Wednesday, February 1, 2017

THE SUPERBOWL---2017

New England (-3) vs. Atlanta

This (let’s hope), is a classic.  The 2017 Superbowl pits the best Adjusted-Yards-Per-Pass team in the NFC against the best AYP team in the AFC.

Atlanta, with Matt Ryan and friends, notched an 8.1 AYP for the regular season.  (Second best in the NFC was Dallas, with 6.9.)  The Patriots dominated the AFC with a 7.7 AYP, with Oakland in second place at 6.2.  If nothing else, this Superbowl validates the theory that what is needed to get to the championship game is an ability to make big plays.

Other statistical measures suggest the teams are evenly matched.  New England has an edge in point differential---they are +12 while the Falcons are +8.5.  Over the last ten games, however (eight regular season and two playoff), both NE and Atlanta are +14.3 points.  The Falcons have also played a slightly tougher schedule (48% opponent win percentage) than the Patriots (43% opponent win percentage).

On the defensive side, there can be little doubt New England has an edge, having given up the fewest points of any NFL team.  Throughout the season, Atlanta has been near the bottom of that (scoring defense) list.   However, the gap has been closing rapidly, largely because the Falcons’ defense has gotten steadily better.  Throughout the first half of the season, New England gave up 16 points/game; over the second half, it was basically unchanged at 15.1.  Atlanta, however, allowed its opponents 29 points/game over the first eight games, but over the last ten games cut that number by more than a touchdown to 21.6 points/game.

People who know about such things attribute Atlanta’s improvement on defense to its secondary, which had to reinvent itself after Week 9 when all-Pro shutdown corner Desmond Trufant went down for the season.  Atlanta’s cover-3 zone is still the foundation of its pass defense, but the use of man-to-man coverage has increased every week, with noticeable results.  It is a very young group (two rookie LBs, a rookie safety and a rookie corner), but it is extremely fast and athletic, which is a prerequisite for successful man-to-man coverage.

Those same people (the ones who know about such things), point out that the only way to beat the Patriot offense (not that it’s easy), is with man-to-man coverage.  Patriot receivers are not necessarily the fastest in the league or the most superior athletes, but they are extremely skilled in the New England system of exploiting zone vulnerabilities and finding empty places in the coverage scheme.  Brady is viewed as the best in the league at picking zones apart.  Only a defense that can play man-to-man (and not every defense has the speed to do it), can potentially give Brady problems.

I’m taking Atlanta in this Superbowl, largely because there is little to choose from between these teams and with the Falcons, I get three points.  An additional rationale is that Atlanta still seems to be improving week-to-week.  I expect a close game, and a last-minute field goal could well be the difference.

What I don’t expect is a shootout.  The average score of the last eight New England games was 28 – 15, for a total of 43 points.  The average of Atlanta games was 35 – 22 (total=57).  So how do we get an over/under of 59 points?  The defense for both of these teams has been improving as the season and the playoffs have unfolded, so why, suddenly, are we to expect an Arena Football game?  In addition, many coaches become a bit timid and conservative when thrust into the Superbowl spotlight, and that tends to hold down scoring.  In the L Superbowls played so far, only VIII have seen total points of 60 or more.

I take Atlanta (-3), but I do so somewhat reluctantly, understanding that betting against the Patriots has not traditionally been a path to riches.  I eagerly take the under 59, however.  I will be genuinely surprised if these teams score 60 or more.


Copyright2017MichaelKubacki    

Thursday, January 19, 2017

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS 2017

Green Bay @ Atlanta (-5)

If you believe in the magical march of Aaron Rodgers to the NFL Championship, pay no attention to me.  But if the Yards/Pass metric has any validity, Atlanta should dominate this game.

The Falcons’ AYP is 8.1 and Green Bay’s is 6.1.  Atlanta’s defensive AYP is better as well.  Finally, Atlanta’s point differential is 8 ½ points per game; the Packers was 2 ½.

Take the Falcons and lay the 5.

Pittsburgh @ New England (-6)

The Patriots also dominate all the categories we care about.  Point differential is 12 points per game, while Pittsburgh’s is 4 ½.  The Pats have an AYP of 7.7; the Steelers are at 5.8.  The New England pass defense also appears slightly stronger than Pittsburgh’s.

Yes, six points is a lot to lay in a Conference Championship game.  Still, I’m laying it.


Copyright2017MichaelKubacki

Thursday, January 12, 2017

DIVISION WEEKEND---2017

Seattle at Atlanta (-5)

This line opened at 3 ½ and now is 5.  I’m still taking Atlanta, which has the best AYP (8.1) in either Conference.  Seattle’s AYP is 6.2.  Atlanta also boasts a point differential of 8 ½ points, second only to New England.

Russell Wilson had a very nice game against the Lions, with 210 yards on 30 attempts, and no interceptions.  An important reason they won, however, was the sudden appearance of the Seahawks’ running game, which had been largely absent all season.  It was too much for the Lions.  Even so, the score was only 10-6 after three quarters, so the final tally of 26-6 is not as impressive as it looks.

Taking Atlanta means you don’t believe the Seahawks have the shut-down pass defense that made them famous.  They don’t.  Seattle’s defensive AYP this year was 5.7.  Seven of the twelve playoff teams had a better number, including Atlanta.

Houston at New England (-15 ½)

There is no way to handicap a line like this in the playoffs.  The Patriots have the highest AYP (7.7) in the AFC, and Houston has the lowest (4.1).  New England outscored its opponents by 12 points per game.  Houston was outscored by a field goal, on average, every time they took the field.

New England will win and there is no reason to believe the game will be close.  However, they may win by 10 after leading by 30, or they may win by 30 after leading by 30.

Pass.

Pittsburgh at Kansas City (-1)

The Steelers opened in Vegas as a 1-point favorite and now are a 1-point dog.  KC wins the AYP battle 6.1 to 5.8.  They also lead in defensive AYP 5.1 to 5.5.  Point differential is the same.  And the game is in KC.

KC should be favored by 4 or 5 points.  They are not because 1) there are way more Steelers fans than Chiefs fans, and 2) Le’Veon Bell reinvented the running back position in the Dolphins game.

Bell is a nice running back.  In fact, he was 5th best in the NFL in 2016.  However, his 167 yards last week was more the result of Miami’s injured defensive line than Le’Veon’s unstoppable nature.  The evidence of that is the way he gained those yards, which the announcers tried to tell us was something new under the sun.

Hesitation before picking a hole and running through it is a luxury that runners rarely have, but if the offensive is totally dominating the line of scrimmage, it’s what a back should do.  O.J. Simpson did it.  Jim Brown did it.  When there is NO penetration by the defense into the offensive backfield, the smart thing to do is pause for a half-second to find the best path.

Le’Veon may have a decent game against KC, but the story of the Miami game was the Dolphin injuries.

Take KC.  Lay the point.

Green Bay at Dallas (-4 ½)

The Dallas AYP is 6.9.  Green Bay’s is 6.1.   Dallas’ point differential is 7; Green Bay’s is 2 ½.  Dallas has the better numbers.

On the other side, there is Aaron Rodgers vs. Dak (don’t call me “Dakota”) Prescott.  Rodgers had a wonderful game (331 yards, 40 atts, no ints) against a very good Giants defense.  Dak, however, had a genuinely great season, with a passer rating of 104.9 (vs. Rodgers’ 104.2).  He also has a running game that must be respected, while Green Bay does not.  But now, in the playoffs, he’s a rookie again, while Rodgers already owns some jewelry.

I think Dallas wins this game, but I feel little confidence in laying 4 ½ points on them.  I pass.


Copyright2017MichaelKubacki     

Friday, January 6, 2017

THE 2017 NFL PLAYOFFS---Revenge of the Truthers

The analytic process here remains the same.  I calculate a number we call Adjusted Yards per Pass (“AYP”) for each of the playoff teams.  Total yards gained through the air is first reduced by fifty yards for each interception, and then divided by the number of pass attempts.  This year, for example, Atlanta gained 4725 passing yards with 7 interceptions.  I subtract 350 (which is 7 x 50), from the 4725.  This yields 4375, which I then divide by Atlanta’s 537 attempts.  This yields an AYP of 8.1.

AYP is a measure of a team’s ability to throw the ball down the field, or more generally, to make a “big play.”  Historically, this is closely correlated with a team’s likelihood of both getting to the Superbowl and winning it.  Other factors that people think are correlated with winning a Superbowl are not.  The league’s best running attack almost never wins the championship.  Neither does the league’s best scoring defense.  There is nothing detrimental, in football terms, with either of these qualities, of course.  A great defense may carry you deep into the playoffs, for example.  It just doesn’t put the ring on your finger.  This is why MVPs tend to have names like Brady, Montana, Bradshaw and Manning.

Since the AYP is easy to calculate, I also figure the defensive AYP for playoff teams.  This would be the adjusted yards/pass for a team’s opponents over the course of the season.  I don’t believe it’s nearly as important as the offensive AYP, but it is suggestive of the quality of a pass defense.  A defense that records 25 interceptions over a season is probably better than a defense with 8.  I assume it is, in any case.

I also note point differential, prior meetings between teams, injuries, and other items.  Then I tell you who’s going to win.  And as you know, I’ve never been wrong.

The Pretenders---Pittsburgh, Houston, Oakland, Miami, Green Bay and Detroit.

Some of these are obvious.  There are three teams that have been outscored over the course of the season: Houston, Miami and Detroit.  Nobody is picking these guys to get very far.  Oakland’s AYP is 6.2, the second-best in the AFC, so they would normally merit at least some grudging respect in the tournament, but the injury to Mr. Carr, their quarterback, and their lack of a competent backup, renders them a non-factor.  They scored only 6 points in an important Week 17 game, and they are listed as dogs to the pitiful Oilers.  Woulda coulda shoulda.

The presence of Green Bay and Pittsburgh on the “obvious loser” list may be a bit of a surprise for some, especially since they have (combined) won their last 13 regular-season games.  They also each feature a QB in possession of Superbowl jewelry.  The AYP for these teams is the story, however.  Pittsburgh’s is 5.8 and Green Bay’s is 6.1, and these numbers put them each no better than 5th-best in the AFC and NFC respectively.  Their defensive AYPs also put them near the bottom of the playoff-team defensive AYP list.  Finally, Green Bay has outscored its opponents by only 2 ½ points and Pittsburgh’s point differential is just 4 ½.  Neither of these teams has made a habit of crushing their opposition, and that is NOT a good sign.

(A side note: as Bill James first demonstrated, the hallmark of a good team is its record in lop-sided games, not close ones.  In baseball, a team’s record in one-run games is often cited as a measure of quality, but in fact, one-run games are usually decided in a single lucky moment.  Thus, teams with a great record in one-run games in one year usually revert to the mean in the following year.  James pointed out, however, that a team with a great record in games decided by 4 runs usually gets to the playoffs, and will probably get to the playoffs the following year as well.  Since James did this research, it has been done in other sports, and the results are largely the same.  Good teams may or may not squeak past other good teams; what they usually do, however, is crush the weaklings.)

Could Get Lucky---KC, Seattle, NYG.

These teams are in this category for different reasons.  KC makes the list because they have the second-best numbers in the AFC, even though they are far behind New England.  KC’s 6.1 AYP qualifies as the third best in the AFC, and their 5.1 defensive AYP is the best in the tournament.  Also, assuming they will have to play the Patriots, they get to wait until the 3rd week of the playoffs to do so.  I’m not looking for 2017 to be the year Andy Reid finally breaks through, but if the obvious favorites stumble, KC is well positioned.

Seattle has the third-best AYP in the NFC and the third-best defensive AYP.  Also, of the teams that have to play in the wild-card round, the Seahawks appear to have at least a plausible path to glory.  They’re still Seattle, for one thing, and their secondary gives them a chance against pass-heavy teams like Detroit (an easy match-up) and Atlanta, their certain 2nd round opponent (assuming the win over the Lions).  Then they would have to (probably) beat both Dallas and New England, of course, so maybe “Could Get Lucky” seems a bit of a stretch.  Still….

As for the Giants, they have the worst AYP in the NFC (though they do have the best defensive AYP).  In addition, they have only outscored their opponents by 1.5 points per game.  If science is my grail, this un-scary 11 – 5 wild card team is worthy of very little respect.  Why then, would I give them at least half a chance to surprise?

There is one reason I put them on the Could Get Lucky list.  It’s because they have gotten lucky before.  I wrote them off completely in both 2008 and 2012, and they won the Superbowl both times.  In 2008, you may recall that Eli was the guy who took the trophy away from the 18 – 0 Patriots.  That was a year the Giants went 10 – 6.

The Contenders---New England, Dallas, Atlanta.

New England’s numbers dominate the AFC playoff list.  They outscored their foes by 12 points per game; the next best (KC) was 5 points.  The Patriots’ AYP is 7.7; second place is KC with 6.1.  Their defensive AYP is 5.3, which is merely on par with all the others, but certainly not worse.  They have won seven games in a row, all by at least a touchdown, and the last time they had a close game was their loss to Seattle, 31-24, on November 13.  And, of course, they don’t have to leave New England until they head off to the Superbowl.

The highest AYP in the league, however, is 8.1 and it does not belong to the Patriots, but to the Falcons, who outscored opponents by 8.5 points per game.  In the past, I have described Matt Ryan as a “mutt,” and for good reason.  His history is that of coming up small in the biggest spots, and this year may prove no different.  Ryan has never come close to putting up the kind of passing numbers he did this year, however.  Second only to Drew Brees in total yards, Ryan achieved a league-leading 117.1 QB rating (Brady was 2nd at 112.2).  Ryan’s 38/7 TD/INT ratio also jumps off the stat page, though Rodgers’ 40/7 and Brady’s 28/2 cannot, under current federal regulations, be described as “chopped liver.”  Is it possible Matt Ryan has finally figured it all out?  Is it possible the team around him (e.g., Devonta Freeman as an emerging star all-purpose back), is good enough to challenge for the top prize?  Is it possible that the defense, though not great, is adequate?  Yep.  It is possible.

Then there’s the stinkin Cowboys, and while they come in second to the Falcons in the NFC, they are by far the best of the rest.  Point differential is 7.  AYP is 6.9 (behind Atlanta but way ahead of Seattle’s 3rd-best 6.2).  Then there is the best running game in the playoffs, featuring Ezekiel Elliott.  THE GREATEST OFFENSIVE LINE IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, however, is somewhat beat up at the moment, and they were more than a little over-rated even when everybody was healthy.  Also, the next time a rookie quarterback wins the Superbowl, he will be the first rookie quarterback to do so.  (Listening, Dak?)

Still, if you’re looking for somebody to tell you the stinkin Cowboys have no shot, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

WILDCARD GAMES

Oakland @ Houston (-3 ½)

Oakland is starting a QB who has never started an NFL game.  Houston has tapped Osweiler who, while he has played 15 games this year, brings in a personal AYP of 4.2, with 15 TD passes, 16 INTs and a QB rating of 72.2.  You don’t usually see NFL passer ratings that low because guys who put up numbers like that don’t get to play anymore.  But he’s the best the Texans have to offer.

This could be an ugly game, and I would take Houston if I had to choose, just because they are at home.  I pass.

Consider the total, however, which is 36.5.  The Texans only averaged about 20 points/game when they were reasonably healthy, and it may not be possible for Oakland to score at all.  I go UNDER the 36.5

Detroit @ Seattle (-8)

Stafford has not played well since he hurt his finger a few weeks ago, and Detroit has lost their last three games.  In addition, while the Seattle pass defense ain’t what it used to be, Detroit is just the sort of pass-dependent squad the Seahawks are capable of devouring.  What bothers me is laying 8 points with the suddenly-anemic Seattle offense.  I will be amazed if the Lions win this, but it may turn out to be a low-scoring game with Detroit staying close throughout.  Pass.

Miami @ Pittsburgh (-10)

Miami beat Pittsburgh 30 – 15 on October 26 in Miami.  Roethlisberger got banged around some and did not play the entire game.  Also, this was before the Steelers somehow found their qi and won the last seven games of the season.

Still….  This does not appear to be the sort of Dolphins team that, every six years or so, gets lucky enough to qualify as the loser of a wildcard game before slithering back into the python-infested muck of the Everglades for another half a decade of obscurity and 5 – 11 seasons.  One looks at the 2016-17 Fish, checklist in hand, and one’s pencil begins to dance across the page.  Defensive line?  Check.  Secondary?  Check.  Offensive line?  Yeah, sort-of.  Running game? Check.  Quarterback?  Well, there are worse QBs who have won the Superbowl, and at least this one is not named Chad.

(Beginning in 2002, state law in Florida provided that the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins could only be named Chad.  The statute was passed by Democrats bitter over the “hanging chads” that they believed had denied Al Gore the presidency in 2000.   In 2014, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, finally signed a bill repealing this law and permitting Ryan Tannehill to start for the Fish.)

I’m not predicting the Dolphins will win the Superbowl, and I’m not even predicting they will beat the Steelers.  I am saying that the Dolphins now have a real football team that belongs in the playoffs.  It is also a team that beat these Pittsburghers two months ago and now is getting ten points.

I know Pittsburgh is a real playoff team, and I know they’ve won 7 in a row or 23 in a row or 126 games in a row, or whatever the hell it is, and I also know there are some meaningful injuries to various Dolphins, including Tannehill.  Nevertheless, I’m taking the points.

New York Giants @ Green Bay (-5 ½)


Trivia question: What two things do these guys all have in common---
Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Len Dawson, John Unitas, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett, Joe Montana, Joe Thiesmann, Jim McMahon, Phil Simms, Doug Williams, Jeff Hostetler, Mark Rypien, Troy Aikman, Brett Favre, John Elway, Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer, Tom Brady, Brad Johnson, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson?

Answer: They are 1) Superbowl-winning quarterbacks, and 2) the best quarterbacks in their families.

Earlier, I mentioned 2008, when Eli Manning took his 10 – 6 Giants to the dance and beat the undefeated New England Patriots.  In 2012, Eli did it again, this time with a 9 – 7 squad against the 15 – 3 Pats.  New England had a well-known quarterback in both these games.  You may even have heard of him.  Tom Brady has won four of the six Superbowls he has started.  The only two he lost were to Eli.

My point is: it’s apparently very hard to get ANY respect in the NFL if you are not the best quarterback in your family, even if you are the only guy to beat Tom Brady in a Superbowl, and you’ve done it twice!!!!!!

Ah, but this is Lambeau, you say.  This is the freakin frozen tundra!  And Aaron Rodgers is playing for the Packers and he promised they would win their last six games and then they won their last six games!  I mean, Holy Prognostication, Batman!!!!

Well if that’s what you think, then return with me to yesteryear, little grasshopper.  In particular, to 2008 and 2012.  Brady and the Pats were not the only team Eli beat in those years.  The path to the Superbowl is always a jagged and uneven journey, fraught with hippogriffs and tsunamis and even tundras.

On January 20, 2008, the Giants donned warm sweaters for their trip to Lambeau Field and the NFC Championship Game, because the temperature that day was absolute zero and all molecular and atomic movement had ceased two hours before kickoff.  Nevertheless, the despised Eli Manning felled the legendary Brett Favre (maybe you’ve heard of him too), in a thrilling 23 – 20 overtime victory.

A fluke, you say?  Let’s climb into the Wayback Machine once again and visit the frozen frickin tundra on January 15, 2012.  This time, we watch the Divisional Playoff as Eli and his helpers (they were 9 – 7, remember), demolish the 15 – 1 Green Bay Packers by a 37 – 20 tally.  The temperature that day was not recorded officially because all mercury in the state of Wisconsin had frozen solid a couple days before Christmas, but the paper reported that one of the Packers fans in attendance had described the weather that day as “a bit chilly.”  Oh, and the GB QB?  That was a guy named Aaron Rodgers.

I’m taking the Giants in this game, in case you haven’t guessed.  I love the 5 ½ points I’m getting, but I will be disappointed if the NY Giants don’t win outright.

There’s even a 911 truther angle to this game, as was explained to me by the guy who delivers Pepsi products at my Target.  The Giants, see, well, they’re from New York so that’s an obvious 911 team, and then there’s the Patriots, and they’re called the Patriots so that’s patriotic, and plus they’re from Boston where most of the terrorists took off from on 911.

That’s why, five years after 911, in 2008, the New York Giants beat the Patriots (who are actually sort-of the terrorists).  And then five years later, on the tenth anniversary of 911 (in 2012), the New Yorkers did it again against the same damn Patriot/Terrorists.

All of this sets us up for the Superbowl this year, which will be the 15th anniversary of 911 (in a way).  It has to be the Giants and it has to be the Patriots in the Superbowl this year.  And Eli gets another ring.

Works for me, though I suggest you not stare too deeply into the calendar work that gets you celebrating the fifth anniversary of 9-11-01 in February of 2008.  Equating the Patriots with al-Qaeda, with Belichick as Osama bin Laden---well, I suspect that does get a few nods from the gallery.


Copyright2017MichaelKubacki