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Monday, July 24 2017

NFL Predictions 2014: Wild Card

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All in all the predictions went well for me on the season. Naturally I took some lumps in the final week, as I always do, because no one really knows who will play or what teams will show up. I went 10-6 picking winners (166-89-1 overall) which was a handful short of where I typically want to be (north of 170). I definitely regret taking some dumb chances, probably about five or so, when I knew as soon as I typed the pick it would probably not go the way I was going. Being conservative is boring and on those occasions I blew it. Last week I was frustrated with Buffalo beating New England because I thought the Patriots would have more interest in maintaining some winning streaks on their home turf. Conversely, what was Dallas doing going all out against Washington? I did not see that coming. Had I picked the opposite on those two results I would have gone 12-4. San Diego's inability to beat a Kansas City team led by Chase Daniel at quarterback is something I do not regret one bit, and Miami at home over the Jets I would do again.

At any rate, the bigger bummer was against the spread. I struggled at 6-10 (131-125 overall) to give away some of my cushion in that area. I had the points with the Bills, but lost on all of the other games. I lost some close ones with the Lions failing to cover and the Jaguars covering, plus a total blindside with Carolina creaming Atlanta. On the plus side I finished strong on the over/under with a 9-5-2 (144-109-3 overall) that obviously could have gone better with a little luck. Putting it all together I now stand +41 against Las Vegas heading into the playoffs, which for me is when the real work begins. 

Arizona (11-5) @ Carolina (7-8-1): It amazes me how much perception has turned this matchup around 180 degrees. The Panthers whip a couple bad teams, in domes by the way, and suddenly they are contenders? No one remembers that in between those routs of New Orleans and Atlanta by a combined 75-13 that they squeaked past two more losing teams (Cleveland, Tampa Bay) by a combined 36-30 on their home field where this contest is being held. The Cardinals have lost four of their past six games and I definitely understand their issues at quarterback with Ryan Lindley starting. However, two of those losses were against Seattle who is trucking everyone right now. They lost last week in San Francisco against a team trying to send out their head coach on a winning note and in a game they did not need to win. During this stretch they beat Kansas City, who was fighting for a playoff berth, and shut down a St. Louis team that was hot. For my money, they are certainly not a dumpster fire at this point. 

One thing I look at here is the record outside of division play. Carolina was 3-6-1 outside of the garbage NFC South. Arizona was 8-2 when not going up against the brutal NFC West. Again, the huge factor is quarterback play and I get it. Cam Newton is playing like he was touched by God after his car accident, and if you listen to him he seems to think he is on a Blues Brother-type mission. Good for him, but forgive me for not forgetting these guys got smashed 31-13 in Minnesota a month ago and did so while limiting the Vikings to 12 first downs and 210 total yards. And that was their fifth loss in a row at the time. They have faced some poor defenses of late, and the Cardinals have been going up against pretty much a murderer's row of defenses. How do those teams stack up with what Lindley is going to see here? All year Carolina has struggled to adapt without pass rushing stud Greg Hardy and now I feel as if they finally have started looking like their 2013 version. They finished tenth in total defense (339.8) albeit against a soft schedule, but Arizona was twenty-sixth (368.2) overall. Turnovers helped the Cardinals wind up fifth in scoring (18.7) while the Panthers were twenty-first (23.4). 

In my mind, turnovers are going to be the deciding factor even more than they usually are. Both teams are going to do everything in their power to hold the football. It might mean sticking to the run more than usual for the visitors. Carolina is eighth in rushing attempts, and their backfield is healthy. Even with injuries they ran pretty well this year (4.3/127.3). Arizona's defense has been touched up of late and their numbers against the run (4.4, 108.7) show it. I wonder how well they can hold up here on the road. On offense the Cardinals were horrific running the ball (3.3, 81.3) besting only Oakland, and I am not sure they can really do a lot of damage against a Panthers defense (4.5, 112.0) that figures to stack the box daring Lindley to beat them. Making matters worse, they lack a difference maker in their backfield with Andre Ellington in street clothes. 

On the stat sheet the passing offenses are equally mediocre across the board, with similar numbers in most categories. Protecting the quarterback is one area with a big difference as Arizona has allowed just 28 sacks compared to 42 for Carolina. However, on defense the Panthers have the edge in that area (40 to 35) and with an inexperienced signal caller in hostile territory things could get ugly for Lindley trying to escape the pass rush. Plus, the Cardinals have the fourth-worst pass defense (259.5) and as I mentioned earlier have helped their cause with 18 interceptions.

Arizona is more battle tested, going 6-4 against teams finishing 8-8 or better, and 2-3 against the playoff field. Carolina did not face any non-losing teams that failed to make the playoffs, and went just 1-5-1 versus teams in the tournament. They spent the past seven weeks of the season playing six losing teams. Last week's playoff atmosphere certainly helped get them in the mood I suppose, but all told they are just 4-4 at home. Arizona is 4-4 on the road. When I line up the scoring numbers, it comes up almost identical for these teams. At home Carolina scores 18.3 and allows 19.8 on average. On the road Arizona puts up 18.4 and gives up 19.9. This is shaping up to be a race to 20. When I started this writeup I felt as if I would go upset, but the more I look at the numbers I have a hard time. Coaching is big and Bruce Arians is a lot better than Ron Rivera. However, he has no quarterback to work with so his deep ball offense is not going to work well versus a defense waiting for Lindley to throw a duck down the field. Because of that, and factoring in just a little revenge over the last time these guys played here in a playoff game I think the home team is going to pull this out: Carolina 19, Arizona 16 (AZ +6.5/under 39)

Baltimore (10-6) @ Pittsburgh (11-5): I love the idea of these two bitter rivals hooking up in a playoff game. It has only happened three times previously, all wins by the Steelers at Heinz Field, in the 19 seasons since the Ravens moved from Cleveland.  Each team has a win this season on their home turf by 20 points. Baltimore won 26-6 early (week 2) and Pittsburgh won 43-23 in midseason (week 9) which makes this a perfect time for the rubber match. The margin of victory was kind of odd considering the last five meetings prior to 2014 were decided by within 3 points. This game should revert to the usual history of the series. Le'Veon Bell's injury leaves the home team without almost 40% of their total offense this season. They should have been turning to backup LeGarrette Blount, an experienced player who last year scored 4 touchdowns in a playoff game for the Patriots, but they cut him during the season because of his attitude. Instead their backfield is led by unknown Josh Harris and might feature newly acquired Ben Tate who is on his third team this season. 

As huge as Bell has been for this offense, and his fantasy owners, I am not as concerned about his loss in this matchup. In the first meeting they were undone by a 3-0 turnover margin and they were run over. In the rematch they contained the run, won the turnover battle 2-1 and Ben Roethlisberger threw 6 touchdown passes to pace the runaway win. Bell ran the ball just 10 times and on 16 touches finished with 58 total yards. Yes, his presence changes the dynamic, but it is not as if he was the sole reason they won the last time these teams played here. Baltimore actually finished a strong 4-4 on the road and their only other loss by more than one score came two weeks ago in Houston 25-13 with the Texans starting Case Keenum at quarterback. Pittsburgh is 6-2 on this field, but both losses were puzzlers. They were tripped up by a very bad Tampa Bay team here 27-24 in the first month of the season, and lost a shootout 35-32 to New Orleans. Fortunately for them both of those teams play in the NFC.

Speaking of which, the Steelers were a crisp 7-1 against teams who finished with a winning record or, ahem Carolina, made the playoffs. If not for the Bell injury, this would be a team many consider a dangerous threat to win it all for that reason. Since week 2 they have not lost to a good team. Against the same group of teams the Ravens were 2-6 although they did beat Miami who finished 8-8. The last time they beat a good team, by this metric, would be the Panthers in week 4. That's a long time to go without a meaningful victory. Bell or not I think they are outmatched here. Joe Flacco has a ring, but I would not put him in the class of other recent Super Bowl winners and certainly not with Roethlisberger. 

Looking at the scoring averages, Baltimore scores 25.8 and allows 24.1 on the road so they have gotten in some high scoring games. Pittsburgh has similar results at home, outscoring their foes 32.1 to 24.8. The key differences in scoring overall for these teams are the Ravens defensively where their defense is markedly better at home and the Steelers offense at home where they are markedly better. Home field definitely matters here. The key factor obviously is the passing game for Pittsburgh (312.3) and while a big chunk of the touchdown strikes (12 of 33) came in a two-game stretch including the last meeting I definitely feel they can throw the ball here on a weak Baltimore pass defense (248.7) that has gotten worse in recent weeks. Big Ben can shake rushers, but the Ravens are second in sacks (49) which is why it helps to have the crowd on his side as opposed to dealing with vocal fans on the road. Pittsburgh's pass defense has also been soft (253.1) and given up the fourth most passing scores (30) in the league against only 11 interceptions with the seventh-fewest sacks (33). Their defense will show up in this game though, I am sure of that. Baltimore's passing game has been average, but they have only given up 19 sacks. If they can protect Flacco this should be a fight.

It is hard to look at what the Steelers did running the ball (4.1, 109.5) because they are without Bell. However, I look for them to patch together some surprise packages and make the most of their new parts. These guys might lack NFL experience, but they have carried the ball in their lifetimes and are going to do some things. The Ravens likewise are hard to gauge by their stout season numbers against the run (3.6, 88.3) because Haloti Ngata is coming off a four-game suspension. Either way, I would not anticipate a huge running effort by the home team, just enough to keep things honest. On the flip side, Baltimore can run the ball (4.5, 126.2, 16 TD) and while Pittsburgh has held teams down in that area (4.4, 100.3) per game their average per carry is seventh highest in the league. Justin Forsett had a breakthrough season finishing with 1,266 yards but definitely wore down in December. He had two big runs (32, 44 yards) over his final four games, but beyond those outbursts averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. His ability to break a long run and get 20-plus effective carries is going to determine their chances. I like them to run a lot and try to keep the ball from Big Ben, but when he gets it the Steelers will score. Assuming they can stay close I know the home team gets this done at the end: Pittsburgh 28, Baltimore 24 (PIT -3/over 44.5)

Cincinnati (10-5-1) @ Indianapolis (11-5): Both AFC games are rematches this week, and this one replays a straight up rout from week 7 when the Colts won here 27-0. When I say rout, I mean it. The Bengals were limited to 8 first downs and 135 total yards, moving the chains just 1 of 13 on third down. They have a lot of adjustments to make, but things are going to be a lot different this time around with personnel changes. The key one is wide receiver A.J. Green who might suit up. He is listed as doubtful with a concussion, but it is a playoff game so I am skeptical of him sitting out. Running back Jeremy Hill is much more of a factor now in the offense and should make a difference. In that first meeting Indianapolis had 506 total yards, but Ahmad Bradshaw is missing from this one, and he totaled 88 yards the first time around. A couple pieces on the offensive line are now gone and I seriously doubt the rematch is anywhere close to as one sided. 

Obviously Indianapolis had a weak division, sweeping the AFC South meaning they were only a 6-5 team when not playing division foes. They did beat Houston (9-7) twice, but went just 2-4 versus playoff teams including a late season 42-7 wipeout in Dallas. My take on that result is that they team still won five of their final six games and heading into the game without stud receiver T.Y. Hilton they pretty much knew nothing was on the line for them. They are 6-2 in their dome, losing 30-27 to Philadelphia early in the year and 42-20 to New England to start the second half of their schedule. Those teams possess offensive weapons and were able to score with Andrew Luck and company. I am not so sure Cincinnati can do the same thing here. The Bengals are 5-3 on the road including three wins on consecutive weeks in November. They are 3-4-1 against playoff teams and got a big victory at home over Denver two weeks ago. It has been two months since they lost to a team other than the Steelers who swept them in the final month. 

I expect a pretty competitive game here. The knock on Andy Dalton is he stinks in the playoffs and that will happen when you lose and play poorly so many playoff games in a row in a short period of time. Andrew Luck has no such knock after leading a comeback last year from down 38-10 to Kansas City. He is the type of quarterback a team dreams about having because fans never feel like they are out of it with him at the controls. Conversely, Dalton is a crap shoot. He could come out and play well or totally destroy the team's chances. On the stat sheet Indianapolis has the league's top passing offense (316.4) and most passing touchdowns (42) to boot. Cincinnati is eighth-worst in the league (221.9) with only 20 TD strikes against 17 interceptions. Both teams are in the top 8 when it comes to sacks allowed, combining to give up just 52 over 32 games, but the Colts have generated over twice as many sacks defensively (41 to 20). It is a big advantage to have, coupled with the home crowd noise in the dome. Turnovers could equalize, as the visitors have a 20 to 12 edge in interceptions. They have also allowed fewer touchdown passes (18 to 27) but Vontae Davis is capable of shutting down whoever winds up at the primary wide receiver position for the Bengals. 

We know Indianapolis struggles to run the ball (3.9, 100.8) and lacks a difference maker in their backfield. Cincinnati now has that guy in Hill for their running game (4.4, 134.2) and paired with Giovani Bernard in passing situations they form a nice duo, helping them finish second in rushing touchdowns (19). Finishing drives is key to winning big games, and if they can pound in scores when reaching the red zone it might be enough to help them over the top. The rushing defenses are both average, and have combined to allow 30 scores on the ground. The Colts are a little better (4.3, 113.4) than the Bengals (4.2, 116.3) but I expect the visitors to win the battle assuming the game is close. Slow starts have plagued Luck and the Colts all season. I am sure it will be a focus of theirs to play tight and protect the ball in the early going to avoid digging a hole. Likewise, the Bengals need to stay close into the second half to keep their offense balanced because Dalton is not going to win a shootout with Luck. I expect a close game that resembles old school playoff games. Defense is a big factor. Cincinnati has scored 18.7 points and allowed 18.6 per game on the road. Indianapolis has put up 28.0 and given up 17.8 at home. This should be a game with both teams in the low twenties. I do not look for a high scoring outcome. The home team gets another one because their quarterback is clutch: Indianapolis 23, Cincinnati 19 (IND -3/under 51.5) 

Detroit (11-5) @ Dallas (12-4): I am not sure what to make of the Lions. They were a game away from getting home field in a competitive NFC playoff field, but as a road team I hesitate to take them too seriously. They are 4-4 away from their dome, with one of those wins coming in London against Atlanta. It is not so much the results that bother me as much as the scoring output. They put up just 15.6 points per game on the road, allowing 19.6. The Cowboys are actually less potent offensively on their home field as well, scoring 24.0 and giving up 21.4. Their 4-4 home record certainly makes them vunerable. This is what you get when you build a massive stadium with enough seats for every Tom, Dick and Harry to find a seat and maybe root for the visitors. Perhaps they got their momentum going with a 42-7 blowout of Indianapolis here two weeks ago, and right or wrong as it pertains to overusing starters in a game they did not need to win it continued last week in wiping out Washington on the road. This team is hot, notably on offense where they have posted 41, 38, 42 and 44 points in four December victories. 

The concern here is whether or not Detroit can match points. Dallas figures to get their scoring in. It would be hard for me to imagine them not getting 20 given how well the offense has played lately, but here on this field they have had outputs of 17, 17, 17 and 10 while losing all of those games so it definitely is possible. Using 20 as the magic number, Detroit has scored exactly 20 twice on the road and their highest totals are 24 and 22. They have given up 24, 21, 34 and 30 in various games played outside of their dome this season so I wonder if it adds up for them here. Their record against playoff teams is just 1-5, with four of those losses coming on the road and the lone win being over Green Bay 19-7 in week 3. They did beat an 8-8 Miami team, but I struggle to believe this team can do anything in the playoffs when they have failed to get by the toughest teams on their schedule. Dallas was only 3-2 against playoff teams, plus a win over a 9-7 Houston team, but I feel as if they have done more of late to prove their ability to win in this spot. 

As much as it seems like the Lions should be potent passing the ball given their skill position talent, they are just above average (267.8) and have been killed by 45 sacks, most allowed by a team in the playoff field. The Cowboys have given up 30 and while their passing numbers are lower (250.5) they have way more touchdown passes (37 to 22) and have completed 8.5% more of their passes. It will be fun to have Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant trying to one up each other, but my money is on the impending free agent Bryant to show up big here. Defensively Dallas struggles to stop the pass (251.9) and has the fifth fewest sacks (28) in the NFL. Detroit is average (231.8) but they have 42 sacks. The teams have combined for 38 interceptions so protecting the ball is going to be huge. Again, there is not a big home field advantage here in terms of noise impacting the pass rush so it is a matter of which quarterback feels clutch. Matthew Stafford loves playing in Texas and is going to be fired up being back here. 

I have been calling the Dallas running game (4.6, 147.1) best in the NFL when it comes to a pure attack not bolstered by a quarterback's numbers. Detroit (3.6, 88.9) is on the other end of the spectrum, ranking fifth worst in the league. Reggie Bush being healthy certainly gives them an additional threat to help their struggling offense. Defensively the Cowboys are eighth on paper (4.2, 103.1) but have given up 18 rushing scores, second most in the league. The Lions have the top run defense (3.2, 69.3) and have allowed 8. They might also get Nick Fairley back for this one, and have Ndamukong Suh available after his suspension was overturned. Clearly this battle is the key factor. If Dallas can impose their will with their powerful offensive line and run the ball with a healthier, but still worn down DeMarco Murray this game is over. If Detroit can totally stifle them, rendering Murray a non-factor, it is a ballgame to the end. I think it falls somewhere in between. The Lions are too inept on offense to win this game as I see it. The past three big games they played in they scored a total of 35 points, losing to Green Bay, New England and Arizona. The Cowboys are soft on defense, but seem to have tightened up down the stretch. I think they get this with a little to spare: Dallas 24, Detroit 17 (DAL -6.5/under 48.5) 

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