NFL Wild Card Round-Up

It doesn’t always turn out this clean, but just as the models predicted we had three close games this weekend.  The exception was the Chargers-Bengals game, where the underdog Bengals covered, which was also expected.  It was slightly less expected to see them win handily.  How they won was also kind of surprising, but I’ll break that out a bit more below.

A quick summary on the model predictions: Luigi was 3-1 picking each game, missing the 49ers cover.  It was a bit close for Saints-Eagles though, so his ‘confident’ picks were 2-1.  Luigi also went 3-1 on moneyline picks.  Yoshi 2 was the same but skipped on the Saints-Eagles moneyline and so was 2-1 there.  Yoshi 1 had the same overall spread pick record, but was 2-0 on ‘confident’ picks (the Saturday games) and 4-0 on the moneyline.  A good weekend all around.  With the slight disagreements and close calls, there were only two games that made it to the consensus picks, but they both came through on the spread and moneyline (Indy to cover a pick ’em and win, and the Chargers to cover and win).  In terms of Simmons’ picks, everyone pushed on the Colts -1 and 49ers -3; everyone was right about the Chargers -7 and the models got Saints +2.5, which Bill missed.  So it’s Bill 1-1-2, models 2-0-2.

Ok, so what happened?  It might seem odd that there was only one home team that won this weekend, and even they needed the second-biggest comeback ever.  But keep in mind that wild card weekend features the two weaker division winners.  The home teams do have home field advantage, but they aren’t necessarily the better teams.  The Saints and 49ers both had better records than their opponents, each of which only made the playoffs on the last day.  Such is the weirdness of the divisional system.

How about the Chiefs and Colts?  Kansas City certainly seemed to have things in hand; even after the Colts cut it to 38-24, the Chiefs were as high as 96% to win in the third quarter.  They got that lead mostly as a result of a fumble and two interceptions, each of which came on the Indy side of the field.  If there was any good news, it was just that the Colts seemed to be moving the ball ok when they weren’t turning it over, and the second interception came close enough to the end of the half that the Chiefs couldn’t turn it into points.  Otherwise, it was all bad news as the Chiefs were also moving the ball however they liked.  The first minute and a half of the second half was the same, as Luck threw his third pick and the Chiefs scored three plays later.

That might be when you thought things started to turn around.  The Chiefs had been accumulating injuries, and the Colts continued to move the ball while actually keeping possession.  They got a quick score, then the Chiefs committed their first (and only) turnover, which became another score to make it 38-24.  But keep in mind, as I mentioned above, the Chiefs were still 96% to win; they had a 14 point lead and the ball with a quarter and a half to play.  Luck threw another interception and the Chiefs got a field goal to make it a 17 point lead.  But the Colts got a quick touchdown and a stop and another touchdown with about 11 minutes left and suddenly it’s a 3 point game.  The Chiefs, who had already been playing with Jamaal Charles for most for most of the game, lost their backup back as well, but still managed a field goal.  Luck went the other way for a quick touchdown, the Colts got another stop, and that was the game.

It isn’t often you see a team lose the turnover battle 4-1 and still win.  It’s because, as I mentioned, the Colts moved the ball at will when they had it.  They outran the Chiefs 5.3 yards per attempt to 4.7 (although the Chiefs ran it much more often) and outpassed the Chiefs 9.7 yards per attempt to 7.9.  That was basically the story.  On a day where both offenses basically did what they wanted to, one was almost two yards better per throw and that managed to barely offset three extra turnovers.  I wouldn’t count on it every game, but when stats guys (or anyone) tell you that passing is the most important part of the game, this is why.

The Saints-Eagles game had a similar storyline, except the Eagles weren’t running up the score on the Saints’ early turnovers.  The Saints lost the turnover battle 2-0, but outgained the Eagles 5.1 to 3.6 on the ground (and ran more often) and 8.3 to 5.3 through the air.  There was a little bit of luck, as the Eagles missed a field goal and the Saints had a fumble overturned on replay.  Otherwise they did just enough to get the road win.  I don’t remember the number they quoted on the broadcast exactly, but I think that made them something like the 20th team out of about 200 to lose the turnover battle on the road and still win.  They had a huge offensive advantage and still just won by 2, so that tells you how hard a task it can be.

I think at this point you can guess what happened in the Chargers-Bengals game if I told you the Chargers were more efficient and the Bengals turned it over four times.  The surprising part of the game for me was that Rivers only threw it 16 times.  16!  And it’s not like they were running out the clock; they were losing at halftime and only up a touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter.  No, the Chargers were content to run the ball even though they had a top-five passing offense in the regular season.  It worked out for them.  I wonder if they’re practicing ball control for their trip to Denver next week.

Finally we had the Packers and 49ers.  This one was a bit of a throwback game to times when men were men and teams ran the ball 30 times a game (this was the only game of the weekend where both teams hit that mark).  I think that, coupled with some good defense, is what kept the game close; otherwise, the 49ers were fairly clearly the better team.  They were at least more explosive, with the Packers generating a long play of 26 while the 49ers generated three longer plays.  When you’re in a game where both teams are slugging it out and trading field goals, a few big plays become very important (ask the Ravens, who made them last year but didn’t this year).

After the results from the past few years, people are looking for which team will make the run from wild card weekend to the Super Bowl this year.  They seem to be leaning towards the 49ers.  That isn’t a bad pick, but keep in mind that if you played this weekend, that means you’re going on the road to play a likely better team next weekend.  The 49ers would probably rather play the Panthers than the Seahawks right away, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy victory (although SBR has the line at 49ers -2 right now).  If they do win, they’ll still probably have to go to Seattle.  Seattle won that game 29-3 and only lost by two in San Fran, so you have to make the Seahawks the favorite there.  But I’ll take a better look at next weekend’s games later in the week.

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