Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers: 2014 Divisional Round NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (13-4) at Green Bay Packers (12-4)

This is the first time in NFL history that an 8-0 home team has met an 8-0 road team in the playoffs and both teams are in the location where they’ve had the most success this season, the Packers in Lambeau and the Cowboys, well, anywhere other than AT&T Stadium. This season, the Cowboys were 7-1 ATS on the road, while the Packers were 6-2 ATS at home. Dallas’ lone non-cover came as 3.5 point favorites in New York against the Giants in an eventual 3 point Cowboys win. The Packers also had a close non-cover, winning by 7 points week 2 as 7.5 point favorites over the Jets. Their other non-cover was by a few more points, in a 6 point home win as 12.5 point favorites over the Falcons, but it was a game that the Packers led 31-7 at halftime before letting the Falcons get back into it, though they were never really in danger of losing, unless Atlanta managed to improbably recover a late onside kick.

For both of these two teams, this isn’t just a one year thing. Though this has happened for them to a greater extent this season, there is more of a sample size than just one season for both teams. As long as Aaron Rodgers starts (minus any games he’s been knocked out very early with injuries), the Packers are 27-10-1 ATS at home since 2010 and 34-4 straight up, with an absurd +564 point differential, meaning they outscore opponents, on average, by 14.84 points per game. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are 21-20 at home since 2010, outscoring opponents by an average of 2.24 points per game, as opposed to 22-18 on the road, getting outscored by an average of 0.25 points per game, a mere 2.5 point difference that’s one of the league’s smallest over that time period. As a result, they are 14-27 ATS at home, as opposed to 23-16 ATS on the road, a road ATS record that improves to 16-8 ATS when they are underdogs.

Re-focusing on this past regular season, the Packers moved the chains at an 81.27% rate at home, as opposed to 73.48% for their opponents, a differential of 7.79%, while the Cowboys moved the chains at a 77.73% rate on the road, as opposed to 72.84% for their opponents, a differential of 4.89%. The Packers have been better at home than the Cowboys have been on the road, but this line is at 6 so it gives us some wiggle room with the Cowboys. The Cowboys have two valuable defensive players, Jeremy Mincey and Rolando McClain, questionable with concussions, but Aaron Rodgers is playing at less than 100% for the Packers and could be knocked out of the game at any moment so that cancels out. The sharps seem to agree as this line has dropped from 7 to 6.5 and now down to 6 and even 5.5 in some places, despite the public being on Green Bay. It’s not a game I’d put money on because I hate wagering against Rodgers at home, but the Cowboys look like the right side.

Green Bay Packers 34 Dallas Cowboys 31

Pick against the spread: Dallas +6

Confidence: Low




Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos: 2014 Divisional Round NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at Denver Broncos (12-4)

Last week was an overall successful weekend. I hit 3 out of 4 plays, including both of my big plays (Baltimore +3 and Carolina -6). The one I missed was the Indianapolis/Cincinnati game, as I made a low confidence pick on Cincinnati. I understood the AJ Green absence would be huge and that Indianapolis was a good home team and overall the better team on the season, but Cincinnati was the better of the two teams in the 2nd half of the season by a significant margin as their defense got it together as the season went on.

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. Their offense was the unit that declined the most significantly and it’s easy to understand why given that Andrew Luck’s play slipped and players got hurt, most importantly Ahmad Bradshaw, who was playing fantastic football before going down.

The Colts beat the Bengals last week, but I still am not convinced they’re quite able to match up with top level competition. The Bengals were a solid team this season, but ranked 12th, 8th, and 6th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential among playoff teams on the season, in their final 8 games, and in their final 4 games respectively, and they were missing AJ Green. Besides, that game was at home, where they’ve been significantly better this season than on the road.

At home, they’ve moved the chains at a 75.89% rate this season, as opposed to 66.39% for their opponents (a differential of 9.50%), and on the road, they’ve moved the chains at a 74.02% rate, as opposed to 73.93% for their opponents (a differential of 0.09%). This is nothing new, as the Colts are 21-5 straight up at home in the Andrew Luck/Chuck Pagano era, outscoring opponents by an average of 6.23 points per game, while they are 14-12 straight up on the road over that same time period (since 2012), getting outscored by an average of 2.58 points per game, a swing of almost 9 points.

They’re just 2-9 ATS on the road over that time period 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 were 0-3 against playoff teams on the road, losing those 3 games by margins of 7, 17, and 35. Their closest game was a 24-17 loss in Denver week 1. They did cover the spread (it doesn’t factor in to that 2-9 ATS record because Denver was 0-0 at the time), but only by half a point, as the line was 7.5 points. However, they moved the chains at a 75.00% rate in that game, as opposed to 82.35% for Denver (a differential of -7.35%), so it wasn’t quite as close as the final score suggested (Denver led 24-0 at one point) and their history against good teams on the road suggests this game won’t be quite as close.

The reason this isn’t a bigger play is because Denver kind of limps into the playoffs. They finished the regular season #1 in both rate of moving the chains differential and rate of moving the chains differential adjusted for schedule at 6.77% and 6.92% respectively, but just 9th among playoff teams in schedule adjusted in their final 4 games at 3.00%, as their offense slipped to end the season and Peyton Manning didn’t look quite as good. Still, I think they have a good chance to hand the Colts another big disappointing road loss to a tough opponent (having Julius Thomas and Brandon Marshall back and healthy after the bye could be key), and, as long as this line is a touchdown or lower, I’m going to make a significant play on them.

Denver Broncos 34 Indianapolis Colts 20

Pick against the spread: Denver -7

Confidence: Medium




Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: 2014 Divisional Round NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at New England Patriots (12-4)

I was ready to make a big play on the Patriots this week. They haven’t looked good in a while. With most teams, that’s a concern, but that’s never been a concern with the Patriots in the Brady/Belichick era. In fact, short periods of struggles tend to wake up this team. The Patriots are 19-12 ATS with a healthy Tom Brady in his career off of 2 straight non-covers, 33-15 ATS off of a loss, and 12-6 ATS off of a loss when they also failed to cover in the previous game. Their last two games should motivate them more than anything and Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL at adjustments. Besides, you have to remember that those rough two games to end of the season were a road game in New York against the Jets, who always play them tough (4 straight matchups within 3 points, including a 27-25 Patriots win in New England earlier this season), and a meaningless game against a decent Bills team in which Tom Brady only played a half and a lot of starters didn’t even play.

Despite those two games, the Patriots come in ranked 5th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the past 4 games at 6.82% and 2nd in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the past 8 games at 11.27% (only behind Seattle at 11.68%). In their last 11 games that actually mattered, they move the chains at an 80.87% rate, as opposed to 71.51% for their opponents. The difference isn’t really on defense, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a similar 72.00% rate in their first 4 games of the season. The difference is on offense, as they moved the chains at a 66.38% rate in their first 4 games.

What’s changed? Well, the offensive line eventually settled in and Tom Brady’s play improved and Bill Belichick coached teams always make the right mid-season adjustments and improve as the season goes on, but the biggest difference is Rob Gronkowski. After struggling in his first 4 games back from that torn ACL, Rob Gronkowski played some of the best football of his life over that 11 game stretch, catching 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns and that made a huge difference. He was once again one of the most valuable non-quarterbacks in the NFL this season, which is what he always has been when healthy. He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker.

In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When he doesn’t over the past 4 years, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. As a result of the final 2 games of the season (one of which Gronk didn’t even play), I think people are forgetting exactly how good this team was during that 11 week stretch and they have a very good chance of reminding everyone this week.

On top of that, they are incredible at home, winning 16 straight home games that actually matter over the past 2 seasons, going 11-5 ATS in those 16 games. This 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%). Part of why they struggled to start the season was because 3 of their first 4 games were on the road and that’s also part of why they struggled in New York against the Jets. Now back at home, they could easily be very, very tough to beat.

However, I’m not making a big play on the Patriots this week, despite all that, because of their opponent. I’m not worried about the Patriots playing the Ravens for the same reasons that everyone else seems to be worried about them playing the Ravens, which is that they are only 1-2 against the Ravens in the playoffs in the Joe Flacco/John Harbaugh era (0-3 ATS). I don’t put too much stock into that number. For one, it’s way too small of a sample size to prove anything. Two, teams change on a year-to-year basis anyway. Baltimore having former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees running their defense is a concern and the Ravens do match up well with the Patriots (more on that later), but acting like that record proves anything about these two teams is short-sighted.

Three, the Patriots have covered against the Ravens all 4 times they’ve faced them in the regular season over that time period and their only loss came by a point in Baltimore. I don’t put any more stock into playoff statistics than I do into regular season statistics because I don’t buy into the notion that the game significantly changes in the post-season and that certain players do better or worse against certain teams in certain situations in the post-season. Once again, I believe that’s short-sighted. The Patriots’ 41-7 win in Baltimore last year should carry as much weight when evaluating this game as the Patriots’ 28-13 home loss to the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship, if not more because it’s more recent. If anything, all this talk that Brady and Belichick can’t beat the Ravens in the post-season might just add to their motivation, which should already be very high considering this is the playoffs and considering their rocky finish to the season.

The reason I worry about the Patriots’ opponent here is because I thought going into the playoffs that the Ravens were the best team in the post-season outside of the four teams with first round byes. 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.

The Ravens certainly didn’t do anything to disprove my theory that they were the best team to play during wild card weekend last week, as they beat the Steelers 30-17 in Pittsburgh, moving the chains at a 78.57% rate, as opposed to 69.70% for their opponents, a differential of -8.87%. That’s impressive, even if Pittsburgh was playing without Le’Veon Bell. This week, they get left tackle Eugene Monroe back from injury, after he’s missed the past two games with injury. He’ll be a significant upgrade over undrafted rookie James Hurst, who has struggled mightily when called on to play this year, though they’ll still miss right tackle Ricky Wagner, who has also missed the past two games and who was actually the better of the two tackles this season. 5th round rookie John Urschel, his replacement, has been solid so far though.

Defensively, they got Haloti Ngata back from suspension last week and that proved to be a huge addition. Ngata didn’t play at all during their final 4 games and the Ravens still allowed opponents to move the chains at a 58.41% rate over those 4 games, 11.06% less than average given their schedule (still very impressive even considering they faced 3rd stringers Connor Shaw and Case Keenum in two of those games). With Ngata back, their defense is very solid, despite issues at cornerback. Teams have proven in the past that secondary play is, well, secondary to good front 7 play and the Ravens are once again doing so of late.

If you can stop the run, you can make the other team one dimensional and force them to pass and if you can do that, it will allow you to unleash your pass rushers, who will mask your secondary. That’s how the Ravens have been getting it done and, as I mentioned earlier, they’re a tough matchup for the Patriots because of that. The Patriots’ weakness is still their offensive line, especially the interior of their offense line, a serious concern considering Tom Brady has always struggled under pressure. Over the past 6 seasons, he only has completed 541 of 1134 passes (47.7%) for 7056 yards (6.22 YPA), 47 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions under pressure, as opposed to 2354 for 3359 (70.1%) for 27302 yards (8.13 YPA), 216 touchdowns, and 45 interceptions while not under pressure.

The Ravens haven’t been as good on the road this season. In the regular season at home, they moved the chains at a 77.91% rate, as opposed to 67.26% for their opponents (a differential of 10.65%), while they’ve moved the chains at a 73.91% rate on the road, as opposed to 72.97% for their opponents (a differential of 0.94%). This home/road disparity is nothing new as since Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh came in before the 2008 season, the Ravens are 47-11 straight up, outscoring opponents by an average of 10.33 points per game, at home, as opposed to 35-33, outscoring opponents by an average of 1.22 points per game on the road, a swing of about 9 points. In fact, their win in Pittsburgh last week was their first road victory of the season over a team who finished the season with a winning record. Ultimately, I’m going with the Patriots, but because they’re playing a team like the Ravens, I can’t put any money on them as touchdown favorites.

New England Patriots 27 Baltimore Ravens 17

Pick against the spread: New England -7

Confidence: Low




Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks: 2014 Divisional Round NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) at Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

I had the Panthers as the 2nd hottest team coming into the playoffs. They won their final 4 straight games just to make the playoffs and, in their final 5 games, they moved the chains at a 77.38% rate, as opposed to 61.98% for their opponents, a differential of 15.40%, since their week 12 bye. Over that time period, their only loss was on the road in Minnesota, who returned two blocked punts for touchdowns, the definition of a fluke and the first time that had happened in a game in 40 years. Their schedule over that time period wasn’t very good, as they didn’t play a single playoff team, but even when strength of schedule is taken into account, they still ranked 2nd over the final 4 games of the season in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential at 15.06%.

It wasn’t just those final 4 or 5 games either as they ranked 7th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the final 8 games of the season among playoff teams. For the 4th straight year under Ron Rivera’s coaching, they’ve gotten significantly better down the stretch. In 2011, they started 2-8 and finished 6-10, winning 4 of their last 6 games. In 2012, they started 2-8 and finished 7-9, winning 5 of their last 6 games. Last year, they started 1-3 and finished 12-4, winning 11 of their last 12 games. And this year, they finished 7-8-1 after starting the season 3-8-1, winning their final 4 games.

The Panthers didn’t continue that into the playoffs last season, losing at home to the 49ers in the divisional round after sitting out the first round with a bye, but they did this season, beating the Cardinals 27-16. The Ryan Lindley led Cardinals are obviously not nearly as good as the 2013 49ers were, but the Panthers dominated that game more than the final score suggested, as they had 386 yards and 25 first downs to Arizona’s 78 yards and 8 first downs. They moved the chains at a 68.29% rate, as opposed to 45.45% for the Cardinals, which is impressive no matter who the opponent is. The Cardinals definitely didn’t have a playoff caliber offense, but they had a playoff caliber defense and then some, finishing the regular season 3rd, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.83% rate.

The problem for the Panthers is that they are running into the only team in the playoffs that came into them hotter, the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks ranked 1st in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the final 4 games of the season, at 16.11%. They also ranked 1st in that aspect over the final 8 games of the season at 11.68% and just barely 2nd over the entire season at 6.78% (only Denver at 6.92% was better). Unlike the Panthers, an overall average team that got better as the season went on, the Seahawks are a dominant football team that played it’s best football over the final few weeks of the season, as they got healthier.

The Seahawks also have arguably the best homefield advantage in football. It wasn’t as pronounced this season as the Seahawks were good everywhere they went, moving the chains at a 74.06% rate at home, as opposed to 66.96% for their opponents (a differential of 7.10%), while moving the chains at a 76.10% rate on the road, as opposed to 70.42% for their opponents (a differential of 5.67%). However, since 2007, the Seahawks are 48-20 at home, including playoffs and they aren’t just having success straight up as they are 46-21-1 ATS (6-2 ATS this season). They outscore opponents on average by 7.93 points per game at home. This is opposed to a 27-42 record away from home (31-37-1 ATS), getting outscored by 2.80 points per game, a roughly 10.5 point swing.

Injuries are also a factor in this game. While Carolina is hot right now, they could be cooled off by the injury to Star Lotulelei, who is expected to be out for the rest of the playoffs with a foot injury. Lotulelei isn’t a star player (pun intended), but he was Pro Football Focus 22nd ranked defensive tackle this season and the Panthers really missed him when he missed 2 games earlier this season. Colin Cole, who drew the starts earlier this season and should start again, isn’t very good. On top of that, Cam Newton’s health is up in the air as now he adds an ankle injury (suffered last week) to his list of injuries. He’ll play this week and he’s been able to play some of the best football of his season down the stretch despite all the injuries, but he looked limited by the injury once he suffered it last week and it’s tough to know how close to 100% he’ll be this week.

On the flip side, Seattle is even hotter right now and they add star center Max Unger back into the starting lineup. Unger missed 10 games this season with injury, but he’s one of the best centers in the game when healthy. He was only average in 2013, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2012 and this season he ranked 4th despite all the missed time with injuries, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He’ll be a huge boost to this team and ironically he’ll match up often with Colin Cole. I mentioned earlier that the Seahawks got better as the season when on because they got healthier, with guys like Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor getting back to full strength. Unger’s return might be even bigger than those guys’ returns.

On top of that, Seattle has a huge advantage as a West Coast team in a night game against an East Coast team. Teams cover at about a 2/3rds rate in that spot historically because, while the Panthers will be shutting down for the night in the 2nd half of this game, the Seahawks will not have that issue. As much as I love the run that Carolina put up to end the season, I think it comes to a screeching halt this week as they face arguably the best team in football getting healthy and playing their best football of the season right now in arguably the toughest spot in football to win, without one of their top defensive players and with their quarterback banged up as an East Coast team in a West Coast night game. I have a good amount of confidence in Seattle to cover the 10.5.

Seattle Seahawks 27 Carolina Panthers 10

Pick against the spread: Seattle -10.5

Confidence: Medium