Thursday, January 12, 2012

Divisional Round Picks

I'm not taking the bait on this can make up your own caption.
In looking ahead to the Divisional Round, here are three things that stand out to me…

1. Tebow! – Didn’t I tell you that Tebow would win last week?! Wait, what’s that? I said he had less than a 0% chance of winning? Really? And I already wrote an apology for that? Well…I don’t know what to say, other than that I’ve made amends for my unbelief by paying nearly $100 for a Tim Tebow jersey. If that doesn’t put me squarely on the side of good, then I don’t know what will! As for the game, there is literally no way I could be more excited to see the rematch between Tebow and Brady. Say what you will about the guy, but he’s easily the most compelling thing on TV right now.

2. Unpredictable ‘Predictable’ Games – Every single one of these matchups seems really obvious at first glance…consequently, I am scared to death of them. Green Bay should curb stomp the Giants. New Orleans should roll over the 49ers. New England should crush the Broncos again. Baltimore should easily handle the depleted Texans. Key word: should. Seriously though, do we really expect the Divisional Round to go as planned? There are compelling reasons to think each and every one of the ‘underdogs’ can pull off the upset, and, come next week, I fully expect us to be talking about at least one ‘shocking’ result.

3. Green Bay’s Rhythm – I have done no research on this topic, but I’ll be curious to see if Green Bay looks out of sync at the outset of their game, after having essentially two consecutive bye weeks. Again, I don’t know if there is a historical precedent for this type of thing. Even still, any possible reason for a Green Bay upset has to be a big story, as the entire playoffs are blown wide open if the Packers are ousted early. Heck, even the Broncos might have slightly more than a 0% chance of winning at that point!

As for our Wild Card picks…well, who really cares anymore? Only Tim Tebow could come back from the kind of deficit I’m in!

(Remember, Prince and I are going head to head with our picks. No prize has been determined yet, but ideas are happily accepted.)

Wild Card Weekend Results (point spread in parentheses)

Landrum: 2-2 (2-2)
Prince: 2-2 (3-1)

Wild Card Weekend Winner: Prince +1

Results through Wild Card Weekend (point spread in parentheses)

Landrum: 163-97 (129-108)
Prince: 174-86 (133-104)

Overall Leader: Prince +15

Don’t even care anymore. Prince wins. Go Tebow. Let’s get to the Divisional Round picks…

New Orleans at San Francisco (NO -3)

Jon: New Orleans (NO -3)
Prince: New Orleans (NO -3)

OK, here is the updated home/road splits for New Orleans:

Points For
Points Against
41.6 PPG
19.0 PPG
+22.6 PPG
27.3 PPG
24.5 PPG
+2.8 PPG

Is New Orleans extremely talented? Absolutely. Are they more talented than the 49ers. I believe so, yes. Are they an absolute lock to put up bunches of points and roll through San Francisco? Not at all. (Is answering my own questions getting annoying? Certain it is! Do I plan on stopping? Yeah…probably should.)

Look, I’m not breaking any news with that home/road splits table. We all know that New Orleans is a radically different football team on the road, but it’s striking to see just how big the difference really is. I mean, how can a team as talented as the Saints have a near 20 PPG difference away from home? Yeah, it doesn’t help that they had to face Green Bay at Lambeau, but what about their other road games against Jacksonville, Carolina, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Tennessee, and Minnesota? That’s one of the easiest road slates ever!!!

All that having been said, I have concerns about picking San Francisco as well. Even if the ‘Niners hold New Orleans to under 30, and I think there is a VERY good chance that will be the case, can their offense score 28 points? Against a very suspect Saints defense, you’d think San Francisco could have some success, but I’m not so sure. Don’t take this as a ringing endorsement of the Saints D, as they are clearly below average against both the run and the pass. Rather, take it as a stinging criticism of a 49ers offense that is severely lacking in playmakers. While I’m understandably skeptical of Alex Smith in his first ever playoff game, my biggest concern for them is in the running game, where Frank Gore very well might be the most overrated RB in the league. As well as he played early in the season, Gore has come back to earth and then some in the second half of the season, finishing just 44th in DVOA. Honestly, they’d be better served giving the majority of the carries to Kendall Hunter since he at least gives them the threat of a big play outside the tackles.

So there you have it. I have major questions about both teams, and I really have no clue what to think. San Francisco has been great at forcing turnovers this season, but that’s going to be a much harder task against Drew Brees than it was against Tarvaris Jackson, Kellen Clemons, John Skelton, and whatever other crappy QB’s they played in the NFC West. I expect their D to get to Brees more than he’s accustomed, I expect them to lock down the running game, and I expect them to hold the Saints to no more than 28 points. Still, unless San Fran can convert red zone opportunities into TD’s, something they’ve struggled with all year, they just won’t be able to score enough. Saints win on a final drive TD.

Denver at New England (NE -13.5)

Jon: New England (NE -13.5)
Prince: New England (DEN +13.5)


I picked New England to win and cover for a very specific reason…and it had very little to do with the game. (Hint: I’m superstitious!) So yeah, let’s just keep things the same, shall we?

In spite of my childish, idiotic, superstitious pick, I actually do think Denver can win this game. I don’t think their odds are particularly great, but I do think it’s possible. In order to pull off a second straight upset, the Broncos must adequately answer these two questions:

1.      Will John Fox continue to be aggressive? I’ve been critical of the Denver coaching staff all year for their conservative approach to the game. Especially in today’s NFL, conservative football is a sure path to losing. Odds and percentages tell us overwhelmingly that these types of coaches leave countless amounts of points on the field, and a team like Denver simply can’t afford to leave even a single score out there. For whatever reason, Fox came out of his shell last Sunday night. Tebow was finally put in the shotgun and allowed to do Tebow things. The passing game was finally geared towards aggressive downfield throws. The play calling finally veered away from their predictable first down running plays. It was a wonderful thing to behold. Now, to be fair, it wasn’t as if Fox turned them into an Arena League team or anything. Still, the difference between the first down calls in the KC game and the first down calls against the Steelers were striking. Against Kansas City, 20 of 25 first down play calls were RB handoffs. (Note: This does not count play calls from Denver’s hurry-up offense at the very end of the game) Against Pittsburgh, just 17 of 26 first down play calls were RB handoffs. That’s still a large percentage, and it’s honestly still more conservative than I’d like, but it’s a big improvement over the week before. If Denver keeps their foot on the pedal, I’m convinced they can score a bunch of points on this Patriots defense. Tebow has a proven ability to get the ball downfield, and he can definitely create some big plays given the lack of talent New England has in the secondary. However, if Fox marries himself to the run game, as he did in their first meeting, then this could quickly turn into a route. Anything more than a 55-45 run-pass split will likely result in a crushing loss. Given his track record, I have no faith in Fox to come up with an aggressive, creative game plan two weeks in a row. Still, I’ll be hoping.

2.      Can the defense consistently pressure Brady? While the coverages were pretty poor in their first meeting, the biggest issue I saw was the lack of a consistent rush. Given time in the pocket, Tom Brady is going to carve up even the best of coverages. But, with a heavy rush in his face, we’ve seen the Pats mighty offense crumble. In fact, this has been the exact formula the Giants, Ravens, and Jets have used to upset New England in their last three playoff games. One would think that a healthier Von Miller would dramatically alter this facet of the game. If not, then the Pats are probably going to score far too many points for Denver to hang around.

As I said, I don’t think the odds of an upset are particularly good. They must sustain their drives longer, control the clock more, hit on a few big plays, maintain a heavy pass rush on every defensive possession, and force a couple untimely turnovers. Still, the Patriots are far more vulnerable than most people realize, and Denver could DEFINITELY pull this off. I’ll have my Tebow jersey on, and I’ll be losing my mind if it happens.

Houston at Baltimore (BAL -7)

Jon: Baltimore (HOU +7)
Prince: Baltimore (HOU +7)

Really not much to say about this game. Baltimore is 8-0 at home and Houston is starting T.J. Yates, so there’s really no reason to think the outcome is in question. Still, the strength of each team’s defense and running game could quickly turn this into an old-school slugfest. Even though Baltimore has the better “old-school” reputation, I’m not so sure Houston wouldn’t have the advantage in that type of game. They certainly have a tremendous running game, and we got a firsthand look at the type of playmakers they have accumulated on the defensive side of the ball.

The real question for Baltimore is, which Joe Flacco will be showing up this week? Will it be the Joe Flacco who struggles to complete 50% of his passes and only gets the ball to his receivers 4 or 5 times? Or will it be the Joe Flacco who successfully goes through his reads and drives the ball downfield to his playmakers? We don’t call him ‘Checkdown’ Joe for no reason, and his recent performances give me no indication that Flacco is ready to step up in the big moments. Given that, I expect this game to be very sloppy and very close. Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if Houston hit on a few big plays and pulled off the upset.

New York Giants at Green Bay (GB -9)

Jon: Green Bay (GB -9)
Prince: Green Bay (GB -9)

The Giants seem to be the chic pick right now, and that honestly makes me a bit upset. Yes, the Giants nearly upended them in the regular season. Trust me, I remember that game very well. But that doesn’t mean that a 9-7 team that barely made the playoffs is all of a sudden a serious Super Bowl contender. They were 9-7 for a reason! They lost twice to Washington!

If the Giants are to stay competitive in this game, they’re going to have to play to near perfection, much like they did in their previous meeting (which was at New York…this is at Green Bay). Manning needs to avoid turnovers, which is something he has historically struggled with. Most importantly, the Giants front four needs to maintain a withering pass rush on every single possession. Even then, how much effect will that really have? Only five other QB’s were sacked more than Rodgers this season, yet he posted one of the greatest individual seasons of all time. The man is just not fazed by pressure! And even if they are able to get pressure without blitzing, are we supposed to believe that the Giants secondary is anywhere near good enough to cover the Packers glut of receivers? I think not. With a far more talented team, and with a decided home field advantage, I fully expect Green Bay to take care of business with little trouble.


  1. Doing his best Joe Namath impression. Unfortunately, this Joe didn't make any guarantees.

  2. About SF... you mention a couple of things here that interest me.

    Alex Smith: Much like the New Orleans splits you posted, I always knew Smith had been better at home this year, I just had no idea how much. I recently saw such splits for Smith - the difference was shocking. (Sorry, the chart I saw was QBR - I know you hate it, but it does tell a story nevertheless...) Smith has, by far, the highest home-away QBR differential in the NFL this season. In all home games except the Cowboys game (which was still a pretty good performance), he has had a QBR of 65 or higher, which is considered the 'Pro-Bowl caliber' cutoff. Asked about this recently, he didn't hesitate. He said that the away crowd noise has been a constant problem, especially on 3rd down. He said he communicates better verbally in the cadence with his team at home and that has helped a lot, as he has made lots of adjustments at the line this year.

    Frank Gore: Yes, he's overrated. I can't figure out why everyone keeps talking about the 49ers' running game. I guess when you know a team has a subpar passing game but is very successful nonetheless, people just automatically assume the running game must be elite. It is not. They need Smith to have a good game. He very well might.

    Red Zone: Yes, this was a big problem midseason, and for awhile there it looked like they might never score a red zone TD again. HOWEVER, the media seems to have ignored the part where the 49ers convereted 6 of 9 opportunities in the final 3 games of the season. And no it wasn't just the Rams - it included the Steelers and Seahawks. More importantly, it wasn't just who they were playing - it was HOW Harbaugh was playing. He knew about the problems, and he knew it had to be addressed before the postseason. He was able to play so conservatively during the regular season that it drove me nuts at times. But in these last few games, he knew they had to try harder and stop settling for FGs. He was decidedly more aggressive, and I totally believe he was preparing them for the playoffs. While the team rarely scores more than 30 points, they did score at least 20 in every home game this season. Odds seem very likely that they finish somewhere in the 20s. If it's high 20s, as you pointed out, that could very well spell out victory. If it's low 20s... well, they'd better hope Patty Willis is 100% now.

    Bottom line: yep, should be a nail-biter. And you'll get to witness every one of my heart attacks!

  3. Honestly, I'm totally disregarding any stat with QBR. It's so ridiculous that it's not even worth mentioning. The weighted value favoring 4th quarter numbers is quite literally the most illogical thing in all of sports.

    Also, I'm inclined to not care a lot about Smith's home/road splits since his home schedule included Tampa Bay, Dallas, St. Louis, New York, and Arizona. Heck, even Seattle was pretty rough early in the year when San Francisco played them.

  4. Fair point about the home schedule. The only 3 teams they played with a 'good' pass defense were Pitt (#1), St. Louis, and Cleveland... and two of those, we're pretty sure are completely flukey because teams just decided to run all over them. So pretty much just Pitt. Still, I think there's something to it, and Smith even acknowledged how off they are on the road because of communication issues.

    Yes, QBR is dumb. I am with you on that! The 4th quarter thing is only a symptom of the problem - the whole stat is founded on the question of how each play affected the team's win probability. They didn't just say "Hey, let's weight the 4th quarter"... rather, the very essence of the stat lends incredible bias to the 4th quarter, because the 4th quarter is when the game is decided! Anyway, all that aside... when you see a great QBR trend, it's not just a fluke. In many ways, when you analyze QBR numbers, you could say they are more linked to good QB play than the NFL passer rating is. Actually, most statisticians seem to have conventionally recognized this. It doesn't mean it's a 'good' stat, but it has been shown to correlate to success more than passer rating in many studies.

    Anyway, I won't die on this hill or anything, but I do think you shouldn't just automatically write off anything where the letters "QBR" show up! And just do me one fovor - check out the final QBR rankings from this season if you haven't already. I believe that, in many cases, they tell a better story of who is a 'good' QB than the final passer rating rankings (e.g. Mark Sanchez is 30th!!!). Though it's dumb that it's weighted based on how plays contribute win probability, on the other hand, it takes into account many aspects of the game that passer rating misses (fumbles, scrambles, sacks... well, pretty much everything a QB could possibly do).

  5. I wouldn't say its a better indicator than QB Rating. In fact, I'd say they are both equally flawed in different ways. As in, they are nearly useless stats. If you want a better evaluative tool, examine the final DVOA rankings on Football Outsiders. In that ranking, Alex Smith is a predictable 14th...right in the middle where he should be. Or look at Advanced NFL Stats where Alex Smith's expected points added ranks him...14th. Actually, he only ranks 26th in success rate which doesn't surprise me either.

    By the way, how can you say QBR correlates to success more than passer rating? The very formula of QBR prevents means that the very opposite is true. Success correlates to a good QBR! If you make plays at key moments in the game, then your QBR will artificially be higher.

    QBR is basically a version of DVOA, except that it doesn't adjust for opponent. So basically, a crappier version of an already existent stat. Not good. I have not looked at QBR rankings and I seriously doubt I'll waste a single second of my life looking at something that will probably make me dumber.

  6. Regardless of the geeky stat discussion...

    Alex Smith is obviously going to be better at home. Nearly everyone is! Especially someone like Smith, home field advantage would be a big deal. That having been said, it's not like he turns into Peyton Manning when he's at home. He's still a skilled, but limited QB that runs a conservative offense. Bottom line, San Francisco can have success on New Orleans either at home or on the road. Difference is, they can likely hold the Saints at bay when at home.

  7. Yep. ESPN needs to stop using 'their own' stupid stats and just accept that other sites have better statisticians than "ESPN Stats & Information". I wonder if those other stats are somehow legally protected or something, and ESPN can't publish them as official stats on their site... or whether they're just too stupid to figure out there are better stats like DVOA out there.

  8. Well, I think Football Outsiders actually helped them come up with that Total QBR. Which makes me laugh because obviously Football Outsiders wouldn't want ESPN to steal their best stat!

  9. What really drives me up a wall about QBR isn't so much how dumb it is, because QB Rating is just as dumb, but it's that they literally jam it down our throats at every possible turn. It just strikes me as very arrogant and it turns me off to the stat even more.

  10. Amen to that. Shows arrogance AND delusion.