Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers: 2015 NFC Championship Pick

Arizona Cardinals (13-3) at Carolina Panthers (15-1)

I’ve been saying for pretty much all season that Arizona is better than Carolina, despite Carolina’s better record and their status as the #1 seed in the NFC really from start to finish (they’ve been tied for the best record in the NFC or had the best record in the NFC all season). Arizona obviously has lost more games than the Panthers, 3 to 1, but their margin of victory is much higher, winning their 13 games by an average of 16.92 points per game, while the Panthers’ 15 wins have come by an average of 13.27 points per game.

Arizona also finished the season #1 in rate of moving the chains differential, a statistic in which they led almost all season (Carolina finished 2nd). In two of their three losses they won the first down battle by a combined 20 first downs and only lost because they had a -3 turnover margin in both games. Turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. On average, teams that have a -3 turnover margin in a game have a +0.1 turnover margin the following game. That’s why I don’t really like to use turnover margin as evidence to support an evaluation of a team.

Carolina finished the season with a better point differential, +192 vs. +176, but they were more reliant on winning the turnover margin, finishing the season at +20, while Arizona finished at +9. Besides, Arizona’s point differential is better if you take out their 3rd loss, a 30 point home loss to the Seattle Seahawks week 17, a game in which the Cardinals didn’t even play their starters in the second half because the Panthers were simultaneously up big over Tampa Bay and on their way to locking up the #1 seed, making Arizona’s game meaningless. On top of that, the Cardinals played a much tougher schedule, as they had the 16th hardest strength of schedule record wise, while the Panthers had the nd easiest.

All of this being said, I’m not that confident in the Cardinals as 3 point road underdogs here for one reason: Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu was playing at a borderline Defensive Player of the Year level before a week 15 torn ACL ended his season prematurely. Without him, it’s hard to argue that the Cardinals are a significantly better team, which they’d have to be for me to have any real confidence in them as mere field goal underdogs on the road. If this line does move to 3.5 before gametime, I may reconsider, as about 1 in 6 games as decided by exactly a field goal, but this is a low confidence pick for now. If you feel the need to put money on something this weekend, I’d recommend Arizona +145 on the money line.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Carolina Panthers 23 Upset Pick +145

Pick against the spread: Arizona +3

Confidence: Low

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New England Patriots at Denver Broncos: 2015 AFC Championship Pick

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

The Patriots lost in Denver earlier this year, but the Patriots were without leading wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and also lost top receiving threat Rob Gronkowski and talented linebacker Dont’a Hightower with injuries in that game. Even still, the Patriots were leading 21-7 in the 4th quarter and likely would have won if not for a phantom holding call around the goal line and a muffed punt by Chris Harper, who was only returning punts because both Edelman and Amendola were out.

Despite very nearly winning, the Patriots did not move the ball well in that game, as they moved the chains at a 59.38% rate (as opposed to 69.23% for the Broncos). Two of New England’s touchdowns came on drives where they started with great field position, while the other one came on a long touchdown reception by backup running Brandon Bolden out of the backfield. That’s despite the fact that the Broncos were down DeMarcus Ware and then lost safety TJ Ward to injury in that game. Ware and Ward are keys on a Denver defense that finished the season 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed and both will play in this one, though talented cornerback Chris Harris could be limited with a serious shoulder injury.

However, as talented as Denver is defensively, the Patriots should have more offensive success in this one with key players returning from injury. In the 9 regular season games Julian Edelman played, the Patriots moved the chains at a 79.81% rate, as opposed to 65.42% in their other 7 regular season games. Last week, with Edelman healthy for the first time in 2 months, they moved the chains at an 82.76% rate against a solid Kansas City defense. That’s not all Edelman, as the Patriots have also gotten other players back from injury that missed time during that 7 game stretch (Gronkowski, Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, Josh Kline, etc), but there’s no denying that he’s such a huge part of their offense and they’re a different team when he’s out there, one that’s much better than Denver.

The Broncos finished the regular season 11th in rate of moving the chains differential and then had an underwhelming home victory against the very banged up Pittsburgh Steelers in their first playoff game last week. Just 3 of Denver’s wins this season have come by more than a touchdown so their record is kind of a farce. Their defense is incredible, but they have major problems offensively, finishing the regular season 30th in rate of moving the chains. Peyton Manning, by most measures, was the worst quarterback in the NFL this season. Meanwhile, the Patriots were one of the best teams in the NFL before injuries struck and are now relatively. They’re far more well-rounded than the Broncos. We know about their offense when everyone is healthy, but their defense is strong too, arguably stronger than any Patriots defense since 2007, ranking 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

Teams tend to cover in the playoffs in a same season, same site, non-divisional rematch against a team that beat them previously anyway, going 31-15 ATS since 2001. On top of that, the Patriots themselves tend to cover in same season revenge games in the Bill Belichick era (since 2000), going 14-5 ATS in those type of games over that time period. All this being said, I can’t put money on New England as 3.5 point road favorites, given that about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal and close to 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less. For that reason, this is only a low confidence pick, though if the line drops before gametime, I’ll definitely reconsider.

New England Patriots 24 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against spread: New England -3.5

Confidence: Low

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Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers: 2015 NFC Divisional Pick

Seattle Seahawks (11-6) at Carolina Panthers (15-1)

This is a matchup of two absolute powerhouses, as Carolina and Seattle rank 2nd and 3rd respectively in rate of moving the chains differential. Seattle gets running back Marshawn Lynch back from a 7 game absence, while Carolina gets running back Jonathan Stewart back from a 3 game absence, safety Kurt Coleman back from a 1 game absence, and wide receiver Ted Ginn back from a 1 game absence, though cornerback Charles Tillman is out for the season. I think Carolina is the better team, so I like being able to take them as mere 2.5 point favorites at home, given that about 1 in 6 games are decided by a field goal or less, but I’d need to be getting points to bet any money against Seattle, especially since home teams in the divisional round are just 8-16 ATS since 2001 against a team that is coming off of a road win in the wild card round.

Carolina Panthers 16 Seattle Seahawks 13

Pick against the spread: Carolina -2.5

Confidence: Low

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Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots: 2015 AFC Divisional Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)

This one’s tough. The Patriots should be able to cover this 5 point spread at home against the Chiefs. The Chiefs have famously won 11 straight games since a 1-5 start, but who did they beat over that time period? Buffalo? Denver when Manning had a bad foot? Houston? Meanwhile, during their 1-5 start, they lost to the likes of Denver (with a healthier Manning), Green Bay, Cincinnati, Minnesota, all playoff teams. They’re a solid team and rank 8th in rate of moving the chains differential, but I don’t really like their chances of winning a road playoff game against a tough team and making a deep run, especially since teams are 11-21 ATS in the playoffs on a winning streak of 7 or more, since 2001.

Their toughest game strength of schedule wise that they won might have been last week in Houston. The final score was 30-0, but that’s a little misleading, as the Chiefs didn’t have an offensive touchdown until JJ Watt got hurt in the 3rd quarter. That win was propelled by a kickoff return touchdown and a +4 turnover margin, two things they won’t be able to count on this week, against an opponent that ended up being pretty weak without the superstar Watt. Kansas City’s offense really seemed to miss talented rookie center Mitch Morse, who will miss his 2nd straight game with a concussion this week. Possibly joining him on the sideline this week are top wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who hurt his ankle last week, and outside linebacker Justin Houston, a defensive standout who tweaked a knee injury last week that caused him to miss the previous 5 games.

The Patriots, meanwhile, are getting way healthier this week. They’ve played pretty badly in recent weeks, especially struggling on the offensive side of the ball, moving the chains at a 65.42% rate in the past 7 games, as opposed to 79.81% in the first 9 games of the season. That timeline coincides with when top wide receiver Julian Edelman went down with a broken foot, but he makes his return this week after more than 2 months.

It wasn’t just Julian Edelman getting hurt, as Edelman, running back Dion Lewis, running back LeGarrette Blount, wide receiver Danny Amendola, tight end Rob Gronkowski, tight end Scott Chandler, guard Josh Kline, offensive tackle Nate Solder, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, linebacker Jamie Collins, safety Devin McCourty, and safety Patrick Chung all combined to miss 45 full games over that 7 game stretch (33 offensive, 12 defensive). Amendola, Chandler, Kline, Gronkowski, Collins, McCourty, and Chung all played week 17, while Vollmer, Jones, and Hightower all return this week, along with Edelman. Blount, Lewis, Solder, and Easley are all out for the season, but every team has some amount of injuries right now. They’re in pretty good shape.

However, it’s tough to be too confident in them because we just haven’t seen it from them in a while. It’s a projection that they’re going to be a lot better this week, a good one, but it’s tough to know that everything is just going to go back to the way it was a couple months ago. I also don’t like the feel around this one, with Chandler Jones possibly facing an internal punishment for an off-the-field issue and Rob Gronkowski apparently being more questionable than normal questionable and reportedly getting a pain injection on Thursday in the right knee he injured earlier this season. Add in the fact that home teams in the divisional round are just 8-16 ATS since 2001 against a team that is coming off of a road win in the wild card round and that close to 3 in 10 games are decided by 4 points or fewer, and it becomes very tough to be too confident in New England covering as 5 point favorites, though they are my pick.

New England Patriots 24 Kansas City Chiefs 17

Pick against the spread: New England -5

Confidence: Low

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Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals: 2015 NFC Divisional Pick

Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Arizona Cardinals (13-3)

The Cardinals clobbered the Packers 38-8 at home just 3 weeks ago back in week 16, so people don’t seem to be giving the Packers much of a chance. However, as the Vikings showed last week, even though a team blew you out recently, you still have a good chance to beat them in the playoffs. Teams are 30-15 ATS since 2001 in the playoffs in a same season, same site, non-divisional rematch against a team that beat them previously, including 15-7 ATS if the previous margin was 10+ points. Like the Vikings, the Packers are healthier this time around, getting left tackle David Bakhtiari back from a 3 game absence and cornerback Sam Shields back from a 4 game absence. Plus, I think it’s important to not get too caught up in a team’s best or worst performance of the season. The last time these two teams played, it was the Cardinals’ best and the Packers’ worst.

That being said, I think the Cardinals were the best team in the NFL last season, as they ranked 1st in rate of moving the chains differential. The Packers, meanwhile, were down in 10th. However, the Cardinals are missing defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who was having an All-Pro caliber season before tearing his ACL and going down for the season week 15. That’s definitely going to matter at some point. The Packers, meanwhile, are as healthy as they’ve been all season and coming off a strong performance in Washington last week. Home teams in the divisional round are just 8-16 ATS since 2001 against a team that is coming off of a road win in the wild card round. Seven and a half points is a lot, so I’ll take it easily.

Arizona Cardinals 27 Green Bay Packers 24

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +7.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

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Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos: 2015 AFC Divisional Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) at Denver Broncos (12-4)

Pittsburgh entered the post-season as a trendy sleeper pick to go all the way, thanks to a high flying offense led by arguably the best quarterback/pass catcher duo in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. They finished 9th in rate of moving the chains differential and moved the chains at a 75.00% rate in the 12 games that Ben Roethlisberger played, as opposed to 63.64% in the 4 games he didn’t. Also in those 12 games, Antonio Brown caught 119 passes for 1599 yards and 10 touchdowns, an unbelievable 159/2132/13 pace over 16 games by a player who once again finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver. He might be the most valuable offensive player in the league, excluding quarterbacks.

The Steelers won on the road in their first playoff game last week, but they may have won the battle, but lost the war. Antonio Brown will have to miss this game with a concussion, one that, ironically, was suffered on the hit that drew the personal foul penalty that started the sequence of events that led to the Steelers’ improbable late comeback, moving Pittsburgh from mid-field to easy field goal range quickly, with time running out. On top of that, Ben Roethlisberger will play this week despite torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder. The gutty effort is commendable, but it’s unclear how well he’ll be able to throw the ball downfield or if he’ll even be able to finish the game.

Roethlisberger and Brown share the injury report with running back DeAngelo Williams, who will miss his 2nd straight game with injury. He was already filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who has been on IR since week 8 with a knee injury, leaving the Steelers with undrafted 2nd year player Fitzgerald Touissant and journeyman Jordan Todman at running back. Also on IR since mid-season is left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who’s been out since week 6 with a torn ACL,while center Maurkice Pouncey has been out all year with a broken leg. Suddenly, the Steelers’ sleeper hopes seem a lot slimmer.

However, I have no idea why they’re 9 point underdogs in Denver. The Broncos might be the #1 seed, but they have their own problems, especially at quarterback, where neither veteran Peyton Manning nor the inexperienced Brock Osweiler have been able to seize control of the job. Manning played horribly to start the season before going down for close to 2 months with a foot injury, but Osweiler did not impress in his absence and was benched for Manning mid-game week 17. Manning led the comeback effort to clinch the #1 seed, but most of the Broncos’ yardage after he entered the game was on the ground, so it’s tough to know if the 39-year-old future Hall-of-Famer actually has anything left in the tank. Regardless, he’ll get the start this week.

They’ve moved the chains at a 68.66% rate in Osweiler’s 6 starts, a 67.49% rate in Manning’s 8 starts, and a 64.71% rate in the 2 games where they’ve both played. Osweiler’s number looks a little better, but most, if not all, of that can be attributed to a running game that’s recently improved. Any way you look at it, the Broncos have struggled to move the ball this season, almost no matter what, thanks to poor quarterback play, an inconsistent running game, and a weak offensive line. Despite being the #1 seed, the Broncos rank just 11th in rate of moving the chains differential. Their 12-4 record is kind of a farce because they have just 3 wins by more than a touchdown, so I don’t know why Pittsburgh couldn’t keep this one close to. On top of that, home teams in the divisional round are just 8-16 ATS since 2001 against a team that is coming off of a road win in the wild card round. Give me the 9 points.

Denver Broncos 17 Pittsburgh Steelers 13

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +9

Confidence: High

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Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins: 2015 NFC Wild Card Pick

Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Washington Redskins (9-7)

The Redskins come out of the NFC East, arguably the weakest division in football, but they’ve turned into a pretty good team. They rank 14th in rate of moving the chains differential, worst among playoff teams, but they’re hot right now and have been since getting both tight end Jordan Reed and wide receiver DeSean Jackson back from injury. Their passing game has been on fire since then. They’ve moved the chains at a 72.96% rate in their last 9 games with those two healthy, as opposed to 71.30% in their previous 7 games.

The Packers are probably still the better team, ranking 10th in rate of moving the chains differential, but they’re the ones who are banged up now. Cornerback Sam Shields will miss his 4th straight game with a concussion, left tackle David Bakhtiari is a gametime decision at best, after missing the last 2 games with injury, and defensive end Datone Jones could also be out with a neck injury. I’m not that confident in Washington, but I have this as a field goal game, as about 1 in 6 games are, so I’ll take Washington as 1 point favorites for a low confidence pick.

Washington Redskins 23 Green Bay Packers 20

Pick against the spread: Washington -1

Confidence: Low

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