Indianapolis Colts (13-5) at New England Patriots (13-4)
After the Ravens beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, ensuring that they would go to New England in the 2nd round for yet another Patriots/Ravens playoff matchup, I started discussing on Twitter who the Patriots would choose to play in the 2nd round if they had the choice, the lower seed Ravens or the higher seed Colts. It was pretty unanimous support for the Colts and I agreed. Even ignoring that the Colts have lost by final scores of 59-24, 43-22, and 42-20 to the Patriots in the Chuck Pagano/Andrew Luck era and that the Patriots have never covered against the Ravens in the playoffs in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era (both of those are too small of sample sizes), I thought the Ravens were a significantly better team and matched up with the Patriots better.
Coming into the playoffs, I thought the Ravens were the best playoff team that played on wild card weekend and they didn’t do anything to disprove that theory by beating the Steelers convincingly in Pittsburgh. Le’Veon Bell or no Le’Veon Bell, that’s still impressive. The Ravens went 10-6 despite a 2-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, so they were a rare 10+ win team that was actually better than their record. They finished 5th in DVOA, and their +107 point differential was 6th among playoff teams. In terms of rate of moving the chains, they moved them at a 75.93% rate, as opposed to 70.31% for their opponents, a differential of 5.62% that ranked 3rd in the NFL this season, behind only Denver and Seattle and actually ahead of New England.
Baltimore had a weak schedule, but even when you take schedule into account, the Ravens only fall to 4th in differential at 4.94%, trading spots with New England, who is at 5.40%. The Ravens also came into the playoffs as the 4th hottest team, ranking 4th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential among playoff teams over the final 4 games of the season at 10.56%, only behind Seattle, Carolina, and Dallas. That’s a little skewed because the Ravens faced back-to-back 3rd string quarterbacks against Houston and Cleveland and even schedule adjusted differential doesn’t take injuries into account, but it’s still very impressive, especially since they did it without Haloti Ngata.
The Colts came into the playoffs as the 2nd worst team in the 2nd half of the season in rate of moving the chains differential when adjusted for schedule at -0.21, only ahead of Detroit at -1.18%. The Colts went 6-2 in their final 8 games, but their 6 wins came against the likes of Jacksonville, Washington, Tennessee, Houston, Cleveland and the New York Giants and they didn’t beat them by enough to offset the fact that they were crushed by the only two playoff teams they faced over that time period, Dallas and New England. They also don’t have nearly the pass rush that Baltimore has, which has always been the key to beating New England, because Brady has always struggled mightily when pressured.
The Ravens definitely seemed like they’d be a tougher matchup for the Patriots than the Colts. I’ve always thought giving the top overall seed the choice of which team they want to host in the divisional round would be interesting. It would give an added incentive for getting the top seed and it would make for some very interesting situations. Would the top seed always select the lower seed to avoid pissing off their future opponent and giving them added incentive? Would the lower seed still be pissed off and motivated extra by being chosen by the #1 seed? Would this system make a difference long-term in terms of the results of divisional round matchups involving the #1 overall seed? These are all things that would be interesting to know and, either way, I thought last week that the Colts would be an easier matchup for the Patriots than the Ravens.
The Ravens gave the Patriots a tough game, losing 35-31 in a game that literally could have gone either way. The Patriots moved the chains at an 85.00% rate, as opposed to 82.05% for the Ravens. However, the Colts definitely exceeded my expectations, winning 24-13 in Denver in a game in which they moved the chains at a 76.47% rate, as opposed to 66.67% for the Broncos. Considering the way the Colts played in the 2nd half of the season, and the way they’ve generally played on the road and against tough opponents over the past 3 seasons with Luck and Pagano, and considering the Broncos finished the regular season #1 in rate of moving the chains differential and schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential, that was really surprising. The Broncos kind of limped into the playoffs, ranking 9th out of 12 playoff teams in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the final 4 games of the season, but I thought Julius Thomas and Brandon Marshall coming back healthy would really help and Peyton Manning never looked as bad as he did against the Colts, not even in the road loss in Cincinnati and definitely never at home.
I’m 5-3 against the spread in the playoffs, but I’ve missed both of the Colts games. I wasn’t concerned that I was underrating the Colts when they beat the Bengals in Indianapolis because I wasn’t confident in Cincinnati, because that was in Indianapolis, and because the Bengals aren’t a very good team without AJ Green. However, last week’s win in Denver was different. It was on the road and against a very good team. I still think they’re the weakest of the 4 remaining playoff teams, but they could give the Patriots more trouble than I thought they would before last week.
I’m still taking the Patriots here. The Colts are still just 3-9 ATS on the road since 2002 against teams with winning records. Of their 8 straight up losses against winning teams on the road over that time period, all 14 of them have come by two touchdowns or more. This season, they are 1-3 against playoff teams on the road, losing those 3 games by margins of 7, 17, and 35. The Patriots meanwhile, have been arguably the best offensive team in the league this season, as long as Gronk is on the field. With the exception of the first 4 weeks of the season, the Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% rate with Gronk on the field this regular season. They’re a pretty average team defensively, allowing opponent to move the chains at a 71.66% rate, but when their offense is on, they’re a very dangerous team.
On top of that, they are incredible at home, winning 17 straight home games that actually matter over the past 2 seasons, going 11-6 ATS in those 17 games. This regular season, excluding week 17, they move the chains at a 80.00% rate at home, as opposed to 71.37% for their opponents (a differential of 8.63%), while they move the chains at a 75.10% rate on the road, as opposed to 71.90% for their opponents (a differential of 3.20%). Last week was tough for them, but I think this will be an easier game for them and they should cover. I’m not that confident because I still might be underrating the Colts, but the Patriots should be the right side. If you’re concerned that I haven’t made any picks that are medium or higher and need something to wager money on this week, I’d recommend a New England -1, Seattle -1.5 6 point teaser.
New England Patriots 34 Indianapolis Colts 24
Pick against the spread: New England -7