The Divisional round has ended and just four teams remain for the NFL’s Conference Championships round. Who will make it through to Superbowl LII? Read on for some expert insight into the NFC and AFC Championship round odds.
The NFL postseason moves onto the Conference Championship games which will decide who will represent the NFC and AFC in the Super Bowl. The early game decides the AFC, when the Jacksonville Jaguars travel to the New England Patriots and that is followed by the NFC showdown, with the Philadelphia Eagles hosting the Minnesota Vikings.
NFL postseason: Luck vs. skill
Moneyball’s baseball innovator, Billy Beane once famously opined that underlying, process-based abilities fared less well in the postseason because of the truncated nature of the contest compared to the longer timeframe of the regular season.
This appears to be even more relevant in American football, where knockout, postseason football is settled over the course of a single game and randomness is rife - nothing illustrates Beane’s case better than the penultimate play of the divisional weekend.
Despite a postseason schedule that was loaded in favour of the hosting and nominally superior Minnesota team, it required a wonder catch and missed defensive assignments from New Orleans for the Vikings to progress.
An over-reliance upon a defence to score is concerning, particularly given the quarterback issues of inconsistency in Jacksonville and the injury-enforced downgrade in Philadelphia.
It is therefore worth remembering that, in the NFL postseason, the talent levels of the participants are likely to be at their highest for the season. This means that the difference in skill of the participants is also likely to be at their relative narrowest.
This leads to the so-called paradox of skill, whereby luck (for want of a better term) becomes increasingly influential between extremely talented teams when they are relatively evenly matched.
We can attempt to quantify the core abilities of the four remaining postseason teams by referring to the sustainability of their actual win records compared to some of their underlying statistics.
Pythagorean win expectation credits teams with expected wins based on their points scoring and concession rates, rather than the haphazard nature in which those points are distributed within single games.
This approach appears to confirm that the NFL’s four top sides from the regular season have, for once, survived to the Championship game.
All four contenders have Pythagorean win expectations well in excess of 0.7, equating to around 12 wins for each over a 16 game regular season.
Two narrowly defeated divisional round teams, Pittsburgh and New Orleans had 11 Pythagorean regular season wins.
Perhaps confirming that while skill aplenty will be on display this Sunday, randomness through turnovers and low probability touchdown passes, will also be well to the forefront, as they were on the divisional weekend.
This is a combination that at times makes sport an irresistible spectacle if a somewhat frustrating subject for accurate prediction.
NFL Championship games: Defensive scoring potential
The core offensive and defensive achievements of the four contenders have been extensively covered in previous posts, so we will look at the defensive contributions to the offensive outputs of two of the sides.
Turnovers, such as interceptions and recovered forced fumbles invariably add value to a side by virtue of preventing points being scored and granting your own offence favourable field position with which to score offensive touchdowns or field goals.
Both Philadelphia and Jacksonville’s defensive units have contributed to a large proportion of their side’s actual points scored.
Fourty-nine of Jacksonville’s 417 regular season points came from their defence. They returned five forced fumbles and two interceptions to the end zone and have added another seven points to that total in the postseason.
Philadelphia’s defence has contributed a similarly impressive 42 points by way of turnovers to their 457 total points scored.
Neither of their respective opponents are as reliant on their defence to actively keep the scoreboard moving. New England has yet to score a defensive touchdown and Minnesota has registered just one.
While skill aplenty will be on display this Sunday, randomness through turnovers and low probability touchdown passes, will also be well to the forefront,
Turnovers can fuel an impressive win/loss total and Philadelphia and Jacksonville’s turnover differential is +11 and +10 respectively in the regular season, compared to just 6 and 5 for New England and Minnesota.
As we see time and again, these advantages are difficult to sustain. While there is no reason to expect a sudden correction to the defensive scoring potential of the Eagles and the Jags, it can be harder for sides who are constantly reliant upon such performances.
Forcing fumbles are scheme and ability based, but recovery is partly in the hands of the oval-shaped ball.
Although randomness may have been a partial component of the success of both the Jags and the Eagles I would be too simplistic to remove the points scored by each defence and re-evaluate each game.
Equally an over-reliance upon a defence to score is concerning, particularly given the quarterback issues of inconsistency in Jacksonville and the injury-enforced downgrade in Philadelphia.
AFC Championship game: Jacksonville @ New England
Matchups suggest that New England (1st seed) will face a rare challenge to their aerial passing superiority from the Jacksonville Jaguars (3rd seed), regardless of whether the Pats elect to pass short or deeper.
Scoring rates favour the Patriots by around five points, maybe stretching to a touchdown if Belichick and Brady manage to keep the ball away from the Jags’ ball-hawking defence, with 45 total points scored.
NFC Championship game: Minnesota @ Philadelphia
The NFC game reacquaints two former teammates in St Louis, Case Keenum for Minnesota (2nd seed) with Nick Foles of Philadelphia (1st seed)
Keenum saw off initial starter Foles in St Louis in 2015, but matchups suggest the latter is a three-point favourite on Sunday with around 42 total points.
Even if we allow for Foles as a downgrade from the injured Wentz and partly discount how productive the Eagles have been scoring defensive touchdowns, the game simply becomes too close to call.
As in the divisional win over Atlanta, the home team looks a solid option, particularly in receipt of points from a Minnesota team hoping to secure a hometown Super Bowl appearance.