SAC NFL Wild Card Weekend Preview

Arizona Cardinals vs Carolina Panthers 

For the first NFC match in the playoffs, we have the injured Red Birds against the below .500 Panthers.  This is one game that will lower everyone’s expectations, because the Panthers are highly favored to win on the road due to the Cardinals losing some of their star players.  Additionally, the Cardinals have other issues to deal with.

In the beginning of their season, the Arizona Cardinals were a red hot team with sole possession of the NFC West and the ability to potentially win the NFC.  All of that confidence started to fade away when the Cardinals lost their starting quarterback, Carson Palmer, to injury.  The Cardinals seemed finished, but their backup quarterback Drew Stanton still helped them keep in pace with the rest of the NFC, with some help from their defense.  However, the one thing that every coach fears is to have their backup quarterback also get injured, and that was the case for Drew Stanton.  When Drew Stanton injured his knee, the Cardinals had to use Ryan Lindley, who has not played a game since the 2012 season.  This rusty quarterback had to deal with the potent Seahawks defense when he first started his season, and that is a bad starting position when you are rusty.  I am not sure that Ryan Lindley will do a good job against a Carolina defense that is looking like its old self from last season.  The Panthers had two INTs from Matt Ryan, and Ryan Lindley is no Matt Ryan.  This could be a bothersome game for Ryan Lindley against the Panther’s defense.  Some of the key points for the Cardinals to win is to run the ball, keep Cam Newton in the pocket, and improve their rush defense.  Ryan Lindley will feel less pressure if the Cardinals can run the ball efficiently, but the running game has been dormant for the Cardinals in the last couple of games.  Most of their last TDs have been from passing instead of running.  If passing is the only way for the Cardinals to win then this makes their plays a bit more predictable for the Panthers to focus more on passing defense rather than rushing.  For the Cardinals defense, they have to keep Cam Newton in the pocket and make sure he does not run.   Cam Newton has an incredible ability to run if he needs to. It is almost like dealing with Russell Wilson, who tired out the Cardinals defense.  The Cardinals are currently ranked 31st in rushing defense.  This is one area they need improvement if they want to stop Cam Newton’s running ability and the rest of the Panthers RBs.  In their Sunday Night Football game against the Seahawks, Marshawn Lynch ran for 113 yards, including a 79 yard TD run, while Russell Wilson ran for 88 yards.   If the Cardinals cannot stop the Seahawks running game, then they have little chance to stop the Panthers’ running game.  The Cardinals do not solely have to improve their offense, but their defense as well to stop the surging Panthers offense. cam newton

The Carolina Panthers are the second team to go into the playoffs with a losing record.  One may think that since they have a losing record they would stand no chance in the playoffs, especially with Cam Newton recently being injured in a car accident.  However, the Panthers have ended their season on a 4 game winning streak.  They are on fire coming into the postseason after burning the Falcons in a complete blowout for the NFC South title.  In terms of momentum, the Panthers have the advantage, which makes them the better team against the Cardinals.  Some key strengths I have for the Panthers primarily focuses on their offense, with Jonathan Stewart being particularly effective and Cam Newton making smart decisions as of late both in the air and on the ground.   Even though the Panthers rushing game is very efficient and can probably beat the Cardinals rushing defense, they shouldn’t be too over-reliant on Newton for rushing yards.  Cam Newton has had over 500 rushing yards this season and this is good, but it then depletes Cam Newton’s ability to pass the ball and puts him at risk of injury.  Jonathan Stewart has been on a roll lately and the Panthers should ride him to the divisional playoffs while encouraging Newton to get the ball to key receivers like Rookie of the Year candidate Kelvin Benjamin and the dependable tight end Greg Olsen. If they are too one dimensional, they could make themselves prone to being shut down by Bruce Arians’ game-plan.  However, if they can maintain balance while still doing what they do best, Carolina should move on. I have the Panthers winning this game 27-10.

Baltimore Ravens vs Pittsburgh Steelers

This wildcard matchup is definitely the more interesting one of the AFC matchups. The Steelers will be hosting the Ravens during primetime in a very important game for both teams. Pittsburgh will possibly be playing without their dual-threat feature back, Le’Veon Bell. The Ravens have a very strong rush defense, allowing only 88.2 rushing yards per game, so even if Bell played he would have a hard time running all over them. However, Bell is an excellent blocking back as well, and is better at blocking than backup Dri Archer. What we’ll see of Archer is also up in the air, considering the Steelers have very recently signed team-hopper Ben Tate after news that Bell’s knee injury is a hyperextended knee that could cut his season short. Above that, remember that the Ravens rush defense is great and can easily hold down someone like Tate or Archer. However, their rush defense hasn’t done as well as of late and the Steelers could expose that.

The Ravens running back situation, on the other hand, hasn’t had many problems since the start of the season. After the news of Rice’s suspension being indefinite and the termination of his contract, the Ravens quickly learned that Justin Forsett is their man with 1,266 rushing yards on the season. The Steelers rush defense, unlike Baltimore’s, has been doing better as of late. They allowed an average of only 84 rushing yards per game in their last three games. That’s after facing the Bengals’ Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Despite the lack of Bell, I think the Steelers end up with the stronger rush game than Baltimore this Sunday, as Forsett has averaged only 62 yards in his last 3 games.

antonio brown

Not only are these two teams similar in their rush defense, but they’re also very similar in their pass defense, too. Both teams allow around 250 pass yards per game. With Ben Roethlisberger having the best season of his career and tied with Drew Brees for most pass yards, Antonio Brown leading the league in receptions and receiving yards, and Joe Flacco being 1,000 yards short of Big Ben, on paper it looks like the Steelers would dominate easily. I don’t think that’s the case, though. Flacco is a very underrated player, especially when it comes to the playoffs. He and Ben have similar win percentages, each with 4 losses and Flacco with 9 wins while Ben has 10. Let’s not forget to talk about arguably the league’s most aggressive player, Steve Smith, Sr. We all know that he can explode and have a great game, and Torrey Smith can do that to a lower, but very effective, degree. If Joe Flacco and Co. get their heads in the right place, it can mean the end for the Steelers.

Baltimore’s receivers are no Antonio Browns, though. We all saw what he was capable of against the Bengals with a beautiful 71 yard punt return TD and a 63-yard catch and run TD dropping 3 guys to the ground, one being a teammate. Big Ben also has Martavis Bryant who has the record for the longest play made this season on a 94 yard touchdown and Markus Wheaton who is always there when it counts.   The Steelers are the scarier team overall but the Ravens are definitely no joke. With the way the Steelers have been playing, I think they end up winning, 27-21.

Cincinnati Bengals vs Indianapolis Colts

The first game of the Sunday set is between the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals.  The Colts have an overall DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) of 4.7% while the Bengals have a DVOA of 4.6%.  The Colts score on average 28.6 points per game, and the Bengals score 22.6 points per game.  The Colts allow an average of 23.1 points per game, and the Bengals allow 21.5 points per game.  Using those statistics alone, and assuming a neutral field, the Colts have a better chance of winning.  They have an offense that is 6 points per game better than the Bengals, and while their defense allows 1.6 points more than the Bengals, the differential is still 4.4 points in their favor.

andrew luck

However, we can’t look at stats in a pure vacuum.  We have to consider multiple aspects of each team.  One important aspect is the passing portion of the offense each team has.  The Colts have one of the most impressive quarterbacks in Andrew Luck.  Despite having a letdown game against Dallas in Week 15, Andrew Luck was still a top QB this year, and the Bengals’ poor pass rush (20 sacks, last in the league), means that he will have plenty of time to find his many offensive weapons, like TY Hilton, Reggie Wayne and Coby Fleener. Andrew Luck averages 297.1 yards a game, has 40 TDs on the season with only 16 picks, and has already played the Bengals earlier this season at home putting up an impressive 344 yards and 2 TDs.  The Colts won that game 27 to nothing.

Yet, statistics show that perhaps that game was a fluke for the Bengals.  I mean, they have the 3rd ranked pass defense in the NFL.  They are especially proficient in creating turnovers, and have had more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed. The Bengals have a formidable rushing attack, with a two headed monster of second year Giovani Bernard and stellar rookie Jeremy Hill. Because of them, the Bengals have the 2nd most rushing touchdowns in the league. Shutting them down will be the biggest challenge for the Colts and their 22nd ranked rushing defense.  Unless they can get ahead to a big enough lead to induce the Bengals to abandon the run, the containing the Bengals rushing attack will be challenging for the Colts.

However, there are several factors that favor the Colts. One is Andy Dalton on national television. It’s cliche to an extent, but it’s glaring.  In his 3 playoff games, he has a rate of 56.2, 1 TD and 6 picks, a terrible display from an aspiting franchise quarterback.  His record in games shown on national TV is 3-7.  He’s looked lost in national television games, and while he may have bucked that trend against Denver in Week 16, his performance the next week against Pittsburgh on Sunday Night suggests that the Denver game may have been an aberration. Also, AJ Green is still yet to pass concussion protocol, and even if he does, he will have to go up against Vontae Davis, who has been a top five corner this year and hasn’t allowed a touchdown in coverage. The Colts should get the win at home with a decent cushion. Final prediction: Colts 28 Bengals 14. 

Dallas Cowboys vs Detroit Lions

This is a much anticipated matchup between two top teams is poised to arguably be the best one of Wildcard weekend. The Detroit Lions, with new coach Jim Caldwell, have taken the next step from mediocrity to a solid contender. Led by perennial All-Pro Calvin Johnson and the best run defense in the NFL, the Detroit Lions were able to secure a playoff spot and launch a strong challenge against the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North title. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys were predicted to be a bottom-ten team after a terrible Week 1 showing against the Niners, but instead of wilting, they had a 12-4 season with some signature victories, like their win against the Seahawks in Seattle. Both teams have a great QB-WR tandem and a middling pass defense, but the similarities end there.

Detroit didn’t dominate their opponents, but they got the job done eking out close victories and quietly emerging as playoff contenders. On offense, Golden Tate has proven to be a worthwhile acquisition, as he had 99 catches, 1331 yards and 4 touchdowns. He successfully took pressure off Calvin Johnson and even filled in for him as the primary receiver whenever he missed games due to injury. Megatron is still the main focus of the Lions offense, and while he has had a relatively down year, he is still a top shelf wide receiver and should have no trouble shredding Brandon Carr and providing some highlight plays. On defense, the Lions got a big break when Ndamukong Suh’s suspension was reduced to a fine. The Lions’ run defense held opposing running backs to 69.3 yards per game this year, and Suh is a big reason why. The main weakness for the Lions would be their lack of offensive depth. Both Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are good offensive options, but there isn’t much outside of them. The tight end position has been virtually nonexistent and only twice has a receiver other than Johnson or Tate had more than 50 receiving yards. Joique Bell and Reggie Bush are a good committee, but neither of them had a 100 yard game, and the Lions are not much of a running team (7th fewest running plays this year). The Lions will need to rely on their two star receivers or have someone else step up in order to move on to the next round. Also, Matthew Stafford has never won on the road against a team with a winning record, and to change that this weekend in Dallas, he needs to be a better distributor of the football to counter the Cowboys’ defensive gameplan.

The Dallas Cowboys are a surprise team who rode their stars to get to where they were, and to win, they’ll need those star players to fire on all cylinders on offense. The much maligned Tony Romo silenced many critics this year on his way to a Pro Bowl season, and Dez Bryant set the franchise record for receiving touchdowns with 16. Terence Williams and Jason Witten are there to serve as important secondary targets. However, despite the excellent passing options in Dallas, the Cowboys average 30.7 passing plays per game, second least in the league. And for good reason. Running back DeMarco Murray has been simply incredible. He won the rushing title with 1845 yards and tied for the league lead with 13 touchdowns. Of course, it would be criminal to avoid crediting the offensive line. Led by cornerstone left tackle Tyron Smith and youngsters Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, they have opened up huge holes for Murray and gave Romo plenty of time to throw the football. On defense, the Cowboys were projected to be historically bad, but they have quietly rebounded this season, climbing to the middle of the pack in terms of yardage and points allowed. Furthermore, they are second in the NFL with 31 takeaways behind only JJ Watt’s Texans. The biggest problem for the Cowboys would have to be their issues with big time wide receivers. Odell Beckham Jr’s monster Sunday nighter comes to mind, as well as their last two games against Megatron’s Lions. Now that the Lions also have a viable number two in Golden Tate, Dallas’ defense has an even tougher task ahead. Also, Dallas doesn’t have a very strong pass rush averaging only 1.75 sacks per game this season. The oft-sacked Matthew Stafford should have a better protection from his offensive line against this weak pass rush, especially with Cowboys defensive tackle Henry Melton out for the season. The Cowboys may need to get creative with some blitzes in order to even things out on this front.

murray and oline

Both teams have star wide receivers and quarterbacks who will eagerly throw to them if opportunity presents itself. Detroit doesn’t run the ball much to begin with, and the Cowboys will try to run, but the strong run defense of the Lions will encourage them to pass more often. Combined with the middling pass defenses of both teams, this has all the makings of a high-octane shootout. Even in a shootout, however, victory in the trenches will be the key to advancing in the playoffs. If the Cowboys offensive line can hold Suh and the Lions defensive line in check, then the Cowboys won’t have to shift away from the run as much and can play the game to their terms. Also, holding back the Detroit pass rush will enable Tony Romo to connect with Dez Bryant on crucial deep throws. However, if the Lions defensive line can break through the Cowboys offensive wall, the pressure will be put fully on Romo, and that does not usually end well for Dallas. Most likely, the advantages on each side of the line should even out, leading to a modest performance from Murray. The passing attack of both teams will be put to the test, and since Dallas is a more complete team with more options, they will get the edge in this exciting offensive battle. Detroit 28 – 38 Dallas.

Momentum in the NFL Playoffs

Pundits love to talk about “getting hot at the right time.” Clichés about teams “firing on all cylinders” pass for analysis about why certain teams will advance and make Super Bowl runs. But does a team’s performance at the end of the regular season affect its playoff performance? If momentum does exist, then the data should bear it out.

To investigate this, I gathered data on every team that played in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs from the division re-alignment in 2002-03 through last season (96 teams). I analyzed each team’s result in the Wild Card game; then I noted whether the team was at home or away, each team’s win total for the season, and the team’s record in the last four games of the regular season. I ran a logistic regression to predict wild card game result while controlling for home field advantage.

glm(formula = Result ~ Last4 + as.factor(Home), family = “binomial”)
Deviance Residuals:
     Min                1Q             Median              3Q               Max
 -1.37969        -1.11256        -0.00964         1.14641          1.35788
Coefficients:
Estimate Std.Error z value Pr(>|z|)
(Intercept) 0.1059 0.6776 0.156 0.876
Last4 -0.1302 0.2234 -0.583 0.56
as.factor(Home)1 0.4882 0.4128 1.183 0.237

In looking at the regression output, we can see the p-value for the last four games, the so-called “momentum” variable, is not significant. When controlling for home field, a team’s record in the last four games going into the playoffs is not significant in predicting whether the team wins or loses. I modified this regression by both taking out home field and using the last four games win difference between the two teams playing, but neither of those returned significant p-values either.

Wild Card Result
Wins in Last 4 Loss Win
1 4 9
2 11 11
3 26 17
4 7 11

To further visualize this, I created a two-way table with wins in last four regular season games and Wild Card result for each team in the sample.  To measure whether the end of season momentum and playoff result are related in some way, I ran a chi-squared test for independence and the p-value was insignificant. This means that wins in the last four games of the season and Wild Card results are statistically independent of each other.

All of this is evidence that momentum is just a fallacy, confirmation bias in pundit’s minds. The truth is no one really knows what’s going to happen, and regular season momentum is just one tool to guess how a team will do in the post season. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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