Wild Card Games (Saturday)

A year ago, I did fairly detailed posts on each playoff game– preview of the team and prediction of the outcome. I was surprised to see that I went 9-2– Not only did I get the result right, I came close to the spread six times. In a seventh, I expected an 11 point win (with properly-inflated balls) and got a 38-pointer, so you would not have lost money.

In two other games, (Baltimore-New England), you would have lost money taking my advice:

  • In the Baltimore-New England game, the Patriots were favored by 7, I said the Patriots would win by 13 and they won by only 4.
  • In the Green Bay-Seattle conference championship, the Seahawks were favored by 7.5 points, I had them winning by 21 and it turned out to be only 6.

And, as I put in my comment about one of my losses, I still maintain the problem was the decision not to throw the ball, but to throw it into the center of the field, where all the players were. Throwing the ball when everyone expects a run up the middle is actually a good idea. But if you throw it into the same area where all the players are, the odds are pretty high that someone can tip it and someone else can catch it.

Anyway, here is a table of last year’s results , with links to the predictions and the errors in bold red letters

Game Geoff Projections Actual Score

Week One Games

Sat NFC Carolina 24, Arizona 10 Carolina, 27-16
Sat AFC Baltimore 21, Pittsburgh 6 Baltimore, 30-17
Sun NFC Dallas 31, Detroit 28 Dallas, 24-20
Sun AFC Indianapolis 27, Cincinnati 7 Colts, 26-10

Week Two Games– Saturday

AFC New England 27, Baltimore 14 Patriots, 35-31
NFC Seattle 24, Carolina 6 Seattle, 31-17

Week Two Games– Sunday

AFC Denver 31, Indianapolis 13 Colts, 24-13
NFC Green Bay 31, Dallas 24 Green Bay, 26-21

Conference Championships

AFC New England 27, Indianapolis 16 Patriots, 45-7
NFC Seattle 35, Green Bay 14 Seattle, 28-22

Super Bowl 110001

Seattle 35, New England 27 Patriots, 28-24

The Super Bowl is in binary code; I prefer that to using roman numerals.

Anyway that prologue is to excuse my doing writeups, but not putting nearly as much effort into the process this time. I have events to cover– I am writing about Paul DePodesta, but I’m trying to do my best work– and I also have a book about the Browns to work on.

As I write this into, it’s 2 PM on Saturday and I still haven’t finished either Saturday team. The basic rules for predicting playoff games are:

  • The team with the best record (or even point differential) will usually, but not always win. Strength of schedule can throw things completely off. Houston is 9-7, but they went 5-1 against the cupcakes in the AFC South (1-1 against the Colts, 4-0 against Jacksonville and Tennessee). Kansas City is 10-6, but they also went 5-1, but against tougher opponents (1-1 against Denver, 4-0 against Oakland and San Diego).
  • A team in the playoffs for the first time usually loses. They are nervous and they play nervous.
  • The healthier team usually wins. Which is pretty obvious.
  • If a team shows a tendency in the playoffs, bet it to continue. Meaning you pick the Bengals to lose until they show you that they can actually win.

Having said that, let’s look at the Saturday games.

Kansas City At Houston

I wrote up the Chiefs a few weeks ago— and since you saw game 16, you know that they struggled to score points against a 3-13 team with a drunken quarterback. Last week, it was more of the same against Oakland. They were facing a better team– a 7-8 team hoping to finish 8-8– so the degree of difficulty was a little tougher. But they won 23-17, and it was a struggle.

  • They got 189 yards on 39 carries, but Alex Smith needed to get 61 yards on nine runs. Spencer Ware (16-76) ran well, but Charcandrick West got stuffed.
  • Smith threw 2 TDs and completed passes to 9 different players, but he went 14-24 (below the 60% you expect), threw for only 6.5 yards a pass (156 on the day and got picked twice.

As it has down the stretch, the Chiefs’ defense did the heavy lifting, holding Latavius Murray to 31 yards on 11 carries (luckily he came into the game having gotten his thousand yards), holding Derek Carr to 5.9 yards a pass and sacking him 6 times, intercepting him once and forcing two fumbles (neither of which the Chiefs recovered).

The question for the Chiefs is whether:

  1. The defense can pull that trick off again
  2. The offense can do anything against a defense that is as strong– maybe stronger– than Kansas City’s.

The first thing you need to understand about Houston is that they have used four different starting quarterbacks, thanks partly to injuries and partly to Bill O’Brien being a stupidhead. They are:

  • 5-4 in games started by Brian Hoyer
  • 1-3 with Ryan Mallett under center
  • 2-0 with T.J. Yates at quarterback
  • 1-0 playing (gag me with the Louisiana Purchase) Brandon Weeden

O’Brien pulled the sort of nonsense that normally gets a coach fired:

  • He started Hoyer in game 1 (a 27-20 loss to the Chiefs), but pulled him for Mallett
  • Mallett played games 2 and 3 , going 1-1
  • Mallett started games 4-5, but Hoyer relieved him in both games
  • Hoyer won his job back, started games 6-9 and then got a concussion against the Bengals
  • Yates played game 10 and won it
  • Hoyer came back for game 11 and won it, lost game 12 and got another concussion in game 13 (a loss to New England)
  • Yates finished game 13, started game 14 (against the Colts) and blew out his knee with 1:24 left in the first half and Indianapolis leading 10-0
  • Weeden relieved and, depending on your viewpoint, either led the Texans to a comeback 16-10 win or was standing behind center when the Colts imploded. He then started and won game 15… don’t be shocked; it was against Tennessee.
  • Hoyer returned to beat Jacksonville 30-6, going 25-40 for 249 yards and a TD.

Thankfully for O’Brien, he has a great defense, and the Texans play in Stumblebum Central, the AFC South. Nobody else had a good season– much less jumped out to an uncatchable lead– and Houston (who played the eighth-easiest schedule) managed to sneak into the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

To be fair, the Texans were playing without WR Andre Johnson for the first time in a decade; he jumped ship and went to the Colts. RB Arian Foster– who has played only two full seasons in seven tries and hasn’t stayed healthy since 2012– blew up after four games. The Texans ended up with Alfred Blue (a #6 pick in 2014) as their lead back. They’ve also struggled to figure out who their blockers were (LT Duane Brown, who has been to three Pro Bowls, is on IR).

Still, you look at the team and see that Blue is averaging 3.8 yards a rush– which isn’t due to a slow start; he’s just been inconsistent. And, other than WR DeAndre Hopkins (111-192 for 1,531 yards and 11 scores), the receiving corps is all role players– 32-year-old Nate Washington, Cecil Shorts.

And Hoyer is what he is– a short guy with a not-so-hot arm who gets hurt a lot. He’s having a good year (91.4 rating, 7.1 yards per pass, 19-7 TD-INT ratio) due to having better players around him, but he’s really just a guy you play if you can’t find anyone good, and you don’t want to lose games because the quarterback makes mistakes.

And, boy, Hoyer has to be enjoying life– despite the two concussions. And good for him. Weeden, who has a big ego and zero class, has hooted about being on a playoff team, while his last two teams missed (Cleveland and Dallas), but Hoyer hasn’t said much. Had he and Shorts (who is also from Cleveland) been here in 2015, while Josh McCown and Brian Hartline had not, the Browns might have won enough games to save the jobs of Mike Pettien and Ray Farmer. (Which is not necessarily a good thing.)

The Texans defense is cut from the same mold as the Chiefs– but Kansas City has a better secondary:

  • The Chiefs have 47 sacks, the Texans 45
  • The Chiefs have 12 forced fumbles, the Texans 11
  • The Chiefs have 22 interceptions– 4 returned for a touchdowns. The Texans have 12 and 2.

Other than his execrable taste in women (he has a huge crush on Jennifer Anniston), DE J.J. Watt (17.5 sacks) has no significant flaws. LB Whitney Mercilus (12 sacks) makes life difficult for quarterbacks too. On the rare occasions LB Jadeveon Clowney is 100% (13 games 9 starts, 4.5 sacks), he is a handful too.

You can argue– in fact, I will– that the big difference between the teams is that CB Marcus Peters (the corner the Chiefs spent a #1 on in 2015) has started every game and made 8 interceptions and 2 pick-sixes, while CB Kevin Johnson (the Texans #1 pick) has 10 starts and only 1 pick.

Prediction: Since neither team has been in the playoffs recently (the Chiefs went in 2013, Houston in 2012), and both rosters have turned over, there’s no advantage there. The Chiefs have won their last 10; the Texans have gone 7-2 down the stretch, and the losses were to New England and Buffalo.

The Chiefs have looked exhausted in the last two games; the “Probables” list for the Texans reads like their starting lineup, The Chiefs have played a tougher schedule; the game is in Houston.

Both teams have running backs who were subs at the beginning of the year and one wide receiver I would trust. Hopkins is better than Jeremy Maclin, but the Chiefs’ TE Travis Kelce, is better than Houston’s next-best.

Hoyer has never started a playoff game; Alex Smith is 1-2 (but he has played really well).

You could go either way on this one; the statistical prediction system at Pro Football Reference says the Chiefs have a 58% chance to win; the Chiefs are listed as 3-point favorites.

Maybe it’s just because I saw Kansas City play Cleveland, and I didn’t see Houston live against a team I had a good feel for. But I’m going to guess that Houston, playing at home, in a very loud dome, takes this.

Prediction: Houston 20, Kansas City 13.

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

 

Here’s one of the rare cases where the two teams literally need no introduction, Not to anyone who follows the Browns, at least. All you really need to know is who is hurting:

The key statistic would normally be that Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in playoff games, and that Dalton is 0-4 with a combined rating of 57.8, with 5.5 yards per pass and a 1-6 TD-INT ratio.

If Dalton were healthy, I wouldn’t consider picking the Bengals. Yeah, he had a career-high 106.2 rating, and both his yards per pass (8.4) and TD-INT ratios (25-7) were career highs. An awful lot of people have said “But this time it’s different!” about a guy with a terrible track record in post-season and been wrong yet again.

I am not big on picking people starting their first playoff game, either. Especially if it’s their first season playing– particularly if they’ve only played a part-season.

But we have the following things to consider about A.J. McCarron:

  • He has been with the team for two seasons
  • Unlike certain coaches I could name, Marvin Lewis actually gives his backups a lot of work, on the theory that they might be needed.
  • McCarron has played the last six games— “finish this up” appearances in blowout wins in games 11 and 12,, stepping in when Dalton went down in game 13, then starting games 14-16
  • He is 2-1 as a starter.
  • He did not look terrible in any of those outings– even the game the Bengals lost (20-17 to Denver), he went 22-35 for 200 yards and a TD with no INT.
  • The relief appearance was against the Steelers.

So let’s look at the game. The Steelers won 33-20; McCarron entered the game with 12:28 left in the second quarter, with the Steelers up 7-0.

McCarron went 22-32 for 280 yards (just short of 9.0 yards a pass), with TD passes of 66 yards and 5 yards. Both passes do not entirely reflect skill– one was to A.J. Green, who blew by Pittsburgh; the second came with 1:03 left in the game, against a “you can score if you do it slowly” defense.

He was intercepted twice– once for a 23-yard TD return, once for 27 yards in the middle of the fourth quarter, with Pittsburgh up 26-13. The Steelers got the ball at the Bengals 16 and scored to go up 20 with 3:53 left.

So McCarron cost his team 14 points with mistakes. But it was his first significant playing time, so maybe he deserves a mulligan. Let’s look at the next starts:

  • In the 24-14 win over San Francisco, he went 15-21 for 192 yards (again over 9 yards a pass), with 1 TD and no interceptions.
  • In the 20-17 loss to Denver, he went 22-35 for 200 yards (5.7 yards), but with a TD and no INTs.
  • In the 24-16 win over Baltimore, he went 17-27 for 160 yards (only 5.9 yards) but with 2 TDs and no INTs.

So he beat the two patsies and lost to the two good teams, but looked mostly like a QB. A 66.4 completion percentage is good. The 7.2 yards a pass is a little iffy, since he was hot and cold. But 4 TDs and no picks in three games is decent– and the 2-2 game isn’t bad, given that it’s your first game, and it’s against the Steelers. It’s a 97.1 rating, which is a bit inflated, but mostly genuine.

If he can do that in the playoffs, the Bengals can win. Hey, if he can just avoid looking like Dalton has in his games, the Bengals stand a decent chance.

The Steelers do not have anyone who can run the ball, so it will be all on QB Ben Roethlisberger and the defense. Which is pretty close to the way it was in the two games against the Bengals. Roethlisberger threw 84 times. he completed 58 of them and gained 544 yards… but he had only one touchdown and four interceptions, and was sacked 5 times.

And that was with a running game carrying 47 times for 200 yards and 2 TDs. Now he won’t have LeVeon Bell (who played the first game and went 1045 yards) or Williams (9-71 in game one and 23-76 and 2 scaores in game two).

I do not see Roethlisberger singlehandedly beating the Bengals, and I am not entirely sure the Steelers’ defense can force McCarron into as many mistakes. The guy did play for Alabama, so he has played in big games.

But Marvin Lewis has such an uncanny ability to lose, that it’s hard to pick for him. Plus the Bengals win was only 16-10, and that was when they were at full strength. I can see a game plan where McCarron does a lot of throwing– and the Steelers do a lot of catching.

Because I can thing of more ways for the Bengals to win than the Steelers, I’ll go with the home team. (Also, I watched the team I’m picking against struggle against Cleveland.) But my level of confidence in this very low.

Prediction: Cincinnati 16, Pittsburgh 14.

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