Last week’s highlighted newsletter play of CLE +6 pulled through for the readers here bringing highlighted plays to 3-1-1 for +10.60 units, but the rest of the model’s Week 17 plays weren’t as hot. The week finished 2-2 for -4.51 units, bringing the model’s record for the regular season to 72-43-5 for +89.27u and a 19.51% ROI. With the regular season wrapped up, it’s time to shift our focus to the playoffs. I will be covering every playoff game for the readers here, providing the model’s spread as well as analytical insight on the matchup and the underlying model data. To start, lets take a look at the Saturday set of Wild Card games.
#6 Colts (10-6) @ #3 Texans (11-5)
The first playoff game of the season will pit two teams that the model would have never predicted to be in this position before the season began. The Colts’ 2017 season was of course hampered by the entire Andrew Luck shoulder fiasco, but a lot of the team’s performance despite that was very concerning. The offensive line allowed a league-worst 56 sacks and on the other side of the ball the Indianapolis secondary ranked dead last against the pass. The Luck shoulder fiasco then bled into the 2018 offseason, camp, and preseason as concerns of his ability to throw at even moderate lengths were in question. Heading into the season, the Colts ranked 27th in the model and were only expected to win 6.49 games. After a very flat and uninspiring 1-5 start, the Colts looked to be trending to be exactly who the model thought they were.
What Frank Reich and the talent on that team has been able to do since then has been nothing short of impressive. In their 1-5 start, the Colts averaged 25.3 points scored and 30.0 points allowed. Since then, the Colts have averaged just 16.4 points allowed and have averaged 31.2 points scored if you remove their Week 10 6-0 dud against the Jaguars. A lot of the team’s success has come on the back of some new faces. Sixth overall pick RG Quenton Nelson not only finished as the highest-rated rookie offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus, he also finished sixth at the position overall. Nelson’s performance helped turn the league-worst offensive line unit into the league-best, with the Colts finishing with the least amount of sacks allowed (18) as well as finishing second in adjusted sack rate. On defense, second-round pick Darius Leonard also turned in a Pro Bowl-caliber season (but was unfortunately snubbed of the honor), and finished second for rookie linebackers and sixth overall at his position. Interesting enough the model caught on to the Colts’ turnaround pretty quickly, upgrading them following their Week 8 win against the Raiders to 8.42 expected wins, which ranked 15th at the time. The Colts have since climbed even further, finishing the regular season ranked ninth in expected wins with 9.07 expected wins. The Colts’ expected wins increase represents the second-largest in the model for this season.
The Texans have had a similar trajectory as the Colts, having started the season as the 28th ranked team in the model and only expected to win 6.37 games. The Texans had a poor start as well, dropping its first three games. However, the model actually saw in the underlying data that the 0-3 start was somewhat deceiving and even bumped them to 7.16 expected wins after that stretch. That 0.79 increase in expected wins intrigued me as the ensuing nine game win streak that followed led to a 1.43 expected win increase. In other words, the Texans’ performance during their nine game win streak was just short of being twice as impressive to the model as their performance during their 0-3 start. Today the Texans sit in the model as a team expected to have won 8.74 games, good for 12th best in the league. Their expected wins increase represents the fourth-largest in the model this season.
As for their matchup on Saturday, you can infer from their close current expected wins numbers that these two teams are matched pretty evenly. The Colts are given a 50.9% chance of winning on a neutral field, good for a IND -0.5 spread. After including game-specific adjustments, the model’s line for the game is made to be HOU -2.6. The Vegas line as of the time of this writing is HOU -1.5, and at that line there is no suggested model play since model plays are when the disagreement between the model line and Vegas line is by two or more points. However, there would be value on the Texans starting at HOU -0.5 (2.1 units) and there would be value on IND starting at IND +5 (2.4 units). Obviously each half point further from each of those spreads would then be matched with an additional half unit on the play (example: HOU +1 would be a 3.6 unit play).
As for the game itself, I believe the key to this game will be Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton has been on an absolute heater as of late: in the last seven weeks he has led the league in receiving with 840 yards (or 120 yards per game), which is 163 yards more than the next best receiver during that span and all coming despite battling an ankle injury. Secondly, he has torched the Texans’ secondary for quite a while now. In his last five games against the Texans, T.Y. Hilton has averaged a 6 rec / 107.6 yds / 0.6 TD line which includes a 9 rec / 199 yds line in the most recent meeting. Hilton burns the Texans’ secondary for good reason: Houston ranks 29th in yards allowed to WR1s and they rank 31st in DVOA pass defense against WR1s. Eric Ebron is another candidate to tear the Texans’ pass defense apart given that they rank 31st in yards allowed to tight ends and 23rd in DVOA pass defense against the position. In his two games against HOU this year, Ebron has accumulated 9 rec / 105 yds / 2 TDs.
#5 Seahawks (10-6) @ #4 Cowboys (10-6)
Saturday’s NFC Wild Card game will feature another team that has greatly outperformed the model’s preseason expectations: the Seattle Seahawks. I already covered their journey in some depth in my Week 14 write-up, and for those of you who weren’t subscribed to Bet It Up back then (shame on you), here is what I said then:
“The Seahawks on the other hand were a very unimpressive 9-7 team in 2017 that performed well above their 6.57 adjusted Pythagorean expected win total. The team then proceeded to lose Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Paul Richardson, Sheldon Richardson, Jimmy Graham, and more in the offseason, and were set to be without their top wideout Doug Baldwin for an indeterminate amount of time. They also burned their first round pick on San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny, which I thought was an awful use of the pick given that they already had the serviceable Chris Carson and had more glaring team needs. With all of this in mind, I’m not ashamed to share that by the end of the preseason the Seahawks were the 29th best team in the model, expected to win only 6.31 games in 2018.“
I then went on to share that the Seahawks had gradually improved up to sixth in the model ahead of their Week 14 game against the Vikings. The Seahawks ended up finishing sixth with 9.50 expected wins, which was a 3.19 expected wins improvement – the largest of any team in the model this year. This is largely in part due to the well-roundedness of their team, with the only model category they failed to land inside the top ten in being run defense. A lightbulb may suddenly go off in your head as you envision league-leading rusher and Cowboys franchise running back Ezekiel Elliott on the other side of this contest. However, Zeke has had somewhat of a deceiving season. From Football Outsiders Quick Reads: 2018 in Review article, “Elliott led the league in rushing, but was just ninth in DYAR and 18th in both DVOA and success rate. He led all running backs with six fumbles on running plays — or, one for each rushing touchdown he scored”. Elliott’s more meaningful contributions may come in the passing game, as the Seahawks rank 26th in running back receiving yards allowed. Or potentially the threat of Elliott running could force the Seahawks to stack the box and allow trade deadline acquisition Amari Cooper or rookie Michael Gallup to exploit the Seahawk’s 28th-ranked defense against explosive passing (courtesy of Sharp Football Stats).
Either way, the Cowboys will have to find some avenue of success to exploit early and often as they are by far the most undeserving team to make the playoffs according to the model. The model has them as a 7.539 expected wins team, which puts them 23rd overall. With this in mind the model makes this game on a neutral field SEA -2.5 but home field factors bring this game to a near pick ’em, with the model spread being DAL +0.1. The Vegas spread for this game at the time of this writing is DAL -2, which would qualify SEA +2 as a model play for 2.1 units. However, I am anticipating a move to at least SEA +2.5 juiced at -105 or lower. As a result, I will not make the play on SEA +2 an official model play as of right now but I will be tweeting out the model play when I do officially make it. If by some magic the spread hits DAL +2.5, that would become a model play on DAL for 2.4 units.
That’s going to wrap it up for today’s write-up. I hope you guys enjoyed it, and don’t forget to check your inboxes for another write-up tomorrow as I will be covering the Sunday Wild Card games as well. As a reminder, here is a schedule for my playoff write-ups:
- 1/4: Saturday Wild Card
- 1/5: Sunday Wild Card
- 1/11: Saturday Divisional
- 1/12: Sunday Divisional
- 1/19: Conference Championships
- 2/2: Super Bowl
Thanks again for reading!