2012 Divisional Playoffs Betting Preview: 49ers/Packers by the Stats

That San Francisco run defense has struck fear into the heart of its opponents. Opponents who don't know the stats behind a strong run defense, that is.

Last year, it was 49ers/Saints in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 game, and the 49ers pulled it out with some serious last minute help from Alex Smith and Vernon Davis. But this year, it's same team, different story: it'll be Colin Kaepernick that gets the call in crunch time.

Last year's Saints team and this year's Packers squad are highly similar teams. Both finished in the top three in the NFL in passing efficiency. Both had a better defense than you'd think, finishing out of the bottom ten in total defensive efficiency. And both run up against a 49ers defense that is an absolute buzzsaw against the running game, allowing more than 60 points under expectation to opposing running games in both years.

So does that mean that the result will be the same? That's what we intend to find out, and we'll do it all through the power of Math.

With lots of help from our Net Expected Points (NEP) figure, which measures a player's contributions to a team's expected points above or below the league-average play and is explained fully in a past MVP Watch article, we look at the major numbers behind Saturday night's extravaganza. With the help of numberFire's premium product, here's what we're expecting on the field. Read on, my friend.

Tale of the Tape

Overall Ranking35
Offensive Ranking62
Defensive Ranking416
Total Offensive NEP Gained133.32177.85
Passing Offensive NEP Gained107.29184.31
Rushing Offensive NEP Gained30.21-39.35
Total Defensive NEP Allowed-46.7827.24
Passing Defensive NEP Allowed11.7434.05
Rushing Defensive NEP Allowed-66.51-25.55

Just a quick note about the Net Expected Point figures: since the passing and rushing totals are adjusted for each opponent, and there aren't an equal number of passing and rushing plays in each game, the figures won't add up exactly. And since passing is much more efficient than rushing in today's NFL, you'll often see teams both gaining more NEP on the offensive end and allowing more NEP on the defensive end through passing than rushing.

It Means Nothing! Nothing I Tell You!

Last week, I wrote all about how the Packers might have a tiny chance to get something going in the running game if DuJuan Harris took the majority of the carries. And wouldn't you know it: the Packers let Harris carry the ball 17 times (no other back had more than seven) en route to... well, just 47 yards. But that offensive balance, along with Harris's touchdown, was all the Packers needed to demolish the Vikings en route to a 24-10 victory.

Too bad that's not likely to happen again.

The 49ers' -66.51 NEP allowed to opposing running games was the second-best mark in the NFL this year; only the Bears were better at -70.44 NEP. In the past five seasons, only seven squads (including Chicago) have put up better numbers stopping the run than this Bears team. And those teams... went exactly nowhere.

YearTeamOpp. Run NEPRecordPlayoffs
2008BAL-71.3211-5AFC Champ Loss
2010NYJ-70.7711-5AFC Champ Loss
2011SF-68.1113-3NFC Champ Loss

Combined, the three playoff teams with a better run defense than the 2012 49ers went a combined 5-3 in their respective playoff games. That's solid, but it certainly doesn't lend itself towards being a trend. In addition, four of the seven teams didn't make the playoffs at all, and one finished the year with a losing record. To be fair, none of those teams also cracked the +100 NEP barrier on the offensive side, as the 49ers did this year. But that just means that the key to winning isn't stopping the run; it's all about the passing game and stopping the passing game.

Especially when contrasted with the Broncos secondary we looked at yesterday, you can see that run defense is just as relevant to a strong team as Vanilla Ice is to today's rap game. Strong secondary = go far. Strong run defense = you need something else.

And the Favorite Is...

The Niners come into this game as three-point favorites, which I suppose makes sense when you look at things like their Week 1 victory and their stronger seed and their higher score in the numberFire nERD rankings (we see you Vegas, don't try and hide). Let the Harbaugh fans rejoice.

What doesn't make sense, though, is how you have that three point line, but then the games that our analytics uncovered as the historical games that are the seven "Strongest Predictors" look like this:

DateMatchupScorePredicted WinnerPredicted CoverSimilarity Score
12/26/04NYJ/NE7-23Green BayGreen Bay91.7%
11/29/07DAL/GB37-23San FranciscoSan Francisco89.4%
10/27/02NO/ATL35-37Green BayGreen Bay88.7%
11/22/09BAL/IND15-17Green BayGreen Bay88.6%
12/18/05IND/SD17-26Green BayGreen Bay88.5%
11/1/09GB/MIN26-38Green BayGreen Bay88.2%
9/10/06NYJ/IND21-26Green BayGreen Bay88.0%

Note: In the above table, the San Francisco-similar team is listed first.

It's like the world's worst Dr. Seuss poem, as written by a Cheesehead: They won them big, they won them small. They won them often, they won them all! There's no set pattern for how the Green Bay-related teams beat the San Francisco-related teams: whether the score was 23-7 or 17-15 or 38-26, the Packers-centric team won six of the top seven games that are strongest predictors.

Does that necessarily mean the Packers should be favored? Like anything with statistics, you need a large sample size, and seven games simply isn't it. But it is interesting in that perhaps this is anybody's game.

Oh, and perhaps this would be a good time to drop this in: this spread is one of our three-star selections this week, and the spread that our analytics are most confident in. Just a thought.

The Final Predictions

But I'm not going to give you that spread outright, along with our totals line and moneyline selections for this game and the rest of this playoff action. I wish I could just for you, my amazing readers, but our numbers are just too powerful to give away that easily. Think of them as the One Ring to Win Them All, with Them being your bets. Go ahead and check it out today, and maybe you too can possess the power of The (Stats) Ring.