We’re down to four teams, and as everyone has been telling you, it’s the four teams you probably expected to be here at the beginning of the season. Of course, that in itself is unexpected. At the beginning of last year, did a lot of people see Atlanta and Baltimore in the conference finals (or even the 49ers, given the QB switch)? The Giants the year before? The Packers were sort of expected to make a run by ‘numbers guys’ in 2010, but I don’t think that was a common opinion, and the Jets made quite a run to keep Mark Sanchez in money a little longer. The point is, the NFL is not like the NBA. The season is too short and individual games too messy to predict who is going to make it through a whole season all the way to the end of the playoffs. Someone usually sneaks through, but not this year. We’ve got four good teams, including two with an all-time offense and defense. How’s it going to shake out?
In the AFC, we have the always-anticipated Brady versus Manning match-up. Bill Barnwell pointed out a number of reasons you might expect this game to go differently than the Patriots’ overtime victory earlier in the season. A reasonable one is the changes in personnel since then. A less reasonable one is that the first half had all the Pats’ turnover while the second half had all the Broncos’ and the game ended on a muffed punt. Obviously it’s unlikely that the turnovers will split themselves that way again, but the fact that things turned out about even is certainly worth noting. It’s also important to note that this game is in Denver while the first one was in New England. That should be worth maybe 5 or 6 points right there.
Denver had the best offense in the league this year, and probably one of the best offenses ever. Football-reference’s SRS system gave them a 14 rate on offense, which means they get two touchdowns over an average offense just walking in the door. The next best team was actually the Patriots – down at 4.5. It’s notable that the Pats beat the pants off of Denver in the passing game when they met before: 324 yards to 132, 6.5 yards per pass to 3.7. Given how well Blount ran last week, you might be tempted to give New England the edge then. Of course, the Broncos outrushed the Pats in the head-to-head game 280 yards to 116, 5.8 yards per rush to 3.7. So maybe we shouldn’t jump the gun. In general, New England did have the better defense, being a bit above average while Denver was a bit more below average.
So what to think overall? There’s no need to overthink it too much: even if New England has a better defense, it isn’t so much better as to make up for Denver’s offensive advantage, and the game is in Denver. The first time I looked up the spread on the game it was Broncos -4.5, and now it’s moved up to more like -5.5. That’s the correct move as far as Luigi is concerned; it likes the Broncos by almost a touchdown. It’s in the wrong direction for Yoshi 1, who had the game at -4. It’s tempting to throw your hands up in a Brady-Manning game and say ‘who knows’, but you run the numbers for a reason. Barring some fluke turnovers, look for the Broncos to make it through.
We’ve had two games to look at Seattle and San Francisco. All the way back in week 2 Seattle destroyed the 49ers in Seattle. The 49ers were more efficient on the ground but didn’t have the opportunity to run enough to take advantage. On the other side they were outclassed in the passing game and turned the ball over 5 times to 1. The 49ers also committed more penalties for more yards, giving the Seahawks more first downs for free. But, the 49ers won the rematch in San Fran. The penalty battle went the other way, although not as dramatically, and turnovers were even. The passing and rushing story was actually the same, but the 49ers were able to run more often since the game wasn’t out of hand. Basically, it went as well as San Fran can probably expect. And they had to win on a last-minute field goal.
As you might expect/think, Seattle is a bit better on both sides of the ball, but they don’t have the one dramatic advantage that Denver has. By SRS Seattle has the best defense in football, but it’s only a little better than Seattle’s rating and only about two points better than the 49ers’. Both earlier games had spreads at basically home field advantage, and this one is no different. Seattle is -3.5, which is the same number I saw earlier in the week. Similar to the AFC side, Luigi and Yoshi 2 like the favorite to cover while Yoshi 1 thinks it will be closer. It feels like this should be a field goal game, so it’s tempting to take the 49ers at +3.5, but remember that Seattle won handily when they were home.
In terms of the other picks (I didn’t think it was worth all the table for two games): all three models agree on the under for Denver-New England and the over for Seattle-San Fran, but that’s all they agree on. The Yoshis like both underdogs against the moneyline while Luigi likes Denver and has no pick for the NFC game. In terms of confidence, none of the spread picks are especially compelling, and the disagreement from Yoshi 1 adds to that. So I think you go with the favorites to move on, but who knows by what margin or if it even goes that way.
Regardless of how the games go against the spread (just to note, Bill Simmons has both underdogs covering and winning outright), they should both be pretty compelling, and we’re going to be set up with a good Super Bowl either way. You’ll either have Peyton Manning and a killer offense or the Brady-led Pats going against a great defense and one of the league’s best young QBs. The only downside is, as always, the ridiculous two week break that starts after tomorrow.