NFL Playoffs: Wild Card Sunday

Today we will be finishing out the Wild Card round by taking a look at the two Sunday games. To begin, lets take a look at the noon matchup.

#5 Chargers (12-4) @ #4 Ravens (10-6)

Every NFL season has at least one or two teams that make me go, “Wow, that team definitely deserved to be in the playoffs”. This game happens to have the two teams I thought were most undeserving of missing out on last year’s playoffs. For those who don’t remember, the Chargers started 0-4 last year which was a stretch that was full of incredibly unlucky circumstances (and that has been the Chargers’ “thing” for quite some time now). They then went on to go 9-3 for the remainder of the season, with their losses coming all on the road against eventual playoff teams (Patriots, Jaguars, and Chiefs). They finished with 10.46 adjusted Pythagorean wins, good for fifth in the conference and ahead of the Chiefs (9.99), Titans (7.38), and Bills (6.35) – all of who made the playoffs last year. The Chargers differential between actual wins and adjusted Pythagorean wins (-1.46) was the sixth largest in the league in 2017, which was a sign that they were potentially due to put together a better campaign in 2018.

The model seemed to agree. Heading into the 2018 season, the Chargers were the highest ranked team in the model, ranking first in pass offense and third in pass defense. The Chargers ended up finishing second overall in the model with 10.53 expected wins and within 0.35 expected wins of their preseason projection. They also finished top ten in every model category except special teams, finishing second in pass offense, sixth in rush offense, tenth in pass defense, and tenth in rush defense. On top of their excellent finishes, the Chargers have shown incredible consistency in the model having never ranked lower than third in the model at any point this season. Some of you may be asking, “If the Chargers are so good according to the model, why did they get hosed by the Ravens in Week 16?”. It’s a valid question, for sure.

In my Week 17 write-up, I highlighted the Ravens’ ability to grind clock through their relentless running which in turn vastly reduces the amount of offensive opportunities opposing offense have. The Chargers actually did not fall victim to that trend in the Week 16 matchup as they ran only two fewer plays than their season average and had 28:35 in time of possession to the Ravens’ 31:25. And it wasn’t Lamar Jackson’s running that decidedly beat the Chargers – he turned in a career-low 39 rushing yards while passing for a career-high 204 yards. So how did the Ravens pull of the Week 16 upset?

Although a 22-10 score may tell a different story at surface level, this game was very close to going the Chargers way. With 5:29 remaining in the 4th quarter, the Chargers were down 10-16 and had a 3rd and 5 on the Ravens’ 29. Philip Rivers on this drive had already converted three straight third downs and was putting together the Chargers’ largest drive of the game. He was then sacked for an 11 yard loss, pushing the Chargers out of field goal range. Luckily, they were able to pin the Ravens on their own 2 on the ensuing punt and held the Ravens’ offense to a three-and-out. The Chargers got the ball back on the Ravens 39 yard line and just 39 yards sat between the Chargers and a likely number one seed for the playoffs. On first down, Melvin Gordon ripped off an eight yard run which was called back by holding. Then on the next play, Antonio Gates fumbled the ball which the Ravens returned for a 62 yard touchdown.

On top of that ending sequence to the game, this game had a lot of unfortunate and uncharacteristic things go against the Chargers. On offense, their first offensive play led to an interception and then they also had three early third down conversions negated by penalties which killed drives. On defense, the Chargers allowed a 68 yard touchdown to rookie tight end Mark Andrews. This was particularly egregious given that the Chargers are the top-ranked defense against tight ends according to DVOA. These kind of things are not the type that I would expect to happen regularly. Conversely, the Chargers are likely the most injured team coming into the playoffs and that could most certainly work to their disadvantage for this go-around.

Ultimately, this week’s rematch will likely come down to who commands the lead when the fourth quarter begins. The Ravens are the only playoff team to not have a comeback win when trailing in the fourth quarter. And although Lamar Jackson has a superb 6-1 record to start his career, every one of his starts have featured a one-score game in the fourth quarter. That becomes a bit scarier when you consider some of the teams the Ravens have played during that stretch (CIN, OAK, ATL, and TB). It would be wise of the Ravens to try to get a lead early on the west coast Chargers who will be travelling across the country for an early game in which their body clocks will be set to 10 AM. Either way, this game is certainly my favorite of the opening round. On one hand we have a very experienced quarterback with a coach making his playoff debut going up against the youngest starting playoff quarterback ever with an experienced and successful playoff coach (Harbaugh is 10-5 all-time in the playoffs).

The model gives the Chargers a 53.64% chance of winning this game on a neutral field, which would be good for a LAC -2 spread in such scenario. Even though the Chargers don’t really have a “home field” and essentially have played every game of this season as the away team (and are 7-1 in actual away games this season), the model does make this game BAL -0.9 after those adjustments. That means that LAC +3 -110 is a model play risking 2.300 units to win 2.1 units. That makes it the first official model play of the NFL playoffs. Exciting stuff.

#6 Eagles (9-7) @ #3 Bears (12-4)

In yesterday’s newsletter, I mentioned that the Dallas Cowboys were the most undeserving team to make the playoffs based on expected wins given their 23rd rank in that regard. The Philadelphia Eagles would be the second-most undeserving team to make the playoffs, as they rank as just an average team in the model at 15th with 8.26 expected wins for the season. Granted, the Eagles do rank near the top ten in pass offense which is and has been the most important model category of the season by a wide margin. The problem is that the Bears rank first overall in pass defense, and given that the Eagles have one of the league’s worst rushing attacks and are going up against the second-best rush defense, the Eagles will certainly have to try to make the passing game work in whatever ways they can. But they will have to do so on early downs as the Bears have the best third-and-long defense ever recorded according to Football Outsider’s DVOA metric.

The good news is that although this match up certainly favors the Bears, the task may not be as large as Vegas is making it out to be. The Bears themselves aren’t too far off in the model from where the Eagles stand, as they currently sit as the tenth best team with 8.90 expected wins. This may seem odd to some given the fact that they have twelve wins on the season and given how absolutely dominant their defense has been. A lot of that actually lies on the strength of their opponents, as the Bears have faced the easiest schedule of opposing defenses and the thirteenth-easiest schedule of opposing offenses according to Sharp Football Stats.

But as some of you may point out, I have already shared that the Bears have the top-ranked pass defense and second-best rush defense in my model, which adjusts for opponent strength. So why aren’t they higher in the model? For those of you that have joined the Bet It Up newsletter recently, my initial introduction to the model highlighted that the model dynamically weighs five categories (pass offense, rush offense, pass defense, run defense, and special teams) based on their calculated correlation to team strength across the league. Those weightings are exactly why the Bears may not be as terrifying as their defense is. Pass defense and rush defense combined are not weighted as much as even just rush offense alone. And pass offense, if you’ve been following along, has significantly more weight than rush offense.

It’s because of those weightings the Bears’ strength in the model and the dominance of their defense is certainly dragged down by their below average pass and rush offenses. And that may be exactly why the model makes this game CHI -4.2 which is a much shorter spread than the current spread of CHI -6.5. Short enough that PHI +6.5 -104 qualifies as a model play risking 2.403 units to win 2.3 units.
That will wrap it up for today’s write-up as well as this week’s round of playoff games. Don’t forget to tune in for next week’s matchups as well as the remainder of the playoffs (write-up schedule below). As always, you can catch model plays the second they’re made by following me on Twitter.

  • 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

Until next time!

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