AFC Wild Card Weekend Preview: It Won't Be Easy for Pittsburgh
Michael Vick beating the Packers at Lambeau. Terrell Owens catching a last-second touchdown, resulting in tears streaming down his face on the sideline. Matt Hasselbeck throwing a game-losing pick-six after declaring victory during an overtime coin toss. Jeff Fisher winning a playoff game.
Anything can happen on wild card weekend.
Though this preview is going to tell you what should happen -- what the analytics say should happen -- no one should be shocked if the complete opposite happens. Because this is the NFL, and this is the playoffs.
Kansas City vs. Houston
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which you can read more about in our glossary, neither of these teams are going to beat you with their offense. Houston, with the 27th-ranked schedule-adjusted passing attack, finished the year as the 25th best offense in football. That shouldn't be a shock -- Hoyer missed time, and Arian Foster, the team's star rusher, was out for almost all of 2015.
The lone bright star on Houston's offense this season has been DeAndre Hopkins. Yes, he was pelted with targets to start the year as Houston continuously fell behind in games, but he still finished the season with a respectable 0.75 Reception NEP per target average, which was more efficient than players like Brandin Cooks and Julio Jones. In sum, Hopkins' 143.89 Reception NEP -- points added on catches only -- was fourth best in football.
If the Chiefs can stop Hopkins, you have to assume they'll find some success in Saturday's contest. And that's really because the team has found zero success running the football this season -- Chris Polk and Alfred Blue took over lead back duties for Foster when he went down, and they've combined for a -0.11 Rushing NEP per rush average this year. To put that number into context, had they been just one running back, they would've tied Frank Gore as the least effective 200-plus attempt rusher in the NFL this year.
So how are the Chiefs going to stop Hopkins? With probable Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters, of course. If you recall, these two teams faced off in Week 1, and in that game, Peters intercepted an early-game Hoyer pass. Hopkins finished the day with 9 catches for 98 yards and 2 scores, but he only had one first half catch. The game got out of hand (the Chiefs were up 27-9 at the half), and Hopkins started to play.
This should be a little troubling for Texans fans -- a close game script yielded a massive Kansas City lead in Week 1, thanks to great defensive play and a ridiculous performance from tight end Travis Kelce.
At the same time, Houston's been a much different team over the second half of the year.
After starting 2-5, Houston went on to lose just two of their final nine games. Over that initial seven-game stretch, the Texans defense was the 23rd most efficient in football, or well below average.
Entering the playoffs, Houston's defense is the third most efficient on a per play basis. And this is all adjusted for strength of schedule.
At the same time, Kansas City has gone on their 10-game winning streak thanks in large part to their defensive unit. When they were 1-5, they ranked as the 17th-best group according to our numbers. Today, they're fifth.
This screams "low-scoring" game.
What usually wins in these types of contests? Turnovers. And that's more than likely where the Chiefs have an edge, as Alex Smith threw the same number as interceptions as Brian Hoyer this season on over 100 more attempts. And if the Chiefs can get pressure on Hoyer, we'll more than likely see these turnovers forced -- only Nick Foles was worse under pressure this season according to ESPN's QBR.
Good offensive line play and a strong game from DeAndre Hopkins is Houston's generic formula for success. But according to our numbers, they do seem a bit overmatched. Even still, our projections see this game being incredibly close, with numberFire Live opening the game up at 51% Texans.
Steelers vs. Bengals
There's no doubt that having A.J. McCarron under center as opposed to Andy Dalton is a downgrade. After all, according to our Passing Net Expected Points metric, Dalton was the most efficient passer in the NFL this year. The difference between McCarron and Dalton with each drop back is roughly 0.17 points, which is pretty dramatic -- that's about a touchdown per game without factoring in anything else.
But McCarron has still been fine in relief, as his 0.18 Passing NEP per drop back rate is above the 0.15 average from 2015. So don't think the Bengals are simply done because they've got their backup quarterback under center.
Cincinnati does need McCarron to be spot on against Pittsburgh, though. Folks love talking about the Steelers' firepower on offense, but the rush defense has been crushing it all season long, ranking as our fifth best unit. They actually led the league during many parts of the season.
You attack the Steeler secondary, and this is no surprise to anyone who's watched them play this year. The team has no true stud on pass defense, which should allow A.J. Green to play a big role in Saturday night's contest.
And watch out for Tyler Eifert. The Steelers love putting pressure on the quarterback (ninth in the NFL in sack percentage), as it helps mask their deficient secondary. That should leave space for Eifert in the middle of the field for the shorter passes from McCarron. If the Cincy offense is going to move the ball, it's probably not going to be about Jeremy Hill pounding the rock -- will he be able to against this rush defense? -- in order to keep the ball away from Ben Roethlisberger. It's going to be about evading blitzes and getting the ball to the team's big targets.
On the other side of the field, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is going to need to play better than he has over the last two weeks. Yes, this offense can blow up at any minute, but Roethlisberger combined for a 1.03 Passing NEP total against the Browns and Ravens over the last two weeks. For some perspective, that per-game average is worse than what we saw from Matt Hasselbeck this season.
There's no way the Steelers win without a big game from Roethlisberger. DeAngelo Williams, the league's best high-volume (200 or more carries) running back in terms of Rushing NEP this year, has already been ruled out, which means the third-string Fitzgerald Toussaint will be the head of the Steelers' backfield. On the year, just 22.22% of Toussaint's rushes were deemed successful. That's tied for the second worst in the NFL among the 122 backs with 10 or more carries.
Can Big Ben get it done? Well, it's going to be tough, which is why this game is no lock for Pittsburgh despite facing a backup quarterback. The Bengals have a slightly above average secondary (it's even better when healthy) per our numbers, but Roethlisberger has also played much worse on the road than at home this year. At home this year, he had Passing NEP total of 73.13. On the road, that dropped to 37.59. In other words, Roethlisberger was nearly half as efficient on the road than at home this season.
Like the Texans-Chiefs game, this one should be close. According to numberFire Live, the Bengals are opening the game up with 57% odds to win.