Yesterday, I previewed Saturday’s games with um, mixed results (skip the Denver-Baltimore preview and just read the San Francisco-Green Bay breakdown twice). Let’s take another crack at it by examining Sunday’s matchups.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) (+1) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3), Sunday, 1:00PM ETOnce again, Atlanta is tasked with facing a dominant wildcard team. Is this the year Matt Ryan finally silences his critics?
Atlanta is only a one-point favorite, just the seventh time a home team has been given such little respect this late in the season since 2000. Home teams are 3-3 when underdogs or small favorites over that span in the divisional conference championship rounds, although one of those losses came by the Falcons in 2010 against the Packers when Atlanta was a 1.5-point favorite. But let’s focus on these two teams, because the stats might surprise you.
Russell Wilson edges Matt Ryan in Y/A (7.9 to 7.7), AY/A (8.1 to 7.7), and passer rating (100.0 to 99.1), despite having a significantly worse set of receivers. Ryan does have the edge in NY/A (7.0 to 6.8) but the two are deadlocked in ANY/A at 7.0. Both quarterbacks led four 4th quarter comebacks this year, and Wilson led 5 game-winning drives while Ryan led six. Considering one quarterback has Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez, and the other is a 5’10 rookie, I consider this pretty remarkable.
The Seahawks threw the fewest passes in the league this year, but that doesn’t mean Sidney Rice and Golden Tate aren’t a competent duo. They aren’t on the level of Jones and White, but the Seahawks have had an extremely efficient passing attack despite facing a much harder schedule than Atlanta. The one big edge the Falcons seem to have is when it comes to passing, but the numbers don’t support that theory. I get the sense that many view the Seahawks’ passing prowess as a product of smoke and mirrors — and it may be — but I doubt the Falcons are the team that’s going to expose them.
Why is that? Atlanta’s defense is mediocre. Football Outsiders ranks them 12th overall, 11th in pass defense and 20th in rush defense. The Falcons ranked 22nd in NY/A allowed, but they shoot up to 11th in ANY/A, thanks to leading the league in both touchdown rate and total interceptions. The question is, what’s the more predictable metric? That the Falcons — often playing with a lead — give us few touchdowns and force a lot of interceptions, or that Atlanta consistently gets beaten in the passing game? You probably know my thoughts.
Atlanta has struggled against the run this year, ranking in the bottom 10 in success rate according to Brian Burke and ranking 29th in yards per carry allowed. Marshawn Lynch is banged up, but I imagine the Seahawks will have no problem running on Atlanta. Conversely, Atlanta’s running game is anemic, thanks to Michael Turner (who turns 31 in February) falling off the running back cliff. As Bill Barnwell points out, the Seahawks run defense has regressed, but I’m still putting my money on Seattle every time the Falcons run the ball (although I agree with him that the Chris Clemons injury is a significant blow for the Seahawks).
Seattle has the best secondary in the league: Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas were first-team All-Pro selections, while Brandon Browner and Kam Chancellor were Pro Bowlers a year ago. The quartet should be able to focus solely on the passing game, assuming the front seven makes Atlanta one dimensional. Matt Ryan and the Falcons passing attack is very good, but I don’t think they’re good enough to overcome an average defense going up against one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. The game being in Atlanta helps, but I think Russell Wilson probably gets another 4th quarter comeback in this one.
Prediction: Seattle 23, Atlanta 20
Houston Texans (12-4) (+9.5) at New England Patriots (12-4), Sunday, 4:30PM ET
The Patriots are big favorites, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to step out on a ledge for the Texans right now. There are good reasons for that:
- Both the Patriots and Texans allowed 331 points this year. But New England scored 557 points compared to just 416 for Houston, giving the Patriots an 8.8-point per game advantage. If that’s your starting point, the host Patriots should be double digit favorites.
- Tom Brady averaged 7.5 ANY/A, a full yard ahead of Matt Schaub. But in some ways the rate statistics don’t do New England’s high-tempo offense justice.
- The Patriots gained 444 first downs, a league record, and 103 more than the Texans. The Patriots led the NFL in rushing first downs and ranked 3rd in passing first downs, behind two non-playoff teams (Detroit and New Orleans). New England easily led all teams in PFR’s Expected Points Added statistics, and edged Houston 233 to 75.
And, of course, there’s J.J. Watt. Watt was my runaway choice for Defensive Player of the Year, and he broke the records for sacks by a 3-4 defensive end and for Defeats. Watt did not have an enormous impact in the first matchup, but he’s certainly capable of completely disrupting the Patriots game plan. Watt is as good as it gets.
And the Texans do sport the better defense, especially against the pass. Houston ranked 8th in NY/A allowed and 12th in ANY/A allowed, while the Patriots finished 27th and 23rd in those metrics, respectively. The Texans likely need a monster day out of Watt, Arian Foster, and Andre Johnson to win, but those are elite players capable of rising to the big stage. Johnson in particular, who was in some ways the second most productive receiver this season, is capable of a big game against a shaky secondary.
- Against the 49ers earlier this year, San Francisco raced out to a 31-3 halftime lead, and New England’s comeback attempt came up just short.
- In the most inexplicable upset of the year, the Cardinals beat the Patriots earlier this season, 20-18. This was the first game the Patriots had lost at home despite winning the turnover margin since 2002. Stephen Gostkowski, who had connected on field goals from 46, 34, and 51 yards earlier in the day, missed the potential game-winner from 42 yards away in the final seconds.
- In a back-and-forth game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants last year, the Patriots lost 24-20. New England uncharacteristically committed four turnovers, but the Giants still needed an Eli Manning touchdown pass with 19 seconds left to win.
The other two losses were the two playoff games, which featured two teams focused on running the ball and playing good defense. Baltimore rushed for 234 yards and four touchdowns against the Patriots, who struggled without Wes Welker. Brady was an ugly 23/42 for 154 yards with 2 TDs and 3 INTs, highly un-Brady like numbers. I would be floored if the Texans were able to contain Brady like that.
The other loss came to the Jets, who just like the Texans, got embarrassed on Monday Night Football just weeks earlier in Foxboro. The Jets did the big things right: they were 4-for-5 in the red zone, compared to New England’s 2-for-4 mark. They didn’t commit a turnover. They were 6-for-13 on third downs, compared to New England’s 5-for-14 rate. And they sacked Brady five times.
I don’t think the Texans are good enough to outplay the Patriots, but they have the play-makers to beat the Patriots in enough high-leverage situations to win. If Andre Johnson can come up big on third downs, Arian Foster in the red zone, and Watt can cause five or six pressures on Brady, Houston can win. But that’s asking a whole lot.
On the other hand, this is the first time the Patriots have had Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski healthy since week 1. It’s hard not to expect the Patriots offense operating at full strength to be more than enough to get them to the AFC Championship Game.
Prediction: New England 31, Houston 24.