NFL Playoffs: Division Round Saturday

What a great way to start the playoffs! A nice 2-0-1 Wild Card weekend for +4.6 units also brings highlighted newsletter plays to 5-1-1 for +15.2 units. As a whole, the model moves to 74-43-6 for +93.69 units and a 20.18% ROI. The Wild Card round is always intriguing since division winners get home field advantage over Wild Card teams, creating situations where sometimes the better team is forced to play on the road which then in turn creates super close coin-flip matchups. The Divisional round is also interesting, as every year talking heads and fans alike weigh in on the debate of whether a bye or the momentum from winning a Wild Card game is more valuable.

The Value of a First Round Bye

Teams with a first-round bye are 44-21 in divisional round games since 2002, when the current playoff format was adopted. That’s good for a 67.7% win percentage for those teams, which is pretty significant at first glance. But how do we discern how much that advantage is from playing at home and how much is from coming off a bye? How do we separate that distinction from the fact that teams receiving byes are generally stronger teams to begin with and should be winning games at a higher clip? Looking at just playoff splits can be a bit deceiving due to small sample size, as a 65 game sample across 15 years is laughably small. As a result, I’ll look at splits using regular season games to capture a larger sample.

Since 2002, home teams have won 57.6% of games in the regular season and teams coming off of a bye (home or away) have won 55.2% of their games. If we look at a split combining the two, home teams coming off a bye have a 62.8% win percentage. Given that most first round bye teams are favorites for their Divisional round game, I thought it’d be worth mentioning that home favorites have a 73.9% win percentage coming off a bye since 2002. But these are all just in terms of wins and losses. The question for our purposes,should shift to how effectively Vegas has accounted for bye week value. Home teams off a bye are 53.6% ATS; home favorites off a bye are 55.0% ATS. Although those splits are “winning”, Vegas has been able to take advantage of bettors trying to take advantage of the bye week angle as of late. Since 2010, home teams off of a bye are 43.3% ATS and were 3-10-1 this year alone. With this in mind, it is very likely that Vegas has in recent years intentionally baked in more value than necessary on teams coming off a bye week in order to capitalize on public bettors trying to take advantage of the angle.

In my opinion, I think the real-world value of a playoff bye is from just being able to play less games in order to reach and win a Super Bowl. Without a bye, winning four straight games against above average to elite teams is a big mountain to climb considering winning four straight games in the NFL is tough enough as-is. Reducing that to three games with at least one game guaranteed to be at home and another on a neutral site is a much more manageable task. But this is all a digression and the matter of the fact is that I do account for the additional edge of a team coming off of a first round bye in the playoffs, but it is likely not as large of an edge as most bettors make it out to be.

#6 Colts (11-6) vs. #1 Chiefs (12-4)

Last week I called T.Y. Hilton the key to the Colts-Texans game, and surely enough he delivered. A nice 5 rec / 85 yard game helped extend key Colts drives while also spreading the field to make everyone else’s job on offense easier. Eric Ebron, the other candidate I called out as a potential producer, also contributed by securing a touchdown. Marlon Mack also joined in on the fun, tearing apart the highest-rated rush defense for 148 yards and a touchdown. But enough about last week, let’s get into the Colts’ matchup this week against the awaiting top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs’ journey in the model has been a very interesting one, to say the least. Prior to the season I had them Chiefs as the ninth-best team overall and fifth-best AFC team with 9.10 expected wins, and projected them as a fifth seed for the playoffs. My “low” evaluation didn’t come from me not being a believer in Patrick Mahomes, as I had the Chiefs improving their pass offense up to fourth-best heading into the season. Obviously what he and that offense has been able to achieve this season has blown anyone’s projections out of the water, and it should come as no surprise that the Chiefs’ pass offense ranks first by quite the margin. In fact, the gap between them and the second-ranked Chargers’ pass offense is as large as the gap between the Chargers and the twelfth-ranked Eagles unit.

One thing I have talked about on multiple occasions is the model’s ability to identify incorrect evaluations and adapt. Despite starting the season as the ninth-best team, the model had already jumped the Chiefs to the #2 spot after just three games and improved their expected wins total by 1.71, which is a massive jump for that time frame. The Chiefs’ peak this season came after Week 10, at which point they had 14.27 expected wins – a mark that no other team has come close to touching this season. The Chiefs of today aren’t as impressive in the model as they were at their peak, but they still rank first with 11.75 expected wins. They also possess the third-best improvement in expected wins over the course of the season, a mark that the Colts coincidentally bested as covered in last week’s newsletter.

As for this week’s matchup, I think we will see Andy Reid rely a lot on 12 personnel (two tight end sets). The Chiefs ranked third in the league in 12 personnel play frequency (26%) and the Colts ranked third-worst in defensive success rate against that package (59%) while allowing a 112.0 passer rating in those situations. They also surrender the most yards per game to tight ends and rank 29th in pass defense DVOA to the position. In last week’s newsletter I mentioned All-Pro rookie linebacker Darius Leonard who is certainly the anchor of the Colts’ front seven, but his ability (PFF coverage grade: 78.9) has not been enough to hide Anthony Walker (55.7), Matthew Adams (41.6), and Zaire Franklin (41.4) when they are called upon to cover two tight end sets. With this in mind, second-string Chiefs tight end Demetrius Harris is perfectly poised to have a career performance and doing so may help his agent fool a team into paying him the big bucks this offseason.

As for the model, the Chiefs are made to be 6.2 point favorites. The current line shows KC -5, which isn’t a large enough disagreement to make a model play on either side. If the line were to move to KC -4, then the Chiefs would become a model play at 2.2 units with each additional half point on the spread away from 6.2 being another half unit added to the play. The Colts would in theory become a model play at +8.5 or higher, but the model excludes spreads of +7 or higher from consideration and I have yet to make a decision on whether that exclusion should be lifted for the playoffs and will put off that decision until need be.

#4 Cowboys (11-6) vs. #2 Rams (13-3)

The Rams are kind of an unexciting team to discuss as they’re one that many pegged as being a top team heading into the season and they’ve of course finished as such. The model is no different, as the Rams entered the season as the #2 with 10.69 expected wins and finished the regular season as the third-best team with 10.53 expected wins. That may seem low given that the Rams finished with 13 wins, but their adjusted Pythagorean win total was 11.15 for this year. The one area in which the Rams did surprise many was their awful run defense, which finished 28th in the model despite the presence of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh up front. This soft spot will certainly be one that Jason Garrett can send Ezekiel Elliott at, who just tore the Seahawks up for 127 yards on 16 carries (7.94 yds/att).

Outside of that, Jason Garrett will have to come up with a gameplan in the passing game that vastly differs than the one executed last Saturday, as a lot of what yielded success for them in that game will be unlikely to bear fruit again this Saturday. Of Dak Prescott’s 33 attempts, 27 of them were for 15 yards or less and only eight of those were thrown to the left of the left hash mark. If this trend continues, the Rams are going to absolutely feast on Dak. The Rams defense ranks sixth overall in DVOA against short passes as a whole, and ranks second in pass DVOA against short passes (15 yards or less) to the right. Going the complete opposite – deep and to the left and/or down the middle – would be much more beneficial for the Cowboys offense, as the Rams defense ranks 23rd and 21st in those directions. Given that Prescott has only attempted 8% of his total passes this year to deep left and deep middle and a whopping 85% 15 yards or shorter, the Cowboys offense might find themselves in a lot of trouble early and often.

What about the Rams? Concerns on the offensive side of the ball started to surface after putting up six points against the Bears and 23 against the ravaged Eagles secondary in back-to-back weeks. Those concerns quickly went away as the Rams seemingly returned to form, putting up 31 and 48 in the final two weeks. Sean McVay has received endless praise this season for the success of the Rams’ offense, who has kept it simple and have run 96% of their plays from the same formation. Although McVay is certainly a great coach, I think the praise has been a bit exaggerated. If you exclude their Week 1 cupcake matchup against the Raiders, the Rams have faced the eight-toughest schedule of pass defenses. That may make their offensive performance this year look even more impressive, but if you look at the Rams’ schedule from Week 7 onwards, the Rams have faced eighth-easiest schedule of pass defenses. The problem is that the Cowboys don’t exactly possess the talent to adequately challenge the Rams, as they rank league-average in pass defense anyways.

As for the model, the Rams are made -5.5 favorites for this game. With the Vegas spread set currently at LAR -7, there is no model play currently but the Rams would become a play starting at -3.5 (don’t expect to see this line) and the Cowboys would technically become a play at +7.5, which comes with the same caveat the Colts did in the other game’s write-up. If potential model plays on IND or DAL show, I will be sure to make a decision and communicate it via Twitter. As of now I am siding with not lifting the exception in order to maintain the status quo, but I admittedly can’t think of any other reason not to. We shall see.

That’s going to wrap it up for today. Don’t forget to check your inboxes again tomorrow for a write-up covering the Sunday games. As per my Twitter, there is already a locked in model play on LAC +4.5 which I will be covering in-depth for that write-up. Below you can find a schedule for the remaining NFL Playoffs write-up schedule.

  • 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

See you soon.

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