With the AFC and NFC Championship games approaching very rapidly, this could very well be the best weekend of football of the season, as generally the NFC and AFC Championship games are better quality games than the Super Bowl.
Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots
With playoff performance factored into the DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, where positive is better for the offense and negative is better for the defense), the New England Patriots have an offensive DVOA of about 30.4% (meaning they should have averaged about 30.4 points a game), but had a defensive DVOA of about 7.0% (meaning they should have given up about 24.9 points a game). Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos have an offensive DVOA of 25.2% (meaning they should have averaged about 29.2 points a game), and also had a defensive DVOA of about -8.3% (meaning they should have given up about 21.4 points per game). Thus, according to DVOA, on a neutral field, Denver should score about 30.8 points, and New England should score about 28.4 points. However, this game is not on a neutral field, it’s in Denver.
Denver is 7 – 1 at home (8 – 1 if you include the playoffs) and, apart from the Charger game, they’ve had a strong showing at home. They have scored at least 20 points in every game at home, averaging 39.5 points at home. Meanwhile, New England has gone 4 – 4 on the road, having scored six points (against the Bengals) and 20 points (against the Panthers), and averaging 25.1 points overall on the road. The Bengals and the Panthers were the only teams above .500 they faced on the road. The Broncos are better than both those teams. On paper, it looks like a tough matchup for the Patriots.
No, I’m not going to cite the two losses to the Patriots that happened almost ten years ago; those Patriot teams had excellent defenses. This Patriots team is well below the average defensive unit according to DVOA. However, Bill Belichick is a mastermind and can probably expose some of the weaknesses in the Broncos defense (no Von Miller and having the 27th ranked pass defense based on yards). The Patriots defense is also below average (18th in passing yards allowed), so the chance of a shootout is high. And if that happens, Manning has more weapons than Brady, and because of John Fox’s conservative play style, I’d imagine the Broncos would lead in terms of the time of possession and probably the score of the game.
My gut tells me the Patriots should win, but all the elements seem to point in Denver’s favor. It’ll be a close game.
Denver 34, New England 31.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks
Statistically, the 49ers are outmatched in just about every way in both normal and advanced stats (except in rushing yards and rushing defense). The Seahawks score more points, have a higher overall DVOA (45.6% vs. 24.2%), a higher points per game margin (11.4 vs 8.4) and a higher turnover differential (+20 vs +12). On paper, the Seahawks are clearly better than the 49ers. Add in the fact that the game is in Seattle, and it looks like a lost cause for the 49ers, as the last two times in Seattle ended in two defeats by a combined 71-16. That doesn’t even tell the whole story of how bad those games were. Colin Kaepernick looked frightened and unready for the pressure in both those games. Russell Wilson made one of the best linebacker corps in football look incompetent.
But this game is not going to be the game everyone thinks it will be. People think the Seahawks will blow out the 49ers, but the 49ers have not had a bad post-season loss (in terms of point differential) since Jim Harbaugh took over. The 49ers may be outmatched in terms of stats such as DVOA, but crazier upsets have happened. In 2010, the New York Jets beat the Patriots in New England. That New England offense had the highest offensive DVOA measured at the time and the overall DVOA difference was 39.1% in favor of the Patriots.
In addition to the players, the Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll coaching matchup is key. Harbaugh has Carroll beat in the head to head matchup overall, dating back to each coach’s college days, when Carroll had some incredible USC teams and Harbaugh got handed a pretty bad team in Stanford. But Harbaugh’s teams beat Carroll three out of four times, and each time USC was the higher seed and generally was the better team. The most notable incident was the first game Harbaugh and Carroll met. Playing in Los Angeles in 2007, Stanford beat USC 24 to 23 in a game where Stanford was a 41 point underdog. The 49ers aren’t nearly as outmatched as that Stanford team was.
In addition, the 49ers are on an eight game winning streak and have looked very impressive (averaging 25.6 points per game), particularly the Panthers game. Meanwhile, in the last eight games, Seattle has lost twice (to the 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals), and have averaged a mere 20 points per game after the Saints game. In addition, I believe teams have found out Russell Wilson’s weak spot: let him chill in the pocket and don’t let him escape to scramble, you can hold him to a 64.5 passer rating. Plus, Kaepernick has had a 100.6 passer rating during the win-streak, the most impressive being the Arizona game where he had a 111.2 passer rating. It will be tough to throw against the Legion of Boom (the reason I didn’t mention many defensive stats is that the Seattle secondary still looks incredible, even if they do hold a little bit (even if they commit holding too often). But as mentioned earlier, the 49ers have a slight advantage at running the ball.
The 49ers have the coaching advantage with Harbaugh, they are riding a hot streak, and they know how to contain Wilson. They’ll surprise the world.
49ers 23, Seahawks 21.