Last Updated: 2018-01-05
Beginning this weekend the NFL playoffs will take center stage of the sports world to begin 2018. Chronicling this past NFL regular season with you from a handicapping perspective through this article has been a pleasure for me personally and profitable for the majority of the season. Unfortunately a late season dry spell (1-8-1 Ouch!) dropped the season record down to the break-even area of 53%. When combined with past season records however the NFL model used to project lines still remains in the green with a historical record of 55.2% over the past three seasons. Hopefully we can catch some positive regression in the playoffs and make this a solid NFL season financially, regardless on how the teams we place our personal routing interests in panned out.
To finish up the season, I am providing readers with a team-by-team run down of the playoff contenders entering January rather than picking games. Today we release the AFC preview, and tomorrow the rundown of the NFC will be released. It is constructed to provide more insight regarding the strengths and weaknesses of specific teams then the articles during the regular season and designed to be useful regardless of the specific matchups in the weeks ahead. Listed for each team are some factors to consider when constructing your playoff bets using the breakdown of the player model according to specific personal units. Additionally an AFC matchup matrix is listed at the end of the article which lists the projected betting lines for all potential matchups in the AFC playoffs.
The model has been fully updated to reflect the current player grades of resources used to design the model. Additionally the model was adjusted to better reflect individual player usage and the most current special teams grades provided by Football Outsiders. Lastly, player injuries were accounted for as well as possible. Players with minor-ish injuries such as DeMarco Murray and Antonio Brown were used to calculate the team grades as they will likely play in their team’s playoff games. Moving forward however, you can assume nearly every average level player has relatively little effect on their team’s power rating while the loss of important non-quarterbacks have about a -0.3 to -0.8 effect on their team’s grade. Lastly in the event of an injured quarterback in the playoffs, one can assume an adjustment of about -2.5 on the Marcus Mariota end to about -7 in the event of a Tom Brady catastrophe.
AFC Playoff Teams (listed according to seeding):
#1 New England Patriots 13-3
Overall Team Model Grade: 81.3 (2nd)
Offense Model Grade: 45.8/53.5 (1st)
Defense Model Grade: 31.2/41.5 (25th)
Special Teams Model Grade: 4.25/5 (3rd)
Home Field Advantage: 3.5 points
Strengths: It will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the NFL over the passed 17 years or so what the strength of this team is. Tom Brady has again had another MVP caliber season and his quarterback contribution to New England’s overall grade according to the model is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league with 20.1 out of a possible 21 points. This is a full 1.4 points above the next best player / squad (Matt Ryan in Atlanta) and 3.2 points better than other playoff quarterbacks such as Cam Newton and Marcus Mariota. Traditionally, like most quarterbacks, the games where Brady has looked beatable have been those in which he has been under pressure from defensive lineman. This season, Brady’s o-line has again been very solid as they rank 5th overall in my model’s offensive line unit grades. While they may not have any Pro Bowl players at the offensive line, they have a solid group from tackle to tackle with each starting lineman in the average to above average range according to Pro Football Focus and none in the below average or poor range where it is common for many NFL teams to have at least one lineman in this area.
Weaknesses: Needless to say, as balanced and solid as the Pats are along the offense, the converse is largely true for the defense. Individually the Patriots have 5 of the 11 starters rated as poor or below average within the starting defensive ranks and the majority of others players who get a fair number of snaps, especially in the front 7 fall in this range as well. Other matrics agree with this assessment as the New England Patriots are dead last in Football Outsiders Defensive DVOA and 31st in Defensive Yards Allowed per Play. It should come as no surprise that the Belichick led Patriots defense has in fact demonstrated improved play over the course of the season. They’ve only allowed 14.7 points per game in the past 11 games after a horrendous start and rank 23rd in yards allowed in their past 3 games. Overall while this is certainly not Belichick’s most talented defensive group they are well coached and appear to be better than the sum of their parts – a hallmark of great coaches.
#2 Pittsburgh Steelers: 13-3
Overall Grade: 80.1 (T-3rd)
Offense Model Grade: 44.8/53.5 (3rd)
Defense Model Grade: 31.8/41.5 (17th)
Special Teams Model Grade: 3.5/5 (12th)
Home Field Advantage: 3.0 points
Strengths: Offense, offense, offense! Going into the 2017 campaign the Steelers were expected to have one of the top offenses in the league and despite all the twists and turns we’ve seen this (and every) season that expectation came to bear. Each of the Steelers’ offensive groups grade out in the top four according to the model (quarterback (4th), skill position (2nd), offensive line (3rd) and top 10 in a number of other areas such as Offensive DVOA (3rd), Yards per Play (7th), Points per Play (8th), and Yards per Game (3rd). Additionally only 3 offensive starters grade out below average according to PFF (Maurkice Pouncey, Martavis Bryant, and Jesse James). Clearly there is a wealth of offensive talent on this team and putting points on the board in January should not be an issue.
Weaknesses: It’s not so easy to find a glaring hole on any team with only a handful of regular season losses and Pittsburgh overall looks like a pretty well rounded squad. Defensively they are strong along the defensive line and their top 3 cornerbacks (Burns, Hilton, and Haden) all grade out well according to PFF. The loss of Ryan Shazier is a big blow to the linebacking corps as he is listed as an above average / high quality LB with a grade of 84.7 while his replacement Sean Spence (who is getting a fair amount of snaps) grades out as a very poor 30.8 in the few weeks since he has stepped in. Of additional concern for the Steelers could be their safeties. The back end of their secondary, Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis rate quite low with grades of 69.1 and 33.0 respectively. Therefore the Steelers could potentially be susceptible to teams which can attack the middle of the field in the playoffs… Pats and Gronk anyone?
#3 Jacksonville Jaguars: 10-6
Overall Team Model Grade: 79.4 (6th)
Offense Model Grade: 41.3/53.5 (14th)
Defense Model Grade: 35.4/41.5 (1st)
Special Teams Model Grade: 2.75/5 (20th)
Home Field Advantage: 2.5 points
Strengths: Again it should come as no surprise what the strength of the Jags are this season. This season the Jacksonville defense has trended in the “historic” direction and within just two years has become the best young defense in the league. They currently lead the NFL in sacks and pass defense. They are the clear #1 defense according to the model’s rankings and have 8 (Yes 8!) of their 11 defensive starters ranked as either elite, high quality, or above average according to PFF. Additionally, they are 2nd in Defensive DVOA, 2nd in Points Allowed per Game, and 3rd in Total Defense. That is certainly an impressive defensive resume and a team which will be a tough out the playoffs regardless of who they play.
Weaknesses: Reflexively, one would assume that quarterback Blake Bortles is the weakest link on this Jags team as rumors of his departure and an Eli Manning / Tom Coughlin reunion have swirled all season. However, Bortles has quietly improved his play over the course of the season and currently has a grade of 81.0 according to PFF. This ranks him 16th amongst all qualified quarterbacks and ahead of higher profile signal callers such as Jared Goff, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, and the aforementioned Eli Manning. The glaring weakness on this team is instead the offensive line. The Jags o-line ranks a pedestrian 18th according to the model. With 3 of 5 starters along the line listed as poor according to PFF the only thing keeping them from a lower ranking with regard to the o-line is the collective weakness of many other offensives line across the league. For the Jags to be successful in the playoffs the line must play better to provide running lanes for Fournette and time in the pocket for Bortles. If they can’t teams such as Pittsburgh and possibly Tennessee with strong defensive lines could take advantage of the Jags weak offensive line and cause issues with offensive performance.
#4 Kansas City Chiefs: 10-6
Overall Team Model Grade: 79.1 (T-7th)
Offense Model Grade: 43.3/53.5 (5th)
Defense Model Grade: 31.6/41.5 (22nd)
Special Teams Model Grade: 4.25/5 (4th)
Home Field Advantage: 3.0 points
Strengths: With the combination of Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce paired with quarterback Alex Smith the Chiefs may well have one of the best collections of skill position talent in the league. They rank 3rd in the skill position metric (RB, WR, and TE) according to the model behind just Atlanta and Pittsburgh. This team can certainly score points with this offensive group as they average over 25 points per game and are the 5th best team in the NFL according to Offensive DVOA. Additionally, they do have some talent on the other side of the ball as well with Chris Jones, Justin Houston, and Marcus Peters. All grade out as high quality defensive players and are in the top 20 of their position according to PFF.
Weaknesses: This team has been a true roller coaster this season. They won their first five games, lost six of the next seven, and have now won four straight to finish up the season. This inconsistency in their losing performances seems to stem from their ability to get Kareem Hunt rolling. In their 6 loses this season Hunt has not rushed for over 100 yards nor has he recorded a touchdown. While Hunt’s poor stat line could be a function of how these particular games unfolded, him and the other elite players on team are surrounded by relatively little elsewhere as the remainder of the team outside of its 7 high quality players are mainly average / replacement level talent. The offensive line, linebackers, and secondary are largely void of true difference makers. Therefore, if Kansas City cannot get its top playmakers involved and humming early they could see a quick exit in the playoffs this season as they are not a very balanced team with the ability to play different game styles.
#5 Tennessee Titans: 9-7
Overall Team Model Grade: 78.9 (9th)
Offense Model Grade: 42.6/53.5 (8th)
Defense Model Grade: 33.1/41.5 (10th)
Special Teams Model Grade: 3.25/5 (14th)
Home Field Advantage: 2.0 points
Strengths: At the onset of the season, the Tennessee Titans appeared to be built for success as they were largely molded after the Dallas Cowboys on the offensive side of the ball. A ground and pound type offense with strength at the offensive line and running back positions which was paired with a tough, solid defense seemed like a recipe for success. After 16 games however, it seems as though some of the ingredients needed to duplicate the success of the Cowboys 2016 offense were missing. What did pan out, albet to a lesser extent, was a strong offensive line. Coming in at 4th in the model rankings, the Titans certainly can mark their o-line as a positive with solid players across the line and particular strength at the tackle positions. On the defensive side the Titan’s front 7 is also very strong. They rank 5th in the model in this metric and are lead by high level players such as Avery Williamson, Brian Orakpo, and Jurrell Casey. The quality front 7 has paid dividends as they rank 4th in rushing yards allowed per game and have only surrendered 27% of all their yards allowed via the ground.
Weaknesses: All year long the Titans have confounded the predictive model I use for the NFL. Overall the majority of their roster grades out very well compared to many of the others around the league according to PFF however, this has not translated into particularly impressive on-the-field performances. For these reasons I’ve suggested to take their numbers with a grain of salt all season long. The primary responsibility for this disconnect seems to lay with the coaching of this team, specifically as it relates to the growth of 3rd year quarterback Marcus Mariota. Through most of the season he has been largely unimpressive relative to his draft position and has not shown the growth seen by other young quarterbacks such as Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Therefore, depending on this coaching staff to out scheme other quality coaches is unlikely. With regards to players on the field, weaknesses for the Titans include the secondary where they rank a middling 16th according to the model and skill position talent where they come in at 12th. This will likely cause them to be at a disadvantage against teams with strong passing attacks which they will need go up and down the field with to keep pace.
#6 Buffalo Bills: 9-7
Overall Team Model Grade: 77.1 (16th)
Offense Model Grade: 41.7/53.5 (12th)
Defense Model Grade: 31.6/41.5 (19th)
Special Teams Model Grade: 3.75/5 (8th)
Home Field Advantage: N/A
Strengths: First off, congrats to the Buffalo Bills for their unlikely appearance in the 2017 playoffs via the Cincinnati Bengals upset of the Ravens. While they are largely a mediocre team this year, outside of die-hard Browns fans tough to find a more deserving city for some positive luck then those from Buffalo. That being said, if this team is going to do anything more than make a quick exit from the playoff it is going to require one hell of an effort from the team’s core offensive players (LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor). The combination of McCoy and Taylor are the two most highly graded offensive players according to PFF (86.0 and 83.9 respectively) and must both be accounted for on every play from both a rushing and passing perspective. On the defensive side of the ball, Buffalo’s young secondary, lead by rookie Tre’davious White rank 5th according to the model between the solid secondaries of the LA Rams and Denver Broncos.
Weaknesses: For as well as the secondary for the Bills have performed this season, the Bills front 7 has been a significant weakness. The defensive line and linebacking corps of the Bill ranks 31st in the league according to the model and has given up an average of 124 yards rushing per game over the season. Outside of Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes the Buffalo front 7 is largely comprised of players with poor or below average scores from PFF. This will make it extremely difficult to shut down quality running teams in the playoffs and put opponents in a position where they must throw against their secondary in order to win. Of additional concern for the Bills is the injury to McCoy. While the team is currently saying he could likely be a “go” for the playoff he will not be 100% and his likely replacements (Travaris Cadet and/or Mike Tolbert) are not nearly as dynamic a runner as Shady McCoy.
AFC Playoffs – Projected Model Lines
|BUF (w/ McCoy)
Please note: I have begun to notice that each year as the NFL season progresses the model tends to project closer lines than those produced by the betting market when compared to earlier in the season. This tends to create a scenario where games between two non-closely matched teams makes the underdog appear more valuable than they actually are or should be. The reasons for this will be the subject of some offseason homework but for now I would suggest adding an additional 2 to 2.5 points to each favorite (at least for this weekend) and to use the model projected lines as a guide, requiring more detailed assessment before placing a wager. Best of luck!
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