Friday, January 6, 2017

AFC Wild Card Weekend Primer (With Picks): Snoozefest

Jay Ajayi ran over, through and around the Steelers defense, to the tune of 206 yards, when these teams met in October.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

With the coming of the New Year, we also marked the end of a quietly forgettable NFL regular season. Other than the rise of Dak Prescott, was there much else that was that remarkable? I mean, sure, the Raiders surged, but Derek Carr's injury effectively ended their season - they have a puncher's chance against Houston, but after that they're almost certainly toast.

The Panthers and Cardinals and Broncos and Bengals all failed to make the playoffs after dominating much of last year, but none of those regressions were particularly shocking (it's not like the Patriots or Seahawks fell apart). Both quarterbacks from the top of the 2015 draft had strong second seasons, but both faltered late in the season and missed the playoffs. Sure, Miami is making a surprise appearance in Week 18 for the first time in a while, but they're also without their quarterback.

It's tough to point to any player in particular who made a substantial leap forward other than Derek Carr, but, as previously mentioned, he's out for the season. Prescott and Elliot were the other breakout stars of the season, but that's about it. For some reason it feels like there were fewer surprises this season - the cream pretty much rose to the top. Perhaps that means we're in for a particularly wacky postseason. As fans of the Patriots and Steelers, we're certainly hopeful that the AFC bracket goes (mostly) according to script, but a funky NFC side would be alright by us.

For the [we've lost count]th season in a row, Mr. Parello took the regular season picks crown (Ed. Note- Joe has not lost count, and it's the fourth season in a row). Jeremy needed to make up seven games to pull into a tie, but went 5-4 on nine disagreements in Week 17 to fall short. For the season, Joe finished 127-121-8 (45-39-1 on disagreements), besting Jeremy's 121-127-8 mark. However, Jeremy has won the playoff crown the last two seasons, so if you value a large sample size, Joe is your guy. But if you value clutch performance when the money is on the table (literally), Jeremy's picks have been the way to go.

[Just as an aside, it's wonderfully ironic that it works out this way, as Jeremy is the one who always values large sample sizes over everything else and continues to insist that clutch performance is a false narrative. Now he must argue against himself in order to justify his prowess as a football handicapper.]

This year's AFC Wild Card slate is pretty under-whelming. While both games are rematches of games played earlier this year, two teams are without their quarterback from that first game (Oakland and Miami), one of them has two quarterbacks who both suck (Houston), and the last one is the Steelers. However, football is football, and we're here to break down both games in way more detail than you probably need.

Oakland at Houston (4:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN/ABC)

Opening Line: Texans by 3
Current Line: Texans by 3.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 12-4 Overall, 6-2 Road; 10-6 Against The Spread, 6-2 Road
Average Score: 26.0 (7th) - 24.1 (20th)
Average Scoring Margin: +1.9 (11th); 8.7 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +12.2% Offense (7th); +4.9% Defense (23rd); +1.1% Special Teams (11th); 8.3% Total (11th)

Record: 9-7 Overall, 7-1 Home; 6-9-1 Against The Spread, 4-3-1 Home
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)

Player(s) To Watch: Amari Cooper, DeAndre Hopkins

I'll admit - the "By The Numbers" section for this game is pretty much irrelevant. On paper, Oakland looks like the obviously superior team, but without Derek Carr, their offense was brutal (and their defense was never that special to begin with). Meanwhile, Houston spent most of the year with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, who was abjectly terrible (Football Outsiders ranked him 33rd among 34 quarterbacks who threw over 200 passes this year - only Jared Goff was worse), but Tom Savage in Weeks 15 and 16 looked like an improvement before leaving their Week 17 game with an injury.

A potential silver lining for the Raiders (pun absolutely intended) is that their Week 17 game was against Denver, by far the league's best defense this year. It's entirely possible that whoever they end up going with (Matt McGloin or Connor Cook) could perform much better against Houston.

While it would be easy and expected to point to each team's quarterback(s) and say whoever performs better will end up taking the game, it's more likely that one of these star receivers will make a big play or two and end up swinging the game. Both had average games during the matchup between these two teams earlier in the year in Mexico City (although it should be noted that Hopkins was maybe-robbed of a touchdown when an official maybe-made a maybe-mistake by declaring that he stepped out of bounds on his way to the end zone). Both have serious big play ability, though, and in a game where both teams are likely to have sub-par play at quarterback, a single big gain in the passing game can make a huge difference, even if it's just to flip field position for a few drives.

My gut wants to say that on par, Hopkins is the better receiver. Cooper might be more versatile (or at the very least, the Raiders move him around and line him up in more different places than the Texans do with Hopkins), but Hopkins is a more pure vertical threat than Cooper is. Obviously, the counter to that would be that big downfield plays are substantially less likely when the quarterbacks are this bad, and that the receiver with the advantage is the one in the offense better equipped to move him around and use him in creative ways, which would obviously be Cooper. But to return to my original point, I think Hopkins is just plain better than Cooper, and Houston's defense is certainly better than Oakland's, which means Cooper will have more roadblocks.

One way or the other, this game will (likely) be decided by which team's offense can move the ball in spite of their quarterback. Hopkins is the only player on either team that has proven himself to be at least a little bad-quarterback-proof. He had a down year this year, but was one of the three or four best receivers in the league last year with a rotating who's-not under center for Houston. If I had to bet on one of these receivers to make a game-changing play, my money would be on Hopkins.


Hidden Points: Special Teams

As mentioned ad nauseam above, both of these teams will be relying on backup or bad quarterbacks. Also mentioned above is that both teams have strong pass rushes. Put those two together, and it's likely that this ends up being a low-scoring affair. Low-scoring affairs often see the scales tipped by a few key plays on special teams.

Special Teams is one of the harder things to track with the naked eye, because most special teams plays that don't result in touchdowns generally look all the same. I'm guilty of this myself - other than Philadelphia and Kansas City (who have scored on special teams multiple times this year), I couldn't really tell you the difference between good special teams and bad special teams without looking up some numbers on net punt yards and etc.

Football Outsiders tracks special teams performance, and rated Oakland as just about average and Houston as having the worst special teams units in the league. In what might be a pretty low-scoring game where field position matters a great deal, I don't know, that seems pretty relevant.


The State of the Raiders

Oh, if we could only go back two weeks.

Yes, things were going swell for the Raiders two weeks ago. Second-year quarterback Derek Carr was a fringe-MVP candidate, and Oakland was primed to go 13-3, win the AFC West and secure a first round bye. Those were simpler times.

In actuality, the Raiders lost Carr to a broken leg, then proceeded to look lost on offense without him against Denver in Week 17, losing the game, the bye, and the division in the process. They also lost backup quarterback Matt McGloin to injury in that game, and will head into (ugh) a road playoff game starting rookie Connor Cook under center.

It's a bumber, but Oakland's No. 6 offense, which largely carried it as the defense finished 26th in the league, is now a shell of hat it was in late December. This game is going to be a little bit depressing.


The State of the Texans

Well, Houston shelled out big bucks to bring Brock Osweiler in to be their franchise quarterback, then benched him in favor of Tom Savage, only to see Savage get injured. So, now the Texans will start Osweiler again with Brandon freakin' Weeden coming off the bench, if need be. Yeah, it isn't just Oakland dealing with quarterback issues.

But hey, the Texans do get running back Lamar Miller back! Miller missed the final two games of the regular season after rushing for nearly 1,100 yards and 5 touchdowns to start the year, and any firepower will be welcome. I mean seriously, this offense was so neutered this year that DeAndre Hopkins finished with less than 1,000 receiving yards and only four touchdowns.

And don't get me started on the defense, which is obviously trying to figure things out without J.J. Watt and a number of other pieces. Though they are hosting this playoff game, the state of the 9-7 Houston Texans is not strong, but that might not matter.


The Picks:

Oakland 17, Houston 13

With Tom Savage ruled out of the game, the Texans will return to Brock Osweiler under center. The same Brock Osweiler whose single-game season high for passer rating was 97.6. For an understanding of how strange that is in today's NFL - if he had kept up that pace for an entire 16 games, there still would have been six quarterbacks who had a better season. And that's *one* game that Osweiler had. He had seven games with a passer rating below 70. Seven.

The Raiders don't have their All-Pro caliber quarterback with them, but odds are whoever they end up going with can't be much worse than Osweiler. From there, the Raiders just have more talent than the Texans do. If we're calling quarterback a wash, we could also probably call Wide Receiver a wash (Hopkins might be better than Cooper, but by a mostly negligible margin), and both teams have defensive stars who can make plays. But the rest of Oakland's offense, most notably their offensive line and depth at wide receiver and running back give them an advantage that Houston can't match.

Oakland has also been one of the best road teams in the league all year, and it would only be fitting that they go on the road and steal a playoff game with a backup quarterback.


Oakland 9, Houston 6

I'll admit, I'm mostly picking Oakland because I want them to win. The Raiders had a really good team, and it was mostly snatched away from them two weeks ago, but the Texans have been a dumpster fire for years now, and only get by because J.J. Watt is an animal, and the AFC South is a joke. Methinks we're going to see a lot of Latavius Murray and Lamar Miller running the ball, which I guess is ok, but I don't trust either of these quarterbacks down in the red zone.

Let's make is a battle of the kickers, and I don't care what the stats say: When Sebastain Janikowski is in a fight, he always wins.


Miami at Pittsburgh (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Opening Line: Steelers by 10
Current Line: Steelers by 10

By The Numbers:

Record: 10-6 Overall, 4-4 Road; 8-6-2 Against The Spread, 5-3 Road
Average Score: 22.7 (17th) - 23.8 (18th)
Average Scoring Margin: -1.1 (23rd); 7.6 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +0.9% Offense (14th); +1.5% Defense (19th); +1.0% Special Teams (12th); +0.3% Total (17th)

Record: 11-5 Overall, 6-2 Home; 9-7 Against The Spread. 4-4 Home
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)

Players To Watch: Kenny Stills, Sammie Coates

When you talk about the aerial attacks of Pittsburgh and Miami, the first names that come to mind are obviously the All-World receiver that each team has. The Steelers have Antonio Brown, who has built a resume over the last four years that make it hard to argue against him being one of the best receivers of all time (if he even only has three more seasons at the pace he's established, he'd be in the neighborhood of 1000 receptions and 80 touchdowns, both of which would be top-25 in history). The Dolphins have Jarvis Landry, who doesn't seem to get as much publicity as some of his peers from the 2014 wide receiver class (Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin), but none of them have more catches than Landry does over their first three seasons.

However, it's the secondary receivers in this matchup that may end up swinging the game. Pittsburgh finished dead last in the league in defending its opponents No. 1 wide receiver, but was third-best defending No.2 receivers, and best in the league at defending all other wide receivers. Conversely, Miami was fourth-best at defending No. 1 receivers and No. 2 receivers, but ranked second to last against all other wide receivers, as defined and tracked by Football Outsiders (both teams were about average in defending tight ends and running backs).

Sammie Coates and Kenny Stills represent the hit-or-miss receivers for each team. Obviously both teams have their star receivers, and both teams have consistent possession receivers to compliment them (Pittsburgh with the emerging Eli Rogers, and Miami with Davante Parker). But Coates and Stills are the big play downfield threats that can take the top off the defense. Stills averaged 17.3 yards per reception this year, and Coates averaged 20.7 yards per (among players with 40 or more targets, Coates ranked 1st and and Stills ranked 4th in the league).

With both defenses having weaknesses in the secondary, and both offenses having a strong running game to set up play-action, it seems like a foregone conclusion that these teams will be looking to make big plays downfield with these receivers. That might be taken to an even greater level by the Dolphins, who enter as big underdogs and could end up taking more chances. The best way for a big underdog to pull an upset is to increase the variance, and in the NFL, there's no more efficient way to do that than to take shots downfield.


Hidden Points: In The Trenches

Another fun genre of stats that Football Outsiders keeps is related to offensive line play. It accounts for the fact that long runs in the open field usually have more to do with the ball carrier making a tackler miss than it does with the offensive line (this is easy enough to understand - once the ball carrier is about 10 yards downfield, he tends to not really have blockers in front of him any more - most of the yards he picks up beyond that point are entirely his own doing), and places more emphasis on short-yardage success (where the surge of the line is usually the most important aspect).

Pittsburgh's offensive line ranked 2nd in the primary metric (named Adjusted Line Yards), which means their offensive line had a particularly good season. Miami's offensive line finished just 22nd. Where it gets interesting, however, is when you notice that Miami's running backs ranked 8th in the league in yards per rush, even better than Pittsburgh did. Jay Ajayi ranked 7th among all players in yards per rush (exactly tied with Le'Veon Bell, actually), and when you limit the sample to players who averaged at least 10 carries per game, that jumps to 5th-best in the league.

The reactionary conclusion to draw here is that if Pittsburgh's offensive line is "better" than Miami's, but Miami's running backs were just as productive as Pittsburgh's, then Miami's running backs might actually be better. This seems ridiculous to say, as Le'Veon Bell is widely considered to be the best running back in football, but the numbers point in that direction. (It's worth noting that this passes absolutely no judgment on either's ability as a receiver out of the backfield, where Bell is so far better than Ajayi that it almost seems like they aren't the same species -- this is strictly speaking of them as runners.)

Am I saying that Ajayi is a better runner than Bell? No. But I am saying that in their first meeting this year, Ajayi ran for over 200 yards, Miami held the ball for 36 minutes of game time, and Miami won handily. Miami's only win scenario probably involves Ajayi having a stellar game, and he's already done it this year. If Miami's offensive line can step up and move Pittsburgh's defense around, this game could surprise some people.


The State of the Dolphins

As a guy born in Pittsburgh and raised in South Florida, I've paid way too much attention to these two teams the past 25 years. I was actually in attendance for Miami's last two playoff games (losses at home to Baltimore in both 2008 and 2001), and know how badly this fan base wants a postseason win. Traveling to Pittsburgh won't be easy, and this is a different Dolphins team than the one that defeated the Steelers in mid-October.

For instance, that Dolphins team ran roughshod over the Steelers with a newly healthy offensive line, but this time around, star center Mike Pouncey will be out of the lineup with an injury, and Miami's defense will be without star safety Reshad Jones, and could be without his replacement Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Jelani Jenkins.

Oh yeah, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill is on the shelf with a knee injury, making way for longtime backup Matt Moore's first career playoff start.

Yeah, things could be a little better for Miami, but the Phins still have a revitalized Cam Wake wreaking havoc off the edge on defense, a somehow still healthy Kiko Alonso going sideline-to-sideline. Offensive stars Jay Ajayi and Jarvis Landry, who each gave Pittsburgh fits the first time around, are also still going strong.

The Dolphins aren't in the best shape injury-wise, but still come in winning seven of their last nine games, which ain't half bad, and posted an absurd 6-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less this season.


The State of the Steelers

Steelers fans love to complain about injuries derailing their last few runs at a Lombardi, and there will even be some groans this year about a passing game decimated by injuries to Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Ladarius Green, and the suspension of Martavis Bryant. Not to mention the fact that the team's best defender, Cam Heyward, is on IR, and their next best defensive lineman, Stephon Tuitt, is battling a knee injury, while nagging injuries have limited young linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree throughout 2016.

But don't cry too many black and yellow tears, because the Steelers are finally healthy enough to really give it a go in the postseason. Coates, Heyward-Bey, Green, Tuitt, Shazier and Dupree are all expected to play Sunday, but more importantly, the Steelers will enter a playoff game with all three of their Killer Bs healthy for the first time ever.

Those are of course Ben (Roethlisberger), (Le'Veon) Bell and (Antonio) Brown. Last year, the Steelers entered the postseason without Bell, and lost Brown in that mess of a Wild Card game against Cincinnati.

Will Sammie Coates still be limited by two broken fingers, and will Tuitt likely be a step slow after missing the last several games of the season? Sure, but the Steelers have their offensive stars ready to go, and that puts them in a better spot to make a run than any time since 2010.


The Picks:

Pittsburgh 31, Miami 14

When you get right down to it, Pittsburgh has a better defense, a better quarterback, and a better coach. Sometimes you don't really need to over-think it. Pittsburgh is the better team. Miami couldn't even out-score their opponents over the course of the season. The Chargers, Bengals, Bills, Cardinals, Eagles, and Saints all had better scoring margins than Miami did, and none of those teams even finished with a winning record, let alone make the playoffs.

The Dolphins have proved to still be as competent a team with Matt Moore under center as opposed to Ryan Tannehill, but they weren't all that competent of a team to begin with. Miami benefited from a relatively easy schedule (the three divisions they played - the AFC East, the AFC North, and the NFC West - all turned out to be much worse than anyone was expecting in August) and some luck in close games (6-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown), but their most impressive win of the season came all the way back in Week 6, when they beat these Steelers by two touchdowns at home (it was one of just two wins by double-digits this year). Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has throttled good teams (Washington by 22, Kansas City by 29, the Giants by 10) and hung tight with the two best teams in the league (they lost to Dallas in the final minute and played New England competitively even without Ben Roethlisberger). Plain and simple, Pittsburgh is better, and should take care of business here.


Pittsburgh 24, Miami 13

I too think the Steelers cover, but I doubt it will be easy. Neither of these teams have been great defending the run, and both of them like to run the ball, so I expect extended drives from both teams, especially in what should be frigid temperatures at Heinz Field Sunday. Despite the whole "warm weather team playing in the cold" thing, I actually think Miami is more equipped to handle inclement conditions, as the Dolphins are content to ride Jay Ajayi til the wheels fall off, and will use multiple tight ends to create leverage and numbers in the ground game.

But the key for me will be which quarterback can do something through the air once both teams start stacking the box, and there I have to take Roethlisberger over Moore. Also, which quarterback will make the right decisions in the red zone, where open space and running lanes are at a minimum? Again, I have to go with Roethlisbeger.

Miami's ground game and pass rush will keep them in this until the end, but Ben makes one or two splash plays to give the Steelers a two-score win, and the cover.


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