Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots: 2016 AFC Championship Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2)

Like the Packers in the NFC, the Steelers enter this game on a long winning streak, winning 9 straight games to go from 4-5 to 11-5, the 3rd seed in the AFC, 2 playoff wins, and an AFC Championship appearance. However, the Steelers have two big obstacles to overcome if they want to make their 4th Super Bowl in the Ben Roethlisberger era. One, they haven’t been very good on the road this season. Two, they’re facing a New England team that isn’t just the best team in the NFL, but that also has rarely lost at home in recent years, especially against AFC opponents. Since 2010, they are 57-9 at home, including 48-4 against AFC opponents, with one loss coming in a meaningless week 17 game and another coming in a game started by 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Brady has lost just two meaningful conference home games in the last 6 seasons, though both came in the playoffs (both against Baltimore).

On the other side, in 7 home starts this season (including playoffs), the Steelers are 6-1, with the one loss coming in a close shootout with the Cowboys and the 6 wins coming by a combined 96 points. In those 7 home games, Roethlisberger completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 115.3. In 9 road games, however, his QB rating is 36.5 points lower. The Steelers are 6-3 in those 9 games, but with a point differential of just +18, as compared to +91 in 7 home games started by Roethlisberger. This home/away split is nothing new for Roethlisberger, as he’s had at least a 15 point disparity in home to road QB rating in 4 of the last 6 seasons, including each of the last 3.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they have arguably the league’s most dangerous weapon, Le’Veon Bell, doing work both as a de facto #2 receiver out of the backfield and as a runner, behind one of the best offensive lines in football. The Patriots were able to keep the Steelers’ run game in check in their first matchup with the Steelers, but that was because Ben Roethlisberger was injured and Landry Jones was starting, enabling the Patriots to stack 8 or 9 guys in the box against Bell on almost every snap. Bell still had a huge game overall, leading the team with 10 catches for 68 yards in what was ultimately a 27-16 home loss for the Steelers. Roethlisberger hasn’t been the same quarterback on the road this season, but he’s an obvious upgrade over Landry Jones, so the Patriots won’t have the luxury of being able to stack the box against Bell as often.

Roethlisberger is also an obvious upgrade over most of the quarterbacks the Patriots have faced in recent weeks. In fact, since Brady’s return, the Patriots have faced Cody Kessler, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones, Tyrod Taylor, Russell Wilson (their one loss), Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Bryce Petty, Matt Moore, and Brock Osweiler. That at least calls into question some of the legitimacy of the Patriots’ defense, which finished the regular season ranked 4th in first down rate allowed. It’s concerning that they lost at home to the only even decent offense they’ve faced since trading Jamie Collins.

In fact, 7 of the 9 offenses they’ve faced since trading Collins finished the regular season 26th or worse in first down rate (NY Jets twice, St. Louis, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver). The other two were Miami (18th), who was starting a backup quarterback, and Seattle (19th) who beat them. The Steelers rank 10th, and that’s with Le’Veon Bell missing 3 games, Ben Roethlisberger missing one, and most of the key offensive starters resting in a meaningless week 17 game. Even with Roethlisberger struggling on the road, this is still the toughest offense the Patriots have faced since trading away one of their best defensive players almost 3 months ago.

Fortunately, it’s much tougher to call into question the legitimacy of the Patriots’ offense, which has managed to keep rolling without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, something they haven’t been able to do in recent years, because their running game, offensive line, and complementary pass catchers are all better and healthier than they’ve been in recent years. And, of course, because quarterback Tom Brady is having arguably one of the best seasons of his career. They finished the regular season 8th in first down rate, despite Brady missing 4 games with injury and despite the fact that the defenses they’ve faced are much tougher than the offenses they’ve faced. Baltimore, Seattle, Houston, and Denver all have weak offenses, but they also all have top-8 defenses and the Patriots have had impressive offensive performances in 3 of those 4 games. The Patriots’ offense is much more battle tested than their defense and Pittsburgh’s average stop unit figures to have trouble with them.

Overall, the Patriots have had a pretty easy schedule, as their opponents had the 2nd lowest combined winning percentage of any team’s opponents this season and two of the playoff teams they faced (Pittsburgh and Miami) were using backup quarterbacks when the Patriots faced them. However, at the end of the day, you can only play the teams that are on your schedule and it’s not like the Patriots were squeaking out victories against these teams. Just 4 of their 15 wins have come by 7 points or fewer and two of those were weeks 1 and 2 when Tom Brady was suspended.

Their average margin of victory was 15.47, 16.33 in Brady’s 12 wins. They finished the regular season with a league best +24 offensive touchdown margin (Dallas was second at +just 15) and a league best +191 point differential (Atlanta was second at just +134) and they have the highest first down rate differential of any team left in the playoffs (+6.26 vs. +2.34 for Pittsburgh). So, while the Patriots might not be quite as good as their 15-2 record suggests, they’re probably still the best team in the league.

For that reason, they should be able to win big here at home against a Pittsburgh team that hasn’t been that good on the road this season, but it’s tough to lay 6 points with them confidently. This line was at 5.5 earlier this week and I made a big mistake not locking in that line at the time (expecting the line to possibly go to 4 or 4.5 if the sharps liked Pittsburgh). If 5.5 or lower comes back in the next 24 or so hours before the game, it’s worth a bet, but it would be tough to be confident at 6.

New England Patriots 31 Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Pick against the spread: New England -6

Confidence: Low

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Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons: 2016 NFC Championship Pick

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5)

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are red hot right now and understandably getting a lot of attention. Since an unimpressive 4-6 start, the Packers have won 8 straight games to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record and to win two playoff games and advance to the NFC Championship game. If you watch sports talk shows this week, you’d think it was the Packers favored by 4 points and the presumptive favorite to move on to the Super Bowl, but instead it’s the other way around, with the higher seeded Falcons favored by 4 points at home.

There’s a reason for that. As much attention as the Packers’ offense is getting, the Falcons’ offense is still significantly better and is statistically one of the top offenses in NFL history. Including last week’s win over the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons have picked up a first down or touchdown on 43.92% of offensive snaps this season, more than 3% higher than the next best team, the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers, meanwhile, have moved the chains at a “mere” 38.94% rate this season, including playoffs, almost 5% lower than the Falcons.

Even if you just look at their 8 game winning streak, the Packers are only moving the chains at a 41.60% rate, meaning, as red hot as they are right now offensively, the Falcons have still been better than them offensively all season. If you look at just the last 8 weeks, the Falcons are actually even better, moving the chains at a 47.19% rate over that time period. As good as the Packers are offensively, the Falcons are simply better. They run the ball better and with more consistency. They have a better overall offensive line. And they also have healthier wide receivers.

Atlanta’s top receiver Julio Jones has been limited by a toe injury in recent weeks, but, as you can see, it hasn’t hurt their ability to move the ball. On the Green Bay side, #1 receiver Jordy Nelson could miss his 2nd straight game with broken ribs, while fellow starter Davante Adams and #4 receiver Geronimo Allison are expected to be gametime calls. Even if all 3 of them play, they all figure to be limited, as head coach Mike McCarthy admitted that none of them would play if this wasn’t a playoff game.

Defensively, these two teams are comparable. The Packers have a little better defense overall (37.34% first down rate vs. 38.01% first down rate allowed), but the Falcons have been better than the Packers if we just look at the last 8 weeks (36.94% first down rate vs. 35.51% first down rate allowed), even with the Packers being 8-0 over that time period. The Falcons aren’t undefeated over that time period, but they’re pretty close, going 6-1 with their one loss coming by 1 point against a Kansas City team that scored 9 points off returns and won despite losing the first down battle 32 to 17.

On the season, the Falcons have won 8 of 12 games by more than a touchdown, with just 1 loss coming by more than a touchdown (9 points in Philadelphia), and have they the NFC’s best point differential at +150, along with the NFC’s best first down rate differential at +6.07% (vs. +2.15% for the Packers). The public seems to be eating up the sports talk media idea that the Packers are the better team here, as more than ⅔ rds of the action is on Green Bay. I disagree, which is probably a good thing, considering the public always loses money in the long run. I think this line should be around 6 in favor of the Falcons, so we’re getting good line value with them at 4. They’re worth a bet if you can get that number, though this line is 4.5 or 5 in some places.

Atlanta Falcons 38 Green Bay Packers 31

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -4

Confidence: Medium

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Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2016 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

The Chiefs have been on my overrated list for a while. Despite their 12-4 record, they rank dead last among remaining the 8 remaining playoff teams in first down rate differential. Their record is largely the result of 6 wins by 8 points or less (including two overtime victories), a +16 turnover margin (best in the NFL), and a +7 return touchdown margin (best in the NFL), but it’s tough to rely on teams to get takeaways and return touchdowns to win close games, as there’s no week-to-week correlation in turnover margin and, as a result, there’s no week-to-week correlation in return touchdown margin. They won’t be able to count on winning the turnover margin to win close games every week, especially not in the playoffs, and they had just a +1 offensive touchdown margin in the regular season, on top of a -37 first down margin.

However, I don’t love the Steelers this week for a few reasons. For one, the Chiefs’ play has improved as the season has gone on. Thanks to the emergence of youngsters Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones, along with the return of Justin Houston from injury, the Chiefs have played better football in recent weeks. You also have to take into that account that, for whatever reason, Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid seems to turn into Bill Belichick after a bye, going 14-5 ATS off of a bye as a head coach. He’s only 3-1 ATS in the playoffs, but this would worry me if I bet on the Steelers.

I was hoping to get at least a field goal here with the Steelers on the road, but their blowout victory over the Dolphins last week made that line impossible. That’s really unfortunate because their win last week was against a mediocre Miami team that made the playoffs thanks to an easy schedule and close wins and because that game was in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have had no problem winning this season with Ben Roethlisberger under center all season. In 7 games started by Ben Roethlisberger at home this season (including playoffs), the Steelers are 6-1, with the one loss coming in a close shootout with the Cowboys and the 6 wins coming by a combined 96 points. In those 7 home games, Roethlisberger completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 115.3. In 8 road games, however, his QB rating is 34.9 points lower and the Steelers are 5-3 with a point differential of just +16. The money line is your best bet here as the Steelers probably have about a 60-65% chance of winning, but this isn’t a high confidence pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Kansas City Chiefs 20 Upset Pick +100

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +1.5

Confidence: Low

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Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys: 2016 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3)

This is another game I’ve gone back and forth on all week. On one hand, the Packers are hot right now and the Cowboys haven’t had much homefield advantage in recent years.  Since 2010, they are 31-24 ATS on the road, as opposed to 20-36 ATS at home (12-28 ATS as home favorites). Over that time period, they’ve been outscored opponents by 0.25 points per game on the road and outscored opponents by an average of 1.63 points per game at home, meaning home field advantage hasn’t even been worth a point for them in recent years. That makes sense because their fan base travels so well that it doesn’t really matter where they play.

On the other hand, the Cowboys are only favorites of 4.5 points, so we’re not getting a ton of points with the Packers, and the Cowboys have been the significantly better team this season. Among remaining playoff teams, they rank 3rd in first down rate differential at 4.22%, while the Packers rank 5th at 1.99%, including their victory over the Giants last week. The Cowboys also beat the Packers earlier this year, winning 30-16 in Green Bay and winning the first down rate battle by 3.00%. Despite that, the public is actually on the Packers this week, so I’m going to fade the public and take the Cowboys. People seem to be so caught up in how the Packers have played in recent weeks that they’ve forgotten how good the Cowboys have been all season. I couldn’t be confident in the Cowboys at 4.5, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Dallas Cowboys 30 Green Bay Packers 24

Pick against the spread: Dallas -4.5

Confidence: None

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Houston Texans at New England Patriots: 2016 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Houston Texans (10-7) at New England Patriots (14-2)

The Patriots are 16 point favorites here in this matchup with the Houston Texans, the first time a team has been favored by that many points in the playoffs since the 1998 Minnesota Vikings blew out the Arizona Cardinals 41-21 as 16 point home favorites in the divisional round of the playoffs that season. Not only are they the largest playoff favorites in two decades, it’s also hard to argue that they don’t deserve it. The Texans snuck into the playoffs because of close wins and a weak division, winning the AFC South with just 9 wins (4-6 in non-divisional games), despite a -49 point differential that was easily worst among playoff teams (7th worst in the entire NFL). They lucked out in their first playoff matchup, getting to host the Oakland Raiders and 3rd string quarterback Connor Cook, but now they enter the round of 8 as easily the worst team left facing arguably the best team in the entire NFL.

The Patriots had easily the most impressive regular season of any team in the league. They have the best point differential (+191) and first down rate differential (+5.90%) of any team in the post-season, despite not even having Tom Brady for the first 4 games of the season. One of those 4 games was against these Texans, who they defeated 27-0 week 3, despite being down to 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. With Brady back, the Patriots have obvious advantages on both sides of the ball. I mentioned earlier that almost all of the Texans regular seasons wins were close (9 wins by a total of 44 points). In addition to that, a lot of their losses were not close (7 losses by a total of 93 points).

I also mentioned earlier that they struggle outside of the division. That was especially bad on the road outside of the division, losing all 5 road non-divisional games, by an average of 15.6 points per game. These Patriots are better than any team they’ve faced this year though and should be able to win this one easy. I’ve flipped back and forth between Houston +16 and New England -16, but I’ve ultimately decided on New England, though I could see this being a 14-point game that isn’t as close as the final score suggests. The Patriots played a weak schedule in the regular season and are more vulnerable than most people realize, but the schedule isn’t really getting any harder this week. It’s a no confidence play either way because I have no interest in betting on Houston here, but I don’t really want to lay 16 points either.

New England Patriots 27 Houston Texans 10

Pick against the spread: New England -16

Confidence: None

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Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons: 2016 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

This might sound weird considering they finished with the 2nd best record in the NFC and secured a first round bye, but I think the Falcons are an underrated team. In a year with so few top level teams, I don’t understand why the Falcons are not regularly mentioned among the best teams in the league. A lot of the attention fell on the Cowboys in the NFC, and rightfully so as they ran away with the conference’s top seed early in the season, and now the Packers are the hot team in the NFC, but the Falcons actually finished the season with a better point differential than Dallas (+134 vs. 115) and ranked higher in first down rate differential. The Falcons’ offensive line and running game are almost as good as Dallas’ and the Cowboys don’t have anything like the combination of Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. As much attention as Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got leading the Cowboys’ offense as rookies this year, the Falcons scored 119 more points than the Cowboys this season. Their defense doesn’t match up, but this is overall one of the top few teams in the league.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, have probably their worst team going into the playoffs in the Russell Wilson era. That’s not necessarily saying much because of how good the Seahawks typically are, but they finished the regular season with a much less impressive +62 and rank 6th among the 8th remaining playoff teams in first down rate differential, only ahead of Houston and Kansas City. They looked good last week in a victory over a weak Detroit team, but their offensive line and running game have been miserable for most of the season and their defense isn’t quite the same unit with safety Earl Thomas out for the season. This line should be about 6 or 7, but instead this line has fluctuated between 4 and 5 all week. I would take them at 5 if I had to, but 4 and 4.5 are obviously better numbers if you can get them.

Atlanta Falcons 27 Seattle Seahawks 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -4

Confidence: Medium

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New York Giants at Green Bay Packers: 2016 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)

I always talk about the inconsistency of turnover margins and why using past turnover margins as evidence for predictions of future turnover margins is basically useless. On average, a team that wins the turnover battle by 4 in a game has a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week, as does the average team that losses a turnover battle by 4 in a game. The Packers are a great example of the inconsistency of turnover margins. Through the first 12 games of the season, the Packers were -5 in turnover margin on the season, but over the final 4 games of the regular season they were +13 in turnover margin, powering their run to another NFC North title.

Unfortunately for them, that works both ways and teams that have a +13 turnover margin or better over a 4 game span, on average, have a turnover margin of -0.3 the following week. Even despite their recent success in turnover margin, we should assume turnover neutral football for them going forward, which means they’re unlikely to have the same kind of overall success that they’ve had in recent weeks. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 9th, which is solid, but only 2 spots higher than the Giants. The difference between the Packers and the Giants in that metric is a mere 0.06%, a negligible difference. These teams are basically opposites of each other, as the Packers have an incredible offense and a weak defense, while the Giants have a weak defense, but an incredible defense.

Given that, we’re getting good line value with the Giants as 4.5 point underdogs in Green Bay. However, I can’t put money on the Giants as less than 6 point underdogs, given that they will once again be without stud defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul with injury. Unfortunately, that means I will not be betting on any games this weekend, but sometimes there just aren’t games worth betting on. There are only 4 games this weekend and I didn’t want to force anything with sides I wasn’t confident in. This is technically my Pick of the Week because it’s the one I’m most confident it, but I wouldn’t recommend placing any bets this weekend. For pick ‘em pool purposes, I would go NYG, PIT, OAK, and DET in that order.

Green Bay Packers 23 New York Giants 20

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +4.5

Confidence: Low

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