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Thoughts on the Championship Games

On conference championship Sunday, it’s easy to pick the home teams, particularly when they are the number one seeds and touchdown favorites. That logic is further supported in a case like 2014, where the favorites have histories of success against these particular underdogs.

But conference championship game Sunday is not immune to upsets. The graph below shows the average point spread of each winner in a conference championship game since 1978. Based on the line data I have (which comes from PFR), there have been a pair of touchdown underdogs in recent memory: the 2012 Ravens and 2007 Giants.

ccg hist

In recent history, conference championship games have been viewed as much closer than what we see in 2014, where the Seahawks are 8-point favorites and the Patriots are currently at -6.5. To find a semifinal weekend where both favorites were giving at least six points, you have to go back to 2007, when the Patriots and Packers were also playing. That day, the Giants pulled off the huge upset in Green Bay, while New England handled San Diego.
2014 Final Team Statistics

Let’s look at some of the data from the 2014 season. Here’s how to read the table below. Seattle averaged 6.75 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, the 18th best in the league (all but two attempts came from Russell Wilson). The Seahawks pass defense allowed 5.19 ANY/A, the 5th best in the NFL. Seattle was therefore +1.56 in ANY/A differential, the 4th best in the NFL (the Packers were 1st in this category, courtesy of Aaron Rodgers and the 8th best pass defense). Seattle averaged 5.36 yards per carry, the best in the NFL, and allowed just 3.5 YPC, the 2nd best among all rush defenses. That gave Seattle an incredible +1.86 YPC differential, easily the best in the NFL and the 2nd best in the NFL since 1950. Combined with Seattle’s +1.56 ANY/A differential, and Seattle gets a total score of +3.42, the best in the NFL.

1Seattle Seahawks6.75185.1951.5645.3613.521.8613.42
2Green Bay Packers8.2815.4682.8114.4594.24200.2113.01
3Denver Broncos7.6355.0842.5524.02213.6550.3662.92
4Dallas Cowboys7.9126.31201.634.5354.2180.3381.93
5Detroit Lions6.05364.9231.1363.51303.0710.4551.58
6New England Patriots7.1195.79111.3253.9244.0512-0.15211.16
7Baltimore Ravens6.5246.24170.26154.573.6140.8931.15
8Houston Texans6.29265.53100.7693.98223.8470.14120.9
9Cincinnati Bengals5.94395.2360.71104.39114.35230.04160.74
10Buffalo Bills5.57474.5411.0473.73264.0813-0.35270.69
11San Francisco 49ers5.44525.2770.17184.5164.02110.4940.66
12Miami Dolphins5.88415.5190.38134.4784.37240.09140.47
13Indianapolis Colts7.09106.56210.54114.02194.1917-0.17220.37
14Pittsburgh Steelers7.8737.44310.42124.25134.3925-0.14200.29
15Cleveland Browns5.75444.752183.61284.5327-0.91290.09
16Kansas City Chiefs6.13345.93120.2174.5934.7230-0.13180.07
17Atlanta Falcons7.05137.05260194.03184.114-0.0717-0.06
18Philadelphia Eagles6.03376.6322-0.61254.14173.7860.357-0.26
19New Orleans Saints6.94167.0928-0.15214.5644.8231-0.2523-0.4
20St. Louis Rams5.69466.2718-0.57244.24144.18160.0615-0.51
21Carolina Panthers5.79436.1614-0.37224.21164.5428-0.3326-0.7
22Arizona Cardinals6.29286.05130.24163.25324.2219-0.9730-0.73
23Tennessee Titans5.72456.2416-0.52233.93234.3926-0.4628-0.98
24New York Giants6.57226.29190.28143.6294.9232-1.3232-1.04
25San Diego Chargers6.58216.6523-0.07203.36314.5529-1.1931-1.26
26Minnesota Vikings4.83596.2215-1.39264.43104.3210.1313-1.26
27Washington Redskins5.99387.8332-1.85274.21153.9380.289-1.57
28New York Jets4.14637.229-3.06314.623.5131.092-1.97
29Tampa Bay Buccaneers4.93576.8924-1.97293.8253.939-0.1319-2.1
30Chicago Bears5.51497.3630-1.85284.02204.3422-0.3225-2.17
31Oakland Raiders4.67617.0325-2.36303.68273.9610-0.2824-2.64
32Jacksonville Jaguars4.01647.0827-3.07324.37124.15150.2210-2.86

In this light, the Packers do appear to have a fighting chance. And, as Green Bay did in the season opener, I expect the team to put a third wide receiver on the right side of the field (to be blanketed by Richard Sherman), which would give Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb a chance to play well.

But I am not expecting it to lead to much success. Seattle’s pass defense was not quite so dominant this year, but if you take the shorter or longer views, they still look insanely good. In six of the last eight games, the Seahawks have not allowed a passing touchdown. Over the last three years, no pass defense can touch Seattle’s, particularly at home. And Seattle’s 2/2 when it comes to shutting down Rodgers.

Green Bay’s best hope is to make this not like every other Seattle game, which, unfortunately for Packers fans, that is how I think this one goes. How does every other Seattle game go? A low-scoring, run-heavy first quarter, the Seahawks begin to win the field position battle in the second quarter and are up by 7-10 at the half; then, the vise begins to tighten, and the Seahawks run away with it in the second half, which is highlighted by long drives of Marshawn Lynch pounding the line of scrimmage. I’ll go Seattle 23, Green Bay 10.

For Indianapolis, the odds are similarly long. The game will be in Andrew Luck‘s hands, and it’s hard for me to see him not throwing 45 times. If he can be close to perfect, Indianapolis has a chance. I don’t expect New England to be nearly as run-heavy as they have been in the past against the Colts, but I do think Tom Brady finds Rob Gronkowski for a pair of touchdowns. It’s Gronk’s world today, and I think New England scores 27-31 points. Can Luck top? That is the deciding question of the day, which is why you come here for hard-hitting analysis. I’ll go with New England 31, Indianapolis 24.

FanDuel Thoughts

As for FanDuel, I’m only playing one tournament this week, but here are my thoughts:

1) Fade the entire Green Bay offense. By extension, take the Seattle defense.

2) Take Marshawn Lynch ($8,600) and Rob Gronkowski ($8,200).

3) Dan Herron ($7,000) is the other strong value I see this week. He’s going to get his points, and he’s scored over 40 points the last two weeks. Even in a Patriots blowout, Luck could still wind checking down to him ten times. In a Colts win, Herron is likely to be 2-3x.

4) All four quarterbacks are very expensive this week, ranging from $8900 to $9200. So take the highest upside QB, which — to me, at least — is Luck.

5) Stack around Luck with Hakeem Nicks ($5500) and Donte Moncrief ($5300). At this point, we don’t have the money for T.Y. Hilton, so hope that Darrelle Revis shadows him, leaving Nicks and Moncrief more room. Frankly, you only need one of these guys to go off if the rest of the games go according to script, so I’m fine taking two spots here.

6) Go with Stephen Gostkowski ($4900) because he’s the high-upside kicker, and Jermaine Kearse ($5900) to fill out the lineup.

In a tournament, with only two games today, it’s very important to have a clear game script in mind and build around that idea. Sure, you could be completely off, but if you don’t build around a core storyline, you’re basically dead money. So my thinking here is fade the Green Bay offense, which means a run-heavy day for Seattle and a low scoring game (so Lynch and the Seattle D become good plays). Expect Indianapolis to pass a ton, so get Luck and his weapons into the lineup. And hope for Gronk get all the touchdowns, because you’re fading players like Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, and LeGarrette Blount. Take your studs, and build the rest of your lineup based on the storyline where your studs excel.