Welcome to the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs! If this weekend is anywhere near as good as last weekend, we’re in for a good show. Let’s go into the games.
New Orleans Saints-Seattle Seahawks
The last time both the top seeds in both the NFC and AFC advanced to the conference championship game was the 2009-2010 season, ironically when the top seed in the AFC, the Indianapolis Colts, beat the “best team” as determined by Football Outsider’s Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. History tells us that either the Seahawks or Broncos have a higher than expected chance of being upset. However, in none of those years were the top seeds also the highest ranked teams by DVOA as they are this year (Seattle is first and the Broncos are second). The Seahawks have a historically high DVOA, and had one of the best defenses of the last 20 years. The Seahawk’s offense is above average, but the defense is the reason that weighted DVOA puts the Seahawks first in the league by such a wide margin that second-ranked Broncos are closer to the 12th ranked team than to first. However, New Orleans proved it could win on the road last week, albeit on a last second field goal, and has a top-5 offense. Ultimately, Seattle has home field advantage, which gets magnified in the playoffs. Seattle wins at home, but New Orleans keeps it close through the air and covers the spread.
Indianapolis Colts-New England Patriots
In his preview column, Bill Simmons noted the trend that, every year, one home team favored by 4 points always loses in the division round . Besides the Carolina Panthers (who have an even spread with the 49ers), every other home team is favored by at least 4 points. My prediction is that this team is the New England Patriots. Although pundits have pointed out that the Colts scored 45 points on a banged up Chiefs team, the Chiefs defense was actually better by DVOA than the Patriots during the regular season (Kansas City was 9th and New England was 21st), and the Patriots are dealing with numerous defensive injuries as well. Furthermore, the Colts had the highest DVOA for their performance during Wild Card Weekend out of all games played. Bill Barnwell noted that Tom Brady’s playoff aura is larger overstated, and is based on his early years instead of his recent performance . In a shocker, Indianapolis goes into New England and beats the Patriots to advance to the AFC Championship game.
San Francisco 49ers-Carolina Panthers
Although Carolina is better than San Francisco by regular DVOA, San Francisco’s seven game winning streak has put the 49ers above the Panthers in Weighted DVOA, which weighs recent games more. The 49ers benefit from the return of Michael Crabtree and the offense being at full strength, while the Panthers will likely be missing key weapon Steve Smith due to injury. In the past three seasons, one team from Wild Card Weekend has gone to the Super Bowl, and this year it could be the 49ers. In this one, San Francisco stays hot and extends the winning streak with a victory over Carolina, getting revenge for the regular season.
San Diego Chargers-Denver Broncos
The Chargers went into Denver with their season falling apart, upsetting the heavily favored Broncos. Two out of the last three teams with the highest offensive DVOA in the regular season were upset in the first round, giving San Diego hope. But the differential in overall DVOA in those two games (21% and 23%) is much less than in this game (35%). Denver’s advantage over San Diego is greater than these past cases. San Diego had the second highest DVOA of last week in its win over Cincinnati, and the Chargers will keep this close. Denver wins, but San Diego covers the large spread.