Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

24 Dec 2015

Scramble for the Ball: Playing Favorites

by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie

Sterling: As Aaron Schatz covered in this week's ESPN Insider playoff odds update, this year's postseason race has an unprecedented amount of certainty. There's a reasonable chance we'll know all 12 playoff teams by the end of Week 16, leaving NBC's Sunday Night Football execs with a big ol' letdown to end the regular season.

It would be nice if we could fast forward to January 4, because the potential for this postseason is off the charts. Carolina could be 16-0 yet may end up facing three opponents against whom they wouldn't reasonably be favored on a neutral field. The two best teams in the AFC might be on a divisional round collision course. My only regret is that we're unlikely to see a tragicomic Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Brandon Weeden faceoff in the Saturday afternoon timeslot on wild-card weekend.

Andrew: Don't give up hope, man. And maybe Fitzpatrick's thumb will flare up without any extra pain so we get Geno Smith vs. Brandon Weeden. That would be up there for playoff quarterbacking non-awesomeness. (The no-extra-pain proviso means that we get something requiring an injury without really hurting anyone. It's a delicate tightrope to walk.)

But I agree about this postseason being as tantalizingly wide-open as any I can remember, with eight different teams having at least a five percent chance to win it all in our playoff odds. In the AFC, I'm legitimately interested in five teams: New England, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Kansas City. The one slight damper on things is Andy Dalton not getting a chance to finally leave behind his playoff one-and-dones -- although he might just have ended up at 0-5 through no fault of his own. If the Bengals lose to Denver and get the No. 3 seed, it would be no indictment to lose to the either of the AFC's top teams in weighted DVOA: Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

And in the NFC, I only find the Vikings truly boring. All right, I'm excited just thinking about this and we're still a couple weeks out. We're going to cut this short for the holidays, but let's try to bring a controlled version of the Odell Beckham and Josh Norman energy to this.

Sterling: I guess if the Panthers aren't allowed to bring the wood anymore, we'll just have to do it for them.

NFC: Carolina, Seattle, or Arizona?

Andrew: In my head, I want to say Carolina. They're the favorite both by our playoff odds and the betting market. But I don't really believe that's how this ends. I see Seattle emerging from the NFC. They are No. 1 in weighted DVOA, and by a gap that could be healthy by the time the playoffs start. They would be favored over anyone on a neutral field. I see them getting by Carolina in a game where the Panthers might be favored by less than two points even though they're 16-0.

But I certainly could see any of the big three making it out of the NFC. I suppose I'm most interested in Carolina and I hope I'm as wrong about them for the playoffs as I was for the regular season. The parallels between the Panthers and the 1972 Dolphins could be pretty intriguing. The Dolphins were small favorites in the AFC Championship against the Steelers (on the road, since it was a rotating system back then rather than assigned on record) and then just one-point favorites against a far-from-dominant Washington team in the Super Bowl. To win it all, the undefeated Panthers might need to get through two games as very narrow favorites before the Super Bowl, where they could be a slight underdog against the Patriots.

Sterling: I guess it's convenient you didn't talk about the Cardinals there, because I actually see Arizona as the favorite. I share DVOA's opinion in thinking that Seattle is the NFC's best team, but both the Cards and Panthers get to play one fewer game than the Seahawks, and potentially none on the road. Moreover, Arizona is currently lined up to play a flawed NFC North champion in the divisional round while the Hawks-Panthers carnage occurs on the other side of the bracket. Upsets can change that, of course -- maybe Green Bay ends up as the sixth seed and beats Minnesota in the first round, which would send the Packers to Carolina and likely force Arizona into playing the Seahawks right away.

But even setting aside the possibility of an easier road, I think the Cardinals have to like their chances against either of the other two teams. Arizona has faced Seattle three times since 2013 with Carson Palmer under center, and the Cardinals are 2-1 in those games, with both wins coming in Seattle. I'm not as sure about Carolina, especially since losing Tyrann Mathieu robs Arizona of its best weapon to combat Greg Olsen. But Arizona is stout against the run (second in DVOA) and could probably turn the game into an arms race between Palmer and Cam Newton. And if that unfolds, I think Arizona's secondary is better equipped to deal with Carolina's humdrum receivers than vice versa. The Cardinals' passing game isn't centered around a top receiver, which makes Norman less valuable for Carolina, and it's easy to imagine the senior citizens brigade of Roman Harper, Charles Tillman, Kurt Coleman, and Cortland Finnegan having trouble with the speed of Arizona's wideouts.

AFC: Patriots or the Field?

Sterling: The right answer to these kinds of questions is almost always the field. Our playoff odds see New England as more than twice as likely as any other AFC team to reach the Super Bowl, but that still equates to a 65 percent chance of another team in Santa Clara come February.

Even though I think a healthy Patriots team is probably the class of the conference, I'm going with the field here because I don't know that we'll see the same Pats squad which soared to the top of the DVOA rankings midseason. With a decimated backfield, I think they're going to stick to those game plans where short Tom Brady passes replace actual run plays, leading to obscene run-pass ratios. It worked out against Baltimore and Seattle in last year's postseason, but I'm not sure if the pass protection or wide receivers are up for the challenge. As Dez Bryant has illustrated, Julian Edelman is not a lock to pick up where he left off coming off the same foot injury Bryant suffered. Danny Amendola's twice-sprained left knee seems like a flat tire at this point, while Brandon LaFell has never really gotten going since starting the season on PUP. All this means the Patriots are merely a borderline top-five level offense instead of the best in the league, but will that be enough against a Pittsburgh or Cincinnati? Those offenses seem multifaceted enough that they could still put up points even when Bill Belichick inevitably takes away their top threat.

Andrew: To answer your question, maybe/yes. It's a maybe if Edelman is limited and a yes if he's not. If he's limited, the offense is probably borderline top-five as you say. Since Week 11, the Pats have ranked fourth on offense and that included a Gronkowski-less game. If Edelman is not limited, however, the offense is a top-two unit. And I actually like the Patriots' chances even in the former scenario. Consider what injuries have done to the quarterback situations facing the other likely division winners. A Super Bowl favorite has almost certainly never gotten to face a trio as questionable as A.J. McCarron, Brandon Weeden, and Brock Osweiler. The two most intimidating opponents now are the likely wild-card teams: Kansas City (No. 2 in weighted DVOA) and Pittsburgh (No. 5). No matter how awesome the Chiefs have been, it's hard to see Alex Smith beating Brady in January in Foxboro. And with Pittsburgh, I get a team against which the Patriots have always felt very comfortable and the potential for a head-scratching strategic decision from Mike Tomlin.

So, while the field is indeed almost always the answer, give me the Patriots in the AFC. The Chiefs or Steelers could stumble before they get to Foxboro and so the road could get very easy. If they have to face both, and if Edelman is limited, the Patriots still have a defense that could very likely outperform the unit they have had for most of the season. Dont'a Hightower is back, Jamie Collins is playing almost every snap again, Rob Ninkovich should be fresher this year than on previous playoff runs, the young corners have had a season of starting, and Chandler Jones has made The Leap. Add in coaching, and I see the Patriots getting to Santa Clara.

NFC East: Redskins or the Field?

Andrew: The Giants' true odds can't be 4.2 percent, right? Eight years after losing a dramatic 38-35 game to an undefeated team, the Giants did it again on Sunday. The Giants went 10-6 in 2007, 9-7 in 2011, and could win the NFC East this year at 8-8. The orderly progression of things has them winning out, beating Carolina in overtime in the NFC Championship Game, and then beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl on a ball that Will Tye catches between his thighs.

But we wrote a couple of weeks ago about how rational beings should have Washington to win the NFC East and they now look firmly in the lead for the right to lose to Seattle in the wild-card round. They're also the best team in the NFC East by a significant margin at this point, getting up to 3.7% in weighted DVOA after Sunday's dismantling of the Bills. Their No. 12 rank puts them well ahead of the Giants (No. 17) and Eagles (No. 23).

Sterling: The numbers and the eye test seem to agree on Washington as the best team in that wretched division. Some might have a hold-up over the Redskins playing their final two games on the road, and that is a legitimate concern. Washington's last road game, in Chicago, was its second-best road game by DVOA this season, which I suppose is the good news. The bad news is that the Redskins still posted a -17.4% overall DVOA that day, and have yet to even post a figure better than -10.0% away from FedEx Field.

At the same time, Kirk Cousins and the offense did post their first positive road DVOA in that game against Chicago, and the general upward swing of the offense seems to be independent of location. And remember, even if Washington does slip up the next two weeks, they would still get in if the Giants lose at Minnesota this week, then turn around and beat the Eagles at home in Week 17. Given the way this division has unfolded, that feels like the right way for all this to end.

AFC Dark Horse: Steelers or Chiefs?

Sterling: The dark horse label here only really applies to Pittsburgh because the Steelers will likely need to play three games on the road before the Super Bowl, much like Seattle. And like Seattle, the Steelers are the biggest threat to the top seed.

I do worry about Justin Houston and Tamba Hali playing through knee and thumb injuries, respectively, because Kansas City's defense isn't the same if it doesn't generate pressure. Moreover, the Chiefs defense has feasted on big plays to goose the ho-hum production its offense provides. Maybe that pays off against the turnover-prone offenses of Denver or Pittsburgh, but both the Bengals and Patriots are among the 10 best teams in turnover prevention. If Kansas City's offense is left to do the heavy lifting in any single playoff game, I think that might be the end of the line for the Chiefs.

Andrew: In the betting markets, the Steelers are at about 2/1 to win the AFC while the Chiefs are 12/1, but I still think the Chiefs are the scariest dark horse in the AFC. And maybe the Steelers don't even qualify as a dark horse with those odds.

The Chiefs have been the best team in the league since the first few weeks of the season, which has flown under the radar to an amazing extent with all the other storylines this year. Andy Reid would have second place on my Coach of the Year ballot, and his team just might pose the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC.

The Scramble Fantasy Redraft Update

Sterling: I made the championship round in one league because of Cam Newton and Antonio Brown. I can say it feels a lot better having those two on my side than going up against them.

Andrew: Who needs the NFL's greatest running back (Thomas Rawls)? I'm still leaving your wreckage in my wake. To make this a challenge, I considered leaving the rest of my team on the bench and just going up against you this week with my quarterback machine of Camsell Newilson.


Scramble’s Fantasy Playoffs Results: Week 15
Position Team Andrew Week 13 Pts Team Sterling Week 13 Pts
QB1 Cam Newton, CAR (Group 6) 41.6 Ben Roethlisberger, PIT (Group 4) 22.9
QB2 Russell Wilson, SEA (Group 3) 26.6 Matthew Stafford, DET (Group 8) 22.1
RB1 Thomas Rawls, SEA (Group 9) 0.0 Adrian Peterson, MIN (Group 1) 6.3
RB2 DeAngelo Williams, PIT (Group 8) 11.6 Chris Ivory, NYJ (Group 5) 4.2
WR1 Antonio Brown, PIT (Group 1) 30.9 DeAndre Hopkins, HOU (Group 3) 9.4
WR2 Calvin Johnson, DET (Group 2) 1.9 Odell Beckham Jr., NYG (Group 2) 13.6
TE Greg Olsen, CAR (Group 4) 13.9 Tyler Eifert, CIN (Group 7) 0.0
FLEX Brandon Marshall, NYJ (Group 5) 7.4 Allen Robinson, JAC (Group 6) 11.7
D/ST Patriots (Group 7) 20.0 Bengals (Group 9) 15.0
Total for Week 15
153.9
105.2
Total for Weeks 13-15
450.8
343.2

Super-Huge Mega Lock of the Week

The niece went against DVOA and won last week with her pick of the Redskins over the Bills. This week, the holidays intervene and we have to do it without the help of the under-ten crowd. But we love Washington getting a field goal against Philadelphia, a team they're now far ahead of in weighted DVOA. The niece likes to skip to the end of books and so the end of all playoff drama in the NFC in Week 16 would suit her tastes.

Our Record: 8-7
The Nephews and Niece: 4-1

Cinemax Presents: Exotic Propositions

We're intrigued by the Chiefs at 12/1 to win the AFC. The best team in weighted DVOA in the AFC should not have longer odds than the Bengals even if Cincinnati could still swing a first-round bye. And the Steelers are certainly not six times more likely to make the Super Bowl as the odds suggest.

G.O.A.T. of the Week

Late-season waiver wire pickups are usually speculative depth adds, but anyone who picked up David Johnson or Doug Baldwin may have ridden free agency straight to a championship. Over the past month, Baldwin and Johnson are first and fourth in fantasy scoring, respectively, among non-quarterbacks.

At this point, Jimmy Graham's knee injury just looks like a hoax to distract people from the fact that Graham has repossessed Baldwin's soul. Over the past month, Baldwin is averaging 17.4 yards per catch and nearly three red zone targets per game. That's a huge change from the first four years of his career, when he averaged 14.1 yards per catch and less than 0.5 red zone targets per game.

As for Johnson, this is stretch should validate him as the alpha dog in the Cardinals' backfield going into 2016. Given the total collapse of the running back position in fantasy this year, it wouldn't be surprising to see lots of unproven first-time starters near the top of the rankings next season. The likes of Johnson, Thomas Rawls, and Jeremy Langford could be top-10 preseason backs. Even a boom-or-bust Jay Ajayi or Ameer Abdullah type might get RB2 rankings. A potential postseason run by Arizona could move Johnson way up the preseason ranks next year, but for now, he looks like a player to target at the frustrating position.

Goat of the Week

Drafting quarterbacks early is rarely a good idea, and many Aaron Rodgers owners likely saw their playoff runs end in Week 15 after Rodgers posted just 10 points in a relatively soft matchup against Oakland. Rodgers is now just the sixth-ranked quarterback in fantasy, meaning that his owners in standard 10-team leagues technically paid a premium sticker price for a below-average quarterback based on league depth.

The problem with taking quarterbacks high is that you're not going to end up with a big positional advantage, even if the best-case scenario does unfold. Take Cam Newton, the top-scoring fantasy quarterback. Newton has provided roughly 20 percent more scoring than Blake Bortles, the fifth-ranked quarterback and theoretical "average" QB1 in a 10-team league. Conversely, Devonta Freeman and Antonio Brown have provided a nearly 50 percent edge over the theoretical average starter at their positions, while Rob Gronkowski has provided a 31 percent edge. Even if you want to dismiss Freeman as an outlier because of his freakish Week 3-to-Week 6 run, second-ranked Adrian Peterson has provided a 36 percent edge over the average starting running back.

Put simply, the best backs and receivers are always going to provide a bigger positional advantage than the best quarterback, and non-Gronkowski tight ends are mostly the same. That mantra about tight ends is widely accepted, but for some reason, many still insisted on taking Rodgers and Andrew Luck within the first two to three rounds. Even though most fantasy players have heard of the "don't draft quarterbacks early" rule, it's curious why most leagues still don't behave that way.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: The rash of injuries (plus Kirk Cousins' emergence) has really thinned the field of capable Loser quarterbacks. Matt Hasselbeck was the only player to score in single digits this week, as the slowly disintegrating 40-year-old had 8 points against Houston. But a whopping 14 quarterbacks incurred the dreaded 15-point penalty. Apologies to those who selected the Nick Foles-Brian Hoyer tandem at the start of Part II; it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Running Back: Six running backs scored exactly 2 points. Isaiah Crowell returned to being a Loser hero after a blip in Week 14. In Green Bay, Harvey Dent's coin came up tails this week, sending Eddie Lacy back to the doghouse. Few Loser lineups had Lamar Miller, Ronnie Hillman, or LeSean McCoy, but some may have benefited from Matt Jones. Despite gradually taking a larger slice of the timeshare from Alfred Morris and Chris Thompson, Jones has eclipsed 8 Loser points just twice during the second half, one of which came by the 15-point penalty.

Wide Receiver: Only two wide receivers posted goose eggs this week, and it's doubtful many picked either Dwayne Harris or Jeff Janis out of usage concerns. Fortunately, familiar friends like Taylor Gabriel, Harry Douglas, Albert Wilson, and Terrance Williams were among the 15 receivers to post 2 or fewer Loser League points.

Kicker: Brandon McManus was an unfamiliar visitor to the cellar this week, posting minus-2 points after missing the first extra point of his career on Sunday. Four other kickers missed point-after attempts, and three of them -- Ryan Succop, Josh Lambo, and Randy Bullock -- scored 0 points or less.

You can see the full standings and Week 15 results here.

John Fox Award

In a season with odd speeches and odder decisions, Chuck Pagano is seemingly determined to go out in a blaze of incompetence. He challenged an obvious DeAndre Hopkins catch that cost him a valuable fourth-quarter timeout. Can we already fast-forward to Pagano getting his next shot based on his won-loss record and Luck-aided playoff appearances ahead of a new coach who would have a better chance of succeeding?

Keep Choppin' Wood

It has been a long three weeks since the Cleveland Browns made an appearance here, so it's time to welcome back our old friends. Perhaps jealous of Detroit's game-extending face mask against Green Bay, Tramon Williams handed Seattle a free field goal at the end of the first half by dragging Jermaine Kearse down by the mask as time expired.

Williams is our first repeat KCW member, having won the award back in Week 4 for jumping offsides on a Josh Lambo missed field goal, thereby giving the Chargers kicker a second chance at the win. The All-KCW team beckons, Tramon.

Posted by: Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie on 24 Dec 2015

5 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2015, 1:10pm by Mr Shush

Comments

1
by Tundrapaddy :: Thu, 12/24/2015 - 4:24pm

'And in the NFC, I only find the Vikings truly boring. '

I cried a little bit.

2
by Blotzphoto :: Fri, 12/25/2015 - 4:30pm

I don't think I can handle yet another Bengals/Steelers Wild Card game in January. Especially with the specter of an absent or limited Andy Dalton and/or a missing Tyler Eifert, one out from a fluke injury and one out from yet another of the long list of late season cheap shots laid on the Bengals by some scumbag in black and yellow.

I know it's gauche to hate a football team in these analytical circles. But I cannot help it. I hate the Steelers.

3
by Jerry :: Sun, 12/27/2015 - 6:15am

Blotz,

Steeler fan here.

There's nothing wrong with hating a team. I can understand why you as a Bengal fan might hate the Steelers. What's gauche in "these analytical circles" is saying "Antonio Brown is a terrible receiver because he's a Steeler." We're trying to have a better conversation than that.

And, of course, we can always be polite to each other at the very least, and leave the "Your team suxxor" conversations to many other boards.

4
by jtr :: Sun, 12/27/2015 - 12:14pm

There's no shortage of haters or homers on this site. Every Pats discussion on here devolves into the fanboys talking past the haters.

5
by Mr Shush :: Sun, 12/27/2015 - 1:10pm

"The problem with taking quarterbacks high is that you're not going to end up with a big positional advantage, even if the best-case scenario does unfold."

To combat this issue, my league awards 0.5 points per completion, deducts 0.5 points per incompletion, and penalizes QBs for sacks, interceptions and fumbles significantly more harshly than most. It's an auction dynasty league, which obviously complicates things, but there's not much doubt the perceived QB1 would be the highest priced player in an open market more years than not, and that's as I think it should be.

Also worth noting: I strongly suspect the best QBs miss less time than the best RBs on average, so even in normal leagues you may be somewhat compensated for loss of upside by reduced likelihood of downside.