Friday, January 13, 2017

AFC Divisional Round Primer (With Picks): One Good, One Bad

Long touchdowns will be key for KC against the Steelers.

By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Jeremy and Joe split the two AFC games last weekend. Both of us made the easy call no problem (Pittsburgh over Miami - although a 10-point spread was reasonably steep), and both of us missed the who-knows-who-cares game between Oakland and Houston to open the weekend.

This weekend, both of our favorite teams take the field looking to win in order to face each other in the playoffs. Depending on who you ask, one of us (Jeremy) will tell you both games ought to be a lot of fun (because the Patriots will probably blow out the Texans, and the Pittsburgh-Kansas City game should be entertaining), while the other (Joe) will tell you that both games ought to be pretty nerve-wracking (because a Patriots win means Pittsburgh needs to go through Foxborough to win the AFC, if they can even escape Kansas City with a win of their own).

Let's take a look at the matchups.

Houston at New England (8:00 p.m. Saturday, CBS)

Opening Line: Patriots by 16
Current Line: Patriots by 16

By The Numbers:

Record: 9-7 Overall, 2-6 Road; 6-9-1 Against The Spread, 2-6 Road
Average Score: 17.4 (28th) - 20.5 (11th)
Average Scoring Margin: -3.1 (26th); 6.5 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -21.4% Offense (30th); -6.9% Defense (7th); -7.0% Special Teams (32nd); -21.4% Total (29th)

New England: 
Record: 14-2 Overall, 6-2 Home; 13-3 Against the Spread, 6-2 Home
Average Score: 27.6 (3rd) - 15.6 (1st)
Average Scoring Margin: +11.9 (1st) - 12.7 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +21.2% Offense (2nd); -1.5% Defense (16th); +2.7% Special Teams (7th); +25.3% Total (1st)

Player(s) to Watch: Michael Floyd

Look, I get it. It's hard to root for a guy who gets a DUI with a blood alcohol content that would lead the league in yards per reception if you moved the decimal point. It's similarly hard to root for someone who went to Notre Dame. However, Michael Floyd is a legitimately good wide receiver. Before falling out of favor this season, Floyd averaged 900+ yards and 6 touchdowns over the last three seasons. He's a big target, a good deep threat, and a valuable asset in the Red Zone.

The Patriots are usually pretty good in the Red Zone. Their route combinations can usually get receivers open in the flat, they have one (previously two) enormous, talented tight ends who are borderline unguardable at the goal line, and they have arguably the two best short-yardage ball carriers in the league in LeGarrette Blount and Tom Brady. Floyd gives them another option - a receiver that can flex out wide and win routes where the only objective is to just establish inside position against the defensive back like a power forward would post up and box out in basketball.

There's no doubt about it - Floyd has talent. The questions are (a) whether or not he can keep his off-field behavior in check, and (b) to what degree the Patriots plan on integrating him. Based on Weeks 16 and 17, it seems like they intend to have him be a part of the offense - he was targeted four times in Week 17 against Miami, including a touchdown reception. He obviously won't be an every-down player, he probably isn't totally up to speed with all the verbiage of the New England offense, but when he's on the field, it will be interesting to see what kind of an impact he has. The Patriots are more than two touchdown favorites here, so it's not likely his performance (good or bad) will swing an otherwise close game, but taking some positive steps here could provide him a springboard to becoming a major factor and potential x-factor going forward.


Hidden Points: The Two Brocks

Does the Brock Osweiler from 2015 exist anymore? Last year, Osweiler strung together a few better-than-just-competent games, including one against these Patriots, en route to a 5-2 record as a starter. It's tough to figure out exactly what happened.

I'm hesitant to blame the offense around him, because DeAndre Hopkins is just as good (if not better) than any receiver Denver had, and Osweiler has a passer rating worthy of Mark Sanchez with two broken arms when he targets Hopkins. It's not the offensive line (because Denver's offensive line was pretty offensive last year), and it's not that the defense is loading up against the pass, because Houston's ground game this year is just as effective as Denver's was last year. The only real outside factor left is the coaching, which could explain a bit (Gary Kubiak is a pretty good offensive mind, nobody would ever dispute that), but keep in mind that Houston's quarterbacks last year far exceeded Osweiler's performance this year in just about every relevant category (yardage, TD/INT ratio, passer rating, etc).

The only conclusion I'm left to draw is that Osweiler has simply lost whatever he had last year, and that 2015 was just a flash in the pan.

This leads to this question - do the Texans have a realistic win scenario? If you're a person who thinks that the Texans can pull one of the largest upsets in recent playoff history, what are you hanging your hat on? The way I see it, Houston's defense would need to play its best game of the season and adequately hinder New England's offense into only scoring 10-17 points (plausible), their ground game would need to have a similarly impressive game against a New England rush defense that finished 3rd-best in yards against and 8th-best in yards per carry against (slightly less plausible), and Brock Osweiler would need to make a few plays downfield (all things considered, probably the least plausible). Do we think all three of those things can happen in the same game?


The State of The Texans

Look, let's be honest: This team does not deserve to be here. They got into the playoffs, and got a home game on Wild Card weekend, because they play in a garbage division, where I'm pretty sure they weren't even the best team (I would way rather see Tennessee here). The Texans benched Brock Osweiler for Tom Savage, only to see Savage get hurt and have to turn back to Brock.

Luckily, they were playing at home against a third-string quarterback and Jack Del Rio, so it worked out for them. This week's trip to Foxboro against Brady and Belichick... Uh, slightly different.

All that said, you have to be impressed with Houston's defense, which has weathered the loss of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, and a number of other contributors, to still lead the league in total D (though scoring D is ranked 11th). Last week Jadeveon Clowney showed flashes of the freak beast we all thought he would be, and Whitney Mercilus is one of the most consistently underrated players in the league.

It will be interesting to see what this defense can do with Watt back next year, but like I said, this has the look of a blowout to me.


The State of The Patriots

Don't be confused by the lack of a caveman tight end, or the aging beautiful man under center- This is a dominant Patriots team, and it might go down as the best New England group to win a Super Bowl.

That is, if they, you know, win the Super Bowl.

That said, this is maybe the most Patriots-ey Patriots team we've seen in the Belichick-Brady era. This year's group went 14-2 (11-1 once Brady came back from his deflated ball/cell phone destruction suspension), and led the league in scoring defense, while finishing third in scoring offense. The defense did all that after trading Chandler Jones this offseason, and dealing Jamie Collins midyear, and held opponents to a league-low six rushing touchdowns. Youngsters (Trey Flowers), cast-offs (Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long) and forgotten souls (Rob Ninkovich) have spearheaded a pass rush that lack a dominant player, and the secondary has quietly developed into one of the league's best.

As for Brady himself, he's played nearly flawlessly, and with surgical precision, throwing for 28 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions, the best TD/INT ratio in league history. In true Patriots fashion, veteran running back LeGarrette Blount, who was borderline useless in Pittsburgh a few years ago, led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns, and paced the Pats on the ground with over 1,160 yards.

Oh, and tight end Martellus Bennett has over 700 yards and 7 touchdowns in just 12 starts, while The Whites (running back James White, and white receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan) have combined for 196 catches and 12 touchdowns through the air.

Basically, Brady is a machine, the defense is somehow an unbreakable wall made of recycled wicker baskets and Elmer's Glue, and the entire offense is made up of undersized white receivers, running backs nobody else wanted and a freakish tight end who is getting every ounce of production squeezed out of him by Belichick and his minions.

So yeah, it's the Patriots.


The Picks:

New England 38, Houston 13

Yes, New England did beat Houston 27-0 in Week 3 with their third string quarterback, but the game was a little closer than the score indicates. First of all, their yardage was effectively equal - Houston had 284 yards of total offense to New England's 282. All three of New England's touchdown drives started in Houston territory, two of which stemming from fumbles on kickoff returns. It wasn't quite the complete-and-total-ass-whoopin' that you might think from looking at the score. If balls bounce a different way a few times, it could have been a one-score game.

That being said, Tom Brady didn't play, and the Patriots didn't really do anything adventurous in their playcalling beyond "Let's try running LeGarrette Blount off left tackle instead of right tackle this time." And they didn't really have to (nor could they) - they led the entire game and were operating with a rookie, 3rd string quarterback on a short week (that was the Thursday night game after Jimmy Garoppolo got injured against Miami the previous Sunday). You can bet that the Patriots are going to be running schemes that never came out of the playbook back in September.

Like, in the 12 games that Tom Brady has played, the Patriots have an average scoring margin of +14.25, which, prorated over a full season, would be the best in the league since New England's mind-blowing 2007 season (they were a record +19.7 that year). There isn't any doubt that New England is the best team in the league right now, and I would expect them to play like it on Saturday.


New England ∞, Houston (Score unavailable)

That's an infinity symbol for you noobs out there, and I really don't care whether Houston scores 0, 3 or 10 points, because they are never going to be in this game. New England by 1,000, or maybe slightly less.


Pittsburgh at Kansas City (1:00 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Opening Line: Pick'em
Current Line: Chiefs by 1.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 11-5 Overall, 5-3 Road; 9-7 Against The Spread, 5-3 Road
Average Score: 24.9 (10th) - 20.4 (10th)
Average Scoring Margin: +4.5 (5th); 9.9 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +11.1% Offense (8th); -4.7% Defense (11th); +0.0% Special Teams (16th); +15.8% Total (5th)

Kansas City: 
Record: 12-4 Overall, 6-2 Home; 9-7 Against the Spread; 3-5 Home
Average Score: 24.3 (14th) - 19.4 (7th)
Average Scoring Margin: +4.9 (4th) - 10.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +3.8% Offense (13th); -2.5% Defense (14th); +7.6% Special Teams (2nd); +13.9% Total (6th)

Player(s) to Watch: Marcus Peters, Eric Berry

At the absolute worst, Antonio Brown is the third-best wide receiver in football. That's the most conservative statement you can make regarding his level of skill, production, and play-to-play impact on the game. He's a near-unguardable whirling dervish who catches pretty much anything that's thrown at him.

Marcus Peters and Eric Berry, meanwhile, might constitute the best cornerback-safety combination in the AFC (I would say the league, but Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor continue to exist in the NFC). Strangely, however, Kansas City ranked just 19th in the league at defending opponents No. 1 wide receivers, according to Football Outsiders (they are, admittedly, fantastic at defending all other wide receivers, according to the same metric). Overall, Kansas City ranked 7th against the pass in DVOA despite sacking opposing quarterbacks just 28 times, the 5th-worst total in the league.

Their success against the pass comes from forcing turnovers - they intercepted 18 balls this year, which was tied for the most in the NFL. Peters is one of the best ball-hawks in the league, finishing with six interceptions this year (one off the league lead) and eight last year (which led the league) - he also recovered three fumbles this season, which was tied for third-best among defensive players. Berry picked off four passes of his own this year, returned two for touchdowns, and spends the rest of his time generally wreaking havoc all over the field.

Based on what Brown has done this year, and the relative inexperience of the rest of Pittsburgh's receiving corps, it wouldn't be that surprising to see Peters line up opposite Brown with help from a safety over the top, and if Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers beat them, with Ben Roethlisberger's bad foot under center, so be it.

If Peters (with whatever help he ends up getting) contains Brown, it might be tough for Pittsburgh to move the ball. Kansas City is the nominal favorite in this game, but it's effectively a toss-up. Winning this matchup would tip the scales heavily in Kansas City's favor.

Hidden Points: Long Touchdowns

The Chiefs have scored 16 touchdowns this season that went 30 yards or more. For comparison, New England had 10, Seattle had 10, Oakland had nine, New Orleans had nine, the Colts had seven, Pittsburgh had six, Dallas had six, and Green Bay had four. Atlanta had 18, which makes sense, because Atlanta had the league's best offense by most metrics. Kansas City finished 13th in scoring.

Here's my question - to what degree does it make sense to expect a team to score long touchdowns? Long touchdowns are fluky. Usually. But the Chiefs averaged one per game. The Chiefs had eight total return touchdowns (punts, kickoffs, fumbles, and interceptions). Again, usually fluky. But maybe not for the Chiefs?

Sure, some of those long touchdowns and some of those return touchdowns overlap (many of them featuring Tyreek Hill), but the point remains that at some point it stops being a coincidence, right?

Long touchdowns have an overwhelming tendency to either (a) swing otherwise close games, or (b) mean absolutely nothing because they're happening in garbage time. Based on the relative skill of these two teams, I don't think there's going to be much garbage time. They seem pretty even. So if it comes down to which team can generate more big plays, that's more likely to be Kansas City, right?


The State of The Steelers

Well, Ben Roethlisberger injured his foot on a meaningless pass late in a blowout last week, then outside linebacker coach (and former Steelers star) Joey Porter was arrested at 2 am for trying to fight a bar's doorman, and coach Mike Tomlin is somehow dealing with a ton of criticism from national pundits (most notably Colin Cowherd), after his team won by 18, and is currently riding an eight-game winning streak.

Yeah, the Steelers are in kind of a weird place. That said, if Roethlisberger is good to go, he'll have a healthy and red-hot Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell by his side offensively, and a suddenly salty defense that came up with five sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, and forced three turnovers last week against the Dolphins.

Sure, it was against Matt Moore and a clearly beaten up Miami team, but Pittsburgh's defense was the story last week, with aging linebackers Lawrence Timmons (14 tackles, 2 sacks) and James Harrison (10 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble), combining with now healthy youngsters Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt to form a pretty tough front seven. If Pittsburgh loses at Arrowhead, it won't be able to use the injury excuse it's had the past few postseasons.


The State of The Chiefs

The bye was very beneficial to Kansas City, as it now looks like the Chiefs will have star pass rusher Justin Houston back in the lineup, after he fully participated in practice Thursday. All-world safety Eric Berry also got some much needed rest after tweaking his Achilles in the regular season finale against San Diego.

Tamba Hali and Spencer Ware both look good to go as well, so KC will have some good options at running back and linebacker, where they've already lost Jamaal Charles and Derrick Johnson this season.

Since losing to Pittsburgh in Week 4, the Chiefs have gone 10-2, and shown they can win a variety of ways, scoring 27 or more points in games seven times in that span, and going 6-2 in games decided by one score or less. With a league-leading 18 interceptions forced, and Alex Smith playing smart, and occasionally brilliant football on offense, Kansas City may be the NFL's most underappreciated team.


The Picks:
Pittsburgh 27, Kansas City 21

Even if we spot Kansas City a long touchdown, I'm not sure they have the firepower to stick with the Steelers. The Chiefs, very quietly finished just 26th in rush defense, and 24th in opponents yards per rush. Le'Veon Bell should be able to find creases to get downfield and chew up yards and clock. If Ben Roethlisberger's leg injury turns out to be no big deal, it should be even easier.

Since losing four straight in the middle of the season, the Steelers have gotten healthy and ripped off eight straight (fairly convincing) wins. And looking back even further, the Steelers trounced these Chiefs back in Week 4 to a tune of 43-14, with Bell gaining 170+ total yards of offense and Roethlisberger posting a passer rating north of 150.

I don't think this game will closely resemble that Week 4 game, but we at least have some inkling that this might be a bad matchup for the Chiefs. Tyreek Hill wasn't a major factor in that game (he had 6 offensive touches for 22 total yards and a garbage time touchdown), and he's obviously come into his own over the last two months (eight touchdowns over his last six games). That should tilt the scales towards Kansas City more than they were in September, but not enough for Kansas City to get to the AFC Championship game.


Kansas City 24, Pittsburgh 20

With Roethlisberger injuring his foot at the end of the Miami game in a pointless play, I have the feeling we're in for some "bad Ben" in this one. Kansas City is far better on offense than people give it credit for, and Alex Smith (finally) has some legitimately lethal weapons at his disposal.  If the Chiefs even slow down Le'Veon Bell (and I believe they will stack the box given Ben's lack of mobility), the game suddenly shifts completely to Roethlisberger's shoulders. Against a hostile crowd and on one leg, I just don't see him pulling it off.

Maybe I'm just being pessimistic, or trying to reverse-jinx it, but I think Pittsburgh's offense is due for a down day, and it's not like the Steelers O hasn't had bad stretches, even over the team's eight-game winning streak. This offense was terrible for three quarters against Baltimore at home a few weeks back, and the Chiefs have the offense to make Pittsburgh pay, even if the Steelers D is playing better of late.


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