Friday, January 12, 2018

NFC Divisional Round Primer (With Picks): The Road To Minnesota Runs Through... Minnesota?

This is the second time we're using Case Keenum as the image for an NFL Primer this season... What is happening?

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

The divisional round of the playoffs kick off with the NFC this weekend, and things are a bit weird. During the last few weeks of the regular season, Jeremy openly pined for all-out chaos in the NFC, and, well, he kind of got it.

In the first round, we saw Atlanta upset Los Angeles and the Saints win a shootout over the Panthers, leaving us with a No. 6 seed favored on the road against the conference's No. 1 seed, plus a matchup of two division winners that feature (perhaps) the best offense in the league going up against the best defense in the league. Football statisticians at Football Outsiders say the Saints-Vikings game is (roughly) a 60-40 proposition in favor of Minnesota, and actually have Philadelphia as more likely to advance than Atlanta, despite disagreements in Las Vegas.

The NFC seems wide-open, especially when compared to the AFC, where both home top seeds are favored by more than a touchdown. Obviously Atlanta has an uphill battle - they would need to win two road games to advance - but they're still very much alive.

With Philadelphia somewhat of a question mark without Carson Wentz, one would have to say that Minnesota is now the favorite in the NFC. This is especially good for them, considering (you may have heard) the Super Bowl is being played at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis this year. If Minnesota advances that far, they'd be the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, which seems like it would be an advantage. Until further notice, I think we have to assume it's the most likely outcome.

In the Wild Card round, both Jeremy and Joe took a few losses. All four underdogs covered, with two winning outright, and neither of us really saw it coming. Jeremy went 3-1 straight-up, but just 1-3 against the spread (he picked Atlanta's upset), while Joe was just 1-3 straight up (New Orleans was the only team that helped him out) but somehow ended up 2-2 against the spread (he picked the Rams to win but the Falcons to cover, and picked Buffalo to cover and win outright, for some reason). Let's see if the divisional round gives us better results.

Atlanta at Philadelphia (4:35 p.m. Saturday, NBC)

Opening Line: Falcons by 3
Current Line: Falcons by 3

By The Numbers: 

Record: 10-6 Overall, 5-3 Road; 7-9 Against the Spread, 2-6 Road
Average Score: 22.1 (15th) - 19.7 (8th)
Average Scoring Margin: +2.4 (11th); 9.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +8.2% Offense (9th), +5.6% Defense (22nd), -1.2% Special Teams (19th); +1.5% Overall (15th)

Record: 13-3 Overall, 7-1 Home; 10-6 Against the Spread, 5-3 Home
Average Score: 28.6 (3rd) - 18.4 (4th)
Average Scoring Margin: +10.1 (T-1st); 11.8 “Expected” Wins
DVOA: +10.0% Offense (8th), -12.6% Defense (5th), +0.9% Special Teams (16th); +23.5% Overall (5th)

Players to Watch: Nick Foles

It’s probably going to sound overly simplistic, but this game is likely going to come down to which version of Nick Foles shows up. We’ve seen two very different versions over the last few years, and even this year. In 2013, he took over under center for these very Philadelphia Eagles, and put together one of the best 11-game stretches in NFL history (no, seriously, you can look it up and everything).

If you take his numbers in 2013 and ranked his rate statistics against other quarterbacks in the modern era (we’ll call it since 1980), he would have posted the 5th-best touchdown rate, the 9th-best yards per attempt, the 2nd-best adjusted yards per attempt (which penalizes quarterbacks for sacks and turnovers), the 2nd-best TD-INT ratio, and the 3rd-best passer rating. Like, the short list of the best quarterback seasons in the last 40 years has 2011 Aaron Rodgers, 2004 and 2013 Peyton Manning, 2007, 2010, and 2016 Tom Brady, 2016 Matt Ryan, 1994 Steve Young, 1989 Joe Montana, and, no joke, 2013 Nick Foles, in some order. It’s bizarre, but true. Well, since then, he’s been, well, bad. Here are his 2013 numbers compared to his numbers from 2014-2016 with the Eagles, Rams, and Chiefs (we’ve prorated both samples to a 16-game set to make it easier to compare and reference):

2013 (Prorated to 16 games): 291-454 (64.1%), 4134 yards, 9.1 yards per attempt, 10.5 Adjusted, 38 TDs, 3 INT, 118.6 Passer Rating
2014-2016 (Prorated to 16 games): 300-511 (58.6%), 3364 yards, 6.6 yards per attempt, 6.0 Adjusted, 17 TDs, 15 INTs, 77.4 Passer Rating

If you’re looking for more recent numbers, I’m not too sure they’ll help you, either. This season, Foles got some run at the end of a few blowouts, and took over late in Philadelphia’s game against the Rams after Carson Wentz left with his injury, then he had one great start against the Giants. Since then, he had two lackluster performances against the Raiders and Cowboys. Here are those numbers split into two samples, both roughly the same size:

Through the Giants game: 34-52 (65.38%), 335 yards, 6.4 yards per attempt, 8.0 Adjusted, 4 TDs, 0 INT, 109.1 Passer Rating
Versus Oakland and Dallas: 23-49 (46.94%), 202 yards, 4.1 yards per attempt, 2.7 Adjusted, 1 TDs, 2 INT, 48.2 Passer Rating

What we’re (technically) supposed to do is just lump all of the numbers together into one sample to get a general idea of the kind of quarterback Foles is, and those numbers look pretty medium. If you prorate his career numbers to a 16-game set, they look an awful lot like the 2017 numbers for quarterbacks like Andy Dalton, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, and Blake Bortles. Of the 32 NFL quarterbacks who had enough pass attempts to qualify for rate statistics, those four quarterbacks ranked 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th in Passer Rating. Decidedly below average, but also decidedly quarterbacks who could put together a great game in the right setting.

So, what should we expect from Foles? We know that he has brilliance in him, and we know that Atlanta’s pass defense was below average this season - effectively tied with the Giants, who Foles had a great performance against in December. If Foles has that kind of game again, the Eagles will be punching a ticket to the NFC Championship game.


Hidden Points: Overreactions

Atlanta’s game last week seemed like an easy Falcons win. They were on the road, a dome team playing outdoors, against one of the best teams in the league (the Rams were ranked 2nd in total DVOA to Atlanta’s 15th), and the Falcons never trailed and won by two touchdowns.

The game wasn’t that simple, however. Two special teams turnovers from the Rams were the difference in the game, both setting Atlanta up with a short field and resulting in 10 points. Once the Rams were down multiple scores, they got away from the running game (which was gashing the Falcons to the tune of more than seven yards per carry), and the Falcons pinned their ears back against Jared Goff (who still had a pretty decent game anyway). For the game, the Rams out-gained the Falcons and were (barely) better on third downs, but in true hidden-points, hidden-yards fashion, the two turnovers and an Atlanta fourth-down conversion in the 3rd quarter added up to close to 100 yards of field position as well as Atlanta being able to bleed the clock (they ended up with a full 15-minute advantage in time of possession). Atlanta didn’t out-play the Rams as much as they were on the fortunate end of a few bounces.

And this isn’t meant to sound like a complaint - I picked the Falcons to win and would do it again, but let’s not make it out to be that Atlanta beat up on the Rams and will ride that momentum into this weekend. The Vegas line seems to indicate a lot of faith in the Falcons, however. They’re the first-ever No. 6 seed to be favored against the conference’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Obviously, a lot of that has to do with Carson Wentz’s injury and Philadelphia’s performance since he’s been out of the lineup, but it’s not like Atlanta has been on fire lately. They’re not coming into the playoffs on a tear like Minnesota (11-1 since October 1) or New England (Ditto) or Pittsburgh (10-1 since October 8) is. Sure, Atlanta is a good team, and Philadelphia is a bit of an enigma right now, so it’s not unreasonable that Atlanta is favored. But just don’t overreact to last weekend, the game Atlanta played might not  mean what you think it means.


The Case for the Falcons

We keep going back-and-forth on under and over rating Atlanta, but I think we can decidedly say that this is a good team, with a decent shot at getting back to Super Sunday. Last week the Falcons absolutely outclassed a talented, but inexperienced Rams squad, and this week the Falcons hit the road for another game against a team that is less than battle-tested come playoff time.

That experience could once again carry the day, but also don't underrate Atlanta's combination of a Top 10 total offense and Top 10 total defense. Obviously, if you're betting the Falcons, you're looking for big things from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, and while neither lit the world on fire last week, they both look to be ready for another run into February.

If you want a team long on playoff experience, and one with a quarterback capable carrying his team to victory (with the help of an All-Pro wide receiver), Atlanta is your pick.


The Case for the Eagles

Sure, everyone is jumping off Phill's bandwagon now that Carson Wentz is hurt, but might this be the time to buy low on the Eagles? Think about it: Philadelphia can turn to experienced backup Nick Foles, and still rely on its 4th ranked total and scoring defense to keep it in games.

Look, Carson Wentz was a legitimate MVP candidate at quarterback, and there's no minimizing his loss, but Philly is a 13-win team (that rested its starters and lost Week 17) that is GETTING three points, at home, against the sixth seed in the conference... Doesn't that sound like a value bet?

Yeah, especially when you consider the fact that, while Wentz was very good at throwing touchdowns, the Eagles' passing offense was 13th in the league in yards, and 14th in yards per attempt this season. While I doubt Foles will be as great as Wentz in the red zone, this offense wasn't totally driven by throwing it up and down the field.

No, it was Philly's third-ranked run game (over 2,100 yards on 4.5 YPC) that powered the offense until it got near the goal line. Even if you admire Wentz' brilliance as a drive closer (Philly was the league's best red zone offense, scoring 65.5% of the time), you still know this team can move it between the 20s.

So, if you're looking to place a value bet on a team that may be, essentially, the same as it was for 80 yards of the field (and we'll led random variance determine the rest inside the 20), Philly is the group for you.


The Picks

Philadelphia 20, Atlanta 17

I’ll say this - I think Nick Foles is (slightly) better than he’s getting credit for right now, and I think Atlanta, as a team, is (slightly) worse than they’re getting credit for right now. Most of the discussions this week surrounding this game have been about Foles’ foibles and Atlanta’s return to 2016 form, but I don’t think enough has been mentioned about Philadelphia’s defense (still outstanding) or Atlanta’s offensive line - they couldn’t run the ball against the Rams (just 3.2 yards per carry) and had trouble keeping Matt Ryan upright at times. On the whole, Philadelphia’s defensive front is probably better than Los Angeles’. They don’t have the all-world singular talent of Aaron Donald (although Fletcher Cox comes damn close at times), but their depth is going to be hard for Atlanta to deal with.

I don’t think Foles is going to have a game like he did against the Giants, but I also don’t think he’s going to have a game like he did against Oakland or Dallas. I don’t think the bar for Foles is too high to clear - if he has an average game (on par with his career numbers, discussed above), my bet is on the Philadelphia defense to carry them the rest of the way.


Philadelphia 27, Atlanta 20

I'll ride with the home dogs as well, as I think Philly's defense forces Atlanta to become one-dimensional, then limits Matt Ryan when it really counts. Offensively, the Eagles still have enough weapons to put up points and, as Jeremy pointed out, Nick Foles ain't THAT bad.

I think Philly loses its status as NFC favorite without Wentz, but I still like the Eagles to get past a good, but flawed Falcons team at home.


New Orleans at Minnesota (4:40 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Opening Line: Vikings by 3.5
Current Line: Vikings by 5

New Orleans:
Record: 11-5 Overall, 7-1 Home; 8-8 Against the Spread, 4-4 Home
Average Score: 28.0 (4th) - 20.4 (10th)
Average Scoring Margin: +7.6 (6th); 10.9 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +21.6% Offense (2nd), -7.9% Defense (8th), +1.2% Special Teams (15th), +30.7% Overall (1st)

Record: 13-3 Overall, 7-1 Home; 11-4-1 Against the Spread, 6-1-1 Home
Average Score: 23.9 (10th) - 15.8 (1st)
Average Scoring Margin: +8.1 (5th) 11.7 “Expected” Wins
DVOA: +12.0% Offense (5th), -13.9% Defense (2nd), -0.9% Special Teams (18th); +25.1% Overall (4th)

Players to Watch: Cam Jordan, Marshon Lattimore

Much of the discussion of this game will (understandably) focus on the New Orleans offense versus the Minnesota defense - strength versus strength, unstoppable force versus immovable object, etc. But what about a reasonably stoppable force versus a vaguely moveable object? That’s Minnesota’s offense against the Saints’ defense.

The Vikings had a plus-value offense this year, for reasons passing understanding. Their ground game was largely based on volume, rather than efficiency (both Latavius Murray and Jerrick McKinnon averaged fewer than four yards per carry), and their passing game was somehow effective despite Case Keenum starting 14 games this year.

Keenum having a career year at age 29 after being a decidedly bad quarterback over the previous four seasons is pretty weird. I don’t understand it, you don’t understand it, let’s just move on. One of the reasons he was effective, though, is that he was well protected. The Vikings allowed just 27 sacks this year (tied for seventh-best in the league), and Keenum was sacked on just 4.4% of his dropbacks (6th-best among starting quarterbacks). It will be up to Cam Jordan and the rest of the New Orleans pass rush (ranked 6th in adjusted sack rate by Football Outsiders) to put pressure on Keenum and keep him off balance. Coupled with Jordan and the pass rush will be Lattimore, who will be tasked with checking either Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs, depending on how New Orleans will want to shade their coverage. My money is on Thielen.

This season, New Orleans was especially good at defending the pass, so long as the pass wasn’t targeting the opposing team’s No. 2 wide receiver, where they were merely average. Cornerbacks Ken Crawley and/or P.J. Williams will be tasked with covering Diggs (I presume), depending on where he lines up. In a sense, if New Orleans’ weak point is covering secondary receivers, perhaps Crawley and Williams are the guys to watch, but it will be important to see if Lattimore, a rookie, can hold up in man coverage without any help.


Hidden Points: Third Down

Minnesota’s defense posted the best 3rd-down conversion rate in NFL history this year. Well, since 1991, when the league started to track success on third down, but, you get the idea. There’s no real need to spin it, they were historically good. They allowed teams to convert on third down just 25.2% of the time, a figure so spectacular that it doesn’t even seem possible.

Meanwhile, the Saints were, well, not very good on third down. They converted their third downs into first downs on just 37.6% of attempts, which ranked them 19th in the NFL this season. So, obviously this is a huge area of advantage for Minnesota.

Or, is it?

One of the key reasons for Minnesota’s success on third down is actually because of their success on first and second down. They forced teams into third-and-long, where any team is going to be worse, and then they were able to pin their ears back with their pass rush, play (relatively) soft coverage, and then swarm to the ball. Obviously, this doesn’t really change much for Minnesota - their defense is good on every down, it suddenly becoming third down doesn’t make them better or worse.

What might make a difference is New Orleans. Sure, their 3rd down conversion rate looks bad, but only if you just look at their conversion rate. The number that might be more interesting is 194, which is the number of 3rd down attempts they had, which was the fewest in the league this year. The Saints were poor on third down, but it ended up not mattering, because of how seldom they even made it to third down in the first place. If New Orleans can continue to have success on first and second down, Minnesota’s record-setting third down defense might not even be relevant.

Furthermore, New Orleans also converted 80% of their 4th down attempts (best in the league), and if you roll their 4th down conversion numbers into their 3rd down conversion numbers, they’d jump from 19th to 10th. Who cares if you don’t convert on third down if you can just go for it and convert on 4th down?

Put all of the numbers together and you have a better picture. Again, at first glance, it might look like third down is a huge advantage for Minnesota. But the fact of the matter is, New Orleans punted just 60 times this year, the third-fewest in the league. They ranked 2nd in the league in yards per drive and points per drive. Their offense was very, very good at churning out yardage and moving the chains.
Will third down be critical? Yes. Of course. It always is. But if you’re basing your opinion just on success rate, you’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.


The Case for the Saints

Don't look now, but this might be the best supporting cast Drew Brees has ever had. Yes, it's true, all beginning with the backfield duo of veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. Those two became the only backfield duo in NFL history to each accumulate 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season, and formed, perhaps, the best thunder and lightning combo in league history.

We could go on about underrated receiver Michael Thomas, but New Orleans has had prolific wideouts before. No, what truly makes this year's group different is its defense, which finished 10th in the league in points allowed, despite finishing 17th in total defense.

The pass rushing of All-Pro Cameron Jordan (13 sacks), and instant impact of rookie corner Marshon Lattimore (also an All-Pro, with 5 interceptions) have made New Orleans' D a play-making unit, and one you need to score quickly on.

If you're looking for a balanced team, built around the most accomplished quarterback left in the NFC field, you have to love what the Saints bring to the table.


The Case for the Vikings

Minnesota is old-school through and through, winning with a combination of great defense and ball control offense. Similar to Jacksonville in the AFC, the Vikings rely on a dominant defense to make up for a talented, but flawed offense. But, unlike Jacksonville, Minnesota's defense does not have a clear weakness.

While the Jaguars excel against the pass, but struggle against the run, Minnesota ranks second in the league in both rush and pass defense, while leading the league in total and scoring defense. Minnesota has play makers at all three levels, with Everson Griffin (13 sacks) doing it all up front, Anthony Barr flying all over the field at linebacker, and Harrison Smith playing center field, and moving into the box at safety.

Combine that loaded defense with an offense that actually ranks 10th in scoring O, thanks to the surprisingly competent play of quarterback Case Keenum (98.3 QB, rating, 22 TDs, 7 INT), and a ground game that ranks seventh in the league.

If you believe defense wins championships, and love a ball control offense that doesn't shoot itself in the foot, Minnesota is the horse you should bet on.


The Picks

New Orleans 19, Minnesota 16

I’ll keep this one relatively simple - I don’t trust Case Keenum. Like, I get it. He was good this year. But I’m just so used to him being, you know, not, that I just can’t get past it.

If Case Keenum isn’t good, what is Minnesota’s offense doing? Murray and McKinnon aren’t good. Murray is decidedly below average, and McKinnon, purely as a runner, performed below replacement level this year (his value comes from his receiving out of the backfield). Diggs and Thielen both had good years (especially Thielen), but if Keenum reverts to 2016-and-before form, it won’t matter how open they get if Keenum can’t get them the ball, and Keenum’s career completion percentage was just 58.4 percent entering this season (that would have ranked 31st in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks this season).

Yes, Minnesota’s offense is spectacular, which is why I’m projecting this to be a relatively low-scoring game with more field goals than touchdowns. Taking quarterbacks out of the equation, these teams are dead even, as far as I’m concerned. But one of them has Drew Brees, and the other has Case Keenum. It just can’t get past that.


New Orleans 24, Minnesota 21

Hey, we're both going all underdogs in the NFC this week, huh? Personally, I just do not trust that Case Keenum won't turn into a pumpkin this postseason and, as we saw last week, New Orleans' offense is just too balanced to stop entirely.

Stack the box to take away the Saint's two-headed running back monster? No problem, Drew Brees will just carve you up. Sit back and play coverage? The running game gets down hill on you. As great as Minnesota's defense has been this season, New Orleans will still be able to score some points, and I don't know if Keenum and Co. can keep pace.


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