RR 2016 NFL Conference Championships Preview

By The Ruddy Report Staff nfl nfl playoffs

The only game that Kashev has had wrong so far is Green Bay beating Washington. And that was a close game! This weekend's games should be entertaining, but as we'll show you, the AFC tilt has the potential to be very one sided.

New England at Denver

Sunday, January 24th at 3:05 ET

Patrick Said: Kansas City 4 Denver 2 1
Kashev Said: New England 24 Denver 17
Vegas Says: New England -2.5 2

Kashev:

I was right! Patrick lost his damn mind. Gronk and Edelman are back; the Pats will reign here. The Broncos looked particularly uninspired last weekend, but:

  1. They have a really good defense.
  2. If Peyton keels over literally dead, then Brock Osweiler can finish the game. He has played at least one full NFL game.

Here are some other facts that make me less nervous about my pick:

  1. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning's Rivalry has a Wikipedia page. It's kind of a big deal! Tom Brady is 11-5 in these games, but he is only 3-3 in games outside of Gillette Stadium, and only 2-2 in the playoffs against Manning. Is this important since this game is in Denver and in the playoffs?
  2. No. Peyton Manning is a corpse. But those audibles!
  3. Bill Belichick reminded us last week that he's a master game planner. I guarantee you that the Patriots team that the Broncos have on film from last weekend doesn't exist anymore. A new Patriots will emerge. Will they run a two-tight end power running game? Will they run formations which confuse and amaze? Will Tom Brady hold the ball for more than 2 seconds? We genuinely don't know, and that's what makes the Patriots so frightening to play.

Patrick:

Apparently, there are a minimum of 44 players, 6 coaches, and a couple of owners who will have a direct impact on the outcome of this game.

Who cares.

Brady v Manning XVII, baby! Sure, the two men have never actually taken the field at the same time other than for the ceremonial post-game kiss (shown below), but this game is all about Brady and Manning.

Much ado has been made about Peyton Manning's 12-13 playoff record. But consider this: if you're so good that your team gets a bye week in the playoffs, you have to make the Super Bowl in order to have a winning postseason record. Peyton Manning has had a bye week 8 times in his career, making it extremely unlikely that he would have a winning playoff record. Extremely unlikely isn't impossible, however, as Tom Freaking Brady has 10 first round byes on his record.3

So what's the point here? Manning and his Colts/Broncos haven't been postseason flops, but Brady and his Patriots have been transcendentally good. Manning and Brady have a very tangled, back-and-forth history, but now, finally, Brady truly has the edge individually over Manning:

In a case of role reversal, Manning has the better team, and Brady the better individual season. So will the Denver defense be enough to overcome the difference between Brady and Manning? Let's see.

Here are the top 12 defenses according to points allowed per game:4

  1. Seattle
  2. Cincinnati
  3. Kansas City
  4. Denver
  5. Minnesota
  6. Carolina
  7. Arizona/Houston (tie)
  8. ^
  9. New York Jets
  10. New England
  11. Pittsburgh
  12. Green Bay

HOLY CRAP! Notice that 11 out of those 12 teams made the playoffs? The one team who did not, the New York Jets, went 10-6 and missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker. If it wasn't for conferences and goofy playoff seeding that allowed the 9-7 Washington Redskins (and their 17th ranked defense) to make the playoffs over the 10-6 New York Jets, then the 12 best defenses would be the 12 teams in the playoffs.

For those who think that quarterbacks, not defenses, are the driving forces behind playoff appearances, think about this: two of the three worst-ranked defenses this year were the New York Giants and the New Orleans Saints. Neither team made the playoffs. Are Drew Brees and Eli Manning worse than Alex Smith, the Ghost of Peyton Manning/Brock Osweiler, Teddy Bridgewater, and Brian Hoyer/Ryan Mallet/Brandon Weeden? Or do defenses actually matter? I'll let readers answer that one.

Of course that's only for this year. FiveThirtyEight made this nifty graph which shows the average passing and rushing defenses, compared to the league average, of the teams who have made it to the Conference Championship game. It really speaks for itself. Since 1970, there has never been a final four which featured teams that were worse than average on defense. Only once has it featured teams that had worse than average passing defenses, and 36 out of 45 years the final four featured defenses better than average against both the rush and the pass.

So, defense matters. Denver's defense is a little bit better than New England's. Will it matter? No. Good lord, no. The Ghost of Peyton Manning cannot beat Tom Brady's Deflategate Revenge Tour.5 I adjust my pick accordingly.

Tom Brady 30 Denver 4

Arizona at Carolina

Sunday, January 24th at 6:40 ET

Patrick Said: Cardinals 31 Seahawks 28
Kashev Said: Carolina 28 Arizona 21
Vegas Says: Carolina -4

Patrick:

This Conference Championship round is pretty unique. We already mentioned that this is the first time in eleven years that all of the number one and number two seeds advanced, but I also figured out that this is only the fourth time that has happened since I was born in 1992. Also, this is the first time, ever, that two Heisman quarterbacks will face each other in the playoffs. Interesting.

As far as the game goes, it sure looks like a good one on paper. I like both teams a lot, and I'll be happy for the winner and sad for the loser either way.6 To me, this game is the Super Bowl, as I think the winner gets the honor of beating New England.

I thought Seattle would be here, and I still can't shake the feeling that they kind of should be; last weekend's game didn't increase my confidence in Carolina. Also, there's this:7

Those are the top three teams in the league in average net yards per drive for the season. Carolina came in a very respectable 3rd overall. But Arizona was literally twice as good. Therefore, I adjust my pick to:

Arizona 28 Carolina 23

Kashev:

Last weekend's game did in fact increase my confidence in the Panthers. I was honestly amazed. Do not forget that they led 31-0 at half time. If this hadn't been a playoff game, both Cam and Russell would have sat in the 4th quarter, and the Seahawks would have only scored 17, which would have troubled people a lot less.

I am especially confident because of the return of Jonathan Stewart. His stats were padded by a huge 59 yard touchdown run, but his return will force the Cardinals to respect the Panthers running game.

The one thing I'm worried about is the Cardinals long pass game. The following bar chart is the percentage of non-incomplete pass plays binned by: yards gained made by the NFL (except for the Cardinals), made by the Cardinals, and allowed by the Panthers, for this season. Click each one to hide and show them, and see how they overlay.

The Panthers are much, much more likely to allow a pass around five to seven yards. This makes sense, because that's what the NFL tries to do; 20% of all completed passes go for between 5 and 7.5 yards. However, the Cardinals are much more likely to throw a longer pass, with 17% of their pass plays going for between 10 and 12.5 yards.

That longer pass is part of Bruce Arians' coaching DNA; they would much rather try to complete a longer pass than a shorter one. 8 The Panthers defensive identity is very much built around their Pro-Bowl selected linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. 9 They cover their ground, but especially with Charles Tillman and Jared Allen 10 out, they'll have to cover more ground.

But, all these reservations aside, I haven't convinced myself that the Cardinals are a better team. I think that the Panthers will be able to score consistently, and I'm not so sure about the Cardinals. I'm sticking to my guns. Cam is my MVP and the Panthers are my Super Bowl pick.

Footnotes

  1. All predictions from the RR NFL Picks for the 2016 NFL Playoffs.

  2. All Vegas Lines from OddsShark.

  3. I think. I'm trying to count these from Wiki pages and I'm not the best in the world at counting, especially when it gets close to double digits.

  4. ESPN.

  5. After generally being seen as villains throughout the B&B Empire, the Patriots are suddenly seeming like the Good Guys now, and it's weirding me out. First Denver goes and pulls some Adam Jones Shit, and then they call Brady a crybaby. Meanwhile, the Patriots had a hilarious Facebook exchange and will be playing with a hero. I'll always root for Peyton, but...

  6. The loser can take solace in the fact that they are not the Damn Titans.

  7. Football Outsiders.

  8. Again, I recommend this MMQB on this season's Arizona Offense.

  9. The Panthers had 10 Pro Bowl Selections. Crazy.

  10. RIP Bears East. Greg Olsen, have the game of your life.