Monday, December 30, 2013

Revised NFL Power Ratings (Wild Card Round)

With the regular season finished, and the playoffs set to begin next week, there are 12 teams that remain in contention. Here are the updated power ratings and projected point spreads for the Wild Card round.

84.0 Seattle
83.0 Denver, San Francisco
80.5 Carolina
80.0 New Orleans, Cincinnati
79.0 New England, Green Bay
78.0 Kansas City
77.5 Philadelphia
77.0 Indianapolis
76.0 San Diego

Seattle will have the luxury of being favored by at least four points in each of their games leading up to the Super Bowl, granted they advance that far. It's unclear whether Percy Harvin will return for the playoffs, and you've got to wonder whether or not he would have been ready to go had Seattle not rushed him back towards the end of the regular season. Seattle's run defense is somewhat suspect and their offensive line could use some shoring up, but nonetheless, this is the most balanced team in the league.

According to my ratings, Denver has a relatively easy road to MetLife. The toughest competition the Broncos will have to face is either New England or Cincinnati at home, while Seattle will potentially have to deal with the likes of San Francisco or Carolina. While Denver technically has an easier road to the Super Bowl than Seattle (albeit by a very slim margin), I don't trust Peyton throwing the ball around in windy, adverse weather conditions. Notice I'm not talking about the cold, freezing temperatures that some of the talking heads on television have previously alluded to. I'm talking about wind and precipitation. Additionally, the defensive unit cannot be trusted to get timely stops in crucial situations. I can definitely see Denver making it to the Super Bowl, but I'd make them at least 2-point underdogs to Seattle if both teams happen to meet up at MetLife in February.

Notice how I have San Francisco ranked third overall, yet they are stuck with the #5 seed in the NFC. That's what happens when you have the best team in football playing inside your division. Despite having to travel to Lambeau in the opening round, the current market price is San Francisco -2.5 (-115). Oddsmakers are giving the Niners a great deal of respect and I couldn't agree more. San Fran is better than Green Bay in nearly every advanced metric I take into consideration when evaluating teams. The 49ers can move the ball on the ground, as well as stop the run, which is crucial in the postseason, particularly when playing on the road in potentially adverse weather conditions.

Carolina is in position to do some major damage in these playoffs. Locking up the #2 seed, a first-round bye, and at least one home game is absolutely huge, as they would have much less of a chance of making it to the Super Bowl had they blown their season finale versus Atlanta. I have developed somewhat of an affinity for 'Riverboat Ron' after he decided to stop being a conservative square and take some chances on fourth down. I love coaches that think outside of the box like this (i.e. Belichick, Parcells and Kelly). They give you four downs for a reason, and too many coaches follow the traditional logic of "taking the points." Nothing irks me more than an announcer using that phrase, especially when the percentages are clearly in favor of going for it on fourth down. Some of these coaches are stuck in the 80's and 90's and refuse to take a modern-day approach when evaluating situations, such as fourth down decisions. However, I digress. I'm still not sold on Cam Newton and his spotty accuracy, but Carolina's defense is for real and capable of keeping them in any ballgame. The Panthers are clearly the third most viable contender in the NFC.

New Orleans is a tricky team to assign a number to because of their Jekyll and Hyde tendencies when they play at home and on the road. The Saints are a juggernaut when playing at home, or even just inside a dome, but when you get them on the road in cold, adverse weather conditions, they aren't so special. I currently have them at an 80, but I would add or subtract a point to their rating depending on if the game is home or away. I looked into making a wager on New Orleans plus the points at Philadelphia, but the game will be played on Saturday night in what appears to be 20 degree weather, and I don't necessarily feel comfortable putting money down on a Saints team that has no running game whatsoever. That dink-and-dunk strategy may work well inside the Superdome, but it isn't so effective on the road in freezing temperatures. If New Orleans manages to get past Philly, they will have to travel to Seattle in the Divisional Round.

Cincinnati has contender written all over them. Unfortunately, this is a quarterback-driven league, and Andy Dalton cannot be trusted as far as I'm concerned. However, the last two Superbowl MVP's were Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, so realistically anything can happen come playoff time. Despite the major injuries suffered during the season, Cincinnati has one of the best defensive units in football. Additionally, while Dalton may be an albatross, they still have a reasonable amount of talent on the offensive side of the ball.

Aside from Denver, New England is the most viable contender in the AFC according to my ratings. Overall, Cincinnati may have the better roster in terms of overall talent and depth, but I'll take Brady and Belichick over Dalton and Marvin Lewis any day of the year. In the event that New England has to play San Diego at home, I'd make them at least 6-point favorites.

Green Bay was extremely fortunate to win their final game at Chicago. It took some ridiculous fumble luck and a blown coverage on fourth-and-8 to get them into the postseason. The Packers get a home game at Lambeau, but unfortunately they have to matchup against San Francisco, who is the third best team in the NFL according to my ratings. Aaron Rodgers gives Green Bay some hope, but I still like the Niners minus the points.

I am not high on this Kansas City team. The defense was their calling card early in the season, but the unit has fallen off towards the end of the season. Jamaal Charles is one of the best running backs in the league, but the offensive unit as a whole is below average. Alex Smith simply hasn't shown the ability to throw the ball downfield this year. The Chiefs played the weakest schedule out of any team in the league and I simply cannot trust them with my money in the postseason.

Philadelphia's win last night could not have been more fraudulent. Any knowledgeable football mind will tell you the Eagles got outplayed by Dallas. Philly was extremely fortunate to get timely turnovers in crucial situations, and that ultimately decided the game. I still don't understand why defensive coordinator Bill Davis dialed up an all-out blitz on the fourth-and-9 play that resulted in a Dez Bryant touchdown, but that's a story for another day. The only thing keeping me from unloading on New Orleans plus the points is the thought of an outdoor night game on the road.

Indianapolis is an extremely tough team for me to get a read on. They have beaten Denver and Seattle at home, as well as San Francisco on the road, yet they have unreliably lost games to the Dolphins and Rams. The absence of Reggie Wayne has been extremely underrated and this team hasn't really done much since he went down with an ACL injury. Indianapolis may be 6-3 in their last nine games, but those wins came against Houston (twice), Tennessee (twice), Kansas City and Jacksonville. None of those teams are above-average. I'm most likely going to sit on the sidelines for the Colts-Chiefs matchup because each team is smoke and mirrors, and I just don't have a feel for this one.

San Diego did everything they could not to win a playoff-clinching game against a backup-laden Chiefs squad. If that's not a cause for concern then I don't know what is. Nonetheless, Mike McCoy has done an exceptional job with this team during his first year as head coach. But while they do have some play makers on the defensive side of the ball, the unit as a whole is below average at best. I thought about taking a piece of San Diego if I could get them +7, simply because Cincinnati is not a team I would lay those kind of points with, but I'll probably just watch from the sidelines.

Projected Wild Card Round Point Spreads
Kansas City @ Indianapolis (-2)
New Orleans @ Philadelphia (-2)
San Diego @ Cincinnati (-6.5 -120)
San Francisco (-3) @ Green Bay

P.S. I'll be in Las Vegas for Wild Card weekend and will definitely be making some calculated investments depending on what the market does by the time I arrive in Sin City. I will either post those wagers on Twitter or simply document them in a blog post, so be on the lookout.

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