NFL Divisional Round Sunday Preview: Can Kansas City and Dallas Hold Serve at Home?
The wild card round of the 2016 NFL playoffs left a lot to be desired, as the average margin of victory was 19 points per game.
But as we advance to the divisional round, we can hope for closer contests because we could have some doozies on Sunday.
In our first matchup on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will head west and take on the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead, and in the afternoon game, two of America's favorite teams will face off as Green Bay travels to Jerry World to take on the Dallas Cowboys.
Will it be more home cooking, as home teams were undefeated last weekend, or can one or both of these road teams spring the upset?
Let’s dig in.
Kansas City versus Pittsburgh
Our first matchup on Sunday features the Chiefs and the Steelers, and if Vegas lines are any indicator, it's shaping up to be our closest contest of the weekend.
Among the 34 quarterbacks with 200 drop backs or more, in terms of Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, Alex Smith was pretty mediocre, ranking 18th with a mark of 0.14. The league average this season was 0.12, and to make sure you're familiar with NEP, check out our glossary.
Part of the limitation around Smith is his lack of throwing the deep ball, as he ranks 16th in yards per attempt at 7.16. In fact, his lack of downfield passing had some wondering about a quarterback change to backup Nick Foles this year. However, since Week 13, Smith has improved, recording a 9.4 yards-per-attempt mark or better in three contests, all Chiefs wins.
Despite never getting a healthy Jamaal Charles, who was finally placed on Injured Reserve in
The Chiefs' offense features two unique receiving weapons who have stepped up in the second half of 2016. With the Chiefs finishing 5-1 down the stretch, Tyreek Hill racked up five offensive touchdowns, catching two and rushing for three. In Weeks 15 and 16, Hill recorded big plays of 68- and 70-yard touchdown runs, and Hill added to that tally by returning two kicks for touchdowns over the same time frame.
The Chiefs' leading receiver is tight end Travis Kelce, who finished the regular season with 85 catches for 1,125 yards. Among tight ends, Kelce had no equal, leading the position in Reception NEP per
For Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger has been fantastic in 2016, as he finished the regular season seventh-best in Passing NEP per drop back 0.23. Curiously, though, Roethlisberger maintains extreme home-road splits.
Ben Roethlisberger's Home/Away splits can not be overstated. pic.twitter.com/qzoetwcTZN
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) January 4, 2017
To perhaps help with Big Ben's tough road numbers are two of the game's best at the running back and receiving position, who both had monster weeks against Miami last week. Le'Veon Bell racked up 169 all-purpose yards last week, and it was no fluke -- among the running backs with 200 rushes or more, Bell ranked fifth in Rushing NEP per
Bell's value doesn't stop there: he ranked second in targets (94) on his way to 75 receptions and a Reception NEP per target of 0.47.
Antonio Brown, not to be outdone by Bell, had a huge week in the win over Miami as well. Brown caught 5 passes for 124 yards and 2 scores, doing a lot of his damage in the first quarter. In the regular season, Brown racked up 106 catches with 1,284 receiving yards.
He wasn't the most efficient wide receiver, as he ranked only 19th in the league in Reception NEP per target (0.71) among 41 receivers with at least 100 targets, but certainly his high volume played a role in the decreased efficiency.
On the defensive side of the ball, Kansas City has been a pretty strong outfit -- they rank 10th in our adjusted per-play metrics featuring Justin Houston and sack-master Dee Ford. The Steelers, however, leave a bit to be desired -- they rank only 19th in our adjusted per-play metrics.
Our algorithm agrees with Vegas and also sees this as the closest game of the bunch. We predict Kansas City will come out on top 59.5% of the time, by less than a field goal on average. Don't forget Andy Reid's prowess following a bye. He sports a record of 16-2 during the regular season and 3-0 in the postseason.
Dallas versus Green Bay
Two of the NFL's most storied franchises
Dallas rookie Dak Prescott has blazed his way to an incredible rookie season, setting what feels like new records each week.
Dak Prescott set a rookie record Thursday night. Had his 10th game with 100.0 QB rating. Russell Wilson had 9 in 2012
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 2, 2016
The eighth quarterback selected in the 2016 NFL Draft (not a typo) and starting due to an injury to Tony Romo, Prescott compiled one of the finest rookie seasons at the quarterback position we have witnessed in a long time. In terms of Passing NEP per drop back, Prescott logged a mark of 0.29, which places him third-best on the season.
Add in Prescott's 45 carries, good for another 282 yards and the fourth-best Rushing NEP per carry mark against quarterbacks, and you have one heck of a rookie year.
But the rookie exploits don't stop there, as Ohio State product Ezekiel Elliott has also put up some impressive numbers. Zeke led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards, more than 300 yards better than fellow rookie Jordan Howard of the Bears. And even with a league-high 322 carries, Elliott was highly efficient, ranking second in Rushing NEP per play among runners with 200 carries or more (0.11).
As excellent as Prescott has been, there is arguably no one hotter at the quarterback position than Green Bay field general Aaron Rodgers.
Aaron Rodgers Since Last INT
Pass attempts 285
Pass yards 2,391
TD Passes 22
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 9, 2017
Rodgers' recent run boosted him to fifth in Passing NEP per drop back among the 34 quarterbacks with 200 or more drop backs (0.26). What's more impressive and perhaps overlooked is his running ability: Rodgers ranked sixth among quarterbacks with 51 carries and sixth with a Rushing NEP per play of 0.50.
Rodgers torched the New York Giants last week, one of the best defenses in the league, for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns, although an injury to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie may have had an impact, and he isn't showing any signs of slowing down ahead of this juicy matchup.
What may be tougher for Rodgers is who he's throwing the ball to. In the regular season this year, Jordy Nelson caught 97 passes on his way to a Reception NEP per target of 0.81, sixth-best in the league. However, he suffered an injury last week and it is unclear if he can suit up
With Nelson out last week against the Giants, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb combined for 13 catches, 241 receiving yards and all 4 touchdowns. They may be in good hands with or without Nelson if Cobb can return to form following an ankle injury that seemed to limit his effectiveness down the stretch.
Defensively, these are two units that rank in the bottom half of the NFL. Using our adjusted per-play metrics, the Cowboys check in at 17th, and the Packers rank 22nd. This may turn into an offensive shootout Sunday afternoon.
Our algorithm sees a likely Cowboys win, predicting they will advance to the