their best for the best opponents and they’ll do the same this week. He’s already won straight up against Denver and New Orleans this year in this situation. This game will be tougher to win because it’s on the road, but we have 6 points to play with so they won’t need to win to cover.

The Patriots also dominate as an underdog in general with Tom Brady, going 30-15 ATS. That record gets even better when you add in games when the Patriots are favored by fewer than 3 points. Tom Brady is 42-17 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of fewer than 3 points in his career. Basically, in situations when Tom Brady just needs to win to cover, he’s almost automatic, which makes sense considering his absurd 166-50 career straight up record. And again, the Patriots won’t need to win to cover as they are 6 point underdogs. This is just the 10th time the Patriots have underdogs of 6 or more points with Tom Brady under center and the 2nd since 2003. They are 7-2 ATS in those previous 9 games.

I also have to bring up the Brady/Manning history as we go into Brady/Manning XV. Tom Brady has won 10 of the previous 14 matchups. That alone isn’t enough to prove that Tom Brady is the better quarterback (and can we stop the debate and just enjoy, they’re both 1st ballot Hall of Famers and you can’t prove definitively either one is better), but it’s worth noting. Having Bill Belichick on his side definitely helps. Belichick himself is 11-6 ATS and SU against Peyton Manning since taking over as the Patriots head coach in 2000, including 8-2 ATS as underdogs.

It’s also worth noting that Belichick has only once lost to Manning by more than 8 points, including 3 games without Brady. The Patriots in general have just 1 loss by more than 8 points since week 10 of the 2010 season, over 3 years ago. Considering this line is at 6, that’s pretty relevant. I obviously wish we were getting even more points, but I expect this to be a close game either way so getting 6 points is very valuable. Another weird trend that benefits the Patriots: teams with 12+ wins are 39-11 ATS in the playoffs against teams with better record than them.

There are some reasons to doubt the Patriots. In general, teams tend to struggle off of games in which they score 40+ points in the playoffs, going 3-14 ATS in that situation since 2002. The Patriots could be caught overconfident after running over Indianapolis last week. The Broncos have also won 7 of 9 games at home by double digits this year and are 12-5 ATS as home favorites over the past 2 seasons. Sure, the Chargers played within 7 points last week, but they didn’t really deserve to. Playing the Broncos close in Denver might be too big of a task, even for the Patriots.

Denver, of course, is also a very dominant football team. In fact, there’s still plenty of reason to believe they are the best in the NFL.  They move the chains at an 81.43% rate, as opposed to 71.84% for their opponents, a differential of 9.59% that not only ranks the best in the NFL out of the remaining 4 playoff teams, but also is better than any team that has been eliminated as well. I still think the Patriots are up to the challenge though and they have plenty supporting them, given their history in these types of situations. I’m very confident in the Patriots and grab them at +6 before you can’t. A heavy early public lean on New England is going to push the line down fast and already has started to in some places.

New England Patriots 31 Denver Broncos 30 Upset Pick +195

Pick against spread: New England +6

Confidence: High

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2013 Divisional Round Pick Results

Wild Card

Straight Up: 3-1

Against the Spread: 1-2-1

Pick of the Week: 0-0

High Confidence: 0-1

Medium Confidence: 0-0

Low Confidence: 0-0-1

No Confidence: 1-1

Upset Picks: 0-1

2013

Straight Up: 177-86-1 (.673)

Against the Spread: 147-108-9 (.576)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1

High Confidence: 24-9-1

Medium Confidence: 32-26

Low Confidence: 39-27-3

No Confidence: 42-40-4

Upset Picks: 27-30

Pre-season Prop Bets: 8-3

Rate of Moving the Chains – Conference Championship

What is this? This is rate of moving the chains, which is my primary statistic for handicapping games. It holds the assumption that the goal of any team on any given 1st and 10 (or 1st and goal) is to move the chains (or score). In order to figure out how often teams meet that goal, I take first downs plus touchdowns and divide it by first downs plus touchdowns plus failures to move the chains (successes divided by attempts). Failures to move the chains include punts, turnovers, failed 4th downs, and field goal attempts (being forced to kick a field goal is a failure).

I have this sorted by percent for (to evaluate offenses), percent against (to evaluate defenses), and differentials (to evaluate teams). Below that, I use this to calculate spreads for this week’s games (by taking the differences between the differentials of the two teams and adding 3 points either way for homefield). It’s not a perfect formula, but it does a good job of lessening the value of inconsistent things like turnovers and return touchdowns. These are the remaining playoff teams and how they stack up.

Offense

Team First downs Touchdowns Punts Turnovers Failed 4th downs Field goal attempts
1 Denver 461 74 65 28 1 28 81.43%
2 New England 401 50 83 20 9 41 74.67%
3 Seattle 320 43 80 19 5 38 71.88%
4 San Francisco 329 43 84 19 5 42 71.26%

 

Defense

Team First Downs Touchdowns Punts Turnovers Failed 4th downs Field goal attempts
1 Seattle 307 22 85 40 9 29 66.87%
2 San Francisco 320 33 92 32 14 28 68.02%
3 New England 354 38 85 33 17 29 70.50%
4 Denver 352 46 91 26 11 28 71.84%

 

Differential

Team
1 Denver 9.59%
2 Seattle 5.01%
3 New England 4.17%
4 San Francisco 3.25%

 

Projected Lines

DEN/NE 8.42
SEA/SF 4.76

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Jacksonville Jaguars 2014 Off-season Report

2013 Recap

When the Jaguars started 0-8 with all 8 losses coming by double digits, it looked like they were on their way to all-time bad status and maybe a 0-16 season. They didn’t finish quite that bad, as they went 4-4 after the bye to finish 4-12, but I still think this was the worst team in the NFL. They finished dead last in DVOA and point differential, with 10 of their 12 losses coming by double digits and their 4-12 record was buoyed by a 4-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their 4 wins came against teams that finished a combined 15-49.

All those wins really did was play them out of the #1 pick when they’re the team that probably needed it the most because of their desperate need for a franchise quarterback. They’ll still be able to get a top level quarterback prospect at #3, but you obviously prefer to have the #1 pick. If they were to hit a homerun on a quarterback at 3 and get a young franchise quarterback, it would obviously go a long way towards repairing this franchise, as that’s the quickest way to turn around a team.

However, that’s far from their only problem. They need help on the offensive line and on defense. Gus Bradley did a solid job in his first year on the job coaching up some replacement level starters on defense like Sen’Derrick Marks, Alan Ball, and Will Blackmon, but he wasn’t working with much as this cupboard was left pretty bare by ex-GM Gene Smith. The good news is they’ll have among the most cap space in the league and can have even more if they cut a few underperforming veterans. The problem is that Jacksonville has never been a prime destination for free agents and with the team in shambles, that won’t change.

Positional Needs

Quarterback

Blaine Gabbert was a JaMarcus Russell/Ryan Leaf level bust as the 10th overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. He’s made 27 starts in 3 years, won 5 of them, while completing 53.3% of his passes for 5.61 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 66.4. He doesn’t even resemble an NFL backup at this point. Chad Henne was the starter for the majority of the 2013 season, leading one of the NFL’s worst offenses and completing 60.6% of his passes for an average of 6.44 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He could be a solid backup somewhere, but he has more career interceptions (62) than touchdowns (55). The Jaguars have reportedly been scouting quarterbacks all season and that’s almost certainly where they’re going at the top of the draft. There might not be a team that needs one more.

Defensive End

The Jaguars had a league worst 31 sacks this season and sack leader Jason Babin is unlikely to be back next season, owed 6 million in his age 34 season. That would leave Andre Branch and Tyson Alualu on the outside, both of whom are solid run stoppers that can’t do anything as pass rushers. They need a dominant edge rusher.

Running Back

Maurice Jones-Drew is a free agent heading into his age 29 season. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be back. The Jaguars want to get younger at the position and MJD will want to go to a contender and somewhere where he’ll have more help. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry in 2013 and has scored just 6 times in the last 2 seasons as a result of the lack of talent around him.

Guard

Will Rackley at left guard is a disgrace. The 2011 3rd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked guard in 2011, missed the entire 2012 season, and was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked guard in 2013. Mike Brewster filled in for him from time to time this season and wasn’t terrible, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst guard in more significant action in 2012, so I don’t know how much you can trust him.

Offensive Tackle

The Jaguars drafted Luke Joeckel 2nd overall in 2013 to build around the quarterback position. He and Eugene Monroe appeared to make offensive tackle the strength of the team. However, Monroe was traded mid-season in his contract year, while Joeckel struggled before breaking his ankle and going on injured reserve. Joeckel will be back at left tackle next season, but they need someone to bookend him. Cameron Bradfield, who played both right and left tackle this season, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked offensive tackle. He’s a free agent anyway. Austin Pasztor filled in at right tackle and he wasn’t much better. It’s part of the reason why they allowed 50 sacks, 2nd worst in the NFL.

Center

Brad Meester has retired so the Jaguars will need a new center. Mike Brewster and Will Rackley are both internal options, but they’ve both struggled mightily thus far in their career. Either one of them could be better at center, but they should probably bring someone else in this off-season.

Defensive Tackle

Gus Bradley did a good job of coaching up Sen’Derrick Marks this season and the Jaguars extended him. They need help next to him at defensive tackle though. Roy Miller and Brandon Deaderick both struggled mightily and the latter is a free agent. The former could be a cap casualty if they’re unhappy with his performance and either way they need another defensive tackle in the mix.

Cornerback

The Jaguars cornerback trio of Alan Ball, Will Blackmon, and Dwayne Gratz actually impressed this season. All three of them graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. However, Blackmon is a free agent, while Alan Ball has been very inconsistent in the past so I don’t know how much you can trust him going forward. They could add another cornerback in the later rounds.

Middle Linebacker

Paul Posluszny had a bunch of tackles last season, but don’t let that mislead you. Almost every play ends in a tackle so somehow had to have a bunch of tackles on the Jaguars. That doesn’t mean he’s good. He was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He’s owed 7.45 million in 2014, which will make him one of the highest paid middle linebackers in the NFL and the Jaguars can save 5.5 million in the cap by letting him go. In normal circumstances, they let him go. However, the Jaguars aren’t exactly pressed for cap space so they might shy away from cutting a veteran leader. If they do cut him, they’ll need a replacement.

Tight End

Marcedes Lewis is one of the highest paid tight ends in the NFL. He’ll make 6.7 million in 2014 and the Jaguars can save on the cap 5.45 million by cutting him. He hasn’t lived up to his 58/700/10 season in 2010, which got him the contract. In the last 3 seasons, he’s averaged 39 catches for 453 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s a solid blocker and his receiving numbers are affected by the quarterback situation. Like with Posluszny, in normal circumstances, he’s probably gets cut, but the Jaguars aren’t pressed for cap space and might not want to cut one of the few solid starters they have. If they do, they’ll need to replace him.

Safety

The Jaguars had a pair of rookie safeties in 2013, John Cyprien and Josh Evans. Both of them graded out as among Pro Football Focus’ worst safeties, ranking 84th and 78th respectively out of 86 eligible. The Jaguars like both of them and they’ll probably return in 2014 as starters, especially Cyprien, a 2nd round pick who played much better in the 2nd half of the season, but Evans was just a 6th round pick and the Jaguars could add some competition.

Outside Linebacker

Geno Hayes was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible and the Jaguars can save a little bit of cap space by cutting him, but the Jaguars have other needs so this one might go unaddressed. If they do cut Hayes, he probably wouldn’t be hard to upgrade though.

Key Free Agents

RB Maurice Jones-Drew

Maurice Jones-Drew has seen a sharp fall from the 2011 season in which he led the NFL in rushing, with 1606 yards and 8 touchdowns on 343 carries. He missed 10 games in 2012 and only had 86 carries, which he took for 484 yards and a touchdown. This past year was even worse, as he rushed for 803 yards and 5 touchdowns on 234 carries, an average of 3.4 yards per carry. He could be better with more talent around him, but he’s also going into his age 29 season with 1804 career carries and a recent history of significant injury so it’s not like he’ll be a hot commodity on the open market. He’ll probably be looking to sign with a contender and could get a one or two year deal. There’s almost no chance he returns to Jacksonville at this point in his career.

CB Will Blackmon

Will Blackmon played a total of 31 snaps from 2009-2012 and didn’t play at all in 2012. There’s a reason the Jaguars were able to sign him right before the season started for the veteran’s minimum. However, he somehow played pretty solid this season, a testament to Gus Bradley’s ability to coach up defensive backs. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback and played 682 snaps. Much of that was run grade as he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked run stopping cornerback, but he also had an average grade in coverage. The Jaguars should be able to bring him back cheap.

QB Chad Henne

A 2nd round pick in 2008, Chad Henne has never been able to establish himself as a starting quarterback in the NFL. He’s completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.63 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 62 interceptions, a 75.3 QB rating. He’s a solid backup though so he could get a decent amount of money somewhere. He should be looking for contracts in the 2-3 million dollar range this off-season.

OT Cameron Bradfield

A swing tackle pressed into action this season, first at right tackle and then at the blindside, Cameron Bradfield was one of the worst offensive tackles in the league this season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked player at his position. He was a little bit better in 2012 as the starting right tackle, but the Jaguars still drafted Luke Joeckel to replace him. It’s clear they don’t view him as a starting caliber player and that’s probably an accurate assessment. He should try to find swing tackle work somewhere.

RB Jordan Todman

Jordan Todman was given an opportunity to establish himself as a lead back type player when Maurice Jones-Drew missed time with injury down the stretch, rushing for 109 yards on 25 carries in one game. The 2011 6th round pick only averaged 3.3 yards per carry on the season though. Part of that was the lack of talent around him, but the Jaguars shouldn’t feel comfortable bringing him back as the lead back.

C Brad Meester

A 2000 2nd round pick, Brad Meester played 14 seasons and made 209 starts at center for the Jaguars. However, he’s expected to retire this off-season. It’s coming at a good time. He’ll be 37 in March and struggled in each of the last two seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd and 6th worst ranked center in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Cap Casualty Candidates

DE Jason Babin

The Jaguars can save 6.175 million by cutting Jason Babin and there would be no cap hit. They shouldn’t hesitate. He did have 8 sacks last season and graded out above average as a pass rusher, but he struggled mightily against the run and also committed 11 penalties. He’s also going into his age 34 season. Babin also has the option to make himself a free agent so the Jaguars might not even have to do anything to get him and his cap number off the books.

RB Justin Forsett

The Jaguars will only save 1.15 million on the cap by cutting Justin Forsett, but considering the 3rd string running back played just 100 snaps and had 6 carries this year, there’s not much use in keeping him when they can get some savings by letting him go. Reports already say he’s as good as gone.

TE Marcedes Lewis

I already mentioned Marcedes Lewis. He’ll make 6.7 million in 2014 and the Jaguars can cap 5.45 million by cutting him. He hasn’t lived up to his 58/700/10 season in 2010, which got him the contract. In the last 3 seasons, he’s averaged 39 catches for 453 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s a solid blocker and his receiving numbers are affected by the quarterback situation. In normal circumstances, he’s probably gets cut, but the Jaguars aren’t pressed for cap space and might not want to cut one of the few solid starters they have.

MLB Paul Posluszny

I already mentioned Paul Posluszny. Paul Posluszny had a bunch of tackles last season, but don’t let that mislead you. Almost every play ends in a tackle so somehow had to have a bunch of tackles on the Jaguars. That doesn’t mean he’s good. He was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He’s owed 7.45 million in 2014, which will make him one of the highest paid middle linebackers in the NFL and the Jaguars can save 5.5 million in the cap by letting him go. In normal circumstances, they let him go. However, the Jaguars aren’t exactly pressed for cap space so they might shy away from cutting a veteran leader.

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San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos: 2013 AFC Divisional Round Pick

San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)

This is one I’m completely torn on. On one hand, the Chargers are in the better spot. The Broncos could be overconfident because they’re at home coming off of a bye. Teams are 14-22 ATS since 2003 as home favorites after a 1st round bye in the post-season, including 8-14 ATS off of a week 17 win. With a week off, the Broncos may have one eye on the AFC Championship Game and a potential rematch with the Patriots.

Patriots/Broncos and Seahawks/49ers seem to be the consensus AFC/NFC Championship Games right now as you can see from the NFL Superbowl Lines. We all know how seldom the consensus is right in the post-season. It might not be a bad idea to bet against all 4 of those teams. I’m thinking at least 3 of their opponents cover. The Chargers, meanwhile, are in a good spot as teams are 10-3 ATS as underdogs off of a road playoff win since 2005. Not only that, but they are 8-5 straight up despite being underdogs all 13 times. We’ve seen so many teams go on runs from the Wild Card round after winning on the road before. That could make the Chargers dangerous.

The Chargers have also been infrequently blown out this year, with just 1 loss by more than 8 points and no losses by more than 10 (that 10 point loss was somehow to the Raiders). That’s relevant with the line at 9 points. However, on the other hand, they lost by 8 at home to the Broncos, so why couldn’t they lose by double digits in Denver? Sure, they won in Denver a few weeks ago, but in spite of that, it’s definitely arguable that the Broncos are the best team in the NFL so if anyone is going to blow out the Chargers, it’s them.

The Broncos rank 1st in rate of moving the chains differential, moving the chains at an 81.09% rate, as opposed to 71.86% for their opponents, a differential of 9.23%. The Chargers, meanwhile, rank 10th, moving the chains at a 77.88% rate, as opposed to 75.24% for their opponents, a differential of 2.64%. That suggests that this line should be around 9.5. That doesn’t give us much line value with the Broncos, but it’s worth noting.

The Broncos are definitely capable of blowing out the Chargers, in spite of the Chargers’ lack of blowout losses this season. The Broncos have also been deadly at home over the past 2 years, going 12-4 ATS as favorites. In 7 of their 8 home games this year, they’ve won by double digits, with the exception obviously being the loss to San Diego. In 2012, they won by double digits in 5 of 8 home games in the regular season.

Speaking of that loss to San Diego, I think some people are putting too much stock into that game and San Diego’s win in Cincinnati. San Diego obviously played well last week, but part of that was because they forced 4 turnovers. Considering how inconsistent turnovers are, that the Chargers had just 17 takeaways all year, and that they are facing the Broncos this week, that’s not something they’re going to be able to count on this week. Their defense is pretty bad when they aren’t forcing takeaways.

As for the win in Denver, I think that was a fluke that would happen about 10% of the time. The Chargers are certainly capable of putting together a perfect game, playing keep away with their offense and having just enough defense, but the Broncos are much more likely to do the same thing. I was hoping this line would be smaller or that the public would be on San Diego more though, so I could take the Broncos. This line is basically the same as it was the last time these two teams played and I don’t think we’re getting enough line value with the Broncos. As long as the line is higher than a touchdown, I’m taking the Chargers, but it’s a pretty much toss-up.

Denver Broncos 31 San Diego Chargers 24

Pick against spread: San Diego +9

Confidence: None

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Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots: 2013 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)

The Patriots won 12 games and locked up a first round bye again. They now have a streak of 13 consecutive winning seasons. No one else has an active streak longer than 4. Over the past 13 seasons, they have 12 seasons of 10+ wins, 11 division titles, 10 seasons of 11+ wins, 8 seasons of 12+ wins, and are trying to add to their 7 AFC Championship appearances, 5 Super Bowl appearances, and 3 Super Bowl victories. Over that time period, they are 158-50 in the regular season, equivalent to an average season of 12-4, and they are 17-7 in the post-season and looking for more.

Even though they had what’s now considered an average record by this franchise’s standards of 12-4, this was not an average season for them. That 12-4 record is on the strength of a 7-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their +108 point differential was their lowest in a season Tom Brady was healthy since 2005. This team wasn’t as good as their record in the regular season. Just 5 of their 12 wins have come by more than a touchdown, which is very relevant considering they are favored by a touchdown here in the post-season.

The fact that they weren’t as good as their record is shown bt the fact that they are 8th in rate of moving the chains differential, moving the chains at a 74.30% rate, while their opponents move the chains at a 70.97% rate, a differential of 3.33%. The Colts, meanwhile, rank 14th, moving the chains at a 73.17% rate, as opposed to 72.44% for their opponents, a differential of 0.77%. That suggests this line should be at around 5.5, which goes back to the Patriots’ inability to win games by more than a touchdown. The Patriots have also historically struggled as 7+ point favorites in the post-season, going 4-8 ATS in that situation during the Brady/Belichick era.

Finally, the Patriots are in a bad spot because they could be overconfident because they’re at home coming off of a bye. Teams are 14-22 ATS since 2003 as home favorites after a 1st round bye in the post-season, including 8-14 ATS off of a week 17 win. There’s a chance they may have one eye on the AFC Championship and Denver next week. Patriots/Broncos and Seahawks/49ers seem to be the consensus AFC/NFC Championship Games right now. We all know how seldom the consensus is right in the post-season. It might not be a bad idea to bet against all 4 of those teams. I’m thinking at least 3 of their opponents cover.

Despite all of this, there are two big reasons why I’m not confident in the Colts. One is just how unpredictable the Colts have been this season. They’ve been alternating multiple game stretches where they’ve looked like a 13-3 team and a 6-10 team, with nothing really in between. Last season, they were nowhere near as good as their 11-5 record, as that was powered by 7 wins by 7 points or fewer against teams that finished 7-9 or worse. They started out looking like that team, barely beating Oakland and losing to Miami in back-to-back home games. However, then they went on a roll over a 6 game stretch that included wins over good teams (Denver, Seattle, San Francisco) and blowout wins (34 point win in Jacksonville) that their 2012 season just didn’t have.

However, then after the bye they came out and looked like their 2012 team or even worse, with 3 point wins over Tennessee and Houston and then an 8 point win over Tennessee, but also a 29 point loss against Arizona, a 14 point loss against Cincinnati, and a 30 point loss against St. Louis. They had a -59 point differential over a 6 game stretch in which they got blown out by every decent team they faced and barely beat mediocre football teams. It reeked of 2012. However, since then, they’ve blown out the Texans by 22, went into Kansas City and won convincingly by 16 against a good football team, and then blew out Jacksonville by 20, in a game that was never really close.

Last week, they beat Kansas City, which was impressive, but they were also down by 28 early. In a way, last week’s game was a microcosm of their season. They were terrible for a stretch and then phenomenal for another stretch. During the season, they also ranked 29th in terms of variance on Football Outsiders, which means they were the 4th most inconsistent team. No other team left in the post-season ranks lower than 19th. I almost actually hope they get eliminated so I don’t have to deal with picking their games anymore, regardless of what I end up picking.

The other reason why I’m not confident in the Colts is the fact that they scored 40+ points last week. Teams who score 40+ points in a post-season game are 3-13 ATS the following week. Teams tend to be overconfident after that type of performance. That might not apply to them as much as it normally would to a team because they did allow 44 points last week, so they might not have a ton to be overconfident about, but then again, how much do you trust this defense against New England, especially when they’re missing starting cornerback Greg Toler? I’m picking the Colts, but I’m not confident at all.

New England Patriots 30 Indianapolis Colts 24

Pick against spread: Indianapolis +7

Confidence: None

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New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks: 2013 NFC Divisional Round Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Everyone knows about the Seahawks’ home dominance and the Saints’ road struggles. Since 2007, the Seahawks are 39-18 ATS at home, including 23-10 ATS as home favorites, and 12-4 ATS as home favorites of 7 or more. They have been especially good over the past two years, as they’ve broken out as an elite team, going 12-4 ATS since the start of the 2012 season. They are outscoring opponents by an average of 16.94 points per game at home since the start of last season and have a 15-1 record over that time span.

Meanwhile, since 2008, the Saints are 31-10 ATS at home and 18-25 ATS on the road, excluding the 2012 season when Sean Payton didn’t coach. Sure, they won last week, but they could have easily lost in Philadelphia and Drew Brees’ play against a weak Philadelphia defense shouldn’t instill much confidence in his ability to win big games away from home. On the season, they are still just 2-7 ATS on the road and 4-5 straight up, with the wins coming by a combined 16 points and the losses coming by a combined 51 points, including a 27 point loss in Seattle earlier this season.

However, the problem is that everyone knows about the Seahawks home dominance and the Saints’ road struggles. That’s clearly affecting this line as the Seahawks as 8 point favorites. That suggests the Seahawks are 5 points better than the Saints on a neutral field under normal home field advantage. That’s simply not true. I know the Seahawks don’t have a normal home field advantage and the Saints aren’t the same team away from New Orleans, but that’s already been priced into the line and then some. We’re not getting any line value with the Seahawks.

In fact, I have numbers that suggest that the Saints are a better team than the Seahawks on a neutral field. The Saints rank 3rd in rate of moving the chains differential, moving the chains at a 76.90% rate, as opposed to 69.15% for their opponents, a differential of 7.75%. The Seahawks, meanwhile, move the chains at a 72.35% rate, as opposed to 66.23% for their opponents, a differential of 6.12% that ranks 5th in the NFL.

Why has Seattle been more successful than the Saints this year in spite of that? Well, turnovers and return touchdowns have benefitted them in a way that they haven’t benefitted the Saints. While the Saints are +2 in turnovers, the Seahawks are +20. Also, the Seahawks are +3 in return touchdowns and the Saints are -2, a 35 point swing. That kind of thing tends to be very tough to rely on in any given week.

Rate of moving the chains suggests that the Seahawks should be favored by only a point and a half. Of course, that would be absurd because that doesn’t take into account that the Seahawks are a significantly better home team than road team and the Saints are a significantly worse road team than home team. You could definitely argue this line should be around 6 or 6.5 because of that, but 8 seems a little steep. At the very least, we’re not getting any line value with the Seahawks and we might be getting some with the Saints.

The Saints are also in the better spot. I mentioned they got blown out in Seattle earlier this year. That actually works to their benefit this week. It might seem counterintuitive, but it means sense once you think about it, as the Seahawks could be overconfident as a result of that win. Teams are 26-13 ATS since 2002 in same site non-divisional revenge games in the post-season, meaning that teams cover at a high rate in the post-season against a non-divisional team that they lost to in the regular season in the same location. It’s even true of blowout losses are teams are 12-6 ATS in same site non-divisional revenge games against teams they lost to by 10 or more the previous time. In fact, teams are 17-8 ATS in the post-season in that situation regardless of location.

The Seahawks could also be overconfident because they’re at home coming off of a bye. Teams are 14-22 ATS since 2003 as home favorites after a 1st round bye in the post-season, including 8-14 ATS off of a week 17 win. With a week off and a team they already beat coming to town, the Seahawks may have one eye on the NFC Championship Game and a potential rubber match with the 49ers. Patriots/Broncos and Seahawks/49ers seem to be the consensus AFC/NFC Championship Games right now. We all know how seldom the consensus is right in the post-season. It might not be a bad idea to bet against all 4 of those teams. I’m thinking at least 3 of their opponents cover.

The Saints, meanwhile, are in a good spot as teams are 10-3 ATS off of a road playoff win since 2005. Not only that, but they are 8-5 straight up despite being underdogs all 13 times. We’ve seen so many teams go on runs from the Wild Card round after winning on the road before. That could make the Saints dangerous. I hate going against the Seahawks at home, especially given the Saints’ road struggles and especially when the Saints seem to be somewhat of a public underdog, but there’s too much value with the Saints here and too much going in their favor. I’m not that confident though.

Seattle Seahawks 24 New Orleans Saints 20

Pick against spread: New Orleans +8

Confidence: Low

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San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers: 2013 NFC Divisional Round Pick

San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)

The Panthers won in San Francisco earlier this season, helping propel them to a 12-4 record, the #2 seed, and home field advantage in the NFC divisional round. In spite of all that, they are 1 point home underdogs here. Ordinarily, I’d think this would be a trap line designed to get people to bet on Carolina, so the odds makers could make a big profit when San Francisco wins, but the public is actually all over San Francisco and in spite of that the amount that the 49ers are favored by is shrinking. After opening as 2 point favorites, the 49ers are now favored by either a point or not at all (pick em), depending on where you look. That suggests this could be a trap line designed to get people to bet on San Francisco. I love fading the public whenever it makes sense and it definitely does here.

As long as the Panthers are underdogs or favorites of less than 3, I really like them this week. Ordinarily, teams have been struggled off of byes in recent years, but it’s a different dynamic with the Panthers because they aren’t big home favorites. They won’t be overconfident. In fact, there’s only one instance in the last 25 years (as far back as I have data) of a team being home underdogs in the divisional road. 49ers fans probably remember it well as it was 2 years ago when they host the Saints and won in thrilling fashion. That game alone isn’t reason enough to take the Panthers here, but it’s pretty absurd that they are home underdogs here.

Here’s a good reason to take the Panthers: they’re significantly better than the 49ers and at home. Their win in San Francisco was legitimate. They’re the better team here. The Panthers are 4th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential, moving the chains at a 75.00% rate, as opposed to 67.49% for their opponents, a differential of 7.51%. The 49ers, meanwhile, rank 9th, moving the chains at a 70.79% rate, as opposed to 67.61% for their opponents, a differential of 3.18%. That suggests that the Panthers should be favored by about 7.5 points. That’s even before you take into account that the 49ers are a West Coast team playing at 1 PM ET on the East Coast against an East Coast team.

The 49ers have had a really tough time against top level teams this year. In 5 games against teams that finished 11-5 or better, the 49ers went 1-4, as opposed to 12-0 in other games (including playoffs). It’s even worse than that sounds. They’ve been outscored by a combined 50 points in those 4 losses, while their one win came by 2 points. Colin Kaepernick has been miserable in those 5 games, as he hasn’t posted higher than a 54.8% completion percentage in any of those 5 games.

Combined, he was 69 of 137 (50.4%) for 670 yards (4.89 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while rushing for 179 yards on 32 carries. In his other 12 games, he’s 190 of 309 (61.5%) for 2745 yards (8.88 YPA), 19 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while rushing for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns on 67 carries. As I mentioned, the 49ers are 12-0 in those games, winning by an average of 15.17 points per game. He struggled against Carolina the first time around, completing 11 of 22 for 91 yards and an interception, while rushing for 16 yards on 4 carries and that was at home. I have no confidence in him this week on the road at 1 PM ET.

The 49ers are on a 7 game winning streak right now, but the combined record of those 7 teams is 49-63 and only that 2 point win over Seattle came against a team with 11 or more wins. Besides, teams on long winning streaks tend to struggle in the playoffs. Since 2002, teams are 7-16 ATS in the post-season while on a winning streak of 7+, including 3-15 ATS as favorites. Teams tend to be overconfident and overvalued in that situation. The latter is definitely true and the former could very well be. I’m very confident in Carolina.

Carolina Panthers 20 San Francisco 49ers 13 Upset Pick +100

Pick against spread: Carolina +1

Confidence: High

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Rate of Moving the Chains – Divisional Round

What is this? This is rate of moving the chains, which is my primary statistic for handicapping games. It holds the assumption that the goal of any team on any given 1st and 10 (or 1st and goal) is to move the chains (or score). In order to figure out how often teams meet that goal, I take first downs plus touchdowns and divide it by first downs plus touchdowns plus failures to move the chains (successes divided by attempts). Failures to move the chains include punts, turnovers, failed 4th downs, and field goal attempts (being forced to kick a field goal is a failure).

I have this sorted by percent for (to evaluate offenses), percent against (to evaluate defenses), and differentials (to evaluate teams). Below that, I use this to calculate spreads for this week’s games (by taking the differences between the differentials of the two teams and adding 3 points either way for homefield). It’s not a perfect formula, but it does a good job of lessening the value of inconsistent things like turnovers and return touchdowns. These are the remaining playoff teams and how they stack up.

Offense

Team First downs Touchdowns Punts Turnovers Failed 4th downs Field goal attempts
1 Denver 435 71 65 26 1 26 81.09%
2 San Diego 389 44 62 21 1 39 77.88%
3 New Orleans 385 51 64 21 10 36 76.90%
4 Carolina 319 38 70 19 3 27 75.00%
5 New England 378 44 77 20 8 41 74.30%
6 Indianapolis 346 44 77 18 7 41 73.17%
7 Seattle 307 41 74 19 5 35 72.35%
8 San Francisco 308 41 82 19 4 39 70.79%

 

Defense

Team First Downs Touchdowns Punts Turnovers Failed 4th downs Field goal attempts
1 Seattle 282 20 81 39 7 27 66.23%
2 Carolina 278 21 72 30 8 34 67.49%
3 San Francisco 302 32 90 30 13 27 67.61%
4 New Orleans 291 34 88 19 8 30 69.15%
5 New England 338 36 80 29 17 27 70.97%
6 Denver 339 44 87 26 11 26 71.86%
7 Indianapolis 349 40 77 28 10 33 72.44%
8 San Diego 354 38 68 21 9 31 75.24%

 

Differential

Team
1 Denver 9.23%
2 New Orleans 7.75%
3 Carolina 7.51%
4 Seattle 6.12%
5 New England 3.33%
6 San Francisco 3.18%
7 San Diego 2.64%
8 Indianapolis 0.73%

 

Projected Lines

SEA/NO 1.37
NE/ND 5.60
DEN/SD 9.59
CAR/SF 7.33

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2013 NFL Wild Card Pick Results

Wild Card

Straight Up: 1-3

Against the Spread: 0-3-1

Pick of the Week: 0-0

High Confidence: 0-0-1

Medium Confidence: 0-1

Low Confidence: 0-1

No Confidence: 0-1

Upset Picks: 0-1

2013

Straight Up: 174-85-1 (.672)

Against the Spread: 146-106-8 (.579)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1

High Confidence: 24-8-1

Medium Confidence: 32-26

Low Confidence: 39-27-2

No Confidence: 41-39-4

Upset Picks: 27-29

Pre-season Prop Bets: 8-3