Saturday, January 13, 2018

AFC Divisional Round Primer (With Picks): Big Favorites

The immortal Blake Bortles will look for the biggest win of his young career this Sunday in Pittsburgh.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

So, the AFC Wild Card round went about as expected. Andy Reid and the Chiefs went all Andy Reid And The Chiefs and blew an exceedingly winnable game against an inferior opponent, and Jacksonville held the Bills to 263 yards of total offense and three points.

The good news is, now we get two competent football teams that are unlikely to (a) blow an 18-point lead to a 9-7 team that had a negative scoring margin on the season and/or (b) score just three points.

The bad news is, well, we still have to watch Tennessee and Jacksonville for at least another week.

We talked about how the Wild Card round went gambling-wise in the NFC intro, but suffice it to say, it didn't really go well and we don't want to repeat it here. You can peruse the NFC Primer if you want the gory details. Here's our take on the AFC games.

Tennessee at New England (8:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS)

Opening Line: Patriots by 13.5
Current Line: Patriots by 13.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 9-7 Overall, 3-5 Road; 8-7-1 Against the Spread, 3-5 Road
Average Score: 20.9 (19th) - 22.3 (17th)
Average Scoring Margin: -1.4 (16th); 7.4 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -2.1% Offense (18th), +5.1% Defense (21st), +1.6% Special Teams (13th); -5.6% Overall (18th)

New England:
Record: 13-3 Overall, 6-2 Home; 11-5 Against the Spread, 5-3 Home
Average Score: 28.6 (2nd) - 18.5 (5th)
Average Scoring Margin: +10.1 (T-1st); 11.8 “Expected” Wins
DVOA: +27.3% Offense (1st), +10.9% Defense (31st), +6.3% Special Teams (3rd), +22.6% Overall (6th)

Players to Watch: Trey Flowers, Eric Lee

Let's be honest - the Titans winning this game would be a hysterically unexpected upset. The only time the Patriots have ever lost in the playoffs as a double-digit favorite was the 2008 Super Bowl. The last time the Patriots lost at home in the Divisional round was in 2011, when they were upset by a Jets team that finished 11-5 and had a top-5 defense by any statistical measure. If you're looking for a comparison for these Titans (a mediocre-or-worse team that somehow won in Round 1), you could use the 2016 Texans (Patriots beat them by 18), the 2013 Colts (Patriots beat them by 21), or the 2011 Broncos (Patriots beat them by 35). Plain and simple, the Patriots just don't really lose to these kinds of teams in the playoffs (cut to: the Patriots lose by 10 on Saturday night while Jeremy unsuccessfully pretends to not care by playing it off like he knew this was going to happen while successfully drinking 24 Miller High Lifes).

So, we'll use this space to talk about the Patriots players that will need to step up if New England wants to repeat as Super Bowl champions this year - the pass rush.

The Patriots have talent all over the field on defense, but it hasn't really resulted in great defensive play. They started the year getting torched by everybody they played, and while they improved as a scoring defense over the course of the year (finishing 5th in points allowed), they still surrendered the 4th-most yards of offense and ranked 31st in Defensive DVOA by Football Outsiders.

Their biggest weakness is against the run, where they finished 31st in opponents yards per rush, but that can be mitigated if their offense can get out to an early lead. The way their defense can become a real liability is if they can't protect a lead by pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

Flowers and Lee are their best pass-rushers. Flowers, you might remember, had 2.5 sacks, plus a key forced fumble in the Super Bowl last year, then followed that up with 6.5 sacks this season. Eric Lee put up 3.5 sacks in just 6 games with the Patriots this year after being cut by the Bills, and backed that up with another handful of pressures and hurries. Their sack totals don't jump off the page, but that's because the Patriots lack a singular disruptive force on their pass rush - it's very much by committee. The Patriots had 16 players record a sack this season, 10 of them with at least two sacks each. As a team, they finished 10th in Adjusted Sack Rate despite Flowers, who led the team, finishing tied for 47th among league leaders.

Obviously, they aren't as good as Jacksonville (who had two players ranked in the top 10 in sacks plus two more with eight sacks each) or Pittsburgh (who had four players with at least six sacks) or Carolina (who had two players in the top 15 in sacks), but that's because they lacked a top-end pass rusher (ironically, the guy who would have filled that role, Chandler Jones, led the league in sacks this year). If Flowers can find his postseason form of a year ago, and if Lee can keep up the pace he set in the regular season, the New England pass rush could help turn their defense around.


Hidden Points: The Trenches

Okay, we'll play fair - we'll talk about the one way that Tennessee could win this game.

The most underrated part of New England's offense is their running game. They ranked 3rd in Rushing DVOA by Football Outsiders, Dion Lewis was actually their top-ranked running back overall, and their offensive line ranked as the best run blocking unit in the league. Tennessee, meanwhile, ranked 4th in opponents yards per rush, 7th in Defensive Rushing DVOA, and Football Outsiders also ranked their defense 5th in Second-Level Yards and 1st in Open Field Yards, which means Tennessee's defense pretty much didn't allow runs of more than five yards.

On the other side of the ball, New England's run defense was abysmal. As mentioned above, they were 31st in yards surrendered per rush, Football Outsiders ranked them 30th against the rush, with their defensive line being the main culprit (they ranked in the bottom half of the league in all of their defensive line metrics). And, as you know, Tennessee spent most of last week gashing Kansas City's poor run defense to pull off a huge upset. It's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Tennessee again averages somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.5 yards per carry, keeps New England's offense off the field, and forces them into a series of third-and-medium-or-longer by shutting down their early-down runs. Is it likely? Obviously not, that's why New England is almost a two-touchdown favorite. But it's certainly possible. Helping Tennessee even further is DeMarco Murray's injury - Murray just wasn't effective as a runner this year, and giving all of his carries to Derrick Henry clearly worked last week.

If Henry has another performance like he did against Kansas City, Tennessee has a chance to keep this game close in the second half. The formula to beat the Patriots in the postseason has always been Control the Clock + Force New England into 3rd-and-long + Pressure Brady. If the Titans can check all of those boxes, this will be a game.


The Case For the Titans

This is a hard one.. Uh, Tennessee has a mountain to climb this week, but a two-touchdown spread is a two-touchdown spread and, come on, this is a playoff team, right? Sure it is, though it is borderline, and basically an average team across the board.

That said, Tennessee has a decent running game, and should be able to stay within 14, assuming Marcus Mariota doesn't start turning it over like crazy. Yeah, I haven't really convinced myself either.


The Case For the Patriots

Let's not overthink this: New England is a Super Bowl favorite, and Tennessee is barely a playoff team. The Patriots bring in a dynamic passing game (that gets Chris Hogan back) and a diverse running game, to go with a defense that improved throughout the year.

Assuming the Patriots don't come out rusty, they should be able to move the ball against Tennessee's average unit, and turn Mariota over. Two touchdowns is a lot, but New England is dialed in and ready for a Super Bowl run.


The Picks

New England 34, Tennessee 13

After writing all of that about Tennessee's running game against New England's defense, I almost talked myself into Tennessee keeping the game close and covering the spread - likely with a backdoor garbage time cover, but still.

But then I started to think about some of the teams that the Patriots have played this year that have a profile similar to Tennessee. The Bills have a great ground game but lost two games by a combined score of 60-19. Denver had perhaps the best rushing defense in the league, and a solid rush offense; the Patriots beat them 41-16. The Saints had the best rushing offense in the league, but couldn't take advantage of it because the Patriots were up 20-3 by the end of the first quarter and won by 16.

Then I thought about Brady and Belichick after a bye week. In the Brady-Belichick era, when the Patriots had more prep time than their opponent (following either a bye week or a Thursday night game the previous week), the Patriots are 35-5.

Then I thought about some of the games mentioned earlier, where the Patriots were matched up against a team that probably didn't belong in the second round of the playoffs, but either pulled an unexpected upset or were paired against an even worse team in Round 1. The Patriots usually wipe the floor with those teams.

All things considered, there are just too many things that need to go right for the Titans in order for me to think they'll keep the game close. As always, the only thing more ridiculous than saying they might win is saying they will definitely lose - there's always a chance. But it's far too slim for me to buy it.


New England 41, Tennessee 21

I think Tennessee is going to be able to move the ball a bit, but I don't see them stopping Brady or protecting the football. Add in an extra week for Belichick to scheme, and this has all the makings of a route.

Not much else to say, this one seems pretty cut and dry.


Jacksonville at Pittsburgh (1:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Opening Line: Steelers by 7.5
Current Line: Steelers by 7.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 10-6 Overall, 6-2 Home; 9-7 Against the Spread, 5-3 Home
Average Score: 26.1 (5th) - 16.8 (2nd)
Average Scoring Margin: +9.3 (T-3rd); 11.8 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -0.2% Offense (16th), -16.1% Defense (1st), -2.8% Special Teams (24th), +13.1% Overall (8th)

Record: 13-3 Overall, 6-2 Home; 7-9 Against the Spread, 3-5 Home
Average Score: 25.4 (8th) - 19.3 (7th)
Average Scoring Margin: +6.1 (7th); 10.5 “Expected” Wins
DVOA: +17.6% Offense (3rd), -6.4% Defense (9th), +3.1% Special Teams (9th); +27.1% Overall (3rd)

Players to Watch: Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole

Here's what we know: Jacksonville has a stellar defense that forced Ben Roethlisberger into five turnovers when these two teams met in October. Pittsburgh has a not-quite-as-stellar-but-still-pretty-good defense that can put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Jaguars have a supremely talented rookie running back that should be able to churn out yards against a below average Pittsburgh rush defense, along with a number of secondary backfield players that have been explosive in small doses (T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant). The Steelers have perhaps the best running back and the best wide receiver in the league, as well as two other dynamic playmakers at receiver (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant).

All that summarizes to this: We pretty much know what we're getting out of most of the players in this game. Obviously, Blake Bortles is a question-mark (in their first matchup, he threw for 95 yards and had a passer rating of 48, but then he also had a passer rating of 123.7 against the Seahawks and 128.2 against the Ravens), but he's so up and down that it's not really worth speculating as to what kind of game he might have.

What we don't know is how Jacksonville's skill players on the outside will stack up. In a perfect world (for the Jaguars), they won't need to do much - the pass rush will keep Pittsburgh's offense in check, and Leonard Fournette will dominate the clock, much like what happened in their first meeting. But if the game shakes out differently, Lee and Cole will need to make plays. Generally speaking, Lee is the more consistent receiver. He had nine games with five or more receptions and eight games with 50+ yards. Cole was more of a boom-bust player - he did largely nothing for most of the year, but put up over half of his yardage for the year during a three-week stretch at the end of the year (99 yards against Seattle, 186 against Houston, then 108 against San Francisco).

If Cole and Lee have productive games, life will be way easier on Bortles, the Jacksonville running game, and the defense. If they can't get open and make plays downfield, though, Pittsburgh could be able to sell out to stop the run and hold Jacksonville to another game like they had against Buffalo last weekend.


Hidden Points: Tackling

One of the keys to this game is how well Pittsburgh's defense tackles Jacksonville's offense. Does that sound stupid and reductionist and simplistic? Well, it is, but it's also very relevant.

Pittsburgh's run defense was generally pretty good at swarming to the ball and rallying for gang tackles, and they were pretty good at generating penetration and holding ball carriers to short gains. Where they struggled, however, was getting runners to the ground once they had broken into the second level or the open field - according to research by Football Outsiders, they ranked 30th in both of those categories. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Steelers ranked last in the league in allowing opponents to break tackles - it happened on 14.1% of their defensive snaps this season.

What Jacksonville has going for them is that their primary ball carriers (Fournette and Bortles) are pretty hard to bring down - they're power runners that shed tackles and fall forward for extra yardage. The formula for beating the Steelers isn't dissimilar to that of beating the Patriots - you need to control the clock to keep their offense off the field and make plays on defense. Jacksonville certainly fits that bill, especially if they can grind out first down after first down with their running game.

One thing to note, however - don't look at Fournette's running stats from their Week 5 matchup and assume he's going to average 5 or 6 yards per carry. Sure, he had 181 yards on 28 carries, a rate of 6.4 yards per rush. But 90 of those yards came on a 3rd-and-2 with two minutes remaining, Jacksonviille up 14, and Pittsburgh out of timeouts. The 90-yard scamper was functionally no different than three yards and a cloud of dust. Jacksonville was going to win the game either way. On Fournette's other 27 carries, he accumulated 91 yards, an average of 3.4 per, which is pretty bad. Jacksonville will need him to be more efficient this time around.

The Case For the Jaguars

 Don't let their location, bitchin uniforms and 90s expansion history fool you, the Jaguars are old school through and through. The league's top-ranked run game and defense resides in Jacksonville, and that poses some problems for the Steelers, and a touchdown spread.

Assuming Blake Bortles doesn't throw this thing away (and continues making plays with his legs), Jacksonville should be able to keep pace with the Steelers, and the Jaguar defense, led by star corner Jalen Ramsey, should find success against a high-flying Steeler offense that may not have Antonio Brown at 100 percent, and could be grounded by some winter weather.


The Case For the Steelers

A touchdown spread seems like a lot, but this is a different Steeler offense than the one that Jacksonville saw earlier this year, and this is certainly a different Ben Roethlisberger. Following his 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars, Big Ben has been outstanding, leading Pittsburgh to a 9-1 record since that loss, and throwing for multiple touchdown passes in his last seven outings.

Basically, don't expect to see another five interception stinker, and Pittsburgh has also seen the rest of its offense grow up as well. Rookie Ju Ju Smith-Schuster has blossomed, while Martavis Bryant has found his footing down the stretch, and Le'Veon Bell also turned it on the second half of the season.

It seems unlikely that Jacksonville will hold Pittsburgh to just nine points and force five turnovers again, and the Steelers will surely be out for blood if they get a lead in this one.


The Picks

Jacksonville 24, Pittsburgh 20

There are two things sticking in my craw that make me want to take Jacksonville here. First of all, the numbers just seem to line up in a way that would suggest the Jaguars will be able to find success on the ground and keep the clock and the chains moving.

The other is that Pittsburgh went 13-3 on the season, but were just 7-9 against the spread. That seems weird, right? The 13-3 Patriots were 11-5 against the spread. The 13-3 Eagles were 10-6 against the spread. The 13-3 Vikings were 11-4-1 against the spread. A difference of two or three games is to be expected, there's always regression to the mean. But a 13-3 team finishing 7-9 against the spread means they had a lot of games that were closer than projection models say they should have been.

It's also worth noting the statistic above about "expected" wins, which is derived from a team's average scoring margin. Teams that greatly out-perform their expected win rate generally see regression in the long term, and vice-versa, teams that under-perform their expected win rate generally see improvement over time. Well, the Steelers out-performed their expected wins by 2.5 wins this season, the second-most in the league, while Jacksonville under-performed their expectation by 1.8 wins, the second-largest gap in the opposite direction. Based on average scoring margin, the Jaguars actually would have been expected to win 1.3 games more than the Steelers this year, but now they're a touchdown underdog? I don't quite get it.

Yes, Blake Bortles will need to play better than he did in Week 5, and better than he did last week against Buffalo. Yes, Leonard Fournette will need to be more productive for the first 58 minutes of the game. Yes, Jacksonville receivers will need to make plays. Yes, it's unlikely that Ben Roethlisberger will throw five interceptions again. But Pittsburgh's struggles against the run (especially in the red zone, which I didn't even really get to, but suffice it to say they're really, really bad against the run in the red zone) gives the Jaguars a clear avenue to victory - they want to hide Bortles behind the running game. If they're able to do that, they could come out of Pittsburgh with another win.


Pittsburgh 21, Jacksonville 20

I see pretty much no way Pittsburgh covers this spread, not with inclement weather rolling in and Jacksonville's running game pounding away in the snow. That said, this should be a one-score game, and I'll roll with Ben Roethlisberger over Blake Bortles in a close game.

 All in all, not a great macthup for Pittsburgh, but I can't bring myself to pick against the Steelers (though I have all year).


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