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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Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks: 2016 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Detroit Lions (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)

Detroit made the playoffs with a 9-7 record, despite losing their final 3 games of the regular season, but they’re one of a few playoff teams I don’t think much of (Houston, Oakland, and Miami are the others). They’re the only playoff team that hasn’t beaten another playoff team, entering with a 0-5 record in games against playoff teams (losses to the Texans, the Giants, the Cowboys, and the Packers twice). Even though all 9 of their victories came against non-playoff teams, just one came by more than a touchdown, meaning they were squeaking out victories against non-playoff teams all season to get to this point. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 28th, the worst among playoff teams.

They didn’t get blown out a lot, losing just twice by more than a touchdown all year, but both losses by more than a touchdown came against playoff teams (the Cowboys and the Giants) and both losses to the Packers involved garbage time scoring that made the final score a lot closer. In last week’s home loss to the Packers, the Lions were down by two touchdowns before a meaningless touchdown with 13 seconds left in the game. In their loss in Green Bay, they were down 31-3 in the first half and did most of their damage in garbage time in an eventual 34-27 loss. Aside from those two games, their only loss by a touchdown or less against a playoff team was a 7-point loss to the Texans and the Texans are also a very weak playoff team. In fact, that 7-point victory tied the Texans’ 2nd highest margin of victory of the season.

This all is very relevant because this line is at 8, so if the Lions can keep this within a touchdown again, they’ll cover this spread. The Seahawks are a much better team than the Texans, but come into this game with a lot of questions, given how they ended the season. Aside from a blowout victory over the lowly Rams, who had just fired their coach 3 days earlier, the Seahawks have been very underwhelming for the last month of the season, since losing stud safety Earl Thomas for the year with a broken leg. They were blown out in Green Bay. They lost at home to Arizona. And last week, they barely won in San Francisco. They enter the post-season 8th in first down rate differential, which is solid, but they also had one of the easiest schedules in the league and are not the same team without Thomas. I’m taking the Lions to keep this within a touchdown, but I can’t take them for any sort of confidence.

Seattle Seahawks 27 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Detroit +8

Confidence: None

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Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans: 2016 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7)

The Texans won the AFC South and will host a home playoff game, but they had probably the worst regular season of any team that made the playoffs. Their 9 wins came by a combined 44 points with their biggest margin of victory being 9 points, back in a 23-14 week 1 victory over the Chicago Bears, who ended the season with 3 wins. Their 7 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 93 points, giving them a -49 point differential, 7th worst in the NFL, right between non-playoff teams Carolina and Jacksonville. They also enter the post-season 7th worst in the NFL in first down rate differential and with a -10 offensive touchdown differential, 5th worst in the league. Their 23 offensive touchdowns scored were the lowest in the league by any team, but they were able to make the playoffs thanks to a weak division and a lot of close wins, as well as a capable, but far from elite defense.

The Texans luck out again though, as they get probably the easiest playoff matchup they could have gotten. The Raiders won 12 games, but enter the playoffs in about as bad of an injury situation as possible. After hardly having any injuries to starters this season, the Raiders are now without starting quarterback Derek Carr and probably Donald Penn, their valuable blindside protector and one of the best left tackles in the league. Those are two major blows to their offense. Connor Cook will make the start for the Raiders this week, even though he’s a 4th round rookie who has never made a start in his career, making him the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first NFL start in the post-season.

Cook played about a half last week against Denver, in relief of Matt McGloin, a veteran backup who struggled before leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Cook outplayed McGloin, but only by default. He’s also only seen practice reps the past two weeks because he was the 3rd string quarterback until Carr went down and 3rd string quarterbacks don’t practice during the week. He even admitted after last week’s game that he was calling plays he didn’t know. He’ll get a full week with the first team in practice this week, but he’s still in a very tough situation. McGloin is expected to be active this week as the backup, meaning we could easily see both quarterbacks in this one if Cook struggles early.

Even before the injury, the Raiders were not as good as their record.  Eight of their 12 victories have come by 7 points or fewer, including a 5-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less and they have a point differential of just +31, just behind non-playoff teams in the Eagles and Ravens (both at +36). That’s despite the fact that the Raiders have a league best +16 turnover margin. Turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, if we assumed turnover neutral football for them going forward, which we always should, it was hard to see them advancing deep in the playoffs even with Carr. I’m taking them as 4 point underdogs in Houston because of how many close games the Texans have played this year (4 wins by 4 points or fewer), but the Raiders, without Carr and Penn, are one of the worst teams in the league, so I can’t take them with any sort of confidence, even as bad as Houston is.

Houston Texans 16 Oakland Raiders 13

Pick against the spread: Oakland +4

Confidence: None

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Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2016 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

The Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 2008 thanks to a 10-6 record, but they still have a lot of problems and are not as good as their record suggests. Many of their wins were close, while many of their losses were not. They went 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, meaning they had just two wins by more than a touchdown, while 4 of their losses came by 13 points or more. That’s despite the fact that they had the easiest schedule in the league this year in terms of opponents’ combined record. In some order, the Rams, 49ers, Jets, and Browns were the worst 4 teams in the league this season and the Dolphins played all 4 of them, including the Jets twice. The Dolphins won all 5 of those games, but just 1 of them came by more than a touchdown (a 34-13 win week 15 in New York), meaning they had a tough time beating some of the worst teams in the league.

Ironically, their other victory by more than a touchdown came against their opponents this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who they beat 30-15 back in week 6. The Steelers are also the only playoff team the Dolphins have beaten. When you look at the Dolphins’ season, it’s a lot of close wins against bad teams and big losses against capable or better teams (15 point loss vs. Cincinnati, 13 point loss vs. Tennessee, 32 point loss vs. Baltimore, and 21 point loss vs. New England). The Dolphins’ week 6 home victory over these Steelers was easily the best game they’ve played this season and a major outlier in their season on the whole.

This game will be in Pittsburgh and the Steelers will have Ben Roethlisberger healthy for the whole game, after he was knocked out midway through the game last time, but if the Dolphins can repeat easily their best game of the season they have a good shot in this one. Much more likely, they’ll be unable to repeat their best performance of the season, especially given all of the injuries they have. Since that week 6 victory, the Dolphins have lost both safeties, Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus, and talented center Mike Pouncey for the season with injury, while top cornerback Byron Maxwell and starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill will also be out for this game. The Steelers, meanwhile, aren’t missing any key players that played in the first matchup and are definitely in the better injury situation overall. This one seems like it’s going to be a Pittsburgh blowout, but I’m not confident laying 10 points with them.

Pittsburgh Steelers 31 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -10

Confidence: Low

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