Well, well, well ... guess who went 6-0 during Wild Card weekend! Looks like I haven't lost my touch after not posting an NFL article on this blog for nearly a year! LOL!
Of course that 6-0 record was for picking winners straight up, not against the spread. That record was 3-3, with two of them being underdogs who I predicted would not just cover but win outright (Jacksonville and NY Giants), but I have to admit that I went against my model for the Buffalo-Miami and Cincinnati-Baltimore games that had those games as being closer. I deliberately gave Buffalo and Cincinnati larger margins of victory due to the QB issues of their opponents. Apparently their division rivals put up a big fight but just didn't have enough left in the tank. Hence, my predictions truly were 5-1 against the spread.
That one loss against the spread was San Francisco which of course I predicted to win but the model had the game as being closer. In my 34 years of following the 49ers, that 2nd half against Seattle ranks as one of their most dominant playoff performances. In fact their 18 point victory over Seattle was the largest margin of victory in the postseason for the 49ers since their Super Bowl win against the "then San Diego" Chargers during the 1994 season. It's not too far-fetched to say that this 49ers team has the championship swagger of the great 49ers teams of the 80s and early 90s: 11 straight wins and a dominant playoff victory against a division rival who used to give us fits for the past 10 years. None of the remaining teams in the postseason can boast something like that which makes me believe that this could finally be the year the 49ers earn a 6th Lombardi Trophy.
Speaking of 11 straight wins I have to brag about the correlation it has with one of my children. As I mentioned in last article, my youngest child was born this past fall. We were in our labor and delivery room on a Sunday afternoon in late October and while we were waiting for things to happen, I tuned into the 49ers game. Not a good one. We lost to Kansas City 43-22. A few hours later my wife went into labor and our daughter Allegra was born. Since then, the 49ers have not lost a game. Coincidence? I think not! She has brought good luck to our beloved 49ers!
In all seriousness, the acquisition of Christian McCaffrey and promotion of Brock Purdy to starting QB have made a big difference. However, there is one more thing I need to mention before I get to the predictions for this weekend. Some of you know that I work as a high school math teacher. The last class I taught before going on paternity leave was Oct. 11. I predicted to my students that it would be the 49ers and Bills in the Super Bowl, essentially channeling my inner-Chris Berman. For those who don't know, Berman is a sports anchor for ESPN who would predict those two teams in the Super Bowl every year from 1989-1995 and was awfully close in each of those years.
Well I return to the classroom on Jan. 30 which is a day after the AFC and NFC Championship games and I told my students to expect my prediction to be correct when I am back. I even wrote it down on one of the white boards after I left my campus on Oct. 13. Keep in mind that this was before the McCaffrey trade, before Garoppolo went down with a broken foot that brought Purdy into the spotlight, and before Damar Hamlin's health scare which could be the catalyst for getting the Bills back to the Super Bowl after a 29 year absence. I am feeling very good about this prediction being correct by the end of this month!
OK, enough tooting my own horn! Let's get to the Divisional Round predictions!
- Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs
What an impressive comeback by Jacksonville last weekend. Most teams would fold after being down 27-0 in the first half, especially at home. It's embarrassing but QB Trevor Lawrence demonstrated a lot of resolve by getting his team back into the mix with a late TD to end the first half. After a 3-and-out by the Chargers to start the 2nd half, the Jaguars scored another TD. In fact the Chargers scored on each of their possessions in the 2nd half, including a gutsy 2-point conversion call with just 5 minutes left in the game. Conventional wisdom would say you kick the PAT when down 30-26 and hope to get a game tying field goal near the end of regulation. Kudos to Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson who made a similar gutsy call in the Super Bowl 5 years ago while he was the coach for Philadelphia. Pederson has extreme confidence in Lawrence who is quickly showing that Lawrence was worth all the hype that comes with being the first overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Such a great victory can galvanize a team to go on a big playoff run. Here is the problem though. The Chiefs are not the Chargers. Since 2016, Kansas City has dominated the AFC West and the entire AFC for that matter. The Chiefs have won the divisional title 7 years in a row and have played in the last four AFC Championship games, winning it twice and of course winning the Super Bowl in 2019. Meanwhile the Chargers have either been second fiddle to Kansas City or in the cellar. I can pretty much guarantee you that Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes would not blow a 27 point lead in the first half, especially in the postseason.
Also, keep in mind that Jacksonville is 4-5 on the road while Kansas City is 7-1 at home. Arrowhead Stadium is much like Yankee Stadium. It is incredibly intimidating and Arrowhead gets loud. Like crazy loud! In fact, Arrowhead Stadium owns the world record for loudest sporting event when the crowd noise reached 142.2 decibels in a 41-14 victory over New England in September 2014.
Another thing to consider is that Andy Reid has an impeccable record after a bye week, especially a first round playoff bye. He is 29-6 after a bye week, including the playoffs. He is arguably one of the best coaches in the NFL and his bust at the NFL Hall of Fame is waiting for him once Reid decides to retire. The man knows how to get his teams ready when given an extra week of preparation.
The last thing to consider are two players: Mahomes and Travis Kelce. Yes, there are 51 other players on the active roster but those two are unstoppable. It has to be one of the best QB-TE tandems in NFL history. Mahomes has a laser cannon for an arm and is lethal when throwing on the run. Kelce is a matchup nightmare and a constant red zone threat. The Jaguars have no one on defense to put enough pressure on Mahomes to make bad decisions and even if they double or triple team Kelce, Mahomes will find plenty of other receivers to keep the chains moving for the Chiefs. What's even more impressive is that Mahomes lost Tyreek Hill and he still put up eye-popping stats. In fact, Mahomes had a chance to break the single season record for passing yards which ranks 4th overall at 5,250 yards.
As much as I like Lawrence (he reminds me of a young Peyton Manning with his leadership and tenacity) and would love to see him experience more playoff success, it's not his time just yet. Mahomes has been king of the hill and is not ready to relinquish his thrown.
Prediction: Kansas City 31 - Jacksonville 24
- New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
I can't recall a postseason where we have had so many division rivals face each other, especially when a 3-0 sweep is imminent. San Francisco, Buffalo, and Cincinnati pulled off that feat last weekend and Philadelphia is about to join that group. True, the Giants rested their starters in Week 18 while the Eagles needed to win to earn home field advantage and a first round bye. However, the Eagles pulverized the Giants in Week 14 with a 48-22 victory on the road. At that time, Philadelphia was riding a 4 game winning streak and had a 12-1 record. Then came the Jalen Hurts injury the following week in Chicago which should not be shocking given how often Hurts runs with the ball. While watching NFL Red Zone that Sunday, I recall seeing one of the Bears defenders hitting him hard when Hurts ran the ball up the middle. The Eagles won that game but barely. They then went on to lose two games in a row and barely beat New York to finish the regular season.
It can be fair to say that the Eagles have peaked a bit too soon. That can be expected when a team starts 8-0. However, this is a team that seems poised to at least get to the NFC Championship game. After all, they had an extra week to rest and will be playing at home in front of a raucous crowd. As much as I wouldn't mind seeing the Giants upset the Eagles which would give the 49ers a chance to host the NFC Championship game should they beat Dallas, it's not going to happen. Yes, the Giants beat a 13-4 team on the road last weekend but we knew Minnesota was overrated with a -3 point differential. However, the Giants also have a negative point differential (-6) while Philadelphia has the third highest point differential among all NFL teams (+133). This will also be the 3rd consecutive road game for New York and 5th road in the last 6 weeks.
The one thing I quickly noticed about the Eagles at the start of the regular season was how well rounded they are. They have a top 5 QB, two stud WRs, a top 10 TE (could make a case for being top 5), arguably the best offensive line in football, and a defense that can get after you (league leading 70 sacks). I forgot to mention one other thing Philadelphia does very, very well. They know how to RUN the ball! Your mainstream NFL fan will focus on yardage which is not a bad metric. The Eagles rank 5th.
However, I like to focus on DVOA from Football Outsiders. DVOA is a metric that takes into consideration every single play and compares a team's performance to a league baseline based on situation in order to determine value over average. That is why DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. No one knows how exactly that metric is computed except for those who work for Football Outsiders (best not to share the secret recipe) but what I do know is that DVOA correlates extremely well with a team's win-loss record. I have compared all NFL teams' overall DVOA (DVOA is also categorized for overall offense, overall defense, and even further with passing and rushing performance) with their win-loss record for the last 20 years and the correlation coefficient is typically 0.8 or higher. That means at least 64% of the variance in a team's win-loss record can be explained by DVOA. As someone who teachers Statistics and studied Data Science, I love this kind of stuff. DVOA definitely follows all of the normal distribution behavior you expect when you run such a correlation. Bottom line, DVOA is a superior metric that holds water.
So where does the Philadelphia run offense rank in terms of DVOA? First! Where does the New York Giants run defense rank in terms of DVOA? Dead last! Here we have a team's biggest strength going against it's opponent's biggest weakness. During Week 14, Eagles RB Miles Sanders rumbled for 144 rushing yards and 2 rushing TDs on 17 carries. Hurts and backup RB Boston Scott tacked on another 110 rushing yards on 13 carries and 2 more rushing TDs. This game will probably be the most lopsided affair of the weekend.
Prediction: Philadelphia 31 - NY Giants 20
- Cincinnati Bengal at Buffalo Bills
I have to admit right away that I am really torn about this game. This is not an easy one to predict and the winner could very well be determined by whoever has the ball last. Also, I am sure both teams are eager to butt heads (albeit safely after what happened to Damar Hamlin three weeks ago) given that their Monday Night game was canceled. Cincinnati had an early lead and it's not unfathomable to assume they could have won that game given that they were the home team and riding a 7 game winning streak that included a win against Kansas City and wins against teams who either made the playoffs or were fighting for a playoff spot during the final two weeks of the regular season. If Cincinnati was able to finish that game (of course played at a later date since no one in his/her reasonable mind would expect the Bengals and Bills to play shortly after Hamlin's collapse) and beat Buffalo, then Cincinnati would be 2nd seed and playing at home this weekend.
The NFL didn't have an easy job figuring out what to do about playoff seeding after canceling the Buffalo-Cincinnati game and no solution would have been perfect. However, shouldn't this game be played at a neutral site? We know that will definitely happen for the AFC Championship game should Kansas City and Buffalo both win this weekend. Well I don't make these decisions so we have to consider what is in front of us which is a home playoff game for Buffalo, a team that has to be highly motivated to win it all for their city and fallen teammate.
In my last article, I discussed all of the heartbreak Buffalo fans have had to endure since the Bills' first Super Bowl loss during the 1990 season so it does not bear repeating. There is no better time than now for Buffalo to finally win the Super Bowl. As much as I am eager to see the 49ers end their Super Bowl drought, Buffalo is looking like the team of destiny. They beat a division rival last weekend and get a chance to dethrone the current AFC Champions. Then they would most likely play Kansas City next, the previous AFC Champion and a team that has ended the the Bills Super Bowl hopes the last two seasons.
Much like how Steve Young finally won the big one after beating Dallas in 1994, Peyton Manning finally hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after beating New England in 2006, and the Boston Red Sox going on to end an 86 year old World Series drought (aka the Curse of the Bambino) in 2004 after digging themselves out of 0-3 hole against the Yankees, the Bills could find themselves in a similar situation by exorcising their demons with wins against Cincinnati and Kansas City en route to the Super Bowl in Arizona. Sometimes you need to overcome the hurdle that has stood in your way for a while in order to finally win a championship. I believe Buffalo is up to the task. I could delve deeper into the matchups between the Bengals and Bills but these are evenly matched teams. I am more willing to entertain the narrative that Buffalo is the team of destiny (until they see San Francisco in the Super Bowl!).
Prediction: Buffalo 28 - Cincinnati 24
- Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
Last week the 49ers game was the first one I analyzed given that they played first during Wild Card Weekend. Well I saved the best for last for this round of the playoffs! Much like the Buffalo-Cincinnati game, I expect this one to be close. Points will definitely be at a premium given how good these defenses have been all year. Check out these stats below during the 2022 regular season.
Yardage allowed: SF 1st (300.6 per game) and DAL 12th (330.2 per game)
Points allowed: SF 1st (16.3 per game) and DAL 5th (20.1 per game)
Passing yards allowed: SF 20th (222.9 per game) and DAL 8th (200.9 per game)
Rushing yards allowed: SF 2nd (76.9 per game) and DAL 22nd (129.3 per game)
Sacks: SF 10th (44 total) and DAL 3rd (54 total)
QB Rating allowed: SF 6th (82.7) and DAL 10th (84.7)
DVOA for overall defense (Football Outsiders): SF 1st (-14.1%) and DAL 2nd (-13.3%)
The last metric is what I want to focus on. I have already shared what DVOA is all about while analyzing the NYG-PHI game. Clearly Football Outsiders view San Francisco and Dallas as the two best defenses this season. If you dig a little deeper on the Football Outsiders site, San Francisco's pass defense and run defense rank 5th and 2nd, respectively, while Dallas's pass defense and run defense rank 3rd and 5th, respectively. As I said previously, points will come at a premium which means the kicking game will be vital. If you watched the Monday Night playoff game between Dallas and Tampa Bay, it was gut wrenching watching Brett Maher miss 4 PATs in a row. He is a good kicker nailing 6 out of 7 field goals between 40 - 49 yards and 9 out of 11 field goals from 50 yards and beyond. However, missing 4 chip shot kicks in one game is concerning. As for the 49ers kicking game, Robbie Gould is as reliable as kickers come. He has missed just 4 PATs over the last 3 seasons (out of 129 attempts) and has been near perfect from under 40 yards. Given that Gould is 40 years old, his range is not what it used to be. Saying Kyle Shanahan is a conservative coach is a bit of an understatement so I am pretty sure Shanahan won't send Gould out there if he feels that the field goal attempt is beyond Gould's range.
So what about the red zone offense for each team? After all, discussing field goals is a moot point if these teams are effective at punching the ball into the end zone. Dallas ranks 1st in red zone offense scoring a TD in 73.3% of their trips to the red zone. The 49ers red zone defense is not terribly great allowing a TD on 57.5% of their opponents' trips to the red zone but their home/away splits is eye popping. The 49ers red zone defense at home was superb at 45.45% while it was 72.22% on the road. Only two other teams had a wider gap for home/away splits (Seattle and Jacksonville). That could explain why the 49ers have had a stellar home record of 8-1. That only loss was to Kansas City during Week 7 when the Chiefs scored 4 TDs on 5 trips to the red zone. Remove that game and the 49ers red zone defense at home drops to 33.3% which is championship level.
Of course we should not completely ignore the KC game since KC's red zone offense ranks 2nd. Something will have to give. Either Dallas will have its way with the 49ers in the red zone or the 49ers learned their lesson against KC and have made the necessary adjustments. Here is the problem for Dallas: the 49ers don't allow many trips to the redzone. They rank 1st in red zone attempts by an opponent at just 2.2 attempts per game. What this tells me is that it doesn't matter how good the Cowboys' red zone offense is if they will have trouble even getting to the red zone. This also tells me that the 49ers defense is exemplary in the middle of the field. Defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans deserves much credit for building such a great defense after it kind of fell apart during the 2020 season. Likewise for edge rusher Nick Bosa who could win Defensive Player of the Year.
For Dallas to win, they will need to make the most of their attempts to the red zone which could be just 2 or 3 attempts. If they can't score a TD, then they will need to rely on their kicker which doesn't sound too promising or deep plays which has kind of been the 49ers Achilles' heel. The other problem for Dallas if they are relying on deep plays to score TDs is that Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has a penchant for forcing throws in tight windows. That has gotten him in trouble in past playoff games, especially last year against the 49ers where he completed just 53.49% of his passes, was sacked 5 times, and threw a costly INT midway through the 3rd quarter on his own side of the field. The result was a Deebo Samuel rushing TD on the next play. That put Dallas in a 16 point hole and they never dug out of it.
Dak Prescott had superb numbers in 2021 throwing for 37 TDs and just 10 INTs in 16 starts. However, in 12 starts in 2022, he has thrown just 23 TDs and 15 INTs. That is at least 1.25 INTs per game. In a close playoff game, losing the turnover battle can end your season. Interestingly the top two teams in turnover differential were San Francisco (+13) and Dallas (+10). Whoever can do the better job of protecting the football wins this game.
That is why I am going to roll with San Francisco and it's not just because I am a 49ers fan. The 49ers are at home where they have played at a championship level while Dallas has been more pedestrian on the road with a 4-4 record. Both teams boast stellar defensive units so points won't come easy. The kicking game is a major concern for Dallas. While Dallas has a red zone offense better than Kansas City's (who put a beat down on SF earlier this season), the 49ers red zone defense is much improved and performs better at home. Plus Dallas' red zone offense will be rendered useless if it can't even get to the red zone and remember that the 49ers allow the least amount of trips to the red zone this season.
Another thing to consider is that Dallas has two fewer days of preparation compared to San Francisco. Dallas played on Monday night on the road and probably didn't land back in Dallas until early Tuesday morning. They probably took a day off that day and only had 3 days of practice this week before they to fly to California on Saturday. The 49ers last played on Saturday so they had the entire MLK weekend to scout the competition and most likely put in a full week of practice. Keep in mind that the 49ers have not had to travel much lately with their last road game being three weeks ago and that was a short flight to Las Vegas. Meanwhile this will be the Cowboys fourth consecutive road game and 5th in the last 6 weeks.
Lastly, the Dallas rush defense is mediocre at best and the 49ers run the ball well. Just pick your poison among McCaffrey, Samuel, or Elijah Mitchell. If you have followed Kyle Shanahan's career, he loves to run the ball and had arguably one of the best rushing offenses in NFL history when he was the offensive coordinator for Atlanta in 2016. I expect a ball control game that will have us on the edge of our seats but when all is said and done, the 49ers will be the one moving on to the City of Brotherly love at the end of this month for another chance at getting to the Super Bowl while Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will keep wondering why his meddlesome ways have prevented his team from making it past the 2nd round of the playoffs in the post-Troy Aikman era.
Prediction: San Francisco 24 - Dallas 21
There you have it! All four home teams win but only one of them will cover the spread (Philadelphia). Seems fitting that the top 4 teams all season long based on record and point differential advance to the Conference championships.
So what will happen afterwards. Fortunately for me, I went undefeated with my Wild Card picks so I don't need to change a thing!
Conference Championships: SF beats Philly on the road and Buffalo takes care of business against KC on a neutral field in Atlanta. We finally get the Chris Berman Bowl!
Super Bowl: As much as it would be sweet for Buffalo to win a Super Bowl for the first time, the 49ers will win their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season.