Dec 31, 2019
Dec 31, 2019

NFL Wildcard Weekend preview: AFC and NFC matchups

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints

Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans

Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles

NFL Wildcard Weekend preview: AFC and NFC matchups

The NFL postseason kicks off on Saturday with the third and fourth-seeded divisional winners hosting the sixth and fifth-placed wildcard sides respectively. In theory, Wildcard Weekend should feature superior teams hosting lesser sides, but what might happen and what should bettors consider? Read on to find out.

Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans

The Texans topped the AFC South division in the regular season, whereas the Bills’ identical 10-6 record was only good enough for second spot in the East division dominated by New England. However, the points scored and allowed by each side does manage to split these rivals.

Buffalo were the lowest scoring team to make the postseason, but only the Patriots allowed fewer points than the Bills’ excellent defensive unit. Their points differential equated to a 10-win side, which tallied exactly with their actual win/loss record.

This game is projected to be a low-scoring and tight affair.

The same does not apply for Houston. The Texans won eight narrow victories and lost just three in return, in contrast to the Bills’ more balanced 4-5 split in such games. Overall, Houston had a narrowly negative points differential and amassed just eight Pythagorean wins over the regular season.

Houston has an above average offense who passed and ran the ball efficiently during the regular season while scoring a point per game more than the average against the defences they faced. By contrast, Buffalo possess a below par passing offence and relied on an above average running game that failed to light up the scoreboard, scoring three fewer points per game than average expectations.

Houston have a below average defence whereas Buffalo excel in this area, particularly against the pass. They allowed a yard per attempt less than expectations and conceded nearly six fewer points per game than the par.

This game is projected to be a low-scoring and tight affair. Buffalo are the better team at the defensive fundamentals and should make it difficult for Houston to pass the ball. However, this is likely to be the final home game of the season for the wildcard hosts, meaning their home field advantage can be elevated and neither team has a large edge.

Houston by a single point in a match with 38 total points gives marginal value to the visiting Bills with a field goal or more start.

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots

The participation of New England in the postseason is usually a given, but it’s a relative rarity for them to host a wildcard match. It has been a decade since they last started the playoffs this early, when they were defeated by Baltimore.

Superficially, the Patriots have been typically dominant in the AFC East, but scratch below the largely wide margin wins and there are legitimate concerns about Brady and Belichick’s juggernaut and its performances in 2019.

They have faced a benign schedule comprised of their own AFC East opponents and the unimpressive NFC East. Their opponents have allowed 23 points per game and scored just 21.5 in response and in addition, the Pats have produced a disappointing 4-4 record since Week 9, when Baltimore broke their winning streak.

Pythagorean matchups portray New England’s average margin of victory as just greater than a touchdown.

This heralded two more defeats by playoff rivals and most worryingly a home loss in Week 17 to the Miami Dolphins.

Atypically, New England have relied heavily on defense in 2019. They are top rated overall, peerless against the pass and excellent against the run, restricting opponents to just 14 points per game, or over a touchdown less than their average scoring output.

Offensively, Brady has conjured up three more points per game than the defences they’ve faced typically allow. However, their passing and running efficiencies are below the league average, with the defence again assisting the offence with a NFL-high turnover differential of +21.

Tennessee were sent on the road for Wildcard Weekend by finishing behind Houston in the AFC South, but they have a legitimate claim to be the strongest team from that division. They were a 10-win Pythagorean side who weren’t as fortunate as Houston in close encounters.

Defensively they performed as a mid-table team in the regular season, slightly ahead of their divisional title holders, but also possess a well-balanced offence who ranked just outside the top five both on the ground and through the air.

Passing and running efficiencies strongly favour the visiting Titans, particularly when they run the ball. However, New England have often converted apparent mismatches into wide margin wins, especially prior to their bye week.

A scoring rate comparison estimates a Patriots win by around 10 points and 40 total points and Pythagorean matchups also portray New England’s average margin of victory as just greater than a touchdown.

Age may finally be catching up with Tom Brady, but he can be sided with to cover a spread that is currently well below a touchdown and at least until the Patriots encounter a more threatening postseason rival.

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints

This is the biggest mismatch of the round judging by the current spreads, which stretch beyond a touchdown in favour of the hosting New Orleans Saints.

The Saints impressively negotiated the enforced absence of quarterback Drew Brees from early in Week 2 until his return in Week 8, winning all bar the Week 2 game when he sustained his injury.

Brees then excelled following his return from hand surgery, throwing a yard per attempt further than the average allowed by the defences he faced. This helped the offence to outscore their opposition by seven points per game compared to par and prolonged Brees’ stay in the NFL’s top three quarterbacks.

Defensively, New Orleans maintained an above average performance that was installed following their fall to the bottom of the NFL rankings in 2016. They were difficult to either run or pass against, limited their opponents to nearly three fewer points per game compared to par and ranked just inside the top dozen.

Home advantage stretches the hosts to favourites by around a touchdown in a match with 48 total points.

Over the course of the 16-game regular season, the Saints’ 13 wins rather flatters them compared to their mere 10.7 Pythagorean wins, although this figure does increase to an equivalent 11.4 wins when only matches in which Brees completed the 60 minutes are included.

Minnesota previously ended New Orleans’ 2017 postseason campaign, but that was as host as opposed to visitor and they have been sluggish heading into the playoffs with a losing 2-3 record following their Week 12 bye.

However, they did rest starters in Week 17 and prior to their disappointing run-in they had regularly won matches by a comfortable margin. Only two wins were narrowly gained, but they did lose four equivalent contests.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Vikings also recorded 10.7 Pythagorean wins in 2019. They match New Orleans’ passing efficiency, better their rushing efficiency and only fall marginally short of emulating the rate at which they score points once the strength of their defences faced has been accounted for.

There is similar parity on the other side of the ball, where Minnesota’s defensive passing efficiency just elevates their unit above New Orleans’ in the defensive rankings.

There was little to separate the two teams during the regular season and there is only a field goal in New Orleans’ favour when using their numbers accumulated with Brees under centre. Home advantage would then stretch the hosts to favourites by around a touchdown in a match with 48 total points.

This is another match for which the market largely agrees with the statistical assessment, although there is currently a slight lean towards the visitors to stay close enough and take the game on the points spread.

Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles

Wildcard Weekend concludes with another matchup where the supposed pecking order has been somewhat skewed as the NFC’s fifth seeds Seattle travel to the fourth-placed Eagles.

The lower ranked Seahawks recorded two more regular season wins than their hosts and came within a couple of inches of taking the NFC West title instead of their Week 17 opponents San Francisco. Instead, the 49ers dramatic last-minute goal line stand prevented Seattle from hosting at least one playoff contest.

However, the apparent disparity in wins between Philadelphia and Seattle isn’t corroborated by their respective points differential. A plethora of narrow victories by Seattle, during which only managed to gain one of their 11 victories by more than eight points, has led to them scoring just six more points than they have allowed.

Philadelphia has a net +31 point differential and the respective Pythagorean wins are 8.8 to 8.2 in favour of the hosts.

This game is the most difficult to unpick due to contrasting trends and uncertain lineups.

Opponent adjusted scoring and concession rates fail to split the teams. Both score around a point more per game than average and concede the same number of points per game as their opponents typically score.

This fixture could be decided by how efficiently each squad manages their injuries. Both quarterbacks are still standing in the form of Wentz for the hosts and Wilson for the visitors, but they are working with a supporting cast that has been conjured from deep down the depth chart and in the case of Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, coaxed out of retirement.

Most of each team’s offensive and defensive efficiencies lie close to the league average but two stats stand out, both on the Seattle side.

Russell Wilson has passed for 0.7 of a yard per attempt further than par, although as noted last week when siding with the 49ers, Wilson’s best performances have been reserved for the first half of the campaign. The Seahawks’ defense has also allowed half a yard more per rushing attempt compared to an opponent adjusted average.

This game is the most difficult to unpick due to contrasting trends and uncertain lineups. This is reflected by the fact that the hosts opened as the early favourite, but sentiment has now flipped towards Seattle.

It is also a rematch of the Week 12 fixture won by Seattle 17-9 in a game where neither quarterback excelled. With a narrow spread expected, Russell Wilson can be sided with on the money line in a game with 47 total points.

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