Thursday, January 2, 2014

AFC Wild Card Weekend Preview

Can Kansas City sack duo Justin Houston and Tamba Hali stop Andrew Luck?
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

So, the regular season is over.

We both finished up the season on a strong note - Jeremy went 10-6 against the spread in Week 17 to finish at 118-129-11, for a winning percentage of .484. Joe finished up with a 11-5 week to finish at 125-122-11, cracking the .500 mark for the first time all season.

(In Jeremy's defense, several of his Week 17 picks were made solely to disagree with Joe in an effort to gain ground, and as it turned out all three of those picks - Washington over New York, Arizona over San Francisco, and St. Louis over Seattle - went wrong. Jeremy could have finished with a 13-3 Week 17 if not for his overly-competitive side trying to close Joe's lead. His loss.)

So Joe is our regular season champion. He's also in the lead in the Suite Sports Bowl Pick'em Challenge and will likely take home the crown unless Clemson beats Ohio State in the Orange Bowl and Auburn upsets Florida State in the National Championship game (not because Jeremy picked Auburn, but because Joe has the game worth 10 extra confidence points that Jeremy won't be able to make up).

So Jeremy's final hope to save his dignity is to beat Joe over the next 11-game sprint that is the NFL Playoffs.

We're going into a little more detail with the playoff picks than we did during the regular season. In part because we can afford to (we're only talking about two games at a time instead of 16), and in part because, simply, the games are more important than they were then. Today, we cover the AFC, tomorrow the NFC.

Kansas City at Indianapolis (4:35 p.m. Sunday, NBC)

The Line: Colts by 2.5

By The Numbers:

Kansas City:
Record: 11-5 (9-7 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 26.9 (6th) - 19.1 (5th)
Average Scoring Margin: +7.8 (4th) - 11.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +2.8 Offense (15th); -6.7% Defense (9th), +7.8% Special Teams (1st); +17.4% Total (7th)

11-5 (9-6-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 24.4 (14th) - 21.0 (9th)
Average Scoring Margin: +3.4 (10th) - 9.4 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +4.2% Offense (13th); +0.8% Defense (16th); -0.1% Special Teams (17th); +3.4% Total (13th)

Player(s) To Watch: Justin Houston, Tamba Hali

Both are listed on this week's injury report - Houston was a full participant Wednesday, Hali did not practice and is listed as questionable for the game.

Kansas City's defense is going to rely on these two to create pressure on Andrew Luck. The Colts' general inability to run the ball could lead to them just abandoning any illusion of trying to establish a ground game against Kansas City's defense - they could (and probably, should) come to the conclusion that their best hopes to score is to let Andrew Luck drop back as many times as he needs to in order to create plays down the field. In that instance, it becomes imperative that Houston and/or Hali are able to both (a) force him to make quick decisions, and (b) not let him escape the pocket and make plays on the move.

Kansas City's secondary has shown some holes in recent weeks, particularly in Week 16 when the Colts came to Arrowhead and beat them convincingly. With this game shifting to Indianapolis, the speed of Kansas City's pass rush should become more of an asset.


Player(s) To Watch: Robert Mathis

Quick, who led the league in sacks? Was it break-out youngster Robert Quinn? One of KC's excellent pass rushers Jeremy Mentioned above? Mario Williams? Jared Allen? J.J. Watt?

Nope, it was 32-year old Robert Mathis of the Colts.

The former 5th round pick may not have the supporting cast of Hali and Houston, but that's what makes his season even more impressive. Look for Indy to load the box up to stop the Chief ground game, but it will be on Mathis to get after quarterback Alex Smith when Andy Reid dials up play action.


Hidden Points: Kansas City's Special Teams

The real difference-making unit that the Chiefs have put together this year isn't their defense - it's their special teams. DVOA ranks them as the top special teams unit in the entire league, largely on the strength of their return games. They're ranked first in average kickoff return by a full three and a half yards, and their kick return score from Football Outsiders (creators of DVOA) is second only to Minnesota. DVOA also ranks them first in punt returns. Indianapolis is roughly average on special teams as a collective unit, but their weakest link (punt coverage) is one that Kansas City could take big advantage of - it already happened in Week 16 when Kansas City's only touchdown drive was set up by a long punt return by Dexter McCluster.


Hidden Points: Indy's Luck Improves as the Game Goes On

Most people know the stats about Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's penchant for making comebacks. Only two years in and the unflappable Luck has 10 fourth quarter comebacks to his name, a major reason why the Colts have won so many close games since he came to Indy.

But what you may not realize is that, leading, trailing or tied, Luck just gets better the more he throws. On attempts 1-20, Luck is completing just 57 percent of his throws for 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. Though, it must also be noted that all four of those picks have come in Luck's first 10 attempts of a given game. Really, once he gets past 10 throws, he's pretty good at protecting the ball.

When he gets beyond 20 attempts, his completion percentage rises to 62, and his yards per attempt goes up from 6.3 to 6.7.

But, the biggest jump, as you might expect, comes when Luck throws more than 30 times. There, Luck completes 67 percent of his throws on nearly 8 yards per attempt, with nine touchdowns and only two picks.

I know the Chiefs want to get ahead and force Luck to throw, but that may not be the best strategy to beat the Colts.


The Picks:

Kansas City 23, Indianapolis 20

Indianapolis got the better of Kansas City in Week 16, but I think the tables turn here for a few reasons.

First of all, Andy Reid, historically, has been a very good coach following bye weeks. Technically speaking, the Chiefs aren't coming off a bye week - they played in Week 17 just like everyone else. But when 19 of 22 starters take the week off, that's as close to a bye week as you can get. A rested Chiefs team should have the upper hand.

Secondly, my guess is that the speed of Kansas City's defense will become a much bigger advantage indoors in Lucas Oil Stadium than it was in Week 16 in surprisingly below-freezing Kansas City.


Indianapolis 23, Kansas City 20

I'm going to totally flip the script on you Jeremy. Once again the Colts have outperformed their "expected win total," though this season only by a game and a half, and at some point we have to just say they have a knack for winning close games.

I already pointed out how Andrew Luck seems to play better as the game goes on, and I believe that will be especially true against a Kansas City defense that may get to him, or turn him over early.

Still, the thing that has made Luck so great early in his NFL career isn't his arm, athleticism, or even his intelligence the way many thought when he came out as a highly touted prospect from Stanford.

Luck has all of those things in barrels to be sure, but it's been his resiliency that has made him so hard to stop. Throw a pick to give the other team a fourth quarter lead? No problem, he'll just drive the Colts down for the win moments later. I see Luck pulling off yet another 4th quarter comeback, and the Colts winning their first playoff game with a quarterback not named Peyton since 1995, when Luck's coach at Stanford Jim Harbaugh was under center.

That last win was against Kansas City, by the way.


San Diego at Cincinnati (1:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

The Line: Bengals by 7

By The Numbers:

San Diego:
Record: 9-7 (9-6-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 24.8 (12th) - 21.8 (11th)
Average Scoring Margin: +3.0 (12th) - 9.2 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +22.5% Offense (3rd); +17.5% Defense (32nd); +0.8% Special Teams (15th); +5.8% Total (12th)

Record: 11-5 (10-5-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 26.9 (6th) - 19.1 (5th)
Average Scoring Margin: +7.8 (4th) - 11.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +0.5% Offense (17th); -12.7% Defense (5th); +1.3% Special Teams (12th); +14.5% Total (9th)

Player(s) To Watch: Danny Woodhead, Ryan Mathews, Antonio Gates

As good as Cincinnati's defense has been this season (and it's been very good), they have had trouble covering running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Their linebackers are very good in run support, but leave a lot to be desired defending in space. It wasn't much of an issue when the two teams met in Week 13 in San Diego - the Chargers scored just 10 points due to three turnovers - but strictly from an X's and O's standpoint, the Bengals aren't totally equipped to defend the type of attack San Diego likes to run when they're at their best.


Player(s) To Watch: Andy Dalton

To say Cincy's red-headed quarterback has been up-and-down would be an understatement. Dalton has seven games in which he has amassed a passer rating over 90, and the Bengals are 6-1 in those games with only a season-opening loss to the Bears against them.

But, Dalton also has three games with a passer rating below 60 (Aka, terrible), and the Bengals have lost all three of those. Just in the last three weeks, Dalton has gone from ineffective, but not disastrous in a loss to Pittsburgh, to flawless in a blowout win over Minnesota, to pretty bad in a win over Baltimore.

The Bengals survived that game against the Ravens because Dalton couldn't out-Flacco Joe Flacco, but they'll need the good Andy to show up against San Diego.


Hidden Points: San Diego's Up-and-Down Defense

Football Outsiders ranks San Diego's defense dead last. In non-metric stats, San Diego's pass defense is 4th-worst in total yards (dead last in yards per attempt against), and their run defense, while 12th-best in yards against, is 4th-worst in yards per attempt allowed (they only rank so highly in rushing yards against because teams ran so infrequently against them - the third-fewest rushing attempts against in the league - presumably because teams are tripping over themselves to exploit San Diego's porous pass defense).

Yet somehow, the Chargers have come up with performances like Week 6 against Indianapolis (267 yards, 9 points allowed) and Week 15 against Denver (295 yards, 20 points allowed, forced four consecutive punts, three three-and-outs). Meanwhile they have performances like Week 1 against Houston (449 yards, 31 points allowed) and Week 3 against Tennessee (452 yards allowed).

So the Chargers have one of the league's worst defenses but they somehow come up with random near-dominant performances against top offenses. Whichever San Diego defense shows up will go a long way towards deciding which team wins.


Hidden Points: Bengals Play Up and Down to Competition

This is something we probably think of as a Colts problem, but the Bengals have been as guilty as anybody of playing up and down to their opponents this season. The 11-5 Bengals have faced four teams that finished the year with winning records (GB, NE, SD & Indy) and beaten all four of them by an average of eight points.

Against teams at only .500 or worse, the Bengals are only 7-5, with losses to divisional rivals Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, along with Miami and Chicago. Now, all of those are forgivable losses, but San Diego is essentially of the same quality as Pittsburgh and Baltimore, so perhaps Cincinnati should come ready to play Saturday.


The Picks:

Cincinnati 27, San Diego 17

The Chargers are coming into the playoffs hot, with four consecutive wins, but let's not forget that Cincinnati isn't backing into the playoffs by any stretch - they're 5-1 over their last six games, including blowout wins over Baltimore and Indianapolis, and a win against these very Chargers - and they did that one on the road.

The Bengals have yet to lose a game at home this year, and there's been no rhyme or reason to San Diego's success on the road this year (wins over Philadelphia, Denver, and Kansas City, losses to Oakland, Tennessee, and Washington). Give San Diego credit for rallying at the end of the year, but it's not exactly a coincidence that they were on death's doorstep after losing to Cincinnati and falling to 5-7 a month ago, and don't forget that they needed overtime (and a missed field goal at the end of regulation, and a fake punt on a 4th down in their own territory) against Kansas City's practice squad to even get to this point in the first place.


Cincinnati 27, San Diego 23

Maybe it's just that, as a Steelers fan, I am furious with the Chiefs and Chargers (Not to mention the officials) for that ghastly display of football last week that gifted San Diego a trip to the playoffs over my favorite team. I just can't scrub the memory of Chase Daniel and the rest of the Chiefs' backups picking the SD defense apart, and the Chiefs' backup defenders flustering Phillip Rivers to no end until the fourth quarter. I love what Cincinnati is doing defensively, even without Geno Atkins, and I have to believe Dalton will show up and deliver a long-coming playoff win in Cincy.

The Bengals pick up their first postseason win since 1990 in a non-sold out Paul Brown Stadium, while a local blackout makes sure that no Bengal fans are able to watch it on TV.

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