NFL Divisional Round Saturday Preview: Can Atlanta and New England Win at Home?
Last weekend kicked off the NFL playoffs, and to be honest, we were treated to four pretty unexciting games with an average margin of victory of 19 points per game.
But as we advance to the divisional round, we are hoping for some more scintillating matchups.
In our first game on Saturday, the Seattle Seahawks will stroll into Atlanta to take on the Falcons, and in the nightcap, top-seeded New England will face off against the Brock Osweiler-led Houston Texans.
Home teams were 4-0 last weekend. Will it be more home cooking, or can one or both of these road teams spring the upset?
Let’s dig in.
Atlanta versus Seattle
Our first game of the weekend features the second-seeded Falcons at home against the Seahawks, and our first matchup features an Atlanta offense that's one of the greatest of all-time.
We scored 540 points this season, tying the 2000 St. Louis Rams for the 8th most points scored in a season.
MORE ➡️ https://t.co/RBrT8a2WCz pic.twitter.com/xxJ0SujC92
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) January 2, 2017
Matt Ryan has had a season for the ages, and in terms of numberFire's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back metric, there was no one better than Ryan in 2016. Ryan recorded a mark of 0.37 Passing NEP per drop back, and Ryan's Total NEP of 223.51 ranks him seventh all-time among quarterbacks.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, the high efficiency players don't stop at the quarterback position.
In the rushing attack, the Falcons feature not one but two highly efficiency running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. In terms of Rushing NEP per play among ball carriers with 125 carries or more, Freeman (0.10) and Coleman (0.06) rank 5th and 10th, respectively. And their effectiveness doesn't stop in running the ball -- they are equally adept at pass catching. Coleman led the league in Reception NEP per target (0.78), and Freeman ranked 12th-best (0.41).
And as one may expect with Ryan having a historic season, he's got one of the game's best receivers in Julio Jones. While Jones has missed time in 2016 due to various ailments, including a turf-toe issue in early December, he's been an elite wide receiver when healthy. Jones led all receivers with 100 targets or more in Reception NEP per target with a mark of 0.89.
For Seattle, the offensive accolades aren't as impressive. As we highlighted in last week's preview, Russell Wilson ranked 16th in 2016 in Passing NEP per drop back at 0.14 and sported the lowest rushing total of his professional career at only 259 yards.
On the rushing side of the ball, it's been quite the yo-yo this season in the Seattle backfield, and Thomas Rawls has assumed lead back duties. Rawls struggled during the 2016 regular season but was an absolute monster last week in the win over the Detroit Lions. On the season, Rawls owned a Rushing NEP of -14.31 but posted a 8.57 last weekend.
On the defensive side of the ball, this excellent Seahawks defense has their work cut out for them. Seattle ranks sixth in our adjusted per-play metrics but is a far different unit with Earl Thomas sidelined. The Falcons, meanwhile, have been a poor defensive team all year -- they rank 25th in those same metrics.
Our algorithm sees the Falcons winning this one pretty often, expected to win 68.1% of the time. The Falcons were 6-2 at home this season, dropping the opener in Week 1 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a Week 9 loss by a point on a two-point defensive conversion by the Kansas City Chiefs, the 2 seed in the AFC. On the road, the Seahawks were only 3-4-1, but did claim a home victory over these Falcons in Week 6.
New England versus Houston
Our second matchup of the day features the heavily-favored New England Patriots against the Houston Texans.
@ClayTravis largest divisional number since 1998-99
— Todd Fuhrman (@ToddFuhrman) January 9, 2017
The Patriots opened as 16-point favorites and have blitzed their way to another 14-2 season and 1 seed in the AFC. Over the last 10 seasons, the Patriots have been the 1 seed in the AFC five times (2016, 2014, 2011, 2010, 2007). And despite Brady missing four games due to "Deflategate," he returned this season to lead the Patriots to an 11-1 record.
Even in his age-39 season, Tom Brady continues to defy Father Time and produce at an incredibly high level. Among the 34 signal callers with 200 drop backs or more in 2016, Brady ranked second in Passing NEP per drop back (0.35), while adding a downfield passing dimension we had not seen from him in recent seasons. Brady's 8.23 yards per attempt is his best mark since 2011, second only to Matt Ryan in 2016, and the third-best mark of his career.
With Brady continuing to operate at a high level, LeGarrette Blount provided a strong presence on the ground, leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 18 and cracking the 1,000-yard barrier (1,161). Blount isn't the most efficient runner, as his 0.00 Rushing NEP per play is around league average and ranked him 15th among running backs with 100 carries or more (33 total).
Despite losing his best weapon in the passing game, Rob Gronkowski, to a season-ending injury thanks to a herniated disc, Brady spread the ball around effectively to his receiving corps, as four players garnered 50 targets or more.
Brady's top target was quarterback-turned-wide receiver Julian Edelman, who ranked third in the NFL this season with 160 targets. Edelman turned that high volume into 98 receptions for 1,106 yards but was pretty inefficient with those looks. Out of the 41 wide receivers with 100 targets or more, Edelman ranked 38th in Reception NEP per target at 0.56.
As strong as the quarterback play was on the Patriots' side of the ball, it's been the exact opposite for the Texans. Brock Osweiler was the playoff starter last weekend against the Oakland Raiders, and while Osweiler performed capably in that 27-14 win, it's been a rough season for him. Osweiler ranked 32nd with a Passing NEP per drop back mark of -0.04, and Osweiler was one of only five quarterbacks to record a negative Passing NEP per drop back this year.
Lamar Miller returned last week from injury, and despite scoring a touchdown, he was pretty inefficient, which is indicative of Miller's year. Among 33 running backs with 125 carries or more, Miller ranked 27th in terms of Rushing NEP per play at -0.07.
The Patriots' defense has held their own this season, ranking 11th in our per-play metrics, but the Texans' defense has been outright nasty and will need to step up big-time in order to steal a road win. Led by Pro-Bowler Jadeveon Clowney, Houston ranked fourth in our per-play metrics during the regular season.
Along with one of the largest playoff spreads we've seen in history, our algorithm sees this one as a landslide, projecting New England to win this game 81.7% of the time. Per Oddshark, the Patriots are 17-3 straight up in their last 20 games as home playoff favorites.