Thursday, January 14, 2016

Your Saturday Divisional Round Primer

Tom Brady (12) and the Patriots will be welcoming back several players from injury this week, and perhaps none is more comforting to the star quarterback than big left tackle Sebastian Vollmer (76).
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

In the Wild Card round, all four road teams prevailed for the first time since the playoff format changed back in 2002.

Also, unusually, there were two underdogs who covered but didn't win (Minnesota and Cincinnati). Normally in the postseason, underdogs don't pull backdoor covers out of a hat, they normally win outright. So perhaps it makes sense that Minnesota and Cincinnati came within inches of winning outright before losing in heartbreaking fashion.

The Wild Card round split up the conferences on separate days, but the divisional round features one AFC game and one NFC game on each day. As such, we will be previewing Saturday's games today and Sunday's games tomorrow, as to give you, dear reader, two full days to digest all of our useful information and gamble (where legal) accordingly.

Last week, Joe went 3-1 straight up, 1-3 against the spread (only Kansas City saved him from embarrassment), Jeremy went 4-0 straight up, 2-2 against the spread. So, combined with regular season records (where Joe held a one-game lead), we are now tied. With that in mind, let's check out Saturday's games.

(Another 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 New England (4:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS)

Opening Line: Patriots by 5
Current Line: Patriots by 5

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)

New England: 
Record: 12-4 Overall, 7-1 Home; 7-6-3 Against The Spread; 4-1-3 Home
Average Score: 29.1 (3rd) - 19.7 (10th)
Average Scoring Margin: +9.4 (3rd); 11.5 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +15.4% Offense (5th); -3.4% Defense (12th); +3.9% Special Teams (5th); +22.6% Overall (6th)

Hidden Points: Health

Both teams are coming into the game with key injuries. Kansas City may be without Jeremy Maclin, their only reliable wide receiver. Meanwhile, Spencer Ware, their most efficient backfield option, is nursing an ankle injury of his own, and the team's two best pass-rushers, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, are banged up as well (although, admittedly, both suited up for the Wild Card round and Houston, in particular, played well).

On the other side of the coin, New England has injuries everywhere. Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are both recovering from injuries. Left tackle Sebastian Vollmer, defensive end Chandler Jones, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, and safety Devin McCourty are all starters who have been listed on the injury report over the last few weeks. Even Tom Brady is dealing with an ankle injury he sustained in Week 17's loss to Miami.

The upside for the Patriots is that all of their above-mentioned players are listed as probable to play this weekend (for Kansas City, Maclin is listed as questionable, and that might be generous), and that the positions at which Kansas City have injured players come with much less depth behind them. The upside for Kansas City is that they're just a much healthier team overall, with fewer players to worry about.

How players will play through pain is obviously one of the most difficult things to predict in professional sports. It might even be impossible to predict. As such, it would be foolish to try to draw substantial conclusions from injury data. That being said, this game will likely be decided by the performance (for good or poor) of one or more of the dozen players listed in the paragraphs above.

The player with the greatest range of possibilities is obviously Maclin (based on nothing more than the fact that he's the only one whose very participation in the game is in real doubt). If Maclin is able to game through the injury and play, Kansas City has a chance. If he has a huge game, the needle probably even tilts towards the Chiefs. If he's unable to play or is severely limited, the Chiefs may find themselves truly struggling to find any traction on offense. New England ranks in the top 10 in most rush defense categories, and the sledding will be even tougher if the Patriots are able to sell out to defend the run.


Hidden Points: Turnovers

As mentioned last week, Alex Smith has turned turnover avoidance into an art form. On 515 dropbacks, plus 84 rushes (599 total "touches"), he had just seven interceptions and four fumbles. If we treat all fumbles as "potential" turnovers (historical data suggests the offense and defense are equally likely to recover a fumbled ball, so all fumbles are equally likely to become turnovers), his potential turnover rate equates to just 1.8 percent of his touches. By comparison, Andrew Luck had a potential turnover rate of 4.3 percent, more than twice as high as Smith. Blake Bortles had a rate of 4.5 percent. Among quarterbacks, Smith's potential turnover rate was miniscule.

But then there's Tom Brady.

After his hot start, Brady certainly cooled, but not nearly to the degree that seems to be the popular consensus. He still had a spectacular season. Alex Smith threw just seven interceptions, but Brady also threw just seven despite over 150 more pass attempts. Brady had 696 touches with 13 potential turnovers, for a rate of 1.9 percent, within a rounding error of Alex Smith. (Smith's exact rate is 1.83639, Brady's is 1.86781.)

As you might be able to guess, these two teams finished first and second in the league in fewest turnovers committed. The Patriots were best with just 14 turnovers this season. Kansas City was second with 15. The Chiefs were slightly better at forcing turnovers, and finished with a turnover rate of plus-14 (2nd-best behind Carolina at plus-20). New England finished at plus-seven, tied for 5th.

Last week, we mentioned how both Kansas City and Houston (with Brian Hoyer) were particularly adept at limiting turnovers on offense, and how one turnover could be the difference in the game. As it turned out, it was five turnovers that turned out to be the difference in the game - Houston kept handing the ball to Kansas City, and the Chiefs made them pay. Five turnovers from either New England or Kansas City isn't even anywhere close to the realm of likelihood. If either team even gets one, that's probably all they can hope for. Whoever gets theirs at the most opportune time (if they even get one at all) will probably find themselves in a strong position to win.


Players to Watch (KC): Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson

Houston is Kansas City's best pass rusher and, unless you expect Allen Bailey to have another mutli-sack game like he had last week (unlikely, since he's had 6.5 sacks all year, and four of them came in two games against the Texans), it will be on him to generate pressure on Tom Brady.

With several of his main weapons healthy, an extra week to game plan and Tom Terrific himself well rested, getting after New England's future Hall of Fame quarterback won't be easy. But, the Patriots' offensive line is still beaten up, so if Houston can play comfortably in his knee brace, he could spend a great deal of time in the Patriot backfield.

Johnson is an old hand at this point, and the savvy veteran has seen every trick in the book. Even at 32, he has the speed to play coverage underneath, and defend the run from sideline to sideline. New England's precision passing game puts linebackers in plenty of awkward coverage spots, but one player up for the challenge of diagnosing the Patriots' plays, and stopping them, should be Johnson.


Players to Watch (NE): Rob Gronkowski, Whoever starts at offensive tackle

It's crazy to think, but Gronk hasn't had a 100-yard receiving day since Week 10 against the Giants.

Since then, the best tight end in the league has been mired in a mini-slump, catching "only" four touchdowns in six games. But, perhaps more concerning, is that he grabbed just six balls for 104 yards and no scores in New England's two losses to end the regular season.

A lot of that has been timing, as Tom Brady had to unload the ball in a hurry against the Jets and Dolphins, and some of that has been an inability to run the ball (more on the offensive line in a bit), but some of it is on Gronk. The seemingly unstoppable tight end has allowed physical play to get under his skin a bit this year, and has disappeared from games at times as a result.

If New England is going to correct some of its recent offensive woes, Gronk will need to get back to being Gronk.

Meanwhile, the offensive line is perhaps New England's biggest issue. It seems that Sebastian Vollmer will be ready to start after missing the regular season finale in Miami with an ankle injury, but it remains to be seen how effective the left tackle will be. With Vollmer out and the combination of Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming manning the tackle spots, New England put up a grand total of 10 points against a 6-10 Dolphins team that had nothing to play for.

The game ended up costing the Patriots home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, now held by Denver, and saw New England rush for only 2.6 yards per carry against Miami.

Obviously, if the Patriots' offensive line is again this inept, it will be a long day against one of the league's best defenses.


The Picks:

New England 33, Kansas City 20

(This pick is based on my assumption that if Maclin is even available to play, he'll be severely limited by his injury and mostly a non-factor. If I'm wrong about that - something that is entirely possible - I'm fully prepared to look like an idiot.)

The New England slump is overblown. Yes, after starting 10-0, they're 2-4 since. But two of those losses were in overtime (toss-ups), one featured an uncharacteristic special teams catastrophe (which they *still* almost found a way to win), and one was a Week 17 game in which they showed no real urgency to dig into their bag of tricks when they had already locked into a first-round bye.

The Patriots just don't lose three games in a row. It's happened once in the Brady-Belichick era, and that was 14 years ago. Here are some scores the Patriots have put up following two consecutive losses, or otherwise particularly "embarrassing" losses, dating back to 2001:

27-6; 30-7; 43-17; 41-7; 52-28; 37-16; 39-26; 20-10; 41-7; 48-28; 35-0; 40-7; 40-22; 31-10; 38-7; 27-24; 44-13

Cherry picked? Surprisingly, only a little. But that's an average score of 37.3-13.8.

Also, just for fun, here are scores from Patriots' games following bye weeks (including playoff byes), also since 2001:

38-6; 16-13; 16-24; 12-0; 17-14; 31-17; 20-3; 21-16; 28-6; 56-10; 31-20; 30-21; 27-17; 23-20; 21-28; 17-25; 45-10; 37-31; 41-28; 20-24; 43-22; 42-20; 35-31; 30-6

Cherry picked? Not even a little. Those are all 24 of their games following byes since 2001. They're 20-4, with an average score of 29.0-17.1.

If you want to talk matchups, let's do it. If Maclin is limited, Kansas City has no downfield option. The Patriots will play man-to-man with one deep safety (Devin McCourty) and send Patrick Chung driving towards the line of scrimmage on every snap. If Albert Wilson beats them, so be it.

Do the Chiefs have good corners? Sure. But they're corners who play outside. Their slot coverage is spotty at best, and the Patriots will rotate Edelman, Amendola, James White, and Rob Gronkowski through the middle of the field on crossing routes. If Eric Berry has the game of his life and squashes those routes, the Patriots will just start sending those receivers straight down the seam against a linebacker. If the Patriots' offense is back to being 100 percent healthy (and outside of a still-missing power running back, they seem to be), they're just too versatile for any team to defend perfectly. There's a reason this "slump" occurred around the same time wide receivers started dropping like flies. If they're healthy, they're going to put up points.


New England 21, Kansas City 10

I think this could end up being a close game, but right now Kansas City just doesn't have the firepower to keep the Patriots honest. As it currently stands, with Jeremy Maclin unlikely to play, the Chiefs' only real weapon is tight end Travis Kelce, who will no doubt receive a good amount of attention from Belichick and company.

Also, while Kansas City does have a great ground game and offensive line, does anyone really think Spencer Ware or Charcandrick West are going to carry this offense to three touchdowns by themselves? I sure don't.

I could see the Chiefs possessing the ball and keeping this within a score late, but in the end, Tom Brady will make the right calls and deliver a dagger for New England.


Green Bay at Arizona (8:15 p.m. Saturday, NBC)

Opening Line: Cardinals by 7.5
Current Line: Cardinals by 7

By The Numbers: 

Green Bay:
Current Record: 10-6 Overall, 5-3 Away; 9-7 Against the Spread, 5-3 Away
Average Score: 23.0 (15th) - 20.2 (12th)
Average Scoring Margin: +2.8 (11th); 9.2 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +2.5% Offense (11th); -7.3% Defense (9th); +0.4% Special Teams (17th); +10.2% Overall (10th)

Record: 13-3 Overall, 6-2 Home; 9-7 Against the Spread; 3-5 Home
Average Score: 30.6 (2nd) - 19.6 (7th)
Average Scoring Margin: +11.0 (2nd); 11.9 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +15.8% Offense (4th); -15.6% Defense (3rd); -4.0% Special Teams (29th); +27.4% Overall (3rd)

Hidden Points: Experience Along Green Bay's Offensive Line

If there's one area Green Bay MUST improve from the last time these teams played, it's in the offensive trenches. The last time these teams met in Week 16, the Cardinals sacked Aaron Rodgers EIGHT TIMES, and brought down backup Scott Tolzien for another sack. The Packers also gave up, effectively, two more sacks thanks to intentional grounding penalties in that game.

Basically, Arizona lived in the Green Bay backfield, and nearly scored a dozen sacks.

Some of that was physical, but a lot of it was mental. The Cardinals blitz more than anybody in the league, and throwing backups into the fire against a diverse blitzing defense can spell disaster.

Now, with right tackle Bryan Bulaga back, and J.C. Tretter coming off a solid game against Washington at left tackle, Green Bay should at least feel like it can avoid true disaster along the offensive line.

Whether or not that will be enough to upset a team that blasted them by 30 less than a month ago remains to be seen, but it's an absolutely necessary first step.


Hidden Points: Arizona's Backfield Depth

In years past, the obvious weakness to Arizona's attack has been it's non-existent ground game. From 2007 (Ken Wisenhunt's first year at the helm) through last season, the Cardinals ranked 29th, 32nd, 28th, 32nd, 24th, 32nd, 23rd, and 31st in rushing yards, and 30th, 31st, 23rd, 11th, 17th, 32nd, 27th, and 32nd in yards per rush. This year, by the sheer grace of God, they rank 8th in rushing yards, and 12th in yards per attempt. They can actually run the ball.

The problem is, their running backs keep getting hurt.

Chris Johnson was enjoying a surprising resurgence until he fractured his tibia. The only way he plays again this season is if Arizona reaches the Super Bowl. Andre Ellington, as per usual, has been banged up all season and is unlikely to play this weekend. David Johnson is the last man standing.

David Johnson has had a very strong rookie season, and has proven to also be a key factor as a receiver and kick returner. But there isn't much depth behind him. Kerywynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor round out the depth chart, and neither one has done anything to suggest their capable of performing as a feature back. Arizona will need to run the ball to attack Green Bay's defense - the Packers have probably the most underrated pass defense in the league - their run defense is their only weakness. If anything happens to David Williams, or if he succumbs to a bout of fumbleitis (he fumbled four times this year on just 183 touches - once every 43 plays), Arizona could suddenly be without a reliable ground game.

The Packers are the underdog, and the grittier, grindier team. They have a ball control offense and a defense that can rush the passer. Arizona is the sleeker, explosive team. If Arizona's running game disappears, this game could turn into a rock fight, and that favors Green Bay. But if David Johnson emerges as a true playmaker, Arizona should cruise.


Player(s) to Watch (GB): Davante Adams, James Jones

Green Bay's normally elite aerial attack has been a question mark all season. Without their best receiver in Jordy Nelson, the Green Bay passing offense, which has ranked 8th, 7th, 5th, 3rd, 9th, 6th, and 8th again in the seven previous years with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, fell all the way to 25th this season. And after ranking 10th, 10th, 3rd, 1st, 12th, 7th, and 1st in net yards per attempt over the last seven years, they finished 31st this year. Needless to say, it's been a down year.

Randall Cobb is their most versatile offensive player, and likely the player that Arizona will focus their game plan towards stopping. If he lines up outside, Patrick Peterson will likely shadow him wherever he goes. It's unclear as to whether Peterson will cover Cobb if Cobb lines up in the slot, but I'd consider it unlikely. Arizona in that instance would probably utilize some combination of Jerraud Powers (nickel corner), Deone Buchanan (safety/linebacker hybrid) and/or Tony Jefferson (strong safety) to jostle him around.

Regardless of where Cobb lines up, either Davante Adams (who may not even play this week) or James Jones needs to make plays if Green Bay is to have any hopes of winning. Adams, should he play, would be the x-factor, especially if he finds himself lined up opposite Justin Bethel, the weaker of Arizona's outside cornerbacks. Adams was supposed to step into Nelson's role and become the primary downfield threat. That never materialized. He was injured for much of the season, and not exactly a standout even when he was healthy. Jones had a decent start to the season (592 yards and seven touchdowns over the first 10 games) but disappeared down the stretch (298 yards and one touchdown over the last six). He's the receiver most likely to see one-on-one coverage (it might come against Peterson, but still), and needs to take advantage of it.

If Adams and Jones can buck trends and come up with big games (their respective performances in the Wild Card game against Washington can only be considered promising), then Green Bay has a puncher's chance. But if neither do, then Arizona will be able to key in on Cobb and the running backs, and it could be another blowout.


Player(s) to Watch (ARI):  Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell

The Cardinals may have the best corner in football in Peterson, and they will likely lock him up with "last receiver standing" James Jones. With Davante Adams expected to miss the game due to an MCL sprain, Jones is the only guy left that Aaron Rodgers truly trusts.

If Peterson can take him away, the Packers will hope Randall Cobb FINALLY does something, which, considering he hasn't surpassed 100 receiving yards in a game all season, seems unlikely.

Up front, the Cardinals are a Top-10 unit in virtually every category, and Campbell is a big reason why. The massive defensive end (6-foot-8, 300 lbs) demands double-teams at the point of attack any time opponents look to run the ball, and has shown a continued ability to collapse the pocket with his strength, and occasionally get around the corner with his deceptive speed.

While his sack numbers are never eye-popping (he's good for 5 to 9 every year), Campbell is a physical presence that demands attention, regardless of what play is called.

If the Packers are devoting extra resources to slowing the former Miami Hurricane down, that will open things up for the rest of the aggressive Cardinal defense. Against this recently shaky offensive line, that could spell disaster for Green Bay.


The Picks:

 Arizona 34, Green Bay 24 

When these two teams met in Week 16, it was a blowout for mostly one reason - Green Bay's offensive line was all kinds of messed up. Aaron Rodgers was sacked nine times, the team fumbled five times, losing three of them, and everyone on the roster not named Eddie Lacy had a dreadful game. Now, Green Bay's offensive line is healthy(er), and as we saw last weekend, that's a big deal.

With a healthy offensive line, Green Bay's offense was back (to a degree). They ate up yards on the ground with both Lacy and James Starks, Aaron Rodgers remained upright (sacked just once), and he enjoyed the best game he's had since before Halloween.

Will that be enough to upset Arizona? Probably not. Arizona is a lot better than Washington. Healthy offensive line or not, Green Bay probably won't see Starks and Lacy combine for 116 yards on 24 carries against a top-10 rush defense (ranked as high as 2nd by Football Outsiders). And even if Rodgers stays upright, Green Bay's outside receivers (see above) will likely have a tough time against an Arizona defense designed to take away outside receivers.

If Arizona is able to run the ball effectively, that will slow down Green Bay's pass rush and open up play-action opportunities. Perhaps no team in the league has a stable of wide receivers as talented as Arizona's, which will likely be a challenge for Green Bay's patchwork secondary (both Sam Shields and Quinten Rollins are questionable to play). Green Bay's best chance to win is a dominant performance by their defensive front and/or explosive plays by their wide receivers, but both seem unlikely. Even if one occurs, Arizona still has enough talent to overcome it.


Arizona 27, Green Bay 13

Even though Arizona will be without star corner Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu, Green Bay simply doesn't have the weapons to take advantage. Randall Cobb and tight end Richard Rodgers have been streaky at best this year, while James Jones doesn't have the athleticism to shake All-Pro Cardinal corner Patrick Peterson in coverage.

Just looking at that, it seems obvious that Green Bay is going to struggle throwing the ball, but remember, this is a blitz-happy Cardinal defense that dropped Packer quarterbacks nine times just a few weeks ago.

Yeah, it isn't looking good for Green Bay through the air, so their only hope is that they can replicate their success running the ball last week against Washington, where Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined to rush for 116 yards and a pair of scores on over 4.8 yards per carry.

The only problem is, Arizona has a much better run defense than Washington (Arizona is 6th in the NFL, while Washington is 26th), so it's hard to see that happening again. Add in the fact that Carson Palmer is having the year of his life, and the Cardinals are deep and talented at the offensive skill positions, and it just feels like Arizona has the advantage across the board.

The only thing giving me pause is that Aaron Rodgers is good enough, and athletic enough, to pull a few rabbits out of his hat. But, even if he does that, it's still hard to see Green Bay winning the game.


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