NFL Playoffs: Conference Championships

The Divisional round saw a split between the two model plays of KC -4 and LAC +4.5, bringing the model to 75-44-6 for a +93.67 unit yield and a 19.98% ROI while playoff model plays move to 3-1-1 for +4.41 units. In last week’s pair of newsletters, I wrote about the numerical value of byes and the numerical effect of weather to help give us a better grip on what was driving last week’s spread numbers. This week, I’d like to discuss a game between the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos from 2015 and the significance it holds on the two Conference Championship games being played this week. No I am not kidding, but I am aware that sounds strange so I’ll jump right into it and explain its significance.

November 1, 2015 is a night I’ll remember for as long as I’m a football fan. It was Week 8 of the NFL season, and the 6-0 Packers who had just come off the choke job of the century against the Seahawks in the NFC Championship the previous season were travelling to Sports Authority Field to take on the 6-0 Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football. As a Packer fan, the 6-0 start was reassuring with a win at Soldier Field, a revenge win against the Seahawks, and a win on the road against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers who had bounced the Packers in the 2012 and 2013 playoffs. Aaron Rodgers was essentially untouchable, boasting a 76-37 (67.3%) record as a starter heading into that game. I was feeling great about the Packers.

And then we got absolutely romped. The Broncos went up 17-0 by the middle of the second quarter and I knew it was over. I didn’t care that we had Aaron Rodgers, who seemingly could make a game out of any of them no matter what the deficit. This game just felt different; it felt like Broncos Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips had figured out the formula on how to beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense. That offense had beaten teams for years as many defenses relied on soft man and zone coverage with plenty of help over the top to defend the deep ball, or with over-committed blitzes to try and generate meaningful pressure. Wade Phillips on the other hand had the talent and gameplan that finally did what so many had failed to do until then.

The Broncos’ gameplan involved generating an effective pass rush with just four men while playing press man coverage. With Jordy Nelson going down with a season-ending injury in the preseason, the Packers’ really lacked a pass catcher with the skill set to beat disruption at the line of scrimmage. The delay in route development caused by that disruption was long enough to give the Broncos’ pass rushers just enough time to generate meaningful pressure, wreaking absolute havoc on Rodgers’ ability to find an open man. Rodgers would finish the game 14 of 22 for 77 yards and a 65.8 rating as the Packers lost 10-29. The Packers would finish that season 9-7 and with an exit in the Divisional round of the playoffs. Rodgers since that game has gone 24-23-1 as a starter (51.0%). Wade Phillips and the Broncos defense would go on to become the centerpiece of a masterful season that culminated in a Super Bowl win. So what does this have to do with this week’s games? Let’s get right to that.

#2 Rams (14-3) @ #1 Saints (14-3)

Wade Phillips, now the defensive coordinator of the Rams, will have a similarly tall task to the one he faced for the November 1st, 2015 game against Aaron Rodgers. This time the stakes are quite a bit higher as he will be going up against the Saints in the NFC Conference Championship, a team that ranks third in pass offense and eigth in run offense. In their first meeting, it’s safe to say that Wade Phillips and the Rams’ defense utterly failed, allowing 45 points, 487 total yards, and a 346 yard – 4 TD – 0 INT line from Drew Brees while totalling zero sacks. Although they picked up a decisive win last week, the Rams only sack came on a strange play where forward progress was deemed stopped as Prescott was being held up and pushed forward by his own lineman. To add to the disappointment, the Cowboys offensive line ranked 27th in adjusted sack rate this season. To even further add to that disappointment, the Rams played that game at home in LA which means crowd noise was at its peak as the Cowboy’s o-line was waiting for the ball to snap. The tables could not be turned any more for this week as the Saints rank third in adjusted snap rate and this game will of course be played in the raucous Superdome.

To draw another parallel to that aforementioned Packers-Broncos game, C.J. Anderson lit the Packers defense on fire in that 2015 game with 101 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown (while having two goal-line TDs sniped by Ronnie Hillman). Last week, CJA continued his recent renaissance with the Rams with a 23 att / 123 yds / 2 TD line while teammate Todd Gurly added on a 16 att / 115 yds / 1 TD performance. However, the Saints’ third-ranked rush defense comes more than equipped to slow down the two backs as it held Eagles’ running backs to 37 yards on 13 carries last week. Even if we ignore the Saints’ ability to defend the run, I think the Rams’ backfield will be plenty busy in pass protection anyways as the Saints rank fifth in pressures generated in home games (via Sports Info Solutions).

In their first matchup, Sean McVay found only 13 opportunities to hand off the ball to his backfield and I expect much of that to hold this time around. However, passing more for the Rams could actually play to their favor, as the Saints are allowing a 47% success rate on pass attempts against 11 personnel (which the Rams run a ton of), a number that ranks bottom 27th in the league (via Sharp Football Stats). On top of their defeciencies defending the pass against 11 personnel, the Saints also struggle incredibly against deep passes. In fact, the Saints are the worst team in the league at defending deep passes (>15 yards) according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

As for the model, this game is made to be NO -5.1 which means a model play on the Saints would begin at -3 whereas the Rams would become a model play at +7.5 (which we have no chance of seeing). I do see NO -3 currently but it is priced at -114, which would be a good amount higher than I could tolerate. If and when the juice comes within an acceptable range, I’ll be sure to lock in the Saints as a model play on Twitter.

Much like the 2015 Broncos, the Patriots utilize a lot of man coverage. In fact, they led the league this year in man coverage usage with 56.8% of their snaps being in man (via Sports Info Solutions). But unlike the Broncos, the Patriots may need to shy away from man coverage in their defensive game-planning if they want to succeed. Patrick Mahomes has played five games against teams in the top twelve of man coverage usage and in those games he has averaged 328 passing yards, 3.8 TDs, and a 69.2% completion rate, which are all above his already absurd season averages. Sammy Watkins, who just returned last week from a lengthy injury, has averaged 4 rec / 74.8 yds / 0.5 TDs in those particular games. Watkins first season with the Cheifs has proven to be a success when he has been able to play, as he has averaged 5 rec / 64.1 yds while generating a 120.0 passer rating when targeted and a 72.7% catch rate on a 80% catchable target rate, all of which are either career highs or second to his career high (via Graham Barfield).

Although the Patriots have a run defense that otherwise grades as average overall, they do have one glaring weakness that went unchallenged in last week’s game. The Patriots are horrid at defending runs out of 11 personnel, allowing a league-worst 61% success rate and 6.8 yards per carry. The Chargers, who have never really done much to show that they care about or gameplan around analytics, gave Melvin Gordon just four carries last week from 11 personnel. On the other hand, Chiefs running back Damien Williams runs from 11 personnel on 64% of his attempts while averaging a 67% success rate and 5.2 yards per carry.

It’d be cheeky to talk about the Patriots’ defensive shortcomings given the defensive unit they’re going up against this week. To say that the Chiefs have a poor defensive reputation would be an understatatement. On the surface, they allow the ninth-most points per game and the second-most yards per game. That is certainly not good, but I do think there are certain elements of their defense that could pose some trouble for the Patriots. The most notable is that their front seven has generated the most quarterback pressures in home games this year. Granted the strength of the opponents they’ve played at home isn’t the greatest, but when looking at pass defense DVOA (which is opponent-adjusted) the Chiefs rank twelvth in the league. They’ve also played three playoff teams in their last four home games, and in those games they’ve allowed an average of just 221 passing yards while surrendering a 59.2% completion rate. Those games included games against the second-ranked Chargers’ pass offense and tenth-ranked Colts’ pass offense. They also generated ten sacks against those offensive lines, which ranked 2nd, 8th, and 13th in adjusted sack rate. To give you an idea of how impressive that 3.33 sacks per game average is, the league leader in sacks per game was the Steelers with 3.2 sacks per game.

Speaking of home and away splits, those get even uglier the deeper you dive into the game. The Chiefs allowed the second-most points per game on the road (34.6) while allowing the third-least at home (17.4). Of those three aforementioned recent home games against playoff teams (BAL, LAC, IND), they allowed an average of 22 points. The Patriots splits are equally massive: their net yards per play was +0.9 (2nd) at home and -0.6 (26th) on the road, and their average margin was +15.9 (1st) at home and -2.4 (17th) on the road. And I’m sure many of you have heard many times this week that the Brady/Belichick era Patriots are 3-4 on the road in the playoffs (which accounts for half of their total playoff losses), but that can be sliced and framed so many different ways to play for or against them. Three of the losses are in Denver, a notoriously tough place to play with the included altitude element. Three of the losses are to some guy named Peyton Manning. The three wins are against the Ben Roethlisberger Steelers and the Philip Rivers Chargers, both of which have been manhandled particularly egregiously by Brady and Belichick.

But I don’t want to make it sound entirely doom and gloom for the Patriots. They obviously stand a reasonable chance to win this game and possess advantageous matchups that can help push the game more in their favor. The Patriots rely heavily on 21 personnel (two back sets), ranking second in the league in play frequency on the year at 29% and only trailing the 49ers who use it on 41% of plays and are the only team who use it as their most common personnel package. However, the Patriots have used 21 personnel even more since their bye and since their committee of running backs have returned to full health. Since Week 12, the Patriots have used 21 personnel on 35% of all of their plays. This could spell disaster for the Chiefs’ defense as they are the worst in the league at defending 21 personnel, allowing a 65% success rate overall and a 98.2 passer rating on pass plays and 6.2 yards per carry on run plays.

As for the model, the game is made to be KC -5.7 which means there would be a model play on the Chiefs beginning at -3 and a play on the Patriots at +8.KC is currently -3 -116 which is too much juice, but just like the Saints play I will make sure to share if and when that comes within an acceptable range.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s write-up! That will wrap it up for this week, but I’ll be back in your inboxes in two weeks’ time to discuss Super Bowl LIII. I hope for my sake that I’m writing about a game that involves the Saints.

  • 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!

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