2018 NFL Divisional Round Playoff Predictions

Sorry for my lack of response for the last few weeks. I was busy wrapping up an insane 2018 but I am happy to say that I am 2/3 of the way done with graduate school and all of my students finished the semester strong with their exams. I then took some much needed time off with family and friends during the holiday season. With all of that stuff out of the way and the final 8 teams determined for the Super Bowl LIII title, I am ready to get back on my soapbox to share my thoughts on the upcoming games this weekend.

First off, our prognostication for the most recent NFL regular season went quite well. Based on our Big Five Picks each week, we went 47-37-1 against the spread or 56%. 52.4% is the threshold for profitability when picking against the spread so our model made money!

So now with a plethora of data at our fingertips and more advanced modeling skills I picked up last year, we are ready to give some sound advice for the awesome games we have in store for this weekend. Here are the lines and schedules for the games.

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs
Saturday, January 12 1:35 PM PT on NBC
KC -5.5, O/U 57

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
Saturday, January 12 5:15 PM PT on FOX
LAR -7, O/U 49.5

Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots
Sunday, January 13 10:05 AM PT on CBS
NE -4, O/U 48

Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints
Sunday, January 13 1:40 PM PT on FOX
NO -8, O/U 51.5

Here are the scores our model spit out.

Indianapolis 24
Kansas City 31

Dallas 20
LA Rams 30

LA Chargers 27
New England 24

Philadelphia 20
New Orleans 28

Now the fun part ... our analysis! Here we go!

  1. Indianapolis will continue to play the road dog, this time at Arrowhead Stadium. As we expect in the playoffs, the divisional round will represent a much stiffer challenge than the wild card round. You are now playing a team with a top two record in your conference and a week off to rest. The Colts looked great in Houston last week and it wasn't just the offense. To shut down the dynamic duo of Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins at home by allowing just 7 points is truly remarkable. To shut down Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and every other KC offensive weapon would be bat shit insane! Can the Colts do it? Maybe but Arrowhead is not an easy place to win and Mahomoes had an incredible season by joining the 5000 passing yard and 50 TD club (only 2nd person to ever do so) and having the highest QBR this season and 3rd highest all time since that stat came into fruition in 2011 (thanks to ESPN).

So what happens in this game? Lots of scoring but the weather may have an impact on the passing game so hitting the over is not a given, especially with a high O/U line of 57. As has been the case with most games involving KC this year and offensive juggernauts in general, the game will most likely be decided by whoeover has the ball last. The Colts offense has been a well-oiled machine ranking #1 in 3rd down conversion percentage and #1 in fewest sacks allowed. The Chiefs are not far behind though ranking #2 and #5, respectively, in those categories. We all know that Andy Reid's career playoff record is mediocre (11-13 lifetime) and downright abysmal with KC (1-4) and that this is Mahomes first playoff game ever. Still, you have to stick with the better QB and the home town team, especially in inclement weather against a team that plays most of its games indoors. Expect KC to have the ball last and Mahomes to work his magic again.

Prediction: KC 31 - IND 24

  1. This game won't be close. Just look at the Cowboys road record: 3-5 and -4.625 point differential. Now look at the Rams home record: 7-1 and +9 point differntial. Digging deeper, the Cowboys offensive line is 5th worst when it comes to adjusted allowed sack rate. Aaron Donald almost broke the NFL single season sack record. He typically lines up on the left side of the line (the QB's blind side). Donald rates at 95.5 according to a famous football site. The two interior linemen he will see, Connor Williams and Joe Looney, rate at 58.2 and 53.2, respectively. Donald is going to have a field day. Aqib Talib will be on Amari Cooper so that neutralizes a key weapon for Dak Prescott. Ezekiel Elliott will be productive but not very effective if his QB is running for his life. In fact, check out Zeke's and the Cowboys' numbers below.

Games in which Prescott is sacked 5 or more times in 2018 (4 such games):
One 100 yard rushing game, 1 rushing TD total, 1-3 record, -11 point differntial

Games in whcih Prescott is sacked 4 or fewer times in 2018 (12 such games):
Five 100 yard rushing games, 5 rushing TDs total, 9-3 record, +26 point differntial

Clearly the Cowboys run game suffers if Dak is getting pressured.

On the other side of the ball, Todd Gurley has not played for a few weeks and should be fully healed from his minor knee sprain. The Rams pretty much knew that home field advantage would not happen after losing to Philly in Week 15. They were 11-3 at the time while New Orleans was 12-2 with the Saints owning the tiebreaker over the Rams after beating them earlier in the season. The Rams had a soft remaining schedule with Arizona and San Francisco so why rush back your best player if you know you can get a first round bye without him. The Cowboys defend the run pretty well but Gurley is matchup proof and well rested.

Brandin Cooks is another one to watch out for. He is incredible at home: 53 receptions, 767 yards, and 3 TDs at home. The road numbers are 27 receptions, 437 yards, and 2 TDs. Cooks played an equal number of home and road games. His QB is also amazing at home. Home numbers are 68.3 completion %, 2737 yards, 22 TDs, and 3 INTs all good for a 116.7 QB rating. The road numbers are 60.9 completion %, 1951 yards, 10 TDs, 9 INTs, and a 82.7 QB rating.

The more we examine this game, the more we realize that the Cowboys will lose the battle in the trenches and that there is a glaring difference in road numbers for the Cowboys and home numbers for the Rams. The Rams also have the best player on the field: Todd Gurley. Expect a double digit victory for the Rams.

Prediction: LAR 30 - DAL 20

  1. Like the Colts, we have another road warrior ... the LA Chargers. This time, we have faith in the road team pulling off the upset. The Chargers haven't had a true home since leaving America's Finest City 2 years ago. This reminds me of the opening line of Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam" ... THE ROAD BECOMES MY BRIDE. That has been the mantra for this Chargers team going 7-1 and beating some formidable opponents in tough venues like Seattle, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and most recently Baltimore. Those four teams were a combined 24-8 at home so for a team to go 4-0 in those stadiums is phenomenal. That is why we think the Chargers have a shot to pull off the nearly impossible ... winning a playoff game in Foxboro againt Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, especially after they had a week off to rest and prepare.

Notice, we say NEARLY though. Teams have beaten New England in Foxboro during the postseason. Here are those three teams: 2009 Ravens, 2010 Jets, and 2012 Ravens. What was it about those teams that enabled them to pull off such a tough feat? We will let the stats speak for themselves.

2009 Ravens: 52 carries for 234 rushing yards and 4 rushing TDs, 3 sacks, 4 forced turnovers, 32:21 time of possession
2010 Jets: 29 carries for 120 rushing yards and 1 rushing TD, 5 sacks, 1 forced turnover, +1 turnover differential
2012 Ravens:33 carries for 121 rushing yards and 1 rushing TD, 3 forced turnovers, 31:06 time of possession.

As we have seen in the epic games the Patriots have lost like to Philadelphia in the Super Bowl last year and their two Super Bowls against the NY Giants, you have to succesfully do two things: (1) knock Tom Brady on his ass early and often and (2) control the clock with an effective run game. Guess what ... the Chargers do both of those things extremely well! Pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are fully healthy and completely ravaged the Ravens offensive line last week. Also, stud RB Mevlin Gordon is pretty much near full health and Austin Ekeler has proven to be a nice change-of-pace back. Yes, the Pats, especially Gronk, are healthy but this is a much older team and a team playing somewhat past its prime. The three teams that beat the Patriots on the road in the postseason never had to face Gronk (he was still in college in 2009 and 2010 and injured in the 2012 AFC title game) but Gronk is not the dominant force he used to be and Tom Brady is now 41.

The one thing the Chargers cannot let happen is taking the foot off the pedal. That is the mistake the Falcons made in Super Bowl LI and the Jaguars also made in the AFC title game last year. Both teams did the two aforementioned things you have to do to beat New England but you have to bring the pressure for all 4 quarters not 3 quarters or 3.5 quarters. Tom Brady is just too good that if you give him just a little bit of a chance to pull off the comeback, he will do it. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn has proven to be a very good playcaller and strategist so I have faith that the Chargers will continue to make THE ROAD THEIR BRIDE!

Prediction: LAC 27 - NE 24

  1. OK, if you made it this far, hopefully you will keep going! We must admit that we would be utterly shocked if the legend of Nick Foles continues after this weekend. He pulled a rabbit out of his ass (literally!) to beat the Bears in the Windy City so if he does the same thing in the Big Easy, I just give up or I guess I will back the Eagles to repeat as Super Bowl champs. Foles is the epitome of a wild card. Some games he looks like a mediocre QB (like near the end of the regular season last year) and other times you wonder why he has not received a lucrative contract.

Logic dictates that the Foles' magic carpet ride comes to abrupt end on Bourbon Street. The Saints are really, really good at home and finally have a good defense. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas each have amazing home-road splits and the Eagles corners are terrible. Drew Brees is 5-0 at home in the postseason for a good reason ... he simply dominates the competition at the Superdome.

The Saints can be defeated but to to beat a prolific offense like New Orleans, you you need to hog the clock by running the ball. The more Brees is on the sidelines, the better your chances of winning the game. For example, the Bucs, Cowboys, and Panthers (in a meaningless game) all beat the Saints this year by winning the time of possession battle: 32:09 for Tampa Bay, 36:53 for Dallas, and 33:26 for Carolina. Here is the problem ... Philly's run game is non-existent. They ranked 5th to last in rushing yards per game and 3rd to last rushing yards per carry. The Saints ranked 2nd in fewest rushing yards allowed per game and 2nd in fewest rushing yards allowed per carry.

The one glimmer of hope is that the Eagles led the NFL in time of posession. Saints were #4 though. No matter how you slice it, the Saints are either superior or about the same in each category with the Eagles. This game should be a blowout but something tells us that Foles will mess with the point spread by pulling another rabbit out of his ass for the back door cover (pardon the pun!). Still, the Saints will be marching onto the NFC title game and hosting the Rams in a re-match of their Week 8 affair.

Prediction: NO 28 - PHI 20

There you have it. Saints, Rams, Chiefs, and Chargers. All four teams had the best records this season so we would not expect anything less! Enjoy the games this weekend and stay warm and dry wherever you are!