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Defending NFC champs make case for rare underdog role

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

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The QB matchup favors Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
© USA Today Sports Images

Expanded stat previews for Saturday’s NFL Playoff action (Falcons/Eagles and Titans/Patriots), our weekly update of NBA Power Ratings, plus #1 Villanova’s latest masterpiece now ready for viewing in VSiN City.

NFL Playoff Stat Preview: Atlanta a historic road favorite in Philadelphia as a #6 seed visiting a #1 seed
Atlanta is very good for a #6 seed. And, #1 seed Philadelphia lost its star quarterback a few weeks ago. So, bettors are dealing with a very unique challenge. Should they lay points on the road AGAINST a fresh and rested bye team that’s seeded first in its conference?! Let’s see if our indicator stats provide any answers. 

Note that weather could get very interesting here. This is a late afternoon game. The current forecast afternoon high for Philadelphia is 47, but the low is down at 18! A good chance of rain and wind during the day. Monitor forecasts for the latest. For now, looks like the defenses will be helped, particularly in the second half as skies darken. Even a chance Atlanta quarterback “Matty Ice” will get to test that nickname in a whole new way!

Atlanta (10-6) at Philadelphia (13-3) 
Las Vegas Line: Atlanta by 3, total of 41
Records vs. the Point Spread: Atlanta 7-9, Philadelphia 10-6  

We’re using regular season stats only in this week’s previews, to keep everyone at 16 games for comparison purposes. Atlanta had trouble playing to expectations through the season because of offensive inconsistency. They trumped expectations by a mile last week in a road upset of the LA Rams. Philadelphia was a true bargain team when Carson Wentz was healthy. Since his injury, the Eagles are 1-2 against the spread, with the cover coming in miraculous fashion with a defensive touchdown on the final play of the game against Oakland. 

Yards-per-Play
Atlanta: 5.9 on offense, 5.1 on defense (vs. the #4 ranked schedule)
Philadelphia: 5.5 on offense, 5.0 on defense (vs. the #21 ranked schedule)

As we’ve said often this season, Atlanta’s stats were better than its record. The Falcons grade out as roughly Super Bowl caliber again in pure yards-per-play differential thanks to that killer schedule strength. The problem is, the offense had long stretches where it would make big plays in the middle of the field before bogging down. Philadelphia’s stats are obviously frontloaded by Wentz. They are more likely to be low 5’s or worse this week given 5.2 vs. the NY Giants and 3.5 vs. Oakland earned when Foles was a starter. We should probably just say up front that the Eagles have very little chance to win or cover if they don’t significantly lift their offensive play from Foles’ current 2017 performance. And, they’re going to have to do that against a 5.1 YPP defense in what might be challenging weather. 

Key Passing Stats 
Atlanta: 7.8 yards-per-pass attempt, 21 TD’s, 12 interceptions thrown 
Philadelphia: 7.0 yards-per-pass attempt, 38 TD’s, 9 interceptions thrown

A disappointing TD total for the Falcons considering the monster volume last season. An irrelevant total for the Eagles because of the Wentz injury. Matt Ryan is likely to have a meaningful edge over Foles, though it might be in a cold, messy mosh pit. 

Pass Defense 
Atlanta: 6.7 yppa allowed; 22 TD’s allowed, 8 interceptions
Philadelphia: 6.5 yppa allowed; 24 TD’s allowed, 19 interceptions

Philadelphia was playing at a high level defensively most of the season, though some of that came from running into inexperienced or bad quarterbacks. Looks like fatigue became an issue late, with Eli Manning somehow passing for 429 yards on them a few weeks ago. The Falcons play more of a “keep things in front of them” defense given the low pick count. Probably a good strategy if the weather is bad. What are normally easy passes to complete become tougher in odd conditions.  

Impact Defense 
Atlanta: 38% third down pct-allowed, 16 takeaways, 39 sacks
Philadelphia: 32% third down pct-allowed, 31 takeaways, 38 sacks

Big advantage to the Eagles here initially, granting the concerns about a late fade. Maybe the bye week will have everybody fresh. Philadelphia had the best third down defense in the NFL, and almost doubled Atlanta’s takeaway count. Let’s assume strength of schedule differences take away some of that. We’re still left with a clear edge to the fresh hosts in impact defense.  

Raw Touchdown Counts
Atlanta: 33 offensive TDs, 31 TD’s allowed, vs. the #4 ranked schedule
Philadelphia: 47 offensive TDs, 31 TD’s allowed, vs. the #21 ranked schedule

We talked about this topic earlier in the week. We’re going to add it into the stat previews for the rest of the playoffs. Both defenses allowed the same amount of TD’s overall, though Atlanta did so against a much tougher schedule. The Eagles’ edge on offense disappears with Wentz on the sideline. Basic truth is that the market has Atlanta as a favorite because it believes the Falcons have the better skill sets for hitting pay dirt with Ryan vs. Foles.

Red Zone Touchdown Rankings
Atlanta: #23 on offense, #5 on defense
Philadelphia: #1 on offense, #20 on defense

This will also be a new feature moving forward. We talked about red zone defenses in our New England tutorial Wednesday. Atlanta shows very well on defense in the red zone, while Philadelphia is a big disappointment considering its soft schedule. The Eagles were fantastic offensively with Wentz. The heart of Atlanta’s issues this year involve its offense stalling when it was time to score. If you assume Foles isn’t going to be great in the red zone against Atlanta’s #5 defense…and that weather may be helping defenses…heaven forbid, this could be a replay of Buffalo/Jacksonville in terms of scoring challenges. 

Bottom line…CHECK THE WEATHER! The better the conditions, the more likely Atlanta’s experience and recent form will justify or surpass the market price. The worse it gets, the better chance for a low-scoring coin flip that creates value on the dog because of a defensive dead heat. Advancing to the NFC Championship game might come down to which team can make field goals in swirling winds on a damp field. 

NFL Playoff Stat Preview: New England begins defense of Lombardi trophy…with an underrated defense! 
The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots will begin their playoff gauntlet Saturday evening in Foxboro. Weather conditions will be similar here to what we just talked about in Philadelphia. Though, a midday high in the low 50’s will be irrelevant, and the evening low of 19 should be more germane. Rain looks more likely during the day. Might be two messy games Saturday.

Tennessee (9-7) at New England (13-3) 
Las Vegas Line: New England by 13.5, total of 47.5
Records vs. the Point Spread: Tennessee 8-7-1, New England 11-5  

The Brady/Belichick run…for years…has exposed the myth of “you can’t bet on public teams because the lines are too inflated.” The Pats made it past 67% vs. the number this season with that 11-5 record against the spread. Historians will ultimately marvel that the most obvious juggernaut of this NFL era was consistently underrated by the market. 

Yards-per-Play
Tennessee: 5.2 on offense, 5.0 on defense (vs. the #31 ranked schedule)
New England: 5.9 on offense, 5.7 on defense (vs. the #25 ranked schedule)

Neither team has playoff caliber numbers in this stat. Possibly the driving force behind “yards-per-play ain’t what it used to be” concerns its inability to capture New England’s greatness. Tennessee rarely reached “playoff caliber” this season, though it did in that great second half at Kansas City last week. (For more on New England’s defense, please read Wednesday’s edition of VSiN City.)

Key Passing Stats 
Tennessee: 6.8 yards-per-pass attempt, 14 TD’s, 17 interceptions thrown
New England: 7.9 yards-per-pass attempt, 32 TD’s, 8 interceptions thrown

No shock that Tom Brady grades out significantly better than Marcos Mariota. If conditions are nasty, you have a longtime veteran who knows how to move the ball in cold or snow, facing a relative youngster from Hawaii. That stat mismatch might still be underestimating the differences in Saturday night’s weather. 

Pass Defense 
Tennessee: 6.8 yppa allowed; 27 TD’s allowed, 12 interceptions
New England: 7.3 yppa allowed; 24 TD’s allowed, 12 interceptions

New England’s pass defense was horrific in September, but played much better down the stretch. We talked about that yesterday. Tennessee’s numbers are disappointing for a team with a decent defensive reputation. 

Impact Defense 
Tennessee: 36% third down pct-allowed, 21 takeaways, 43 sacks
New England: 39% third down pct-allowed, 18 takeaways, 42 sacks

Not much meaningful difference over 16 games…particularly if you adjust for schedule strength and New England’s improvement after September. Too many pundits are giving Tennessee the defensive edge in the matchup. Both defenses make impact plays. Tennessee has been stingier on third downs. 

Raw Touchdown Counts
Tennessee: 32 offensive TDs, 32 TD’s allowed, vs. the #31 ranked schedule
New England: 48 offensive TDs, 30 TD’s allowed, vs. the #25 ranked schedule

This is the stat that captures New England’s greatness…while providing a more realistic sense of its defense. Even with that horrible September, the Patriots allowed fewer opposing offensive touchdowns this season than the Titans (we’ve taken out special teams and defensive points from those counts). This is why the Patriots are market favorites to win the Super Bowl, and two touchdown favorites in this matchup.

Red Zone Touchdown Rankings
Tennessee: #19 on offense, #12 on defense
New England: #6 on offense, #4 on defense

The Patriots finish drives, which is why they can be awesome without huge yards-per-play numbers. The Patriots defense turns into a relative wall in the red zone, which is why they can allow a bunch of yards in the middle of the field and still win. Their edge in red zone touchdowns and turnover differential are the essence of the Brady/Belichick era. 

A tall spread near -14 is trying to discourage the public from laying the chalk. Just remember that Brady and company are much more experienced playing on this field in cold weather, and they’re facing a quarterback who can be shaky even in good conditions. Tough to ask Tennessee to have a strong offensive game unless the forecast takes a much nicer turn between now and kickoff. 

We’ll dig deep into Sunday’s games for you in our Friday report. Now, let’s get to basketball. 

NBA: Updated estimate of “market” Power Ratings
Time for our weekly Thursday estimate of NBA “market” Power Ratings. First, 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. Any significant difference you see between upcoming nightly lines and projections from these numbers will likely be connected to the absence of key starters.   

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

Last week we wondered how Houston would be priced without James Harden. Looks like the market has settled on 84 over the past few games. The best teams are so deep, they can handle the loss of a star without losing much in terms of true scoreboard impact. 

Last night Greg Peterson previewed the top 10 college basketball battle Xavier at Villanova. Let’s crunch the numbers from that game before Greg studies the key numbers in Thursday night’s Oregon/Arizona State matchup in the Pac 12. 

College Basketball: #1 Villanova shoots 20 of 27 on two-point shots to crush #10 Xavier
Some teams play such beautiful basketball when things are clicking that words fail to capture the artwork. Villanova is one of those teams. Run your finger down the right column as you scroll through this boxscore…

#1 Villanova (-9.5) 89, #10 Xavier 65
Two-point Pct: Xavier 51%, Villanova 74% 
Three Pointers: Xavier 3/17, Villanova 12/31
Free Throws: Xavier 14/20, Villanova 13/18
Rebounds: Xavier 34, Villanova 31
Turnovers: Xavier 15, Villanova 8
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Xavier 20-16-13, Villanova 1-2-1

The 74% mark on deuces comes from a 20 of 27 performance. Against a team playing defense! Some college teams can’t shoot 20 of 27 unguarded in warmups. On treys, a stellar 39% equates to 59% on two’s. And, the Wildcats did all that while only turning the ball over eight times. Textbook basketball on offense. And, the defense wasn’t too shabby either with 15 forced turnovers and disruptions around the arc that held the Musketeers to 3 of 17 on three-pointers. 

As Greg mentioned last night, Xavier needed a strong start and a good night on three-pointers to have a chance to compete. It got neither, and was down double digits in the first half. Extended garbage time doubled the halftime deficit!

Villanova shines like this fairly often during the regular season under this coaching regime. But it has trouble stringing together such execution in March on neutral courts against quality opposition. When the shots aren’t falling, vulnerabilities arise. For now, enjoy a rare recent sharp performance from a top five team while other stalwarts continue to struggle. (Last week’s #1, Michigan State, had to go overtime Wednesday night to beat Rutgers as 22-point favorites!)

Villanova rises to 15-1 straight up, 11-5 against the spread. Xavier falls to 15-3 and 12-6. Given the few true competitors in the Big East this season, Villanova is very likely to cruise to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

Thursdays on the college basketball schedule are often highlighted by Pac 12 showdowns. We turn to that league for today’s visit from VSiN’s Greg Peterson. 

College Basketball: “Running the Floor” with Greg Peterson

Oregon (11-5 straight up, 6-9 ATS) at #11 Arizona State (13-2 straight up, 10-3-2 ATS)
9:00 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Network
Early Line: Arizona State -8.5

Arizona State might be this season's biggest surprise. The Sun Devils did not receive a single AP top 25 vote in the preseason poll and now are 11th after a 13-2 start. Since going on the road and defeating Kansas as a 12-point underdog, Arizona State has been bet up in five of its past six games. The lone exception was the team's road game against Arizona on December 30th.

For Oregon, the market has been relatively stagnant of late. The Ducks have been bet up once in its last six games, and that's when Central Arkansas visited Eugene on December 20th. Oregon has been faded twice in that span, but both were just half point moves.

On the Block: Key Analytics Rankings (out of 351 D1 teams)
Offensive Efficiency: Oregon 1.097 (47th), Arizona State 1.167 (7th)
Defensive Efficiency: Oregon 0.945 (56th), Arizona State 0.968 (93rd)
Pace: Oregon 74.4 (92nd), Arizona State 76.6 (29th)

Arizona State has done a superb job of getting to the free throw line. Free throws figure to come into play in this match up. Oregon is a solid free throw shooting team, converting 77 percent of its shots at the line, which ranks 22nd in the nation. 

Arizona State draws 23.2 fouls per game, which is second in the country. Twenty-three-point-eight percent of its points have come from free throws, which ranks 15th in the country. Oregon is 235th in that category, getting 17.9 percent of its points at the charity stripe. Oregon also allows opponents to get to the line, with foes shooting an average of 21.7 free throws per game, which ranks 255th in America.

The Sun Devils should also have tons of clean possessions as Oregon turns over opponents on just 17.8 percent of plays on defense, which ranks 223rd in the country. Arizona State averages a turnover on 15.2 percent of its offensive plays, which is 19th in DI basketball.

If there is an Achilles heel for Arizona State, it is that this group is far from great on the glass. The Sun Devils allow foes to get an offensive rebound on 28 percent of their missed shots, which ranks 222nd in the country (hurting defensive efficiency). Those scrums on missed shots could actually be a reason why Bobby Hurley's squad also draws so many fouls since there are often big scrambles when teams are fighting for a rebound.

If Arizona State plays its game and continues to find a way to get to the free throw line, the Sun Devils will be in a good position to cover. Arizona State is a team that has been very steady on offense, finding a way to score 75 or more points in every one of its games this year.

Oregon is going to have to force more turnovers than normal and limit its fouls to hang within the number. Oregon is a pretty good 3-point shooting team, making 36.7 percent of its triple tries.

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That’s it for Thursday. Back Friday with expanded stat previews for Jacksonville/Pittsburgh and New Orleans/Minnesota to complete our analysis of the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs. 

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