The NFL’s wild card round welcomes back a few familiar and unfamiliar faces this weekend, some in their usual roles, others in new underdoggy ones (hi Patriots!). Using stats that matter rather than ones that don’t, and players who matter rather than those who don’t, it’s pretty elementary to predict which four teams should advance this weekend. It’s harder for football to cooperate and send the right four teams on the the next round. What I’m trying to say is, if any of my four picks lose, it’s not my fault, it’s the pointy ball’s.
We’re gonna be leaning heavily on DVOA, quarterback play, and the injury situation for each team. There is no better measure of overall team quality, there is no position more impactful on the final result, and the importance of good health can scarcely be overstated.
The time: Sunday, 1:40 Pacific
The pick: Seattle 20, Philadelphia 16
We’re on a Seahawks fan site, so I have to pick the hometown guys? Not really. Seattle’s 1-3 in December, with two losses by multiple scores, a less-than encouraging victory at Carolina, and an injury laundry list longer than a college freshman’s on his way home for Christmas break. So recent circumstances inspire little faith.
Yet the Seahawks handily... handled the Eagles six weeks ago. The 17-9 final score doesn’t reflect that Seattle was in control the entire game and would have reached the end zone twice more, if not for a poorly-timed fumble and a more poorly-timed drop.
Not that much has changed for the Philly offensive personnel since, and if Quandre Diggs plays on Sunday (early indications are hopeful), then not much has changed for the Seattle defense either. I don’t think the game will go very differently. Some errors will doom the Seahawks, because that’s a major plot line the NFL writers chose for this season, and the Eagles won’t score with ease.
Before addressing DVOA and quarterback play, the greatest peculiarity of the Seahawks’ season has to be their performance away from home. Going 7-1 on the road was the franchise’s best mark ever. That it came in a campaign where they lost four times (!) at the CLink makes it even more extraordinary, and perhaps more useful since the playoffs will be a road affair. For the first time in recent memory, one can not dread the first playoff game outside of Seattle.
On to the stats. DVOA places a small but clear advantage in the Seahawks’ camp. Seattle’s 9th in weighted DVOA; Philadelphia’s 12th. The Eagles are a little more reliable on defense, the Seahawks are quite a bit more proficient on offense, and they’re middling neighbors on special teams at 19th and 20th.
Quarterback play leans Seattle as well, but not by as much as you’d think. A nine-point edge in QBR for Wilson, along with a 13-point edge in passer rating and almost three times as much DYAR, all combine to somewhat mask the fact that Wentz has been quite, quite good in December. More on that a little later.
To recap: the Seahawks possess an edge in experience, setting, recent history, quarterback play and overall team efficiency.
Oh, but the wild card within the wild card is fourth-down choices.
Final 4th down aggressiveness in 2019 pic.twitter.com/TIUw1NVboj— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) January 2, 2020
The Eagles are the fifth-most aggressive fourth-down team in the league. The Seahawks are third from the bottom. Doug Pederson has long been an advocate of progressive decision-making. On the other hand, Pete Carroll doesn’t appear to have a process by which to decide whether to go for it or kick. That might not harm the Seahawks in one particular game, but it probably does make it harder for them in the long run. Of course, the Eagles could just turn it over on downs twice on Sunday, taking precious points off the board. Either way, there figures to be drama after third down. That’s why it’s a wild card.
However, however, however: injuries. The great equalizer. The question from the teams’ first meeting — “who’s gonna catch the ball for Philadelphia?” — lingers over the Eagles in exactly the same way. Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson will watch from the sidelines on IR. Nelson Agholor did not practice and Zach Ertz was limited.
Wentz’ last five weeks have seen him obviously gain rapport with the new pass-catchers, as the offense has averaged 28.4 points since the Seattle game. Wentz has 10 TDs against just one interception in his last five outings. The Eagles’ passing attack is horizontal to be sure, with 10.4 yards per completion and 6.9 yards per attempt, but it’s also quite error-free right now. Whether that’s worrisome to Seahawks fans depends on how much one fears the explosive pass over the methodical drive.
Let’s talk about those injuries just a little more, though, and slap a metric on them. NFL Man Games Lost on Twitter and mangameslost.com tracks just how hurt every team has been in 2019. The further to the right and the bigger the bubble, the more snake-bitten a team has been this year.
You know exactly what’s coming.
NFL end of regular season injury plot. Games missed to injuries versus team wins. Bubble size represents cumulative quality of players lost (Lost-av metric) https://t.co/C6QQXA8jke pic.twitter.com/IV27DIey1U— Man Games Lost NFL (@ManGamesLostNFL) January 2, 2020
There are our Seahawks, easy as pie to find, color coded in green for the wild card, all the way to the right, with one of the biggest bubbles. The health obstacles Seattle has overcome in 2019 are not just
torn ligaFIGments of your imagination.
Once at 10-2 and again at 11-3, the Seahawks were the conference’s top seed, but lack of depth has been a contributing factor in their crawl toward the finish line. What a shame of an epitaph to an exciting season. And if Seattle’s postseason journey ends in San Francisco or New Orleans or Green Bay, it will be fair to impute some blame to injury luck. Not everything is Carroll and Wilson’s fault, always.
Titans (6) at Patriots (3)
The time: Saturday, 5:15 p.m.
The pick: New England 29, Tennessee 28
What’s not to like about the Ryan Tannehill-Tom Brady battle? The former resurrected his career with the Titans this year, while the latter’s performance has observers trotting out the g word as usual, but instead of “GOAT,” it’s “geriatric.”
Statistically speaking, Tannehill blows Brady out of the water. Which tends to happen when one guy leads the league in passer rating (117.5), Y/A (9.6), Y/C too (13.6) and even ANY/A too (8.52). Meanwhile, Brady’s numbers across the board are 5-15 percent lower than his career averages. For reference, Wilson has never had a single season in which he matched even ONE of Tannehill’s 2019 marks. That’s how good the Tennessee QB has been, and with four rushing TDs to boot.
In DVOA it’s plain to see the matchup is a classic clash of styles. Tennessee’s strength is its offense (6th) while New England’s is its top-ranked defense. The folks at Football Outsiders do like the Titans overall quite a bit more than the general population, ranking them fifth in weighted DVOA, right above the Pats at sixth.
The problem for the Titans offense is that going into Foxborough to beat the Patriots defense in January is a final-boss level task, only they have to do it in the first round of the playoffs, before they have a chance to build their character traits up. That’s the problem, right?
Maybe. Since 2010, the Belichick defenses at home in the playoffs have allowed 28, 10, 20, 28, 28, 22, 31, 7, 20, 16, 17, 14, 20 and 28 points. It’s an average of 21.4 points, which will surprise some of you in one direction and some of you in the other. What I see is a lot of 28’s. It’s really not unheard of for a decent team to go score four touchdowns on the Patriots. Five times it’s happened.
If the Titans secondary can stop Julian Edelman (100 receptions) from getting free on third down and their defensive line can let Sony Michel and James White bumble around for less than four yards a carry, or at their season averages of 3.7 and 3.9 ypc, the game will be close.
Picking against the Patriots in January seems foolish, however. I’d count on a defensive score or a safety or a late tipped pick bailing them out and ending Tennessee’s season in heartbreaking fashion. It’s the kind of thing that happens to New England in the playoffs.
The time: Saturday, 1:35 p.m. Pacific
The pick: Buffalo 31, Houston 10
Two teams I haven’t followed much, so I’ll weigh in with what I do know: the Bills defense is for real and the Texans are the worst team in the AFC field. I don’t think Deshaun Watson gets anything done against Buffalo, the 6th defense by weighted DVOA. Probably Josh Allen outplays him. As he has been since midseason.
First eight weeks
Allen: 14 total TD, 10 total turnovers
Watson: 20 TD, 7 turnovers
Second eight weeks
Allen: 15 TD, 3 turnovers
Watson: 12 TD, 8 turnovers
The trend is much kinder to the Buffalo Bill. Watching two of the most mobile QBs should make the game worthwhile, in the first half at least. Fun fact: Allen and Watson combined for 16 rushing TDs this season.
DVOA edge goes to Buffalo, and by a lot. The Bills are 10th in weighted DVOA, but the Texans are in the negative, at 23rd. Hosting the game figures to help Houston. They’ll need a lot of help.
When in doubt, pick the team with Steve Hauschka. It’s worked most of the time for the entire decade! Why stop now?
The time: Sunday, 10:05 a.m. Pacific
The pick: New Orleans 38, Minnesota 24
The Saints probably should have earned a first-round bye in 2019. To fall to 3, they “needed” two good home teams to lose critical games in the final two weeks. Both came true, and that despite both hosts being in excellent position to win twice. Minnesota raced out to a 10-0 lead over Green Bay in Week 16 and Seattle had multiple chances to cross the goal line in the final seconds vs. San Fran in Week 17, but elected not to, mainly to screw over long-despised New Orleans, their natural rivals. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.
What I’m secretly saying here is, the Seahawks and Vikings should’ve won for their own purposes, but also out of pity for the long-suffering Saints. It’s not very fun to imagine what happens if SEA beats SF and MIN takes care of GB, but...
Saints (1) and Seahawks (2) have byes
Vikings (3) host Packers (6)
Eagles (4) host 49ers (5)
That’s a playoff bracket I can get behind. Oh well.
In actual reality, though, back to MIN @ NO, a rematch of one of the decade’s most exciting playoff games! Only this time all the relevant stats, and home field advantage, favor the Saints.
DVOA: New Orleans places 4th on O, 11th on D and 4th on ST. Minnesota is 10th, 7th, 14th.
wDVOA: Saints are 2nd, Vikings 7th. It’s not that Minnesota is bad. It’s that New Orleans is tough to beat right now, as maybe the most well-rounded team in the NFC.
QB: All Brees did was finish second in passer rating (116.6) while carrying the best TD-INT ratio (27-4) in the league. He had 523 more DYAR than Kirk Cousins and a QBR 13.1 points higher. Spoiler alert: we’re going to see Brees’ continued excellence positively impact his team’s Super Bowl odds at the end of the post.
And Brees has won games against good teams. Cousins has this bad habit of... not. He’s now 6-31 against teams with a winning record at the time. Before anyone faults him for playing in Washington, where nobody wins, he’s also 2-11 with the Vikings against winning teams. QB wins aren’t a great stat, but a track record of losing is a track record of losing.
If someone besides the Seahawks has to win the NFC, it might as well be the Saints, who were screwed out of a Super Bowl 53 appearance and have been on the sorry end of a couple other playoff miracles besides.
After the teams obediently comply with my selections, the divisional bracket will look like this:
(5) Bills at (1) Ravens
(3) Patriots at (2) Chiefs
(5) Seahawks at (1) 49ers
(3) Saints at (2) Packers
Playoff Result Odds: FO and 538
|Team||Conference win||SB 54 win|
|Team||Conference win||SB 54 win|
It’s no surprise the top three teams are the ones with byes. Even disregarding the importance of home field, it’s far easier to emerge from a conference when you only have to win two games in a row. Also, the models like the Saints and hate the Packers. Who are we to disagree?
But speaking of Green Bay — football fans invoke the 2010 Packers and 2011 Giants all the time as examples of wild card teams that caught lava fire at exactly the right moment and rode a steaming streak of serendipity all the way to a championship. Good for them, I say, but the crueler reality is that since 2011, no wild card team has reached the Super Bowl, let alone won it. In the NFC, no wild card team has gotten even as far as the conference title. The last seven postseasons have been about as chalk as you can get.
It’s easier to have the odds carry you than it is it fight them all the way to the top. But get past the Eagles to earn your grudge match next week in San Francisco anyway, you big lunky Seahawks, who always have to do everything the hard way.