Saturday, January 6, 2018

AFC Wild Card Primer (With Picks): New Kids On The Block

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

The AFC Playoffs are the first to kick off this weekend, and they're bringing a lot of new blood to the party. The Titans, Jaguars, and Bills have each fell short of the postseason for a whole bunch of years in a row. The Titans have missed the playoffs in each of the last eight seasons, the Jaguars have missed the playoffs in each of the last nine seasons, and the Bills have missed the playoffs in each of the last seventeen seasons. Sure, the Patriots and Steelers are perennial juggernauts, and the Chiefs have made the playoffs in now four of their five seasons under Andy Reid, but it'll be nice to see if teams like Tennessee and Jacksonville can take the next step with their young quarterbacks, and the Bills ending the league's longest playoff drought is nothing but a great story.

Both AFC Wild Card lines have rather large spreads, which is to be expected when a 9-7 team with a negative scoring margin on the season goes on the road against a team that saw more than half of their wins come by double-digits. We just happen to be having that twice in one weekend.

Before we dive into the AFC lines, just a little housekeeping:

1. As you may or may not know, Jeremy took down Joe for the season picks title for the first time in recorded history. Jeremy took the crown with a record of 128-115-13, beating Joe by 2 games.
2. Despite usually falling to Joe in the regular season, Jeremy has out-picked Joe over the last three postseasons, which Jeremy spins into saying that he's a better handicapper when (a) the games mean more and there is literal and figurative money on the table, and (b) there's more time to dive into the minutia of the matchup. We'll see if Joe can flip the script.
3. The "By The Numbers" sections that you will see below (and in the NFC Primer) include a statistic often used in this space, called DVOA, developed by Football Outsiders. It's a statistic that measures efficiency on a per-play, situational basis (i.e. gaining nine yards on 3rd-and-8 is actually more valuable than gaining 11 yards on 3rd-and-16). It's to be noted that positive numbers mean more points and negative numbers mean less points, so a positive score on defense (like the Chiefs) is bad, and a negative score on defense (like Jacksonville) is good.
4. Eastern Massachusetts was exposed to a large winter storm that required much shoveling, and thus, back pain. We can neither confirm nor deny that one or both of Your Authors composed the picks below while under the influence of pain-reducing substances.

And now, the AFC Wild Card Primer:

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

Opening Line: Chiefs by 8
Current Line: Chiefs by 8.5

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)

Kansas City:
Record: 10-6 Overall, 6-2 Home; 10-6 Against the Spread, 6-2 Home
Average Score: 25.9 (6th) - 21.2 (15th)
Average Scoring Margin: +4.8 (10th); 9.9 "Expected" Wins

DVOA: +15.7% Offense (4th), +10.6% Defense (30th), +5.3% Special Teams (4th), +10.5% Overall (10th)

Player(s) to Watch: Derrick Henry, Kareem Hunt

If these two teams have anything in common, it's that they usually win the game on the ground, churning out big chunks of yardage in the run game, and backing that up with an efficient if unexplosive passing game.

If these two teams have one thing that's totally different, it's their run defenses. The Titans surrendered the fourth-fewest yards per carry (3.6) and the fewest rushing touchdowns (5) of any team in football this season, while the Chiefs finished in the bottom 10 of every relevant rush defense category. Football Outsiders ranked the Titans with the seventh-best run defense, and the Chiefs as dead last.

The Chiefs have the better offensive line, the better running back, and the better offensive mind calling the plays, but it could be tough sledding. It's hard to make a great case for a team with a negative scoring margin on the season to go on the road and win a game in the playoffs, but if I were forced to make one, it would probably start with Tennessee keeping Kansas City's offense off the field by grinding out long drives, with Derrick Henry ending the game with 30-odd carries for 150-odd yards. I would buy it a bit more if DeMarco Murray were in uniform, but it's worth mentioning nonetheless.

Where Kareem Hunt is likely to have his most value is as a receiver. Tennessee finished dead last in DVOA when defending running backs out of the backfield as a receiver, and Hunt ranked among the league leaders in most receiving metrics for running backs.

Both of these running backs serve as the focal point for their teams' offense, and both seem to have a golden opportunity to leave their mark on the game. Who wins and loses will have a lot to do with which back can exploit a favorable matchup.


Hidden Points: Marcus Mariota's Development

2017, all in all, was a bad year for Marcus Mariota. His interception rate spiked, his adjusted net yards per attempt plummeted, his touchdown rate cratered (he threw half as many touchdowns as last season), and it just never seemed like he found his rhythm. He didn't really have a signature game - his best performance of the year came in Week 4 against Seattle, but that game was really won with Tennessee's 195 yards rushing. Even the Titans' Week 17 win over Jacksonville to launch them into the No. 5 seed saw Mariota completed just 57 percent of his passes for 134 yards and a touchdown.

It's a bit disconcerting, because this is about the time that you'd expect a highly-drafted quarterback to start kicking ass and taking names and having a few games each season where you stop and think "woah, this guy could drag a bad team to a Super Bowl with a few lucky bounces" or "damn, this guy could lead an unstoppable offense with another receiver," but Mariota's third season had him moving backwards, not forwards.

Sure, it hurts that Mariota has never been paired with a great receiver - his best target over his first three seasons has been Delanie Walker, an albeit criminally underrated tight end, but he's also decidedly nowhere close to the level of guys like Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce. The Titans brought in Eric Decker this year, who played well below expectations, and their best outside receiver in 2016 was Rishard Matthews, who, while productive, is still Rishard Matthews.

I'm not a huge believer in the idea of "clutch," but I am a believer in the idea that a first impression can impact future performance. If the Titans go out here and get stomped in Mariota's playoff debut, I can't imagine that's good for the psyche of a young quarterback who's already coming off a sub-par season. If they come out and win (or at least keep the game competitive into the 4th quarter), then that's a good launching point for next season.


The State of the Titans:

Tennessee is somehow a playoff team, despite "franchise" quarterback Marcus Mariota taking an enormous step back this season, with only 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. What's worse, the Titans lost three in a row with the playoffs on the line, before finally beating Jacksonville when the Jags had nothing to play for to finally clinch a Wild Card berth.

Is it all doom and gloom? Not quite, because Tennessee is still a very talented young team, and presents many problems, particularly out of the backfield, where Mariota and a solid stable of backs, led by Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray put pressure on opposing defenses to tackle well.

This team is, by pretty much any measure, remarkably average, and has only defeated one playoff team all season (Jacksonville, twice).


The State of the Chiefs:

The Chiefs were an early Super Bowl favorite, after starting the season 5-0 with a win over New England. However, a Week 6 loss to the Steelers exposed a few weaknesses that have been dogging Kansas City ever sense. Chief among them (pun totally intended) is KC's inability to defend the run consistently.

After that 5-0 start, the Chiefs went 1-6 over their next seven, before winning their last four in a row to win the AFC West... Yeah, you try to figure this team out, but the two constants have actually been on offense, where Alex Smith has been solid, leading the league in passer rating, and rookie running back Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing yards.

We know the Chiefs can move the ball, but an inability to stop the run could limit how far they go.


The Picks:

Kansas City 27, Tennessee 13

Marcus Mariota might be one of my top-10 favorite players (certainly among my top handful of favorite quarterbacks), but not only do I not think he's quite there yet, but I'm not at all confident that the Titans have the firepower to compete with a brutally efficient Kansas City team.

They started off the season well, with wins over Jacksonville and Seattle, but they just haven't shown any consistency, especially on the road. Their scoring margin in road games puts them in the neighborhood of margins that teams like the Jets, Denver, and Houston had over the course of 16 games.

Kansas City has also tapered off over the course of the season (they were never going to sustain the blistering pace they set in September), and even lost four in a row in November and December, but their last month has been impressive, thanks in large part to a home-heavy schedule. They'll be home here, and possibly set themselves up for a revenge game against the Steelers.


Kansas City 20, Tennessee 10

Part of me wants to say that Mariota will play a clean game, and Tennessee will run the ball down KC's throat, while stacking the box against Hunt on the other side. But come on, that would have been the Titans formula to win all year, and they screwed it up with a talented, young team. So, I'll trust Alex Smith to play the clean game, while Kareem Hunt runs it down Tennessee's throat, and I'll hold off on my "Andy Reid totally blows it" take until next week in Foxboro.


Buffalo at Jacksonville (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Opening Line: Jaguars by 8.5
Current Line: Jaguars by 9

By the Numbers:

Record: 9-7 Overall, 3-5 Road; 9-6-1 Against the Spread, 4-4 Road
Average Score: 18.9 (22nd) - 22.4 (18th)
Average Scoring Margin: -3.6 (21st); 6.4 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -11.1% Offense (26th), +1.7% Defense (15th), +2.9% Special Teams (10th), -9.8% Overall (21st)

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)

Player(s) to Watch: Not Nathan Peterman

I'll just say this - the Bills committed 16 turnovers this season, good for sixth-best in the NFL. Eight of those 16 turnovers came in the two games that Peterman started this season. We've talked at length before about how abjectly idiotic that move was (in games started by Tyrod Taylor in which Buffalo's defense surrendered less than 150 rushing yards, the Bills were 8-2 this year), so, suffice it to say, the Bills are going with the quarterback that gives them the best chance to win.

What does Tyrod Taylor bring to the table? Well, he finished close to league average in a whole bunch of passing categories (completion percentage, QB Rating, adjusted yards per attempt), and fell close to the bottom of the league in a few categories (sack rate, yards per completion), but was among the best in the league in a few important categories (interception rate - lowest in the league this season, and yards per rush). He's likely not going to win you the game by slinging the ball all over the field, but he can win a grind-fest where he's not asked to overcome an early double-digit lead.

You aren't going to be telling your grandkids about watching Tyrod Taylor play, but he's a capable NFL quarterback and he doesn't turn the ball over very often. Given Jacksonville's prowess in defending the pass (usually aided by a crippling pass rush), you could even argue that Taylor's relative weakness at making plays downfield is less cumbersome. Why bother taking shots downfield when they're unlikely to be successful regardless of who your quarterback is? It would make a lot more sense to try to attack Jacksonville's relatively weak rush defense (26th in the league in yards per attempt surrendered) with your fleet-footed quarterback and all-world running back.

The Bills aren't going to win a shootout against anybody, let alone against the best defense in the league. The game they win is one that involves a lot of punting and field goals and a timely turnover or two. If either of these two teams is the type to commit a costly turnover at the worst possible moment, my money is on the team that isn't quarterbacked by the guy who's thrown just 16 interceptions over his last 1236 pass attempts.


Hidden Points: Buffalo's Pass Protection

As mentioned above, I don't see Buffalo coming into this game with the idea that they're going to make hay with a bunch of big plays downfield in the passing game. That being said, there is a good deal of concern with how well they're going to be able to pass the ball.

Football Outsiders uses a few tricks to measure how good a team is at protecting or pressuring quarterbacks. For instance, it's a lot easier to sack a quarterback on third and long than it is on third and short. Intentional Grounding penalties don't count as statistical sacks, even though they're functionally the same thing. And, obviously, it's easier to rack up sacks against a team that passes the ball 600+ times per season than it is against a team that drops back fewer than 500 times.

They wrap up all these adjustments into a statistic called Adjusted Sack Rate. Buffalo's offensive line finished 31st at protecting their quarterback. Jacksonville's defensive line finished 2nd at putting their opponents on the ground. This all points to four quarters of Tyrod Taylor potentially running for his life.

If the Bills come prepared with a gameplan heavy on screens, draws, and misdirection (something they generally do very well), perhaps they can negate an aggressive Jacksonville pass rush and keep the game competitive. But if they try to get into a punch-for-punch slugfest against a nightmare matchup, this game could be over by halftime.


The State of the Bills:

Much like Tennessee, you kinda have to wonder how the Bills got here. At 9-7, Buffalo ranks in the bottom ten in the league in total offense (29th) and total defense (26th). That said, the Bills have been one of the stories of the year, breaking the NFL's longest playoff drought, and doing it in a season where their coach thought Nathan Peterman was a better option than Tyrod Taylor.

That said, Buffalo does have one notable strength in its pass defense, which has surrendered just 10 touchdowns through the air all season, while forcing 18 interceptions. Free agent signing Micah Hyde made a big impact, picking off five passes in his first season in Buffalo, making his first Pro Bowl.

Free safety Jordan Poyer had five picks as well as a centerfielder, and TreDavious White came up with four. With a ball-hawking secondary, and an offense built around running and protecting the ball, Buffalo has been able to defeat lesser opponents, but will have something to prove against Jacksonville.


The State of the Jaguars:

With one of the best defenses in football, Jacksonville comes in as a favorite in its first playoff game in a decade. As good as Buffalo's play-making secondary has been, Jacksonville's might be the best in football, led by All Pro corner Jalen Ramsey. The Jags have surrendered the fewest yards through the air in football, and on the other side of the ball, have led the league in rushing, thanks to a committee of backs, led by rookie Leonard Fournette.

Despite losing its last two games,  Jacksonville is very much a playoff team with wins over the Seahawks, Rams, Steelers and Ravens under its belt. But, there are two issues lingering. First, quarterback Blake Bortles is prone to bad stretches, and has yet to start a playoff game. He has thrown five interceptions the last two weeks, leading many to believe that the wheels may come off in the postseason.

Secondly, Jacksonville's one weakness defensively has been defending the run on first down, where the Jags give up the worst yards per carry in football.


The Picks:

Jacksonville 20, Buffalo 6

Again, I just don't think the road team here has enough gas on offense to keep them in the game. Sure, there's always the potential for Kelvin Benjamin to dominate the Jacksonville secondary, or for Blake Bortles to go all Blake Bortles and throw four interceptions, but I just don't think it's likely enough that I'd want to wager my hard-earned money on it.

Look, I don't trust Jacksonville's offense any further than I can punt it. It's a bit worrisome that they not only had a pretty average (or even below-average) passing game despite Bortles' greatly improved interception rate, but they also ran the ball 527 times (most in the NFL) despite their top two ball carriers (Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory) combining for just 3.7 yards per carry. Their most efficient offense comes on the fringes, guys like TJ Yeldon and Corey Grant, who combined for 6.8 yards per touch out of the backfield, but had just 112 total touches between them. Or Keelan Cole, who averaged 17.8 yards per catch, but had just 42 catches despite 83 targets.

The Jaguars don't have offensive players that can consistently make big plays, so their defense is going to have to do the heavy lifting. Luckily, I don't see the Bills as having the type of offense that can take advantage of that. My guess is it will be a long, ugly game, but those games favor Jacksonville.


Buffalo 20, Jacksonville 17

Screw it, I'm calling one upset. Buffalo has the sixth-ranked rush defense in football, and the Bills are committed to running it. That should create plenty of second-and-manageables for the Bills, and Tyrod Taylor's elusiveness just might offset that Jacksonville pass rush.

But really, I'm just betting on Blake Bortles giving the game away with a few picks, against a Bills secondary that has no problem giving up short stuff, but becomes increasingly stingy the farther you push the ball down the field.


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