Hit & Run (Conference Championship Picks)

I’m working on two huge pieces– one on the offensive coordinator , another on the quarterback. With the Team reviews, the free agency preview and other stuff, talking about teams that aren’t the Browns is a distraction.

But Having started this chain, I want to finish it. Also, I an 7-1.

NFC: Green Bay at Seattle

Before I pick a winner, I try to present a scenario where the other team can win. It’s a trick I learned from Charlie Munger, the lesser-known member of the management team running Berkshire-Hathaway. His wise precept is “Never criticize an opponent until you can state his argument as well as he can.”

Meaning being, do your homework before you conclude. Don’t assume you know anything– familiarize yourself with all the facts of the situation. Be aware of the assets and liabilities both sides have. The argument you prefer probably has weaknesses that you are overlooking, and the opponent probably has strengths you are not aware or.

If you still hold the same position, you did your due diligence. If not, you saved yourself.

But that said, I gotta admit: I can’t present a good argument for how the Packers win this game.

The game is being billed as the #1 offense (Green Bay scored 486 points, tops in the league) versus the #1 defense (Seattle has allowed 254, lowest in the league).

Both teams are comparably-ranked on the other side of the ball as well– Seattle is 14th in offense; Green Bay is 13th in defense.

You can ask the immortal question: “Does great offense beat great defense?”

I don’t see it that way. What I see is

“Does pretty good offense beat great defense?”

The answer to that question is “No.”

The easiest way to do this would be with standard deviation, It would also be the easiest way to ensure nobody finishes the piece.  So…

The NFL average for points scored per game in any season is almost always within a point of 24 a game. This year it’s 22.6, down from 23.4 last year.

That’s why they’re calling so many defensive holding and pass interference penalties, by the way. They’re trying to restore offense, because low-scoring games are dull.

That’s not going to work, because the problem is that too many teams are trying to pass, and defenses are playing schemes designed to help them cover.

Look, if you know that the opponent will pass on 56.6% of the plays (34.9 passes to 26.7 runs this year), and you know that at least a couple of those ‘runs’ will the QB kneeling (or the winning team running halfheartedly up the middle), the effort you put into defending the run diminishes.

So a lot of teams don’t do it. But they stock up on corners who can’t defend the run at all– players like K’Waun Williams and Buster Skrine (even Joe Haden isn’t very good)– but can swarm those 5-yard passes that are designed to let the receiver catch the ball and gets “yards after catch.”

That leaves you vulnerable to the run– but if offenses don’t run, you’re not losing anything. So offenses are trying to run plays the defenses are geared up to stop… and not running the plays that would hurt.

And I’m in the opposite position I was in during the 70’s, when everyone was trying to do power runs– and I was saying “Why don’t teams pass more.”

They’re both dead now, so we can’t ask. But both Bill Walsh and Don Coryell had superb running games– they could blast teams who just geared up to stop the pass.

That’s how Walsh beat Dallas in the 1981 NFC Championship– they got into the nickel, convinced he had to throw, and he just kept calling for sweeps.

But if everyone keeps throwing dunk passes, the NFL can keep calling penalties until it is blue in the face. It won’t stop until a team that runs over people wins, and people try to emulate them.

At any rate, average scoring this year was 22.6 points per game. The Seattle defense has allowed:

  • Less than the average in 11 out of 16 regular-season games.
  • Above the average 5 times.

To separate the data a little bit more, let’s use another cutoff– seven points above the average and seven points below. When we do that:

  • Seattle’s defense has been very good (15.6 points or less) 7 times.
  • Seattle’s defense has been very bad (29.6 points) only twice.

In the other seven games, it was somewhere between good to below average– 16-29 points. Let me put this into a table, so you can see it.

(15 or less)
(30 or more)
Defense 7 7 2

I’ve color-coded them for a reason, which I’ll get to in a second. As a rule,  the games where you finish in the blue are probably going to be wins; the reds are almost-certain losses. The ones in the middle is where it depends on what you do on the other side of the ball.

Let’s do that for the offense. Seattle has scored more than the 22.6 average 10 times. They have been more than a touchdown above 5 times.

And in the 6 games where they were below the NFL average? They were within a touchdown 5 time. The only team to hold them more than a TD below their average was Carolina, who lost 13-9 in October.

That’s an extraordinarily consistent and efficient offense. It was only spectacular 5 times, but 15 out 16 games, it was at least decent.

Let’s fill in the rest of the table.

(15 or less)
(30  or more)
Offense 1 10 5
Defense 7 7 2

Seattle’s defense is is almost always at least decent and quite often great. The offense consistently supplies a good day’s work– about 30% of the time, it does well.

In most cases, the numbers in blue and red will come very very close to the team’s actual record. That’s because the red games– where your offense doesn’t score or your defense doesn’t prevent scoring— are usually losses. the games you lose. Games in blue– where your offense scores a lot or the defense doesn’t allow anything –are usually your wins.

It doesn’t always work this neatly, but Seattle’s blue numbers add up to 12 and the red numbers sum to 3… and hey they’re 12-4.

Let’s roll out the same table for the Packers. They’re not the mirror image of Seattle that you’d think. Green Bay always put at least an average number of points on the board (often a lot). The defense good, about as often it’s bad– usually it’s just somewhere in the wilderness between 16 and 29:

(15 or less)
(30 or more)
Offense 2 7 7
Defense 3 10 3

This is why I like statistics. They let you boil down 16 games– 50+ hours of watching– to six numbers in three columns.

And you notice the blue numbers are 10 and the red numbers are 5. Again, very close to the actual record.

Is there a way to express this in a single number? There sure is– we can weight them by

  • Doubling the the numbers in the high-scoring offense and low-scoring defense columns.
  • Subtracting the numbers in the low-scoring offense and the high-scoring defense columns (making them count as -1.

That system would give a perfect score (16 games more than a TD better than average) as 32 and the absolute worse at -16 (16 games of -1). An average team would be 16 If we do that:

  • Seattle’s amazing defense rates 19, and their offense (which people think of as good but not amazing) also rates 19
  • Green Bay’s fabulous offense also rates 19, but the the defense rates 13

That system shows Seattle as substantially better than Green Bay (38-32)… which is what I think.I don’t see the game as being close. Seattle beet Carolina 31-17 last week, that’s my expectation. Maybe bigger.

But why does the system grade Seattle’s 14th ranked offense as as being as good as the their #1 defense– or Green Bay’s #1 offense? And why does it think Green Bay’s 13th-ranked defense is below average?

One reason is that it’s just a simple system I threw, using simple cutoffs and weights. But the real reason is this:

Defense is always significant. Offense, frequently, is not.

Green Bay’s offense is ranked #1 because it ran up the score repeatedly. They beat Chicago 55-14 and 38-17 (two scores that absolutely will not happen in 2015 with John Fox there, Josh), Minnesota 42-10 and Carolina 38-17.

Seattle’s outstanding defensive performance came in handy five times. In addition to the Carolina wn, they had:

  • 17-7 and 19-3 wins against the 49ers
  • A 19-3 win against Arizona
  • A 20-6 win against St. Louis.

the only time a really amazing defense didn’t benefit Seattle much the 35-6 win over the– an OK performance would have been enough when you score five times.

Also, good defensive teams tend to have underrated offenses because they’ll stop using plays designed to score quickly once they have a lead. When you’re up by 15 or more, your best calls will be high-percentage plays that are unlikely to stop the clock.

If you’re up 16-3, there’s no benefit to throwing a pass that travels 20 yards in the air. If you make it, it gets you closer to a score that you don’t need; miss and you lose a down and stops the clock.  You’re more likely to complete an 8-yard pass– and you want to run as many plays as possible.

The only time a defense will ease up is the last three minutes of a half. And if the score is close, not even then.

Finally– and I hate to pick on the Packers– they had two games where they scored under 16, and both were against good teams. They lost 21-13 to Buffalo and 19-7 to Detroit. The defenses they beat up on were challenged.

Seattle, on the other had, gave up a lot of points to only one skanky team– the Rams. Nobody is going to say “How could you give up 30 to San Diego or Dallas?” That’s expected.

Prediction: When these guys met in during the season, Seattle won 36-16. And, with apologies to Charlie, I don’t got much to argue for the Packers winning this.

Green Bay’s best defensive performances came against Chicago, (twice), Caiolina, Minnesota and Tampa. They did hold Philly to 20, and Dallas and New England to 21, but that’s still 3 TDs.

Their best offensive performance against a team I’d identify as a good defense would be the 30 they hung on Detroit (third in points allowed) in a 30-20 win.

The defense is 8th in turnovers and it has returned three takeaways for scores. Micah Hyde has returned 2 punts for TDs (three in his career).

So that’s where we are. Maybe DE Julius Peppers— who doesn’t have a ring, hasn’t been in a Super Bowl since 2003 and hasn’t been in a conference championship since 2005– comes up big, maybe with help from LB Clay Matthews. Maybe QB Aaron Rodgers (now 31) will pump–

them up.(not a typo– a play on the commercial).

But I’m still going with Seattle 35-14.

AFC: Indianapolis at New England

The one pick I missed was Indianapolis beating Denver. I got the winner of the New England-Baltimore game right, but missed badly on how close it would be.

The only thing I have to say for myself? If I’d have known those four teams were gonna show up, I would have picked differently:

  • Indianapolis got spotless pass protection, and kept running often enough (28 times, against 43 pass attempts) to keep Denver off their case.
  • Denver played a wildly-conservative game plan on both offense and defense (which I think got John Fox fired) and QB Peyton Manning served up another one of his hideous playoff performances
  • Baltimore played the sort of defensive game I felt they could-play, and delivered an offense well beyond anything I imagined.
  • New England couldn’t run the ball, got no pressure on Joe Flacco and also couldn’t cover the receivers.

If that Indianapolis and that New England show up again, the Colts will be in the Super Bowl. The question is “Will they?”

The question is more complicated for me– as opposed to other people– because I don’t believe in the “jinx” that so many people do.If I did believe that Baltimore knows how to beat New England, then I’d just assume the Patriots will return to normal without the heinous Raven mojo.

To answer one of my pen-pals, Yes, Ken, I remember that Baltimore beat New England 28-12, the last time the two teams met in the playoffs. It was 2012, and the Ravens had Ray Rice running and Anquoin Boldin, Ed Dickson & Dennis Pitta catching. Jim Caldwell was calling plays; the only blockers who played last week were the guards.

The defense featured Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger and Daniell Ellerbee– i8n fact, the only two starters from both 2012 and 2014 were DT Halota Ngata and DE-LB Terrell Suggs.

So if none of the players from 2012 are still there, why would I expect the same results?

My ongoing assumption is that the less experienced team in both the conference championship and the Super Bowl will be more affected by the pressure. I also expect (based on past outcomes) that coaches who’ve shown greater skill with X’s and O’s will have an impact.

But this incarnation of the Colts is about to play its sixth playoff game. It’s gone from:

  • Losing the wild card in 2012,to
  • Winning the wild card and losing the divisional round in 2013, to
  • Winning the wild card round, winning the division and reaching the conference championship.

Now, presumably the next step in that sequence is losing the conference championship Sunday– and then making the Super Bowl and losing it in 2015. But teams have a way of cutting to the chase.

Here’s what I’ve got:

1. Denver ran successfully on Indy last week, and New England’s running game in comparable. The big difference is that it has two decent backs (LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen), instead of one good one (C.J. Anderson)..

2. New England’s passing game is better– there are more guys they can throw to and they’re more proven and more reliable. The one thing I did get right last week is that someone like Danny Amendola might have a big game (exactly like him, actually).

3. Tom Brady doesn’t get rattled. He certainly isn’t as talented as Andrew Luck at this point, but he’s more knowledgeable and almost impossible to fluster (not that Indy brings much pressure).

4. Last week we saw the Patriots use a formation shift they borrowed from Nick Saban three times (meaning they’ll probably never use it again)– and let Julian Edelman (a college quarterback) run a play they’d drawn up 10 months ago.

5. Josh Cribbs muffed a punt return last week. The refs didn’t award the Broncos possession, but he muffed it because he was trying too had to do something amazing. He does that again, the Patriots could get points.

All those things suggest New England will win. On the other hand:

6. Baltimore made the New England pass defense look bad by setting up with a lot of receivers and constantly varying the targeted receiver. Indy can do that as well. They threw to 8 different guys last week.

7. The Colts seem to have decided that RB Dam Herron is their guy.I don’t think he’s Great Shakes– he carried 23 times last week and caught 8 passes for 32, both of which are bad. But he’s lost only one fumble and been tacked for negative yards only four times.

And hey, how about Trent Richardson as a class act? After gaining a whopping 977 yards in 29 games with the Colts, they made him inactive last week against the Bronco and played Zurlon Tipton as the #2 guy (whom they’d just picked up).

This week, he isn’t traveling with the team to the conference championship for “personal reasons”, which the team is not disclosing.

I assume he was going to be be inactive again; I know they’re going to cut him, rather than pay the final year of his salary (It’s guaranteed, so why keep the guy around?). But unless someone is on their deathbed, you go, and you cheer, because stories like that get around and brand you as selfish.

8. Baltimore got barbecued because all their defensive backs have been hurt, and they’re playing with street free agents and practice squad guys. Indianapolis has a better secondary, They can play the defense the Ravens used to play– head coach Chuck Pagano used to run the Raven defense.

9. The Patriots’ center, Bryan Stork,got hurt against Baltimore and will miss this game, They had trouble on protection earlier this year

10. Pagano missed the playoffs the first time the Colts went,. but he ‘s been there for two years and has had his team ready to play– and gotten credible results.

11. Maybe the Colts have fixed their line on the fly. New England’s pass rush was anemic against Baltimore, so it shouldn’t be tested much.

12. Josh Cribbs obviously could go wild if the Patriots mess up on a return.

Prediction: To win, the Colts would need to come out fast. They’d need to score on their first possession, stop New England and play hard enough to make everyone say “Huh? Wha?”They’d have to get in the saddle and keep pushing.

Andrew Luck isn’t an ideal playoff quarterback, because he’s streaky. He can have a terrible quarter and catch on fire. if he can’t miss, they could roll up points.  The Colts have a weaker front seven than the Ravens, but a much better backfield. They’re 10th in forcing turnovers– second in fumbles.

The thing that makes me the most nervous is I’m saying the same thing I did a week ago “The Colts are a good team, I know the opponent is getting old, but  I think the vets can do it this one last time.” The notion that I’m behind the curve on Indianapolis and unwilling to turn the page is what has me wondering.

I’m gonna go with the old guys one more time, but not with a lot of conviction, And I’m sure I won’t be making this pick next year. Patriots 27-16.


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