After 17 weeks and 16 games per team, the race for the Super Bowl has been whittled down from 32 teams to 12, six from each of the two conferences. Who will progress in the NFC? Our football expert Mark Taylor breaks down and assess the two Wild Card fixtures.
In depth analysis of Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Dallas are the latest winners in rotation of the hugely competitive NFC East, but they appear to lack the quality of the team they usurped, the current Super Bowl Champions and divisional rival the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles.
Eight narrow wins are balanced by just a handful of similar losses and they enter the post season with a below average offence that passes half a yard per attempt below par for their opponents.
Superficially, quarterback, Dak Prescott has improved from 2017, but much of the latter part of last season was blighted by injuries to his protection.
Even with a more stable unit in 2018, he’s still well below the standard expected from a top ten passer and someway off his own debut season in 2016.
They have a respectable running game that just creeps above average efficiency per attempt, but that’s done little to guarantee a decent output on the scoreboard.
The Cowboys average a score that is a point and a half below that conceded by their opponents.
By contrast, Seattle is a much more rounded and efficient offensive unit. Everyone involved from quarterback, Russell Wilson to the ground game sneak into the lower reaches of the NFL’s top ten.
They pass for three tenths of a yard per play further than par, run with the same raw yardage per play advantage and create a field goal’s worth of points more per game than average in return.
Dallas has the better of the two defences. But once again there are caveats.
They are dead average at defending the pass, allowing their opponent to convert yardage at the same rate as they do against the rest of the league. But they do boast a top five defence on the ground.
They’ve translated this less than ideal blend of efficiencies into a stout defence that is difficult to score against, allowing three fewer points per game to be scored against par.
Seattle has an equally worrying disconnect between their defensive efficiencies and how easily their opponent finds the end zone.
The Seahawks are just below par against the pass, well below average on the ground, but still restrict the opposition to nearly two fewer points per game than they usually score. Statistically, the game lacks the quality of others.
Seattle is a 10 win team based on their Pythagorean win expectation, but the host Cowboys are only just above a 0.500 team with 8.5 expected wins.
These bare, points based appraisals of each team make the visiting Seahawks a narrow one point favourite, even after venue is accounted for.
Efficiency based matchups also find it difficult to split the two sides. Dallas should be able to move the ball on the ground, but Seattle project as having better than average success through the air and project a pick’em game with around 42 points.
You can endlessly nudge the line one way or another by factoring in such things as turnovers, which have loomed large in Seattle’s success, but not Dallas’. But the visitors are the narrow lean.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) at Chicago Bears (12-4): Where is the value?
Finally, we reach a matchup that does appear more lop-sided than the previous three games.
The Bears were projected to improve in 2017, but their starting point was low enough compared to and that of the two anticipated divisional title contenders that a wildcard was considered the very limit of their ambitions.
Instead only the Saints and the Rams exceeded the Bears regular season wins and they beat pre-season market expectations by five wins.
he passing game is on the arm of Michell Trubisky, who debuted in the fifth game of 2017, to limited success, with very occasional highs punctuated by more frequent, accuracy related lows.
He didn’t breach 60% completion rates in 2017, but he’s almost reached 67% over 2018, whilst also increasing his yards per completion by nearly a yard per attempt.
His yardage efficiency places him firmly in the mid talent table of passers, he throws for the same yardage per attempt as his opponents have allowed in 2018 and he’s had little assistance from a far from efficient rushing game.
Overall, achieving an average of 2 more points per game than par, was a fine, if partly unsustainable return.
Philadelphia find themselves in the familiar position of relying on Nick Foles throughout the playoffs, rather than Carson Wentz, who again misses the Eagles post season, although his status is game to game should the defending champions overcome Chicago.
Teams average nearly six fewer points per game when they face the Bears compared to all other games they play in the NFL
Foles was understandably tentative in a similar scenario in 2017’s regular season, but was outstanding in the subsequent post season, albeit predominately at home.
The Eagles were no more than an average passing efficient team with Wentze as the majority starter in 2018, who ran the ball poorly and that plays into Chicago’s major defensive strength.
The Bears share the elite defensive slot in the NFL with the Ravens, knocking a yard per attempt off the average gained by opposing offences and depressing the opposing running game by over half a yard per carry.
Teams average nearly six fewer points per game when they face the Bears compared to all other games they play in the NFL.
The respective win/loss record of each team seems broadly representative of their performances. Neither have gorged on narrow wins that haven’t been balanced out by a similar proportion of narrow defeats.
Both teams have Pythagorean wins that are around half a victory below their actual record and that equates to an implied winning probability of around 74% for Chicago or a spread of around a touchdown.
There’s agreement using efficiency matchups. A game with around 40 points is predicted, where Chicago manage to move the ball with average efficiency both on the ground and aerially.
Philadelphia may struggle on offence. Passing the ball looks the better option, but even so they are likely to average around a yard per attempt shorter than they usually manage.
Again, the Bears by a seven-point touchdown is the most likely conclusion and that makes the home side the selection at the current spreads.
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