Quibbl Sports takes a look at the week’s playoff sure things, long shots, and who-knows-whats.
By Gavin Byrnes
Tennessee Titans (9-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
If your NFL interest wavered between early October and the playoff race (perhaps you’re more of a baseball fan, or a Browns fan), you could be forgiven for thinking the Kansas City Chiefs are the best team in the league. They went 5-0 to start the season, blowing the doors off opponents behind Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce, then rounded into form defensively (better late than never) to go undefeated in their last four. Of course, there were some games in the middle of the season too, and there Kansas City faltered; Hunt hit something of a rookie wall for a while, Alex Smith’s remarkable downfield efficiency regressed to the mean, and the Chiefs went 1-6, including particularly embarrassing losses to the awful Giants and Jets.
Kansas City is the playoff team with the second-worst balance after New England, finishing 4th in Offensive DVOA and 30th (ahead of only New England and Tampa Bay) on defense. A season of extreme highs and lows has ostensibly made the Chiefs a middle-of-the-road playoff team, their 10-win Pythagorean record equal to their 10-win actual record. Still, I’m suspicious of their late-season return to form for two reasons: their inconsistency (21st in Football Outsider’s Variance measure) and their weak strength of schedule (27th out of 32), especially late. FO’s weighted DVOA that privileges late performance over early performance suggests that they are roughly an average team.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, the Tennessee Titans are, if anything, a below average team, with a negative point differential and a 9-7 record against a schedule even weaker than Kansas City’s. Their defense is average, their quarterback (Marcus Mariota) has thrown only 13 touchdowns to 15 interceptions, and starting running back DeMarco Murray has a torn MCL and will miss the wild card game. Ultimately, it’s pretty difficult to evaluate Tennessee’s potential as a playoff team, with only 4 regular season games against playoff teams and both wins coming against the Jaguars. (Perhaps that says more about the Jaguars, though.) If the Chiefs play as well as they can play, they should win this game easily. But that’s far from guaranteed.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
Saturday’s NFC Wild Card Game features an exciting team on the rise hosting a team still reeling from last year’s epic Super Bowl collapse. Atlanta, for all the virtual ink spilled over its lost identity, was Football Outsiders’ most consistent team of the 2017 NFL. With an explosive but somewhat rattled-looking offense and a decent but unspectacular defense, they weathered a strong schedule, with 7 of their 16 games against playoff teams… but they went 2-5 against those opponents… but those two victories came in the last three games of the season? Now I’m confused.
I’m much less confused about the Los Angeles Rams, whose coach is only three years older than I am and makes me feel vastly inadequate. They rank sixth in Football Outsiders on both offense and defense (and second in special teams), a powerful, balanced team whose only real concern is inconsistency. They have the highest variance in Football Outsider’s metrics and have gotten lit up by the offenses of Philadelphia and Saint Jimmy Garoppolo over the latter half of the season. So maybe I am confused about the Rams also? All I can say is, if I had to bet on this one, I’d choose the team that *didn’t* blow a 25-point lead to the Patriots in the biggest game of their lives. As a stats-oriented guy I have a healthy skepticism of “clutch” and fortitude narratives, but… still.
Buffalo Bills (9-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Everyone has an opinion on Blake Bortles jokes, except apparently Blake Bortles. It is still bizarre coming to terms with the fact that Bortles is the starting quarterback on a playoff team — on a favored playoff team, in fact — but it’s true! Bortles has been a solidly acceptable quarterback, ranking 15th in DVOA and 14th in QBR among quarterbacks this season.
Of course, the real stars in Jacksonville are on defense, where young cornerback Jalen Ramsey and a host of other extremely strong and fast men have given the Jagulars (as Winnie the Pooh would say) the best defense in the league.
On the other side of the ball, the Buffalo Bills haven’t made the playoffs this millennium, yet somehow they managed to overcome benching their starting quarterback for a five-pick-throwing Seinfeld character, playing for a folding-table-destroying fanbase (which kinda just rules), and being outscored by 57 points on the season to finish with a 9-7 record and, thanks to an eleventh-hour assist from Andy Dalton and the Bengals, the last AFC playoff berth.
It may seem crazy to tell anybody that Blake Bortles is about to win a playoff game, but maybe that’s the biggest Blake Bortles joke of all.
Carolina Panthers (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Which team led the NFL in DVOA this season? One of the four 13-win teams, presumably… but no! It’s the New Orleans Saints, owner of a FINALLY improved defense (thanks Marshon Lattimore!) and an excitingly same-but-different offense that still boasts Drew Brees’s historic accuracy numbers but now draws more fuel from the double-barrelled running attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.
Despite a solid 11-5 record, the Saints may still be underrated. Football Outsiders’ Estimated Wins statistic, which emphasizes consistency and situational performance, suggests that they should have won 13.4 games instead of their 11; moreover, 4 of their 5 losses came to other playoff teams and two of those came in the first two games of the season. Except for a baffling and (they hope) anomalous Week 17 loss to Tampa Bay, the Saints are playing as well as anybody in the league.
For Carolina, the primary question is the health of quarterback Cam Newton, capable of unique feats at his best but inconsistent this season, with 14 of his 22 touchdowns coming in 4 victories… and 9 of his 16 interceptions coming in 3 losses. The Panthers have already lost twice to the Saints, which doesn’t bode well — but I’m just getting an ethereal screaming telegram from The Archetypal Sports Pundit, and he’s hollering that IT IS HARD TO BEAT A TEAM THREE TIMES IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE. So…
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