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All signs point to 'Sack-sonville'

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

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Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor isn't getting much support on the analytics side.
© USA Today Sports Images

Even numbers crunchers can’t agree on everything! More NFL playoff talk as the first kickoff of Wildcard weekend approaches. Plus, Greg Peterson on a loaded college basketball slate in this special Saturday edition of VSiN City.

NFL Playoffs: Analytics sites agree Patriots are #1, but less agreement down the ladder
As we reach the imminent start of the pro football postseason, it’s virtually unanimous that the New England Patriots are the best team in the NFL. They’re the market favorites to lift the Lombardi trophy again in about a month’s time. 

What’s less certain, even amongst the most advanced public analytics sites, is how the teams rate in the loaded NFC. 

*The LA Rams might be the second-best team in the NFC brackets (according to “weighted DVOA” at Football Outsiders, or the Massey-Peabody ratings). But the Rams might also be the worst team in the NFC brackets (according to Jeff Sagarin of USA Today, 538’s ELO ratings, and the numbers at the PowerRank by Ed Feng). 

*Minnesota might be the best in the NFC, with New Orleans the fourth best (538’s ELO). New Orleans might be the best with Minnesota third best (Football Outsiders). 

Or, take Saturday night’s Atlanta/LA Rams game in the wild-card round. The Rams are favored by almost a touchdown, yet…

*Atlanta is the better team according to Sagarin, Feng, 538’s ELO, and ESPN’s FPI
*Los Angeles is the better team according to Football Outsiders and Massey-Peabody

How helpful are NFL “analytics” if the most famous sites can’t even agree on who’s the better team in a game that has a touchdown pointspread? This isn’t a messy circumstance like the Philadelphia Eagles, where a regular season rating is misleading because the starting quarterback got hurt late in the campaign. Matt Ryan and Jared Goff played the whole season at quarterback, but there still isn’t agreement on how good those teams really are. 

Here’s a quick look at the final regular season league rankings entering the NFL postseason from these six sites (using the following order)…

Football Outsiders weighted DVOA
Jeff Sagarin of USA Today
Ed Feng’s PowerRank
ESPN’s FPI
538’s ELO
Massey-Peabody

AFC
New England (1-1-1-1-1-1)
Pittsburgh (5-5-4-6-3-4)
Jacksonville (10-13-12-9-16-13)
Kansas City (16-7-6-12-7-11)
Tennessee (19-20-18-19-17-15)
Buffalo (28-19-23-25-15-23)

We mentioned earlier this week that neither Buffalo nor Tennessee have the stats of a playoff caliber team. Those two are unanimously outside the top 12 from all precincts. Football Outsiders has Buffalo at #28, while ESPN’s FPI has them at #25! Jacksonville sure slouched from being a popular sleeper pick in the AFC. The Jaguars’ average rank is 12.2. Kansas City’s is 9.8. 

NFC
Minnesota (4-2-3-2-2-2)
New Orleans (2-4-5-3-6-5)
LA Rams (3-9-9-8-9-3)
Philadelphia (7-3-2-4-4-7)
Carolina (9-8-8-11-8-10)
Atlanta (14-6-7-7-5-6)

Let’s say everybody gets a pass on Philadelphia. That’s a monkey wrench that’s difficult for any full season or “on the fly” Power Ratings estimate to capture. The Rams and Falcons somehow caused additional monkey wrenches! Football Outsiders has the Rams third best in the whole NFL, Atlanta down near league average at #14. Four of the six listed sites have underdog Atlanta as the superior side.

As we say often, the betting markets represent “the sum of all models.” That doesn’t mean all the favorites will win. But, the “market” consensus this week is that the Rams are a better team than the Falcons entering the postseason, and the field of analytics in general should be concerned that so many methodologies are so far out of synch with the market and each other. 

Latest Wildcard lines as of Friday evening
Kansas City -8.5, total of 44.5 vs. Tennessee (Saturday afternoon)
LA Rams -6, total of 48 vs. Atlanta (Saturday night)
Jacksonville -8.5, total of 39.5 vs. Buffalo (Sunday lunch-or brunch in Vegas)
New Orleans -7, total of 48 vs. Carolina (Sunday afternoon)

We’ve already previewed the first two games for you here in VSiN City this week. Please check the Thursday and Friday reports for Tennessee/KC and Atlanta/LAR respectively. Next under the microscope, Buffalo/Jacksonville.

NFL Wild-Card Stat Preview: Buffalo Bills hope to continue storybook run by upsetting Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars
You probably saw all those viral videos of Buffalo Bills fans celebrating the team’s ascendancy into the playoff brackets when the Baltimore Ravens allowed a last second touchdown to Cincinnati last Sunday. Seeing the low ranking for Buffalo on the analytics sites above may have dampened some of your enthusiasm for the feel-good story of the season. 

Buffalo (9-7) at Jacksonville (10-6) 
Las Vegas Line: Jacksonville by 8.5, total of 39.5
Records vs. the Point Spread: Buffalo 9-6-1, Jacksonville 9-7

Many stores are at Jacksonville -9 as we write this. Still too early to determine if the game is going to settle at Jaguars -8.5 or -9. If you’ve been reading our market reports this week…you know that sharps like Buffalo at 9, but Jacksonville in teasers -2.5 (using “basic strategy” for six-point line moves), and the Under on the total. You’re about to see why the Under was so popular. 

Yards-per-Play
Buffalo: 4.8 on offense, 5.3 on defense (vs. the #16 ranked schedule)
Jacksonville: 5.4 on offense, 4.6 on defense (vs. the #32 ranked schedule)

At first glance, you can understand why the Jags are favored by so much. They have a plus 0.8 differential compared to minus 0.5 for the visitor. Plus, poor offenses tend to sink even lower when matched up against great defenses. You saw that with Clemson against Alabama New Year’s night. Tyrod Taylor could have significant trouble driving the field for points. Of course, the tricky part of this analysis is the fact that Jacksonville played the NFL’s easiest schedule according to Jeff Sagarin of USA Today. What would those YPP numbers be against a league average schedule like Buffalo’s? It’s unlikely the Jags would fall all the way to equilibrium. And equilibrium would still be a lot better than what Buffalo did. For now, the high market point spread seems justified. 

Key Passing Stats 
Buffalo: 6.5 yards-per-pass attempt, 16 TD’s, 10 interceptions thrown
Jacksonville: 7.1 yards-per-pass attempt, 21 TD’s, 13 interceptions thrown

Not a lot to like here. Buffalo’s numbers are bad, granting that many of its interceptions occurred when Nathan Peterman’s promise petered out. But Taylor didn’t post high-impact numbers. Blake Bortles was particularly good at driving the field for irrelevant points against bad teams. He’s interception prone vs. quality. 

Pass Defense 
Buffalo: 6.7 yppa allowed; 14 TD’s allowed, 18 interceptions
Jacksonville: 6.0 yppa allowed; 17 TD’s allowed, 21 interceptions

Fantastic numbers for both. And a clear way for the Bills to hang around in this game despite the early data. If NEITHER offense can find the end zone, it doesn’t matter that Jacksonville is floundering around 5.0 YPP while Buffalo is at 4.0 YPP. Neither team is finding the end zone as the clock runs. Both of these teams are where they are because of defense. 

Impact Defense 
Buffalo: 38% third down pct-allowed, 25 takeaways, 27 sacks
Jacksonville: 34% third down pct-allowed, 33 takeaways, 55 sacks

While it’s great that the “Sack-sonville” name is catching on for the Jags, there’s a danger of focusing only on that at the expense of the other great things this defense is doing. Yes, 55 sacks is off the charts. But, 33 takeaways is also a big number in what’s been a conservative season across the league. And, holding teams to 34% on third downs is also stellar. Granting that strength of schedule might be creating some illusions, this looks very much like a Super Bowl caliber defense for the Jags. Reminiscent of Denver in the Peyton Manning years. An elite defense can lead you to blowout wins by setting up cheap points, and can lead you to the Super Bowl. 

Because Buffalo may just be another sub-par opponent that Jacksonville is ready to bully, the strength of schedule issue may not mean much. It would next week and beyond if the Jags advance. Here, it looks like Tyrod Taylor is going to have big trouble moving the ball against an opponent that’s been saving themselves for the postseason. Bad offense meets fantastic defense. Jacksonville might need cheap points off field position or turnovers to cover. That’s how they’ve been covering. Jacksonville’s victory margins from low to high this season have been 3-6-12-16-20-21-22-27-37-38 because great defenses can drive blowouts no matter how shaky their own quarterback is

Handicappers must determine if Jacksonville’s defense is going to make it easy (setting up cheap points that might also bring Over the total into play), or if Buffalo’s defense can create a low scoring 60-minute dead heat that makes things very interesting. 

College Basketball: Wisconsin’s and Northwestern’s woes continued Friday in the Big Ten
The Big Ten has some Friday night games scheduled this season to exploit what has historically been a quiet TV window. They may regret that if the league doesn’t start playing better basketball! 

Entering the weekend, Joe Lunardi’s “Bracketology” only had four Big Ten teams in the brackets. And, one of those, Maryland, is barely in. Michigan State and Purdue will likely be seeded with national respect. Michigan is in, though not particularly explosive this season. Then, Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio State are hanging around hoping to impress. 

What about Wisconsin and Northwestern? One a seeming lock every season, the other coming off a Dance bid a year 10 months ago? They’re both WAY off the pace. And, they both lost again Friday night.

Rutgers (plus 3.5) 64, Wisconsin 60 
Two-point Pct: Wisconsin 62%, Rutgers 43% 
Three Pointers: Wisconsin 2/13, Rutgers 5/8 
Free Throws: Wisconsin 12/15, Rutgers 9/16
Rebounds: Wisconsin 32, Rutgers 28
Turnovers: Wisconsin 14, Rutgers 6 
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Wisconsin 70-61-59, Rutgers 127-120-111

Rutgers is the worst team in the Big Ten. So, that gives you a sense of how things have been going for Wisconsin. The Badgers were only a small favorite over an opponent ranked in the 100’s nationally, and then couldn’t even beat them.

You can see that turnovers were an issue. This was an extremely slowly paced game, meaning 14 is a high count of miscues in context, while only six forced turnovers is bad in any context. Wisconsin did get some chippies when working the ball inside. That didn’t happen a lot though, with only 34 two-point attempts. 

Wisconsin falls to 9-8, despite being an underdog in only three of 16 boarded games (6-9-1 against the spread). Rutgers moves to 11-6 against a very weak schedule (6-3 ATS). 

Penn State (-5.5) 78, Northwestern 63
Two-point Pct: Northwestern 35%, Penn State 64%
Three Pointers: Northwestern 11/28, Penn State 3/13
Free Throws: Northwestern 6/6, Penn State 15/23
Rebounds: Northwestern 27, Penn State 40
Turnovers: Northwestern 15, Penn State 16
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Northwestern 65-58-54, Penn State 43-52-37

Northwestern was just crushed inside the arc: in shooting percentage, free throws earned, and rebounds. The Wildcats needed to make double digit treys just to hang around. In fact, NW was plus 24 points from behind the arc in a game they lost by 15! Penn State won scoring on 1’s and 2’s by a 69-30 count

Awful effort from the road dog. Penn State bounced back well off a loss at Maryland. The Nittany Lions will have a case to make for an at-large bid if they can get all those computer assessments into the low 40’s. Right now, Sagarin is an outlier (as is Lunardi for that matter). 

Penn State moves to 12-5 with the win, 7-5-1 ATS. Northwestern falls to 10-7, burning money at 5-9 ATS. 

Huge Saturday on tap in college hoops. Greg Peterson will preview a pair of Big 12 matchups featuring ranked teams going head to head…then offer up a lightning round of thoughts on other games involving ranked teams. Put on your Chuck Taylors, you’re about to run the floor with Greg Peterson!

College Basketball: “Running the Floor” with Greg Peterson

#7 Oklahoma at #6 West Virginia (7:15 p.m. ET on ESPN2)
Early Line: West Virginia -3.5

Saturday features a huge slate of college basketball with the mighty Big XII taking center stage. No. 7 Oklahoma hits the road to put its 12-1 record on the line against No. 6 West Virginia, who is on a 13-game winning streak after dropping its first game of the season against Texas A&M.

Forcing turnovers is the bread and butter of the Mountaineers, as West Virginia forces 20.5 per game…and a turnover on 27.2 percent of opponents' possessions. The Mountaineers rank second in the country in both categories thanks to their famous full court press defense.

Coach Bob Huggins never specializes in finding sharp jump shooters and that is the case with this year's squad as West Virginia is shooting 33.1 percent from 3-point range. This is why West Virginia tries to speed teams up on offense, but is running into a team that has what it takes to counter this.

Oklahoma plays at a dynamic pace, averaging 81.8 possessions per game, which is fourth in college basketball. Despite this rapid pace, the team turns the ball over on only 15.6 percent of its possessions, which ranks 26th in DI basketball. The Sooners also shoot 40.5 percent from 3-point range, which is 23rd in the country.

Oklahoma also owns a 1.524 assist to turnover ratio, which is 14th in the country

In spite of top 10 rankings and a combined record of 25-2 this season, both squads have been as ordinary as it gets in regards to point spread records. Oklahoma is 6-6 while West Virginia is 5-5.

If West Virginia is faded by the betting public in this one, it will be the first time this season. The closing line in every one the Mountaineers games has either remained stagnant, or ended with West Virginia laying more points than the opening number.

The same holds true for Oklahoma, who was a 4.5-point underdog globally when the line opened, but was bet down to a 3.5-point underdog towards the end of the night Friday.

#10 Kansas at #16 TCU (9:15 p.m. ET on ESPN2)
Early Line: Kansas by 1

TCU is another one loss team in the Big XII and will look to drop Kansas to 1-2 in Big XII play, which has not happened since the 2005-06 season.

This could be a bit of a shadow boxing match as these teams have very similar strengths.

Both teams are among the most efficient on offense in the country. TCU is 13th in the country in points per possession with 1.165. Kansas is ninth with 1.172.

TCU and Kansas both hit 3's at a great rate with TCU shooting 41.2 percent from deep and Kansas 40.9 percent. That ranks 17th and 20th in the country respectively.

The pace at which these teams play is also similar. TCU averages 74.8 possessions per game to Kansas’ 74.

It's hard to find too many difference with these teams, but the biggest one is how frequently each goes to the free throw line. Kansas is attempting 12.9 free throws per game, which is 350th in the nation. On the flip side, TCU takes 23 free throws per game, which is 52nd in college basketball.

TCU received a lot of betting attention against Baylor, opening as a 1.5-point underdog and closing a 1.5 point favorite. Past that, the lines in TCU's games as a whole have not seen a ton of movement. This is for good reason as TCU has posted a 7-6 record against the spread this year despite having a 13-1 overall record, which says the bookmakers seems to be properly rating the Horned Frogs…who opened as a one-point underdog at most sports books across Las Vegas.

Kansas has also been receiving the majority of the betting attention, as the line has shifted towards the Jayhawks in six of their eight games since the start of December. The results have been neutral as Kansas has gone 4-4 against the spread in that span and is 8-5 against the spread for the season.

Saturday points to ponder…
*Providence is coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss against Marquette, and now must face No.5 Xavier to help kick off a loaded Saturday slate. Will allowing Markus Howard to drop 52 points cause a hangover? 

*Louisville got a much-needed 26-point win over Pittsburgh on Tuesday and will look to back it up with a road win against No. 25 Clemson. The Tigers are 8-3 against the spread and 13-1 overall, but can Clemson shake the demons of conference play last year when it went 1-9 in games decided by six points or fewer?

*No. 8 Virginia will host a No. 12 North Carolina squad that is coming off a one-point loss against Florida State. Will the backline defense be enough to fluster a good outside shooting Tar Heel team?

*The altitude got to No. 4 Arizona State when the Sun Devils went to Boulder to play Colorado on Wednesday. Will it claim another victim when No. 14 Arizona rolls into town?

*No. 11 Texas A&M has lost its first two SEC games. Will getting leading scorer DJ Hogg back from suspension be the shot in the arm the Aggies need to get back on track with a win over LSU?

*Nebraska has been much more competitive than most expected coming into the year. Can the Cornhuskers go to West Lafayette and give No. 13 Purdue a scare?

*The last time Butler played at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Bulldogs scored 101 points and slayed then-No. 1 Villanova? Will No. 21 Seton Hall suffer a similar fate?

*No. 18 Texas Tech earned its first ever win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday. Will that lead to a letdown spot at home against Kansas State?

*No. 22 Arkansas has the task of hitting the road to face a 13-1 Auburn squad. Will it be the first team to 90 points that wins this one?

*NC State lost by 30 against a Notre Dame team that was playing without Bonzie Colson for the first time on Wednesday. Will we see that NC State club when it hosts No. 2 Duke on Saturday, or the one that resembles the unit that slayed Arizona in the Bahamas?

*Marquette needed 52 points from Markus Howard to knock off Providence on the road in overtime on Tuesday. What do the Golden Eagles have left in the tank for Saturday's showdown in Philadelphia against No. 3 Villanova?

*No. 23 Tennessee is 0-2 in SEC play after losses to Auburn and Arkansas. Unless the Volunteers can knock off No. 17 Kentucky, they will be in danger of crumbling in SEC play for a second straight year.

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See you Sunday morning for game summaries from Saturday’s NFL action and select college hoops, plus our final expanded preview for Panthers/Saints. 

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