Sunday, January 18, 2015

NFL Conference Championship Weekend Preview

Richard Sherman and the Seahawks made quick work of the Packers on opening night. Now they'll try to repeat the performance on the last day of the conference calender.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Jeremy once again claimed victory for the week - he was 3-1 against the spread and 3-1 straight up (making him 5-3 against the spread and 7-1 straight up through two rounds) to Joe's 3-1 against the spread and 2-2 straight up (making him 5-3 against the spread and 5-3 straight up).

The only pick that both of us nailed was Seattle over Carolina by a hefty margin. Jeremy sniffed out close wins for New England and Green Bay (and subsequent covers for Baltimore and Dallas) but was way off on the Denver-Indianapolis game. Joe was able to sniff out covers for Dallas and Indianapolis (but missed both games straight-up) and thought the Patriots would make quick work of Baltimore. It was a labyrinth of spreads and winners that was far more complicated than it needed to be.

This week should (hopefully) be easier. Both No. 1 seeds are playing at home and favored by a touchdown or just barely more. Let's see what to watch for.

Green Bay at Seattle

The Line: Seahawks by 7.5

By The Numbers:

Green Bay:
Record: 12-4 (9-6-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 30.4 (1st) - 21.8 (13th)
Average Scoring Margin: +8.6 (3rd) - 11.0 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +24.6% Offense (1st); -1.0% Defense (16th); -2.3% Special Teams (22nd); +23.3% Total (3rd)

Record: 12-4 (10-6 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 24.6 (10th) - 15.9 (1st)
Average Scoring Margin: +8.8 (2nd) - 11.8 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +16.7% Offense (5th); -16.3% Defense (1st); -1.7% Special Teams (19th); +31.3% Total (1st)

Player(s) To Watch: Clay Matthews

The Green Bay defense completely turned around once they moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker, and his performance on Sunday is integral to everything Green Bay will need to do in order to win. Seattle is the league's best rushing offense, and by an absolutely astonishing margin, too. Seattle ranks first in Football Outsiders' rushing DVOA at 29.9% above average. Miami was ranked second at 10.3% above average. That margin is so wide that Miami is actually closer to 22nd than first. Most of their runs come out of the pistol and shotgun, and most have a built-in option for Russell Wilson to pull the ball out and attack the weak side, which he does incredibly well to the tune of 7.2 yards per attempt, the best in all of football.

Matthews in the middle will need to be able to diagnose those plays and prevent Seattle from making big plays in the rushing game. He will likely be in a spy role against Wilson for most of the game, which is probably for the best. When teams aggressively pursue Wilson on the edges, he kills them either by taking off straight down the field or breaking contain and making plays outside the pocket. If the Packers take a more conservative approach and use Matthews as a spy, they might be able to take advantage of Matthews' closing speed and prevent Wilson from making plays with his legs. The Panthers used Luke Kuechly in this way last week and they did a reasonable job of slowing down Russell's run game. Their problem was they had gaping holes in their secondary for most of the game. If Green Bay's deep defensive backfield can stick with Seattle's receivers and Matthews can marginally disrupt the ground attack, the Packers have a fighting chance.


Player(s) To Watch: Russell Wilson

Picking a quarterback as a "player to watch" is always a cop out, but think back to Green Bay's last two playoff games, both losses to the 49ers. In those two games, the Packers allowed San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick to rush for an absurd 279 combined yards, at a clip of over 12 yards per carry.

Wilson isn't quite as explosive as Kaepernick, but his career yards per rush is actually a bit higher (6.1 to 6.0... Ok, so virtually the same), and he's a far more efficient passer (63.4% to 60%). Given that Wilson also has the most feared interior runner in the NFL, Marshawn Lynch, in his backfield, there should be ample room open on the outside whenever he chooses to keep the read-option against Green Bay's defense. If Wilson makes the right choices in the option game, and does just enough in the passing game, Seattle should win easily.


Hidden Points: Nickle Corners 

Seattle's defensive backs play in a rather rigid configuration. Their starting corners, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, are usually assigned a side of the field rather than following a specific receiver around the formation. Earl Thomas plays center field, and Kam Chancellor patrols the middle and crashes down on crossing routes and the run game. If Seattle stays true to form, it means that Green Bay might be able to find a favorable matchup when Randall Cobb lines up in the slot against Seattle's third cornerback, Tharold Simon. Simon had a good season playing the nickel, but obviously isn't of the same caliber as Sherman and Maxwell. If Green Bay is looking for a difference-maker on offense, Cobb is the obvious choice.

Green Bay's secondary doesn't quite have the same pedigree as Seattle's, but they have a number of above-average defensive backs that will create some interesting matchups against Seattle's unspectacular but efficient receiving corps. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are the two top corners, but Davon House, Jarrett Bush, and Demetri Goodson should all see some action as well. The Seahawks don't have overly dynamic receivers like Green Bay does, which means that whoever lines up opposite the slot receiver for the Packers may be used as a hybrid linebacker - blitzing off the edge in the hopes of forcing Wilson to run straight into the arms of Clay Matthews, or setting the edge against zone-read plays. Don't be surprised to see the Packers move safety Morgan Burnett down into that space.


The Picks:

Seattle 28, Green Bay 17 (Seattle Covers)

Over the last few years, Green Bay hasn't really instilled much confidence in their ability to slow down running quarterbacks or combat elite pass rushes. They lost at the hands of the 49ers in each of the last two postseasons and Colin Kaepernick had big games running the ball both times. In the 2012 playoffs, after going 15-1 in the regular season, they were upset by the Giants who sacked Aaron Rodgers four times and hurried him into poor throws countless more. Seattle's defense clearly fits the bill for the type to slow down Green Bay - a dominant pass rush, versatile linebackers to keep Rodgers in the pocket, and an elite secondary to shut down the vertical passing game. With both Rodgers and Eddie Lacy nursing injuries, the Packers don't seem to be in a position to exploit the very narrow windows that Seattle's defense leaves open.


Seattle 27, Green Bay 21 (Green Bay Covers)

I don't know man, after watching a hobbled Aaron Rodgers make play after play last week, I'm convinced he'll keep the Pack in this thing til the end, if not pull off the upset. Now, Seattle's defense is obviously much better than Dallas' from a week ago, but Rodgers is hot right now, despite the calf injury, and Green Bay just has so many weapons, even Seattle doesn't have enough star corners to cover all of them.

Like I said, I still think Seattle wins (mostly because I hate picking against them at home), but gimme a Green Bay cover in a fun game.


Indianapolis at New England

The Line: Patriots by 7

By The Numbers:

Record: 11-5 (10-5-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 28.6 (6th) - 23.1 (19th)
Average Scoring Margin: +5.6 (7th) - 10.0 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -0.9% Offense (17th); -2.3% Defense (13th); +3.3% Special Teams (8th); +4.7% Total (12th)

New England:
Record: 12-4 (9-7 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 29.2 (4th) - 19.6 (8th)
Avergae Scoring Margin: +9.7 (1st) - 11.5 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +13.6% Offense (6th); -3.4% Defense (11th); +5.5% Special Teams (5th); +22.4% Total (4th)

Player(s) To Watch: Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower, Rob Ninkovich

The Patriots' pass rush was anemic against the Ravens last week. Joe Flacco dropped back to pass 45 times and wasn't sacked once. The secondary held up as well as you could reasonably expect given that there was no pressure getting to the quarterback, but we've learned time and time again that defensive backs can't cover indefinitely. Eventually, someone gets open, which is one of the reasons Flacco was able to complete passes to 10 different receivers. No one receiver had a big day, but someone was always open. If not for Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon making big interceptions while playing center field, the Ravens might be playing this game.

The Patriots need to get pressure on Andrew Luck. It's imperative. The Colts have decidedly more dangerous receivers than Baltimore did, particularly T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener. The Broncos got little to no pressure on Luck last week, and that's as big a reason for their loss as Peyton Manning's injury-hampered performance. The Colts probably won't be able to run the ball that effectively - their running backs have combined for 48 carries for just 173 yards (just 3.6 yards per rush) in the postseason, and that includes going up against one of the league's worst run defenses in Cincinnati in the opening round. But that won't be a problem if the Patriots can't force Luck into bad throws.


Player(s) To Watch: Coby Fleener

If there is one spot in the passing game the Patriots are somewhat susceptible, it's against speedy tight ends. New England has surrendered the third-most yards per game to opposing tight ends (63 YPG) on an average of five catches each time out.

Now, this is also a product of the fact that New England's corners are among the best in football, and stud coverage linebacker Jamie Collins has been sticking with opposing running backs in recent weeks, but still, there is a bit of a soft spot in the intermediate middle of the Patriots defense.

Fleener would seem like a guy that could not only exploit it, but make the kind of plays that could keep an overmatched Colts team in the game. While Fleener's 774 receiving yards don't exactly jump off the page, he's actually averaging 15.2 yards per catch, over a yard better than the next tight end in line, Tennessee's Delanie Walker, and slightly better than star receivers Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant.

Basically, Fleener will have to not only find the void in the New England defense, but also make plays after he catches the ball. If not, it could be an uncharacteristically long day for Indy's outstanding offense, as leading receiver T.Y. Hilton faces off against Darrelle Revis and savvy veteran Reggie Wayne draws Brandon Browner on the outside.


Hidden Points: Weather 

The forecast for Sunday currently projects there to be a 100 percent chance of precipitation in Foxboro starting in the afternoon and growing more intense as the evening progresses. The temperature at kickoff will likely be too warm to see any snow, but as the temperature dips later in the evening, it could be a wintery mix or even thick, heavy snow by the second half. Poor conditions would seem to favor the Patriots - they can fall back into the power running game that tore up the Colts defense back in November. But poor weather in general makes the game much more chaotic, and chaos is usually an advantage for the underdog. It also raises an interesting question as to which unit would be more hampered by wet conditions and poor footing - the receivers trying to catch a wet ball or the pass rush trying to blitz off the edge through a pool of water. Regardless, heavy rain makes any lead dangerous and a two-touchdown lead nearly insurmountable. It's just too difficult to score quickly in inclement weather, so if either team jumps out to an early 10- or 14-point lead, it might mean curtains.


The Picks:

New England 27, Indianapolis 17 (New England Covers)

The Patriots beat Indianapolis comfortably in November. They beat them comfortably last January. They dismantled them in November of 2012. This Colts team doesn't seem to have the depth to hang with New England for four quarters, and they don't have the top-end talent at the right positions to counter New England's elite players. The Patriots have been missing their power running game for the last few weeks, but the Colts' faulty run defense could offer them some holes. If the Colts can't run the ball, they'll be forced to throw the ball downfield in poor conditions against Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Devin McCourty. The Colts have physical cornerbacks that can take away throws deep down the sidelines, but they aren't particularly adept at cutting out the screens and crossing routes of the Patriots' short passing game that, historically, hasn't been much affected by even extreme weather. The way these two teams match up against each other and how they match up against mother nature both seem to favor New England in this one.


New England 45, Indianapolis 14 (New England Covers)

Much like last week, I seem to have more faith in the Patriots than anybody in the city of Boston. But tell me this, who in their right mind is picking the Colts this week? In three Brady v. Luck matchups, the Patriots are 3-0 with every win coming by at least three touchdowns. The Pats also have the superior offense, defense and coaching staff.

Sorry Indy fans, the Colts are a nice team, with some decent weapons and a very good young quarterback, but they just don't have the defense, or running game, to hang with New England in Foxboro. I think this one gets ugly early. 


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