Brad is back with one bet on each of Sunday’s Conference Championship games
A poor week again last week, but we beat the closing line handily with the Saints bet at least (the LA/NE under closed where we bet it), but no good. We go again this week.
Chiefs Chiefs Chiefs
It may come as no surprise that I am betting against the Patriots again. I wrote last week about Tom Brady’s #GradualDecline and specifically how he was throwing shorter passes and shying away from tight-window throws. That was basically true again last week as Brady’s average depth of target (aDOT) was just 4.5 yards – the lowest of all eight QBs in the round. However the Patriots O-line dominated the Chargers and with two weeks to prepare, Josh McDaniels schemed a boatload of screen and play-action passes to take advantage of the Chargers Cover 3 zone.
I think the Patriots will have neither of those advantages this week. Specifically, they are going on the road in a hostile environment against a team with extra rest (albeit only a day) rather than vise-versa.
I really think the Patriots might have trouble scoring because this Chiefs defense is somewhat underrated.
The unit ranked 27th in DVOA through Week 10 (including that first Patriots game) but after the return of star outside linebacker, Justin Houston, it has risen to 17th going into this week’s game. From Week 10 to the end of the regular season, the Chiefs had 26 sacks – tied for 2nd in the NFL – and over the whole season it ranks 13th in pressure rate.
At home they’re even better. Per TeamRankings.com, KC’s defense allowed 34.8 points per game on the road this year and just 17.4 points per game at home. By DVOA, which, crucially, adjusts for opponent, the Chiefs D ranked 30th on the road, and 12th at home. The key is that pass rush, which is helped by the crowd noise, as recently quantified by The Athletic.
The trend goes beyond just 2018 as well. Seth Keysor of The Athletic pointed out, the “Arrowhead Advantage” goes back at least three years. The split between points allowed at home vs road was 5.7 points in 2016, 8.7 points in 2017 and 17.2 this year, which is frankly mental. It’s also worth noting the Chiefs, played more man coverage than all but five teams this year, suggesting they can press the Pats receivers at the line and give those pass rushers the time to get home.
The Patriots offense also has some mega home-road splits.
They averaged 12.2 fewer points on the road this season vs at home – the second biggest disparity in the NFL. They had five road losses and all came against teams that didn’t even make the playoffs. Now, obviously i’m wary of single season home-road splits which have proven not to be overly predictive in the past but I mention these for two reasons. One is that they are both at the extreme end of the league and I think at least somewhat informative about the way this game will go.
Remember Brady is 1-4 in his last five road playoff games, with that win coming back in 2006/7. And no team has played a road playoff game on the way to the Superbowl since 2012.
Basically, home field matters a lot at this time of year.
The second reason is that this is a column and I can’t just say the Chiefs have better stats and a model says they should be -4.5. Indeed I have zero qualms about the Chiefs scoring. They were one of the top offenses ever ranked by Football Outsiders, and are even better with Sammy Watkins on the field. This season Patrick Mahomes is averaging 9.44 YPA with Watkins on the field vs. 8.22 without him.
The Pats are still a relatively slow team and I simply don’t think they have the weapons to cover Kelce, Watkins and Tyreek.
Plenty Of Offensive Question Marks Down In The Bayou
For the second game, the season-long stats again side with the home team, with a blended number from a couple of models I’ve looked at coming out around Saints -4. However, I prefer the under here as I have questions about both offenses. I’ve been banging on for a while about the Rams splits with and without Cooper Kupp, but here they are again.
Jared Goff with Cooper Kupp this season (8 games):
- 69.6% completion rate
- 330 yards per game
- 9.7 yards per attempt
- 6.2% TD rate
Without Kupp (9 games):
- 59.8% completion rate
- 249 yards per game
- 7.1 Y/A
- 4.7% TD rate
Goff has gone under 225 yards in five of his last six, and it’s a struggle to see him doing much better than that here, especially considering his home-road splits.
Over the past two seasons, his passer rating has also been drastically better at home (116.7) than on the road (82.7)
He goes up against a Saints defense that is up to sixth in weighted defensive DVOA and will be helped with the pass rush by a Superdome crowd that will be going absolutely bananas.
My concern is that Drew Brees is also showing some worrying signs.
The Saints offense has been in a bit of decline, dropping to 10th in weighted offensive DVOA. They’ve now put up negative offensive DVOA in five of their last six games, while Brees threw for five touchdowns and four interceptions total in the last five games he played. I said last week I thought this was simply a product of a banged up offensive line and playing on the road a lot, but Brees was poor again last week against a soft Eagles secondary.
On the first play of the game, Ted Ginn beat his man deep for a would-be 75-yard touchdown but Brees underthrew him badly and was picked off (I remember this vividly as I had a good bet on Ted Ginn 100+yards and a TD). Brees also underthrew Taysom Hill for another 40-yard touchdown later in the game. USA Today analysts Doug Farrar thinks Brees has some mechanical issues, which are worsening under pressure.
This could be an issue against the Rams because Aaron Donald is by far the best defensive player in the league and he will be matched up frequently against Saints Guard Andrus Peat who is struggling with a broken hand and was beaten several times last week by an Eagles D-line that is talented but nowhere near Donal level. Brees improved second half, but that just so happened to coincide with defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan sitting on the sideline. I think there’s a decent chance Donald and Ndamukong Suh play a big factor in this game.
This Rams defense is generally improved from the unit that gave up 45 in the first matchup vs New Orleans. You may recall in that one that Marcus Peters was the burn victim, getting beaten frequently by Michael Thomas in a matchup that Sean Payton said after the game they thought they could take advantage of. Aqib Talib will be back for this one and will likely take responsibility for Thomas. Talib has been a hugely positive influence for the Rams this season.
Since week 13, when Talib came back, the Rams are top 6 in rushing and passing success rate and have now risen to 15th in weighted defensive DVOA.
In short, we have two defenses which are better than average and two offenses which may struggle to protect the quarterback. It’s also worth noting here that the perception of these teams as passy happy is also inaccurate. In raw pass rate – the percentage of plays that are passes – the Saints are 28th in the NFL and the Rams are 25th. Those numbers move up somewhat when adjusting for situation, but these are two teams that love to run the ball.
As noted by Fabian Sommer on Twitter: “From weeks 1-14, the Rams threw the ball 61% of the time on early downs in the first half. Since week 15, that number dipped to ‘just’ 51%.” It looks to me like McVay is aware of Goff’s recent struggles (Goff’s efficiency has dropped off, not just passing totals). Taken as a whole it looks like there’s some serious wiggle room in the under at this big number.
- Chiefs -3: 2 units @ 1.95
- Saints/Rams under 56.5: 2 units @ 1.92