NFL Conference Final Picks

We’re down to four teams in the NFL playoffs; the Patriots versus the Ravens and the Falcons versus the 49ers.  One is a game full of storied recent history and the other involves the hottest thing in the NFL against the most lukewarm thing in the NFL.  Let’s take a look.

49ers versus Falcons:  Atlanta has been consistently overrated in terms of record the last couple years, which has led to them being consistently overlooked this year.  They aren’t especially flashy but they keep winning.  The 49ers, on the other hand, are a hot commodity.  They were already good but since they’ve put Kaepernick in they’ve been very good.  They can pass and run efficiently, and they beat the Packers fairly handily even after spotting them a pick-six.  As Bill Barnwell said today, the Falcons don’t necessarily defend such offenses (he was talking about Carolina) very well.  As I mentioned earlier in the week, the Falcons didn’t really defend the Seahawks very well either.

But here’s the thing:  the Falcons are 2-1 against Carolina and Seattle this year.  They get to play at home, where they’re 8-1 this year.  The only loss came in week 17 when they weren’t trying.  In terms of quality teams, at home the Falcons have defeated the Broncos, the Giants, and now the Seahawks.  It isn’t always pretty, but they have continually put up more points than the other guy.

So what we have now is a line of the 49ers favored by 4 points with a moneyline of 175/-190.  That means that if the game were on a neutral field the 49ers would be a seven point favorite, and if the 49ers were the home team they would be favored by 10.  That sounds kind of high to me.  It also sounds high to the models, which unanimously have Atlanta as the favorite.  Now, to be fair, the model has San Fran’s numbers for the whole season; it doesn’t know that the 49ers might be better with Kaepernick and that he’s the QB now.  The model could also be a bit off, although I don’t think it is by that much.  So I’ll predict that the Falcons at least keep it close and potentially win again.  That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the 49ers impress again and move on.  The models obviously think Atlanta is worth a look on the moneyline.

Ravens at Patriots:  In contrast the the NFC game, we have two teams here with quite a few games against each other in the recent past.  Again, it’s worth looking at Barnwell’s article, particularly since he notes that these teams are different from the ones who played each other earlier this year.  That’s important to keep in mind.

So what can we take away if things have changed since week 3?  Well, things change just as much if not more from year to year.  So:  earlier this year, Baltimore won by 1 at home.  Last year the Patriots won by 3 at home in the playoffs under somewhat famous circumstances.  In 2010 the Patriots won by 3 at home in overtime.  And in 2009 the Ravens won by 19 on the road in the playoffs and lost by 6 on the road in the regular season.  In those games (in order) the Ravens were favored by 3, the Patriots by 7, the Patriots by 3, the Patriots by 3.5, and the Patriots by 1.5.  So across a few years the Ravens are 1-0 at home and 1-3 on the road; the game has always been predicted to be close except for last year’s playoff game and the actual margin has never been larger than 6 except for when the Ravens won.  In short, these teams seem to play each other close.

On the other hand, sometimes the Patriots just seem to break models.  For example, they had their rampage in 2007 when they went 18-1.  But even then, they were only 10-9 against the spread, and they only beat the Ravens by 3 when they were 20 point favorites.  So on Sunday, when the Patriots are favored by 8 (and the number has been a little higher even), I still expect the game to stay reasonable.  Luigi and Yoshi 2 agree, although Yoshi 1 does see the Pats winning by nearly 10.  Overall, I think the Patriots will win (the models disagree about if Baltimore is worth a look on the moneyline, meaning the Patriots are decidedly strong favorites).  They are the better team.

I think there’s one main question to his game: will Flacco be able to get some big plays?  If the answer is yes, I think we have an entertaining shoot-out like earlier this year where the Ravens had five guys get receptions for 20 yards or more.  If the answer is no, or the Patriots run game is much enhanced compared to the 2.3 yards per game they got in week 3, I think the Patriots get a lead and run away with this one.  I think there’s enough of a chance that they get a couple big plays that you should like the Ravens to cover, or at least just stay away from the game entirely.  And if the Patriots run away with it?  At least the game starts early enough for most of us that we can just get away from the TV and enjoy dinner, or start planning on how to further enjoy the Monday holiday.

Have a good weekend everybody!

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