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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tuesday's Gone: Week 18 #NFL Game Predictions WILD CARD ROUND


Tuesday's Gone: WILD CARD ROUND

Week 18: #NFL Game Predictions (w/ spreads & analysis)
Wild Card Round: 2-2 wins; 3-1 v. spread

2017 regular season final wins record: 146-76 (.655): 66%
2017 regular season final spread record: 98-120-5 (.439): 44%

Note/Key: Statistical analysis based on the following metrics (abbreviations): Points scored (PF); points against (PA); Point differential (PD) Yards gained (YG); Yards allowed (YA); Red Zone TD efficiency (RZ); 3rd-down efficiency (3rd); Turnover ratio (TO); Time of possession (TOP); Yards per play (YPP); Sacks (S); Interceptions (INT); Penalty yards (PEN).

Tennessee Titans #5 (+8.5) @ Kansas City Chiefs #4 (44.5): Chiefs 28-21 Titans 22-21
Saturday, 4:20 PM, Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, KS (Weather: Sunny; high 20s)

Reasons: Using the statistics referred to in the note above the Titans come into the Wild Card Round of the playoffs the weakest team of the eight. That’s not a hot take considering the Titans are the 5th seed, but even the 6th-seeded Buffalo Bills finished in the top-ten in twice as many of the aforementioned statistics. Of those two metrics the only meaningful one may be the Titans ability to get after the quarterback, where they ranked 5th with 43 sacks. Tucked away in Tennessee’s 13th-ranked total defense is a great run defense (4th), which will come in handy against a rookie running back who should not only win Offensive Rookie of the Year, but could arguably be the league MVP in Kareem Hunt (1327 rushing yards; 8 TDs). Tennessee will need that pass rush against a Chiefs offense that ranks in the top-ten in point differential (10th), time of possession (9th), points scored (6th), yards gained (5th), time of possession (2nd) and yards per play (2nd), not to mention a 4,000-yard passer in Alex Smith (26 TDs; 5 INTs) and that Hunt guy we were talking about. Tennessee will also need a big day from their own running back Derrick Henry considering DeMarco Murray is out for the game, which could be easy considering Kansas City is 25th against the run. The Titans had an inconsistent season to say the least, and the same could be said about the Chiefs, but Kansas City is home at Arrowhead with more talent than the Titans, despite various injuries, and the Chiefs season was bookended by 5- and 4-game winning streaks, the latter of course being current.

Kansas City led 21-3 at the half. What’s worse is the Chiefs had a 91.2% win probability at the beginning of the 4th quarter when the Chiefs still led 21-10. 52 seconds into the 4th quarter the Titans made it a five-point game and suddenly the Wild Card Round of the playoffs for the Chiefs was beginning to look like a microcosm of their season. The Titans scored 19-unanswered points in the final 24 minutes of the game to erase an 18-point Chiefs lead, the third largest blown lead in Chiefs playoff history. The second largest lead ever blown in Chiefs playoff history, 21 points to the Indianapolis Colts, also came under Andy Reid, and suddenly the Chiefs find themselves in the same position the Philadelphia Eagles annually found themselves in: Always the bride’s maid, never the bride. Adding insult to injury was Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, coming off his worst season as a pro, catching his own pass to score the game-winning touchdown. Only the second such occurrence in NFL history (Brad Johnson, Minnesota Vikings, 1997), Mariota threw a pass intended for the end zone, but the pass was batted down by the corpse of Darrell Revis right into the hands of a clearly shocked Mariota, who very smartly dove for the pylon and scored the go-ahead touchdown. Give the Titans all their due credit, and blame some of this game on the officiating (an official actually retired after this game), but this game was Kansas City’s season wrapped up in one disappointing playoff game. Once again it’s wait until next year, but next year might be without Alex Smith, and maybe even Andy Reid.

Atlanta Falcons #6 (+6) @ Los Angeles Rams #3 (48.5): Rams 27-23 Falcons 26-13
Saturday, 8:15 PM, LA Coliseum, Los Angeles, CA (Weather: Cloudy; high 60s)

Reasons: The reigning NFC champs barely made it to the playoffs, which is actually quite a feat considering the amount of teams that historically miss the playoffs the year following a Super Bowl appearance. The Falcons did in part to a 6-2 second-half record and in part by becoming one of the better defenses in the NFL, ranking in the top-ten in points against (8th) and yards allowed (9th), both much better than a Rams defense that gets far more media coverage, while sacking the quarterback 39 times (13th). That’s not really surprising as the Falcons are coached by Dan Quinn, and actually may even raise questions of “Why not sooner?” considering Quinn was the mastermind behind many of those great recent Seattle Seahawks defenses. The Falcons offense is a shell of it’s record-breaking 2016 self, but still remains one of the most explosive offenses in the league (3rd yards per play; 8th yards gained) as well as one of the league’s most efficient (1st 3rd-down efficiency). The Rams are simply one of the best teams in the NFL, period. Los Angeles dominates both sides of the ball, anchored by players like MVP-candidate Todd Gurley (1305 rushing yards; 13 TDs) on offense and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Donald (11 sacks; 5 forced fumbles; 1 TD) on defense. Combine a Rams team that is close to or surpasses the Falcons in nearly every meaningful metric to the fact the Rams owned Dan Quinn when he was a Seahawks coach and about the only thing left is the Falcons playoff experience over the young Rams team that has exactly none. The Falcons will get after Jared Goff, but that pass rush will likely only set up Gurley, and the Rams are just too talented on both sides of the ball.

The lights were too bright for the young Rams, MVP-candidate Todd Gurley didn’t reach that magical 20 touches needed for a Rams win, and the suddenly stout Falcons defense continues to morph into the speedy Seahawks defense Dan Quinn used to coach. Those were three keys to a game in which all three young Rams stars – Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley and Jared Goff – played well, while the Falcons stars were mediocre, save the typical All-Pro performance from Julio Jones (9 receptions for 94 receiving yard; 1 TD). The biggest key to the game, however, was time of possession, where the Falcons held a 15+ minute advantage. Generally unheard of in the NFL, teams that hold the ball for 15 or more minutes than their opponents are 19-1 this season. The reason is obvious enough, as a Rams team that led the NFL with 30 ppg managed to score only 13 points. The Rams still managed 64 plays, however, only eight fewer plays than Atlanta, which again points to a suddenly stout Falcons defense, responsible for forcing the only two turnovers of the game, both Falcons fumbles. No one wants to play the Atlanta Falcons right now except for maybe their division rival Saints. How the hell did the NFC South send three good teams to the playoffs?

Buffalo Bills #6 (+8.5) @ Jacksonville Jaguars #3 (39.5): Jaguars 27-17 Jaguars 10-3
Sunday, 1:00 PM, EverBank Field, Jacksonville, FL (Weather: Windy; mid-50s)

Reasons: The Buffalo Bills do the “little” things right. They don’t commit a lot of penalties (9th), they hold on to the ball (7th in turnover ratio) and they are very efficient on 3rd down (6th). The Bills also ball hawk, ranking 6th in the league in INTs (18). Buffalo also backed into the playoffs in the most miraculous fashion imaginable, which, after a 17-year playoff drought, might seem like the kind of miracle that has destiny written all over it. I’m not so sure Destiny picked this route. The Jacksonville Jaguars, for years the laughingstock of the AFC, and perhaps the entire NFL, are suddenly ranked in the top-ten (top-six, technically) in ten of the 13 statistics mentioned in the opening note in addition to ranking 11th in the league yards per play (0.1 ypp separates 11th from 9th). The Jaguars are one clearly one of the best teams in the NFL, but the defense really separates them from the rest of the league. In addition to being the No. 2 defense in total defense and points allowed, the Jaguars rank 2nd in both sacks (55) and INTs (21). In other words, they’ll smother Tyrod Taylor and put all the pressure on LeSean McCoy, which probably won’t go so well. Interestingly the Jaguars rank 4th in the NFL in sacks allowed, which should allow Blake Bortles (3,687 passing yards; 21 Ts; 13 INTs), largely considered to the Jaguars Achilles Heal until this season, to operate freely while the Jaguars defense dominates an overwhelmed Bills offense.

Holy shit this game was boring, but it did tell us two things: One, the end of the Bills 17-year playoff drought really did just come in the form of a placeholder for the AFC’s 6th seed, and second, that Nathan Peterman really is terrible. The game told us absolutely nothing about the Jaguars because A) Blake Bortles ran for more yards than he threw for, meaning we’re still confused about Bortles as a quarterback, and B) the Bills put up absolutely no fight on offense, gaining only 263 total yards in over 32 minutes. The Jaguars could be an all-time great defense, but it’s hard to measure them against history when their competition was the AFC South or the Bills in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs; even the Jaguars two interception weren’t impressive considering one came against Nate Peterman in the final minutes of the game. Now the Jaguars head into Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in the Divisional Round; last time Jacksonville played the Steelers this season they picked off Ben Roethlisberger a career-high five times.

Carolina Panthers #5 (+7) @ New Orleans Saints #4 (48): Saints 27-24 Saints 31-26
Sunday, 4:40 PM, Superdome, New Orleans, LA (Weather: Indoors)

Reasons: Conventional wisdom says the Panthers won’t lose to their division rival three times in one season, but the simple fact is the Saints are at home, making that task a little non-conventional for Carolina. The Saints also won those two regular season games 34-13 (Week 3) and 31-21 (Week 13), by an average margin of 15.5 points, and during bookend parts of the season in which both teams were well established. In other words, it’s hard to point to many, if any, significant reasons why the Saints would have dominated both games besides the fact they’re the better team. If you want to point to Cam Newton still recovering from his off-season surgery when the Saints beat Carolina Week 3 one could counter that the Saints were 0-2 when they decidedly beat the Panthers that week. Most people familiar with these two teams will immediately assume a classic defense v. offense football game, in which the Drew Brees-led Saints try to air it out against the vicious front seven of the vaunted Carolina defense. That still rings true to some degree, but most fans would be shocked to see the Saints defense tied the Panthers in points allowed (20.4 ppg; 11th). The Saints also get after the quarterback, ranking 7th in the NFL with 42 sacks; by comparison the Panthers rank 3rd in the NFL with 50 sacks, but Carolina doesn’t protect against the against the pass rush as well as the Saints do, who ranked 2nd in the league in sacks allowed (20), which means Drew Brees could be upright most of the day. Cam Newton might not be upright all day, but he’ll come into New Orleans fired up, where he is 3-4 all-time in the Superdome with out any playoff games. I imagine the Saints will be a lot more fired up, and let’s be honest; the Saints are a much better team at home (7-1 in 2017), and probably in general. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen three teams from the NFC South make the playoffs, especially considering the NFC South is usually trash, so it’ll be tough to have to watch one of these teams go home after the Wild Card Round, because both are capable of making their own long playoff runs.

The third time turned out to not be a charm as the Panthers dropped a rare three games to the Saints this season, twice via regular season divisional matchup and one via cruel playoff scheduling fate. The Panthers held probable Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara to only 23 yards on 10 carries and Cam Newton (349 passing yards; 2 TDs) had one of those games where he outshined Drew Brees (376 passing yards; 2 TDs; 1 INT), arguably the greatest thrower of the football in NFL history, yet it wasn’t enough for the Panthers to overcome the Saints, who went from a team no one even considered at the start of the season into a bona fide Super Bowl contender, if not for that devastating injury to left guard Andrus Peat. The Saints offense could suffer without Peat, especially the ground game, which had been one of the best in the NFL, but Peat’s absence won’t effect the Saints defense much, which sacked Cam Newton four times and defended seven of his passes. Although New Orleans gave up 413 total yards, they only allowed 4.1 yards per rush and 6.8 yards per pass attempt. Cam Newton showed tremendous growth both on the field late in the game and after the game, although he did throw his teammates under the bus by claiming they were satisfied with merely being in the playoffs. You know what, nothing is ever going to change in Carolina, especially if P Diddy buys the team.

Stay tuned for Week 19 #NFL Predictions (w/ spreads & analysis) DIVISIONAL ROUND EDITION coming Saturday morning.

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