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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