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A simple NFL handicapping exercise: Who scores most on offense and allows fewest points on defense?

Jeff Fogle
VSiN City newsletter

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Marcus Mariota is quarterback of a playoff team that threw more interceptions than TD passes while playing the second easiest schedule in the league.
© USA Today Sports Images

Will knowing who hits pay dirt most often get you to the pay window during the NFL playoffs? A look at prolific offenses and stingy defenses, plus a basketball barrage today in VSiN City.

NFL Playoffs: Starting with the basics, TDs scored and TDs allowed
We talked all season about how total yardage and yards-per-play stats weren’t painting an accurate enough picture of NFL success. Many teams were better than their yardage stats were showing, because their offenses knew how to finish drives…while their defenses were good at keeping opponents out of the end zone.  

We’re going to rectify that issue as best as possible right now by running the counts for “offensive touchdowns scored” and “touchdowns allowed by the defense.” We’re leaving out special teams’ touchdowns, and those scored BY the defense because plays like that are largely random in a postseason context. Possibly a super-talented return man will go the distance with a kickoff or punt. It’s hard to no in advance who that’s going to be. You can be much more confident that prolific offenses will find the end zone, and that stingy defenses will force punts and field goals. 

To make sure we aren’t misled by uneven schedule strengths, we’re including the schedule rankings from Jeff Sagarin of USA Today. It’s important to remember that AFC teams played much easier schedules than NFC teams (generally), and the three NFC South entrants had it particularly tough. 

We’ll start with the four BYE teams, then go in matchup order through Wildcard weekend. 

Bye Teams
New England: 48 offensive TDs, 30 TDs allowed, vs. the #25 ranked schedule
Minnesota: 40 offensive TDs, 23 TDs allowed, vs. the #13 ranked schedule
Philadelphia: 47 offensive TDs, 31 TDs allowed, vs. the #21 ranked schedule
Pittsburgh: 41 offensive TDs, 34 TDs allowed, vs. the #27 ranked schedule

Here we’re ranking them by raw differential. No surprise that New England was best in the league. They finished at plus 18 despite a shaky first month defensively. Think about how dominant they must have been once they got serious on defense! But schedule strength is a concern. New England may look mortal vs. more legitimate championship contenders. The Patriots were fortunate to win a see-saw affair at Pittsburgh, even though they had a much better full-season differential than the Steelers. 

Philadelphia is nowhere near as dangerous as they look above because the Eagles lost star quarterback Carson Wentz to a season-ending injury. That 47 to 31 ratio was 42 to 25 before backups had to start. In the two games Nick Foles started and finished, the numbers were just 5 TDs scored…and 5 TDs allowed by the defense…against the struggling New York Giants and Oakland Raiders. Very clearly NOT playoff caliber, let alone championship caliber in that context. 

Let’s get to the game matchups in this stat comparison…

Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET
Tennessee: 32 offensive TDs, 32 TDs allowed, vs. the #31 ranked schedule
Kansas City: 38 offensive TDs, 38 TDs allowed, vs. the #23 ranked schedule

Tennessee is lucky it plays in the AFC. Those aren’t the stats of a playoff caliber team at all. Dead even in differential while playing the second easiest schedule in the league according to Sagarin. Kansas City doesn’t sparkle either. We also know the Chiefs peaked in the first half of the season. If you’re ONLY handicapping with those numbers, tough to justify this week’s high price on the Chiefs, or any thoughts of futures betting on either team (more on Titans/Chiefs in a moment). 

Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET
Atlanta: 33 offensive TDs, 31 TDs allowed, vs. the #4 ranked schedule
LA Rams: 45 offensive TDs, 36 TDs allowed, vs. the #17 ranked schedule

Interesting challenge for handicappers here. The Rams are respectable at plus 9, while playing roughly a league average schedule. Not as scary as the bye teams…but a deserving divisional winner. Atlanta is only plus 2, but the Falcons played a very tough schedule. What would the Falcons be against a league average schedule? Feels like the market price is in line with the TD differentials. If the Rams were “7 touchdowns better” in differential over 16 games…that’s about half a TD a game...which is about 3.5 points in one game…which moves to Rams -6.5 when your throw in home field advantage. Is the market respecting Atlanta’s tough schedule enough? 

Sunday at 1 p.m. ET
Buffalo: 28 offensive TDs, 36 TDs allowed, vs. the #16 ranked schedule
Jacksonville: 39 offensive TDs, 26 TDs allowed, vs. the #32 ranked schedule

Buffalo is another AFC wild card that doesn’t have the stats of a playoff team. It was fun to see its fans celebrate. But…these guys shouldn’t be playing in January. Jacksonville has a great differential, but played the easiest schedule in the NFL. Tough to know how to “normalize” the Jags’ numbers for an average schedule. Great defense…will Blake Bortles be able to shine all month?

Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET
Carolina: 37 offensive TDs, 32 TDs allowed, vs. the #5 ranked schedule
New Orleans: 46 offensive TDs, 33 TDs allowed, vs. the #8 ranked schedule

Both teams played tough schedules. The Saints definitely have a differential that should get the attention of futures bettors. And if the favorites win this weekend, New Orleans gets to play suddenly shaky #1 seed Philadelphia while the Rams must play in Minnesota. In terms of Saints/Panthers, that’s plus 13 versus plus 5, which is exactly half a TD per game, which again puts us near the market price once you factor in home field advantage. 

(The more you study the right NFL stats, the more you realize that point spreads are based on “the reality” of football rather than just opinions people have about teams. Informed opinions are in sync with the reality of football). 

We’ll keep viewing handicapping through this lens (and others) through the NFL postseason. Now, the first of our expanded stat previews for the weekend. We’ll run Titans/Chiefs momentarily, Falcons/Rams Friday, Bills/Jaguars Saturday, and Panthers/Saints Sunday (then Alabama/Georgia Monday) as our expanded seven-day-a-week schedule continues. 

NFL Wildcard Stat Preview: Should KC be such a big favorite in this weekend’s opener?
We just saw that the Kansas City Chiefs were dead even in TD differential despite playing a below-average schedule. Let’s see if there are reasons for their high price after a deeper dig through indicator stats. 

Tennessee (9-7) at Kansas City (10-6) 
Las Vegas Line: Kansas City by 8.5, total of 44
Records vs. the Point Spread: Tennessee 8-7-1, Kansas City 10-6  

Kansas City has been underrated by the betting markets this season. Though, that was frontloaded during the “World Champions of September” start. Tennessee showed a very slight post-vigorish profit despite playing some ugly football this season. 

Yards-per-Play
Tennessee: 5.2 on offense, 5.0 on defense (vs. the #31 ranked schedule)
Kansas City: 6.1 on offense, 5.6 on defense (vs. the #23 ranked schedule)

You already know about the soft schedules. Tennessee would be on the wrong side of equilibrium in this stat too against a league average schedule. Kansas City would have the stats of a Wildcard contender. Worth noting that Kansas City made it to 10-6 this season largely on the heels of a plus 15 turnover differential. Andy Reid and Alex Smith believe in low-risk football. That’s the kind of thing that works great in the regular season before running into a wall in the playoffs against opponents who don’t give the ball away. That’s been KC’s recent history. Here, though, Tennessee is -4 in turnover differential…which includes an implosion at Pittsburgh that may foreshadow troubles here. Tennessee just isn’t a real playoff team, which makes fading Kansas City based on history trickier. 

Key Passing Stats 
Tennessee: 6.8 yards-per-pass attempt, 14 TDs, 17 interceptions thrown
Kansas City: 8.0 yards-per-pass attempt, 26 TDs, 8 interceptions thrown

Are you kidding?! A playoff team threw more interceptions than TD passes? While playing the second easiest schedule in the league? Big edge to Kansas City here. It’s getting easier to see why the Chiefs are laying more than at touchdown. 

Pass Defense 
Tennessee: 6.8 yppa allowed; 27 TDs allowed, 12 interceptions
Kansas City: 7.2 yppa allowed; 23 TDs allowed, 16 interceptions

Turning to pass defense, Tennessee is better at yardage, loses out on the TD/INT ratio. 

Impact Defense 
Tennessee: 36% third down pct-allowed, 21 takeaways, 43 sacks
Kansas City: 40% third down pct-allowed, 26 takeaways, 31 sacks

This is where the Titans have a chance to compete. If Kansas City is in its usual “safe” mode for the playoffs, then a Tennessee defense that puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback while getting third down stops has a chance to keep it close. And, the Chiefs defense might allow the Titans to move the ball “in the middle of the field” enough to kick some field goals. 

Kansas City deserves to be favored, but probably needs cheap field position points to justify that high number. That means the cover comes down to the ability of Marcos Mariota to move the ball and avoid turnovers. It’s a nailbiter if the turnover category is even. Kansas City can win by double digits if handed some cheap points. 

NBA: Updated estimate of “market” Power Ratings
We were going to write up key stats from Wednesday night’s Cleveland/Boston game. But, Isaiah Thomas wasn’t allowed to play on night two of a back-to-back. And, Kevin Love went 1 of 11 from the floor before sitting due to a minor injury. Boston won easily, and the stats won’t tell us much about future meetings unless the Cavs are this shorthanded in the second half again. 

Let’s jump right into our weekly Thursday estimate of NBA “market” Power Ratings. For you relative newcomers, a quick disclaimer that NBA estimates are looser than in the NFL because of injuries to starters or unique schedule dynamics. We use a standard home court value of three points, then make a good faith effort at expressing how “the market” has teams rated on a scale you can use to project future point spreads.  

88: Golden State  
86: Houston
85: Cleveland (when Isaiah Thomas can play)
84: Toronto, Oklahoma City, San Antonio
83: Boston 
82: Milwaukee, Minnesota 
81: Washington, Portland
80: New Orleans, Denver 
79: Philadelphia, Miami, Charlotte, LA Clippers 
78: Detroit, Indiana 
77: Dallas, Utah, Memphis  
76: New York, Chicago 
75: Orlando, LA Lakers 
74: Brooklyn 
73: Sacramento Phoenix, Atlanta

As football continues to wind down, we’ll get more NBA content into VSin City. A couple of interesting matchups in the ACC Wednesday night…so let’s move to college hoops. 

College Basketball: Florida State survives ACC thriller with North Carolina, Virginia routs Tech
Two featured games from the ACC for us. The first went down to the wire. The second was boxscore art. 

#24 Florida State (-1) 81, #12 North Carolina 80
Two-point Pct: North Carolina 42%, Florida State 61% 
Three Pointers: North Carolina 11/29, Florida State 11/29
Free Throws: North Carolina 7/9, Florida State 14/22
Rebounds: North Carolina 41, Florida State 37
Turnovers: North Carolina 7, Florida State 15
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: North Carolina 11-7-12, Florida State 23-19-20 

Not many surprises here because the computer ratings were in sync with the pollsters…and the point spread was consistent with all that…and then the game landed right on the number! It is worth noting that FSU followed up a relative choke in the final minutes at Duke this past weekend with what was almost a more dramatic choke here. FSU was up 79-72 with three minutes to go. Bad passes and missed free throws made it a thriller. That after getting outscored 7-0 to end the Duke game. Not a good sign for pressure situations in the future for the players or the head coach. 

Big shooting edge inside for the Seminoles, who also earned a lot more trips to the line. Turnovers were a problem. Carolina is prone to gamble for takeaways in a way that leaves its backside exposed. It all came out in the wash in terms of market expectations. 

Florida State is now 12-2 straight up, 9-2-1 ATS according to the standings page at covers.com. North Carolina is 12-3 straight up, 8-5-1 ATS.

#8 Virginia (-3.5) 78, Virginia Tech 52
Two-point Pct: Virginia 50%, Virginia Tech 43%
Three Pointers: Virginia 12/25, Virginia Tech 2/12
Free Throws: Virginia 6/9, Virginia Tech 16/23
Rebounds: Virginia 31, Virginia Tech 33
Turnovers: Virginia 6, Virginia Tech 16
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Virginia 6-8-6, Virginia Tech 41-37-23

Virginia was supposed to be in danger on the road against a hated state rival. Instead…50% on two-pointers, 48% on three-pointers (which is the same as 72% on deuces), and only six turnovers. Can a team be any sharper than that in a big road game? And, DEFENSE is Virginia’s specialty! The Cavaliers only let the Hokies launch a dozen three-pointers in a blowout, holding the home dogs to just 2 of 12. Also, 16 forced turnovers in a low-tempo game. 

There are A LOT of really good teams this season. Few of the national championship contenders will put together performances THAT clean on the road against Dance-caliber opposition. You can see that ESPN’s BPI had Virginia Tech as a top 25 team. Though, the Hokies will plummet off this result. Virginia moves to 13-1 straight up, 8-3 ATS. Virginia Tech falls to 11-4 straight up, 7-4 ATS. 

Time to turn the floor over to VSiN's Greg Peterson…

College Basketball: “Running the Floor” with Greg Peterson
Arizona and Arizona State played one of the best games of the college basketball season this past weekend, as Arizona got an 84-78 victory to hand the Sun Devils their first loss. 

The game opened Arizona as a five-point favorite in most spots and closed as a six-point favorite, which is more than what a normal home court typically awards. Arizona State was the team entering with zero losses and Arizona three, which shows just how how bullish the market is on Arizona.

Thursday’s schedule will feature both of those teams in action for the first time since that thriller, with Arizona hitting the road to face Utah and Arizona State heads to Boulder to face Colorado.

#4 Arizona State at Colorado (8:30 p.m. ET on Pac 12 Network)
Early Line: Arizona State -8.5

Arizona State is looking for a bounce back and parallels Arizona as both teams must take a trip to a higher altitude location.

The Sun Devils have exceeded the preseason projections of everyone, and that is reflected by its 10-2 record against the spread.

The Sun Devils have gotten the job done late in games, averaging 48.2 points in the second half this year, which is number one in DI basketball. Arizona State also lights it up from downtown

Colorado is an interesting case in that the Buffaloes are 8-6 and do not have any true strength to rely on. Colorado has a 0.791 assist to turnover ratio, which ranks 284th in the nation.

Arizona State opened in most places laying 8.5 points despite being on the road, which shows how much respect this team has garnered. Aside from the duel with Arizona, the action on Sun Devils games has been coming in on Arizona State's side ever since Bobby Hurley's bunch took down Xavier on Nov. 24. The lone exception prior to the intra-state match was when the team played Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse on December when that line moved from Kansas laying 11 points to closing as 12 point favorites at most sports books.

#14 Arizona at Utah (9 p.m. ET on ESPN2)
Early Line: Arizona -3.5

Utah is currently unranked, but enters with a similar win percentage with a 10-3 record compared to Arizona's 11-3 mark. Arizona at one point was the second-ranked team in the country, which may have set an unrealistic market for this team as the Wildcats have an against the spread record of 5-7. On the other hand, Utah has gone 7-4 against the spread and seems to have a sneaky home court advantage.

Utah is 7-0 at home this season overall and 4-1 against the spread and will face a foe that has gone just 1-4 against the spread in games either on the road or played at neutral sites. The altitude in Utah can fatigue players, so having guard Rawle Alkins back after an early season injury to give the Wildcats a rotation of nine players that average at least 13 minutes per game.

Having the lead entering the final two minutes of this game will be critical. Both teams are exceptional at the free throw line, with Arizona shooting 76 percent as a team at the line and Utah 77.9 percent.

These two share a common opponent in UNLV, a team the blew out Utah 85-58 in what was technically a neutral court game despite being played in Las Vegas. Arizona had a bit more success, taking them down in a true road game 91-88 in overtime.

Utah is a team that focuses most on sound defense and making 3-pointers on the other end. The Utes get 44.7 percent of their points on two-point baskets, which ranks 290th nationally. With Arizona being a team that likes to get up-and-down and tends to cut corners on defense, it will lead to a clash of styles that could be decided by how many open 3-point looks Utah receives.

Utah has received a lot of betting attention in recent weeks, as the action on each of Utah's past three games has come in its favor. Arizona has been heavily bet throughout the year, with the majority of lines moving in its favor.

With both teams, there is always the potential of a letdown after both played such an exciting game with an electric atmosphere. Both these contests will not rival that, especially with winter break likely decreasing the amount of students at the games.

Both teams have national championship odds that are in the top six in the majority of books in Las Vegas. Arizona seems to have the buzz of a top three national championship contender and Arizona State has that of a team that should make the Elite Eight and have a solid chance at making a run to the Final Four.

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That’s it for Thursday. Back Friday with a “Market Watch” for Wild-Card Weekend plus Alabama/Georgia, an expanded stat preview for Falcons/Rams, and stat summaries from those challenging road games Greg discussed for Arizona and Arizona State. 

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