Thursday, January 7, 2016

Your AFC Wild Card Primer

Since Eric Fisher (pictured) moved from right to left tackle, and left guard Jeff Allen returned from injury, the Chiefs have led the league in every relevant rushing category and gone 10-0. How is nobody talking about this, and how are no Chiefs linemen in the Pro Bowl?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The Regular Season Is Dead. Long Live The Regular Season.

For the third year in a row, Joe took home the regular season crown, besting Jeremy by a single game (132-116-8 to 131-117-8), but both records mark our best single-season record to date. You can check out our complete three-year totals here, if you're so inclined.

Now begins the 11-game sprint of the postseason, marked not by exploiting ongoing inefficiencies (like Minnesota's ludicrous 13-3 record against the spread or Cincinnati's undefeated ATS record in road games), but by diving head-first down the rabbit hole of the details and the matchups.

Backdoor covers usually don't save you in the playoffs. When underdogs cover, they usually win outright.

With just four games spread across two days, as opposed to the regular 16, with 14 of them occurring on the same day, we are afforded greater space to go into greater detail. We'll start here, with the AFC, as both of their games kick off Saturday.

(A quick refresher - the "DVOA" line in the "By The Numbers" section is the Football Outsiders' metric Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, which is designed to measure each team on a per-play basis, adjusted, obviously, for the opponent, but also for down and distance. For example, a 6-yard gain on 3rd-and-4 against Seattle is a more valuable and/or meaningful play than a 11-yard gain on 4th-and-12 against New Orleans. DVOA accounts for those things. And positive numbers represent more yards/points, so a defense is better when it is further negative.)

Kansas City at Houston (4:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN)

Opening Line: Chiefs by 3.5
Current Line: Chiefs by 3

By The Numbers:

Kansas City:
Record: 11-5 Overall, 5-3 Away; 8-8 Against the Spread, 5-3 Away
Average Score: 25.3 (9th) - 17.9 (3rd)
Average Scoring Margin: +7.4 (6th); 11.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +11.7% Offense (6th); -11.4% Defense (6th); +2.4% Special Teams (7th); +25.6% Overall (5th)

Record: 9-7 Overall, 5-3 Home; 9-7 Against the Spread, 5-3 Home
Average Score: 21.2 (21st) - 19.6 (7th)
Average Scoring Margin: +1.6 (12th): 8.8 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -8.7% Offense (24th); -9.3% Defense (8th); -5.7% Special Teams (32nd); -5.0% Overall (18th)

Player(s) To Watch (KC): Marcus Peters, Sean Smith

Houston's offense is not that sophisticated. They run the ball, they run the ball, they run the ball some more (they finished the season 5th in rushing attempts despite ranking 28th in yards per rush and 26th in DVOA), they run the ball one more time, and then they play-action and try to get the ball deep downfield to DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins had a stellar season - 111 catches, 1521 yards, 11 touchdowns, and saw 192 targets, third-most in the league behind Julio Jones and Antonio Brown. Houston has no other real pass offense to speak of - their next two leading receivers, Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts, combined to only produce 75 percent of the yardage Hopkins did.

Meanwhile, Marcus Peters is one of the best young defensive backs in football. He intercepted eight passes his rookie season, which led the league, and surrendered a passer rating on his targets of just 25.7 over the last eight weeks of the season. Sean Smith, meanwhile, has returned to his 2014 form after struggling through the first half of the season. If there's a single reason why Kansas City started 1-5 but finished 10-0, it's pure straight statistical luck. But if there were two, the second reason would be the markedly better play they got out of their secondary.

It's unclear who Kansas City will elect to match up opposite Hopkins - Smith is the more classic "shutdown corner," while Peters' ballhawking skills offer a higher risk/higher reward proposition. Either way, however, if Kansas City's secondary (along with the help of Eric Berry, who returned to Pro Bowl-caliber football this year) can take Hopkins away, Houston just won't be able to generate enough offense to stop the Kansas City win streak.


Player(s) To Watch (HOU):DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt

These seem too obvious, but it can't be overstated how important Houston's two best players are. Hopkins deserves to be in the conversation for best receiver in football after finishing in the Top-5 in every relevant receiving category, and he single-handedly makes the Texans' offense dynamic.

Without him, it's a plodding ground and pound (without the pound aspect), but with him, there is the potential for big plays down the field. If he doesn't produce, then Kansas City's safeties can start creeping up, further bogging down the already below-average Texans running game.

Defensively, Houston is a Top-3 unit, and Watt is pretty much every reason why. The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year seems in line to earn the award for a third time this year, which would place him in the company of Lawrence Taylor as the only player to ever do so.

Watt led the league in sacks for the second time in his five-year career with 17.5 (not to mention the fact that he has a pair of 20 sack seasons, and he didn't even lead the league in one of those years), and he did it while playing about a month of the season with a broken hand.

Oh yeah, and he again led all defensive linemen with 8 pass defenses, and his cast is now off. He's pretty much a cyborg from the future, sent back in time to kill Sarah Conner destroy opposing linemen and quarterbacks.


Hidden Points: Houston's Second Half

A really underrated part of Houston's season was exactly how bad Ryan Mallett was. He was a turnover machine and completed just 53 percent of his passes. He attempted passes in five games for Houston this year, and the Texans went 1-4 in those five games. In all other games, Houston was 8-3.

In the five games Mallet played, Houston was outscored by 38 points (-7.6 per game). In all other games, they outscored opponents by 64 points (+5.8 per game). -7.6 per game put them in the same class as Tennessee or Dallas over the course of a full season. The +5.8 figure puts them in the same class as Pittsburgh, and better than Minnesota and Green Bay. The 13.4-point swing is as large a difference as the 12-4 Patriots (+9.4) and 5-11 Jaguars (-4.5).

Simply put, the Texans were a drastically different team over the last two-thirds of their schedule. Following their embarrassing loss to Miami in Week 7, their defense stepped up and allowed just 12.6 points per game over a nine-game span, which would have ranked best in the league by almost five full points over the course of 16 games. In four of the nine games, they held opponents without a touchdown drive.

Everyone talks about Kansas City's glorious turnaround, but Houston's, statistically speaking, is just as impressive.


Hidden Points: Kansas City's Possession Offense

Quick, which full-time starting quarterback had the fewest turnovers this year?

If you guessed Alex Smith (because he's boring and this is a piece about the Chiefs and Texans) then you're absolutely right! Smith tied the league-low with 7 interceptions (the same as Tom Brady) and didn't lose a fumble the whole year.

That, and his stats aren't nearly as bad as you're thinking, considering he threw 20 touchdowns and completed over 65 percent of his throws (better than Cam Newton, Carson Palmer and Tom Brady, who are all MVP candidates), while posting a respectable 7.42 yards per attempt (slightly better than Matthew Stafford and Phillips Rivers. The only difference between Smith and those guys is he didn't turn the ball over).

Basically, Alex Smith reached "game manager prime" status this year, and the Kansas City run game served as a perfect compliment. The Chiefs finished second in the league in yards per attempt at 4.7, and tied the Panthers with a league-high 19 rushing touchdowns. They did this with a variety of backs, beginning with Jamaal Charles, then continuing with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware once Charles went down with a season ending ACL tear.

Add in the fact that tight end Travis Kelce is one of the league's best, and that Kansas City's offensive line is criminally underrated (they've led the league in every relevant rushing category and, uh, gone 10-0 since moving Eric Fisher from right to left tackle, and since left guard Jeff Allen returned from injury), and you've got the perfect ball control team.

Seriously, this team hasn't lost since its offensive line has gotten healthy and sorted out, and it's used three different starting running backs. How are none of these KC linemen in the Pro Bowl?


The Picks:

Kansas City 19, Houston 13 

The Texans are the healthier team, but Kansas City just has more talent. If the Chiefs can rush the passer (Justin Houston is expected to play following a few weeks off with a knee issue) and cover Hopkins over the top, Houston just won't have enough weapons to work with. Kansas City just has more of the Spencer Ware/Travis Kelce types who eat up big chunks of yards and keep drives alive.

Neither quarterback really turns the ball over, but Alex Smith has turned it into an art form. Both defenses are good, and neither offense is particularly explosive (especially with the matchups at hand), so my guess is that this game will come down to a battle for field position to set up field goals. With Houston ranked dead last in special teams, that doesn't bode well. One turnover could mean all the difference, and I'd expect one from Houston more than from Kansas City.


Kansas City 17, Houston 7

Both these teams live off running the ball and creating big plays on defense, but the Texans are actually not built to play ground and pound on offense, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry (good for third-worst in football), to go with just 6.6 yards per attempt when throwing the ball (fourth worst in football).

Basically, this is not a very efficient offense, and they rely on getting extra possessions because Houston's third-ranked defense gets them the ball back quickly, and ranks in the top-half of the league in turnovers forced.

The problem with that is, Kansas City has a league-low 15 turnovers on offense, and Alex Smith has been taking "game managing" to new levels this year.

With a defense that is just getting healthy (and creating more turnovers than Houston's group), a better running game and more stability at quarterback, it's hard not to take Kansas City here by more than a touchdown.

Oh yeah, and the Chiefs have won 10 in a row. Which is crazy. Not sure we've fully discussed how crazy that is.


Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (8:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS)

Opening Line: Steelers by 3
Current Line: Steelers by 2.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 10-6 Overall, 4-4 Away; 8-6-2 Against the Spread; 4-3-1 Away
Average Score: 26.4 (4th) - 19.9 (11th)
Average Scoring Margin: +6.5 (7th); 10.6 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +17.3% Offense (3rd); -3.8% Defense (11th); +0.1% Special Teams (18th); +21.3% Overall (7th)

Record: 12-4 Overall, 6-2 Home; 12-3-1 Against the Spread; 4-3-1 Home
Average Score: 26.2 (7th) - 17.4 (2nd)
Average Scoring Margin: +8.8 (5th); 11.6 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +18.6% Offense (1st); -7.0% Defense (10th); +2.2% Special Teams (9th); +27.9% Overall (2nd)

Player(s) To Watch (CIN): Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict

Few things are better than a playoff rivalry game, and these two have been at the center of the drama on the Bengals' side. Dunlap, one of the league's most underrated and disruptive defensive ends, has spoken openly about his former college teammate Marcus Gilbert's "wish" that the Steelers get the Bengals in the playoffs "for Christmas."

"He wanted us for Christmas," Dunlap said this week. "He got it. Now we've got to see what he’s going to do."

Perhaps not coincidentally, Dunlap vs Gilbert could be one of the matchups that determines the outcome of this one. If Dunlap can add some postseason sacks to go with the 13.5 he generated during the regular season, it could be a long day for Ben Roethlisberger. And, if Dunlap is able to physically man-handle Gilbert and his linemates, it's unlikely the Steelers' ground game gets going, regardless of who plays running back.

Behind Gilbert is Burfict, a linebacker that has grown into one of the vocal leaders of the Bengals defense, but also one that is no stranger to controversy in this rivalry. After all, it was Burfict's sideline tackle that knocked star Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell out for the season, and the Cincy linebacker's demonstrative celebration drew the ire of Steelers players on the field, and later on social media.

Much of that boiled over into a pre-game brawl the second time these teams met, and a perceived "cheap shot" Burfict landed on Ben Roethlisberger's knee in that game will only add fuel to the fire.

Burfict has racked up nearly $140,000 in fines the last two times these teams have played, but both he and Dunlap will be critical in slowing down the Steelers between whistles.


Player(s) To Watch (PIT): Fitzgerald Toussaint, Jordan Todman

If DeAngelo Williams is unable to play (as of this writing, he is listed as questionable), Pittsburgh, for the second year in a row, will be robbed of their starting running back just as they enter the postseason. The Steelers will be forced to turn to the aforementioned Toussaint and Todman, who, over the course of their obviously illustrious careers, have combined for 526 rushing yards in six seasons. After Williams left action in Week 17, Pittsburgh ran the ball 12 times for 24 yards.

Against a hapless defense like Cleveland, a team like Pittsburgh can get away with throwing the ball downfield on every snap. But against an elite unit like Cincinnati's, there has to be some type of run/draw/screen action to keep the defense honest. The Steelers run some gadget plays for wide receiver screens and reverses, but that's not enough. Teams that fling the ball all over the field successfully work their running back into the passing game in a big way (think Shane Vereen for the Patriots in last winter's postseason). Pittsburgh just doesn't have the same offense when they can't run the ball.

If Williams can't go, it's doubtful that the combination of Toussaint and Todman will be able to generate enough offense on the ground to justify the continued effort. If the game turns into a Roethlisberger sky show, it's more likely that Ben's spiking interception rate will become a factor. And inexperienced running backs might not be familiar with their pass blocking responsibilities, which further complicates the Pittsburgh passing game. Even with a sputtering Cincinnati offense on the other side, it could spell trouble.


Hidden Points: Pass Rushing With and Without the Blitz(burgh)

Make no mistake about it, this year's Pittsburgh defense is no "Steel Curtain," and it's not the "Blitzburgh" unit from the 1990s, or the "Renegade" defense that led the team to three Super Bowl trips and a pair of titles in the aughts.

But, as flawed as it is, this is Pittsburgh's best defense since its top-ranked total unit in 2012 (on a team that went 8-8 and missed the playoffs), and this is the best pass rush seen in the 'Burgh since the Steelers' last Super Bowl appearance in 2010.

Both this team and that group racked up 48 sacks, but they did it entirely different ways.

While the 2010 group had a pair of double-digit sack outside linebackers in James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, this year's unit is led by defensive end Cam Heyward's 7 sacks, and features eight different players with three or more sacks.

It's been a balanced pass rush that has blended the blitz and four man rushes, often with Pittsburgh giving the look of a blitz, then simply rushing four. But which four will they be? That's been the tricky part for opposing offenses, as first-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler has stepped out from the shadow of Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau to create inventive stunts and twists that involve all three levels of the defense.

After Heyward, it's fellow end Stephon Tuitt bringing up the pack with 6.5 sacks, showing that the Steelers can collapse the pocket without blitzing, but behind those two it has been a swarm of blitzing linebackers (Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison with 5 each, plus Arthur Moats and Bud Dupree each at 4 in part-time duty, followed by now-healthy Ryan Shazier at 3.5), and safety Will Allen, who has been effective as a delayed blitzer, following behind as a second layer.

Now, none of this makes up for the fact that Pittsburgh's corners are absolute garbage, but it has allowed the Steelers' secondary to pick off 17 passes, and the unit as a whole to recover 13 fumbles. If Pittsburgh can generate pressure on (likely starter) A.J. McCarron, it's hard to see the Bengals exploiting the Steelers' glaring weakness at corner.


Hidden Points: Ground Game Rock Fight

Pittsburgh's potential problem with their rushing game was outlined above, but the bigger story might be Cincinnati's disappearing ground attack. The Bengals averaged 118 yards per game on the ground over the first 12 weeks of the season, but over the last four (the Pittsburgh game Andy Dalton left with an injury, and the three since), they've averaged just 96. Excluding quarterback scrambles, kneels, and the like, Cincinnati has rushed 100 times for just 352 yards over the last month of the season. Furthering their troubles is Pittsburgh's rush defense, where they rank 6th in the league in opponents yards per rush and 5th in DVOA.

With Andy Dalton still out, A.J. McCarron will once again get the start. He has played efficiently, but not exemplary, and is struggling with an injury of his own. If Pittsburgh sells out to stop the run, forcing McCarron to beat them downfield, I'm not sure he'll be able to do it.

Above, we suggested that a makeshift Pittsburgh running back tandem could prove their undoing. But a Cincinnati ground game that can't un-stick themselves could cancel that out. If we also call the receiving corps a wash (a fair argument - Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markis Wheaton vs. A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and Marvin Jones), as well as the defenses (ranked 10th and 11th by DVOA), the only thing left to move the needle is coaching and quarterbacks. Pittsburgh has to have the obvious advantage there, right?


The Picks:

Pittsburgh 24, Cincinnati 20

The Bengals have managed to stay afloat somewhat in Andy Dalton's absence, but how much of that is due to two games against San Francisco and Baltimore? Without Dalton against Pittsburgh, they got blown out, and without him against Denver, they lost a game that could have been much uglier (they were out-gained by nearly 100 yards despite running seven more plays and holding a 10-minute advantage in time of possession).

On the other hand, Pittsburgh has been one of, if not the most explosive offenses in the league over the second half of the season, and their defense is coming around as well. Both teams need to overcome injuries to key players, but Cincinnati is the only team guaranteed to be without its playmaker (after all, DeAngelo Williams is still questionable).

If Williams plays and is effective, Pittsburgh should sail to a (relatively) easy win. If he plays but is hobbled, Pittsburgh holds a slight advantage. If he doesn't play at all, it's probably a coinflip. Cincinnati's sole trump card is a uniquely dominant performance from it's defense, or an A.J. McCarron Cinderella Performance before turning into a pumpkin in the divisional round. Weighing all those possibilities against each other, it just seems like a Pittsburgh win (albeit a close one) is most likely.


Pittsburgh 31, Cincinnati 28

Right now it looks doubtful that Andy Dalton will play for Cincinnati or that DeAngelo Williams will play for Pittsburgh. Those two things taken into account, it appears the Steelers have a slight edge here.

The Bengals defense doesn't give up a ton of points (mostly because they've been so good in the red zone and have generated 28 turnovers, good for 6th in the league), but when you look at their yardage numbers… Meh.

Cincinnati is ranks outside the Top-10 in total defense, and have allowed big plays in the passing game this season. Surrendering nearly 4,000 yards through the air, the Bengals secondary has been boom or bust, either surrendering big gains, are grabbing interceptions. Now, with the way Ben Roethlisberger has been playing lately, and the fact that Cincinnati's front should be able to corral Pittsburgh's running game, that could end up working out in the Bengals' favor, but…

I just don't see Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown laying an egg in this one. The Steelers are far from perfect, but they have a run defense that should slow Cincinnati, and a pass rush that can generate enough pressure to mask its awful secondary, and their star quarterback is (somewhat) healthy.

If Dalton were playing, this would be a different story, but for now, I'll go with the Steelers to head into Cincinnati and come out with the win in a heated, tightly contested, playoff rivalry game.


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