The NFL regular season has now finished and just 12 teams are left with a chance of winning the Super Bowl. Eight teams will compete in the Wild Card round this weekend with only four progressing to the Divisional Round. Who will make it through? Read on for some expert insight into the NFL Wild Card odds.
The NFL postseason is a seeded draw that rewards the higher seed in a match with home field advantage. This means the highest seed is pitted against the lowest as a reward for winning their division (and having the best win/loss record).
Games are played in the usual NFL format (with overtime if necessary) until a winner emerges. The top two seeds from each conference sit out this weekend’s Wild Card round before hosting a Divisional Round game next week.
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs (10-6 in the regular season) are the fourth seed heading into the Wild Card weekend and are led by former number one overall draft pick Alex Smith (often maligned as merely a game manager).
The Titans haven’t been reliant upon turnovers to fuel their regular season record (9-7), but they have won two more narrow games than they have lost and they are only a 7.5 Pythagorean win team based on their points record
Smith has posted near career-best numbers this season, as Kansas started and ended the campaign strongly. There was also a 1-6 midterm dip in form that saw Smith post some of his poorest seasonal stats.
Smith’s thrown for a yard per attempt further than opponent defences allow on average and coupled with a similarly impressive running efficiency, the Chiefs have averaged nearly four points per game more than their opponents have conceded over the season.
Defensively the Chiefs are below par (more so against the pass than the run). Overall they are a solid 10 win team, confirmed by their Pythagorean win expectation, who have been slightly unlucky in games decided by a touchdown or fewer points, but they have benefited from a large, positive turnover differential.
As expected, Tennessee edged a full strength, if unmotivated, Jacksonville to snatch a postseason berth in Week 17. They are just below average on both sides of the ball, with no glaring weaknesses and in quarterback Marcus Mariota they have a player who has taken a step backwards, after two seasons of pleasing improvement.
The Titans haven’t been reliant upon turnovers to fuel their regular season record (9-7), but they have won two more narrow games than they have lost and they are only a 7.5 Pythagorean win team based on their points record and are therefore amongst the weakest of the 12 postseason teams (they head into the weekend as the fifth seed).
Pythagorean match ups give Kansas around a 7-point advantage, whereas statistical pairings are slightly more bullish, extending the Chiefs advantage to nearly ten points and the total to around 47 points.
Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams
This season’s surprise package, the LA Rams (11-5 in the regular season) host last year’s beaten Super Bowl team, the Atlanta Falcons (10-6) in the second game of the Wild Card weekend. Pythagorean wins suggest that while the former is fully deserving of their 11 win record, the Falcons are perhaps no better than a typical nine-win team.
These points based estimates give the Rams an implied winning probability of 0.71, consistent with a six-point average margin of victory.
Both quarterbacks, Goff for the Rams and Ryan for the Falcons are efficient throwers of the ball, beating the average opponent gain allowed per attempt by around a full yard. The pair are also backed up by above average ground games.
However, the Rams are turning their offensive efficiencies into prodigious gains on the scoreboard in a similar manner to the Falcons last season. In contrast, the Falcons’ scoring has cooled to more normal returns for their still impressive statistical efforts this year.
Defensively, Atlanta has done well to keep points off the board, despite mediocre efficiency stats. The Rams have also allowed gains on the ground, but fewer points than expected on the scoreboard.
Statistical matchups nearly concur with the earlier Pythagorean comparisons, favouring the Rams by a touchdown, with a total of around 48 points scored.
Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Bills, watching on from their locker room, owed their long-awaited return to the postseason to a 4th and long touchdown pass from Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton that overturned a Baltimore lead with just 43 seconds left on the clock in the last game of the regular season.
Buffalo will now need to go on an equally unlikely four-game road trip if they want to go one better than Jim Kelly’s four-time losing Super Bowl Bills from the early to mid-1990’s.
The Bills are one of four AFC sides who finished with a 9-7 record (only two of them made it to the postseason). There’s likely to have been a degree of over performance in achieving their record and they head into the Wild Card Round as the sixth seed.
Defensive and offensive matchups suggest that Buffalo will have great difficulty in passing the ball.
Five Bills wins by a touchdown or fewer points is only partly redressed by two such narrow defeats. Their turnover differential is a possibly unsustainable +9 and poor offensive efficiency, particularly through the air, is matched with below average defence, although they are at least able when defending against the pass.
Their large, negative points differential feeds through into a Pythagorean win expectation of 0.4, equating to 6.5 wins over a 16 game season.
Jacksonville has gone from a 3-13 team last season to progressing to the postseason as the third Wild Card seed this year (with a 10-6 regular season record).
They’ve been a side that has enticed those who look for often-random patterns to explain outcomes. The Jags alternated wins with losses until their bye week and returned a 1-3 record against fellow playoff-bound teams.
Bortles, their largely disappointing quarterback since 2014, was capable of excellent performances before occasionally reverting to his pervious below par efforts. Much of Jacksonville’s impressive points scoring came courtesy of a ball hawking defence, rather than a barely above par offence.
Their defence was ranked number one by many metrics, but even then there was a disconnection between the excellence of the passing defence, who allowed a yard per attempt shorter than opposing offences averaged and a below-par ground unit that allowed teams to make efficient gains if the scoreboard allowed.
Defensive and offensive matchups suggest that Buffalo will have great difficulty in passing the ball and respective scoring rates suggest a Jacksonville victory by 10 points and a total of 42 points.
Pythagorean matchups are unsurprisingly also on the side of the home field Jags by 12 points with an implied winning probability of 0.85 - although this assumes a sustained scoring contribution from the defence via turnovers.
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints
The final game of the weekend is an all NFC South showdown between two identical 11-5 regular season records - it would seem logical that mere home field advantage of around a field goal would split the perennial rivals (the Saints are the fourth seed and will host the fifth-seeded Panthers).
However, there’s good reason to make the Saints bigger favourites than this generic correction. The most obvious reason, but perhaps least significant, is the Saints 2-0 record against the Panthers in the regular season.
Of more relevance are the respective points scoring and allowing records for both sides. New Orleans has allowed one fewer point than Carolina, but the hosts have scored an impressive 85 more points than the Panthers. This is enough to separate the teams by Pythagorean wins, 11 for the Saints and just 10 for the Panthers.
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In a similar vein, Carolina has won seven games by a touchdown or fewer, losing just once in similar circumstances whereas New Orleans has more often won decisively. Just one of their wins has been by seven or fewer points, but three defeats have been decided by these narrow margins.
These often luck based metrics are slightly counterbalanced by the Saints’ +7 turnover differential compared to -1 for the visitors.
However, New Orleans are also well ahead in offensive efficiency ratings. Drew Brees is beating par per attempt by just over a yard, while Carolina’s Cam Newton is falling short by almost half a yard per attempt.
The Saints also shade the ground game in terms of efficiently moving the ball, where both sides are above average.
Both have strong, resilient defences, which is a welcome addition for New Orleans, even with a run defence that is still relatively generous to opponents.
Pooling these points and efficiency-based differences between the two rivals, extends the Saints advantage to seven points, with around 47 points being scored in total.